Chapter no 30 – ‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌BEFORE

Nightbane (The Lightlark Saga Book 2)

Isla counted down the days until her visit to Creetan’s Crag. She often waited up past midnight, in case Grim might make an appearance. Maybe there would be a change in their plan, another place to go.

He never came. She started to turn their last conversation around in her mind. Don’t speak about my people when you don’t know the first thing about your own.

He was right. All she knew about the Wildlings was what Terra and Poppy had told her. Her people were strangers. She only ever saw them during ceremonies.

That night, so late that she was sure Poppy and Terra were sleeping, she grabbed her starstick and portaled to the other side of the Wildling newland. Before, she’d never dared. The cost of getting caught was too great.

Tonight, she just wanted to see them. Understand them.

She had been to one of the villages before, for a short, closely monitored visit. That was where she went.

The forest scraped against her skin as she landed, purposefully trying to mark her. She stayed on its outskirts, eyes on the village. From here, she could see the backs of houses. They were worn and leaned together like a group of old friends.

Something in her burned. Her only friend was Celeste, who was currently angry at her. Since Isla had started working with Grim, her visits had become more infrequent. Celeste had noticed. Isla had made excuses, of course. Lies. With each one that slipped out, they got easier to tell. Just like Grim said about the killing.

A light burned up ahead. Someone was awake. Isla wondered if she could creep around the edges of the village, just to overhear a conversation. Just to watch. She wondered if perhaps she could try to blend in. Maybe they wouldn’t recognize her. The dress she wore was not elaborate. The only times they would have seen her would be in full costume, barely recognizable as a person underneath so many flower petals.

Just one step out of the woods. Just a few minutes walking around the village. It couldn’t hurt, could it?

She was very close to taking a step out of the forest when the choice was made for her.

“Now,” she heard, and she turned around, in time to see the hilt of a sword before it hit her forehead.

When Isla awoke, she was bound. Her hands were tied behind her, at the base of her back. Her ankles were roped together.

There were voices.

“I don’t recognize her. Do you?” “No.”

“Good. Get your dagger.”

There was a pause. Then, “She’s Wildling.”

“So? We’re starving. There haven’t been hearts in weeks.”

Isla’s vision was still blurry, but she regained consciousness quickly.


She didn’t understand. Terra and Poppy hadn’t mentioned a shortage of hearts. She knew her people were steadily weakening since she was born powerless, but she was under the impression they still had a decently steady supply.

The women left the room she was being kept in, and Isla saw her chance. She wrestled with the restraints, but they were tied tightly. With a roll of her spine, she realized they hadn’t found her starstick. It was still tucked into the back of her bodice.

She stretched her fingers up as far as they could go, twisting her wrists painfully, seeing if she could reach it. But there were still a few inches between them.

And the women were back.

“She’s awake,” one said uncertainly. There was regret in her tone. “Doesn’t matter,” the other replied.

The one who had reservations was her last chance. “You don’t have to do this,” she told the woman. Her vision was still blurry from the hit, her forehead pulsed in pain, but she could make out the Wildling’s features.

Large, dark eyes. Small nose. Long limbs, and hair down to her waist. “I’m Wildling. Please.”

She turned to the other woman, as if to say, See? but the second one simply stuck something firmly in her mouth. A gag.


Then she produced a dagger.

What a fool. She should have used her few words to tell them she was their ruler. Then they would understand her death would kill them all. She had been too worried about revealing her identity—

Too late now. With little ceremony, the woman ripped her bodice down the center. Then she began to carve through her chest.

Isla screamed an animalistic noise that made it past even the gag and scratched the back of her throat like sharp nails. She was on fire. The pain was a flame consuming her, eating her from the inside out. She could smell her own blood, and the Wildling kept sawing, through skin and tissue—

When the blade went deeper, Isla arched unnaturally, and that was when her bound fingers grazed her starstick. She screamed to the heavens, wondering if it might make it across the realms to Grim, not even knowing if that was possible.

With renewed hope, she fought against the restraints, the rope burning her wrists, until she could finally grasp the device. She wrestled one hand free, then drew her puddle behind her. She hurled herself off the table and was gone in an instant.

She couldn’t go home. Terra and Poppy couldn’t know about this. With this pain, it would be almost impossible to keep quiet. One moment she was being carved. The next, she was bleeding out in the middle of Grim’s room. He was standing in its corner, without a shirt on, clearly getting ready to sleep.

Shadows raced across the floor. He pulled the gag out of her mouth, and his eyes widened at the state of her chest.

“Sorry. I shouldn’t have . . . I didn’t—I didn’t know where else to go, I couldn’t go home,” she said, and then his arms were lifting her from the floor. “My guardians—they can’t know I—”

He made a sound like a growl and said, “You are a fool.” “I am very much aware.”

“Who am I killing tonight?”

“What? No one.”

He looked down at her. “I don’t know how you’re still conscious,” Grim said like an accusation. Then, “Why won’t you stop bleeding?” almost to himself. The remaining rope around her wrists turned to ash.

