The School for Good and Evil #5: A Crystal of Time: Now a Netflix Originals Movie

The School for Good and Evil #5: A Crystal of Time: Now a Netflix Originals Movie

Dedication

For Uma and Kaveen

Epigraph

IN THE FOREST PRIMEVAL

A SCHOOL FOR GOOD AND EVIL

TWO TOWERS LIKE TWIN HEADS

ONE FOR THE PURE

ONE FOR THE WICKED

TRY TO ESCAPE YOU’LL ALWAYS FAIL

THE ONLY WAY OUT IS

THROUGH A FAIRY TALE

Contents

Cover

Title Page

Dedication

Epigraph

1. Agatha: The Lady and the Snake

2. The Coven: Lionsmane

3. Sophie: Bonds of Blood

4. Agatha: New Alliances

5. Tedros: Sophie’s Choice

6. Sophie: The Dinner Game

7. Agatha: Agatha’s Army

8. Hort: Someday My Weasel Will Come

9. Sophie: Empress under the Boot

10. Sophie: Blessing in Disguise

11. Agatha: Friendship Lessons

12. Tedros: Lucky Seven

13. Agatha: Sometimes the Story Leads You

14. Sophie: He Lies, She Lies

15. Agatha: One True King

16. Professor Dovey: What Makes Your Heart Beat?

17. Agatha: The Only Safe Place in the Woods

18. Tedros: The Ultimate Mission

19. Agatha: Into the Crystal World

20. Hort: The House at Number 63

21. Agatha: Blood Crystal

22. Sophie: Script of a Murder

23. Agatha: Cat in a Museum

24. Sophie: The Garden of Truth and Lies

25. Sophie: Rhian and the Real Thing

26. Agatha: A Grave Mistake

27. Tedros: The Unburied King

Excerpt from The School for Good and Evil #6: One True King

1. The Coven: Bad Candy

2. Sophie: The Girl with No Past

3. Tedros: Secret School

4. The Storian: Altar and Grail

About the Author

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Copyright

About the Publisher

1

AGATHA

The Lady and the Snake

When the new King of Camelot intends to kill your true love, kidnap your best friend, and hunt you down like a dog . . . you better have a plan.

But Agatha had no plan.

She had no allies.

She had no place to hide.

So she ran.

She ran as far from Camelot as she could with no direction or destination, ripping through the Endless Woods, her black dress catching on nettles and branches as the sun rose and fell . . . She ran as the bag with a Dean’s crystal ball swung and thumped against her ribs . . . She ran as WANTED posters with her face began appearing on trees, a warning that news traveled faster than her legs could carry her and that there was nowhere safe for her anymore . . .

By the second day, her feet blistered; her muscles throbbed, fed only by berries and apples and mushrooms she snatched along the way. She seemed to be going in circles: the smoky riverbanks of Mahadeva, the borders of Gillikin, then back to Mahadeva in the pale dawn. She couldn’t think about a plan or shelter. She couldn’t think about the present at all. Her thoughts were in the past: Tedros in chains . . . sentenced to die . . . her friends imprisoned . . . Merlin dragged away unconscious . . . an Evil villain wearing Tedros’ crown . . .

She struggled through an assault of pink fog, searching for the path. Wasn’t Gillikin the kingdom with the pink fog? Hadn’t Yuba the Gnome taught them that at school? But she’d left Gillikin hours ago. How could she be there again? She needed to pay attention . . . she needed to think forward instead of backward . . . but now all she could see were clouds of pink fog taking the shape of the Snake . . . that masked, scale-covered boy who she’d been sure was dead . . . but a boy who she’d just seen alive . . .

By the time she came out of her thoughts, the fog was gone and it was nighttime. Somehow she’d ended up in the Stymph Forest, with no trace of a path. A storm swept in, slinging lightning through trees. She cowered under an overgrown toadstool.

Where should she go? Who could help her when everyone she trusted was locked in a dungeon? She’d always relied on her intuition, her ability to make a plan on the spot. But how could she think of a plan when she didn’t even know who she was fighting?

I saw the Snake dead.

But then he wasn’t . . .

And Rhian was still onstage . . .

So Rhian can’t be the Snake.

The Snake is someone else.

They’re working together.

The Lion and the Snake.

She thought of Sophie, who’d giddily accepted Rhian’s ring, thinking she was marrying Tedros’ knight. Sophie who believed she’d found love—real love that saw the Good in her—only to be taken hostage by a villain far more Evil than she.

At least Rhian wouldn’t hurt Sophie. Not yet. He needed her.

What for, Agatha didn’t know.

But Rhian would hurt Tedros.

Tedros, who’d heard Agatha tell Sophie last night that he’d been a failure as king. Tedros, who now doubted whether his own princess believed in him. Tedros, who’d lost his crown, his kingdom, his people, and was trapped in the hands of his enemy, who just yesterday he’d embraced like a brother. An enemy who now claimed to be his brother.

