"Nope!" Austin blurts, standing up from his chair and taking off his crown to set it on one of the desks. "Nuh-uh. No way. Absolutely not. Never. Gonna. Happen." He shakes his head and crosses his arms to emphasize his point.
"Oh, now you're worried about Ally's safety?" Cassidy asks accusingly. "What about at the ball, when you made her play dress-up where everybody could see and the queen was right there!"
"You don't get to accuse me of not caring about Ally's safety, when you're trying to send her down to get experimented on by my father on purpose!" Austin says, narrowing his eyes and getting in Cassidy's face. To Cassidy's credit, she doesn't look the least bit nervous.
"This is our best chance to save everyone!" Cassidy exclaims.
Austin stands up straight and shakes his head, shrugging. "No," he says, calmer now. "And I'm the prince, and she's my High Servant, so what I say goes. We'll find another way."
"Okay, since I'd be the one actually going down there, I think I should get a say, too," Ally says, standing up and smoothing down her dress.
Cassidy and Austin turn their eyes on her. Clearly their anger is aimed at each other and not at Ally, but she still shrinks a little under their glares. "I think it's the best chance we've got to figure out more and maybe take down the whole thing from inside without drawing too much attention," Ally says.
"Okay, well, frankly, I don't really give a shit," Austin says. "I wanna help the other servants, but not if you have to put your life at risk to do it. So sorry, but not happening."
Cassidy clenches her jaw, shaking her head. "You selfish little—"
"Okay," Ally interrupts, giving Cassidy a hard look. "I think emotions are a little high right now. I'm gonna walk Austin to his rooms, and then we're all gonna go to sleep." Both of them open their mouths, but Ally speaks before they can. "No arguments."
Cassidy and Austin still look angry, but they follow Ally out of the room. Cassidy goes to her bedroom, and Austin and Ally leave the servants' quarters to head towards Austin's rooms.
"I know what you're trying to do, and you can't convince me," Austin says when they get to his rooms. He takes off his jacket and tosses it on the couch, along with his sash. Then he crosses his arms and looks down at her.
"Austin," Ally says gently, "I'll be fine. Every sick girl is still alive—"
"If you can call being so weak they can't even move their heads 'alive,'" Austin interjects.
She takes a deep breath. "Look, it's really sweet that you're this concerned about me, but ultimately this should be my decision, don't you think?"
"Sure. But seeing how your decision is stupid, I've chosen to ignore it."
"It's not stupid to want to help family," Ally says.
"I can use another word. Reckless. Irresponsible. Rash. Too dangerous."
"'Too dangerous' is two words."
He clenches his jaw, and he looks off to the side, not meeting her eyes. "I can't…" His voice breaks, and he swallows. He closes his eyes. "I can't put you through that," he says quietly. "I can't watch you go through that."
"Well, you won't have to for very long. I'll probably end up in the infirmary pretty quickly, and then I'll be down in the dungeons," she says, trying for a positive tone.
He opens his eyes and gives her a look. "Not helping."
She sighs. "What happened to seeing me as your equal?"
"Ally, that's not fair. If I have a way to stop you from getting hurt, I'm gonna do it."
Ally gently pulls his arms down in front of him and takes his hands, looking up at him and trying to show him how strongly she feels about this. "I need to help them, Austin."
Austin exhales, clenching his jaw again and rolling his eyes. "If you do this, you have to tell me everything. No holding back because you don't want me to know how bad it is." She nods. "And you have to swear you'll be careful, and…and promise you'll come back to me." He squeezes her hands.
She leans up to kiss his cheek, and he still looks pained. "I promise," she tells him.
"Fine," he mutters. "I'll talk to my mother tomorrow. But you should know, I am not happy about this."
"I don't think any of us are," Ally says, and then she shakes her head. "But it'll be okay."
Austin frowns, and Ally's almost thankful that he's so worried. Trying to calm him down has been distracting her from her own fear, which hits her like a ton of bricks as soon as they stop talking.
"We should, um, probably get to bed," Austin says quietly. Then he glances at her. "Unless…"
Well, a different kind of distraction can work. "Unless…?" she prompts.
Taking the hint, he smiles a little and kisses her.
It takes all of one hour after Austin speaks with the queen the next day for Ally to get an urgent message through her chip to go see her. She stops what she's doing, and from the look on her face, Austin must know what's going on.
"You don't have to do this," he tries, grabbing her hand.
"I'll be okay," she promises. "I need you to be okay, too."
He sighs before pulling her in for a kiss and then letting go of her. She waves and walks to the queen's office.
When she's told to come in, she sees Cassidy standing next to the queen's desk, tablet in hand. They lock eyes for a split second, and Ally swallows and curtseys to the queen.
"You wanted to see me, Your Majesty?"
"Yes, darling, thank you for coming on such short notice." Queen Mimi says. "Cassidy, dear, would you go pick up that medication refill in the infirmary?"
Cassidy glances at Ally, but then bows her head and curtseys. "Yes, Your Majesty," she says, and then leaves the room, shutting the door behind her. The sound is too final.
