This is Issue #125 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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Blood. So much blood. Jules woke with a start, pulling her wild hair back from her face, out of her wide, desperate eyes. Silently, she slipped from the bed and went to the bathroom, where she knelt and struggled to remain silent as she retched. Her whole body heaved, and she emptied the meager contents of her stomach, feeling the world tremble and spin, her fingers clutching the porcelain of the commode, nail beds white with the way she clung, as if holding on to that would let her hold on to anything else.
She could see the face of the woman who had killed her, could feel the fury as she tried to lift her hands to defend herself, but it was over in a matter of minutes — the knives bit deep, and her assailant was unflinching. The pain of the knives, suffocating on her own blood, dwindling down into the cold dark, and coming back left her weak and trembling. She hugged the toilet and rested her cheek on the seat, biting her tongue until it bled to keep from crying out. It was too fast, too much; she could only just now process who the man was, and why it had happened.
“Commander,” Coryphaeus said, coming in and turning up the lamps. He wet a washing cloth and carefully wiped her face and lips, then gave her a glass of cold water to rinse her mouth, and a glass of aetheris to settle her head, and ease the agony.
“Legatus,” she said, hoarse.
“Who was it?” He was concerned, but there was something of fascination on his features, as well; he watched her like one might an excessively dangerous animal.
“Not you,” she promised, rubbing her head. “Older man. Hurt his family. His family hurt back,” she said, shuddering.
After awhile, once he was certain she would no longer sick up, he led her back to the bed she slept in alone, and carefully rearranged her blankets to smooth them out. He was solicitous, kind even, and Jules got the distinct impression he was attempting to win her over to trusting him.
It didn’t matter — he was half the reason most everyone she knew was dead, he wouldn’t be able to do anything to fix that.
Days passed while he worked to gain another audience with the Prince. He imagined he might be able to simply ask for what he wanted, and in the mean time, he showed favor to plenty of guards, and learned where the other two thirds of the Westlanders were being kept while the castellanae dealt with the rather large influx of potential slaves.
When he delivered this news to her, Coryphaeus saw Jules’s expression light up, for one moment. “How many still live?” she said, wringing her hands.
“Over two hundred,” he said quietly, looking anxious.
“How many can you save?” she asked.
“I do not know, Commander. I will try t–”
“All of them. Try to save all of them,” she said, urgent. “Even the ones who are supposed to be hunted.” Faces swam before her: Sha, Nate, Djara, Kieron — which of them might she still lose?
Coryphaeus looked half-defeated before he began, sighing, but he nodded, all the same. The weight of a hundred lives lost already rested on him; he’d battled before — he was a veteran soldier, after all, but somehow, the remembrance of those men and women simply submitting to Immanis’s will was not awe-inspiring, but terrifying in a way he could not reconcile with his vision of nobility and honor.
The wedding was days ago, but neither of them had gotten much sleep in that time, and it showed on Coryphaeus’s face as he fluffed her pillows. He began to walk away, but she reached out and caught his hand. It startled him, and he pulled back, his eyes widened.
“Why are you doing this?” It wasn’t the first time she asked.
Coryphaeus sighed, his shoulders slumping. “Because I didn’t believe you, that my Prince was a monster. Because I had assumed there would at least be… at least an attempt at justice. Instead, what I saw was pure vengeance, as childish and damaging as can be. His voice, his presence — he can compel you to love him, to obey him, to do as he pleases. He could’ve ordered your army to retreat. He could’ve sent them all home and made sure they let the West know to stay on its side of the Luminora. To stay safe. But instead… all that needless death. For spectacle. Because I know I am supposed to hate you Westlanders, but I’m not sure why, and so I know I have to fight against it, and understand if you’re truly my enemy, or just a ghost story, meant to frighten and control a herd,” he explains. “Because I’m not as afraid as I was, when I worried my secrets would be found out. Because I must be better than a common thug, a fear-monger.”
“Says the man who keeps a taser collar on my neck,” Jules said softly, rolling her eyes, her fingers touching the metallic ring that glowed dully around her throat. “Couldn’t even get an aetheric one that might’ve kept my head from breaking every time I see death. You won’t stop lying to yourself, fine. Stop lying to me, at least. You didn’t meet me and develop some instant conscience. You don’t want to be a better man, you want to survive.”
“Yes. I want to survive,” he said, snapping. “And I’m willing to sacrifice a great deal to keep going. You’re what ensures that. The collar’s not an aetheric one because I can–”
“I’m what ensures that, fine, but I’ve already told you, I’m not leaving. I won’t run. I won’t leave them,” she said coldly.
Her eyes went wide and her voice lifted in fury. “You don’t get to call me that–”
“It isn’t even ON!” Coryphaeus sighed, exasperated.
“–you don’t ever get to call me that! You think you’re going to be some big fucking savior, but I’m just waiting for the moment I ca–”
He held up the small remote in front of her face, and dramatically pushed the button.
Jules flinched, reaching hands up to clutch the collar, and uttered a strangled cry. After a moment or two, she opened her eyes hesitantly, and finally ended up staring at Coryphaeus bewilderedly. “Nothing happened. It isn’t even on,” Jules said quietly.
“That’s what I was trying to tell you,” he explained. “I’m not… you’re here because you’re noticeable and I can’t set you free. Enough nobles have seen you that you’d be picked up and likely killed before the morning market opened. I’m trying to save the rest of your… your family, J–Commander. I don’t know if I can do it, but I know I have to try. Everything surrounding it is pretense. You don’t have any reason to trust me; I know. But I’m trying, all the same.”
“You’re a better man than most any others I know, Legatus,” Jules finally said, looking thoughtful.
“Save that thought for the moment I manage to set you all free,” Coryphaeus sighed. “Til then, I need you to be a proper slave. Angry and barely compliant. Think you can manage it?”
Jules rolled her eyes and readjusted the collar. “Can I manage angry and barely compliant? It’s like you’ve known me my whole life.”
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