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Spark of the Everflame: Chapter 13

Two weeks had passed since our trip to Fortos, and for the first time in a long time, I felt a glimmer of hope.

The day I’d returned, I’d burst into the center and boldly announced my decision to take over my mother’s duties at the palace. Although Maura put up a fine enough argument in my mother’s honor, I saw her flood of relief when she finally relented.

In the days since, I’d pored over my mother’s records, familiarized myself with the small trove of potions and powders that were reserved for their treatment (none of which, to my dismay, included flameroot), and spent several long evenings being tutored by Maura on all the eccentricities of treating the powerful beings that I’d been so carefully segregated from all these years.

With all the secrecy my mother had shrouded it in, I’d expected some grand reveal that might justify her efforts, but in the end, their treatment wasn’t all that different from the mortals.

There was one substance I’d learned could be lethal to the Descended: godstone, a rare material that could only be made by the Kindred. If formed into a projectile or blade, a serious strike could be instantly fatal, and even minor blows risked an infection from its lethal toxin. Though harmless to mortals, its effects were ferociously destructive to Descended, a gruesome and painful death with no known antidote.

It was the one piece of knowledge that lingered and haunted my thoughts for days afterward. This was precisely the kind of information Henri’s rebel group would want to know.

If I decided to work with them.

And so, armed with an arsenal of newly acquired wisdom, I was ready to accompany Maura on her visits to the palace. Our first trip would be simple and quick—a final follow-up to check on the two youngest children who’d been hurt in the roof collapse weeks earlier.

“No shortcuts through the garden this time, I suppose,” I mused as we passed the patch of forest where Elric had led us through the hidden hole in the stone wall.

Another detail Henri’s rebels would be thrilled to discover.

“You’d do well to forget that ever happened,” Maura warned. “If they find out you know about an unguarded entrance into the palace, you’ll be lucky if losing your post as healer is the only consequence.”

“Front door it is, then,” I offered cheerfully.

And what a front door it was.

If the back of the palace seemed to be molded of glittering moonlight, the front was the dark side of its magnificent coin. Writhing, ominous shadows skulked along the facade as twisting vines in a perpetual state of growth. The dark cords knotted and twined along every balustrade and spire, looking like a nest of black vipers coiling to strike. The palace seemed to pulse with their endless movement—the throbbing, blackened heart of the realm.

It was incredibly intimidating, no doubt by design. I struggled to imagine how any potential enemy could take a single look at the shadowy edifice and not take off running in the opposite direction.

But what really stole every word from my lips was no feat of architecture, but the creature that guarded it. Like a living, breathing gargoyle, the beast reclined on a landing high atop the palace walls, its furred tail swishing idly as two glittering eyes skimmed the surrounding lands.

A gryvern.

I’d heard stories of them in school and seen their likeness stitched and carved into various materials around the realm, but to see one with my own eyes felt like walking into the pages of a fairytale.

The spiked, scaled head of a sea dragon. The wings and front talons of an eagle. The body of a lion. Kings of the sea, sky, and land—all transformed into a single beast. The fearsome amalgamation was the stuff of nightmares, unlike any other creature in our world.

When the Kindred arrived in the mortal realm many millennia ago, each of the nine sibling deities brought a gryvern as their companion and guardian. At the Forging, the Kindred bound the immortal beasts to an eternity of service to the Crowns of each realm. Only seven remained living, as the gryverns of Fortos and Montios had been killed by mortal rebels during the Blood War. Though their deaths had been a great victory to the rebellion, a profound sadness struck me at the thought of such a glorious animal meeting its end.

Sunlight shimmered off the creature’s iridescent scales, their smooth, dark surface reflecting a rainbow sheen like oil puddled beneath a lamp. A passing breeze ruffled the soft down of the wings folded tight against its back.

As if it could feel the weight of my attention, the gryvern’s golden eyes lowered to meet my own. Its slitted black pupils pulsed and thinned, twitching as they took me in. I paused my steps, transfixed by the creature’s gaze.