"Have a seat, my dear," Queen Mimi says, and Ally sits down, putting on her best clueless smile. "Now, I've been speaking with my son on your behalf, to try to convince him to be a little less selfish and allow you to take the research position here at the palace. I suppose princes are naturally a little selfish, so used to getting anything they want and being adored by thousands. The prince is very stubborn, much like his father, but he and I were able to come to an…agreement."
Ally forces herself to look excited. "I'll be able to do research here at the palace?"
Queen Mimi smiles a little, but there's no joy in her eyes and she looks paler than usual. It's haunting, like someone carved a smile onto a corpse. "Yes, darling. My son has agreed to allow you to spend half your time in the lab, as long as the other half is spent still being his High Servant. It's the best I could do, but perhaps when he realizes what great work you're going to do, he'll allow you to do research full-time."
"Wow," Ally says with a painful grin and her heart hammering in her chest. "That's incredible! Thank you, Your Majesty."
"Now, all that's left to do is sign the paperwork to make it official."
The queen slides a packet of papers with a pen attached to them over to Ally. Ally takes a deep breath and grabs the pen, signing her name on the first line. Almost immediately, her hand tingles and goes numb as the queen stands up from her desk chair.
"Unfortunately," the queen says as the numbness races up Ally's arm and starts spreading to the rest of her body, "this is the hard part." Black spots start crowding in at the edge of Ally's vision, and Queen Mimi reaches under her desk. She must press some sort of button, because the bookshelf behind her slides to the left, revealing a large gray rectangle set into the wall with a handle at the bottom.
Just as the queen starts walking over to her, Ally loses consciousness.
Ally dreams of a metallic ringing in her ears and someone telling her to wake up.
Wait. That's not right.
She's not dreaming; the ringing is her chip and she's getting a message to return to the land of the living. She slowly opens her eyes and sits up, looking at her surroundings.
She's on the floor of a cell like the ones Cassidy described, and she can see through the bars that there are more cells just like it across the hall. The sign on the one directly across from her reads, Youth.
"Lucy?" Ally calls weakly. She can make out her tiny form laying on the hard bed in the dim lighting, and she remembers what Cassidy said about the girls being too weak to talk or move. "I'm going to get all of you out of here," Ally says a little louder. "I promise."
Nobody says anything, but Ally hears a door open and close. She hears footsteps, and then Tilly is standing in front of her cell, wide-eyed, fumbling to unlock it.
"You shouldn't be here!" Tilly hisses, helping Ally up from the floor. "Cassidy was supposed to warn you—"
"We need to figure out more about what the king is doing," Ally says quietly as Tilly walks her out of the cell. "And this was the best plan we had. But I need your help."
"Anything," Tilly says.
"I need you to find a way to make sure I don't get that memory loss injection," Ally tells her. "I need to remember what the king does."
Tilly nods. "I'll switch it out with a sleep serum instead. Both make you pass out, but you'll remember everything. And…I'm really sorry. If I don't help him, he'll—"
"It's okay," Ally says. "You need to keep yourself safe, too."
Tilly swallows as they pass the viewing windows to the big lab. Ally glances inside. It's immaculate, with a bunch of shiny equipment and clean counters that are probably never used. Then, through the last window, Ally sees the part of the lab that the king uses, walled off in the corner. It's a mess, with equipment and containers all over every inch of the counter, and the giant cylindrical machine against the back wall.
"Be strong," Tilly says, walking Ally inside the little lab. She starts guiding Ally to the big machine, knocking on a door in the side wall as she goes.
The door swings open, and the king walks into the room.
In the pictures and portraits in the palace, the king looks handsome and regal, with close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair and the same sharp angles on his face as his son.
But the man who enters the lab is not the king she's used to seeing on the walls. His hair is longer and wild, sticking up in every direction. His face is scruffy, as if he can't be bothered to shave too often.
"Is this the Intelligence I ordered?" he asks, walking around the girls in a circle and examining Ally. She tenses under his gaze.
"Yes, Your Majesty," Tilly says. "She arrived an hour ago, remember?" Tilly gestures to a big metal rectangle on the wall right next to the cylindrical machine.
Ally tries not to react. It looks the exact same as the one behind the sliding bookshelf in the queen's office. She's not entirely sure where she is in relation to the rest of the castle, so it's entirely possible (and, with this discovery, extremely likely) that they're directly under Queen Mimi's office.
When the king returns to face Ally, he's far too close for her liking. His eyes are the same color as Austin's—a light, honey-brown—but with a strange glint in them, as if a chaotic kind of madness is resting just below the surface. But there's also a terrifying intelligence, too; King Mike has to be a genius to do…whatever it is he's doing. He smiles, and again she's disturbingly reminded of Austin.
"Well, in you go," he says, stepping back and pressing a button on the machine. The front swings open, and Tilly squeezes Ally's arm slightly as she situates Ally in the machine. She tightens straps over Ally's legs, arms, and stomach, and then steps away so the king can get to work.
