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Spark of the Everflame: Chapter 20

“There’s protocol,” Maura explained as we walked the long road to the palace. “Kneel when you first greet him, and wait to be told to rise.”

“I thought the King was unconscious.”

“He is. But Prince Luther will be there. He’s given me leave to bow on account of my leg, but he’ll expect you to kneel. He’s very strict about decorum.”

I snorted. “Of course he is. Laying the foundation now for his future reign of terror.”

She shot me a look. “Keep comments like those to yourself, dearie. Your jokes won’t find a welcome audience around this lot.”

“But Luther seems so fun and laid-back. I bet he would love my jokes.”

Maura’s eyes raised skyward. “It’ll be a miracle if you don’t get yourself killed.”

“Fine. Back to protocol. To please Prince Luther, I’m to stay down on my knees until His Future Majesty is fully and completely satisfied.”

“Diem Bellator!”

I grinned wickedly. “I’m listening, I swear.”

She massaged her temples, exasperation wearying her aging features. “Don’t speak until you’re spoken to first. Try to avoid looking the King or the Prince in the eyes—”

“You must be joking.”

“—and do not conceal your hands or make any sudden movements.”

“Are we meeting rabid dogs or civilized human beings?”

“Neither. These are the Descended—they’re something else entirely.”

I debated reminding her that the last two times I’d been in the palace, I’d broken every one of these rules, but her long-suffering sigh kept me silent.

Today, I would break rules far more serious than these anyway.

Despite my jokes, I wanted this meeting to go well. This was supposed to be my last visit to the palace accompanied by Maura and my first interaction with the King. Getting the royal family to accept me as my mother’s replacement was the key to all of my plans: protect Teller’s place at the Descended school, succeed on my mission with the Guardians, and find the truth of what happened to my mother.

“Remind me again why they even need mortal healers for the King?”

“Your mother said the Descended healers in Fortos already did everything they could. Whatever illness has taken him, it doesn’t respond to their magic.”

“Then what are we supposed to do?”

“Make him as comfortable as we can until he goes. The sickness has weakened his healing abilities, so he’s not much different than any mortal patient nearing their final days.”

Across the treetops, the shimmering towers of the royal palace came into view. From this distance, its walls of dazzling light seemed like a desert mirage, the edges watery and indistinct against the soft pastels of the dawn sky.

“It’s strange, isn’t it, to think that this King who has lived and ruled for generations is now just a helpless, dying old man?” I asked.

Maura hummed thoughtfully. “They may walk very different paths, but at the beginnings and the ends of their lives, they’re as mortal as we are. Perhaps their Kindred did that for a reason.”

“If the plan was to humble them, I don’t think it worked.”

Maura laughed despite her disapproving squint. “The stories say the goddess Lumnos and her siblings wanted the Descended to protect the mortals. Perhaps this was meant to remind them of what it means to be vulnerable and in need of protection.”

“I don’t think that worked, either. The only people they seem to have any interest in protecting are themselves.”

“How quickly you’ve formed your judgments, for someone who is only just now entering their world.”

“Their world, our world, isn’t it the same? Just because they hole up in their lavish cities doesn’t mean we don’t feel the consequences of everything they do. Maybe I haven’t been rubbing elbows with them my whole life, but I’m not blind to all they’ve done. I know what they’ve taken from us.”

She halted and turned to me. “Diem, is treating the King going to be a problem for you? You know we leave our opinions of our patients at the door.”

I couldn’t deny that I was struggling with it. It was one thing to overlook a sordid occupation or personal vices, but having watched that boy and his mother slaughtered in cold blood, knowing it was the result of the King’s policies…

Maura gave me a stern look and a swat on the leg from her cane, and I was instantly taken back to being a mischievous little girl getting a scolding from her elders.

“You’re better than this,” she said. “You’ve always been the healer we could send to our worst, most disagreeable clients.”

“You sent me because I wasn’t scared of them like all the other trainees.”

“No, we sent you because you had compassion for them. Under all your sass, you still treated every patient like a human being who deserved a chance to be saved.”

I looked away, shrinking under her scrutiny. “Yes, well, like you said—they’re not human. They’re something else.”

“They descend from Lumnos’s mortal mate too, don’t they? They’re children of both worlds. They might have forgotten that, but we don’t have to.”

