Spark of the Everflame: Chapter 21


Maura didn’t speak to me until long after we’d left the limits of Lumnos City.

At first, I was grateful for the quiet and the opportunity to piece through all the emotions warring inside of me.

Shame. Guilt. Anger. Fear. All cycling on a self-destructive loop.

But the closer we walked toward Mortal City, the more unbearable the silence became. Maura had never been angry with me before. We’d had harmless disagreements, but never anything that had caused a rift between us in any meaningful way.

Now, she couldn’t even look at me.

The forest began to thin, the buildings of Mortal City gradually coming into view, and I knew we didn’t have much time before we were consumed by the chaos of the healers’ center.

“I’m sorry,” I blurted out. “I know I made a mistake today. A lot of mistakes.”

Maura said nothing at first, only gazing thoughtfully at the road ahead, but she wasn’t the type to give the silent treatment. Inside that earnest mind of hers, I knew she was choosing her words with particular care. What I didn’t know was whether it was to avoid saying something she would regret or to cut me into a million tiny pieces.

“This was my fault,” she said finally. She paused, then nodded her head as if coming to a decision. “I should have trusted your mother. Auralie knew you best, and if she didn’t believe you could handle it, I should have respected that.”

A million tiny pieces it is.

I bristled. “I can handle it. It was a mistake. It won’t happen again.”

She choked out a dry, humorless laugh. “No, it certainly won’t.”

I jogged until I stood in front of her, forcing her to stop. “Next time, I promise I’ll obey all the rules.”

“Next time?” She gave me an incredulous look. “There’s not going to be a next time, Diem. Even if by some miracle Prince Luther is willing to let you back into that palace, I most certainly am not.”

“I’ll apologize to the Prince. I’ll show him I can be trusted. I have to keep serving as the palace healer, for Teller—”

“For Teller?” Her coffee-brown eyes squinted as she wagged her finger in my face. “Where was this concern for Teller when you fought back against the guards? Or when you took off running from the King’s chambers, or when you mouthed off to the Prince? That boy could have been kicked out of his school for any one of those things.”

My mouth snapped shut, guilt halting my tongue. She had a point.

“I can guarantee your brother would rather lose his education than see his sister arrested and executed.”

More truths. If Teller knew the risks I was taking to keep our mother’s bargain, he would drop out of that school without a moment’s hesitation.

And if my father knew… I shuddered at the thought. His wrath would put even the Prince’s to shame.

“That agreement was between your mother and the Crown,” Maura said. “I should never have told you about it. It wasn’t your place to get involved.”

“I have no choice but to get involved. You know that.”

“If your mother was here—”

“My mother isn’t here.”

“And thank the gods for that. It would break my heart to see how disappointed she would be.”

She might as well have taken my dagger and plunged it straight into my chest.

“You put everything at risk today, Diem. Our work at the center, your brother’s schooling, your entire family’s safety, my safety. Twice now I’ve had a palace guard’s knife pulled on me because of you. And for what? Tell me, what was so important it was worth risking all that?”

I looked away, unable to bear the judgment in her eyes.

“Does this have to do with whatever’s going on between you and that Prince?”

My jaw tightened. “Nothing’s going on between me and that Prince.”

“Oh, don’t give me that bollocks. The two of you can’t keep your eyes off each other. He can’t stop touching you, and you can’t stop provoking him.”

“There’s nothing there,” I snapped, a harsh tone edging my words.

“Fine.” Her hands folded across her chest as her head cocked sideways. “Then is this because you don’t want to be a healer?”

My gaze shot back to hers. “Of course I want to be a healer. Being a healer is… it’s my whole life.”

“Exactly.” Some of the iciness melted from her features. “I know you never had a real choice in the matter. Your mother decided you would be her disciple before you could even walk.”

“I could have picked a different path if I really wanted to,” I argued, though Maura’s flat stare said she wasn’t buying that any more than I was. I blew out a breath. “So that’s it? I make one mistake and now I’m no longer good enough to be a healer?”

“It’s not about being good enough. You’re extremely talented. You’re a quick study, you work hard, you’re great with the patients. Half our clients make me want to take a scalpel to my ears, but you always find a way to be kind to them, even the ones who don’t deserve it.”

“Then what’s the problem?”

“Your heart isn’t in it. Or it’s in it for all the wrong reasons. When you were a trainee, you always wanted to be out roaming the forests to gather ingredients or chatting up our most unsavory patients to hear about their lives.”

