Chapter no 3 – ‌‌‌FLOATING FEAST

Nightbane (The Lightlark Saga Book 2)

“Make me look like a sword,” Isla had told the Starling tailor Leto. “One that’s more blood than blade.” A mixture of Wildling and Starling. That was what she wore as she swept into the dining room.

The Sunling nobles had arrived early with their ruler. They were already seated when Isla walked through the doors, and when their eyes went straight to her—sharp and hungry—she had the unnerving feeling of being the very thing they had come to pick at and consume.

Before, she might have cowered under their scrutiny, but now she strode to the table like she didn’t notice. What could anyone on this island do or say to her that they hadn’t already done? Moonling nobles had tried to assassinate her. The others had already judged her down to the bone. In the marketplace, most people avoided her, still hating Wildlings because of their bloodthirsty curse, even after it had been broken. Her new red, metal- woven dress whispered against the smooth floor, feeling almost like chain mail, fighting against the silence shrinking the room.

She quickly marked the Sunling nobles as she passed them by. A man with long golden hair tied into a braid and dark skin, wearing a solemn expression. A tall woman, made up of about a thousand freckles, her hair the color of rust. A man who looked old—remarkable, given that even Oro looked young, and he had been alive for more than five centuries—his spine curved toward the table as if emulating the top of a question mark. He smiled at her, light skin crinkling, but it tipped more toward amused than friendly.

Oro sat at the head of the table, and he was also watching. The king would have looked exactly like he did at the beginning of the Centennial, at that first dinner, if not for his eyes. Back then, his eyes had been hollow as honeycomb.

Now, they burned right through her with an intensity that made any previous thoughts unspool around her. He almost imperceptibly traced her with his gaze. Her bare, tan shoulders. The silk-and-steel corset. The slit in

her dress revealing knee-high boots she’d had made, because they were more practical than her heels or slippers. Her long brown hair, with tiny red flowers woven through the ends. She watched him back, for just a second. His broad shoulders. Golden hair. The sharp panes of his smooth face. He had been paler before, after so many years without sunlight, but now he was glowing, radiant. He was so beautiful, it almost hurt looking at him.

She didn’t remember noticing how attractive he was at that first dinner. Was that love?

Oro looked away quickly.

As she took her place next to him, the doors opened, and a breeze blew her hair back, bringing with it the comforting scent of pine and the prickling chill of mountain air. Azul swept in with the current, feet never touching the floor. He was joined by two others, not nobles but elected officials. Skylings ran their realm as close to a democracy as was possible in a system where rulers were born with the bulk of the power, power their people’s lives hinged on.

While Azul’s hair was as dark as his skin, the woman behind him had hair the color of the sky itself, complete with a bit of white mixed in—a sign she was ancient, just like the curved-over Sunling. Unlike the old man’s, though, her posture was perfect. Her skin was deep brown, and she was small in stature.

The Skyling next to her was built like a tombstone, as solid as if he were carved straight from the Singing Mountains. He was white as the cliffs of Lightlark, and so tall Isla couldn’t see the color of his hair from the way his face was angled as he stared straight ahead. He was large enough to carry three swords on his belt comfortably, and he dwarfed all of them. Isla had the unpleasant thought that her own sword would look something like a quill in the giant’s grip.

Azul came around the table to greet Isla, though his seat was on the other side of Oro. “Your style has changed,” he mused.

His, happily, had not. The ruler of Skyling was wearing a tunic with shards cut out of its sides and bulbous sapphires in place of buttons. He wore a ring on every finger.

It was her first time seeing him since the Centennial had ended. You should have sought him out, her mind whispered. Another failing.

She wanted to ask how he was doing after watching the specter of his long-lost husband disappear once the storm cleared. She wanted to apologize for believing even for a moment that he was her enemy. She wanted to ask him how the Skylings were faring in the aftermath.

Before she could get a word out, Azul said, “We could make time to meet, if you would like.”

“I would like that very much,” she said.

