Jeth pressed the comm again. “Is the relay fixed?”
“We put a bandage on it,” Lizzie said, and this time her voice was weirdly distant and tinny, although thankfully free of the static. Jeth didn’t bother asking for an explanation—he wasn’t likely to understand it.
Instead he asked, “Are Joyrider and Blaze in place?”
“Yep. All ready to go.”
Jeth imagined Shady was raring to go. The explosive he was about to use was one of his all-time-favorite tools of destruction, even if the explosion was going to be smaller than he would’ve preferred.
“Perfect,” Jeth said.
By the time they entered the hallway leading to the terrace, they were nearly the last of the crowd. Celeste walked ahead of Jeth, but they both took it slow, letting as many people pass them as possible. Jeth spotted his destination a short way ahead, a doorway barely discernible in the wood-paneled wall. He knew it was there only because of the picture hanging just to the right of it.
Two stragglers trailed behind Jeth and, looking for a diversion, he pulled the invitation out of his pocket. He pretended to examine it, then let it slip from his hands. As he stooped to pick it up, the stragglers finally passed him by.
Jeth looked up and saw Celeste disappear around the corner. She would keep the coast clear for him. He pressed his finger to the comm. “I’m here. Are you ready?”
Lizzie answered at once, “Ready in three, two, one. Go.”
Jeth approached the door and pressed his hand against the pressure handle, and it slid open with a faint click. He stepped inside, and it closed behind him, automatically. The hallway beyond was much smaller than the one he’d left behind. He headed down it, made a right at the first intersection, then stopped as he reached another door. There was no door handle, just a control panel set on the wall beside it.
“Putting the card in place now,” Jeth said as he slid the counterfeit invitation into the narrow slit on the control panel’s side.
“Got it,” Lizzie said. “Establishing the connection. Should have it hacked in two minutes.”
Jeth didn’t reply as he turned around, keeping an eye on things. The hallway should stay empty for the time being. Everyone was outside for the fireworks, including the emperor, whose adoration of his granddaughter was well known. That was why Jeth had waited until the fireworks display to come in here. Every servant, guard, guest, and dignitary was expected to observe the spectacle and pay homage to the princess.
Thirty seconds ticked by, then a minute. Almost there.
But then Jeth heard the distinctive hiss of a door opening in the distance, followed by the footsteps of someone approaching.
Someone who shouldn’t be here.
So much for no glitches.
JETH’S HEAD SWAM IN THE SUDDEN SURGE OF ADRENALINE, but then a cool focus came over him, the thrill of the unexpected sharpening his senses. “Someone’s coming. How soon?”
“Need another minute at least,” Danforth answered.
Acting on instinct, Jeth left the comm open as he pulled the collapsible wrench out of his boot and expanded it to full size. He held his breath and approached the edge of the hallway. Only two types of people would be coming this way right now: guards or servants. He hoped for the latter. A servant would likely be easier to take by surprise, knock unconscious, and hide until the job was done.
Jeth listened to the footsteps, determining they were coming from the left, the same way he had entered. He turned and put his back to the wall. Sweat dampened his palms, and he wished he were holding a stunner instead of a wrench. If he hit the person too hard, he could do permanent damage. Too little and he might have a fight on his hands.
Tap, tap, tap.
The person reached the juncture where the two hallways met. Jeth held his breath, tightening his grip on the wrench. A figure stepped into view. Jeth raised his hand, aiming for where neck met skull.
But he froze at the sight of brown hair hanging in ringlets. The girl in the silkwater dress from earlier swung to face him, her large amber eyes widening in surprise.
Hit her! A voice screamed in his head.
He couldn’t. He might hurt her. Might kill her with a blow like that.
“What are you—” she began, but Jeth grabbed her before she could finish. He wrapped his arms around her shoulders, pinning her. She was tiny, easy to overpower. He felt her lungs expand for a scream, and he clapped his hand over her mouth.
“Door’s open, Longshot,” Danforth spoke through the comm. “You got things under control down there?”
“Yeah, I’m coming,” Jeth said, glad he’d left the comm open. To say he had his hands full as he dragged the girl down the hallway would be an understatement. Although to his surprise she wasn’t really struggling. A small, weird part of him was almost disappointed that she didn’t fight. He must’ve misjudged the spunk he’d detected in her earlier.
He shoved her through the now open door into a narrow entryway that dead-ended before an elevator.
“I’m going to lower my hand from your mouth,” Jeth said, in his most menacing voice, “but if you so much as squeak, I’ll brain you. Got it?” He waved the wrench before her eyes with his other hand.
Jeth let go of her mouth, and holding her with one arm, he reached back and grabbed the counterfeit invitation out of the control panel. A second later, the door slid closed, sealing them in the small foyer before the elevator.
“Who are you talking to?” Danforth asked.