Chapter no 33 – THE BALL

Lightlark (The Lightlark Saga Book 1)

At the midpoint of the Centennial, on the fiftieth day, the Betwixt Ball took place. It was the Lightlark event of the century, a beautiful excuse for a party that was intended to muddle the anxiety and anguish of the Centennial with bubbling drinks, gowns made of gossamer, and a feast that celebrated each of the isles.

It also marked a turning point in the games. At midnight, killing could begin.

Her guardians had designed a specific outfit for the ball. Precariously placed leaves trailed across her chest and along her stomach, leaving strips of skin exposed across her ribs. The green leaves continued down her middle, just past the tops of her thighs—below there was just sheer material, the occasional leaf sewn into the tumbling fabric. Her cape was deep green and offered at least some sort of modesty.

It also hid her weapons. Throwing stars disguised as brooches. Blades tucked into the folds. Chain mail was stitched into the fabric, making the cape into a shield.

She knew how useless it would all be against a ruler set on assassinating her that night. But she refused to die without a fight. As much as it annoyed her, she would have to trust that Oro would hold up his end of their newly re-inked deal. They were set to seek out the next ancient creature—one the king had promised would definitely try to kill her—the very next night.

A knock sounded at her door. Ella. “They’re ready for you,” she said.

Isla knew exactly what to expect. Nevertheless, her fingers shook at her sides as she walked down the halls, trailed by staff who carried baskets of crimson rose petals, crushed leaves, and freshly picked wildflowers.

Too soon, she stood before double doors, and Ella left her side. Her spine straightened. Her chin rose.

The doors opened, and Isla stopped breathing.

The ballroom had six grand staircases—one for each ruler. She locked eyes with Celeste across the room. Her friend looked determined, seeing

through this glittering ball’s mask into its bloody underbelly. By the next morning, one of them could very well be dead.

It had been twenty-five days since the rulers had been paired together, with the task of figuring out all aspects of the prophecy. Who knew if someone had identified the offense that needed to be committed again and now just needed a ruler to die?

She thought of the king’s words in the forest. He claimed the reason the curses hadn’t been broken wasn’t because it was hard to kill another ruler but because choosing the right ruler and realm to die was the difficult part.

Cleo’s assassination attempt negated all that he had said about her and the games. Isla spotted the Moonling then, at the top of her own staircase. Anger curled in her stomach. It was the first time she had seen Cleo since she had tried to have her killed.

It was quickly replaced by a dark satisfaction. That didn’t go the way you planned, did it? her smile said as she stared at the Moonling from across the room. The ruler met her gaze, but there was no triumph in it. Or anything, really. Her face was a mystery, revealing nothing.

Snow fell in sheets from clouds that crowded the glass ceiling, shadows danced along the walls, trees grew from the marble floor, silver stardust was smeared like paint down the stairs, and dozens of rings of fire hung above their heads.

Isla knew exactly what to expect. But it was still magnificent.

The rulers began their coordinated descent.

Lightlark nobles and, in Skyling’s case, representatives, awaited below. Many stared at her dress. Some whispered and grinned at each other behind ornate fans, as if gossiping about her impending assassination. Coins clattered as they were exchanged between hands. Were there bets on rulers’ deaths?

Some Moonlings regarded her with clear malice. Perhaps the nobles she and Celeste had killed were their friends. Or family.

Isla stared them down and hoped they feared her.

As soon as her heel reached the marble floor, a single brave man peeled away from the crowd. A Starling in a silver suit. Other nobles gasped at his foolishness. He bowed his head and offered his hand. “Would you honor me?” he asked.

Normally, Isla might have refused. She already felt on edge and off-kilter, the snow and smeared starlight and flames bright in every corner of her vision.

But it was important she appeared unaffected by the prospect of the first rule expiring at midnight. Fear would only make her an easier target.

Isla took the Starling’s hand, and he immediately whisked her into the center of the ballroom. Poppy had taught her all the traditional dances. She moved effortlessly through the steps, as easily as twirling her blades in her hands, and the Starling kept up, spinning her perfectly, keeping a firm hand on her lower back and his feet away from hers.