With a sharp jerk, it launched into the air. The beat of its outstretched wings kicked up swirls of dust as it smoothly circled the palace in a graceful arc, howling a shrill note into the clouds. Its shadow passed over us as its broad wingspan blotted out the sun. Its course abruptly shifted downward, and it slammed into the front walkway with enough force to send a tremor rumbling through the earth.

Maura shrieked and stumbled back a few steps, unapologetically tucking behind me to shield herself. I wasn’t offended—in fact, a part of me sang with pride that she believed me capable of protecting her from such a beast.

My chin joined my gaze in lowering with deference. I took a tentative step forward, hand hovering at the blade on my hips.

The gryvern took insult at the gesture, a growl thundering behind its bared fangs. Muscles rippled along its thick hide as a talon stretched forward and scraped down the tiled stone path.

I froze. My hands rose, empty palms outstretched. “We’re no threat,” I murmured, wondering if the creature could understand. “We’re here to help.”

It took another step, then another, its spiked snout stretching to within an arm’s reach from my face. Its nostrils flared wide—smelling me. Its head tilted slightly, first one way, then another.

Behind me, Maura whimpered. “Can someone h-help us please?” she called out to the guards in a desperate voice. She tugged at my arm in an attempt to pull me to a safer distance.

I held my ground, attention fixed on the gryvern. There was something so curious about its eyes. Something expressive, almost human-like in their captivating shrewdness.

“I mean you no harm,” I said in a soothing voice, the same one I used on my wildest patients. Slowly, cautiously, I extended a single hand, pulled forward by some unexplainable urge.

The creature’s eyes darted to my hand, then back to me. Just as slowly, just as cautiously, its neck arched forward to meet my touch.

“Sorae, get back to your perch,” a gruff voice barked.

The gryvern hissed and whipped its head around, the tuft of black fur at the end of its tail smacking the ground in a furious thrash. A flash of sunlight glinted off a golden medallion hung from a chain around its neck, engraved with the interlocking sun and moon that served as the sigil of Lumnos.

A guard strode forward and swatted the animal’s haunches, then motioned back toward the palace. “Easy, girl. They’re just mortals, nothing to worry over.”

My irritation piqued.

The gryvern’s lips curled back in a snarl at the guard, but it obeyed his command, prowling back toward the building.

The guard beckoned us forward. “My apologies. Sorae’s temper has been on edge since the King took ill. Everything sets her off these days.”

“She wasn’t angry, just curious,” I said.

The guard gave me an inquisitive look, one that was mirrored on Maura’s face.

I didn’t respond.

As it turned out, entering through the main entrance of the palace was a veritable gauntlet compared to the ease with which we had previously shuffled in through the garden doors.

Sword-wielding watchmen grilled us with no attempt to hide their condescension. They demanded our names, our qualifications, the contents of our bags, our duties at the palace. Maura, despite surely having been through this routine countless times in the past, remained perfectly patient, answering their increasingly rude questions without an ounce of defensiveness.

My confidence in my ability to take over this role without starting a war was fading with each passing second.

Eventually, the guards grunted their approval and tossed our bags back at our feet. We gathered our scattered belongings and turned toward the cavernous, marble-coated foyer when an armored forearm swung into my chest and stopped me short.

The man’s cerulean eyes flicked to my hips. “Mortals must surrender their weapons before entering.”

My jaw tightened. There wasn’t a chance in all the ice-capped caverns of hell that I would agree to walk into the lion’s den unarmed.

“I need them for my duties here,” I protested.

His lip curled. “None of your duties here should require a blade.”

I patted the hilt of my dagger with a bitter smile. “This blade helped save your Princess Lilian’s life the last time I was here.”

We glared at each other through narrowed eyes, neither one relenting.

“Diem,” Maura hissed, a plea and a warning.

“Get Prince Luther,” one of the guards commanded. “It’s his call to make.”

Maura waved a hand frantically. “No, no—that won’t be necessary. She’ll leave them here. Right, Diem?”

The guard smirked at me. “That’s exactly what she’ll do.” He reached for me, one hand clutching harshly to my shoulder. His other palm brushed against my breast as he reached to grab my blade, and his lecherous smile left no doubt the act was intentional.

