“You enter here?” He laid his helmet and gloves on his desk. “I’ve warned you. And still you test me.” In a voice vibrating with rage, he said, “But you’d risk anything, would do anything to get back to your mortal. Anything to be in his arms once more. Even endeavoring to get closer to the man you hate above all others.”
“Deny that you want to be with him right now.”
I couldn’t make myself deny it. Death was right. I would do anything to return to Jack.
When I didn’t answer, Death looked like something snapped inside, his iron control shattering. “How can you possibly want him? The mortal thinks of your powers as a curse, a problem. You’re a god among humans, but he’s too blind to see that!”
“I look at this as a curse, as a problem. If I weren’t the Empress, then you and I wouldn’t have to be enemies. I’d never have to worry about your sword at my throat.”
“Do you believe yourself in love with Deveaux?” He snarled the words.
As far as my mission to seduce went, it probably wasn’t the best idea to be honest about that.
Between gritted teeth, he said, “It’s emblazoned on your pretty face. But you wouldn’t love him if you truly knew him. Your feelings would wither and die.”
“What are you talking about?”
He headed for his vodka bottle, pouring a shot for himself only. “He’s lied to you repeatedly.” He tossed off his glass, running the back of his marked hand over his lips, then refilled.
I crossed my arms over my chest. “Uh-huh. I’ll just take your word for it?”
“No, I received my information from the Fool. He was quite worried about his Empress’s safety when you were in Deveaux’s keeping.”
This was coming from Matthew? No, no, Death was just trying to keep me on edge, to rattle me as I had him. “You know I’ll fact-check.”
“I expect you to.”
I swallowed. “And why would you two be discussing my safety?”
“We had a shared interest.”
“That’s right!” I snapped my fingers. “You wanted to keep me alive, so I could be your wild card. At least before you off me yourself. Now it makes sense why you intervened with the Hierophant. And with the other Arcana, warning them away.”
“I’ve been up-front about my intentions with you, unlike Deveaux. Did you never wonder about his instant infatuation with you?”
“Maybe he had a thing for cheerleaders.” Jack had told me he’d wanted me from the first time he’d seen me. I would never forget that morning. I’d been riding in Brand’s Porsche, leaning over to kiss him, when I’d seen a motorcyclist pull up alongside us. Jack.
Death shook his head. “No, he targeted you before he ever saw you.”
“That doesn’t make sense.”
“You were possessed by someone he hated.” He downed another shot.
“Jack despised Brand. That was no secret.”
“You never asked yourself why?”
“Because Brand was rich and seemed to have everything so easy.”
“I’m sure that had something to do with it. However, the main reason he hated Brandon Radcliffe”—Death’s eyes had never looked so flat and dark—“was that they shared a father. A father who adored one son and spurned the other.”
Dizziness swept over me. “You’re saying Brand and Jackson were . . . half brothers?”
This made a certain sick sense. What was it Jack had told me about his biological father? He was too busy spoiling his legitimate son to spend time with me—or to send a single dime to ma mère.
Mr. Radcliffe had been a lawyer; Jack had said his father hadn’t wanted to admit culpability. Something an attorney might say. I pictured the two boys, both so tall and built, detecting a resemblance I hadn’t noticed before. I remembered how Brand, a well-liked guy, had been baffled about why the Cajun had acted so aggressive toward him.
Only one son had known of their connection.
Was this why Jack’s eyes had darted when I’d asked him if he had any secrets? I folded my hands behind me, because they shook.
Death was relishing this. “Deveaux coveted all his brother had: the perfect family, the house, the car. The girl. He could never have any of the others—but he could have you. And he did.”
“You’re lying.” You can trust me alone, Evie. “Matthew would’ve told me about this.”
Death tsked. “Such trust you have in the Fool. How do you think I learned what my armor would do to your powers?”
I tottered on my feet. “H-he wouldn’t!”
“It’s nothing personal with him, just strategy and scheming.”
I’d thought Matthew an innocent, wide-eyed boy.
“The Fool knew that I’d kill you if I had no means to control you. In essence, he’s saved your life. So far, at least.”
Not all bad is bad, Matthew had said. Endgame, endgame.
While I digested this gut-wrenching information, Death continued, “Deveaux didn’t even like you, but he pursued you.”
“You don’t know anything!” I cried, though I could hear Jack’s words: Even when I hated you, I wanted you.
“One benefit of my endless life? I have quite a grasp on human behavior. How triumphant the mortal must have felt to claim you, to steal you from his dead brother.”
Though everything Death had told me hurt, I refused to let him undermine what I’d found with Jack. “Maybe he did target me. But his feelings grew from that. You’ll have to do better than this.”
“Do better? As you wish, creature.” With an evil grin, he said, “Deveaux killed your mother.”
MATTHEW! Answer me this minute!
I’d just reached my tower, was nearly hyperventilating from Death’s reveal.
In his mocking tone, the Reaper had explained that not only had Jack ended Mom’s life so I’d run away with him, but that Matthew—my supposed best friend and ally—had known all along and decided not to tell me.
I’d stormed out, calling Death a liar and much worse. But I feared deep down that the bastard had spoken the truth.
Death told me things about my mother. About Jack. Did the Reaper lie to me?
