Isla waits. She waits a long while–though maybe it just feels that way. Before long, she’s pacing back and forth, trying to work off some nervous energy.
“You okay, there?” Solanus asks. “You sound kind of nervous.”
“That’s because I am,” Isla says.
“Oh,” Solanus says. “Carry on, then.”
Isla does. She paces around, sits at the table, looks at unfinished dresses, and eventually comes back around to sit next to Lucian, who’s still lying motionless on the floor. She’s completely still, not even breathing, and if it weren’t for the glow in her green eyes, she might think that Lucian was dead altogether. Her gaze traces down Lucian’s heavily mended shirt–the one that’s probably worth several times less than the palace clothes she’d traded off for them–all the way down to the empty sleeve where she’s missing a hand and up to the collar that lies snug to her neck, with finely etched inscription peeking out and trailing up into Lucian’s hairline.
“…Solanus,” Isla says. “How…how many markings did Aurel put on Lucian?”
“Fuck, dude, how would I know?” Solanus says. “It took like two entire weeks before he was done, and that’s not counting all the bonus stuff. Lucy said it was over her back and arms and legs–I never really got a close look at it. It sounds pretty impressive. You know, if it wasn’t the literal worst thing ever.”
“Would it be safe to take the inscription off?” Isla asks.
“Uh, you can’t really take inscription off. That’s kind of the point of artifice–it’s permanent. Lucy’s been trying to scrape it off since she got it, but obviously that did jack shit. Even breaking her arm off didn’t do anything that one time, and honestly, the point at which you’re getting dismembered is really the point where you should quit while you’re ahead. Not that we’ve ever been ahead.”
Isla elects to tactfully ignore that comment. “You can remove artifice with magic,” she says. “I don’t know a lot of the specifics, but magic makes it break down–I used magic on those wolves that attacked us and it burned the artifice off completely in places. I could…do something like that to Lucian.”
“What? That’s the worst idea I’ve heard all day, and that includes the one where Lucy threw me through a window and I almost died,” Solanus says. “I don’t know how much you know about artifice, but incomplete artifice is, uh, volatile.”
Isla bites her lip. She knows that, just as she knows about the marks burning away on her arms and, in all likelihood, her heart.
“Lucian wanted me to burn her marks off, and I said I couldn’t. That’s why she left.”
“Yeah? Well, Lucy says a lot of stupid stuff. I don’t think you should blast her with magic just to see what happens. The marks suck, but at least they’re stable,” Solanus says.
“Lucian needs these marks off of her! I have to do something!”
“You…really don’t. I mean, yeah, eventually, but not right here, right now, with a bunch of magic bullshit. Do you even know what you’re doing? Don’t answer that. You don’t.”
Isla unfastens Lucian’s collar and sees precise, interlocking black lines trailing down her neck, across her collarbones, down to her heart. The symbols are all so small and finely inscribed that they blend into a solid mass of color against Lucian’s gray skin, like they’re burned into her flesh. There’s so many of them that Isla can hardly comprehend anyone being able to do this in any amount of time, much less a couple of weeks.
She traces a line of inscription down Lucian’s shoulders. “There’s so much of it.”
“And that’s why you should give this a little more thought than literally none at all,” Solanus says. “Like yeah, sure, you might break the artifice, but also if you burn some of the inscription off, you might make things even worse than they already are. And I know what you’re thinking–Solanus, things can’t possibly get worse!–but you’re wrong. If there’s anything I’ve learned from being stuck in a lantern around you two, it’s that things can always get worse.”
Isla ignores Solanus and carefully tugs Lucian’s shirt off. It’s slow and difficult because the fabric is pinned under Lucian’s dead weight, and Lucian isn’t exactly helping, but she succeeds eventually and sets the shirt aside. She holds Solanus aloft to get a better light on Lucian.
It’s…much worse than she’d thought. It’s like a spider’s web, spiraling outwards from her heart, tracing out her ribs, cutting lines down her arms. Right there, dead center on her chest, right over her heart, is Aurel’s insignia, traced out in a stark brand that pulses gently in faded blue.
Lucian has to know that’s there, Isla thinks with horror. She must have seen it in her reflection and feel it against her chest, constantly. There’s clear signs of the skin being chipped and scraped away, and Isla wonders how much time Lucian’s spent trying to scour these marks from her body before realizing there was nothing she could do.
Is there a brand like that on her own heart? Isla wonders. The thought fills her with disgust–it’s not enough that there’s clockwork in her chest, but it might be signed, too, like some kind of…object for display. Like by taking her heart and replacing it with one that doesn’t beat, Aurel’s taken the rest of her, too.
She clenches her fists.
“How could he do this to us?” Isla asks. “How could he do this to Lucian?”
“He was kind of a fuck,” Solanus says.
Isla can’t do much more than sit and stare. She feels sick. She is sick. It’s all so much worse than she thought, so much worse than she could have imagined, and Lucian’s been burdened with this for so long…
She has to do something.
She holds out her hands and tries to call on her magic. She’s not sure what she has to do to burn the marks off, but if she uses enough magic, it’ll have to work, one way or another. Power pulses down her arms, burning painfully down to her fingers as the marks on her arms flare brightly against it. Her hands begin to glow pink.
“Isla?” Solanus asks. “Isla, what are you doing? You’ve got to think about this a little, okay? You don’t want to do something really stupid.”
“I know what I’m doing,” Isla says. Sweat drips down her brow as she tries to force herself to summon more magic power. It’s hard to grasp, slippery like pieces of egg shell in egg white.
“I’m really not sure you do!” Solanus says. “Come on, don’t do this!”
Isla grits her teeth. “Shut up, Solanus.” The glow in her hands slowly becomes stronger, even as it starts to become less steady as her power tries to get loose. It feels like her arms are sliced open, all the way down to her fingers, bleeding away all her power. She pants, trying to force herself further even as it makes her vision go gray, and–
Lucian shifts on the ground and flinches away from Isla’s hands. “Wh-what’s going on?” she says hoarsely.
Startled, Isla’s attention falters, and the magic in her hands flares outwards in a large flash, sending her crashing to the floor.
“Isla?” Solanus asks, sounding more than a little concerned. “Isla, what happened? What’s going on?”
“…Sol?” Lucian asks. She turns over slowly and pushes herself into a half-sitting position Her eyes are a bit dazed and she doesn’t seem to see much of anything right now. “Isla? Is…Isla, what’s going on? Where is–what happened to my shirt?”
Isla pushes herself off of the floor. Her arms are burning, and the artifice traced down them still glows faintly. “Lucian. Lucian, you’re awake.”