My control snapped, and my training took over. Before his fingertips could graze the hilt of my knife, I had one hand on his wrist, the other crossed to clamp onto his forearm. Then I was twisting, turning, using his momentum against him until his arm was locked at an awkward angle at his back and he was on his knees, grunting in pain and shock.

A simple maneuver, one of the first my father ever taught me. Effective even on an enemy twice your size.

Around me rang the peal of swords sliding free from their scabbards, pinning me into a circle of razor-sharp blades pointed directly at my chest.

“Well this is off to a flawless start,” I muttered under my breath.

Maura yelped as a guard stepped forward and grabbed her, putting his knife to her neck.

“Get your hands off of her or you’re a dead man,” I snarled. The guard at my feet thrashed against my grip, and I twisted his arm further, drawing another pained groan.

It was unexpectedly easy to hold him in place, and from the confused looks his comrades leveled at me, I could tell they shared my surprise. My father’s training had kept me strong enough to handle the mortal men I’d scuffled with, but I had expected more of a challenge from the famously formidable Descended.

Another of the guards jabbed his blade in my direction. “Do you really think you can take us all, mortal?”

“Oh, just taking you would satisfy me enough.” I shot a sympathetic look between his legs. “That must be the first time a woman’s ever told you that.”

Quiet snickers rippled through the room.

The guard’s cheeks exploded into an angry red. He lunged for me. “You mortal slu—”

Stand down.”

The low, thunderous voice reverberated against the stone walls.

Collectively, our eyes climbed up the twin winding staircases to the imposing figure atop the landing. Tailored black suede breeches, a jacket of deepest midnight blue edged with silvered beading, jeweled sword, ebony hair tightly bound.

Prince Luther.

“I do not give second chances at following my commands,” he barked.

His voice thrummed with an otherworldly power that filled the room with its presence. Even from across the expansive hall, I saw his icy stare settle on me.

The guards took a step back and sheathed their weapons, and the man who held Maura released her with a brutal shove that sent her cane clattering.

I held my ground.

Our eyes stayed locked as Luther stalked down the curving steps. He snatched Maura’s cane from the ground, and handed it back to her, offering his arm out to her to clutch until her legs steadied. An annoying warmth pooled inside me at the chivalrous gesture.

“Your Highness,” she stammered, “this is all a misunder—”

He raised a hand, silencing her immediately.

The warmth cooled away.

He turned and stood directly in front of me. His face was a mask of frozen calm, made all the more intimidating by the faint line of scarring that split his features like a chasm.

His focus shifted to the man quivering at my feet. “Explain.”

“We told them no weapons,” the guard grunted out, trying again and failing to yank his arm free of my grasp. “Then they attacked us.”

“Bullshit,” I seethed. “Don’t parents around here teach their sons not to put their hands on a woman without her consent?”

“Indeed, they do,” Luther responded.

My eyes snapped back up to him. “Then it seems several of you didn’t take the words to heart.”

His features remained as immovable as stone, but the sparks and shadows whirling behind his sapphire gaze had sirens blaring in my head. It reminded me so much of the voice that had plagued my thoughts in recent weeks—how the thrill of a fight woke it up and set it begging for release.

Luther’s chin dropped slightly. “Release my guard, Miss Bellator. His behavior will be dealt with appropriately.”

So the Prince remembered my name. I wasn’t yet sure if that was good or very, very bad.

“Diem, please,” Maura squeaked out. She sounded frantic, near tears. “Let the Prince handle this.”

I highly doubted Luther’s idea of appropriate would match mine, but I’d backed myself so artlessly into a corner I didn’t know what else to do.

I loosened my grip on the guard’s arms and watched with open scorn as he clambered to his feet. His face was inflamed with a scarlet mix of shame and fury. As he moved to join the other guards, he slammed his shoulder into mine, jeering under his breath, “Watch your back, mortal bitch.”

Magic detonated into the room.