“You could say the same thing about any of the trainees.”

“No, Diem. When I ask the trainees to do those things, they beg me to give them another task.” Her face softened as she took my hand in hers. “You are like family to me. I want you to be happy. I want you to have a life that fulfills you. And if this isn’t it—”

“It is.”

“Diem—”

It is, Maura. I’m happy. Really. And I’m sorry about today.” I squeezed her hand and gave what I hoped was a convincing smile.

Because I was happy. I had people who loved me, a profession I was good at, and a safe, comfortable future most mortals would kill for.

I was happy. Really.

Really…


“I’m here for the card game.”

I forced my face into what must have been my twentieth sweet, innocent smile of the day. None of them had worked yet, but my string of failures had to end eventually.

The man on watch—who, just my luck, was the same brawny, obnoxious Guardian I’d tussled with the last time I stood outside this door—grunted. “No card game tonight.”

I rolled my eyes. “Do we have to do this again? You know I’m a member. You played a crucial role in that, in case you’ve forgotten.”

“Oh, I haven’t forgotten.”

I looked between him and the door, tapping my foot expectantly. “So?”

He glanced around at the empty alley before leaning in closer. “Card games are for meetings. No meeting tonight.”

“Well, I had a mission today and Vanc—”

“The Father.”

“Right. The Father asked me to meet him here to discuss how it went. So… let me in.” I smirked. “Please.”

He lounged back against the wall and gave me a slow, deliberate once-over. Like last time, he wore a wide-brimmed hat slung low to shadow his eyes. A grin I didn’t like the look of grew on his lips.

“Quiet night tonight,” he said.

Shit. I vaguely remembered this from my first night—some kind of coded message Henri had used to prove his membership—but I couldn’t remember the response. Henri and Brecke had been too busy teasing me over Henri’s “blood rite” prank to fill me in.

“I don’t know your cute little secret handshakes yet. I’m sure there’s something about a tree in there, and probably flames, or burning, or something with fire—”

“No code words, no entrance.”

“Oh, come on,” I groaned. “This must be a joke.”

“Do I look like a joke?”

“Have you seen the hat you’re wearing?”

His smile hardened into something colder. “You could always take off your shirt and show me your tattoo.”

“I don’t have a tattoo.”

“Maybe I’ll settle for you removing the shirt.” The gleam in his eyes was predatory but not aroused—he was toying with me, riling me up for his own amusement.

My fingers drummed against the hilts of my twin daggers. “Or I could stab you and go in anyway, hat-boy.”

“Threatening a Brother? Odd way to prove your loyalty.”

“It worked out well for me last time.”

Let her in, Brother.”

I whipped around to see Vance standing behind me, looking highly entertained.

Once again, I was struck by the familiarity of Vance’s face. I was sure I’d never properly met him before that first night, but there was something about him that called to an old, buried recollection. I tried to pull on the thread that linked us, but the memory remained snagged on whatever unreachable place it lived in.

The man on guard stood and pulled the door open for us. I caught his wink as I walked past.

Vance ushered me into the large room where the meeting had taken place and gestured for me to take a seat. He dragged a handful of chairs into a makeshift circle as two men emerged from a doorway in the back.

“Sister Diem, you remember Brother Brant and Brother Francis.”

I smiled, receiving a wordless grunt from one and a silent nod from the other. Whatever reason they had for opposing my membership, they hadn’t moved past it.

I realized glumly that what I’d come to tell them wasn’t likely to change that.

“You had a mission at the palace this morning,” Vance said. “How did it go?”

I stared at my hands. “Not exactly to plan.”

“Were you able to get away from the guards and move through the palace unescorted?”

“Yes,” I said slowly.

“That’s quite impressive.”

“How?” Brant leaned in closer. “Why would they let you just walk around?”

“They didn’t let me. I ran.”

“You ran?” Vance and Brant asked in unison.

I nodded. “We were there to check on the King. When we arrived at his room, I told them I’d forgotten my bag, and I ran out to get it before they could stop me.”

“And they didn’t come after you?” Brant asked.

“One guard did, but I hid from him.” I left out the strange declarations Luther had made in the hallway. I was still determined to find out what role he’d played in my mother’s disappearance, but I wasn’t ready to get the Guardians and their plans mixed up in that mystery.

