Evening fell soft and clear. The nighttime creatures began their thrumming chorus beyond the circle of our bonfire. We were deep in less painful reminiscence when I caught Iseult pouring brandy in her coconut wine. “The house and all your baubles are very fine, but your fermenting needs work,” she told me frankly.
“Alchemy is my weakest discipline, I’m afraid,” I agreed, and stifled a belch. Regardless of the taste, it was going straight to my head. I couldn't remember the last time I'd drank.
Iseult got to her feet, swaying across the cooling sand, and stared out towards the cobalt sea for a moment. “This place is as serene as you are,” she sighed, and before I could respond to that, she turned on her heel and said, “Can you dance, Mir? You must’ve learned on your travels.”
“I cannot dance,” I said, firmly. “Where have you been traveling?”
“Come on, I’ll teach you.” She sashayed towards me, making pretty footwork in the sand, but all I could watch was the movement of her hips. As she turned, I saw a swath of brown skin where her shirt had fallen open: the hollow below her collarbone and the gentle swell of her breast.
I downed the rest of my wine, and gave in.
Trying to move with her, I felt as tall and lumbering as a banyan tree that had been taught to walk. After a few turns, she doubled up laughing.
“Pirate witch,” I growled, and grinned foolishly.
“If I’m a witch,” she murmured, pulling herself up by the collar of my robe, “You’ll be my warlock.”
I liked the sound of that, and I liked that she was close. The night around us turned slow and sweet as honey. For once, I did not think, but bent forward and kissed her. Her lips were soft as I had imagined, and welcoming. She tasted like scorched brandy.
It was a long, too-short moment before I heard her breath catch, and she pulled back. I looked at her and saw that her eyes were full of tears.
“I need to go,” she mumbled, and turned away. “I—I’ll find another island.” She began searching for her coat and boots.
My blood froze. As soon as I could speak, I called to her, desperate to salvage something. Anything. “Wait! I understand if you don’t...don’t feel that way about me, but please, just...stay a moment.” I could hardly swallow.
“No, no!” she cried. She had only found one of her boots, and clutched it to her stomach. “That’s not it at all, Mir, I— I want to bed you so much, and you don't even have a bed." She sniffed, and her face was damp where the firelight touched it.
The twilight swam around me. I took a hesitant step towards her, and pleaded, “Then… Then tell me what it is.”
I only heard her ragged breathing for a while.
“I came here to kill myself,” she said hoarsely. “I tried last spring, but the spirit possessed me as I pulled the trigger, and the bullet went through my cheek.” She touched the star-shaped scar. “I can’t sleep. I can barely eat. I draw on the power to keep me going, and it weakens me. I don’t know whether my body or my mind will fail first, but I swore that I would not find out. I thought that if I came here, the spirit would be drawn to the aether through the volcano, and let me finish it this time.”
I staggered towards her and pulled her into my arms. She trembled, wound up tight as steel wire. “Stay here,” I croaked. “We will find something, I will…” Do anything. “I don’t give up,” I whispered, almost to myself. “I take things in my hands, and I change them.”
“I’m sorry I brought you into this,” she sobbed, from between clenched teeth. “I’m so sorry.”
I sealed her pistol in solid stone. She said nothing about its disappearance, but she said little at all. She took long, circling walks across the beaches. I could always tell where she was because of her aura, and every time she neared the beached skiff, my heart tightened. I made certain that she ate sometimes, and twice more bled power from her to keep the fever away. For this, she was polite to me, and that was worse than silence. Iseult was never polite.
I pored through writings that crossed continents and centuries, and all of them held that the only way to break a spirit bond was death. At last, I came across something in a Hanaren medical text. I did not speak of it to Iseult, in case it came to nothing, but worked into the night under the stone dome of the brewhouse. At last, when I had made every magical and alchemical test I could, I lurched to my feet and went to look for her.
She was standing ankle-deep in the sea when I found her, and she turned around to greet me. "Mirembe," she said. Her face was swept clean of emotion. Too clean. "Look, I know that I worried you the other night. I was...drunk. I'll take that end when it comes to me, I won't hurry it. But it will come before we're old, and because of that, I... I need to go. You should forget—"
"Stop," I said quietly. My chest ached. "Don't do this."