Though Luther barely moved, whiplike vines of sizzling light and inky shadow shot from his open palms. They twisted in a violent frenzy as they slithered around the guard’s chest and squeezed. His bones creaked against the mounting pressure, a choked cry whimpering from his lips.

I could feel it, that gossip-worthy power of Luther’s. It was as if the air around him had its own pull, thick and intoxicating. Something awoke inside me in response. If I had any common sense left at all, it might have been fear—but the intrigue stirring low in my belly didn’t feel like fear at all.

Before I knew what I was doing, I staggered a step closer, my own hand rising as if drawn in by its siren call. It was the same inexplicable pull I’d felt toward the gryvern—perhaps I had a thing for cranky, dangerous beasts.

Luther’s eyes ticked toward me, freezing me in place. His face remained passive, almost bored, as if the stunning display had cost him as much effort as swatting a pesky fly.

Still, as his gaze roamed over me, something flickered—something I couldn’t quite decipher.

It was gone in an instant. Luther prowled toward the guard. The luminescent rope yanked the man’s body higher, his feet dangling helplessly in the air, bringing the two men eye-to-eye.

“These women are here in the service of the Crown,” Luther said coolly. “Is this how we treat His Majesty’s guests?”

“But they were—”

Luther’s fist tightened to a ball, and the cords constricted around the guard’s neck, choking off his protest.

“No, Your Highness,” he finally wheezed out.

“Then apologize.” His eyes narrowed. “Be convincing.”

The guard grimaced as his attention slid to me and Maura. “I’m… very sorry.”

My glare deepened.

Luther’s head tilted as he contemplated the man. “I should break your ribs for disobeying me, but then our guests would be compelled to help you set the bones. While that might be a just consequence for both of you—” His eyes jumped briefly to mine. “—I’ll settle for burns and barbs.”

With a twitch of his fingers, the ropes around the guard flared to life. Tiny, pin-sharp thorns grew from the shadowy threads, pricking thin trickles of blood across the man’s body, while a sizzling sound emerged from the pulsating light, followed by the smell of burnt flesh. The man’s screams struck up and resounded through the room.

Maura’s trembling body pressed into my side. Though I forced myself not to react out of sheer stubborn pride, I finally admitted she was wise to be scared. This display of power, terrifying in its strength and savagery, was made all the more so by Luther’s stony indifference. He was observing the man’s torture at his hands with an unsettling detachment that left me thinking all the stories of the monstrous, heartless Descended were even truer than I’d thought.

But as I watched the man bleed and burn under Luther’s chilling control, I didn’t feel scared.

I felt… captivated.

“Miss Bellator,” Luther said, turning to me, “you may retain your weapons as long as I am escorting you, but if you try to use them against any occupant of this palace, then this—” His magic dissolved into mist, and the guard slumped to a bloody, moaning heap. “—will be a kindness compared to what you will face. Do we understand each other?”

I swallowed. “We do.”

He was convincing—I had to give him that.

“Follow me.” He spun on his heel and strode toward the palace interior.

Maura appeared trapped in place, her face an ashen grey. I linked our arms together and pulled her forward, stepping over the collapsed man’s body. I couldn’t resist glancing over my shoulder at the guards we left behind and answering their sea of scowls with a victorious smile.

We continued up one arm of the magnificent staircase and down a series of winding halls, each more obnoxiously decorated than the last. Intricate tapestries of the most vibrant colors, lace-like carved marble, glittering ceilings that glowed from within, bejeweled and gilded everything. Even the air smelled rich, scented with the delicate sweetness of fresh-blooming roses. I struggled not to gawk at the splendor of it all.

“I understand you wish to take over as the palace healer, Miss Bellator,” Luther said as we walked.

I nodded. “I’m taking on my mother’s duties in her absence.”

All of them?”

My eyes snapped to his so quickly it took my mind a moment to catch up. There was a weight to his words, an implication that prickled my instincts. His expression gave away nothing, but I sensed I was on more dangerous ground than I fully understood.

Your mother agreed to serve the Crown in whatever manner the Crown requests, Maura had claimed.

I didn’t respond.

