This is Issue #88 of DeathWatch, an ongoing Serial. Click that link to go find ‘A Beginning’ and read from there, if you need to catch up.
* * *
Acer’s bronze skin held the kind of blush that only a man called on his aggressive bluff could wear. He was not his brother. He was nothing like Mactabilis, but his father had sent him, and now he found himself at the mercy of a people who believed his family little more than venomous monsters. “Of course I will send my men back to camp,” Acer said tightly, inclining his head to Jet.
“As you like,” Jet said, looking unconcerned. “Shall we send out food and wine and women? It would not bode well to leave soldiers to boredom outside the city.”
“You are–” Acer began, looking angry. He pursed his lips and sighed. “You are a most infuriatingly gracious host. I did not expect to be charmed by the man who murdered my brother.”
“Your brother was a dog,” Jet said simply.
Acer looked furious as he opened his mouth, but Jet lifted a hand, and Acer silenced himself, feeling his cheeks burn.
“He brought gifts of poison,” Jet explained. “He was treacherous. He felt like an ill-treated animal, and so he behaved as one, and bit the hand that fed him. For that, he was put down. I am not sorry for him; his troubles are over. Yours, however, may be just beginning, if you think to come here as a rebel. But I assume that you have come in what you felt is righteous fury, but will now come in silent wonder.”
“I came, sent by a man who will hold righteous fury even if I return in silent wonder,” Acer said quietly.
“This is true,” Jet sighed. “But we both know he will never accept the truth of your brother’s deceit. I can tell you of Mactabilis’s treachery, but any truth your father would believe only from him… died with him. All I can tell you is he wanted Immanis dead, and wanted to take the throne, and Ilona itself. He believes we are soft. He believes your armies would be better spent in invasion of the Westlands.”
“Would you not see every last traitorous milkskin burned? Are you not truly of our people?” Acer wondered, not angry, but honestly curious.
“Do you wish to engage in a battle of insults? Am I understanding you correctly?” Jet said, leaning in. “I do not engage in the killing of a people because of their blood or their skin or their language or their families,” he snarled. “I did not kill your brother because he was of Tenebrae. I killed him to save the life of my brother,” he growled. “I am here to tell you that Immanis is alive and well–“
Jet felt a pang in his heart at the lie, a low, burning throb, to say the words and not believe them. Immanis was alive, but he had become anything but ‘well’, lying in perpetual sleep, taking no food, barely breathing, and no physician could do more than keep him steady, keep him from slipping further away. Immanis, my brother — when will you wake?
To bring himself back from the loneliness with which that thought filled him, he bared his teeth at Plaga “–and your brother and his guards are now no more. Ilona’s glorious Prince is to be obeyed. You will come to put yourself at his feet, and Tenebrae will receive his love, if it is to be willed.”
Acer’s expression was shocked. He blinked wide, dark eyes and said, “I would say you have an excess of confidence, cousin, but in your case it may not be excessive.”
Jet stood back up, straight, all the fury in his voice dissipated. “I think it is not,” he said mildly. “Let me again welcome you to Ilona, Acer Plaga. Let your army rest in the shade of our walls. We will send them succor after their journey; they will not feel abandoned. And you and your guards will come in to the palace. You will be our guests. We will feast and there will be dancers and games.”
“If I accept,” Acer said, “I am indebted to you. And if I refuse, I imagine I would look quite the fool. You have played your hand well, Guardian. Very well, then. I accept. We will come in; you are kind to offer.”
Jet nodded, smiling placidly, and his guard led the Tenebrians back through the wide streets of the city, and as they paraded through, the people came out to watch the small procession. The closer they got to the palace, people began to throw flowers at the feet of the marching soldiers and guards. Citizens walked alongside and offered blessings, wreathed the necks of the soldiers in flowers and ribbon garland. Songs were sung to surround them, and the vipers of Tenebrae walked on light feet into the wondrous palace of the Prince of Ilona, led by none other than the Guardian himself, and felt themselves glorified.
“Where would you have room to keep us, gracious host?” Acer wondered, as the group walked into the halls, following Jet.
At that, Jet’s step nearly faltered. He didn’t want to offer anything in particular, not knowing what exact accommodations may have been made. In that instant, however, he was saved by Lucida’s entrance, which stunned the rest of the party into silence. She strode in, dressed like the princess she was, in a heavy collar and belt of jewels over a sleeveless set of flowing, gauzy robes, and was trailed by a handful of lady’s maids who were dressed similarly, but none could match Lucida’s beauty and commanding presence. At seeing her and her retinue, Jet’s guard moved as one to put a hand on their swords, and bow in deference.
Plaga turned, and his expression was both shock and awe to take in the sight of Lucida sweeping in.
“Guardian, if you are wearing out our guests with talk of politics already, I shame you,” she said, striding up to Acer Plaga. “What has he been telling you about that turns your ears red, Lord of Tenebrae?”
* * *