Poison Princess

Page 20


At me.

“No!” I cried. “Wait!”

Without hesitation, she loosed her arrow. I had time to close my eyes. And to hesitantly crack them open.

She’d shot a faceless man through his throat, a man who’d wanted to hurt me, to harm my loved ones.

When she turned to me, her skin was glaringly bright, but tinged with red, like a hunter’s moon.

“I’m sorry,” I murmured. “I didn’t know.”

She gave a bitter laugh. “You never do. The Archer always keeps an arrow in her quiver for you; interrupt my shot again, and I will give it to you directly.”

I recognized her voice. She was the Bringer of Doubt. . . .

“Evie, bébé,” Jackson said softly, bringing me back. “I’ve got you.”

I blinked, and again. As the vision cleared, I found him gazing down at me. I was in his strong arms, on the floor at the base of the steps. He had a napkin pressed against my nose. It was bleeding?

I couldn’t endure this for much longer. Many more nights of this, and I would run into that archer’s sights.

“You had a vision, no?”

I muttered in realization, “It’s never going to stop.” I was as doomed as my mother if I didn’t get help too. And my grandmother was the only one who would know what I needed.

I edged away from Jackson, but he wouldn’t release me. “Tell me what you saw. Was it about tomorrow? The army?”

“No. It makes no sense.” Who was that girl? An ally or enemy? Did she even exist? I pushed against his chest, snatching the napkin to hold against my nose. “Please, just let me go. Now, Jackson!”

“Go where?” he snapped.

Matching his tone, I said, “To—dinner.” When he finally released me, I staggered away toward the kitchen.

Part of me wanted to dismiss the Archer as imaginary. Yet all my other visions had come true. Before the Flash, I’d listened to everyone but myself. I’d ignored what I could remember about Gran’s teachings, even after I’d started to believe them.

Now I would trust my instincts—and they said this Archer was out in the world today.

Which meant that all the voices belonged to actual kids.

Girls with glowing red skin, boys who could fly. Why not? I could make crops sprout with my blood and control their movement with my mind.

Matthew was real, out there as well. My friend. One day, I’d find him.

But the rest of those kids . . . ? My instincts also said I might do well to avoid them.

When Mom finished her helping of stew, hope grew inside me.

For the last week, she’d picked at her food, but clearly her appetite was returning. Maybe she was on the mend.

“Jack, that was absolutely delightful.”

To his credit, it had been. He’d stinted on nothing, cooking an incredible meal, schlepping table and chairs up for us to sit with Mom, making me break out the finest china and crystal.

When I’d collected three everyday settings, he’d frowned. “Come on, rich girl, I know that’s not the best you got.”

I’d been uneasy about the number of candles he’d lit—it was extravagant—but those flickering flames shimmered off the crystal and warred with the ash, painting the room with a kind brush.

Even Mom’s cheeks looked like they had color.

“Thank you so much,” she told him. “Or I guess I should say merci.”

With a “rakish” grin, he said, “De rien, cher.” It was nothing, dear.

She tittered. Was she tipsy? Likely.

To my astonishment, she’d offered him free use of the liquor cabinet—as long as he made her dinner tea “Irish.” With a heavy hand, he’d dosed her dainty teacup from a bottle of expensive whiskey, then filled a Baccarat highball glass for himself.

All evening he’d been doting on her, while I’d been on pins and needles, wondering what his game was, wondering what he thought of my earlier blackout.

But if this was what it took to ease the strain on Mom’s face, then I’d play along. For now.

“Jack, did you know that Evie speaks fluent French?”

He leaned back in his chair, looking smug. “I did indeedy.”

She asked me, “Wasn’t dinner great, honey?”

I forced yet another smile. Mom wasn’t the only one who’d finished her helping. Instead of complimenting Jackson and boosting his ego, I asked him, “Who taught you how to cook?”

He grated, “Nécessité.”

Mom picked up on the sudden tension, and said, “Maybe you can teach Evie?”

Grin smoothly back in place, he told her, “Something tells me she can’t boil an egg.”

Mom smiled but was quick to say, “Our Evie’s a fast learner.”

Our Evie? Trying to get him to take mental ownership of me, Mom?

When he just shrugged noncommittally, she said, “Did you ever come across kids your age when you were in the militia?”

“Only other boys.”

“So our Evie is kind of a rarity.”

He smirked against the rim of his glass. “Oh, she is that.”

I glared.

“Doesn’t she look pretty tonight, Jack?”

“Mom!” I felt like I was on match.com. “I’m going to do the dishes.”

“That can wait. Honey, we should look at your baby pictures! Oh, and your first dance recital!”

Would this night never end? “They’re all on the flash drive. We went paperless, remember?” Which meant they were completely inaccessible, along with all my e-books and e-mails. Even if we’d had a generator, few electronics worked after the apocalypse. Damn technology.

“I saved the hard copies. They’re in the sewing room.”

I was about to beg her not to torture me—or Jackson—like this, but she started coughing into her napkin.

As her face turned bright red, I helplessly rubbed her back. When her coughing finally eased, she looked . . . scared. She tried to hide it, but I saw blood, stark against her crisp white napkin.

I glanced at Jackson. Though his face was expressionless, I could’ve sworn a muscle ticked in his cheek.

Chapter 19

“You want a sip?” Jackson offered me his flask as I watched him tinker under the Mercedes’s hood.

I peered around, nervously running my fingers over the salt in the pocket of my hoodie. This was one of my first times out at night since the Flash. The quiet was so eerily complete that every sound we made was amplified, as if we were in an auditorium.

“Take the flask, Evie. You look like you could use it.”

My heart was aching for my mom. I gazed up at her window, at the flickering candlelight visible through the shutter. I could read the writing on the wall. She believed she was dying—soon.

