Endless Knight

Page 34

What was the point of either? I longed to see my last living relative, and I’d promised my mom I’d find her. But the more I remembered of Gran, the more I comprehended that she would expect me not only to play—but to win.

Could being with her tip me over the edge? What if I went full-on Empress, and never turned back to Evie?

“Even if you escaped this place, which is impossible,” Death said, “you would never reach her. With your healing powers, you might be safe passing through the plague colonies, but there are still cannibals out there, including others unrelated to the Hierophant. Militias, Bagmen, and slavers swarm the roads and countryside. I know this; I ride those roads often. Wouldn’t she be angry that you took such risks?”

I glanced up at Death. “So my plan should be to wait here, docile, until you murder me? Along with the rest of your lackeys?”

Saying these words out loud was like a corner turned, a line crossed. One answer rang through me.


After my mother’s sacrifice for me, I’d be damned if I rolled over now. I owed it to her to fight.

I had a new mission: self-preservation. I had to get this cuff off, so I could protect myself from Death. Sooner or later the novelty of having me here, his princess in the tower, would wear off.

I needed to be ready.

“Ah, and there’s the conniving glint I’m used to seeing in my Empress’s eyes.” He appeared relieved, as if he’d just found more comfortable footing. “You’ve destroyed armies; it should take more than one mortal to bring about your downfall.”

“Why didn’t you tell me about Jack earlier? And Matthew? Why not just torpedo me from the beginning?” Jack and grief had grown intertwined in my mind. I couldn’t separate them, could scarcely think about him without going down a rabbit hole.

“My reasons are my own. But I did warn you not to give Deveaux your innocence.”

I rolled my eyes at his terminology. “Really, Father Time? And what business is it of yours anyway?”

He didn’t deign to answer.

“At least tell me why you hate me so deeply. What happened between the time you were raring to take me to your bed and when you began raring to take my head?” Had Death and I slept together? I had to know! “What did I do to you?”

“To know, you must remember.” I thought he would leave at that, but he remained. He opened his mouth, then closed it. Was he casting about for something to say? Maybe a reason to stay?

After finding myself utterly alone in the world this last month, without friends or family, I’d garnered some insights into Death.

I’d known he lived a solitary existence. I’d known he trusted no one. But I’d questioned whether he preferred his life like that.

My misery had made me hypersensitive to his own, and now I had my answer.

No. No, he did not prefer this.

As I’d wandered down those hallways lined with his lifeless art, I’d realized that Lark was right—the house was haunted. By him. By his loneliness.

He acquired these grand collections because there was nothing else for him. I’d told him the game was all he’d ever really have; I saw the evidence of that in every room.

I tilted my head at him. “You’d rather be up here trading insults with me than sitting in your study all alone, wouldn’t you?”

He stiffened. Bingo.

When I was young, Gran had often caught me staring at Death’s Tarot card. She’d asked me if that card frightened me or made me really angry. I’d shaken my head firmly and told her it made me sad.

In other words, I’d felt sorry for him.

Gran had sputtered, “Why would you feel that way, Evie? He’s a villain!”

My answer: His horse looks sick, and he has no friends. Maybe that had been my eight-year-old way of saying his life seemed like it’d be hell.

He camouflaged his bone-deep loneliness with arrogance. But there was no hiding it from me now. I told him, “You probably wish I was still trying to get on your good side, because at least then I’d ask you questions over breakfast. I’ll bet you’ve gone an entire decade without being asked a single one.”

Had his face paled? “You think you know me, yet you are as mistaken as ever,” he said smoothly, but his shoulder muscles were bunched with tension. Without another word, he turned to go.

Lark appeared at the door, nearly running into him.

“Watch yourself, Fauna,” he grated, rubbing his thumbs over his fingertips. “There is no greater pain or doom than touching my skin.”

For everyone except me.

Wide-eyed, Lark backed away from him. “Sorry, boss. I-I forget.”

“Maybe your visit with the Empress will be worth the climb. Mine was tiresome.” Then he was gone.

“I see you and my wolf are hitting it off.” Lark sniffed, “He was always my least favorite. No depth perception in that one.”

I buried my fingers in Cyclops’s scruff. She didn’t mean it, boy. “I suppose Death told you everything?”

“All he’d say is that you’d ‘discovered some allies were enemies.’ Judging by your brokenhearted reaction, I knew it had to be the Cajun.”

And Matthew.

From behind her back, Lark produced a box, tossing it on my bed.

“What’s that?”

“Not a Jack-in-the-box, if that’s what you’re wondering.”

“I really hate you.”

She grinned. “Open it, asshole.”

With a glare, I did. “Workout gear?” Sports bras, athletic shorts, leggings. Even a little tennis skirt.

“I go to the gym every afternoon,” Lark said. “Join me later. You were a cheerleader, right? A dancer?”

I nodded. I’d been a better gymnast, but I’d enjoyed ballet more, had taken classes through my sophomore year.

“You could show me some routines.”

I set the garments away. “You’re doing this out of the kindness of your heart?”

“I’m doing it because I didn’t get to make fun of cheerleaders enough before the Flash hit. You’re my only hope to meet quota.”

“And?” I could all but see the strings attached.

“Hold on.” Her eyes flashed red. Checking via some animal if the coast was clear?

In a lower voice, she said, “Because if you dance, he won’t be able to stay away.”

“Why would you think I might care about that?”

