How did I get here? Isabel wondered absently as her feet hung uselessly over empty air. Her fingers scrambled at the rough tiles of the roof, struggling and straining for purchase. After a moment, curiously sluggish, Isabel deduced Slipped.
Looking over her shoulder, Isabel felt her mind separate itself from her body the instant before she could feel the fear. Would falling feel like flying? It had been a long time since she could freely fly with her brother, over the skies of Antea. The Du Falmont family had always been known for their winged mounts.
The freedom of wind rushing through her hair, one last time. If her mind could register the childish longing, buried somewhere deep within, she might have given into it. Instead, she sighed the wish away on a heavy exhale and scanned the street below. No path down. The panic started to set it; her husband would be furious if he found her gone. She certainly didn’t have the strength to pull herself up, but she looked back to the roof all the same.
Startling golden eyes, a warmth that was foreign to the cold city, captured her. “General.” The shock of seeing him, not just another person but him, almost made her let go. If her hands had not been frozen with the cold, she might have.
She had seen him before. Had noticed him far more than a married women should. A woman of her station. Had been captivated by his handsome jaw, and his empty eyes. Golden, and beautiful, but distant.
They were not distant then. Looking down at her, his strong hand clasped around her arm, they burned with an intensity she could hardly fathom. A fierceness deep behind the golden pools of his eyes gripped her, fed her, and a warm suffused her limbs. A weight lifted from her shoulders. The fog that had smothered her senses for five years dissipated in an instant. The dull colours of the world around her sharpened with clarity that stung like the icy roof she clung to.
Colour had been one of the first things that had faded as her illness had taken root. Flavour had been soon to follow. The world had been dampened and subdued; she could experience it in much the same way, but her enjoyment was stifled. It had been so long that she had forgotten.
With the clarity came emotion crashing through the thickly padded barrier that had swallowed them. So many feelings she could scarcely name, setting her trembling. A cold wind stung the tears on her cheeks, and she was finally, lamentably, aware of the pain in her hands and arms.
The General knelt by her hands, his expression masked carefully, and he waited in silence. Isabel knew what he needed, that he would not act without a sign from her. Would not interfere if she chose to let go. Who was she to ask for help? What worth did her life have? Would it not be better to die a quick, painless death, than to continue to wither away?
Yet, her grip was tight on the rough tiles. Her heart hammered in her ears, blood rushing warmth through her veins. Not ready yet, it seemed, to succumb to the ever growing abyss inside her.
“Do you want to live?” He held out a hand, and she was surprised to see it was shaking.
Did she? She lowered her eyes for a moment, struggling with herself. She felt a change in the General and looked back up, immediately caught by the concern twisting his features. The gleam in his eyes captivated her. The only light on the rooftop was from the moons and stars, but his eyes were radiant.
The only honest answer she could conjure was “I don’t want to die.”
“That’s a good start.” He murmured reassuringly, and a warm hand closed around Isabel’s arm. If he found her heavy, the strain did not register on his face as he pulled her closer, bringing her feet back over the roof tiles. Safety, of sorts.
He released her gently, taking a half step back so the distance between them was more respectable. Isabel’s sluggish thoughts failed to warn her of another dizzy spell, though the warning signs were all there. Distracted, Isabel was anything but graceful as she lost her balance once more.
The slightest twinkle of amusement brightened his eyes as the General caught her easily. “I did not think you the type to swoon.”
The word brought to mind the other women in the court, all fawning over him from a distance for weeks. The called him a businessman rather than a mercenary. They didn’t seem to notice that his polite smiles were devoid of the warmth they imagined. A pretty smile, certainly, but it was cold. It never reached his pale eyes.
It would be conceited to believe the spark of interest she saw was anything but imagined. The General was young, and attractive, and incredibly talented. If the stories were to be believed. Even so, none of the fine ladies at court would risk being seen with him. Gentleman or not, handsome or not, he was beneath their ambitions.
Realising the silence that had passed between them, Isabel averted her eyes slightly and murmured “Do you frequently think of me?”
“From time to time.” The hint of a smile threatened his lips and Isabel’s heart tightened painfully in her chest. Before it could take root, the General’s face fell into a quiet unease. She knew that he could see her turmoil; her body was quaking despite her silent appeals.
He must have attributed my tremors to the cold. She thought numbly, as he swiftly wrapped his coat around her shoulders. Isabel’s cheeks were flushed by his sudden gesture; when was the last time someone had tried to take care of her? Hanging her head to hide her embarrassment, she whispered “Thank you, General.”
His hands fell slowly to his side, but he did not move away. With a gentle sigh, his golden eyes searched her face and he murmured “I have seen you, my lady. At the balls, following behind your husband, and on the rooftops. Even at court, you are alone. A beautiful, distant flower. You want for nothing. Least of all, your own survival.”
She reluctantly dragged her eyes back to his face, savouring the sweet agony of his words. Tears spilled onto her cheeks, surprising her, but Isabel could not pull her gaze away.
“Forgive me for my observations, but your words do not match your heart. If you would truly thank me, find something to want that is just for you.” The General took her hand delicately, as though she were made of glass. His warm breath tickled the back of her hand as he gently kissed her. “Eyes like yours deserve to have some fire in them.”
As he straightened his back, still softly holding her hand, Isabel realised that the sun had broken the horizon. For a long moment, she stood captivated as the radiance of the dawn was stolen completely by the intensity of the General’s gaze.