In sleep, his brow furrowed, his lips thinned. He had golden stubble over his lean cheeks and dark circles under his eyes, looking older and more exhausted than I had ever seen him. He wore black pants and a thin dark sweater, but I could tell he’d lost weight.

How long had he been here with me? After our history, I was surprised he could tolerate the plants overrunning him.

Memory fragments from my recovery surfaced: his soothing words, his care, his updates about life around the castle. He’d challenged me to heal and stayed with me the entire time.

All around us, plants—even trees—merged to make walls. He’d chosen to remain inside my deadly green lair. I stretched my arm over him, savoring his warmth and strength.

His amber eyes blinked open. He found me staring at him, and his lips curved. “Sievā.” Pinpoints of light radiated from his spellbinding gaze.

“You’re okay with these plants?” I murmured, my throat scratchy.

His smile widened. “I’m thankful to them. They comforted you more than I could have.”

I didn’t know about that. “How long was I out?”

“For weeks.”

My jaw slackened. “That can’t be right.”

“Those Bagmen bit you more than a dozen times. Your legs were badly injured and you’d been shot. Your regeneration ability had much to contend with.”

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I did remember landing feet first. “Will I . . . turn?”

“I do not believe that. You would have already.” Aric would never lie to me.

I relaxed somewhat. With a wave of my hand, I moved the vines off the bed, off him.

He appeared to relax a touch as well. “If someone had said a few of months ago that I would nod off while surrounded by the Empress’s vines, I’d have called him mad.” He reached for a glass of water on a tray. He helped me sit up and brought the cup to my lips. “Easy.”

I drank enough to quench the worst of my thirst. “The Emperor is planning to attack the castle. Soon.”

“I know. You told me. Happily, you led the Sun in the opposite direction of our home.”

Our home. “I did?” Totally meant to do that.

In a strange tone, he said, “Do you not remember any of the things we talked about on the journey here? Any of the things you told me?”

I cast my mind back. The whole time was a blur.

His gaze flicked over my face, reading my confusion. For some reason, he seemed to be closing down right in front of me. He straightened his shoulders, his demeanor growing distant and formal. “You must have many questions.”

A thousand. “Why weren’t we able to communicate with each other?” I vaguely remembered Aric touching on this, but not what he’d said. “I called and called for you.”

“The Fool disconnected everyone. I don’t know why. Perhaps to conceal some players from others. Or perhaps because he’d been weakened.”

In the days before abandoning me, Matthew had suffered nosebleeds and increased disorientation. Normally, I hated to think of him in pain. But after his betrayal, I relished the idea.

“Empress?”

I blinked. “What happened to you after Circe’s tidal wave?”

“I began searching for you as soon as I broke free from the flood. I feared you couldn’t survive without . . . your arm. You must forgive me for that.”

“There’s nothing to forgive.”

“How did you survive?”

I recalled being caught in that whirlpool with Bagmen, terrified I’d get bitten. Apparently that had always been my fate. “I latched onto a cell-phone tower. I climbed up and waited out the waters.”

“Climbed with one arm?”

“I didn’t say I climbed well. Circe’s an ally, isn’t she?”

Nod.

“Will she help us kill Richter?”

He scrubbed a palm down his weary face. “When the time comes.”

“The time? As soon as I recover.” Then I remembered—my grandmother was here! I reached for him. “I need to see Gran. I thought I heard . . . is she okay?”

He took my offered hand, then stared at our clasped fingers. Still so unused to touch. He cleared his throat. “She was weak when I found her, and her health hasn’t improved. But she’s stable.”

“She’s been down here though.”

His thumb rubbed my skin. “After the first day or so, the many steps to this level proved challenging.”

“Will you move me closer to her?”

Firm shake of his head. “You’re not ready.”

“I could take a sunlamp and a couple of houseplants. Please?” I squeezed his hand.

He exhaled. “And still, I can deny you nothing.” He lifted me in his arms, and carried me toward the stairs. “You can stay in the guest room next to hers. I’ll have all your things moved from the tower.”

Because I wasn’t a prisoner anymore. “Maybe just some of my clothes. I like my room up there.” I’d painted the walls and made myself at home.

As he settled me into bed in my new room, my nightgown shifted, and I winced at the bruises on my legs, my skin mottled black and blue. Then I clung to his hand, not wanting to let him out of my sight.

He frowned and pulled away. “I’ll be right back.” He drew his gloves from his pants pocket, donning them as he crossed to the door.

Lark sidled past him into the room. “Evie!” she cried. The last time I’d seen her, she’d been wearing two casts, one on her arm and one on her ankle, but now she was all healed up. “The unclean one is back! I thought you were unclean before you got Bagger funk all in your veins. You missed me, didn’t you?”