“No. Being struck with a House blade only severs ties to this realm. He’s back in the kingdom, and won’t be able to use his powers for a while.”
A small blessing amidst the curse. “Good.”
Wrath handed me a cloth to wipe my face. I don’t know where he pulled it from, and I didn’t care. “Lust takes the pleasant emotions you have and inflates them. You might experience a void now. Picture it like a well—his influence rapidly depletes the supply. Where you were once blissfully happy, you’ll feel a sharp contrast. It is a hell in its own way. Giving someone ultimate pleasure, only to rip it from them before they fully grasp it. Done often enough, it drives mortals mad. You should be all right soon enough, though.”
“He wouldn’t have . . .” I fisted my hands at my side. “Made me . . .”
Wrath shook his head. “No.”
“But I felt—there were invisible hands.” I also didn’t forget how hard I’d been trying to take my clothes off in front of Wrath. Or how much I’d wanted him to touch me.
“Manifestations of your desire. They were a part of you, not anyone or anything else.”
There was little comfort in that. Lust might not have violated me physically, but the emotional manipulation was equally bad. He’d twisted goodness until it was cloaked in evil. Wrath was right. It did feel like I’d crashed—like I’d been soaring, and the wind abruptly stopped and I was plunged into the frigid sea depths below. A vast abyss of nothing swallowed me.
I wanted to curl up on the ground, and sleep for eternity. I didn’t care about the curse. Or the nagging feeling I’d learned something important. I no longer worried about my sister’s murder. Or vengeance. Nothing mattered anymore.
I must have said that last part out loud.
Wrath reached over and lightly brushed blood-smeared knuckles against the side of my neck. The exact place I thought he’d kissed me the night he’d saved me from the Viperidae. I shivered and he dropped his hand.
“Valeas.” Be strong. “It will again soon.”
“Soon” turned into a week. I hardly noticed the passage of time. I stayed in bed, locked the sunlight out, and refused to bathe. I had little energy and less reason to care. I didn’t visit my family, or the restaurant. I didn’t look for my amulet, or think about the gates of Hell. I barely slept. When I did, I kept hearing a strange voice. When I awoke, the urgent message was forgotten.
I didn’t care. It didn’t matter.
The world felt like it was caving in around me, and sometimes I’d gasp for what felt like hours, unable to draw in enough breath. Life hurt. All pleasure was gone. Anything that once held meaning was long forgotten, buried deep in a void I couldn’t break through. My sister was a faraway memory. Vengeance was rooted in passion, and therefore I had nothing left of it, either.
If Wrath was angry or annoyed by my inability to shake off the last vestiges of his brother’s power, he didn’t let it show. At least not in the ways I expected.
He wasn’t always the most gracious or patient nursemaid. But he was never far, always prowling around near my borrowed room in the ruined palace. Sometimes, when I was in that foggy place between sleep and wakefulness, I saw him camped out in a chair beside my bed. His hair and clothing both rumpled. Once, I thought he held my hand. But when I roused myself from that near-impenetrable haziness, he was gone. He brought food three times a day and when I refused to eat, he’d sit there, glowering until I did. Fighting him took too much energy. So I ate.
Sometimes I’d stare at the careful lines of his tattoos. Up close, the metallic snake that started on his right hand and curled up and around to his shoulder was a masterpiece—each scale shimmered. It was more than gold, there were bits of silver and charcoal—shadows and light. I stared blankly at it while he brought my next meal. I wondered if our matching tattoos would evolve with intricate details over time. I stopped caring.
He held out more food.
Globes of plump red grapes. Hunks of hard cheese. Warmed milk sweetened with honey and spices. Cured meats and other things I stopped paying attention to. He was a mighty hunter bringing home spoils of war. I wondered when he’d give up and let me be.
“When you start doing it on your own.”
I didn’t think I’d asked aloud. I didn’t care if he read my mind. I pushed his handful of grapes away, rolled onto my side. And let the world around me fade.
Somewhere, in the distance, I thought I heard Wrath speaking. He was telling me a story about a witch. One day her heart had been ripped from her, not physically, but emotionally. The void was only filled when she went out hunting for vengeance, and even then her grief was never far. Then, when she’d been close to discovering some long-forgotten secret, she met a terrible prince. He delighted in taking what little pleasure she’d clung to, leaving her empty and vulnerable.
