Still staring at my chest, he cleared his throat before he could speak. “You wish to come to my room this evening?” Then he raised his gaze, seeming determined not to look down.
“Yes. You loaned me a book. That means we’re supposed to discuss it together. Sharing makes the book new for you all over again.” When I smiled, his eyes locked on my lips, his irises going from amber to starry.
Was he imagining kissing me right now? I detested him so much I’d figured the mere idea would make me sick—yet I felt no aversion when I imagined Death’s lips on mine.
Which left me guilt-ridden. I was in love with Jack; how could I be thinking about this man’s kiss?
My cheeks heated, and I think Death noticed.
I reminded myself that the Reaper might be attractive to, like, a glorious degree—but he was arrogant and cruel and merciless. He wanted to murder me. With that in mind, I made my tone flirtatious. “Did you choose The Prince to show me how you play the game, big guy?”
As if cut off with a switch, the light in his eyes dimmed. “I gave you that book to illustrate how you play.”
Oh. The spell was broken.
“Creature, I know what you plan. You intend to win my trust so I’ll remove the cilice. Once I’ve unleashed your powers, you’ll bide your time until I’ve let down my guard, then strike.”
“Death, wait.” I took a step forward.
He took one back. “And all the while, you’re intending to return to him. I wonder what your precious mortal would think about your actions today.” His fists clenched.
There was no longer any denying it. This was more than an opposites-attract interest on his part, more than his need to touch. I recalled how he’d reacted the night I’d been with Jack, the rage in Death’s tone. Something deeper was at work here.
How far had things gone between us in my past lives? Needing to know the truth, I said, “I dreamed that you wanted to take me to bed. Long ago. Did you succeed?”
“If you want to know, then remember.” With a forbidding look, he said, “You will not seduce me, Empress. Cease trying.” He strode away.
Didn’t matter. I would still go to his study tonight.
There was no answer when I knocked on his door. Death was gone.
I sought out Lark, finding her in the den watching a movie. “Where is he?”
She pushed pause on the remote. “Away on business. He said he’d be back before dinner in two nights.”
“He left to go make a kill?”
“Maybe not. He travels a lot to source things for us.” She popped a handful of popcorn in her mouth, chewing loudly. “Hell, he could’ve been trying to get away—from you. For gods’ sakes, Evie, you wet-T-shirted him. I’ve never seen him so rattled.”
I felt a little thrill at the idea that I’d managed to rattle an ancient immortal, but it was immediately doused. Death would be gone for two days. Which meant more nights separated from Jack and my friends.
Jack, who could be out right now, risking his life to hunt Arcana.
How much longer could I remain here? Despite having more time on my hands than I’d ever had in my life, the days seemed to fly by, as if on fast-forward.
As if I were trapped in the Castle of Lost Time.
Feeling the pressure, I said, “Where’s the garden, Lark?” I knew she was loyal to Death, but to what degree? I’d have to risk it. “Help me get my powers back, and we could take this freaking manor from Death and Ogen. Your animals would be safe. You’d have all the comforts here, and you’d get to live past your teens.”
If she was tempted, she didn’t show it.
“I could send for my friends to help us. You could see Finn. We’d be an alliance again.”
“Nah, I’m good here.”
Squeezing my temples, I sank down on the couch opposite her. “Why this loyalty to Death?”
She set her popcorn bowl to the side. “He’s not like you think he is.”
“So you’re saying he’s not a stone-cold killer?”
With reluctance, she admitted, “No, he is. But he’s not like the Lovers, or the Hierophant.”
“We use them for comparison now?”
She shrugged. “Try to put yourself in his shoes. The only girl in the world he can touch has vowed to kill him.”
I almost yelled, He started it! Even before the Flash, he’d threatened me. “I just wanted to live on my farm and mind my own business. He was the one who terrorized me, telling me he’d drink my blood from his sword and such. How was I supposed to react?”
“Have you asked yourself why he’d do that?”
“Oh, I have. And I’ve asked Matthew. And even Death himself! Do you know?”
“If I did, I wouldn’t tell you.”
“Speaking of fauna—you’re being pigheaded. You are stubbornly sticking to a path that leads to one outcome, and it’s the worst possible.”
“I’d say that’s debatable. You forget, I’ve seen the inside of a cannibal pantry.”
“Have you and Death worked out a system for your execution? Will he tell you when you’ve got a year left? A week? It’s sick what he’s doing to you. Why would you tolerate it?”
She shrugged again, tinkering with the remote.
“I wonder what will happen to your pets once you’re buried. Or do you think Death will let Ogen feast on your bones?” Out of patience, I stood. “When the Reaper’s sword is at your neck, I want you to remember this night. Remember that you could’ve changed your future. . . .” I trailed off when the mountain rumbled. A quake? We’d had them at Haven, an additional A.F. perk.
Outside in the wet night, Ogen responded with a bloodcurdling roar.
Lark met my gaze, suddenly looking very young. “The Devil you know.”
Done with her, I made my way back to my room, flagging with each step up. Groundhog Days were exhausting.
When I reached my bed, I fell back, passing out.
Later that night, I shot awake with a strangled cry.
I’d dreamed of Death again, but this time it was no memory of a past life. This was my mind betraying me, because I’d dreamed he’d taken me into his arms, kissing me out in the rain—and I’d loved it.
In the chill downpour, his lips had been hot on mine, as hot as they’d been when he’d breathed air into my lungs, bringing me back from the dead.
