For those just joining us, we’re a little way past halfway through a readalong of The Butterfly Assassin, with posts matched to the book’s chronology discussing the writing process and the worldbuilding and more. You can jump back to 17/09, Eraro, to start at the beginning.
The ninth of October isn’t a great day for Isabel, but, on the plus side, nobody actually dies. She’s beginning to lose her grip on her civilian life, though: as the symptoms of poisoning become more severe, she’s forced to call in sick to her paper round and to school, leaving her alone in her flat with her father’s encoded documents. From them, she obtains one possible piece of information: the name of a street, Gauntlet Drive.
Emma and Michael come over – the first time they’ve met each other – and they discuss the possibility of going to Gauntlet Drive in search of clues about Isabel’s father’s disappearance. But Isabel has what seems like an allergic reaction to the pasta Michael cooks for her, and although his quick actions help stabilise her for the moment, it’s yet more damage to a body already barely hanging on in there, leaving Isabel too weak to take further action that day.
Spontaneous anaphylaxis to things she isn’t technically allergic to is a clear sign that Isabel’s immune system is suffering severely by this point in the book. For people with MCAS and similar, the triggers can be almost impossible to pin down, and may not have been ingested at all. In this case, it was a food that sent Isabel’s system into panic mode, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that she’s technically allergic to wheat now, just that her immune system has started treating it as a threat. The difference is subtle and, frankly, I’m not a doctor, so I’ll probably do a terrible job if I try to explain it; simpler to say she’s developing new allergies.
Isabel remains unable to eat wheat for the entirety of the trilogy after this, and has to be careful to avoid cross-contamination, both because I wanted a realistic portrayal of what happens when someone has an autoimmune crisis (it doesn’t just bounce back to perfectly healthy), and because I wanted a gluten-free assassin. #representation.
As a coeliac, I also can’t eat wheat and a few crumbs will make me sick, but not in the same way: coeliac responses tend to be more gastrointestinal, with bonus migraines and hives for some individuals, rather than anaphylactic shock. It’s one of the reasons a lot of people might think people are faking it when they’re fussy about gluten-free foods and cross-contamination, because the reactions can be delayed by several hours, and therefore invisible to the person who just poisoned you. (And some coeliacs are asymptomatic, with long-term damage being the main threat.)
Michael stabilises Isabel with help from his own EpiPen – he’s allergic to certain nuts, btw; this is not relevant, but it’s why he has an EpiPen – and a large amount of antihistamine. This is… not adequate treatment for this kind of reaction. Please, if somebody you know is going into anaphylactic shock, call an ambulance. There are a lot of misconceptions about EpiPens – they’re not a cure, they’re adrenalin and they buy the person time to get actual treatment. In this case, the large amount of antihistamine is what stabilises Isabel’s system temporarily, but it’s still a wholly inadequate treatment and she needs a lot more medical care than she’s getting here. But of course, she’s already dying and her inability to access meaningful care for that is sort of the entire point of the story.
I just want to emphasise that because I don’t want to mislead people if they ever find themselves in a medical emergency 🙈 Do not take medical advice from fiction. Notably, Isabel shows a marked decline in health after this point, because this is not good medical treatment. She needs to be in a hospital, a fact that she herself acknowledges within the chapter.
Okay, now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s look at some past versions of this scene.
Obviously, you can probably guess from our past discussions that this scene didn’t exist in early drafts – it requires Michael to be present, which he wasn’t in the first few; it requires Isabel not to be in hospital yet, which she was until Draft V; and it requires Isabel’s father’s encoded documents, which were a late edition.
To be honest, I was tired when I wrote the post for the scene where they showed up, so it’s a bit lacking in detail, and I didn’t talk about the versions that preceded it. My bad, because they’re actually relevant here. Once I’d decided that Isabel would not be in hospital and that she needed to be involved in saving herself and finding the antidote herself (Draft VI), I did introduce a codebreaking element. Initially, these were notebooks that Michael had stolen from Ian’s lab, rather than documents Comma had seized and passed on to Isabel:
“I came to bring you these.” He gestures to the table, and the pile of battered blue notebooks on it. “They’re your father’s,” he says, but he didn’t need to tell her that. One wall of her father’s lab was filled with shelves of identical notebooks, some held closed with string because of all the loose papers stuffed inside, others stained from spillages and accidents.
They look out of place on her kitchen table, harmless as a bomb. “How did you get these?”
