Chapter no 44 – CARMEL

Lightlark (The Lightlark Saga Book 1)

“Cleo spun the curses,” Isla told Celeste the next morning. She told her friend everything: The attack. Her and the Moonling’s conversation.

At that, Celeste had frowned. “To what end, though? If she did create them, she hasn’t acted on it. It’s not like she used the other realms’ weaknesses to invade them. She’s done nothing.”

Isla had been thinking the same thing. “I don’t know. Maybe she has

done something and we just don’t know it yet.”

She also told her that the Moonling wanted Celeste dead. And her friend only shrugged. “I figure everyone here except for you does. I’ll be more careful, of course. But I’ve never trusted her for a moment.”

Finally, Isla told Celeste that Oro had saved her. And what he had claimed.

She had readied herself for Celeste’s judgment, for her disappointment.

But the Starling almost looked pleased. “This is good,” she said. “Good?”

Celeste nodded. “I told you, I’ve been looking for the hidden library. I’m positive it’s in the Mainland castle. And he must know where it is. You can ask him. He told everyone your greatest secret—he would need to tell you. To earn your trust again.”

Celeste’s insistence on continuing to search for the bondbreaker made her want to scream, but Isla promised she would ask when the time was right, just to mollify her friend.

Since the ball, islanders had sequestered themselves on their isles. The lack of power being used on the Mainland had quickened its crumbling.

It was no time to celebrate. Isla and Oro needed to search Moon Isle’s last few locations as soon as possible, before time ran out. Before Terra was nothing more than wood and vines.

But Oro was bound to the rules of the Centennial with his life. And Isla had to follow them if she wished to win.

On the seventy-fifth day, Carmel went on as planned.

A twenty-four-hour carnival meant to celebrate the last quarter of the Centennial, Carmel was a celebration of the realms for all islanders, not just nobles. Isla didn’t think anyone would show up for the event, not with what had happened at the ball, but, sure enough, the day before the carnival, shops opened their doors once more. People started filling the streets.

Isla didn’t need to attend the entire event—just some of it. She skipped the picnic in the morning. The festivities on the east side of the Mainland in the afternoon.

She wondered if Cleo would make an appearance, given her suspicion that the Moonling didn’t care about the rules. If she had spun the curses, she would want to keep them intact . . . not break them.

The Moonling would also want to keep anyone else from breaking them too.

Isla waited in her castle all day, listening at her window for echoes of the festivities. Music played far away. Glasses clinked as the celebrations moved toward the castle, into its gardens.

If tonight hadn’t been Carmel, she would be on Moon Isle, searching the final locations. Both of Terra’s legs were underground now. Flowers bloomed from the crown of her head.

It wouldn’t be long before the forest took her completely. It wouldn’t be long before there was no forest left.

One day of rest, she told herself. Then she would find the heart and get everything she wanted.

“You look ridiculous,” Celeste said.

It was just after dusk. The Starling had just returned from the festivities to call upon Isla. Isla had moved back into her room at the castle, at Oro’s insistence, since they were working together again. He promised he would take precautions to keep her safe.

Guards heavily monitored their hall. The king himself checked on her throughout the day.

Celeste and Isla were both dressed in elaborate, gleaming representations of their realms. The Starling ruler was covered in crystals, from the top of her neck to her long gloves and down to the fabric that puddled at her feet. Her hair was spotted with tiny diamonds that looked like stars that had been coaxed down from the galaxy just for the day.

That night, Isla was a rose in bloom. A crown of flowers had been placed atop her own, bright red against her dark hair. Pink petals had been pressed against her neck and trailed onto a bodice split into three parts. They became more and more elaborate until her waist—cinched tightly by ribbons crisscrossed down her spine—before blossoming from her hips in giant sheets. Rows of petals, all knitted together, trailed all the way to the floor. Her cape was a train of roses that ran five feet behind her.

They couldn’t walk into Carmel together. Oro likely knew of their friendship if he and his guards had been tracking her movements. But that wasn’t particularly alarming. Of course the youngest rulers would become friends. Still, they didn’t want anyone suspecting their alliance had predated the Centennial.

Celeste promised to be close by. And Isla only planned to stay a few minutes. Vendors lined the streets outside the castle, selling pickled porridge, elderberry scones, spun sugar that really did spin, and goblets and goblets of drink. Revelers from all daytime-dwelling realms roamed through the festivities, dressed in elaborate versions of their colors, their wariness fading with every second that passed without a disaster. Starlings wore glitter, Skylings wore hats that floated precariously above their heads in the breeze, and Moonlings wore white formal suits and dresses.

Everyone was staring at her. She imagined news of her powerlessness had spread. Though most of them had seen her at the duel. They had witnessed what she could do with a blade. She twirled one through her fingers, watching them back. Daring them to make a move.

Isla immediately noticed she was being followed. But not by Cleo.

