Endless Knight

Page 36

In that dry tone, he answered, “I’m a traditionalist.”

I laughed. Was I really having this conversation with the Grim Reaper? My chuckles got worse and worse, until my eyes were watering.

Both corners of his lips curled, almost a real smile.

My laughter died. I was starstruck. “You should smile more often.”

I looked at him, really looked at him, in a way I hadn’t allowed myself to before.

Of course, I’d acknowledged that Death was a gorgeous, educated, sophisticated knight who was rich in luxuries. Like me, he was an Arcana.

But on occasion, I spied hints of the man behind the knight. Such as right now, when he appeared uncomfortable under my scrutiny and a flush spread over his chiseled cheekbones. I smiled when he pulled at his collar.

I could finally admit that these hints were devastatingly attractive to me. With my feelings for Jack blunted by lies and betrayal, would this attraction grow? Especially since Death had stopped threatening to murder me all the time?

Matthew had told me to beware the Touch of Death. Since contact with the Reaper’s skin didn’t harm me, maybe Matthew had meant something deeper—like involvement with Death, as a man, would prove dangerous. What if Death’s power over me was my budding infatuation with him?

Clearing his throat, Death led another round. I found myself paying more attention to him, playing by rote. I put my elbow on his desk, propping my chin on the back of my hand as I noted new details about him.

The blond tips of his eyelashes. The way the end of a rune peeked from his open collar. The faint line in the center of his fuller bottom lip.

Maybe I was just buzzed, but I didn’t think he’d ever looked more handsome than right at that moment. My glyphs began to wind along my arms.

At the end of the round, he collected the remaining cards, sifting through his pile. “I’ve won the night then.” He gave my arms a quizzical look. “You can’t expect to defeat another Arcana if you allow yourself to get distracted, Empress.”

Yet another double meaning. “Maybe the Empress would rather get distracted than play at all.”

He inclined his head, as if to say, “Touché.”

But I’d spoken the truth. I still had no interest in this Arcana contest and continued to believe that securing allies was key. Why couldn’t Death be mine?

My mission to take down this knight was evolving. What if I could win him over as my ally, as a friend, as—

“Tell me your thoughts, creature.”

“Hmm? I was wondering what boon you’d want from me?”

His gaze fell to my lips, eyes alight. “There is one . . .”

I held my breath.

Yet then he stood abruptly, shutting himself down, that light dimming. “I believe I’ll save it for another time. The hour grows late.”

“Late? So?” This was A.F. Did time really matter? Today the sun had risen for scant minutes, merely hovering on the horizon. “Do you have to be on Ash Campus early tomorrow? At the University of Nothing Matters?”

He crossed to the study door, opening it for me. Booting me out?

I rose, tying my sweater around my waist, wondering what to say. Had a blast, Reap. We’ll do this at my place next time.

I’d just frowned to find Cyclops missing when Death joined me in the hallway. “I’ll escort you back.”

“I do know my way.”

“Indulge me.”

I teased, “Chivalry never died for you, huh?”

“I am a knight,” he replied, making me grin.

On the way up the stairs, I remained at his side. If he was bothered to be pressed together in the narrow stairwell, he didn’t show it. His shirtsleeve brushed my bare arm, and again—

My breath hitched when skin touched skin. Death had furtively shoved up his sleeve? Was that his cuff button pinging on a step?

With each contact, his lids seemed to grow heavier, his eyes gone starry once more.

Now that I was hyper-aware of the loneliness inside Death, I’d begun having this overriding urge to ease it. To be fair, what woman wouldn’t?

Yet at the door to my room, we stood in awkward silence. It was as if he were dropping me off at the porch of Haven after a date.

The spacious landing felt small to me. “Can we have a rematch tomorrow night?”

He leaned his shoulder against the wall. “Perhaps.”

“If I’d won tonight, I was going to ask you to tell me about our past.”

“You wouldn’t have asked me for longer to live?”

I shook my head. “You’re not going to hurt me.”

In the muted light of the landing, his gaze was so brilliant as he said, “Will I not?”

“I know you enjoyed tonight. Why deprive yourself of me?”

With a perplexed expression, he turned toward the stairs. But I thought I heard him murmur, “Why indeed?”

I couldn’t tell if he was being sarcastic, or asking himself a genuine question.

Once he’d gone, I floated into my room, pleasantly buzzed, marveling at how much fun I’d had. Cyclops was already on the bed. As I changed into a nightgown, Matthew tentatively called for me. —Empress?—

I was in such a good mood, I felt bulletproof. I allowed him in. What is it?

—The Empress is my friend. I miss Evie.—

The pang in my chest shocked me with its intensity. I missed him too. Even after everything. Didn’t mean I could forgive him.

—Don’t be angry.—

You hurt me, Matthew. And I wonder if you even care. Maybe he was scheming right now.

—We need you. We fall to ruin.—

Fall to ruin. J’tombe en botte. Jack had told me that the night at Finn’s place when he’d bared his soul to me.

Or at least, select, edited parts of it.

Jack and Matthew weren’t my responsibility anymore. The two of them equaled pain. Still, I couldn’t stop myself from asking, Did you tell Jack what I learned? That I knew he’d helped my mother kill herself, then lied to me repeatedly?

Now that I was in a somewhat better state of mind, I could see things more clearly, accepting that Jack would never have hurt my mom on his own. His motives might not have been pure, but my fierce mother could be . . . persuasive.