“Good.” He dipped his chin and whispered, “Beware. Someone is always watching.”

He was right. Conversation had started up, but she could still feel attention fixed firmly on her. In the days that she had spent in her room after the end of the Centennial, Oro had told the island’s nobles and representatives that Isla had broken the curses and gained the power of a Starling ruler. The news had swiftly spread among the people of Lightlark.

The leaders sitting around her now had watched her stumble her way through most of the Centennial’s trials. They must have wondered how she, out of all the rulers, had been the one to finally put an end to the curses.

Just as Azul was seated, the doors opened once more, and a single Starling walked through. She had light brown skin, dark eyes, and a sheet of shining black hair. Her clothes were faded silver, more storm cloud than freshly sharpened blade. She froze as everyone turned to face her. Less than a second later, she recovered, walking with her head high. Because of their previous curse, Isla knew for certain that the Starling was younger than twenty-five, close to her own age.

They locked eyes, and the girl frowned. Still, Isla felt an understanding pass between them. Two people who felt remarkably out of place.

“Maren,” the Starling said simply before being seated, by way of introduction, and then she proceeded to focus very intently on the curved edge of the solid gold table.

Only one chair remained empty. Cleo’s.

It didn’t seem like the Moonling would be joining them. Chimes rang through the golden room, marking the hour. Oro stood. “After five hundred years of suffering, the curses plaguing our realms have been broken, thanks to Isla Crown, ruler of Wildling.” She felt eyes on her again. “Over the last centuries, our priority was survival. Today, we meet to discuss how we move forward. I see an opportunity for growth in every sense of the word.

To get there, we must deal with the aftermath of five hundred years of our people divided and our powers constricted in the face of new threats.” He looked around at them all. “First, let us celebrate the end of much of our suffering by sharing a meal.”

Oro was seated, and conversations began, but Isla focused only on her unsteady breathing. Nerves rolled through her stomach. The attention had already been turned to her. Soon, there would be questions. What if she answered wrong?

No one knew about her past with Grim. No one knew she was secretly also a Nightshade. If they did, they might have imprisoned her right then and there. Nightshade had been their enemy for centuries. They had been at war right before the curses. If her vision was to be believed, they might soon find themselves in another battle against them.

“We are monsters, Hearteater,” someone said in her ear. “Or, at least, that’s what they think.”

Grim. He was here.

She startled. Her heart hammered. Her gaze darted around the table, expecting to find him close by or to see some reaction from the others.

But he was nowhere. Maybe he was invisible. Her eyes strained to see even the smallest ripple in the air that might give him away. She waited for him to appear before them. Her hand inched toward Oro to warn him—


She knew what she’d heard. Or did she? It could have been her own mind. Grim had said those same words more than a month ago, when he was still pretending not to know her.

The truth was, he had known everything about her. They had a year’s worth of memories together that he had made her forget, to suit his own agenda at the Centennial. He had cut part of her life away as easily as Leto shearing excess fabric.

She didn’t know what she would do if she ever saw him again, but she didn’t need to worry about it at the moment.

Grim wasn’t there.

She had imagined it, then. Perhaps her mind had made up the vision in the Place of Mirrors too. It couldn’t be real. Grim wouldn’t kill innocent people to get to her.

She saw flashes of that vision again. Death. Children—

“Breathe,” she said to herself, before taking a deep breath, knowing how ridiculous it was that she had to remind herself, vocally, of a body’s basic function. Her nails dug into her palms, trying to keep herself in the moment, as if she were clinging to an anchor instead of becoming unmoored yet again in the shifting currents of her mind.

“Don’t forget to exhale too.” Oro.

Under the table, he placed his hand on her knee. His thumb stroked the inside of her thigh. She knew he meant it as a comforting gesture, but for a moment all her senses sharpened to his touch. Her eyes met his. He removed his hand.

A special drink was prepared, a Sunling specialty. Flaming goblets were served on floating platters by Starlings, who moved objects using their mastery of energy. Isla noticed they smiled at the Starling representative— Maren—in a friendly way.

