Spark of the Everflame: Chapter 12


If anything was worse than fighting with Henri, it was the awkward tension that came next.

At some point in the night, Henri returned to the room and fell asleep beside me, but even after we rose at dawn and gathered our things to travel back to Lumnos, the silence between us remained. Occasionally his eyes would linger on me, his muscles bunching as if he was straining against a pull to speak, but he held his tongue, and so did I.

As we stood outside the inn readying our horses, two of the men from the previous evening stopped to bid us a safe journey. I gave them restrained smiles and a polite enough thanks, but when one leaned in to whisper in Henri’s ear, Henri’s eyes met mine and my smile vanished.

We made our way back onto the wide, desolate path of the Ring Road. Our horses marched alongside each other, the thick silence punctuated only by the drum of their steady hoofbeats.

I’d wanted to hurt him.

The thought wouldn’t stop haunting me. This loyal, kind-hearted man who had always been my closest friend… In that moment last night, I’d wanted to break his heart, and then break his bones.

The worst part was that I wasn’t sure I wouldn’t have done it. If he’d stayed longer, if he’d come closer—I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wouldn’t have been able to stop myself.

I’d always been a spitfire, and proud of it. An unbreakable spirit in a world that wanted me to be quiet, small, subservient. But no longer was that spark manifesting in courage or innocent mischief. Now, it had become something destructive. Something deadly.

And if I couldn’t learn to control it soon, I feared it would destroy me—or the people I loved most.

We were several hours into our painfully withdrawn trip when I gave in and breached the silence.

“You were right.”

His attention jerked to me, looking like he had never been more relieved to hear a sound in his life.

“I wasn’t,” he said quickly. “What I said was out of line.”

“No, you weren’t. You were right. I am broken.” My voice faltered on the last word, and I squeezed my eyes shut. “Or breaking, at least.”

His leg nudged mine as he brought his horse closer.

“It’s not the worst thing to break a little every now and then. It builds character.” Even without seeing him, I heard the teasing in his voice, his gentle peace offering.

So I offered one in return. “You’re starting to sound like the Commander again.”

“I’m choosing to take that as a compliment.” When I opened my eyes, he was smiling. A monstrous weight lifted from my chest—not gone forever, but enough that I felt a flush of old familiar joy bloom through my blood.

“I’m sorry,” I said, and I meant it.

“So am I.” And I knew he meant it, too. “I know you too well to try forcing you to talk about your feelings, but you know I’ll be here if you need me, right? Always. No matter what.”

My heart squeezed. It was all I could manage to smile and nod.

We continued without speaking for many long minutes, both of us quietly unspooling as the hours of tension eased away. This time, it was Henri who broke the silence.

“About a year ago, I watched one of the Descended kill a mortal boy.”

My eyes shot to his, but his gaze stayed fixed ahead, his expression grim.

“I was making a delivery in Lumnos City. The boy was delivering pears from a farm out west. He couldn’t have been more than fourteen, right out of school. He was crossing the road, but his arms were loaded with crates, and he couldn’t see…” He pulled in a shaky breath. “One of them was riding a giant horse—the biggest horse I’ve ever seen. I’ll never forget it. White as snow, with a patch of black between its eyes, and as tall as a house. Gold ribbon in its mane. And it was going so fast. Too fast for a busy road like that.”

He shuddered, and my stomach lurched.

“It was an accident. I know that. Just an accident. But the Descended…” His eyes blazed with remembered anger. “He barely even stopped. Gods, he was swearing at the boy for getting mud on his pretty jeweled saddle. When I told him the boy was dead, he sat there in his gold and finery and he looked at that boy’s corpse like it was nothing. He just brushed the dust off his horse and rode away.”

Henri’s fingers clenched around his pommel. His fingernails dug tiny half-moons into the leather with enough fury to suggest he was envisioning squeezing something else between his hands.

“I carried the boy’s body to three different villages, but no one knew who he was. I buried him on our family’s land so I can at least return his bones to his kin, if I ever find them.”

A chill rattled through me. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Because then I would have had to tell you what I did next.”

He clenched his jaw, still avoiding my gaze.

