“I know. I know you will.”
“Never taking you to North Carolina. Jamais.”
I stilled, drew back. “What are you talking about? I have to find Gran.”
“Come on, Evie, we both know she probably didn’t make it. We haven’t seen another woman on the road. I woan let you be in danger like today.”
He wanted to call off our journey now? Running out of time . . . I pulled away from him, trying to keep calm.
“I got plans for us, see. We’re goan back to Selena’s. You can take your coo-yôn pet with you. But we’re goan south. Back to warmth, away from plague and cannibals. You can teach me how to court you. ’Cause I doan know my way around that. You can be happy living with me. You will be.”
Yes, I would. Just as soon as I was freed of this curse! “All of this is bigger than me, Jackson. I have to figure . . . have to figure myself out.”
“Then tell me what’s happening. Be honest for once. Trust me with your secrets. I’ve laid mine bare.”
Tell him what I was? Or, dear God, show him?
Selena had been magnificent as the Archer, all grace and speed, with a goddess’s poise. Matthew had his to-the-second foresight, a master of fate. Finn’s talents were nearly inconceivable.
Mine? I sprouted eerie claws. I grew things through the spilling of my own blood. I could be poisonous. When I controlled plants, they were snakelike and shuddersome.
And what about tonight with the lotus? I’d called Selena deceptive.
Wasn’t that my MO as well?
Unlike me, the other kids just seemed enhanced, like demigods. If I revealed to Jackson what the Empress truly looked like, how could I bear to see his disgust? I grew nauseated even thinking about showing him.
What if he saw me—and made the sign of the cross?
He had feelings for me, but only because he didn’t know what I truly was. He desired me—not the witch. “I want to tell you,” I whispered. “But I can’t. Not yet.” Just let me have this for a little while.
His expression hardened. “Then you’re coming with me. We’ll talk about what you got to ‘figure out’ when you can trust me.”
Real alarm spiked. Would he prevent me from leaving? Drag me back to Selena’s? “I am going to North Carolina. And I thought you and the others would be there with me.”
“It’s so damned easy for you to make these decisions! When you’re not doing any of the dirty work!”
“I’m stronger than you think. If push came to shove, I could help our group.”
“Help us? Doing what? Are you goan to pretty the Bagmen to death?”
“Again, I might surprise you!”
“You can’t hunt, can’t fight. You’re too soft!”
“You can’t say that about me anymore. You don’t know me—”
“Because you woan tell me!” He flung the bottle against the wall.
I felt like I’d shattered right along with it. “L-let’s talk tomorrow, when you’re sober. O-okay?” Trembling, I turned toward the door.
“Damn you, girl, you listen to me!” I faced him again, found him wild-eyed.
“Jackson, I will go insane if I don’t discover what I’m supposed to do!” And how to save myself!
“I know what you’re supposed to do. You stay with me, as mine. We’ll grow food, we’ll live our lives. We’ll build something together.”
How badly I wanted that too. My tears gathered and fell.
The anger sailed from him. “Non, doan cry, you.” He covered my shoulders with his palms, rubbing me with his thumbs.
“Th-there’s more to this,” I insisted.
“Then tell me, bébé.” The anguish in his voice was almost my undoing. The startling gray of his glinting eyes . . . “Trust me.”
When I remained silent, quietly crying, his hands tightened on my shoulders. He threw back his head and roared like a madman. Then he met my gaze. “You keep your secrets from the one person you could actually depend on.” His voice raw, he rasped, “J’tombe en botte, Evangeline! J’tombe en botte.” I fall to ruin. “I can’t keep doing this! You’re coming with me, or we’ll part ways in the morning.”
“Let’s just talk about this—”
“Vow you’ll come with me, or I’ve got to shut these thoughts down. I can’t keep running after you, goan against all my instincts, no. Can’t keep wanting and waiting. I know what that will do, I’ve seen it.”
“I-I don’t have a choice.”
