She nodded. “Your vines have an awareness. Even when you sleep, they keep watch. Unfortunately, they’re not foolproof. Some players, like Death, are too quick. He’s slipped past your sentries before. Other players—like the Tower—strike from too far away for your plants to detect them.”

“What else can I do?” I asked, eager to learn.

“You can become a talented healer. You have an innate knowledge of medicinal plants, and I’ll teach you more. You can also manipulate wood. Past Empresses crafted priceless jewelry pieces, giving them as signs of favor. And with a wave of her hand, one Empress constructed bridges and shrines, building an entire civilization, easily garrisoning her army of men.”

Aric had told me I’d commanded an army in the past, one that had clashed against the Emperor’s.

“Another Empress could spy on foes through any plant on earth. She could even meld her body with a tree, transporting herself from one trunk to another.”

“No way!” Could I meld into a tree? Hadn’t I once had the urge to put my fingers in the soil and take root?

“Not that there are any trees left to travel through.” Gran sighed. “I’ll show you more after you’ve rested. You’re still recovering.”

“I’m fine. I can do this.” But she looked as if my exercise had weakened her.

“In time. For now, why don’t you tell me about your interactions with Death? He was the last person I expected to show up at my door.”

“What made you go with him?”

“I had a feeling that was my path, and I was on borrowed time anyway. Plus he knew things about you. The name of your horse. Your art. Your ballet. He said that you’d spent months trying to reach me, and he planned to give you whatever you desired. Could’ve knocked me over with a feather.”

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Despite knowing everything about me, even my malicious past, Aric still loved me. I didn’t want to hurt him anymore. But every time I contemplated my life, all I saw was my past—Jack—and my future—Richter.

“Death is very protective of you,” she said. “He can’t help it. He’s cursed to desire you each game.”

Ouch. “Gran, it’s more than just desire.”

She sighed. “He’s got you believing he loves you, doesn’t he? He’s killed you two out of the last three games. He beheaded you.” As I’d pointed out to him last night. “He’s a villain, Evie.”

Time to explain the new program to Gran. “Aric would give his life for mine. I trust him.”

“I admit he did go to great lengths to rescue you. But only because he can touch you. He’s a red-blooded male, and you’re the sole woman he can be with. What wouldn’t he do to preserve your life?”

Again, ouch. “Then why would he return you to me?”

“As a courtship gift, to sway your favor. He’s notoriously calculating, does everything for a reason.”

She was right about the courtship. Aric had admitted as much. He’d intended to use my grandmother to coerce me, but in the end, he hadn’t gone through with it. He’d wanted me to choose him—but only if I loved him more than Jack.

How could I explain that to Gran? She would never believe it anyway.

“We will use this to our advantage,” she said. “He’ll continue to protect you, so you should keep him alive to the very end.” Aric would be happy to know her game strategy was no longer flawed. “Your victory is so close.”

I shuddered at the idea of winning. “Can the game be stopped?” Could fate be changed?

“I don’t follow.” She blinked at me, as if I’d just asked, “Hey, can I borrow your credit card and pop over to the mall?”

“I know others have tried to stop it before.”

“Some players united, making a big show of peace. But in the end, all those alliances failed. Arcana are born to kill. They only delayed the inevitable.”

“Why is it inevitable?”

“The gods decreed this game,” she said. “They set these events into motion eons ago. Someone has to win. No matter what, someone will win. Say the last two cards allied for a couple of decades: they would both age. Once one died, the other would walk the earth—older, weaker. Disadvantaged in the next game.”

When he’d sought a future with me, clever Aric had already come up with a solution to this problem. He and I would live our lives together, with Lark tagging along. We would somehow predecease her (that part had been vague), and she would endure for centuries, forced to play the next game against Arcana young enough to be her grandkids. Yet she’d volunteered for it!

Being with Aric had seemed so complicated, so loaded with intrigues.

When I’d chosen Jack, I’d also been choosing the future he represented: building Acadiana, far from the game, repurposing my abilities to help others.

Gran said, “Not that the Minor Arcana would allow such a union anyway.”

My eyes widened. “They exist?” In any Tarot deck, there were fifty-six Minor Arcana cards, divided into four suits: cups, pentacles or rings, wands, and swords.

Such as the eerie ten of swords card. I couldn’t imagine that one as a person.

Gran’s gray brows drew together. “Of course,” she said, as if she was telling me something I should already know. “They can be as dangerous as Major Arcana. Especially the court cards.”

“Where are they?” Did they converge too? “How do you find them?”

“You don’t,” she said. “Best avoid them. Let’s hope the Knight of Swords perished in the Flash. The Queen of Cups too. Truly, a good dozen of them are walking nightmares.”