Isla looks over the clothes. She doesn’t really want to steal anything, but if they return it afterwards, then it’s just borrowing, right? That should be okay. And also, if they do everything right, then the town won’t be stuck anymore, and everyone will be free again. A dress is a low price to pay for that, she’s pretty sure.
There’s a long line of dresses in all sorts of colors and patterns, and she knows there’s some kind of symbolism to them all, but she can’t for the life of her remember any of them. She’s not really sure what she’s looking for.
“Cover your skin so nobody sees your sins,” she hears whispering in her ear, and she blinks–
There’s sun in her eyes, and a figure holds out a bundle of clothes.
“Your curses are burned into your flesh, but nobody needs to see them if you do not wish them to,” the figure says. “I hear your students have made…poor choices in the pursuit of power. Toying with demons and planes they shouldn’t be. You’ve wrought this destruction, and now it falls to you to rectify these mistakes.”
She takes the clothes and blinks–
“Isla?” Lucian asks. “You’ve been staring at the dress for a long time. Is that the one you want?”
Isla has to blink a few times and she looks down. In her hands, she’s holding a folded crimson dress with gold embroidery. It’s beautiful, she can’t deny that, but she doesn’t remember picking it up.
“It looks fine,” Lucian says. “Go try it on. If it fits, I can find something and we can go.”
Silently, Isla goes to change. The dress is made of a somewhat bulky material, especially considering the weather, with multiple layers of cloth on the skirt that flare slightly outwards. The sleeves are wide and loose at the top, and cinched at the forearm with embroidered gold and black flowers trailing along the entire length of the dress. It’s a stark look, with different shades of deep red, highlighted in gold and black, matching her new headscarf and gloves. Isla turns around slowly to look at it in the mirror from all angles, and marvels at the intricate needlework required for something of this magnitude.
It fits perfectly.
“Cover your sins,” that whispering voice says again, and she feels darkness creeping over her shoulder like claws. “Cover your sins and hide your face, so no one will remember your name.”
“Why are you here?” Isla hisses. “It’s just a festival. It’s just a story.”
“Stories have more truth to them than you realize,” the witch says. “If you do not open your eyes, you will find yourself reliving them.”
Isla scowls. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
There’s a knock at the door. “Isla?” Lucian asks. “It’s been a while. Are you decent?”
Isla self-consciously smooths out her dress and puts the witch out of her mind. “Yeah. You can come see.”
Lucian steps in and looks at her up and down. “Well, that definitely fits,” she says. “It looks nice. Pack the dress up and I’ll find something I can wear.”
Isla changes out of the dress and folds it back up while Lucian goes to look through the clothes displays herself. Isla can feel the witch’s eyes on her, its presence weighing heavily on her shoulders. She turns to try and catch a glimpse of it, but as always, there’s nothing.
“Why now?” she hisses. “Do you know something?”
There’s no response.
“Is something going to happen tonight?” Isla asks.
At that, there’s a hoarse sound that might be some facsimile of a laugh. “Asking for help?” the witch taunts. “You still haven’t paid your dues. I don’t think you are in a position to ask for more than you already have.”
“I don’t even know what I asked for,” Isla retorts. “I can’t remember, remember?”
“That’s no one’s fault but your own,” the witch says. “You knew the consequences when you accepted the terms, and now seven years is almost up. You know what will happen if you don’t deliver what you have promised.”
Isla doesn’t–she can’t remember anything about her deal with the witch, or what she sold–but it’s not too hard to guess what might happen if she can’t pay up, whatever it is.
“We’re going to kill you,” Isla says. “We’re going to find you and kill you once I get all my memories.”
“Much greater people than you have tried,” the witch says. “You should be more worried about your friends, and about yourself.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Fine,” Isla says, tucking the dress under her arm. “Be that way. I’ll figure it out myself.”
There’s another, faraway laugh, but Isla resolves to ignore it. She goes out into the main room, and Lucian picks out her own clothes. It’s nothing so fancy as her dress, but it’s a respectable set of tunic and trousers with embroidery down its length and along the hems. It also fits without Lucian having to pin the hems up–apparently the fashion runs a little on the shorter side here.
“What about your hand?” Isla asks as Lucian slowly turns around for her to see.
“What’s wrong with my hand?” Lucian replies.
“You’re missing one,” Isla says. “People are going to notice that, won’t they?”
“No, they won’t.”
“I’m, uh, pretty sure they will.”
“Then that’s their problem, isn’t it?” Lucian says, pulling the festival tunic off. “Now that the clothes are taken care of, we’ll go steal a mask for you and find somewhere to rest. You’ll need it.”
Isla frowns. “We don’t have to steal–”
“Fine, we’ll borrow a mask,” Lucian says, rolling her eyes. “Let’s go. We haven’t got all night.”
They break into the mask shop about as easily as they broke into the dress shop, and Isla finds a mask that fits her without too much difficulty. It’s carved out of wood and stained white, with dots of paint below the eyes. Isla thinks it’s a bit frightening, but she doesn’t say so out loud.
Lucian grimaces at the sight of it, but doesn’t say anything besides, “I don’t like masks.”
It’s not too hard to guess why.
“We might as well just stay here until dawn,” Lucian says, leaning out the doorway and looking up and down the streets. It seems that there’s still no one out, fortunately enough. “I’ll keep a watch out for anyone, and in the morning, well. We’ll have to figure out what we need to do for the ceremony so we can blend in enough that they don’t instantly kick us out. The good news about this time mess is that if we cock everything up the first time, we can just try again.”
That is a bit reassuring, though Isla’s not sure if they’d really be able to get a second chance. It seems like Em would go to some pretty extreme lengths to stop the ceremony plan if they found out about it. But there is at least the possibility for a second chance, which is nice.
With luck, though, they won’t need it. That would be for the best.
Isla pulls some old rugs out of a storage room and piles them up to sleep on. She dreams of darkness and forests again, and of golden-eyed demons spitting silver flames. She dreams of fighting, and light in her hands and shadowy claws bearing down on her under the moonlight.
She wakes up with a burning feeling in her forearms and feels…apprehensive.
She remembers the witch’s warning–she could hardly forget it, when she still feels the witch’s eyes on her constantly, watching her every move.
The witch had said something about reliving the past. Somehow, Isla didn’t think the witch was just talking about a ceremony, but she didn’t know what the witch was talking about, either.
Isla sits up slowly and rubs her temples. The ceremony was based on something that happened a long time ago. The masked hero killed the demon–that’s about as much as she knows about the story. Since she and Lucian will act as the hero and the demon, maybe the witch means that she might kill Lucian in the ceremony?
The thought makes her feel slightly ill. No. She couldn’t do something like that to Lucian, no matter what. She won’t let that happen. She’d die before she did something like that to Lucian or Solanus.
Just then, Lucian pokes her head into the back room. “You’re awake? All right, well, get on up. The sun’s starting to rise, so we should get out before anyone finds us. We need to find out more about this ceremony thing.”
Right. They just need to do the ceremony and fix whatever is going on in this town. No one’s going to get hurt. Isla takes a deep breath and gets up. “Okay. Let’s go.”