He never asked for my hand, merely informed me that I was to marry him, that we would bow out of the game. In his mind, he is death, and I am life; therefore we belong together.
All throughout the planning of this ceremony, I kept hidden my true motivations. He might have quit the game, but I continue to play. And I know I cannot defeat him until he lowers his guard with me. He will, now that he’s my husband.
Today, I became his wife. Tonight I will become his doom.
“ ‘My love’ will do for now,” he says, his lips curling, all confidence. He reaches for me, eager for our skin to touch. “As lovely as you are in this dress, I crave to see you without it.”
My bridal gown was a gift from him, cut from the most exquisite emerald green silk. Upon seeing the finery, I’d felt a disturbing amount of girlish glee. Then I’d remembered I’m the Empress, a killer of the first order.
“Of course, my love. If you’ll assist me, you’ll soon have what you crave.” What you deserve. I turn, presenting my back to him.
As he begins to unlace my stays, I fight the tension building in my muscles. He draws the silk from my shoulders, brushing searing kisses across my skin.
He’s been impatient for this day to come, and even more so about our first night as man and wife. Yet Death will never know me this way.
Throughout my childhood, I was taught that he is my enemy. That his inevitable desire for the Empress would prove to be one of my strengths—and weaknesses.
Because a lesser Empress would desire him back.
The woman in me feels attraction toward him. He is charming when he wants to be, and he’s beautifully formed. Never have I seen his equal. I admit my breaths shallowed when I joined him in the temple earlier today—he was stunning in his impeccable attire.
But this union is doomed because the Empress in me sees him only as a kill to be made. A predator viewing prey.
He has no idea, confident I am now his. Earlier, as we toasted our wedding vows, he whispered in my ear, “You belong to me. Forever.”
When my dress slips down my body, pooling at my feet, he turns me, the better to survey his new belonging.
The possessive gleam in his eyes makes me bristle. The thinly veiled hunger. His appetites are so marked, I’ve barely been able to hold him off thus far. He is too intense, too carnal, too desirous.
The boy called Death is so full of . . . life.
He lays me upon our bed, then disrobes himself. Yes, he is beautifully formed—everywhere. My body helplessly responds. But I have control over my own appetites.
Once he joins me, he grasps my hand to kiss my palm. “Empress, I will make you happy, for all our days.”
Our limited days. If we exit the game, we will age. Though immortality beckons?
His hand is covered with icons, there for the taking. I disguise my greed as I count them.
With a proud mien, he twirls my new ring on my finger. A symbol of ownership? I can view it no other way since men of his culture do not require one, just as livestock do not brand their masters.
To me, the ring is as detestable as a collar, and that I cannot abide! When I taste bile, my path becomes clearer: I crave his icons more than I do his breathtaking body.
As he leans down to kiss my neck, I ask, “Will you fetch me wine for my nerves, my love?” I muster a teasing smile. “In this, I’m an anxious innocent.”
He inhales, quelling his eagerness, though it roils from him. His manly needs, his lusts. “As you wish.”
He turns his back to the Empress. How trusting. How foolish. The heat of battle rises, taking me over. Without a whisper of hesitation, I slip soundlessly from the bed.
Before he can react, I shove my poisonous claws into him, hissing in his ear, “Till Death do us part.”
I woke with tears streaming down my face.
Husband. He was my husband. And I had betrayed him.
Somehow he’d survived my poison. Somehow he’d gotten the upper hand and ended me.
“Forced me to kill my bride,” he’d said with such pain in his starry gaze. No wonder he hated me—he had every right to! How could I have been so evil?
It was one thing to battle an enemy, to fight and prevail; quite another to exchange sacred vows with someone you had every intention of murdering that very night.
No wonder I’d had no chance of seducing him. I don’t handle vipers. He’d learned not to trust, he’d learned so young.
All his hardness, his ruthlessness, had been honed by me.
That Empress had seen only his hungers. She’d ignored the tenderness in his expressions, the warmth in his eyes as he’d beheld her. He had intended to make her happy.
To make me happy.
Yet even when blind to all he offered, that woman had fallen for him. She’d just refused to admit it.
Suddenly my feelings for him were clamoring, too big for my chest. I felt like his wife. I needed to explain to him that I would never betray him. But he remained away. Leaving me alone in his bed.
Return to me, Aric.
Silence. Too much silence. I didn’t want to be alone right now. Dashing my sleeve over my face, I hurried from the room, startling Cyclops. Together we climbed up one flight of stairs to Lark’s bedroom.
A light knock. I had no idea what time it was.
Lark opened the door, rubbing her eyes. “What’s up, girl?” She wore a football jersey and leggings. A baby squirrel peeked its sleepy eyes from her mane of black hair.
“C-can I come in?”
When she swung her door wide, I entered. In all this time, I’d never been to her room. It was just as I might’ve pictured it—posters of animals plastered the walls, cages and aquariums lining shelves. Her falcon rested on a wooden perch next to her bed like an alarm clock. She had a tiger lamp, kangaroo sheets, and a thick smattering of live butterflies coating the high ceiling.
I knew there were no monarchs. Months ago, Matthew had told me that the last two were thousands of miles apart and flying away from each other. Again, I felt gratitude that Lark was caretaking these treasures. Still, I couldn’t let her think I’d softened toward her too much. “Kangaroo sheets, Lark?”
“Dude. Don’t judge me,” she said without anger.
My presence had agitated some of her menagerie, but a single wave of her hand quieted mewls and caws. “So you wanna talk about it?” She climbed back in bed, scooting a snoring hedgehog from her pillow.