“Again, not stupid here. This is your only play, the one way you can survive. Look, we’ve both got approaching expiration dates, and we’ve both got endgames. Maybe our paths can intersect every now and then.”

Yes, Lark’s card had once been associated with single-minded purpose. Had she been working toward her endgame all along?

My own agenda was self-preservation, but how could I trust her? When I remained unconvinced, she said, “I’m not all bad.”

Which reminded me of the first time we’d met Lark, when I’d asked Matthew about her. Good. Bad. Good . . . Decoder-ring talk. She’d briefly been my ally, then my enemy. Was she to be my ally once more?

She headed toward the door. “I’ll see you later.”

Alone, I recalled a time before the Flash when my mom’s invitation to an old-boys’-network meeting had gotten “lost in the mail.” As the sole female farmer in our parish, she’d been spitting mad. I’d tried to tell her it was their loss, that they didn’t matter. She’d held up her hand and said, “Sometimes you just need to be mad or sad, Evie. Sometimes you just need to let it happen. But put a cap on it, then get back to happy.”

Could I claw my way out of this depression, getting back to happy? Or at least in the realm of . . . ?

The first step was blocking out painful thoughts. Just as I’d done in school, I would refuse to think about hurtful things. Basically anything to do with Jack. He was in my past and needed to stay there. Matthew as well.

The two of them equaled pain.

That afternoon, I pulled on a red sports bra and the tennis skirt, combing my hair into a ponytail. I grabbed a towel, opened the door wide for Cyclops, then set out.

I found Lark in the spacious gym with her other wolves, music going. She trained in front of the mirrors, punching dummies. “Hey, look who’s joining the land of the living,” she said.

“So says the girl who lives in Death’s house.”

Cyclops trotted past me, sniffing his comrades’ butts in greeting.

“Wanna get started?” In a fake bubbly tone, she said, “Ready, set, go, team!”

“Yeah.” I tossed down my towel. “It was just like that.”

“Show me some moves.”

The floor had a thin layer of padding, so I did an easy roundoff. Another. I worked up to a back handspring. Lark laughed when I did a series of exaggerated pirouettes. God, I’d missed this. I could hardly believe I was using my muscles for something other than fleeing or fighting.

The barbed cuff wasn’t fun as my bicep moved, but I’d grown so used to that pain, I wouldn’t let it get in the way of my enjoyment.

As I danced, I realized I could claw my way out of this despair. All I had to do was keep my mind off the ally who’d betrayed me, and the boy who’d broken my heart.

I began sweating, pleased that I hadn’t lost much flexibility. To test myself, I lifted my leg behind me, grabbing my ankle for a standing split.

Death chose that moment to stride by, doing a jaw-slackened double take before moving on. Yet then he eased back to lean against the doorframe—with his eyes full of . . . undisguised lust.

In my bra and skirt, I had everything covered; but as usual, I felt bare as he looked at me. I hadn’t even felt this naked with Jack, who’d actually seen me without clothes. Don’t think about him!

I kept stretching, refusing to let Death ruin this. “Never seen a girl warming up before?”

“Not one I wouldn’t kill with my touch,” he said in that raspy voice.

“Oh. Speaking of which, is today the day you’re going to gank me?”

“Not yet, creature.” When his starry eyes glowed, I barely stifled a gasp at my reaction. Just from his look, my glyphs had begun stirring.

Which made him scrub a shaking palm over his mouth.

“My Gawd”—Lark fanned herself—“sexual tension, much? Get a manor, kids.”

Death shot Lark a scornful look, then strode away.

In a lower tone, she said, “What’d I tell you, Evie? You’re a lock for the next Mrs. Death. You planned to wreck the entire game? Bet that’d do it.”

I wanted to roll my eyes, but I couldn’t quite take them off that doorway.

“Don’t worry. He’ll be back. And when he is,” Lark continued, all excited, “I’m gonna get scarce and let nature take over. . . .”

Well into the night, I awoke, panting for breath, my glyphs illuminating the room. I’d had another sensual dream of Death, felt like I was aching for him.

I could all but feel his lips on mine, could all but feel my lips—on his body.

I didn’t understand it. He still wanted me dead, still hated me.

How could I dream of kissing him, when he dreamed of killing me?


DAY 314 A.F.

“I might be immortal, but I’m still a red-blooded male,” Death had told me out on the road. Every day for the last week, he’d proved it.

The first couple of days, he’d made sure he passed the gym whenever I was down there, poking his head in for a look. The third day, he’d entered, taken a seat on a bench, then pretended to read from a fading newspaper. Now he came every day—while Lark remained as scarce as promised.

He always acted so reluctant, so grudging, as if he’d been dragged by his spurs into the same space as me. But his lustful looks followed my every move, tension emanating from him.

Lark was right. The attraction between us sparked like electricity.

While my emotions had been leveling out, his seemed to be approaching some kind of troubling fever-pitch. In the training yard, his practice had intensified to a brutal degree. No longer was I seeing precise movements and harnessed aggression. No longer did that weird feeling of satisfaction slip up on me.

Watching him now was like watching a berserker.

I played with fire. I was tempting Death, possibly getting closer to a cuff removal, but at what cost?

Today when he strode through the door, I knew something was different. As I warmed up, he abandoned any pretense of reading, sinking back on a couch that I didn’t remember seeing yesterday. His expression seemed to say, “To hell with it, done fighting.”

“No paper today, Death?”

“Here solely as a spectator.” An avid one. When I stretched, he leaned forward, elbows on his knees.

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