Chapter no 17 – ‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌CINDER

Nightbane (The Lightlark Saga Book 2)

Star Isle was in ruins. Its castle looked long abandoned. Towers lay in the sparkling silver dirt. Windows had been blown open. The pathways were covered in rocks and trash. Ciel and Avel flew above, circling so high up she had to squint to see them. Ella was at her side.

Maren, the Starling representative from the dinner, met them at the entrance of the crumbling castle. There was a little girl with her, with the same shining dark hair, wide eyes, and light-brown skin. “My cousin,” she said curtly. The cousin stared at Isla and opened her mouth to say something a few times, but Maren gave her a look, and the little girl went quiet. “They’re all in the throne room.”

“Is everyone all right?” Isla asked. The Sunling guards at the bridge hadn’t seen the rebels. There were Skylings in the rebel group—they must have flown in from another isle. Their motivations were a mystery. Why only target her? “Did the rebels . . .”

“We’re safe. Thankfully, it seemed they were just recruiting. Or, perhaps, looking for something.”

She frowned. “Why do you think that?”

Maren raised a shoulder. “Why else venture through the crypts? They’re dangerous. All Starlings know that. No one goes inside them unless they’re desperate.”

When she walked into the castle, Isla’s stomach plummeted.

Much of the room was empty, and everyone was breathtakingly young.

Children, mostly. Only a few dozen looked to be around her age.

They watched as she walked through the crowd, to the front of the throne room. There were no seats, and because they were all standing, so did she.

“I don’t know what I’m doing” was the first thing that came out of her mouth, and she almost instantly regretted it.

They just stared at her. There was just silence, until a voice said, “No one here does,” quite cheerfully.

“Cinder!” Maren said, shooting her cousin a look. “Forgive my cousin, Ruler.” The girl couldn’t be more than eight years old, and she didn’t stop beaming, even when Maren elbowed her side. Some people around her nodded.

“It’s okay,” Isla said, smiling at Cinder. She felt a little better . . . and worse. It might have been a relief to get here and see that someone had everything taken care of. “How many Starlings are left on Star Isle?”

“There are a hundred or so more,” a man closer to her age said. He looked to be one of the oldest among them, with a strong jaw, messy silver hair, and white skin. “Give or take.”

She frowned. “Did they know about the meeting?”

The man smiled without humor. “They knew.” There was something in between his teeth that he was chewing, long and glimmering.

“Okay.” Isla wove her fingers together and drew in a breath, straightening her spine. She wouldn’t let opposition deter her; it was to be expected. First, then, the simple questions. “Where do you all live?” She waved a hand around the throne room. “Here? In the castle?”

There was a bubble of laughter somewhere in the crowd.

Some of us do,” Maren said, looking pointedly at a group of Starlings Isla could now tell apart from the others. Their clothes were nicer. They wore fine strings of constellation-like diamonds around their necks and wrists.

The nobles. Of course. She recognized some of them from the Centennial. There were eight of them in the group, all with different features, hair textures, and skin tones. Unrelated, it seemed. The last of their lines?

She turned back to the group. “And the rest?”

The man with the reed between his teeth lifted a shoulder. “We can show you.”

Yes. That would be better. She still had so many questions. How did they source food? Did most of them know how to wield power?

Celeste—Aurora—had demonstrated her realm’s capability for making weapons during the Centennial. Did they have stores of them?

Before she ended the meeting, there was something she needed to say.

“Your ruler was my friend, I thought. I took her power to save this realm.” She lifted her palms. “I didn’t want to be your ruler. But I will be

what you need me to be,” she said, surprising herself with her words. “Right now, things are difficult. Starlings died in the attack of the dreks. We are preparing for the possibility that it was one of potential future Nightshade attacks. Rebels were spotted just yesterday.” She looked around. “I am here for you now, and together we will navigate this new chapter. Your ruler’s death will not be a waste. Tell me what you need.”

There were whispers. No one spoke up, though, not for a minute.

Then, Maren said, “What we need most is for you to stay alive. You gave us a chance at a long life. We intend on using it.”

Isla asked Ella to stay behind and write a list of any immediate grievances and necessities. She figured the Starlings would be more comfortable telling someone familiar what they needed.

Maren and the man chewing the reed between his teeth—Leo—led her to where they lived. They were bickering in front of Isla in a familiar way.

Maren’s cousin fell back to walk by Isla’s side. She could feel Cinder’s eyes on her, and after a few minutes of clear staring, Isla finally turned to look.

“Yes?” she coaxed gently. “What’s the king like?”

Isla blinked, startled. It wasn’t the question she’d been expecting. No one on the island knew that they were . . . she didn’t really know what they were.

Of course, the little girl didn’t know that. As a ruler, Isla would obviously have been in contact with him. She was just curious.

“Brooding,” she replied, giving Cinder a wink. Maren must have heard, because she snorted in front of her, unexpectedly. Within a moment, she was back to her rigid posture.

The little girl’s eyebrows came together. “What’s brooding?” she asked. Before Isla could respond, she yelled to her cousin, “Maren, what’s brooding?”

