Instead of answering my question, Death said, “Ogen won’t enter the manor again.”
When he opened his door, I was a total Looky Lou, but he didn’t invite me in. “You’ve got a lot of books.” Scintillating, Eves. “Can I come in for a sec?”
With an aggrieved air, he turned and walked in. Taking that as a “sure,” I followed, shutting the door in Cyclops’s face.
Death sat behind his oversize desk, which was covered with weathered scrolls. From the looks of it, before I’d interrupted he’d been deep in the study of . . . something. Beside the scrolls was a bottle and a shot glass.
Like Jack, Death drank spirits. Unlike Jack, he shot vodka.
Without a word to me, Death rolled up the scrolls. When he didn’t offer me a seat, I took my time exploring. He had two walls of bookshelves that stretched from floor to ceiling. I ran a finger over a line of spines, noting the age of the books. All collector’s editions, no doubt. Most of the titles were in foreign languages, what looked like Greek and Latin, some in French.
Dozens of swords hung on one wall. Behind his desk, a bank of Gothic windows arched high—the ones I’d seen him gazing out of.
On either side of the windows stood display cabinets filled with unusual objects. Four kingly scepters lay on one shelf. The same number of crowns was highlighted on another.
Everything about the room screamed wealth and taste. Yet all his possessions were mired in the past, no signs of life. The crowns had once been worn. The swords had once been wielded. Those dusty books had once been unread, untapped, filled with mystery.
Was this the existence Death wanted? The sanctuary he craved? I pictured him sitting here all alone, surveying his lifeless collections. As on the riverbank, I felt a confusing pang of pity. “So you collect swords and books and . . . crowns?”
“Among other things,” he said dismissively.
“No electric lights?” The room was lit with candles. “How can you read like this?”
As if his reply had been dragged from him, he said, “For eons, I’ve read by candlelight. If you must know, it makes the words more . . . alive.”
“Death wants the words to be alive? Cats and dogs living together, huh?” Yet his comment made me look at his room anew. Maybe he didn’t prefer this cold, solitary existence. Maybe he was trapped like this.
Maybe Death wished he could dream in color.
His eyes narrowed. “What do you want?”
“To talk.” Before he could kick me out, I sat in one of the plush chairs in front of his desk. I was playing with fire, irritating this man. When his gaze dipped, I drew my robe tight to my neck. Some femme fatale.
Even he frowned at my actions. “As I’ve told you, I will not touch you like that. You’ve nothing to fear from me on that score.”
“But on another score, I’m not so lucky? I guess I should get this out of the way: is tonight the night you kill me?”
He sighed. “Not yet, creature.”
Feeling bolder, I said, “So what are those scrolls about?”
“Chronicles from a past game,” he said. “Details about . . . certain players.”
“Anything you want to share?” At his annoyed expression, I said, “You have all the advantages over the rest of us, don’t you? A fortress, supplies, insight into the game, and hand-picked allies who don’t seem to care that you’ll kill them.”
“Correct on all counts.” He shot his glass, refilling.
He still hadn’t kicked me out. Deep down, did this man crave talking to another? “So what does vodka taste like? I’ve never had it.” At his disbelieving look, I reminded him, “I’m sixteen. I hail from a land of bourbon and beer.”
As if he couldn’t help himself, he rose to collect another glass from a side table, then poured straight vodka.
I stared at the clear liquid he set down in front of me. My mission was seduction; liquor lowered inhibitions, right? When I raised my glass to sip, he shook his head slowly, demonstrating with his own shot how it was meant to be enjoyed. Bottoms up, with an immediate refill.
Giving him a pained smile, I knocked back my glass, coughing at the burn.
“Well?” He poured again.
Throat on fire, I said, “Don’t know how I lived without it. I’ll bet you’ve got bottles and bottles of this stuff—in your bunker beneath the manor.”
Undeterred, I asked, “How did you know when the Flash would be?”
He sank into his leather chair once more. “The icons on my hand began to fade, and I started to hear the Arcana calls. Those events usually happen just prior to the catastrophe.”
“There’s truly one in each game?”
“They’re are all card-themed. The Black Death was a nod to me. A region-killing volcano was for the Emperor.”
“That’s right,” I said, remembering that card’s powers. The Emperor could create mountains, volcanoes, and earthquakes, his character as hard and unyielding as the Empress was supposed to be soft and lush.
“A shame that you can’t remember your famine tribute.”
In one of my early visions, villagers had blamed the red witch for their famine. Had they been right to? In as innocent a tone as I could manage, I asked, “Has there been a catastrophe to honor that card, the other one who’s immune to my poison?” I’d tried so hard to remember which one it was. Maybe Death would spill. . . .
He gave me a thin smile. “For me to know.”
“Let me guess—now it’s the Sun’s turn?”
He nodded. “These events have a way of pulling Arcana together and keeping us from the notice of humans. One doesn’t look up to the sky to see a flying boy if bodies are writhing all around one’s feet.”
“The field of battle.” Just as Matthew had told me. “But those other tragedies weren’t apocalyptic. Why was this one?”
With raised brows, he glanced at my untouched glass. Fair’s fair. I chugged, gasped, winced at the refill.
