The vessel sails swiftly and smoothly through the air, and the ground is so far away that it seems to barely move beneath them, hundreds and hundreds of meters below. It’s so far down that Isla can’t even imagine the height.
Isla’s not sure where they’re going, or if it’s the direction they want to be going, but they haven’t got that many options since they don’t really know how to steer the vessel and she can’t get a candle flame to stay lit in the wind, much less cast a spell with it. So they sail out past the mountains and over the bright green flatlands criss-crossed with shining blue rivers.
It doesn’t really matter where they’re going, as long as it’s somewhere else.
“So,” Lucian says after a long silence. “Are you okay, Isla?”
Isla glances up at Lucian. “What?”
“I mean, after everything that happened back at the palace. Are you doing okay?”
“Um,” Isla says.
“It’s fine if you’re not.”
“I mean it. You…uh. I…” Lucian rubs the back of her neck awkwardly. “I mean, well. Some bad things happened. I don’t know if you, uh, want to talk about it.”
Isla rubs her forearms absently. The marks are still there, nearly invisible against her skin, and she doesn’t know what they do or why Aurel put them there. She thinks she can feel them, even though she shouldn’t be able to, like pinprick needles all the way up her arms and trailing across her collar to where her heart used to be. They haven’t glowed since she left the palace, and she’d like to think that they never will again, now that Aurel’s as dead as an automaton could get.
She’d like to, but she knows enough about artifice to know that’s not how it works. Artifice is permanent, and inscriptions can’t be taken off of what they’re inscribed on. Even if she ripped her skin off the marks would still be there.
“Isla?” Lucian asks again.
“I’m fine,” Isla says. “I’m…worried. That’s all.”
Lucian looks out over the sides of the vessel for a long moment, then says, “Yeah. Me too.”
Isla doesn’t have anything to respond to that, so silence falls, and they sail on.
“What happened?” Isla asks later on, when they’ve descended enough to be able to make out the shapes of scattered villages and roads.
“What?” Lucian asks.
“In the palace,” Isla says. “What did Aurel do?”
Lucian’s silent for long enough that Isla thinks she won’t respond at all, then says, “He played with me.”
Isla blinks. “He what?”
“You know,” Lucian says. “Like a toy. Pick it up, draw on it, break it apart and put it together again. Put it in a box when you don’t want to see it and bring it out to do tricks with.”
“I guess it doesn’t matter though, since I’m not alive and all. Human rights don’t apply to me.”
“What?!” Isla says. “Don’t say that! You are alive. You walk and talk and you…you feel things. I mean, if that’s not alive, I don’t know what is.”
“I don’t have a soul, Isla,” Lucian says. “I don’t eat or sleep or feel pain. Any asshole automaton can inscribe me like I’m an inanimate fucking object and any soul that wants to can hop in me and ride my body around like I’m the village mule. If someone wants to, they can take these marks–” she yanks her collar down, showing faint blue lines just below her throat “and make it so they can do whatever they want with me. Freeze little old Lucy in place and move her around like a mannequin! Try yours today! The inscribing awl comes with complimentary instructions to make Lucy’s as miserable as possible!” She lets go of her collar and slumps back against the vessel’s side. “Sure, I can walk and talk, but a toy can do that, too. Without a soul, all I’ve got is this body and even that can’t be mine.”
“That–that’s not true!”
Lucian scowls. “Isla, I nearly murdered you! I helped that monster rip your heart out and there wasn’t anything I could do! What do you want me to say, that I wanted to do all that?”
“No!” Isla says. “But that’s not your fault! I–” She takes a few deep breaths. “Aurel did that to you, he did a lot of…really bad stuff, but that doesn’t matter.”
“Doesn’t it? It still happened.”
Isla clenches her fists in her lap. “Okay, so it happened. But you’re still my friend, and he’s gone now, and…we’ll get better. We’ve gotten through a lot before. We can get through this.”
Lucian shifts her weight and pulls her sleeve down over her missing left hand. “Sure,” she says. It’s not very convincing.
Isla takes a deep breath. “Lucian, what did he do to me? I…I know you don’t want to talk about it, but I need to know.”
There’s a long pause. “I don’t know,” Lucian says.
“I’m serious,” Lucian says. “I only saw you a couple of times besides–” She cuts herself off. “I mean, he brought you down a couple of times. I don’t know what he did, but he’d…tell you to follow him around and do things, and you did. He ran some tests and I don’t even know what they were for, but I was yelling at you to help me or talk to me or something, but you never even looked at me.”
“I…don’t remember that.”
“I’m not surprised. He put your soul and spirit into that jar up on the shelf, like that’s something you can do with a soul and a spirit. It’s the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen. I wanted to murder him, I tried to, but he’s an automaton and it’s hard to kill something that’s holding your puppet strings and isn’t alive to begin with. I think he thought it was funny when it wasn’t annoying.”
Isla feels sick just thinking about it.
“But it was even worse when you still had your soul in, because he’d put you to sleep but it…wasn’t really sleep. More like dead. You weren’t breathing or moving or anything, there was just the–” Lucian makes a vague gesture to her forearms. “He used that a lot with the servants, turning them off for maintenance. But seeing it on an actual person…on you, well. It was bad. And then he’d put one of those souls into me and tell me…” She trails off again. “I’m sorry, Isla. I can’t do it. I don’t want to talk about this. I can’t.”
“It’s okay,” Isla says softly. “I…I think I get the idea.”
“I fought,” Lucian says. “I fought as hard as I could, but nothing worked. There’s nothing I could do, without a soul. It just goes in, and that’s it. It’s over. It’s like trying to steer a ship without a rudder or a sail–the water takes you where it wants you to go, and you can’t even jump out into the water to escape. But it’s not just moving around, it’s in my head, too. Souls have thoughts, you know? And I’d think things about how to deal with malfunctioning servants or how I had to…defend the master–the automaton at all costs, and it doesn’t go away after the soul’s gone. My head’s a fucking mess right now, and it’s not all mine, but I can’t tell which is or isn’t my own shitty thoughts.”
Lucian laughs bitterly. “Yeah, well that’s how it fucking goes. Sell your soul and you get what you get.”
Isla presses her lips together, then walks over to sit next to Lucian. She puts an arm around Lucian’s shoulders and pulls her in. “That’s not true. You didn’t deserve that. And you didn’t sell your soul on purpose. The witch tricked you, and now you’re stuck with this, but that doesn’t mean you deserve any of it. You’re a good person, and you’re my friend, okay?”
“You’re my friend too!” Solanus says. “Even if you never take my really, really good advice.”
“And I…I’m not mad at you,” Isla says. “Even if you did all that stuff. You didn’t have a choice, and I…I’ll be fine. I forgive you.”
“You shouldn’t,” Lucian says. “I wouldn’t. There’s some things that are too big to forgive, and…I’ve crossed that line a few times.”
“Then it’s a good thing you’re not the one who decides what I’ll forgive.” Isla smiles. “We’re going to get through this, okay? We’re going to get through it together. Get up and move on.”
Lucian glances at Isla. “It’s not that easy.”
“That’s okay,” Isla says. “We’ll figure it out, somehow. We have to.”
Lucian sighs. “Yeah, I guess so. We’ll see, won’t we?”