Agatha’s stomach wrenched. She needed to hold Tedros in her arms and tell him that she loved him. That she would never doubt him again. That she would trade her life for his if she could.

I’ll save you, Agatha thought desperately. Even if I have no plan and no one on my side.

Until then, Tedros had to stay strong, no matter what Rhian and his men did to him. Tedros had to find a way to stay alive.

If he wasn’t dead already.

In a flash, Agatha was running again, strobed by lightning as she slashed through the last of the Stymph Forest and then along Akgul’s haunted beaches with ash for sand. Dovey’s crystal ball weighed her down, pounding the same bruise in her flank again and again. She needed to rest . . . she hadn’t slept in days . . . but her mind was spinning like a broken wheel . . .

Rhian pulled Excalibur from the stone.

That’s why he’s king.

Agatha ran faster.

But how?

The Lady of the Lake told Sophie that the Snake was king.

But Excalibur thought Rhian was king.

And Arthur told Tedros that Tedros was king.

Something’s wrong.

Magically wrong.

Agatha held her breath, lost in a maze of thoughts. She needed help. She needed answers.

Muggy warmth turned to harsh wind and then to snow, the forest opening up in a sweep of tundra. In her sleepless haze, she wondered if she’d run through months and seasons. . . .

But now she could see the shadow of a castle in the distance, spires slicing through low-flying clouds.

Camelot?

After all this, instead of finding someone who could help her, had she run back to danger? Had she wasted all this time?

Tears rising, she backed away, turning to sprint again—

But she couldn’t run anymore.

Her legs buckled and Agatha crumpled into soft snow, her black dress fanned around her like a bat’s wings. Sleep came as hard and swift as a hammer.

She dreamed of a leaning tower stretched high into the clouds, built out of a thousand gold cages. Trapped in every cage was a friend or someone she loved—Merlin, Guinevere, Lancelot, Professor Dovey, Hester, Anadil, Dot, Kiko, Hort, her mother, Stefan, Professor Sader, Lady Lesso, and more—with all the cages teetering one over the other, and Sophie’s and Tedros’ cages at the very top, poised to come crashing down first. As the tower shook and swayed, Agatha threw herself against it to keep it from falling, her scrawny, gangly frame the only thing stopping her friends from dashing to their deaths. But just as she had the soaring column in hand, a shadow emerged atop the highest cage. . . .

Half-Lion. Half-Snake.

One by one, it threw cages off the tower.

Agatha woke with a start, sopped in sweat despite the snow. Raising her head, she saw the storm had passed, the castle ahead now clear in morning sun.

In front of it, two iron gates swung open and shut against the rocks, the entrance to this white fortress that towered over a calm, gray lake.

Agatha’s heart jumped.

Not Camelot.

Avalon.

Something inside her had steered her here.

To the one person who could give her answers.

Something inside her had a plan all along.

HELLO? AGATHA CALLED out to the still waters.

Nothing happened.

Lady of the Lake? she tried again.

Not even a ripple.

Edginess fluttered in her chest. Once upon a time, the Lady of the Lake had been Good’s greatest ally. That’s why Agatha’s soul had brought her here. To get help.

But Chaddick had come to the Lady of the Lake for help too.

He’d ended up dead.

Agatha looked up at the zigzagging staircase that ascended towards the circle of white towers. The last time she’d come to these shores, she’d been with Sophie, searching for Chaddick’s body. Dark dregs of blood still stained the snow where they’d found Tedros’ murdered knight, clutching a taunting message from the Snake.

Agatha had never seen the Snake’s face. But the Lady of the Lake had seen it when she’d kissed him.

A kiss that had leeched the Lady’s powers and betrayed King Tedros.

A kiss that had helped the Snake put a traitor on Tedros’ throne.

Because that’s what Rhian was. A filthy traitor, who’d pretended to be Tedros’ knight when he was in league with the Snake the whole time.

Agatha turned back to the water. The Lady of the Lake had protected that Snake. And not just protected him: she’d fallen in love with him and lost her powers because of it. She’d thrown away a lifetime of duty. A sick feeling slid up Agatha’s spine. The Lady of the Lake should have been immune to Evil’s charms. But instead, she could no longer be trusted.

Agatha swallowed hard.

I shouldn’t be here, she thought.

And yet . . . there was no one else to turn to. She had to take a chance.

It’s me, Agatha! she bellowed. Merlin’s friend. He needs your help!

Her voice echoed across the shore.

Then the lake shuddered.

Agatha leaned forward. She saw nothing except her own reflection in the silvery surface.

But then her face in the water began to change.

Little by little, Agatha’s reflection morphed into a shriveled old hag’s, with knots of white hair clinging to a bald head and spotted skin sagging off cheekbones. The hag loomed beneath the lake like a troll under a bridge, glaring up at Agatha with cold eyes. Her voice carried through the water, low and distorted—

“We made a deal. I answered Merlin’s question, the Lady of the Lake seethed. I let him ask me one thing—one thing—and in return, he would never come again. So now he tries to weasel out of our deal by sending you? Go. You’re not welcome here.”

