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Chapter no 51 – ‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌BEFORE

Nightbane (The Lightlark Saga Book 2)

They stood just out of view of the cave. “Are you ready?” Grim said.

“Yes. Are you?”

He nodded. While she trained, he had researched the dragon. He had a plan for distracting it.

All Isla had to do was make sure she made it through the trials and to the sword without dying. She crept silently toward the entrance of the cave. The dragon was curled, asleep. She waited, at the edge, for Grim to wake it.

There was a noise outside. The dragon opened an eye and roared.

A massive leg peeked out first. She didn’t even look at Grim or what he was doing. She focused on the thin sliver of opening the dragon offered.

Another leg.

Then the dragon shot out of the cave like a strike of lightning.

Now, her mind said, and she leaped into the cave.

First, the arrows. The ones that had wounded Grim in a dozen places. As soon as she triggered the trap, she moved, hurtling for the opposite side. She watched arrows pierce the ground, exactly where she had been.

Isla swallowed. So close. No time for fear. The dragon was still distracted, but who knew how long it would take for it to realize it was being tricked?

Boulders fell from above, and Isla rolled out of their path. A thousand shards of ice were next, too many to miss, so she lifted the metal shield she had brought with her over her head. It made a torrential sound, and Isla winced, knowing the dragon would hear it.

Faster. She had to be faster. As she hunched over, waiting out the last of the hail, she locked eyes with the sword.

It was sitting in a pile of spoils. Just one of hundreds of relics. She didn’t even look at any of the rest; she just focused on the blade, shining, as if winking hello.

it.

Only a few more steps.

Isla leaped to the side, just missing a hidden pile of spikes.

A spear flew, aimed at her side, but she was faster. She ducked, missing

Just two more steps.

A foot before the pile, a tunnel of wind suddenly burst through the cave,

a storm blasting. That, she could not duck to avoid. She faced it, full-on, shield in front of her, jaw clamped tight, fighting against its current, barely making it an inch forward. Another inch. She gritted her teeth, groaned, fought forward—

Until it stopped, and she went tumbling. The sword was in her reach. Just one more step.

She heard a great roar behind her. Now. It had to be now.

Her hand reached for the sword. The moment she had it in her grasp, they could portal away. The dragon was coming. Her fingers brushed its hilt. It felt cold under her touch, before warming. Waking up. She turned around, to see where Grim was, to tell him that she got it.

Only to see a flood of fire filling the cave.

It was too late. She wouldn’t reach her starstick fast enough. Flames poured in to the brim, hurtling toward her. There was only time to turn her head. The sword sparkled prettily. She hadn’t even gotten the chance to fully grip it. Isla prepared to be burned alive.

Before the flames caught her, shadows filled the cave. They wrapped around her, shielding her. Saving her.

The fire cleared. The shadows fell away. And Isla watched the sword vanish.

. . .

Grim had saved her. He had used his powers, knowing it would mean giving up the sword. And it had disappeared.

“Why did you do that?” Isla said. She had bathed and changed into one of her dresses. Grim had gotten changed in his own chambers and returned here, to her room in her castle.

She was grateful he had . . . but it didn’t make any sense.

Grim’s eyes locked on hers. “You think I would watch you die, for the sword? Did you think I would make any choice that wasn’t you?”

“Yes,” she said, incredulous. “You said so.” He just looked at her. “Things changed.”

She realized then that she would have done the same. She would have chosen him.

“But your realm . . . you said you need it. For you, it’s the most important thing in the world.”

“My realm does need it,” he said. He traced his fingers down her temple and said, in the quietest of voices, “But it is not the most important thing in the world.”

She looked at him, really looked at him. Saw pain in his eyes, as he assessed her for any injuries, even though he had already done so before she had bathed. Saw patience as she scowled and told him again that she was fine.

She didn’t see regret.

“I touched it. For a moment, I touched it. Maybe I’ll be able to find it again now that it knows me.”

“Isla,” he said gently. “I don’t want to use the sword anymore.” Her brows came together. “What? Why?”

“Its cost is too high,” he said thoughtfully.

It seemed Grim had changed his mind about the sword in the time between entering the cave and saving her. It didn’t make any sense.

“How are you going to save your realm now?” she asked. “How are you going to stop the dreks?”

Grim lifted a shoulder. “I’m going to use my power, the same as always. Use myself as a shield.” He grinned, and she knew it was solely for her benefit, to make light of a devastating situation. “I make a decently good one, wouldn’t you agree?”

The thought of him, shielding his entire realm from the dreks. Only his power against theirs . . .

“Will you still keep your promise?” she asked, attempting a smile back. “To help me at the Centennial?”

Grim grinned wider.