As he’d claimed my mouth over and over, his grip had been crushing, but I’d nearly cried with pleasure.
On the very night that he’d ridden out, likely to reap some unsuspecting kid, I’d experienced the most erotic dream in my life—of Death?
Dear God, what was happening to me?
DAY 281 A.F.
Death was expected back tonight, and I had my excuse for going to his study: returning his book. I simply chose to ignore his “parting gift” jab.
With the memory of that kissing dream firmly buried, I readied myself to see him. I took care with my clothes, wearing a fawn-colored skirt and a scoop-neck navy blouse. The neckline plunged lower than any I’d worn since the apocalypse. I left my hair loose.
I had an agenda for tonight, one made even more important in light of Matthew’s curt check-in last night: —We got away. We all lived.— It was as if he’d been overridden by other calls, the Arcana abuzz for some reason. Something about the Arcane Navigator?
My friends were out there in a dangerous world, doing God only knew what. And I couldn’t help them from here.
I exited the bathroom, crossing to the bed, where Cyclops was sprawled. “How do I look. . . .” I couldn’t manage another word, too stunned even to shriek.
Part of Death’s book was still lodged between the wolf’s mighty jaws; the rest was an array of slobbery bits scattered over my bed, like a crime scene. Cyclops belched wetly around his new four-hundred-year-old chew toy.
“Oh my God.” I had to tell Death that one of his precious books—his favorite—was no more. Under my care, his “child” had been eaten.
When Thanatos’s hooves charged onto the property, heralding Death’s arrival, I trudged down the stairs with leaden feet.
Death strode through the front doors not long after, removing his helmet. He looked exhausted, his eyes dim, blond stubble highlighting his defined jawline. His armor was splashed with mud.
Once he saw me, I could have sworn his eyes lightened a fraction, as if he was happy I was here. He looked approving of my appearance.
Then his eyes went dark once more. “Ah, my lady awaiting her knight’s return,” he said in a derisive tone. “I am far too tired for your intrigues tonight, Empress.”
He looked so whipped that I actually felt sorry for him. How could I be softening toward someone who had me in the crosshairs?
This was probably not the best time to tell him about the book, but I could still shoot for proximity. “Where did you go? Lark said you might be sourcing.” Nothing. I fiddled with my blouse. “Won’t you talk to me?”
“Leave me, creature. I’m in no mood.”
“It doesn’t have to be this way between us.”
“So says the girl who wants me dead.”
I exhaled with disappointment. “I only wanted you dead because you kept terrorizing me, and I knew you’d force the issue until only one of us survived.”
He gave a harsh laugh as he removed his spiked gauntlets. “You believe that’s changed?”
“I believe it could. Wouldn’t you rather have me as a friend than an enemy? Maybe you’ve forgotten what it’s like to have friends. Maybe you never knew.”
His expression said I’d hit the nail on the head.
How awful. “But you could have them now,” I said quietly.
“I hold your life in my hands—and you dare to pity me? Your eyes are filled with it. You think I want friends? Perhaps some like yours?” he scoffed. “Then I wouldn’t need enemies.”
“What does that mean?” My question was forgotten when I spied a new icon on his right hand, a simple white star. “You made a kill.”
Death gave me that unsettling sneer. “The Star was very bold.”
So that’s what the buzz was about. The Star, the Arcane Navigator, was no more.
Feeling sick, I turned away. What if Death truly craved killing? Like Ogen, who hungered for offerings?
In past games, Arcana had said Death preferred to kill with his touch. Perhaps, like Finn, he was compelled to use his power?
Death grabbed my arm, yanking me around. “You, of all people, are giving me a repulsed look? You’ve nearly as many markings as I have!” He released me, splaying his fingers as if he’d just handled a live grenade.
“I took mine in self-defense.”
“And you assume I didn’t? The Star neared much too close to my sanctuary. He sought me.” Death ran his palm over his jaw. “I will protect my home and anyone in it. Even you.”
In a faint voice, I said, “How did you do it?”
“Without my customary ease. Long nights had strengthened the Star, making for ideal conditions for him to use his powers.”
“Like what?” I couldn’t remember.
“Echolocation, heightened senses, the ability to create a light blast from his skin, like a supernova. In a black night, he detonated himself, paralyzing my senses, my body.” Was that the quake we’d felt? The one that had made Ogen roar? “Then he used his night sight to attack.”
“But you got the upper hand? How’d you end him?”
Death closed in on me, armored, terrifying, staring down at me until I started to tremble. He lifted one glove to my face. “These spikes”—he lightly skimmed them down my cheek—“through his temple.”
Death had battered some teenager with his gauntleted fist.
When I realized this man was trying to stoke my hatred for him, I yanked my head back. “Is that how you’ll do it to me? Before you take my head, of course. Is that what you’ll do to Lark?”
He said only, “Our play toils on. It’s kill or be killed.”
This game will make murderers of us all. No, I refused to accept that. “It doesn’t have to be that way! What if I vowed on my mother’s soul never to hurt you?”
“How easily those beautiful lips spill lies. Empress, you never keep your vows.”
So I kept hearing. “I’d never break that one.”
He exhaled, seeming like he regretted revealing too much of himself. “It is late, and I’m weary. I take my leave.” He turned toward his rooms.
Another wasted day in the Castle of Lost Time? I needed proximity! I squared my shoulders and followed him into his study. “I’ve figured out why you avoid me. If you get to know me better, it’ll be harder to kill me.”