Spark of the Everflame: Chapter 28


Light.

My eyes cracked open to a brightness so blinding my head immediately began to spin. My body lost its sense of direction and dropped into a feeling of freefall. I clutched at the bedsheets as the world tilted and tumbled in a wild, disorienting churn.

My fingers brushed against skin. The realness of it centered me, slowed my descent until I stopped falling and the room came into view.

I heard breathing, slow and deep. And a fireplace.

My throat tightened at the first snap of a burning log. For a second, I was back inside that armory, my lungs and nose choked with putrid smoke, watching helplessly as the inferno closed in around me. I stretched my fingers again until skin grazed skin, and the panic subsided.

I blinked a few times to clear my vision.

I was in a bed. Large and exceptionally cozy, but unfamiliar. The silken sheets caressed me like a lover’s touch, nothing like the old, rough-worn linen of my bedding at home. Downy blankets piled atop me, my head cushioned by a mountain of pillows.

My eyes roamed over the room. Spacious, yet homely, appointed with simple but elegant furnishings—the kind that worked so hard to seem unassuming, but you knew just by looking at them, they cost a small fortune. The stone ceiling, vaulted high above, held a tiered chandelier of dimly glowing orbs, but the light that had so blinded me a moment ago had come from my left.

My head swiveled slowly in that direction, the movement straining my stiff, tender muscles. Along a row of arched windows, cascading swaths of burgundy silk had been drawn back to reveal sunrise over a fog-draped garden. The sky was splashed with creamy pink and hazy lilac, but it was the vivid orange glow of the dawn sun that bathed the room in its brilliant glory.

Rimmed in a corona of morning light, a man slumped against a high-backed armchair, head lolled to the side. Eyes closed, lips parted slightly, chest rising in the rhythm of slumber. Loose strands of ebony hair framed a face that had somehow become even more handsome in sleep, all its sharp edges sheathed for the night. Only a wrinkle between his dark brows hinted at a ripple beneath the still calm.

His chair had been pulled close to the bed. One arm draped across the blankets, his fingers grazing mine. His palm was open and upturned, as if awaiting my hand, just as it had been in those final moments in the armory.

Luther.

His eyes opened, our gazes already matched. For a heartbeat, his expression didn’t change, and I marveled at the softness of it. I’d never seen him like that. I’d seen him angry, annoyed—even terrified, I remembered with a shiver—but never quite so… peaceful.

“You’re awake.” He sat up abruptly. I waited for the frosty indifference I was so used to receiving from him, but he only frowned. “How do you feel?”

I pushed myself up and shook my head to clear my thoughts, but my brain was still mired in a fog. “What happened? Where am I?”

“The armory collapsed, and you were…” He paused. “…knocked unconscious. I brought you back to the palace to recover.”

My thoughts flashed with terrifying snippets of jumbled memories. The explosions, the Guardians on the road, the dead guards, the flaming building, Perthe—

“Perthe,” I rasped. “Is he alright? Did they make it out? And the other, is he—”

“They’re both going to be fine. Perthe was sent to Fortos to see an army healer. The other is already recovering at home.”

I released a deep exhale, one I thought I might have been holding in for the entire night. I sank back against the pillows, closing my eyes as relief burned the burst of panic away. “They made it,” I murmured.

“Yes. Because of you.”

Because of me. Guilt wrapped a talon around my chest and squeezed, its sharp claws sinking into my flesh.

“The others—the ones that were laying outside. Are they…?”

“A few were sent to Fortos for treatment, but most were able to return home to heal on their own. Except…”

The woman.

I nodded in silent understanding. Her battered, gruesome body was a sight I would never forget—would never allow myself to forget.

“I’m sorry,” I said softly. “For those who didn’t make it.”

He wouldn’t understand, couldn’t, how deeply I meant those words. How heavy their lives would weigh on me for the rest of my days.

