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Lightlark: Chapter 14

AZUL

Isla’s invitation arrived the next morning. Her demonstration was next.

All night, the Nightshade had haunted her dreams. Their brief encounter in the hallway had affected her more than she cared to admit.

Grim had made her invisible, just because she had asked. He had no reason to help her. If it hadn’t been for him, Cleo would have discovered her, and all of Isla’s plans would have been ruined in one disastrous night.

She knew she would regret this. If Celeste ever found out, she might seriously reconsider their friendship.

It was foolish, dangerous, but Isla set off looking for the Nightshade.

She knew all the rulers’ habits by now, thanks to her regular snooping during the last sixteen days. Azul was always with his people and spent a surprising amount of time walking along the coast. Cleo was always surrounded by nobles she seemed to keep at an arm’s length and visited her isle far more than the other rulers. Oro left the castle nearly every night, and she still hadn’t had the nerve to follow him.

Grim’s movements were more of a mystery, since he was often invisible, traveling from place to place unnoticed. A few times, though, she had caught him slipping into a bar in the marketplace in the middle of the afternoon. That was where she headed.

She was nearly at the agora when her name was spoken.

Isla whirled around, only to find another ruler standing there.

Azul.

Her blood went cold. Did he know that she had been on his isle the night before? Had someone seen her?

Had Grim told him? They didn’t appear to be friends, but alliances were easy to hide during the Centennial. Isla and Celeste were the prime example of that.

If she hadn’t been distracted, she would have heard him approach. She wouldn’t have leaped in surprise at his voice.

She pasted a practiced smile on her face. “What a pleasant surprise,” she said, her tone sounding so genuine, Isla wondered when she had become such a good liar.

“Likewise,” he said, matching her expression. “What brings you to this part of the Mainland, Ruler?”

Isla tried her best not to let her voice tremble, the way her hands were. She clasped them behind her back. “The castle was getting a bit dreary. I thought I would do some exploring.”

Azul’s grin grew, but it did not reach his eyes. They remained as cold as the gems he hoarded. Was it possible she hadn’t been as discreet on Sky Isle as she thought?

Or perhaps he was just wary of her. And why wouldn’t he be? She was wary of him too.

“If it’s the Mainland you’d like to see . . . allow me to take you to one of its greatest wonders.”

She didn’t want to go anywhere with a ruler who might or might not know that she had been disguised as one of his people the day before. Their chance encounter was too great of a coincidence.

He must know.

Refusing his offer would make him even more suspicious of her, though. “How generous of you.”

They started in the direction of the mountain range that framed the Mainland. The rock was brown and red in some places, marbled in others.

“How are you enjoying the island?” he asked lightly, as if the Centennial was a vacation, and not Isla’s only chance at living.

Of course, he couldn’t know that. A Wildling ruler was supposed to be nearly immortal.

“I can understand its appeal . . . though I have much to explore.” She had learned that it was better to let others speak when she had much to hide. Most people liked to talk about themselves, anyway. “And how is your fifth Centennial?”

He laughed without humor. Something about that laugh was strange, Isla thought. Bitter, maybe. “It’s . . . interesting.” He pursed his lips. “The first Centennial, I’m sure you’ve heard, was a nightmare. Almost worse than the war . . . With the second came rules, and some order. We had plans. Strategies. But no alliances. None of us trusted each other, you see, after the first time. For good reason too.”

His voice trailed off, and Isla saw something flash in his eyes.

Was it pain?

“The third was better. It was the first time we split into teams. We believed we were very close to breaking the curses—to figuring out all parts of the prophecy. We were wrong, of course. By the fourth, it seemed most had lost hope. Cleo did not even attend . . . did you know that?” Isla nodded, though she most certainly hadn’t known.

Any ruler who didn’t attend wasn’t eligible for the grand prize . . . and their curse wouldn’t be broken with the rest, should someone find a solution. Why would Cleo stay away?

More importantly—why had she returned this year?

Dread danced in her bones, and Isla had the feeling there was something everyone else knew that she didn’t.

“Even without her, we really thought we had it.” He shook his head. “The curses have ruined so much. But one of the worst things it has done is tear our realms further apart. Before, we were very close to unity.”

Isla knew this from Poppy’s history lessons. She was happy to speak about anything that didn’t involve her sneaking into the Sky Isle library. “That’s why King Egan was getting married to another ruler, wasn’t it? To try to bring the realms back together?” Isla used to wonder if the king had decided, atypically, to marry outside his realm for love. That was certainly how Poppy told King Egan and Aurora’s story. A Sunling and a Starling finding love, despite their differences. It was the only time her guardian hadn’t spoken about love as a cautionary tale.

“Precisely.” Azul sighed. “Now, here we are at the fifth.” He looked at her briefly over his shoulder, pity in his eyes. “And I’m afraid I don’t know if I have it in me to attend a sixth.”