King Mike starts connecting a bunch of wires to Ally's palms, fingertips, and temples. She's still incredibly weak from whatever the queen did to her, so she can't really do anything but watch. The king then presses the button to close the cylinder, and Ally discovers that she has extreme claustrophobia. She struggles to keep her breathing calm as Tilly gives her a worried look through the glass. The king flips a switch and hits a button, and Ally immediately loses consciousness.
When Ally comes to, her entire body is on fire. Okay, not literally, but some sort of electric shock is traveling through her and causing pain to every single nerve ending. Her head feels like her brain has grown too large for her skull and is about to burst out. She squeezes her eyes shut, her body tensing up, and then all at once, it stops.
She opens her eyes, breathing heavily, a few tears rolling down her cheeks, and looks through the glass at the king's lab. Tilly is nowhere to be found, and neither is the king. There's no way to know how long she's been unconscious, and it takes all her energy just to keep her eyes open. Now, she feels like her brain has somehow acquired a jackhammer and is using it on her skull, and her body is still tingling from the shock.
Before she can even catch her breath, another shock makes her cry out in pain. She shuts her eyes again, picturing the faces of Lucy, and Kimmy, and Brooke, and Tilly, and everyone else she's doing this for. She pictures Austin, probably worried sick and manifesting it as anger. And then she pictures the queen's haunting smile, her eerie calm as whatever poison or serum she put on the grip of the pen slowly pulled Ally into darkness.
Despite the torture and her exhaustion, she tries to look around and gather whatever she can about the machine she's in and what it's doing to her. Each shock seems to take more out of her, but it's more than just the exhaustion from so much pain. Colors seem duller, and when she looks down at herself, her skin almost looks gray. Her heart should be pumping with adrenaline, but it feels as though her breathing gets slower with each shock
As much as she wants to allow herself to slip back into unconsciousness to make the pain stop, she forces herself to stay awake by focusing on tiny details. She counts sixty seconds during each shock, and then a sixty second break in between them. She's counted fifteen shocks since she woke up when King Mike reenters the room.
King Mike doesn't acknowledge her at first, bustling around the lab as shock number sixteen causes dark spots to dance across her vision. She grits her teeth, but even that effort is too much to maintain.
Eventually, the king walks over to her machine with a tiny orange bottle in his hand. She tries to make out the text on the label, but at this point her vision is so blurry she can't focus her eyes on much of anything.
She counts twenty-five shocks, not including the ones that knocked her out and subsequently woke her up, or any that occurred while she was unconscious, before the lab goes silent. She realizes now how loud the hum of the machine was when it was on, but in her defense she was a little preoccupied.
The king opens the machine and starts detaching all the wires from Ally, humming as he goes like he doesn't have a care in the world. He still hasn't even made eye contact with Ally, as if she's no longer a person but just another piece of equipment for this big project.
Finally, King Mike pulls her out of the machine, and she immediately stumbles and falls to the floor, so weak after whatever just happened to her that her legs collapse as soon as she's no longer strapped into the machine. Now that she's out of the machine, she can see the little bottle from earlier, sitting on a little platform jutting out from the side of the glass cylinder, near the back, under some sort of tube. The bottle isn't empty anymore, though—now it's full of little red capsules.
She tries to force her brain to work out what all of it means, but all her focus and energy are being spent on fighting for consciousness and trying to stay upright on the floor. So instead, she catalogs everything she sees in her memory so she can figure it out when she regains her strength.
Tilly enters the lab, immediately rushing over to Ally and helping her up. Then King Mike grabs Ally's arm roughly, and Tilly bows her head and walks to a counter behind the king. Ally catches a glimpse of Tilly grabbing a syringe off the counter, slipping it into her pocket—which is most definitely not safe—and replacing it with another syringe that looks identical. She brings the new syringe over to the king, who immediately takes it and then shoves Ally back into Tilly's arms. Both girls almost fall over, and Tilly is practically carrying Ally now.
The king yanks Ally's head back by her hair, and she doesn't even have the strength to whimper. She doesn't flinch when the king presses the needle into her neck, barely even feels it with how much pain the rest of her body is in. She feels herself being lifted up and carried somewhere as she slips back into unconsciousness.
She wakes up with a migraine and pain everywhere. But she remembers why her body hurts, which means Tilly's syringe switch was successful. She opens her eyes and squints in the painfully bright lighting as the concerned face of a nurse from the infirmary comes into focus.
"You fainted in Queen Mimi's office, dear," the nurse says. "She said you hit your head and wasn't sure you'd remember what happened. Said you went in there to ask her something about the prince."
Nothing about the research position. Maybe the queen is simply going to recycle the ruse—although she's not sure what the queen will tell Austin since Ally is only supposed to be his servant part-time now.
Then again, she'll probably end up too sick to work before he would've noticed if he hadn't already been in on what's going on, so the queen probably figured that out, too. Ally swallows and focuses on the nurse again, closing her eyes to escape the harsh lighting.
