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Lightlark: Chapter 53

CHOICE

Isla had a plan. It wasn’t perfect, and it made her a liar, thief, and hypocrite.

But it was nothing she hadn’t already been in the last ninety days.

Celeste opened the door, and Isla started talking. “Tell me that you’re my friend. And that you’ll forgive me.”

The Starling straightened her spine. Her expression became resolute, ready for anything. “I’m your friend. And I’ll forgive you,” Celeste said firmly. Still, Isla heard the hint of fear there that everything had gone wrong. And it had.

Isla had everything. The heart. The promise of power. The chance to save her realm.

But it all had a cost: Grim’s life.

For as long as Isla could remember, the thing she wanted most was freedom. Then, as the Centennial went on, she wanted power.

When Oro had declared that Nightshade would die, when Terra and Celeste were in danger, Isla had realized that there was one thing she wanted a little more than both.

A future—happiness. A life with the people she cared about. Terra and Poppy were the closest things she had to a family. Celeste was her best friend. Grim made her feel things she thought had been denied to her as a Wildling ruler. She had always thought freedom, or even power, would change everything, fix her. But they wouldn’t . . . She knew that now that she had begun to fix herself.

So, she made a plan. One that would still save her realm. Still save Celeste. It wouldn’t give her the power promised. It wouldn’t be a permanent solution for Terra and the Wildlings.

But it would give her Grim.

“I think I know where the bondbreaker is,” Isla said. “And I have a plan for us to use it . . . but not only us.” She took a steadying breath. “Let Grim in on our original plan. Let us split the blood cost of the bondbreaker three ways.”

She would save him. And in exchange, he would have to agree to help save her people. She didn’t know what love felt like, but this, this sacrifice . . . rulers in love could share power. If he loved her too, she could bring whatever power they shared back to her lands, to save her realm.

Or, if that was not possible, when her curse was broken, Isla would attempt to trade the Wildling abilities she would gain in exchange for Terra and the rest of the Wildlings that had been taken by the ground. The forest on the newland was known to make deals—and a Wildling ruler’s powers were too valuable to refuse. It was a sacrifice she was willing to make to right everything.

She wanted to win the Centennial; she wanted that immense power that was promised, longed for it like a lover. She wanted the Wildling power she had been denied at birth.

But she wouldn’t choose it over Grim. Or anyone else she cared about.

“I know you don’t trust him. But please . . . for me,” she said. “I’m begging you, Celeste. We don’t have much time.”

It took a minute for Celeste to say anything. Isla waited, expecting more reasons this was all wrong, more pushback. But her friend must have heard Isla’s desperation, must have known how important it was to her. Because she finally said, “Where is the bondbreaker?”

They had a new plan. A last-ditch effort. Celeste was going to make part of the castle crumble to lure Oro out of his quarters long enough for her to sneak into his secret library and find the bondbreaker.

“We need a place to use it,” Celeste said. “One where Oro won’t be able to interfere if he finds out we have it.”

“The Place of Mirrors,” Isla said. Oro’s powers would be nullified there, but enchantments like the bondbreaker would still work.

Celeste nodded. “I’ll get the bondbreaker. You bring whatever remaining healing elixir you have to close our wounds after the blood is shed. And that’s it. That’s all we bring, so no one becomes suspicious.” Her friend swallowed. “If anyone finds out . . .”

One of them would end up dead. Isla knew that.

Oro had looked so cold. So himself, she realized. She had begun to believe that the insufferable, untrusting king had been a mask Oro wore to protect himself and his island.

Now, she wondered if the person she had glimpsed—the caring, trusting partner she had worked with for months—had been the costume instead.

Isla rushed to her room. She had a feeling she wouldn’t be returning to it. After they used the bondbreaker to break their curses and Oro found out . . . she would have to flee, with Grim. And Celeste. At least until the hundred days were over and Oro either chose someone else to kill to break the curses or the island disappeared again. Perhaps forever this time.

Isla stood at the foot of her bed, trying to take it all in. The wall of leaves. The bathroom of white marble.

