This is Issue #122 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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Jules woke with a start, feverish and gasping. She remembered drowning. She remembered the agony of feeling the water suddenly filling her, holding her down. It burned her nose, her throat, her lungs. Cold as it was, it seared her, left her convulsing as a thousand thousand stars exploded behind her eyes.
She remembered fighting.
She flailed, thrashing, and felt something hold her, hold her down, and she fought again, her eyes wide in terror, her mouth closed against the onslaught of what she knew was cold water that would choke her, kill her, again and again and again.
Something slapped her face, and hard.
She gasped, gagging, flinching, and screamed, long and loud and sobbing — until someone else covered her mouth, shushing her. When she dared open her eyes, the world spun. Dizzied, she felt the return from the slip keenly. The agony of it crashed into her, and she seized, retching violently, twisting to sick up.
Someone held her hair out of her way.
Someone rubbed her back.
She heard the sound of a commode flushing.
Someone wiped her face and offered a cool glass to her lips.
She drank, but the first sip burned like fire. She coughed, her eyes watering, and she tried to shove away, but strong hands held her carefully, and made her drink down the noxious liquid — which turned out to feel soothing after that first attempt. It poured into her throat like a soothing balm, cooling and easing the agony behind her eyes, the horrible swimmy feeling she knew cadets got when they stepped on an airship for the first time.
The room came into focus, and Jules stiffened briefly, almost panicking.
“Yebat?” she hissed, twisting until she could see who was with her. “…Legatus?” she said, and felt the bottom drop out of her stomach. She looked around a little more, at the tiled room she was in, and out the door to a larger, luxuriously elegant room, with a tall ceiling, open windows and fluttering draperies. She looked down at herself and realized she was still covered in drying blood. “They’re all dead,” she said quietly, and then looked back up, to take it all in.
Coryphaeus knelt with her on what appeared to be a bathroom floor. He’d positioned her so she could vomit in the toilet. There were bandages about, washing cloths, and she could smell lavender and citrus, hot water, and aetheris mingling with the copper of blood. “Nearly,” he answered, solemnly. “A handful were taken by the Prince and his personal guards, for his own private hunts. The captain. The other commander. The boy with the scar. The pilot. He said the rest should be disposed of, but I know the soldiers will sell them to the slavers and keep the money if they aren’t going to keep them as slaves, themselves. Anyone who can’t or won’t work will be killed outright.”
“So what now, then?” Jules wondered, looking angry.
“Commander,” Coryphaeus sighed. “I’ve saved your life. I had entirely selfish reasons for doing so, but all the same–“
“I suppose you think I should thank you?” Jules’s expression was far from grateful. She looked furious and sick, and her hands clenched into fists.
“Well, I–” Coryphaeus began.
“Yebat sebya!” Jules shouted, slipping back to the familiar fury of the Kriegic tongue. “Are you serious? Gratitude? You won’t get that from me! You’re no less of a skrimsli than your Prince. He killed a hundred men and women in front of me to, what, make a point? Punish me? He flooded the floor of his great hall with blood, why, as a bit of wedding entertainment? And now you tell me that a handful of who’s left will be made sport of, while the rest become slaves if they’re not already dead? Do you understand — that crew — I watched them all slit their own throats. I couldn’t stop even one,” she raged, her voice cracking. “What else can you do to me? You’ve taken everything! Everything!”
“Commander–” the Legatus tried, lifting his hands away, trying to show he was no threat.
“They were my brothers and sisters! They were my family!” Jules shouted. “I have lost my ship, my livelihood, my Captain, my comrades, my family, my h–” My heart, my husband. Oh, Nathan. Her voice cracked, and she put her hand over her heart, fingers curling in, clenching a fistful of her jumpsuit. She didn’t dare finish the words and she bowed her head as he shoulders shook. “You took my whole life. Everything I have dreamed of, you monsters have already taken,” she sobbed. “So you can threaten me with slavery, Legatus,” she said, wiping the tears from her eyes. “You can promise me pain, you can try to hurt me, and you may even get a few more tears and the rest of my blood and breath, but I am telling you… I am not afraid, do you understand me? I will not bow, and I will not be broken. You will not get obedience from me, no matter what you do, and if that is your goal, Coryphaeus, you’d best just have done with it and kill me now.”
The Ilonan officer watched Jules, feeling his heart in his throat from her impassioned shouting. He sighed, putting his hands on his knees. He moved to get up, saying, “The bath is for you. There is a place to sleep in the other room. I have no intention of breaking you. Your gift is important to me, but–“
“I won’t help you,” Jules said, shaking her head. “I won’t help you now. I wanted to make a deal with you. My life for theirs. But they’re all dead, do you hear me? They’re all dead, so the deal’s off! They’re all dead!” Her voice got high and panicked, and she clapped her hands over her mouth.
As she moved, Coryphaeus grabbed her shoulders and shook her roughly. “I am trying to save your life! And theirs!” he shouted back at her. “I’m telling you, they’re not all dead yet,” Coryphaeus hissed urgently.
Jules pulled back from his touch, looking wary. “Why would you help me? You turned me over to them. You put me in the belly of that ship, in chains, and marched them into that hall, and watched them die–“
“–and if there were some way to ask your forgiveness,” Coryphaeus said softly, “–I would beg it of you, but if I were you… I would never forgive me.”
Jules opened her mouth. She closed it again. She opened it again. She closed it again, looking taken aback by that utterance. Finally, she asked, “So… why help now?”
“The Prince knows what I am.” Coryphaeus kept his eyes on Jules.
“And?” Jules wondered, her brows lifting.
“He doesn’t care.” The officer’s voice was low, marveling.
“So how does that change anything?” Jules hissed.
“I have been frightened of telling the truth for too long. Frightened I would be forced to be something I knew wasn’t myself. So frightened, I became something I knew wasn’t me, anyway,” he said quietly. “Instead, I will be the man I wish to be,” he promised. “I cannot save them all, but I can do my best to save those who are left. I am a soldier, Commander, not merely a murderer. No matter the night time tales you people tell your children about the monsters who live in Ilona… we are not all that way. Some of us are merely people, trying to live, just like you.”
“You’re an idiot,” Jules said staring up at him. “If you betray your Prince now, at best, he’ll tell you to kill yourself. At worst, he’ll tell you to do it slowly.”
“And yet, to be the man I wish to be, I must attempt this salvation of myself,” Coryphaeus said, shrugging.
“You know you’ll be doomed, but you want to help anyway?” Jules confirmed.
Jules smiled wryly, and said “You remind me of a little bird I know,” and felt the faintest stirrings of the most dangerous emotion:
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