Or maybe he did. I remembered the doubt etched on his face when I first arrived last night. Did he know? Did he suspect?

If so, he no longer showed it. He yawned and rubbed sleepily at his eyes. His hair was mussed where he’d laid on it, his normally shrewd features bleary with the signs of exhaustion.

“Were you sitting there all night?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Why?”

He gave me a solemn look, but he didn’t respond.

A piercing cry rang out. It sounded inhuman and restless and unnervingly nearby, rattling the windows with its force and jolting me upright.

“What was that?

Luther sighed and rose to his feet. “That was Sorae, King Ulther’s gryvern.” He strolled to the window and leaned a shoulder against the wall, eyes turned upward. “She’s been agitated all morning. I was worried her antics would wake you up.”

I thought of the magnificent creature I’d witnessed on my last two visits. She’d seemed distressed then, too.

“Is she ever not agitated?”

“She’s normally quite docile. Disturbingly so.” His expression warmed. “I’ve tried countless times to use her for battle training the Royal Guard, but no matter how much I bribe her, she insists on sleeping through the whole thing.”

“You talk about her like a family pet and not an absolutely terrifying wild beast.”

“Oh, she’ll attack if she needs to, and Kindred help anyone unwise enough to provoke her. The problem is she’s too clever. She can sense intentions, so mock battles don’t interest her. When she knows her opponents don’t mean any real harm, she’d rather take her treats and go have a nap.”

I smirked. “Sorae and I have that in common.”

He laughed—laughed!—and I had to steady myself to keep my jaw off the floor.

I couldn’t stop staring at him. His relaxed, almost lazy posture. His full, upturned lips and the tenderness that crinkled his eyes at the mention of the gryvern. His loose wool trousers and his untucked, slightly rumpled shirt, hanging open partway down his chest to reveal more of the scar that slashed his body in two. It was casual, unpretentious, and entirely incompatible with the hardened royal heir I’d come to know.

It felt like I was seeing Luther—not His Royal Highness Prince Luther Corbois of Lumnos, but just Luther—for the very first time, and I had no idea how to feel about it.

His eyes slid to mine. I quickly looked down, my cheeks burning.

“Why is Sorae upset?” I asked.

The amusement vanished from his face, and he was once again that icy, unknowable Prince. He straightened to his full height and walked back to the bed.

“When the King dies, Sorae will pass to a new master. I suspect she feels it coming.”

“You think she’s sad?”

“Not exactly.” He paused and eyed me, seemingly debating whether to continue. “She’s served him loyally, but Sorae and my uncle were never close. Not in the way some gryverns and Crowns become.”

“Then what’s her concern?”

“Gryverns are exceedingly smart, with minds and opinions of their own, yet they are magic-bound to obey only the Crown. I imagine she’s wary at being forced into service to a stranger whose goals she might not share.”

My jaw tightened. “It seems Sorae and I have that in common, as well.”

His brows furrowed, not understanding.

“The agreement you negotiated,” I reminded him. “Life service to the Crown. My mother’s bargain—the one I agreed to fulfill in her place.”

A shadow darkened his features, and he looked away.

We sat in silence so long that the awkwardness began to grate on me. I huffed and shoved the blankets off. Luther stepped forward and raised a hand to stop me, but I ignored him and swung my feet over the edge of the bed—then stiffened.

I blinked down at my body.

“Whose clothes are these?”

“Yours were destroyed. I—my cousin changed your clothes.” He at least had the wisdom to look a little mortified. “She’s a woman—my cousin, that is. She helped you.”

A glimmer of memory surfaced.

Pants. She—she normally wears pants.

Luther had asked some cousin to strip me down and dress me. Worse, they must have bathed me—there wasn’t a speck of dirt to be seen. My hair was clean and soft, falling free in milk-white waves. Even my nails had been scrubbed and filed to a delicate arch.

