Spark of the Everflame: Chapter 17


It was one thing to hear the stories about Lumnos City. I’d certainly heard plenty of gossip about the wild extravagance of Descended cities, and I’d even caught the barest glimpse of it the day I’d gone to the palace with Maura.

But standing here at Henri’s side in the center of Descended territory, I felt more like we’d been transported to a different plane of existence than a short walk down the road.

“You’ve really never been here before?” he asked.

I shook my head, trying to scrape my jaw from the pristine cobblestone street. “I passed by once, but I didn’t see… this.”

Everything about Lumnos’s capital thrived on excess. Though their physical features were as varied as the mortals, each of them had an otherworldly sense of perfection, a gentle blur to smooth away any flaws. Their faces were all impossibly symmetrical, their skin unblemished, hair shiny and bouncing.

I could barely tear my eyes from all the chiseled jawlines and curling, mile-long lashes, but there was something about it that made me almost sad.

I glanced at Henri from the corner of my eye. His nose was slightly bent, thanks to a drunken bar fight, and myriad scars coated his hands and forearms. When he caught my stare and flashed his usual grin, one tooth was crooked, another chipped from a childhood fall.

Still, my stomach fluttered. Henri was as handsome to me as any man in this city, not in spite of those traits but because of them. Those small idiosyncrasies littering his body were signs of his life and character, a map of his soul that only those who truly knew him could read.

When I lay awake in bed, conjuring up memories of my mother’s face, it wasn’t her beauty that came to mind. It was the freckle on her chin and the creases at her eyes. The nick on her ear from a horse with an angry bite. The way her smile hitched just slightly to the left when she laughed.

Those were the things I clung to so desperately in the dark, haunted by the fear that one cruel, unavoidable day, time would pluck them from my mind, never to be remembered again.

Though the Descended were so lovely it was almost painful to look at them, there was a certain emptiness to the way their beauty had become a standard-issue uniform. Each one of the handful I’d now met were stunning enough to take my breath away—beyond that, I couldn’t recall a single detail more.

All except for Luther and his curious scar—another face that haunted my thoughts.

I had joked with Maura that the scar must be proof his soul was deeply corrupt, even for a Descended, and she had wasted no time reprimanding me for my ignorant cruelty. She’d pointed out the original wound must have come when he was very young, before his healing abilities had manifested. It was hard to stomach the thought of any child being so gruesomely hurt, let alone surviving it, and now I couldn’t help but imagine a young Luther every time I thought of the little boy in the alley whose death had led me to this very spot.

I took Henri’s hand and gave it a quick squeeze, shaking those memories away. “Thank you for coming with me today.”

“Of course. I couldn’t miss my girl’s big audition.”

I frowned. “Is this really necessary? They won’t let me join unless I bring them some kind of gift?”

Henri glanced around and tugged my hand until we were out of earshot of any passers-by. “It’s not a gift, it’s a test. The Descended rounded up every rebel and executed them after the war. Now the Guardians have to be more careful who we reveal ourselves to. You have to prove to the others that you’re not going to betray them.”

“Fine,” I muttered. “But does my test have to mean spying on some very powerful and probably very murderous weapons dealer while I tend to his sick daughter?”

Henri’s hands grazed along my upper arms. “We’ve been targeting this man for months. He’s the head of one of the most important Houses in Lumnos. Anything you can get from him…” He tapped a knuckle on my cheek. “It could save a lot of lives.”

“Oh good, that will be such a comfort when he catches me and kills me on the spot,” I said flatly.

He grinned. “Don’t do anything too risky. If you can’t get information safely, just get out alive, understood?”

I nodded.

“I’ll be right outside the whole time. If anything goes wrong, yell as loud as you can.”

I started to remind him that, for the Descended, killing two mortals was hardly more of an effort than killing one, but I thought of the murders that brought me here, and my lips snapped shut.

I’d chosen this. I couldn’t show myself as a coward at the very first trial.

