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Nightbane: Chapter 42

BEFORE

Grim was standing in front of her. She was ready to go to the cave again, but he said, “Not tonight.”

“Why not?”

“I have a commitment.”

She frowned. “What is it?”

“A ball.” He said it with venom.

Isla laughed. “A ball?”

“Is that amusing to you?”

She lifted a shoulder. “You hosting a ball? Decorations? Dresses? Clinking wineglasses?” Isla had never actually been to a ball, but that was the picture painted by Celeste and the books she’d read.

“Hardly,” he said coolly. By his reaction, he made a ball seem like a death sentence. “I would cancel it, but it is a good distraction.”

“From?” she asked.

He didn’t answer, but she imagined he meant whatever danger was threatening Nightshade. The threat that could mysteriously be solved by the sword. The reason there were often long stretches between his visits. The more pressing matter he often needed to attend to.

“Can I come?” she asked.

He looked at her as if she had asked if she could have his throne. “Absolutely not.”

Then he vanished.

Late that night, Isla was bored to death on her bed, reading her latest book for the tenth time. She had already filled the margins with notes.

With a sigh as dramatic as she could manage, she flipped onto her back and flung the book to the other side of her bed. She wondered what the ball was like. Were women throwing themselves at Grim? Of course they were. And he was probably accepting them with open arms. The thought made her more than a little nauseous.

She had already changed into her pajamas and was ready to go to bed when her starstick glimmered from beneath her floorboard. It was almost like an invitation.

One she accepted.

A quick, thieving trip to the night market later, she was dressed in about as little fabric as possible to still be considered clothed.

She doubted Grim would even see her. She would stay out of sight. Even if he did see her, so what? He would have to pretend not to know her, to keep up appearances. It was late enough into the night that most of the people at the ball were probably too intoxicated to notice. They couldn’t leave until daytime. The party was meant to last until the morning, she realized.

Isla portaled to the Nightshade castle.

If the word debauchery had been a place, Isla was looking at it.

The halls of the castle were filled with music so loud and fast it drowned out the moans she could hear only when she passed by the dark halls, people moving furiously in the shadows. Inside the ballroom, all pretense of propriety was abandoned.

People danced with long ribbons of black silk, on platforms lining the room between full suits of armor. In the darker corners of the rooms, couples were coupling, not seeming to care in the slightest that they had hundreds of people as their witnesses.

Before, Isla had felt embarrassed by the amount of skin she was showing, but now she saw she was wearing almost the most fabric in the room. Her dress was black gossamer, with a dipping neckline, two pieces covering her breasts, then coming together in the middle. It had a slit up to her hip.

Eyes were on her immediately. At first, she panicked, wondering if they somehow recognized her.

No—their gazes were not threatening. They were hungry.

Tonight, she embraced it. It felt good to be seen and wanted.

Isla assumed the party would be crowded and raucous enough that she wouldn’t even see Grim, but—

He found her immediately.

She felt his gaze like a brand, and when the crowd naturally parted at the sound of a new song, there was a direct path, across the room, from him to her.

Even from far away, she could see he was furious. Women fought for his attention, barely clothed, but he was watching her, eyes blazing with so much anger, he looked ready to wage a war.

Isla did the most foolish thing possible in response to his anger, which was smile and blow him a mocking kiss.

Immediately, he stood, knocking over some of the goblets that the women had placed around his throne. He didn’t even look down; all he did was take a step forward, as if he was going to portal to her and send her straight back to Wildling.

No. She knew it wouldn’t do much good if he really wanted to find her, but she ducked into the crowd. In the center of so many people, Grim wouldn’t dare appear and whisk her away. She was unknown in the court—it would lead to too much notice and too many questions that Grim had gone to great lengths already to avoid.

That was what she told herself, at least.

The music seemed to get louder, and Isla danced, just one person in a crowd. She met gazes that looked her up and down and seemed to like what they saw. One pair of eyes never left her as she moved until the song ended, and the man walked over.

He was tall and had a scar across his cheek and hair cut short to his head. He wasn’t shy with his notice. “You are the most beautiful creature I have ever seen.”

Creature seemed like a strange term, but she had never been spoken to so boldly, and she felt her skin prickle. “I am?”

He took a step closer to her. “I’ve never seen a face like yours,” he said. “Not ever.”

Isla could feel herself blush. It was so stupid, but the compliment made her feel like a puddle.

“Would you dance with me?”

The crowd behind the man shifted, and Isla saw Grim clearly, sitting back on his throne. His gaze was set on her, expression fuming. His eyes narrowed, as if daring her, just daring her to say yes.

