Another sigh. “Apparently, not close enough.” A wave gulped down the wreath.

That time, I’d definitely received a warning.

30

The Hunter

Closer to her . . .

“How long till I see her?” I muttered from the backseat of our most recent ride. I dimly remembered Matthew getting yet another vehicle and helping me in.

I was still laid out. Never been sick a day in my life, but I couldn’t shake this, no. My bones ached so bad I was certain I’d caught bonebreak fever. Delirium was setting in.

I slept most hours, barely remembering the ones when I was awake. My breaths whistled as if a weight pressed on my chest, and the skin on my bum leg felt red hot, itching like something was crawling all over it. Or in it.

But Matthew had given me a fifty-fifty shot of pulling through. Had worse odds, me. “Want to see my girl.”

As usual, coo-yôn didn’t answer me.

We remained far in the west, as far as I could tell. Most roads had been blocked, and gas proved as scarce as ever. I didn’t know where Domīnija’s place was, just knew it could be reached within a week on horseback from Fort Arcana. At our present pace, it would take the Fool and me months to reach even the area.

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But I had to assume he would eventually get me to Evie.

In a rough voice, I said, “Woan answer me? Then tell me this, sosie. If you can fight . . . why didn’t you ever before?” I thought of all those times I’d needed help out of a tight spot, when he could’ve changed the tide.

In the salt mine, that boy had taken out a dozen men—without a weapon. I supposed if I could see every move an opponent would make ahead of time, I could defeat just about anybody.

Pointing at his temple, he said, “If I do that, I don’t do this.”

My head pounded too hard to pursue the subject. “Can’t say I’ve missed these little talks of ours.”

“Empress made you a gravestone.”

Of course, she would’ve figured I’d died with the rest. The odds of me surviving that blast were a million to one. Then the lava, and then the flood, which Matthew had blamed on Circe. I hated that Evie had grieved for even a second. “What’d she say when you told her I lived?”

Silence from coo-yôn.

“You did tell her?” No answer. My eyes shot wide. I wheezed, sucking in a breath. “Damn it, boy!” I’d never imagined this possibility. Because I’d thought he cared about Evie in his own way. “She . . . she doan know I’m coming?”

“Nope.”

Putain! And I wasn’t strong enough to sit up, much less choke the spit out of him. If she thought I was gone, had she already accepted Domīnija? “Is Evie with Death? They together?” Say no, say no.

After she’d chosen me, I’d felt like hell for Domīnija. Actually had sympathy for the bastard, ’cause I knew how it felt to lose her.

When she’d wanted to stay with him back after he’d abducted her . . . I’d lost my goddamned mind.

Matthew said, “Not yet.”

My eyes slid closed with relief. But it was short-lived. Not yet. “Tell my girl I’m coming for her! Tell her it’ll always be Evie and Jack.”

No reply.

“At least answer me this: Do I got a chance with her?” Without her as the light at the end of this tunnel, I didn’t know how I could keep going. Grief over the army threatened to do me in. I’d gotten all those people killed. By using Arcana players to establish order, I’d lured in that monster.

Folks close to me had a habit of getting dead. Clotile blew out her brains to save me. Selena burned. I remembered Maman on Day Zero and shuddered.

“Yes. A chance. Chance means luck.” Matthew glanced at me in the rearview mirror. “Empress despises me for letting you die.”

“Then tell her I’m alive!” I yelled, bringing on a new bout of dizziness. Couldn’t catch my breath. Sweat broke out over my skin, even as I felt freezing. “You’ve let her . . . believe I’ve died—twice. You trying to drive . . . her insane, you sosie? Or manipulate her?”

“I don’t manipulate the Empress. Alone. I manipulate much.”

“Give me a reason . . . you’re making her suffer.”

He tapped his temple. “Switchboard on. Emperor hears.”

So coo-yôn had turned off the calls to keep her out of Richter’s reach. Merde, I couldn’t fault his reasoning. Still: “Could he track her from a quick call . . . If she doan know I’m alive. . . she’s goan to be with Domīnija.” The thought made my heart thunder.

My fever was spiking again, getting worse by the second. Pain wrenched a groan from my wheezing lungs.

Hell, Matthew’s odds for me might’ve been generous.

“You want me to risk the call to her, Hunter?”

When black dots swarmed my vision again, I rasped, “Non.” Not yet. “’Cause I’ll probably be dead anyway. . . .”

31

The Empress

Day 437 A.F.

“What are you doing in this wing?” I asked Aric. He’d just come from my grandmother’s room.

This was the first time I’d spoken to him since our run-in down by the river. His training had ramped up again, and he spent hours each day practicing with his swords. Otherwise, he kept to his study and his black-walled bedroom.

Just like before, the atmosphere around the castle felt like a powder keg—except now we had outside threats to worry about. I’d considered demanding a talk with him, but what could I offer? Nothing had changed between us.