When the footsteps approach, Isabel scrambles to her feet. She staggers; spots of light dance in front of her eyes. Two days without food. Two days without water. She backs up until her spine presses against the stone wall. Tucks her hands behind her. She knows it won’t make a difference.
She tells herself she won’t scream.
The Healers, three women draped in robes of red, enter her cell. They don’t say a word. She keeps silent when they grab her. Twists away from their grasp. Fights against them with all the strength she can summon.
It’s not nearly enough.
Then they snap the first finger, the pinkie on her right hand. The pain is white. Blinding. Below the pain, a sensation of leaking. Emptying.
Her cries echo off the stone. From another cell, she hears shouting. One of the Healers laughs.
By the fifth finger, she doesn’t have the strength to struggle anymore.
By the eighth, she can’t even scream. Wavery moans slip from her lips. The greedy stone walls gobble them up and wait for more.
By the tenth, the world is grey, flickering in her vision like candleflame.
After the last snap fills the air, the Healers weave a spell to fuse her bones back together. To fill her up with something new. When they let her go, she crawls to the corner of her cell, holds her ruined hands to her chest, and sobs into the filthy straw.
Midday, a guard shoves a bowl of porridge through the bars of her cell. Her stomach rumbles, but she makes no move for the food. If she does not eat, will they force it down her throat or will they allow her to starve?
She knows the answer.
The porridge is bland, with neither milk nor honey to give it flavor, but she eats it all. She does not want to die.
At night, a guard walks the passageway between the cells. His feet tap a steady rhythm on the stone. He stops outside the bars of Isabel’s cell, his face all sharp planes and angles, his clothing tainted with sorrow.
She pulls her knees up to her chin. What does he see? A young woman in a dirty dress or a monster in the making?
He runs his fingers along one of the metal bars, his skin safe behind leather gloves. All the guards wear them. For their protection.
“You knew it was forbidden,” he says, his voice a blade.
She holds her tongue.
“You knew the risk, the penalty, yet you still did it. Does that make you brave or a fool?”
He walks away before she can take another breath. It is not her fault. What she is. She holds up her hands. What she was.
They’ve made her something else now.
They came for her two days after Ayleth fell. She doesn’t know how they knew what she’d done. Perhaps someone was hiding nearby. Watching.
She pushes the thoughts away and thinks of Ayleth’s dark hair, her green eyes, the way she laughed into the wind.
She feels it growing inside her, a darkness where before there was a spark of light. Their corruption.
If she had a knife, she would cut it out and leave it bleeding on the floor.
The guards bring in a girl whose face still holds tight to childhood. Her fingertips leak thin grey trails of smoke. Her fire is spent. She does not fight against the guards’ grip. She does not cry. She is already broken.
They put her in the cell across from Isabel’s.
The girl screams when the Healers come. Isabel covers her ears. Had her own screams sounded so loud? So long? If her gift was fire, she would’ve set the straw in her own cell ablaze and burned herself alive.
Moonlight peeks between the bars of her cell’s window, a window too high to reach, even if she stands on her toes. It does not matter, though. The only thing beyond her window is a rocky cliff facing the sea.
She closes her eyes, breathing in the stink of her own waste. The hopelessness of the stone walls. How many were in this cell before her? How many listened to the waves crashing against the rocks?
How long before they gave in?
She paces in her cell. The sun has turned the air thick and sticky. The straw rustles with each step of her bare feet, scratching against her skin. They took away her shoes when they brought her here.
The guard in the passageway does not look in her direction. He does not look at any of them. He smells of roasted meat; her mouth waters.
The girl in the cell across from Isabel trembles, her teeth chatter, and ice crystals form on the straw beneath her. Is there even enough left of her inside to miss the warmth of her flames?
She is too young, far too young, to be so defiled.
“Let me see your hands, little fool,” the night guard says.
She turns away so he cannot see them. Her heart races. Will he kill her? It would be a kindness.
Instead, he walks away.
She doesn’t know why he wants to see. Nothing shows on the outside. She feels it inside, ugly and wrong.
They bring in an old woman. Her back is bent; her eyes, clouded with white. She cries for her children to save her. No one will come, except the Healers and the guards. Everyone knows that.
Isabel doesn’t think it will take long for the old woman to give them what they want.
