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Chapter no 41 – LETTER

Lightlark (The Lightlark Saga Book 1)

The next morning, Isla found Celeste at her door in the Place of Mirrors. “You have sulked enough,” she said.

Isla blinked. Sulked? She had been trying to survive.

“You really are a massive fool. Do you know that?” Celeste said. Isla nodded weakly.

“Good. But you know what you are not, Isla Crown? A failure. And neither am I. So, you got betrayed? We expected this. We knew we could trust no one. Or did you forget?”

Isla’s back teeth bit together painfully.

“We didn’t plan for years to be stopped by this,” she said. “And all hope is not lost, not yet.” She surprised Isla by grinning. “I’ve been speaking to the Starlings who work in the castle, your Ella included. About the hidden library.”

Isla resisted the urge to scream. The bondbreaker was a lost cause. She knew that. Her friend’s insistence on finding it was getting infuriating. Isla needed a real solution—not a legend.

Still. Celeste could have abandoned her the moment the rest of the rulers had learned her secret. But she hadn’t. So, Isla said, as gently as she could manage, “Do any of them know where it is?”

“Not yet—but they’re looking. I have them each searching a specific section of the castle and asking around to anyone they—”

Isla gave her friend a look.

Celeste lifted her arms over her head. “So, what’s your plan? Sit and hide here until the island falls apart around us? Wait until Cleo and the king find the heart—if it even exists—and kill you? Wait until the Wildling realm is officially extinct?” Isla bristled. Even though that was exactly what she had been doing.

She had told her friend about what she had seen in her puddle of stars.

She had shown her.

I will help you, her friend promised. But Isla knew nothing short of the power promised in the prophecy would save the Wildlings in their state of

deterioration.

Her problems seemed insurmountable.

How was she supposed to find the heart of Lightlark when everyone now not only wished to kill her but knew they easily could? The moment she stepped out of the Place of Mirrors, she would be a target.

How was Isla supposed to win now?

She looked down at her hands. Her shaky words surprised her. There was a lump in her throat, and the corners of her eyes prickled. “I don’t want to give up,” she said honestly. Every time she closed her eyes, she saw her guardian. Suffering. Slowly becoming part of the forest. Poppy and Terra were counting on her . . . and Isla had purposefully gone against all their plans and preparation. She had truly thought that she could fulfill her duty and get what she wanted most on her own terms. How foolish she had been. “But how can I not? We have no plan. No allies.”

Celeste took her hands in her own. There was something bright in her eyes, an intensity like two glimmering stars. “We have exactly what we started the Centennial with. Each other.”

If only that were enough.

If she had power, she could face off directly against Cleo and Oro, maybe even get the heart from them, instead of waiting to be slaughtered.

The Starling ruler paced the room quickly, as if invigorated by her own words. “This game is not over. We’ve been on the island over two months. We must have made some sort of progress, some connection. Someone here must be able to help us.”

Connection.

Celeste’s word gave her an idea. Her breath caught. Her thoughts scattered. One person had proven useful, time and time again. Someone who dealt in secrets.

And if Isla had learned anything during the Centennial, it was that secrets were everything.

“Parchment,” Isla demanded.

The Starling ruler smiled. “I’ll be right back.”

An hour later, Celeste returned with parchment, ink, and Ella. The Starling now knew of their friendship, but Isla didn’t worry. Not when Ella had been loyal and was one of Celeste’s people. It was in her and her realm’s interest to keep their secrets.

Isla wrote the letter quickly, showing it to Celeste before folding it in half and handing it over to Ella to be delivered.

Finished. Isla had done something . . . She wasn’t giving up. Not yet.

As Ella left with the letter, Isla felt a spark of hope. She might be young and powerless and foolish. But if Oro and Cleo had found the heart, they would have already used it. One of them would be dead, and the curses would be gone.

Something had gone wrong.

Celeste was right. The game was not over. Not yet.

The letter was for Juniper, whose bar had been closed since the ball. If anyone knew the location of a rumored hidden library, or anything at all that could help her win, it was him.