“I just need you to do one thing for me,” she said. “Well, two.” Her breathing was labored. “I need you to get my healing elixir from my room.” She described it to him, and he was gone. A moment later, he returned with it. With a shaking hand, she poured the liquid over her chest.

Her scream would have woken up the entire Wildling castle. She shook as she applied more, until the skin began to slowly grow back. It did nothing for the pain. Grim silently offered her a roll of bandages, which she took and wrapped around herself, making a makeshift top. It soaked with blood immediately, so she added more. When she peeked over her shoulder, she saw the Nightshade was gone.

That was fine. She knew he didn’t care about her injury, so long as she lived.

He returned a little while later and all but shoved a mug at her. “Here.

Drink this.”

She winced as she took it from him. “Medicine?” she asked.

“No. This has sugar that will keep you conscious. It . . . helps.” She glanced down and saw it was dark brown, and thick. Was he lying to her?

Isla dipped her nose to it to smell.

“I could kill you a thousand different ways, Hearteater,” he said flatly. “Poison would not be one of them.”

True. She took a sip, and he was right. Pain still consumed her, but this made her feel the littlest bit better.

Chocolate. It was melted chocolate and tasted like molten divinity, poured into this stone mug. The best thing she had ever tasted. She’d had chocolate a handful of times in her life, from the chefs in the Wildling palace during special holidays and from the Skyling market. But not like this. Not in a drink.

“So, I take it you like chocolate.”

“Yes,” she said, voice coming out like a croak. “Do you have something else for the pain?” she asked, desperate. “How about that Nightshade substance?” She remembered the vials in the night market. The seller had said it would take away all pain. “Nightbane?”

Grim went still. In a voice that chilled the room, he said, “You will never know nightbane.”

“Why not?” she asked. Why did he get so upset about it? “It’s a drug.”

“What does it do?”

He frowned. “It makes you the happiest you’ve ever been and takes away all suffering.”

She blinked. “I want it.”

He gave her a scathing look. “It kills you slowly, methodically, efficiently, until you die with a smile on your mouth. With continued use nightbane is a death sentence, and everyone who takes it knows it.”

Never mind. “So why take it?”

Grim shrugged a shoulder. “I will never understand. I suppose they feel the pleasure . . . however short-lived . . . is worth it.”

Isla moved, and pain ripped down her middle. “Alcohol. Do you have

. . . alcohol?” She had never tried it, but it was rumored to help with pain.

In a moment, a bottle was in her hands, and she drank a large swig.

She immediately choked. Her throat burned. It was as if the liquid was eating through it. It turned out alcohol tasted exactly like it smelled. “Why don’t you have anything but alcohol in your room for pain?”

“Pain is useful,” he said quietly. He didn’t elaborate. “It doesn’t feel very useful now,” she mumbled.

Grim looked down at her. It seemed to surprise them both when he said, “When I was seven, my training consisted of being cut and skinned until there was barely any flesh left on my back.”

Isla’s jaw went slack. Her training could be painful . . . but to do that to a child? “That is barbaric.”

He only lifted a shoulder. “It was a custom here, for a very long time. Meant to toughen the body and mind at the height of its growth. The place I trained as a warrior . . . we were punished for the smallest of infractions. In public. Shadows can turn into the sharpest, thinnest blades.”

“That’s humiliating.”

“It wasn’t. It was a chance to prove we didn’t react to the pain. Standing there, being cut, and not moving a muscle in your face . . . It was seen as strength.” His eyes weren’t on her when he said, “My father would come and watch. It was an honor to show him that I had no reaction to the pain.”

She crinkled her nose. “You know how awful that sounds, right?”

He nodded. “It’s why that doesn’t happen anymore. Our training is still ruthless . . . but not as cruel.”

Isla swallowed. What he had said about the punishment . . . “But . . . you don’t have any scars.” He only had one. And she had given it to him. “You have a Moonling healer, don’t you? Or Moonling healing supplies?” It didn’t make sense. “Why is Cleo helping you?”

Grim just looked at her. After a few moments, all he said was, “You should leave.”

She felt a bite of hurt and didn’t know why. He was asking her to leave his quarters, when she was injured. Why was she shocked? He didn’t care about her.

The second thing she needed from him. Isla collected her torn top from the floor and said, “Can you . . . destroy this? I can’t bring it home. All the blood . . .”

A moment later, the top was only ash.

She grabbed her starstick and, without another word, portaled back to her room.

In the middle of the night, she woke and almost screamed. Grim was sitting across from her bed, watching her. “What are you—”

“I’m making sure you don’t bleed out in your sleep,” he grumbled.

Isla looked down at her bandages. Blood was already peeking through again. She got a few rags she used to clean her swords and pressed them to her, so she wouldn’t stain her sheets. She would need to ask Grim to destroy them before he left.

“I’m fine,” she said, though she certainly wasn’t. All she could do was hope the bleeding stopped by the time her training started. “You can leave.” Grim gave her a look that made her think he didn’t believe her for a second. He leaned back in the chaise he had decided to sit on. It was decorated with roses, and far too small, but he made himself comfortable and stretched his long legs out in front of him. “Your death would be most

inconvenient. I’ll stay a little longer.”