And I was indeed wearing pants. Sleek and darkest blue, made of some thick, stretchy fabric I’d never worn before, with hard armor sewn into the thighs and hips that reminded me of the Royal Guard’s uniform. On top, a tunic three sizes too large hung off my bare shoulder, smelling of that same woodsy, musky scent I’d caught earlier.

“Are you still hurt?”

My gaze snapped up. “Hurt?”

“It was difficult to tell if your injuries were serious. I’d planned to call for Maura when you woke.”

I frowned. “Injuries?”

I flexed each of my limbs, pushed up my sleeves to examine my arms, ran my fingers along my neck and face—no wounds, no swelling. Other than some soreness and a lingering stiff neck, I felt no worse than after a night of hard drinking.

“I… I think I’m fine. I made it through the night, so probably nothing internal.” I shot him a good-natured scowl. “You shouldn’t wait to call for a healer for a mortal, you know. We aren’t like you Descended. Our bodies don’t always heal just because an injury didn’t kill us.”

He gave me a strange look. “You really believe that, don’t you?”

“Believe what?”

“That you’re not…” His voice trailed off with an awful sadness, something that seemed too close to pity on his face.

A furious buzzing filled my head—a war of whispers and memories, questions and accusations. I avoided his eyes, tucking in the tunic as I fought the invasion of unwanted suspicions threatening to break through my carefully constructed walls.

My feet shuffled awkwardly. “I should get home. My father must be out roaming the streets looking for me by now.”

“I sent a message to your family.”

I stilled. “You did what?

“I suspected they would be concerned if you didn’t return, so I spoke with the palace courier. He said he was familiar with your family. I had him send them a message that you were safe and staying here for the night.”

I groaned and rubbed circles into my temples. The palace courier—Henri’s father. The only thing worse than my father knowing I’d spent the night at the palace was my father and Henri knowing I’d spent the night at the palace. I had no idea which of them would be more furious.

“Is something wrong?” he asked.

I sighed, shoulders slumping. “No, it… it was a thoughtful gesture. Thank you.”

I spotted my boots lying beside the bed, but I didn’t move to grab them. Suddenly I had no desire to leave this room and face the world beyond.

Sorae’s shrill cry rang out again. Luther was right, she didn’t sound sad—but she didn’t sound worried, either. Her drawn-out trill sounded urgent, impatient.

“Before you go,” Luther said, “would you mind tending to the King? He’s been acting strange since last night.”

I hesitated. “I really shouldn’t…”

“Not even a brief look?”

“I—I don’t have my supplies. And Maura, she… I’m not—”

“Just see him, and tell me if you think I should send for Maura. Will you at least do that?”

Saying no would require explaining too much. Explaining that I’d been forbidden from seeing patients at the palace, that I couldn’t be trusted with Descended patients, especially not the King.

I forced a stiff smile. “I can take a quick look.”

He gave me a moment to secure my boots—and, to my shock, my weapons belt, which he’d recovered from the woman I’d shoved them off on last night. Even Brecke’s knife had been strapped back to its place on my calf. I stared at it, wondering if Luther had put it there himself, and a burst of heat ran up my leg.

I debated a myriad of snarky comments about his rules on weapons in the palace, but there was such a quiet earnestness in the way he watched me, his hand shooting out to steady me every time my balance wobbled, I couldn’t bear to break the easy peace that had somehow formed between us.

I followed him down the hall and through the iron doorway of the Crown’s suite, where two guards bowed to him and glared at me, undoubtedly remembering my eventful last visit. I threw them a syrupy-sweet smile, though it lacked my usual bite. They reminded too much of the guards I’d tended the night before, those anguished sobs still ringing in my ears.

As soon as we entered, Sorae’s high-pitched howl reverberated through the room, now so much louder and nearer than before.

My gaze caught on a far wall lined with a row of wide arches. Their doors had been closed on my prior visit, but today they stood open, their gauzy drapes billowing in the morning breeze and revealing slivers of feathered wings and a powerful, fur-covered body sprawled on a stone terrace.

