Chapter no 20 – TEA

Lightlark (The Lightlark Saga Book 1)

For two full days, Isla slept. She only awoke to eat and sip broth, then she drifted away again. She had strange dreams. Grim was in some of them. Flashes of him. Of her. Of them.

By the twenty-third day, when Ella came with news of afternoon tea, Isla knew it was time to get up. To shed the pain and weakness like the snake on her crown shrugging off its skin.

The bondbreaker wasn’t in the Star Isle, Sky Isle, or Moon Isle libraries.

Which only left one place.

Sun Isle.

The king’s own land. It made sense that a relic as powerful as the bondbreaker would be kept there.

But Isla had no way of getting gold clothing. Barely any hair dye left. And more problems than ever.

Cleo knew someone had attacked her guards, gotten into her library, and left without a trace.

She must have suspected Isla immediately. Ever since that first dinner, Cleo had had her sights on her. The physical description the attacked guards would have provided would have simply confirmed her suspicions.

Cleo didn’t have proof it was her. But she knew.

She had to.

The wound to her head had mostly healed, thanks to her Wildling elixir. The white had washed out of her hair. She had thrown her Moon-ling clothing into the fire.

Still, Isla felt like the truth of her whereabouts three nights prior was written across her body as she walked inside the tearoom.

It must have been beautiful, once upon a time. Now the windows, giant arches every few feet, were covered with thick fabrics like mirrors in an old house. Like her room back home. The ceiling, domed and made of glass, had been painted over, trapping the sunlight outside. The only light came from hundreds of orbs of fire that floated precariously overhead, the same ones the king had displayed at her demonstration. Marble columns lined the

room the way guards might if Oro allowed them inside. The king didn’t need guards, however. Not even against rulers of realm. He was more powerful than all of them combined.

Isla felt that power ringing through the room as Oro entered it.

Cleo swept inside next, and her eyes immediately locked onto Isla’s.

Her expression revealed nothing.

But Isla’s palms began to sweat. She forced herself to keep the Moonling’s gaze until an attendant guided Isla to her seat.

The Moonling ruler knew. Isla felt it in her bones.

Cleo was a dangerous enemy. One who was building an army. For what? Did any of the other rulers know that between the legion and her supposed ships, the Moonling seemed ready for war?

Once all the rulers were seated, staff came pouring out of a large set of doors, carrying gleaming trays of china. They circled the table once, then stopped suddenly, their movements perfectly choreographed. Behind each chair stood a Skyling, a Moonling, and a Starling.

Oro nodded.

The Starlings lifted their hands, and tiny plates flew in a flurry, landing carefully on the table, followed closely by teacups, which fell atop them with a clink. Three cups total sat in front of Isla. Ornately decorated teapots hovered overhead, high above the table, heavy with liquid. Water-wielding Moonlings lifted their hands, and steaming tea Sunlings had no doubt heated fell from the pots like tiny waterfalls, through strainers the Starlings held steadily, rich red liquid that spilled into her first mug. The pots straightened and moved in a circle before her second cup was filled with honeyed gold. The third tea was the deep blue of sapphires.

The Starlings lifted their arms again, and cubes of sugar fell into each cup, followed by drops of honey and shots of cream. Each flavor of tea received its own treatment, the blue tea getting a slice of lemon, the red receiving a mint leaf, the gold gifted a candied orange peel.

Finally, the Skylings whipped their wrists, sending a gentle breeze over their drinks, cooling them.

Grim sighed. “I suppose this isn’t the moment to mention I detest tea?” Oro ignored him. “Please enjoy,” he said.

Isla loved tea. She would have smiled under happier circumstances. Wildlings were experts at collecting the richest herbs, leaves, and spices

that, when steeped, created the most delicious drinks.

She reached for the red one first. The drop of cream had turned it the pink of dahlias. She brought the cup to her lips tentatively, bracing herself for the burning liquid. But the Skylings had cooled the tea perfectly—she took a deep sip and almost groaned. It tasted like berries without the bitterness, honey without the heaviness.