She dreams of drops of blood falling from the sky. She dreams of a field of knives littered with bones. She wakes drenched in sweat with a strange taste in her mouth, like sour milk laced with ashes.
Her old magic, her real magic, tasted of ripe raspberries.
The guards take away a woman with long dark hair. She walks with her back straight and her mouth set in a thin line. Her eyes flash with defiance.
A door slams. After a time, muffled screams creep into the air and hang there for hours. When the guards bring the woman back, she smells of urine, vomit, the acrid tang of fear. She leaves a trail of blood on the stones.
The sight makes Isabel’s stomach twist into knots.
The new king took the crown the year of her sixth summer. “You must never,” her mother said, time and again. Even at six, Isabel understood why.
And she listened. Until Ayleth.
She thinks of Ayleth’s broken body, the blood dripping from the corner of her mouth. What would happen if she touched her now? Would she be able to hold it in?
Finally, the guards come for her.
They bind her arms behind her back. Even with their gloves, they do not touch her hands. They lead her into a windowless room; the door shuts with a bang that vibrates in her teeth. The room smells of pain and sorrow. Of giving up. Giving in.
The man in the room smiles. A lie.
There is a table covered with a stained cloth, the fabric full of bumps and bulges. She does not want to see what the cloth is hiding.
“Will you serve your king?” the man asks.
She takes a deep breath. Doesn’t answer.
She will not.
He does not remove the cloth from the table, he does not ask his question again, and the guards take her back to her cell.
Magic was not always forbidden.
When she was a small child, there were no Healers, and only criminals were locked away. The old king was loved by the people, not feared. He loved balls, grandeur, music. The new king does not care for music, save that born of screams. Only those sworn to his service are allowed to wield magic; even then, they are only allowed a magic that has been perverted. Inverted. Fire to ice. Healing to—
No. She will not think of that now. She cannot.
Rumors say the king acts in cruelty because he secretly wishes he was born female. If so, he might’ve held magic. Instead, he has only his cock and the kingdom to grip.
But the why doesn’t matter. Not here.
She dreams of Ayleth running toward her. Though Isabel runs as fast as she can to get away, to keep her safe, Ayleth won’t stop.
She wakes just before Ayleth touches her hand.
They take the young girl out and do not bring her back. When the night wind blows cold through the window, Isabel thinks perhaps it is the girl, making ice for the king’s wine.
The new magic inside her hungers. For what, she doesn’t know.
She doesn’t want to know.
The guards take her to the stone room again. The table is uncovered, revealing knives, hooks, spikes, and something shaped like a metal pear that screams malevolence. Anguish.
She feels the blood run from her face. Her fingers tremble.
“Will you serve your king?”
She swallows before answering. “No, I will not.”
They laugh when they take her back. They know she will give in, eventually.
Or she will die.
She and Ayleth grew up in the same village, casting shy smiles at each other until finally, Ayleth kissed her behind the baker’s shop. Their love was not as forbidden as magic; people pretended not to see.
The day Isabel broke her promise of never, they were foraging for berries atop a wooded hill. In the distance, the spires of the castle gleamed in the sunlight. Ayleth paused with a handful of berries and whispered, “I would like to burn it down with the king inside.”
“Do not say such a thing,” Isabel said, casting a glance over her shoulder.
Ayleth shrugged. “There is no one to hear. Only us.” She took a step forward. A twig snapped. Leaves crackled. Her mouth dropped open as her legs slipped out from under, and she tumbled down the side of the hill, her shouts punctuated with thuds and thumps all the way.
Isabel raced down as fast as she could without falling herself. At the bottom, she found Ayleth holding her belly, blood dripping from the corner of her mouth. She tried to help her stand, but Ayleth shrieked and begged her to stop.
The village herbwoman would not be able to help. Not with this. In spite of Ayleth’s protests, Isabel grasped her hands and let the magic out.
And the sensation… Her mouth flooded with the sweetness of berries, her fingertips tingled, and inside, it was as if butterflies were dancing soft beneath her skin. She felt it leave her body like a breeze through a window; as it flowed into her lover’s, Ayleth’s eyes brightened, her mouth formed a circle of surprise, then laughter bubbled up and out. They danced together like children, forgetting for a moment that, as proscribed by the king, the magic was wrong.
The guards carry out a body, laughing all the while. Isabel sees long dark hair. Pale limbs streaked with the telltale lines of blood poisoning. A face with blank eyes where defiance once lived.