"I…I don't remember," she says weakly. "My head…"
"You don't have a bump or anything," the nurse says. "Can you sit up?"
Ally struggles into a sitting position, her arms shaking with the effort, and the nurse hands her two pills and a little cup of water.
"These should help with your headache."
Ally takes the pills wordlessly, and it suddenly occurs to her that she hasn't gotten a single message through her chip since the one from the king woke her up downstairs. Maybe the signal is blocked? She figured Austin would be sending her words of encouragement, but she's suddenly grateful that she hasn't received anything. Chip messages already give her headaches without a migraine already there.
She tries to swing her legs over the side of the bed. She can almost hear Austin's bed calling to her from his rooms—her aches intensify at the thought, as if her body knows how much more comfortable she could be than she is in this infirmary bed.
"Where do you think you're going?" the nurse asks her.
"Prince Austin's rooms," she says. "I'm his High Servant; he'll be wondering where I am."
"He can wait," the nurse scolds, gently taking Ally's legs and swinging them back up onto the bed. "You can hardly sit up, honey. No way you're going back to work."
Ally shakes her head, then immediately winces as her head pounds in response to the movement. "Please," she says. "I'm okay."
The nurse puts her hands on her hips. "If you're that desperate to go back to work, I'll let you go in thirty minutes. The medicine should kick in by then."
Ally sighs, but she slowly leans back against the bed, her head throbbing in protest. The nurse nods curtly and walks away, and Ally closes her eyes.
The medicine does help with her body aches, but the migraine doesn't let up. Still, despite her wincing every time she makes too sudden or large a movement, the nurse is true to her promise and lets Ally leave the infirmary once thirty minutes have passed.
Even though her body aches have mostly gone away, she's still much weaker than she thought she'd be. By the time she stumbles through the door to Austin's room, she's sweating profusely and only has time to find the couch in the entry area before she collapses onto it, white spots blocking most of her vision. Still, she grits her teeth (which her head does not like) and musters whatever strength she has left buried deep within her.
"Austin?" All that strength, and it comes out barely above a whisper. She closes her eyes, trying to take deep breaths to work up something a little louder. She braces herself—this is going to hurt—and calls in a normal speaking voice, "Austin!"
A tear she didn't even realize was forming slips past her closed lids as her head pounds with her heartbeat, making her dizzy even with her eyes closed.
"Ally!" Two more tears roll down her cheeks at the volume of his voice, and she almost throws up when he grabs her face and starts turning it in every direction.
"Stop," she manages, and he immediately takes his hands off her face.
"Oh, god," he says, sounding horrified. "I'm so sorry. What can I do? Are you hurt? What happened? What's going on? Where have you been?"
She just whimpers in response, wishing she had the strength to slam her hand over his mouth and tell him to take the volume down about a million notches. Now she understands more than ever why the girls were bedridden on their first day of migraines. But they'd always get back to work, which hopefully means it'll get at least a little better.
Suddenly, his arms are underneath her and he's lifting her off the couch, muttering something under his breath about how he never should've agreed to this. Her head throbs again in protest, but as soon as he sets her back down on his bed, she decides that time was worth it. She hears the door click shut, and the room gets a million times darker behind her closed eyelids as he pulls his curtains closed.
The mattress shifts next to her, and then his fingertips brush against her forehead as he pushes away the hair that's become plastered to her face with sweat. She forces her eyes open to look at him. The room may be a lot darker, but she can still see him easily—or, she would be able to see him easily, if her migraine wasn't messing with her vision like this. Still, she can make out his eyebrows pinched together with concern, his hair even messier than usual, his eyes flickering between worry and anger.
She exhales and closes her eyes again, her body releasing tension she didn't know was still there. She figured she was so weak she wouldn't be so tense, but as her body relaxes into Austin's soft mattress, her migraine feels just the slightest bit better. Not much, but it's progress.
Austin removes her shoes and socks, then gently removes her pencil skirt. He slowly pulls her into a sitting position, cradling her head, and adjusts her until she's leaning back on a stack of pillows against the headboard. Austin starts unbuttoning her shirt, brushing his lips against her cheek before peeling her shirt off her. As soon as the cool air in Austin's room hits her bare skin, she instantly feels a little better again, and she only now realizes how hot she was.
Austin carefully helps her lay back down, then presses a kiss to her forehead. "Sleep," he whispers. "You're safe now."
The next time Ally wakes up, the sun must've set outside because the room is completely dark, save for the light coming in under the door and Austin's nightlight in the corner. The migraine is still there, but she doesn't feel quite as weak, and she can move without too much wincing.
She manages to get out of bed and turn the light on. After some wincing and squinting, she sees a bottle of pills, a glass of water, and a pair of her pajamas on the nightstand. Suddenly remembering she's in her underwear, she puts the pajamas on first, then takes two of the pills—for migraines, according to the bottle—and downs the entire glass of water.
