This is Issue #100 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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“There are more shrines to the Guardian now than temples to the old gods,” Lucida noted one morning at breakfast. She sat at the massive wooden table in little more than a flimsy morning robe, her long hair brushed out, thick waves of glossy ravenfeather black. Her eyes were already ringed with kohl, wide and bright.
“Good,” said Gemma warmly. Dressed nearly to match the princess, she looked like Lucida, only taller, thinner, sharper — but for once, not angrier. The dour expression she often wore was gone. As was usual for the morning breaking of fasts, she rubbed her toes against Lucida’s under the table, and they made eyes at one another. Each morning, only Jet seemed to notice, which was good, as Acer had eyes only for Gemma now. This morning, however, it wasn’t important to keep anything even remotely hidden — Acer and Immanis were busy, talking politics, as they had been, for days.
“You’re only saying ‘good’ because you’re in love with my husband-to-be,” Lucy laughed, rolling her eyes.
“No. My heart belongs to you, my Princess. My spirit belongs to the Guardian,” Gemma murmured.
“Good,” Jet said, quiet, but mostly staring at his hand.
“And has your spirit given you cause to believe your faith in the Guardian is well-placed?” Lucy wondered, leaning over the table to offer Gemma a bite of fruit from her fingertips. She glanced at Jet, smirking, wondering at his daydreams.
“You know I have visions, my Princess,” Gemma said.
“I know,” promised Lucida.
“Dark days are coming. The Guardian will help us remain in the light,” Gemma said earnestly.
“Good,” Jet said, nodding.
Lucida looked over to Jet, who was still examining his left hand. “The people are beginning to say things like ‘he should rule the city, all of the lands within the light. And perhaps bestow pure white flying ponies on all of the good children who pray to him,” she said.
“Good,” Jet said yet again, nodding. He remained staring at the scar on his left hand, tracing it with the fingers on his right hand.
Secta, standing near to be ready for Jet’s needs, stifled a laugh.
Jet’s head snapped up, and he flushed darkly as he looked over at Secta, then at Lucida, lifting his brows. “What?”
“Are you even listening to me, brother?” Lucida didn’t look angry as she asked, but instead, concerned.
“No,” he sighed, glaring back at Secta. “I apologize, bellamea, but I…” He looked at Immanis’ empty seat and that time, his sigh was forlorn, rather than irritated. “I am distracted. I seem to have… lost favor with my Prince.”
“Nonsense,” Lucida laughed, concern washed away. “He’s simply heartsick.”
Jet felt his cheeks get hot, again. He swallowed roughly, but found his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. He couldn’t interject, and so Lucida went on.
“I’ve seen it before. He’s lost in thought about some servant girl; he has these ridiculous fantasies about women he can’t have. He busies himself with work, and he forgets her, and moves on,” she explained dismissively, reaching a hand over to touch Jet’s arm. She kept talking, trying to soothe, not realizing just how cutting her words were, for him.
He will forget me. He will move on. Jet wondered at the nature of his life in Ilona, at how he’d been captured, forced into slavery, except he had been given his life, rank, freedom… And now this mark, this scar, this power. The prince called him brother.
They had brought one another back to life.
Lucida was still talking. Jet blinked rapidly, trying to get back to the present. He focused carefully on her while she spoke, struggling to follow her train of thought as she tried to ease his unhappiness.
“He’s done it a hundred times — he’s forever complaining to me about it; he’s uninterested in courting a girl from a good family — I had thought he would steal away Gemma, but it seems he was instead happy to free her,” Lucida explained.
“Only because I believe he wishes to marry me to that Tenebrian viper,” Gemma sighed, rolling her eyes.
“I’ll sooner see his blood on the study floor, with his brother’s,” Lucida said, overly sweetly. And then, “If Immanis thinks making nice with a Tenebrian will somehow — it won’t matter, the people will want to see him married off, soon. To make heirs.”
