Spark of the Everflame: Chapter 19


From what I’d seen of Henri’s rebel friends in Fortos, I had expected the Guardians to be an assortment of brusque, overbuilt soldier types, the kind of men that usually swarmed around my father like bees on freshly bloomed mint.

And although plenty of men of fighting age clumped together, slapping each other’s shoulders and laughing raucously as they talked, it was everyone else milling about in the crowded meeting room that caught me by surprise.

Women—and lots of them—of various ages, many of whom I recognized. A seamstress who knew my mother well, a few sex workers I recognized from the Garden, a former classmate chatting with our old teacher. Children, too—some not even old enough to have finished school, their faces still round with youth and pocked with teenage blemishes. And a number of elderly, too old to fight, but perhaps still willing to put their lives on the line in other ways.

There was even one of my own trainees from the healers’ center. Lana, the girl who had accompanied Maura and me to the palace on my first visit, rushed over to Henri and began chatting animatedly with him before her eyes caught on me hovering in the background.

Her face drained of color. Mine might well have done the same.

The instinct rose in me to judge her—to march over and scold her for putting her future as a healer on the line. It was harder than I wanted to admit to remember I no longer had any moral high ground to stand on.

I didn’t dare make too much eye contact with anyone. My presence here still felt like an unwelcome intrusion, a violation of something deeply intimate and fiercely guarded. They, on the other hand, watched me like predators on the prowl. I wilted beneath the burn of countless eyes as I slumped into a seat near the exit and stared at my open palms.

A door in the front opened, and the man they called the Father strolled in, flanked by the same two men. The room went quiet, and everyone hurriedly made their way into the scattered chairs. Henri slid into the seat beside me and lazily reclined back, his arm draped across my shoulders.

“Who are those three men?” I whispered.

“The one in the center, the man who let you in—his name is Vance. We call him the Father because he leads the Lumnos cell of the Guardians. The one on the left is Brant, the one on the right is Francis. They’re Vance’s second- and third-in-command.”

“You told me the Guardians were run by a woman.”

“She’s in another realm on a mission. Vance is leading us now.”

I frowned, my heart drooping. A small part of my drive to join the Guardians had been to meet whatever mystery woman had carved out such a unique position of power.

“What was the mission?” I asked.

“I’m not sure. Vance doesn’t share specific details on missions until they’re over. It limits the damage if anyone betrays us.”

I bit back my response. Frankly, if anyone betrayed them, everyone in this room would be dead soon anyway.

“Welcome, everyone,” Vance announced loudly. “Blessed is the Everflame.”

Emarion soil, we shall reclaim,” the room chanted in unison.

I nudged Henri. “You didn’t mention there were secret passwords.”

“You’ll learn them after the blood rite.”

My eyes snapped to him. “Blood rite?”

He stared ahead blankly and nodded. “In a minute, you’ll be called up to confess the worst things you’ve ever done so the group has leverage on you if you try to quit. Then we’ll all strip naked and put a drop of blood in a chalice, and you have to drink it. It’s the second test of loyalty.”

“Are you out of your Flaming mind?” I hissed. “I am not doing any of that.”

“It’s too late. Once you come in the meeting, you can’t leave without taking the blood rite. You’ve already seen too much.”

Anger and panic flooded my veins. Henri hadn’t warned me about this. Any of this.

“This was a mistake. I’m getting out of here.” My hand shot down to my boot, sliding Brecke’s knife from its sheath. “I’ll fight my way out, if I have to.”

I moved to creep past Henri’s chair. His arms wrapped around my waist and dragged me back to my seat. “You can’t go.”

“Oh yes I can,” I ground out, struggling against his grasp. “Get your hands off me.”

“D, wait—”

Let go, Henri.”

“Diem, stop.”

“I swear on the Everflame, if you think I won’t stab you—”

“I’m joking!

I jerked my blade at him. His lips were pursed to hold back a smile, and his shoulders quaked with barely suppressed laughter. Several faces had turned at the commotion, earning me a number of disapproving stares.