She opens the bedroom door and peeks out into the main area, where Austin is pacing from wall to wall, alternating between shaking his arms out and punching a fist into his other hand. He's in sweatpants with his shirt crumpled on the floor by the couch, and Ally has to resist the urge to go pick it up out of habit.
When Austin sees her, his face goes from relieved to worried to enraged within the span of one second, and she opens the door a little wider as he marches over to her. But he just envelops her in a tight hug, so she closes her eyes and hugs him back.
When they pull away, his eyes are full of concern, but his jaw is clenched with the anger that she knows is bubbling just below the surface.
"You should eat something," he says quietly, rubbing her arms. "You haven't had anything since breakfast."
Before she can respond, he guides her over to the table by the window, where there's a small salad waiting for her.
"I figured you wouldn't be super hungry. We can get you more if you want, but—"
"Thank you," she says quietly.
No matter how many times Austin asks, she refuses to tell him what happened until they meet Cassidy in their Secret Meeting Classroom later that night. Then she tells them everything, in as much detail as she can remember.
"So the big dumbwaiter Tilly mentioned lets out in the queen's office. That's how she gets the girls down there in secret," Ally says after her story, her head still pounding with every word. "And…I've been thinking about what the capsules are. I think that maybe, somehow, the king is using us to extract some sort of…energy? Because it felt like my entire life force was being sucked out of me by that thing."
Austin holds her hand over the desk in between their chairs, and Ally looks up at Cassidy where she stands in front of them. She looks pale.
"Cassidy?" Austin asks, apparently noticing the same thing. "What is it?"
Cassidy swallows. "The queen…the queen has medications that I always have to pick up for her. I don't know what all of them do, but I dunno, she's old. But…she also has a ton of medications that I've never had to pick up refills for at the infirmary. It's like she has an endless supply. The ones from the infirmary are always white pills in white bottles—all of them. But the ones not from the infirmary…they're colored capsules in orange bottles. I—I haven't seen any red, but I've seen her take blue, green, orange…she started taking yellow ones, too, more recently."
"So, what? My mother's been getting high on servants' energy?" Austin asks.
"It has something to do with the trait labels on the cells." Ally swallows. "What if, somehow, that 'energy' the king is sucking out of us can, like, recreate our best traits?" As soon as she says it, she frowns. "Not recreate. I don't know, I think he found a way to…harvest these traits, and maybe that machine forces some kind of brain waves specific to those traits? I'm not good with neuroscience. But my point is, maybe those pills pass the trait on to whoever takes them."
Cassidy frowns. "Which would mean that the reason behind all this is because the queen wants an easy way to acquire those traits. I mean…it makes sense. Beauty. Youth. Energy. Intelligence. And it explains her involvement."
"She masterminded the whole thing," Austin says matter-of-factly. "My father is a genius, but he's not organized enough to put together an operation like this. She must've told him what she wanted, and he science-d a way to make it happen. That's how it used to work between them, too, when I was little."
"But this kind of thing is impossible," Ally says. "Right?"
"It feels like the right explanation," Cassidy says. "And either way, now we know what we're up against. Now we have to figure out how to save the girls and stop the king and queen."
The migraine medicine is starting to wear off, and Ally tries her best not to wince any worse than she has been. But Austin must be more perceptive than she thought, because he stands up, pulling Ally with him.
"Let's take tomorrow, think of a plan, and then figure things out tomorrow night. I think Ally's had enough for one day."
"I'm fine—" Ally tries to argue, but she knew before she opened her mouth it would be a losing battle.
She's back in Austin's bed, this time with his arms wrapped securely around her, before she speaks again. She isn't sure why she says it now of all times, but her chest tightens with a sense of urgency as she turns in his arms to face him. He opens his eyes, immediately concerned.
"I love you," she whispers, her eyes already sliding closed.
He presses a soft kiss to her lips, his smile warming her from the inside out and making her heart skip a beat despite her pain and exhaustion.
"I love you, too."
They come up with a pretty terrible plan, but unfortunately Ally is nearly out of commission with her still-present migraine and fatigue when they meet the next night. Still, she's pretty sure it's the best they can do, and they need to get the servants out of that lab as soon as possible. The problem is that the plan requires coordination with Tilly, and they have no way of knowing if they can get a message to her chip with the possibility of connection interference down in the dungeons.
So they wait a couple days, and Ally gets another message from the queen to meet in her office, and Austin almost doesn't let her go. In fact, the queen eventually sends Cassidy to bring Ally to her office, and Cassidy and Austin get in a heated argument about whether Ally should go through this again. It takes Ally mustering up all her energy to tell them to shut up and remind them of her migraine for them to sober up and for Austin to release the death grip he has on her hand.
She's not sure if knowing what to expect makes this time around better or worse. But the meeting with the queen goes almost exactly as it did the first time, and Ally almost gives herself away when she sees a familiar bottle of red pills on the queen's desk. Queen Mimi doesn't seem to notice anything off, though, and Ally manages to relay the plan to Tilly before getting strapped into the trait-harvesting, life-sucking machine in King Mike's lab. This time, she accepts the pull of blissful unconsciousness with open arms.
