Chapter 37

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Thula pressed her thumb between the knuckles of the witch's heart hand. The bones there didn't shift like they normally did when she examined patients like this. All divine artists valued the heart hand for how efficiently it channelled orgone into the organ it was named for. The veins, bones and tendons there were no thicker or stronger than on the right hand, but if a Perfect mage conjured aura in both palms, the energy in their left hand would hold a... denser glow. Or something like that.  

Thula had given up her fascination for the invisible threads of magic that governed mage bodies when she'd traded her own soul for a doctorate.

Theories on orgone, aura, cultivation and refining had always been a point of interest of Wenyanga and... and Tello. Right. Thula shook her head slightly without thinking much of anything at that moment. Where? Oh yes. Theories on the divine arts had been conversations for her beloveds, mild arguments and clever smiles tossed at each other over warm rum on the beach hut's veranda or pillow talk that threatened to boil over into a fistfight. 

Thula's fascination with magic started and ended where it affected the physical body, and nowhere had she ever seen its effects so strange than in the young witch sleeping on the palette before her.

A small, spiteful voice bubbled against the base of her skull. You've seen it stranger in one other person. Just look up at the other bed.

Jaw flexing, Thula kept her head bowed and scribbled a note on the wooden tablet resting against the witch's thigh. Bone denser than average for a Crude... She frowned, then amended the note. Denser than average for a Refined. Tendons and cartilage suggestive of Perfect  warmage, but patches of skin register at Crude or Refined level. Research required: patchwork refinement Paths...

That final sentence glared up at her, writ in golden ink that almost glowed before it faded into the dark wooden tablet. Generally, her "research" in these matters revolved around picking Wenyanga's brain. No doubt they hypotheses about just what the young witch was. Likewise, there was no doubt that there was a worm wriggling under the earth somewhere in the world. Thula couldn't decide which she cared about less at that moment, so she went back to one of the many things that bothered her about Anele.

Still frowning, she put her own hand on the mattress and slid it next to Anele's to examine them side by side. There was no such thing as a "Southern hand." People mixed genes too frequently for anything so physically pedantic, but anyone raised along the hills of the coastal Deep South knew what it meant when a stranger with mid-dark skin smiled at you and asked in a familiar accent if you had Southern blood.

The skin on both their hands held the same deep brown with a warm red underglow. Stubby fingers with nails like flecks of old alabaster. Thick at the wrist too... a twin inheritance from a people who'd settled to work and feast off land and sea, unlike their nomadic cousins in the Mid South. 

Superficially, the two of them could have been cousins.

Thula slid both her hands under Anele's forearm. She had to put her back and legs into lifting it, the limb alone was heavier than the arm of a marble statue and nearly as hard, despite the countless badly-healed scars that left patches of the skin there ridged and shiny. When Thula set the arm on Anele's stomach, the frame of the bed groaned and she panted heavily. The groove her arm had left in the mattress was solid.

Only superficially cousins.

Again she stared at those marks. Some of the scar tissue ended irregularly, giving way to pristine flesh, as if someone had cut her with drunken claws but in the confines of a stencil. 

Another thing to ponder later -- by herself. Or perhaps if Salleh was still around come morning, Thula might ask for her insight. It wasn't quite bad blood between the Seer and Wenyanga, but their egos were like bison charging one another in the field the moment words left tongues. 

Tello would know, came that hissing voice again, rasping so sharply against the inside of her skull it made her ears itch. He always knew more than he said, Wenyanga too.

Once, that had been endearing, but now it was milk curdling under the sun. The air of charm and mystery that would pour into a room a moment before they entered had darkened to smog that left soot over the bright memories Thula had shared with both. Between Wenyanga and Tello, she'd always known that one of them would do something irreversibly stupid with the divine arts. She just never thought they'd lie about it.

Taken in by a wariness that wasn't just from lifting the witch's heavy arm, Thula leaned over the bed, supporting herself against the frame. She lifted one hand and slipped the bone needles from her hair. Dark braids tumbled about her shoulders, a couple brushing the nook of Anele's shoulder.

A witch from the Deep South. An Earthwitch from the Deep South. There was a reason why, on Thula's list of impossible and world-altering questions, near the bottom was how a young woman who seemed no stronger than a talented Crude had fought a Pettygod to a standstill. It was the same reason why Thula had only had to trade her own soul for her education when all the other doctor apprentices had had to trade three.

She patted her Southern cousin on the shoulder -- voidgods, it was like slapping iron -- and straightened.

Speaking of iron.

It was a short, quiet walk around the foot of the bed. When Thula drew her next breath, she was standing next to a metal arm, one hand halfway to reaching for it before she pulled back and sighed. The scar in the middle of Tello's belly cut towards his right side, just under the liver, as though someone had meant to cut his soul out. Or cut out something attached to his soul. The incision she'd made the day they installed the soul splint in him had been smaller, cleaner. This was the gash of hasty work, and not for the first time, that traitor voice in her head softened so that the words poisoned rather than cut.

If you'd helped, the operation might have gone more smoothly. If Wenyanga had told you what they'd been planning, you would have been there and Tello wouldn't have become... this.

She refused to say he wouldn't have died, even in her mind. If she did, she'd have to place the burden of his death on Wenyanga, and whether or not she had the power to forgive that was not a trial she wanted to go through. She wasn't sure she'd make it out on the other side. Better to say Wenyanga lied about a plan Tello had and leave it at that.

Better to be lied to than accuse one beloved of murdering another. Twin tears splattered on Tello's forearm and ran down to dampen the bedsheet. Thula's shoulders heaved once, and then she broke.

The tears fell for a long while, just as they had in the morning, just as they had the evening before. Those tears never betrayed her. They always waited until she sent Wenyanga on some useless errand, anything to keep them from staring at her with those mournful eyes and lips unused to not smiling.

If Wenyanga had simply asked for forgiveness, Thula might have given it, she might have screamed, thrown something and refused it with all the bitter vitriol in the world. But asking would have given an answer, and neither of them was ready for that. When the tears ran dry, Thula inhaled a shaky breath then straightened. 

All the while, she never stared at the half-formed imitation of Tello's face. If she did, she couldn't say for certain that she wouldn't cry blood. Better to distract herself with more work. With one final deep breath to steady her nerves, Thula turned to Anele again. For three heartbeats, she stared dumbly at an empty bed.

Then a grip as hard as stone wrapped around her wrist. Strong as that grip was, it was gentle as it forced Thula to turn around, but there was no mistaking the strength in those fingers. They'd pop the bones in her wrists into the back of her hand on a whim. 

Anele's face was less than a handspan from her own, close enough that Thula could smell the spirits she'd used to clean her cuts yesterday. her brow was lined with sweat and she was shaking slightly with the effort of remaining upright, but she'd still been quiet enough to sneak out of bed. She was close enough that when she stared with those dark brown eyes, the stillness where Thula's soul used to be shivered, and she caught... not a soul scent, but the ghost of one, rich like loam and leaving the corrosive taste of venom on her tongue. The witch wasn't scowling, but the pained intensity of that gaze was a warning in and of itself.

She raised the hand Thula had been examining, trembling now, and pressed it to her own lips.

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