Ignite, p.1
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       Ignite, p.1

           Sara B. Larson
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  For Brad, Gavin, and Kynlee

  You are the sparks that ignite my desire to be the best I can be.

  I hope you will always know how much I love each of you.





































  THE HEAT IN the hallway was stifling, even though it was well past midnight. Thick humidity lingered from a storm that had passed earlier in the evening, coating my skin with moisture. I couldn’t smell the wet leaves and mud of the jungle here, outside King Damian’s room, but I knew the rich scent well enough to conjure it on my own. I was only halfway through my night shift, and I was already drooping. Willing myself to stay alert, I began to pace.

  There hadn’t been a single threat since Damian’s coronation almost a month earlier, but Deron, the captain of the king’s guard, wasn’t about to take chances with Damian’s life, and I couldn’t agree more. Especially after how hard we had all fought — and how much we’d lost — to stop Damian’s father, King Hector, and put Damian on the throne. My brother, Rylan’s brother, almost half the guard, and countless others had died in the fight to free Antion from the evil vise in which Hector and his black sorcerer, Iker, had held the kingdom for almost my entire lifetime.

  As I marched up and down the hallway, forcing the blood to move in my tired limbs, the side of my face and neck began to throb. The pain from my scars had eased over the last month, but it was still there. A constant reminder of the battle I’d fought against Iker.

  Damian, too, had fought and lost so very much. He and I were alike in more ways than one — we’d both had to play parts to protect ourselves, and we’d both seen our families wiped out. I’d watched my parents and brother die at the hands of our enemies, but Damian … He had been forced to kill his own father in order to protect his people. Those scars were the type that no one could see, but would never truly heal.

  The lit torch propped in the bracket across from Damian’s door flickered suddenly, as if a gust of wind had blown past it, although I felt nothing. My hand dropped to the hilt of my sword. As I peered into the darkness to my right, there was nothing to see except a long stretch of empty hallway.

  I crossed in front of Damian’s door again, my thoughts turning to my king, as they often did. Though I’d made my choice, and convinced Damian that I didn’t have any feelings for him, it was yet one more buried wound that I carried with me. I could never let him uncover the truth — that not only did I have feelings for him, but I was still in love with him. I would do whatever it took to keep our new king safe and to help him rebuild his kingdom and be the best ruler he could be, even if it meant causing him pain now. It was the right thing to do.

  That dedication to his safety and well-being was why I never complained about taking the night shifts like some of the other guards did — usually the new ones. I was still unaccustomed to their faces and voices, rather than those of my old friends: Jude. Kai. Antonio. So many others.

  “Alexa.” A familiar voice called out my name — my real name — making me jump. I turned around to see Deron striding toward me from the other direction. Maybe someday I would get used to the captain of the guard calling me Alexa, rather than Alex, as he had for years when he thought I was a boy.

  “Deron, what is it?” I asked as he closed the gap between us, his own lit torch chasing more of the shadows away.

  “There’s a man at the gate who’s demanding entrance to the palace. He claims to be from Dansii, acting as a runner to warn us that a delegation has been deployed by King Armando and will be arriving within a day or two.”

  “A delegation?” I repeated in disbelief. “Has Dansii ever sent a delegation before?”

  “No. Not so much as a political emissary, as far as I know.”

  A cold chill skittered down my spine. “Why send one now?”

  “He claims they have come to celebrate the coronation of the new king.” When his eyes met mine, I could see my own nervousness reflected in their dark depths. A number of different scenarios ran through my mind in quick succession — reasons why the king of Dansii, Hector’s brother, would send a delegation now. Each was worse than the last.

  “We should increase the watches and guards in the palace while they’re here,” I said. “No matter what, we can’t trust Dansii. And we need to alert the king.”

  “That’s why I came up here.”

  “Alert me to what?”

  I spun around to see Damian pulling open his door, wearing nothing more than a pair of pants, his hair mussed by sleep, his jaw shadowed with stubble. My heart jumped into my throat, and my fingers tightened around the hilt of my sword. But he wasn’t looking at me; instead, he gave the captain of his guard a questioning look.

  “We didn’t mean to wake you, my liege.” Deron inclined his head.

  “You didn’t. I couldn’t sleep.” Damian’s voice was clipped. He still wouldn’t look at me. “Now tell me what’s happening.”

  “Your uncle, King Armando, has apparently sent a delegation that will be arriving at the palace shortly. A runner has preceded them to warn us of their coming.” Deron kept his voice level, indicating no response to this news.

  Damian lifted one eyebrow, his gaze finally flickering to mine, then quickly away. It lasted less than a second, and yet the brief connection sent a wave of awareness through me. I’d been guarding him, standing next to him all day long, but for some reason — possibly because he was half naked — standing only a few feet away from him now, in the middle of the night, felt too intimate. In the low light, his shockingly blue eyes were shadowed. I couldn’t read his expression as I forced my eyes to stay on his face, rather than letting my gaze stray to his chest or abdomen.