When I didn’t answer, Maura studied my face for a long moment. “This was a mistake. You go on back and let me handle the King.”

“No—that’s not necessary.” I straightened my back and schooled my expression into apathy. “I’ll be fine. Really.”

“That Prince is more perceptive than you think, Diem. If he suspects—”

“I can handle it. I can certainly handle him.”

Maura was not convinced.

“Honest,” I promised. “I just needed to talk it out of my system. I’m a professional, remember?” I faked a brilliant smile and poked her arm. “Learned from the best.”

She huffed and turned back down the road, worry still radiating from her fidgeting hand and drawn posture. A lump lodged in my throat as I watched her shuffle on ahead.

If she knew what I really had planned today, worry would be the mildest of her emotions.

The gryvern met us first.

It was a knee-rattling sight to gaze upon the menacing draconic head, lithe leonine body, and broad, feathered wings circling the skies above our heads. Her imposing shadow swooped back and forth as we walked up the topiary-lined path that led to the palace entrance.

Every time I dared a look upward, my stare met with the gryvern’s—Sorae, they’d called her. I had the strangest sensation that she wasn’t just watching me, but sensing me, reading me. Her golden eyes seemed to peer beyond my face and pierce something far deeper—something I wasn’t prepared to share.

“Does she normally do this?” I asked, squinting up at the creature.

“No—never.” Maura’s face had gone pale and more than a bit green. “That thing makes me as nervous as a one-legged mouse in a field of cats.”

We neared the steps leading to the entry. Sorae’s spear-sharp claws clattered against stone as she slammed down onto a landing perch near the roof, sending Maura jumping nearly out of her skin.

“Unarmed this time, Miss Bellator?”

I tore my attention from the gryvern to see Prince Luther standing in the wide archway with his usual stone-faced expression. The jeweled sword handle that rose above his shoulder glittered in the morning sun, a grandiose juxtaposition to his bleak ensemble of all-over black jacquard. The muscles of his arms flexed as they crossed over his chest, making his already broad form seem all the more imposing.

I threw him a dazzling smile and held out my arms to show off the lack of weapons at my hips. I’d left my twin daggers at home to avoid attention—and in the hopes that if I was caught in the midst of my plan, I could plausibly argue I had no intention of doing any harm. Only Brecke’s knife remained, hidden inconspicuously in my boot. It was the only thing that might actually save my life if this went all to hell.

“I wouldn’t want you to think I was here to hurt any children,” I called out sweetly.

He gave no reaction, though his glacial eyes trailed me as I strolled past him into the foyer.

The guards circled around us and began rifling through our bags, then our clothing. Their inspection was far more aggressive than before, perhaps because they knew we were visiting the King—or perhaps in retaliation for challenging them on my previous visit.

I forced myself to meet Luther’s stare while his men ran their hands across my body like I was property to be seized, no more human than the satchels they’d crudely ravaged with their indelicate hands. I flinched at the unnecessary squeeze of a hand on my ass. The guard snickered at my reaction, his fingers jabbing deeper into my flesh.

A muscle ticked on Luther’s jaw.

“That’s enough,” he said curtly.

The guard stared up at him. “But… Your Highness—”

“I’ll handle it from here.” Without breaking my gaze, Luther sauntered forward. The presence of his immense power hit me like a physical force, and I had to dig in my heels to hold my ground.

His hands dropped from his chest and hovered in the air by my hips. “May I?”

My brows arched. “Now you ask?”

“I wouldn’t want you to think I wasn’t taught to ask for a woman’s consent.”

A spark of challenge glittered in his eyes. You’re not the only one who remembers our previous chat, they seemed to say.

My shoulder bounced, coming off more like an invitation than a shrug. “Go ahead then. If you must.”

He held my eyes for a beat longer—just long enough to take my carefully constructed indifference and turn it on its side. I hated how one look from him could unnerve me with that unrelenting focus and that piercing I-see-you stare.

Worse, I hated that he knew it, and that he wielded it against me with such expert precision. Another weapon I couldn’t equal.

His hands settled on my wrists, kneading their way up my arms. His large palms felt as if they lay directly against my flesh, the warmth of him bleeding easily through the meager fabric of my tunic. Though his eyes finally released mine, freeing a pent-up breath to rush from my lungs, I felt more trapped by him than I ever had.

