His eyes went starry at the sight of me before he shuttered his gaze. With his tone neither warm nor cold, he said, “I sought the wisdom of a Tarasova, so I went hat in hand.”
“What did you want to know?”
He hiked his broad shoulders. “Alas, I . . . upset her,” he said, not answering my question.
“Upset.” I could only imagine. Her hatred bubbled up more and more, keeping pace with her rapidly declining physical and mental health.
She’d gotten so paranoid she wouldn’t allow me to turn on the electric lights anymore—because of “the Tower.” Only the fire lit her room. Shadows crept over the walls, over my vines, the flames a constant reminder of loss.
When her mouth grew slack on one side, she’d finally allowed Paul to examine her. His diagnosis: a stroke and continuing ministrokes—which she’d refused to believe. She’d slurred, “I wouldn’t be surprised if Death is making me sick. He needs me out of the picture.”
Paul had given her a prescription from his stockpiled medical supplies, but the pills hadn’t helped. My grandmother was dying, and there was nothing we could do for her.
Now I sidled even closer to Aric, craving comfort, companionship, anything. I continued seeing him in most of my dreams, making me miss him even more. “Please tell me what you wanted to know from her.”
He ignored my question. “You look exhausted, Empress.” Was that a flare of pity in his eyes?
My own line’s Tarasova was beating me down—because I was desperately clinging to my trust in my allies, and to myself as a person.
Yesterday Gran had murmured, “All you have to do is surrender . . . draw on your hatred and pain. Become her: the Empress you were meant to be.” My grandmother was trying to “program” me again, to undo the work of shrinks and psych meds. To undo everything Mom had taught me about being decent.
My mind felt like a bloody battlefield. I dreaded going to see Gran, which made me sick with guilt.
Aric said, “Paul could help out with her more.”
“He’s already with her so much.” Whereas I seemed only to frustrate her, he could get her to calm down and even to eat. But he’d also told me she couldn’t hold on much longer. “I keep thinking each day will be her . . . last.” Couldn’t Aric sense impending death? I wondered what he’d say if I asked him for a heads-up.
I also wondered why I wasn’t sadder about Gran. Yes, she was being hateful, but she hadn’t been during my childhood. At least, as far as I could trust my memories.
Maybe I’d grown so numb to grief that nothing could affect me. What if I’d strangled my heart until it was permanently damaged?
I gazed at Aric and knew the answer to that question. I was grieving for him as much as for Jack, even though Aric was right here in front of me.
I’d lost the love of my life. But the man I considered my soul mate was waiting for me. How much longer could I claw my way through an apocalypse alone?
Studying my face, Aric said, “The Tarasova will no doubt tell you I’ve harmed her. For the record, I would never hurt her.”
“And I would never believe you could.”
With a curt nod, he strode past me. “Empress.”
I followed him. “If you won’t call me sievā, then use my name: Evie.”
“I’ve told you: your ever-changing names don’t matter. Empress remains the same.”
“E-V. Evangeline, if you must.” I trailed him back to his study. “How long are you going to avoid me? You said you’d train me.”
He took a bottle and glass to his desk, sinking into his chair. “At present, your grandmother is seeing to your . . . education.”
“You’ll be happy to hear that Paul doesn’t give her long.”
“That doesn’t make me happy. It doesn’t make me anything.”
“Because you and I are merely allies. Of a sort.”
“So we’ll go long stretches at a time without seeing each other?” Sadness washed over me.
“You had planned never to see me again, Empress.” His expression grew so enraged that I almost took a step back. “You rode away with that full intention.”
“Do you think that was easy for me?”
He hissed, “Effortless.” Then he inhaled to get a rein on his temper. “I offered you everything. And you spurned me for another. What’s so bad is that I can’t fault you.”
“What do you mean?”
“Deveaux fought with bravery. He was intelligent. He had cunning and was a born leader. If I was going to lose you to anyone, I would want it to be him.”
“I told you I don’t want to talk about him.”
As if I hadn’t spoken, Aric continued, “I hated him at first, was seething with jealousy when the two of you were together. But through your memories, I learned a lot about him. I saw what he’d struggled against as a boy. I comprehended his frustrations and his dreams.” Aric shot his glass, and poured another. “I needed to continue hating Deveaux, but ultimately I liked him. Which made everything more confusing.”
I took my usual seat. “The night you two got drunk together, something changed.”
Nod. “And when we fought together. Plus he was the only man on earth who understood the way I had felt about you, the only other man who dreaded your coming decision.”
Had felt about me. Past tense. Was Aric moving on? From the one woman he could touch?
He gave a humorless laugh.
“I know this will be difficult for you to understand, but Jack was the closest thing I’ve had to a friend since my father died.”