I inhaled deep and turned back to the stone-paved road that wove through the residential district. “I don’t know what I was expecting, but it definitely wasn’t this.”

Henri laughed, tucking me into his side. “They certainly are colorful.”

That was putting it mildly.

What the Descended lacked in physical individuality, they made up for in their extraordinary clothing. The main thoroughfare was like strolling through the finest textile market after nibbling on the wrong kind of mushroom. Every color competed with the next to be the most flamboyant, some so bright I nearly shielded my eyes. There were fabrics I’d never seen before—some shimmering and liquid-smooth, others stiff and coated with glassy beads or jewels. Some seemed almost alive—a skirt cascading like a misty waterfall or bouffant sleeves curling and crackling with pale blue flame.

While the Descended in the palace dressed as if they expected a ball to arise at a moment’s notice, here on the street, it was a sartorial free-for-all. There were men in ruffled robes and skin-tight suits, women in barely there lace and head-to-toe feathers.

But what truly stopped me in my tracks was the casual use of their magic. In the handful of times I’d seen it, it was always as a weapon—something designed to do harm.

I’d never seen—never even imagined—that I’d witness a woman whose corset glowed with spun twilight or a man cloaked in a fog of wispy darkness.

All around me, light and shadow were being crafted in unimaginable ways. Two children pranced among illuminated ribbons woven by an older companion. A woman floated past with limbs outstretched, carried on a bed of solid dusk. I nervously avoided the intense glare of a bare-chested man whose tattoos were not tattoos at all, but a living ink that seemed to shift in time with his thoughts.

The city itself was a glittering jewel of its own. The streets were spotless, unlike the dusty, trash-filled alleys I was used to. Every bit of foliage was flourishing and expertly trimmed, most dotted with fluffy-petaled flowers that perfumed the air. Magnificent estates with gold-tipped gates and bubbling fountains stretched for miles down every street, some so enormous they looked as if they could house the whole of Mortal City.

And then there was me.

I’d naively hoped my grey eyes might allow me to pass among them unnoticed. I’d even taken the time to fashion my hair into a milk-white braid that circled my crown, and I’d snagged a handful of wild berries from the woods to tint my lips. It was the closest I’d ever come to looking pretty, and for a brief moment, I’d actually been quite proud.

What I hadn’t prepared for was the scorn directed at my worn, hole-ridden boots. My rumpled clothing, irreparably stained with dirt and blood. My calloused hands and dry, chipped nails.

My pride insisted I hold my head high, but beneath my armor of feigned confidence, I cringed, feeling every bit the imposter I was.

“I should have at least dressed the part,” I said quietly.

“Don’t let their nasty looks fool you. They like it better when we mortals look dirty.” Henri’s expression was jovial, but it was cut with an edge of bitterness. “They get suspicious if we look too clean or put-together. Makes them think we don’t know our place.”

“Have you ever been in one of their homes?” I asked.

“They never let me go further than the front door. You have an advantage—they’ll trust you more, as a girl and as a healer.”

I winced. As a healer

I hadn’t entirely come to terms with my decision to break my sacred vows. I’d tossed and turned all night, jousting with my conscience and trying unsuccessfully to ignore the imagined scolding of my mother’s voice.

Today, I was crossing a line that could never be uncrossed. I prayed that everything I was sacrificing would be worth it.

I blew out a breath and tucked all of my hesitation into the recesses of my thoughts, an act that was becoming disturbingly frequent. “How did you know his daughter would be sick, anyway? And how did you know he would send for a healer?”

He scratched the back of his neck. “We have eyes on all the key Descended. We look out for these things. You know, just in case.”

“You watch out for their children falling ill?”

“We look for any reason they might invite a mortal into their home.”

I arched a brow. “Isn’t it strange that he called for a healer two days after I told you I was willing to help? That timing is—”

“A blessing from the Old Gods, that’s what it is.” He shrugged. “When they present an opportunity like this, we have to take it.”

