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It takes a tortuous twenty or so hits to break the delicate fingers apart, and another five to get them to break off entirely, and when Isla’s finished, there’s nothing but broken gears and spindles of brass clinging to the cuff bolted into Lucian’s wrist.
It takes a chisel and a pair of pliers to get the rest of it all off. It’s difficult–very difficult. Aurel had gone to a lot of trouble to keep those hands intact and attached, up to and including multiple holes, drilled directly into Lucian’s wrist. Isla glances up to Lucian’s face and spots similar holes along the side of her face. She looks down again.
She’s not sure she wants to know what Lucian went through.
When all is said and done, Lucian looks at her stump hands and frowning.
“One of my hands should be around here somewhere. The automaton stored it somewhere, but I didn’t see where,” she says.
“One of them?” Isla asks. “He didn’t put them both in the same place?”
“The other one doesn’t exist anymore. He thought it was funny I could reattach my limbs after they broke off, so he wanted to see if I could ‘reconstitute myself’ from powder.” Lucian shakes her head. “Turns out, the answer is no.”
It takes some searching, but Isla eventually finds Lucian’s right hand in a leather pouch in one of the cupboards. It’s still moving, much to Isla’s dismay.
“Oh, he didn’t powderize this one. That’s nice,” Lucian says as Isla brings it over. “Get some bandages or something and strap it on. It’ll stick in a day or two. Hopefully.”
Isla obliges, carefully wrapping Lucian’s hand to her wrist with some difficulty. “What…” Isla swallows. “What did he do to you, Lucian? I saw you yesterday, over at the workshop, and you…you attacked me.”
Lucian looks at her for a moment, confused, before realization dawns and she looks down with a scowl. “That was a week ago. And it wasn’t me.”
“It was some soul riding around my body,” Lucian says, less than happy. “The automaton had a blast experimenting on me. A body and spirit, and no soul. Apparently that’s not something you can find around so easily. So he thought it’d be funny to put a soul in me and see what happened.” She makes a face. “Turns out, if a soul and spirit aren’t from the same person, the soul takes precedence.”
“What?” Lucian snaps, taking her bandaged hand back. “What, you want some fucking proof?” She yanks her tunic up, showing Isla her back, inscribed with marks trailing all the way down her spine and ribs, as dense and complex as the marks on any automaton. “I don’t have a soul, see? So he can inscribe me as much as he wants like I’m some kind of fucking inanimate object. And it’s so convenient that I don’t have a soul! It means he can put all the fucked-up souls into me that he wants!” She pulls her tunic back down. “And there’s nothing I can do about it.”
“I…” Isla says. “I had nightmares of you. And you had a knife, and–”
“I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t want to fucking talk about it.”
Isla opens her mouth to respond, but the murderous expression on Lucian’s face stops her. She sets the matter aside. It’s not worth it. Not right now.
Isla tucks Solanus into her sash and takes Lucian up through the corridors to her room. They pass by servants doing work, and they ignore her and Lucian entirely. She tries not to think about them or how each and every one of them could be another one of Aurel’s failed experiments.
Aurel’s been the master of the palace for thirteen hundred years. She can’t even imagine how many people he could have experimented on.
“This place looks a lot nicer when you’re not in the dungeons,” Lucian says.
“Yeah,” Isla says. “Aurel showed me around the grounds, and…” she trails off awkwardly. “I’m so sorry, Lucian. I didn’t know you were…what was going on.”
Lucian gives her a look. “I’d be more worried about myself, if I were you. That automaton did a number on you, and it’s really concerning that you don’t seem to remember.”
“Solanus said it’s been over a month,” Isla says softly.
“Yeah. Thirty-two days. I counted,” Lucian says. “How long did you think it was?”
Lucian purses her lips. “Okay, well…it’s been a little longer than that, and um. You’ve been asleep a lot of that time. Or, well…not asleep exactly. It’s more like dead. The marks on your…” she gestures to Isla’s forearms. “The master uses them to, uh, deactivate his subjects.”
“You know. Make them stop. Knock them out so he can safely play around with their insides and, uh, ‘correct their behavior’.”
“What?” Isla asks. “For how long?”
“As long as he wants. Whenever he wants. It’s useful for operations, I understand.”
Isla can’t even muster a response to that.
Lucian sighs heavily. “…I’m sorry, Isla.”
“Did he operate on me?”
Lucian doesn’t answer for a while. “Yeah. At least three times. Maybe more. I don’t know. He had to put a lot of marks on you before he could…do what he did. With your heart. He said something about preparing your body, but I…don’t know any more than that.”
“My–how do you know about my heart?” Isla asks. “You didn’t, you–”
Lucian is dead silent, and that is answer enough.
They don’t talk after that. They reach Isla’s room, and Isla goes in.
“I need to…take care of some stuff,” Isla says, gesturing to the glassy gray stone in her palm. “I might as well do it now.”
Lucian collapses onto the sofa, though she’d probably be just as comfortable on the floor, with how exhausted she looks. “Do what you have to.”
Isla swallows, then heads into her bedroom. The servants haven’t been in, and it looks the same as when she left earlier, with the witch whispering in her ear and filling her with burning blood-red magic.
It looked so beautiful when she arrived here. Clean. Pristine. Now it looks dull and washed-out. The white walls feel suffocating instead of elegant, and Isla just wants…to get out of here.
She picks up her jar from the nightstand. It feels heavy with everything she’s been through in the last four, or five, or thirty-two days. Everything she’s been through, everything Solanus has been through, everything Lucian has been through, and everything they may have done to each other.
She unstoppers the jar. There’s two bright glassy stones in it, glowing softly. She takes the gray stone she pulled out of Aurel’s heart and drops it in.
There’s a sound like a hammer on steel, and everything goes dark.
“Isla. What are you doing?”
Isla looks up from her rings of sigils drawn on the floor and the candles lit around the room and says, “Is this some sort of trick question?”
“Isla, this is witchcraft. I know you’re desperate, but you can’t do this.”
“It’s not witchcraft,” Isla says. “It’s ritual magic. I’m not doing the magic, I’m just invoking forces that do. The imperial guard can’t execute me for this.”
“The imperial– Isla! Ritual magic is half a step away from witchcraft! It doesn’t matter if you’re performing magic or invoking it, the imperial guard will kill you, and it’s not going to save her! You have to stop!”
“It’s the only option I have!” Isla retorts. “The only way to get rid of a curse is to use magic that’s stronger than it! Artifice didn’t work. Apothecary didn’t work. So I have to do this. It’s the only thing I can do, short of summoning a demon. There’s no other way to save her.”
“No other way? There is no way! Please, you have to listen. We’ve tried everything. You can’t save her from a curse that strong. It’s not possible for you, and it’s not possible for any human.”
Isla’s chalk snaps under her hand, and she stands, snarling. “Then what’s the point of being human? What’s the point of humanity if I can’t save her?”
“You have to let it go, Isla! She’s lost! She’s lost and you’re going too far!”
“Don’t tell me that. Don’t you dare tell me that.”
“I don’t care if you don’t want to hear it, because it’s true! If you keep going on like this, you’ll forget why you went after all this power to begin with, and then what?”
“I won’t,” Isla says.
Isla jabs her chalk at them. “I won’t forget. I’m going to get the power I need, and I’ll save her. You’ll see.”