“Is that…?”

Luther followed my eyes and nodded. “Sorae has a perch outside so the Crown always has access to her if needed.”

As if she’d heard her name, a spiky, draconic head poked through the gossamer curtains. Her black-slitted pupils dilated at the sight of me.

Almost subconsciously, I started walking in her direction, drawn by the same odd tug as before. Her nostrils flared as she stretched her neck and sniffed at me. My hand rose toward her snout, her fanged jaws cracking open with a low rumble, and—

“Diem, no!

Luther shot toward me, arms locking around my waist. He spun me in his grasp, clutching me against him as he shoved his body between me and the gryvern.

“Don’t,” he warned, a little breathlessly. “If she attacks, only the King can call her off.”

I wanted to protest, but the words dissolved under the urgent grip of his hands, the heat of him against my skin, the sudden nearness of his face to mine, the desperation on his features. It was the same way he’d looked at me as the armory’s roof was caving in—like he might have just lost something important. Something he valued more than he, or I, could fully make sense of.

His arms loosened, but didn’t let go. “Blessed Kindred,” he swore, his eyes lighting up as they studied my face. “You aren’t scared of anything, are you?”

I was very much scared of the way all my nerve endings were aflame, my blood rushing to all the many, many places where our bodies touched.

And even more scared of how I couldn’t seem to talk myself into pulling away.

I looked over his shoulder at the gryvern, whose golden eyes had dropped to Luther’s back—where, I realized suddenly, my hands were holding on to him as tightly as he held on to me. The creature’s head cocked to one side, and the soft whirr that floated from her throat sounded almost like an accusation.

I scraped together enough self-control to pull myself out of his arms, face burning hot, unable to look man or beast in the eyes.

King Ulther looked much the same as he had on my prior visit, motionless and peaceful under the high canopy of his four-poster bed. Out of habit, I took command of the room and strode toward my patient’s side, nearly tripping over Luther as he stopped to kneel in respect. I caught myself in time to clumsily mimic the movement, though I didn’t miss the hint of a smile on Luther’s bowed face.

“Sorry,” I mumbled. “Usually my unconscious patients aren’t so concerned with formal greetings.”

“There’s a purpose to the protocol, you know,” he said as we both stood. “It distinguishes between a role of public service and the person who currently occupies it. It’s about understanding that His Majesty King Ulther of Lumnos and Ulther Corbois, uncle and brother and mate, are two very different people. It’s not just—what were your exact words last night?—a ‘fancy fucking title.’”

I threw him a look. “Keep telling yourself that, Your Highness.”

“It disturbs me how unusual it feels to hear you call me that,” he muttered, drawing a loud, genuine laugh from me. His posture tensed at the sound, an unreadable look sparking on his expression.

I walked to the King and perched on the bed beside him, watching his chest struggle to rise in quick, uneven bursts. Now that I was closer, it was startling how much his condition had deteriorated—his skin grey and paper-thin, his body jerking with the occasional spasm.

I gingerly laid my palm against his cheek, disheartened to find it clammy despite the thick warmth of the firelit room. A touch to his neck confirmed a weakened pulse that felt like it was being reluctantly dragged through every beat.

“It’s almost time, isn’t it?” Luther asked quietly.

I nodded. “I think it is. I wish I had better news, but there’s not much Maura or I can do for him now.”

He walked to the other edge of the bed and sat at the King’s side, laying a palm on his uncle’s chest and staring at him with a troubled look I couldn’t quite understand.

“Were you close?” I asked.

“That is… a difficult question to answer.”

His jaw locked up as his usual stony mask slammed into place across his features. Any other day, I might have given up, muttering beneath my breath at his rude method of ending conversations he disliked.

But today, the armor he wore seemed crafted of glass rather than steel. If I looked long enough, deep enough, focused my stare not on the illusory indifference he projected but the truth hiding in the shadows beneath…

I laid my hand on top of his where it rested over the King’s chest.