A trail of searing heat followed the deft glide of his palm down my spine, fingers splaying wide at the hollow of my back. They trailed around my ribcage, thumbs moving in slow circles beneath my breasts—far enough away to stay appropriate, but not nearly far enough to keep muscles from tightening on both of our throats.

His hands skated the curve of my hips to the low-hanging brim of my pants. The intimacy of it, especially surrounded by an audience of Maura and the other guards, had heat tingling in places I tried desperately not to think about.

“No commentary?” he asked, sinking to his knees. “I’m disappointed.”

“I’m too busy enjoying the view.”

I risked a glance down, expecting to see the same obnoxious smirk his guard had worn, but for once, Luther looked as flustered as I felt. If I didn’t feel like my skin was about to spontaneously combust, I might even have enjoyed watching him squirm. And on his knees, no less.

His fingers formed a cage around my thighs, his thumbs stroking gentle pressure against the fitted leather. I focused on keeping my lungs steady despite the very acute awareness of what part of my body was mere inches from his face.

“Too bad I didn’t wear a dress,” I murmured.

His hands slid higher, and my breath hitched.

Our eyes caught for a split second. He said nothing, but I swore I felt his fingers tighten around my inner thigh.

His touch stayed firm as he grazed down my leg and over the swell of my calves, brushing my ankle, then moved to my other leg. He had already begun to stand when his palm pressed the top edge of my boot.

We both froze at the same time.

Shit. Brecke’s knife.

Unlike my mortal daggers, this blade could do real damage—to him and to the King. If he found it, no amount of clever quips would explain it away.

His fingers subtly traced the outline of the sheath, and my stomach dropped. Though Brecke had made it impressively thin, almost invisible to a casual observer, Luther’s proximity to me now was anything but casual.

I opened my mouth to blurt out some flustered excuse, but before I could speak, Luther’s hands dropped away from my leg.

He rose to his feet and gave me a long, silent stare, then turned away.

“Grab your things and follow me.”

Maura’s eyes bulged at me with an expression that could have talked for hours. I quickly gathered our bags, and she grabbed my hand and tugged me into step behind him.

My brain tried to make sense of the near-miss I’d just stumbled through. Luther knew—I was certain of it. I’d seen the keen awareness in his eyes. The judgment—the warning.

And yet… he’d let me go without a word.


I couldn’t afford to linger on the question. As Luther led us up several staircases, I wrestled my spinning mind in an attempt to refocus on my surroundings.

Getting in was the easy part, I reminded myself. Now comes the real challenge.

I noted everything: The placement of the guards at each landing and along every corridor. The shadowy corners the daylight didn’t quite reach. The hiding places—vacant rooms with doors ajar and opaque drapes large enough to conceal a body.

My hand pressed against my chest, where a piece of folded parchment lay hidden in the tight bandeau of fabric across my breasts, mercifully undetected by the guards’ search. The soft crinkle of paper against fabric soothed my nerves. In a few short moments, it might become my lifeline.

We turned into a hallway that was more abandoned than the others. A guard posted at the far end made it less than ideal, but I didn’t know how much longer we had left, and I was running out of options. I slowed my pace, feigning interest in a tapestry until I fell out of Maura’s eyesight. As subtly as I could manage, I slung my bag into a darkened alcove.

Step one, complete.

I sped to catch back up, my mind racing to note every step. Left turn, then right. Twenty paces, then another left. Right again where the columns thinned.

Finally, we approached a set of arched iron doors engraved with the emblem of Lumnos—a flaming sun inset with a thin crescent moon—topped with the symbol of a crown. The doorway was flanked by two guards who bowed their heads in deference to the Prince.

He ignored them and flicked a wrist upward. Dark, twisting vines crept out from the doors’ edges, sprouting thorns and shadowy leaves as they slithered across the metal slab.

Diem,” Maura hissed.

I stiffened. I’d stepped up to the door without realizing it, drawn by the pull of Luther’s magic. My hand hovered in front of me, reaching for a tendril of pulsing darkness.

“Careful,” Luther murmured. He watched me intently, though he made no move to stop me, nor any move to pull his magic away. “In this palace, the shadows are as dangerous as the people.”

I had no doubts about that.

