Chapter no 5 – GRIM

Lightlark (The Lightlark Saga Book 1)

The next morning, when Isla’s attendant knocked on her door, she was ready.

She hadn’t been allowed weapons, but she had been allowed a trunk of belongings. She applied kohl to her green eyes, in perfectly arched streaks. Her lashes were already thick and long, but she curled them even more. Spread a balm across her full lips that brightened their natural shade. Her skin was naturally tan, but she still looked too pale for her liking, having spent far too much of her life inside.

That would be easily remedied. Now that she was free to explore, she had no intention of locking herself in her room.

The few dresses from her trunk looked more like a collection of sewn-together ribbons. Sheer, bare, and so smooth they looked liquid. In the Wildling realm, in the constant seclusion of her chambers, she could get away with wearing loose, soft clothes. But this was the Centennial, and Poppy had chosen these gowns for a reason.

A reason that made Isla want to throw them all into the closest fireplace. That day, she chose a dress the pink of tulips, with a plunging back and fabric that clung to her like it was wet. It was tradition to wear the color of one’s power source. Starlings wore silver, Sunlings wore gold, Skylings wore light blue, Nightshades wore black, and Moonlings wore white.

Because nature was multicolored, Isla was not bound to one shade, as long as she did not infringe upon anyone else’s.

The Starling girl startled when Isla answered the door so quickly. Isla did not waste a moment. “What is your name?” she asked.

“My name?” the girl said with such confusion, Isla couldn’t help but laugh.

“I’m assuming you have one?” she joked, hoping her smile made it seem good-natured, not mean.

The girl smiled back tentatively. Good. “Of course. It’s Ella, lady.” She shook her head. “I mean, Isla.”

Isla dipped her head, the way she had watched people do when they were about to speak in confidence. She had heard many a secret whispered in a back alley, or on the outskirts of a village, thanks to her starstick. Over time, she had learned how to go undercover, to blend into a crowd so seamlessly that no one would guess she didn’t belong. “I notice you walk with a limp, Ella,” she said.

The Starling girl looked taken aback. She took a shaky step away, and Isla wondered if she should have waited longer . . . or if she had been too direct. The girl’s hand went instinctively to her leg. “My—my bone,” Ella finally said. “It broke a while ago and never healed right.”

Isla frowned. “Aren’t there Moonling healers here that could help?” Their skills were legendary. Beyond controlling water, healing was their power.

“At a cost,” Ella said, smiling weakly. “If at all, lately.” Isla wondered what she meant, but before she could ask, Ella added, “Also . . . I’m not so far from twenty-five. It wouldn’t, it wouldn’t—”

Be worth it. Isla winced. Even with Celeste as her best friend, sometimes she forgot about the cruelty of their curse. No Starling had lived past twenty-five in hundreds of years.

“Well,” Isla said, reaching into the pocket in her dress. “This should help.” She handed over the tub of paste, a Wildling healing elixir made from specially grown flora. The same potion that had healed the cut on her palm from the ceremony the day before.

Ella just stared at the tub placed in her hand until finally Isla curled the Starling’s fingers around the container and gently pushed her hand away, signaling for her to take it.

“Now,” Isla said brightly. “I need something from you.”

With the means to getting regular meals delivered settled, Isla set off for the marketplace, an invitation from the tailor that Ella had brought in her hands. Before participating in any of the six demonstrations, she needed new clothes. There were only so many outfits one could pack in the allotted luggage, so each Centennial, every ruler was gifted a custom wardrobe.

Today was Isla’s appointment. She heard Poppy in her ear.

Your dresses are your armor—your jewels are your weapons. They were the tools of a seductress.

It was the role Poppy had trained her for, as the first step of her guardian’s plan—which Isla had no intention of following. She might not have powers, but that didn’t mean she was powerless.

She could blend in. Listen. Hide. Strategize. All skills her and Celeste’s plan required.

Ella had insisted on escorting Isla to the agora at the center of the Mainland, where the tailor operated. The Wildling Eldress had mentioned it in her stories, as an enchanting place that blooms at night, like a flower facing the sun.

Isla had insisted on going alone. It would give her a good opportunity to scope out this part of the island, to watch the islanders from a distance, unnoticed for as long as possible.

With three words, that plan went out the window. “You’re up early.” Grim.

Isla swallowed, suddenly too aware of how tightly the fabric of her gown clung to her as she turned around.

Only to find him inches away.

Isla stumbled back. It took her a moment too long to find her voice. “So are you.”

Grim lifted a broad shoulder, looking down at her just as she was forced to crane her neck up to maintain eye contact. “I like to take advantage of any time I can be out.”

