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Nightbane: Chapter 44

BEFORE

The noise had come from the center of her room. It was the middle of the night, and something heavy had just thumped against her floor.

She was up in an instant, the long dagger she kept between her bed frame and mattress fisted in her hand.

Squinting through the darkness, she found someone slumped over in front of her bed, their blood staining the stone.

“Hearteater,” he said.

She threw her dagger down and rushed to his side. “Grim?” It had been days since the ball.

He grinned. “I believe you’ll be pleased,” he said, his words labored.

“Will I?” she said, eyes searching his body for where he was bleeding the most, for signs of what could have possibly happened.

“Something got very close to killing me.”

The sinking feeling in her stomach was like a boulder dropping into a river. This information did not please her at all, and she knew he could feel it. “Oh? That is wonderful news,” she whispered.

He nodded. “It is with great regret that I share it did not succeed.”

She shrugged a shoulder. “Not yet, at least.”

He barked out a laugh, then groaned.

Her arms circled his body, and she pressed him against the floor with all the strength she could muster. Shaking hands—from worry, of course from worry—began unbuttoning his shirt.

He made half-sensical comments about her undressing him, but she shushed him, eyes studying the constellation of wounds across his torso. They weren’t like anything she had ever seen before. His skin had turned ashen; the marks were dark. Black veins like roots from a decaying tree wove across him.

“What is this?” she asked. He glanced down at her hands pressed against his chest, and she slowly removed them.

Grim ignored her question. “The elixir, Hearteater. The Wildling flower,” he said.

Then his head fell into her lap and he ceased speaking.

Isla tried to undress Grim properly, but he was too heavy to move all that gently. Instead, she took her knives and cut the clothes off him. She could only imagine what he would say about that.

She nearly gagged at the sight of him. The wounds were eating through his skin and bone, ruinous and sinuous. It was as if the darkness was still feasting, even now.

“What is this?” she said to herself. And why wasn’t Grim healing quickly, the way he did with typical injuries?

Isla hoped the elixir would help. If it didn’t, would the shadows spread until Grim was nothing more than ash? Was the entire fate of the Nightshade realm in her hands right now?

With determination, Isla applied the elixir to every wound. On his neck. His chest. His stomach. His arms. His thighs. When she was done, her vial contained only a few more drops.

She sat next to him as he slept and was there when he gained a sliver of consciousness. “Isla,” he said.

She nearly jumped, looking to see what he needed. But his eyes were closed.

It was only a little while later, knees to her chest as she watched him, that she realized what he had called her. Isla. He had sworn never to call her by her first name . . .

Yet there it was again, falling so effortlessly from his lips.

. . .

Isla portaled them both to his room, where he soon dozed off again. Luckily, she was able to transport them to his bed in his groggy state, or he would have woken up on the floor. His ruined clothes were a tattered pile nearby. Isla toyed with the idea of dressing him again as he rested but settled on simply covering most of his body with one of his dark sheets.

Slowly, like clouds clearing after a storm, the elixir had eaten through the wounds. His skin had grown back. He still wasn’t in perfect condition, but he would live, and for that, Isla found, she was grateful.

Strange. Months ago, she’d wished him dead.

Now, the thought of him dying—

She was sitting at the edge of the bed, legs crossed in front of her, when his eyes snapped open. This time, they were more alert and found her immediately. “You healed me.”

Then he studied himself. Lifted the sheet. Raised an eyebrow.

“It isn’t the first time,” she said. “And . . . you have healed me too.”

“Thank you,” he said then. He leaned forward before she could stop him, wincing from the effort . . . and did something so unexpected, she didn’t move a muscle. He kissed her on the forehead, then leaned back against the pillow.

Watching him shift uncomfortably, her expression turned serious.

“What happened?” she asked. Then, her eyes narrowed. “Are you—are you looking for the sword without me?” Were those somehow wounds from the dragon? Had he awakened it?

“I’m not,” he said. She must not have looked convinced, because he added, “I am the ruler of Nightshade. Do you truly believe working with you is the only opportunity I have to be wounded?”

“Yes,” she said. “Because only in the cave can you not use your powers. With them, you just do . . .” She waved her hands in front of her face dramatically.

Grim raised an eyebrow at her. “I do what?”

“You know what I mean,” she said, shaking her head. “Shadows. Death. Stuff. You know.”