He didn’t send me! Agatha fought. “Merlin’s a prisoner! There’s a new king of Camelot named Rhian—he’s trapped Tedros, Merlin, Professor Dovey, and all our friends in the dungeons. And Merlin’s been hurt! He’ll die if I don’t save him! Tedros will too! Arthur’s son. The true king.”

There was no alarm or horror or even sympathy in the Lady’s face. There was . . . nothing.

Didn’t you hear me? You have to help them! Agatha begged. You swore to protect the King—

“And I did protect him, the Lady retorted. I told you when you came here last. The green-masked boy had the blood of Arthur in his veins. And not just the blood of Arthur’s son. The blood of Arthur’s eldest son. I could smell it when I had my powers. I know the blood of the One True King. She paused, her face clouding. He had powers too, this boy. Strong powers. He sensed my secret: that I’ve grown lonely here, protecting the kingdom, protecting Good, in this cold, watery grave . . . alone . . . always alone. He knew that I would trade my magic for love if only someone gave me the chance. And he was offering me that chance. A chance Arthur never gave me. For a single kiss, the boy promised I could be free of this life . . . I could go with him to Camelot. I could have love. I could have someone to call my own, just like you. . . . She glanced away from Agatha, hunching deeper. I didn’t know that giving up my powers would mean this. That I’d end an old crone, more alone than before. I didn’t know his promise meant nothing. Her eyes sealed over. But that is his right, of course. He is the king. And I serve the king.”

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“Except the king isn’t the boy you kissed! Rhian is king! The boy they’re calling the Lion, Agatha insisted. That wasn’t the boy who came here! The boy you kissed was the Snake. He kissed you to strip your magic and rob Good of your power. He kissed you to help the Lion become king. Don’t you see? He tricked you! And now I need to know who that Snake is. Because if you can be tricked, so can Excalibur! And if Excalibur was tricked, then that’s how an Evil villain ended up on Tedros’ throne—”

The Lady of the Lake lurched towards Agatha, her decayed face just beneath the surface. “No one tricked me. The boy I kissed had Arthur’s blood. The boy I kissed was the king. So if it was the ‘Snake’ I kissed, as you call him, then it is the Snake who rightly pulled Excalibur from the stone and now sits on the throne.”

But the Snake didn’t pull Excalibur! That’s what I’m trying to tell you! Agatha hounded. “Rhian did! And I saw the Snake there! They’re working together to con the people of the Woods. That’s how they duped you and the sword—”

The Lady tore through the water. “I smelled his blood. I smelled a king, her voice resounded like thunder. And even if I can be ‘duped,’ as you so boldly claim, Excalibur cannot. No one can outwit Good’s most powerful weapon. Whoever pulled Excalibur from the stone is Arthur’s blood heir. It was the same boy I protected. He is the rightful king . . . not the one you and Merlin defend.”

She began to sink into the water.

You can’t go, Agatha gasped. You can’t let them die.

The Lady of the Lake paused, her skull shining underwater like a pearl. This time, when she looked up, the ice in her eyes had thawed. All Agatha saw was sadness.

Whatever trouble Merlin and your friends have gotten into is their own doing. Their fates are in the hands of the Storian now, the Lady said softly. I buried that boy Chaddick as you asked. I helped Merlin like he wanted. I have nothing left. So please . . . just go. I can’t help you.

Yes, you can, Agatha pleaded. You’re the only one who’s seen the Snake’s face. You’re the only one who knows who he is. If you show me what the Snake looks like, I can find out where he and Rhian come from. I can prove to the people that they’re liars! I can prove that Tedros belongs on the throne—

What’s done is done, said the Lady of the Lake. My loyalty is to the king.

She sank deeper—

Would the true king hurt Merlin? Agatha cried out. “Would Arthur’s heir break his promise to you and leave you like this? You say Excalibur makes no mistakes, but you made Excalibur and you made a mistake. You know you did. Look at you! Please. Listen to me. Truth has become Lies and Lies the Truth. Good and Evil have become one and the same. A Lion and a Snake worked together to steal the crown. Even your sword can’t tell what makes a king anymore. Somewhere inside you, you know I speak the Truth. The real Truth. All I’m asking for is the Snake’s face. Tell me what the boy you kissed looks like. Give me the answer to my question and I’ll never return. The same deal you made with Merlin. And I swear to you: this deal will be kept.”

The Lady of the Lake locked eyes with Agatha. Deep in the water, the nymph treaded silently, tattered robes splayed like a dead jellyfish. Then she faded down into its depths and disappeared.

“No,” Agatha whispered.

She dropped to her knees in the snow and put her face in her hands. She had no wizard, no Deans, no prince, no friends to rely on. She had nowhere to go. No one to turn to. And now Good’s last hope had deserted her.

She thought of her prince lashed in chains. . . . She thought of Rhian clutching Sophie, his bride and prisoner. . . . She thought of the Snake, leering at her in the castle, like this was only the beginning. . . .