The chair where Oro had sat and offered her a deal.

The couch where she had laid her head in Oro’s lap and first heard him laugh.

The balcony where he had heard her sing and saved her life.

She shook the memories away with a scowl. All he cared about was his people and breaking the curses. He didn’t care about her.

Something shattered nearby. Tremors rippled through the palace. Celeste. Yells filled the halls, echoing. She braced herself against her wardrobe and knew it wouldn’t be long before her friend got the bondbreaker and made it to the Place of Mirrors.

Isla had to be quick. The heart was beautiful in her palm, a slice of sunshine. Part of her had considered stealing it and using its abilities to heal Terra and her realm. But taking it would officially doom Lightlark and the thousands who lived on the island. She wanted power—but she wasn’t that selfish.

And, as much as she hated Oro in the moment . . . she wouldn’t hurt him.

Her hand shook as she wrote the letter to Oro. Explaining whatever she could.

When she was finished, her chest ached, her wound still pulsing in pain. It brought her to her knees, and there she stayed for a while, until the hurt dulled enough for her to move without groaning.

Satisfied she had given Celeste enough of a head start, she pulled her necklace.

Grim appeared immediately. She nearly sagged over in relief, seeing him still living. The determination in Oro’s eyes had been clear.

They didn’t have much time. Even weakened, Oro’s power was endless. And this was his territory. He wanted the Nightshade ruler dead and likely had a thousand ways to do it.

She strode over to him. Grabbed his hand. “Do you trust me?”

Grim looked at her. Blinked. “Of course, Hearteater.”

“Oro’s going to kill you to end the curses. Celeste and I know each other—we have an ancient relic that will help the three of us. We’re going to break our bonds, tonight. And then . . . we’re going to have to run.”

She studied Grim’s face carefully. Watched his features twist. But he did not look surprised. Had he anticipated Oro would try to assassinate him?

“You would do that for me?” Grim asked, gripping her hand tighter.

It was foolish, caring for other players in a game as cruel as the Centennial. But she couldn’t help how she felt. “Yes. And you’re going to have to help me too. I might need some of your power to save my realm. I—”

“I’ll give you anything,” he said immediately. “Anything you need. Anything of mine. It’s yours.”

She smiled.

“Isla—”

“We don’t have time,” she said, squeezing his fingers. “We need to go. Now. As close as you can get us to the Place of Mirrors.”

Grim’s eyes shot to the window, where darkness cloaked everything.

He hadn’t been outside at night in centuries.

“Do you trust me?” she asked.

He did not answer. He only pressed his hand against her heart. She shuddered, his fingers cold, a rush going through her. “Your heart,” he said, frowning. He shook his head. “It does not only belong to you.” Isla didn’t know what that meant.

Before she could ask, she fell through the ground, to somewhere else.

They landed, and Grim braced himself. If Isla was wrong, his skin would begin to split open, just like Oro’s had under the sun . . . he would die—

But nothing happened.

They were at the edge of the woods on Wild Isle, enchanted by ancient Wildling power, shielding it from all abilities other than Wildings’ own. She had a theory that the Wildling forest might be a little like her—that its quelling of powers also meant other realms’ curses would be nullified.

And she had been right.

Grim’s jaw went slack. He stared up at the sky through the treetops in wonder. He couldn’t access the dark power that thrummed through his veins, but it seemed the view of the dark sky above was enough.

She gripped his wrist. “Quickly,” she said, hoping Celeste had already made it inside.

Isla ducked into the dead forest, and Grim did not move an inch. He watched her. Eyes filled with something like despair.

“Heart,” he said.

She stilled. Something about that word . . . about how he said it . . .

“Will you ever forgive me?” he wondered, reaching out and tucking a piece of her hair behind her ear.

Her heart beat once. Twice. “For what?” she asked, taking a step back. Another.

Grim shook his head. Frowned. “You asked me, just minutes ago, if I trusted you. When you should have asked if you could trust me.”

The forest did not make a sound. The dead leaves did not rustle. As if stunned, just like her.

