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“Tell me, do you think you’re a good actress, Rose?” the Gardener asks.
I tilt my head, trying to figure out what that question has to do with anything. He sneers at me like he used to before a performance, setting every nerve on end. “I have no idea what you’re up to, but whatever it is, it isn’t going to work.”
His eyes flicker to my face, a smile pulling apart his peeling lips. “Do you think you’re better than I am?” he asks. “Because I’ve always thought you were never very skilled at it. Your smile always felt forced during shows and no matter how much I tried to correct you by having your Wilted beat, you never did learn that lesson. You can act tough, but I will always see through you.”
“How about you stop talking now?”
He nods to the chopstick in his hand. “Would you be willing to stake your reputation on that fact? But I wonder how good you would be if you were going to lose everything.”
“What’re you going on about?”
As the words leave my mouth, the squeal of the iron bars behind me rings out in the air. I look over my shoulder, catch Rayce plunging into the darkness towards us. Small fingers grip my hand and I swing back around, trying to jerk away, but the Gardener’s grasp is much stronger than I remember. For a short second, I wonder what he’s doing until the sharp bite of wood presses against my palm right as he jams the pointed part of the chopstick into the fat in his shoulder. He lets out a sharp cry and my eyes widen as blood pours from the self-inflicted wound, sticky and warm on my skin.
“S-She attacked me!” he says, taking a step backward.
The thunder of footsteps behind me echoes with the Gardener’s cries and still my brain tries to catch up with what just happened.
“What?” I say. “No, I didn’t. You made me.”
“Did poisoning me not get the job done fast enough?”
“Rose, no!” Rayce’s voice booms behind me like thunder.
Arms wrap around my shoulders and yank me back. I don’t even strain against them, going completely rigid. I hold out my hands as if to show that I don’t have anything offensive on me, but the side of my left hand is covered in blood. Everything in my mind crawls to a stop. The last time I had the Gardener’s blood on my hands, I’d earned it, at least.
But this time, he played me. The only thing I can hope for now is that Rayce doesn’t fall into the same trap I just did.
Amber Mitchell was born and raised in a small town in Florida. After briefly escaping small town life by attending the University of South Florida where she earned her degree in Creative Writing, she decided to ditch traffic jams and move back to her hometown. There she writes Young Adult novels, usually with a bit of magic in them, rolls D20s with her friends on Thursday nights and enjoys hanging out with her husband and four cats. Her other job involves crafting cardstock in to 3D art and has allowed her to travel all over the US vending at comic conventions which has only increased her love for fantasy and fandoms. She is represented by Nikki Terpilowski of Holloway Literature.