The song changed, and she had another dance partner. Then another. Another. Celeste was nearby, dancing with just as many people, doing a better job at looking like she was having a good time.

Cleo was sitting in one of the corners of the room, surrounded by Moonling nobles.

Watching her. Waiting?

Azul stood by a long spread of food, goblet in hand. He wore a cape entirely made up of Skyling jewels, his every knuckle glimmering with gems. From across the room, he gave a nod of appreciation to the large diamond teardrop earrings she wore that skimmed the sides of her neck.

She smiled back politely.

Some nobles tracked the exchange, perhaps suspecting an alliance.

Good. Let them suspect anything but the truth.

She thought back to the conversation she had heard between him and Oro. Had he really not been speaking of her realm?

If so, which realm had he been speaking about ending?

No one was busier than Oro, who lingered by his throne. He wore gold, as always, with sleeves covering every inch of the bluish gray she now knew was growing down his arm. Dozens of nobles surrounded him, asking questions he answered lazily between sips of drink. But his eyes were alert. A handful of women seemed determined to get a bit closer to him, not afraid to discreetly push each other out of the circle to do so. Isla rolled her eyes. Just when she was about to look away, he met her gaze. And nodded before taking another swig of wine.

She looked around for the last ruler . . . but didn’t see him anywhere.

After yet another dance, she excused herself, her head spinning and throat dry from small talk. She stumbled out into the hallway, into the closest room, and closed the doors firmly behind her.

It wasn’t a room at all. At least, not one with four walls. Her steps echoed against the stone floor until she reached an interior balcony. There were more of the same levels, above and below it, like layers of a cake crafted out of marble. Her eyes closed and her fingers gripped the railing as tightly as if it was a starstick that could transport her anywhere else.

Isla hated the fake smile she had worn all night. She hated the nobles who had watched her every move. She hated how closely she had watched the clock, every bell marking the hours making her stomach sink with dread. She—

“Looking for me, Hearteater?”

Isla whipped around, and Grim was there, towering over her. He wore a much nicer version of his typical clothing, a black suit with a shining cape.

He took in her every inch and grinned. “Now you look satisfyingly terrifying, don’t you?”

Sparks twirled around her bones, and his grin widened, sensing it . . . sensing how he made her feel.

She didn’t even bother hiding it. Not tonight. Not with everything else going on in her mind. Grim was the least of her worries.

“I didn’t see you,” she said.

He shrugged. “Sometimes the only way to keep people from bothering you is to not let them see you at all.”

Isla wished she’d had that power an hour ago. “Then why bother going visible again?” she asked, her voice barely above a whisper.

Grim took a step toward her. Took her hand into his with such brazen possession that she nearly took it back. “To dance with you, of course.”

Before she could say a word, she was whirling around, the sheer bottom of her dress draping across the marble floor, leaves crinkling. His hand, cold as night, was at the base of her spine—the other wrapped completely around hers.

His grin was devilish, and she swallowed, knowing exactly what he was sensing as her hand gripped one of his wide shoulders, as she looked up at eyes that might as well have been two pools of ink, the space between stars.

Did it frighten him? Everyone in the six realms lived in fear of having a Wildling love them. It was a death sentence.

And she didn’t love him . . . she barely knew him.

But shouldn’t he be afraid of what she was feeling now?

She pressed herself closer, completely against him, reading his reaction, surprising herself with her boldness. And Grim only laughed darkly. His hand ran a slow trail down her spine—then up once more. “Hearteater,” he said into her ear. “You’re killing me.”

Isla didn’t breathe. His breath was against her cheek. He smelled like stone and storms and something spiced, like cinnamon.

She bit her lip, and he watched the movement, swallowing. Then he was gone.

No, not gone. Invisible. And so was she.

A crowd of nobles entered a moment later. Their voices were high-pitched with the pleasure of passing along gossip, though Isla didn’t pay attention to their words. Grim was shadowed next to her, visible . . . but not truly there. Her own body looked similar.