Luther led us into a small sitting room. Two young boys played on the floor, giggling and looking as normal as any mortal child.

Their mothers, however, seemed as foreign to me as wild animals. They each wore gowns befitting a grand affair, shimmering fabric hanging stiffly over layers of puffy candy-colored petticoats that swallowed them on their tiny tufted settees. Chunky gemstones circled their necks and wrists, unnaturally-colored hair piled atop their heads with a mess of ribbons and colorful feathers. It was such an absurd scene, I had to cover my mouth to stifle a laugh.

“Cousins,” Luther said with a shallow nod.

“Your Highness,” they said in unison as they rose and curtsied.

One of them, a pretty woman dripping in emeralds and mauve taffeta, fluttered her lashes in his direction. “How kind of you to come sit with us, Luther,” she cooed, her smile coy.

Prince Luther,” he corrected, and the woman’s face burned pink enough to match her dress. “I’m only here to escort the healers.”

My eyes bounced between them, fascinated by the dynamic. They were… cousins? Was she… flirting with him?

And what kind of person expected family to use formal titles? I wondered if Luther had a spouse—surely no handsome face could be worth putting up with that. Gods, imagine the man in bed… he probably demanded his lovers address him by title there, too.

Harder, Your Highness. Wilst thou give me permission to come, Your Highness? Let me kneel for you and show the Prince’s little prince a good time, Your H—

Luther cleared his throat, and my eyes jumped to his face from where they’d been unintentionally lingering beneath his belt. I threw him my nastiest scowl, fighting my blush with everything I had.

“Who are they?” the second woman asked. She was a good deal older but still quite beautiful, her dark violet bouffant streaked grey at her temples. Her features seemed carved into a permanent frown as she looked us over.

“These are the healers who treated the boys the day of the incident,” Luther said. He turned to us. “Maura, Diem, these are my cou—”

“Why does that one have weapons?” she interrupted sharply. She gestured to me with a limp wrist and a curled lip, the way one might point to a pile of rotting meat. Her gaze rose to my face, then narrowed. “Your eyes, girl—are you Descended?”

“She’s just a mortal,” Luther answered on my behalf. “And she is permitted weapons while under my escort.”

Just a mortal?” I said under my breath, drawing an elbow to the ribs from Maura.

Luther smoothly stepped in front of the woman to position himself between us. I nearly snorted, wondering which of us he was intending to protect.

I had my answer a moment later, when she waved her hand and a thin wall of shimmering pale blue light appeared around the two young boys. “Not around our children, she isn’t,” she sniped.

Luther worked his jaw. Though I dearly wanted to hold my ground and watch him squirm—this was a man who despised having his authority threatened, and now he was trapped between two women intent on doing exactly that—the children had begun to take notice of the tension. The littlest one was staring at us with growing fear in his sky-blue eyes. Whatever my dislike of Luther, I wouldn’t stoop to putting an already injured child through undue stress.

“It’s fine,” I said tersely. I strolled across the room to a far corner table and unhooked my knife belt, dropping it onto the wooden top with a loud clunk—though I left Brecke’s knife stashed safely in my boot. I whipped back around with a saccharine smile. “Problem solved.”

The woman sniffed, unimpressed, but a moment later, the glowing barrier disappeared.

We set to work before the tension could escalate further. Maura had the harder task, checking on the youngest boy’s numerous broken bones. I busied myself with the older child, propping him on an armchair and checking his mostly healed cuts and scabs while distracting him with corny jokes my father had taught Teller and me as children.

“What do you call a trout wearing a ball gown?” I asked as I peered beneath a bandage on his knee.

The boy beamed a gap-toothed grin at me. “What?”

“Very so-fish-ticated.”

He collapsed into giggles, nearly taking out my eye while he kicked his legs with glee. I laughed with him as I held his feet down. “How many tickles does it take to make an octopus laugh?”

“How many?” he nearly screamed, bouncing in anticipation.

“Ten-tickles!” I shouted back, reaching for his sides and wiggling my fingers. He squirmed out of my reach and dissolved into a fit of belly laughs.

