Take the Key and Lock Her UpAlly Carter
FOR THE ALLY AMBASSADORS.
THANK YOU FOR COMING TO ADRIA!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
ALSO BY ALI CARTER
Also by Ally Carter
All Fall Down
See How They Run
When the screams come, I can’t be sure that I’m not dreaming.
I bolt upright in bed. The walls are thin, and I can hear the shouting, the force of something being thrown against the outside wall of the cabin, shattering in the place just above my head.
The wall shakes.
The ceiling creaks.
And I roll off the narrow cot, shaking.
I know better than to be afraid, but it’s instinct now as I wrap my arms around my knees, pulling my legs close to my chest. In the age-old war between fight and flight, I’m Team Flight. Even in my thin T-shirt and bare feet I want to run faster and faster, farther and farther until I reach the end of the earth.
But instead I creep toward the window and look out the dirty glass, and a stark truth hits me: I’m already there.
“Is that all you’ve got?” Alexei’s voice slices through the morning air. The sun is up, but the rays have yet to burn through the heavy fog that covers the ground like a blanket fort we can’t help but hide inside.
“I’m gaining on you, buddy,” my brother yells.
“Yeah.” Alexei circles around him. “Let’s see you do it again.”
How many times have I seen them fight like this? Too many for me to count, I’m sure. This is the part where my brother is supposed to launch himself at his best friend, where they are supposed to tumble to the ground, Jamie a little heavier, Alexei a little taller, the two of them a whirl of limbs and strength. But that doesn’t happen.
Instead, my brother takes a step, unsteady and uneven. Then another. And another. It’s like he’s being sucked into quicksand.
Despite the dew on the ground and the chill in the air, sweat gathers on my brother’s brow and his body shakes as he takes an unsteady swing at Alexei, who ducks, then swings back.
Alexei is being gentle with Jamie. That’s how I know that things really are as wrong as I remembered.
Jamie lashes back, but Alexei just pushes Jamie’s fist away.
“Again,” Alexei says, and they resume their positions.
It’s like Alexei’s training a child, a little boy who is a long, long way from being his equal. And the thought makes me want to cry.
The pair of them dance around, maneuvering slowly, until I come into view.
Alexei stops. “Well, I guess the princess decided to join us.”
It’s a joke. A taunt. A tease. The fact that he’s technically correct is what’s supposed to make it funny, but I don’t feel like laughing.
I can barely remember what laughter sounds like.
“Some of us need our beauty sleep,” I taunt back.
“I’ll say,” Jamie comments, and Alexei smacks him on the shoulder in a way that has nothing to do with Jamie’s recovery or his training. Instantly, my brother’s countenance changes.
He looks at Alexei. “Don’t make me hurt you.”
Alexei smiles. “My friend, there is absolutely nothing I would welcome more.”
He means it, and so the next punch is slow but steady. It’s like watching two fighters wearing training wheels. I’m supposed to think that Jamie’s getting stronger, faster. I’m supposed to be pleased with his progress.
But I’m too busy being happy he’s alive.
The slap of skin against skin echoes through the stillness. In the distance, a bird calls. As the fog lifts, a pair of bald eagles swoop across the sky. I’ve seen their big nest on the other side of the island, near the steep stone cliff and rocky ledge. They’ve spent their morning pulling big, fat salmon from the cold water and are now returning to the nest. Safe. Sound. Free.
Not for the first time, I find myself officially envious of birds.
My brother stumbles, catches himself, and doesn’t fall. But he’s slow to regain his balance. He’s still too thin and far too weak.
“Jamie, why don’t you rest for a little bit?” I suggest.
“I just woke up,” he tells me as he slaps at Alexei’s broad shoulders one more time.
“Good,” Alexei says as if he hasn’t heard me. “Again.”
“Jamie,” I say, “you don’t want to push it.”
“No, Gracie.” My brother stops and whirls on me. “That’s exactly what I have to do.”
He sounds like Dad, which means there’s no use in arguing, so I ease away from the cabin and the boys. “We’re running low on kindling, so I’m going to go …” I trail off but gesture toward the tall pine trees that surround us.
“Don’t go far, Gracie!” Alexei yells as I move toward the shelter of the trees.
There is no place far enough.
It’s not a forest—that isn’t the right word. But that’s how I’ve grown to think of the tall trees that grow straight into the air from the rocky soil beneath my feet. The ground is covered in moss, and it cushions my footsteps. I feel like the hunter for once. Not the hunted. I only wish this feeling could last.
Finally, the trees stop, and I step out from beneath their sheltering branches to look across the huge rocks that are covered by receding waves. The air is too cold. The sky is too overcast. And, most of all, the water is the wrong color. You wouldn’t think it possible. Water is water, after all. But instead of the cool blue of the Mediterranean I’m looking out at an ocean that’s as gray as the sky, and that’s how I know for sure how far we’ve come. It’s the one thing that gives me hope that maybe—just maybe—we’ve come far enough.