Earlier, as I’d helped her get ready for bed, she’d been sentimental, kept telling me that she loved me, kept reaching for my hand to hold.

She told me that my father would’ve been so proud of me. She made me promise that if anything should happen to her I would find my grandmother.

In other words, Mom hadn’t believed me when I’d told her I’d get her well.

I accepted Jackson’s flask. “Why the hell not?” When I wiped the rim with my sleeve, he scowled.

“Jesus Christ, Evie. You were goan to let me kiss you that night at the sugar mill, but now you woan drink after me?”

“I was not going to let you! And why would you even bring that up? Don’t you think that should go into the forgotten column?”

He returned to his task. “It ain’t every day a Basin boy makes out with a Sterling cheerleader. I would’ve been even more of a legend than I already was.”

“Wow. You mean you had more of a motive than just duping me?”

Cajun shrug.

With a roll of my eyes, I took a drink, clamping my lips against the burn. “You’re not worried about Bagmen?”

He gazed up from under the hood. “Nothing can get the drop on me.” Even now that crossbow was propped up nearby. I’d noticed that he never let it out of reach.

When I held the flask out to him, he said, “Hang on to it while I finish up.”

“You really think you can fix this?”

“I worked on the militia’s trucks. It’s not hard if you know what you’re doing.”

“And you do?”

“Ouais.” Yeah. “So, did your mère send you down here to be nice to the Cajun boy?”

That was exactly what had happened. Just before I’d joined him outside, she’d given me a rare order: “Convince Jack to like you.” She’d asked me, “Can you imagine how relieved I’d be to know you were with a strong, capable boy like that? We need him, Evie. Please, for both our sakes? Make up the guest room for him. Go help him with the car.”

I hadn’t wanted to leave her. “You don’t want me to stay?” When she’d shaken her head, I’d kissed her good night. “I’m going to get you better. You’ll see.”

“Leave the candle lit, honey.”

“Love you.” But as I headed out to join up with Jackson, I still hadn’t been convinced that I could let bygones be bygones.

I’d finally decided to call a truce for one reason. He’d patiently looked at every one of my baby pics. As Mom had cooed over every toothless image—“Look at that smile!”—Jackson had dutifully paid attention, though it must have been miserable for him.

He’d risen a notch in my estimation.

And I reasoned that if he was out to rob us blind, he wouldn’t have gone through this much trouble.

With that thought in mind, I took another swig—this one didn’t burn nearly as much—then said, “Mom likes you a lot. She wanted me to extend an invitation to stay with us. For as long as you like.”

His tinkering slowed. “I’m surprised you’re actually extending it.”

“I’ve already made up the bed in one of the guest rooms.” When he merely raised his brows, I said, “What?”

“Hell, Evangeline, I thought you were goan to make me sleep in the barn tonight.”

“Why would you say that?”

“Because you still think of me as the help.” Attention back on the car, he muttered, “You probably always will.”

He was wrong. I didn’t think of him that way; I thought of him as a criminal hardened by life. Plus, I’d never want him in the barn near my crops again. “Whatever, Jackson, you can do as you like.”

“I’m not goan to be here when the army rolls in.” He pointed a wrench at me. “Count on that. I doan suggest you two being around either.”

“Why are you so certain they’ll come here?”

“Haven House is the biggest building still standing in the area—and one of the oldest.”

“Why’s that important?”

“Wells and windmill pumps. You doan need electricity to get at the water. The general’s been following some field guide to all the big farms in the South, and he always hits the ones with the older wells. How many you got? Two or three?”

“Five,” I admitted.

“Oh, yeah.” He grasped his forehead, smudging oil there. “They’ll be here.”

“I have a hard time believing there’s this swarm of three thousand soldiers, and all of them are evil.”

“They’re not necessarily. That general is, though, his two kids as well. And if you doan follow their orders, you get executed.”

“Or you become a deserter.”

“You need to get past that word, Evie. You’re starting to hurt my feelings. No matter, you stick around here long enough, and you’ll soon find out why I deserted.”

“If I could move Mom, and if you got this car fixed, I’d leave. I’d head out at dawn to find a doctor, then we’d go to North Carolina to reunite with my grandmother.”

“What makes you think your good ole granny’s alive? She’s probably not.”

“I just know she is.” Like Mom said, I had to believe that. The alternative—never understanding all the mysteries surrounding me—was unbearable. To have no recourse from the voices . . . ?

I just stopped myself from shuddering.

Not to mention never seeing my grandmother again. The more I remembered of her, the more I loved. I could recall Gran’s eyes—they were a twinkling brown, the color matching the darker striation of a pecan shell. The skin around them crinkled when she laughed. She’d laughed a lot. Used to hum all the time too, especially when she played with her well-worn Tarot deck.

“You know she’s alive?” he asked. “Like from a vision?”

“I don’t walk around seeing the future, Jackson. And most of the time, the things I see make no sense.”

“Tell me about them.”

“There’s no pattern to when they occur. They’re . . . painful,” I said in the understatement of the year. “They feel like they’re being shoved inside my head.”

“You ready to tell me what you saw earlier?”

No, Jackson. No, I’m not. So I glossed over that question. “I have repeated visions featuring a boy who talks about nothing that makes much sense to me. I get lectured by this kid, who might as well be speaking another language.” And still I felt such a strong bond with him. “In any case, a lot of the stuff I see has never come true.” But give it time. . . .

“Maybe it just hasn’t yet.”

Perceptive Jackson. Changing the subject, I said, “What’s it like out there on the road? Really like?”

He exhaled, allowing me to steer him away from talk of my visions. “Outside the cities, you can go days without seeing another living soul. Actually better not to. Two types of people left: them that want nothing to do with you and them that want to do you harm—the black hats.”

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