  “Alexa,” Deron said, with a hint of exasperation as though he were repeating himself.

  I quickly straightened my spine as I turned away from the king to look at Deron.

  He gave me a sharp, questioning look. “Do you still agree that we need to increase the watches and guard presence in the palace for as long as the Dansiian party is here?”

  “Yes,” I said. My heart beat unsteadily in my chest, but I hoped that my expression remained neutral. “Yes, I do.”

  “And where do you suggest we recruit the extra help? The army is already short staffed,” Damian pointed out.

  Shortly after being crowned king, Damian had released the orphan boys from their forced enrollment in the army. Many stayed, as they had nowhere else to go, but there was a significant number who had quit, returning to their ravaged villages and homes to try to put the horrors of the war — and Hector’s reign of terror — behind them. Even Nolan, Damian’s former “handler,” had chosen to leave the palace. Damian had done the right thing, letting them choose, but it left Antion with a diminished army.

  I answered without looking at the king to see if he was watching me or not, gazing just past him instead. “Now that there is no threat of attack from Blevon, we could pull some of the soldiers assigne
d to the outer patrols into the city and pull the city patrols into the palace.”

  “But that would take weeks, and the Dansiians are almost here,” Deron pointed out.

  “There isn’t a threat of attack in Tubatse any longer; those soldiers are helping with rebuilding efforts more than anything,” I said. “If we pulled just one man off each squadron in the city, we could double the watch numbers without impacting the rebuilding efforts significantly.”

  Damian nodded, steadfastly keeping his eyes on Deron. “Are you sure this is necessary? I don’t want to cause a delay in the housing project.”

  “Taking one man off each group shouldn’t slow it down much. Your safety is of the utmost importance — even more so than finishing the new homes,” Deron said.

  “My safety won’t be in question. That’s why I have you — isn’t it?” Damian lifted his eyebrow. Before either of us could respond, he continued. “The women and their babies need places to live. They can’t stay in tents indefinitely.”

  I shuddered as I thought about the building that had once been the focal point of so many horrors. Damian’s very first act as king, even before releasing the boys from their involuntary servitude in the army, had been to move the women and babies out of the breeding house and tear it down. I still remembered the night that it had crashed to the earth through a targeted attack by both Eljin’s and Damian’s sorcery; some had cheered but others hadn’t been able to do anything except stand in the falling dusk and sob. Now there was a small tent city situated in a section of the courtyard, as far away from the former breeding house as possible, where the girls and women were relocated. The hard ground was preferable to the nightmarish hovel where they had been forced to reside for so many years, but it was no way to live — especially for those women who were pregnant or had new babies who hadn’t been taken away. Yet another project Damian had spearheaded was to try to reunite mothers with children who had been taken after they were weaned and then put in the orphanage to survive until they were old enough to join the army themselves — or to take their place in the breeding house. It was a heartbreaking and, in some cases, futile process. The wounds from King Hector’s rule ran deep, and many were still slashed wide open with little hope of healing.

  “I know you are worried about those women, and rightfully so, but if there is a threat to your safety, that has to take precedence,” Deron said.

  “We don’t know that there is any threat,” Damian argued. “And I refuse to do anything that will make my people think I care more about myself than their welfare.”

  “Sire, I understand your concern,” I began haltingly, still staring at the wall past Damian’s bare shoulder, “but it would be unwise to assume that this is a friendly delegation. King Armando is the one who sent Iker to your father. What if there is another black sorcerer with them?”

  He stiffened when I used the word sire. He hated it when I didn’t call him by his name. But I’d made my choice — I’d led him to believe I didn’t love him anymore, that I didn’t trust him. I’d done it for his own good, and for the good of the kingdom. Even though I knew I’d made the right choice, that didn’t make it any easier to live with the consequences. The only way to survive my self-imposed torture was to force up some kind of barrier. “If there is a sorcerer of any sort, I’ll know it and so will Eljin,” Damian said, his voice matching the frostiness of his expression. “But we can’t assume that their intentions are malicious. Armando is my uncle.”

  Did Damian hope that his uncle had benevolent intentions toward Antion, even though he’d been the one to send Iker, a black sorcerer, to his own brother — Damian’s father?

  “And if they attack us?”

  Damian finally looked directly at me. When our eyes met, the hardness of his gaze sent a jolt through me. The stonelike mask on Damian’s handsome face was my fault. The hurt that lurked in the bright blue depths of his eyes was because of me.

  It tore me apart inside to see all the love, all the passion I had once inspired in him wiped away, replaced by the same facade he’d presented to the world for years to protect himself from his father’s machinations.

  “Then we’ll fight them — just like we fought Iker,” Damian finally said.

  “Alexa was barely able to beat Iker,” Deron pointed out, his voice gentle. But however kindly he said it, it didn’t ease the pain of his words. I fought the urge to touch my scarred cheek again as the memories of that horrible day threatened to surge up. “What if there’s more than one black sorcerer this time?”