I’m careful on the rocks. They’re big and smooth, wet with the dew and the breaking waves. I leapfrog from one to another as I move down the shore. I close my eyes and think of fire, of sticky nights and the burning sun, and, most of all, another island and another time—another place on the other side of the world.
I can feel the fire as I plunge my hands into the icy water. Instantly, the cold burns and my skin goes numb. I wish I could submerge my whole body in the frigid depths. I wish I could turn off my mind, so I lean down and duck my head, feel the cold swallow me, jolting me awake. I stay under as long as I can, until my lungs burn and my eyes feel frozen shut. Then, with a cry, I hurl myself back, clawing against the rocks, pushing my wet hair from my face and drawing in deep, burning breaths.
There’s no one to hear me. There’s no one to see me—nothing but water stretching out to the horizon
. There’s no dock. No boat. No witness to my crazy as I throw back my head and scream. Cold water drips from my hair onto my T-shirt, freezing me more with every drop, but I’m not numb yet, so it’s not enough. I want to wade out until I’m too cold to feel.
But then who would gather the kindling? I remember. I turn around and start up the rocks again, toward the trees.
Down the beach I can see the tall tree where the eagles have built their nest. They’ll mate for life, returning here day after day. This is our home now. And a part of me wants to stay here, cold and isolated forever.
That’s why I think it must be in my mind, the sound of the motor that carries on the wind. I stand on the rocks and look out through the fog. I can barely make out a shadow in the sky. I have a hard time breathing as I watch and listen to the sound of an engine getting closer and closer.
Then I bolt toward the tree line, hiding like the coward that I am. It’s a water plane, but it doesn’t get any lower. It doesn’t land in the water off our shore, and so I breathe deep and start back through the trees.
As I go along, I pick up wood and check the traps that Jamie’s set, looking for any small game that might stretch the supplies we brought from the mainland. I’m getting sick of fish.
My route takes me the long way around. The island is about the same size as the one off the shore of Valancia. I can walk the perimeter in less than two hours, and when I reach the far side, I climb steadily until I reach the highest ridge. The stone is solid beneath me, nothing but a steep cliff that has stood for ages against the battering ram of the sea.
I stand there for a long time, waiting.
And then I see it, bobbing on the waves: the plane.
It didn’t fly on, I realize now. It circled. And then it landed.
I don’t even realize I’ve dropped the wood that fills my arms until I hear it hit the rocks. I’m spinning, my feet slipping as I rush down the rocky ridge. I’ve got to tell Alexei. I have to help Jamie.
I have to run—I know it like I know I need to breathe. But then I freeze.
The woman wears a white suit, a fur stole around her neck. The breeze pushes her white hair back from her face, and she looks almost like an angel—like a ghost.
I’d give anything for this island to be haunted, but the woman on the rocks is flesh and blood. I’m certain of this as soon as the prime minister of Adria says, “Hello, Grace. You’ve been a very hard girl to find.”
This isn’t a dream, and I’m not sleeping. If anything, it’s a nightmare, the waking kind.
“What are you doing here?” I say. One piece of wood is still in my hands, I realize. I grip it like a bat, ready to swing, to fight, to get dirt all over the prime minister of Adria and her pretty white suit.
My pulse is pounding, and the roar of the waves has been drowned out by the pounding of my blood.
I want to scream for the boys, but maybe she doesn’t know they’re here. Maybe I can delay her—delay this. Maybe, just maybe, my brother might live to fight another day.
“How did you find me?” I ask.
Alexandra Petrovic studies me, then shakes her head, as if I’m so sweet and naïve.
Just goes to show what she knows.
“Grace, we’ve been looking for you for weeks. We’ve all been very worried.”
“How did you find me?” I shout this time, but the PM merely smirks.
“We have our ways.”
I don’t ask who she means by we. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that the secret society that my mother and grandmother were a part of doesn’t take kindly to answering questions.
I grip and regrip the piece of wood. Splinters bite into my hands, and I welcome the pain.
“Leave,” I say.
“Grace, we need to talk.”
“Leave!” I repeat. As if I’m in a position to give orders.
“I came alone,” she says. I glance down at the plane that bobs on the water near the rocks. “There’s a pilot, but, don’t worry—he will remain with the plane. I came alone. For you.”
I start toward the woods, skirting the tree line and walking along the rocky shore. I have to lead her away from the boys. I have to—
I skid to a stop just as my name echoes through the air. Someone bursts from the trees.
“Grace!” Alexei is out of breath, and I know it’s not because he’s been running. It’s because he’s terrified. “A plane is circling. We’ve got to—”
I turn, and he follows my gaze to the woman in white.
“Alexei,” she says, and something in the word stops me. He’s supposed to be the most wanted man in Adria—a murderer. A fugitive. But the prime minister isn’t shocked to see him. She is anything but afraid.
