This is Issue #2 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!
* * *
“I shall never forget it,” Acer said, swallowing roughly, wiping sweat and blood from his eyes. He pulled back from the door, watching it shake as the men on the other side battered against it. He turned and looked back at Secta and Gemma, who tended to one another in the back corner, Secta pouring Gemma a small glass of aetheris, Gemma binding Secta’s wound. “But now what?” Acer wondered, looking to her.
“Now? Lucida said, setting aside her knife and moving to braid and wind up her hair to get it out of her face, tucking curls behind her ears and knotting them low against her neck. She tied the flowing scarves of her top down tight against her breasts and pulled her skirts up between her legs to tie them off like breeches. She selected a blade off the wall and tested its weight and balance in her hand.
“Now we take my Palace back,” she said, shrugging. “There are weapons aplenty, here. We simply catch our breath, open the doors back up, and kill them as they attempt to enter. I will rout the traitors of my kingdom, even if it is one slit throat at a time,” Lucida explained.
Eyes wide, Acer said, “There are too many, my lady, even for a woman as talented as you.”
“I do not remember asking you about my capabilities. Are you doubting your own? You may speak to those,” Lucida snapped. “Gemma. You are well-trained. If your head has stopped spinning, get a blade. Secta, honor your master, and pick up a sword. We will fight like the Ilonans we are.”
“Forgive me,” Acer said, his skin flushed, darkening. “I am not used to a woman as powerful as you, I–“
“Get used to it,” Lucida said, lifting her chin. “Stay used to it, Plaga. I am Lucida Venator, Sister to Immanis, Wife to the Guardian, Daughter of A Thousand Suns. And now I am Queen Venator as my mother before me, and I will see my enemies bloodied and burned before I see them touch one shred of my beautiful nation.”
“Yes, Majesty,” Acer said, impressed, smiling with determination, with love for his ruler.
Gemma knocked back the glass of aetheris she’d been given, and moved to tie up her top and skirts as well, gritting her teeth.
Secta strapped knives to her wrists, and put a sword at her hip, then selected his own sets of blades. Though he was meant as a page, a groom, a young man built for service, for honoring requests, he too had been trained — his life was only his to give in service of the Guardian. Gemma helped him fasten the sheaths to his wrists and calves. They kissed one another’s cheeks when they were done, and formed a wall by the door.
“Open it,” Lucida commanded Acer.
“We should let them exhaust themselves against it,” Gemma said.
“Then we will not be able to close it if we, ourselves are exhausted again,” Lucida said, dark eyes flashing. “Open. It.”
Acer nodded and lifted the bar. He danced aside from the opening, and all four of them bared blade and teeth as traitors stepped over the threshold, attacking all at once.
“Vivat Ilona! Vivat Venator!” Lucida cried, and the other three echoed her.
Though the treacherous enemy had slain many palace guards, others were still fighting. They heard Lucida’s cry and their strength was renewed. They pressed against the onslaught of traitorous soldiers — men that Acer was ashamed to have known, ashamed to have led.
He wondered if the army his father bestowed upon him was disloyal, to a man.
And then he didn’t have time to wonder, because he was fighting for his life alongside the others.
The rallying cry continued; Lucida danced into the fray, quickly dispatching soldiers, her sword carving into flesh without hesitation, screaming, “VIVAT ILONA!”
Secta, Gemma, Acer, and her Palace soldiers cried back, “VIVAT VENATOR!”
In the pitched battle, it was hard to keep track of who was who — knives and swords would go through ally as easily as enemy — but at one point, it seemed as though the shadowy uniform of the Tenebrian soldiers simply filled the hall outside the war room.
Until Lucida’s call rang out once more. “Vivat Ilona!”
Breathless, her three companions were about to cry out in solidarity, when a roar of defiance came bellowing in return.
Upon hearing the sound, Lucida cut through the soldiers with renewed strength. She laughed as she danced through the clang and clash of sword, ducked under swinging maces, leapt out of reach of thrown knives —
— and met, face to face, with her bloodied, battered, beautiful — “Black Stone,” she said, laughing.
In the midst of the fight, after pulling his sword from the face of a fallen attacker, Jet knelt at her feet, bowing his head.
Coryphaeus darted past them, shifting to continue his fights; he was every bit the warrior, assisting the remaining palace guards in protecting Lucida, letting Jet and Lucy have a moment to speak.
She paused, as well, heedless of the death surrounding them, and laid her hand on Jet’s shoulder, then reached to slide it through his hair.
“Forgive me,” he whispered.
“No,” Lucida murmured.
He looked up at her, his eyes shining, wet — abject misery there. “Lucy,” he said, pleading. “Forgive me. Please.”
“No,” she whispered, and there was nothing but love on her face.
He closed his eyes, resigned, agony painting him more completely than any house patterns might have tried.
“I cannot forgive you,” Lucida said softly. “For you have done no wrong. You have died for Ilona, and you will die for her again. You have died for Immanis. You will die for me. Over and over. You will die for every Ilonan, Jet, my Guardian, my caro, my love.” She stroked his cheek, and leaned down to kiss his forehead. “We will grieve our Immanis when this is done. And we will avenge him. But for now, we fight the enemy within, and for that fight, my precious black stone, you must be strong. Surgite, Jet. It is time.”
Jet nodded, rising, golden eyes burning as he turned back toward the oncoming Tenebrians.
Lucida lifted her sword high and called, “Vivat Ilona!”
The returning cry resounded with the addition of the Guardian’s roar.
* * *