“Stupid, Empress!” In her temple, Circe clenched her trident.

From the river, a wave rose up in the form of a hand, poised to slap me. I scrambled back. “What?”

The wave dissipated, and her water window dissolved, merging with the surface. “You can always bed him,” she whispered, her voice fading. “But with each hour, his heart grows as cold as his sword.”

Aric was strangling his heart as well.

Alone, I stared at the river and recalled his words from the night before my decision: “By all the gods, I desire you, but you must know that you have my love. It’s given, sievā. Wholly entrusted to you. Have a care with it.”

Yet I hadn’t.

He believed that if we slept together—if we took that step—I’d finally be his. For the last two millennia, he’d taken me to bed again and again, only to have his hopes crushed each time.

And not just in the distant past. A few months ago, we’d been on the verge, but I’d balked because of a lack of protection—and my love for another man. Before I escaped him last, I’d knocked Aric out with a drug from my lips—while in bed with him. He’d thought I’d been trying to murder him once more. With his eyes devastated, he’d said, “You’d kill me before you ever accepted me.”

Why wouldn’t he turn his heart from me? If I went to him with another empty promise, I would lose him.

A life with him had seemed so complicated, so loaded with intrigues. But now the idea of us growing old together seemed laughable. Did my concerns about Death’s deal with Lark no longer factor?

I had learned my painful lesson: Some fates can’t be changed.

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Shouldn’t that lesson apply to everything? If I was fated to be with Aric, then maybe Death was inevitable. In every sense.

On my way back up to the castle . . . snow began to fall.

33

The Hunter

Closer to her . . .

I was freezing cold, but sweat slicked the truck’s vinyl bench. Fever blazing? My mouth was so dry, my head splitting. My lungs rattled. I shook, rocking uncontrollably.

None of that mattered, no, ’cause I could see Evie. Pretty blue eyes and curving lips.

She liked to take care of me, fussing over me. Ma belle infirmière. I could see her so clearly that she had to be here with me; I could even smell her honeysuckle scent. “Evie, bébé . . . that really you?”

The truck slammed to a stop. Matthew’s door opened. Then my door opened? He hauled me into a sitting position.

Evie wasn’t here. Gutted, me. I squinted, saw snow coming down.

Did it snow wherever she was? Could she be thinking about me? I would do anything to see her again.

Just once.

“Your future refuses to behave.” Coo-yôn yanked off the jacket he’d sourced for me. Up was down. Then he stepped back. And released me—

I toppled over, falling out of my seat onto the ground. Was the sosie dumping me on the side of the road? ’Cause I was about to die? “Now, let’s just talk . . . ’bout this, coo-yôn.”

He caught hold of my good ankle, then dragged me farther away from the truck. He’d hauled me into . . . a bank of snow.

_______________

The Empress

Jack and I had marveled at the snow. I spun in circles as flakes fell, dizziness overwhelming me.

I’d known this was going to send me spiraling. Gasping for breath, I collapsed, tears streaking down my face.

Lark’s animals fell silent. The river’s current stilled. The better to hear my sobs. I missed Jack so much; I missed Aric so much. I cried for them both.

The skies opened up with an intense shower of snow, till it’d painted the ground white.

“Isn’t it amazing?” I’d told Jack that last day. “Everything looks clean.”

What I should have said: “You’re about to die, and there’s nothing I can do about it. And in a few short weeks, I’ll be so messed up that I’ll decide to live for more than revenge.”

To tighten my tourniquet, even now. To delay a grief that could bury me. To rise and walk.

I’d thought the sight of snow—and all the emotions it brought—would make me less likely to be with Aric.

Just the opposite; because I could see my future so clearly. If he died before I did, some symbol—like snow—would mark the end of his existence. Later I would experience that waypoint (because everything was connected) and wish to God I’d taken a different path.

Death was inevitable. Why make him wait any longer? In a perfect world, I would’ve taken more time to grieve Jack and get my mind straight.

This world was as far from perfect as it could get.

I decided then that I would map my own journey and mark my own waypoints. The snow would symbolize both the end of one story and the beginning of another.

A new slate. But not a blank one. The red ribbon would be a cherished remembrance, but I wouldn’t keep it with me at all times.

I lay in the snow and lifted my hand to the sky. Flakes landed on my damp face. Each one was a cool kiss good-bye.

_______________

The Hunter

Lying in that bank of snow, I gazed up at the falling flakes. They drifted over my face. Soft, soft. Like Evie’s lips. With effort, I lifted my scarred hand to the sky. I closed my eyes and pretended my Evangeline was caring for me.

J’ai savouré. I savored each cold kiss. . . .

34

The Empress

Day 451 A.F.

“You still have only two icons?” Gran murmured as I sat beside her bed.

Over the last week, the snow had melted as if it’d never been—while I remained changed. I’d made a decision that affected my future, and then I’d made preparations.