Though I’m running out of patience, I want to hear about the last two days, want some questions answered. “What happened after you found the two of them kissing?”
She flinches at my words. She might not blame the Cajun, but deep down, she still feels betrayed.
She’s about to know more betrayal.
“I . . . I . . .” She frowns, seeming surprised to have lost her train of thought. Right on schedule. With just ten more minutes of tape left. “So I . . . scribbled a note to Jackson, telling him that I had to continue, that I hoped he would be happy with Selena. I asked him to please look out for Matthew, to explain to the boy that it’s safer for everyone this way. For some reason, I’m convinced Jackson will protect him.”
“How did you get here?” I ask, my tone growing curt. My head is splitting. And her earlier blathering about voices has reminded me of a time before my tonics.
I never want to return to that time of shame—when other things divided my laserlike focus.
Before I ruthlessly eliminated the distractions.
Evie presses the heels of her hands against her eyes, rubbing. After blinking several times, she continues, “I stole Finn’s truck, figuring that he could easily get another one with his abilities. I drove till it ran out of gas two days ago. Then I just followed the road, hoping I’d find someone who would help me. I-I’ve been a wreck, Arthur. So confused, crying nonstop.” Her voice grows fainter. “I have never in all my life needed kindness like I did from you today. Thank you.”
No. Thank you. “I’m surprised you didn’t want to bring Matthew with you.”
“I wanted to so much. But how could I take him away from all of Finn’s food and safety? From the promise of security at Selena’s? Jackson was right—sending everyone into trouble was easy for me to do. Bringing Matthew north would’ve been selfish.”
I steeple my fingers. “But I thought you had powers now. You could protect him. What about the lotus?”
“It takes so much concentration. I think Matthew helped me with that, helped calm me. But I wouldn’t want his life to depend on it.”
Yet another power she can’t demonstrate.
She draws her leg up on the chair again, but it slips down. She doesn’t repeat the effort. “And I don’t want to use those powers, not if I risk turning into that witch.”
“Do you really think you can survive in this world on your own?”
“I have to try.”
“An army led by a sadistic family almost ‘enlisted’ you, forcing you to burn down your home, with your mother’s body inside. Then men who wanted to enslave you wrecked your car, risking your life. That militia caged you so you could be used by hundreds of soldiers.”
She pales, murmuring, “And somehow through all that, I managed to hold on to my . . . my humanity. I’ve kept the balance so far.”
“You believe that’s because of Jackson. Now what happens? Your anchor’s gone, fled into the arms of another.”
Her eyes water once more, yet she juts her chin. “M-my gran will help me the rest of the way.”
“You’re not tempted in the least to embrace your”—pretend—“abilities? So much strength to be tapped?” She can imagine such awesome power all she wants, but it won’t change the fact that she has already been defeated. She lost this match hours ago.
Evie told me that her mother’s view of the world had gotten rebooted violently. Evie’s is about to be as well. The optimistically cheerful girl—who never complains, who wants to be friends with everyone, who still waves at strangers—will disappear this night. One way or another.
“I can’t embrace those abilities, Arthur. I don’t think . . . don’t think that the good can be separated from the bad . . . risk is too great. I don’t want to become a killer.”
“How do you know if you’ve never tried killing?”
“I . . . I’m sorry. What did you ask?” Her head bobs once, but she fights to stay awake. Defeated.
Thinking about loose ends, I say, “Did you ever remember the answer to that doctor’s question? I want to know why you should have rejected your grandmother’s teachings.”
“Not yet. Feel like I’m sooo close.”
Alas, you’ve run out of time. Now I must make a decision.
Should I keep her as a subject—or a companion? As I gaze at her heavy-lidded blue eyes and her waves of glossy blond hair, I again consider giving her a place in my bed, rather than in the dungeon.
Though she will never leave this house alive, at least she would survive longer than the scholar.
Jackson wanted Evie to teach him to court her; perhaps she could teach me how not to kill her.
Or would she be too much of a distraction from my work? I have never tolerated distractions.