Right. His curse was the mirror of Oro’s. Nightshades could not feel the energy and calm of night. Though they used to be nocturnal, choosing to live in darkness, that all changed five hundred years before.

“And I have business in the agora.” “As do I,” Isla said.

Grim grinned. “Good. I hate walking alone.”

Guards stood along the entrance and noticeably stiffened as Grim passed. Isla tried not to think about all the terrible things she had heard about Nightshades. About him. She tried and failed, and though her chin was held high, her legs went boneless beneath her.

Terra always said they were the most dangerous of the realms. Nightshades drew power from darkness, while all others drew from light.

Rumors of their abilities abounded—the power to disappear, move through walls, spin nightmares, wield darkness itself.

Grimshaw had a reputation. There had been a war between Lightlark and Nightshade, just decades before the curses were spun. He had been the most fearsome warrior. It was rumored that by the end of a battle, his cloak was always soaked through with the blood of his enemies. Which only made his clear discomfort at Isla eating the heart at dinner more confusing.

Despite Grim’s skill, Lightlark won the war, and a treaty was made.

There was peace between all realms for a while.

Then the curses were cast, and most were convinced Nightshades had spun them in revenge.

Isla didn’t know what to think. Nightshade had suffered a great loss thanks to their curse. Their realm’s leader, Grimshaw’s father, had died for the prophecy. His son had come into power immediately, back when having an heir was the norm. They weren’t allowed anymore. Rulers attended the Centennial at their own realm’s risk.

Isla knew why she was on the island. Grim’s reasons were more of a mystery. If the rulers of realm wanted anyone dead more than Isla, it was Grim. He would find no allies during the Centennial. Winning the prize of the power promised would be nearly impossible without true partnerships. So why attend—why take the risk?

What did he want?

A knowing grin overtook Grim’s sharply cut face as he studied her right back. His black hair was smooth down his pale forehead, ink across a page. “Deciding if I’m a villain?”

Isla narrowed her eyes at him. “Can you . . .”

“Read minds?” His head knocked gently from side to side. “Not really. I can read flashes of emotions. Fear. Anger.” His lips raised into a half smile. “Curiosity.”

Isla’s next breath was as unsteady as if rocks had been piled in her lungs. She was an impostor, a powerless ruler in a pack of wolves. She was skilled at playing the part of a Wildling ruler, of keeping up the facade, but her emotions were far harder to control. This power of his could be her unraveling if she didn’t learn to manage her feelings around him.

Mind abilities were common in Nightshades. It was part of what made them so dangerous. Rulers also often had one additional ability—rare

powers carried through bloodlines, popping up generations later. They had nothing to do with the stars, moon, sun, nature, darkness, or sky.

Isla wondered if on top of this, Grim had one of those.

“You’re nervous now.” He stopped and looked at her. “Why are you nervous?”

Nervous wasn’t something a powerful Wildling ruler should feel, even around the Nightshade ruler. She looked up at him, into eyes so dark they seemed endless, two galactic black holes, and pulled herself together enough to boldly ask, “Do you have a flair?”

Grim’s head tilted back in understanding. “You’re worried I have an ability I’m not telling you about. One I’m using against you at this very moment.”

No use in hiding it. In her hundred days on the island, she would have to lie, steal, and possibly kill.

Grim wasn’t part of the plan. Not yet. Isla nodded.

He raised a shoulder and started down the walkway once more. “I do. But it’s something I’ll keep to myself, for now.” Grim glanced at her. “It’s not mind reading, however. Or anything else I could secretly use on you.”

The hill ended, the grass stopped—and below, in the valley between two mountains, sat a marketplace.

Grim sighed. “Five hundred years, I haven’t been back. And nearly nothing has changed.” He turned to her, a gleam in his eye. “Hearteater— can you have chocolate?”

Isla tried to keep the hunger off her face. “I can eat my weight in it.”

Islanders flooded the marketplace, pockets clinking with coin. The hubbub was unnerving. The Centennial was a deadly game. Didn’t they understand that if the rulers were successful, one of their realms would perish? Weren’t they afraid?

It seemed the hundred days of sunshine, outside of the storm, outweighed any terror.

The agora was made up of tiny houses, all pushed together and different as each of the realms. One shop resembled a turned-over teacup, its walls made of frosted glass. Another stood tall as a redwood, smoke spilling from a chimney like a string of storm clouds. The next was held up on stilts. Yet another resembled a star roped down from the heavens, silver and glittering.

The one they entered was shaped like a winter ornament, painted bright blue. “Skylings make the best sweets, I’ll admit it,” Grim said over his shoulder before opening the door with so much force its hinges screamed. The moment Isla walked inside, she groaned from somewhere deep in her chest.