“Tell me,” I urged.

His fingers spread just enough to let mine fall between them, curled just enough that it might be less a touch than an embrace.

“My father and uncle were quite close,” he started slowly. “When Ulther became King, my father devoted himself to his reign. I was even named in Ulther’s honor. But then things… changed.” A crease carved into his brow. “My uncle took me under his wing from a very young age. He became more of a father to me than the man who sired me. That drove a wedge into our family, but it never kept Ulther away. He might have been the only person in the realm who had nothing to gain from me, and yet he showed me more kindness than any person ever has.”

Though his stoic veneer held firm, a heart-wrenching loneliness threaded through his voice. How isolating it must be, I realized, to be the heir, to always wonder if any relationship was genuine or simply someone positioning themselves for future gain.

“But?” I prodded.

“But… we did not always agree.”

I waited for him to continue, but this time, his words ran dry, tangled up in that turbulent, too-heavy expression. His thumb brushed across my hand, though his eyes were so distant, I wondered if he even realized he was doing it.

“When he dies, the Crown passes to you?” I asked.

His gaze rose to mine, a bit of the darkness clearing from his features. “It’s impossible to know.”

“But everyone thinks it’s you, don’t they? It goes to the most powerful, and you’re the most powerful?”

“Our power is not easily measurable.”

I rolled my eyes. “I’m a powerless, insignificant mortal Luther, you can spare me the false modesty.”

He laughed again, his fingers tightening on mine. “Yes, it’s expected to pass to me.”

It wasn’t hard to imagine Luther stepping into his uncle’s opulent shoes. He already carried himself with the authority of a monarch, his imposing presence demanding obedience before he ever uttered a word. And he was certainly terrifying in his anger, when crossed. I couldn’t imagine many would be bold enough—or foolish enough—to risk provoking his wrath.

Present company excluded, of course.

But there was also kindness in him, loathe as I was to admit it. He’d never punished me for my defiance, and he treated the healers with more respect than any Descended ever had. He’d even offered to send assistance to the needy families of Mortal City—an offer I had rejected out of petty spite, I remembered with a flush of shame.

“And what kind of king do you intend to be?” I asked him. “A king like Ulther?”

His head tilted slightly. “Do you think him a bad king?”

I bit down hard on my tongue. Probably best not to launch into a tirade about the horrors of King Ulther’s policies to the man who’d just called him a father figure.

I shrugged. “I’m a powerless, insignificant mortal, remember? What do I know of the world of kings?”

“Tell me,” he said, echoing my earlier nudge.

His fingers knotted into mine, and this time, there was no question it was intentional.

“Be honest,” he said.

My sigh bordered on a groan. This was a terrible idea, the kind that very likely could get me killed. But there was such an honest interest in his eyes, a willingness to listen that felt born of true curiosity rather than accusation. And would I ever again have the ear of the future King of Lumnos?

“He did bad things,” I said finally. “Passed bad laws.”

“Such as?”

I shifted my weight. “Laws that hurt children.”

“The progeny laws,” he guessed.

I nodded.

“You think those laws should be abolished?”

“I think no child should have to die because of who or what their parents are.”

“Even if that’s the cost required to keep our realm powerful?”

“If the death of innocents is a cost we’re willing to pay, then we don’t deserve to be powerful.”

Pale blue light flared bright behind his eyes, but Luther didn’t answer. In the ensuing quiet, we both turned our attention back to the King.

Despite my feelings toward him, Ulther’s looming death struck a chord in my heart. I wondered if he had children or grandchildren. If they sat with him sometimes, as I did now. If they held him close and anxiously awaited the grief of his loss. If their cruel Descended hearts were even capable of such things.

I pulled my hand out of Luther’s, trying not to think about how much willpower that simple act had required. My fingers felt too cold, too alone, so I busied them brushing hair back from the King’s face and smoothing the edge of his nightshirt where the fabric bunched and cut into his skin.

