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Nightbane: Chapter 50

BEFORE

They had a plan to get past the dragon. Grim would lure it out of the cave, and Isla would get through all the protections herself before the dragon returned. She practiced going through each one, with the help of Grim’s illusions. He watched as Isla finished the entire circuit for the tenth time successfully. She turned to face him when she was done, and he actually looked impressed.

They were standing in his training room. She leaned against a stone wall and slid all the way down it. “I’m exhausted,” she said.

“I can imagine.”

Grim had clearly just come from the scar. He was covered in ash. “You look awful.”

That is harder to imagine, but I will take your word for it.”

Magnificent ego, indeed. She sighed. “I’m ready. Why don’t we celebrate?”

He lifted an eyebrow at her.

“Tonight is the Launch of Orbs in the Skyling newland,” she said. She had attended the previous year, but only barely. She had hidden in the shadows, watching. Wishing to be part of it all. “It’s to celebrate the new season of hot-air balloons being unveiled.”

Grim scowled. “They are always finding an excuse to celebrate. I bet they celebrate tying their own shoes.”

“I’ve always wanted to ride in one,” she said. She looked pointedly at him.

His eyes slid to hers. He looked like he would rather do absolutely anything other than be launched into the sky in a balloon. “Don’t you have anyone else to go with?”

Isla stood. She gave him a withering look. “You know what? I’m sure I can find someone else to spend the evening with me,” she said. She turned on her heel, but before she could take a step, he was up in a flash, holding on to her wrist, stopping her in place.

“Don’t even think about it,” he said, his voice a growl in her ear.

She turned to face him and found him towering over her. His shadows were spilling everywhere. She lifted her chin in defiance. “Let go of me,” she said.

“Never.”

Isla was breathing too rapidly. He was too close. Her voice came out brittle. “Might I remind you that there is nothing between us. I do not belong to you. And you do not belong to me. If we decide to have . . . fun . . . then that is all it is. Momentary entertainment. Nothing more.”

Grim’s grin was wicked. “Oh, Hearteater.” He leaned down, until his lips were pressed right against her ear as he said, “If we do decide to truly have fun, there will be nothing momentary about it.”

Isla swallowed. He traced the movement. His lips were dangerously close to her neck. “Take me to the festival,” she said, her request breathless.

“Fine. Get dressed.”

Grim was right. Skylings did truly seem to think up any excuse to celebrate. She loved it.

At the Launch of Orbs party, everyone wore glitter. In their hair, on their outfits, dusted upon their shoulders. She asked Grim to buy her a few things in the market to wear, and—with more than enough complaining—he surprisingly complied.

She got ready in her bathroom, and, after an hour, there was a loud knock against her door. “Are you preparing for battle or for a foolish party, Hearteater?” he asked.

“Both, if you’re going to be so insufferable,” she said before she opened the door.

Grim went silent.

Her dress was tiny, sky blue, and strapless. She had glued little gems around the sides of her eyes. Glitter dusted her collarbones and shoulders. He had bought her each of these items—with very specific instructions—but he still looked surprised.

They were about as mismatched as possible. She was glittering, and saturated, and he wore his typical all black, cape and boots included.

“How do I look?” she asked, smiling, turning to see herself in the mirror.

Grim frowned. “You look like a Skyling.”

“Good. That’s exactly what I was going for.”

The sky was filled with balloons. Light-blue baubles floated close to the stars, looking like daytime sky peeking through the night.

“It’s beautiful,” Isla said, smiling.

She could feel Grim’s eyes on her. He was looking at her face, not the sky. “No,” he said. “It’s not.” She frowned and moved to turn his head toward what they were here to see, but he didn’t budge an inch. “When you’ve seen something truly beautiful, everything else starts to look painfully ordinary.”

Isla took his hand. His fingers immediately tensed, as if he was about to recoil. Then, after a moment, he gingerly cupped his hand around hers. “Come on,” she said. And he did.

Crowds were stopped, listening to something. A speech. She heard a rich, pleasant voice, moving airily through the crowd, as if his voice had grown wings. When they got closer, she saw a dark-skinned man dressed in a thousand glimmering jewels. He wore a crown.

“Azul?” she said, and Grim grunted in response.

She was suddenly grateful that he had formed an illusion around them, disguising them—even if she had spent an hour getting dressed. What would Azul, ruler of Skyling, think, seeing the ruler of Nightshade and the ruler of Wildling here, in his territory . . . holding hands?

Truly . . . what was she doing?

