“What? How do you know about the note?” Belladonna leaned forward, rocking the boat.
A sick feeling began to build in my gut.
Cupping his head in his hands, Dolph let out a groan. “Ash intercepted a note meant for Eel.”
I lifted my hands, palms out to slow things down. “Wait, who is Eel?”
Dolph lifted his head, his eyes full of sorrow. “The Undine who stuck the hooks in you.”
“The note was meant for him? I don’t understand.”
“We don’t know who it was from, but it was going to Eel. He was the one who was supposed to ‘drown the flowers.’ Not Ash.”
“Mother goddess have mercy,” I whispered, slumping into the boat, barely feeling the hooks as I leaned into them.
Belladonna sucked in a sharp breath, and then shook her head. “There is nothing to be done for it now. It was a mistake. One we can’t undo no matter how unfortunate.”
I stared at her, horror growing in me until it flowed from my mouth. “A mistake? Ash’s life is on the line and you call it a mistake?”
Blushing, she looked out over the water. “It was not done on purpose. We could not know, and he would not tell us the truth!”
“That is not the worst of it.” Dolph’s voice held a pained note. “Princess, please tell the Terralings what happens on the day of coronation.”
Finley sat up straight in her seat. “On the day of the coronation, blood must be spilled into the water as an offering to the Deep. For protection, for health, for sustenance. The blood must be that of an enemy of the crown. Someone from the cells. An Terraling would make a perfect sacrifice.”
I would have moved forward, but several of the hooks where they had pierced my skin caught the slats of the boat and held me down. Frustration flowed up and through me and I let out a snarl. “Get these hooks out of me!”
Finley leaned over and put her tiny hands on my shoulders. “You have to lay still. The more you wiggle, the deeper the barbs will dive. That is how they are designed.”
It took everything I had to not move, to lie still while Finley worked the hooks out with a miniscule needle-nose tool found in a small first aid bag in the bottom of the boat. She worked the barbs out as carefully as she could, but the pain was excruciating, bringing me to the brink of screaming mindlessly. Each time my body shook and jerked when she pulled a barb, the others dug into my flesh even more. Belladonna reached over and stroked my hair, untangling knots and braiding it gently. “Shh, it will be over soon.”
“You haven’t done that since we were children.”
“You’re my little sister,” she whispered, her eyes suddenly glistening with moisture. “I can braid your hair if I want to.” The moment was one of intense emotion and pain, and I struggled to know which caused my own eyes to fill.
The waves around us picked up, sloshing into the boat. Salt water washed over my legs where the princess had plucked most of the barbs, stinging and cleansing the wounds at the same time. I hissed and fought the urge to yank my legs away.
I touched Finley on the arm, getting her attention. “How many are left?”
“Two. They will be the bad ones,” Finley said.
I stared at her. “The others weren’t bad?”
“These two are deep.” She touched each of them gently, one buried in my left armpit, the other in the back of my left calf. “I will have to yank them, there is no way I can work them to the surface, so they will tear the flesh badly.”
Nausea rolled through me. “Don’t tell me when. Just do it.”
She nodded, blue ringlets bouncing, and I closed my eyes. The feel of the cool metal under my arm made my heart rate skyrocket as she set her tool next to the tip of the first barb. Belladonna stroked my face, her voice a blend of nothing words meant to soothe a child.
I let out a breath and opened my eyes to see what was taking so long when Finley yanked the first hook.
A blaze of fire raced from the wound straight to my spine and an uncontrollable scream ripped from me. Belladonna wrapped her arms around my upper body. “Hush, hush. It’s almost over, just breathe.”
Teeth chattering I stared at Finley. “Why . . . do they hurt so . . . bad?”
Dolph answered. “When they are created, they are imbued with pain. Designed to make the one they hook into a useless ball of screaming flesh. That you have managed this far speaks to your fortitude and high pain threshold. I have seen Enders with two hooks in them laid out on the floor, sobbing.”
Finley nodded. “You had sixteen driven into you. I don’t doubt Eel was afraid you were a chosen one of the mother goddess to see you still standing.”
Before I had a chance to slow my heart or think about how bad the second hook would be, Finley had her tool on it and ripped it out of my calf. Muscle and flesh tore and a second scream would have exploded from me if it weren’t for Bella.
My sister slapped a hand over my mouth, muffling my cries. “Be quiet, Lark, you must hold the pain in and be quiet.”
Whimpering, tears leaking from my eyes, I stared at the sky and waved her hand off. “We are in the middle of the ocean, why does it matter if I’m quiet?”
Dolph looked from me to the ocean in the east and the way his eyes narrowed, the set of his mouth made my stomach clench.
“Because we are being followed.”
Spinning around in a boat was not a good idea, but I did it anyway, rocking it hard. Belladonna let out a squawk, but Dolph and Finley were quiet. Far behind us, the ocean was empty. No city wavering in the distance. “I don’t see anyone.”