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Nightbane: Chapter 34

BEFORE

Music thrummed through the day. Drums, everywhere. Laughter. Jeers. The sharp smell of alcohol that was so concentrated, it burned her nostrils.

Some people walked through the streets nearly naked, covered only in scantily used body paint. There were designs painted across their chests, their legs, their stomachs. Others lined the sides of the road, shouting. They all had blades on their belts and drinks in their hands.

Everyone was wearing masks.

Her own was tight to her face, but she reached to put her hair behind her ear, just for an excuse to touch its edge, to be sure her mask was secure. Grim had thrown the mask and a scrap of fabric at her the second he had appeared in her room.

“Today’s the longest night of the year. There’s a celebration at Creetan’s Crag. During the day, obviously.”

She had caught it and frowned. “Masks?”

“Everyone wears them.”

Isla had scowled as she let the dress unravel in front of her. “Does everyone wear this?” It was black and gave her Wildling clothing competition for impropriety. It hung by two thin straps that looked one wrong move away from snapping, had the lowest-cut bodice she had ever seen and a slit so high, there was very little fabric in the middle holding it all together.

Grim didn’t meet her eyes. “Most people do choose to wear little clothing, yes. At least, at celebrations like this. Some just wear paint.” He stared at her then, an eyebrow raised. “Would you prefer I get a pot of ink and a brush?”

That had sent her behind her dressing curtain without another complaint. She didn’t have a full-length mirror in there, so it wasn’t until she was in front of him that she saw herself clearly.

Her breasts were pressed together and spilling over the top. The slit was so high, she’d had to forgo underclothes altogether.

Grim stared at her and looked, more than anything, horrified.

“Do I look Nightshade?” she asked, a note of panic in her voice. She smeared bright paint across her lips, the same way she had the first time she had met him, which seemed to be a Nightshade fashion. Then she put on her mask. He hadn’t answered, so she turned back to him, only to find his eyes still on her. “Hmm?”

“It’ll do,” he had said gruffly and extended his hand.

Now, as they walked through Creetan’s Crag, Grim looked straight ahead. Even if he wasn’t looking at her, others were. She felt their gazes on her and resisted the urge to press her hand against the slit, to ensure it didn’t expose more than her leg.

Grim seemed more on edge than usual. He couldn’t use his powers, on the off chance that the sword was close by. They’d had to portal far away and walk for nearly an hour as a precaution.

“How does it feel?” she whispered.

He looked over at her. “How does what feel?”

“Not being the scary, all-powerful Nightshade ruler anymore. In a crowd like this.”

Grim gave her a look. “I could still kill everyone here with my sword.”

“Not me.”

His eyes were back on the street. “Are you forgetting the results of our duel?”

“I didn’t hate you as much as I do now. I’m sure that very fact would help me win.”

“Is that so?”

“Absolutely.”

Speaking of the crowd . . . “How do you know a celebration like this will draw him out?” The mysterious thief. The one with the snake who had been seen nearby.

“I don’t. But if he is here, all this . . . distraction will be useful.”

Distraction was one word for it.

Thousands of people made currents through the streets and filled each shop to the brim, so much so that she watched someone fall through an open window in a bar and land right in a pile of vomit.

Demonstrations, shows, and betting rounds were going on. Cards were being played. By the sounds coming from alleyways, every type of desire was being fulfilled.

“We know he has a snake. How else are we supposed to find him?” She looked over at him. “Do you know how to get information without cutting off hands?”

Grim glanced over at her. Not a minute later, he stopped in front of a woman. She had five drinks in her hands and looked about to take the order of a group of people sitting outside a bar.

Isla watched the woman’s entire face change as she took him in. His wide shoulders, his height. Her expression went from annoyed to curious in an instant. Even from a few steps down the street, she couldn’t hear what they were saying over the music and drunken jeers. The woman was saying something, and then she placed a hand on his arm, and he let her. Something uncomfortable that she didn’t want to name curled in her stomach.

When Grim returned, he looked far too smug. “I know where to find him.”

Isla didn’t give him the satisfaction of looking surprised or impressed. “Good. Lead the way.”

They didn’t have to walk far. Minutes later, they entered a massive tent. “That’s him.” The him was a man wearing his shirt completely open, revealing a muscular chest. He had pale skin, hair cut close to his head, and, most remarkable of all, a viper wrapped around his shoulders.

The thief was with a group of people—his collaborators, no doubt—sitting front row at a very . . . interesting show.

People with fabric draped over them—and little else underneath—danced in front of bright lights, turning the sheets they held completely sheer. Every inch of their bodies was visible. Some wore nothing underneath; others wore limited underclothes. The man was watching them intensely, elbows on his knees.