She doesn't wake up again until it's over. Despite the pounding in her head and her heavy eyelids, she forces her eyes open and finds herself in the infirmary. Across the room, she sees Austin deep in conversation with a nurse. By the look on the poor nurse's face, Austin is giving her an explanation about what's been going on beneath the palace, as well as their plan for rescuing the servants.
Austin glances at her as he talks, and she meets his gaze. His face falls slack and he rushes to her side, forgetting about his conversation with the nurse. He sits in a chair he must've dragged over by her bed and grabs her hand.
"Are you okay?" he asks quietly. "Can you talk?"
"I'm okay," she manages, wincing a little. "The king…sleeps at ten," she adds, relaying the information Tilly gave her. "Told her you'd go at midnight."
Austin nods as the nurse he was talking to reaches the other side of Ally's bed. Together, she and Austin gently help Ally into a sitting position, and then the nurse gives Ally the same headache medicine as before.
"It probably won't help much, but something is better than nothing," the nurse says. "It's despicable what the king and queen are doing to you girls." She turns slightly red, as if remembering she's standing across from their son, but Austin nods in agreement.
"We're going to stop them," he says, rubbing Ally's back as she downs the glass of water the nurse gave her. "You understand the plan?" he asks the nurse.
The nurse nods. "I'll have all hands on deck tonight," she says. "We'll be ready."
Austin hesitates for a second, glancing at Ally and then back at the nurse. "The Royal Advisers serve the people, not the king and queen. They're the only ones with the power to dethrone my parents and imprison them. That being said, they'll need witnesses if we're going to convince them all this is real, especially when my mother will deny it all and do everything in her power to discredit the servants and the story. And I'm afraid the Royal Advisers won't be inclined to believe the servants anyway. Would you—and maybe any of the other nurses—be willing to stand as witnesses to what my parents are doing?" Austin asks.
The nurse nods, helping Ally lay down again. "They've been making these poor girls sick for years. Anything to stop them and bring them to justice." She looks at Ally. "I wish there was more I could do to help you, honey, but it seems like the only cure for this plague is time. I can tell you right now there's no way that nasty king is putting another one of you girls in that machine of his ever again."
"Thank you," Austin says to the nurse, politely dismissing her. When they're alone, Austin meets Ally's eyes. "You know you're not coming tonight."
Ally opens her mouth to argue, but even that motion sense a wave of pain pulsing through her skull. She squeezes her eyes shut, and she hears Austin sigh before pressing something cool to her forehead. She manages to relax a little.
"The other girls would've been bedridden at this point, which means you're in no shape to take part in a rescue mission. You know the shape you're in would make the whole thing more dangerous if you did come along."
"I know," Ally says quietly.
"And you have done more than enough to help them already. You did your part; now, you need to recover." He kisses her cheek softly, and she opens her eyes to watch him stand up. "I unfortunately need to go have dinner with the villain herself, and somehow keep my composure and act like the good little prince I'm supposed to be."
She manages a small smile. "'Supposed to be' is still stupid," she says, and the corner of his mouth quirks up just for a second. "But just this once, please don't be yourself."
He laughs, and despite the pain rippling through her brain, the sound makes her feel a little better. But then his laugh fades out, and he grabs her hand and squeezes it.
"Get some rest," he says. "And get better."
"Yes, Your Highness." He smiles just slightly and lifts their intertwined fingers, pressing a kiss to the back of her hand. "And be careful tonight," she adds.
He nods and gently replaces her hand at her side before looking over her one last time and leaving the room.
Later that night, Ally forces herself to stay awake by going over the plan in her head. By now, the king and queen should have gone to sleep, and Cassidy and Austin should have explained the situation to all the other full servants over sixteen. They'll split into two teams and all sneak to the queen's office at midnight.
Cassidy will lead one team down to the lab via the dumbwaiter—one at a time, unfortunately—where hopefully Tilly will be waiting for them with the keys to the cells. While Tilly keeps watch over the king, ready with syringes of the memory serum just in case, Cassidy and her team will carry the catatonic servants to the dumbwaiter and send them up one at a time to the queen's office.
Austin and his team will be waiting with the only three gurneys in the palace, and they'll both carry the servants and use the gurneys to get them to the infirmary as quickly as possible, where the nurses will take over. They'll also be there to help make sure all of Cassidy's team plus Tilly return safely, and to keep watch for the queen. Luckily, the offices are on a different floor than the Royal Family's rooms, so they shouldn't have a problem as long as they're quiet and efficient.
It's a messy plan, with too many bottlenecks and unknown variables and possibilities for things to go wrong. What if the king or queen decided to stay up late tonight? What if going one at a time down and back up the dumbwaiter takes too long? What if someone catches them in the staff elevator as they go between the queen's office and the infirmary two floors below? What if the sick girls are past the point of saving, and they'll be catatonic forever?