Still… I couldn’t seem to tear myself away. Deadly as it was, there was something intoxicating about the unearthly power they wielded, some innate song that overrode my every survival instinct and lured me in.

Perhaps that was part of its danger, too.

“How does it work?” I asked, frowning at the mass of tangled vines. “In the mortal world, light and shadow aren’t solid, and they can’t hurt you. Why is your magic so different?”

A long silence stretched on, and I was sure he wouldn’t answer. But then—“Have you ever held up a magnifying glass to sunlight on a clear day?”

“My brother found a lost monocle on the street when we were little. We used it to start fires in fallen leaves in the woods.” I huffed a laugh. “If it hadn’t been such a rainy season, we might have burned down half of Lumnos.”

“Diem, hush,” Maura whispered, her wide, frantic eyes darting between me and the Prince.

The corner of his lip twitched in what might have been a smile, if the rest of his face wasn’t so dreadfully stiff. “Our magic works the same way. We conjure light and focus it down to its essence. At its purest, light can burn through almost anything.”

“What about the shadows?” I asked.

The two guards at the door shifted their weight, and one of them softly cleared their throat. From the disapproving downturn of their mouths, I suspected this was information mortals were forbidden to know.

Luther continued ignoring them, his eyes fixed on my hand where it lingered near the door. His brows pinched as a hazy spiral uncurled from the vine and stretched toward my finger, stopping just beyond my reach.

“Shadows work the same way. Darkness isn’t just the absence of light—it’s the absence of everything. No light, no heat, no air. True darkness can destroy even life itself.”

Something stirred beneath my ribs.

I looked at him. “That still doesn’t explain how you can make it solid. Even pure light and darkness can’t do that.”

His lip quirked again—higher this time. “That, Miss Bellator, is why we call it magic.”

Despite the mile-long list of reasons I had to hate him, his answer was so unexpected, so uncharacteristically charming, my grin spread from ear to ear.

For a moment so ephemeral it might not even have lasted a heartbeat, the stony fortress he’d built around himself lowered its gates, allowing a fleeting glimpse at the man who lived within. A man who might be something far different than I had once believed.

It was gone before I could make any sense of it. The square slant of his jaw flexed tight, and anything resembling a human emotion disappeared. He was once again a marble-carved statue—pretty to look at, impossible to know.

He raised a palm, and the ebony vines pulled the doors wide open. The colossal chamber inside was as elegantly appointed as the rest of the palace, but this room seemed warmer and more comfortable. The parlor was filled with overstuffed chairs, plush cushions, and gauzy curtains that hung along a wall of arched openings.

Luther led us into an antechamber housing a canopied bed carved from polished, swirling burlwood. A frail figure lay mostly shrouded under layers of coverlets. The Prince paused in the doorway, kneeling and dipping his head in respect.

King Ulther.

I had never actually seen him before. He had come to the mortal side of town on occasion—primarily to christen one of the edifices of the goddess Lumnos they sometimes placed around Mortal City as a subtle threat against any surviving worship of the Old Gods—but my mother had been careful to keep me at home on such occasions.

I felt a hard yank on my arm. Maura was bowing low over her cane and shooting me an insistent look.


Kneeling. Deference. Protocol.

I sank obediently to one knee, though I couldn’t tear my eyes from the King’s face. I arched my neck, straining to get a better look.

He looked startlingly young. An older man, certainly, but not nearly elderly enough to be fading away from what seemed to be the Descended equivalent of natural causes. If he were a mortal, I would have imagined him to be the same age as my father.

But I knew better. His reign had begun long ago, ages before even the oldest living mortal had entered the world. What must it be like to outlive generations of mortals, watching them age and die, over and over? The idea struck me as terribly sad.

Of course, these Descended likely had never met a mortal they cared enough about to mourn.

I felt the heat of Luther’s gaze settle on me. He had risen, now standing beside the King’s bed, watching me as always. Judging me, I guessed, for the defiant glare I couldn’t seem to resist, even in the presence of the Crown.

Beside me, Maura held still. Her shoulders hunched in submission, eyes fixed on the floor, waiting for the Prince’s permission to rise.

The sight of it needled at my pride. What had either of these men done to deserve such obedience from her? Their vicious laws stole innocent lives, while Maura saved them. Why should she, or I, be expected to kneel to them—or to anyone?