All right. There he was. Somehow, they would have to get information from him. “He seems preoccupied. How are we—”

Grim looked from the dancers to Isla. Then back again.

She scoffed. “Absolutely not, you cursed demon—”

He shrugged a shoulder. “Then we’ll find another way. I just thought, you being a temptress and all, you could use your powers, since I’m unable to use mine.”

Powers. She was supposed to be a cursed hearteater, able to tempt a person with a single look. Capable of bringing anyone to their knees with her seduction. Somehow he hadn’t seemed to notice her powerlessness, beyond a few pointed statements. He couldn’t find out she didn’t have ability. What if that was why he was working with her in the first place? Would he rescind his offer to help her during the Centennial?

Roaring began filling her ears. They hadn’t found the skin gloves. She and Celeste needed him. Her people needed her. They were suffering.

“Can’t you just torture the information out of him?” she asked. Suddenly, that option sounded a lot more appealing.

Grim looked amused. “Of course I can, Hearteater. But one of the most infamous thieves, one of the only people who knows about the sword, turning up dead in such a violent fashion? It would be suspicious . . .” He shrugged a shoulder. “I suppose, if you are unable to actually use your powers—”

“Of course I can,” she said quickly.

Grim looked unconvinced. “It’s fine. We’ll find another—”

“No.” She was suddenly intent on wiping that look off his face. She reached back into her dress and shoved her starstick at him. “Take this from me, and you’ll see my other Wildling curses in action,” she said.

Then she turned on her heel, toward the tent behind the stage.

All her previous bravado was gone. She had traded one of the girls in the show a ruby from her necklace in exchange for her extra set of clothing. Now, she stood just offstage, trembling. Her chest was covered only by a thick strip of black fabric. Her other parts were covered only by a skirt that truly had not earned that description, for it barely concealed anything.

The sheet was over her, but she had seen it at work in the light. Everything would be revealed. She would be revealed.

Get it together, she told herself. Her people were starving. The mark above her heart was only the faintest scar now, but the encounter had left more than torn flesh behind. She had seen the women’s desperation. They looked guilty, but they were hungry. She was their ruler. It was her responsibility to do whatever she could to survive the Centennial and break their curse.

With her people in mind, a stupid dance in front of a thief seemed easy. She had a plan. Seduce him, bring him to a private place, and feed him the bottle of liquor she had also bought off the dancer.

“A drink of this, and any man will be flat on his stomach,” she had said. “Lets us accept payment without doing most of the more unsavory acts.”

Finally, Isla had asked for advice. “Do you know the man with the serpent?”

She had rolled her eyes. “We all do, unfortunately.”

“How do I get him to notice me?”

“Easy,” she said. “He likes attention.”

All she had to do was dance in front of him.

How hard could it be?

She was wearing a mask. Anonymous. No one knew her here—except for the cursed demon, who she doubted would even be watching.

With a burst of confidence, Isla stepped onto the stage, wrapped in the cloth she knew was made completely transparent by the lights behind, casting her body in full shadow.

Gazes were brands searing her skin. At first, she rejected it, felt disgusted, but then . . .

This was a choice. She was not being forced. They were here to watch, and she had agreed to be part of the entertainment.

She positioned herself right in front of the man with the snake, making sure to give a smile just for him, and she began to dance.

The music was a rush of drums and strings so fast and intoxicating that her body moved to its rhythm, matching the routine of the others. Her hips swayed, dipped, her arms reached above her head, she ran her fingers down her stomach, touching her body through the fabric . . .

And met his gaze. Him.

Grim.

He was watching her like she really had power and could seduce a man with one look. He was staring like a man entranced, standing predatorially still. She met his eyes, and he did not look away—no, if anything, he looked more intensely. His eyes swept down her body, and up, and lingered, and she felt it in her blood, in her bones, him

His gaze broke away, narrowing on something right in front of her, just a half second before she felt a pull on her fabric.

She heard a hiss.

The thief. The snake around his neck flicked its tongue out. The man offered his hand, which was full of coins she had never seen before. “Might I have a private show?” he asked.

Bile worked its way up her throat. She gave her most convincing smile. “Of course.”

The man helped her off the stage, and she led him to the back of the tent, where she had watched other dancers take their clients. Before going into one of the private areas, she scooped up her bottle of liquor.

“For you,” she said reverently, and he smiled. The snake hissed again, and he petted its head. “Apologies—she is a jealous woman,” he said about the serpent.

The curtains made a scratching sound as she opened them. They were in a building now, with stone walls. The sounds of music and yells were muted here. In their room, there was only a chair, some candles, and a table with awaiting goblets.

