Spark of the Everflame: Chapter 7

“Do you want to talk about it?”

Henri’s voice yanked me back to the present and the hypnotizing patter of hoofbeats on the Ring Road, the circuitous trail that connected Emarion’s nine realms. We had left town hours ago, and I had barely spoken five words since.

“Talk about what?”

“Whatever it is that’s made you look like you want to murder the next person you meet.”

He wasn’t wrong.

My anger had been quietly smoldering for weeks, maybe months, but after the events of yesterday—especially Maura’s revelations—a burning disquiet had settled so deeply into my marrow that I was beginning to wonder if it was permanent.

“I’m fine.” I made my best effort to sound pleasant, but it wasn’t even believable to my own ears.

“Are you feeling guilty about leaving the center?”

“No.”

Not a lie. After seeing how rattled I’d been at the news of my mother’s bargain, Maura had suggested I take several days off.

“Is it Teller?”

“No.”

Also not a lie. Princess Lilian had been so appreciative of my help that she’d given Teller a kiss on the cheek and an open invitation to visit the palace any time. He was practically floating. Though I had my concerns about their growing relationship, I couldn’t help but be grateful to see him so happy.

A long silence passed between us, the clopping of hooves on gravel the only sound.

“Is it your mother?” His voice was quieter, gentler.

I tried to deny it, but the words wouldn’t come out.

“Diem, we’ve been friends since we could walk. You know you can talk to me, right?”

“Of course.”

That—that was the lie.

Henri hated the Descended more than anyone I knew, and for good reason.

When Henri was an infant, his mother had fallen ill with a rare disease treatable only by an herb native to Montios. Since mortals were forbidden, his father had requested permission to visit the reclusive mountain realm. He’d even risked his position as royal courier to beg the King for diplomatic assistance.

The request was denied without explanation, leaving Henri’s mother to a preventable death and Henri’s hatred forever engraved on his bones.

How could I tell him that Auralie, who had been like his surrogate mother, had signed away her life to those monsters?

How could I tell him she’d likely gone missing to do the King’s bidding, or perhaps Prince Luther had killed her to keep his secret safe, or perhaps she’d fled to avoid the bargain, leaving me to take her place?

I wasn’t even sure which outcome to hope for.

“Your mother is going to come home, D. I know she will.”

I forced a grateful smile, but my heart wasn’t in it.

If she did come home—what then? Be a lifelong slave to the Crown? Be executed for evading the agreement? If she was alive, she might be better off staying out of Lumnos for good.

No, I definitely couldn’t tell him that.

Henri brought his horse up beside mine and reached over, taking my hand. “I can’t explain it, but… I just know it. I know she’s alive and safe and she’ll be back. I’ve prayed to the Old Gods, and they told me to have faith.”

I glanced nervously over my shoulder at his forbidden mention of the Old Gods. “Be careful Henri, if someone overhears you—”

“Really?” He gave me a sidelong grin. “This, from the girl who’s broken every law in Lumnos?”

“Not every law.” A smirk broke through at last. “Only the fun ones.”

“Blaspheming our conquering invaders isn’t fun enough for you?”

“Not fun enough to be worth execution. And keep your voice down, will you?”

“I seem to recall you thinking it was worth it when we made certain improvements to that statue of Lumnos they put up near the market.”

I chuckled at the reminder. At thirteen, we’d snuck out in the dead of night to consecrate an effigy of the realm’s patron goddess in the absurd way only two irreverent teenagers could manage.

“What can I say?” I drawled. “The moustache we painted really brought out her eyes.”

Henri dropped his head back and roared with laughter, and my lips curved higher. It had been so long since the two of us had had such a carefree moment.

“You’re a menace, Bellator.”

Was a menace. Now I’m a professional, serious adult.”

“Oh, you’re still a menace. Don’t think I haven’t heard all about the trouble you caused at the palace yesterday.”

My smile vanished instantly. I pulled my hand back and settled it on the pommel of my saddle. “What did you hear?”

“If the rumors are to be believed—and we know town rumors are never wrong,” he quipped with a wink, “a royal princess keeled over dead, and you resurrected her with herbs and a handful of bandages.”

A knot twisted in my stomach. “She lost a little blood and got lightheaded. It wasn’t that serious.”

Another lie, but this time I had no good excuse. My palms throbbed at the memory of the strange, tingling light.

“Really? The Descended seemed to think it was serious.”

My head snapped in his direction. “Who said that?”

“That’s just the rumor.” He shot me a curious look. “Why were you at the palace? I thought all things Descended were off-limits.”

I chewed on my lip, feeling the heavy drag of guilt for all the secrets I was hiding from him, the one person I’d never kept anything from. “I think I’m going to take over my mother’s duties at the palace. And please spare me the lecture, I’ve heard it all from Maura already.”