“Of course, Hearteater,” he said. “It’s going to be fun pretending not to know you. To introduce myself to you.”

He was right. No one could know they were allies. No one could know they had known each other for months. They would have to pretend to be strangers.

“To pretend I don’t know that you love chocolate, and touching your hair, and that you blush when I look at you for more than a few seconds. Or that you hate the cold and love to dance and you frown when you lie.” His words were so soft. So unlike him. He tucked her hair behind her ear. “You really do, by the way,” he said. “You should work on that before the Centennial.”

She blushed, because he had been looking at her for more than a few seconds. She felt tears stinging her eyes, because he knew her.

He really knew her. He’d been paying attention. What a thing, to be known.

Isla’s voice was thick with emotion when she said, “And it will be fun pretending like I don’t know the shadows at your feet puddle when you’re happy. Or that, for some reason, you’ve had healers remove every one of your scars, except for the one I gave you. Or that you have a magnificent tub in your bathroom, and an even more magnificent ego.” She bit her lip. “And that, even though I hated you, really, really hated you . . . whenever I’m not with you, whenever I’m with anyone else, I feel hopelessly alone.”

He took her hand, and she said, “At the Centennial . . . we’re going to be strangers.”

“No,” he said. “We could never be just strangers.”

“So what are we then?” she asked. “If not strangers? If not . . . enemies?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “But I want to be the only person you glare at, Hearteater. I want to be the only person you insult. I want to be the only name you speak in your sleep.” His eyes darkened. “I want to be the only person who knows how to make you writhe against a wall.” He studied her. “You know what? I want everything. I want to be greedy and selfish with you. I want all your laughs. All your smiles too.” He frowned. “I would rather die than watch you smile at anyone that isn’t me.” Grim closed his eyes slowly. He looked almost pained.

Why pain? It didn’t make sense.

When he opened them, he said, “There’s something I need to tell you.” “No,” she said. “There’s something need to tell you.”

He had saved her life. She hadn’t ever trusted anyone this much, other than Celeste. For some reason, she wanted him to see all of her. She didn’t want to hide it any longer.

She swallowed. Her guardians would have her head if they knew she was about to tell the ruler of Nightshade her greatest secret. “I—” she said. “I’m—”

Grim watched her struggle to get the words out, and he grabbed her hand, to keep her from touching her hair. “Hearteater,” he said, the word so gentle now in his mouth. “I know.”

Her brows came together.

What did he think he knew? What did he think she was talking about? “I know that the curses don’t apply to you,” he said. “I know that you

have never wielded power.”

She stepped back. Time had been wounded; it wasn’t moving, it was dead—

Part of her wondered if she should run, or hide, or be afraid— “I’ve known for a while.”

He’s known for a while. And he hadn’t tried to kill her. He hadn’t shared her secret. He’d continued to work with her. He knew how meaningless her life was, how weak she was, how in trouble her people were, and yet . . . he hadn’t used it to his advantage.

“Nightshades can sense curses. I didn’t realize it at first, but I couldn’t sense yours. Then, when the Wildlings were able to attack you in the forest, to try to get your heart . . .” Of course he would have questioned why Isla hadn’t fought back. Why she hadn’t used even a drop of power the entire time they were working together.

Tears fell freely now. “Grim . . . what—what is wrong with me?”

He took her face in both his hands. “Nothing, absolutely nothing, is wrong with you, heart.” He said it for the second time, and it directly contradicted everything she had ever thought about herself.

She went on her toes and kissed him. It was clumsy and too forceful and caught him by surprise. She fell on her heels, wondering why in the world she’d done that, but she didn’t wonder for long.

Hands still pressed to her face, he ducked and parted her lips with his own, kissing her like she might be leaving, like he might never get to do it again. His tongue swept across the roof of her mouth, and she groaned. This was impossible—it was impossible to feel this good.

She was a burning flame, and there were too many clothes, too many layers between them. She had always been told that her body didn’t belong to her, it belonged to the realm, but no, right now she wanted to feel everything that was possible. She wanted Grim to show her.

“I want you,” she said, breaking their kiss, breathing too quickly. “I want everything.”

Grim looked like he might be losing his mind. Like he couldn’t have possibly heard her correctly. His chest was heaving. He blinked. Again. Said, “Are you sure?”

“Yes,” she said, and she meant it more than she had ever meant anything else.

Grim swallowed. “I’m not gentle,” he said gruffly.

Isla opened her mouth. Closed it. The thought of him not being gentle

. . . it unexplainably made her feel hot everywhere. “Could—could you be?”

He hesitated. Then nodded.

