Matthew watched my eyes, as if he knew exactly what was going on in my muddled thoughts.

I’d believed she would be better off going with Domīnija before I’d lost everything. Now I knew . . . if I truly loved my girl, I’d let her go.

She would never be Evangeline Deveaux. We’d never see the bayou come back to life. It wouldn’t always be Evie and Jack. My eyes blurred, but nothing was wrong with my vision.

I loved that fille more than my own life; this just proved it.

“I’m not goan to kill you right now, no,” I told Matthew, my voice thick. “But only ’cause you’re goan to swear never to tell her I survived.” I swallowed. “As far as Evie’s concerned, I’m buried under that rock.”

Coo-yôn nodded, then reached into his pack, pulling out . . . that cell phone and the tape player! Evie’s pictures, her voice. How’d he get those . . . ? Didn’t matter. The kid was giving me another crutch, right when I needed it most.

God, peekôn. Noble, for the record, cuts like a blade to the heart. . . .

40

The Empress

Day 453 A.F.

The rain tapered off for my grandmother’s funeral.

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Despite her breakdown and murderous message, Gran was a Tarasova, and the other Arcana demonstrated their respect. All creatures were silent that day. The surface of the water was glass. Aric wore a dark suit. He’d cut lilies from the nursery to place on her grave.

We buried her beneath an oak I grew on the southwest side of the property.

She would forever face Haven.

If the sun ever returned, it would set for her each dusk.

I only wished I could have buried Jack beside her, so he could always see his beloved home. . . .

41

Day 455 A.F.

What’s going on with him? I wondered as I headed to a window overlooking the training yard.

Since the funeral, Aric hadn’t invited me to move into his bedroom. We’d slept on the study couch, with me wrapped in his arms.

Yes, he liked his sanctuaries, and yes, he’d been furious when I’d trespassed in his bedroom before. But I thought he’d also liked sleeping in a bed with me.

Or sleeping with me in general. He’d made no overtures to have sex.

I watched him riding Thanatos through the rain, pushing them in a grueling session. Even that tank of a warhorse looked like he wanted to tap out.

My Endless Knight was training as if possessed, as if he might blow from tension. He was no more satisfied with our current situation than I was.

Had he decided to give me time to grieve? Maybe he thought any move on his part would spook me. Or he simply didn’t know enough about relationships in general.

We’d slept together; now what? It wasn’t as if either of us had a lot of experience.

But I’d signed on with him. I’d accepted him as my husband. We both had needs that were not being met. So I decided to make it really easy for him.

Knowing he would be outside for a few hours, I began moving my things into his master suite—to Cyclops’s snuffling dismay. “Sorry, boy. Married life requires some privacy.”

In the bathroom, I arranged my toiletries on my half of the marble vanity. His armor hung on a stand; I tossed my silk nightgown over it, just to see what he’d say.

I hung up my clothes in the closet beside Aric’s and cleaned out a few drawers for my things.

In one, I kept a cherished remembrance. . . .

Then I started making some real changes. His sole piece of furniture was a carved sleigh bed. I directed my vines to move more pieces in. Soon my laptop sat charging on the new bedside table.

His ceiling and walls were solid black, the floor black marble. I figured a couple of the walls should be mine. On one, I created a vertical garden, styling blooms into a red infinity symbol. I began decorating the other wall using paint he’d sourced for me.

As I moved my brush, I wondered how he would react to all this. I hoped by kissing me.

On the many occasions I’d watched him training in his leather pants and chain-mail shirt, I’d lusted over him. And I’d had sensual dreams of him that hadn’t arisen from the past. In one, I’d run my lips over all the runes on his chest, tracing them with my tongue before descending.

Now that I was married, there were things I wanted to try, things I’d heard about from Mel and other girls in school. And since I’d vowed to myself to have no regrets . . .

God, if Aric only knew what I was imagining right now.

I’d just finished up when I heard his spurs down the hall. His footsteps slowed. He must’ve smelled the blooms and the paint.

He opened the door. He was sweating and streaked with mud, looking so magnificent he temporarily blanked my thoughts.

His gaze swept over my changes: my gown tossed over his armor, my new garden and artwork. In the center of a black wall, I’d painted a huge white rose.

Like his banner.

His lips curled, and his eyes went starry. “You moved in?”

“I take it you’re okay with the plan?”

“Delighted.” He crossed to stand before me, then cradled my face in his hands. “I didn’t want to pressure you. And I didn’t know if you would want to officially mourn.”

So old-fashioned. Which, considering his age, was understandable. “I thought you wanted your privacy.”

He exhaled. “My own doing. I was an ass about that when I first forced you to live here.”

I couldn’t argue with him on that score. “I also worried that you might like sleeping in your bed alone.”

“That bed is four hundred years old, which means I’ve spent a lot of time in it fantasizing about you. Once I have you there again, I suspect I will have little control at first. I was attempting to be a gentleman and refrain, so the couch seemed a safer bet.”