“You haven’t been joining Maura on her calls to the palace lately,” Luther said.

“I took a break.”

“Why?”

I cocked an eyebrow. “Need I remind you what happened the last time I was here?”

“Fair point. You do seem to be impressively bad at following orders.”

“Thanks,” I said dryly.

He smiled. “But you’re very good at your job.”

A blush rose to my cheeks, and I despised the lie it told—a humble girl, too modest to know her accomplishments. I was far from humble, and I did know I was a good healer. I just didn’t deserve to be.

“You are,” he insisted. “I saw the way you calmed my sister down when she was scared, and the way you made my young cousins laugh when they were hurt. You were kind to them even when their mothers were impolite.” He nodded down at his uncle. “The way you’re being with him now, even though you dislike him. My guards assaulted you on nearly every visit to the palace, and yet you scolded me for wounding them. You tried to fight me to run into a burning building to save them.”

I turned my face away, unable to stand the way he looked at me with such respect—the same way Henri had the day I’d stolen the documents from House Benette.

The day I’d doomed those dead Descended guards to their fate.

He craned his neck, trying to catch my eye. “I think you have a rare gift for seeing a person for who they are, and not just what they are.”

My voice went quiet. “If you knew me better, you might have a different opinion.”

It was the most I dared to reveal.

A long silence passed as Luther’s focus held steady on me.

“Diem… the last time you were here, the day you ran from this room—what were you really looking for?”

My shoulders tightened, but I forced my hands to keep moving, forced my face into indifference. “I told you, I forgot my satchel.”

“Was it for the Guardians?”

My blood froze solid in my veins.

“I know who they are,” he said. “It’s my duty to know what goes on in this realm, and they aren’t nearly as covert as they believe themselves to be.”

My eyes slowly lifted to his. The hairs on my neck rose—all softness was gone from his expression, replaced by a brutal, unflinching stillness. This was dangerous ground.

“And I know they were responsible for last night’s attack,” he said flatly.

Dangerous, deadly ground.

And because the air in the room now felt explosive, ready to blow at the strike of a match, I clenched my jaw and finally asked the question that had been festering in my heart since that fateful afternoon.

“Where is my mother?” I ground out.

He gave me a grim, humorless smile. “I wondered how long it would take you to ask me that.”

“What did you do to her?” I hissed.

“I didn’t do anything to her,” he said, sounding almost insulted at the accusation. “What were you looking for in the palace?”

As my temper rose, so did I, my fists balling at my sides as I stood. “Don’t try to deny it. I saw you two arguing the day she went missing. I know she was threatening to reveal some secret about you, and you said—”

His eyes narrowed. “Then you don’t know what the secret was?”

“If I did, would you make me disappear, too?”

Something dark flashed across his face. He stormed around the bed and aimed toward me. My hand flew to the dagger at my hip as I staggered backward, bumping against a large wooden dresser.

Luther stopped and raised his palms. “I assure you, whatever you think happened between me and your mother, it didn’t.”

“Then what did happen?”

He stared at me, silently working his jaw.

What happened, Luther?” I was nearly yelling now.

A loud knock rapped on the chamber door.

“Enter,” Luther barked, his eyes still locked with mine.

Two guards walked in, both eying me warily as one walked to Luther and whispered something in his ear. He swore softly and turned fully to the guard, exchanging some inaudible words.

Luther stalked toward the door, the other guard following behind. “I need to handle a situation. Stay here. Do not run this time, Miss Bellator, do you understand?”

Miss Bellator. For some reason, it stung.

“You’re going to leave me alone with the King?” I called out.

The two guards gaped at him like they were about to ask the very same question.

Luther didn’t stop walking, didn’t even take a final glance. “I’m giving you my trust. Don’t make me regret it.”

The door slammed shut, leaving me and my knives alone with the King of Lumnos.

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