I frowned at him, but his gaze was fixed on a palatial estate that began at a bend in the road and ended somewhere far, far, far away.

“Evrim Benette is the head of House Benette, one of the Twenty Houses that control the realm,” he explained. “He has a hand in most of the weapons in Emarion. If we could intercept one of his shipments and put some of them in mortal hands instead of Descended, it would go a long way in leveling the odds.”

He turned to look at me, cupping my chin and pulling me close. “You could save a lot of lives today.”

I nodded. “I can do it. I will do it.”

“Good.” He gave me a quick kiss before releasing me. “Now go on. I’ll follow in a few minutes and wait nearby. Remember—just get in and get out safely. Don’t pick any fights.”

“When have I ever picked a fight?” I asked, barely able to get the words out before Henri shot me an unamused glare.

“I mean it, D. This isn’t like the trouble we used to get into in Mortal City. The Descended kill people like us every day, and they think nothing of it. If you want to take them on, you have to learn to blend in, not stand out.”

Something about his words sat wrong in my heart, the plunk of a distant piano hitting a sour note. The voice inside me seemed to shudder with equal distaste.

I flexed my leg, feeling the outline of Brecke’s knife press into my calf—the only weapon I’d bothered to bring with me. I’d never admit it to Henri, but if things went wrong, this knife and I were on our own. I would die before I’d take him down with me.

I rolled my shoulders back and turned my gaze to House Benette. “Time to be a spy.”


“Who the hell are you?”

There was something very humbling about being sneered at by a child wearing silk.

The boy in the doorway glared at me from beneath a splash of white-gold curls, his cobalt eyes taking in my scruffy apparel with blatant contempt. He looked to be barely a teenager, but he carried himself with the unearned cockiness of a far older man.

“I believe someone in your family called for a healer,” I said.

“And they sent you?

“I can leave, if you’d rather heal the patient yourself.”

He said nothing, only looking me over with the same snobbish air.

I shrugged and turned away. “Suit yourself.”

“Wait.” He pulled the door open wider. “If you’re all they’ve got, then come in, I suppose.”

I followed him into the front parlor, trying not to gape at the endless floor-to-ceiling ivory marble. Unlike the palace’s bright colors and showy details, this home reflected a more muted elegance. Every surface was glossy and polished to pristine gleam in a sterile palette of whites and creams that only the very wealthiest could afford to keep clean. Standing in the midst of it, I looked like a glob of mud splashed on a wedding gown.

“Stay,” the boy ordered as he turned for a nearby hallway.

I gritted my teeth at being commanded like a stray dog. My guilt over betraying this family was evaporating quickly.

The moment he was out of sight, I quietly followed his path. A long corridor, column-lined and soaked with sunlight streaming from the arched glass roof, revealed a row of open doors. Most of the rooms appeared to be for entertaining guests, some with mile-long dining tables carved of milky quartz and others with regal busts perched on alabaster pedestals.

Eventually the hallway forked in opposite directions. To my left, the clink of pots and pans mixed with the wafting aroma of smoky meat and fragrant spices. I turned instead to the right and crept deeper into the interior, where rumbling voices floated from a room ahead.

“The last three shipments have been missing half of what we ordered. If Sophos can’t hurry up their research, we’ll have no choice but—”

“Father?”

“Not now, Lorris. What was I saying? Right—we’ll be forced to turn to Umbros to fulfill our needs. I have no desire to work with that whore Queen and her little army of sex slaves, but you tell Doriel that I will if I ha—”

“Um, Father—”

“I said not now.” A growl, and a pause. “If Sophos can’t find something to match the rebels’ explosives, I’ll find someone else who will. I’ve got too much gold on the line with orders from Meros and Fortos to let anything get in the way of—”

“Father, there’s a healer here to see Evanie.”

A thunderous snarl. “Do I look like I care about a Kindred-damned healer, boy? Go find your mother.”