A long silence passed, his attention shifting to the road ahead of us as he fell deep in thought.

“Good,” he finally responded.

I frowned. “You don’t think it’s a bad idea?”

“Were you hoping I would talk you out of it?”

I wasn’t sure how to answer. I wasn’t sure if I even knew the answer.

“I understand why your mother kept you away from them for so long,” he said. “The Descended are dangerous. They only care about themselves, and they will eliminate anything they think is a threat. Look at what they do to the half-mortal babies—even children aren’t sacred to them.”

I shuddered at the reminder of the senseless slaughter under the King’s progeny laws.

“But,” he went on, “sheltering you doesn’t keep you safe forever. To beat your enemy, you have to know your enemy—intimately. And there’s no better place to do that than in their own home.”

The calculating tone in his voice sent ice creeping up my spine. He sounded more like a soldier preparing for war than the goofy, carefree friend I’d grown up with.

“You’ve been spending too much time around the Commander,” I teased, a little nervously.

“Your father didn’t teach me that. Your mother did.”

I opened my mouth to ask more, but Henri glanced at the sun nearing the horizon and abruptly swung off his horse, his footsteps landing on the path with a heavy crunch. He grabbed his reins as well as my own and led us off the road and into the forest to camp for the night.


I wasn’t sure how long I’d been standing here, staring at the flames as they leapt around the glowing campfire. Henri had gone to gather fresh firewood, leaving me in silence to simmer.

I was so angry.

Angry at my father for acting as though my mother’s disappearance was a momentary hiccup. Angry at my mother for making a fool’s bargain. Angry at myself for letting my life get away from me, for not standing up and demanding the truth when I’d had the chance.

But more than anything, I was angry at that abominable Descended Prince.

The deal he’d brokered between my mother and King Ulther was almost too one-sided to be believed—a lifetime of service in exchange for four years of schooling. That was exactly how the Descended operated. They took and took, claiming everything of value for themselves, then demanded unquestioned gratitude from the very people they had stolen from.

After all, that’s what they had done to Emarion. The Descended had infected our once-thriving kingdom like a virus, infiltrating our homes and our religions, our cities and our universities, only to rise from the ashes of the Blood War and ban mortalkind from the very same realms that mortal hands had built.

And now, they’d done it to my family, too.

The longer I stewed, the more I hated Luther. Loathed him. Wanted him to suffer in some slow, painful way.

I wasn’t proud of it. Any good healer should be focused on ending suffering, not causing it.

Then again, I hadn’t exactly chosen to be a healer. That path had been set for me—by my mother, by my circumstances, by my lack of viable alternatives.

Sometimes I fantasized about going to Meros and finding work on a boat at one of its busy ports, sailing off on the Sacred Sea to see the world beyond.

Other times I imagined braving the shadowy alleys of Umbros, tasting all of life’s vices and learning how to bring a man to his knees in every possible way.

I’d even considered enlisting in the Emarion Army just to have a chance to leave a mark on the world outside of my tiny, irrelevant village.

I should be grateful. I had a skill, which meant I’d never go hungry. I had a family, which meant I’d never be alone. And I had safety—no enemies, no threats. Provided I could learn to follow the rules, I would live a nice, long life. A safe life.

So why did the very thought of it make me want to tear my hair out?

I was so engrossed in my frustration that I heard Henri approach only a heartbeat before his arms slipped around my waist. The warm, solid planes of his body pressed against my back.

The bright orange flames of my anger shifted to a dark, hungry red at his touch.

“Hi,” he murmured, laying a soft kiss on my shoulder.

“Hi.” I tilted my head to the side in silent invitation, my eyes fluttering closed.

His lips slowly trailed up the curve of my neck. “You still have that look on your face, you know.”

“What look?”

“The ‘I’m in the mood to murder someone’ look.” His thumb burrowed its way under the hem of my tunic and dragged idle lines back and forth along the sensitive skin of my stomach. “What were you thinking about?”

Leaving this place behind and making a new life for myself across the continent.

“Something you said earlier,” I answered instead. “What were your exact words—something about getting to know my enemy… ‘intimately’?”

He laughed, his breath tickling my neck. “I take it back. There’s only one person I want you getting to know intimately.”

On the last word, his hand moved up my ribcage and brushed the swell of my breast, sending a bolt of desire thrumming through me.

“Or perhaps I’ll just have to make you my enemy.” I reached back and palmed the blade that hung on his hip before moving down his muscled thigh.

“In that case, I surrender now.” He pulled me against his hips until I could feel exactly what part of him he intended to surrender.

My back arched, a quiet breath rushing out of me. “Surrender? What a shame. I much prefer a good fight.”