The sight of the nobles made her sick. Betting on lives. Looking at her as if she deserved to die, simply for being born.

Suddenly, she craved a distraction. The ball would soon turn bloody. She would either stand and fight—or flee to a safer location. She still wasn’t sure. What she was sure about was that these could be the last few minutes that she didn’t have to watch her back, the last hour she might enjoy just for herself.

“Let’s go,” she whispered. They were both leaned against the balcony, facing the crowd.

Grim raised an eyebrow at her. “Leave the ball?”

“Just for a bit. Right now, I want to be anywhere else.”

Grim grinned wickedly. He wrapped his arm fully around her waist. “Then allow me to whisk you away, Hearteater.”

He fell back and took her with him. They plummeted right off the interior balcony, backward, to the floor below.

Grim’s hand was over her mouth before she could scream—half a moment later, she was in his arms. It was all a blur, the marble and ceiling

lights and the sheets of her gown mixing to make their own galaxy, and then she was on the ground.

Isla looked at him like she wanted to gut him, and he just laughed. The nobles were huddled like wolves above, oblivious to them. She ceased being shadow, and Grim went solid before her. He took her hand once more and said, “Night is a wicked time, Hearteater . . . you can get into all sorts of trouble.”

Trouble. That was exactly what he was, leading her through room after room before turning into a hall. He knew the way well, and Isla had almost forgotten that it had been his home once. Centuries before.

Grim went down a set of stairs, and Isla matched his pace. Around and around they went. Down, down, down. She was smiling—why was she smiling?—even as she could barely see the steps before her. No light shined there, the brightness of the ball far behind them.

“Where are we going?” she asked, and only got a grin in the dark in response. She almost tripped on the folds of her dress, but he held her firmly, all the way until the bottom of the stairs.

They must have been at the base of the castle—underground, maybe. Orbs holding white light crowded the corners of the room, floating like balloons. The walls were arched, held up by columns, and beyond them sat a slice of dark water like a piece of the nighttime sky trapped below.

It shimmered, startling her, and she took a step back. Right into his chest. She stilled.

Grim placed a hand on her waist. Her shoulders hiked up, his body ice-cold but leaving heat blooming beneath her skin. His fingers trailed down to her hip bone. His thumb circled the delicate skin just beyond it. Closer and closer to even more sensitive places. Isla pinched her lips together.

In her heels, she was tall enough so that when she leaned back, her head rested against his shoulder. From that angle, she imagined he could see down her dress, only a few leaves keeping her from being completely exposed. Still, under his piercing gaze, she felt bare. Breathing became difficult. One hand gripped her hip harder, pinning her to him, while the other traveled across her stomach. His knuckles trailed up her ribs, only stopping once they reached the heavy underside of her chest. They grazed her there, and she was suddenly aching, her skin prickling, heat pooling. She met his eyes and found them dark with—

She didn’t know what that was. Was it desire?

Was it . . . sadness?

“What are you thinking?” she asked, turning to face him.

Grim looked at her like he knew her, like he saw her for what she truly was and not what she pretended to be. She felt naked before him, not just because he had touched her where no one else ever had but also knowing he sensed her every change in emotion. The pulsing desire for him to touch her more, for him to pull her dress down and touch her everywhere without any fabric between them.

“I’m thinking . . .” he said darkly. Thinking what? He reached for her. And blinked. His entire expression changed.

The hand he had reached toward her now reached inside his pocket.

“. . . that I have something for you.” He pulled out a necklace. It had a dark chain, holding a black diamond as large as a plum.

Isla’s eyebrows came together. He was giving her jewelry? She didn’t know what to say. Her face was still hot. The diamond was beautiful, but she didn’t want a gem—she wanted him, pressed against her. Immediately.

Grim grinned, sensing everything. He looked ready to take her into his arms once more but seemed to think better of it, because he turned his attention to his gift. “May I?”

She nodded, hoping he didn’t mistake her disappointment for not liking his present. She lifted her hair, and he clasped the necklace into place, tight around her neck, his fingers lingering for just a moment.

