Chapter no 11 – FEAR

Lightlark (The Lightlark Saga Book 1)

The tailor knew his clothes were missing. It was more important than ever for them to find the bondbreaker before any of the rulers learned of the robbery and became suspicious.

A problem—she couldn’t begin her search of the libraries until after Celeste’s demonstration. It would provide them with the final thing Isla needed to locate the bondbreaker.

Luckily, the Starling’s crisp gold letter from Oro arrived the very next morning. A ruler had the right to choose the time their trial took place, as long as it was within two days of receiving their paper.

Celeste chose to host hers immediately.

When Ella knocked upon Isla’s door, she took her time answering it, as if she wasn’t already dressed in the perfect attire for the next trial. As if she hadn’t been running scenarios through her head for the last few hours. As if she hadn’t coincidentally requested her meal to be delivered early.

The paper she was handed was silver, sparkling. The words were made in Celeste’s perfect cursive.

A test of fear, it read. Location: The Hall of Glass Time: Now

Isla followed Ella through the Mainland castle. She had never been to this wing before, a part that looked ancient, nearly untouched for hundreds of years.

The walls were covered in paintings. Portraits. Sunling leaders.

She saw what had to be Oro’s predecessor, his brother, King Egan. He had ruled for centuries before sacrificing himself on the night of the curses. Isla recognized the same golden hair. A similar set in their brows.

King Egan, however, had lively eyes. A glimmer of joy in them. Nothing like his brother.

Isla wondered if Oro had always been the way he was now . . . or if five hundred years of curses had taken their toll on the king.

The Hall of Glass was frosted over, sunlight choked and muted, a protection for Sunlings. She wondered if Oro ever even bothered opening the blinds of his windows at night, knowing that forgetting to close them again would mean death in the morning.

Then she remembered when he had saved her. He had been on the balcony as soon as the sun went down, as if desperate to be within inches and minutes of sunshine. Sunshine adjacent.

A cruel curse.

All of them were so very cruel.

Celeste was already there, speaking to a group of Starling nobles. Her friend’s cape was magnificent, specially made for her demonstration. Somehow, a tailor in the Starling realm had managed to make silk that was so thin, so translucent, it almost resembled glass. Faintly silver, with stars sewn into its edges, crystalline and glittering.

Isla had to stop herself from smiling at her friend, from acknowledging her at all.

The king was there too, surrounded by his own nobles and advisers and by wealthy islanders who wore gold cuffs and necklaces, who were so decked in gold, they looked like statues gilded by their king.

Cleo entered, joined by her entourage, who trailed her like guards.

Azul laughed with a group, interacting with them more like friends than a leader speaking to his subjects.

Isla was alone. Not surrounded by anyone. Even Ella had left her side, waiting in the wings with the other attendants.

So was Grim. He appeared across the room, making the nobles closest to him scuttle like roaches.

His dark eyes found hers, and she saw an understanding there. Both were alone.

Was that why he had helped her?

Was it because he knew what it felt like?

No. He was her enemy. She had to remember that.

“Welcome,” Celeste said. She was standing by something tall and cloaked. It looked like a statue with a sheet shrouding it.

It was not.

“My demonstration is a trial of fear. Whoever conquers their greatest fear first is the winner.” A silver hourglass sat across the room, counting the

seconds down.

Demonstrations were planned carefully. Some were chosen to showcase the hosting ruler’s superiority. Some were chosen to demonstrate a particular opponent’s weakness. Some, like this one, had a more mysterious purpose.

With a silver-gloved hand, Celeste tugged at the glittering sheet, revealing a towering mirror.

It was an ancient Starling relic the ruler had brought from her own realm. Isla had watched it for over a year, standing in the corner of Celeste’s room like a specter. It could only be used by a person once, so Isla hadn’t been able to practice. But she was almost certain about what her biggest fear would be.

“Who would like to begin?” Celeste asked.

Fear was perhaps a ruler’s greatest weakness. What they feared most could doom their realm. It was a good test.

But it was not why Celeste had chosen this challenge.

The king stepped forward. The moment he pressed his palm against the mirror, its glass rippled, water shifting in a goblet.

Suddenly, it stilled. And so did he.

For minutes, the king went on a journey none of them could see. Oro just stared blankly at the mirror, hand still pressed to its face, brows occasionally jerking together.

Everyone had a fear. Isla wondered what the king was so afraid of. According to Celeste, the mirror trapped someone until they succeeded in besting their greatest fear. Someone could be stuck inside it forever. Many had died using the relic.

Oro straightened, the spell broken. The king’s hand was released. He had conquered it.

In just three minutes.

Isla swallowed. The king had been alive for more than five hundred years.

What if she kept the crowd waiting here for hours? What would that say of her and her abilities? Of her worthiness of surviving the Centennial?

What if she never bested it, and the mirror kept her?

Isla knew how important the use of this relic was to their plan. But she suddenly wished her friend had chosen a different trial.

Azul was next. He took five minutes. More than the king, but not by much.

When he left the mirror, Isla couldn’t help but notice that his smile was a little duller than usual. Something in his expression looked haunted.

What had he seen?

What fear had he been forced to face?

Isla’s palms began to sweat. She brushed them against her cape and took a deep breath. Get it together.

The moment Cleo placed her pale hand onto the mirror, Isla knew things would be different. The glass didn’t ripple nearly as much. Her eyes closed and she froze completely, a ruler turned to ice.

It was not two minutes later that they reopened.

Gasps sounded among the crowd. Cleo had beaten even the king. By over a minute.

Isla’s teeth ground against each other. The Moonling must be heartless.

Or fearless. Both dangerous qualities in an enemy.

Grim finished his exercise in just under three minutes. Celeste did hers in five.

Then it was Isla’s turn.

The room was silent as she made her way over to the towering object. Her heels echoed through the hall. Her knees trembled beneath her dress, and she was grateful for its length.

Too soon, Isla found herself holding up her hand. Her fingers shook slightly before pressing against the mirror.

It moved—shifted.

Then something yanked her through the glass.

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