This is Issue #27 of DeathWatch, the ongoing serial.
Go to the Serials page if you need to start at the beginning, or to find the rest.
* * *
Chained together, the prisoners shuffled through the market street, coughing at the road dust, stepping carefully over cobbles, hurried along toward the square. The walk wasn’t long, and people mostly stayed out of the way, if only because those guarding them are well-armed. Jet passed by dozens of men and women and children, in military uniforms, in regal dress, in rags. The heat of the place was stifling — it was hard to believe he was in the middle of winter two short weeks ago. When at last they were hauled to the trader’s bloc, the three surviving criminals were separated and sent to the auctioneer’s side, while the trader stood in front of Eisen and Jet, and examined them both bluntly. All the while, Jet listened to the language of Ilona, a strange and rhythmic thing that reminded him of the Academy, of the old languages they studied, the Latinates from the time Before.
“Open mouth,” the trader shouted to Jet, and he felt the man’s ringed fingers poking at his teeth and tongue. It took all of his self control to not bite down against the invasive touch. Even so, he jerked back, but the trader had his chain in his hand, and pulled him forward. “Lift arm. Other arm.” The man nodded, and reached a hand down to pinch Jet’s thigh, to slap his hips, saying, “Good muscle. Strong,” but when he put his hand between Jet’s legs to squeeze, laughing, “Is also strong, eh?” Jet snarled and his right hand curled into a fist. He nearly let it fly when Eisen reached over and stayed him, a warning look flashing in his eyes. The trader stepped back, smirking, and released Jet, turning to the Kriegsman.
He looked over Eisen in turn, checking his teeth, his muscles, and when he thrust his hand into Eisen’s trousers, Eisen locked eyes with him, smirking. The man’s eyebrows shot up and he pulled his hand back out, laughing and clapping him on the back. “Like fucking horse,” he crowed, chuckling, and turned back to the woman who’d brought them, dickering with her in the foreign tongue that Jet thought he might be able to understand — if people would just slow down.
In the end, the trader bought both Jet and Eisen outright, and ordered another assistant to take them away. Jet looked back after the woman, but she and her partner walked away with a fat purse, and never looked back.
“Don’t look back, boy,” Eisen said, as they were led out of the market by a different road. “If you can watch where you’re going, you might live longer.”
* * *
Filthy and hungry, the two men were sent in a caravan of other men and women, oxen and goats, wagons of crates and barrels, slaves and servants and skilled workers, all of them plodding along the road out of the city itself, and further north. The city’s stifling heat stayed with them, and the dust on the road remained, filling Jet’s eyes and hair, covering his skin until he was streaked and ruddy. Eisen tore a strip from his shirt and tied it around his face, over his nose and mouth, and directed Jet to do the same — it provided no small amount of comfort immediately. When the rain came, it damped down the dust, but turned the road into mud. The caravan was stopped for a time when a wheel was broken, and again when one of the horses went lame from the mud and rocks. Jet slipped and fell, himself, and it was Eisen who lifted him up and helped him get his feet again. The young man was struck with a profound sense of gratitude toward the man who had become his compatriot in this awful journey.
The road itself wound into a walled-off palatial compound full of tall buildings of smooth, glimmering stone. Here there were sprawling villas with open centers, fountains and tree-lined avenues. Jet didn’t want to find it beautiful, but all the same, the delicacy and potent strength of the architecture couldn’t be denied.
The trader who had purchased them brought them up a set of grand steps and into an entrance hall that had the Kriegsman looking reluctantly impressed, and Jet looking baffled.
The wealth on display here was mind-boggling. Columns of marble, statues of marble and glass, inlaid with gems, paintings and vases, friezes and busts — the walls were full, and even the room itself was an inundation of artfully landscaped architecture. Hauled by their chains, the men were brought in front of a dais, and made to stand still. Jet shifted his weight from foot to foot and stared down at the floor, awed by the stone inlay, polished to a glassy sheen. The pattern was intricate and flowing, spiraling leaves caught whorling in an frozen wind.
The trader spoken in Ilonan, and when Jet lifted his eyes, he was grabbed by his collar and pulled to the floor roughly. There was nothing to be done for it but let his knees hit; he made a piteous sound and bowed his head, turning to bare his teeth at the trader, who looked smug. He turned to look up, but then he heard the answering voice. If Ilonan had sounded like music before, this voice made it a symphony.
And then it spoke in his own tongue. “I do not believe I have had the pleasure of a Kriegsman before now.”