The night guard watches her through the bars. She meets his stare, hiding her hands in the folds of her dress. She fears what they’ve done to her. She fears who they’ve made her become. But she is not her hands. She is not their monster. She will not let it change her.
Yet she fears it already has.
She stumbles as they push her into the room with the table. A skinny man with a ragged beard stands in the corner. His clothes are tattered. Shackles bind his bloodied ankles.
“Will you serve?” the man with the false smile asks.
He nods at the guards. They hold her arms tight as they guide her toward the shackled man. The smell of his unwashed body makes her eyes sting.
“No, I will not do this. I will not.”
But inside, the twisted magic says yes.
She struggles to break free. The guards shove her toward the man. She lifts her hands. A reflex. Not on purpose. When she realizes what she’s done, it’s too late.
Her skin touches his.
Pain radiates through her belly like claws and fangs tearing free. Her fingers clench, digging into the man’s flesh. She tries to hold it in, but it will not stay. She cannot make it stay. It rips free, an animal in search of prey, and leaves the taste of rage in its wake. A vile brew filled with bitterness.
The man’s eyes widen. His mouth opens. His face contorts in pain. His body spasms.
For one quick moment, a feeling of power, of possibility, rushes through her. Then she shoves it deep down inside. Shame floods her. One of the guards nudges the man with his foot. He does not move. The liar smiles.
“Do you see what you are?” he says.
She closes her eyes. She doesn’t want to see.
She doesn’t want to know.
The night guard pauses in front of her cell again. Isabel wipes away her tears.
“They will take you from here when you agree. You will have meat, wine, clean clothes.”
She shakes her head. She is not a monster. But she thinks of the man, the way it felt to take his life, and she shudders.
“Will you serve?”
“No,” she whispers.
“You don’t really want us to tear up your pretty flesh, do you?”
“I will not serve,” she says between clenched teeth.
It is her turn to scream. To leave a trail of blood on the stones.
She dreams of the field of knives. Of Ayleth, her blood pouring from a wound Isabel can no longer heal, her arms outstretched. Isabel tells her no, but Ayleth doesn’t listen. She grabs Isabel’s hands and falls to the floor, her eyes open. Unseeing.
In her dream, Isabel laughs.
She wakes with a cry in her throat; her mangled body answers with a shriek of its own. She catches movement from the corner of her eye—the night guard, walking away.
Death came for her father in the shape of a lingering illness that caused his limbs to wither and his skin to turn grey. Her mother forbade her to help.
“I cannot lose you both,” she said.
So Isabel held her magic in, no matter how hard it fluttered, yearning to help.
The twisted thing inside her now scrapes and pushes, burning to hurt.
He taps the bars of her cell.
“What do you want?” she asks.
“Why do you fight?”
She doesn’t answer. He would not understand.
“They are looking for your friend.”
A whimper escapes before she can steal it back. Not Ayleth. Anything but that.
“Why do you care?” she whispers.
“The king’s sister is next in line for the throne. She does not share her brother’s penchant for cruelty. She would be a good queen, I think.”
She looks up. He is staring at the window.
“The king is coming to the prison tomorrow. He is not happy with the progress of late.” The guard steps close to the bars.
He looks into her eyes.
“He does not wear gloves,” he says, his words so low that, save for the movement of his mouth, she might have imagined them.
The breath catches in her throat.
He gives her a small half-smile, the expression strange on such a harsh face. “You remind me of my sister.”
As he walks away, she steps back with her hands held between her breasts. Why would he tell her such a thing?
How long until they find Ayleth? How long until they force Isabel to watch while they press the blades against Ayleth’s skin? Her eyes burn with tears, and she covers her mouth to hold in the sound.
The waves crash upon the rocks. The wind blows in through the bars on the window. The cell fills with the smell of the sea.
She thinks of the girl who could make fire. The dark haired woman. The old woman crying for someone to save her. She thinks of all those living in fear, the ones they haven’t found yet.
In the morning, she hears a strange coarse laugh. Heavy footsteps move down the hallway. She steps close to the bars. Waits. The metal is cold beneath her fingers. The footsteps move closer.
Will they kill her once the king is dead?
She looks down at her hands. Her weapons. Not perverted. Perfected. The monster inside her extends its claws.
Let them try, she thinks. Let them try.
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