She uncorked the bottle and poured him a glass.

He took it immediately, and Isla thought he was a fool for not even smelling it before gulping it down. He must not have viewed her as a threat.

Perhaps this was how he’d lost the sword.

“More,” he said, offering his goblet. She happily obliged, and he downed the drink again, before loudly leaving it on the table. “Now,” he said, smiling, teeth shining in the limited light of the few scattered candles. “Dance.”

Isla did. She danced in front of him, smiling coyly when he made to reach for her, turning around strategically, so he didn’t think she was denying him.

When she turned around again, she saw his eyes were drooping. He fought to stay awake, his head lolling, then straightening, again, and again.

This was her chance.

“Come here,” he said, patting his leg. She felt a bout of nausea but complied, sitting on his lap, far from where he wanted her.

The snake lunged for her, and Isla startled, but the man just laughed, head lolling to the side. “Don’t worry, she doesn’t bite,” he said. “I had her fangs removed.” Though she was grateful for it now, Isla thought that was very sad. For a moment, she felt pity for the snake.

“I’m looking for something,” she whispered.

“Are you?” he said, his voice slurring.

“A sword. The one your group stole from the Skyling market and that you stole from them. Where is it?”

He laughed, his eyes rolling back. “That sword ruined my life,” he said. “It’s nearly killed anyone who’s tried to use it. I suppose none of us were powerful enough for it.” He laughed some more.

She leaned closer, clutching both sides of his open shirt in her hands. “Where is it?”

The man smiled. His eyes were nearly closed now. His very pale cheeks were now flushed. Perhaps the drink had worked too well. “A thief stole it from me. Ironic, isn’t it? Some call her the best thief in all the realms.”

“What’s her name?”

“No one knows.”

“Where can I find her?”

He lifted a shoulder.

That wasn’t helpful. She shook him by the sides of his shirt. “Where do you think the sword is now? Would she have traded it? Sold it?”

“Oh, I know where the sword is.”

Isla stopped shaking him. “You do?”

He nodded as much as he could manage. “The thief has a favorite hiding place.”

“Where?”

“Here, on Nightshade.”

Hope bloomed. “Close by?”

He shook his head. “No, no. Far.”

“Where?”

“The Caves of Irida.”

Isla stopped breathing. That was a very specific location. She didn’t know where it was, but Grim would.

Suddenly, her hope began to deflate. “Wait. If you’re so sure you know where it is, why haven’t you stolen it back?”

He laughed, but it sounded faded. He was moments from sleep. “Besides the fact no one will go near it? Because it’s impossible,” he slurred. “The thief has a monster.”

“Monster?”

“It guards her bounty.”

“What kind of monster?” she demanded.

But the thief had succumbed to the liquor. She let him go, and he crumpled against the chair, making a snoring sound. The snake slid across his face, as if trying to wake him.

Isla only realized that in her fervor to get information she had climbed atop the man when Grim opened the curtain to the room. She stood quickly, grinning, mouth opening, ready to tell him everything they now knew, when she abruptly shut it.

Grim looked furious. He looked at the man, sleeping peacefully, then at her.

“Don’t kill him,” she said.

He gave her a look.

“You look like you want to kill him.”

“I want to kill a lot of people,” he said, like that made things better. He looked her dead in the eyes. “I kill a lot of people.”

She swallowed, and his gaze went straight to her throat.

He stalked toward her, and Isla backed away. Her spine hit the wall. Her heart seemed ready to beat out of her chest, but she smirked. “I got the information. I know exactly where the sword is. Seems like I’m a perfectly good temptress.” In the most mocking tone that she could manage at the moment, she said, “Tell me, nonpowerful Nightshade. Was I able to tempt you?” He frowned down at her, and she grinned. She stared up at him through her eyelashes. “Did I make you fall hopelessly in love with me?”

Isla gasped as he pinned her against the wall. His hands were rough against her hips. His fingers traveled up the sides of her stomach, to her ribs, to her breasts. She arched her back, groaning as his thumbs made wide sweeps across them. She knew he could feel her emotions, her want.

“No,” he said against her parted lips. “You are not something special to me. You are not something I want to love.” He reached up to her lips and smeared her red lipstick with his thumb. “You are something I want to ruin.”

Then he ducked his head to her throat and bit her.

It was a light bite, just a scraping of his teeth, but Isla gasped, which turned into a moan as his tongue swiped across the same spot. She wanted him so much—she wanted everything.

In a single motion, he turned her around, so her chest was pressed to the wall. His hands raked up her thighs, until he gripped her hips.

Before she could move against him or do any of the millions of things that were racing through her mind, he made a portal with her starstick against the wall in front of her and pushed her through it.


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