She stumbled away. Said, “What?” so quietly, she doubted he had heard her.

“Heart,” he said. He took a step closer. “Your dreams, the ones you asked me about . . . are not dreams.”

“What?”

“They’re memories.”

Memories.

Him standing before her in full armor. Her legs wrapped around him. His lips on her neck, on her collarbones, on the sides of her knees.

The dreams she’d had for weeks, the ones that had made it hard to look Grim in the eye.

“What are you talking about?”

He shook his head. Reached for her, then recoiled when she flinched. “You appeared in my castle one year ago. And you returned . . . several times. Using your Nightshade relic.”

Isla was drowning, she was sure of it. The ground shifted below her feet. She gripped a decayed branch for balance. “I’ve never been to Nightshade lands,” she said, shaking her head. Backing away another step.

Grim swallowed. “You have. You just don’t remember. I had to take away your memories. All of the ones with me in them.”

She was panting. Like he had offered to do with Juniper.

A memory raced to the surface of her mind—the second thing that had come out of her mouth when she had first stepped foot on the island, ninety days prior.

Have we met before?

Grim had touched her shoulder afterward, and she had forgotten all about it. At the sight of him, something must have peeked through the veil he had put on her memories. And he had snuffed it out with that touch.

Isla blinked too quickly. Nothing made sense. Though it was the least important thing he had said, her head was full of cotton, and all she could focus on was, “My starstick is a Starling relic.”

Grim’s eyes were sad. He looked like he was falling apart and trying very hard not to show it. “No, it isn’t,” he said. “It’s Nightshade.” He frowned when she shook her head again. “Who do you think its power came from?”

She wasn’t breathing. Grim’s flair was the power to portal anywhere he wanted to go. The same power as her starstick.

“No,” she said. “I’ve never been to Nightshade lands,” she repeated, her mind spinning, voice breaking. She hadn’t dared, not after Terra’s warnings.

Grim’s voice was gentle. “Heart,” he said steadily. “Where do you think you were before you portaled back to your room for the Centennial?”

Isla remembered arriving at her room, through her puddle of stars, right before Terra and Poppy had entered it. Right before fixing her crown atop her head and addressing her people.

But she didn’t remember where she had been. She searched her mind, digging, begging the memories to appear.

They did not.

If what Grim said was true . . . she had been with him that morning. He had taken her memories. Then, just minutes later, he had pretended not to know her. She had looked upon him like a familiar stranger.

It couldn’t be true. None of it made sense. None of it.

There are lies and liars all around you . . .

She didn’t know what to do, what to think, who to trust. But she certainly didn’t trust herself.

Or him.

So, she ran into the forest her ancestors had created. Grim waited a few moments before taking off after her. And outside these woods, he might have caught her.

But she was fast as the arrow that had pierced her heart. Quiet as a hummingbird. Before, she had cut her cheek and arms in this same forest. Today, she jumped over all the right vines. Ducked under all the trees.

Until she saw her own self, reflected back at her.

She ran inside the Place of Mirrors, hearing snaps and cracks outside. Through the glass, she watched as the dead trees wove together and formed a wall, encasing her inside.

The forest was enchanted. Did it sense her fear? Was it finally protecting the ruler of Wildling who couldn’t protect herself?

Isla didn’t have time to question it. Grim couldn’t use his powers here, but he was a warrior—it would take just a few good swings of his blade to get through the brush.

She almost slumped over in relief when she saw Celeste inside, eyes wide.

“What’s wrong?” she asked, and Isla realized she was still panting. Celeste was holding something in her hand.

It looked like a giant sewing needle, long as a dagger. Sharply pointed at both ends. It was gold and part glass and glowed brightly, just as the heart had.

The bondbreaker.

“Nothing,” she said, then shook her head. “Everything.”

Celeste nodded, seeming to understand that Grim wouldn’t be joining them. “I don’t know what you needed from him. But I’ll help you with whatever it is. We’ll figure it out . . . together.”

Together. She had ruined everything. But she believed Celeste when she said that they would find a solution.

