“I’m sorry,” she said, but I didn’t hear her. Instead I stumbled toward the door and out of the room, my vision too blurry for me to see where I was going. Flying past Calliope and Ella, I barely noticed them, instead dashing through the first door I saw and bursting into the garden. Ignoring the voices calling my name, I kicked off my shoes and ran toward the forest, the biting wind numbing my skin.
I couldn’t breathe.
My lungs burned and my body ached with the effort of running. I was in the middle of the forest now, though still within the confines of Henry’s property. The hedge walls were nowhere in sight, but those weren’t what I was looking for. I wanted to find the river.
Seven points below what I’d needed—seven questions that were the difference between success and failure, staying and leaving, life and death for my mother. Life and death for Henry. It didn’t matter how comfortable I was here or whether or not I liked being around him. If he’d just wanted someone to spend time with, he could’ve chosen anyone, but he’d chosen me—he depended on me—and now I’d failed him. The only reason I was here was to pass those tests, and I couldn’t even manage that much.
I don’t know how long it took me, sprinting through the woods. My feet were bleeding and bruised, and more than once I stumbled, hurting my ankles and elbows and knees, but still I pushed on.
I’d failed. It was over, and I wouldn’t have another shot.
I needed to see my mother before she died. I needed to tell her goodbye, even if she couldn’t hear me in that body anymore. It would have to do though—I’d broken my side of the bargain, and therefore Henry had no reason to uphold his. There was no guarantee I would see her if I fell asleep, and I needed to say goodbye before it was too late.
Finally I found it, the river where this whole mess had started. Limping on a twisted ankle, I followed it upstream until the opening in the hedge appeared. It seemed smaller than I remembered, and I had no idea how I was going to get to the other side, but I had to do this. I would apologize to Henry later.
Wiping my dirty, tear-stained cheeks with the back of my hand, I set my bare foot in the water and gasped. It was freezing. The current was strong, and I knew if I slipped, I wouldn’t be able to swim my way to safety. Not this time. Still, I had to try. One foot in front of the other, that’s all it took. “Kate.”
I nearly pitched forward at the sound of Henry’s voice. I was a few feet away from shore, balancing precariously on the same slippery rocks that had killed Ava, and I barely managed to catch myself. “Leave me alone.” I didn’t sound nearly as vicious as I’d intended.
“I’m afraid I can’t do that.”
“I failed.” I didn’t dare risk turning to look at him.
“Yes, Irene told me. That still does not explain why you’re risking life and limb to get through a hole in the hedge. If you want to leave, the front gate is much more convenient.”
My feet were numb, making me even clumsier than before. “I need to see my mother.”
Without warning, Henry’s arm wrapped around my waist, pulling me against him. Before I could protest, my feet touched land.
“Let me go!”
He held on long enough for me to regain my balance. I pulled away from him, trembling, though whether it was from the cold or from how furious I was, I didn’t know. “If you leave,” he said patiently, “your mother will die. I did not think you wanted that.”
I opened and shut my mouth. “But—but I failed.”
He gave me a curious look. “I am not so strict that I punish failure with death.”
“But our deal—you said you’d keep my mother alive while I was still here. I can’t stay here anymore, not when I failed the test.”
Henry was still, and then his expression softened, as if he finally understood. “Kate…is that all this is about?”
“You said yourself I couldn’t fail any of the tests,” I said uncertainly.
“You cannot fail any of the seven tests the council will place before you. The exam Irene gave you was not one of those.” He smiled hollowly. “So far, you are doing beautifully.”
My mouth went dry. “So far?”
“Yes.” He seemed amused, and I wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or to wipe the smug look off his face. “So far, you have faced three. Only one is complete, but you were impeccable.”
How was it possible that they were testing me without my knowledge? When I opened my mouth to ask, he neatly cut me off.
“You must be freezing—here.” He draped his coat over my shoulders, and I clung to it, soaking in its warmth. “Let’s go back, shall we?”
I nodded, my hysterics coming to an end. Henry wrapped his arms around me delicately, as if he were afraid I’d break. “Close your eyes,” he murmured, and I did.
This time, when I opened them, I was only marginally surprised to find myself in my bedroom. Henry stood beside me. “I see you are adjusting to the way I travel.”
“Uh-huh.” I swallowed. It was still disorienting. “I should…um…” I gestured down at my dress. It was torn and caked with mud.
“It seems that one is ruined. Perhaps we ought to find a replacement.”
“I have tons, really.” I glanced at my wardrobe, blanching. “Ella probably won’t even notice.”