“But… um… Mother’s out having lunch at House Hanoverre.”

“Then you handle it. What do you expect me to do, hold your hand and walk you to your sister’s room?”

“N-no, Father, I—”

“Then get out of my office. Unless King Ulther himself is at the door, don’t ever bother me during a meeting again.”

Another pause. Then, softly, “Yes, Father.”

Light footsteps moved toward the door. I sprinted down the hallway to the parlor, skidding back into place just as the boy reappeared.

Hurt and anger shone in his downcast eyes. Despite his earlier rudeness, a twinge of sympathy twisted my heart. With a father like that, it was no surprise the boy had turned out so dour.

He squinted as he studied my eyes. “I didn’t know there were any Descended healers in Lumnos.”

For once, I didn’t correct the assumption.

I shrugged. “My mother taught me. It’s an interesting way to pass the decades.”

That sounds like something a Descended would say, right? I wondered.

“What House are you?”

“Um… pardon?”

“Your House. What House are you from?”

My stomach dropped. I’d pieced together enough about Descended society to know they divided themselves up by family heritage, and the status of one’s clan determined their social rank—but other than the royal family of House Corbois, which even I would never be fool enough to claim, I couldn’t name a single Descended House if my life depended on it.

Which it might, in the very near future. Very near.

“I live on the other side of town,” I said brightly, hoping he’d find me more stupid than suspicious. “Small home though.” I let out a low whistle. “Nowhere near this fancy.”

“Not your residence. Your House. What family do you belong to?”

Henri’s teasing voice drawled in my head. Think fast, Bellator.

I mustered my nastiest glare to rival the boy’s own. “You’re paying me by the minute, you know. Would you like to waste more of your father’s gold getting my life story, or can I get to my duties already?”

He paled at the mention of his father. “Very well. Follow me.”

I trailed him through the house, even managing to catch a peek into the room where I’d heard the voices earlier. Inside, two men reclined beside a mahogany desk piled with books and scattered papers. They spoke in voices too low to hear as they swirled a caramel-colored liquid in sparkling crystal tumblers. Neither man gave us so much as a glance as we passed.

We reached the end of a darkened hallway, and the boy came to a stop and turned awkwardly to me. “Evanie’s in here.”

My eyebrows lifted. He blinked at me in silence.

“Are you going to tell me what’s wrong with her?” I pressed.

“Isn’t that your job to figure out?”

I made no effort to hide my eyeroll as I brushed past him into the mammoth room, the size of which could have easily engulfed my family’s home. Missing were the candy colors and frivolous trimmings one might expect of a toddler’s room. Instead, the furnishings were muted, dreadfully somber, echoing the austere decor throughout the rest of the estate. Even the toys displayed in perfectly even lines on chest-high shelves were carved from bleached woods or painted in various hues of eggshell and ecru. It was elegantly beautiful—and utterly soulless.

How very fitting, I thought dryly.

At the edge of the room, an enormous bed swallowed up a girl nestled beneath a cloud-soft mountain of thick, downy covers. The fabric jostled with the sound of sniffling, followed by a faint whimper of pain that cracked my heart wide open.

“Hello there,” I said, sitting on the edge of the bed. I scooted closer and brushed away the golden, sweat-soaked ringlets matted to her forehead. She was young, around five years old, and though her skin was pallid, it was warm to the touch. “You must be Evanie. I’m Diem—I’m a healer. I hear you’re not feeling so well today.”

Her pale eyelashes fluttered open, revealing two irises of robin’s egg blue. “I want Momma,” she whimpered.

“I’m sorry, sweetheart, your mother isn’t here. But I’m going to try to make you feel better, alright?”

She nodded weakly, sniffling again.

I glanced across my shoulder at the boy, who was watching warily from the door. “Your sister is sick, and neither of your parents were willing to stay with her?”

He scoffed. “My parents are very important. They don’t have time to sit at home and coddle us.”