It is time to decide her destiny, to play God with her future. I ask one last question: “Are you in love with Jackson?” Earlier, when she described that kiss with him, I barely quelled the urge to slice off her lips.
Subject or companion, Evie?
She seals her fate when she whispers, “Every time I close my eyes, I see his. Even after what happened . . . Jackson still has my heart.”
Rage boils up inside me. “Not quite, dear. But I will have it. I will squeeze it in my hand.”
She can barely keep her head raised. “Hmm?”
“It’s time, Evie.” I rise, slipping one of the scalpels from my case.
She squints at it, but the sight doesn’t even register in her foggy brain. She slurs, “What’s that?”
“A scalpel, which I will use to carve up your pretty face if you don’t stand this instant.”
She gasps, opening her eyes wider, shaking her head to clear it.
I have to admit that this is my favorite time with a new capture. I can only imagine the nauseating, sinking sensation as comprehension dawns. That gut-wrenching sense of betrayal.
Then the bone-chilling terror. “Stand. This instant, girl.”
With a cry, she rises on quaking legs, collapses back in her chair, then attempts again. Adrenaline is beginning to pump through her system. She’s a touch more alert, but her movements remain sluggish.
“Arthur, wh-what’re you doing?”
I snatch her upper arm. “Walk. Now.”
“Oh God, oh God, where are we going?” She shuffles clumsily beside me.
“Into the dungeon.”
“D-dungeon?” She sways as if she’ll faint, but I yank her upright. “Wh-why are you doing this? What’d I do?”
“You entered my lair, as good as offering yourself up to use for my studies, for my . . . experiments. Your body equals knowledge not yet harvested. That is your only value.”
“Experiments?” She sounds like she’ll vomit, but I have a powder in the lab to prevent that.
Ever mindful of my corduroys. “You were doomed as soon as my front door closed behind you. I need you, Evie. My work is everything. I must know everything.”
“Please don’t hurt me, Arthur! You heard my story—did I survive all that just for you to . . . hurt me now?”
“You told me lies. All lies! Again and again, I was on the verge of punishing you. You cannot lie on your patient history!”
As I unlock the cellar door, she cries, “What’s down there?”
“Below. Now!” I force her down the stairs. She trips, almost pitching into a fall before I catch her.
Once we’ve made it down to the lab with all my simmering potions, I relish her horrified look. Then I drag her past the plastic sheeting into the dungeon. “Your new home.”
With her pupils the size of dimes, she stares at the other girls, huddling against the walls. “You . . . kidnapped them?” Then she catches sight of the scholar’s remains.
Evie tilts her head at the putrefied body, as if she can’t reconcile what she’s seeing.
Here’s the part where comprehension dawns. . . .
Her eyes go blank, her trembling hand shooting up to her mouth. Realizing that will be you one day?
“Come, Evie, let’s get you settled.” I shove her toward the scholar’s corner, pointing to the decomposing pile. “Fish out your new collar from that mess.”
She recoils. “Wh-what?”
“Accept your fate, and you’ll live for a time.”
“You don’t want to do this to me, Arthur.”
“Retrieve the collar NOW!” I yell, spraying spittle. The other girls ball up into fetal positions in their nests, all openly crying.
But not Evie. She chokes out one word: “No.”
The other girls whimper, the youngest crying for her mother as usual.
“No?” With a flick of my wrist, my scalpel will bring my new subject to heel. “Just for saying that to me, I’ll cut out your tongue and put it in a jar for you to see every day.” I advance on her, rage clouding my vision.
To herself she whispers, “Ah, God. I’m lost.”
“Utterly lost! This is the last time you will ever disobey me.” I reach for her with one hand, my scalpel raised in the other—
“Come, Arthur,” I dimly hear her murmur. “Touch.”
What’s this? She’s recited those words before, in her timid girl’s voice, but hearing them in this new sultry tone rocks me.
She finishes, “But you’ll pay a price.” A streak of movement between us.