Vance sat back in his chair and whistled. “You’ve got gumption girl, I’ll give you that.”

“Or a death wish,” Francis murmured.

“Were you able to make it to the boat?” Vance asked.

I looked down again and scratched absently at a small rip in my breeches. “No. They increased the guards before I could get there. I had to turn back.”

I didn’t have the nerve to look at them, but I felt the wave of disappointment course through the room.

“Did you get anything useful?” Brant asked.

“No.”

“She got into the palace and got out alive,” Vance said. “That’s still a success.”

I glanced up at him, and an image flashed through my mind—Vance, standing outside the healers’ center, looking in at me through the window.

A patient—of course. He must have been a patient at the center at some point. Perhaps I didn’t remember because I hadn’t treated him directly.

I tried to shove the question away now that I had a rational answer, but something about it still tugged at my sleeve, demanding my attention.

“So you ran all over the palace, and they just let you go?” Brant asked.

“They threatened my life,” I shot back defensively. “I’m not sure they’re ever going to let me back in.”

“They didn’t search you and find the map?”

“They searched my bag, but I hid the map in my clothing.”

“They didn’t arrest you? They didn’t beat you? They didn’t do anything at all to you? They just let you leave?”

My temper snapped. “I got my throat sliced open and nearly had my arm broken. Is that good enough for you, or shall I go back and ask them to whip me as well?”

“That’s enough,” Vance cut in, raising a hand to Brant. “Let’s be grateful it ended as well as it did. We’re all well aware of the palace’s trusting relationship with the healers, it shouldn’t surprise us they didn’t assume the worst of her.”

My stomach churned a bit.

“Where were you cut?” This time it was Francis who inquired. His voice was gentle, but he was staring at my neck with a frown.

My hand flew to my throat. I’d sanitized the cut and cleaned the dried blood away at the healers’ center, but I’d been in too sullen a mood to allow any of the trainees to bandage the wound. My fingers brushed along my neck in futile search for the scab.

I glanced down at the dark brown bloodstains on the collar of my tunic. Maybe in the struggle to subdue me, the guard had nicked himself. Maybe the blood was his, not mine.

But I remembered it so clearly—the cold bite of the blade as it pierced my skin. I could still feel the phantom pain where he’d cut me, but when I ran my hand across it, there was only a patch of smooth skin. Almost as if it had just…

Long-buried suspicions bubbled to the surface, sending my heartbeat galloping. No, I shouted to myself over the roar of my own thoughts. It was a mistake. A hallucination, maybe. Nothing more. It can’t be more.

“Brothers,” Vance interrupted, “this is not how we treat Guardians who risk their lives for our cause. We are grateful for the risk Sister Bellator took today, are we not?”

He shot a hard look at his two comrades, who nodded despite their frowns.

Vance leaned forward and took my hands, cupping them in his. “You were very brave today, Sister. We’ll need that in the days to come. We need Guardians who aren’t afraid to do whatever it takes to end the Descended’s rule once and for all.”

I’m not sure what it was that caused the following words to rush out of my mouth—the gentle pity on his face, the unworthiness I felt under his men’s skeptical stares, or simply my own feelings of failure eating me away from the inside out.

“I can try again. I… I know a secret entrance into the palace.”

All three men sat straighter.

“What entrance?” Vance asked.

“A hole in the wall of the palace gardens.”

The second I said it, regret sank in my chest like a stone.

There were children in that palace—and based on my first task, I wasn’t confident these men were above hurting children to get their way.

Vance whispered something to Brant, who disappeared from the room for a few seconds before returning with a large map of the royal grounds.

“Can you show us where it is, Sister?” Vance smoothed out the crinkled paper in front of me, his face bright with excitement. Even Brant and Francis were now watching me with blatant interest, their suspicion temporarily appeased.

For a second, I hoped I wouldn’t be able to locate the spot, and I would be forced to tell them I honestly didn’t know. They would still want me to take them there, but at least I could buy some time to decide just how far I was willing to go.

My eyes betrayed me. The moment I looked, I found it in an instant, just north of a bend in the road I couldn’t forget.

This is what you wanted, I reminded myself. You signed up to help the Guardians take down the Crown and everyone who supports it.

I set my finger down. “There,” I murmured, my throat going dry. “The hole is there.”

The paper was yanked out from under my hand, followed by furious scribbling and hushed discussion I made no effort to decipher.