Oro casually drank from the goblet, and the flames extinguished, not burning him in the slightest. The Sunling noble with the dark-red hair downed hers in an impressively short amount of time.

Would it burn her if she wasn’t Sunling? No, of course not. Oro would never serve his guests something that would harm them. She was the next one to drink from her own flaming goblet.

It tasted of honey and burned like liquor. The flames licking the edge of the goblet stroked her cheeks as she drank, then sank into the dregs of the drink before simmering away completely.

The first food course was pure Skyling. It was a floating feast, served in a flowerpot—miniature vegetables still tied to the roots, flying about, that one had to pin down with their fork to eat. She couldn’t place every food by name, but one had the familiar texture of potatoes, was violet in color, and had a surprising bite of sweetness. Some of the vegetables seemed to have minds of their own and playfully evaded capture, flying within the confines of their root leashes. Oro watched her try to pin down an especially active beet, amusement touching the corners of his mouth.

The second course was Starling. The fine silver plates contained a single orb. Once all were served, the Starlings snapped their fingers in unison, and the orbs exploded, revealing a cut of unfamiliar meat, carved into precise pieces. Large saltlike rocks formed a circle around the protein. Isla bit into one and startled when it burst like a firecracker in her mouth.

The Moonling course arrived last.

The Starling attendants mumbled apologies as they delivered the dishes, though they were clearly only following orders. Blocks of ice were presented with live fish still swimming within them. Their eyes were wide as they tried to navigate their quickly melting confines.

Isla felt the heat of Oro’s anger—almost enough to set the fish free— though his expression remained impassive.

Before Oro could say a single word, the doors of the room burst open.

Isla expected to see a dramatic entrance from Cleo.

A Moonling stood at the entrance . . . but it was not the ruler. The man had long white hair that reached the middle of his torso, nearly the color of his skin, and a staff in his hand.

“Soren,” Oro said. “How nice of you to join us. I presume this is your idea of a joke?”

The Moonling man—Soren—pursed his lips. “More of a statement. Excuse my late appearance, but I find I have no appetite when I consider the state of the island, not so unlike the blocks of ice before you.”

That made them the fish.

“Cleo sent you in her stead?” Azul asked.

Soren nodded. He took the empty seat that had been set aside for the Moonling ruler.

Oro stood, and the entire center of the solid gold table dropped, forming a basin. The blocks of ice rushed to the middle, then melted, filling it. The fish swam in relieved circles.

With a look that was befitting of the cold king Isla had believed Oro to be before the Centennial, he looked at Soren and said, “Now that dinner has ended, why don’t you begin by telling us where Moonling stands?”

The Moonling’s longest finger slipped across the gem atop his staff. “You are of course aware that we have severed our bridge to the Mainland.”

“Another statement?” Oro asked.

The Moonling shrugged a shoulder. “As well as a protective measure. The curses kept people in check . . . and we are aware we have enemies on the island.” His gaze landed on Isla.

She almost wanted to laugh. That was the reason he was going with?

Her? Moonling nobles had tried to assassinate her, and Cleo had,

personally, nearly finished the job. She supposed it wasn’t a leap to think she, with her newfound power, would be set on revenge.

It was still a ridiculous excuse.

Oro gave him a look. “And your armada of ships?”

The Moonling noble took a leisurely sip of the flaming goblet that had now been set before him. “So we can sail to the Moonling newland, of course,” he said. “To unite our people once more.”

That might have been partially true, but it wasn’t the only reason, and Isla didn’t need Oro and his flair to know it. Cleo had begun building her army of ships during a time when faraway travel was a death sentence for Moonlings.

“Unite them how?” Azul asked. “To bring those on the Moonling newland to Lightlark? Or bring those on Lightlark to the newland?”

The room was silent, charged with energy. This was the big question, she knew, from speaking with Oro. After the curses were cast, most of the realms had fled Lightlark to create their own newlands, hundreds of miles away. Some people had remained on the island. Would the rulers decide to move back, now that the curses were over? Would they leave Lightlark for good?