Oro had arranged a guard of about half a dozen to trail her through the gardens. They were discreet, but Isla could feel their eyes on her.

Their protection made her bold. When a Starling carrying a tray of drink passed her by, she took one of the goblets.

She knew the odds of finding the heart and getting its power. This could very well be her last celebration. Her last chance to try wine.

Isla swallowed the drink.

It tasted like malted honey and burned its entire way down her throat.

The guards continued to trail her throughout the gardens. It only took a few moments before she began to feel weightless.

Wine couldn’t be that strong, could it? Had it been some sort of celebratory drink that was more potent than usual?

Celeste would know. Nobles stared at her as she walked past, searching the crowd for her friend. She didn’t see her anywhere. Perhaps she had left. Maybe she hadn’t been able to find Isla and went searching for her in her room.

Time to go, she thought. She had been at Carmel long enough to satisfy the rules. And the drink’s effects were firmly taking hold.

By the time she stepped up the stairs of the castle and into the halls, the world seemed to be stumbling. Or maybe that was her. She was hot, too hot, the ridiculous outfit sticking to her like molasses. She took off her flower crown and let it drop on the ground. She peeled off the petals that trailed down her neck, choked by them. The entire outfit was entirely too much. She undid her cape and let it fall behind her. Already, she felt so much better. Freer. Wilder.

Isla imagined the guards trailing her finding the bits of her dress and laughed.

All her worries had fizzled away like bubbles in champagne. She couldn’t even think of one of her fears for more than a few seconds if she tried—they were slippery in her mind.

Isla smiled as she began picking the petals off her dress. “I bet a flower has never picked itself . . .” she said to absolutely no one. Then she laughed as she ripped the bottom layer off, stepping out of it with relief.

She turned around and found herself in a hallway she didn’t recognize. Had she already passed her room? Had she been too busy ruining her ridiculous dress to notice? She shrugged and kept going, unraveling herself until the flower dress ended high above her knees, leaving behind a trail of petals. She walked until she reached a dead end. Isla frowned at the wall, then whipped around at the sound of a voice.


She smiled far too wide, excitement flooding through her veins as quickly as the wine had. “Oro,” she said, his supposed nonbetrayal feeling worlds away. All she remembered was she was supposed to be nice to him and hope he kept his promise. She walked over to the king, bare feet stepping over petals. She must have taken her shoes off at some point. Isla

laughed at herself for what she was about to do, barely keeping it together enough to stand high on her toes and flick his crown.

He blinked at her. Then he frowned. “Are you all right?”

Isla rolled her eyes. “You’re always so angry . . . why? Do you ever smile?” Yes. He had smiled at her, just once.

She was still on her toes, and the ground seemed to slip under her like a rug. Before she could fall back, Oro grabbed her elbow to steady her. He immediately dropped her arm.

Isla scowled at him. “I’m not poisonous,” she said, rolling her eyes again for good measure.

She turned and swayed down the hall to music that seemed to be playing through her bones.

“I’ll take you to your room . . . if you would like?” he asked.

She shrugged. “Fine. I was going there . . . but the hallways changed.” She looked at him for explanation, and he glanced at her like she had said something ridiculous. Isla blinked, not knowing what it could possibly be.

He suddenly looked alarmed. “Did you drink the haze?”

Isla nodded enthusiastically. Was that what the wine was called? She was humming something. No, she was singing. She opened her mouth, and her voice flooded the halls. She liked the way it echoed, and she sang louder.

She had never felt so alive . . . like her throat and arms and face were on fire and glowing, buzzing.

Why hadn’t Poppy and Terra ever allowed her such pleasures?

She didn’t realize she was partially speaking her thoughts aloud until Oro said, “Your guardians?”

Luckily, Oro was leading the way, because she hadn’t processed any of the last hallways or turns. She nodded. “Did you have guardians?”

He was silent for a few moments before he said, “No, I didn’t. I was never supposed to be ruler, or king. My brother was the one with guardians.”

“So, what did you think you would be?” Words slipped off her tongue so easily, she wondered why it had ever felt hard to ask him anything.

“I led our armies.”

Isla stopped in the hallway. She placed her hands on her hips. “You commanded the Lightlark armies?”

She expected him to glare at her, but he didn’t. He just nodded. It made sense, though. That was why he had been so good at dueling. She started walking again, slower this time. He matched her pace. “That’s why you hate him, isn’t it?”

He seemed to know she meant Grim. While she had heard of the Nightshade’s previous title, Terra hadn’t ever told her about Oro. She wondered why. Did she even know herself? She supposed the Sunling king’s reputation and history prior to the curses had been smothered by everything that had come after them. “We both lost many warriors,” he said. “And I didn’t agree with the way he fought.” He didn’t explain further, and then they were at her door. “Are you going to be all right?” he asked. Oro looked over his shoulder, verifying the guards had followed. They had and stood in their places against the wall, guarding the entrance to the hall.