I turned and clutched his collar, then tugged him down until our lips collided. My kiss was fierce and demanding, channeling my scorching emotions as our tongues danced in deep, longing strokes.

“Diem,” he breathed, resting his forehead to mine. “It’s been too long.”

It had been months since we’d touched each other like this.

It began last spring, when a balmy evening and too much ale had driven us to strip bare and dive into the sea. Our naked bodies had found each other in the moonlight and shed the platonic innocence of our youth.

Neither of us had been each other’s firsts, but we had been the first to mean something. The first to join the passion of physical touch with the intimacy of a kindred spirit.

And then my mother disappeared and my life fell apart, and I had desperately needed the simplicity of a friend with no expectations. Henri had stepped back into that role without complaint, ready to be whatever and whoever my grief needed him to be.

But the ensuing months had changed us both. Our sweet naivete had fled town right alongside my mother. We’d both grown harder, angrier, our souls calloused from life and loss.

Though I still cared for him as deeply as I ever had, I was no longer the laughing, carefree girl he had fallen for—and when I looked in his eyes, I struggled to find the tender-hearted boy I’d once known.

I wasn’t sure exactly where that left us now.

I twisted in his arms until my lips again found his. His rough hand grazed low on my spine, toying at my waistband. The lonely woman trapped inside my red-hot skin pleaded for more.

His other hand brushed against my elbow, and my mind dropped me right back into that morning at the royal palace. How I’d lost my wits in Prince Luther’s dominating touch, his piercing stare. His scar-torn face was seared into my thoughts. Every time I closed my eyes, I saw his icy gaze watching me, studying me, judging me.

I was overcome with the need to burn the memory from existence. My ravenous hands shoved Henri’s shirt over his head and fumbled with the leather cord of his breeches, yanking at them impatiently. “These,” I growled. “Off.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he answered with a lopsided grin. He loosened the ties quickly and shoved the pants free of his legs, but before I could reach for him, he cupped his hands around the back of my thighs and hauled me up against his hips. I wove my fingers through his chestnut hair as he carried me over to our bedrolls and lowered us both to the ground. Within a few breathless pants, my tunic was off and tossed blindly over his shoulder.

“The contraceptive tonic,” I rushed out, my voice husky. “In my bag.”

Henri made a noncommittal sound as his mouth roamed my exposed skin, tasting my fire-warmed flesh.

Henri.”

“Do we really need it?” he murmured against my throat. “Who are we to interfere with the Old Gods’ blessings?”

My lust cooled slightly as I shot him a sharp look. “If that’s how you feel, then…”

I started to climb off him, and he groaned as he grabbed my hips to pull me back.

“Fine,” he mumbled, reaching for my bag and fishing out the vial of green liquid. He swallowed it quickly and smirked. “Now can I get back to ravishing you?”

I held my arms out. “Ravish away.”

He climbed over me and kissed me deeply, though it was more of a tender caress than passionate zeal.

“I missed this,” he whispered as he moved down my body and laid a trail of feather-light kisses past my navel.

Even in the haze of desire, Henri’s touch was soft and protective. That was the way he’d always been with me—gentle to a fault.

His previous lovers had been the sweet, quiet girls. The ones with shy smiles and ribbons in their hair, who never said an unkind word and managed to get along with everyone. I’d teased him for it, but in truth, I’d been secretly jealous. Not only for their relationships with him, but for that delicate beauty a part of me wanted so badly to emulate.

But I was made of swinging fists and rash words, my edges too jagged and my temper too hot. Nothing about me was delicate.

Sometimes I wondered whether Henri’s tastes had changed or whether he thought he saw something different in me—the nurturing healer who had stepped up to care for her family in her mother’s absence.

But I didn’t choose to be a healer, nor did I choose to take my mother’s role.

And I didn’t want gentle or delicate.

I wanted to burn.

I ripped the rest of my clothes away and flipped Henri around until his shoulders sank back against the bedroll. His eyes went wide, then closed with a groan of pleasure as I settled on top of him.

My name tore from his lips like a swear. He reached up to touch me, but I pinned his arms to the ground, the vulnerable part of me feeding off the control. I threw back my head, and I gave my body to the inferno.

And I burned.

I burned as we moved together, breathing each other’s names until we both glistened with sweat despite the chilly air. I burned as I rocked furiously against him in a desperate bid to chase the thoughts of what—and who—awaited me back in Lumnos.

But even after we each found our release and collapsed in each other’s arms, the flames inside me refused to die. They grew ever higher, stoked by restless frustration, scorching my skin from the inside out.

Even when Henri’s arms curled around me and the rise and fall of his chest slowed into the steady rhythm of sleep, I stared at the depthless midnight sky, my thoughts as turbulent as they’d ever been, and I burned and I burned and I burned.

And I wondered how long I had until the fire in my soul burned me alive.

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