The way he carried her to the bed . . . it was as if she were made of glass. He laid her on her sheets like she was mist and might just slip away if he wasn’t careful. Isla’s eyes darted to the closed door.

“We’re hidden,” he said. And Isla had never been so grateful for his illusions.

He was over her now, completely clothed. No. She didn’t want anything between them.

She yanked his shirt up, and it didn’t move at all. But Grim reached back and tore it over his head in one smooth movement, making his shoulders flex, and Isla couldn’t see enough of his body, couldn’t touch enough.

“You are perfect,” she said, and she couldn’t believe the thought had reached her lips. “I didn’t know—I didn’t know someone could look like this. It’s unfair, really.”

Grim only laughed. “You’re doing very little to discourage my

magnificent ego.”

Her hands stroked down his hard chest. He radiated pure power, strength. She traced the scar just half an inch from his heart, and his eyes fell closed for a long moment. She could have sworn he shivered. The shadows in her room melted across the floor, puddling.

His gaze locked on her chest, prickled with need, aching like every part of her, and the silk of her dress did nothing to hide it. His hands went to the bodice, to rip it like before, and Isla made a sound of protest. “Demon,” she said. “I’m not going to have any dresses left if you keep destroying them.”

“I’ll buy you new ones. I’ll buy you a market. I’ll get you your own tailor.”

“Fine,” she said, and the dress didn’t stand a chance. It was ribbons in a second, and then his mouth was on her chest. He bit her, lightly, and she made a rasping noise, her back arching.

His hand trailed down her stomach, below her underthings, and when he touched her, he cursed. “Isla,” he said against her chest, “you are truly going to kill me.”

“I will,” she said, “if you don’t keep touching me.” She was burning, aching, desperate for more.

“Please,” she said. “I want everything.”

Grim took the rest of his clothes off, and Isla went still. She had felt him before, but now . . .

He climbed over her again, his hips settling between her legs, and her breath hiked. He pressed his lips against her shoulder, her chest, her neck, her cheek. “I think you’ll find we fit perfectly,” he said, as if reading her thoughts.

Then he looked at her and asked one final time. “Are you sure?” “Yes,” she said, and he reached down between them.

For a while, there were just their shared breaths, his forehead pressed against hers. He was leaning on his arms, holding himself over her, shaking slightly as he exercised every ounce of control.

At first, there were flashes of pain. She winced, and Grim always stopped. Always waited for her to tell him to go farther.

He went farther. And farther. Farther.

Her nails dug into his shoulders, and she breathed through it as her body got used to him. He was gentle, so gentle, fisting the sheets in his hands, cursing words into the place between her neck and shoulder.

Suddenly, it all seemed to go so much easier. Suddenly . . . Isla’s head was falling back as she groaned, and Grim was making a sound like a growl. His arm curled below her spine, and he hauled her fully against his chest. Her legs locked behind him.

Isla saw stars, gasped his name, said all sorts of ridiculous things, and then she was whimpering, because she had never felt this good, this close to the stars—

She pressed her cheek against the sheets, and he kissed up the length of her neck, until he gently turned her head, fingers curled around the back of her neck, until their eyes locked. He seemed fixated on her every expression, the way she drew breath when he reached down to raise her hips higher, the way she bit her lip to keep from making more noise.

He tugged her bottom lip from between her teeth and kissed her.

She cried out against his lips as she shattered, and Grim kept going, and going, until he joined her over the edge.

For minutes, he just held her, tightly, as if someone might take her from him. Then, he rose to look at her face, emotions battling across his own. Unexpected ones. She wanted to tip his mind over and play with the contents.

“Hearteater.” He leaned down and pressed a kiss to her lips. “You are both curse . . .” he whispered against her skin, lips traveling down her neck, to the center of her chest, “. . . and cure.”

After the first time, she didn’t want to stop. It was as if an entirely new world had been opened, and she wanted to explore every inch of it.

Hours later, she woke up sprawled on top of Grim. Her cheek was against his chest. One of his arms was wrapped around her, the other was hanging off the bed.

The things they had done in this bed . . .

She lifted her head, to look at him, and found him already awake. He met her eyes and smiled.

Smiled.

She had never seen him smile, not like that.

“You have a dimple,” Isla said in disbelief. It made him look boyish, and adorable, and she couldn’t believe it.

“Do I?” he said.

He didn’t even know.

She crawled up his chest, to rest her chin on her arms, right below his face. She just looked at him, up through her lashes.

Suddenly, something occurred to her. He had told her Nightshades didn’t keep the same partner for long. Soon, would he leave her? Would he forget her, like the rest?

Grim sat up. “What’s wrong?” he asked, expression filled with worry.