A burble came from the lake.

She peeked through her fingers to see a scroll of parchment floating towards her.

Heart throttling, Agatha snatched the scroll and pulled it open.

The Lady had given her an answer.

“But . . . but this is impossible . . . ,” she blurted, looking back at the lake.

The silence only thickened.

She blinked back at the wet scroll: a bold, inked painting of a beautiful boy.

A boy Agatha knew.

She shook her head, baffled.

Because Agatha had asked the Lady of the Lake to draw the Snake’s face. The Snake who’d kissed the Lady and left her to rot. The Snake who’d killed Agatha’s friends and hidden behind a mask. The Snake who’d joined forces with Rhian and made him king.

Only the Lady of the Lake hadn’t drawn the Snake’s face at all.

She’d drawn Rhian’s.

2

THE COVEN

Lionsmane

Hester, Anadil, and Dot sat shell-shocked in a stinking cell, flanked by fellow quest team members Beatrix, Reena, Hort, Willam, Bogden, Nicola, and Kiko. Just minutes ago, they’d been on the castle balcony for a Woods-wide celebration. Together with Tedros and Agatha, they’d presented the Snake’s dead body to the people and basked in Camelot’s victory over a vicious enemy.

Now they were in Camelot’s prison, condemned as enemies themselves.

Hester waited for someone to say something . . . for someone to take the lead. . . .

But that’s what Agatha usually did. And Agatha wasn’t here.

Through the cell wall, she could hear the muffled sounds of the ongoing ceremony, turned into King Rhian’s coronation—

“From this day forward, you are rid of a king who closed his doors to you when you needed him,” Rhian declared. A king who cowered while a Snake ravaged your kingdoms. A king who failed his father’s test. From this day forward, you have a real king. King Arthur’s true heir. We may be divided into Good and Evil, but we are one Woods. The fake king is punished. The forgotten people aren’t forgotten anymore. The Lion is listening to you now!

“LION! LION! LION!” the chants echoed.

Hester felt her demon tattoo steam red on her neck. Next to her, Anadil and Dot tugged at the pastel dresses they’d been made to wear for the ceremony, along with their prissy, primped curls. Nicola tore off a strip of her dress to re-bandage a wound on Hort’s shoulder that he’d gotten in battle against the Snake, while Hort kicked uselessly at the cell door. Beatrix and Reena were trying to light their fingerglows to no avail, and Anadil’s three black rats kept poking heads out of her pocket, waiting for orders, before Anadil shoved them back down. In the corner, red-haired Willam and runty Bogden anxiously studied tarot cards, with Hester picking up their whispers: “bad gifts” . . . “warned him” . . . “should have listened” . . .

No one else spoke for a long while.

Things could be worse, said Hester finally.

“How could it be worse? Hort shrieked. The boy we thought was our savior and new best friend turned out to be the most Evil scum on the planet.”

We should have known. Anyone who likes Sophie is bound to be horrible, Kiko wisped.

I’m not one to defend Sophie, but it isn’t her fault, said Dot, failing to turn the ribbon in her hair to chocolate. Rhian tricked her like he tricked all of us.

Who says he tricked her? said Reena. Maybe she knew his plan all along. Maybe that’s why she accepted his ring.

“To steal Agatha’s place as queen? Even Sophie isn’t that Evil,” said Anadil.

We just stood there instead of fighting back, said Nicola, despondent. We should have done something—

It happened too fast! said Hort. One second the guards are parading the Snake’s dead body and the next they’re grabbing Tedros and slamming Merlin over the head.

Did anyone see where they took them? Dot asked.

Or Guinevere? said Reena.

What about Agatha? asked Bogden. Last I saw, she was running through the crowd—

Maybe she escaped! said Kiko.

Or maybe she was beaten to death by that mob out there, said Anadil.

Rather take her odds than be stuck in here, said Willam. I’ve lived at Camelot most of my life. These dungeons are immune to magic spells. No one’s ever gotten out.

“We don’t have any friends left to get us out,” said Hort.

And given that we serve no use to Rhian anymore, he’ll probably cut off our heads by dinnertime, Beatrix scorned, turning to Hester. So tell me, wise witch, how can things possibly be any worse?

We could have Tedros in our cell too, Hester replied. That would be worse.

Anadil and Dot cracked up.

“Hester,” a voice said.

They turned to see Professor Clarissa Dovey thrust her head through the bars of the next cell, her face clammy and pale.

Tedros and Merlin might both be dead. The true King of Camelot and Good’s greatest wizard, the Dean of Good rasped. “And instead of thinking about a plan to help them, you’re making jokes?”

Difference between Good and Evil. Evil knows how to look at the bright side, Anadil murmured.

Not to be rude, Professor, but shouldn’t you be the one thinking of a plan? said Dot. “You’re a Dean and we’re technically still students.”

Hasn’t been acting like a Dean, Hester groused. Been in that cell the last ten minutes and didn’t say a word.