Gemma looked uncomfortable, pausing to pull back from holding Lucida’s hands, from playing with her feet under the table. She cleared her throat and lifted her eyes to Lucida, speaking the truth as she always had. “You are the one who will need heirs,” she said.
“Don’t look at me,” the Princess laughed. “I’ve been trying to get the poor boy to spread me since the first night we drank together.”
“But you haven’t,” Gemma said, looking apologetic.
“She has!” Jet countered. “Considering how long I have lived here, I myself am amazed I have not been bedded by her yet. Luckily, she always leaves me be once she realizes I’m no longer jesting. She wants me, and has made it quite plain that she–”
“And that is what I mean,” Gemma interrupts, looking earnest. “Lucida is… without a doubt, a seductress like no other. She knows what will make each individual man pliable in her hands,” Lucida’s handmaid and lover said, pointedly. “Do you honestly believe she would be so unsubtle, so terribly forward in her overtures, if she truly wanted you? Knowing full well that you do not appreciate such actions? She’s terrified, don’t look at me like that, Lucimea, and you are the one man she can trust, alongside her brother, not to use her for her position. Trust me, Guardian, if my Lucida wanted you in that way, she would be having you right now.”
Jet’s jaw dropped, and he stared at Lucy.
For her part, Lucy blushed hotly, and pursed her lips, glaring at Gemma.
“Do not be angry, my Princess. It is good that you trust him. That you love him. He is the Guardian of Ilona. He was created to be the protector of your people,” Gemma said, her eyes shining. She looked to Jet, reverent and awed, and then turned back to Lucy. “The two of you must actually wed. You must actually have a marriage. You must actually consummate it. You must get fat with child. The sooner, the better,” Gemma said.
Irritated, Lucida growled, “And why should it matter? My brother’s blood will be what drives the lineage. My lines would secure our family in the throne, but I would not–”
“No,” Gemma said, looking ashen. “It will be your line, Lucy, and I beg of you, be prepared. Bear his sons and daughters,” she murmured. She turned, looking to Jet. “Your blood will rule Ilona. I have seen it,” she whispered.
I have seen it.
Jet felt the fiery heat of his blood grow chilled with those simple words. How many times had Kieron said them? He shook his head, lifting a hand to Gemma, trying to stop her from talking. “No,” Jet said. “The only way such a thing would be true–”
“Ilona will fall without you,” Gemma interrupted, shaking. “My Guardian please–”
“Gemma,” Lucy breathed. “What are you saying? You’re shaking,” she said, getting up to go to the other side of the table, to put her arms around her lover. “You’re fevered. Your visions have never caused something like this. Gemma, darling, you–”
“Immanis will fall,” Gemma said, sounding almost panicked. “A Westlander will kill him.” She gets up from the table, pulling from Lucy to go to Jet, trying to make him listen. “It will happen in the night. There is rain, and so. Much. Blood.”
“No,” Jet insisted lowly, urgently, rising to meet her, to put out his hands as if in warning.
“First, my Guardian, you are attacked. You turn to strike, you hesitate, and then — then you fall, and Immanis, he–” Her eyes got wide, brimming with tears as she saw something else, somewhen else, as she relived a memory.
Jet felt a sick sort of familiarity, his own eyes welling up. “No,” he begged.
Lucy watched in horror, her hands curled into fists as she waited, listening.
“He kills the man who hurt you,” Gemma said, almost laughing, but her expression shifted to anticipation, and then terror. “He–he–he puts a sword through him, and then he moves to strike another, the one you did not, and ah–! Someone — from behind. Fire, a blade. I couldn’t see.” She stumbled, spasming and reaching as though to clasp her hands to her back, and fell forward.
Jet caught her, wrapping his arms around her to lift her, to keep her from hitting the floor.
Gemma sagged in his arms, reaching up to stroke his cheek. “He dies loving you,” Gemma whispered, looking up at him, glassy-eyed.
