Chapter no 4 – ‌‌‌CHOICES

Nightbane (The Lightlark Saga Book 2)

“I don’t know how to rule,” she admitted. Azul sat in front of her in Juniper’s old bar. The spheres of liquor behind the counter were still filled. The curved chairs and tables hadn’t collected even a spot of dust yet. The body and blood had been taken care of, but Isla was almost back to that day, weeks before, finding him dead. With Celeste.


The barkeep who kept secrets had died because of her. He had helped her. He was one of the only islanders who had helped her.

It made her want to be better—worthy of his sacrifice.

“A very dramatic declaration you gave. I quite liked it.” Azul leaned back in his chair, a glass of sparkling water glittering in front of him, bubbles popping and releasing a berrylike scent. “Do you want to rule, Isla?”

No. That was her first response. But it seemed too selfish to say aloud, so she said, “Do I have a choice?”

The Skyling ruler raised an eyebrow. “You always have a choice.”

Skylings valued choice over all else, as evidenced with their democracy. It was an alluring principle, Isla thought. What she wouldn’t give to hand off all this responsibility to someone else.

“Do I?” she said, her voice more grating than she had meant it. “I have ruling power from Starling now, and Wildling. Who else could rebuild them?” Azul just looked at her, so she continued. His silence angered her for some reason, because all these questions were real ones, ones she wanted answers to. “Hmm?” she said. “Should I just go back to my room and let them all die?”

“You could,” he said. Azul shrugged a shoulder, looked at a perfectly manicured nail. Every part of him was immaculate, as always. “But you’re choosing not to.” He met her eyes. “Right?”

She had requested he meet her. She had declared to the nobles and representatives that she would have a coronation. She had made not just a

choice but choices.

“Right,” she murmured.

He flashed his perfect teeth at her. “Good. Now that that’s clear . . . Of course you don’t know how to rule, Isla.” The compassion in his tone caught her off guard. “When I was in my twenties, I was too busy flying off with boys and drinking every shade of haze to even think about anyone other than myself.” His smile turned sad. “When you make the choice to rule, you are making a promise that you will put your people’s well-being and happiness above your own.”

Isla frowned. It shamed her how awful that sounded.

She didn’t want to put others first, not after everything she had just been through. A person could only take so much. Her trust had been broken, along with her heart. There wasn’t much left of her to give. She wanted to be selfish with the parts that remained. Didn’t she deserve that?

“I see,” he said. “See what?”

Azul began humming to himself, and the wind seemed to mimic it. Somehow a current was moving through the room and jostling her hair, even though all the doors and windows in the bar were closed. “Of course.”

“Of course what?”

The Skyling ruler folded his hands in front of him. “Are you close to your Wildling subjects, Isla?”


“They didn’t know you believed yourself powerless?” She shook her head.

“What was your relationship to them?”

Isla lifted a shoulder. “Nonexistent. My guardians made all the decisions. They ruled. Because of my . . . secret . . . I was kept far away. Only paraded on special occasions, at a distance.” She bit the inside of her mouth, a habit that would have made Poppy flick her on the wrist with her fan. “If I’m honest, they are my blood, they are my responsibility, I would do anything for them . . . but they feel like strangers.”

Azul nodded. “Of course they do,” he said, and the way he validated her feelings . . . the compassion in his voice . . . it was beyond anything she had ever experienced. “And the Starlings here, they are strangers. You don’t care about them.” He shrugged. “You don’t care about this island.”

His voice was without judgment. His eyes held no disgust. Azul only shook his head. “How could you? You’ve only been here a few months. The worst moments of your life were likely spent right here on Lightlark. You don’t have fond memories before the curses to look back on, and most of the people hate you, because of their perception of Wildlings.”

Everything was said so matter-of-factly. Isla couldn’t tell if his even tone made the words hurt less or more.

“Are you going back to the Wildling newland, Isla?”

“I plan to.” She told him about her portaling device and how she had visited. She offered to portal him to the Skyling newland when needed.

Azul’s eyes only glimmered with curiosity. “Charming,” he said. “I appreciate your offer, but I meant . . . are you returning to the Wildling newland for good?”

For good. Before, when the Centennial had ended, Isla could not fathom staying on Lightlark. Now, things were different. She was different.


“Then this is your home now,” Azul said. “Your chosen one.” He stood, his light-blue cape billowing behind him in a breeze only he seemed privy to. “Learn to love it, and your two realms. It is up to the leader, not the subject, to connect.” He outstretched his hand. “Come with me.”

She took it without question, the rings on both of their fingers clashing together like wind chimes. “We’re not flying . . . are we?”

Azul smiled. “Do you trust me?”

“I do,” she said, and it was the truth. It was stupid, she realized, to trust anyone after everything. She knew that, but what was the alternative? Closing herself off forever? Ever since the end of the Centennial, she had felt a wall harden around her. If she wasn’t careful, it would become impenetrable.

She had asked Azul for help. The least she could do was let him in.

They stepped out the back door of the bar, into an alleyway. He offered his other hand. “May I?”

She took his hand.

