Chapter 1 of Freedom from Isadora's Perspective
The ruins of Berry lay in charred waste against the backdrop of Letum Wood.
Although over a year had passed since the attack from the Western Network on the sleepy town, the wound felt fresh. Only a few witches had attempted to rebuild their pillaged homes. Most of the lots lay empty, filled with the fallen boards of what had been. In some cases, nothing remained. It lay underneath a constant, gray cloud that beckoned winter with gray fingers, wrapping the barren landscape and choking the life out of it.
A cold wind whipped by, whisking Isadora Spence’s thoughts with it. She shivered, tightened her cloak, then slipped back inside a broad tent.
Dirty canvas tents formed a sort of city in the main meadow of Berry. The High Priest of the Central Network, Charles, had set up a refugee camp here only a few months before. Those not brave enough to take their chances living in Letum Wood, but had been uprooted by fire, pillaging, rape, and other atrocities, came here.
Witches injured from battle streamed in from attacks on the borders, or worse. Most of the witches that came for healing died. Those that stayed here were mere shells. Lost in their memories, fear, and pain.
Outside the collection of tents were eight larger apothecary tents that formed a protective circle. Witches bustled in and out in familiar frantic movements.
Isadora headed for the apothecary tents again, intent on finding her friend, Lucey. Defender attacks had virtually stopped on normal Watchers since Cecelia’s death months ago in the East, leaving Lucey with nothing to do for the Advocacy. She volunteered most of her time here, attempting to help however she could. Isadora often joined her.
An upswing in the war, with increasing violence and pressure on the borders now that the East had completely isolated themselves, meant that Advocacy volunteers couldn’t do much anyway. They were either dying, or too busy trying not too.
The sharp smell of a cleaning potion assaulted Isadora’s nose when she pushed aside the flap for the surgical tent. Light leaked through the thin canvas, which spanned wide as a house and tapered at the ends. Witches lay on the dirt floor, moaning. Blood stained their shirts. These were the wounded that were able to transport away from the battles to receive assistance. The most severe were tended there.
Isadora, used to the coppery smell of blood after her eight hour shift, gently stepped past.
“Is Lucey here?” she asked a passing apothecary. He shook his head before tearing away without a word. Isadora frowned, then moved to the next tent. Not there, either. Only the stench of death, blood, and putrefaction in two other tents.
“Where are you?” she murmured.
“I shouldn’t be surprised ta see ya here. Although, maybe with blood on ya. Formidable, eh?”
A familiar voice caused Isadora to whirl around, heart leaping into her throat. Behind her stood a familiar witch with shocking red hair and lips like a butterfly. Her heart-shaped face and suspicious eyes betrayed her almost as quickly as her hair.
“Baylee?” Isadora whispered.
Baylee smirked. “It’s only been a year,” she said. “Not like I’d change that much. What are ya doing here?”
Isadora closed the space between them, clasping Baylee to her chest. Baylee stiffened until Isadora pulled away. She immediately inspected her friend, holding her at arms length. She hadn’t seen Baylee since the attack on Berry. The school they’d both attended had all but disintegrated afterward.
“Baylee! Tell me you aren’t hurt.”
“Nah.” Baylee waved a hand, stumbling back. “I’m fine. Just takin’ care of some business.”
She held a scroll in one hand, her fingers curled protectively around it without crushing the fragile paper. Her hair, wild around her shoulders, was nonetheless full and healthy. The rest of her—pinched, too thin, and clad in threadbare clothes—appeared the same.
“Business? What kind of—”
“Did ya go back to the forest after the fire?” Baylee asked. “Or have ya been here the whole time?”
“Ya don’t seem so good yaself,” she said. “What happened?”
“My father,” Isadora whispered. “He was . . . murdered in Letum Wood.”
“Demmet,” Baylee said without wavering, something like experience in her gaze. “That’s nasty. Ya angry yet?”
Angry that a dragon had murdered her father and plunged her already weary family into deeper chasms? Angry that his death had create a gulf between her and her sister? Angry that nothing seemed to go right?
“Filled with it.”
Baylee stared at her, seeming troubled. “I was . . . I was worried about you.”
A hint of a smile softened Isadora’s expression. “I’ve thought of you often too. While in Chatham City, I looked for you a few times.”
Baylee’s teeth flashed a light yellow when she smiled. “I’m impossible to find, and for good reason. Chatham is where I belong. Lots of work there to keep an orphan busy and food in her stomach.”
“The other girls?”
Miss Sophia’s School for Girls, where she’d first met Baylee, had been a ragtag group of girls sent away from parents only too willing to be rid of one more mouth to feed. The laughably pathetic school system in the Network had been dwindling since the wars cut most funding. Now, education was all but extinct.
“Most I don’t know,” Baylee said, a pained expression crossing her face. “Some of them went home, or ran away somewhere else. A few found benefactors.”
