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Spark of the Everflame: Chapter 30

Maura took the news better than anticipated.

I had expected anger or perhaps tears. I’d thought she might lecture me or yell at me or tell me how ashamed my mother would be. I’d thought—rather embarrassingly, in hindsight—that she might even fall on her knees and beg me to stay.

Instead, she’d looked relieved.

Not relieved to lose me—my absence, so soon after my mother’s, would put a strain on the center’s resources, and the trainees would need to speed their progression to full healers—but relieved that I was choosing to follow my heart, even if it led me into the misty unknown.

She put on a steaming kettle of tea, and we sat in the back room for hours, sharing stories of my childhood growing up around the center, teasing each other about old patient visits gone terribly awry, and weeping over memories of my mother.

She didn’t ask me what I planned to do next. Perhaps she sensed I didn’t yet know the answer.

And though her warm caramel eyes glittered with questions, she also didn’t ask about my swollen just-kissed lips, or the crusted blood coating my hands, or the tunic I wore that clearly belonged to a man.

When the tea had gone cold and the afternoon began its gentle roll into evening, I washed myself up, and we said our goodbyes. We hugged so tightly I could barely breathe, and through tears, we promised to stay closely in touch.

As I walked away from the center for what might be the last time, a fragment of my heart remained lodged within those four stone walls, forever to stay.

Henri was a different story entirely.

I’d been standing on the rickety wooden porch of his home for the better part of an hour, staring at his door and trying to scrape together the courage to knock.

Every time I thought I had a plan for what I might say, the questions I might ask and the answers I might offer, I’d raise my fist to the door. Then, right as my knuckles grazed the chipped white paint, every thought would eddy from my mind like the low tide.

On what must have been the twentieth attempt, I thought I’d finally figured out the exact right words in the exact right order. I blew out a sharp breath as I pulled my shoulders back. My fist rose to eye level, and—


I spun on my heel. Henri stood several feet behind me, arms loaded with overflowing satchels of packages neatly wrapped in sandy paper and tied with twine.

Our eyes met.

Empty. My head went completely empty.

He lumbered up the stairs and dumped his bags against the front stoop. Brows pinched, he leaned a shoulder against the wall and shoved his hands into his pockets, his stony expression giving away nothing.

His eyes skimmed over my body and paused on the pants Luther’s cousin had dressed me in.

“So you’re wearing a Royal Guard uniform now?”

“My clothes were destroyed in the fire.”

He frowned, concern slipping through a crack in his dour mood.

“Were you injured?”

“No. I mean, I don’t think so.”

“You’re not sure?”

“I was unconscious.”

“Are you hurt now?”

“No. I’m fine.”

His features hardened. “So you weren’t injured, but you slept at the palace and played dress-up with the Royal Guard?”

I flinched and looked down. My fingers nervously toyed with the sleeve of the tunic—Luther’s tunic. A deep breath had his woodsy scent filling my nose.

“You shouldn’t have run,” he said flatly. “You made things so much worse.”

“Seems to be a trend for me,” I mumbled.

“You lied to Vance’s face. To my face. You pretended to be with us and took off as soon as I let you go. Do you know how that looks?”

I gritted my teeth. “I wasn’t your prisoner. You had no right to stop me in the first place.”

“I was trying to keep you from doing something I knew you would regret.”

“What I regret is ever joining the Guardians in the first place.”

His head jerked back. “One night at the palace and suddenly you’re on their side?”

“Of course I’m not, but the Guardians’ methods went too far.” I shook my head. “People died last night, Henri. They died horrible, painful deaths.”

“Mortals die horrible, painful deaths every day at the hands of the Descended.”

“And that’s wrong, too. No one deserves that, mortal or Descended.”

“Evrim Benette deserves it. That King deserves it. They’re bad people, and they deserve to pay for what they’ve done. The sooner they’re gone from this world, the safer every mortal will be.”

