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Lightlark: Chapter 43

LIES

Hot breath puffed against her cheek. She heard splitting ice—someone was heaving a blade against it. Cutting through the frost to get her out like carving a statue.

Isla couldn’t open her eyes. They had frozen over, like the rest of her. Her eyelashes had glued together. Though she could not see, she knew it was still night, for it had gotten colder.

Her lips tried to part, to thank whoever was setting her free. But they were sealed closed, knitted together by frost. Whoever they were, they banged their weapon hard against the ice, over and over, the vibrations going through her bones. They were going to strike her if they weren’t careful.

“It’s her, isn’t it?” a voice said. It was wickedly deep—and amused.

Another voice. “Look at that face. Of course it is.” She felt something sharp against her cheek. A blade? No, a nail. A long one. “We’ll make a broth from her bones that will fill us with power. We’ll burn her hair and inhale the smoke to make us beautiful again.”

Isla stopped breathing.

The first voice said, “She’s awake, isn’t she? Do you think she can hear us?”

“I don’t care. Where is Thrayer? This ice isn’t breaking easily.”

Something rustled nearby. Then, “I’m here. You found her like this?”

The first one squealed. “Trapped like a rat in honey.”

“Good. Very good . . .”

The ice went warm, shifting into water. She slipped down the side of the mountain, landing at its base. Even though her body was freed, she couldn’t move a muscle, even to reach her neck.

Someone gripped beneath her shoulders and hauled her up.

Who were they? Cannibals who would roast her on a spit and eat her charred flesh?

It was so cold, the promise of heat was almost welcomed.

Whoever they were, a Moonling was helping them. Someone had unfrozen the ice.

They carried her through the forest. And she could hear that ridiculous bird, the one that had announced her presence. Cleo’s bird. Was she watching her, somehow? She imagined the Moonling ruler would take great pleasure in seeing her roasted alive.

“Shoot the bird. It’s making my ears bleed.”

She heard the familiar sound of an arrow hissing through the night. For a moment, there was silence.

Then more screeching.

“If you can’t shoot a bloody bird, why should you get her heart?”

“I found her!”

“Perhaps I’ll shoot you and keep her for myself.”

The bird screeched and screeched, almost happily.

The forest went still.

She felt a current through the air, metal in her mouth.

One of her captors screamed, and the heat of flames roared past her face. The smell of stars shattering something nearby, blood splattering against her skin. The one holding her dropped her.

But before she landed on the ground, someone else’s arms were around her.

And she was in the air.

She was metal being fashioned into a blade, filled with so much heat she screamed and wondered how she even had strength to make the sound.

“Just a little longer,” someone said.

At the sound of that voice, she stilled—and kicked with all her might, moved any limbs that had been thawed.

A hand came over her eyes, warming them, and finally, she could open them.

Oro was standing above her, frowning.

You,” she said through her teeth, her voice venomous. Her hands pleaded to choke him. To gut him, slice a blade right up his center, tear his heart out with her bare hands.

Was he here to kill her? Had he finally found the heart of Lightlark?

“Before you do whatever horrific thing I am sure you are imagining,” he said, “let me speak.”

She would have lunged at him without hearing another word if her body wasn’t still so numb.

Oro sighed. “I did not betray you, Wildling.” Isla opened her mouth, but he kept talking. “Though you believing so helped tremendously . . .”

“Helped what?” she growled. He was lying. She didn’t trust a word that came out of his wicked mouth.

“One of the places where darkness meets light on Moon Isle was impossible to access without Cleo. It had been encased in a maze centuries before to keep others out. I needed her . . . so I changed the matches.”

Isla’s nails dug into the flesh of her palm. She could move her fingers now. Maybe, if she was quick enough, she could choke him. She attempted to get her hand up. But it barely got an inch off the bed.

Bed.

She looked around, wildly.

She wasn’t in her room. She was in his.

The walls were plain, but the ceiling was solid gold. The floors were stone. All the windows were covered in heavy fabrics.

Oro took a step back from the bed, noting her gaze—and possibly her panic. “I brought you here after I found you. I figured you wouldn’t want others to know what had happened.”

None of it made sense.

Why had Oro saved her?

He claimed he hadn’t betrayed her . . . that their plan was still on. That all his actions were in service of their quest to find the heart.

Lies. Too many to count.

There are lies and liars all around .. .

Oro continued. “She finally took me there tonight. That’s how I found you. I was on Moon Isle, in the maze. The heart wasn’t there, which is good, because I suspect Cleo would have tried to take it . . . But now we have just two places left to search.”

We. There was no we anymore.

