I was looking forward to a hot shower—with him. We rarely showered alone. To be fair, who wouldn’t conserve water after living through the Flash?

Then we would eat in his study, holing up in front of the fire to read the chronicles he’d acquired over the last three games, including the Lovers’.

Aric was almost finished translating theirs. When I’d pressed about the contents, he’d admitted there wasn’t much to help us. The entries were basically stream-of-consciousness murder fantasies—and I starred in every one.

I’d assumed those pages would, you know, make sense. Or be helpful. But even the Lovers’ father had admitted their chronicles were a revenge contract. No wonder Aric hadn’t wanted to share the deets.

He’d also read my own book. The information within had filled in blanks that had plagued him for centuries. Among a dozen other mysteries, he’d wondered how I’d defeated the Centurion, how I’d survived the Tower and the Angel’s fire, and what I’d done with the Magician’s chronicles after I’d killed him and Lark (burned after reading).

He’d also suspected Lark could create animals, but he’d never been able to verify that ability until now.

Just as he’d never been able to verify the Minor Arcana. Which made sense. The Minors had probably steered clear of him, letting him do his deadly thing. Would they repeat that strategy in this game?

Even after all these weeks, I still couldn’t shake my ominous countdown feeling; maybe I sensed their approach?

Tick-tock. Tick-tock. If not them, then what threat loomed . . . ?

I’d told Aric about my sense. He’d replied, “We can’t possibly do more to prepare against enemies, so try not to focus on it too much. Remember: this game will try to make you insane.”

He’d scratched his head at Gran’s cryptic writings in the back of my chronicles, promising to keep delving for answers.


Since she’d passed away, I’d tried to focus on good memories of her. She had taught me a lot about my abilities, and not all of the information had been geared toward killing.

She’d told me an Empress could fashion wood into whatever shapes she liked; in my pocket was a wedding ring for Aric that I’d painstakingly crafted.

I’d figured the band would need to be as resilient as metal, so I’d chosen one of the strongest trees in the world: lignum vitae. Latin for wood of life.

Aric would like that detail.

After secretly measuring his ring finger—I’d used a tiny vine as he slept—I’d created prototype rings, honing my ability.

Once I was satisfied with the band, I’d reinforced it with everything in me, making the wood as strong as steel. I’d darkened the grain and smoothed it, until the band was gleaming black.

I might not be wielding the earthshaking plant powers I’d had in the past, but I could make a mean wedding ring.

It would be as enduring as he was.

But for some reason, I kept hesitating to give it to him.

Because of Jack? I didn’t know. I tried not to think about my first love at all, figuring I could keep the tourniquet on a little longer. That noose around my heart might be limiting what I felt for Aric, but I probably couldn’t handle anything stronger than the crazy love I already had for him. . . .

When we reached the front door, he stopped and pulled my hood back, assessing my face. “Perhaps you’re simply fatigued from lack of rest.”

Sometimes the tourniquet slipped. Especially when I slept. “Yeah, maybe.” I still wasn’t free from nightmares about the Emperor’s attack. Last night, I’d shot up in bed screaming. Aric had been right there for me.

“It was just a dream.” He pulled me against him. “You’re safe, love.”

I shook in his arms. The Emperor had to be stopped. I believed Circe—Richter would usher in hell on earth.

“Sievā, shh, shh,” Aric murmured, rocking me. “I’ve got you.”

“Jack used to say that.” I tensed, couldn’t believe I’d uttered that aloud. Where’s your head at, Evie? “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry,” Aric said firmly. “You should talk about him. He was a big part of your life.”

“I don’t want to hurt you.”

Aric pulled me back to face him. “Do you try not to think about him?”

After a hesitation, I nodded.

“Jack saved your life and protected you when you were vulnerable. You and I would never have this time if not for him.”

“I . . . let’s not talk about that.” I reached for Aric, seeking that oblivion. “Kiss me. . . .”

Now I assured him, “I’ll get more sleep tonight.” Maybe I’d been too mentally damaged by everything. Maybe I should have taken more time to grieve Jack.

No, no, I couldn’t have. I wanted—needed—to make Aric happy. And we were on borrowed time. . . .

I had believed dying in a fight against Richter would be easier than simply accepting what he’d done. Now I knew what would be harder than both.

Losing Aric.

I couldn’t stifle a shudder.

“Sievā, is there anything more distracting you?”

I shrugged. “Just thinking about Richter a lot.”

“We should train more in the coming weeks. We’ll add an hour each day.” He wrapped an arm around my shoulders, drawing me against him. “You have to be ready to fight. If anything happened to you . . .” He swallowed thickly. “I think I would lose my mind.”

Bingo, Aric.

That’s exactly what happens.