A pang twisted in my chest. “I had that thought. In a different time or circumstance, you two would have been fast friends.”

“At the fort, I shared more whiskey with him, and we talked for hours. Toward the end of the night, I explained all the things I could offer you. He agreed to march without you—in order to make it easier for you to leave with me. But he told me a very real truth.”

“Which was?”

“He said, ‘If Evangeline Greene wants something, she’s going to get it. If she sets her sights on me, it’ll happen, whether I want better for her or not.’”

“I’ve set my sights on things right now, but I’m not getting them.”

Aric tilted his head. “Such as?”

“Revenge against Richter.”

He released a breath. “Leave me, Empress.”

I didn’t move. “I want us to read together and talk into the night. I want to be friends again.”

“Spend time with you as a friend? Impossible.”

“Why?”

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His eyes flashed. “Because I don’t want merely a friend. I want my wife!”

“Can’t we just . . . see how things go?”

“We are wed. Yet it seems I am the only one who cares about that detail.”

I almost pointed out that he hadn’t seemed to care about that detail when he’d tortured me.

Aric raised his full glass, peering into the clear liquid. “I am disgusted with myself for continuing to desire you like this.” Appearing lost in thought, he absently said, “In a moment of weakness, will I beg?” He glanced at me, seeming shocked by what he’d admitted. He abruptly stood. “I might not fault you for your decision. But it still gutted me. When I told you something died in me that day, I meant it.” He started toward the study door.

I blocked his path.

“Move out of the way. Damn you, I won’t be a stand-in substitute. Cease tormenting me.”

“You do still love me.”

He squared his shoulders. “I didn’t say it lightly.”

“You think I did?”

“Perhaps once you told me of your love, you should not have told me good-bye directly after.”

I winced. “What do you want from me?”

“What I can never have: for you to have chosen me!” His fists clenched. Even now he was fighting not to touch me. “When you rode away, you looked back at me, and for a second I thought you were going to turn around.”

“So did I.”

His lips parted. “It was that close?”

“When I faced Vincent, he searched my heart and saw it was divided. He said that I loved two men equally.”

“You told me as much on the way here after you were bitten by the Bagmen.”

And then I’d forgotten what I’d said.

Aric’s eyes glittered; I could feel his yearning. He wanted to believe so badly. “What do you expect from me?”

“Closeness and trust,” I told him. “I expect you not to treat me like an enemy. Or a stranger.” I laid my hand on his arm, and his muscles flexed to my fingers. “With our lives on the line”—Richter, I’m coming for you—“we shouldn’t be divided like this.”

“Imminent peril is your reason for seeking more time with me?” He drew my hand from him. “Armor or no, I’ve got your dagger in my chest. You love to twist it.”

I was saying all the wrong things. “That’s not what I meant! I regretted so much with Jack, so many things I wished I’d done or said. When I couldn’t find you, I felt those same regrets. Then . . . then you were there. Alive. When I die, will you regret not spending this time with me?”

“I vow to you, Empress, you will never die before me,” he said, turning to stride away.

But he tensed when I whispered, “That’s what I’m afraid of.”

32

Day 444 A.F.

“You look like utter hell,” Circe told me.

“I wish you’d stop sugar-coating things, Water Witch.”

Over a month had passed since I’d first heard my grandmother’s voice in the nursery. For so long, I’d dreamed of our reunion. I’d had such great intentions, and yet everything had gone to hell.

Each day I watched her deteriorate. Sometimes she would rail at me with so much venom, Paul would have to rush inside the room to calm her. Other times, she rambled, barely lucid.

As much as she’d been talking, she hadn’t answered any of my questions. For instance, I still didn’t know why Aric had approached her.

Despite my grandmother’s anger, I wanted to be with her at the end—as I hadn’t been with Mom. So I returned to Gran’s room, day after day.

Circe said, “You are drained because you fight her at every second.”

Between my grandmother, my confusion about Aric, and my dread . . .

I glanced back at the castle. That ominous feeling of mine remained firmly in place. Something unexpected was approaching. Were we on a countdown clock?

Tick-tock.

Changing the subject, I said, “I don’t think it’s fair that you can comment on my looks and my mental health, but I can’t even see your expressions when we talk.”

“Trying to get me on land again?”

I rolled my eyes. “No. But you could make that girl water-form again.” She’d once manipulated water into her likeness. “Or you could do that window thingy.”

A small wave rose before me. The water morphed until an oval shape emerged, like a wall mirror—only this was a window.