“Wisely? Evie’s dying! Or worse.”
“She can hear you. Govern your tongue—or leave.”
“I am her grandmother!”
“Even my eternal patience has limits, Tarasova.”
“You’re threatening . . . threatening . . .” Her words trailed off.
I heard a strangled cry. What was going on? Why couldn’t I see?
Aric bit out a curse in Latvian.
Lark said, “Uh, what’s happening to the old lady?”
A scuffling sound. A moan.
“Jesus,” Lark muttered. “Eves, you’re having the shittiest two weeks in history.”
“I’m here, sievā.” Aric brushed a cool cloth over my forehead.
Death’s vigil. How long had he been caring for me? I was suspended in some kind of twilight; I didn’t die—yet I hadn’t healed.
I thought I’d understood physical pain. A few months ago, I’d amputated my own thumb to get free of cuffs so I could fight Death. When I’d drowned not long after that, I’d felt as if my lungs would burst. Then an ogre had choked me, snapping my neck. Lately? I’d lost an arm, been tossed around in a flood, and been bitten and drained by ravenous Baggers.
Yet real pain and I had never been introduced before now.
The Bagmen’s mutation ripped through me. Whatever Empress power I still possessed battled it. A war had erupted inside my body.
“Fight this. Fight,” Aric urged me. He sat next to me on the bed, taking me into his arms. “You must return to me.”
I tried to speak, to tell him I loved him and to ask about Gran, but no words passed my lips.
“I know why dying might seem tempting”—because I could follow Jack?—“but I need you. Come back to me.”
Another wave of agony hit. I heard a scream.
Voice thick, he said, “I wish to the gods I could take this pain for you.” He rocked me. “You’re too strong to die, and too stubborn to turn. Your only path is to come back to me.”
How could he be so good to me when I’d hurt him so deeply? I remembered his blood-curdling roar when I’d ridden away from him—to be with Jack. . . .
As hours—days? weeks?—passed, Aric remained with me. At times, I could tell he was biting back sounds of grief.
Other times, he talked to me. He told me about my grandmother: “The sight of you gave her a . . . shock. But she will recover. Just as you will.”
He told me about the other Arcana: “Lark sent a scout back to that clearing to collect her falcon and my sword. There were no bodies at the crash site. As I suspected, Fortune and the Sun survived.”
One time I heard a wolfish whimper, and a slobbery tongue licked my hand. “You have a visitor,” Aric said. “Your favorite.” Cyclops? He’d made it! “I’ve always appreciated the potential of the wolves, but I never thought we would owe our lives to them.”
Now another wave of agony hit. My screams echoed. I didn’t want to scare anyone, but I couldn’t choke them back.
“I need to help you.” He sounded so gutted, as if his pain mirrored mine. “How can I help you?”
I didn’t think anything could be done. And so, I had two new missions.
To make sure Aric killed me if I began to turn. And to extract a promise of bloody revenge against the Emperor. As soon as I could speak.
Aric tensed against me. “She returns.”
Footsteps neared. “Is there . . . any change?” my grandmother asked in a weak voice. Were her words slurred?
She was maddeningly close. If only I could communicate with her. Did she know that Haven was ash? That her daughter had died?
Aric answered, “The Empress will rally.”
“Sir . . .” Paul was down here as well? He did pretty much everything around the castle, from cooking all meals to stitches. I didn’t envy Paul his job at Castle Death.
The man was brave enough to say, “She might be starting to turn. If you wait too long, she could bite another.”
The idea of harming someone else sickened me even more. I whispered, “Kill me,” but no one seemed to have heard me.
“I will do nothing,” Aric said, “until—or unless—she craves blood.”
“Leave her with me,” Gran said. “You shouldn’t be in this bed with her, holding her like that. She’s a girl of seventeen.”
“She’s a millennia-old Empress.”
“I should take care of her,” Gran insisted.
“You forget that this is my home, Tarasova. I will do as I please.”
I wondered why he hadn’t told her we were married. Aric hadn’t been shy in announcing that fact to Jack.
But that had been before I’d rejected Aric and his claim on me. Before I’d broken this man’s heart. . . .
My eyes darted behind my lids as I hovered between sleep and wakefulness. I was in a bed. I sensed plants all around me.
When the pain had finally dwindled to a manageable level, I cracked open my eyes. Could only make out a white blank.
Ah, God, why couldn’t I see? Would my sight return? I blinked over and over. Maybe I was turning, my eyes gone filmy?
No, some kind of brightness blazed down. Oh. The sunlamps. I was in the nursery.
Blurry images began to take shape. Why was there a bed down here? Vines and rose stalks traipsed over my body and the footboard.
Beneath the mass of green, I shifted my limbs, flexing my muscles. My arms and legs were weak and sore as hell, but healing.
I eased my head back. Aric sat up against the headboard, his eyes closed. Vines and rose stalks covered him as well.