Isadora’s brow furrowed. Benefactors. Witches in higher society that would occasionally take on a younger girl for baser interests. A different kind of whore house that was almost impossible to track down. But a valid option for a girl on the street only a breath away from starvation. Baylee said it with the ease of someone that had lived on the streets her whole life, as if the inevitable end only surprised Isadora.
“You?” Isadora whispered, her voice tremulous. “Did you have to find a benefactor?”
Baylee recoiled. “No, ya daft idiot! Think I’d lay with a man for any amount of currency? Too much work in the alleys for that, if ya can handle it. No, I found me a boss.” Her fingers tightened ever-so-slightly around the scroll. “Good one too. He’s sworn me to secrecy, or I’d tell ya more. I’m here doing his business. I can’t stay long, but saw ya, and wanted ta say hi.”
A thousand questions rushed to the tip of Isadora’s tongue, but she quelled them all. Baylee’s shadier dealings were no surprise—she’d been a scrapper her whole life.
“It’s good to see you,” Isadora said with a rush of conviction. “Really.”
Baylee grinned. “You too.” Her brow furrowed. “But what are ya doing in a hell hole like this?”
“Looking for a friend,” Isadora murmured, remembering Lucey again. “We need her in the surgical tent. I come and volunteer with her when I can. She’s an apothecary here.”
Baylee’s gaze snagged on something behind Isadora. Her face scrunched into an instant scowl.
“Oh, no,” she muttered. “Not him. I’m out of here.”
Without another word, Baylee disappeared. An unexpected, imperious male voice made Isadora’s spine rigid.
“I half expected you to be hiding with your sister in your beloved forest.”
She tried to breathe through a bolt of revulsion—hidden beneath a sudden thrill—that consumed her. She didn’t turn around. Why gratify him? She could feel him standing right behind her.
“I tear myself away,” she muttered.
Unable to bear it another second, Isadora whirled around, stopping a hair’s breadth away from a very familiar chest. The smell of vetiver nearly overwhelmed her as she stepped back, staring into a pair of frosty eyes. Her heart skipped a beat, then resumed at a race. Maximillion glared with all the power of a thousand suns, looking haughty, irritated, and magnificently attractive.
He lifted an eyebrow.
“Max,” she whispered, forcing it through her rage-thickened throat. “Always a pleasure to see you.”
His nostrils flared. “Maximillion,” he snapped. “I’ve come to have a word with you, if you have a minute to spare.”
A thousand emotions rushed over her all at once, but she shoved them aside. For months she’d daydreamed—no, plotted—what she would say when she saw him again. The blistering words of hate and regret and anger that would finally spill out, letting him know exactly what effect his indifference and cold personality had on the world.
Not that he would care.
She set her jaw, tilting her head back to meet his gaze. In the folds of ice and frost, she thought she saw a flicker of something. It disappeared, easing into the glacial depths. They hadn’t spoken a word since she found out the truth about Daid’s death over six months ago. Aside from a few messages with assignments from the Advocacy that she’d ignored, he hadn’t even sought her out. Perhaps he’d forgotten the heat behind their unexpected kiss. She certainly had.
Or tried to.
“I don’t want to speak with you,” she said.
“The feeling is mutual. I assure you, I come on business that is not my own.”
Suddenly, Isadora’s strength flagged. Hating him required too much effort. The day had been a long one—passing slowly as she worked amongst the wounded streaming in from a battle near the Western border. All the more slowly because she feared each young male would be him, caught in the madness as he went to check on the Guardians there.
She faced him with a jolting stomach, filling her with something hot and cold at the same time.
“What do you want?”
His gaze met hers, pinning her. Under the power of his colossal indifference, she’d always felt pegged. Strangely seen and understood and naked and thrilled at the same time. There was no challenge in this world quite like him. She stopped breathing, arrested in silence. Just when she thought he wouldn’t answer, he broke the spell.
“I have an update from La Torra.”
Six months ago, she’d battled the Eastern Network Ambassador, Cecelia Bianchi, on top of the strange island prison Carcere. Cecelia had been the first witch and Defender Isadora had pulled into the paths, something she hadn’t known was possible. Afterwards, the power had doubled.
She thought of Fiona and Lorenzo and the other band of misfits that had somehow gathered into a strange friendship on that island in the East. After spending months there, she found herself missing the sandy beach. The vast sky. The briny smell of the ocean breeze. She rubbed her arms. The warmth. Although it was only the end of summer, winter had already intruded.
Maximillion’s gaze narrowed on something in the distance. “Carcere has been officially closed by Dante as of yesterday. The workers have been forced to evacuate, and the castle closed up in exile. Even the Guardians have been removed for now.”
“It’s not likely to be real,” he muttered. “Nothing with Dante ever is. The man is all smoke and mirrors. No doubt he’s scheming something he doesn’t want anyone to witness, and using Carcere as his cover.”