“I was teasing you,” he whispered. “I couldn’t tell you the secret words until Vance let you in. There are no rites or confessions.” He rolled his eyes and grinned. “We’re not a cult.”

My glare only made him laugh harder.

My cheeks flushed bright red, and I slumped back against my chair.

“That was incredible,” he said, biting his knuckle. “You should have seen your face.”

“Keep laughing. I want to remember every second of this the next time you ask for a little nighttime fun out in the woods.”

His laughter abruptly stopped.

Vance’s announcements continued on, though I could hardly focus, his words nearly drowned out by my now-pounding heartbeat.

“…several successful recent missions. Sister Samyra completed a high-risk delivery in Lumnos City.”

Near the front, a petite brunette looked around and smiled shyly at the smattering of applause.

“And our newest member, Sister Diem, obtained some very valuable documents from the home of a prominent Descended target.”

A round of eyes turned toward me, accompanied by clapping and a few appreciative nods. My cheeks burned even hotter.

Without meaning to, my eyes met Lana’s, and I saw the same judgment I had felt toward her now reflected in her own expression. She knew about my visit to House Benette, as did all the healers at the center. Any hope I might have had at hiding my decision to betray my vows was officially, unavoidably gone.

It didn’t matter that I could likely say the same of her. She was only a trainee. I was her mentor, her guide, meant to lead by shining example. Now we both knew I was a fraud.

The desire to melt into my chair and fade away was overwhelming.

Vance started up again, his voice taking on a graver tone. “With the arrival of a new member, I want to remind everyone of our oldest and most important rule. The names of your fellow Guardians are to be protected at all costs. Am I understood?”

“Yes, Father,” the voices echoed.

“You are not to reveal the identity of any other member. There are no exceptions to this rule—ever. Am I understood?”

“Yes, Father,” I answered this time with the crowd, the words tasting awkward on my tongue.

The eyes of the three men in the front turned on me and lingered for a beat too long. There was something there, something in their sudden fixation—as if they could see the discomfort written on my face. The two men at Vance’s side exchanged a look, some inscrutable expression passing between them.

They didn’t trust me. Henri had been right about the cloud my father’s legacy cast over my loyalty to the mortal cause. My so-called test may have been enough for Vance, but I evidently had a long way to go to be accepted by the others.

“As I mentioned,” Vance continued, “Sister Diem has brought us priceless intelligence that we hope will be useful in our coming mission. Many of you are aware that we’ve been planning a more aggressive course of action in light of the fraud King Ulther’s illness, and with this new informat—”

“Fortos’s balls, Albanon, you actually did it. You talked her into joining.”

I looked over to see Brecke slip into the seat on Henri’s opposite side.

“Brother Brecke,” Henri said quietly as they clasped forearms. “You’re a long way from home.”

Brecke smoothed a hand over his dark beard. “Someone told me there were feisty women to be found in Lumnos.” He winked at me. “I had to come see it for myself.”

I leaned all the way across Henri’s chest and dramatically laid a hand on Brecke’s thigh. “What fortunate timing you have, Brother,” I purred. “As of a few minutes ago, I seem to be back on the market.”

Henri grabbed my hand and tucked it into both of his palms. “Don’t listen to anything she says, she’s high on Descended wine.”

I shot him a fierce look, but Henri’s face was so full of guileless mischief, his eyes still lit with pride in me at my successful mission, I couldn’t resist the smile that sprang up on my lips.

“So he convinced you to become a Guardian,” Brecke said, his voice low as the meeting droned on ahead of us.

“It’s my first night,” I said.

“She broke into Evrim Benette’s personal office,” Henri added. “Stole a pile of documents off his desk and walked right out.”

“Shit, Bellator!” Brecke clapped his hand on my knee. “You’re definitely one of us now.”

My gnawing guilt eased a bit at his praise.

“How’s that knife I gave you?” he asked, nodding at the blade still clutched in my hand from Henri’s prank. “Stabbed any Descended with it yet?”

I smirked and slid it back into its sheath. “I did, actually.”

“You did?” they said loudly in unison.

