Chapter no 4 – RULES

Lightlark (The Lightlark Saga Book 1)

Isla had been born without the Wildlings’ curse—or their power. Since birth, she’d lived locked away, protected by Poppy and Terra, in fear that her realm would discover her secret.

Her mother was to blame. She broke the most important Wildling rule— she fell in love. Then she failed to kill him. Terra and Poppy always said there were consequences to breaking rules . . . and that, no matter what, curses always found their blood. Isla’s father had murdered her mother moments after Isla was born, and their spawn was powerless—her own curse, as a consequence of her mother somehow thwarting the first. Isla’s malediction was not eating hearts or killing a beloved. But being a ruler born without powers was just as deadly.

Rulers were expected to inject their power into their lands to keep their people strong. It was why Lightlark was so engorged with energy, and how the realms had survived in the newlands they had formed after they had fled the island. Without power to give, her realm was steadily dying. So far, her people had blamed their curses and length of time away from Lightlark for the deaths. But some were beginning to become suspicious of Isla.

It was her greatest secret. One that would be a death sentence at the Centennial.

One of the six rulers had to die to break the curses, according to the oracle’s prophecy. But it was worse than that. A ruler’s power was the life force of their people. So, if one died without an heir—

All their people would die along with them.

Those were the stakes of the game. Breaking the curses meant eliminating an entire realm.

The first Centennial had been a bloodbath. All the invited rulers set out to kill each other, and many of the islanders were caught in the cross fire. But the heads of realm were too skilled, too ancient already. The hundred days ended with all of them alive and the curses intact. It was decided that future Centennials would have order.

It was decided that there would be rules.

Oro stood on the steps in front of his golden throne, instead of on it. That was the first thing Isla noticed as she entered the grand hall. Leaders seemed to be constantly reminding people around them of their authority. During the few times she had visited the Moonling newland, she had seen countless ice statues carved in the likeness of their ruler, heard Moonlings speak of paying their monthly dues, saw the patrol Cleo kept constantly roaming the streets.

Was there a reason the king was hesitant to sit on his throne?

The next thing she noticed were the half dozen chandeliers of fire, overlapping across the ceiling. They echoed the flames of four hearths, burning brightly. She thought back to her attendant’s comment. The king never wanted any of the fireplaces going out.

Why not?

The rulers gathered in a circle, and Isla stood tall, ignoring the pang of hunger in her stomach. She had sneaked into the kitchens early that morning, but all she had been able to procure was some stale bread, fruit that vaguely resembled mura from the Wildling newland, and a cup of milk. A longer-term solution to her food problem would be necessary.

Celeste, across the way, looked well rested, her skin vibrant. Isla imagined her friend had visited Star Isle for the first time that morning. Perhaps there had been a ceremony honoring her. Without regular access to their leaders, the Skylings, Starlings, and Moonlings who had remained on Lightlark had created their own subgovernments. Their rulers had become seen as almost gods, figureheads they deferred to and only saw for a few months every hundred years. All rulers traditionally spent most of their time on the Mainland during the Centennial. But there were occasional exceptions.

Isla had always wondered what the different isles that made up Lightlark looked like. She longed to ask her friend all about it, wishing she knew how to work her starstick between small distances so that she could simply appear in Celeste’s room whenever she wanted. Instead, they would have to rely on using the hallways for that. And meeting up often, this early in the game, was too great of a risk.

She turned and accidentally put herself in Cleo’s path. The Moonling eyed her with too much interest. There was a sharp gleam in her gaze—a predator sizing up its prey.

Isla would pay for her comment the night before. She was sure of it.

Oro finally spoke. “Let us begin by stating the rules of the Centennial.” The air was electric, buzzing with energy.

“The first rule. A ruler may not assassinate or attempt to assassinate another ruler until after the fiftieth day.” The rule was a relief to Isla. For at least half of the Centennial, powerless or not, she would be safe. Which was why she and Celeste planned to be off the island before the ball on the fiftieth day even took place. “And, when pairs are decided on the twenty-fifth day, a ruler may not assassinate their partner.”

After the chaos of the first Centennial, the hundred days became more structured, split into parts. The first twenty-five days were dedicated to demonstrations hosted by each ruler, designed to test one another’s strengths—and worthiness of staying alive. Each test had a winner. The ruler who won the most trials would decide which pairs the rulers would split into for the remainder of the Centennial.

“The second rule. All rulers must attend and participate in every Centennial event.” That rule seemed innocuous but was dangerous, depending on what it was.

“The third rule. To participate, no ruler can have an heir.” So, their death would successfully eliminate their familial line and break the curses, according to the prophecy. It would also mean the end of their realm forever.

Each ruler received an invitation to the Centennial containing these rules. Acceptance of it meant acceptance of the three ordinances.

But every good promise was sealed in blood.

With a flick of the king’s wrist, a fire erupted in the middle of their circle. Isla knew exactly what was to happen next.

Poppy had made her practice the act, over and over—again, until you don’t flinch! Her wound would be stitched up, only to be sliced open again and again and again, until she had no visible reaction to the pain.

In sync with the others, Isla removed the crown from her head—and used its sharpest point to form a deep cut across her palm.

She did not flinch. Poppy would be proud.

Before she offered the stream of blood to the flames, there was another part to the ceremony that she had practiced. Each ruler’s blood had special

properties, in accordance with their abilities. Wildling blood was supposed to bloom flowers.

Isla was prepared, petals hidden between her fingers. When her blood finally dripped down her palm, it held a miniature rose.

Cleo’s blood hardened into ice before being seared by the fire. Grim’s blood became dark as ink. Azul’s blood suspended in the air, separating into parts, before finally falling. Celeste’s blood burst into a mess of sparks. Oro’s blood burned brightly before even reaching the flames.

The fire turned crimson, stained with their blood—then vanished.

Now, they were bound to the rules. Breaking them had consequences. For Isla, Celeste, Grim, Cleo, and Azul, it meant forfeiting claim to the Centennial’s prize: the unmatched power the oracle said would be gifted to the one responsible for breaking all the curses. Oro, as king and host of the Centennial, was bound to the rules with his life.

Was that why Oro had saved her? Did he have a responsibility to? It was unclear how accidental deaths factored into the prophecy.

What was clear was that the king of Lightlark had a plan. And it apparently involved Isla staying alive.

At least, until he wanted her dead.

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