It hit me that Lana, the trainee healer who had accompanied Maura and I that day, had seen the secret entrance, and she was a Guardian, too. If these men didn’t know about it already, she had chosen not to tell them. Whatever other vows she may have broken for them, she’d kept that one.

And I hadn’t.

I honed my thoughts on all the souls destroyed by the Descended’s disregard for mortal lives: Henri’s mother. The boy Henri had seen trampled by the Descended on horseback. The woman and child in the alley. All the children killed by the progeny laws. Countless neighbors and classmates and patients.

My own mother, maybe.

War is death and misery and sacrifice, my father had warned me. War is making choices that will haunt you for the rest of your days.

“I can go back this evening and try again,” I offered. “I can try to slip into the palace at night. If they don’t know I’m there, then maybe…”

My voice trailed off. I didn’t honestly believe I could get in and out of the palace without being caught, but at least if I went, any consequences of using the hidden entrance would be on my shoulders alone.

“You’ve done enough, Sister.” Vance crouched in front of me and gave my shoulder a light pat. “Your information has once again proven to be extremely valuable.”

My heart raced faster.

“No, really—let me try again. I can do it this time. I can—”

“You’re not ready.” Brant leaned back and crossed his arms. He was still frowning at me, but his demeanor had shifted. “You’re brave, I’ll admit, but your strategy today was amateur. Anyone could have told you that plan wouldn’t work.”

“What Brother Brant means to say,” Vance cut in, “is that you have only recently joined us. We have much we can teach you. In time, you could be one of our best, but for now…”

“You’re not ready,” Brant repeated.

Vance smiled tightly, but he nodded in agreement.

I rose from my chair, feeling the burn of embarrassment color my cheeks. The three men stood, as well. Vance’s hand moved to my upper back and nudged me toward the door. Trying to get rid of me.

“You should be proud of yourself,” he said. “At the next meeting, we’ll let the others know what a great risk you took.”

“No,” I blurted, a little too loudly. “Please—don’t say anything.” Vance’s brows rose, so I quickly added, “I’m not interested in credit. I… I just want to make a difference.”

He gave me an approving smile as he pushed me toward the exit to the alley. “Sister Diem, I have a feeling what you’ve done will make even more of a difference than you realize.”

That was exactly what I was afraid of.


Henri was waiting for me outside the Guardians’ meetinghouse. He evidently noted my gloomy mood, because he didn’t say anything at first. He clasped my hand and walked alongside me on the path toward our respective homes.

“How did it go?” he asked after a few minutes.

“The mission or the meeting with them?”

“Either one. Both.”

“Badly.”

“Which one?”

“Either one. Both.”

He lightly bumped me with the side of his arm. “You’re still alive and in one piece, so it must not have been too bad.”

“I failed the mission. I’m not sure how I’m still breathing, to be honest.” I pinched the bridge of my nose. “Maura’s furious with me. I think I might have gotten the healers banned from the palace. I might have cost Teller his place at his school. Your Brothers in there think I’m not ready for any future missions. I’m…”

My voice went rough as the weight of all my disappointments crushed the last fragile pillar of my composure, and I fell silent.

“Well… I’m still proud of you.”

I looked up at him, and once again, that wondrous sense of admiration shone in his gaze, that deep, hard-won respect he’d only recently developed.

“If they think you’re not ready, they’re wrong. You’re incredible, D. They’ll figure that out eventually. And if Maura knew what you were really doing, she would understand.”

“I don’t think she would. I broke my healer’s vow, Henri. If she knew… gods, if my mother knew…”

“If they knew the whole story, they would support you. The point of that vow is to help people, right? To save as many lives as possible?”

“Well, yes, but…”

“That’s what we’re doing. We’re not just saving a life here and a life there. Think about how many mortals are killed by the Descended every year. We’re trying to put an end to that. We’re trying to save our entire race. Don’t you think that’s worth making a few compromises along the way?”

“But what if…” I couldn’t find the words to explain to him the conflict brewing in my heart—the sense that I wasn’t just compromising, but sacrificing a fundamental piece of myself I could never get back. I shook my head and sighed. “Yes, of course. You’re right.”

We walked for awhile, not saying a word, listening to the sounds of the village and the quiet crunch of our footsteps on the pebbled road.

“I have to confess,” he began, “I’m upset with you as well.”

My heart sank. “You are?”

“You stabbed a Descended. And you kept it from me.”