The dark timbre of his father’s cruelty already echoed in his young voice. My heart sank at the thought of the man he would likely become.

I struggled to keep pity off my face as I evaluated the little girl’s condition. With parents like these, what kind of woman would she become? What kind of spouse would she seek out? What kind of children would she raise?

Though we Bellators had our problems, I knew with soul-deep certainty what loving parents and a happy marriage looked like. My mother and father had made sure Teller and I always knew what it was to be cherished, to be given a soil of unconditional love to nourish our growth and keep us rooted no matter the world’s storms.

Until now, I hadn’t realized just how rare a gift that was.

Lorris moved closer to the bed. “Is she going to be alright?” Though he wore the same petulant scowl, concern crept into his features.

“I think so… but I could help her much better if I knew what happened.”

He studied his sister for a moment, then eyed me skeptically. “Yesterday, we were in town with Mother, and Evanie wandered off. When we found her, she said a woman had given her some flowers. A few hours later, she had red marks all over her skin.”

“And you think it was the flowers that caused it?”

“There’s a mortal man who tends the plants on our estate. He saw her carrying them and told us to take them away from her.”

I frowned. “Do you still have them?”

“No, we threw them out.”

I looked back at the girl. The bedding was pulled high and tucked tightly at her neck, but a hint of redness peeked out below her jawline.

“Evanie,” I cooed, “do you mind if I take a look at your arms?”

She shook her head vigorously. “Don’t touch! No touch!”

I held my hands up. “I won’t touch, I promise. I just want to see what they look like.”

Her eyes flew to her brother’s face in search for some confirmation that I could be trusted. I expected him to huff out of the room with a snide remark, but to my surprise, he sat down beside her.

“It’s alright, Ev,” he said in a calm, steady tone. “Show her where it hurts.”

Hesitantly, she pulled at her blankets until her arms appeared—thick and swollen, her fair skin covered in puffy, ring-shaped welts. My scrutiny shifted back to her face. Her eyes were clear and free of redness, her sniffles not caused by tears, but from a persistent runny nose.

“These flowers,” I asked, “were they small and yellow, with big waxy green leaves?”

The boy nodded. “I think so.”

“And did they smell of butterscotch?”

He sat straighter, surprised. “Yes—how did you know?”

I frowned again, then reached for my satchel, rifling through my assortment of bottles and creams. “Well Evanie, I have good news, great news, and fantastic news. Which do you want first?”

She looked at her brother again, still unsure. “The fantastic news,” she said softly.

“The fantastic news—” I pulled out a handful of bright pink and orange lozenges wrapped in waxed paper. “—is that you get candy for being so brave.”

Instantly, her pitiful mood disappeared. She burst upright and stretched her tiny hands for the sweets, her injuries long forgotten. I might have left out that the lozenges were more medicine than candy, but that was one healer’s secret I’d take all the way to the grave.

“What’s the good news?” Lorris asked.

“I know what caused these welts. It’s a plant called deathshade.” The children’s eyes bulged in unison. “It’s not as bad as it sounds. As long as you don’t eat it, it won’t get any worse than this.”

“And the great news?” Evanie chimed in.

“I have a cream to treat it.” I held up a small jar containing a mustard-colored mixture. “And it works quickly. You should feel better by this evening.”

“Is there any bad news?” Lorris asked.

“Well, I’m going to have to put this cream on those sores, and that might be a little painful.”

“No touching!” The little girl shook her head again and recoiled away from me, tucking her arms back under the blankets.

I shot Lorris a hopeful look. “Maybe you could hold her hand and show her how to be extra brave for this part?”

A wrinkle formed between his brows as he glanced between the two of us, clearly torn between caring for his sister and wanting to seem as distant and too-important as his father.

Happily, and unexpectedly, his compassion won out. He reached forward and untucked his sister’s hand, folding it in his own. “Remember what Father told us, Ev. We’re the head of House Benette. We have to be strong and never show weakness. The entire House looks to us. We can’t embarrass Father by crying.”

