Isha woke up on a stretch of linen with a cool, damp cloth on her forehead.
The canopy stretched above her, a diluted ivory light streaming through the foliage above. It looked hardly different than when she’d fallen asleep, and Isha wasn’t sure if that meant that she hadn’t slept or that she’d slept for another day.
For feeling so poorly, she was having surprisingly little trouble sleeping.
“Good morning.” Isha tilted her head with a wince, head and neck throbbing, to see Sauda pouring water into a mug beside her. She sent the bucket aside and offered the cup to Isha, before using her hand on Isha’s upper back to help prop her up so she could drink.
And Isha was far too weary to complain, her throat too sore to reject the cool trickle of water. It hurt to swallow, but that was a minor nuisance.
Once she had finished and Sauda took the mug away, Isha propped herself up with her elbow and watched Sauda carefully. The cloth fell from her face. “Where- where is everyone?” she asked, and meant where are my friends?
Thankfully, Sauda smiled brightly and waved her hands. “You friends are with Malika. They were trying to figure your illness out. Some of our people have it as well. I can go get them, if you feel well enough.”
The answer to that question was uncertain, but Isha still swung her lets over the cot she’d been set upon to sit up and nodded. She pawed at her face, the reprieve from the cloth quickly fading to make way for her fever or whatever it was. It didn’t feel like a normal fever.
Was this how Gideon had felt every time he’d gone through withdrawals? Isha had a sudden, new appreciation for how much he had struggled.
She felt like she’d barely blinked, before Sauda was returning with Finn, Whisper, Malika, and an exhausted but unharmed appearing Shiloh.
“Good thing I didn’t have to throw rocks at you to wake you up this time,” Finn said in lieu of greeting. He was smiling, but there were greyish crescents underneath his eyes. Isha wondered when the last time he slept was.
“Hey, Sunflower,” Isha rasped. Shiloh glanced up at her. “How you feeling?”
Shiloh smiled wryly. She sat down with her legs crossed and let out a drawn breath. “I should be asking you that,” she said. “But okay, I guess. Tired, aching, but I’m not sick.”
“Speaking of,” Malika cut in, before Isha could ask Whisper the same. They’d stopped the magic, after all, and they’d been worn out by that. She did notice Koshar trotting beside his owner’s feet, weaving between their legs. “We’ve been discussing as such, and it has come to our attention only those born on the island are the ones who have gotten sick. None of my crew from the ship have gotten sick despite exposure.”
Isha glanced towards Whisper, Shiloh, and Finn pointedly. “But-”
“We know,” Winnie cut in, setting their hand on Isha’s knee as they settled on the cot beside her. “The working theory is that it has something to do with the release of magic. You started experiencing symptoms soon after that, and don’t deny it, we could all see it. We think that Shiloh and I haven’t gotten it because of my magic and her… absorption of magic.” They glanced at Finn. “We don’t know about Finn.”
“I could not be a native,” Finn suggested. He shrugged and looked unsure of his claim.
Koshar leapt up onto the cot and climbed into Isha’s lap. She buried her hand into his soft pelt. “Well- what about the memory lock? I mean, that wouldn’t protect you though. Would it?”
Everybody went quiet and considerate, save for Malika, who glanced between Isha and Finn with her sharp eyes alight with curiosity. “Memory lock?”
“Our dear Comtesse, the only other known wielder of magic supposedly, didn’t want me to remember the first nine years of my life for some reason,” Finn explained. His smile had a bitter edge, and for once, Isha made herself consider what she would have done if she was missing nine years of her life.
“The Comtesse has magic?” Sauda asked, frowning. “That complicates things. But even so, why would that keep the sickness from affecting him?” She gestured towards Finn and glanced at Whisper. “I thought you said you couldn’t heal with your magic.”
Whisper’s brow furrowed and they considered. Isha wiped at her face with the hand she wasn’t using to pet Koshar and yawned. She felt only marginally better than she had when she’d fallen asleep, but the sickness didn’t feel as if to get any better. If it was magic- what if she never did get better?
At least, if it only affected natives, Gideon would be safe. But Carter won’t be.
“One of the first to hold to title of Comte was Etienne,” Winnie finally said. “Comte Guillaume was of noble birth before he married Comtesse Charlotte. The bloodline of the title of Comte supposedly has sustained from Etienne, and if that’s the case… well, Etienne was the master of healing, and Charlotte would be descended from him. Guillaume was chosen because there are records that connect him to Melisende, supposedly.” Winnie glanced at Finn, head tilted, and eyes lit up with fascination. “Maybe the Comtesse’s magic is laced with the healing properties and it’s preventing you from catching the illness.”
Isha was once again left marvelling over Winnie’s knowledge. Even they looked pleased with themselves, and Isha couldn’t but straighten slightly at the gentle wave of energy radiating from them.
“If all this is the case, Carter will be sick too,” Shiloh said quietly. “Winnie, do you think Aelina would be able to heal anyone who has- whatever I released?”
“Possibly,” Winnie conceded. “It’s the best chance we have as of right now.” Then, their brows furrowed deeply. “If the illness is related to magic, it makes you wonder why magic was taken away in the first place. It might not even be an illness. It could be a curse.”
An uneasy quiet settled over the clearing. Isha glanced down at Koshar, who blinked up at her lazily with deep amber eyes. She didn’t do all this magic tomfoolery. She didn’t like it. It was all too theoretical for her to be comfortable. Isha knew how to lead a squad of warriors, or how to strangle someone, or how to sew clothing. She didn’t do with “possibilities”.
