Another stony stare.
Deciding he was just winding me up, I changed the subject. “What’s immortal life like?”
“Okay.” Awkward silence. Casting about for something to say, I asked, “Are the paintings in the hall Italian Renaissance?”
He appeared surprised. “They are. You know art?”
“I used to paint before the Flash.” Before such pastimes had become impossible. Things I’d enjoyed like dance, art, and reading had faded to distant memories when I was desperately sourcing for food and shelter each and every day. “I was fascinated by the Italian painters.”
When I’d taken an art history elective in school, I’d read and reread their chapter in my textbook, imagining the excitement of the era, the revelry and passion. My favorite painting had been del Cossa’s Triumph of Venus, but I doubted Death would appreciate that.
“It was a time of great advancement,” he said, as if with pride.
I gasped. “You were there, weren’t you?” When he inclined his head, I asked, “Were you in Florence? Or maybe Venice?” I sighed to remember how beautiful those cities had looked.
He gazed away. “I preferred more rural locales.”
Realization. He would have avoided densely populated areas, fearing he might touch others. He never would have enjoyed revelry or passion, because he wouldn’t have had friends or lovers. He must always have been on guard. “Sometimes I forget that you can’t touch others. Well, anyone but me.”
His upper arm strained, like he was clenching his fist beneath the desk. “I never forget.”
Whenever Jack was angry or frustrated, a muscle would tick in his jaw. Was a clenched fist Death’s tell? “So you lived out in the country, away from all the excitement?”
“I had everything I needed.”
I imagined him secluded in some echoing villa, all by himself, reading his books. “Any friends?”
“Mortals die so readily. I make an effort not to grow attached to anyone. Just as I never keep pets.”
“Except for your horse. How’d you find one with red eyes? Is he immortal too?”
Death shook his head. “Any steed I claim as my own grows red-eyed.”
“And you named him Thanatos? It’s catchy. Really.”
“It’s the name of a death deity. Do avail yourself of the library. Improve your mind.”
I ground my teeth. Though I wanted to point out how useless studying would be if he planned to kill me soon, I said, “Great idea.” I rose, crossing to his bookshelves. “I’ll start with your favorite book.” Then I’d have to return it to him here.
“I meant from the other library.”
Over my shoulder, I said, “I want to read what you like.”
“You have an entire collection at your disposal, but you desire a title from my personal one? Do you comprehend how valuable these books are? How much care I’ve taken over centuries to keep them pristine?”
I faced him. “Because they’re first editions.”
“Because they’re mine. I’ve spent fortunes to keep them safe in all my different homes, in all my wanderings. Through wars and catastrophes, I protected them.”
I frowned. “They sound like your children.”
He raised his glass. “The closest I’ll ever come to having them.” He said this in an unemotional tone, but the comment still struck me as sad.
After all this time, he hadn’t—and could never—start a family. He had no one. I remembered how alone I’d felt those two days I’d spent by myself on the way to Requiem. Two days.
Death might have felt that way for seven hundred thousand days.
The idea that someone like him might be lonely made me think of him as, I don’t know, more human. As if he were a normal guy in his early twenties, maybe a former college student just trying to get by.
When he was anything but. He was the Endless Knight, an immortal killer. He probably preferred being alone, lacking the need for companionship that I had.
“You won’t cough up a single book?” I said. “Are you scared I’ll get clues about your personality from reading the same things you do?”
With a put-out demeanor, he rose, joining me, but not too close. Reaching high, he took down a slim tome and handed it to me.
“It’s in English. Almost as old as the original Italian.” With a touch more enthusiasm, he said, “You don’t lose as much in the translation as you’d think.”
“What’s it about? Is it an adventure? Maybe a love story?”
“It’s a political treatise, or possibly a satire. . . .” He trailed off, seeming to remember who he was talking to. His expression grew shuttered again, and he returned to his chair. I got the sense that he felt more comfortable with that desk between us.
Because of what I might do to him—or because of what he might do to me?
“You speak and read Italian?”
“I speak and read many languages. A benefit of being immortal. I have much time for study.” He waved a hand, indicating those scrolls. “And I wish to continue with my research. Now.”
Leaving me to return to my solitary turret. Just the thought of that made my three shots of vodka churn in my gut. At least being with Death was interesting. “I could start this book here, while you research. We could read together.”
Was he wavering?
“I’ll be quiet as a mouse.”
He narrowed his eyes. “You think I can’t see what you’re doing? What your plan is? Leave me, creature. Do not come back here.”
With a touch of cockiness, I said, “But I have to return this book once I’m done.” I wagged it in front of him. “It’s only etiquette.”
In a tone ringing with finality, he said, “Consider it an early parting gift.”
DAY 279 A.F.
—Hunts and campaigns.—
I woke, rubbing my eyes. Matthew, is that you? I scowled to find Cyclops beside me again. He licked his massive chops, then dozed once more. What time is it?
—Dunno. Always dark.—
Yesterday the sun had risen for only an hour or so. Endless night in the lair of the Endless Knight? I tried to block that out of my mind. I’d wanted to foil the game, which wouldn’t matter if the entire planet failed. Where have you been? You haven’t checked in for five days.
Tell me Jack’s doing better. We’d now been separated for three weeks, and I’d grown more and more frightened for him. I couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t think beyond escaping to reach him.
Or finishing my job here.