Ally probably could've come up with a better, safer plan if she wasn't sick herself, but they'll have to make do with the plan they've got. This will be their only chance; if they aren't able to save everyone tonight, the king and queen will know someone's onto them and things will get much more difficult.
Ally must fall asleep despite her best efforts, because she finds herself opening her eyes to frantic whispers and rapid footsteps. She blinks a few times, winces at her migraine, and then looks around to see Lucy and Brooke in the beds on either side of her. Kimmy is across from her, and another four girls occupy beds near her. Two nurses are lifting another girl off a gurney and onto another bed, and as soon as the gurney is free, Ally sees Trish push it out of the room.
"We're running out of beds," one nurse says to another as she takes the new servant's temperature.
The nurse counts the number of beds left and relays it to Kira, who pushes another gurney into the room at that moment. She nods in understanding as the nurse lifts the servant off the gurney and then pushes the gurney out when it's empty.
"Linda, Ida, Mary, go to the servants' quarters—you know where they are, right? We stocked the older girls' rooms with equipment earlier, just in case. They'll start taking the girls there," the same nurse calls across the room. Three nurses—presumably Linda, Ida, and Mary, scamper out of the infirmary.
Ally winces, but she forces herself out of bed. Another nurse rushes over to her.
"What are you doing?" she asks.
"I've been here all day," Ally says. "I'm okay. I just need to rest. You can use this bed for one of the other girls, and I can just go to the prince's rooms."
"Sweetheart, I don't think—"
"He won't mind," Ally says, putting a hand on the bed as she fights a wave of nausea.
"I'm sure he won't," the nurse says, "but I don't think you should be out of bed and walking around. Especially not on the same floor as the queen's rooms."
"I'll be careful," Ally promises. "There are a lot of girls down there. You need every bed you have."
The nurse purses her lips, but she must know Ally's right, because she lets her go. Ally musters all her strength and hobbles out of the infirmary, where she nearly runs smack into two servants carrying one of the sick girls to the infirmary.
"Prince Austin said not to let you help," Piper, the servant carrying the sick girl's top half, says as they pass.
"I'm just giving up my bed for the other girls," Ally says, almost thankful for the quick break as she leans heavily on the wall behind her. She takes a deep breath, trying to ignore the feeling of a molten hot knife stabbing its way through her brain.
"That sounds like helping," Carrie, the other healthy servant and Piper's sister, says. "Prince Austin—"
"Prince Austin can go fuck himself," Ally says through gritted teeth. "And you can tell him I said that.
"I don't think I want to," Carrie says, wide-eyed, as she and Piper walk into the infirmary and leave Ally alone in the hallway.
She uses the regular elevator so she doesn't get in the way of the rescue mission, and also because it lets off closer to Austin's rooms at a point where she won't have to pass the queen's rooms on her way. She manages to push her way through the door and stumble into the bedroom, nearly blind with pain and dizziness, before collapsing on Austin's bed and passing out again.
When she wakes up, she has no idea what time it is. Sunlight streams brightly between the curtains, and she realizes someone tucked her under the covers after she fell diagonally across the bed last night. The pillows and blankets are rumpled next to her, and when she sits up and her dizziness passes, she realizes she's wearing her pajamas. There's a glass of water, a bottle of migraine medicine, and a single rose on the nightstand next to her.
She walks out into the main area expecting to see Austin, but he's nowhere to be seen. She looks at the clock and sees that it's two in the afternoon—she was apparently much more fatigued than she thought—but there's a steaming plate of eggs on the table by the window.
Assuming they're for her, she sits down and forces herself to eat them. The migraine is making her nauseous, but she doesn't remember the last time she ate something. And even if the eggs aren't for her, surely Austin won't mind.
As if on cue, the door opens, and Ally's head throbs as Austin's and Cassidy's very loud voices float into the room.
"—give a shit," Cassidy is saying. "She's not the fucking queen anymore. What can they do to me?"
"You never know," Austin argues. "And I don't even know when I'm gonna be crowned King after all this, so the whole 'I could pardon you' argument is bullshit."
"Well, nothing happened," Cassidy says. "And now she knows what I really think of her."
"Pretty sure the next kingdom over knows what you think of her," Austin mutters.
Both of them see Ally at the same time, and their grins light up the entire room. She hasn't seen Austin smile like that in what feels like forever, and she's never seen Cassidy smile like that, so despite her pain and fatigue, she has to smile too.
"You're awake!" Austin says, rushing over and hugging her tightly.
"Still not feeling great," she reminds him, and he quickly pulls away.
"Well, we have some great news that'll maybe help you feel better," Cassidy says. "The Royal Advisers officially stripped the king and queen of their crowns and sentenced them to life in prison for their crimes against the servants and therefore their people. We showed them the lab and the pills and the girls, and along with the nurses' statements, it was enough proof for them. All the sick girls are still sick, but the nurses think that they'll all eventually make a full recovery. We did it!"