One of the armoured warriors approached them then, leading a petite girl with hair frizzed and pulled back into a disaster of a bun. She had a cream bandana over some of it to tame it, but it was of little use. Her skin was lighter then Malika and Sauda’s, but much darker than Isha’s or Finn’s. Closer to Shiloh’s. Malika’s shoulders set forward and she nodded towards the man that had led the girl there. He nodded back and turned away to leave.
“Ana,” Malika greeted. She approached the girl and set a hand on her shoulder, steering her towards Isha’s cot. She stopped and held out her hand. “These are our guests.” Malika went through the list and named them all. Then, “This is Ana. You have news, then? You’re back early.”
Isha wasn’t sure who exactly this Ana was, but she had a gentle smile and a twinkle to her eyes that looked soft spoken. Her gaze lingered on Isha. “Everyone’s in an uproar. Now was as good as any time to slip away.” Then, her eyes narrowed. “Malika, you know that is the LeRoy’s girl? Valérie-”
“I am aware,” Malika said. “Trust me when I say to trust her. She’s on our side. She wants as little to do with her parents as anyone.”
Ana still hesitated. It suddenly dawned on Isha that she looked familiar, but she couldn’t place where or why. Finally, Ana let out a breath. “All right, well. Everyone is panicking because the boy that they grabbed from the Spire wasn’t giving anything up, and actually blatantly lying, supposedly-”
“The boy from the Spire? Carter?” Shiloh was on her feet again but as soon as she was, she winced like she regretted it. Isha shot Shiloh a glare at the same time Ana’s lip curled in displeasure for having been interrupted again.
“I believe that was his name, yes. But it doesn’t matter, because after she-” Ana nodded towards Isha, “caused a stir by returning, one of Jemima’s generals, Desmoulins, went to kill the boy.” She sent a wary look in Shiloh’s direction when her mouth opened, but then Shiloh shut it again and started to gnaw on her lips instead. “When her general did not return for some time, someone went to check to see what had happened. Desmoulins was found, well, assassinated by the looks of it. The prisoner was gone.”
For a moment, nothing went through Isha’s mind. She knew Adrienne had gone to kill Carter after Isha had gotten there but-
“Adrienne’s dead,” Isha said, the world starting to tilt around her. She couldn’t feel the cot beneath her anymore, a sensation of free falling causing her stomach to drop. Her eyes grew fuzzy with white. After a moment had passed, Isha realised she was giggling, and it was starting to turn hysterical. “She’s dead. Gideon killed her. Gideon and Carter escaped.”
Shiloh’s eyes widened as Isha spoke, but then she let out a long breath at her last sentence. Then, she collapsed back to the ground, and buried her face in her hands.
And- that was that. Adrienne had been killed, by Gideon. She had no doubt about that. And God, Isha wished she’d have been there. Adrienne had that coming from the first day she’d started training Gideon and broke one of his fingers. Isha didn’t often enjoy the grisly business of death, but even though she hadn’t been there, she suddenly felt renewed. It was sweet.
Ana was talking again, and Isha glanced back up, still grinning manically. “-else you should know. During Valérie’s escape-”
“Isha,” Finn chirped unhelpfully.
“-some of the guards and fighters said that someone came in and controlled their mind.” Ana glanced in Isha’s direction, furrowing her brow again.
Malika was nodding, glancing off thoughtfully into the sparse woods. Sauda watched her patiently, as if waiting for a direction.
“Yes, that was Whisper here.” Malika waved her hand in Winnie’s direction dismissively. “Ana, do you know where the prisoner and his saviour could have escaped if they did not come back through the main tunnels?”
“The cave system is expansive,” Ana said. “The coterie doesn’t occupy all of it, too big. They post guards to patrol around the back ways, but otherwise it should be abandoned. They could have gone down there, and I’d bet money that they did since nobody’s seen the prisoner or this other boy for two days.” Then she glanced towards the west and tipped her chin back. “Curls around and leads out somewhere near Grand Verterre, I believe.”
And Malika was nodding again. “Good. Ready the horses we have, Sauda, and check on all our men. Seems like all our compasses are pointing towards the Capital. We will make camp by the cave entrance, and if your friends have no already emerged by the time we arrive, we will send parties to recover them. Then, I believe the Comtesse has some questions to answer for.”
Without another word, Malika was setting off, with Ana sending them one last cautious glance before hurrying to catch up with her. Sauda dipped her head in Isha and her companion’s direction, and then scurried off to enact on Malika’s instruction.
Isha didn’t realise her eyes were beginning to sting with tears until Koshar yelped when she dug her fingers too tightly into fur and he hopped away. Winnie touched her shoulder with a questioning sort of concern in their expression, and Isha let out a shuddering breath. The pain had subsided a little after learning Gideon and Carter were all right, but her heart beat was thundering in her chest without real cause to be doing so.
Gideon and Carter were okay. Adrienne was dead. Isha hoped that Gideon was actually okay.
A painful jolt of vulnerability shot through Isha’s chest. She hated how weak she was, how softened she’d become since running from the coterie. She only put up minimal protest when Winnie pulled her into a reassuring hug, and Isha tried to steady her breathing. She didn’t start crying, but it didn’t matter. She felt so exposed, so naked.
It’s worth it, she told herself firmly. It is worth it.
word count: 2,122