Chapter no 16 – SHADOWS

Lightlark (The Lightlark Saga Book 1)

Isla’s skin was still sore that night. She flinched as she slowly inched the thin strap of her gown down her arm, cursing herself for not wearing a different dress.

Then there was the matter of the zipper. From where it was placed, it typically required both hands to maneuver, to reach it—

“If you need help undressing, allow me to offer my services, Hearteater.”

She jumped at the deep voice, spinning around.

Grim sat in a chair bathed in shadows, nearly all the way hidden. He leaned forward, elbows on his knees, eyes trailing her now bare shoulder, the strap hanging off it. The top of her dress slightly slipping down . . .

She righted it with her bad arm, then groaned, the flash of pain lightning behind her eyes.

The Wildling elixir might have healed her, but it hadn’t been advanced enough to completely dull the ache. It was either take away the pain or heal

—one, or the other. Of course, the rulers and islanders didn’t need to know that.

It was why it was so important Isla never flinched. Never let anyone else see her pain.

It was why Terra and Poppy had made her practice, again and again, until she got it perfect.

“How did you get in here?” she demanded, voice thinner than she would have liked. He was so crass. So suggestive. She might have claimed she hated it.

But she didn’t hate it.

She hated herself for not thinking his words were repulsive. He shrugged. “Through the walls.” Of course.

Isla remembered his demonstration. Anger replaced her pain. “Good. I suppose you can leave through the walls too, then,” she said, pointing at one.

Grim stood. She swallowed. His size was always surprising. The height.

The power that emanated off him in invisible tendrils.

“I will admit,” he said, wicked smile tugging the side of his mouth. A step toward her. “This is not how I imagined you would want to spend our time in your chambers.”

She scowled. Glared at him. Neither had enough bite. Both were offset by the blooming emotions she knew he could sense.

He was trying to distract her.

“You made a mockery of my demonstration, demon,” she said, lest she forget why she was mad. “I told you about the trial. I gave you time to prepare.”

Her inexplicable hurt must have peeked through her expression, because his eyes softened. “Hearteater,” he said, his voice surprisingly gentle. “I thought you would have guessed by now, but let me make this clear. I have no interest in winning the Centennial. Or forming alliances. Or playing this game at all.”

There was silence as his words washed over her. He could have been lying.

But she had always focused on actions above words. They reflected motivations much more accurately. And Grim’s words matched his actions. He hadn’t attempted to be allies with the other rulers. He hadn’t taken any of the demonstrations seriously.

She felt her face twist in confusion. “Then why are you here?” she said, finally voicing the one question she had about him. The one that blared over and over in her head every time he got close to her. Every time she wanted to get close to him. The Nightshade did not answer, so she took a step toward him, filling the gap. Everyone wanted something. Everyone had motives. She had been trying and failing to uncover his the entire first fifth of the Centennial. Her gaze locked on to his, demanding an answer. “What do you want?”

Grim looked down at her, and she could have sworn his expression turned sad. But a moment later, the wicked smile was back. “I believe I’ve made it clear what I want,” he said, running a finger down the arm that had been seared.

Isla braced herself for the pain—but it never came. It was as if, somehow, he was masking her hurt. His skin was cold to the touch.

Soothing. Ice against a burn.

Still, she stepped away. “You didn’t come to the Centennial for me,” she said, refusing to allow him to get away with the nonanswer.

“No,” he said simply. “I did not.” “Then why?”

He frowned. “Do you know how Lightlark was created, Heart-eater?” he asked.

Her hands curled into fists. She couldn’t help but feel he was evading her question, but she preferred him speaking to simply vanishing, so she played along. Perhaps she would get useful information from him anyway. “It was formed by Oro’s ancestor, the first Origin Horus Rey.”

“That is a lie. The island was created by two people. Not just Horus, but also Cronan Malvere.”

Her eyebrows came together. “My own ancestor.”

Isla had only ever heard of Horus Rey forming Lightlark, thousands of years before. Nightshades weren’t even welcomed on the island, didn’t even have a dedicated isle anymore.

“Lightlark became more powerful than either founder could have anticipated. It made both men greedy. Turned friend against friend. It ended in a duel, and when Cronan lost, all of Nightshade fled to form their own land, one not nearly as strong as Lightlark.”

His dark eyes found Isla’s. And, though she wanted to, she found she couldn’t look away.

“Nightshade power built this place just as much as Sunling’s did. My father believed it was time for us to regain control of a land we had claim to.”

That was the reason for the war between Nightshade and Lightlark.

No wonder Grim hadn’t been invited to any of the previous Centennials. Isla wondered how Oro could host the person who had invaded his home and killed his kin. The king must have truly been desperate to end the curses.

Why? What was he hiding?

“And what do you think?” Isla asked, voice barely above a whisper and still feeling too loud.

Grim ground his back teeth together. “I told my father to sign the treaty. We had lost too many people. We were going to lose everything if we didn’t agree to peace. As part of the agreement, I was sent to live on Lightlark. A reminder that if Nightshades slipped up, they could kill my father’s only heir. I lived here for twenty years, until—”

Until. He didn’t say the words, but Isla knew the next part well.

Until the curses were cast, and all the rulers of realm died in sacrifice on one horrific night. Until power was transferred to heirs for the last time. Until the new rulers and most of their people fled the island and the incoming storm that would engulf it.

Isla dreaded her next question. But she had to ask it. “Grim, did you cast the curses?”

He looked at her, really looked at her. “If I did, would you ever speak to me again?”

She moved back, tensed. Her nostrils flared. Her answer was immediate. “No. The curses killed countless of my people. Turned us into monsters.” Her voice thickened. “It’s the reason my parents are both dead.”

Something like sadness flashed in Grim’s eyes. “The curses killed my family too.” His head dipped, and he did not break her gaze. “No, Isla, I did not cast those curses.”

She knew it was foolish to believe any of the other rulers. But Grim’s pain was real. And it mirrored her own.

“So why are you here?” she demanded. “To get revenge? To try to invade Lightlark again?” Another thought formed in her mind, and she paled. “To ensure the curses don’t get broken?”

Grim raised an eyebrow. “Why are you here, Hearteater? What are you after?”

Her body went still. Lies filled her mouth, ready to be spoken, but Grim grinned. He had felt her nerves. Her hesitancy. He would know she wasn’t telling the truth.

Isla did not break his gaze. But she also did not say a word.

The Nightshade only shook his head. “You know,” he said, making his way toward the wall through which he’d come, “you ask a great deal of questions, Hearteater.” He studied her from head to toe before frowning at her arm, as if he could sense the pain it still gave her. “For someone with so many secrets of her own.”

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