“I broke into his lab,” says Michael, as if this is an unremarkable as popping to the shops on the way home. “He took most of his stuff with him, especially anything recent, so security was lower. I thought they might help trigger some memories.”
“When?” she whispers.
“Before I ran away. I didn’t – I didn’t know if I’d be able to find you, but I thought I might be able to make use of them. Offer them to Comma, maybe.” He sounds unapologetic about his mercenary approach, and she can’t blame him. “Still could,” he adds.
This was a scene much earlier in the book, which got cut when I reduced the number of times Michael showed up at Isabel’s flat, to avoid repetition and slow pacing. But a version of that scene hung around for a while; in the rewrites I did in autumn 2020, it became a laptop that Michael had stolen instead:
“I came to bring you this.” He gestures to the table, and the battered old laptop on it. It’s half held together by electrical tape and it’s a model that would have been outdated five years ago. Isabel recognises it immediately. “It’s your father’s.”
She didn’t need him to tell her that. It looks about as harmless as a bomb, sitting there on her kitchen table. “How did you get that?”
“Broke into his lab,” says Michael, as if this is as unremarkable as popping to the shops on the way home. “He took most of his stuff with him, especially anything recent, but I guess he decided this had done its time. It’s encrypted and he probably wiped anything useful off it, but I figured you might be able to get past that. Could help trigger some memories.”
“You broke into his lab,” she repeats. “And stole his laptop?” The thought of walking back in there voluntarily makes her feel as though her skeleton is being turned inside out, and the idea of stealing something of her father’s – even something he’s left behind – has her gut clenching in fear, waiting for the inevitable punishment. Sure, so she siphoned money out of her parents’ bank account for eight months before she ran away, but that was different. This laptop is… well, it was one of the few things in the lab Isabel was never allowed to touch.
“I didn’t know if I was going to be able to find you,” says Michael, as if this explains everything. “I thought maybe I could offer it to Comma or something.” He sounds unapologetic about his mercenary approach, and she can’t blame him. “Still could,” he adds.
It’s fun to share these two versions of the scene side by side, because they are essentially the same scene, with the notebooks swapped out for the laptop and a few details from the chapter rearranged for impact.
When it was a laptop, Isabel wasn’t trying to decode files so much as understand encrypted messages between Ian and some of the people he was trading with in order to undercut the guilds and defect with the money. That had some advantages, but it wasn’t quite working and didn’t feel entirely realistic, so in the end, I reverted to the decoding of documents. This time, though, they were originally digital, even if Isabel is breaking them by hand.
Moreover, by having Ronan be the one to give Isabel the files, I was also able to introduce new elements to his early meetings with Isabel, which prevented them from becoming too repetitive and eliminated the need for a second early encounter with Michael, in which he brings her the information. So, all in all, that was a good choice. Well done, past me.
Still, there were moments in the 2020 draft that I liked, and which didn’t work in the new context so were lost to the cutting room floor:
Noktpapilio. Butterfly of night. Moth. It’s in amongst a jumble of incomprehensible details, presumably encoded, so she starts flicking through other chats to see if it comes up anywhere else.
ночна́я ба́бочка. Papillion de nuit. Nachtfalter. Whatever language he uses, she recognises the name they gave her, scattered across a dozen different conversations. She remembers the vicious spider guildmark and wonders what her father’s calling his new guild. If his agents have pseudonyms, calling cards, masks to turn them into shadows and rumours and legends.
Little moth. Isabel’s been a shadow all her life.
The biggest difference between this scene and the earlier ones is that Isabel has a lot less information than she did then – but more help. One of the problems with my books, often, is that I like to leave my characters alone for long periods of time, doing things and thinking about doing things and reflecting on their lives. Great if you want introspection, bad if you want action. By giving her only a fragment of the info, Gauntlet Drive and a cryptic message, I’ve forced Isabel to take action to find out more, and the involvement of both Michael and Emma in this scene keeps it moving, combining what was previously multiple chapters into one with a lot more drama.
And drama is, let’s be honest, the name of the game. But we won’t know what’s happening at Gauntlet Drive until we get there tomorrow…
So, for now, let’s talk about this scene. Any observations? Does this small breakthrough in locating Isabel’s father make you feel hopeful about her ability to find the antidote? Are you impressed with Michael’s quick thinking and the way he saved Isabel’s life here? Leave your answers and any other thoughts in the comments, and I’ll see you tomorrow.