“What does that have to do with me?”
“I thought you cared.”
“About Fiona and Lorenzo, yes. Because witches are important.”
“No one said otherwise,” he muttered. “Forgive me for wanting to keep you informed on your friends.”
Her gaze narrowed. “That cannot be why you’re here. Months have passed without a single word from you. What do you want, Max?”
He hesitated for half a second. A sudden wrinkle in his impenetrable armor made her thoughts soften. Images of Cecelia and the filthy, dank stench of all those Watchers, locked in the magical prison for decades, whispered back through her mind.
She looked away. He had gone to almost impossible lengths to save all of the Watchers, and had succeeded.
“If I never saw La Torra again,” she said, swallowing hard, “it would be too soon.”
A hollow silence rang in the air following her declaration.
“I had no choice, Isadora.”
She sucked in a sharp breath, instantly knowing what he meant. She wanted to scoff. No choice? He had no choice but lie to her about Daid’s death? To withhold information and her right to mourn until the moment that best served his interests? Daid had been dead for weeks before she found out. Maximillion had flatly lied to her several times, hiding letters from and to her family. Seemingly without regret.
“You were held at knife point, were you?” she asked icily.
“It happened after you’d fled to the East and taken over the position—something I never asked of you.”
“You had ample opportunity to tell me after that,” she snapped. Heat ignited in her chest. She let the fire build, enjoying the way it wrapped through her bones and zipped around her body. So much easier to feel than the heavy weight. The guilt. The questions. The feeling of utter and total betrayal.
He grabbed her arm, slamming her chest to his. His breath hit her cheek in a hot caress. Isadora paused, momentarily stunned.
“I kept you safe,” he whispered. “I did what I had to to protect you.”
On fire from his touch, she wrenched her arm free.
“Don’t touch me.”
“You were living under Cecelia’s nose and insisting you were an adult,” he said, eyes burning. “What was I supposed to do? Distract your attention by telling you about your Daid so you killed yourself and all those relying on you to do a job?”
“No! I-I mean . . . you . . . you should . . . that was my decision to make.”
“You should have . . .” All those words, spinning through her head all those nights, failed her. It has been so clear to her before, but now the waters muddied. Suddenly, she didn’t know what to say. “You should have—”
Nothing more came from her lips. She stood there, paralyzed by his closeness.
“What?” he insisted impatiently. “What should I have done?”
“I did!” he growled. “The moment I felt it was right. The moment I felt it was safe. When I gave you those stupid letters, that was the safest you had been. You had been sleeping for days after your confrontation with Cecelia. Could you have saved Lucey if you had known your Daid was dead? If the anguish you’re feeling now was distracting you from understanding exactly what was happening on La Torra, could you have faced Cecelia and won?“
Her rage lessened as she recalled that awful, strange night. Lucey, half dead. Maximillion strapped to a star next to her, both of them slated for death by fire within moments. The way that Cecelia’s eyes burned with hatred and the darkness she brought with her.
Isadora, forced into questions she’d purposefully not answered when they rose in her own mind, couldn’t escape now. Could she had saved them that night if she’d known about Daid?
She snapped her mouth closed, then opened it again. Ages seemed to pass before she summoned her response.
“That wasn’t your call to make.”
“Forgive me, but I disagree,” he hissed. “You worked for the Advocacy, over which I have considerable responsibility. If I hadn’t withheld that information until it was safe for everyone, your death—and all the others that would have resulted—would have been on my hands. You’re a selfish cad if you think this is just about you.”
“It’s not just that, is it?” she snapped. “It’s . . . it’s everything that I’m dealing with now because I wasn’t home. Because you didn’ttell me. Sanna hates me. We hardly speak, except to argue. So many Dragonmasters died while I was gone. They suffered, and I haven’t been here to help. Maybe I could have prevented Babs death or . . . or Daid’s! I lost my family with no chance to say goodbye. Now, I . . . cannot atone for being gone.” Tears filled her eyes. “I lost my home, Maximillion. Because of you, I lost everything.”
She met his gaze. Beneath all she said lay something deeper, something laced with infinitely more pain that she didn’t dare touch, like a hot, white, consuming light. The real pain stemmed from the truth: he had been frightened of her that night on Carcere. She’d seen it in his eyes. After what happened, he’d left without a word. Not a single word. He, who had never feared anything, had shied away from her.
Her lips tingled, recalling his heated, passionate kiss earlier that fateful night. The burn in his eyes. Even a longing in his scant, avoidant touch.
“I . . . I’m not sure I ever can forgive you,” she whispered, looking away, leaving the most important part unsaid.
Maximillion straightened. “Well,” he said, chest lifting with a deep breath. His expression, steady as glass, betrayed nothing. “I believe that says more about you than me, doesn’t it?”
He disappeared, taking her heart with him.
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