“But they aren’t the ones who died last night. The guards who were killed were just doing their jobs—”

“And the executioner who kills children under the progeny laws is just doing his job. The soldiers who slaughtered mortals in the Blood War were doing their jobs. The army assassins who round up and kill every Guardian they can find are just doing their jobs. And none of them are going to stop until we force them to face consequences.”

“If the Guardians hurt innocent people to get power, they’re no better than the Descended.”

No better than the Descended?” He drew back in disgust. “How can you even say that? The Descended are monsters, Diem. The Guardians are trying to protect our people and take back what they stole from us.”

“I know you trust them, but…” I winced and rubbed at my temples to soothe the sharp, pounding headache that had begun to form. “Henri, I think they poisoned that Benette girl to arrange the call for a healer.”

He looked away, a shadow passing over his features. I’d seen that look on him before, and it struck me deathly still.

“Tell me you didn’t know about that.”

He pulled his hands from his pockets and stood straight, but his gaze remained distant, lips pressed tight.


No response.

“By the Undying fucking Fire, Henri, tell me you didn’t send me into that home knowing a little girl was poisoned just so I could—”

“She was fine,” he snapped. “It was only deathshade.”

I gaped at him, breathless. “You knew?

“She was only ill for a day. We knew you could treat it and she wouldn’t face any real risk.”

“Deathshade can be lethal if it’s eaten. If any of it had gotten into her food or in her mouth—”

His eyes blazed with rage, his cheeks flushing an angry scarlet. “They’ve killed thousands of our children. Thousands.”

“And you think that justifies the Guardians hurting theirs?”

“She’s fine now, isn’t she? It was a calculated risk, and you have no idea how many lives it will save. We set Benette’s shipments back for months. We recovered enough weapons to arm half the rebel cells in Emarion. If one spoiled Descended child had to have a mild rash for a day so thousands of mortals could live, how can you say that’s not a price worth paying?”

I glared at him, working my jaw. “You should have told me. I never would have done that mission if I’d known—”

“What did you think the Guardians do, Diem?” he exploded, veins straining on his neck. “Did you think we would hold hands and sing tavern songs? Did you think we would take the Descended down through the gods-damned power of friendship?

“More violence can’t be the right solution.”

“It’s the only solution!” He slammed his fist against the wall, tiny cracks webbing out from the point of impact. His voice and his shoulders shook with roiling fury. “In all of mortal history, violence is the only thing that’s ever worked. Every right that we have, we’ve had to scrape and claw and kill for. People with power don’t give it away out of the kindness of their hearts. They do it when we leave them no other choice. When they fear what we’ll do to them if they don’t. And they sure as hell aren’t giving us our homeland back unless we have a knife to their throat—a knife that can actually make them bleed.”

Images of Luther flashed in my head—my blade at his neck, his blood on my hands. His lips on my mouth.

Henri seized my chin in his hand and tilted my face up to make me look at him, his expression feverish. “Tell me I’m wrong, Diem. Tell me you honestly believe we can win this war without bloodshed.”

I couldn’t.

And I knew from the grim satisfaction that washed over him that he could see it on my face.

He released me and let loose a shaky breath as he carved a hand down the back of his neck, suddenly looking world-weary and exhausted.

“I love you, Diem. And I am not blaming you for this, but your mother kept you away from the Descended, and your father’s history means your family has never been targeted. You have been protected from them your whole life. But the rest of us haven’t.”

I looked down, cheeks burning. “I know that.”

I did know. There was hardly a family in all of Lumnos that hadn’t been touched by some kind of tragedy or injustice at the hands of the Descended.

I saw the evidence of it every time I walked through Mortal City and saw mourning flags in too many windows. I saw it every time I treated an impoverished patient who had to risk their life for food or when I passed by the mass graveyards full of tombstones from the Blood War. I saw it every time I looked into Henri’s eyes, where the loss of his mother had cut a permanent scar.