“Inconvenient?” she said, scoffing at him.

He didn’t look fazed. “Inconvenient,” he repeated. “You are an investment.”

Her voice raised to a high pitch. “An investment?”

He continued as if she hadn’t spoken. “My time is valuable. I have a lot to do. Choosing to work with you . . . fitting you into my plan. You are an investment. You’re no good to me dead.”

She glared at him.

Fine. Let him stay. If he wanted to watch her sleep, that was his decision.

She made it ten minutes this way, willing sleep to come down and find her again. It did not, and the only thing more uncomfortable than having him sit and watch her was the pain pulsing like a second heartbeat in her chest.

When she carefully sat upright and pulled her knees to her chest, she found him still watching her.

“I can’t sleep,” she said.

His chin rested on his hand. “Clearly.” He studied her. “If you weren’t going to sleep, I suppose I could have allowed you to stay at my palace. Let you heal there.”

“I hate your palace,” she said.

That seemed to surprise him. “Why?”

“Besides the fact that you live there?” Grim looked faintly amused. “There’s no color. It’s so . . . dark. I could never live in a place like that.” He said nothing. “You know,” she said, staring at her glass wall. “My guardians closed my window because of you.”

He raised an eyebrow at her.

“There was . . . a loose pane. You saw it when we dueled. It was the only way I could sneak out. I had to tell them about it, to explain my ankle injury.”

“Can’t you use your portaling device to go outside?”

Her eyes found the floor. “I—I’m awful at traveling short distances with it. And I can only reliably go places I’ve been before.”

The portaling device was born of his own power, which he clearly had complete mastery of. She wondered if he would think less of her than he already did.

“I’m sorry,” he said suddenly. Her eyes abruptly met his again. “About the window.”

Isla asked a question she’d had for a while. “If you created my device, then how did it get to Wildling?”

“I’m not entirely sure,” he said.

All at once, a thought gripped her mind and chest. “Did you . . . did you know my mother?”

Grim frowned. “No. I haven’t met a Wildling since the curses,” he said. So how had her mother come to possess the starstick?

They just stared at each other. Isla watched him watch her and wondered if he would be the first to look away.

“Do you always play with your hair when you’re uncomfortable?”

It wasn’t until then that she realized she was raking her fingers through her damp hair like they were two combs. She immediately put her hands in her lap. “No.”

“Liar. I’ve watched you do it on no less than three occasions.”

She narrowed her eyes at him. Without breaking his gaze, she made her way to the end of the bed, so she was sitting right in front of him. “Here I was thinking that you couldn’t even bear to look at me, and you’ve apparently been studying me quite carefully.”

Grim’s expression did not change. “You are my enemy. Of course I study you carefully.”

“Right. Tell me, Nightshade,” she said. “What do you do when you’re uncomfortable?”

“I rarely am.”

“You seemed pretty uncomfortable when I stabbed you in the chest.” Grim looked bored. “I’m used to being stabbed.”

“By someone you were trying to bed?”

That got a reaction from him. His jaw tensed. “You tricked me. Had I known who you were, I never would have touched you.” The disgust in his tone was clear.

Isla scoffed. “Had known what was about to occur, I never would have joined that line.”

“Why were you there, then?” he snapped.

She recoiled, taken aback by his sudden rush of anger. “I accidentally portaled there with the starstick. It wouldn’t work, and I was chased by your

idiotic group of guards. The head woman grabbed me, and the next thing I knew I was in that line.”

Grim crossed his arms. “I should take that thing away from you. All it’s bringing you is closer to death.”

“You could try,” she said, her voice as threatening as she could make it. Grim looked at her and said nothing.

“So. You have a harem?” she asked. Since that night, she had wondered who those women were. Their function was clear.


Isla laughed, disbelieving. “So, women just line up to sleep with you?

They volunteer for the honor?” Grim glared at her.

He had the reputation of an accomplished killer. There was no way the women didn’t know about it. “Who would want to sleep with you?”

Grim stood from the chair, until he was right in front of her. He towered over her, his shadow even bigger behind him, filling her wall. “I don’t know, Hearteater,” he said. “You seemed pretty willing.”

Isla swallowed. He was so close. She was breathing too quickly, and it only made her wound more painful. “No. I was disgusted.”

Grim grinned. “Is that so?”

She nodded, even as he placed his hands on either side of her on the bed and leaned down so his face was right in front of hers.

“I can feel flashes of emotions,” he said. He could? Now that she thought about it, it was a rumored Nightshade ability, one only the most powerful possessed. The blood drained from her face. “And yours were very, very clear—”

She wasn’t breathing. “—just as they are now.”

Her heart was beating wildly. She told herself it was because she could feel the power rolling from him in waves. She told herself she was afraid. “Your powers are wrong.”

He tilted his head at her. She watched his eyes move from her collarbones to her neck to her lips. “No. I don’t think so.”

Then he went back to his chair. “Go to sleep,” he said.

She crawled back to her place and covered herself in bedding so he wouldn’t see the heat of her face.

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