There was a bubble of silence around Izabel. She felt like she was being watched. People glanced at her as she walked through the building and down the street at the end of her shift. No one said anything to her, but she could see their eyes, the way their gazes lingered for a second too long as she passed. She didn't know why. It was either because they knew less than she did or much more.
After picking herself up off the floor, she filed the papers. She smoothed out the crumples, bent back the corners, and placed them in the correct folders. It took all of her self control. It reminded her of being a child when her mother wouldn't let her play with her friends until she finished sweeping the kitchen or hanging the laundry. The sooner she finished, the sooner she could return to the clinic.
She never finished though. The papers were never ending. Stacks and stacks appeared on her desk without pause. The more she worked, the less she cared about accuracy or content. She skimmed the files and jammed them were she thought they needed to be. Sometimes, she thought she saw a paper identical to one she had just filed. After a few hours, the documents all looked the same. She couldn't be bothered to differentiate.
When her shift ended, Izabel was ready to return to the clinic. Simsek had emerged from his office, his hands finally empty of papers. He insisted on walking her out. She had had a long day, he said. He couldn't refuse her such a small courtesy. Others smiled as they passed them in the halls. Izabel knew what they were thinking. Such a kind commander, looking after his secretary. He gave her a friendly wave once she was out the door. Izabel forced herself to wave back. They both knew there was no way for her to get back into the building. Either the door would be locked or the front guard would be instructed not to let her in. They were playing a game, and Simsek was winning.
After she left the building, the tense feeling around her energy dissipated. Fire sprung from her hands even though her anger had quelled over time. She could feel her mind press against her skull. There were consequences to mind tracking without permission, but Izabel didn't care. She had apparently already done enough wrong today that one more thing wouldn't hurt. She let her mind unfurl.
The amount of light was overwhelming. It was like being trapped in a dark room and seeing the sun after days of darkness. Every body around her gave out a pulse of distinct energy. She could sense the people in the building, in the barracks, and miles away in the city. Some seemed familiar, but many were foreign. The mass was too great for her to pick out individuals.
She felt her mind seep back towards the building. It wasn't conscious, but Izabel didn't try to stop it. She needed to know if Lukas was still alright. She felt a connection to him even though their relationship had been impersonal at best. On a practical level, if Lukas was alive, there was someone to train her as a beacon and she could secure herself a safe future. It felt more than that though. Even if he wasn't of immediate value to her, she still felt the need to help him.
Rein and Maryna were still at the clinic. When she focused on a single room, she could sense their unique energies. Izabel guessed that the door was still closed as the clinic was mostly empty. Though she hadn't thought about it before, Izabel realized that they were locked in as much as she was locked out. Rein and Maryna were sitting together in a corner. There were a few sleeping patients, their energy dull and cloudy. They were indistinct, but Izabel could tell that Lukas wasn't there.
Her mind snapped back and she found herself standing in between the rows of abandoned buildings where the general's army had made their temporary home. Everything seemed much more grey when she returned. She could feel her own hands against her face though she couldn't remember putting them there. Her skin was cold. There was no fire beneath it.
She tried to think. Had it really been that quick? Simsek had her filing for only a few hours. Lukas was gone. Izabel had yet to see a patient die, but she doubted that they would keep a body around living patients. There had been no hint of him, no linger of energy. That was it. He was gone.
It was worse knowing. If he had died on the front or back at the ship, Izabel would have never known. She could always hold an idea of him, a small hope that he was well and alive somewhere else, continuously dotting maps in his room filled with fire. Izabel remembered her conversation with Sauli, how he teased her for being too practical for dreams. She felt it now. It was childish to think that Lukas was fine and she couldn't make herself believe otherwise. It was a curse of maturity to lose comfort in lies.
She dragged herself back to the barracks. The walk was short, but Izabel took her time. Through a lens of grief, she could see details he didn't notice before: how the houses seemed to crumble from the bottom up, the unevenness of the brick sidewalk, the twists of roots through the stone buildings. The world was sharper and the air was cold. Izabel sighed, testing how far her lungs could expand. She wanted her heavy chest to burst with the burden of oxygen, but no such luck.