Because I’ve been trying to think of— Dovey started, but Hester cut her off.

I know fairy godmothers are used to waving away problems with pixie dust and magic wands, but magic isn’t getting us out of this. Hester could feel her demon searing hotter, her frustration turned on the Dean. “After teaching at a school where Good always wins, maybe you’re in denial that Evil actually won. Evil that’s made itself look Good, which is cheating in my book. But win it did. And if you don’t wake up and face the fact that we’re fighting someone who doesn’t play by your rules, then nothing you ‘think’ of is ever going to beat him.”

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Especially without your broken crystal ball, Anadil seconded.

Or broken wand, thirded Dot.

Do you even have your Quest Map? Hort asked Dovey.

Probably broke that too, Anadil snorted.

How dare you talk to her like that! Beatrix blazed. “Professor Dovey has dedicated her life to her students. That’s why she’s in a cell to begin with. You know full well she’s been ill—gravely ill—and that Merlin ordered her to stay at school when the Snake attacked Camelot. But still she came to protect us. All of us, Good and Evil. She’s served the school for—Beatrix glanced at Dovey’s silver hair and deep wrinkles—who knows how long, and you speak to her like she owes you something? Would you speak to Lady Lesso that way? Lady Lesso, who died to protect Professor Dovey? She would have expected you to trust her best friend. And to help her. So if you respected Evil’s Dean, then you better respect Good’s Dean too.”

Quiet stretched over the cell.

Come a long way from that Tedros-loving twit our first year, Dot whispered to Anadil.

Shut up, Hester mumbled.

Professor Dovey, on the other hand, came alive at the mention of Lady Lesso’s name. Tightening her bun, she pushed through her cell bars to get closer to her students. “Hester, it’s natural to lash out when you feel helpless. All of us feel helpless right now. But listen to me. No matter how dark things seem, Rhian isn’t Rafal. He’s shown no evidence of sorcery, nor is he protected by an immortal spell like Rafal was. Rhian has only gotten this far because of lies. He lied to us about where he comes from. He lied to us about who he is. And I have no doubt he’s lying about his claim to the crown.”

Yet he managed to pull Excalibur from the stone, Hester argued. So either he’s telling the truth about being King Arthur’s son . . . or he’s a sorcerer after all.

Professor Dovey resisted this. “Even with him pulling the sword, my instinct tells me he’s neither Arthur’s son nor the true king. I haven’t proof, of course, but I believe there’s a reason Rhian’s file never crossed my desk or Lady Lesso’s as a prospective student, when every child, Good or Evil, has a file at school. He claims he went to the Foxwood School for Boys, but that could be a lie, like all his other lies. And lies will only take him so far without skills, discipline, and training, all of which my students possess in spades. If we stick to a plan, we can stay one step ahead of him. So listen carefully. First off, Anadil, your rats will be our spies. Send one to find Merlin, the second to find Tedros, and the third to find Agatha wherever she may be—”

Anadil’s rats sprang out of her pockets, elated to finally be useful, but Anadil squashed them down again. “Don’t you think I thought of that already? You heard Willam. The dungeon is impenetrable. There’s no way for them to— Ow!”

One of the rats had bitten her, and now all three were scampering through her fingers, sniffing and searching the cell walls, before they squeezed through three different cracks and disappeared.

Rats always find a way. That’s what makes them rats, said Professor Dovey, craning to see a crack in a wall that one of the rodents had squeezed into and spotting a golden gleam coming through. Nicola, what do you see in that hole?

Nicola pressed against the wall and put her eye to the crack. The first year probed at the hole with her thumbnail, feeling the mildewed stone crumble. Clearly the dungeons, like the rest of the run-down castle, hadn’t been fortified or maintained. With the tip of her hair clip, Nicola pulled away more dirt and stone, which widened the hole a smidge bigger, more light spearing through.

I see . . . sunlight . . . and the slope of a hill. . . .

Sunlight? Hort scoffed. “Nic, I know they do things differently in Reader World, but in our world, dungeons are below ground.”

Is that one of the perks of having a boyfriend? Having him explain things to me I already know? said Nicola acidly, squinting through the hole. Dungeons might be below ground, but we’re right up against the side of the hill. It’s the only explanation for why I can see the castle. She scraped away more dirt with her clip. I see people too. Lots of people packed uphill. They’re looking up at the Blue Tower. Must be watching Rhian . . .

The king’s voice echoed louder through the hole.

For as long as you’ve lived, you’ve served a pen. No one knows who controls this pen or what it wants and yet you worship it, praying it will write about you. But it never does. Thousands of years, it’s ruled these Woods. What do you have to show for it? Each new story, it chooses someone else for glory. The educated. The children of that school. And leaves scraps for you, the hardworking, the invisible. You, the real stories of the Endless Woods.

The crew could hear the people buzzing.

Never talked that much when he was with us, Dot mused.

Give a boy a stage, Anadil quipped.

Nicola, can you see the balcony where Rhian is? Dovey asked.

Nicola shook her head.