Without waiting for Luther’s approval, I shot back up to my feet, shoulders back and chin high. I tugged Maura upright and flashed Luther a bold, unrepentant smile that dared him to correct us.

He held my gaze, refusing to react. “You may attend to your duties,” he said flatly.

Maura’s fingernails dug into my skin as she dragged me toward the bed with a scowl that was a clear command: Behave.

My nostrils flared in silent response: This is me behaving.

She shoved her satchel into my hands, then turned to the King. We each got to work, me laying out the items from her bag onto a side table while Maura evaluated the King’s condition.

His eyes were closed and his breathing steady. If Maura hadn’t warned me that he’d drifted into unconsciousness months ago, I might have thought him merely sleeping. The only sign of his more ominous fate was his grey pallor and the hollow cling of flesh against bone where his muscles had begun to atrophy.

Despite my best efforts to detest the man, I felt a stab of sympathy. My head understood that he was responsible for countless atrocities, having reigned over generations of oppression and cruelty toward my kind, but in this moment, my heart saw only a frail, dying man.

Were he any other patient, I would take his hand and sit with him, speaking soft words to soothe whatever bit of his soul still remained. But the Prince had not moved his eyes from me since I entered, and standing a breath away from the Crown with a knife of Fortosian steel in my boot was already pushing my luck.

I fell back as Maura smoothed salve on the King’s bedsores and massaged his many swollen joints. I should have been helping her. I really should have been doing it myself, considering this was to be our formal handoff.

Today, I had other plans.

Maura—thank the gods—struck up some chipper conversation to lighten the tension. I smiled to myself at the ease with which she roped Luther into a mundane back-and-forth about her wife’s recent harvests on their small family farm that subtly coaxed him into lowering his guard. Maura’s maternal warmth could put even the coldest hearts at ease. Though it came far less naturally to me, it was one of the earliest and most useful skills I had picked up from her.

Their conversation picked up, and Luther’s gaze finally broke from mine as his focus turned to Maura. I took advantage and slowly inched my way toward the exit.

“Oh, shoot,” I said quickly, backing through the door. “I left my satchel at the front. I must have forgotten it in all the excitement when we arrived.” I gave Luther an accusatory look.

He took a step toward me. “I’ll have one of the guards—”

“No need, I remember the way.” I took off jogging before he could block my path. “I’ll grab it and return right away.”

“Miss Bellator—”

“Give me two minutes!”

“Miss Bellator, stop.”

“I’ll be right back!” I hit the hallway outside of the King’s chambers and took off at a dead sprint.

Voices shouted behind me, joined by the scuffle of running boots. I forced my body to push itself as fast as my feet could carry me while my mind retraced the steps I’d memorized.

Right turn, twenty paces—or what felt like twenty paces at full speed. Right turn again, then—damn, was it a left or a right?

I ducked into a room I’d spotted earlier, a dark office whose drapes had been drawn to shut out the light. A thin film of dust coated everything in the room, and I held my breath to avoid coughing up a cloud that would give me away.

A moment later, a single guard blew past the door. I held stone-still as his steps faded down the hallway and into silence.

My gamble had paid off. I was certain Luther would never leave Maura alone with the King, and with only two guards at the door of the royal bedroom, I’d suspected he would only spare one to come after me. And I’d just evaded them with barely any effort.

A self-satisfied grin unfurled across my lips.

Step two, complete.

The confidence I projected was finally beginning to feel more real than pretend. First I’d stolen key documents from a powerful Descended arms dealer, and now I was roaming freely in the royal palace. Maybe I was born for the life of a Guardian, after all.

By some miracle of the gods, I spotted my satchel shoved into a shadowy corner. I slipped into the now-empty hallway and grabbed it, slinging it over my shoulder.

I pulled out the paper I’d concealed beneath my shirt and unfolded it. Over the decades, various Guardians had wormed their way into the palace as servants or tradesmen. Though the movement of mortals on royal grounds was always tightly limited, the rebels had managed to put together a primitive floorplan of the palace’s many wings and floors.

Much of the map was still blank or only roughly sketched from stolen glances. The wing I stood in now was nothing more than a rectangle scrawled with the words “Royal Residence.” Stairwells were noted, as well as a best guess of where guards would be posted. For the rest, I was on my own.

