This is Issue #40 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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“The princess is busy,” the woman said, but Jet had waited. He had gone to her that night, and she had laughed and waved away his concern, and sent him off to bed. He’d gone the next night, and the next, and every night for weeks, she had sent him away, while every day, Immanis made plans.
Every day, Immanis spoke to him of politics, of armies and treaties, of the countries within what the Allied Territories called the Blacklands — countries beyond the Ridge of Damnation.
But Ilona and its sister city-states called it Intemeratus Posito, the place of purity, and the ridge itself was the Luminora — the edge of light.
Jet learned of the histories of Ilona and the other city-states ruled by those of Immanis’s bloodline, and how the family truly was gifted, with speed or strength or a commanding aura — how every single child of the line was destined to rule, and how the common people worshipped them as gods.
He sharpened his understanding of the language, and found that rather than being oppressed by their gods, the Ilonans and every other citizen on this side of the Luminora were exalted, beloved, cared for as if by omnipotent parents.
He learned with fascination what Kieron had learned with horror: there was a war, and they were on the losing side — Centralis had lied to its people in a way that had kept them from outright panic. It was the only thing that could be done, considering the state of things.
The city-state of Ilona monitored the Edge of Light; the prince even knew that a scout ship had crossed the border some time ago, but he was not worried at what it would find — he explained to Jet that several other ships had crossed the border, had often gone far into Ilonan lands and returned. “They go back to their little homeland with information, but it won’t save them, my brother. We are unstoppable. We will some day take back the people that ran from us. All of them will be under my family once again, as they should be, and we will return peace to them,” he promised.
What struck Jet, as he left those talks, was not the hubris in the prince’s voice, but the love.
He truly did love his people, all of them.
As for Lucida, she taught him to dance, and then she taught him to fight. He was not as fast as she, but she praised him and his progress, and he grew faster and more graceful with each passing day, and the longer he lived in the palace, the easier it was to wake up unafraid. It helped that they obviously weren’t afraid of him; they gave him knives — they gave him swords. He had thought, at first, that it was because he was so unintimidating, they didn’t think to fear him. He later learned it was that Immanis commanded trust in him, because he had saved Lucida.
He’d been given a part in the household, in the palace of the Prince of the ruling family.
It was almost enough to be a distraction — but at night, he would have dreams of Kieron, dreams of him in scout training, and what that might require, dreams of him in an airship, worked raw and ragged, dreams of him felled by a bullet or a plasma charge or aetheric fire.
Each morning he woke, and felt the throbbing sting of the unhealed wound on his palm, and he would vow to have Lucida speak with Immanis about a wedding he couldn’t let take place. He couldn’t marry the Princess of the people with whom his whole country was warring.
Even if Immanis spoke as though Centralis was no longer his country, as though he had been born within the palace, had been his brother all along.
Each night he blew out the lantern at his bedside, and quietly said a prayer to Kieron as he closed his eyes.
I miss you. I hope you’re all right.
Each day, the promise.
Each night, the prayer.
Each day, the promise.
Each night, the prayer.
And then it was nearly two months later, and the wedding was still being planned; regardless of promises and prayers, Ilona’s princess would soon have a consort. Within the year.
“You must come later,” said the serving woman outside the door.
“It cannot wait,” Jet said, frustrated and insistent, he reached for the handle, and the woman was swept aside, muttering lowly in Ilonan. He was now able to understand enough to be insulted when he caught her words, and he shot her an irritated glare — she at least had the shame to look surprised and guilty when she realized he could understand her.
When the massive door swung inward, Jet was all but assaulted with the scents of aetheris and smoke. He could hear furtive whispers and quiet laughter; it infuriated him beyond measure.
He stalked into the room, and slowly clenched his hands into fists. As the right one curled shut, the slice across his palm split open, and he uttered a low curse, feeling the room swim.
He stood before her massive bed, the canopy veiling the finer details of her and her lady’s maid from his eyes, but he could hear them — and as the candles on their side of the sheer tapestries burned, and his eyes adjusted to the darkness of her chamber, he could see them more clearly.
Lucida lay on her bed, smoking from a huqqa filled with aetheris resin. She favored the smoke, rather than the drink, as her brother did. Either way, to Jet, it tasted like a lightning strike behind the eyes.
Her eyes were half-lidded as she drew from the pipe and then kissed her companion, passing her the smoke from her lips. Her breasts were bared, and the other woman oiled and caressed them slowly, occasionally sliding her hand down lower, over and past Lucida’s belly, doing something Jet couldn’t see, but could envision as he closed his eyes and turned away.
“Lucida!” he snapped, grinding his teeth, and he heard the tinkling laughter stop suddenly.
Her voice was calm but blunt as she ordered her companion to leave. The woman slipped out from the bed, naked and unashamed. She stood between Jet and Lucida, and spoke lowly, but angrily, her words too rapid for Jet to quite understand. Lucida turned the woman away, gently, and reiterated her command to leave; when the woman did, Lucy watched her go, watched her take her robe and leave, then moved to stand next to Jet. “Yes?”
He turned to speak with her, but she was only wearing a filmy, flimsy robe, entirely open in the front, and so he spun away again. “Damnit, Lucida, would you please dress in something appropriate? I’ve been trying to talk to you for weeks, months, even,” he said.
“You barge into my room uninvited, unannounced, and have the nerve to make demands of me? I think not, pale little man,” she said, smirking. “I’ll wear what I please, and you will look upon me and praise and curse your manhood all at once.”
“Wear what you damn well want to,” he snapped. “But you’re no princess, not when you… when you–” and here, his fury moved him to speak in Ilonan, searching for the right word “–pervulgate with your–“
“Careful,” Lucida interrupted, her eyes flashing. “Be careful, caro, what you say to me.”
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