She shook her head. Tears fell down her cheeks, his betrayal still raw. “This isn’t just about changing matches.” Her voice broke. She hated it. “I trusted you. I—You. You told them. You—”

Oro closed his eyes for just a moment. “I know. I’m sorry. Truly. Cleo had become suspicious. She knew we had visited Moon Isle the day before, somehow.” Isla thought of the bird. Her spy. It had spotted them. “The only way to convince her to help me was to discard you. Publicly. Your reaction and actions in the last few weeks had to be genuine.”

That wasn’t a good enough reason. She opened her mouth to tell him so, but he continued.

“And,” he said, “my sources told me Cleo has become increasingly convinced that Starling must be the one to die.”

What? Isla barely resisted the urge to shoot up in alarm.

“That makes no sense. She wants me dead.”

Oro frowned. “Cleo would have killed you tonight if she wanted you gone.”

“She nearly did,” she said, exasperated. If Oro hadn’t saved her, she would have been someone’s meal. “Why would she choose Starling?”

“She believes Starling is the weakest of us. It is the smallest realm. The least developed in the last five hundred years due to their curse.”

Isla’s voice shook as she said, “You . . . you don’t agree, do you?”

He shook his head. “No. Starling is essential. I told your secret not just to get Cleo to trust me but also to cast doubt on her decision. Before, when Cleo and Celeste were paired, she couldn’t kill her. When I changed them—”

“She could have gone directly for Celeste,” Isla finished.

Oro nodded. “Exactly.”

Isla didn’t think Cleo even cared about following the rules or winning the power promised. Not if she was the one who had spun the curses.

Though, if Oro was right, and sharing her secret had saved Celeste . . . she was grateful.

Everything he said sounded logical. If he was telling the truth, then everything he had done in the last two weeks was to keep her and their plan safe.

She shook her head. “I don’t believe you.”

“I have never lied to you, Isla.” He took a step closer. “Even though you have lied to me repeatedly.” Another step. “You told me your secret. Now let me tell you my flair. No one can lie to me.” She remembered his words from the cave. “Because I know when people are lying.”

His flair. Isla blinked.

She had lied to him too many times to count, throughout the Centennial. Throughout their time working together. And he had known, every time.

He narrowed his eyes at her. “All you did was lie to me, and I still told you about the heart. I told you everything, except for this. Because Cleo loved how betrayed you looked. It was why she was willing to finally take me anywhere on Moon Isle I wanted. She was thrilled that I exposed you and chose her as a partner instead. That I revealed such a critical secret.” He stopped just a foot away. Her hands were still in fists, and she briefly considered how good it would feel to slap him across the face.

“You put me in danger,” she said. “Cleo could have killed me!”

“I was never far from you,” he said. “I knew when you moved into the Place of Mirrors. I guarded its entrance. Had guards stationed nearby. How did you think Ella was able to get through unharmed? Wherever you went, I followed. And when I could not, I had guards monitoring Cleo so I could ensure she wasn’t anywhere near you.”

Isla laughed without humor. “And tonight?”

“Tonight, I went to meet her. You slipped through the cracks by trailing her. But I found you, didn’t I?” He shook his head. “Cleo is planning something. She has been forming a secret legion.” So, he did know about it. “The heart is on her isle. If she gets her hands on it before us, I’m afraid of what she will do.”

He was right. Isla was convinced Cleo had spun the curses. If Oro was correct about his theory, that meant she had used the heart before. What was keeping her from doing it again?

Oro’s gaze was relentless. “I trust you, Isla, though you have given me countless reasons not to. Are you going to trust me? For the sake of both of our people?”

Our people.

Isla never wanted to speak to the king again. But she didn’t have a plan. Celeste was still helplessly pursuing the bondbreaker.

And her people were dying.

“Your offer holds, then,” she said, every nerve ending in her body screaming at her not to trust him. To stab her blade through his back and let him see how it felt.

Oro nodded. “When we find the heart, you will wield it. You will receive the power promised.”

Isla would be a fool to trust him again after what he had done. But part of her hoped he wasn’t lying—that there was truly a chance to save her people, and herself.

She also couldn’t ignore the fact that Oro had saved her life. Again. It didn’t make any sense. If he was working against her, why wouldn’t he want her dead? It would fulfill part of the prophecy.

She released her hands from their fists, and the dagger she had swiped from a hidden pocket in her pants while he had been talking clattered to the ground. Oro eyed it on the floor, unsurprised.

“Fine.” She pinned him with the coldest look she could manage. “You know now that I don’t eat hearts,” she said slowly. “But betray me again—earnestly or otherwise . . .” Isla bared her teeth at him. “And for you, I’ll make an exception.”


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