Isla nodded. “I’ll be fine.” When he turned to go, however, she caught his wrist. “Wait. I still have so many questions. Will you come in?” Oro looked like that was the last thing he wanted to do, but Isla wasn’t deterred. “I’ll make tea,” she added.

She entered. At her insistence, he followed. Oro warmed some water, and she found the pouch of Wildling spices and flowers that made her favorite drink, a tea she called yellow bee.

“Why yellow bee?” Oro asked before taking a sip. He seemed to like it.

Isla plopped down next to him on her couch and shrugged. “The plant that grows these flowers was always swarming with bees,” she said. “I used to get at least three stings every time I tried to collect them for tea. But it was worth it.”

Oro gave her a strange look.

“You haven’t been sleeping well, have you?” she asked, leaning toward him, squinting at the purple beneath his eyes.

She expected him to ignore her question, like he had before, but he said, “No. I haven’t for a long while.”

“Why?” Her voice, surprisingly, was gentle. Not judgmental, the way it always had been with him.

Oro looked at her tree, its fruits ripe and swollen with juice and so heavy the branches dipped. “I have a lot of guilt,” he said quietly. “That keeps me awake.” Guilt. She knew the word intimately.

“How did you find me?” she asked suddenly. She remembered that night in shatters, like a broken, scattered mirror.

“In the hallway? I followed the trail of petals.”

She shook her head. “No . . . before.” In the Moon Isle woods.

The air cooled and stilled, and Isla hummed softly to its current. “I heard the bird,” he said. “That’s how I found you. I followed the bird.”

Stupid bird, she thought. The same one that had almost gotten her killed.

At least it had done some good.

She was suddenly tired, her energy unraveling as easily as her dress had. Her eyelids were heavy, and she smiled. She lay down on the couch, her head against his leg. The drink made her mind spin behind her eyes, and she groaned. “I have honey in my head,” she said, because that was exactly what it felt like.

Oro laughed, and it was such a surprise that she wished her eyes would open to see if he really had.

Isla woke up warm. Wine still fogged her mind, but it was more of a mist than its previous storm. She remembered the celebration in pieces—Celeste coming for her. Noticing the guards. Drinking wine. Going to the castle. Ripping her costume off. Her eyes flew open.

Her head was in Oro’s lap, her cheek against his leg. He was leaned back against the couch, exactly as she remembered him.

Except he was asleep.

She wondered what in the realms went into wine. And knew why Terra and Poppy had kept it from her. Isla remembered her conversation the night before and shuddered—her questions had been so brazen. But Oro had answered them, hadn’t he?

How long had they been asleep? She turned to the balcony. The curtains were closed, but no sunlight peeked through their slight gap. Night, then. Which meant a party was going on at that very moment, in the gardens below.

Oro looked more peaceful than she had ever seen him. It almost pained her to poke him in his chest. But he had to attend at least the last few hours of Carmel. He startled, a hand going up quickly in defense, almost reaching her throat. His eyes were wide for half a second when he saw her across from him in the darkness. Then he straightened and lowered his hand.

“You fell asleep,” she said. “Thank—thank you for staying with me. I’m sorry, I think you missed part of the . . . party.”

Oro’s eyebrows came together a bit, and Isla wondered if he had forgotten about it. He did look better. The purple crescents beneath his eyes were fainter, the set of his jaw stronger.

Isla remembered the sound she had fallen asleep to—Oro, laughing. And not meanly, the way he always had. She had never heard him truly laugh before. As she looked at him, she wondered if she really had imagined it. He was frowning as he studied the room. As if he regretted having agreed to step inside it.

Isla rose. She didn’t dare look down at her dress, which she knew was in shambles, ripped high up her thigh. Oro didn’t look either as he stood.

“I should go to the celebration,” he said gruffly.

Isla nodded. “You should.” Without thinking, she reached up and fixed his crown, which had gone wayward while he was sleeping.

Her eyes met his when she was finished. And there was something like anger there. She fell back on her heels, surprised.

“Two more places on Moon Isle,” he said flatly, unmoved by her expression. “Tomorrow, we’ll go to one. The next day, the other. Then we’re done.”

“Good,” she said curtly before turning to her balcony and slipping through the doors.

The night air was like a caress, rustling the remaining petals on her dress. Far below, she could hear the celebration—the clink of glasses and hiss of conversation and pluck of joyful music.

She was still on the balcony an hour later when pounding sounded against her door. Her eyes rolled, expecting Oro might have returned to check on her, on his way to bed. She opened it with a sigh.

And found Ella standing there, red in the face. That was when she noticed that the party she could hear from her balcony had gone quiet. The music had died.

“What’s happened?” Isla asked, retrieving her dagger in a flash.

Ella didn’t even wince at the weapon as she said, panting, “A ruler has been attacked.”

“Which one?” she asked, roaring filling her ears, filling the world. Ella’s silver-gloved fingers shook at her sides. “Starling.”

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