Chapter 20a

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For IIwordsarelifeII because of all the great comments you leave me, and because the world needs more empathetic people like you. :-)

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The last thing I wanted to do the next morning was go down for breakfast. I was too exhausted, and frankly, my lips were chapped from kissing Dietrich. He had picked me up and carried me off the stage, the second time in hours that some steamy chap had swept me off my feet to give me a lift. And it made me think—

—a girl could really get used to this.

But there were no steamy chaps waiting for me in the morning. There was only Thea, and she was disinclined to carry me anywhere. My head hurt from lack of sleep, my face was puffy from crying, and my throat was sore from screaming I’d done in the lift. My body felt like I’d been flattened by a steam-powered carriage and then trampled by an ArachniCab. 

Even worse, as my mind was waking from the fog of the last few days, it occurred to me that I had landed myself in a mess stinkier than kraken poo. Not only was I going to have to do the right thing to stop the gossip I’d started about Delphine, but I was certain everyone had heard about my self-combustion in the lift the night before. I dreaded facing Delphine. 

I dreaded facing them all.

And then—there was something even worse than that. Yes, even worse than kracken shit. 

Somehow, I’d managed to go from total fear of boys to kissing two of them in two days. Dietrich knew I’d kissed Raymond, but Raymond didn’t know I’d kissed Dietrich. Thea didn’t know I’d kissed either of them. And God forbid anyone ask me how I felt about either boy because I didn’t have a rusted clue.  

What were they expecting from me now? I had no experience with romance—I’d strictly avoided it until now. Did a kiss mean we were a couple? How much of a cog did a girl have to be to accidentally end up with two boyfriends? 

By the time we reached the dining room, I was convinced—I was completely screwn. 

I stopped outside the dining room doors, unwilling to take another step. Thea gave me an affectionate shove. 

“Come on, it won’t be so bad.” She linked arms with me. “I doubt anyone will even mention what happened yesterday.”

“Sure, and wereducks make great pets, too.”

She groaned, trying not to smile. “Let’s just get it over with.”

When we walked into the room, it grew silent. I scanned quickly for Delphine, but didn’t see her. Raymond was waiting for us, though, toward the back at the end of a table. 

Everyone was watching us. Watching me, rather. I’d just have to brave it out. I started toward the buffet table, when some boy broke the silence by calling my name. 

“Let me out, let me out,” he mimicked in a high, girly voice, “I’ll be good, I promise!” 

My heart seemed to drop to my feet. There were a few muffled snickers, but they were quickly hushed. A hot burst of anger flared in me. Thea inhaled sharply, and I knew she was about to respond. I grabbed her arm. 

“I’ll handle it,” I murmured. 

With a surprised, but admiring, look, she nodded and took a step back. 

I took a deep breath, looking out across my fellow apprentices. It wasn’t the time to show anger. I tried to stay calm. “Yes,” I said, pitching my voice to fill the dining room, “I begged to be let out of the lift yesterday. I cried like a baby. I’m terrified of small places.” I stared hard at Bennet Mason, who I suspected had been the boy mocking me. “When I was gone those three years, I wasn’t on holiday in Malta or something. I was held prisoner in a cage—” My voice wobbled a bit. Thea grabbed my hand. Her support gave me the strength to continue. “—a cage my captor could crank down smaller and smaller if I made him angry.”

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