Chocolate—velvety, nutty, sugary, silky cocoa.

She had only tasted chocolate on her forays to Skyling villages on their newland, during their quarterly celebrations. Skylings made constant excuses to host parties—before storms, after storms, even during storms. But nothing like this. Nothing like the thick slabs of fudge she watched a Skyling slice into rounds with a long knife.

Grim glanced at her, amused.

The man behind the counter paled at the sight of him. He shot a look over his shoulder at his associate, who had conveniently slipped into the back room. He didn’t even register Isla.

Interesting. Being around Grim was like being a slightly smaller lightning rod in a storm—all wrath went to him.

Though he was one of the most powerful rulers, and she didn’t have any power, in the islanders’ eyes, they were both villains. Isla knew how important this was. Though, if they were successful, the rulers would decide which of them would die to fulfill part of the prophecy, the islanders’ opinions and actions could shift the course of the Centennial. Their help— or lack of it—could mean the difference between life or death, especially for Isla, who didn’t have any of her own people on the island. They were also typically invited to witness all six demonstrations.

Grim didn’t seem to notice the way they all looked at him. Or, if he did, he didn’t seem to care, unnervingly willing to play into the villainous role.

Though maybe he wasn’t playing at all.

“Two of everything,” he said lazily, pulling a handful of coin from his pocket and not bothering to count it. He set it on the counter and didn’t wait for a reply, didn’t look the man in the eye as he found a seat.

It was laughably small. His knees bumped against the top of the table. Isla slipped slowly into the chair across from him. “That’s a lot of chocolate.”

He shrugged. “You said you could eat your weight in it. I’m taking that at face value.”

Soon, the owner of the shop placed a monstrous silver tray on the table. He bowed quickly, once at Isla, then at Grim, before hurriedly joining the rest of the staff in the back room.

Isla raised an eyebrow. “Did you set fire to the agora the last time you were here?”

Grim’s knee bumped into her own, and she pulled her legs back so quickly, he grinned. “Let’s just say the islanders’ memories are long.”

Before she could ask for clarification, he plucked a truffle between two enormous fingers. “Try this one first.”

She tentatively took it, chewed it—and her eyes bulged. “Divine, isn’t it?”

Isla sank into her chair, her head lolling back. She shouldn’t be wasting precious time on a chocolate tasting. But getting to know the Nightshade— perhaps getting him to trust her—could be useful. She closed her eyes, caramel on her tongue. “Wake me up when all of this is over.”

A chuckle. Eyes still closed, she felt something rough against her lips. “Open.”

She did, and Grim dropped another truffle against her tongue. This one had a berry cream filling. A hard outer shell.

Isla tried every single one he offered. The fudge, the mint thins, a banana butter bar. Everything except for the chili pepper-powder praline.

“It’s not that spicy,” Grim said, throwing one carelessly into his mouth.

He shrugged. “A hint of heat, nothing more.” “I like my tongue functioning, thank you.”

Grim strung his long fingers together and rested his chin on the bridge they made. “So, you’ll devour hearts and blood, but not a chili-dusted chocolate?”

A joke, but dangerously close to the truth. “Fine,” she said, mumbling something else under her breath that made him grin wickedly.

Isla put the chocolate in her mouth and instantly regretted it. Her eyes watered, her mouth burned, her tongue immediately swelled. She spit it out, forgetting every manner, not even caring that the shop owner was peering at them through the kitchen window. Her nostrils flared. “You,” she said between deep gulps of water that made the pain even worse.

Grim laughed and laughed and laughed, that stupid dimple bright on his face. He tried to say something, then laughed some more, not stopping even

when he got up, even when he used his Nightshade abilities to walk through the counter as if it was nothing and helped himself to a jug of milk. Not even when he placed a glass of it in front of Isla and said, “Drink.”

She stared daggers at him the entire time she gulped it down, so desperately it dripped down her chin and the front of her dress. Villain indeed.

“Demon,” she said meanly.

He raised an eyebrow at her. “Not quite.” He frowned at her dress. “We’ll have to replace that. You’re headed to the tailor now?”

“And you know that how . . . ?”

He only answered once they were out of the store. “I was also offered a consultation with the Lightlark tailor.”

“I’m guessing your wardrobe doesn’t have much range.”

Grim frowned down at his black shirt, black pants, black boots, and black cape. “I told them I’m capable of dressing myself.”

The streets were filled with dozens of torches dug into the stone, burning even though the day was warm and the sun was out. Sunling guards seemed to be in charge of keeping them lit, flames curling from their palms.

