Ash led the way through the Spiral, the place my father and his children called home. Our family’s version of a castle, it was made up of all species of trees wrapping themselves around one another in a massive spiral that reached through the redwood giants. The interior was far larger than the exterior, driving deep into the earth and expanding beyond reason within the Spiral. A magic older than our family had created it and its expansive nature. The hot springs were in the lowest level of the Spiral, protected and used only for healing and testing.
We weren’t going to another room within the Spiral, though. The Traveling room where we would meet Belladonna was in the Enders barracks.
We exited the Spiral, the redwoods swaying above us, the soft sound of the trees moving in time with the wind. Several birds called down to us as we stepped into the sunlight, but Ash never slowed as we strode to the Ender’s barracks. I wanted him to slow down. I wanted to just . . . be by him. We had been through a lot together and I felt like I finally had a friend I could be myself around. Someone who didn’t care I was a bastard, or that I would never be a real princess. “Belladonna specifically asked that you be assigned to her.”
Ash stopped mid-stride, and only because I knew what to look for did I see the way his shoulders tightened. “And your father, what did he say?” He didn’t look at me, so I could only guess at the expression on his face. I went with horror.
“I told her you were too busy running things. That you couldn’t go. My father probably would have let her take you if I hadn’t said something.” I walked past him. The main training room was empty except for Blossom practicing with her dual short swords in the corner, so I wasn’t worried about who might hear me.
“What, do you want me to thank you?” Ash bit out and it was my turn to tense.
I turned to face him, and crossed my arms. “Ash, we’re friends. Friends thank one another for sticking their necks out. So yeah, it wouldn’t kill you. Unless you wanted to go with her?”
He snorted and shook his head. “Get your things, Larkspur. You have a princess to protect and I still have to brief you.”
Without another word, he walked away, taking the stairs into the belly of the barracks where the Traveling room was hidden. He said nothing about being my friend. Perhaps I was wrong about that too. Wouldn’t surprise me, it seemed lately my ability to figure out men had slid into the compost heap. A sigh of frustration escaped me before I could catch it.
“Lark, where are you going? You just got back.” Blossom slid her two swords into the sheaths at her side with a soft shush of metal on leather. We were the only two female Enders left after the lung burrowers had swept through wiping out nearly half of our family.
“I’m on assignment, I guess. I have to watch over Belladonna.”
Blossom made a face, her lips and nose crinkling in tandem. I more than agreed with her, but kept my own facial muscles still. “Be careful, I don’t want to be the only girl here to keep the men in line.” She gave me a wink and went back to her practicing. Not so long ago, she was thinking of quitting, but I’d convinced her to stay. I was glad I had. Maybe in Blossom I’d finally find a true friend. But not today.
“You be careful too.” I jogged away, down the main hall to the living quarters and into my tiny room. Barely big enough for the bed and table beside it, I was surprised that someone was waiting for me.
His raven-black hair glistened as he lifted his head, the blue-black highlights catching the light. His green eyes roved over me, a hunger in their depths. I swallowed hard. Knowing him as well as I did, I was very aware of what he wanted and despite my growing understanding that I had to cut him loose, my body responded to him. It knew the tune we played “oh-so-well” together.
“Lark,” his voice was husky and full of desire.
Steeling myself, I kept my voice even. “Coal, I have an assignment. I have to go.”
With his one remaining hand, he reached for me. “Can’t they find someone else? I’ve been lonely without you. I don’t want you to go.”
“I’ve only been gone a week.” I dodged his hand and went to my knees so I could get at the weapons under my bed. In particular, my spear that had belonged to my mother—there was no way I was leaving it behind when I was going into danger.
His hand dropped to my head, digging into my thick hair and tugging at me lightly, bringing my face close to his knees. “Lark, I’ve missed you. Doesn’t that count for something?”
I sat back, spear in one hand and three knives in the other. A part of me expected to feel something other than desire—a pull of my heart toward him. But there was nothing other than the zings of lust, and even with the guilt that ate at me, that wasn’t enough. I had to let him go. Had to make him move on. “I’m sorry, Coal, I have to leave. I have an assignment.”
His eyes hardened, flashing with anger. “Right. And that has nothing to do with this.” He held up my necklace with the griffin tooth dangling from it. The necklace was a gift from Griffin, the wolf shifter who lived on the southern outskirts of our forest. He’d given me the necklace to stave off the lung burrowers while I fought off Cassava.
I reached for it. “I have to return that.”
“Not according to this.” Coal fumbled with the necklace and pulled a piece of paper from under his shirt, reading from it. “Larkspur, keep the necklace for your next trip, it looks better on you than it ever did on me. But I want it back when you return. Your friend, Griffin.”