“No!” Jet shouted down at her, roughly giving her a shake. “NO!” He felt his vision wash over with red — everything in him was rage and despair.
Secta and Lucy were shouting, but he could hear nothing clear, as though he were underwater, bound. He let them take Gemma from his arms, and he staggered back, baring his teeth, feeling his eyes, his throat, his everything burn. All he could think of, all he could see, was Kieron. Kieron beaten down by Hoyt, Kieron, fevered in bed, Kieron beaten down by his father. Kieron curled around the toilet in misery. Kieron struggling to stay still in bed, to not wake Jet, though Jet was awake anyway, and held him, keeping him safe and grounded. Kieron telling him he was leaving. Kieron’s lips on his — and now Immanis.
He dies, loving you.
His heart hurt, and he felt the raging burn, still reaching for the back of his eyes, ready to light the world on fire. “No,” he growled, and his voice was an inferno. “You are mistaken. Immanis’s line will rule. You speak treason. You will be punished for it.”
“Jet! Tace — quiesce! Shut up!” Lucida snapped, looking shocked.
“Treasonous whore!” Jet snarled at both Lucida and Gemma, and began to stalk forward.
“Guardian. My lord, please,” Secta said, trying to keep his expression from panic, lifting his sweet, calming voice, raising his hands. “Please. Think of your people, and the unity and love you must bear toward your wife-to-be, and her court, yes?”
“My Lord,” Gemma cried. “Please! I’m so sorry. It is the truth. I serve you. I serve you, my Guardian.”
Lucida held Gemma in her arms, rubbing her back, looking at Jet with fury and fear. “Come, love,” she whispered. “Come on now. Let me get you a little aetheris. You always feel better after one of these if I get you a little to smoke, yes?”
“I’m going to sick up,” Gemma said woefully.
“I’ve got you,” Lucy promised, helping her away.
Secta turned and looked at Jet, saying, “Now, my Lord–”
Jet growled aloud, low in his throat, furious, and walked to Secta, looming over him, gritting his teeth.
Secta did not back down, but held his ground, still and quiet, lifting his chin.
His sleepy-eyed refusal to bow infuriated Jet even more; he felt his blood howl with heat, felt his hands begin to curl into fists. “You will not chastise me for displaying irritation!” Jet’s voice rang; the temperature of the room seemed to rise. He radiated heat, and rage. “I am no child, and you will not scorn me as such.”
Without flinching, Secta leaned back as Jet leaned in, narrowing his eyes as the Guardian of Ilona grew louder, and louder still.
Both Lucida and Gemma stopped talking in the doorway, and looked over at Jet, concerned.
Secta waved them out, smiling with a reassurance he did not feel at all. He turned back to Jet, and found himself face to face with the being that was the terror of the Ilonan streets. The red-eyed thing that burned from the inside out stared him down. This was not Jet. This was the Guardian. Whatever it was that kept him alive was eating away what made him his own man. Secta wondered how much of Jet was left.
“I am your master. You are my servant–” Jet snarled.
Secta backed away, maintaining an expression of collected calm.
Jet’s voice was ablaze with heat; he stepped in, as though Secta’s backing away made him even more angry. “You are only alive at my behest!”
Secta’s eyes got wide, and he paled, staring up at Jet in both shock and dismay. “Master,” he finally said softly, his eyes brimming with tears. “Is it fear you wish? Is it tears? I will give them to you gladly. Is it blood? Pain? Guardian of Ilona, I live to serve. ”
Jet reached forward, curling his fist in Secta’s hair, lifting him nearly off the ground, tipping his head back, making him strain to stand on his toes.
“Mercy, Guardian, mercy. If my service displeases, I beg only that you kill me quickly, that my shame in serving you so poorly be erased with the memory of me,” Secta pled, fear making his voice tremble.
Nothing, it would seem, would erase the fury in Jet’s eyes. He pulled one of the glass knives from his shroud and lifted it to Secta’s throat.
“So be it.”
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