This is Issue 9 of DeathWatch, Book II: tentatively called Heart Of Ilona, an ongoing Serial. Click that link to go find DeathWatch, the first in the series, or start from the beginning of Book II!
Welcome back, and Happy Reading!
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The quartermaster’s cry was a roar of command that cut through the salt air, the misting clouds.
The return was a chorus of groans and growls, the creak of rope, the grinding strain of the pulley system.
Wind buffetted the ship; the airmen aboard the Opacare Veloxus swayed easily, hanging from the rails, the rigging, going about their business.
Aneen knew the shout was for him; every time the navarchus shouted like that, it was for him. He set down the small powder keg and stood up; his joints creaked, and he knuckled the small of his back, sighing. He turned, bowing his head, and was greeted with a sharp jab of the navarchus‘s fingers just below his ribs. He exhaled, wincing faintly, and lifted his eyes, looking the man over.
Navarchus Lorum Tenuis was a tall, thin man, his bronze skin glowing copper in the long sun. He was whip thin; the flow of his clothing hid a deceptively slight frame — he was wiry with muscle, and quicker than anything Aneen could remember having ever seen.
In comparison, Aneen was roped with muscle as well, but was paler, more burned than bronzed, and did not carry himself with the arrogant grace that Lorum wore. His skin was truly more scar and tattoo and wire and gear than burn, even, and the stories they told were ones he tried to puzzle out over the weeks he’d been getting used to both his arm, and his job. Realizing he’d simply been standing there, while his commander waited for a response, Aneen flushed, shamed, and quietly answered, “Etiam, navarchus?”
“Armis quid agis, Aneen?” the navarchus asked, one brow lifted. At the moment, he looked almost amused, though Aneen could see the beginnings of irritation. They’d grow into true anger, if he didn’t answer — that much he knew.
“Armis. Arms,” Aneen said, looking down at his left arm, a distinctly pained expression crossing his scarred face. He stared long and hard at the arm that was there, the arm that was bought and paid for by the man who spoke to him. He turned his hand over, this way and that, looking at it, and offered it out to the navarchus, who rolled his eyes.
“Armis, Aneen,” Lorum sighed. “Weapons. What are you doing with the weapons. How is it that a child of three years can learn this tongue, but a grown man cannot?”
Aneen flushed, dropping his gaze. “Paenitet me, navarchus,” Aneen said, swallowing roughly, looking at his hand, flexing the bronze pistons, watching with fascination as the gears and levers moved.
Navarchus Tenuis shook his head, saying, “At least you know your apologies well. You practice those more often, hm? Stolidus.” The last word was an insult, but was spoken fondly, in a way. “That arm, Aneen, cost a dear amount of coin — but it’s worth it for work and loyalty.”
“You have both,” Aneen said, earnestly. “I owe you my life, navarchus.”
“That you do, boy,” the navarchus said, treating Aneen much like one might a simple child, though Aneen felt certain he was nearly the other man’s age. “So answer me. What are you doing down here with the weapons?”
“Quarter’s orders,” Aneen said blankly.
“Did you tell him I ordered you to stay topside?” Lorum asked, his expression dangerously baiting.
“Only twice, Captain,” Aneen answered.
“Only twice,” the navarchus snorted, rolling his eyes and moving to clap Aneen on the back. “What of a third time?”
“He mentioned you wouldn’t pay for a second arm, navarchus, and I shouldn’t want to lose it to an airshark,” Aneen said, looking pained, looking down at his feet.
“An airshark,” Lorum sighed.
Aneen shrugged, feeling his cheeks burn. “There are no airsharks, navarchus.” He knew that. He’d known it when he was threatened, but all he could feel was the stubborn weight of what he could not remember outweighing every other ounce of reason. He’d wanted, then, to ball up his heavy, mechanical fist, and drive it through the smirking face of the man who’d given him the order… But he knew that he should not. Even if it would’ve felt perfect.
“You should be topside, hauling up the new supplies, hmm? We don’t want to be here for long, do we?”
“No, navarchus.” Aneen left his eyes on Lorum, taking him in, studying him, not for the first time.
The man clearly didn’t mind being watched; he all but preened for it — he stood shoulder to shoulder with Aneen, and they were of the same build or so, but the Captain’s skin was bronze, even at its palest, while Aneen’s was bronzed only because of the sun and wind.
Lorum Tenuis’s eyes were darker as well, and always watching the world with an air of calculating desire. Aneen kept his eyes on the man, watching him whenever he could. He was loyal, even if he was simple. He knew that much. Navarchus meant captain, and Aneen would always be the captain’s man.
Lorum played with a gleaming ring on a thong about his throat. He twisted and turned it as a man does with something that either comforts or irritates him, worrying at it again and again, picking it up to look at what Aneen imagined were engraved words on the inside of the band.
Upon realizing he was being watched, Lorum dropped the ring and rolled his eyes. “I didn’t pay for your arm to have you get it full of powder now, did I?” the navarchus sighed, reaching to grab for Aneen’s wrist. He pulled it forward, and Aneen took a halting step forward, grunting as he felt the metal pull against his shoulder.
He stared at how the navarchus‘s hand moved over the delicate machinery that made up his left arm, and as it always did, his eyes traveled up the hydraulic pistons that shifted, twisted, pretended to be muscles. He looked up, and up, to where the metal met flesh, and a cap of bronze cupped over his shoulder.
He knew, beneath the bronze, that wires, pistons, bolts, and gears were fitted into his flesh, were driven into his body, into the bones of his shoulder. He knew hydraulic fluid and gear oil ran through artificial veins, pumped by a second heart.
He knew words that the Ilonan chiurgeons had used — scapula, clavicula, humerus. He knew his arm and shoulder had been shattered, reformed out of steel and bronze, that he had been mended with techniques half-considered magic, and that then, a new arm, full from the smooth bronze shoulder to his shining, burnished fingertips, had been constructed and fitted to his body.
He knew this because it had been told to him — he knew it because the navarchus had explained it to him in patient detail. He didn’t remember his own scars. He didn’t remember being pulled from the water. He didn’t remember the tattoos lacing his skin. He didn’t remember the chiurgeons had removed his broken, ruined arm.
He remembered the sound of his name. Aneen.
And that was all.
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