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Lightlark: Chapter 27

THE HARBOR

Oro hadn’t knocked on her door in five days. He was supposed to be attempting to seek out the ancient creature, to make a deal that would guarantee their safety.

“Would one of these ancient creatures really try to hurt the king of Lightlark?” she had asked.

“I can’t be sure,” he said. “Though they would certainly not hesitate to hurt you.”

Isla had been grateful for the break. Oro had healed her back with his Moonling powers, but her body had shut down for two days after they had returned to the castle. She was wrecked. Exhausted. Broken.

But her mind had never been clearer.

Her encounter with the barbs and thorns had only made her want to break her curses more. Not just for the freedom . . . but for the power.

Never again would plants harm her. Never again would she be powerless against them.

After the third day, when she was ready for their next mission and still hadn’t heard from the king, she began to worry.

Had he decided a Wildling who had been attacked by plants wouldn’t be much help to him? Had he decided to continue the rest of his plan on his own?

She refused to sit in her room and wait for him to fetch her. If his plan had changed, so had theirs. She needed to speak to Celeste.

Isla had slipped a note under the Starling’s door, asking her to meet her in the agora. Since they weren’t paired, she thought they needed to start forming a superficial friendship seen by the islanders, so if they were somehow caught together, it wouldn’t be so suspicious. They were supposed to serendipitously run into each other in the Starling weapons store. Isla did need a dagger—one that didn’t double as an accessory.

But, more than that, she needed to speak to her friend.

She had been so focused on her work with Oro that she had nearly forgotten the Starling had been forced to spend time with Cleo. What had that been like? Celeste was the type to avoid telling Isla things, so she wouldn’t worry. But she wanted to be there for her. Just as much as the Starling had always been there for her.

The agora was busier than even before, vendors filling their storefronts with their best accessories—silk hats, crystal-covered gloves, gowns that were as puffed up as the pastries sunbathing in the nearby bakery windows. All in preparation for the ball.

It was just ten days away.

Ten days until killing was permitted.

Ten days to find a way into the Sun Isle library.

Ten days to find and use the bondbreaker.

Ten days to break their curses and get off the island.

Isla stopped in front of the Starling store. Just as she was about to enter, someone bumped into her.

Strange. Usually the islanders gave her a wide berth, as if her skin was poisonous.

Then she felt the note that had been slipped into her hand.

It was a small piece of paper. The words made her go still.

You are in danger, the paper read.

What? Isla whipped around, looking for who had given her the warning. She spotted a white cape weaving through the market, head down. That had to be them.

A Moonling?

She wasn’t going to sit around and solve the riddle of who might want to harm her. There were too many people on that list.

Instead, she followed whoever had slipped her the message.

Music was playing in the streets, a quartet no doubt hired to build excitement for the ball. Stores kept their doors open, and young boys and girls shouted advertisements—special offer! Two pairs of gloves for the price of one! One-of-a-kind hats for one-of-a-kind islanders!

Isla rushed through the crowd, pushing past shoppers holding stacks of boxes tied with ribbon. Children holding cones of cream. She whispered apologies that were met with frightened gasps as she nearly collided with a wagon holding ripe fruits and freshly roasted nuts. But there, far ahead, she saw it. A flash of white fabric, disappearing around a corner.

Celeste was suddenly in her path then, on her way to the Starling shop. Her friend’s eyes narrowed with confusion as Isla ran past, whispering, “I’ll be right back,” leaving without waiting for a response.

Her arms tight by her sides to slip through the busy road, she moved like a ribbon in wind, her feet finding free places on the pavement, her body filling gaps in the sea of people. Moments later, she was turning that same corner, onto a street that was almost empty. So empty she could see the Moonling racing away, the trail of their cape billowing in the breeze.

This tendril of the marketplace went down instead of up into the mountains. The air was heavy with salt and fish and brine. The rough cobblestone became wet beneath her shoes, and she nearly slipped in her rush to catch the Moonling.

She turned another corner. And they were gone.

Too slow. She had lost them. The sea was near. She was in the remnants of what must have been a harbor, hundreds of years before, when the island wasn’t entrapped in its curse.

Isla forced herself still, refusing to give up. She looked around, squinting, searching for a sound or a ripple of fabric.

She turned in the other direction—and found it. The curl of the white cape, disappearing behind a ship that had somehow made it onto land. It looked like a washed-up whale, flipped on its side.

Isla took a step and gasped.

Chains from nowhere locked around her wrists and ankles.

And the cool edge of a sword pressed firmly against her throat.

“That was a little too easy,” a low voice said in her ear. Isla yanked against the chains and found that they weren’t chains at all. They were braided water, firm as a rogue wave, strong as the tide.