“My ruler has not decided yet,” Soren said smoothly.

Oro turned away from the Moonling in dismissal to face Azul. “And the Skylings?”

Azul motioned toward his representatives. “These are elected officials Sturm”—the giant nodded, his eyes never leaving the opposite wall—“and Bronte.” The petite woman gave the ghost of a smile.

“Every Skyling will have a choice,” Bronte said. “To remain on the Skyling newland, or join us here on Lightlark.”

That seemed in keeping with their realm.

Sturm nodded. “We have already begun teaching the newer generations the art of our flight, though the journey to or from the newland is still too long. We have contraptions that offer flight by harnessing wind for that purpose.”

Oro nodded. He made to face his own representatives when Azul said, “There is something else. Rebellion on the island is brewing. Our spies have heard the whispers, carried along the wind.”

Oro frowned. “What do those whispers say?”

“The people are not pleased with how long it took to break the curses, or our decisions as rulers.”

“Which realm?” Oro asked.

“All of them. The ones on Lightlark, at least,” he said. His gaze shifted to Soren. “Yes, even Moonling.”

Rebellion. Would the people of Lightlark really attempt to overthrow Oro, or any of the other rulers? Without heirs, their rule represented a total monarchy. Rebellion was futile, when killing a ruler would result in the death of everyone in their realm.

Their expressions were grave, but no one looked too surprised. It made Isla think rebellion was not a new concept on Lightlark.

“I plan to visit all the isles and newlands to address the people directly,” Oro said, his eyes meeting Soren’s. “Hopefully, it will give everyone a chance to air their grievances.”

He nodded at his representatives. “Enya, Urn, and Helios join me,” he said. Sunlings didn’t have a newland—all of them had stayed, along with Oro, who was both ruler of Sunling and king of Lightlark. “As many of you know, they serve the Mainland court as well. We are focused on shifting our infrastructure and routines back to normal after being nocturnal for five hundred years.” His eyes briefly met Isla’s before he said, “We are also preparing our legion. With the curses broken, we can only assume Grimshaw will take it as an opportunity to attack.”

This was in response to her vision, Isla knew. Oro was taking it seriously.

Soren frowned. “You believe he has the same ambitions as his father?” Grim’s father went to war against Lightlark, Isla knew, decades before the curses. Nightshade wanted control of the island.

“Perhaps,” Oro said. “All we know for certain is that Nightshade is more powerful than ever now that the curses are broken and our realms are divided. We must work together again to present a united front.”

There were murmurs of agreement, and hushed whispers that sounded curious about the idea of a Nightshade attack.

“Speaking of working together . . .” Soren said. His attention turned to Isla. “All of the Wildlings fled Lightlark. How is your realm faring?”

After the curses, Isla had injected power into her lands, to save her people while she recovered. Late at night, with her portaling device, she had

visited them in secret. “Wildlings have begun shifting their primary food source.” She saw clear disgust on Soren’s face, which she guessed had to do with the fact that her people had previously subsisted on human hearts. “My people have already started harvesting their own crops, but we will need aid to achieve an assortment of diet and agriculture now that they are dependent on farming. I—”

“How many of you are left?” Soren interrupted. She frowned. “I’m not sure. As you know—”

“You’re not sure?” Soren asked, eyebrow raised.

She could feel her face go hot. It was a reasonable question. The kind a good ruler would know the answer to.

“Do most of your people know how to wield power?” “I don’t know.”

“How is housing? What has the rate of reproduction been in the last century?”

“I will have to find out,” she said through her teeth. “Do you—”

“Enough,” Oro said. He turned to the Moonling. “Soren, I’m sure Isla would love to have you visit the Wildling newland if you are so curious about her people.”

Soren looked like he would rather stick his fork in his eye, but he went silent.

Isla’s gaze didn’t leave the table. Her throat felt tight. Her breathing was constricted, as though her lungs had shrunk to half their normal size.