I tuned out the sound of Wrath’s voice. I didn’t care for this story. I knew the ending.
Vittoria was gone. I’d been fighting grief over her loss with all I had, gripping my pursuit of justice like it was my only tether to the world.
Now that my will to cling to it was gone, there was nothing left.
Two weeks was where his patience ended, apparently. One morning, or evening—I’d stopped paying attention—I was scooped from bed and unceremoniously dumped into a waiting bath, clothes and all. I bobbed up from the water, pushed tangles of hair from my face, and glared at the demon. He glared right back and a tiny spark of anger finally ignited.
“Have you completely lost your damn—”
My scolding died when I took in the peculiar scene around us.
Candles set in a circle on the floor dripped waxy tears, their flames offering a soft glow against the twilight streaming in. I couldn’t tell if it was dusk or dawn. The windows were thrown open, allowing fresh air to glide around the bathing room. At some point, during my convalescence, Wrath had hung window coverings. Beautiful gauze panels fluttered in the wind.
He hadn’t stopped redecorating there.
A line of sand circled the tub along with dozens of fragrant orange blossoms and plumeria. My favorite flowers. My gaze shot to him in accusation. “What is this?”
“Representations of each element.” He nodded to the items in question. “Earth, air, fire, and water. I take it I don’t need to explain further.”
He didn’t. I knew exactly what it meant. They were offerings for the goddesses to help guide a moon daughter back from darkness. I glanced around the chamber again, my pulse soothing. Adding orange blossoms and plumeria was a bit much—the sand would have done just fine for the earth portion of the ritual. I didn’t point that out, though. I was . . . surprised the demon even knew this much of our ways. I relaxed against the lip of the tub and closed my eyes, letting the magic of the elements seep into my soul. A drowsy peace settled deep within me.
I heard retreating footsteps and waited until he was almost gone. “Thank you.”
He must have heard me. I didn’t whisper and—even with the windows open—there were no other noises drifting up from the streets. But the only reply he offered was the soft click of the door closing behind him. I inhaled the pleasing scent of orange blossoms and drifted off. Later, I’d pick some of them up and weave them into my hair. As I slipped deeper into the water, I finally understood why he’d brought the flowers. They weren’t meant for the ritual. They were for me.
Their fragrance was the first bit of true pleasure I felt after mine had been stolen away.
“There are victors and victims. Decide who you want to be. Or the choice will be made for you, witch. And I doubt you’ll like it.”
I threw my head back and groaned. “It’s a game of scopa, not a battle between life and death. Are you always this dramatic?”
Wrath scowled from behind his hand-painted cards. “Valuable lessons are often learned from games of strategy. Only fools discredit them.”
“And only an ornery creature from Hell gets this serious over a simple card game.”
I plucked another cannoli from the plate Wrath had set on my bed. When I’d come out of the bath wrapped in my new silky robe, he’d been waiting with the dessert and cards. He subtly watched as I devoured another one, seeming pleased he’d done an acceptable job at remembering the sort of human food I loved. I’d mistakenly assumed more relaxation was part of his master plan to restore me to optimum health and well-being.
I had no idea we’d be playing at war games. I suddenly longed for the bath again.
The elemental blessing worked wonders for my emotions. I was ready to get back out, and solve the mystery surrounding my sister’s murder. And find my missing amulet. At least in theory. In reality, I was petrified of running into another prince of Hell. Each one I’d met thus far had been worse than the last.
“How long does it take for a demon prince to restore themselves after they’re—”
“I thought you aimed for his heart, actually.”
“I punctured a lung. Maybe broke a few ribs.” His tone was filled with disappointment. “I imagine he’s almost healed already.” He looked me over. “He won’t bother you again.”
“Right. A prince of Hell who delights in tormenting others by removing all happiness and pleasure will suddenly grow a conscience, and never attempt that nasty trick again.”
“Oh, he’ll definitely try again. But you’re going to stop him.”
I gulped down the last bite of my third cannoli, suddenly feeling queasy. “Is there a spell or charm that mitigates demonic influence? Irish carve crosses from rowan wood and wear them to keep fae away. You must have objects that offer protection from you, too.”
He was silent for an uncomfortably long beat. I glanced up, and fought the urge to flinch. It was becoming too easy to forget what he really was. Then, there were glimpses like this, which made me worry about when he might be the one to turn his influence loose on me.