The thought made her drop his hand. Grim frowned and immediately grabbed it again, locking her fingers in his. The action made her inexplicably warm everywhere, made her remember how he had touched her—

Grim glanced at her, and she knew he could feel her emotions. She swallowed and quickly changed the subject. “What do you think of Azul?”

“He runs his realm as a democracy. Everyone has a say. It’s foolish.”

Isla’s brows came together. “That doesn’t sound foolish to me.”

Before Azul’s speech was over, he led them toward where the balloons were taking off. There was an entire field of them, all painted slightly differently. All magnificent.

“Choose,” he said.

Isla frowned. “I don’t think we can choose, and I think there’s a line—”

He followed her line of sight, to the one she thought was the prettiest. It looked like a light-blue egg, with a white swirl in the center.

In less than a moment, they were standing in its carriage. Somehow, he was starting it up. And then they were flying.

Isla gasped, watching the ground suddenly push away from them, and she stepped back. Right into Grim’s chest.

He looped an arm around her waist, tethering her. It made her feel safer. Grim—for as much as he had claimed he had no interest in riding in the hot-air balloon—was peering over the edge, watching the newland with interest. Isla looked too, but she suddenly felt afraid.

“I don’t think I like heights,” she said. Her stomach shifted uncomfortably. Her heart was in her throat.

Grim made a calming noise that couldn’t have possibly come from him. He leaned his head down, so his chin rested where her crown would have been if she had worn it. “I can portal us anywhere, remember?” he said.

It did make her feel better. She took a step toward the edge and leaned over, just a little. The world was beautiful. It was mountainous and wide, and she felt suddenly free. For nearly half an hour, they just watched the world in comfortable silence.

As she moved back again, her foot knocked against something she hadn’t noticed before. It must have been included in each of the carriages for the night. A bottle, with transparent liquid filled with bubbles. Water?

“Skyling wine,” he said, frowning. “Disgusting.”

Isla uncorked the bottle and tentatively sipped it. She grinned. “This is the best thing I’ve ever tasted.”

Grim sighed.

It was sweet, and sparkling on her tongue, and—

Grim plucked the bottle out of her hands after her second sip. “You might want to wait a little while before drinking more,” he said. “Unless you don’t want to remember the night.” He offered her the bottle, letting it be her choice.

She shook her head. No. She didn’t want that at all. She wanted to remember all of this.

Isla turned to face Grim and tilted her head.

“Can I say something honest?”

He looked taken aback. Nodded.

“You are the most unpleasant person I’ve ever met.”

Grim raised an eyebrow at her. “And you are the bane of my existence.”

She took a step toward him. “I was disappointed when I didn’t kill you.”

Grim ran his hand up her thigh, taking her dress with him. She bristled at the cold, at the fact that soon, if he continued, anyone around would be able to see her undergarments . . . but they were in the sky. The next balloon was yards away. “And I’m disappointed you haven’t tried again.”

His hand curled around her waist. His lips traced her neck. Her back arched, and she moaned as he began kissing her across the glitter on her shoulders, her chest, as he started licking it. “I don’t think it’s edible,” she said.

“I don’t care.”

And then she was kissing him. Their lips crushed together, and his hands were instantly everywhere. He swept his tongue into her mouth, and she groaned. With one rough motion, Grim lifted her into the air, then placed her on the edge of the basket. Isla’s eyes flew open, wind dancing behind her back, roaring in her ears.

“Relax, Hearteater,” he said, and his breathing was uneven. Her legs widened, and he settled between them. His hand gripped beneath her knee, and she wanted more, more—

“Portal me to my room,” she said.

Grim pressed her fully against his chest—and pushed her over the edge.

Before she could scream, the world tilted, and she landed on Grim. He was on her bed. She was straddling him.

A thousand violent words in her throat, but all of them withered and died when she felt him—every inch of him—against her. Her hips rocked back and forth, ever so slightly, and the friction made her head fall back, her shoulders hike up.

Grim laughed darkly beneath her. “The sight of you, on me . . .” He stopped her, with two hands curved under her backside. He lifted her off him.

She was desperate for his touch, aching—

He gently set her down next to him. He seemed faintly amused by her bewilderment.

“Not tonight, Hearteater,” he said, tucking hair that had fallen across her face behind her ear. “Sleep.”

Isla was flushed with need, with want—

He was too.

Grim chuckled into the darkness. He pulled her toward him, tucking her into his side. “Remember to dream of me,” he said lightly, and she wondered if he knew how often she did.


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