I wished I had some kind of update for Matthew, but my life seemed to be stuck on pause, Groundhog Days repeating themselves. I’d gotten no closer to the arrogant Reaper. My only development was that I’d grown accustomed to the cilice. This wasn’t a good thing; I’d planned to rid myself of it before I ever got used to it.
—Better? Jack’s doing different. We go on hunts and campaigns!— Matthew sounded like a sixteen-year-old who’d just scored his first car.
What does that mean?
He showed me a vision of Jack. Instead of the frenzy he’d demonstrated before, Jack was coldly cleaning a rifle, focused with a deadly intent. Still not drinking.
—Others know your location. Beware the lures.—
As Death had spoken of. Yes, and?
—I won’t tell Jack how to reach you. So he plans to learn your location from others.—
As I sputtered mentally, Matthew continued. —We go on hunts for Arcana. Planning a new campaign!—
What are you thinking?? This was the most furious I’d ever been with Matthew. Jack doesn’t HAVE POWERS.
—Selena and Finn help too.— His tone was surly now.
Please lead them all away from danger! Promise me, Matthew.
— Proximity. Seduction. Freedom. Hunts! And campaigns!—
Then he was gone, as good as hanging up on me. Leaving me even more frantic to return to them all.
How? How? How?
Proximity? Death had a marked aversion to me. I’d ambushed him twice, but only felt farther away from my goal. My next move would be standing in the rain while he trained, looking like an even bigger idiot.
What did I know about seduction? I was sixteen going on seventeen. I’d had sex once. I’d always gotten advice from the worldly Mel.
She would know what to do about this. I remembered one time when we’d had a car wash fund-raiser for our cheer squad. She’d shown up in a tissue-thin white T-shirt and a black bra.
Her line of cars had stretched around the school.
But there were no cars around here to wash. In what situation could I be expected to wear a wet T-shirt?
It dawned on me. I turned to Cyclops. “Boy, you stink.”
Drizzling rain? Check. Wolf? Check. Thin white shirt and black bra? Check, check.
I’d just set up buckets of warmed water and my wolf prop in the courtyard—in full view of Death.
Though he hadn’t even glanced over at us, my mind had briefly blanked to see him. Today he wore a chain-mail shirt—like a long-sleeved T-shirt made of woven metal—that left little to the imagination. The mesh hung lovingly over the ridges and planes of his swollen muscles, teasing across the runes on his skin.
Focus! I grabbed the dishwashing liquid I’d filched from the kitchen. Assuming that Death’s lair had all the soap in the world, I squirted a good portion onto Cyclops.
Earlier, I’d found Lark in the gym, telling her, “I’m giving Cyclops a bath.”
Her response: “Your funeral.”
Strangely, the wolf cooperated, even when I began working the liquid into his frizzy fur. But he cast me a one-eyed look of such bafflement that I knew Lark had never washed him before. So I gave him a whatcha gonna do? look in turn and scrubbed.
Like washing a scarred, mangy Wookiee.
Sudsy water began running down the courtyard to where Death practiced. Whenever he stepped through it, bubbles splashed up around his boots. He must have noticed that. For a moment he stilled, then continued on with a determined look on his face.
Okay, now he was just ignoring me. Not acceptable.
I dumped the entire bottle on Cyclops, lathering his fur until he was covered in bubbles, a foam blanket. “My wolf in sheep’s clothing, huh, boy?”
A thick river of suds floated down to Death. Ignore us now, Reap.
Even when bubbles clung to his pant legs, the man wouldn’t glance over, just battered his target with punishing hits.
Damn it, this had seemed like such a good plan. I peered down at the wolf. “Might as well get you washed up for real.” Imagining how much better my turret would smell, I dug in to my task.
It was kind of soothing to take care of him, and when I realized he was liking it too, I smiled.
Without warning, he gave a great shake, sending foam all over me. I shrieked and jumped back, but he sidled up to me at once, wanting more attention. “You’re like a big feline!”
I squatted to work out some tangles on his neck. He snuffled, and bubbles formed over his nostrils, floating into the air. I couldn’t help laughing. It felt great to laugh. I hadn’t since that night in the cabin with Jack—
I caught sight of Death striding over, looking like he was about to annihilate something. “You interrupt my training?”
“Hmm?” Here goes nothing. I stood.
His head immediately dipped, eyes focused on my chest. I followed his gaze. My headlights were on, high beams engaged. Oops. “Just wanted to wash my roommate. Is the yard off-limits to me?”
Death’s blond brows drew tight, and he rubbed his gauntleted hand over his mouth.
“You have no other motive to brave this rain?” he said absently, still staring. “This cold rain.” Had his accent thickened? A change in accent was always an indicator of Jack’s heightened emotions.
I walked around Cyclops to stand in front of Death. “The wolf has taken to sleeping in my bed. I’d rather he smelled like zesty lemon than wet dog.”
Death’s hand moved just a fraction, as if to reach for me. Then his arm fell back, his fist clenching.
His tell. Born from lifetimes of craving contact? Only to remember that he killed with it?
It was so strange to think that this immortal could only have sex with one woman in the whole world. And that he thought about touching me all the time. Would he fantasize about it tonight?
At the thought, I shivered; he bit out a foreign curse.
Remember the mission. “Um, thank you for lending me The Prince.” It was a weird book, all about unscrupulous acts in war and ruling. Plots, scheming, and ruthlessness were to be applauded. “I’ll finish it this afternoon. I was thinking I could drop by your study tonight and return it.”