Too bad it couldn’t withstand a helicopter missile attack. Or a volcano.

Gran reached for the teapot to top off her cup. “We’re not close to active magma, so if the Emperor attacks, he will have to spill blood to generate his own lava.”

Richter created it with his blood? “The way I generate plants when none are around?” The way the Lovers had created their carnates.

Circe had told me the Emperor’s hands bled lava. I hadn’t made the connection. No wonder he was recuperating.

Gran nodded. “Which drains your power.” She set down the pot, looking fatigued just from lifting it. “There’s another way to grow. I’ll show you—” She coughed, the movements racking her frail frame.

I leapt up to rub her back. “Did you sleep at all?”

When the fit eased, she smoothed her hair. “For ten hours. Woke up more tired, though. Stress must be catching up with me.”

I took my seat again. “Gran, what if you had a stroke?”

“Did Death tell you that?” The sudden venom in her tone startled me. “Next he’ll tell you that I’m losing my wits. He means to drive a wedge between us.” Her teacup shook when she raised it to her lips.

“Aric wouldn’t do that. He doesn’t lie. He could have a hundred times to further his own agenda, but he refuses to.” What had he told me and Jack? Lies are curses you place on yourself.

She set her cup down hard. “All Arcana lie. And feign emotion and betray. It’s the nature of the beast.”

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In the past, I’d tried to seduce Aric, faking affection. Finn had disguised himself as Jack to seduce Selena. She’d lied to me, Lark too. Matthew most of all: Empress is my friend.

My denial died on my lips. Still, I didn’t believe Aric would. “He told me that you would know a great many things about the game, and that you might have foresight.”

She allowed the change of subject. “Nothing like the Fool’s precognition. But I get feelings about the future. They guide me, directing my movements. Right now I’m feeling you won’t be ready for the next stage of the game.”

“Why not?” I asked, revenge ever on my mind.

“Your powers aren’t mature. If they had been, you could’ve fought off those Bagman bites instantly. You need to practice, from your basic skills on up.” She dug in her pocket, retrieved three seeds, and set them on the tray. “Do you feel a connection to them?”

“I sense their potential.” And I could tell their species: pomegranate, climbing ivy, and wisteria.

“Now try to bring forth a bud without blood. Imagine them sprouting. Casting off their shells.”

Shells. Husks. A withered corpse planted in the dirt. Tess’s body was like a forever-dead seed. “I-I’ll try.”

“Once you master this, you’ll be able to sense buried seeds out in the Ash. Your arsenal will be anywhere on earth.”

I concentrated on the ones before me and pictured them growing. I sucked in a breath when they began to vibrate. No bloodletting necessary. A tiny sprout was budding from one seed, had gained only about a millimeter. I focused, beginning to sweat.

“You’re doing great. Look at you!” Her words reminded me of my childhood. I recalled how she’d praised me for finding colored eggs one Easter. I’d proudly held up my basket, and someone had snapped a photo of me, Mom, and Gran. Mom had held that picture as she’d passed away with Jack by her side.

She’d died because of Bagmen. We’d burned her body because of the Lovers. Jack had died without grace because of the Emperor.

Jack’s eulogy had been Richter’s laughter. Rage welled in me, as powerful as Circe’s tidal wave. Replace the Emperor’s laughter with screams—

The seeds cracked open; plants exploded outward to crawl and fork across the ceiling and walls.

“Good Lord, Evie!” Gran looked at me . . . with awe. “I think you could be the most dangerous Empress ever to live.” She surveyed the new growths.

Regardless of the seed species, all had become vines with daggerlike thorns. I slumped back in my seat. “As long as that means the Emperor dies.”

“You’re one step closer to truly becoming the Empress.”

I swiped at my forehead and reached for a glass of water. “I’m not now? What will change?”

“When you fully give in to the heat of battle, your hair will turn red permanently and your skin markings will always show. You’ll be more powerful than you can imagine.”

All I had to do was give myself over to the red witch forever. Would I take that risk to kill Richter?

One problem: the red witch might not stop with him. Evie is a sliver of ME!

Gran frowned. “I was actually surprised your hair is still blond. But no matter. We’ll keep working. You mastered that so quickly, I think there’s something else you should work on. Close your eyes and cover your ears.”

I did. I sensed movement, a scrape of metal. One of my vines shifted, so I opened my eyes.

Gran stood in front of me with a sharp paring knife inches above my head—and that vine gripping her wrist.

I waved a hand to release her. “You really were going to, uh, stab me?”

She set the knife back on the tray. “Yes.” Rubbing her wrist, she sat again. “You would heal, and the attack needed to be real for your vines to react.”

My soldiers had had a mind of their own. And I’d seemed to sense through them.

At the Lovers’ lair, I’d set vines free, commanding them to kill Bagmen, even perceiving destruction through them. But I’d never felt them working on autopilot before, with no conscious thought from me. “I wouldn’t even have to look behind me to aim?”