An arm slid around my waist as he pulled me close. My body stiffened instinctively at the movement. I tried desperately to shutter the awareness of how Luther had done the same thing, and how my body had had a very different reaction.

I rolled my shoulders, forcing my muscles to relax. This is where I’m meant to be, I reminded myself. This is where I belong.

Henri tapped a knuckle on the tip of my nose. “You have a big heart, D. You want everyone to be safe and happy, no matter who they are. But you have no idea how bad it is out there. Here in Lumnos, things are peaceful enough, but some of the things the other rebel cells are dealing with…”

I watched him for a moment, the way his jaw worked with the tension of barely suppressed rage. “I want to know,” I prodded.

“Do you know how they cleared the mortals out when Ignios closed its borders?”

“I heard they went to Umbros.”

“A few of the lucky ones made it out, yes, but the King of Ignios doesn’t trust the Umbros Queen. He didn’t want the Ignios mortals giving up any information to her on his defenses. He had his guards flush them out into the dunes, and…” The murderous rage that flashed in his eyes sent a chill down my spine. “His guards stood there for a week while the mortals cooked to death under the sun. They begged for their lives, and he wouldn’t even use his fire magic to give them a quick death. He called it punishment for the Blood War.”

“No,” I whispered, shaking my head at the monstrous cruelty.

“Even that’s a kinder end than what the mortals of Sophos get. Do you know what happens to the mortals who get ‘invited’ to research at their institutes?”

“Are you saying they don’t get to study?”

“They do. For a while.” His voice soured. “Have you ever met a mortal who has studied in Sophos? Have you ever even heard of a mortal returning to their realm after visiting?”

I frowned. “Well, no, but—”

“Because they never do. There’s always some reason—an illness, or a tragic accident, or their families at home die a mysterious death so they have no reason to go back. No mortal who goes in to Sophos ever comes out.”

“Why would they do that? If they don’t want mortals there, why invite them in the first place?”

He chewed on the inside of his cheek and studied my face, seeming to debate how much to reveal. “When the mortals have outlived their usefulness doing the research, they… become the research.”

A sickening lump formed in my gut. “I don’t understand.”

“The Descended experiment on them. They put them in cages and run tests on them. Sometimes with medicine, and sometimes with magic or weapons.”

I fought to claw air into my lungs. The thought of Teller going there—how thrilled he would have been to receive an invitation. How proud I would have been that he was among the brilliant chosen few.

Gods, I had been praying for it for years.

How could it be possible that so much evil was occurring yet I knew so little of it? This morning at the palace—I’d sympathized with Luther, even with the King. I’d pitied them. Held their hands. Had I truly been so blind? Had I not seen the face of evil staring right at me?

I pulled away and pressed the heels of my palms into my eyes as I paced. My head was churning, my stomach reeling. “I need some time to think. It’s been a long day.”

“You’re telling me,” he scoffed. “I spent all day trying to convince the Guardians not to put a knife in your back before you could betray us. I told them you were only trying to do your job as a healer, but they’re not happy.”

“I’m not exactly thrilled with them, either,” I mumbled.

“You need to take this seriously, Diem. I don’t need to remind you they can be very dangerous if provoked.”

“So the Guardians are coming after me now?”

He hesitated. “They’re going to want some kind of assurance you’re not going to reveal anything.”

“Well, I’m not. You tell Vance and his Brothers that I have no interest in anyone else dying because of me. Everything I learned there—consider it forgotten.”

“It’s not that simple. Your word alone might not be enough.”

I cocked my head, gaze narrowing. “What are you saying, Henri?”

He opened his mouth and paused, his darkened expression once again betraying that there was some truth he didn’t want to reveal. “Just lie low for now, alright? Stay away from the Descended. Don’t go into Lumnos City, and whatever you do, don’t go near the palace.”

I waved him off. “Fine. I have no reason to ever go back there again anyway.”

