a/n: hey, thanks for checking out Starry Veins! This is the novel I wrote for Round V of LMS, and it's still a first draft! While I don't discourage any feedback, I prefer not to receive feedback on grammar! I'm not polishing this draft up yet, so I'm not as concerned about editing. I am, of course, open to all feedback, but I ask that you keep this in consideration! Thanks <3
Mishal couldn’t remember how or when he’d slept in the time since they’d come back to Luthera’s manor. He wasn’t even sure how long it had been anymore. At some point, Gracia had attempted to get him upstairs, but he couldn’t leave Isadora. He couldn’t leave her here alone.
She had woken, Isadora had, a few times now. Mostly, it was moments of incoherence and confusion. She had woken screaming once, in pain so great Mishal could have sworn he had felt himself.
He had tried not to, but for all his attempts he had still seen her wound as Gracia tended to it.
More than anything, he would choose ignorance. There was nothing worse than what festered beneath the bandages. And it was clear that none of Gracia’s magic had stifled the poison.
Isadora’s skin around the gash, had gone a sickly grey-green, deadened as though burned and ashen. It smelled of pus and sulphur and rotten meat. The wound itself was blackened, and through the stitches it wept, all manner of fluids that Mishal wasn’t entirely certain belonged to a human’s body at all.
Her eyes, too, had misted over. The normally ice-blue chips of her irises had become grey, and her hair seemed near white now. It was as though the venom was draining the colour right from her.
But Margaretta had promised. She was going to be all right.
His eyelids were heavy as he sat beside her, staring at the opposite wall, breathing in the putrid stench of the room. It had once made his eyes water, but now he was used to it.
Isadora’s breathing, which was wet and rasping, stuttered. He jumped and turned to face her, as her eyelids fluttered up and down for a moment as she came to consciousness.
He scooted the chair closer and reached out, taking her pale, cold hand in his own. Her eyes darted towards the contact, then slowly traced up his arm until she met his own. She smiled and shuddered out an ailing breath.
“Stormy,” she whispered.
He smiled, though it felt like poison had been speared through his own heart to watch her like this. “Hey, Belle. How are you feeling?”
She chuckled, then coughed. Her face twisted into a terrible grimace. But she smiled at him, full of tension and agony, and he had to dig his fingers into the edge of his chair so he didn’t crush her hand.
“Well,” she said. “I’ve certainly felt better.” Her breath had slowed, as if it caused her so much pain that she’d rather stop altogether. Her fingers shifted in his grasp, flexing ever so weakly. “You look tired.”
“Don’t worry about me,” he said. “I can deal with a little sleeplessness. Though I certainly feel for Cassius if he dealt with this at times.”
At Cassius’ name, her eyes brightened just a little, her smile widening just enough to notice. She shut her eyes. “He dealt with them more than he ever let on. He was so… crestfallen. The nights I saw him like that.”
He frowned. “I didn’t know that.”
She nodded, though her eyes remained closed. “There’s a great many things I suspect you don’t know about everyone, but him especially. I think even I couldn’t tell, sometimes.”
Mishal bent his head and swallowed. “I think I’d like to remedy that, when we go home.”
Isadora opened her eyes and coughed again. She rubbed at her face with her free hand, then feebly attempted to shift and winced sourly at the motion. Without letting her hand go, he helped move her pillows until she seemed reasonably comfortable. As one could be, in such a scenario. His heart thudded hard enough to be nauseating as he sat down.
“Speaking of our little rascal and the others…” She coughed again, harder this time, and took a few moments to recover, her breath quick and shallow. She faced him, gripping as tight as she had strength left. “I want you to make me a promise.”
“Not if it is with some morbid intent,” he said, wary, lungs seizing for a moment. “You’re not going to die, so any promise you would have me make on your deathbed can be reserved for much, much later.”
She watched him for moment, then smiled. It looked wrong, somehow. Cracked. Insincere. “Of course not. It’s the expedition. You can see where it’s going.” Her expression grew grim, an ill and haunting look on one as warm and kind as she was. “You cannot go back out there, Mishal. I want you to look after the others instead. All of them. I know Ori is skilled and smart and they’ll be fine. Ember is as strong as you as, as capable, and as determined.”
“Sometimes I think she’s twice my heart and strength already,” he said quietly, his throat tightening as he forced himself to smile.
Isadora laughed breathily and coughed again. “She’s certainly full of both.” Her expression sobered again, but not quite so much this time. “I know they’re both strong and capable, but it’s Cassius and Alanna that worry me the most. Cassius and the trouble he gets into, and he’s… he needs people. He needs love. Alanna is so uncertain of herself and her place in the world, and she needs stability.” She held his gaze, weak but determined. “Please.”
He squeezed her hand and nodded. “I swear it. I’ll keep them safe, I’ll look after them. And you’ll be there to see me do it, you can watch me keep my word. I would take a blood oath if you wanted me to. If that made you more comfortable.”
She scoffed and their gaze broke as she glanced away, nearly rolling her eyes but not quite. “Nothing so thrilling. I’d trust no one more to keep their word.”