“You—you aren’t going to disappear, right? Now that we . . . now that we—”

He laughed. He folded over, shoulders shaking with it. She pinched him below the ribs, and he kept laughing. “Hearteater,” he finally said, breathless. “I said Nightshade rulers are typically forbidden from bedding the same person more than once. Last night alone . . .”

Multiple times. Relief filled her. It didn’t look like Grim was going anywhere. She rose until she was straddling him. She ducked her head, so she could say right into his ear, “Good. Because I want to do it all again. Immediately.”

Grim groaned. His head fell back, and he closed his eyes again. “Hearteater,” he said. “You are a bane.” She remembered his words from before: You are both curse and cure. “It’s never . . .” He sighed. “For me, it’s never felt like that.”

She wondered if he really meant that. He was her first; she didn’t know what it felt like, other than last night. And last night . . . “So, you won’t be entertaining other women lining up for the privilege of sleeping with you anymore?”

She expected Grim to make a joke, or at least look amused, but his expression turned serious. “No.” He shook his head. “You have ruined me.” He swallowed. “I have a thousand things to do, but all I want is to lock us in this room . . .” He traced his hand down her spine, and she shivered. “All I want is to claim you so thoroughly, that there won’t be a part of you that doesn’t have a memory with me.”

Isla was going to burst into flame. “Do it,” she said. She was ready, she wanted it—

Grim closed his eyes again. His chest quivered with restraint. “A curse,” he said.

Then he took her into his arms.

And he did.

She portaled to Grim’s room a few days later. Within a moment, she was in his arms. He kissed her like he hadn’t seen her in years, even though they had seen each other that morning. He leaned down, slid the bridge of his nose down her neck, and whispered in the place between her neck and shoulder, “You are an addiction.” He bit her lightly, and she gasped. “You are my nightbane.”

Isla was glad he was in such a good mood. “Don’t be mad.”

Grim immediately tensed. It took him a moment, but he eventually stepped away from her. “Why would I be mad, Hearteater?” he asked. His eyes were studying her, as if searching for injury.

“I went back to the cave—”

His eyes widened. He took a step toward her. “Are you—” “I’m not hurt,” she said. “But . . .”

He crossed his arms across his chest. “Yes?”

She tried to give him her best smile. “It’s nothing bad! Don’t get upset.” His expression didn’t change. He looked down at her and said,

“Hearteater, what is it?”

She opened her mouth. Closed it. Then, she said, “I should probably just show you.” She pulled out her starstick, but before she portaled away, planning to bring her discovery to his room, Grim grabbed her arm, taking himself with her.

Which meant he portaled right to the tree where she had leashed her—

“Dragon,” Grim said, staring down at the little bundle of black scales. “Hearteater . . .” he said. “You didn’t.”

Isla knelt next to the little dragon. She had found it wandering alone, near the cave. “I think he was abandoned by his mother,” she said. “Because he’s small. Or injured. I’m not sure yet.”

The dragon was small enough that she could hold him in her arms. His black scales glimmered like a collection of dark gems. His head was rounded. She hadn’t seen him spread his wings yet.

“Think of him as . . . a pet.” Her eyes darted to him and back to the dragon again. “For you.”

He looked at her like he was trying to evaluate her mental condition. “You think I am going to keep this creature in my quarters?”

“Yes,” she said. “I think you are. Because I am asking you to.” His eyes flashed with disbelief.

“Please, Grim,” she said.

Isla knew he would refuse. Her mind sifted through different places she might be able to take the dragon on Wildling. Maybe she could hide it in the forest and visit between trainings? Maybe she could find someone who would make a good caretaker?

But without another word, Grim frowned, picked up the tiny dragon, held it as far away from his body as he could manage, and portaled them away.

“We need a name,” she said after a week.

“A name? It should be grateful it has a home.” “Grim.”

“Yes, Hearteater?”

“Stop being so cruel. Look, it just dipped its head. You made it sad.”

Grim whipped around to face her with a look of pure incredulity. “You think that animal can speak?”

She glared at him. “No. I think just like another beast in this room, it might be able to sense emotion. Or, at the very least, tone.” Isla sat down and scooped the dragon into her lap. She stroked a finger between its eyes, and it sighed. “It’s okay,” she cooed. “He’s mean to everyone.”

Grim raised an eyebrow at her. “Is that what we’re calling what I did to you last night? Mean?”

Isla felt her cheeks flush. The dragon tilted its head at her in curiosity, and she wondered if it really did understand them.

“That thing keeps flying into my bed at night,” Grim said. “That’s adorable!” Isla exclaimed.

Grim looked at her in a way that could only be described as a fusion of disgust and horror. His favorite expression. She looked at him and thought she had never been happier.

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