A faint twinge of sadness stung at my chest.

We stood in silence for several painful minutes, each avoiding the other’s eyes, slowly boiling alive in the uncomfortable heat of all that had happened between us these past months.

The childhood love we’d once shared had been simple and pure. We’d chased each other in the forests, picked wild berries and swam naked in the sea, teased each other and imagined the great journeys we might take together one day. I wanted more than anything to get back to that effortless joy, but the harder I reached for it, the further it seemed to float away, a shrinking point on the sunset horizon.

If I didn’t have being a healer, and I didn’t have Henri, what was left of me? Who would I become?

“Henri, what if…” I swallowed once, then twice. “What if we left Mortal City? We could start over somewhere fresh, far away from this mess.”

His large brown eyes blinked in surprise.

“We could go to Umbros,” I suggested, “maybe even save up some money to leave Emarion. Things might be better elsewhere—they have to be.”

“You want to run away?” he asked, frowning.

“It’s not running away,” I said defensively. “It’s finally starting our life together, just like you wanted. A life that belongs only to us. Away from the Guardians, and the Descended and…”

And Prince Luther.

I bit down hard. “We used to talk about doing this all the time, remember? Going off and having a grand adventure together—”

“Sure, when we were children.”

“And now we’re adults, and we can do more than talk about it.”

I was rambling now, my words picking up their pace like I might outrun the truth if I could just move quickly enough. I rushed forward and fisted my hands in his shirt. “We could find a cute home on the water or maybe a townhouse in one of the bigger cities. You could get work as a courier. I… I could train healers.”

I nodded to myself. Yes—I could do that, at least. I could pass along my knowledge, teach the trainees to be good and honest and loyal. All the things I’d failed at being.

“I have a life here, Diem. I have my father and my work at the post office. And so do you—you really want to leave Teller here alone, after what I just told you?”

“I’ll tell him about Sophos, and he can come visit us all the time. Besides, Teller won’t be alone, Father will be here with him.”

Henri’s throat bobbed, and his eyes shifted to the side.

I froze.

Another secret. Another lie.

“Henri?” He wouldn’t look at me. “What aren’t you telling me?”

He gently pried my fingers from his chest and pulled my hands away. “You might not know your father as well as you believe you do. He’s not the hero you think.”

The bitterness to his tone rankled my protective pride. “I know you don’t agree with what he did in the army, but he fought for the mortals against the Descended in his own way.”

“You can’t really believe he’s opposed to the Descended.” He gave me an exasperated look, and when I only frowned, he threw up his arms. “Your father belongs to them, Diem. He’s a Descended puppet. He does whatever they tell him to.”

“A puppet?” I jerked back a step. “How dare you, Henri—my father is a good man.”

“How dare I?” He gave a harsh laugh. “Did he tell you he’s being recalled to the army?”


“The order came through last week. They’re assigning him to lead a contingent against the rebel cell in Meros. He’s going to be killing mortals just like me. Just like you.”

I shook my head—slowly, then desperately. “He’s retired, they can’t force him back into service. Perhaps they asked, but he must have declined it. He would have told me if he was leaving.”

“He already sent back his acceptance. Brecke delivered it himself. Your father said he would report there by the end of the month.”

“You’re wrong. You’re wrong.” I gripped onto the porch railing as my knees turned liquid. “He wouldn’t do that to us. Not after losing Mother.”

“Andrei chose them, Diem. He chose the Descended over you and Teller, your mother, and all his own people. If you don’t believe me, go ask him. He can’t hide it from you much longer anyway.”

I desperately searched his features for any shred of uncertainty. “Maybe you’re mistaken. Maybe—maybe it’s a miscommunication. It’s possible, isn’t it?”

He gave me a tight smile. “Sure. Maybe. Go home and ask him.” But his eyes, so guarded and full of pity, told me he already knew what truth I’d find.


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