Yep. “And paranoid.” I sprouted a few dandelions among the blades of grass.
“Can you blame her? Your chronicles tell her to be. History does as well—your line is notorious for its aggressive Tarasovas and chroniclers.” In a wry tone, she said, “Turning budding young Empresses into serial killers since time immemorial.”
Arcana humor? In my present state, I almost had the urge to laugh. “I’d thought she might help me stop the game, or save the earth, or get rid of my powers. Stupid, huh?”
“Necessary. She was your grail. We all seek things that attract us to a particular hunting ground.”
What was it Matthew had told me? We follow MacGuffins.
“Often the grail is love,” she said. “The Magician and Fauna run headlong for each other, or try to. The Moon became the Archangel’s grail for a time, and she followed your mortal.”
Right to the very end. I wondered if Circe had heard my frantic mutterings.
“Kentarch searches for his beloved wife.”
“You know the Centurion?” I asked. “Where is he?”
She sighed, and mist rose from the river’s surface. “I don’t think the Centurion—my ally over many games—would want the Empress to know.”
Fair enough. “Why do you never ally with the Fool?” Empress is my friend.
“Can’t you answer that question as well as I, Evie Greene?”
“Because he’s more untrustworthy than most.”
“Do you know the word fathomable? It means measurable, in the sense of depth. Fathomable is an ancient word because man has been trying in vain to know the depths of my ocean domain for thousands of years.” She paused, then said, “The Fool’s powers are unfathomable even to me.”
I felt as if I’d just received a warning. “Death said Matthew can fight.”
She repeated in a whisper, “Unfathomable.”
I swallowed. “Do you know where he is?”
“Not near a body of water at present.”
Thanks for narrowing it down. “What’s your grail?”
“It’s secret. But know that it won’t lure me to land. You won’t.”
At her words, a memory from one game arose:
“Why would you ever surface?” I asked her. “You are invincible in the sea.”
“You seduced me here, sister almighty.”
“Like you, I’m a sociable creature. It is my weakness. Yet my abyss is unutterably lonely and echoing. From a distance, I watch exciting events unfold, but I am held apart. I see the ways of men and women, but don’t experience love. I hear mortals sharing laughter. But I share nothing. I’m drawn to you because we are kindred. Together we experience life.”
I couldn’t comprehend the Priestess’s reasoning. “But the vulnerabilities . . .”
“I am cursed. To truly live, I must make myself vulnerable and trust. Death isn’t the only one who risks everything just to feel. . . .”
“I’m not trying to get you on land,” I said firmly. “You need to stay put.”
Starting to hate it when she said hmm. “What’s the Emperor’s grail?”
“We all are. He wants to defeat ‘worthy’ opponents, with as much carnage as possible. He also enjoys the occasional cataclysm, just because it feels good to him.”
“What happens if he wins?”
The river grew choppy, the fog dissipating. “Hell on earth. His reign would mark the end of mankind. All the cards must sense this.”
Surely that was the root of my ominous feeling, my sense that something big was coming down the pipeline. So why did my unease feel removed from Richter? “We can’t let him win. If you hang tight in the abyss, you can simply outlast him, right?”
“Oh, are we back to playing? I thought the innocent Empress wanted no part of the game. Except when an Arcana irritates her or steps out of line in any way.”
How could water convey such snark? “You’re still pissed about whatever I might have done to you in the past.” Though I’d found evidence of her cold-bloodedness, I still hadn’t read how I’d betrayed her. “I get it. But we were both evil. Admit it: you would’ve double-crossed me if I hadn’t done it to you first.”
Irritating eddies. “Ugh! That’s your way of ignoring me, isn’t it?” As if she’d covered her ears and sang, “La la la.” I snatched up a stone and threw it at the water. “I remembered the day we killed the Moon. You took her icon.”
The eddies subsided. “I might have worn it best, Evie Greene, but you wore it next.”
In other words, the icon had transferred to me when I’d killed Circe.
“Empress, you are the only one protesting your innocence in this game. I’ve made no such promises.”
“I’m not innocent. I don’t know what I am. But I know I have zero interest in winning.” I plucked the flowers I’d grown. “You said Arcana sometimes ask you to take them to the abyss—that it’s the only place they can see to go. I didn’t understand before, but now I do.”
I braided dandelion stems to make a wreath. The prospect of my death didn’t bother me—my one-way ticket loomed—but the idea of Aric dying made my glyphs burn.
“What are you thinking about that upsets you so?” she asked.
I shrugged and tossed my wreath into the river. Water rose beneath the circlet in the shape of a head, and I almost smiled. “When I relive our interactions, I remember how close we were.”