Five more men peeled away from where they had been hidden, behind ancient boathouses and landlocked ships. They wore crisp white suits, with diamonds in place of the top button of their shirts.

Moonling nobles. She recognized them from the demonstrations.

A growl escaped her throat. She became a little more of the beast they believed her to be.

The person in the white cape appeared then, and Isla bared her teeth at them, her gaze promising violence. The figure didn’t even glance her way before it was handed a handful of coin and slipped away.

A trap. She had been tricked.

Fool.

No. They were the fools.

She lifted her chin high and said with as much venom as she could manage, “Release me, and I will show mercy. Keep me bound, and you will all see what happens when you try to trap a Wildling.”

The men only smiled.

“Wild, even captured,” one said. His white hair was slicked back, and he gingerly held a cane with a crystal top, though he clearly didn’t need it. He pointed the cane in Isla’s direction, and the water chains tightened, forcing her onto her knees. Isla seethed as her bones screamed and her skin broke against the damp stone floor. “But even wild things can be tamed. And caged. Tell me, will you beg for your life, Wildling?”

Now, it was her time to laugh. “So, your ruler sent you to do her dirty work?”

It wasn’t the fiftieth day yet. Either Cleo had skated past the rules by not exactly ordering Isla’s assassination . . . or the Moonling ruler didn’t care about breaking the rules. Perhaps she wasn’t after the prize of the power promised after all.

So much for Oro’s theory that Cleo wouldn’t kill her just because she disliked her.

Though, admittedly, Isla sneaking into the Moon Isle library likely had more to do with it.

The Moonling with the cane stiffened, insulted. Others turned to look at each other, and that told Isla enough. Cleo might not have sent them to assassinate her, which would have directly violated the rules. But their efforts were sanctioned.

“I’m sorry,” one of the men said, surprising her—and the rest of his group, it seemed. “But the Centennial isn’t just a game for rulers. One of the realms must fall. And we have families . . .” He shook his head. “We don’t want it to be us.”

She did understand. The Centennial was a deadly game with many players. And grave consequences.

She spat at the man’s feet anyway.

“Enough.” Isla was hauled up by the man behind her, sword still against her throat. “Say farewell, Wildling,” he rasped into her ear, pulling the blade back for a clean, clear sever.

Isla yanked at the watery chains with all her strength, made to escape—

But her efforts did nothing against their Moonling power.

Back in the Mainland forest, Isla thought she had never wanted her Wildling powers more. She had been wrong. Now she not only wanted them—she needed them.

Words pummeled through her mind, the last she would ever hear: Too late. Failure. Powerless. If only

Before she was ended, she heard another word.

“Farewell,” a voice said, stopping the blade just an inch from her throat.

And the man was hurtled back through the air.

Celeste made a fist, and the water chains went limp, disappearing in a mess of silver sparks. She must have followed her. One of the nobles sent a wave of sea hurtling toward her, and the Starling spun on her heel to meet it with a stream of energy.

Unshackled, Isla was unleashed. She reached both hands toward their opposite wrists and unchained her bracelets, which snapped into throwing knives. She sent them flying with ease, each finding their marks.

Two Moonling hearts.

The men slumped to the ground, and Isla turned—only to be thrown by a wave of power.

Her hand managed to grip a shard of glass from the floor, then the world went sideways as she was slammed against an old ship.

Isla tasted blood on her tongue; her head pulsed between her eyebrows. The man’s hand was around her neck, lifting her up. She heard a roaring that was not the sea and made a terrible sound when she tried to breathe.

Still, she smiled.

She might not have been a match chained up.

But the restraints were gone now.

Isla wrapped her fingers around the long shard of glass in her hand—and stuck it through the man’s throat.

He released her immediately, reaching for his own neck, trying to speak. No words left his mouth.

The other Moonling nobles hadn’t fared any better. She raced back to Celeste, only to find her standing in the middle of a mess of dead, laid out across the wet harbor stone.

“She tried to have you killed,” Celeste said, voice surprisingly steady. “You need to leave a message. One that shows you’re strong. One that makes her think twice before another attempt on your life.” They worked together to scrawl a response in blood.

When they were done, Isla looked down and smiled. Once, she might have had the urge to vomit. But she had been on the island forty days. In that time, she had dueled against famed rulers. Survived countless trials. Swallowed down unspeakable pain. Pulled barbs from her back with her bare hands. She stood straight and steady, remembering how the men had threatened her. Remembering how weak she had felt, chained in place. Powerless against power. Never again, she promised herself.

Try harder, the message read.


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