“We need to hurry, then,” Isla said.

Celeste extended the needle toward her. “It’s a quick thing. We just pierce our skin with this.”

The bondbreaker’s cost was said to be at least a gallon of blood from a ruler. Isla wasn’t sure how the needle was supposed to hold that much. But perhaps it didn’t have to hold it. The needle likely made a puncture that wouldn’t close until they’d lost the required amount. Isla had brought her remaining healing elixir to close their wounds once they were done.

A crack sounded through the night. Isla whipped around to see that Grim had made a path through the tree hulls, quicker than expected.

They faced each other through the glass. His eyes widened in sight of the needle.

“Now,” Isla whispered, and Celeste stuck the needle into her own hand, wincing.

“Heart, no,” Grim yelled before she could do the same, loud enough to make her pause. He ran as fast as he could, hurdling through the door.

But Isla felt a sharp stab through her palm. It was done.

She cried out, something critical rushing through her, burning like smoke in her lungs, salt in her throat, sparks in her stomach. Only it wasn’t blood. It wasn’t anything she could see.

Isla turned to face Celeste. Her friend’s eyes had changed. They were darker, a deep silver instead of gray.

She grinned wickedly.

Isla froze. She didn’t recognize that smile. Celeste’s silver hair began to float around her head. Her back arched just as Isla doubled over, suddenly light-headed—her skin felt too thin, yet Celeste’s skin gleamed far too brightly. The bondbreaker was taking something from her and giving it to Celeste. Something important.

Grim grabbed Isla’s other hand, tried to pull her away from the needle.

And was flung back against the glass. By Celeste. But her powers didn’t work in here—

The Nightshade thrashed violently against chains that looked like vines. His arms strained. Just then, the door crashed open once more. Oro stepped through. How had he found her? His amber eyes went straight to the bondbreaker, and he paled.

“Isla,” he said softly, looking more panicked than she had ever seen him.

Then he doubled over, falling to his knees. Was the island deteriorating again? But this was different. Grim slumped over at the same moment. Both weakened in seconds—like her. How?

Suddenly, she was shoved straight down to the stone, away from the needle. It fell to the floor just as her head cracked against the marble.

She blinked, vision blurred, and Celeste took a step toward her. Blood dripped from the puncture on the Starling ruler’s palm.

Six droplets.

One sizzled. One floated. One burst. One became dark as ink. One froze. One hit the ground and bloomed into a crimson rose.

Celeste’s blood contained abilities from all six realms.

Impossible.

It was as if she had just drained Oro and Grim of all their power. But she hadn’t even touched them . . . and it didn’t explain all six droplets . . .

Celeste’s head fell back as she laughed. Her eyes met Isla’s, and she sneered. “You’re not very good at following rules, are you?”

Isla was frozen on the ground, mouth parted. She had a thousand questions and couldn’t form a single one, except for, “What?”

“You were supposed to stay away from Grim, remember? I warned you . . . and the king of Lightlark! You weren’t supposed to seduce him, that wasn’t your plan, it was your guardians’. . .” She grinned. “Good thing I counted on you breaking the rules, little Wildling.”

Oro had managed to get on his feet somehow, though the color had completely drained from his face. He took a step forward, hand raised—

And was flung against the glass, next to Grim. By a wild root.

Celeste couldn’t use her Starling abilities in the Place of Mirrors.

She was using Wildling power.

“How?” Isla said. She must be dreaming. Or having a nightmare. It didn’t make sense . . . her best friend.

Isla was at Celeste’s feet, staring up at her. Not searching the room for exits. Not reaching for the dagger at her hip.

This couldn’t be real.

Celeste’s smile only grew more serpentine. The Centennial was a big game—she and Celeste had repeated those words countless times.

And Isla had been played.

“Why don’t you ask them?” Celeste said, motioning to Oro and Grim, who both looked like they were a moment away from going into a hundred-year slumber, their muscles slackened, eyelids drooping. Still, they fought against their restraints in vain. Celeste sighed. “Love on Lightlark is a dangerous thing, isn’t it?”