Professor Dovey turned to Hester. Have your demon chip at that hole. We need a view of the stage.

Hester frowned. Maybe you can turn pumpkins into carriages, Professor, but if you think my demon can get us out by boring a tunnel through a wall—

I didn’t say ‘get us out.’ I said ‘chip at that hole.’ But if you prefer to doubt me while we lose our chance at rescue, then by all means, Professor Dovey snapped.

Hester cursed under her breath as her demon tattoo swelled red on her neck, lifted clean off her skin, and flew towards the hole, jabbing its claws like pickaxes and garbling grunty gibberish: “Babayagababayagababayaga!”

Careful, Hester mothered, your claw is still wounded from Nottingham—

She froze, catching a black blur of movement through the hole. Her demon spotted it too and recoiled in fear . . . but it was already gone.

What is it? said Anadil.

Hester bent forward, inspecting the hole in the stone. Looked like . . .

But it couldn’t have been, she thought.

The Snake’s dead. Rhian killed him. We saw his body—

“Wait a second. Did you say ‘rescue’? Dot said, twirling to Dovey. First of all, you heard Willam: there’s no way out of this prison. Second, even if there was and we summoned the League of Thirteen or anyone else, what would they do . . . storm Camelot? Rhian has guards. He has the whole Woods behind him. Who on the outside could possibly rescue us?”

I never said it’d be someone on the outside, said Professor Dovey intently.

The whole crew looked at her.

Sophie, said Hort.

“Rhian needs Sophie, Good’s Dean explained. Every King of Camelot needs a queen to consolidate his power, especially a king like Rhian who is so new to the people. Meanwhile, the Queen of Camelot is as vaunted a position as her counterpart. It’s why Rhian took careful steps to ensure Sophie—a legend and beloved face across the Woods—would be his queen. As the people see it, the best of Good is marrying the best of Evil, which raises Rhian above the politics of Evers and Nevers and makes him a convincing leader to both. Plus, having Sophie as queen will calm any doubts about having a mysterious stranger as king. So now that that king has his ring on Sophie’s finger, he will do everything he can to keep her loyalty . . . but in the end, she’s still on our side.”

Not necessarily, said Reena. The last time Sophie wore a boy’s ring, it was Rafal’s, and she sided with him against the whole school and nearly killed us all. And now you want us to trust the same girl?

“This isn’t the same girl, Professor Dovey challenged. That’s why Rhian handpicked her to be his queen. Because Sophie is the only person in the Woods who both Good and Evil claim as their own—at once the slayer of an Evil School Master and now Evil’s new Dean. But we know where Sophie’s true loyalties lie. None of you can argue that everything she’s done on this quest has been to protect both her crew and Tedros’ crown. She accepted Rhian’s ring because besides being enamored with him, she thought he was Tedros’ liege. She took Rhian’s hand because of her love for her friends, not in spite of it. No matter what Sophie has to do to stay alive, we cannot doubt that love. Not when our own lives depend on her.”

Beatrix frowned. I still don’t trust her.

Me either, said Kiko.

Join the club, said Anadil.

Professor Dovey ignored them. Now for the rest of the plan. We’ll wait for Anadil’s rats to return with news of the others. Then, when the time comes, we’ll send Sophie a message through that hole and establish a chain of communication. From there, we can plot our rescue, she said, checking on the quarter-sized breach that Hester’s demon had managed to bash out of the wet, cracked stone. Rhian’s speech amplified louder through it—

“And let’s not forget my future queen!” he proclaimed.

The people sang back: “Sophie! Sophie! Sophie!”

Can you see the stage yet, Nicola? Professor Dovey pressured.

Nicola leaned forward, eye to the hole: Almost. But it’s so far uphill and we’re on the wrong side of it.

Dovey turned to Hester. Keep your demon digging. We need a view of that stage, no matter how remote.

“Why? You heard the girl, Hester pestered, wincing vicariously as her demon punched at the hole with its injured claw. What good is a pea-sized rear view—”

One of Rhian’s pirate guards will likely check on us soon, Dovey continued. Hort, given your father was a pirate, I’m assuming you might know these boys?

No one I’d call a friend, Hort punted, picking at his sock.

“Well, try to befriend them,” Dovey urged.

I’m not befriending a bunch of thugs, Hort shot back. “They’re mercenaries. They’re not real pirates.”

“And are you a real Professor of History? If you were, you’d know that even mercenary pirates joined the Pirate Parley in helping King Arthur fight the Green Knight, Dovey rebutted. Talk to these boys. Get as much information as you can.”

Hort hesitated. What kind of information?

“Any information, the Dean pressed. How they met Rhian or where Rhian really comes from or—”

Metal creaked and slammed in the distance.

The iron door.

Someone had entered the dungeons.

Bootsteps pounded on stone—

Two pirates in Camelot’s armor dragged a boy’s limp body past the cell, each gripping one of his outstretched arms. The boy resisted weakly, his eye blackened shut, his suit and shirt shredded, his bloodied body drained by whatever tortures they’d inflicted on him since they’d lashed him in chains onstage.