She smiled. “I would love to,” she said, watching as Grim’s grip on his throne tightened.

The dance started off innocently enough. The man stood a respectable distance away and led her through a series of moves that corresponded with the quickening beat of the drums. Then the Nightshade offered her a drink, and she swallowed it down in a single gulp, hoping it would give her the nerve to have the night of her life while she still could. Within moments, she felt light as a feather, and the beat of the music seemed to be synchronized to the beat of her heart, both quickening.

Keeping her eyes right on the Nightshade ruler, she stood in front of the man and danced. Grim’s knuckles became skeletal white as he gripped the sides of his throne.

He watched her like he could see right through her, like he was a moment away from turning the entire crowd of people before her to ash.

Still, he did not move to stop her. When the man asked her if she wanted to go into the hall—and Isla had seen exactly what happened there—she said yes and let him lead her there.

Isla expected Grim to follow, but he did not. Just a few steps out of the ballroom, she shifted her focus to the man leading her away.

She decided she was going to kiss him. Grim was the only person she had kissed before. Every time she was near him, she felt covered in sparks. Even when they were apart, she felt somewhat empty, like he had taken a part of her with him.

Maybe that was what it was like with every man. Maybe she would kiss this one and see that it felt the same. Better, even.

It would be a relief. Grim was her enemy. She shouldn’t—couldn’t—be attracted to him.

They found an empty corridor, and the man didn’t waste any time. He pressed her against the wall, and his mouth went straight to hers.

Nothing. Her skin didn’t prickle. She didn’t feel heat traveling through her core. He tasted of smoke and alcohol, so she turned her head, not wanting to taste him anymore. He took that as an invitation to continue a path down her neck.

Maybe she just needed to get used to him. She stood still as he explored her, hoping a connection would click.

It wasn’t like with Grim at all. The man palmed her chest in a way that should have made her groan. She felt nothing.

His hand started making its way down her stomach, and she watched it, knowing she could stop it but wondering how it might feel. He was so close. Maybe, if he touched her there—

Just as he reached the bottom of her stomach, he froze. He did not blink. His shoulders were hiked up in shock.

That was when they both looked down to see a sword sticking straight through his chest, its tip an inch from her own. The blade was quickly removed, and the man crumpled to the ground, revealing Grim, standing right in front of her.

“Don’t worry, Hearteater. He’s not dead. I will make sure of it,” Grim said in response to her expression of horror. He leaned down to whisper, very slowly, “Because I’m going to bring him to the brink of death a thousand times before I will finally allow him the mercy of dying.”

Isla stared at him in shock. “Because . . . he kissed me?” she asked, chest still heaving.

Anger flashed in his eyes, then disappeared. “No, Hearteater,” he said. “Because he poisoned you.”

She shook her head. “What?”

“The drink he gave you. A few minutes more and you would find yourself paralyzed, a motionless vessel for his pleasure.”

Even as he said the words, Isla felt her muscles tightening, like every part of her was hardening into bone.

“How do you know?”

“I didn’t until you were leaving. Your face and chest are flushed scarlet. It’s a sign.” He tilted his head at her. “You feel it, don’t you?” he said. He offered her a small vial. An antidote? She swallowed it down. “Better?”

Better. The tightening loosened.

All softness left his expression. He looked down at her, at every inch of her dress, the fabric wrinkled in the places that had been gripped by the man now gurgling on his own blood at her feet.

“Hearteater,” Grim said, voice mocking, “who knew you were so desperate for pleasure?” She glared at him, and he only grinned. “If you wanted someone to bed you so badly, all you had to do was ask.”

She took a shaking breath. “I would rather die than have you touch me, demon,” she said.

He frowned down at her. “Is that so?” He dipped his head, so his cold breath was against her mouth. “All right. I will not touch you again until you ask me to. I won’t touch you again until you beg me to.”

“That will never happen,” she spat. “I hate you.”

“You can hate me, Hearteater, and still want me in your bed.”

She laughed in his face. “In your dreams, demon.”

“All of the best ones,” he agreed. His eyes seared through her as he looked her slowly up and down. “We do such depraved things, in my dreams.”

Isla opened her mouth. Closed it.

Grim leaned closer, so they shared breath. “When you finally do beg me to touch you—and you will—you won’t want anyone else to touch you ever again, Hearteater.” His voice was a dark whisper against her ear. “Late at night, you will think of me touching you. With my hands. My mouth.” Isla’s chest went tight at his words, his proximity. Her insides puddled; she was hot everywhere. “And you will dream of me too.”

Isla closed her eyes tightly, trying to force herself to be repulsed by his words.

When she opened them, both Grim and the Nightshade who had poisoned her were gone.


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