If she’d decided her suicide was the only way to save my life, then Jack had never stood a chance. I could only imagine the toll that night had taken on him, a boy who despised violence against women.

When he’d worked so hard on that dinner for us the last night at Haven, making it as nice as he could, they both must have known it would be her last. Which made me realize that Jack was devious. By his behavior, I never could have guessed what he was on the cusp of doing.

Jack had said he didn’t have secrets. Another lie. And I sensed I’d only scratched the surface of them. At least Death had been up-front about his continual impulses to kill me.

—I told Jack.—


Matthew sighed. —And.—

What does that mean?

—You’re in my eyes.—

A vision began, and I saw a blur of Jack. He was frenzied, tearing at his hair as he yelled—

NO, Matthew! I shook my head hard. No, I don’t want that! I’d only recently gotten my emotions under control. I wasn’t that bulletproof.

It faded. —Empress?—

I don’t want to see him. I can’t. I couldn’t handle any more rabbit holes!

—I feel your heart; it actually aches.— The same words he’d told me on the night Jack had confessed his feelings to me.

You need to get him far from the game, Matthew. It’s not his war to fight, and what he hopes for isn’t going to happen anyway. I couldn’t be with someone who reminded me of grief, someone I couldn’t trust. You need to make him go. It was for the best, anyway.

Over these weeks, I’d come to accept that I didn’t belong with a non-Arcana, which Matthew had told me again and again. Jack, for all his faults, deserved a long life. He wouldn’t get it if he continued to wade into our deadly contest.

For the best . . .

—You’re not ready, Empress. The machines won’t end without Death.—

Yet another decoder-ring statement. My head started hurting as I tried to make sense of his words. I’m almost afraid to ask.

—You sail on weeks of lull, then the storm. The game begins in earnest. You must be ready to strike. . . .—


DAY 318 A.F.

“I want to show you something,” Death said as he escorted me back to my turret. He’d done this for each of the three nights we’d played cards this week—would’ve been four but for another one of his excursions.

When he’d returned that next night after, he’d caught me checking his hand, telling me, “Relax. I’m still only one ahead of you.”

Now I asked him, “Show me what?”

He ushered me toward the gym. “A surprise.”

It was as if he knew I needed cheering. The sun had never risen today. Endless night.

Would I grow even weaker? All day, I’d been filled with disquiet. Lark had as well. Even her animals had seemed anxious. Ogen had howled like a maniac. . . .

When Death turned on the gym lights, I spied an unbelievable new addition. In one corner, in front of the wall of mirrors, a ballet barre had been installed. A pair of ballet shoes were tied by the laces over the barre.

A shocked sound left my lips.

Somehow Death had found a barre and toe shoes. Had made the effort to. That’s where he’d been?

“I believe the shoes are in your size.”

As I stared, I imagined him using those refined fingers of his to tie those laces just so. The idea was so sensual to me that I shivered.

He was doing a much better job at seduction than I ever had. I gazed up at him. “How?”

“I source things. It’s a talent of mine.”

He did have a power-over-everything-I-survey vibe. And it was sexy. “You seem to have a lot of talents.” Was there anything he couldn’t do?

Well, except for trust me. Each time we had really seemed to be getting somewhere this week, breaking down the barriers between us, he would shut down.

“Are you pleased?” he asked.

Pleased didn’t even begin to describe my feelings. Ballet. After the apocalypse.

I’d believed that part of my life had been burned away along with everything else. Now I had all the time in the world, toe shoes, and a studio. Despite the rain, I still had enough energy to dance because I ate well, and I slept in a lush, warm bed.

All because of the man before me.

The gift of this opportunity was mind-boggling. Before I thought better of it, I’d stood on tiptoe to press a kiss on his cheek.

He stepped back with his unnatural speed. “Ah-ah, creature.”

“Why do you shut me out? You know any plans I had against you are done.”

His fists were clenched so hard, I thought he’d break the bones in his hands. But not with anger. He seemed to be thrumming with the need to touch me. “Then what is your plan now?”

“I’m getting back to happy.” I explained what my mom had said. “That’s all I want to do.”

“That involves kissing me?”

In a softer voice, I admitted, “Yes, you. I’ve enjoyed being with you this week. We get along well. And you were right before—I don’t believe you’ve ever lied to me. That means a lot.” There was also one other thing.

After months here, I finally admitted to myself that I desired . . . Death. Not just attraction, but a full-out physical need for him.

He gave a sharp shake of his head. “There’s still a game, with immortality at stake.”

I frowned. “I don’t want to be an immortal.”

“Would you not? Never to grow old, to sicken, or die?”

“If there’s one thing I know about myself, it’s that I don’t do well being alone. I’m not built that way. Besides, winning would mean hurting you. I have no intention of doing that.”

“Then you don’t mind wearing the cilice? If what you say is true, then you’ll never ask me to remove it?”

I nibbled my bottom lip. “I worry about Ogen. And it hurts when I overuse this arm.”

Death exhaled. “Even if I wished things could be different, they cannot.”

“It’s like you’ve vowed never to let me get close. Whatever I did to you in the past must’ve been terrible.”

He gave a noncommittal shrug, but I sensed emotions churning in him.

Deciding not to press, I crossed to the barre and collected the shoes. They were too precious to let out of my sight. When I untied the laces, I shivered again to think of his fingers brushing this silk. “Thank you . . .” I trailed off, wishing I knew his given name.

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