She returned to the room that she shared with five other women. They were all members of the clerical corps. Izabel didn't know any of their names and their faces were indistinct in her mind. If they were reassigned, would she know the difference between them and their replacements? It was a ridiculous thought and a real worry. Izabel was thinking too much. She didn't know what was real.
Izabel slipped off her white coat and threw it across her cot. The white that she thought was clean and bright looked dingy in the dull light of the barracks. It looked unappealing. She didn't know if she would return to the clinic even if she was allowed to. There were so many things that she would have to face there. Her failure to save Lukas, Rein's criticism, the feeling of dread waiting for whatever happened to happen again. She would feel the need to look over her shoulder, waiting for Maryna to shove her out. She didn't understand what she did to warrant Maryna's sudden reaction.
For that matter, she didn't understand what she did to cross Simsek either. The only thing she could think of was leaving the records room unorganized, but he acted so calm about it only a few hours before. When he took her back to the office, Simsek was genuinely angry. It was frightening. The shock of his anger was more intense with the contrast of his normal personality. Before today, Izabel couldn't picture him angry.
There were footsteps in the hall and Izabel was still looking at her coat. She waited for the steps to pass. Instead, the door opened. Izabel didn't turn around as the person combed the room. "Sorry, just looking for someone," the person mumbled. The voice was familiar, but Izabel couldn't place it. As she turned to see his face, the voice clicked in her head.
"Aardal?" The private was dressed in civilian clothes and he looked a tad older. He turned to Izabel, a look a vague recognition on his face.
"You. . . . ." he said, searching his mind. "You're from Astrom, right?"
"Yes. You were the secretary at the girls' Basic-8 camp. I returned Alyss's watch for you?" His face lit up as he remembered her.
"You were Alyss's roommate. Do you know where she is?"
Izabel shook her head. "Isn't she on the front lines?" She was hesitant to tell him in case no one else had, but it was all she could offer.
"She's supposed to be," he replied. Izabel gave him a quizzical look. "It's just that she was going to visit." He looked around the room again as if Alyss could have appeared during their conversation. "She said she would come see me two days ago."
"I haven't seen her." Izabel could feel it in the pit of her stomach and she knew Aardal could feel it too. They didn't want to acknowledge something they both knew. "It's probably hard to sneak away," Izabel said. "I heard that the fighting has been picking up. They need her."
"You're right." Aardal smiled a weak smile. She didn't believe it and neither did he. "It's hard to get word out to the field from here, so if you're ever over there, can you tell her to come by?"
"I don't think I'll be out there, but I will if I can. I'm clerical."
"I didn't know that there were still fire casters on clerical." Beyond their one common acquaintance, they didn't have much to talk about. It reminded her of talking with distant family.
"I think I might be the last one, unless more fire casters are coming in." Izabel remembered her possible reassignment. Now that Simsek was angry with her, it seemed all the more possible.
Aardal scratched the back of his head as he thought. "No one new is coming in. There's not that many casters. I think we're all here."
"Does anyone know how many casters there are?" Izabel had thought that there were a lot of casters. After all, the Guard was an army.
"I think there's only a few thousand give or take." He paused. "At least, there were a few thousand before all of this." Izabel pushed back the thought that Lukas would know exactly how many Guard soldiers were left. She remembered his maps and how the dots were less and less each day. Izabel entertained the idea of creating her own map, but rejected it. She couldn't stand to see how bare the paper would end up.
Izabel tried to think of a response for the conversation. It was becoming drawn out and thin. "That's a shame." It was automatic, something someone said when a neighbor's relative died or the family plow had finally rusted through.
Aardal blinked slowly, as if his eyes had been open for too long. "Yeah, I guess it is." Something about the conversation felt too adult; holding onto a topic out of obligation and vague relation. "I should go. Will I see you around?"
"Yes, I guess," Izabel said. She stumbled over her words. "I'll keep an eye out for Alyss."
"Thank you," he mumbled as he slipped through the door. When she was alone, Izabel felt out of place. She couldn't feel the hum of bodies around her. The barracks was looming over her, the space above her to the low ceilings swirling with cold air. She couldn't sit still or lay on her bed. She needed to do something.
Soon, she was back on the street, walking towards the main building. Izabel had set herself to talk to Simsek in an attempt to rectify what she did wrong. Even if nothing was solved, she hoped he would respect her drive.
