“Where are you going?”
I paused in the doorway. “To visit the river.”
Gran blinked at me. “Why are you so sure you’re coming back?”
With a lantern in hand, I made my way toward the water. My breaths were puffs of smoke in the chilly, dark night. The storm had waned, rain drizzling on and off.
I pulled my poncho hood over my hair—
Aric emerged from the mist, his tall frame outlined by a flickering gas lamp. He wore all black, his tailored garments highlighting his powerful body. His pale hair was tousled and longer than he usually kept it.
I stutter-stepped at the mere sight of him.
He was heading from the river back to the castle. As he neared, I noticed he looked weary, his gaze filled with shadows.
Which called to mind my dreams of him. Over this week, my nightmares had come less frequently, making way for dream-memories of the last game, when I’d been known as Phyta. Aric had pursued me then, had eventually revealed that I’d married—then betrayed—him in a past life. Realizing how badly he’d ached for a companion, I’d begun to seduce him, all the while planning to kill him. . . .
Each morning here I would wake, shamed by my behavior—and rocked by his loneliness. Rocked by his fragile hope of a future with me.
Never slowing his pace, he intoned, “Empress.”
“Hey. What were you doing down there?”
“Visiting my ally.” As I’d suspected.
I frowned when he passed right by me. To his back, I asked, “You’ve been talking to Circe?”
Without turning, he said, “As I often do.”
When I hurried ahead to block his path, he exhaled an impatient breath. “What do you want?”
This close, I caught a thread of his addictive scent. Hints of sandalwood and pine, two trees, made my lids grow heavy. In the lamplight, his face was hypnotically gorgeous.
But my attraction to him was more than physical. Endless epochs seemed to tie me to him. A bone-deep connection that endured.
If past Empresses hadn’t been raised from birth to hate him, they would have fallen for him. I would have fallen for him. “How long will we go on like this, Aric?”
Finally, interest lit his amber eyes. “What is the alternative? Tell me what has changed.”
I didn’t know! I glanced down as I tried to string words together and noticed his gloved hands were clenched. Words left my lips: “You want to touch me.” He’d once told me it was a luxury he’d always savor. I gazed up. Unable to help myself, I reached for his proud face.
But he caught my wrist in his strong hand, his eyes growing cold as the night. “And since when has it mattered what I want?” Releasing me, he strode away.
I stared after him long after he’d disappeared in the mist. Miserable and confused, I trudged down to the river.
Was the water level even higher than the last time I was here? A blanket of fog covered the calm surface. At the bank, I raised my lantern. “Circe?” I called. “Where are you?”
Water in the shape of a hand waved, then collapsed in a splash. She couldn’t even hold that small form?
My earlier anger toward her faded. She might not have been avoiding me; she could’ve been too weak for a long chat. Especially if she’d been talking to Aric a lot.
“You can hear me?” I asked.
A slight ripple. Then a murmured: “I hear. Hail Tar Ro.”
“Hail Tar Ro to you.” I tried out one of my new powers—sensing seeds latent in the dirt—but found none, so I slashed my thumb with a claw and grew some grass along the bank. I set the lantern down and pulled my poncho under me to sit. “Thank you for saving my life.”
“You assume I did, Evie Greene?”
“Okay. Then thank you for not killing me outright. Maybe you did it for Death? You two seem tight.”
“He was just here, huh?” No answer. Anyway . . . “Your tidal wave was mind-blowing.”
“An afterthought. Soon I will show the game a reckoning.” Softening her tone, she said, “I regret that I couldn’t save all those mortals. Your mortal. The Fortune Card avoided flying over rivers on her approach. By the time she and Richter crossed over water, I was too late.”
The tourniquet twisted, and I barely showed a reaction at all.
“I wonder how they knew of my powers,” Circe said. “Their lines don’t chronicle.”
“Would the Sun know?”
“Possibly. He learns much from his Bagmen. I heard about your run-in with them. Becoming food must have been . . . unpleasant.”
Unpleasant? Would I ever get over those slurping sounds, those grueling bites? That was one memory I wish I could forget. I told myself I shouldn’t fear them now that I’d seen their worst. I’d survived an attack—without any long-term effects.
Circe asked, “Still think we can stop the game?”
I shrugged. Every now and then, I would feel a silly glimmer of hope, but mostly I didn’t. The game demanded blood. I would give it the Emperor’s.
And then? And then? And then?
“I told you we needed to kill Richter.”
I was taking my lumps with her and with Aric. “I’m listening now. Do you have a plan?”
“Enemies almighty must replenish.” She’d called us that before. “Unless you intend to take your grandmother’s advice to send the Endless Knight after him.” At my raised brows, Circe added, “I told you, whispers flow down to me like water.” Had she heard Gran’s hate-filled murmurs as well? “Your grandmother sounds . . . intense.”