Her eyes had fluttered closed, and she only opened them when the tea was drained from its cup. She lowered it and found Oro watching her.

“Any match to Wildling tea?” he asked.

“It’s certainly drinkable,” she said flatly. Then she reached for the second cup.

Cleo studied her. Too carefully. “How do Wildlings take their tea?” she asked, sharp eyes gleaming. “With a splash of blood?”

Isla sipped the second tea slowly. This one—the gold one—tasted of caramel. “And we drink it from the skulls of our conquests,” she said steadily, smiling good-naturedly, like the Moonling’s words were a joke from a friend and not a barb from a now certain enemy.

There were a few moments of clattering and quiet as they drank their tea. Isla finished her first cup and peered into it, noticing a strange pattern in the leaves that stuck to the bottom.

Her next one had something similar.

By the time she finished her third, her blood had gone cold. Oro rose.

“Welcome to my demonstration,” he said. Tension filled the room.

Power surged.

Demonstration? But there weren’t even any islanders present.

Though, she supposed, that wasn’t truly a rule. Just a custom. Something most rulers preferred too, to display their excellence at their own trials.

The king’s pointer finger circled the lip of one of his teacups. “This is no ordinary tea,” he continued, his tone steady. “It is a truth tea.”

Isla went still. Dread dripped down her spine. “Your greatest secret is written in the leaves.” She risked a look down at her cups.

And saw her greatest truth written across the three of them, in careful script.

I have no power.

It took every drop of her training not to let her horror filter through her face. She remained calm, though inside she was a tempest, desperate for escape.

She studied the other rulers as a distraction from the panic that had turned her skin to thorns. Cleo had gone paler than usual. Azul simply frowned. Grim looked ready to coat the entire room in Oro’s ash. Celeste darted a rare, risky look in her direction, eyes wide with a message.

It’s you, she seemed to be saying. Of course. The Starling’s greatest secret was one she was keeping for Isla.

The urgency of her glance said run.

Before Isla could debate any move, the king picked up his first cup and said, “Whoever shares their secret wins my trial.”

There was a shatter of glass as Celeste dropped her cups to the floor, taking herself out of the challenge. She looked over at Isla meaningfully, for just a moment, and her heart swelled. Celeste was a better friend than she deserved.

Azul’s broke next.

Without wasting another moment, Isla pushed hers to the floor and watched them break into a thousand pieces, her secret lost in the shards.

Grim let his own fall one by one, eyes trained on the king. Isla had never seen him look so murderous. He had transformed into the famed Nightshade killer, the ruthless ruler she had heard warnings about. His expression held promises of torture and darkness.

The force of his invisible power lashed out, waves of searing chill coating the room. For a moment, her bones felt hollow, dead.

One thing was for sure. Grim did have a secret. And if even the idea of it being revealed produced this much anger, Isla was afraid to know what it was.

Just Oro and Cleo were left. This was the last trial.

The king had won the duel and the demonstration of power. Cleo had won her own trial and Celeste’s.

They were tied.

Whoever won this one would decide the matches the rulers would break into. The decision was important. Because of the first rule, a ruler could not

kill the person they were joined with. The choice would force alliances, guide their search for the meaning of the rest of the prophecy, shape the rest of the Centennial. Perhaps even decide who would be targeted to be killed.

Oro’s gaze was unrelenting as he stared down the Moonling, daring her to reveal her secret. And for a moment, Isla thought she might.

But, thinking better of it, Cleo sent the glass to the ground. The king had officially won the trials.

His eyes were lifeless as he stared down at his first cup, and said, “I.” He let it fall to the floor.

The second. “Am.”

For the third, he looked up and caught Isla’s eyes. He frowned a bit, as if disturbed his gaze had shifted her way. But he did not look away as he spoke the third and final word of his greatest secret: “Dying.”

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