Isla knew that. Falling in love meant handing someone else complete access to your abilities.

“I really thought it would be harder . . . but you played your part well. These two ancient, famed rulers fell at your feet like cut-down stalks of wheat.” Celeste walked over to them, sneering. “Grim was easy. He already loved you . . . you two have quite a history . . . though I suppose you don’t remember any of it, do you?”

Celeste turned to Isla for confirmation, and she didn’t move an inch. She didn’t recognize her friend. It couldn’t be her . . . Isla refused to accept it. Celeste shrugged at the lack of response and stopped in front of Oro. His nostrils flared. If he’d had his powers, his gaze alone could set fire to them all.

But in the Place of Mirrors, only Wildling power was permitted.

“The untrusting, cruel king . . . fell in love with a Wildling?” Celeste shook her head, grinning. “It was torture, wasn’t it, King? Trying to fight it. Believing yourself under her spell . . . not knowing that she had no Wildling powers to begin with, until she told you her secret.”

Oro’s gaze shot to Isla. He looked panicked, an expression she had never seen him wear.

She looked at him, really looked at him. Fell in love? Celeste had to be wrong.

The Starling stepped closer to Oro. Ran a silver-painted nail down his cheek. “Of course, you were never under any spell.” She shrugged. “That, at least, should make you feel better about losing every drop of power you ever had.”

Oro tore against his chains. Grim was very still next to him, looking at Isla. She felt his gaze all over her.

But she didn’t know where to look. Nothing made sense.

Oro couldn’t love her. She didn’t even think he liked her.

At least, that was how it had started out. But the more time they had spent together, after everything they had been through . . .

Celeste clicked her tongue. “To think, they handed over all of this power to you.” She looked down at Isla, still on the floor, and sighed. “And now you’ve given it to me.”

It still didn’t make sense. Even if Oro and Grim were in love with her . . . she couldn’t simply give that power to Celeste. The bondbreaker—

Celeste must have read the confusion across Isla’s face, because she said, “There never was a bondbreaker, little bird. This is a bondmaker. The only enchanted device that allows a transfer of ability. Created to help Sunling kings shift their power to their heirs without having to die. Isn’t that right, King?”

Oro growled and tore against the vines, so hard he almost broke them with a single motion.

When Isla had been pricked by the bondmaker, it had allowed Celeste to take all the power she had access to, even if she didn’t know it—Oro’s and Grim’s.

“Celeste. You’re my friend. You wouldn’t do this.” She would fight for their friendship. Fight for the person she loved.

Celeste frowned. She bent down to where Isla was still on the ground and took her face in her hand, like she had countless times before. Isla let her. The Starling ruler sighed, a hint of pity swimming in her bright eyes. Then her mouth twitched. She smiled, wide mouth sweeping across her face. “Don’t you understand, you beautiful, beautiful fool? You did everything I wanted . . . and I didn’t even have to make you.”

The Starling transformed. Her nose shortened. Her eyes changed color. Her cheeks hollowed. Her lips became redder.

A different face. A different person.

An impossible power—a flair.

Celeste wasn’t Celeste at all.

Oro finally looked ready to collapse. His eyes flashed with pain. “Aurora.”

Aurora. Isla knew that name. The Starling ruler who had died the day the curses had been cast. The one who had been set to marry King Egan.

“I watched you die,” Oro said, his voice rasped.

Aurora turned and faced Oro. “An illusion, I’m afraid,” she said.

“Why?” Oro’s voice was guttural. Then realization hardened his features. “It was revenge, wasn’t it?”

Aurora only smiled.

“What do you mean?” Isla demanded. Her head was swimming. Nothing made sense.

Every word seemed to pain him, but Oro said, “My brother was supposed to marry Aurora.” Blood dripped from the corner of his mouth. “But he fell in love with someone else. With her best friend.”

What?

“With your ancestor.”

Her ancestor. The one who had died the night of the curses. Her name was Violet. She knew almost nothing about her. Certainly not this.