“I was so angry, Diem. It snapped something in me. Our whole lives they’ve trampled all over us, just like he did to that boy, and they don’t care. They leave us in the dirt, as if our lives are worthless.” His voice was rising, growing louder and more fervent. “So I decided if they could take a life from us, I could take one from them. I put on every weapon I could carry, and I went back to that street and waited. Every day for a week, I waited for the man to come back down that road, and I knew that when he did, I was going to kill him. I didn’t even care if I died in the process. I wanted them to see us, even if that was the only way to get them to look.”

“Henri,” I breathed sadly.

I’d almost lost him, and I hadn’t even known it. I’d been off somewhere teasing Teller, or perhaps working at the center, and all the while, Henri had been a few miles away, resigning himself to certain death.

I fumbled for the right words to comfort him, to convince him I could never judge him for it. I, of all people, knew what it was to be so consumed with anger that everything else was cast aside and forgotten. But that would require admitting a secret of my own.

He winced and continued. “A man found me—a mortal man. He took one look at me, and somehow he knew what I was there to do. He said I could die a meaningless death on one act of vengeance, or I could channel it into something bigger. Something that mattered. Something that would make a lot more of them pay than just that one man.” He finally turned his gaze to me. His features had shifted to a serene, almost reverent expression. “When I said the tattoo was to honor the Old Gods, I meant it. They were watching over me that day.”

“Who was the man?” I asked.

He briefly scanned the road for prying ears and eyes. “I can’t tell you his name. It’s one of the rules: never reveal the identity of any member, even to those we trust completely. It’s a group for mortals who refuse to accept the Descended as the rulers of Emarion. We fight back in whatever ways we can. We call ourselves the Guardians of the Everflame.”

My body locked up, my heart jumping to my throat. “But that’s the name—”

“Of the mortal rebellion during the Blood War,” he finished with a nod. “The Descended thought they’d crushed it completely, but some of the rebel cells survived. They’ve been operating in secret ever since, gathering information and weapons. The hope is that someday we’ll be strong enough to try again and actually win.”

War. Last night, I’d heard them whispering of it. I could barely catch my breath as new questions and fears tumbled through me.

“And when is ‘someday’?” I asked.

“We can’t afford to act too early and fail again, but many think the blood sun on Forging Day was a message from the Old Gods that the time is coming soon. But only if…” He hesitated. “Only if we have more mortals on the inside.”

“Is that why your father is working as the palace courier?”

“No.” His features sharpened. “My father is not supportive of the rebel effort. Nor is he aware of my involvement.” He shot me a meaningful look, a silent request.

“I won’t say anything,” I said quickly. “To him or anyone else.”

He slowed his horse to a stop and adjusted in his saddle to face me directly. “Join us, Diem. The access you would have at the palace as their healer would be invaluable. You could find out their weaknesses, how to get around their healing abilities, maybe even test out different poisons by telling them it’s medicinal.”

A sick, greasy feeling twisted my gut. Healers took vows to save lives. To use my knowledge and the sacred trust of my patients to do them harm instead…

As horrible as the Descended were, I wasn’t sure I could stoop that low.

Henri seemed to notice my apprehension. “You could at least pass along any information you overhear. Military things—movements of their armies, weapons they’re developing.”

As I gazed off at the road ahead, it struck me that this might finally be my opportunity to choose my own future. My family, my tiny village, even my work as a healer—these were all paths laid out for me by my mother. Even my body had lately felt like a prisoner to unwelcome thoughts and emotions.

And voices.

Mad as it was to work against the godlike creatures that were the Descended—this was something I could choose for myself. Whatever the consequences, they would be mine and mine alone.

Surely the Descended, and especially the royals, would not be foolish enough to divulge useful information in my presence. But if they did, if they slipped up—and if it was information that would not harm my patients, but rather protect innocent mortals…

Maybe that was exactly what I needed.

The voice kept demanding that I fight. Maybe instead of fighting someone, what I needed was something to fight for. Maybe I could channel the temper smoldering inside me and direct it somewhere it could help someone, instead of slowly burning me to ash. And if Prince Luther or any other Descended were responsible for my mother’s disappearance, who better than the Guardians to help me find the truth?

But…

I took a vow. A vow so precious and sacrosanct that it was the foundation of a healer’s training. A vow that a healer could be banned forever for violating. If I was caught, it would end my career. My mother would be ashamed of me, Maura might never speak to me again.

