This is Issue #32 of DeathWatch, an ongoing Serial. Click that link to go find ‘A Beginning’ and read from there, if you need to catch up.
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Come to dinner? With the thing that told him he’d be hunted? Served by the woman who spoke of him as though he were nothing more than cattle? Jet’s mind spun; he paced the room for over an hour with no more thoughts for breakfast, looking for other ways out, other weapons. Two hours later, the sinking feeling in his stomach confirmed what he’d begun to suspect, as he examined the various things he’d found and laid out: a straight razor with stone and strop, two pairs of scissors and a seam ripper within a mending kit, another pair for grooming mustaches and such, and a pocket knife in the bedside table.
A chill crawled over his spine as he ran for the door, an awful suspicion curling cold fingers around his insides, clenching slowly into a fist.
He put his hand on the knob and turned — when it opened, he uttered a low cry of distress.
It was no longer locked.
If they weren’t stopping him, there was something else here in this place that would keep him, or destroy him if he tried to leave. Something they considered worse than simply staying here.
He opened the door, holding a straight razor, determined to see how far he could get, and promptly bumped into the woman who’d brought him the breakfast tray. She was rolling a cart with a tea service on it, and was rather startled to see him, if her wide eyes and fish-gawping mouth were any indication. She exclaimed loudly in Ilonan, but then switched to their common tongue, and said, “Did you need something?”
He lifted the razor, gritting his teeth, and opened his mouth to speak.
The razor was gone from his hand.
It was in hers. Jet felt a chill, his heart thundering. He’d only seen the barest flicker of movement — she’d been so fast.
She folded it carefully, pocketed it while smiling, and said, “If you needed assistance in a shave, caro, you could have rung the bell. Guests of honor don’t wander.”
Now it was his turn to gawp. He stared at his hand, flexing his fingers, and backed up a step.
“Come now,” the woman said. “In the room with you. I’ll pour you a tea — have you eaten your breakfast? No, you haven’t. Gracious, are you sure you aren’t a savage?”
“Please,” Jet began. “I need to leave.”
“If you go now,” the young woman said, “the hunt begins. Are you ready? You don’t seem ready.”
“What?” Jet gasped. “What do you mean?”
“Explaining everything to you is getting tiresome, caro,” she said, looking imperious and irritated all at once. “You can stay here as long as you like. You can leave, at any time. The instant you walk out of the doors of this palace, the play begins. He is hunter. You are hunted.”
“And… if I stay?” he said, watching her.
“You are treated as a guest,” she explained, shrugging. “Eat here, read in the library, enjoy the gardens.”
“…for how long?” Jet whispered, looking confused. The airship slavers had said they did this often. The trader behaved as though this happened monthly, if not more often. The situation was set up with such structure — he cannot have been the first to receive this offer.
“As long as you like.”
So where were the others who chose not to be hunted? he thought.
As if to prove this place were strange enough that the woman could read minds, she said, “No one stays.”
“How long do you suppose you could live in a cage?” she wondered, smiling tightly. “Even a large cage. A pretty cage.”
Jet looked around, taking in the well-appointed room, the tea service, the smiling woman. He thought of the life he’d left behind, and the simple fact that he didn’t know if he’d ever see Kieron again, alive or dead. “I don’t know,” he murmured, “but I want to find out. I don’t want to die.” Besides, he thought, if I’m here as a guest, for now, I could use the time to figure out how to escape.
“Excellent,” the woman said. “I suggest you have your breakfast, hmm? Then perhaps a bath and a shave. You say you are not a savage, but you certainly look like one, still, caro.”
“Why are you calling me that?”
The serving girl smirked at him, looking through dark lashes. “You haven’t told me your name.”
Jet stared for a moment before he finally said, “It’s Jet. My name is Jet.” He took the time to watch her, then, to look her over, and fully take in the copper of her skin, the dark of her hair, the line of her nose and mouth. She had a bearing that was iron, not simply hard from doing manual labor, but strong.
“Jet,” she said, catching the word in her teeth. “Black stone,” she murmured, nodding, as Immanis had done. “I’m Lucida. You may call me Lucy.”
“Lucida,” he repeated, as she had done, and then said, “Bright.”
She looked thoughtful, and then nodded, saying, “Yes. That is close enough.” She watched him, then, for awhile, narrowing her eyes and said, “I will leave you, Jet, to eat, and do as you will. Dinner is called at six bells. Lateness is considered rude, here.” She removed the razor from her pocket and handed it back over, adding, “As is poor personal care.”
Jet felt his cheeks flame; he took the razor and nodded. “Goodbye, Lucy.” He listened for the latch, and once it shut, he put his hand on it, twisting it to see if she’d locked it behind her.
He strode to the bathroom with purpose, and stood before the mirror, staring at himself. After a short time, he closed his eyes and held tightly to the razor, sliding his thumb over the handle, flicking the blade out.
No one stays.
How long do you suppose you could live in a cage?
He lifted the razor, much like Eisen did, cocking his elbow down, tilting his hand out, feeling the keen blade touch his throat. He watched his own face, his own eyes, and said aloud, “I’m sorry, Key.”
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