Just as I perceive her irresistible rose scent, four parallel slashes appear across my torso.
I gape down, dropping my scalpel. Hot blood gushes from me. My flesh is a curtain, one opened to my probing gaze. “H-how?”
Evie straightens, unaffected by any drugs. Her eyes are alert and bright . . . green. A line of vine appears over her cheek and down her neck, blazing across her pale skin like a glowing green brand. Locks of her hair are turning red.
Tipping each finger is a razor-sharp thorn, now dripping with my blood.
She hadn’t been hallucinating. Evangeline is filled with power, thrumming with it.
I clasp my palms over my wounds; blood spills between my fingers. “Y-you made me believe you were lying—or delusional!”
“I told you not all of my tale was true. For instance, I left out the parts concerning you.”
“I didn’t want to have to hurt you, Arthur. But you left me no choice!” She is visibly shaking, seething. “Not after you struck out at me. Just like Jackson said, I am DONE!” The entire house begins to quake, plaster raining from the ceiling. “I am sick of this world, sick of being attacked and kidnapped!”
Blood loss is making me cold—just as she said.
“All I ever wanted was to be normal. But tonight I’ve accepted that’s not possible. Even without Death and the Arcana, I now know that I have no hope of it. As soon as I saw these girls chained down here, it suddenly hit me—I’m not like them. I’m not normal. I don’t have to be trapped. I just have to become the vicious Empress I was born to be. And as you pointed out, the one thing holding me back—Jackson—is gone.”
She stalks closer. I stumble back toward the lab. I have tonics to heal myself. This isn’t over!
“During the last two days, I had a lot of time to consider my choices. I thought about my fierce mother. She would have embraced these powers. I thought of Clotile—what she wouldn’t have given for them in her final moments! And then telling you my story solidified my feelings.”
I’m almost to the plastic sheets. If I can reach my workbench . . .
“I’m ashamed that I thought about surrendering, burying myself in the earth to hide from men like you. But no longer. The Empress doesn’t get collared, or caged, or tortured. How artfully she beckons, how perfectly she punishes. I punish.” Evie’s fury begins to ebb, the house settling. “I’m not going to get mad at you for poisoning me. I’m simply going to make you pay a price.”
“How . . . how did you know?”
She makes a tsking sound. “Using a plant-based toxin in the chocolate? I could smell it, could sense what it’d do. Remember my titles? I don’t get poisoned, I do the poisoning. I’m the Princess of it.” Leaves are now tangled through her wild red hair, those spellbinding glyphs winding along her arms as well. She’s a pale, terrible goddess. “I poured out my mug when you took the tray away. Probably wouldn’t have affected me anyway. Oh, but you? You’re definitely poisoned from my claws. Dying right now.”
“No. Not possible,” I bite out, though I already perceive her volatile toxin racing through my veins. Now I feel the betrayal and terror I’d only been able to imagine before. “Why visit this upon me? Why come here?”
“As I drove north, I began hearing a new voice. Yours.” She taps her chin with a sinister claw, saying, “I might have forgotten to mention that one tiny detail. In any case, yours grew louder, above all the others, above even Death’s—who was quite chatty once I was alone at last.” She frowns, shrugs. “But your voice was drawing me near. A wise man in the guise of a boy. Does that sound familiar?”
I make a strangled sound. “You couldn’t have heard me.”
“You’re one of the Arcana, Arthur. For the longest time, I couldn’t figure out which one, couldn’t remember my grandmother’s cards well enough to match one to your tableau. Not until I saw your experiments down here in your creepy little lair. You’re the Hermit. The old man holding a lantern.”
“One among your number?” I draw my lips back from my teeth. “Never!”
“You’re denying it, just like I did. No wonder Matthew grew so frustrated with me.”
“If you believe I’m one of you, then you came here intending to do me ill!”
“No, I sought you out, hoping you knew your destiny as one of the Arcana and could teach me mine, hoping that you’d actually be good—unlike most everyone else I continue to encounter. But I was prepared to defend myself if you weren’t.”