Does the game demand blood?

I stood to go. “For what it’s worth, thank you for the last two times you’ve saved me.”

Voice gone low, he asked, “You’re glad you didn’t follow Deveaux into the flames?”

“No, you were right. I need to avenge him.”

_______________

I didn’t realize until later how unintentionally cruel my parting words to Aric had been. As if I had nothing else in my life?

Where’s your head at, Evie?

20

Day 425 A.F.

I woke to my own cries, out of breath from another nightmare about Jack. Tears flowed down my cheeks like crimson seeping from a tourniquet.

“Twist, tighten, constrict,” I muttered, gazing around with confusion. Where was I?

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My glyphs lit my new suite. I frowned to find Cyclops taking up half of the bed. He must’ve nosed his way in here.

He blinked his eye at me. Whatcha gonna do?

I lay on his neck and scratched his scarred ears until the roosters began to crow (whenever they thought it should be dawn). Then I rose and took a shower.

Under the steaming water, I struggled to clear the fog in my mind and decide my path going forward.

Now that I’d warned Aric and Lark about Gran, I would take more time with her, chipping away at her beliefs day by day—while gleaning as much information as possible about the other cards. I might not agree with her about my allies, but she and I would be on the exact same page about my enemies.

Dressed in a sweater and jeans, I let Cyclops out, then knocked on Gran’s door. No answer. Figuring she must still be asleep, I headed to the tower. The stairs were a misery on my still healing legs, but I made it to the top.

From the panoramic windows, I gazed out past the castle’s slate roof into the drizzly darkness. The river at the base of the mountain coursed like a moat, looking small from this height.

I turned back to the room, surveying the sunny landscapes I’d painted on the walls. This tower was a time capsule in itself.

I sat on the bed and fired up the laptop—one present among the many Aric had given me. I’d stored my zip-drive’s worth of family photos on it. Some part of me must have always known I would return to the castle of lost time.

From the bed, I could see my ballet slippers hanging on the back of the door. Aric had found them for me. Dancing for him had been pure pleasure, and each day I’d fallen for him more. I’d dreamed about him in this bed. And hated myself for missing Jack. . . .

Forcing my gaze from those slippers, I scrolled through pictures on my laptop. Gran might like to look at them. God, everything had been so shockingly green. This was how Jack had envisioned Acadiana. I patted my jeans pocket, where I kept the ribbon—

My eyes went wide. I didn’t have a single picture of him. I scrambled for one of my blank drawing journals and a pencil set. I hadn’t sketched much while here. Nothing had moved me to.

With my pencil flying over the paper, I drew Jack as he’d looked after taking command of the Azey South army. He’d ridden into Fort Arcana with his expression so heartbreakingly proud. He’d liked being a leader, and he’d been good at it. I would’ve said he’d been born for it, but his life had been cut too short.

On another page, I tried to capture the look in his eyes as he’d gazed down at me in Selena’s pool, just before our first kiss. Next I would draw him within the cypress stand he’d described to me, when he’d told me a story about our dream day together: “We decided it was our place. No one else’s. Because that was where we became Evie and Jack.”

As my pencil moved, I repeatedly whispered, “Twist, tighten, constrict—”

“Your grandmother is looking for you,” Aric intoned from the doorway. I’d never heard his spurs. “She can’t climb these stairs, so she bade me to come get you.”

I clasped my sketchbook against my chest. “I tried her earlier, but she was still asleep.” How strange that I could be so numb inside, but I still felt love for Aric. My blood-starved heart had leapt at the sight of him.

“I’m sure you’re keen to catch up with her about old times.” Sarcasm?

“Will she and I talk about the past? I hope so.” In time. “But I’m also mindful that Richter could be heading our way. I need to learn everything she can teach me.”

He leaned one of his broad shoulders against the doorframe. “And she will be delighted to instruct you, I assure you.”

I narrowed my eyes. “You brought her here. You told me you wanted me to learn.”

“After I saved your life and reunited the two of you, I didn’t think her first lesson would be to eliminate me. At best, it’s flawed game strategy, since I am motivated to protect you.”

“I can pick and choose what I decide to believe,” I assured him. “To use.”

“Take care that she doesn’t poison your mind.”

“Didn’t you hear? I’m immune to poison.”

Aric parted his lips to say something, then seemed to think better of it. As he strode away, the sound of his spurs rang in my ears.

I glanced back at my sketch. When had I drawn a frame of flames around Jack?

21

The Hunter

Somewhere far in the West

“Goan to die in this hellhole,” I muttered. “Down here in the dark.”

I hadn’t choked down anything but hardtack in weeks, would be damned before eating the “meat.” My bones were jutting, but I wouldn’t last long enough to starve.

Fever would take me soon.

I shook, sweating against the freezing ground. Breaths wheezing. Dirt and salt caked my damp skin, all along the whip marks on my bare back. Stung like fire.