She didn’t deserve to be a ruler. She had known that for a while, but Soren’s line of questioning had thrown her lack of wisdom in sharp relief. Poppy and Terra had ruled the realm while she trained for the Centennial, and now they were gone. She had banished them.

For the first time, Isla wondered if that had been a mistake.

The Starling representative who had announced herself as Maren cleared her throat. There was an intensity to her, an energy that coursed through the room. “For centuries, we have been an afterthought. A blip in your ancient lives. We have been treated as disposable by many. Taken in the middle of the night. Subjected to labor, and torture, and sometimes worse.” She looked at the king. “You executed those found guilty, but so many fell through the cracks.” She grimaced. “Star Isle is in ruins. I can’t

imagine the newland is faring much better.” She looked to Isla. “We need a ruler.”

How could the Starling seriously be looking at Isla for help, after seeing how badly she had just recounted her own realm’s condition?

Soren frowned. “What you ask is impossible. One cannot be the ruler of two realms.”

“She did receive the full power of a Starling ruler,” Azul remarked.

Soren barked out a laugh. “The girl can’t even rule her own realm. Now you’re ready to give her two?”

“The girl has a name—and a title,” Oro said, his voice cutting through the room. “You will address her with the respect you give all rulers, or I will use you as kindling for the castle hearth.”

Isla stiffened. Oro’s defense had been sharp. She glanced at the faces around her, but they looked abashed rather than suspicious.

Soren’s eyes flashed, but he bowed his head in respect. “Forgive me, King.”

“Don’t apologize to me,” Oro told him.

Soren begrudgingly turned to Isla and said, “I apologize, Ruler.” Isla just stared at him. He turned back to the king. “With respect,” he said, his pronounced in a particularly serpentine manner, “it does not seem wise to give a single ruler that much power . . .” He hesitated, considering his words. “You, King, are the only one meant to preside over multiple realms.” Oro’s look at the Moonling was just one shade away from casting flames. “Azul is correct. She has the full powers of a Starling ruler, and, might I remind us all, is the sole reason any of the Starlings are still alive.”

He turned to Isla. “The responsibility is hers to accept.”

Isla was silent. She couldn’t decide like this right now. As much as she wanted to put a dagger through him, Soren was right. She had just demonstrated, very publicly, that she had no idea how to properly rule a single realm, let alone two. Two of the weakest realms, the most ravaged by the curses; the ones currently in need of the most support.

“How would that work?” the woman with the dark-red hair said. Enya. Her voice was raspy and deep. She carefully appraised Isla, tilting her head to the side. “Would she be coronated? Officially announced as ruler? She already has the power; it would simply be a matter of ceremony.”

“The public will not like it,” the Skyling woman—Bronte—murmured, though not unkindly. She was simply voicing a fact.

“Of course they won’t like it,” Maren murmured under her breath. “It would make it more difficult for them to continue to exploit us.”

“What was that?” the old Sunling said, a touch too loudly, genuinely seeming as if he had not heard her.

“This is all going very well,” Soren said offhandedly to the giant Sturm, who did not so much as blink in recognition that he was being spoken to.

“I said,” Maren started, her voice growing in intensity, frustration and anger building in her expression—

“I’ll do it,” Isla said, standing, putting a bookmark in the plaited conversations.


“Are you certain?” Oro said, holding her gaze. He looked at her like they were the only two people in the room.

“Yes,” she said, not certain in anything but the fact that Maren clearly knew Isla was not the best leader . . . and she had asked for her help anyway. The Starlings must be desperate. She was not the right choice for this—of course she wasn’t.

No, that wasn’t right. She would become the right choice.

Isla couldn’t deny them, especially now after she’d heard of the atrocities that had gone on for the last few centuries. Who was she, if she sat and did nothing after learning of that horror? What would be the point of killing her best friend and breaking the curses if Lightlark and its people descended into chaos soon afterward?

“I will officially become the new ruler of Starling,” she said, meeting Soren’s eyes. “I will have a coronation.”

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