He sighed. “Well, the creatures I face often are mostly immune to shadows. Death. Stuff.”

Creatures? “Grim. What is going on in Nightshade? What could possibly be strong enough to wound you like this? Why do you need the sword?”

There were too many questions spilling out of her mouth, but she couldn’t push them down any longer. Things between them had changed. Before, she’d agreed to work with him only because of his promise to help her during the Centennial.

Now . . . she wanted to help.

He studied her. It was a minute later when he looked down at his hands, still partially covered in marks from the attack. “It is treason if I tell you. It is one of the greatest secrets of our realm.”

Isla just looked at him. “Everything about this is treasonous.”

He frowned. “I suppose you’re right.” He shifted his position and winced. “Centuries ago, after the curses were spun, a scar opened up across Nightshade. Winged beasts began escaping from it. They look like dragons, but smaller, and their scales are nearly invincible. They’re called dreks, and they have already killed thousands.”

They sounded terrifying. “Do people live near the scar?”

He nodded. “Near the parts that are inactive. The attacks have been concentrated to one area in the last century.”

Grim rubbed a hand across his forehead. He looked exhausted.

“Dreks used to be people, millennia ago. My ancestor Cronan cursed his warriors to become unbeatable beasts. He had the blacksmith make him a sword, imbued with his power, so his later generations could control the drek army. Also . . . so they could make new ones. After his death, one of his descendants predicted the dreks would lead to the end of the world, so she cursed the sword to be unusable by a Nightshade ruler.” How was he going to get past that curse? Was he hoping she would use it for him? “Dreks had ravaged both Lightlark and Nightshade. After Cronan’s death, they were all banished below. Now . . . they’ve started rising up again.”

“So . . . the sword controls the dreks. That’s why you want it? To stop them?”

Grim nodded.

“My father was obsessed with finding the sword,” he said, seeming to surprise himself, because he frowned.

“Why?”

“He wanted to use it to invade Lightlark. It would have been easy, with the dreks.”

Grim’s father sounded awful. Good thing it seemed like Grim was nothing like him.

She wondered . . .

“What was your mother like?”

He seemed shocked by her question. She was shocked she had asked it. Eventually, he said, “I wouldn’t know.”

Her brows came together. “She—died? In childbirth?”

Grim frowned. “No. On Nightshade, rulers don’t take wives,” he said. “They don’t ever even bed the same woman twice. Or, at least, they’re not supposed to.”

“What? Why?”

“A precaution,” he said simply. “Love makes our power vulnerable. It is a weakness.”

She just stared at him. “You don’t actually believe that, do you?”

“I do. If I love someone, they have access to my ability. It’s a liability. My ancestors never cared to take the risk.”

Pieces came together. “That’s why you had the line of women,” she said. “The volunteers. To make sure . . . to make sure you never sleep with the same person twice.”

He nodded. “Not that I would remember them, but the palace has records. It’s a precaution. It’s been that way for generations.”

Isla realized something. “You’re trying for an heir, aren’t you?” She remembered the women talking about being involved with the ruling line . . .

Grim did not deny it.

She swallowed. “I’m guessing . . . it hasn’t worked?”

He shook his head. “Bearing children as a ruler can take time.” He looked at her. “No, I haven’t continued since we made our agreement.”

Good. If he created an heir, he couldn’t attend the Centennial. Still, there was only one reason why he would want to have a child that she could think of. “You think the dreks will eventually kill you,” she said. “You want to ensure your realm survives.”

If he was dead, he couldn’t help her at the Centennial. It was in her best interest to not only help him find the sword . . . but also help him use it.

Grim nodded, just the slightest bit. “It’s my duty.”

“And if you did eventually have a child, after the Centennial, you wouldn’t want to know the mother? You wouldn’t . . . allow her to help raise the child?”

“No,” he said.

A precaution. Love makes our power vulnerable. It is a weakness.

“That sounds . . .” she said, “very lonely.”

Grim made a face. “I’ve never felt lonely in my life,” he claimed.

The way he said it made her feel like he really believed it. Still—everyone got lonely. “Maybe you just don’t know what it’s like to miss someone, then,” she said quietly. “Because you don’t open yourself up long enough to let them in.”

He shrugged a shoulder. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “Love is for fools, anyway. It makes people do foolish things.” He looked at her and said, “I do not intend to become a fool.”

She was the fool, she knew. Because something about him saying that made her heart break.


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