I squeezed my eyes shut. Matthew, why didn’t you tell me? Why let me be with Jack? I replayed his behavior the morning Mom had passed away. He’d been shaken, almost stunned. Though the Army of the Southeast had been closing in on us, he’d tried so hard to give Mom a decent burial—I’d thought as a kindness to her, or even to me. Now I realized it might have been guilt that had driven him.
I’d slept with that boy, had given him my heart. And all the while he’d known what he’d done. He’d berated me for keeping things from him? Then he’d looked me in the eyes and said, “I got no secrets, peekôn.”
Other than escorting my mother to the other side? He was worse than Death!
When I’d explained to Jack that nothing was more important than trust, he’d assured me that I could trust him alone. No wonder Matthew had called him Dee-vee-oh. Devious!
Maybe you could’ve given me a heads-up, telling me not to fall in love with him?
—Whenever he helps, he hurts.—
How many times had Matthew told me that?
—Your mother wanted you gone before army descended. End was near.—
Unless I could’ve gotten her help! Yes, she’d been in dire straits, but surely there had to have been a better way. So Jack assisted her suicide while I was asleep in my bed? And he did it so I’d leave with him?
Because he’d been hard-up for me since learning I was his brother’s girl! So how’d he do it? Suffocated Mom with a pillow? I stifled a sob. Helped her OD?
—I looked away.—
Fury blazed inside me. Even with the cuff, my hair began turning red, my claws struggling to bud. Looked away as she died? It was like he’d . . . he’d deserted her. You bastard! Why didn’t you foresee what would happen to her, before she’d even gotten hurt? Maybe warned me not to let her go out?
—Matthew knows best.—
His tone was eerie, his words a disturbing echo of his mother’s—“Mother knows best”—when she’d been about to drown him. This is unforgivable. What else have you kept from me? I trusted you!
—The Empress is my friend.—
No longer! Don’t ever contact me again!
—I won’t talk so loud.— Then his presence in my head vanished.
I had never felt so betrayed and alone.
Since my mother’s passing, Jack and Matthew had been the only constants in all this terror and misery; now those anchors were gone.
I was completely adrift, trapped in the Castle of Lost Time.
Tears pricked my eyes, and I let them fall.
DAY 307 A.F.
Nearly a month had passed since that night of revelations, and I remained a wreck.
Hair tangled, face puffy, I sat on my bed in a nightgown, staring out the turret window into the dark. I absently petted Cyclops, who was sprawled beside me, and reflected on the days that kept passing.
The first week after, I’d tried to block out everything. The next week, I’d replayed Jack’s behavior countless times. Since then, I’d been spiraling even lower, imagining how he might have done it. . . .
Walking in a fog, I’d wandered the halls of the manor. I hadn’t felt the pouring rain as I scuffed across the grounds, shadowed at every second by Cyclops. I’d never cried again, but only because I sensed Death was always watching me, or Lark through the wolf.
The few times I’d seen Death outside, he’d been sharpening his swords with those rhythmic movements, the ones that seemed to soothe him.
What the hell would he need soothing for? I was the one in a spiral—because of him.
I hadn’t belonged in a nuthouse before. Now? I might. My grief over my mother’s death had been reopened. After her passing, I’d been on the run for my life, mayhem around every corner; I’d had little time to think about how much I missed her.
Currently I had all the time in the world, and it was killing me.
At night, I dreamed of my life with Mom at Haven. I’d had reveries of sugarcane harvests and horseback riding. Of shelling pecans for pie and picking blackberries along the river. Mom and I had been happy before Matthew’s disturbing visions had begun.
I remembered how she’d looked that last morning, pale, her chest still. She’d been clutching a photo of me, her, and Gran, taken during a time when life had been so good. . . .
This week, I’d climbed up to my tower and never come down. Lark kept leaving food at the door, but I rarely touched it, giving the spoils to the wolf.
Whenever Matthew called to me, I shut him down. —The Army grinds on, a windmill spins.—
Tell that to one of your allies. I’m not among them. Though tempted to demand from him how Jack had hurt Mom, I decided that knowledge might send me over the edge.
I would’ve thought I’d miss communicating with Matthew more, but I found the absence of decoder-ring talk a profound relief—
My door suddenly opened.
Death. He was dressed in black jeans and a black cashmere V-neck that molded over his chest muscles, looking as impeccable as ever. But his eyes were dim.
“You ever hear of knocking?”
He rested his shoulder against the doorframe, arching a brow at finding Cyclops on the bed.
That wolf was about the only living thing I didn’t want to strangle. I’d gotten used to having him around. Petting his frizzy fur was soothing.
Death studied my face.
“Come to gloat?” I asked. “Isn’t this what you wanted? I recall you telling Lark that you like seeing me suffer.”
“If you’re going to languish up here, then I might as well end you.”
“How did you expect me to react?”
“As you would have in the past—with a vengeance that would have made the earth tremble. You’d have sharpened your claws and bayed for the mortal’s blood.”
“Baying for blood? What will it take to convince you that I’m not that person?” I asked, even as my conscience whispered, You wanted this man’s blood when you attacked him, and Lark, and Ogen.
“Nothing,” he said firmly. “There is nothing you can do to convince me.”
“Why are you here?”
“Determining if you plan to starve yourself. Our game is no fun if you’re weak.”
“Plan?” As if I had one.
“Before I was exiled from your thoughts, I understood your missions to be: kill me, and find your grandmother.”