“You can never turn your back on my grandmother,” I told Aric and Lark as soon as his study door closed behind us. Just getting from one wing of the castle to another had made my legs sing with pain.
Aric sat behind his desk, Lark and I settling into the chairs in front of it. She had a sleeping ferret wrapped around her neck, a living stole. With keen eyes, Lark surveyed the area; had she never been here?
Probably not. This was Death’s private space. He was particular about his sanctuaries and boundaries, and I was the only one he’d allowed inside.
What would Lark think of his personal study? Behind his desk was a row of soaring Gothic windows. On one wall, he had a collection of ancient swords displayed. Bookshelves that stretched from floor to ceiling contained his library of priceless editions.
Over centuries, he’d protected those treasured books—because he’d had nothing else to treasure.
This was where I’d first started falling in love with him. We’d sat together on the couch in front of the fire, and as I’d read his favorite books, he’d gazed over at me with satisfaction brimming in his expression.
Now I couldn’t tell what he was thinking or feeling.
He steepled his fingers. As usual he wore all dark clothing, and his power-over-everything-I-survey vibe was firmly in place. “What do you think the Tarasova is capable of?”
“She expects me to kill both of you. I want to explain to her my feelings about this game—unfiltered—but I’m worried her health will get worse.”
“Paul thinks she suffered a stroke,” Aric said. “When I found her, she wasn’t well. She was on the last of her stores and weakened overall.”
“Thank you for rescuing her.” I’d bet he regretted that gesture now. “Do you think I could hurt her more when I give her the news?”
Lark said, “It’s A.F., Eves. We’re all gonna eat it soon enough. But let’s say she lives another thirty years; are you gonna listen to her talking about murder the whole time?”
Good point. And what if Gran discovered the way I truly felt, then took matters into her own hands? “I will have to change her mind about everything, but until then, I can’t promise what she would and wouldn’t do. I won’t risk either of you. Stay on your guard.”
Aric gave me a tight nod. What was going on in that brilliant mind of his?
During my recovery, he must’ve gotten me used to his nearness and warmth; my gaze dipped to his chest, and I imagined resting my head there, my ear over his heart. His strong arms would clasp me against him.
I dragged my eyes away, turning to Lark.
“I’ll be on guard, surrounding myself with fur.” She petted the ferret. The creature woke, yawned, then conked out again. “So now that the Empress is back in the office, you got any grand plans on how to take out Richter and his alliance?”
“The Sun Card was my big plan. He empowered me.” Hadn’t I heard that both Sol and Zara had survived the crash? They must have; neither Lark or Death wore new icons. “I figured if we all joined forces, we could challenge the Emperor. But then Sol sicced his Bagmen on me.” The memory of that made my head start to ache.
“Why did you trust him?” Aric asked.
Lark said, “Didn’t you learn your lesson when I dicked you over?”
I narrowed my eyes at them. “I did learn—and I didn’t trust him.” I told them about Sol’s attachment to those two Baggers and how I’d threatened them. I ended with: “He called my bluff.”
Aric no longer steepled his fingers. I’d wager that under the desk he was clenching his fists. His tell. Though his face was often emotionless, his hands said a lot. “I will bring you his head, Empress.”
“I . . . Sol’s not like Fortune,” I rushed to say. There must be something good in a guy who’d loved as deeply as he had. But then, Vincent had also considered himself in love with his sister, an absorbed twin. Still, I tried to reason with Aric and Lark. “He’s not vicious like Zara is.”
Aric raised a brow. “He had contagious zombies dine on your blood.”
Lark added, “Hey, what’s vicious about that?”
“I told Sol I was immune. And I could argue that he saved my life through that attack.” A stretch, but . . . “Zara could easily have taken my head; she didn’t because I was contained. In any case, why wouldn’t Sol have attacked me? I took him prisoner, threatening the ‘lives’ of his loved ones. I behaved like a lunatic and gave no sign that I’d be his ally. I told him I was taking him to Death and outlined his imprisonment here.” It didn’t have to be this way . . . Sol’s words to me just before he’d taken me down. “Naturally, he fought back. And he used the tools he had at hand.”
Lark rolled her eyes. “She wants to be friends with another one!”
“It’s not that! I’m just saying I gave him no reason to choose our alliance over his own. In his mind, I’m probably as bad as Richter.”
Looking back, I could tell Sol had been shocked by my description of the Emperor’s massacre—and then by the evidence when he’d followed me into the mountains outside Fort Arcana. But he’d already been in deep with the Emperor and Fortune. Maybe the Sun believed it was too late to do anything about his alliance.
Or I could be projecting my instincts and feelings onto him.
“I repeat: he had zombies dine on you.” Aric’s arm muscles flexed under his thin sweater. Yep. Clenched fists. “Perhaps those bites have affected your thinking?”