Chapter Seventy-One

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"Coward!" Ygrael screamed, her voice echoing through the castle's stone hallways. "Show yourself, traitor! Or are you afraid to die like a man?"

Only a fool wouldn't be, Orven thought, and ran on. Honorable death by sword was all well and good for soldiers and idiots, but he was neither.

The passages—must find an entrance—lose the madwoman in there—

But the nearest secret passage was two floors away, and he was flagging. For the first time in his life, Orven began to regret so many long hours spent in the library. The most exercise he'd gotten in weeks was hauling stacks of encyclopedias from one shelf to another. Not exactly vigorous exertion, and far from adequate preparation for running up and down flights of stairs with a raving lunatic on his heels.

A cramp was stitching its way down his left side. His lungs burned. Sweat poured down Orven's back, making his shirt cling.

Ygrael, on the other hand, seemed possessed with fiendish energy. The girl had always been athletic, but this was bordering on unnatural. She'd been hurling obscenities at his back for a solid ten minutes now, and didn't even sound out of breath.

They were in another stairwell now, tall and steep, with close, suffocating walls. Orven's long legs took the steps two at a time, which lent him speed but also sent spasms of pain through his calves.

I should have slipped something into her food as well, he growled inwardly. He hadn't wanted to risk discovery by poisoning both father and daughter simultaneously, but was now regretting that decision from the bottom of his heart. If anything, I should have rid myself of her first!

In hindsight, that would have been the most sensible decision. But it was too late for regrets now. He would be lucky to survive another ten minutes at this rate. Curse these infernal stairs!

"How long do you think you can run, boy?" Ygrael shrieked, her voice distorted by the echoing corridor. "You slithering smear of pitslime!"

Princess indeed, Orven scoffed inwardly. She sounds like nothing but a common guttersnipe!

He forced himself to run faster. As much pain as he was in now, it was likely nothing compared to what his dear cousin had in mind if she caught him. One more flight of stairs, one last curve of corridor...

Gasping, Orven staggered through a set of doors into a disused chamber that had been repurposed as a storage room. Clumsy in his haste, he stumbled over several stacked bolts of dusty cloth and bumped his hip against the edge of a table. The racket made him wince—it would lead Ygrael right to him—but he forged ahead.

The sliding panel was behind a wall tapestry on the far side of the room. He reached it just as Ygrael's rushing feet sounded in the hallway.

Orven clawed the tapestry aside and fumbled with the hidden latch. With a grunt, he heaved the panel aside just enough to squeeze through, then closed it behind him as quietly as possible.

In the damp, reeking dark, he strained to listen as Ygrael's footsteps slowed and entered the storage room. She seemed to pause, perhaps surveying the chamber, looking for a sign of him.

The silence dragged out. Orven held his breath and waited.

Then, with sudden purpose, he heard her stride forward—directly toward where he was hiding.

Orven's eyes widened in shock and incredulity. How? How could she possible guess—

Then he remembered the thick coating of dust on every surface of the small, cramped room—including the floor. He'd left footprints. Footprints leading directly to the tapestry and hidden door behind it.

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