“I believe something about this damaged world—the planet, not the card—couldn’t take the sunlight. The gods might have salvaged things, but they’ve gone.”
“So we’re champions of various gods, right? Like you were tapped by a death deity?” A curt nod. The idea made me shiver. “And what about me? You said I was more Aphrodite than Demeter. Were you being literal?”
“The gods go by countless names. What they’re called is unimportant. All that matters is what powers they gifted to you.”
“Your Touch-of-Death gift doesn’t seem very fair. Is it only in your hands, or is all of your skin deadly?”
Skewering me with his gaze, he enunciated the words: “Every last inch of me.”
I couldn’t tell if his words held innuendo—or a threat. Moving on. “What’s your call? How come I never hear it?”
“Perhaps I’m beyond one,” he said, evading.
“Have you heard each of the Arcana calls?” As king of the airwaves. “Even the distant ones?” The ones I could hear only wanted to whisper about the Empress’s impending gruesome death.
“I have. But for the one who awaits activation.”
I cast my mind back. Wasn’t there a card who remained dormant until he or she killed an Arcana?
“You are inquisitive this time around. You’ve asked me more questions in days than in your other lives combined.”
Added to all my other faults, I’d been a conversation hog?
“You puzzle me,” Death admitted. “You seem altered from how you’ve been in the past—at least on the surface. I want to know why.”
“I can’t say why I’m different. I don’t remember much about any past lives.”
“Based on your history, I must assume that this is all an act.”
“It’s not. Look, I’ve gotten the impression that I wasn’t exactly Miss Congeniality in past games. But in this one, I’m pretty transparent.”
“Then you’ll answer any of my questions with honesty.”
I had a feeling he was about to test me, like he’d only ask questions he already knew the answers to. “Shoot.”
“Are you and the Fool engaged in a plot against me?”
“Would you kill me right now if you had the opportunity?”
How to answer that? “Not if you joined my truce.”
“Alas, I know the futility. Do you think Arcana have never tried this in the past? Leave a few cards alive, with a pact of peace among them. It works for a time. Yet then the temptation of immortal life grows too strong. The killing begins again. Fate will figure out a way to make you fight.”
I hadn’t believed I was the first Arcana to have these ideas. But to know a truce had been attempted—and failed—was demoralizing. If Death told the truth about this.
“The strongest of the Arcana couldn’t make it work,” he continued. “Interestingly, you entered into a pact before. And you were the first to fold.”
“How? What’d I do?”
Another glance at my glass.
When I drank my shot, he emptied his own, refilling us. Again? I was starting to get buzzed.
“If you want to know, creature, then remember.”
“And what if I can’t?”
“Then you’ll never know. Haven’t you heard? I keep secrets like a grave.”
Again, was this teasing from him? “In any case, that was before; this is now. I’m not the same person this time around. I can’t even comprehend how I was so evil.” The record holder.
“Your family line has always taken the game very seriously, training you to be a vicious killer.”
My lips parted as I recalled my grandmother’s words: Evie, there’s a viciousness in you that I must nurture. I remembered her eyes had twinkled with affection as she’d told me, You’re going to kill them all.
I’d been eight at the time.
If my mother hadn’t sent her away, what would I be like now? What would Gran have taught me, given eight more years of my childhood? I swallowed. What would she teach me now?
Probably not how to end the game. And truces hadn’t worked in the past anyway.
I’d been stubbornly holding on to the belief that my grandmother could help me. Considering all I’d learned—and remembered—that idea seemed almost laughable. Maybe I’d held on so tightly because the alternative was murdering kids I cared about. . . .
For the first time, my urge to reach her grew a little less pressing.
“What are you thinking with such solemnity?” Death asked.
“That it’s no wonder I’m different.” I ran my finger along the rim of my glass. “I missed my lessons. Instead of learning how to murder, I was just a regular girl.” I glanced up, saw that his gaze followed the movement of my finger.
He nodded at my icons. “You’ve done quite well for yourself.”
I dropped my hand. “After my grandmother went away”—was committed to an asylum—“I wasn’t taught anything more. I went to school in a small town, I hung out with friends. I was boring, with banal and tedious musings.”
“That really vexed you, didn’t it?”
I shrugged. “Why did you want to see my thoughts anyway?”
“It’s wise to know my enemy.”
“I wish you could read my thoughts now. You’d know that I don’t want to be your enemy.”
He steepled his fingers, as arrogant as ever. His touch might be fatal, but his hands were refined. Like I imagined a surgeon’s would be. “How coincidental. When I could read your mind, you were vowing to kill me, actively forming alliances to do so. Now that I can’t, you say you wish for peace between us?”
“If I managed to get Matthew to restore our link, would you remove this cuff?”
“Not until I remove you from the game.” His tone was matter-of-fact, all reigning victor.
Which reminded me that I wasn’t here to make friends. “What was the deal you made with Matthew anyway? The one that forced him to give you access to my head?”
“All you need to know is that he’s broken it. By doing so, he’s lost honor. It will hurt him in future games.”
Just as my past broken promises had hurt me in this game. “But you broke a deal with me. I went with you in the mine, but you let Ogen continue battering the mountain.”
“My deal was that your friends wouldn’t be killed. They live yet. Empress, I haven’t lied to you.”
“What does that mean? Who has lied to me?”