She stared at her brother and nodded slowly, even as her bottom lip quivered.

With painstaking care, I dipped my hand into the jar of cream and tenderly eased my fingertips onto her skin. She winced at the touch, her hands turning white as she squeezed her brother’s fingers.

I worked as quickly as I could, slathering her arms in a thick coat of the mixture. “Try blowing on it,” I urged them both. “The breeze will make it feel a bit better.”

The girl gave me such a patently suspicious frown that I had to bite my lip to keep from laughing, but her brother took the bait, leaning in close and blowing on his sister’s arms. She gasped, then giggled. “Lorris, that tickles!”

Soon we were all laughing and taking turns puffing cool air as she squealed and squirmed around the bed. Even the boy let loose a grin, his harsh facade finally broken.

I took advantage of the happy distraction to finish applying the cream, but despite my lightest touch, as my hands moved toward the worst of the sores, the girl’s laughter retreated back to whimpers.

“Here Evanie, look,” Lorris rushed out, holding out his hands. “I learned how to do this last week at school.”

At the center of his cupped palms, a small orb of light sparked into being. For a moment it only wobbled and spun, but slowly a shape began to form, warping into the outline of what looked to be a dying, half-eaten moth.

“A butterfly,” Evanie breathed, her eyes growing wide as saucers as the show of magic cast a soft blue glow across her face. “It’s beautiful.”

Lorris’s brow scrunched tighter with careful focus, his tongue jutting out from the corner of his mouth. The moth—no, butterfly—flapped one limp, mismatched wing, and Evanie squealed, clapping her hands in pure delight while I seized my chance and lathered on the last of the cream.

“Is it hard to craft the light into shapes like that?” I asked him.

He gave me a puzzled frown. “Don’t you already know?”

My stomach dropped as I realized I’d forgotten my brilliant—no, stupid—ruse. “Oh, um… I have the other kind. The, uh, shadow kind.”

He nodded like that was an acceptable answer, and a breath rushed out of me. “At school they said light and shadow work the same, but my magic tutor has both, and she says the shadows are harder to convince into doing what you want them to do. She said the light wants to please its wielder, but the shadows only want to fight.”

I rubbed at my chest, a strange discomfort kicking at my ribs. “I guess it’s a good thing you have light magic then.”

He shrugged, looking at the moth—butterfly!—with a kind of resentment hardening his face. “It doesn’t want to please me. Father hired a tutor as soon as my magic came in, but I still can’t make anything bigger than this.” Right on cue, the magic fizzled into a curl of smoke, and Lorris’s face fell, as did Evanie’s. He glanced at me. “You must be weak, too, if you’re just a healer.”

I bristled. “There’s more than one way to be strong. You don’t need magic to be a leader or to help people.”

“You need it to defeat your enemies,” he argued.

My lips curled into a smile. We’ll see about that.

“You know Lorris, you’re a really good older brother, taking care of Evanie like this.”

He sat up, back stiffening. “Family is important. It’s everything.” His voice was rote, the words sounding memorized rather than heartfelt.

“Still… you’re her only family here now.”

“I told you, our parents are very important. Someone like you couldn’t possibly understand.”

“I only meant—”

“Is that all?” He jerked away and stood up. “I’m important as well, you know. I don’t have time to babysit little girls. I presume you can handle the rest on your own?”

My heart clenched at the hurt that struck his sister’s face. “Yes, of course, but I’m sure Evanie would love it if you—”

“You can wait for me in the parlor when you’re finished.” Without another word, he stalked out of the room and slammed the door behind him.

I could only stare for a long moment, rendered speechless by his turbulent emotions.

“He’s always like that.” Evanie’s soft voice broke my daze. When I turned back to her, she rolled her eyes rather adorably. “Momma says he’s moody.”