He released me, jamming his shoulders back. “Then I doan either. I am done with you, girl.”
“What does that mean?”
The last word was still echoing between us when he limped out of the room and slammed the door behind him.
“You knew I was the red witch!” I snapped to Matthew under my breath.
He’d entered the bedroom directly after Jackson left, sitting without a word for what felt like hours until I’d stopped crying.
Finn had also dropped in, bringing a couple of blankets and starting a fire in the little hearth for us. “Obviously you’re off the menu, blondie,” he’d said, “with your boy troubles and all. So be a sport, and tell me the swiftest way to get in Selena’s pants.”
Once he’d realized I was in no mood, he’d raised his palms. “Hey, hey, ’s’cool. Don’t worry, I’ll devise something. Wish me luck.” Then he’d winked and disappeared. Literally. He’d turned himself invisible.
Now I paced while Matthew sat on the floor, studying a piece of broken glass by firelight. “You could have told me that I was her.” I was still reeling from all of the night’s revelations.
“You’re not her.”
“Not yet ? Because she’s strong and vicious. And I’m not, right?” I said, my tone hurt.
He inclined his head. “One day you’ll be known as the Poison Princess, the May Queen. Lady Lotus. Queen of Thorns. Phyta.”
“As in phytomanipulation?”
“You can make plants too. Phytogenesis. Without seed.”
This was titillating—until I remembered that such a talent was likely designed with murder in mind. “You did send me all those nightmares then?”
He frowned. “Nightmares? No. Just . . . dreams.”
“Who was she? Was that me in another life or something?” Say no, say no.
“Past Empress from long, long ago. She didn’t keep secrets. She was known by all. But they burn what they fear,” he said, his thoughts drifting.
“I updated the dreams for you. Because you can’t speak middle English.”
But you can? “Those dreams were about to drive me insane. Why would you make me experience such evil things?”
“Not evil. Arsenal.” With a sigh, he repeated, “Arsenal, field of battle, obstacles, foes.”
So he’d shown me all four things, either through visions or nightmares. “Arsenal? As in what I’m capable of?” I grudgingly admitted that the only reason I’d been able to create that lotus was because I’d seen the witch do it before.
The field of battle was a burned-out earth. The foes were other Arcana, like Death. Were the Bagmen the obstacles? “One problem, Matthew. I’m not a killer. I’m never going to use that arsenal to harm another. I swear to you, it will not happen.”
“Hmmm,” was all he said.
“This is a curse! One I’m going to rid myself of. Because of it, I had to push Jackson away. I can’t stand this, Matthew. I want him so much. Tell me what I’m supposed to do.”
“Take tricks. The markings must be earned.”
“I mean about Jackson. He doesn’t want to part ways with me any more than I do from him. He has feelings for me, deep feelings.” He’d wanted me from the start.
He’d returned to Haven for me, saving my life. He’d kept watch over me, protecting me. Even when he’d been so exasperated with me.
He’d done so much, given me so much, and I hadn’t even given him my trust.
Hadn’t he earned it?
“Jackson was right, about everything,” I said. “I should trust him. I should tell him my secrets.”
I’d been a coward, dreading his reaction—but could it be worse than this? He was hurting. And that was unbearable! My eyes watered just thinking about his voice. “I’m going to fix this. I have to tell him everything.”
Matthew turned the shard, twisting it upside down. “Secrets. You listen poorly.”
“After tonight I have two choices. I can keep these secrets. Or I can keep him. Which means I’ll be telling him the truth, even if I have to . . . to reveal what I am.” Queasiness roiled again.
I reminded myself that Jackson said we could get through anything. He said there was nothing that could happen to me that we couldn’t get past. I didn’t ask for any of this—surely he would understand that!
“Matthew, when I explain my confusion and fears, he’ll want to take me to Gran’s. So I can get cured.”
Together with Jackson. A partnership. With no more secrets between us.