I whirled on him, ready to plead my case, but his expression stopped me in my tracks. It wasn’t judgment on his face, but heat. Lust.

“Spying on the royal family, stealing from an arms dealer, stabbing a Descended…” He gave me a carnal grin and ran a knuckle along the inner curve of my arm. “I should have told you about the Guardians sooner.”

I frowned. “Why didn’t you? We used to tell each other everything.”

“Your mother.” He tugged on a loose curl of my hair, twirling it in his fingers. “Auralie is the closest thing I’ve had to a mother. She wanted to keep you away from the Descended, and I had to respect her wishes.”

The words he didn’t say hovered in the air: But with her now gone…

“And,” he continued, “you seemed happy enough to stay away from them. You had your own bubble in the mortal world.” He tapped the tip of my nose. “I didn’t want to be the one to burst it.”

I stiffened. “I wasn’t completely sheltered. I know how the world works.”

“I know you do, but you see how it goes. Once your eyes are opened to all the terrible things the Descended do, it can be overwhelming. It gets hard to focus on anything else but stopping them.”

I had seen it happen in him. Over the past year, I’d watched Henri harden and, bit by bit, lose that boyhood joy and light-heartedness that had always defined him.

I had assumed it was the natural progression of adulthood, but looking back, there had been signs I’d ignored. The way his face darkened when the Descended would come up in conversations. Distance between him and his father—and him and my father. His push to take on work at the palace or in Lumnos City, something he’d avoided when we were younger.

He pulled my hips against his, his hands rising to cup my face. “None of that matters now. We’re in this together, from this point on.” He laughed, his breath warming my skin. “My pretty little spy.”

As his lips claimed mine, I felt his adoration, the praise in each caress of his tongue. After such a miserable day of failures, it felt nice to be seen as someone valuable again, someone worthy.

He tugged me closer, and my body melted into his arms with a heavy sigh.

“Marry me, Diem Bellator.”

My heart stuttered to a stop.

“Be my wife. Let’s fight this war side by side.”

My muscles locked up. The shred of self-worth I’d been basking in from the afterglow of his compliments vanished in an instant, replaced by the icy grip of dread. “Henri… we only just slept together again. We’re not even courting. We barely… I mean, this is still so new, and—”

“New?” He laughed and shook his head. “Diem, I shouldn’t have to court you for you to know how I feel about you. We’ve been together for damn near two decades.”

“As friends—”

“And what we have now could be so much more than friendship. Something better—don’t you agree?”

I couldn’t stop blinking, couldn’t stop stammering. Henri’s thumb was tracing a path beneath my ear, over and over. My mind couldn’t focus on anything but that movement, imagining my skin eroding slowly until it was bleeding and raw.

To be a wife—to be relegated to a man’s side instead of standing on my own, to abandon myself and my own goals in service of a husband’s authority and a wife’s duty. It was the life expected of most women in Mortal City.

Silence. Obedience. Sacrifice.

The idea of it pressed in on me like a clenching fist. Surely Henri did not want that kind of marriage. Surely he would never expect that of me—would he?

“You know me better than anyone,” he said, “and I know you. Yes, the last year has been a little… rocky, but you and I—we’re meant to be. The Old Gods brought us together for a reason.”

I looked down, unable to stomach the tender optimism in his bright, gleaming eyes.

“Henri,” I whispered, swallowing. “This is a really big step.”

“But it’s a good step. You could move in with me and my father. And after the Guardians win the war, you could stop working and stay home so we could start a family. You would be such an incredible mother.”

It was the wrong thing to say.

I reared back violently. The last thing I wanted was to hurt him, but this… I was not ready for this. And if this was the life he wanted—I might not ever be.

Fight.

That Flaming voiceNow it finally decided to rear its ugly head?

“Let me think about it,” I managed to choke out. I arranged my lips into a tight, placating smile. “It’s an important decision. Can you give me some time?”

He nodded enthusiastically. “Take all the time you need. I want you to feel as good about this as I do.” He pulled me in for a quick, firm kiss, and for the first time, his lips felt wrong against mine. “This is our destiny, Diem. This is where we’re meant to be. I just know it.”

Henri walked me home, beaming the entire way like I’d given him the fervent yes I knew he deeply desired. I buried the growing disquiet in my soul down, down, down, as far as I could dig.

Maybe I could do this.

Maybe I just needed time.

Maybe.

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