Aurora laughed without humor. It had all happened centuries ago, but the pain was raw on her face. “They meant to marry, with a ring already on my finger. I was so angry . . . I used my shape-shifting flair to change into a beautiful Wildling and convinced this fool”—she looked pointedly at Grim—“that he would have me that night if he gave me the most beautiful flower on the island . . . one I knew had bloomed on the remnants of Night Isle, just weeks prior. The heart of Lightlark. Something Egan had told me about as children. I had tracked it, intending for it to be a wedding gift. Instead, Grim unknowingly unlocked the heart for me to use. The job was rushed. Since I had not found it myself, I could not wield it effectively. I cursed all the realms without really meaning to. Even my own. Only I, as the curses’ creator, was left unmarred.

“Then I panicked. With all the rulers except for me dead, I would be the prime suspect. So, I faked my death with a Nightshade illusion, using the heart. You saw me die . . . but the person who truly perished was my heir, my foolish sister. I took on her identity, her face. Then, when I formed the Starling newland, I forbade attendants in the castle. Led from afar. Keeping secrets is easy in a realm where everyone dies at twenty-five. I became a new Starling ruler every Centennial. All the while, biding my time. Planning. Waiting.”

“For what?” Isla demanded. Tears streaked down her face. This couldn’t be real. She still refused to believe it.

“For the right moment to take everything I had been denied. Only this time, I wished to rule all six realms. Gaining access to all of Lightlark’s powers proved difficult.” She sneered at Oro. “Even with a new face, a new personality, every Centennial, you always rejected my advances. An untrusting king indeed. Egan had told me about the bondmaker. I began searching for it every Centennial. But, even if I was able to trick you, King, into using it with me, I would receive just four of the six abilities. A ruler can only use the bondmaker to gain ability once and lose ability once. I needed a way to get all six powers in one go.”

She turned to Isla. She was still on the floor, watching as everything in her life, everything she thought she knew, shattered.

“And that’s where you come in, little bird.” Isla swallowed. “It was all luck, really.”

Grim’s voice bellowed across the room. “Aurora,” he said in warning. “Don’t.”

She only smiled. And continued. “Years ago, one of Grim’s powerful, curious generals stole one of his relics and used it to visit the Wildling newland. There, he met a beautiful Wildling. And, though forbidden in every way, would you believe they fell in love? The Nightshade general was powerful . . . so powerful, he thought he could subdue the Wildling’s curse . . . keep it at bay. And he did.” She smiled at Isla. “Long enough for them to have you.”

Isla shook with rage. “No.”

“Yes, Isla. You are not only Wildling . . . but also Nightshade.”

She shook her head. “I’m powerless.”

Aurora laughed. “Quite the contrary, little bird. You’re very powerful. Your Wildling abilities have simply been cloaked by your Nightshade powers. Made invisible. Unusable, unless a skilled Nightshade should untangle them . . . Manifestations of powers are so strange, aren’t they?”

Power.

Isla had always had power.

And she had lost it. To her best friend. Who had never been her friend at all.

“I saw my chance to get all six powers and planned accordingly.” Aurora pursed her lips.

“Then something I hadn’t anticipated happened. I didn’t know you had been visiting other rulers too. You apparently mentioned something suspicious about me to Grim, and the very next day, he appeared in my room.”

Aurora turned to face Grim.

“And that was when he became my accomplice.”

Isla stilled. Grim’s face had gone ashen. He did not meet Isla’s gaze.

“A person’s emotions have colors, apparently. Celeste’s had the same shade as mine. He figured out my identity right away and was about to slay me, knowing that my survival meant I had spun the curses. But before he could, I told him that the only reason I kept returning to the Centennial with a new face was because I could not rest until Egan’s familial line was destroyed for good. I presented him with a plan that would kill the king without dooming everyone on the island, break the curses, and give him control of Lightlark. All he had to do was help me.”