Tedros? Kiko croaked.

The prince raised his head, and seeing his friends, he swung towards them, gaping at the crew with his one open eye—

Where’s Agatha! he gasped. Where’s my mother!

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The guards kicked his legs out from under him and yanked him down the corridor into pitch-dark shadows before dumping him into the cell at the very end.

But from Hester’s vantage point, it seemed that the cell at hall’s end had already been occupied, for as they flung Tedros into his cage, they let a prisoner out of it—three prisoners to be precise—who now slinked down the hall, unchained and free.

As these released captives moved out of the shadows, Hester, Anadil, and Dot pressed against the bars and came face-to-face with another coven of three. These haggard triplets glided past them in gray tunics with salt-and-pepper hair to their waists, rawboned limbs, and leathery, coppery skin; their necks and identical faces were long with high, simian foreheads; thin, ashy lips; and almond-shaped eyes. They smirked at Professor Dovey before they followed the pirates out of the dungeons, the door slamming shut behind them.

Who were those women? Hester asked, swiveling to Dovey.

The Mistral Sisters, said the Dean, grimly. King Arthur’s advisors who ran Camelot into the ground. Arthur appointed the Mistrals when Guinevere deserted him. After Arthur died, they had free rein over Camelot until Tedros came of age and put them in jail. Whatever reason Rhian has for freeing them, it can’t be good news. She called down the hall. Tedros, can you hear me!

The echoes of Rhian’s speech drowned out whatever response came back, if one came back at all.

He’s hurt, Dovey told the quest team. We can’t just leave him there. We need to help him!

How? said Beatrix anxiously. Anadil’s rats are gone and we’re trapped here. His cell is way at the other end of the—

But now they heard the door to the dungeons open once more.

Soft footsteps padded down the staircase. A shadow elongated on the wall, then across their cell bars.

Into the rusty torchlight came a green-masked figure. His skintight suit of black eels hung in slashed ribbons, exposing his young, pale torso spattered with blood.

The entire crew flattened against the walls. So did Professor Dovey.

“But y-y-you’re . . . dead!” Hort cried.

We saw your body! said Dot.

“Rhian killed you!” said Kiko.

The Snake’s ice-blue eyes glared through his mask.

From behind his back, he produced one of Anadil’s rats, the rodent writhing in his grip.

The Snake raised a finger and the scaly black scim covering his fingertip turned knife-sharp. The rat let out a terrible squeak—

No! Anadil screamed.

The Snake stabbed the rat in the heart and dropped it to the floor.

My guards are searching for the two you sent to find Merlin and Agatha, he said in a crisp, deep voice as he walked away. Next one I find, I’ll kill one of you too.

He didn’t look back. The iron door thudded behind him.

Anadil scrambled forward, reaching through the cell bars and scraping her rat into her hands . . . but it was too late.

She sobbed, clutching it against her chest as she curled into a corner.

Hort, Nicola, and Dot tried to comfort her, but she was crying so hard she started to shiver.

Only when Hester touched her did Anadil’s wails slowly soften.

She was so scared, Anadil sniffled, shearing off a patch of her dress and wrapping her rat’s body in it. She looked right at me, knowing she was going to die.

She was a faithful henchman to the end, Hester soothed.

Anadil buried her head in her friend’s shoulder.

How did the Snake know the other rats were searching for Merlin and Agatha? Hort blurted as if there was no more time to mourn.

Forget that, said Nicola. “How is the Snake alive?”

Hester’s stomach plunged.

That thing I saw through the hole . . . I didn’t think it could be . . . , she said, watching her demon still hammering at the stone crack, undeterred by the Snake. She turned to the group. It was a scim.

“So he was listening the whole time?” Beatrix said.

That means he knows about everything! said Hort, pointing at the hole. No way can we send a message to Sophie. Scim’s probably still out there, listening to us right now!

Spooked, they turned to Professor Dovey, who was peering down the hall towards the staircase.

What is it? asked Hester.

His voice, said Dovey. It’s the first time I’ve heard it. But it sounded . . . familiar.

The crew looked at each other blankly.

Then they tuned in to the king still booming from beyond: “I grew up with nothing and now I’m your king. Sophie grew up a Reader and will now be your queen. We are just like you—”

Actually, he sounded a bit like Rhian, said Hester.

A lot like Rhian, said Willam and Bogden at once.

“Exactly like Rhian,” Professor Dovey concluded.

A crackling noise came from the wall.

Hester’s demon had wedged loose another pebble-sized stone above the hole, opening it up further, before he’d exhausted all strength and collapsed back into his master’s neck.

I can see the stage now, said Nicola, putting her eye to the hole. “Just barely . . .”

Good, we can mirrorspell it here. I can’t do it from my cell, but Hester can, said Professor Dovey. Hester, it’s the charm I taught you after Sophie moved into the School Master’s tower. The one that let you and me spy on her to make sure she wasn’t voodoo hexing me or summoning the ghost of Rafal.