Did I? Where to even begin? As I sorted through my thoughts, I crossed to her bay window, staring out into the stormy night.
Somewhere out there both Aric and Jack roamed the world. Jack had broken my heart, and I’d broken Aric’s. “Did you know Death and I were involved in a previous game? Married?”
“Um, some cards speculated.”
“I just dreamed about it. About how he used to be.”
“I tried to tell you he’s not all bad,” Lark said. “From what I understand, you kinda put him to shame on the evil front. Like judges’ scores of ten.”
“I did. Nothing could be worse than what I did,” I murmured.
“Once he gets back, you two kids can work things out. I’m confident about that. You’ve seen the way he looks at you when you dance, right? Well, you can’t imagine how he looks at you when you aren’t aware. You’re still a lock.”
I sighed, not convinced. There was so much in our past to be overcome. When lightning flashed, I said over my shoulder, “I never see lightning without thinking of Joules.”
“I know, right? At least he doesn’t want to off you.”
“For now.” I turned back to the window just as another bolt struck. Lightning forked out over black. Greenish-yellow forked out over red?
My breath caught. Slitted black eyes stared back at me.
“Lark!” I screamed. “Run—”
“SABBAT!” Ogen’s mighty fist burst through the window. Glass shattered, riddling me as his fist connected with my entire torso.
Lark was shrieking when I slammed into the far wall. Bones fractured. Skull? Ribs? Shoulder blade? Shards jutted from my skin. Unable to rise, I watched Ogen snatch at Lark as the wolves defended, tearing at his arms. This far across the room, she and I were out of his reach.
Though I expected her to flee, following the exodus of creatures tromping and flying to safety, she darted over to me, helping me stand. She’d caught a lot of glass too.
Ogen twisted his great bulk, wedging himself through the window opening. “ALTAR EMPTY!” he boomed. “FRESH ENTRAILS.”
Recognition hit my panicked mind. In his own way, Matthew had warned me of this. The lightning hides the monster. I’d just glimpsed Ogen by the light of a bolt. And Matthew had given me instructions: You must slice yourself when the altar is empty. Ogen’s altar was empty; it was time to lose my cuff.
I whispered to Lark, “T-take me to the basement. To the sunlamps.”
“Shit, shit! Boss’ll kill me.” But she did start out the doorway, whistling for her wolves to follow. She yelled to Ogen, “Hey, dickwad, meet me in the kitchen!”
“MEAT YOU!” he yowled, withdrawing from the window so quickly the building shook.
With my arm stretched across her shoulders, we scrambled away, heading in the direction opposite to the kitchen, a trio of wolves at our heels. As we fled upstairs, I gasped out, “What’s happening?”
“It’s some Sabbat that I’m not aware of,” she murmured. “Could be some big annual one.”
We lurched up more stairs, a flight that I didn’t remember seeing before.
“I’ve never seen him so big, Evie. I’ve called for reinforcements from the barn, but it might take them a while to follow my instructions to pick the lock.” We careened along a corridor until she stopped in front of a wall.
She pressed her hand against the wainscoting, and a panel swung open. Just before it hissed closed behind our troupe, her falcon gave a piercing cry and dove inside.
In total darkness, I was again forced to rely on Lark’s night vision as we hastened down flight after flight of stairs. Had we gone up, just to go down into the belly of this building?
The air grew humid, our surroundings quieter. I couldn’t hear the rain, only paws padding behind us, wings flapping, and my bones grinding as they began to reset themselves.
I called for Aric. We’re in trouble—you have to return! No answer. I even called for Matthew. Nothing.
“Just hold on, Evie. We’re here.” She propped me against a wall.
I heard a key jangling in a lock, then the sound of a wheel turning, like with a bank vault. With a click, a door groaned open, and light spilled into the landing where we stood.
I was dumbfounded by the sight in front of me. As big as Warehouse 13, and filled with table after table of growing plants. Sunlamps covered every inch of soaring ceiling, cascading light onto my thirsty skin.
Lark locked us and her creatures inside. “This door might not keep Ogen out when he’s in this form.” Leaning back against it, she pulled a shard from her hip. She was bleeding from the glass almost as badly as I was. “I’ll leave the falcon here to listen for him. Let’s get to the back.”
As Lark and I set off across the bunker, wolves in tow, I soaked up the light, feeling my brain starting to fire again. I plucked shards from my own skin, my regeneration accelerating.
We passed rows of plants, like orderly battalions. There were potted vines and even saplings. They wouldn’t be as strong as giant oaks or as stealthy as my weapon of choice: roses. Still, this was a decent army—if I could reclaim my powers.
Ogen would find us down here eventually; I only hoped I could lay a trap before then. “Lark, I need a really sharp knife.” Or, depending on time . . . “Maybe an ax?” It’ll grow back.
“Gee, forgot both of mine in the rush.” She peered around the garden. “I can get you a spade. Or a trowel.”
I gazed down at her claws, dreading what I knew must happen. “You’ve cut through skin before, right? With your claws?”
“Oh, hell, no. Don’t even think about this, Evie.”
“Believe me, I’m open to alternatives.”
“Boss is supposed to be back today. Maybe he’ll get here in time?”
“Willing to bet your life on that?” I snatched her hand. “You help me get this cuff off, or we die.”
She gazed at me as if awed. “You are stone-cold, aren’t you?”
“No. Not at all. But I’ll still get you to cut on me.”
By the time we’d reached a back corner, I’d gotten her to give in.
“Fine!” She flared her claws. “Tell me what you want.”