The front door was the building was unlocked and the foyer was empty. Maybe Izabel had imagined the extra security measures against her. She had only spent an hour at the barracks, so she suspected not much could have changed. The stairs and hall were equally as empty as the foyer and Izabel was filled with a creeping feeling. Everything was empty. She felt like the only person for miles. She reached a hand out and knocked on Simsek's door. There was a muffled reply and she let herself in.
"Sir?" The room was dark, but Izabel could make out the outline of her commander sitting at his desk on the other side of the room. He was bent over his desk, inspecting some papers. "I know that I'm not on duty now, but I wanted to talk to you about today."
"Yes, I thought that we should talk about that too." There was a lantern on his desk, but it remained unlit. Izabel wondered how he could read in the dim light. "As a subordinate, you have to understand that there are things that you don't know and that you might never be told them. Sometimes, it might be of the utmost importance for you not to know things. Do you understand?"
"Yes, I know, but I was just overwhelmed. I knew that man dying in the clinic and I had to help him." She didn't want to sound defiant, but she didn't want to lie either. "I was under the impression that it was my duty to try to save every patient."
"Well sometimes impressions are wrong," he said with a chuckle. "But what I do find interesting is your friendship with this man. How do you know him, exactly?"
She hadn't expected the conversation to turn towards Lukas. It hurt to think about him. "I didn't know him that well," she admitted. "We traveled together for a time and we talked, but nothing more than that. It was more of seeing a familiar face than anything else."
"I see. What did he talk to you about?"
"Different things. Fire casting mostly. I can't remember it all." She really didn't remember. The days she spent with him were a single smear. She could remember sensations more than actual words. The warmth of the room, the light and the strange dizziness that had ran through her head were all clear in her memory, but nothing else was.
"Really now? Are you sure?" He took off his reading glasses and placed them on the desk. He was still sitting, but he seemed more alert. "Surely if this man was so precious to you, you remember more than that."
"I wanted him to be my teacher so I could be a beacon later, but he said no. I spent a lot of my time trying to convince him otherwise." She could feel Simsek watching her from across the room though the darkness made it hard to see his eyes. Izabel didn't know if the power of his gaze was real or brought on by her own nervousness.
"Being a beacon is a hard job. It requires a lifetime devotion. Why would you want to do that?" Simsek asked.
Izabel felt the dryness of her mouth and a rush of heat hit her skin. She didn't know why she was so uneasy. It was only a casual conversation. "I wanted a safe position after I got out of Basic."
"Safe? Safe from what?" He wasn't laughing, but Izabel could hear the bounciness in his words as if he would start to chuckle at any moment. "This country hasn't fought a war in decades."
"What about now?" The words had slipped. She hadn't meant to start trouble, but she couldn't take them back. "Aren't we in a war right now?"
"I would hardly call this little skirmish a war. And besides, this is the exception, not the rule." She could hear him push his chair back and stand. "I don't know why you wouldn't believe that, unless someone told you otherwise?"
Izabel understood what he was doing. The meandering lines of conversation had snared her like a net. Simsek already knew the answer to his own question. He only needed her to confirm it. The answer was rapidly blossoming in Izabel's head. She recalled what Lukas had said, what Rein had said only hours before. Little scraps of words she picked up through the weeks formed themselves into a single idea.
"I haven't seen anyone die in the clinic," Izabel said. "For the most part, it's just fixing people who are a little scraped up. It's more first aid than anything else." She wished she could see Simsek's expression. His silence was constant. "I've been thinking about it for a while, and I think I know why that's how it is. Whenever someone is injured, it's purposeful. The ones who die are definitely dead."
Simsek was thoughtfully silent as Izabel let her words settle. "Are you trying to say something?" he asked. His voice was colorless and Izabel could feel a cold energy radiate off of him.
"I don't think that we're supposed to come back from this war. People are being killed too systematically for it to be random attacks from the rebels. There's something else happening out there." Her half-formed ideas had spilled out all at once. She had never said any of it out loud, but once she did, it held a certain weight. She believed it more in that moment than she ever had before.
"Now who put that idea in your head?" His tone was supposed to sound friendly, but it missed its mark. Izabel could feel her chest constrict. She was getting dizzy.