Alexei couldn’t care less. He never takes his gaze off her as he tells me, “Gracie, come over here and get behind me. Now.”
“Don’t be silly, young man. I’ve come a long way to see Grace. Now, who is going to take me to Jamie?”
On our way through the woods, we climb down steep ravines and over muddy trails, but the prime minister doesn’t complain. Neither does she try to talk to Alexei. He keeps his head down, leading the way, almost like he’s trying to outrun something that he can neither see nor name. But I know better. There are some ghosts that live inside us, and we can never lose them, no matter how far we run.
When we come around the edge of the cabin, I hear the cocking of a gun. I don’t bother to turn, but I can see Jamie out of the corner of my eye. The shotgun is heavy, I know, but he’s found an untapped reservoir of strength somewhere and both barrels are steady as they stay trained on the prime minister.
“What are you doing here?” Jamie practically growls.
“Hello, James,” the PM says, then slides her gaze to me. “My, what a family resemblance.”
“Stop!” Alexei yells, spinning on her. “Stop your lying. Stop … Go away. Go back.”
“Alexei,” she starts, but then seems to realize he’s not her ally here. She has no allies. No friends. But she still has a mission, and when the woman speaks again, she very much resembles the most powerful woman in Adria. “Gentlemen, I need a word with Grace. Alone.”
“I don’t know how you found us, but we’re not—”
“It’s okay,” I say, cutting Jamie off. It’s not that I trust her. It’s that, so far, there are no black helicopters on the horizon, no SWAT teams bursting through the trees. If the prime minister wanted us dead, we would be, and all of us know it. She certainly wouldn’t have come herself and risked getting blood all over her pretty white suit.
“I’m fine,” I tell the boys. They don’t try to stop me as I lead the PM into the cabin.
It’s dusty and dim inside. Three rooms with a roof and a generator and a well for running water. It’s not much else, but it’s home. For now. I try to put on my best Ms. Chancellor smile. I ask myself, What would Noah do?
“Would you care for some tea?” I ask, and the PM smiles.
“That would be lovely.”
I can hear Jamie and Alexei pacing across the porch while I boil the water and steep the leaves.
They might be outside, but the door is open, so the PM doesn’t say a word. I learned a long time ago not to ask questions that no one is going to answer, so I don’t ask again why she’s here. I don’t demand details about who’s been trying to kill us. Or why.
“It’s not that good, but it’s hot,” I say as I hand the prime minister one of the mismatched cups.
“Lovely. Perhaps we can enjoy it outside?”
When we step onto the porch, my brother and Alexei glare at us, but neither says a thing as the prime minister of Adria and I wrap our hands around our steaming mugs and walk toward the trees.
The sun is higher now, but it still doesn’t burn through the fog or lighten the gray. Inside the cover of the trees it might be dawn or dusk or the middle of the day. It doesn’t matter. The clock is the same in any case, and it simply reads, Time�
We walk in silence. Whatever brought the most powerful woman in Adria to the other side of the world, she isn’t in a hurry to share.
Overhead, birds squawk. If the fog would clear, we might see whales breaching in the rough waters in the distance. But we stay shrouded in our cloud cocoon.
“I’ve not seen this part of America before.” The prime minister brings the hot tea to her lips and takes a sip, careful to avoid the chipped section of the old cup.
“Few people have,” I say. “That’s kind of why we chose it. You didn’t tell me how you found us.”
“You’re right—I didn’t.” She takes another sip of tea. “You can’t run forever, Grace.”
I stop. I grin. “Watch me.” The words are like a dare.
“Your brother doesn’t look well. Is he receiving medical care?”
It’s my soft spot, and she knows it, so I snap back defensively, “Jamie is fine.”
She raises an eyebrow but doesn’t say a thing.
“Do they …” I start but falter. “Does the royal family know where we are?”
“I am not certain.” Her words are clipped, measured. There’s something she’s being very careful not to say.
“It is the royal family, isn’t it?” I ask. “I mean, my brother is supposed to be king. He is Adria’s rightful king. Why else would someone want to kill him? So it has to be them. Is it them?”
The words are desperate, but I can’t help it. I need a face for the threat in the dark. I need her to tell me that I’m right. Because I don’t know how many more times I can survive being wrong.
“There is much we do not know. Yet.”
“Yes or no?” I snap. “Is the royal family of Adria trying to kill me?”
The PM carefully considers her answer. “Probably.”
It’s all the verification I need. The truth hurts, when I let myself remember. Better to keep it like a thorn pressing against my skin, never quite piercing through.
“I met the king once,” I tell her. “He was nice. But that was before he needed my brother dead.”
Sometimes I hate my mother for what she found, what she learned. She was about my age when she first started this hunt, and now she’s gone. I think about my mom’s best friends. One now lives in the palace with the people who want me dead. One hasn’t been seen in a decade.