I veered away from the palace and headed down a hidden path. Hedges lined either side of the walk, and statues holding lanterns stood every few feet. Tree branches hung over the path like a roof made of greenery.
My heart thudded in my chest as I approached the granite archway leading into the yard of the Gob Archives…and I gasped. The structure was built of white marble; twelve columns surrounded the whole thing, and lanterns hung from the ceiling, twinkling like stars. In front of each column sat a bench and a statue representing each of the Twelve Hag virtues: Strength, Power, Kindness, Purity, Wisdom, Stealth, Charity, Bravery, Dependability, Faith, Honor, and Loyalty.
The Goblin Hag was a goddess witch of sorts. It was said that when goblins first came to be, she’d bless them with certain virtues. She was the strongest being, but one day the darkness had tricked her, killing her and sending her soul to the stars. Goblins still prayed to her, as she supposedly would give favor to certain goblins or even punish others.
I shivered at the last thought. When I glanced back to the statues, I noticed the one wielding a sword seemed to stare right through me, as though questioning my strength and courage. My blood thrummed in my ears. Then the statue’s eyes opened, and I felt the flesh on my back burn.
Pain dropped me to my knees, the impact forcing the air from my lungs. “Oof!”
What was going on? Frantic, I searched the courtyard. When I looked at the statue again, its eyes were shut. “I must be imagining things,” I whispered.
I climbed to my feet, the skin between my shoulder blades stinging like I’d just been flogged with Kimblay’s switch. As I neared the Archives, I searched for Pudge, who was still nowhere to be found. He’d better not have bailed on me.
A rustling in the trees had me diving for cover, and then I heard the sound of groans coming from above.
“Ivy, is that you?”
“Pudge?” There he was, hanging from the tree, by a net. “How in the witch’s tit did you manage this?”
“The King’s Council has this place guarded by booby traps. I stepped into one.”
They’d definitely caught a booby, all right. “Well, hang on while I cut you down,” I said.
“I can’t exactly go anywhere,” he snorted. “And they call you the smart one.”
My eyes narrowed. “It sounds like you’re asking me to leave you up there.”
“Sorry.” Pudge squirmed like a fish caught on a line. “Can you please just get me down before someone sees me?”
Once I made my way over to the tree, I searched for the rope, which was tied on a low-hanging branch. I unsheathed my dagger and cut it. Pudge fell to the ground with a thud and a yelp.
“Ow, could’ve been more careful—there are rocks down here.” He attempted to untangle himself from the net.
In the distance, I heard voices. We were going to get caught. I rushed over and tugged Pudge behind the bushes, where he fell in a heap, bringing me with him. “I can’t get this net off.”
“Quiet,” I hissed from on top of him, pointing to a guard making his rounds.
I covered his mouth with my hand, while I cut through the netting with the other, trying hard to ignore the increase of my pulse as our bodies pressed together.
Pudge stared at me, his gaze holding mine. His arm slinked around my waist, pulling me closer to keep me from being seen. His warm breath tickled my cheek as my head nestled down into the crook of his neck.
I shifted slightly, my lips accidentally brushing his skin. Oh, Hag, we were so close. I heard the sharp intake of his breath.
“Ivy, uh, you might not want to do that here. We’re friends, but even I’m not fully immune…” He grinned at me.
Blushing, I swatted his arm, pressing him further into the ground. “Shh…”
“Did you hear something?” one of the guards said.