Ally winces, but she smiles and hugs Cassidy back when she wraps her arms around her. "That's amazing," Ally says, managing as much enthusiasm as her migraine will allow. "I'm so glad everyone's okay."
"We couldn't have done it without you," Austin says. Then he glances at Cassidy, who seems to take the hint and leaves the room.
Austin sits down in the other chair and clears his throat. "So, listen. With my parents…you know…I'm gonna become King in, like, the next month. We don't know when yet because things are obviously so hectic right now, but—"
"Oh, god, please don't tell me you're proposing to me right now," Ally says, and Austin laughs a little.
"No, I'm not fucking proposing," he says. Then he tilts his head. "I mean, not exactly…I'm not—" He sighs. "I'm just gonna say what I wanna say. First of all, are you okay?"
Ally smiles slightly. "I'm okay," she promises. "My head still feels like it's gonna explode, but other than that, I'm fine. And I'm glad you're okay."
Austin nods. "Okay, good. So what I was saying…when I'm King, I'm gonna get rid of servants. Everywhere. The other noble families don't need them, and the palace doesn't even really need them either. Maybe assistants to replace High Servants, but they'll be paid better and treated better and things like that. But I know that it would be taking away the study program here too, and the schools across the kingdom are too expensive for most families."
Ally nods, wincing slightly, and Austin takes her hand, looking down as he brushes his thumb in circles over the back of her hand.
"I'm thinking, to replace the study program, we just…build a school here on the palace grounds." Ally's heart pounds, and Austin continues. "We have plenty of room, and we could build dormitories, too. Girls and boys could come at five, like you did as servants, and go to school full time until twenty. I figure that without the servant work, they'll be able to finish their studies faster. Then they can go out in the world, or maybe apply for jobs here at the palace? I'm not sure; I was gonna have you and Cassidy and the Royal Advisers help me with the logistics when we get there. And then, eventually, we could build more schools across the kingdom, so kids everywhere can get a good education even if they can't pay for the other schools already there. And obviously, we'll have to find a way to make sure no one else is illegally hiring people as servants and things like that, but we can figure that out, too."
She grins, her migraine fading into the background for the first time in days. She stands up, wobbling a little with dizziness, but she manages to pull him up with her. "Austin, that's…incredible. I—I don't even know what to say."
Austin swallows, glancing up at her and then back down at their hands. "And…I know you wanna be a teacher, and if you wanna leave when you finish your studies and go teach at that school you've been wanting to teach at since you were a kid, I totally get it and I support you and I'd never try to stop you from doing that. But…I was thinking…I mean, if there's a school here at the palace, maybe you could stay…?"
He glances up at her again, his eyes wide and vulnerable, his cheeks tinting pink. "Your family could come live here, too," he adds in a rush. "And, I mean, we could have it all, you know? You could live your dream of being a teacher, and you could help me with actually making all this a reality, and…we could be together. Without worrying about power dynamics or titles or a White Ball or my evil fucking parents getting in our way."
"And we could have a real future," she finishes softly. He holds her gaze. "I just don't know about the whole Queen thing…"
He laughs a little and shakes his head, wrapping his arms around her waist. "You don't have to worry about that," he says. "I'll be King; if you wanna be with me forever but never get married, no one can stop us. If you wanna get married but wanna be a teacher forever and not be a queen, I'll hunt down anyone who tries to get in your way. And if you decide that you don't wanna be with me anymore, I'll be heartbroken, but you'll still be the best teacher the palace has ever seen if you still wanna teach here. We can do whatever we want now, and no one can make us do anything we don't wanna do." He presses a kiss to her nose. "And it's all because of you."
She smiles again, wrapping her arms around his neck, already feeling calmer with his reassurance. "You helped a lot," she says.
He smiles, too. "And just so you know," he adds, "you would make a great Queen one day, if that's what you ended up wanting." He shrugs. "But if not, that works, too. Either way, that's a longway off, and I'm just happy to be with you." He swallows. "That is…if you decide to stay."
She giggles a little, refusing to let this stupid migraine ruin this moment. She kisses him softly. "Of course I'm gonna stay," she says. "Someone's gotta hold you to these big plans. And frankly, I don't trust you to hire teachers. You hate studying."
He kisses her again, smiling against her lips. "I love you," he tells her. "I can't wait to watch you change the world."
"What about you, Your Majesty?"
"We both know, Queen or not, you're gonna be the brains behind most of the things I do," he says. "Then again, my school plan was all me. Maybe you're rubbing off on me."
"It's about time," she teases, and he rests his forehead against hers. "I love you, too," she adds. "And from now on, the only thing you're 'supposed to be' is mine. Got it?"
"I've known that since we were kids," he tells her. Then he closes the few inches left between their lips. "Being yours is a 'supposed to be' I can get behind," he says against her lips, his mouth curving into a smile.
She tightens her arms around his neck and kisses him back, content to never let him go.
is it done? yes. is it good? who's to say?
anyway thanks for reading and sorry for taking a while to finish the last chapter! hope you enjoyed :)