I gave him a shaky nod. I’d been longing for someone to trust, to have my back—but I hadn’t realized until now how close I’d come to shattering from everything. “Then we should get on the road.” I stood to finish dressing.
“Very well.” He hesitated, frowning at his armor. Tailored to fit him, it wasn’t much thicker than a suit of cloth, the mysterious black metal nearly as lightweight. He moved in it fluidly, and silently. Understandable, since the armor might’ve been designed by a death deity.
“Why the frown?”
“On our return, I want you to ride with me. And I hate that this metal will be between us.”
I shook my head hard. “Uh-uh. I want you protected—for as many hours a day as possible.”
My vehemence seemed to take him off guard. He raised his brows. “As my lady wishes.”
“I’m serious, Aric.”
In a contemplative tone, he said, “This is the first time anyone’s ever wanted Death in his armor.”
Aric and I rode back together, with me in front, his arms wrapped around my waist. He’d removed his helmet halfway to the castle, though he kept it close, telling me, “I could don it more quickly than any enemy could strike.”
Like the rest of his armor, his black helmet was incredibly lightweight—and intimidating. I’d asked, “Is it such a hardship to wear it?”
“Indeed,” he’d answered, then he’d demonstrated why. Throughout the journey, he would kiss me, or inhale the scent of my hair, or simply tuck my head under his chin.
I hadn’t wanted to have our first married fight so soon—but I was going to lay down the armor law soon. . . .
Every mile closer to the castle unsettled me more. I’d been away from Gran all day, the longest since she’d gotten here.
At what would have been dusk, we arrived at the river. Circe parted the waters with a sighed, “Death and Life. Finally.”
When he and I walked inside the castle hand in hand, a tiny coyote pup chased a gangly heron through the foyer; some kind of half-grown turkey perched on the banister, ruffling its wings as if it wanted to try flying. Cyclops lay with all his legs splayed, looking like a breathing rug. I could see him shedding his frizzy fur.
Oh, hell. I glanced up at Aric, but he merely shrugged. “You aren’t mad?”
He tucked my hair behind my ear, repeating, “I’m in a fantastic mood.”
I went up on my toes to give him a quick kiss, which swiftly turned heated. But I forced myself to draw back. I couldn’t put off my visit much longer. “I need to go talk to her.”
He exhaled. “You’re right.” Then he cocked his head. “Sievā, her time is ending. Today.”
Why didn’t his words make me feel . . . more?
Brows drawn, he asked, “Can I go in with you?”
I bit my lip. “She wouldn’t like that.”
“Then I will be right outside her room.”
Paul met us in the hall. He looked exhausted, must’ve been up all night with her. Add more guilt to the mountain of it.
He’d spent countless hours taking care of her, cooped up in that room. “I’m glad you’re back, Evie. You should go in and say good-bye.”
“Thank you for staying with her.” What would we do without him?
“Of course.” With a respectful nod at Aric, he left.
I knocked on Gran’s door and opened it, but I gazed back. Aric had taken a seat in the hall, his eyes promising me, Not going anywhere.
Inside, I called, “Gran?”
She was barely holding on, her chest rising and falling with labored breaths. She held the chronicles in her arms, embracing them like a child.
A bout of dizziness hit me, and I was taken right back to that morning at Haven, when I’d first seen Mom after she’d died.
Two tears spilled down my cheeks. I kept waiting for grief to swamp me, but it didn’t.
Gran cracked open her eyes. “A rat, Evie,” she murmured. “A rat on my table . . . gnaws the threads . . . the salamander stares at me from the shadows . . . the serpent coils around the tree . . . and chokes its roots.”
How had she gotten so much worse in such a short time? “It’s okay, Gran.” I pulled up a chair beside her bed.
Her gaze darted. “Spite couldn’t spit . . . and the Devil knew his verses. The cups see the future . . . in a chalice of blood.” She was rambling more than ever. “Only you can bring us back. You must win . . . the earth depends on it. Cards know it . . . beware the Fool . . . dark dealings. The dark calling, the calling dark.”
This was new. When she started on another rant, I touched her arm. “What about the Fool?”
“The wild card! The game keeper.” She reached for my hand, digging her yellowed nails into it. “You have to kill Death. He will turn on you—they all will. Death is poisoning me!”
I pulled free of her. “No, Gran, he’s not.”
“He’s murdering your last blood relative. A rat! The agent of Death. A salamander. Noon serpents in the shadow. Midnight takes my life!” She was getting infuriated with me, even now.
I reached for the chronicles, but she hugged the book closer. “I could read them to you, Gran.”
She hesitated, then relaxed her grip.
I slid the heavy book onto my lap and opened the cover, that familiar smell wafting up. Ages seemed to have passed since I’d read and illustrated these pages.
I began to read to her: “What followeth is the trew and sworne chronikles of Our Lady of Thorns, the Emperice of all Arcana, chosen to represent Demeter and Aphrodite, embody’g life, all its cycles, and the myst’ries of love. . . .”