For hours, I read, and the words seemed to soothe her. Her eyes closed, and she lost herself in tales of murder and betrayal.
When I recounted the Empress’s “most glorious victories,” Gran’s lips would curve and her thin fingers would clench.
I read until her chest no longer rose and fell. My grandmother was at peace.
For some reason, I turned to the last page. Gran had updated the chronicles. The first entry:
The cunning Empress has beguiled Death, until all he can see is her. He reunites an Arcana with her Tarasova, courting his own destruction.
They are murdering me, but the Empress turns a blind eye. Though they have tricked her, I see clearly. She won’t do what’s necessary, so I have put the end into motion.
She can never be with him. She has no idea what Life and Death become. . . .
What had she meant by that? And what “necessary” thing had she put into motion? The last few lines were barely legible, her handwriting declining as much as her mental state:
I left you clues, Evie. Nothing is as it seems. Midnight serpents choke the roots. The Agent. The ro—
She’d never finished the last word. Mad ramblings? Or a legitimate warning in code? Filled with unease, I closed the book and laid it under her hands.
Aric entered, his concerned gaze flickering over my face before he wrapped me in his strong arms.
My grandmother had wanted me to murder this man.
He pressed a kiss against my forehead. “Come.” He ushered me out of the room and back to his study. This time he poured two shots of vodka; we each knocked one back. I grimaced at the burn. He poured again. Another down the hatch.
He guided me to the couch, pulling me across his lap, my head against his warm chest. “Talk to me.”
“She wrote worrying things in the back of the chronicles.” I told him the gist. “Do you think she could’ve done anything to hurt the people here?”
“There’s very little that’s vulnerable,” he assured me.
“I feel guilty—because I don’t grieve her enough. What if my grief is broken?”
“It’s not, sievā. I suspect you might be in shock. I can’t think of another person who has lost as much as you have in such a short span. In just four hundred days or so.”
“I figured out that I would have attended a funeral about every month,” I said. “I know I should have been with her more at the end, but I wouldn’t change last night.”
He rubbed my back with a big palm. “Try to recall your good memories of her.”
I would. I wished these last few weeks would fade to a blur—compared to memories of her laughter as we played hide-and-seek in the cane.
“What do we do now?” I asked, my voice sounding lost.
“You will pick a place on the mountain, and we will have a funeral for her in the morning.”
I sat up to face him. “Bury her here? At your home? But she was awful to you.”
His brows drew together. “At our home. Where my wife’s grandmother belongs.” God, he was a wonderful man to overlook all the things she’d said about him.
Which reminded me . . . “When you went hat in hand to her that night, what did you ask?”
“I sought her for two reasons: to give her my vow that you would be protected for as long as I lived.” Oh, Aric. “And to ask if she sensed this game was . . . different. Because I had.”
“How so?” I quickly asked, “Do you think it can be stopped?” When would I accept reality?
He shook his head. “I believe I sensed this”—he gestured from me to him—“our upcoming union. The marriage of Life and Death.”
The marriage that felt forbidden on every level. “What did Gran say?”
“She said this game was somehow different. But one aspect would always remain the same.” He pulled me back against his chest. “Only one can win.”
Closer still . . .
“Climb,” Matthew said, pointing to the top of a rise. “If you want to see her.”
Though we couldn’t be far from Fort Arcana, he’d insisted on stopping here. I figured this peak must be where Evie had radioed me the last time we’d spoken.
Her roses covered the face. And they were still alive.
When we’d first gotten here, I’d said, “She must be close! Is she at the fort?” Over all the time I’d spent with the Fool, no amount of threats or coaxing could make him come off her current whereabouts.
“Some time ago,” he’d answered. “No longer.”
So how had her flowers lived since then? I couldn’t imagine the power she must’ve used creating so many. It was almost as if she’d left part of her ability here as a generator.
I swiped rain from my face. Even in the dusky light, the bright red and green were stark against the ash. “If I get myself up to the top, you’ll finally tell me how to reach her?”
“Gaze out from the peak. Get a new viewpoint.” Then he started fiddling with his bug-out bag, ignoring me.
I wore my brace, was still limping with my crutch, muscles weak. But you better believe I would push my body and my leg to scale this mountain. In a worsening storm.
’Cause I was desperate to get to my girl.
I hooked my crutch under my pack to free up both hands, then set to climbing. Soon sweat mixed with rain, dripping in my eyes. Each time that brace pressed on my wound, pain sang through me, but I white-knuckled my way upward.
When I reached the top, I lurched, nearly tumbling backward. I yanked my crutch free and steadied myself. Then I gazed out with disbelief. Black rock and roses stretched from this peak all the way to the next.