A scowling woman turned and shushed us, and I cowered deeper into my seat with an apologetic grimace.

Brecke leaned closer. “You really stabbed one of ‘em?”

I nodded. “I saw a Descended man attacking a mortal woman and half-mortal child a few days ago. He…” My voice hitched at the still-tender memory. “He got away, but I got two good cuts in.”

Brecke beamed like I’d told him I had regrown the Everflame.

Henri frowned. “You didn’t tell me that part.”

I winced. I’d kept most of the details of what had happened in that alley from Henri. When I’d gone to him afterward, I’d been too lost in my anger to relive it in full, too focused on seeking retribution through the Guardians.

And there were still some parts about what happened I was not yet ready to revisit. Not until I understood them better myself.

“I forgot,” I lied, avoiding his eyes. “It was an emotional day.”

“You forgot you stabbed a Descended?”

I shrugged and leaned back, pretending to turn my attention to the meeting. An awkward silence followed, then I wandered in and out of eavesdropping as Brecke and Henri talked quietly about Brecke’s real reason for coming to Lumnos—something about a weapons shipment I mostly ignored, having already had enough exposure to that world for one day.

Every now and then, I caught Henri’s eyes watching me. After nearly two decades of friendship, I knew the subtle signs of his temper, and I knew it bothered him deeply that I hadn’t told him about my fight with the Descended man.

But then, until our trip to Fortos, he hadn’t told me about the mortal boy whose death he witnessed, either. It seemed we’d both become experienced at keeping secrets from the other—at least where the Descended were concerned.

At the front of the room, Vance’s second, Brant, was soliciting help for future missions, and the energy had shifted to an eager excitement. It felt as if everyone but me was listening intently for some way to be of use.

There was a need for horses for a visit to the more rural countryside of western Lumnos, for which a flurry of hands shot up, and a delivery to Faunos that Henri claimed before Brant even finished his sentence.

One by one, the more seasoned Guardians stepped up to volunteer. With each passing task, I slumped deeper into my chair.

“The Mother of the Arboros cell sent word. She’s planning a significant mission to take place soon, and she’d like our help. We need a Guardian that can obtain access to the royal palace of Lumnos and find a way to move around the ground floor unseen. We’ll provi—”

“That’s you,” Henri whispered as he prodded me with an elbow. “You could take that one.”

“Prince Luther never takes his eyes off me when I’m there. There’s no way I could get away without being seen.”

“You got away from everyone at House Benette. You could figure it out.” He nudged me again. “Come on, this mission is made for you.”

He started to raise his hand, and I yanked it down, hissing in his ear. “Henri, no—I’m brand new. Don’t you think I should learn the ropes a little first?”

“Learn the ropes?” He looked at me like I’d sprouted wings. “D, you accomplished more on your test mission than most people here have done since they joined the Guardians. You don’t need to learn anything. You’re ready.”

He flashed me that same goofy grin I’d originally fallen for, eyes bright with affection. Working with the Guardians had infused him with a passion I’d never seen in him before. His contagious excitement was difficult to resist.

Henri shot to his feet and yanked me up beside him. “Sister Diem can do it,” he announced.

Every eye in the room turned to me. Brant raised his eyebrows. Even Vance looked up from his papers and fixed me with a thoughtful gaze.

“The palace is a dangerous place for our kind, Sister Diem,” he said. “If you’re caught, there may be nothing we can do to spare you the consequences. Are you sure you’re prepared to do this?”

No. I wasn’t prepared at all. I’d only barely survived my mission at House Benette, and as intimidating as Evrim Benette had been, he had nothing on the Prince of Lumnos. Saving his sister’s life had won me a measure of his patience, but if he found out I was spying for the Guardians, I had no doubt he’d end my life without a second thought.

But…

I’d always dreamed of living a life worthy of a legacy. Being great was a privilege, and it wasn’t one that mortals in Lumnos were often given. If I wanted to burn my mark into the world, here was my chance to start.

I sighed and raised my voice. “I’m ready. Tell me what you need me to do.”

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