I leaned in close to her and smirked. “Boys—what a mess, aren’t they?”

She grinned and nodded. I wiped my hands clean, then took one of the candies and unwrapped it from its crinkly paper coating. She snatched it from my hand and popped it into her mouth before I could even make the offer.

“Evanie, your brother said a woman gave you those flowers—that was yesterday? Do you remember what she looked like?”

She chewed on her lip. “She told me not to tell anyone.”

A nagging suspicion twisted my gut. I’d gone to Henri’s home three days ago, and the following evening he’d told me the healers’ center would receive an inquiry from an important Descended about a sick daughter. If this girl was only infected yesterday…

“The woman’s eyes,” I said, “do you remember what color they were?”

She screwed up her face, not understanding the question. It occurred to me that a child this young might have only ever seen blue eyes, particularly if her parents kept her away from any mortal servants who worked for them.

“Were they blue, like your parents and your brother? Or did they look like this color?” I gestured to my cognac-hued leather breeches and taupe satchel.

Come to think of it, practically everything I owned was some forlorn shade of dingy brown. For a mortal in a world where standing out too much could get you killed, color was as much a luxury as an existential threat.

She hesitated, then pointed to my pants. “Like that, I think. They were dark.” She beamed. “Like chocolate!”

My suspicion turned to fury.

I walked to a nearby desk and scratched out a quick note to her parents explaining my diagnosis and instructions for her care, then set the jar of cream and a few more lozenges on top.

“It was nice to meet you, Evanie. If you’re not feeling better by tomorrow morning, have your mother send for me again, alright?”

She nodded and sank back into the puddle of pillows arranged behind her. I gently tucked the blankets to her chin and stroked her hair, humming softly until her eyelids drooped and finally closed.

Careful not to wake her, I snuck out of her room and eased the door shut, creeping down the empty corridor until I came to the office I’d passed by earlier. It was now abandoned, the glittering tumblers lying empty on a lacquered side table. The room oozed of vanilla and tobacco and the musty aroma of old books, messy piles of which were strewn across the nearby desk.

A growing part of me wanted to leave this place without ever looking back. With what I now suspected the Guardians of doing to that little girl, I was no longer sure I wanted any part of their ruthless activities.

But I knew Henri’s heart as well as I knew my own. He would never condone such a thing, and he would certainly never rope me into it, especially unwitting. And the man who ran this family was no doubt a vicious creature doing terrible things of his own. I might never get a chance to stop him again.

With a quick glance over my shoulder, I tiptoed into the office and tugged in the door until it was barely ajar—closed enough to block me from view, open enough that I would hear anyone approach.

I crept to the desk and rifled through the stacks of documents, where ledgers of unfamiliar words and confusing numbers were scrawled in an elegant script, precious little of it making any sense. A corner of what looked to be a sketch lay visible at the base of one pile, and I carefully edged it free.

A map—the blueprints of a building, marked with various rooms. Many had labels I didn’t recognize, but a few I knew all too well.

Blades. Armor. Crossbows.

An armory, I suspected—and a large one, judging from the floorplan’s sprawling scale. I folded the paper and slipped it into my satchel along with a handful of the other documents.

My eye wandered to a red velvet ribbon tucked between the pages of a leather journal teetering on the edge of the desk. I pulled it closer and cracked it open, finding tea-stained pages lined with names, dates, and amounts—a customer ledger, perhaps.

I grabbed a mostly blank paper from the desk and copied the names as quickly as I could. I cringed at my blocky, inelegant lettering, once again reminded how deeply I did not belong in this world of wealth and etiquette.

I’d only copied a handful of pages when the thump of heavy footsteps grew louder in the corridor, and my heart plummeted to my feet. The only place hidden from view was under the desk, but if someone came around to sit… there would be no explaining that away.

A figure stopped outside the office door, the outline of their shadow just visible through the slim opening—I was out of time.

