“Don’t look under the cot,” Gideon told Carter when they had been thrust into their cells. He had given Gideon a questioning look through the cell bars that divided them, and Gideon had looked at him pointedly.
“I hadn’t, um. Planned on doing that,” Carter said. He wished Gideon hadn’t said that- what was under the cot?
Isha was on the other side of Gideon’s cell. Carter couldn’t see her well, but the knife had been removed by one of the guards and replaced with a mostly-clean handkerchief. She claimed, loudly, that she was all right, but Carter could help the web of worry spun in his chest, clogging it up.
The more time that passed, the worse Carter was beginning to feel again. It felt less like a fever now, and more as if he’d swallowed spikes. More like papercuts covering him entirely, making no position he sat in comfortable. But he grew dizzy when he tried to stand, so he couldn’t mitigate the pain to only his feet.
He was trying to shift when he heard the footsteps. Glancing over at Gideon was instinct by now, and Gideon had tensed, looking down the corridor.
“I do believe I’ve never had visitors to our lovely Capital who had been even close to as troublesome as your… company.” Carter turned on his hip to see-
There was no mistaking the petite woman for anyone but the Comtesse. Her hair was several shades darker, more a silver-brown than silver-blonde, than he’d imagined. She was tiny, much shorter even than Gideon. He dark skin glistened in the low torch light, and she smiled, shoulders straightened as she paused in front of Gideon’s cell.
When she got no response, she turned her clear gaze towards Carter. He shrunk back- if there was a way to reverse Winnie’s energy, to make it noxious, that was the way the Comtesse made him feel.
And behind her, he noticed Finn. There was a bruise on his forehead, which should have been concealed by his hat. He wasn’t wearing his hat. He was wearing that strange black leather armour. Without his hat, in the low light, and as pale as he was, the red glow that seemed to seep from his eyes stood out. Finn didn’t look at them, but merely gazed blankly at the wall. Carter’s chest grew heavier.
“You must be Carter,” the Comtesse said, chin dipped forward slightly as if to study him. “Gideon’s-” she glanced in Gideon’s direction and her smile curled unevenly, “friend.”
Carter twisted to exchange a glance with Gideon. What was the supposed to mean? Had Finn said that? Or Gideon?
Before he could even try to respond – which wasn’t probable anyway, his mouth and throat were so dry it hurt – the Comtesse was turning away towards Isha. “And you,” she said, tilting her head, “I hear you’re the equivalent of a princess. To the Dragon’s Associates. You aren’t really Gideon’s sister, are you?”
He imagined Isha would smile wryly at that, but he wasn’t close enough to see. “Feels good to think you’re more important than other people, doesn’t it?” Isha asked. Her tone was as dry as his throat. “Why Finn?”
The Comtesse glanced at Finn beside her, as if she’d forgotten he was there. She seemed to consider that offer, but Carter couldn’t help but wonder if she was just pausing for dramatic effect. “He disobeyed a command from my father some time ago,” she said slowly. “Now he will take it from me, and this time, he will listen.” She reached up to run her fingers through Finn’s hair and Carter felt unsettled just watching.
“The father you killed, and stuck up in your tower as one of your little risen pets?” Gideon asked, a bite in his tone.
There was a moment, when Aelina’s gaze snapped over to Gideon, where Carter could see the widening of her eyes. The surprise in the way her mouth parted, her smile wobbled. And then it was gone, and she smiled even wider. Her eyes glittered.
“My sister really is here,” she said, “or, she was. Half-sister, not even enough to call a sister, really-”
The Comtesse’s mouth was still open in a half-formed word as she turned. Her brows twitched to stare at Carter, and then tilted her head again. “Beg your pardon?”
“Not sister,” Carter said. He folded his arms over his chest and curled into himself. “Sibling. Half-sibling. You can, um. You can be a bad sister, but you won’t- you won’t box them up into what you’ve been taught to think.”
Her smile faded slightly, but her eyes were still crinkled. It looked fake, as the Comtesse stepped towards him and her robe swirled around her feet.
“You like to think you’re different, don’t you? Think you’re a hero? Probably in the appetite.” Her eyes flickered briefly over to Gideon, who had stood up and was glowering at the Comtesse. “You’re one of those special ones, aren’t you? Who would rather cast aside morality and honour to taste the forbidden heart of sins?”
“Leave him alone,” Gideon growled. “You’re marrying into a coterie. You should know what not to bat your eyelashes at.”
Carter let out a long, quiet breath as the Comtesse took a step away from him. His hands were shaking, and he shoved them into the space between his stomach and legs.
“Your atrocities aren’t allowed in the Highlanders. I’m sure they do things differently in the muddied blood of yours. What’s unholiness when you’re already rolling in the mud, stuffed with khat and opium and all your other sweets?” The Comtesse looked less pleased now and more predatory. Carter noticed the way Gideon’s jaw tightened and he dropped his gaze.
“But slow death of a poisoned blade is holy?” Isha asked. “The Highlanders think they’re so pure- you wouldn’t last a day with them. Not with that pretty dress and your soft skin.”
The Comtesse glanced between all three of them. She laced her hands together over her abdomen, chin tilted up as if she could look down upon them if she tilted it back far enough. “You’re the ones in cells.” She smiled, almost predatory, at Gideon. “I had considered sending you with Finn after your magic girl and my half-sister. Jacques told me of the foreign boy who could kill a raven at night, but I think I’ll let you stay.” She turned away from them. “Could really use some of that wine now, couldn’t you? Except you have nothing to bargain with, unlike your little traitor here. Enjoy your freedom from their plague, Gideon, you’ll be joining the rest of the cities’ poor victims soon enough.” She glanced over her shoulder. “But you’re the type who’d want to die first, wouldn’t you? I suspect it will be your lovely golden sister instead.”
Finn turned with her as she swept back off down the hall. He moved stiffly, as if he’d forgotten how his muscles worked.
Carter turned to exchange a glance with Gideon, only to find him with a frown over his features. His fists were clenched, and he worked at his jaw, but the frown- that was thoughtful.
Several minutes passed after the distant clamour of the gate opening and shutting. Gideon let out a breath, and finally met Carter’s gaze. He raised his eyebrows. “She thinks it’s a plague,” he said, bitterly.
The pit of Carter’s stomach opened up, and he wished he could reach over to try to smooth out the harsh lines of Gideon’s face. But he couldn’t, he was helpless.
And he was dying. He just prayed that Shiloh and Whisper would not.
word count: 1,281