“How could the Fool have decapitated me? I’d been powerful in that game.”
At the rim of his glass, Aric muttered, “You must not remember how he fights.” He knocked back his drink.
“Matthew doesn’t have a violent bone in his body.” Or I’d thought he didn’t.
“I told you he was the most intelligent Arcana ever to play, but you continued to see him as a bumbling schoolboy.”
Aric poured another shot. “On the subject of secrets, you didn’t tell me your line had chronicles.”
“I didn’t know.”
“Why would the Tarasova not tell you?”
I rubbed my forehead. When would the headaches end? “I was young when we were separated. Things in my mind got . . . confused.” At best. At worst, my grandmother was playing her own game.
For all Aric’s power plays—and despite our history—he was the only one on earth that I could truly trust. Which, again, made it hard to stay pissed at him.
His eyes flicked over me, assessing. “You didn’t remember. I suppose I should be glad of that.” After a hesitation, he said, “You have the answer to your question, so begone.”
“You’re kicking me out?” Now that I’d reined in my temper, I thought we could talk.
He sank back in his seat. “You might be back here, but things will never be the same as they were.”
In the weeks before I’d fled the castle, I’d been happy with him, falling for him more each day. “I know that. But I can still miss the way we were.”
Tension stole over him, his fists clenching. “Do you miss those nights?” He wasn’t asking only about the nights when we’d read and drank and talked in this study. My last night at the castle. And that night on the way to the Lovers. “Do you ever think about how we were then?”
Aric never lied to me; I wouldn’t to him. “Yes.”
“And yet . . .” He exhaled. “Not only did you choose another man, you sought to reverse time for him.”
“Not just for him. For all those people, and for Selena, and for you.”
“Why for me?”
“We couldn’t communicate, so I feared you were injured.” I swallowed. “Or . . . drowned. You were wearing armor—in a flood! I imagined awful stuff happening to you. When I thought I’d lost both you and Jack, I nearly lost my mind.” The love of my life and my soul mate.
Aric looked like he wanted to believe me, but didn’t quite. Because Arcana lied. “Leave me, Empress.”
Though his dismissal stung, I stayed. Even if our relationship had been broken by my choice, we still had an enemy to defeat. “What are you working on?” Papers and books were strewn everywhere. “What happened to the Lovers’ chronicles? Is there anything about the Emperor?”
“I’m still translating them.”
“As usual, you know more than you’re telling me.”
He shot his glass, then slammed it down on his desk. “I’ve been too preoccupied to translate—because I’ve been living in the goddamned nursery for weeks while urging you to live.”
He was right. I parted my lips to apologize, but he said, “Your grandmother is already sowing her seeds of discord. Perhaps I should be on my guard against you once more. Tell me, Empress, was our truce only temporary?”
Ugh! “You know I would never hurt you. I had the chance to inject poison into your neck, but I didn’t. I could have killed you with my kiss, but instead I made sure you were protected. At the first sign of trouble with my grandmother, I came to warn you. So why say things like that? To punish me for my choice? That shouldn’t have undone the trust we established.”
Staring into his empty glass, he said, “Maybe I am punishing you.”
As if he hadn’t done that enough in this life? “Then you should break out your favorite torture tool: the cilice.” I’d never forget the pain of that barbed cuff and the frustration of having no powers. Then cutting the thing off . . . “I’ll bet it still has pieces of my skin on it.”
He raised his face, an unsettling resentment in his eyes. “Perhaps I’ve made a choice to be cruel to you. If you don’t like it, you should stay away from me.”
I rose and turned to go. Over my shoulder, I said, “Go to hell, Aric.”
“Already here, wife.”
I lay in bed replaying my entire weird day, but especially my interaction with Aric. After leaving his study, I’d curled up under the covers, hating that he was in pain. I hated that we’d fought.
Most women and men who shared a romantic history had difficulties to contend with. Sometimes an ugly breakup. Possibly lies. Maybe a betrayal.
He and I had millennia of bad blood—and murder.
Even if I didn’t dance on the razor’s edge over Jack’s death, I didn’t see how Aric and I could overcome so much to mend the connection we’d once shared.
Or that we even should. The game demands blood. Would I get him killed as well?
Uneasy and alone, I finally drifted off to sleep . . . into a dream so vivid, I knew it was a memory from a previous life. I was the Empress known as Phyta.
“Are you certain the Empress is asleep?” the Magician asks Fauna.
The two Arcana are meeting again, beneath the moonlight—in my garden. Fauna believes she has nothing to fear from me.
She tells the boy, “Phyta sleeps.”
Not so. I regard them from my balcony. As I have for the last three nights.
He whips his head around at a noise. “What was that?” His eyes dart.