They reached a shop with crystalline glass windows, each pane cut in an emerald shape. Inside sat a rainbow of Wildling colors—spools of fabric, ribbon, thread, and piles of pins.

All for her.

“Enjoy,” Grim said mockingly, and then he was gone.

Vanished. There one moment and gone the next. A chill tripped down her spine.

What would it be like, having a power like invisibility? She entered the shop.

A bell rang, announcing her presence. A young Starling man with pins stuck into a cushion on his wrist froze. Isla waited for his eyes to widen in disgust or fear.

But the tailor bowed gracefully. “Isla, ruler of Wildlings. Pleasure. What happened to your gown?” Before she could respond, he lifted a hand. “Not to worry—I only use giant spider silk in my shop . . . Doesn’t stain . . . strong as steel . . . and the fit is unparalleled.” He motioned for her to step onto the platform.

“Preferred colors?”

The answers that came out of her mouth might as well have come from Poppy’s, hundreds of miles away in the Wildling realm. Isla had been taught exactly what to say.

“Green. Red. Purples and pinks, on occasion.” “Preferred fit?”




He examined her. “How attached are you to this dress?” She looked down at it and shrugged. “Not especially.”

“Good,” he said, and snapped his fingers. At once, everything in the shop floated. Thanks to Celeste, Isla knew this realm’s powers well. Starlings channeled energy from the stars, allowing them to move objects. He pointed a finger, and a spool of rich, bloodred fabric flew across the room, wrapping around Isla in a flash, so fast that it replaced the pink she had been wearing before, and she only realized it when she saw her old dress in ribbons on the floor. The red wrapped breathtakingly tightly around her waist; floating scissors made rough slices; flying threads and needles sewed at an impossible speed. The tailor directed it all like leading an orchestra, hands moving gracefully in front of him. Another sheet of fabric formed a silky, gauzy cape. A bodice was expertly crafted around her, and she was tied tightly into its corset, sucking her breath.

In seconds, she was in a new, beautiful gown.

She turned to face the tailor and found someone else sitting in the shop, elbows on his knees.

“How did you get in here?” she asked incredulously.

Grim looked bored. He raised an eyebrow at her, as if to say, Is that a serious question?

The tailor eyed him—remaining surprisingly calm compared to the other islanders they had encountered—and turned his attention to Isla. “How does it feel?”

She regarded herself in the many mirrors. “Like water. The fabric . . . it’s smooth as a rose petal.”

“Giant spider silk, Ruler. I’ll get to work on your wardrobe.”

Keeping her voice as low as possible, and shooting another look in Grim’s direction, she said, “If it isn’t any trouble, in addition to the dresses,

I require something more suited for fighting. Pants. Armor.” Those instructions came from Terra. As the tailor wrote down some notes, she peered behind him, getting a good look at the back room . . . and the lock on its door.

The tailor placed his hands perfectly together, as if in prayer. He did seem to worship clothes more than most people did their rulers. “My pleasure. I will have everything sent to the castle shortly.”

Isla thanked him and glared daggers at Grim as she left the shop, knowing he would like it. Sharing chocolate had seemed to put some of her fears about Nightshades and their powers to rest. Part of her was surprised that she felt so comfortable around a man after only a few days of knowing him. And perhaps that was just what he wanted—for her to let her guard down. “Could you be less of a creep?” she said.

Grim’s expression turned serious. “If you would like me to leave you alone, I will. Say the word, and I’ll vanish.”

Isla said nothing. She wondered what Grim was playing at. Whether she could use him, and this, to her advantage.

He started walking, and she fell by his side. Islanders turned to stare as they passed and looked at her for just as long as they did Grim. She supposed she stood out in her red dress, so bright against the light blue, white, and silver the day-dwelling islanders wore. Like blood spattered in the marketplace. “You’re curious again, Isla.”

She didn’t meet his gaze. “Don’t read me. It’s rude.” He laughed. “It’s not like I can help it.”

Isla gave him a look. “The famed, all-powerful Nightshade ruler can’t control his own abilities?”

The corners of his lips turned deviously. “Famed? Well, at least I know rumors of my greatness have reached even the Wildlings.” He looked down at her, and the smile faded. “I’m glad you are having armor made,” he said, pulling something from his pocket. It was a sheet of gold foil, the same paper her Centennial invitation had arrived on. “My demonstration is first,” he said, returning the card to his black cloak before she could make out the words. He leaned low, lips getting dangerously close to her ear. “You will also need a sword.”

By the time Grim’s words sank in and the chill from his proximity had disappeared—so had he.

And Isla was left alone in the market, wondering why the ruler of Nightshade was helping her.

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