Then she was in the air. And Azul’s flying was far smoother than Oro’s had ever been.

In the aftermath of the curses, Sky Isle was transformed. The city built below had been abandoned for the one floating above, just as most of the Skyling people had promptly deserted walking in favor of flying. A castle sat nestled comfortably in the clouds, with spires pointing at the sky like quills ready to decorate a blank page. A waterfall spilled from the front of the palace in an arc that reflected every color imaginable, into a shimmering pool below.

And they were all flying.

It looked natural, like the air was so much empty space finally being put to good use. Isla had only ever seen Oro fly—and now, Azul. She hadn’t expected there to be so much flourish. Flying seemed to be a bit like handwriting; everyone had their own signature. Some were graceful, like Azul, to the point of making it all look like a choreographed dance. Others were more like Oro, brusquely taking steps in the sky, as if walking on an invisible set of bridges no one else could see.

Some weren’t really flying at all. They glided on contraptions with wings, using their control over wind to power the inventions.

Azul had wrapped her in wind. She floated right beside him—with her hand fully clenched around his wrist, just in case—taking it all in as best as she could.

“Your realm’s curse . . .”

“Was one of the better ones,” he filled in.

Not being able to fly for five hundred years certainly must have been terrible for a society that had clearly woven their power through the fabric of their day-to-day, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as dying at twenty-five or eating hearts to survive. That didn’t mean it wasn’t deadly, though. “Azul. The day it happened—”

“We lost many of our people. They all just . . . fell from the sky.”

Isla closed her eyes. The thought of them, without explanation, falling to their deaths . . . She clutched Azul’s wrist harder.

“Flying comes naturally to us; even those with the smallest shred of power can do it. Those who weren’t skilled enough—or quick enough—to use wind to cushion their fall . . . perished.”

They had reached the castle. Instead of landing in the clouds—which Isla didn’t trust in the slightest—they continued floating, right through the entrance.

The ceiling was nonexistent. One could float right in and through the palace in one smooth motion. The castle had hallways but no stairs. To get to the different levels and out of the main atrium, one had to fly. She could see why this palace had been abandoned after the curses.

Isla wondered how many important resources Skylings had suddenly had no access to, for years, because of their curse. The first time she had visited Sky Isle, she had marveled that the highest building in the city had a spire that reached the very bottom of the castle above it. Now, she realized that was the only way for them to reach what had been lost. They’d had to build to it.

The air felt thinner so high up, and it was cold enough to make her skin prickle, though the Skylings didn’t seem to mind it. They all wore light blue in honor of their realm, in fashions with much more range than she had seen from other realms. Dresses didn’t seem to be so popular, which she imagined was a practical choice. Even now, Isla was grateful her dress and cape were heavy enough to keep her modest as she floated around.

Skylings nodded at Azul with respect, with joy, smiling, clapping him on the back as they passed him by. Most nodded at Isla as well. Some stared curiously. Others smiled openly.

They flew to the top of the castle and through its ceiling to view the palace and its floating city from above. He motioned toward the hundreds of people in a market that looked miniature from their height, then to a string of mountains miles away. Sky Isle went on and on, farther than she could see.

“They are my purpose,” Azul said. “It was not easy to leave Lightlark after the curses, but my people voted, and most wanted to leave the uncertain future of the island. I’m proud of the Skyling newland, and all we created in the last few centuries, but there is no doubt that our power’s heart is here.” He took a deep breath, like he could smell and taste and feel that very power, thrumming across the isle. He looked at her. “I can’t teach you how to rule, Isla. You must figure that out yourself. All I know is that I put their interests and well-being far above my own. Every day. They are what kept me going, even in my grief.” He glanced at her sidelong. “Now that the curses are over, there will be pressure for you to have an heir.”

Isla whipped her head to face him. “What?”

“Your people will want to secure their future.” He sighed. “Many precautions were put in place in the last few hundred years to ensure the safety of rulers. My people voted for me to almost constantly be surrounded by a legion for protection. I was not permitted to travel to other newlands.”

That made Isla’s own travels with her starstick seem that much more reckless. For a moment, she began to understand why Poppy and Terra had been so strict.

Isla did not want to create an heir.

She wasn’t ready. Did that make her horrible? Even more selfish?

She also didn’t want to live the rest of her life insulated and heavily guarded, knowing her death would mean the end of all her people . . .

“There are other ways to have an heir, beyond the obvious,” Azul said. “It is possible for rulers to transfer power, through a love bond, or special relics.” Like the bondmaker, Isla thought. “The cost is high, however. Permanently transferring ability shortens a ruler’s life significantly.”

That didn’t seem like a viable option either. She had barely had a life.

She wanted to be able to live it.

“You look like you’re about to be sick,” Azul said. “It’s the height.”

Azul made a sound like he knew the truth. “It is an honor to rule but not always a pleasure, Isla.” He squeezed her hand. “Go, visit your people. Face them. Be honest with them. You are their ruler. Whether or not you have deemed yourself worthy, you are all they have.”

That, Isla decided, was what she was most afraid of.

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