And worse, it would undermine my fellow healers. If our patients did not trust us to keep their secrets, they might not call on us when they needed help. Innocent people could die needless, preventable deaths.

No. I couldn’t do it. That line was too important, too sacred to cross.

But… but.

“I’ll think about it,” I said finally.

Henri grinned and nodded as enthusiastically as if I’d given my full-throated agreement. He nudged his horse forward, and we continued down the path. “You won’t be alone. I’ll be there, and—well, I can’t tell you yet. But there’s other members you know. Maybe we could recruit Teller, too. The information he’s learning at that Descended school—”

“Absolutely not.” I shook my head vehemently. “Leave Teller out of this, Henri. He’s too young. I don’t want him involved.”

“He’s not a child, Diem, he’s nearly a grown man. He might want to help.”

“I don’t care. I’ll consider helping you, but only if you keep him out of it. Those are my terms.”

“It should be his choice—”

“Promise me, Henri.”

A shade of judgment passed across his features, but he raised his palms in surrender and gave me a curt nod. “Alright. I promise.”

“And I’m not getting a tattoo, either. Unlike you and your friends, I have no desire to get skinned alive when the Descended spot it.”

“Fair enough.” He scoured my body with a heated gaze. “I like your skin the way it is, anyway.”

I arched a brow. “Does your little tree club even take women as members? I didn’t see any last night.”

“My little tree club is run by a woman.”

“Really?” I straightened. “In Lumnos?”

I could imagine that happening in some of the more progressive realms, but Lumnos and its dated traditions had always been a challenging place for women who wanted something other than being a wife and mother, as honorable as those sacred roles may be.

“Who is it? Do I know her?”

“I can’t say. No revealing anyone’s identity, remember?”

My shoulders slumped. “Would I get to work with her?”

“I hope so,” he said, his eyes softening with some inscrutable emotion. “She is a force to be reckoned with—just like you.”

As we continued our journey, Henri chattered on excitedly with veiled hints about the group and its surreptitious activities, broken by loaded gaps of silence that felt like held breaths whenever another traveler would pass us on the road.

He eagerly recounted missions he’d completed, mostly delivering messages among members within Lumnos or to cells in neighboring realms. He spoke of how he’d been working to persuade his father to let him assist with palace courier duties so he could intercept royal communications, though his father knew enough of Henri’s hatred of the Descended to thus far refuse him.

I listened without comment, remarking how his face lit up with each story. He was so proud, so certain of his path. I knew I should be more worried, perhaps try to convince him away from an activity that could so easily get him killed, but it kindled a hearth in my heart to see him full of joy again. Maybe he needed a purpose as much as I did.

And to be able to share it with each other—maybe that was what we needed to bring us back together and restore what we’d been before my mother’s disappearance.

“There’s something else I’ve been wanting to talk to you about.” His voice had changed, reined in by apprehension. “About us.”

I stiffened. Had my thoughts been so obvious on my face?

He took a deep breath and reached across to take my hand in his clammy fingers. “I love you, Diem. The truth is, I’ve loved you my entire life. All the other girls I’ve been with, I was always just biding my time until you were ready to give me a chance.”

My heart tripped over itself. We’d never said those words to each other before. Never even come close.

He looked at me with expectation in his eyes, and my mind became a whirlwind of frantic thoughts.

Did I love him? Yes, of course I did. He was my longest, dearest friend, as close to me as family. But maybe… maybe I didn’t love him like he loved me. Or maybe I did, but the thought of what it might mean—what he might want from me in return…

The sweep of his thumb against the back of my hand felt like sandpaper over my skin. I had to fight to resist the urge to yank it free.

“I know we’re still figuring this out,” he said, gesturing between us, “but there’s one thing I do know. You’re my girl, Diem Bellator. You’re the one I want to spend the rest of my life with. And I was hoping you would do me the honor…”

My mouth went dry. “I care about you, too,” I blurted out. “So, so much. And with so many hard decisions in my life to make right now, I’m so happy that I can be with you and just… relax. Without any pressure.”

Shame weighed on my heart. I knew what he was about to say. What he was about to ask.

And, like a coward, I was running from it.

A shadow of disappointment darkened his eyes. He nodded and squeezed my thigh as we set back on the path and continued the long trek back to Lumnos. I avoided his gaze the entire way home, but his words—and our future—consumed my thoughts.

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