At the lower corner of the map, several floors down and beyond a maze of turns, a door was marked with a bright red circle.

According to Vance, hidden behind this door was a steep, algae-slicked spiral staircase that would end at an underground canal. Leashed to a pier along the water, I would find a small but heavily fortified boat—the Crown’s personal conveyance when traveling the Sacred Sea.

My task from the Guardians was to search the boat for a place where a stowaway might be able to hide unseen. Vance had refused to tell me why he needed this information, only that it was necessary for a mission being coordinated by the rebel cell in Arboros. I had minutes at best to get there, get what I needed, and get back.

It was an impossible ask, but it would have to be enough.

I tucked the map away and set off at a jog in the general direction of the palace’s rear, aiming for a stairwell that had been marked as a servants’ passage. If I could get into the unguarded corridors used by the staff, I stood a chance at—


Down the hall.

Slow and heavy and coming toward me.

I couldn’t see or hear anything except the drumbeat of left, right, left, right, but somehow… Somehow, I knew.


Something deep within me hummed at the roll of his tremendous power as it filled the corridor. The hair along my arms stood on end, as if yearning to reach toward him.

I whipped around in search of a room or an alcove, any place I could hide, but two long, smooth walls stretched on either side.

I swore under my breath. Had I really been patting myself on the back for success minutes ago?

My eye caught on a tall stone column. It was a little narrow, and closer than I’d like to the light cast by the glowing orbs that dotted the ceilings. If he walked beyond the column, there would be no way to shield myself from view—but it was all I had. I tucked behind it and held my breath.

His footfalls moved closer, his pace strikingly slow. He seemed in no rush to get where he was going, as if he already knew he had me trapped like a mouse in a cage.

The steps stopped.

“Miss Bellator.”

My chest seized. I willed my body to be as small as possible behind the slim barrier. Had he already spotted me? Could he sense my presence, the way I could sense his?

“Whatever it is you’re up to, I assure you it’s in your best interest to reveal yourself immediately.”

Yeah, right. If my lungs weren’t about to explode with the effort of staying silent, I might actually have laughed.

“If the others find you before I do, there will only be so much I can do to protect you.”

Protect me? How gullible did he think I was? Did he really expect me to—

“Don’t end up like your mother. She betrayed me and lost my trust. You should learn from her mistakes.”

My blood stilled in my veins.

Don’t end up like your mother.

Boiling-hot suspicion flooded my skull and seared away all rational thought. What mistake had she made? And what had he done to punish her?

I slid my hand to the blade concealed in my boot. He’d been a fool to let me keep it—a fool that was about to regret all his choices.

My fingers trembled with anticipation, my grip so tight around the handle that its edges nearly sliced into my skin. I pictured the blade puncturing his neck like the Descended man in the alley, imagined the heat of his blood on my skin and the light draining from his blue-grey eyes as I held the knife in place to keep his vein from healing. A sharp twist of something like regret nagged at me, but I angrily shoved it away.

I was about to step into the corridor and accept my fate—and his—when another set of footsteps, this time more hurried, grew louder and stopped.

“Your Highness, we can’t seem to find her. She wasn’t on the main staircase or anywhere near the front parlor.”

The silence that followed was so deep I might have drowned in it.

“I want guards posted on every floor, at every staircase, both inside and outside of every exit. Triple the contingent at the King’s chambers. No one is to leave their posts, no matter what they see or hear.”

“Yes, Your Highness.”

“If you find her, you send for me and me alone. No one is to engage herUnless it is necessary to protect a resident of this palace, you do not attack.”

“Yes, Your Highness.”

“I want her found alive. Am I understood?”

“Yes, Your H—”


The echo of fleeing footfalls skittered down the hall.

For an agonizingly long time, I heard nothing but silence. No footsteps, no more false promises of safety to draw me out. I waited long enough that I wondered if I’d missed his exit, even considered peering my head around to see—until his low voice pierced the quiet.

“You’re playing a very dangerous game, Miss Bellator. I hope you know what you’re doing.”

The rhythmic beat of his gait struck up once more and faded into the distance.

When I’d heard nothing further for what felt like an eternity, I finally let myself take a gulp of air to ease my burning lungs.

Shit. Shit, shit, shit.

