Jax didn’t come back before Mishal and Isadora went to sleep.
When they gathered for a breakfast Juna had kindly made for them, however, Gracia emerged from one of the corners with the rest. There was a dark bruise that started at her temple and ran down to her jaw, and she looked bleary and worn, but otherwise all right.
“Gracia!” Isadora said, delighted. She looked considerably less tired and pale than the night before, though her movements were still limited.
Gracia smiled weakly at Isadora and sat beside her. Mishal watched from the other side of Isadora, quietly collecting his food and beginning to eat. “Hi, Isa. Mishal. I’m incredibly relieved to see the two of you back here, safe.”
“Are you all right?” he asked. “Did you get back last night?”
She nodded and nibbled at a hunk of bread. “I’m dazed, shaken, but I’m okay. We couldn’t save the carriage. No idea what happened to the second.” Gracia’s expression fell. “Most of our supplies are gone.” Then she shook her head. “But Jax found us last night, brought us back. We would have said hello, but, well. I think we were all too exhausted to even try talking.”
“That means Margaretta’s here too, then? And Jax came back?” Isadora asked, tucking into her food quietly as they spoke, and slowly, so as not to upset her side.
Gracia smiled, and before she could respond, one of the side doors slid open. A rush of pale morning light swelled through the door, as well as the rush of a warm breeze. He chewed his mouthful as he turned to watch.
Jax was the first to step through, and it released pressure that had been building on Mishal’s chest. He was followed by Margaretta, who looked dishevelled and tired. Her shirt was torn across her arm and coated with a spattering of dried blood, but the wound beneath had seemingly already been tended too.
“Jax found Partridge as well,” Gracia said quietly. “She was brought to the physician’s clinic last night. She’d been caught by the roc and dropped, but she got away. Took all her energy to get back.” She looked down at her hands. “I would have healed her, but…”
Isadora put her hand on Gracia’s knee. “Nobody would ask that of you, not right now. You need your own health right now.”
Jax and Margaretta joined the group. Margaretta, though weary, also looked invigorated.
“You weren’t back by the time the sun went down,” Isadora pointed out, though there was a smile twitching on her mouth.
A grin broke out across Jax’s face, half-sheepish and half-playful. “I suppose I wasn’t, but we still managed all right, didn’t we?”
There was little in the way of expression on Margaretta’s face, but she did turn to her food and begin carefully poking at it. She was gaunt and her movements were strained, as though she were holding herself back from absolutely devouring it.
“As I explained to Mishal and Isadora yesterday when I first arrived, I was on my way to make sure you weren’t going on our original plan.” Jax glanced towards the two of them, and then back to Margaretta. “The rocs are swarming the valley.”
Margaretta didn’t glance up. “So we’ve seen.”
“But I did just ride here from the City of Bells,” Jax continued pointedly. “Technology is running a race there. I hear that’s all courtesy of the generous Queen Juliette, though I’m sure it’s not at all motivated by Chromium’s ambitions to get ahead. That’s not my point.” He waved his hand. “The Sundown Ruins were the last to fall, the curse will be weakest there. Mari, they sent an expedition out ten years ago.”
She looked towards him, but her expression was sceptical. “What does that matter if no one came back?”
“But that’s the thing. Someone did come back.”
Mishal stilled, nearly dropping his fork. He stared up at Jax, who held a now captivated and stunned Margaretta to full attention. Someone came back. Everything he’d ever heard, nobody ever came back.
If someone came back from the fabled, legendary ruins, then why was it not more known?
“Why didn’t we know this?” Margaretta asked, putting her food aside entirely. “You’ve been forming connections for us for years, establishing yourself everywhere. If it was ten years ago, why didn’t we know?”
Jax side-eyed the two of them.
“I wasn’t in the City of Bells ten years ago, I was home. In fact, I haven’t been since I just now. It’s been independent all this time, though we’ll see how long that lasts, and I was only travelling there because a contact moved there last year, and I needed a favour. Besides, there were other things that were pressing at the time, even if the news ever gained any footing—which I doubt since they’ve kept it so quiet from everyone I know—there was plenty we were working on at the time.”
“City of Bells is reputable, and it will have more supplies and chance for recuperation after the losses suffered here,” Margaretta said. “We can travel lighter now with the two carriages gone.” Her expression was set, determined. A look she got occasionally, usually followed by hours locked in her study. “What about the Wilderlands?”
Jax shrugged. “I’ve heard nothing out of the ordinary, but the roads are newer. Even if they weren’t, you’re more likely to be able to commission the city to repair them if they’re cracked. They have competent mages there who can tame the land, as well as construction workers. I doubt it would be, but there’s outposts in the area that lead down to the town on the Mirror’s Coast.”
Mishal turned to look at the mush in his bowl, and the warmth of brown sugar stirred within began to turn sour in his mouth. Maybe a part of him had hoped this would discourage Margaretta altogether.
Except another part of him didn’t want to go home. He couldn’t claim to have so much interest in the ruins either. In fact, seeing the City of Bells, seeing a real outside town full of diverse people and real culture would be…
Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad.
Isadora’s jaw was tight though. She didn’t look nearly as interested as he was beginning to feel.
“It’ll take longer,” she said. Margaretta’s head jerked up like she’d forgotten anyone else was there. “What about the others? I miss my family. This wasn’t a decision I made, in truth, even though I didn’t fight it. But I’m not a historian or an archaeologist.”
Jax ran a hand through his hair and gave Isadora a kindly smile. “Think of all the stories and things you’ll be able to bring back to the others. Oh, and you’ll love the city. They have towers in intervals around the walls and they’re all filled with bells. When they ring, it fills the city with this beautiful chorus of their chiming, and there’s one big steeple in the middle of the city decorated by murals made of silver, and it just shines like diamonds in the sun.”
“It’s something that could make history,” Forestter said from his place across the floor. “You grew up in the Chronicler’s Guild. This is what you were raised for.”
Isadora looked down at her breakfast, her jaw still tight. “Yeah. I suppose so.”
Mishal put his bowl down and gently nudged her leg with his boot. “We’ll see the others again soon.”
She didn’t respond, but glanced up to meet Margaretta’s gaze, who was watching Isadora carefully like Isadora was a horse about to spook.
“I want to be back by my sister’s birthday,” she said, then painfully rose from her place, collected her bowl, and hobbled away.
After breakfast, he entertained the idea of practising with his sword, but turned instead to finding Juna and offering his help with the horses. After all, they wouldn’t get anywhere if they had no mounts.
Maybe this expedition would be good for him after all. So long as there were no more rocs or bandits or fatal encounters.