I collapsed to the ground, then cowered as far as I could into the dark shadow of the desk’s cove. My hand clamped across my lips to muffle my ragged breathing.

Boots clicked along the marble floor, then softened to the rustle of shoes over a thick, lavish rug. A glug of liquid—refilling a drink, perhaps—then the crackle of a dying fire being prodded back to life. Then more footsteps—closer this time.

A panicked sound strangled in my throat. In a matter of seconds, I’d be found out. They’d arrest me. Execute me. If they didn’t kill me on the spot, I’d be lucky if I even got a chance to say goodbye to my family.

Fuck—I’d be lucky if they didn’t kill my family, too.

The footsteps came so close I saw the tip of glossy ebony boots as they rounded the side of the desk. I squeezed my eyes shut and prepared for the worst.

“Father?”

Lorris.

Sweet, miserable Lorris. I took back every awful thought I’d had about the boy.

“What is it now?”

“The healer… I, um… I can’t seem to find her.”

“What do you mean, you can’t find her?”

“I told her to wait in the parlor when she was finished, but she’s not there, and she’s not in Evanie’s room, either.”

“You left a stranger unattended? In my home?”

A long, excruciatingly heavy pause passed. Though he was hidden from my sight, I could picture Lorris shrinking under the scorch of his father’s harsh judgment.

“You stupid, worthless child. Have I taught you nothing about protecting our House?”

“Yes, of course, Father. I only thought—”

A loud smack of skin on skin cut through the air, then a shaky whimper.

“Don’t think. Obey. Do you understand me?”

A whispered, “Yes, Father.”

Two pairs of footsteps exited the room and faded down the hall. I scrambled out from my hiding spot, finally allowing myself to heave in several gulps of air. Any interest I’d had in exploring more of the items on the desk had fled the room with Lorris and his father.

I ran to the door and checked that the hallway was clear before bolting for the home’s entrance. At the last minute, instead of turning toward the parlor, I continued straight, following the noise of the busy kitchen.

When I burst in, still gasping for breath, a wave of confused blue-eyed stares turned my direction.

“I’m looking for the master of the house,” I blurted out. “Could one of you help me?”

An older woman covered in flour wiped her hands on her apron, then walked over and leaned in close. “And who are you?”

“A healer. I came to treat the little girl. I need to, um, get my payment. That’s all.”

She gave me a disdainful glare. “You can’t be in here. No outsiders allowed near the family’s food. Now we’re going to have to throw all this out and cook it again.”

My eyes rolled entirely of their own free will. “Oh for the love of the Flames, is that really necessar—”

“The Flames?

My mouth clicked shut.

The woman snatched me by the arm and roughly dragged me down the hall. Lorris and a much older man appeared at the opposite end, fixing me with a pair of matching scowls.

Oh, those two were definitely related.

I flashed them a sheepish smile. “Made a wrong turn and got a bit lost in the kitchens, but this nice lady kindly offered to help me find my way.”

The woman threw me a scowl of her own that left me wondering if she was related, too.

“I just need to get my payment, if you don’t mind,” I hurried out. “Three gold marks.”

I honestly wanted no part of their money, particularly if the cause of the girl’s illness was what I feared. But to forego payment would raise even more suspicion, and at the moment, my survival instincts outstripped my guilt.

The father looked supremely irritated as he dug around in a pouch on his waistbelt, then held the heavy coins out toward me.

My hand wobbled as I plucked them from his palm and dropped them into my satchel. “I left some medicine in your daughter’s room. Don’t hesitate to send for us again if she doesn’t improve.”

He stared at me for a long moment, then arched an eyebrow. “Is there more, or are you done wasting my time?”

In my head, I rattled off some exquisitely colorful commentary on his parenting style, but I knew too well that with men like this, it would be the more vulnerable members of his family who paid the price if my temper wounded his ego.

So I held my tongue, smiled sweetly, then power-walked toward the door at a blistering pace one could only describe as get-me-the-hell-out-of-here.

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