“I know you are more than capable of protecting yourself,” he said, head bent low, breath against her nearly bare shoulder. “But should you ever need me, touch this. And I will come for you.”

She glanced down at it again with greater appreciation.

I will come for you. He had said it like a promise.

She needed any protection she could get. Something like this would be useful, especially after seeing his display of power. Especially now that they were minutes away from killing being permitted.


“Grim. I can’t . . . I can’t wear this.” It would be a statement. Oro had already suspected they might be working together. This would all but confirm it. She couldn’t do anything that would compromise her and Oro’s

alliance, not when it seemed like the only chance to break her and Celeste’s curses.

“I know.” Two of his fingers pressed against the chain, against her neck, and it went invisible.

She looked up at him. Didn’t know what to say, wanted to thank him . . . but the words formed and died in her throat.

Grim reached toward her again, all restraint gone, and trailed his knuckles down her cheek, the necklace, her collarbones. Down the center of her chest. “Hearteater,” he said gently. “You don’t want to know what I’m thinking,” he finally answered. Her body tensed in anticipation, taut like an arrow a moment away from careening through the air. She wanted his hand lower, higher, everywhere . . .

But he dropped it instead.

He did not touch her again on their quiet walk back to the ballroom. She wanted to say something, do something, tell him . . .

When she opened her mouth, he was already speaking.

“I need to go,” he said, looking over her shoulder. Was he looking for someone? He almost looked nervous. Wary.

Of who?

“You’re leaving?” she asked, eyebrows coming together.

“Don’t worry, Hearteater,” he said. “I’ll be back before midnight.” His gaze shifted to the corner of the room where Sunlings had gathered, Oro at their center like a sun they all revolved around. “In the meantime . . . perhaps you should dance with the king,” he said.

Oro? Isla frowned. Grim had just run his hands down her body. He had gifted her a necklace. Why would he suggest she dance with someone else? Especially his enemy.

It didn’t make any sense. Before she could ask anything, he was gone.

Isla turned around, back to the party, slightly dazed. She trailed a finger across the chain of her necklace, invisible to everyone else. It felt like another secret.

One she actually enjoyed keeping.

“There you are.” Celeste casually slipped to her side, pretending to study the table of desserts nearby. “Half an hour until midnight. What will it be? Fight or hide?”

The rules required they attend each Lightlark event. But nowhere was it specified they had to stay the entire time. She and Celeste could leave, barricade themselves somewhere safe. Her friend had suggested portaling to Star Isle and staying there awhile.

But their alliance would be compromised. And though their plan had gone to shambles, secrets were still sacred during the Centennial. Letting their friendship be known could endanger them both.

“Fight,” Isla said, surprising herself by the conviction in her voice. At the beginning of the Centennial, she would have said hide without any hesitation. But though she didn’t have power, Isla refused to be a coward. She would face Cleo’s rage head-on. That was how she would survive. Not by hiding.

“Are you—”

Before Celeste could say another word, the floor lurched. And Isla was suddenly careening through the air.

She landed on her side, temple banging against the marble.

Air shattered with high-pitched snaps of metal chains as the fiery chandeliers fell, taking most of the ceiling with them. The floor split into fractures, strikes of lightning across the marble. Cracks of collapsing stone and hissing fire filled the world—everything solid turned out to be delicate, crumbling like cake, breaking as easily as glass.

As the castle collapsed, nothing and no one was safe.

Isla only had time to reach an arm up in front of her eyes as a ring of fire fell, right at her face—but before it broke her skull, Celeste was suddenly there. The Starling raised her own arms, and it stopped midair.

Screams echoed against the stone walls, the metallic scent of both power and blood filling the room. There was a roaring, a ringing, as the world stumbled, then straightened, only to fall again.

The woman to her left, a Skyling in a cornflower-blue dress, was swallowed up by the floor. A Moonling man stood still in shock—he took a step, but it was too late. A chunk of the ceiling crushed him, no water around for him to wield in defense.

She turned to where Celeste had been. But her friend was gone. Isla’s heart pinched. She raced to her feet. Dust clouds bloomed, and she squinted through them, searching desperately for the glimmer of her silver dress, fearing the worst—

But Celeste was nearby, lifting debris off a group of Starlings.