“Hearteater,” Grim said, trying to get her attention. But she couldn’t even look at him. He growled, tearing against his binds. But it was useless. “She told me the original offense was a Sunling ruler falling in love with a Wildling ruler—Egan loving Violet.” His breathing was labored. “To break the curses and fulfill the prophecy, the original offense had to be repeated again. You had to make Oro fall in love with you. But we were already in love. You would have refused. So, I had to take the memories of us together away.”

Isla could barely breathe. That was why Grim had avoided her for weeks when she and Oro were working together. She thought about his strange comment, encouraging her to dance with Oro at the ball.

His voice took a desperate edge as she still refused to look him in the eye. “It was the most difficult decision I’ve ever made, Hearteater. Knowing that succeeding meant you beguiling someone else. Making you forget our story. Our love.”

She finally met his gaze then. “Difficult for you?”

His voice turned resolute. “I was going to give the memories back. Once Oro loved you . . . and you remembered you loved me . . . we could take all of Lightlark’s powers and rule together.”

Aurora pursed her lips. “And, once Oro was drained of his abilities and link to the island, I would be free to kill him.”

Grim spoke again. “I did it for my realm. Your realm. For us, Heart.”

It fit the prophecy perfectly. Rulers being joined. Winning immense power. A ruler and their familial line dying.

Aurora sighed. “You have to admit . . . it was a great plan.” She grinned. “Too bad it was all a lie.”

Grim thrashed against his restraints, bellowing in anger. Immediately, thorns from the vines tying him down dug into his skin, drawing blood. He winced, already weakened. And now Isla knew why. Both he and Oro had been drained of power.

And so had Isla. Though she hadn’t been weakened . . . not like them. For she had never relied on power.

She couldn’t miss something she never knew she had.

“I need to thank you,” Aurora said, looking down at Isla. “You not only found the bondmaker for me . . . but you gave me all six powers at once.”

Isla was shaking.

Everything had been orchestrated. A game much bigger than the one she thought she had been playing.

Isla finally rose. Grim had done everything for the same reason she had tried to win the Centennial—to save those he loved and bring power back to his realm. On every level, she understood.

The difference was Isla had been willing to give up everything for him. When, the entire time, he had used her as a pawn. She spat in Grim’s direction.

Isla looked at Oro and hoped he read the apology in her eyes. Because of her, because he had been foolish enough to love a Wildling, his worst fear had been confirmed. He had lost his power.

He had been right not to trust her. Not to trust anyone.

She should have done the same.

Isla took out her blade, then faced Aurora. Everything made terrifying sense now.

Aurora had killed Juniper after he wrote them about knowing who had spun the curses. Not Cleo or Ella.

Azul must have somehow figured out Celeste was Aurora and tried to stop her during Carmel.

Isla swallowed, knowing she had to finish the job.

She was quick, faster than lightning striking—her blade was at Aurora’s throat in a moment.

But before she could pierce flesh, the blade shattered.

Isla and Aurora met eyes. It didn’t make sense. Aurora couldn’t wield her abilities here. The Starling ruler laughed. “The dagger you chose at the Starling shop, the one I planted there. One I had enchanted so it could never kill me should you discover my plot. Of course you chose the one with a serpent on it . . . so predictable, little bird. So weak . . . so foolish.”

Aurora lifted her arms, and vines crashed through the glass of the Place of Mirrors, sending shards everywhere. They filled the room, squirming like serpents, reaching toward them all.

Oro and Grim were instantly smothered. Trapped firmly against the remnants of the glass wall. Aurora would end them, even with their powers drained, just to squelch any other claim to authority. Isla knew that.

“Killed by your own abilities . . .” Aurora mused, hands lifted, ready to strike Isla down with all the forest offered. She paused, for just a moment. “I did like you, Wildling. But all the rulers must die today. Again.”

Before Aurora could send the vines and roots to end her, Isla reached back down her spine, her favorite hiding place. Her fingers wrapped around something that was buzzing faintly. Glowing.

Aurora’s eyes widened. “I told you not to bring anything, fool,” she said.

Isla grinned meanly. “I’m not good at following rules, remember?”

Then she plunged through her puddle of stars.


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