She went silent, and her lip trembled as she inhaled.
"I found something." I opened my hand, and a tiny glass phial of clear liquid glinted in the sun. "This is a poison that slows and stops the heart, but because it's aether-charged, a mage can nullify it. If you drink it, you will be briefly dead, before I clear out the poison and jolt your heart."
Iseult stared at it, and in her eyes I saw wonder and then, for the first time, the light of a faraway hope.
At the far end of the cave, the volcanic vent glowed with steady red malice. I wove an intricate ward from deep blue light, a pattern to draw in healing and draw out evil. The bright fire of her aura swirled in a mirrored design. I spun a line imperfectly, pulled it back, and began to trace it out again.
“Either it will work or it won’t,” she said lightly. My ward anchor knelt in the center, her eyes round and dark, her breathing quick but calm. “Mir. Save your strength for the important bit.”
I tied the pattern off and wiped my forehead. The magic thrummed soundlessly. I felt sick to my stomach. One last, sixth or seventh check, and I nodded.
I wanted her to hesitate, and she didn’t. She pulled the stopper from the phial and tilted it into her mouth, then took a deep, shaking breath and leaned against her knees. All my power rose to the surface, burning ready. Gods above, watch over us, gods below, help us…
“Oh, hell,” she breathed, and dropped slowly, curling up on her side. Panic flooded me. It was working too fast. I had given her the smallest possible dose, and her heart was already struggling… She was too weak.
I lunged in, my magic rushing through her like a wave, scouring away the toxin, but the effect was still rolling through her blood. “No,” I whispered. “I don’t want to do this, not yet, not yet...”
“I do,” she slurred though pale lips. “Thank you, Mir.” Her hand crept over to touch mine, just barely. Her eyes sank closed. Two more heartbeats, and her heart seized.
I slammed in with a powerful shock straight through her ribs. I knew that it didn’t work even before the blast of white light hit me, like an exploding star. I couldn’t see, I couldn’t breathe, but I jolted her again with all my strength. Nothing.
Through my eyelids I saw the light take shape, from a swirling pillar to something with half-formed arms, a head, dark spots for eyes. It seemed to struggle for a human shape. I lifted my head and with the surge of my anger and despair all my power poured out, roiling blue and violet like a thundercloud. I forced its searing light back.
Let her go. My voice resonated through the cave, deep and bitter as the ocean. Take your freedom.
Its form wavered, and melted. It flowed towards the back of the cave, and when it touched the vent the lava hissed and glowed white-hot. I didn’t feel the heat. I pressed both palms to Iseult’s body, forcing a third burst of magic into her. My healing would not enter her, no more than it could heal the rock beneath her. If I struck her again, it would burn her.
I barely noticed as the spirit’s link to her thinned to a thread, but in the moment before it vanished, one last flash of white shot up through her chest.
Her entire body spasmed and, unbelieving, I saw her chest expand. Her eyelids fluttered. My magic washed into her again. I dove in and healed, healed, mindlessly healed. I came up only when I felt her hand close around my wrist. I blinked at her, half-blind. Her eyes shone, tears falling back along her temples.
“It’s gone, Mir,” she whispered. Her aura glowed around her, ocher-gold again without that deadly white heart, wild but no wilder than she was.
“I don’t know why,” I croaked, “But it saved your bloody life, Izzy.”
At that old nickname, a helpless smile broke across her face. She reached up with strength I didn’t think she had and pulled me down to kiss me, hungrily. We did not breathe for a while. When her hands slid beneath my shirt, I gathered the tattered remains of my self-control and broke away, taking her face in both hands. If I was trembling, she was shaking.
“Slow down,” I told her. “You were just poisoned to death. Rest. I will make you rest.”
“Fine,” she panted. “But I’ll not wait long. Turns out...I’ve been waiting a long time to find you.”
I carried her back and felt nothing but the sunshine all the way to the house, and then exhaustion hit me like a tidal wave. We slept wrapped in a blanket under the banyan tree for a long time, until night came and the waves rose and fell like a dark breathing beast, and the sky was speckled with starlight.