Jet turned, looking startled to hear the words in his own language; he caught sight of Eisen, who was likewise on his knees, and stared up at the being who stood on the steps of the dais before them.
The creature was copper skinned and radiant, with long, dark hair that spilled over its shoulders, trailing over a well-muscled bare chest and broad back. He wore split skirts, like the men of the sands, a small collection of throwing knives strapped to his hips and forearms, and prominent body decoration elsewhere, glimmering tattoos that whorled over the skin, flowing with line and curve, muscle and sinew. Bare feet with painted nails strode purposefully across the intricate floor, until the Ilonan stood directly before Eisen. He took no notice of Jet for the moment, looking down at Eisen with impossibly pale eyes, staring for long moments, as though reading something in the Kriegsman’s face. He nodded, after a time, and then stepped before Jet.
Jet lifted his eyes, looking up at the Ilonan, still feeling the pain in his knees. When his own dark eyes met the pale ones of the being before him, he shivered, briefly, as though feeling a spider crawl over his skin. He blinked his eyes, giving a shake to rid himself of the feeling, and met the gaze once more, astonished at the terrifying beauty before him.
The Ilonan’s face registered astonishment as a brief flicker of the brow. His eyes narrowed, ever so slightly, and he leaned down just a touch, saying quietly, “What… are you?”
“Sorry?” Jet whispered. “I…”
“What is your name?” he hissed.
“J-Jet?” Jet stammered, feeling his heart hammering. “My name is Jet.”
“Jet,” the Ilonan said softly, tasting the word in his mouth, rolling it against the tip of the tongue. “Black stone,” he whispered, nodding. “You are mine,” he murmured. “Do you understand this?”
Jet felt, all at once, the strangest compulsion to agree. Yes. Yes, I am yours. The words crawled up the back of his tongue, settled, ready to be spoken. But as quickly as it came, it slipped away. No. I don’t belong here. I’m a prisoner here. He swallowed them down and shook his head. “No,” he whispered. “No, I want to go home.” Tears burned his eyes. “Please.”
The Ilonan’s eyes widened; he stood up straighter, and turned to look at Eisen. “You.” It was a command, all its own.
“Yes,” Eisen said, looking pained. “Yes?”
“You are mine, Kriegsman,” he intoned.
“Yes,” Eisen said, closing his eyes, and tears spilled over his cheeks. “Yes.”
Jet stared hard at his friend, at the man who had walked beside him, helped him out of the mud, shared water with him, spoke to him in the dark of the hold as they waited for light. Something had changed, not for the better. “Eisen?” he whispered, his heart thundering.
Eisen kept his eyes on the Ilonan, never turning to look at Jet, though Jet could see his face, and how his eyes had gone dim — hungry and hollow. Far and away.
Jet looked to the Ilonan again, panicked as he demanded, “What did you do? What did you do to him?”
The Ilonan turned back to Jet, and Jet could see the strange fire in the creature’s eyes — something that moved through him, something Jet felt wanted to devour him alive.
Something Jet realized he could avoid, though Eisen could not.
“You,” the Ilonan whispered. A command, but Jet knew in his bones he could disobey.
“No,” Jet said, shaking his head, a flicker of triumph touching his eyes.
It was short lived. Fury, then, washed over the Ilonan’s face, like a sunset against a twilight sky, rippling and ferociously beautiful. He stalked over to Eisen, removing one of the knives at his hip, and handed it to the kneeling man.
Eisen accepted the knife as though it were a precious gift, cradling it carefully in his hands, nodding. “Yes,” he whispered.
“No,” Jet begged, trying to get up. “No,” he said, his eyes darting from Eisen to the Ilonan and back again, his heart thundering, panic racing. “No, no, no–” he begged, rising from his knees. A sudden pressure hit the back of his neck, then, and he felt his muscles hum, and go tense. Agony poured through him, and Jet’s rising scream was cut off as his teeth clacked together, and he fell to the chamber floor, convulsed. He stared at Eisen as he lay on the floor, writhing in pain, his teeth clenched together, watching the Ilonan draw even closer.
The trader stood over him, holding what looked like an electric torch, sneering. “Aether taser is fun, hmm?”
“Kriegsman,” the Ilonan said softly, stepping forward and reaching out a hand to caress the side of his face.
Eisen wept, smiling, looking up at Ilonan as though he were the sun. “Yes,” he breathed, eager.
The Ilonan’s eyes flickered to Jet, as if to be certain he were watching, to be certain the young man knew his own powerlessness, and his expression was a mix of arrogance and pleasure as he whispered one last word:
* * *