Her cousin ignored her and started fighting with Leo again. “He’s just

. . . serious,” Isla explained. There were a thousand other things he was that she wouldn’t tell the little Starling girl. “Haven’t you seen him?”

She shook her head so hard, her short, wavy hair hit the sides of her face. “No. Maren doesn’t let me go on the Mainland and keeps me inside

when he visits. What’s the Mainland like?” Isla frowned. “What? Why—”

Maren turned around and said, “That’s enough, Cinder. Stop bothering our ruler,” before taking her wrist and pulling her ahead.

They led her to a row of abandoned buildings composed of towering silver columns, broken stairs, and missing cobblestones.

Isla watched as Starlings darted into different structures, walking expertly over the smashed steps.

Maren, Leo, and Cinder turned into one of the buildings, and Isla followed, careful of her footing. Silver vines and leaves curled through every gap in the place. The ceiling was high and vaulted. Centuries before, it must have been a royal assembly hall. Now, it housed dozens of makeshift houses. Some were built of wood and stone. Most were a mixture of different fabrics and hides, pulled taut.

Isla stopped in her tracks. “This is where you live?” She couldn’t keep the shock out of her tone.

Cinder studied her face a moment, then said, “What’s wrong with it?” “Go find Stella,” Maren said, motioning an unwilling Cinder away. “But I don’t want—”

Go,” Maren said. Cinder pitched her shoulders back and walked away in slow, dramatic despair.

Maren turned to Isla. There was a sharp look in her eyes, as if she might scold her, if she wasn’t her ruler. “Two years ago, a fire burned down where we used to live.” She looked quickly over to where Cinder had wandered off to, still slowly making her way to wherever she needed to go. “This is where we went.”

“This is where some of us went,” Leo clarified. “Others went their own way.” Someone called his name, and he nodded at Isla before jogging over to the other side of the structure.

Isla shook her head. “I don’t understand. Star Isle is massive, and there aren’t many of you left. Why didn’t you simply go to a different set of houses? Or live in the castle?”

“The castle belongs to the nobles,” Maren said. Isla was about to object to that when she added, “And the specters. They’re too troublesome to live among . . . dangerous too.” Isla remembered the specter that had entered her body, and had wanted to stay in there forever, and immediately understood.

“Most of the residences are on the far side of the isle, and we don’t go there anymore.”


“Creatures took over, centuries ago. Anyone who goes east of the forest never returns.”

The creatures Ella had mentioned.

Anger surged in Isla’s chest. Aurora had visited the island every hundred years for the Centennial. She had known about all this and had done nothing. Of course she hadn’t. She’d clearly never cared about anyone but herself.

Isla shook her head. This isle needed far more help than she had realized.

A thought prodded at her. “Why haven’t you let Cinder leave Star Isle?” Maren looked at her with what could only be described as contempt. “I told you all during the dinner. During the curses, the other isles treated Starlings as disposable. Our lifetimes are—or have been—just a blink compared to others’. We were often taken. Abused. Killed, even. Especially since many of us haven’t learned to wield . . . there’s not much in the way

of protecting ourselves.”

“Not anymore,” Isla promised. “I won’t let anyone harm any of you,” she said, and she meant it, though she didn’t know how she was going to keep that promise.

Maren smiled, but it was tight, like she didn’t quite believe her.

When she returned to the castle, Oro was waiting for her. His posture was rigid, as if worry had hardened his body into stone. His eyes lit in relief when she approached. “How did it go?” he asked.

She let him into her room and told him everything. He listened and asked a few questions, but she could feel him studying her. Finally, he took her hand. Smoothed his thumb across it. “I’m worried about you,” he said.

Isla frowned. She motioned toward herself. “Oro, I’m fine—”

“You’re not sleeping well . . . it doesn’t seem like you’re eating well either . . . You seem haunted,” Oro said. “What is haunting you, Isla?”

Her mouth fell closed. She wanted to tell him. She really did. But part of her thought if she said the words aloud, it would make the memories

more real, and they would come at her at full force. She didn’t want to remember. She just wanted them to stop.

Oro was right, though. She was being haunted. It wasn’t what was haunting her, but who.

She didn’t want to think about Grim right now. The only time her thoughts of him stopped was when she was with Oro.

She took a step toward him, and she changed the subject. “I missed you, the last few days,” she said, and it was the truth. Spending time with the Wildlings was important, but she had started to expect Oro’s presence. He was always there for her. So patient when they practiced. Even now, he recognized the signs that she wasn’t fine, when no one else did. He knew her.

Isla wanted to know him.

“I missed you too,” Oro said, looking surprised the words had fallen out of his mouth. He frowned, clearly frustrated that she had shifted the conversation.

She stared at his mouth. That mouth. How was it possible that they both knew they loved each other, yet they hadn’t so much as kissed?

Her heart began beating unsteadily. She wanted to know what it was like to touch him. She wanted to feel his heat against her bare body as they explored each other’s every inch in the dark.

Before she could say or do any of the things that had raced across her mind, Oro pressed his lips against the top of her head, said, “You need to rest,” and left.

She might have been more annoyed if he wasn’t right. Her body felt like it weighed a million pounds.

That night, she was so exhausted, she fell into her deepest sleep in weeks.

You'll Also Like