“They are so adorable at this age, aren’t they?” the younger woman asked.

I smiled and turned my head up to answer her, but she was gazing adoringly at Luther, having moved to his side. His eyes were on me, his expression softer than usual.

“Aren’t they?” she asked again, setting a hand on his arm.

His features hardened immediately. “What?” he snapped.

I snorted quietly at the display of unrequited love and shifted my attention back to the child. “I think you’re all set, my friend. Has anything else been hurting you?” He shook his head and grinned at me, and I grinned right back. “Better run fast then, or else I’m going to have to…” I reached to tickle him again with a low, mischievous cackle. He squeal-laughed and darted away, fleeing to the safety of his mountain of toys.

I stood and settled my hands on my hips with a half-smile, turning to the younger woman. “It was touch and go, but I think he’ll survive.”

Her slender, milky-white hands—hands that made me wonder if she’d ever done a day of work in her life—flew to her chest. “What? He was hurt that badly?”

My smile vanished. “No! No—I was only joking. He’s perfectly fine. I—”

Her delicate features twisted into a glare. “A threat to a child’s life is hardly a joke.”

My cheeks burned. I glanced at Luther, who was watching me with one brow raised. His lips remained pressed tight, but he managed to look irritatingly amused. Now that it was my turn to squirm, he was thriving on the retribution.

I swallowed my pride and nodded. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.”

She crossed her arms. “I shouldn’t be surprised that a poor, dying child is what you people find funny.”

The embarrassment drained from my face, replaced by a hot flood of anger. I took a step closer, hands fisting at my sides. “What did you just say?”

Luther’s mirth vanished. Again he took a step between us, his muscles pulling taut at the shift in my demeanor. I ignored him and glared across his shoulder, eyes locked on the woman and her scathing, self-righteous expression.

“Every week I treat children dying of hunger because their families can’t afford food. I dread the winters and the orphans that will be found frozen to death in snowdrifts because they don’t have a warm home. Meanwhile, you people sit in this ridiculous palace covered in enough gold and jewels to solve every one of those problems like that,” I hissed with a snap of my fingers. “So don’t you dare lecture me about poor, dying children.”

The woman scoffed. “It’s hardly our fault if you mortals don’t take care of your own.”

Deep within, an impatient voice howled from its cage.


Wisely, Luther moved before I could react. He snagged the woman by the forearm and pulled her far, far out of my reach. I caught a muffled exchange of words, but I was too busy grinding my teeth and fighting my boiling resentment to listen.

I snatched my things and stalked to the corner table to wait for Maura to finish. I reattached my weapons belt and violently chucked my items back into my satchel as I weighed the pros and cons of strangling a member of the royal family in their own palace.

At the moment, the pros were winning by a landslide.

“I apologize for that,” Luther’s voice carried over my shoulder. “She was out of line.”

“Seems to be a family trait,” I muttered.

His voice grew quieter as he moved to my side. “I came looking for you in Mortal City. I wanted to thank you for what you did for my sister.”

I snorted. “No, you didn’t.”

He bristled, shifting slightly. “I did. And… I wanted to apologize for my own behavior the last time you were here.”

“No, you came by to ask Maura if I was really a mortal.” I spun toward him and pulled one of my twin daggers, pressing its edge to my wrist. “Did she put your suspicions to rest, or must I slice myself open to win you over?”

To my aggressive indignation, he didn’t so much as blink. Without dropping my gaze, his hand closed around the blade. I couldn’t stop myself from looking, sucking in a breath as his fingers tightened around the knife’s sharp edge. He squeezed it so hard his knuckles blanched—with no trace of blood. Not even a scratch.

“I think,” he said, tugging it from my grasp, “it’s safe to say, Miss Bellator, you’ve already won me over.” With a lightning-fast flick of his fingers, he spun the blade in his palm to grip it by the handle. He stepped closer and smoothly slid the dagger back into my belt. “If you hadn’t, I’d be putting that knife somewhere other than your sheath.”

His thumb brushed against my hip, and my skin flushed with heat.

Gods, I hated him.