  Something inside of me clenched when Damian’s gaze flickered down to my cheek, then back to my eyes. “Black sorcerers are not common,” he said after a pause. “I doubt they’ll have one with them.”

  Deron shook his head. “I’m sorry, Sire, but it’s our duty to assume the worst. And then try to prepare for it. We can’t take risks with your life.”

  At Deron’s words, my fingers tightened around the hilt of my sword. “I won’t let them hurt you,” I said before I could stop myself, my voice low. Damian tensed, his eyes widening slightly — a tiny crack in his veneer. I forced myself to tear my eyes away from the king, to stare at the floor instead, lest he see the emotions I’d spent the last month suppressing.

  “We’ve kept the man waiting too long,” Deron said suddenly, before Damian could respond. “We need to bring him inside; we can discuss the details of what we should do in the morning.”

  There was another long pause before Damian spoke. “Fine, but I would like you to come up with a solution that won’t slow down the building project.” Damian stood there for a moment longer, but when I wouldn’t meet his gaze again, he turned on his heel and stalked back into his room, slamming the door shut behind him.

  I flinched but didn’t move, waiting for Deron’s orders.

  “Stay here and finish out your shift. I’ll take care of the runner.” Deron turned away but then paused. “Alexa …” he spoke hesitantly. “Are you … and the king …” He trailed off uncomfortably, and my stomach clenched. The last thing I needed — or wanted — was for Deron to try and talk to me about the situation with Damian. Now that everyone knew I was a girl, most of the other guards treated me differently — they seemed to think that I was suddenly weaker than I used to be, even though I hadn’t changed. I was still the same person — the same soldier — I’d always been. But no one else saw it that way, except for Rylan, who’d always known.

  And Damian.

  “You’d better not keep the runner waiting any longer,” I said curtly, standing up taller, with a glare that I hoped clearly conveyed my desire to drop the subject.

  He gave me a searching look but nodded. “All right. I’ll see you tomorrow, then.” He turned away again, and this time he didn’t stop.

  When he was out of sight, I had to fight the urge to sag against the wall; my legs felt strangely weak and my heart wouldn’t stop racing. But instead, I stood up even straighter, throwing my shoulders back. I was a guard — this was my duty. I wouldn’t be the one found relaxing on the job, allowing something, or someone, to get past me. My life was devoted to protecting my king.

  But the expression on Damian’s face wouldn’t leave me, the pain he was so adept at hiding from everyone — everyone but me. I, who knew him best and had hurt him the worst.

  What if the person he needed protection from the most was me?

  THE AMBER LIGHT of sunrise began to filter through the windows at the end of the hallway just when I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to keep my eyes open any longer. I’d long since given up pacing and instead stood stiffly in front of Damian’s door, staring out at the jungle, which was slowly becoming visible beyond the palace walls.

  I was exhausted — from lack of sleep, from standing for so long, from worry. From trying not to let myself think of the king. But try as I might, as the night wore on, I couldn’t keep myself from remembering. The look on his face when he’d come to see me that first time after the battle, when Iker’s unholy fire
had destroyed half of my face before I’d finally been able to defeat him, kept replaying in my mind. When he’d told me that he needed me — that he loved me. When he’d pressed his lips to mine for the last time before I’d destroyed the hope in his eyes and replaced it with pain.

  I shook my head violently, trying to force the images, the words, the memories away. That Damian was gone — at least to me. With others, he was friendly and solicitous. He was the man he’d always been but had been forced to hide for so many years. But when it came to me …

  A door opened down the hallway, startling me out of my thoughts, and Rylan emerged, with Mateo on his heels. They shared a room, now that Jude was gone. A pang of guilt hit me deep in my gut, as it always did when I saw Rylan with Mateo. It was my fault Rylan’s brother had died, that Jude was no longer the guard at his side. As I watched them approach, strapping on their scabbards and sheathing their swords, preparing for another day of guarding our new king, I forced the guilt away. Jude had chosen to sacrifice himself to help me save Antion. His death had given me the chance to reach Iker and to destroy him.

  “Rough night?” Rylan asked when he got closer, his eyes sweeping over my face, only pausing for a split second on my scars.

  “Yes.” There was no point in lying. He knew me too well. “Deron will fill you in, I’m sure. I’m going to go catch a quick nap.”

  “Alexa, what happened?”

  “Like I said, Deron will have to tell you. I’m too tired.”

  I turned away, striding quickly to my room, which was next to Damian’s, as it always had been. I was the only one, besides Deron, who didn’t have a roommate. Only now it was because everyone knew I was a girl. At least there was one benefit to everyone coddling me — privacy.

  I could hear footsteps behind me, but I ignored them and pulled my door open. I made it into my room but didn’t get the door shut before Rylan reached me, putting his hand out to stop the door.

  “Alexa, please tell me what’s wrong.”

  I looked up into his gentle brown eyes and saw nothing but concern. I sighed. “There’s a Dansiian delegation on its way here and we don’t know why,” I finally responded.

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