It read, Details of my greatest secret in exchange for yours?

Isla couldn’t sleep. And, it seemed, neither could Grim. He stood with his back to her in the long room, staring out a window—a threshold he could not pass. He took a deep breath, and his head fell back as he exhaled, as if just seeing the dark beyond invigorated him.

She took a step, and he whirled around. He looked surprised. Relieved.

“Heart,” he said quickly, forgetting the last part of his name for her again. Was she no longer “Hearteater,” now that he didn’t have to pretend not to know her secret? Grim took long strides toward her, never once breaking her gaze, and, before she could say a word, he swept her into his arms.

She made a sound she had never made before, and he touched her possessively, like he knew her every inch and wanted more, wanted everything. Soon, his armor was on the floor, next to her puddle of a dress, and—

Isla gasped as she sat up, blinking away the bits of dream like the scraps of dress that Grim had . . .

She swallowed.

Just a dream.

Just another— Dream.

The next day, Isla could hardly meet Grim’s eyes when he visited her in the Place of Mirrors. He came whenever he could, walking into the castle like anyone else, unable to use his flair to get inside. Juniper hadn’t replied yet, but she hadn’t lost hope that he would. The barkeep wouldn’t be able to resist her secrets. Not if he had heard about her powerlessness.

Grim had brought her chocolate from the market. She thought all the shops in the agora had closed after the ball, when the island had started crumbling in earnest. But she supposed Grim could be very convincing when there was something he wanted.

Isla had almost been able to feel his hands on her during her dream. It had been so vivid, the way he had—

“Hearteater?” She blinked.

He grinned. So wickedly that Isla scoffed. Her eyes narrowed into a glare.

“Did you—did you send me that dream?” she asked, voice very tight. Nightshades had that ability. With her own eyes, she had seen him create illusions during the demonstrations. “Have you been sending me all of them?”

Isla thought about Grim more than she should. But the number of times she had dreamed of him was absurd. He filled her head nearly every night.

She should have known. All those dreams she’d been having lately . . .

“What dream?” was all the Nightshade said. But his eyes looked devious.

She got up from her makeshift bed and stormed over to him. Something about him planting the dream in her mind felt invasive—no matter how much she had liked it—and her hands made angry fists at her sides. “You know very well what dream.”

Grim had the nerve to still feign confusion, though the corners of his lips twitched, fighting not to grin. “I’m not sure what you mean,” he said. “But . . . from what I’m hearing . . . and sensing . . . it might be one I would enjoy hearing more about . . .”

She fought the urge to stomp on his foot before sending him away for the day.

Isla tentatively stepped out of the Place of Mirrors the next morning.

She expected to find Cleo’s legion waiting, or Cleo and Oro themselves, jumping at the chance to kill her.

But no one was there. No one was waiting.

Isla didn’t want to leave. It was too soon and seemed reckless. But Juniper had sent a reply—and it had hinted at something worthwhile.

I know who cast the curses, he had written.

It wasn’t the type of information she had been anticipating, but it seemed crucial. All this time, she had been focused on how to break the curses instead of who had created them.

She didn’t know how this would help her win the Centennial. But it was a start. It was the only lead they had.

When she and Celeste entered the agora, Isla’s pulse quickened. Again, she anticipated an attack. Just like at the harbor. People jumping out of the shadows.

But it was abandoned. No islanders lingered. The only sound was the creaking of shop signs, coated in dust, moving in the wind.

Celeste scrunched her nose as they walked into the pub. Isla squinted. Though it hadn’t seen patrons in weeks, the smell of alcohol had intensified, so strong it burned her eyes.

And there was something else—another scent.

Isla raced to the bar and peered over it, only to gasp. A scream scraped the back of her throat.

There was a message. Scrawled in blood.

No, not just a message. A response. She remembered the words she and Celeste had painted after the attempt on her life at the harbor: Try harder.

Written across the wooden cabinets that housed shelves of bubbling drink were the words Hard enough?

And below the words, Juniper was dead.

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