There was no chance I was getting to my target anymore. Even if I made it to the stairwell before the guards took their new posts, I could end up trapped in the room I was seeking out. And being found unchaperoned in the hallway was bad, but being found on the King’s personal boat, or in the secret waterway…

My head rolled back and hit the column behind me with a heavy thump.

Step three… failure.

I’d barely turned the corner toward the royal chambers when the guards yelled out and bolted toward me with weapons drawn.

I plastered an innocent smile on my lips. “Sorry it took so long. I must have taken a wrong turn.”

In seconds, I was surrounded. Someone slammed my face against the gritty rock wall and twisted my arms painfully across my back. A knife appeared at my throat, the edge of the blade pressing against the soft flesh under my jaw.

Behind me, Maura wailed in distress, pleading my case with the guards. Unsurprisingly, they were unmoved.

I should probably have fought back, if for no other reason than it was exactly what Luther would expect me to do, but the disappointment of my failure had taken the fight out of me.

A guard yanked the bag from my shoulder and slashed the bottom with his blade. Jars of tinctures and powders tumbled out and shattered as they collided with the stone floor. Strips of gauze floated into the mess, instantly ruined. The wastefulness of it all made me cringe.

“What are these, poisons?” a guard spat as he toed the spilled powder.

“Medicines,” I said.

“Prove it.”

“How am I supposed to do that?”

“That’s your problem, mortal.”

“Fine. Take a spoonful of each of them. If you’re dead tomorrow, come find me and arrest me.”

The guard wrenched my arm until my shoulder pulled unnaturally at the joint. My body jerked in reflex, and beneath the knife at my throat, I felt a sharp sting and a trickle of warm droplets sliding down my chest. I gritted my teeth, a miserable part of me welcoming the pain.

I’d let them all down. I’d been so prideful, so cocky to think I could do this and get away with it.

Even the voice, my ever-present companion any time I was provoked, was curiously absent. I waited for it to slither out from whatever dark corner it dwelled in and urge to me to fight, to destroy, but it didn’t even stir.

I closed my eyes and pressed my face to the cold wall.

Failure. A naive, spectacular failure.

A familiar cadence of footsteps sounded in the hallway. The guards—the ones who didn’t have me rammed against a wall—stiffened. Their fists raised to their chest in salute.

“Your Highness, we found her spying in the hallways.”

“Liar,” I mumbled.

The guard leaned his bent elbow into my spine, and an involuntary cry of pain escaped my lips.

Maura pleaded in a trembling voice. “Your Highness, it was an honest mistake. She’s new to the palace, she doesn’t yet understand the rules. I beg of you, show her mercy.”

A long pause followed, broken only by Maura’s sniffles.

“Release her,” Luther growled.

The guard hesitated. The knife moved away from my throat, but my body remained pinned in place.

“Your Highness, she—”

“I said release her.”

The guard freed his grip on my arms and gave me a final shove as he stepped away. I couldn’t even muster a scowl as I shook out my limbs and rubbed my tender shoulder.

There were so, so many things I would rather have done in that moment than look at Luther. Feed myself to the gryvern. Crawl on my bare hands and knees over the shattered remains of my glass jars.

Slowly, reluctantly, I turned to face him.

Oh, the Prince was pissed.

I’d only seen the barest traces of emotion in him before. Worry, when his sister had collapsed. Satisfaction, when his cousin had chastised me on my last visit. Annoyance, when… well, pretty much any time I was around.

But his face now was unfiltered fury. His already severe features had hardened into unyielding steel, his blue eyes glittering with malice. The presence around him was an aura of crackling fire that heated my skin in a very different way from how I’d felt with his hands roaming my thighs.

I swallowed.

“What happened?” he barked.

“I found my satchel, and then I came back.” I cringed at the tremble in my voice.


“It fell off my shoulder in the hallway.”

“Why didn’t the guards see you?”

“I got lost.”

At his side, magic began to flow from the heart of his palms. Sparks of light and wisps of shadow wove between his fingers and up his wrists to form a living glove.

The slumbering voice inside me opened a single, curious eye.

Luther’s glare shot to the guards. “I told you not to engage her.”

The man who’d shoved me stepped forward. “We were just holding her until you arrived, Your Highness. We started to search her things, and she attacked us.”

I rolled my eyes at him. “Really? That’s the story you’re going with?”