“I’m not going to give up on him.” On us. “And I am through letting Selena worm her way between us.”
“I’m sorry you want him,” Matthew began in a careful tone, as if he was trying very hard to say the exact right thing to me. “I feel your heart—it actually aches. I wish it didn’t, Evie. You cannot have him.”
I glared down at him. “Why would you say that?”
“You don’t want to be Arcana. But you are.” He gazed up at me with those soulful eyes. “Jack’s not.”
“So what are you, like, a card purist or something?”
“He’s a weakness. You use him as a crutch. When he helps, he hurts.”
How could that be? He made me feel hope. “Jackson might be the only thing that’s keeping me from turning into a monster.”
Matthew shot to his feet, towering over me. “Into what you were meant to be!”
I gasped. “He does keep me from turning!”
Matthew’s gaze slid away.
Jackson had quieted the voices, and then had acted as some kind of anchor for me—yet another reason why I should be with him.
I already wanted nothing more than to start a life with him; now it felt fated.
Matthew sank down on the bed, looking exhausted. “If you don’t embrace your powers, you can’t win.”
“I don’t accept that, don’t accept my part in this war.” When Matthew looked to argue, I cried, “No one can force me to fight!”
“You will want to, you will need to. There’s a heat in battle. It’s your nature.”
“I will ask Jackson for his help—”
“Not a card.”
“—and once we’ve gotten this disease under control, we’ll run together. You can run with us, Matthew. Surely you don’t want to go to war!”
“Jack versus Death? Who wins? You might survive, I might, Luna might, Finn might.”
“That’s why we’ll run where Death can’t find us.”
“He sees you even now. He listens to every word you say, every thought that drifts through your mind. No escaping him.”
“I don’t believe that I’m locked into this, that I’m trapped through no actions of my own.”
“You can’t control your powers. Lady Lotus made us sleep last night. Any longer? Jack sleeps forever.”
“What are you talking about?”
In a sly tone, Matthew murmured, “Lotus. Sleep forever and ever.”
“No,” I whispered, even as I remembered my nightmare. The villagers had lain down, falling unconscious. When I’d awakened, Jackson had been out cold. Had I released some kind of spore in my sleep? “Ah, God, I did that ?”
When I’d come upon Jackson in that window seat, I’d mused that he looked so handsome—and he’d been on the verge of dying because of me! “Then why won’t you help me control my powers?”
“Oh, you’ll learn. Soon.”
I shook my head hard. “I owe this to Jackson. I’m going to warn him about the danger. If he still wants to be with me, I’ll do whatever it takes to protect him from other Arcana. From myself. But he has to know.”
It’s only fair, I reasoned, though I felt my hopes for our future plummeting.
“A storm on the horizon,” Matthew said ominously. “And we’re already behind. They laugh at us. They should.”
“Then let them laugh,” I snapped. “I’ll be back.”
As I walked into the hall, I thought he muttered, “Good-bye, Evie,” but I kept going.
Passing another guest room, I heard a groan from inside. Gasping, scuffling? Had a Bagman gotten in? A militia soldier?
Claws going sharp, I opened the door. . . .
Couldn’t believe my eyes.
Bile rose in my throat.
With his strong, protective arms wrapped tight around Selena, Jackson was kissing her for all he was worth.
DAY 246 A.F.
“What better way to shut those thoughts down than with another girl?” Evie asks softly, her eyes glistening with unshed tears.
We sit in silence as I wait for her to compose herself. I could use a moment as well. So many things she’s said have perplexed me, making my head ache. My focus grows hazy. Just as she has striven to resurrect memories, so too have I.
I crave one of my elixirs, though it’s not nearly time for one.
“As I slipped away, I realized that Jackson had warned me.”
“So he is the one who hurt you.”
“I don’t blame him. He asked for so little from me. And Selena will never harm him with uncontrollable powers. She’ll protect him. I believe that she loves him.”