His brows dipped low. “Auralie was supposed to tell me,” he said suddenly.

I blinked a few times, the mention of my mother reeling me back to my anger through tides of unwanted lust. “You… what?”

“If conditions were that bad in Mortal City, your mother was supposed to warn me so I could provide assistance.”

My scowl returned in earnest. “Well she hasn’t been around to do that, has she?” He stiffened at the pointed accusation in my tone. “Besides, things are always that bad in Mortal City. Always have been.”

His posture was strung so tightly a vein popped against his neck. The motion lured my focus along his scar as it trailed through his lips and down the column of his throat, lingering on the spot where the pale, jagged line disappeared beneath the collar of his jacket.

“If there is a family in need, tell me and I will make arrang—”

“Every family is in need, Luther. Don’t pretend like any of you people give a damn about any of us.”

I threw him a look of challenge, daring him to correct me for not using his title, but he only stared at me, jaw ticking.

I took a steadying breath. With the voice already provoked, I was in no condition to have this debate with him, and I certainly had no faith that he had any real desire to help. If he did, he hardly needed my guidance—even a brief walk through the crowded, dirty streets of Mortal City would reveal the dismal conditions we lived in.

“How is Lily?” I asked tightly. “Does she need any follow up care?”

He frowned at my change in subject, his preternatural calm momentarily ruffled—a victory I silently celebrated. “She’s doing well. Healed. Unusually fast, in fact.”

“Good.” I stepped back and felt a tug at my hip—his hand still lingered there, still holding on to the hilt of my blade. He slowly pulled it away.

I swallowed and turned my back to him.

He watched me for a long beat as I resumed organizing my things. The peculiar aura that seemed to charge the air in his presence wove its way around me, buzzing against my skin and leaving me feeling like I was swimming a sea of him.

He moved to my side and lowered his voice. “I understand my sister and your brother have become very close.”

Warning klaxons fired off in my head.

“I’m sure you’re aware,” he went on, “of the danger that can arise when relationships between Descended and mortals turn… reckless.”

Again, I held my tongue.

“I’m sure you’re equally aware that in those unfortunate situations, it’s often the mortal who pays the highest price.”

“My understanding is that it’s the baby that pays the highest price,” I said frostily.

He nudged forward until he could see my face. “What you must know is that—”

“What I know is the surest way to get someone their age to do something is to tell them they’re forbidden to do it. If you wish to keep them apart, forcing it will only drive them closer.” I twisted my shoulders to face him fully. “My brother is the furthest thing from reckless. He is smart and thoughtful, and I trust his judgment. Perhaps you should try trusting your sister, as well.” I tapped a finger on his chest. “And if you think I would ever—”

His hand closed around mine, and all my angry words tangled in a giant knot.

My heart pounded so hard I was certain he could hear it. I waited for him to let go, to push me away, to bite back, to do something other than hold my stare in silent defiance, each of us daring the other to back down.

I should pull away. Why wasn’t I pulling away?

The warm grip of his hand was infuriatingly distracting. I started to speak again, and his eyes dropped to my lips. My mouth went dry.

Gods, I really, really hated him.

The soft clearing of a throat stole our attention. I glanced over to see Maura and the two women staring at us. Maura’s jaw hung ajar, her brows raised sky-high, while the two Descended women glowered at me with poison in their eyes.

It was only then that I realized how close Luther and I had been standing, how near our faces had come—close enough to feel a brush of warm air at his quiet exhale as I pulled my hand free.

Almost as if he, too, had been holding his breath.

I threw my satchel over my shoulder. My skin felt cold and strangely empty as I strode for the door and Luther’s presence ebbed away.

“Done?” I said casually to Maura.

She pursed her lips and nodded. Without another word, we retraced our steps out of the palace, Luther following close behind. Once outside, I awkwardly avoided looking at him while Maura offered a polite goodbye.

We were almost to Mortal City before she finally spoke. Her eyes glittered, her voice full of teasing mischief.

“I’d say that went very well, wouldn’t you?”

“Not a word, Maura,” I grumbled. “Not. A. Word.”


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