“I can’t promise how much Cassius will accept my help, though,” he said.
He wished Cassius were here right now, to make Isadora smile. Mishal was no entertainer, he didn’t have anything like the natural talent Cassius had to make people laugh. Gods, he’d been so ignorant.
All of them, in fact. All of them would be good for Isadora. Better than him. Ori could distract her with their stories and their mysterious wonder, telling exaggerated accounts of what she had missed since the expedition left. Ember would make her something to make her feel better. She had always talked about wanting to make little clockwork animals.
Not Alanna. Isadora, he was certain, would agree. She was so young, and this temporary state Isadora was in would bear her no good fortune to see. No, it was for the best that Alanna wasn’t here.
Still, it made her eyes glitter and her lips curl. Until she coughed again, and that moment’s joy was dissipated. She settled back, looking… satisfied. She exhaled deeply and nodded again. Her eyes looked glassy again, and Mishal was struck with a fear that he would lose her mind again, that she would start babbling about things that made no sense.
But Isadora just looked up at him warmly, as though she were not in agonising pain. Something darkened behind the mist in her eyes, something knowing. It twisted in his stomach.
“Water?” she rasped.
He nodded and stood, then hesitated. The longer he stood, the more pleading her expression grew. She hadn’t had a drink since the last time she’d woken, when Gracia had been forced to make her drink.
Feeling like someone was pulling him in twain, he let go of her hand. “I’ll be as quick as I can.” Needing assurance of his own, he stooped over her, and pressed a kiss to her forehead. It was damp and cold, and it sent a ripple of ice through him.
She smiled, looking relieved, and nodded. “I’m in no rush.”
It wasn’t the first time he had left the underground chamber since they had come back, but he was glad for the lowlight of the night as he made his way upstairs. He had grown so adjusted to the dim and darkened chamber that even the crystal-white lights that cast a sombre glow across the hallways made him blink.
The shadows were lengthened and looming as he made his way towards the kitchen. He felt strangely small, though he had walked through these passages many times. They were white and blue painted with mock gold trim and rich wooden floors, and there were exquisite paintings that lined the walls, each heralded by dormant magic lights. One wall was just an approximate map of Stellarsyl back when it was said the Wilderlands were not so active and cartography might have been useful. He didn’t believe many of those tales. Not many did.
And still, even with the pale lighting and bright colours, he felt… seen. As though stalked by an invisible foe. A rustle that clattered a window made him jump and seize up, but he forced his muscles to relax and his breath to come out long and steady.
He got to the kitchen unimpeded, where nobody was awake at such an hour, of course. He found a relatively shallow glass, as shallow as glasses came, made of crystal, and decorated with a blue jewel he didn’t know the name of that was etched into the crystal. He filled it and the crystal cast prisms against the wall. He made his way back downstairs, careful not to upset the balance of the cup or lose any water, his pulse still erratic.
There wasn’t much he could do for Isadora, but he could do this, and by what gods did or did not exist anymore, he was going to do it.
As he got to the bottom of the stairs, the hair on the back of his neck prickled. From the chamber there was silence, and though he had sat in a near-absence of sound since Isadora had been laid there, he had always been able to hear her breathing.
He entered the room, tentative. The ever-burning magefire lamps cast an eerie blue glow over the chamber, and over Isadora’s face, which was slack and shadowed.
Chill crept through his veins as she approached the bed. He fought to keep the glass steady, feeling strangely light-headed.
Isadora’s eyes were closed, and her mouth parted ever so slightly. She looked completely relaxed, unburdened and painless.
And she wasn’t breathing.
He realised he dropped the glass when the crystal shattered against the floor, breaking the quiet and jolting him like the sound of a cannon firing. He crouched next to the bed, ignoring it save for recognition of the terrible noise, and leaned closer.
“Isadora,” he said, whispering and feeling the desperation rise and claw at his throat. “Isadora.” He pressed his fingers to her wrist, and when he felt nothing, he moved to her neck. Everything he had kept pressed deep within his cheat began to bubble out, as he put his head on her chest and listened for her heartbeat.
He lifted his head and stared at her unmoving form, fuzzy spots blurring his vision. He blinked rapidly to try to dispel them, wanting desperately to see Isadora clearly. He had to, he had to see her clearly or— Or—
“Mishal? I heard a noise, what—”
A sob rose in his throat and something broke. He wasn’t even sure if it was a delayed reaction from the glass shattering, from Margaretta’s voice, or—
No. No. No, this wasn’t going to happen, not like this. Isadora couldn’t— She wasn’t—
She will not die.
He barely heard Margaretta’s footsteps as she came into the room, but he did, and he thought of a thousand things he could say. This is your fault, you brought her here, she wouldn’t be like this if this stupid expedition had never been undertaken.
He stopped blinking and sunk to the floor. Crystal crunched underneath him. He slumped forward against the bed palette, face burning as tears streamed down it, eyes feeling swollen as sobs tore his throat apart.
And through it, he managed to whisper, still desperately trying to make out Isadora’s face.
“I left her.”