Professor, how many times do we have to tell you, magic doesn’t work inside the dungeons, Hester growled.

“Inside the dungeons,” the Dean repeated.

Hester’s eyes flared. This was why Dovey was a Dean and she was still a student. She should never have doubted her. Quickly, Hester hewed to the wall, slipped her fingertip through the tiny hole and into the summer heat. She felt her fingerglow activate and sizzle bright red. The first rule of magic is that it follows emotion and when it came to her hatred of Rhian, she had enough to light up all of Camelot.

Should we really be doing this? Kiko asked. If the scim’s out there—

How about I kill you, so you don’t have to worry, Hester fired back.

Kiko pursed her lips.

She’s right, though, Hester thought sourly. The scim could be outside the hole, listening . . . but they had to take the chance. A closer look at the stage would let them see Sophie with Rhian. It would let them see whose side Sophie was really on.

Quickly Hester lined up her eye to the hole, so she had a view of the stage, which looked like a matchbox from this far away. Even worse, just as Nicola said, she couldn’t see the front of the stage—only a view from the side, with Rhian and Sophie’s backs to her, high over the crowd.

Still, it would have to do.

Hester aimed her fingerglow directly at Rhian and Sophie. With half her mind, she focused on the stage angle she wanted to spy on; with the other half, she focused on the dank, dirty cell in front of her. . . .

“Reflecta asimova,” she whispered.

At once, a two-dimensional projection appeared inside the prison cell, floating in the air like a screen. With colors muted, like a faded painting, the projection offered them a magnified view of what was happening on the Blue Tower balcony in real time. In this view, they could observe Rhian and Sophie close up, though only in profile.

So a mirrorspell can let you see anything bigger from far away? Hort said, wide-eyed. Why didn’t anyone show me this spell at school?

Because we all know how you would have used it, Professor Dovey scorched.

Why aren’t we watching them from the front? Beatrix complained, studying Rhian and Sophie. I can’t see their faces—

The spell magnifies the angle I can see through the hole, said Hester testily. And from here, I can only see the stage from the side.

In the projection, Rhian was still speaking to the guests, his tall, lean frame and blue-and-gold suit in shadow, while he held Sophie with one arm.

Why doesn’t she run? said Nicola.

Or shoot him with a spell? said Willam.

Or kick him in the marbles? said Dot.

Told you we couldn’t trust her, Reena harped.

No. That’s not it, Hester countered. Look closer.

The crew followed her gaze. Though they couldn’t see Rhian’s or Sophie’s faces, they honed in on Sophie from behind, shuddering under Rhian’s grip in her pink gown . . . Rhian’s knuckles turning white as they dug into her . . . Excalibur clenched in his other hand, pressed against her spine . . .

That dirty creep, Beatrix realized, turning to Dovey. You said Rhian wants to keep Sophie loyal. How is sticking a sword in her going to do that?

Many a man has made his wife loyal at the point of a sword, the Dean said gravely.

Dot sighed. Sophie really does have the worst taste in boys.

Indeed, only twenty minutes before, Sophie had leapt into Rhian’s arms and kissed him, believing she was engaged to Tedros’ new knight. Now that knight was Tedros’ enemy and threatening to kill Sophie unless she played along with his charade.

But that wasn’t all they could see from this vantage point.

There was someone else on the stage watching the coronation too.

Someone concealed inside the balcony, out of view of the crowd.

The Snake.

He stood there in his ripped, bloody suit of scims, watching the king speak.

First, we need our princess to become a queen, Rhian proclaimed to the people, his voice amplified in the cell by the projection. And as the future queen, it is Sophie’s honor to plan the wedding. Not some pretentious royal spectacle of the past. But a wedding that brings us closer to you. A wedding for the people!

“Sophie! Sophie! Sophie!” the crowd brayed.

Sophie squirmed in his grip, but Rhian shoved the sword harder against her.

Sophie has a full week of parties and feasts and parades in store, he continued. Followed by the wedding and crowning of your new queen!

“Queen Sophie! Queen Sophie!” the masses anointed her.

Sophie’s posture straightened, listening to the adoring crowd.

In a flash, she yanked away from Rhian, daring him to do something to her.

Rhian froze, still gripping her hard. Though his face was in shadow, Hester could see him watching Sophie.

Silence fell over the crowd. They sensed the tension.

Slowly, King Rhian looked back at the people. It seems our Sophie has a request, he said, even and serene. “A request she’s been pressing upon me day and night and that I’ve been hesitant to grant, because I hoped the wedding would be our moment. But if there’s one thing I know about being king: what my queen wants, my queen must get.”

Rhian looked at his bride-to-be, a cold smile on his face.

“So the night of the wedding ceremony, at Princess Sophie’s insistence . . . we will begin with the execution of the impostor king.”

Sophie lurched back in shock, nearly slicing herself on Excalibur’s blade.

“Which means a week from today . . . Tedros