"No one." It was difficult to talk, her breath caught in her throat. "I figured it out myself."
"Are you sure?" Less breath, her ribs tightening like a belt. She could hear Simsek walking towards her, but her legs refused to move. "There wasn't anyone who told you these things? It's important that I know. Insubordination like that is incredibly counterproductive."
Light danced over her skin and the room was flushed with brightness. The fire burned over Izabel's arms and spread heat across her face. There was no power or confidence to her fire. It was defensive. She tried to call it back, but before she could, the fire sizzled and went out. A feeling of dread filled her. She looked towards Simsek and her breath stopped.
"The morale around here has been getting rather low," he continued, unaware of Izabel's discomfort. In her swimming mind, she realized that her skin was still hot. Her fire wouldn't catch. "Some people are beginning to disbelieve in the cause. Rumors like this can spread like fire." He laughed to himself as Izabel floundered to cast a flame. "So, I would suggest that you tell me who gave you those ideas."
Izabel coughed and her throat grew tighter. She felt cold, but her skin was close to incinerating. "It was me," she said. Every word was a trial. Every time she tried to fill her lungs, she gained less and less air. Izabel stumbled forward and caught herself on the edge of Simsek's desk. He edged away from her to face her back.
"This is rather unfortunate," Simsek said as Izabel sputtered. "I don't believe you, but action does need to be taken." With his words, Izabel could feel an iron weight on her chest. She felt submerged. There was no air around her. Her energy begged to be released, but the fire wouldn't come. "You have one more chance to tell me who lied to you."
Izabel would have told him if she could speak. Her chest was empty and she was drowning on dry land. She turned to Simsek and saw him smiling. "I thought that you wouldn't make any trouble," he said to her. "Quiet, almost no training. It really is unfortunate that it's come to this." Izabel's held her hands out in front of her, attempting to cast. "I'm sorry," Simsek said. "But you can't start a fire without any oxygen."
Izabel's eyes grew wide and Simsek smiled at her shock. "It's not a very honest technique, but it works." Izabel ran her hands across the desk, searching for anything that could save her. There were no candles, nothing that she could manipulate from afar. After skimming over a pile of papers, her hand hit cold metal.
The hands that held the letter opener were not her own and neither were the hands that plunged it into the hollow of Simsek's neck. The arms were hers, the wrists and the shoulders, but at her hands, the ownership stopped. She saw his eyes widen and the spell over her broke. Her lungs inflated and her skin burst into flame. Simsek had rolled over onto the floor, shocked, but alive.
The weight of the letter opener rattled in her hand. She could feel the heat of fire and spilled blood coating her skin. She hadn't realized there would be so much blood. There was blood on the carpet, seeping in between the floorboards. His clothes were growing dark and he was gasping like a fish. She could smell iron on her clothes and underneath her fingernails.
A tickle scratched at the back of her throat. Her pulse quickened. She knew what was happening. Her fire went out as the airless void enveloped her. Simsek's eyes were trained on her and he was using all of his concentration to manipulate the air. Her mind was still clouded with panic, but her impulse was under control. She knew that one of them would have to kill the other. There was no compromise.
She gripped the letter opener and savored the feeling of the warm brass slick with blood. Her legs were too weak to carry her forward, so she let herself fall to the floor on top of Simsek. She was close enough to feel his body heat, his panic, as she fumbled with the letter opener. She hit higher this time. The action was more detailed and she was aware of the tiny motions of the bigger attack. There was the snap of his skin, the parting of it to show red flesh and muscle. Simsek let out a tiny gasp as his lungs emptied and Izabel was released from the void. It was a transition of breath, of life. She was here and he was no longer.
Her body shook and the world shimmered around her. She breathed in, feeling the elasticity of her lungs. The air in the room was too heavy. A thickness coated her throat. The letter opener fell from her hands and clattered to the floor. In a brief moment of clarity, she saw every detail of the letter opener. She could see the wear of the brass and the pineapple that was engraved on the handle. The dark blood against the greenish metal made for a displeasing combination. Izabel felt numb.
She was overcome again by the quiet of the building. She pulled herself off the floor and ran her sticky hands over her dress. Nothing had hit her. She felt collected. She slipped out of the room and through the corridor, taking the stairs two at a time. The smell of brass clung to her skin.