Isla backed toward the wall, her mouth opening and closing, her lungs frozen in her chest, her hands outstretched, but doing nothing.

It wasn’t even midnight yet. What was this?

Azul was at the other side of the room, his arms working in wild strokes, creating a shield of air under which dozens of guests hid. Cleo was healing a group of Moonling nobles who had been badly burned by the fallen flames.


She found him on his knees, at the back of the room. His face was twisted with pain, and his fingers had gone through the marble floor.

That was when she realized what was happening.

Lightlark was falling. It was just as the king had described. People dying, structures collapsing. For hundreds of years, the rulers had failed to break the curses. It was finally taking its toll on the island.

But why now? Why at the ball?

She reached toward a group clinging to what was left of the floor, a bloody bridge snaking across the room. One she was able to pull up. Another fell through the cracks.

Her blades could do nothing. Her cape might shield some debris, but it was useless against the thick slabs of marble raining down around them.

If she had power, she could save them. She could wield the vines decorating the room, use them to pull people to safety.

She might not have abilities. But Oro did. He needed to get up—he could stop this.

She shouted his name. But he remained hunched over, forehead now nearly against the floor. The roar muted her voice. Furniture fell through the ceiling. He was across the ballroom. The space between them was half-gone, the rest falling without warning.

Isla cursed as she kicked her shoes off and ran toward the king. She jumped over the largest hole, sharp pieces of rubble embedding themselves in her heels upon landing. The pain was a whisper compared to the spines she had pulled from her back—if she could live through that, she could live through anything. She dodged a chair that nearly crushed her, pushing a young Moonling away from its path too and earning a look of disgust that she had dared touch him.

Next time I’ll let it crush you, she thought as she ducked beneath a piece of the ceiling that had concaved and finally made it to the king.

“Oro.” She knelt before him, the same way he had when she was on the forest floor, full of barbs and thorns.

He didn’t acknowledge her presence.

Nothing new—but this wasn’t just about her.

She grabbed him by the shoulders and said, “Get up! People are dying.

They need you!”

Oro raised his head enough to meet her gaze. His eyes were hollow. As if every ounce of energy had been drained. Another tremor shook the floor, and he growled, his fingers going deeper into the marble. The pain must have been unbearable to have brought the king to his knees.

“Please,” she begged. A few feet away, rock rained down into a pile that crushed half the group Azul had been trying to block. He rushed to fling the rubble away with his wind, but blood coated the stone. It was too late.

Oro did not move an inch. But she heard him say “Leave” through his teeth.

No. When Isla was hurt and had demanded he go, he had stayed. She wasn’t leaving. Not until he stopped this.

Isla took his shirt in two fistfuls and shoved him against the wall with all her strength, tearing his fingers from the floor. She screamed right into his face. “You might be dying, but you’re not dead yet, you miserable wretch, now get up and do something before you allow your brother’s sacrifice and everything we all have lost to be for nothing.”

Oro did not meet her gaze or get up.

But, with a groan that shook his shoulders, he leaned forward, pushing past her—and his hands fully pierced the marble. Power erupted from his touch, filling the room.

Forcing it still.

Then he collapsed against the floor.

Screams and calls for help and final breaths became a symphony that overtook the violins and harps that lay in splinters in the corner of the room, along with most of the orchestra.

When Celeste found her, and they rushed out of the room, Isla thought about the king’s words—that this Centennial was not simply another

chance at breaking the curses . . . But perhaps the last chance.

Dozens were dead. The wing of the castle had been reduced to little more than rubble. And it would get worse, Isla knew, if they didn’t break the curses soon.

She had somehow found herself in an alliance with the king. They had a plan to find the heart. Grim, Celeste, and Oro had all promised to protect her.

Even without the bondbreaker, it had all seemed almost possible to survive the Centennial and break their curses before it ended.

But as the broken ballroom doors managed to slam closed and the screams were swallowed up, Isla wondered if the island would even last the rest of the hundred days.

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