Isla swallowed at his dark tone. Was this a warning?

Was he telling her that, despite his typically jovial disposition, he wasn’t above killing her if it meant this Centennial was the last?

Isla was desperate to change the subject. “Are you close to your nobles?”

Sky Isle had been surprisingly well-kept. The nobles seemed to be doing a good job of running it in their ruler’s absence.

Azul frowned. “There are no Skyling nobles.” She must have looked confused, because he continued. “We’ve had a democracy since I came into rule. The Skylings who are invited to the smaller events are elected officials. All big decisions are made based on voting from my people.”

Isla blinked at him. “So, if they decided they didn’t want you as ruler . . .”

He shrugged. “I would step down. Though that would certainly complicate things, what with the Centennial and the way our powers are passed down,” he said. “I’m lucky they have been happy with my rule.”

She had never heard of a realm being run that way.

As she considered Azul’s words, she found him watching her.

Studying her.

What was he looking for?

They had stopped at the base of a mountain that looked peculiar, but not special enough to have made the trek. Azul had told her many things, things she wouldn’t have expected another ruler of realm to be so up-front about during the Centennial.

Was it because he knew she wouldn’t be alive long enough to use what knowledge he had shared?

The fiftieth day was just over a month away. Isla tensed, wondering if the Skyling was counting down the hours before he could kill her without breaking the rules. Perhaps his people had already cast their votes, wanting her to be the one who died when the time came to fulfill the entire prophecy.

Azul only stared upward. Isla followed his gaze warily and saw that there were tunnels dug above them, high into the sky. If she squinted, she could see bright blue on the other side, through the mountain. She counted seven, all lined up next to each other, perfectly carved through the stone.

“I used to come here as a child, with friends,” he said, smiling. This time, it did reach his eyes. “We would fly through the tunnels as fast as we could, timing ourselves. We made a game of it.”

It had been five hundred years since he had flown. It appeared he missed it as much as Grim missed night and Oro missed day.

He turned to her. “Nowadays, it has a different use.” He planted his legs in a wide stance and shot up with his fist.

Isla instinctively backed away, then watched a burst of air travel through one of the tunnels. A moment later, it made a beautiful sound.

“It’s an instrument,” she said loudly, her excitement real this time.

In response, he sent air through all the tunnels, one after the other, fast as wind.

A song broke through the afternoon.

Isla hummed, matching the pitch, overjoyed. The mountain was an instrument . . . she couldn’t believe it. Azul indulged her, playing song after song, his air never weakening. The wariness from his eyes disappeared, little by little.

She found herself happy that Azul had happened upon her, if only for a limited distraction.

By the time Azul escorted Isla back to the Mainland castle, it was nearly dusk. Grim would have already left the agora.

Instead of finding him in the bar, she had to go to his bedroom.

Isla had figured out the location of all the rulers’ rooms several days before. She could have asked Ella where the other rulers were staying. It would have saved her hours of snooping. But Isla felt safer spreading her requests around, not allowing anyone to know too much about what she needed, lest they put any pieces of her plans together. The rulers were harder to follow through the castle without notice, so she had trailed their Lightlark-provided attendants.

That was how she knew Grim’s chamber was on the other side of the castle, farthest from another ruler than anyone.

Isla had already made up her mind, knowing the potential consequences. Knowing what she was putting at risk. She had traveled here regardless.

Standing in front of his door, though, she hesitated, her knuckle inches from the stone.

Before she lost her nerve, it swung open.

Grim stood there, looking down at her with an eyebrow lifted.

“I’m sorry I ran off,” she said. It really was rude, after he had helped her. “I came to thank you, again. And to offer something to you, in thanks for—for what you did.”

A grin began to overtake his face at the mention of an offering. “Oh?” he said, voice somehow growing even deeper.

Isla glared at him, as if to say, Not that kind of offering. He was shameless. Was he like this with everyone? Was she only the latest person he had decided to flirt with?

It had to be part of his plan. Which only made what she was about to do all the more foolish.

His eyes only glimmered deviously.

“My demonstration is next,” Isla said, the words rushing out of her before she could change her mind. “Tomorrow. It requires preparation.”

Grim’s face went surprisingly serious. “Hearteater, you don’t have to—”

No. She did have to. Grim knew one of her secrets now, after finding her in the Skyling clothing. He had helped her, by turning her invisible to avoid Cleo. Isla was beholden to him. She didn’t like that. She would tell him this information, then be done with it.

“It’s demonstrating the worth of your realm by showing something of value it’s created, for the future of Lightlark.”

The Nightshade did not break her gaze. He did not grin. He did not thank her. He simply nodded.

She nodded back.

It was only late that night, staring up at her ceiling instead of sleeping, that she wondered if she had made a grave mistake.


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