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Rebecca smiles brightly. “Oh, it’s no problem at all! You’ll come to see the Lighting, won’t you? The whole town will be there, I’m sure. We get lots of visitors from all over the Empire, just like you.”
“Of course we’ll go see it,” Isla says. “It sounds exciting.”
“Great!” Rebecca says. “Do you have any festival clothes? It’s too late for us to tailor a new one for you, but we have a lot of dresses that are already finished that might fit you. We have special dresses here for the festival, in all sorts of colors. Each pattern and color represents a different blessing for the coming year, and–”
“Sorry, but we can’t afford to buy a new dress. We don’t have the space to carry it, either,” Lucian cuts in.
“Oh,” Rebecca says. “Well, if you can’t wear a festival dress, then you can at least wear clothes that completely cover your skin and hair. You might want a mask–I think they sell some a few doors north of here.”
“I am not wearing a mask,” Lucian says acidly.
“Don’t mind Lucian, she’s just cranky,” Isla says. “Thank you so much for telling us about this, and we’ll see you at the Lighting tonight, Rebecca.”
Lucian stiffly bows her head an assent, then stands to leave. “Actually,” she says, pausing before the doorway, “Rebecca, do you know anything about the abandoned house on the east edge of town?”
Rebecca looks up at Lucian and says, “Oh, yes! My friend lives there.”
Lucian visibly takes a deep breath, counts to ten, then lets it out. “Your friend lives in the abandoned house on the east edge of town,” she says.
Rebecca nods. “They’re one of my best friends. They’re actually going to perform with me tonight.” She glances around nervously. “But I wasn’t supposed to tell you that. You won’t tell anyone I said that, right?”
“We won’t say a word,” Isla says.
“Sure,” Lucian says. “And are they the hero or the demon?”
“They’re going to be the hero,” Rebecca replies. “I’m going to be the demon. I have to paint my face before tonight, just like you.”
Lucian scowls. “This isn’t–”
“I’m sure you’ll look great!” Isla says before Lucian starts a fight with a literal seventeen year old. “We have to prepare for tonight, too. Right, Lucian?”
Lucian looks at her like she’s nuts. “What? Okay, fine. Thanks for the help. Good luck or whatever.”
Rebecca laughs. “Hopefully, I won’t need it! I’d love to see you two there!”
Isla drags Lucian by the arm out of the store before she says something they’ll both regret.
They get as far as the street before Lucian shakes Isla off and says, “Why’d you interrupt me?”
“What?” Isla asks.
“You stopped me from telling that girl she was wrong about artifice,” Lucian says. “She deserves to know. Artifice magic is permanent. It doesn’t wear off over time.”
Isla takes a deep breath. “Usually, it doesn’t.”
“No, always it doesn’t,” Lucian says.
“Sometimes…sometimes it wears off,” Isla says. “Demons have a lot of magic, and magic breaks down artifice. That’s why protection charms don’t last forever.”
Lucian looks at Isla for a long moment. “So you’re saying you could have gotten these fucking marks off my body and you didn’t say anything?”
Isla feels her mind skip. Between her nightmares and the heart that isn’t beating in her chest, she honestly hadn’t even thought of Lucian’s marks.
“Lucian, I–” Isla stutters.
“Isla, I know it didn’t feel like it for you, but I was locked in that dungeon for over a month while the master carved me up like a roast duck.” Lucian makes a wild gesture at the black spiderweb lines trailing down her face. “Do you have any idea how hard I’ve tried to get these things off? I’ve been literally grinding my skin off with a rock to try and get rid of these marks, and nothing worked!” She jabs a finger at Isla. “And you knew this whole time that you could use magic. You never thought for one second that maybe, just maybe, you could blast me with magic and solve the problem, just like that!”
“It’s not that easy, I–”
“Easy? You know what’s not easy?” Lucian snaps. “Being turned into a puppet in your own goddamn skin and being forced to work for the automaton who did this to me!” She throws her arms wide, and the sleeve over her missing hand flaps loose. “Yeah, we’re out now. But do we know that? Do we know we’re really free? Do you have any idea how scared I am that he’ll come back or one of his abominable servants will come and force us to go back there, just to play around with us again? I don’t know what these marks do, Isla. Maybe he can use them to find us no matter where he is. Maybe he’ll use them to send his automata wolves after us again. And this whole time, you could have gotten rid of them.”
Isla tries to formulate a response. Anything, anything to explain, but nothing comes out except, “I didn’t realize– I forgot you–”
“You’re always forgetting, Isla! Fuck, I know you forget! Five times now, I have to deal with you waking up and looking at me like I’m a complete stranger, and not knowing anything, and being helpless and useless, and I’m tired of it!” Lucian shouts. She steps closer. “I want these marks off me, Isla. I don’t care what you have to do to make it happen, just get them off.”
Isla steps back. “I…” Her voice chokes. Her arms burn even with the thought of casting magic, and the prospect of her heart stopping hangs heavy in her mind. “I can’t, Lucian.”
“Then fuck you,” Lucian snarls. “Fuck you, Isla. I’m trying to do everything I can to help you–tried everything I can for five years–and you can’t even try.” She turns the other way and leaves.
Isla stands there, frozen in shock. Lucian didn’t say that. She couldn’t have said something like that, or she didn’t mean it. She has to believe that. She has to…
It takes her an entire twenty seconds to realize that Lucian’s gone, and another five to start moving herself. She runs after Lucian, shouting, begging to let her explain, but–
But Lucian is lost in the crowd, nowhere to be seen.
Isla stops and stands in the middle of the street, looking down the way where Lucian had gone to, and takes a deep, shuddering breath. She doesn’t even know if she could defend herself if she tried. She hadn’t even thought of Lucian and what Aurel had done to her, and she knew Lucian hated it, but she’d been so…so stupid to not even realize she could help, or at least try–
Helpless and useless, Lucian had said. That sounded about right.
Maybe Lucian’s right to be mad. Lucian’s been so supportive all this time, keeping them on track when Isla keeps messing up or getting distracted. It can’t be easy to deal with her all the time, and it’s been less than a month for her while it’s been over five years for Lucian.
Anyone would be tired, after that.
Isla wipes her eyes. She doesn’t know where Lucian’s gone, or if she’ll come back, or what, but she has to do something to make this right again. Explain to Lucian why she can’t burn the markings off. Explain what’s happening with her heart.
“That won’t fix anything,” the witch’s voice taunts. “It will take much more than that to make amends. More than you can afford.”
“Piss off,” Isla mutters. “I’m doing my best.”
She gathers her resolve and heads down the street, looking for Lucian. She doesn’t see her anywhere, but she can’t have gone that far, could she? She searches the area for maybe an hour before she starts to think that maybe looking around randomly isn’t the best way to search. Usually when someone storms off they’ll find someplace to go, someplace that’s comforting. Lucian has to have gone…somewhere, but where?
The sad part is, Isla doesn’t even know Lucian well enough to guess.