Everyone stilled at the roar of Luther’s thunderous voice. His fury hung so thick in the air I could almost taste its smoky tang. My gaze met his as the echoes of his command reverberated down the hall.

Don’t end up like your mother

His eyes narrowed on me. “You—”

“Your Highness, please.” Maura stumbled forward, and though she cried out as guards reached to block her path, her face had a grave resolve to it I had rarely seen. “I can’t excuse what Diem did. She was…” She paused and stared at me. “Reckless. And immature.”

I flinched.

“But I’ve known this girl since she was a baby, and she doesn’t have a bad bone in her body. She didn’t mean any harm by it. I’d swear it on my own life.”

Nausea churned in my stomach. If she only knew.

I’d never wanted so badly to sink into the shadows and disappear.

Luther’s boots crunched over the slivers of glass scattered across the floor as he stalked closer, holding my gaze until I gave in and allowed my eyes to break away. Let him win his staring contest, if it got me out of there alive.

From the corner of my vision, I watched his focus drop to my neck. He shook away the magic twining around one arm, then reached for me. I braced in anticipation of being seized by the throat, but what he did unsettled me far more.

His touch was strikingly gentle as he examined the wound. I didn’t even feel pain, only the slow, careful stroke of his thumb beneath my jaw and down the curve of my neck, pausing at an old scar on my collarbone. A shiver rolled through me.

His hand stilled. He pulled it back and stared at the dark crimson blood now coating his fingers.

“Rigorn. Yannick.”

Two of the guards stepped forward. One I recognized as the man who had pushed me against the wall. The other clenched a bloody knife in his fist.

Luther held out his other hand, still wrapped in curls of writhing darkness. “Your weapon.”

As the guard laid the handle in his outstretched palm, Luther’s shadow magic encircled it, infecting the blade with a grim, throbbing energy. The guard’s hand loitered for a moment, like he didn’t want to let it go, and I realized he was shaking.

Fast as a rattlesnake, Luther struck—one moment the knife was in his hand, and the next it was lodged low in the guard’s stomach, thorny black vines stretching out to pierce the skin around the wound.

The healer in me felt a dark admiration at the placement. There was no good place to get stabbed, but if it had to happen… fewer veins, no vital organs. It would hurt like hell, but with his Descended healing, he’d easily survive it.

Almost as if Luther had become an expert at this kind of thing.

He turned to the other man. “Take him to the guardroom and wait there. I’ll deal with you later.”

The guard paled but obeyed, his colleague moaning and clutching his wound as he was hauled away.

I’m not sure what part of seeing a man viciously speared in the gut loosened my lips, but I suddenly found myself speaking.

“Was that really necessary?”

“Diem Bellator,” Maura snapped. “Hush.”

Luther’s head slowly swiveled to me.

As he silently returned my side, he seemed to have grown a foot taller and two feet wider. Those glowing eyes had me transfixed, unable to look away.

“You would defend the man who cut your throat?” he asked, low and soft.

I gingerly touched the wound on my neck, surprised to find it no longer bleeding. “It’s a scratch. Hardly worth stabbing anyone over.”

Something that looked a lot like shock passed over his features, then quickly solidified back into fiery resolve.

“The people in this palace must learn, one way or another, that there are consequences for disobeying me.”

Luther reached down and scooped up my shredded bag, as well as the papers and unbroken jars strewn across the ground.

He unceremoniously dumped them in a pile into my arms and gave me a hard look. “It’s time for you to leave, Miss Bellator.” He leaned in until the smooth skin of his jaw warmed my cheek as his whispered words caressed my ear. “Be grateful it’s with your life.

Maura didn’t wait for me to respond. She scurried forward and grabbed my wrist, nearly causing my things to tumble out of my grasp. “Yes, of course, Your Highness. We are so grateful for your generous mercy.”

I mumbled something that might have been a thanks, or an apology, or perhaps an expletive. My mind was too consumed with trying to understand how the man before me had gone from protecting me to stabbing his own guard to threatening my life in the span of a few minutes.

Every time I thought I was starting to understand this Prince, he did something to completely surprise me. And that—more than his anger, more even than his magic—was what made him truly a threat.

If he had convinced my mother that he could be her ally, then turned on her as quickly as he had just turned on me…

Don’t end up like your mother.

His words echoed in my head the entire way home.


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