This is Issue #3 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!
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What had seemed like an unending wave of death had turned out to be the main assault of the Tenebrian group responsible for attempting to overthrow House Venator. With the leaders slain by Lucida, the Guardian, and their loyal followers, the rest of the sinister rebellion was crushed.
Traitors to the nation were brought into the dungeon by the dozens, and in the end, Acer found himself on his knees before his Queen, his sword put at her feet.
“I cannot even ask for forgiveness,” he said, still bloodied from fighting alongside her. “My father… I should have known about his treachery. I should have realized he would try something so foul. I led an army inside your walls, and you trusted me,” he murmured. “It worked, because my father knew what I fool I am, to want to please him so terribly,” he said darkly. “I put myself at your mercy, expecting nothing but retribution for my house’s disloyalty.”
Lucida sat on the dais, in her throne, while Jet stood beside her, avoiding the throne Immanis had used.
Gemma, Secta, loyal guards, Coryphaeus, other soldiers, other courtiers — those who supported House Venator, from the lowliest of servants to the highest officers within the city state — looked on, watching with expectant eyes.
Immanis had not been known for mercy.
Would Lucida be?
She stood, after Acer’s speech, and bent down to pick up his sword. She weighed it in her hand, swung it, and then flipped it to return it, handle-first, to the only surviving son of Lord Tenebrae.
“We stood shoulder to shoulder,” Lucida said quietly. “I have no doubt of your loyalty to me — and I have no hope of reclaiming your people, our people, in the sister-state if I bleed them of their honorable leaders. Your father has designs on my throne. Your elder brother clearly thought he was much more capable of running this nation. But I believe you will work with me, not for yourself. Am I mistaken?”
“My Queen,” Acer whispered, sitting up, back on his heels. “I will die before I betray you.”
“Take your sword, Plaga. Remain at the right hand of my Guardian. You are favored,” she promised, and the smile she wore, painted in blood, was proud and perfect.
Gemma looked almost smug, to watch her, while Secta kept his eyes mostly on Jet, who had been supplied with another mask, and wore it, hiding his expression from everyone.
One by one, the ruling houses of Ilona’s nations stepped before Lucida and bowed, knelt, paid tribute, confessed their loyalties, promised their sons and daughters, their blood, their sweat, their coin.
When it was over, Lucida went to rise, to adjourn, wanting nothing more than a bath and oblivion; she would even sleep alone, if Gemma were busy, and she knew she wouldn’t mind it in the slightest. Except —
“My Queen?” One last voice called to her, from the steps of the dais.
When she turned, she saw Coryphaeus’s face, looking up to her. He took stiff, aching steps, and as he knelt, his wounds broke open. His skin was ash — he had bled over the last forty-eight hours, not slept but blacked out, eaten nothing, had nothing to drink, but fought and killed and struggled.
He, like Jet, was still fresh from the Hunting Ground.
To look on his face was to see her brother’s as he knelt over him. Immanis might have killed Coryphaeus, seemed to be about to, when the Westlander attacked and drove them both over the edge.
“Speak,” she said to Coryphaeus, showing no love.
“I am Legatus–”
“I know very well who you are, Aecus,” Lucida said, deliberately not using his title. “What are you still doing here? This was a gathering for loyal followers.”
Pained, Coryphaeus nodded, saying, “If you question my loyalty to Ilona, look back at the telecast for the hunt. I knelt to him. I knelt to your Guardian. I kneel to you. If you believe me disloyal, if you wish my death in payment for his Majesty’s, it would be a poor trade, but I would die a thousand times over if it would return him to you. I have one life only, however — but it is yours. Spend it now, if you like, or keep it, and I will fight for you. For Ilona. I will gather armies and I will fight back against those who murder our citizens. I will wear the dust of Ilona’s soil and be washed in its rains and I will feel the pulse of its people in my veins. I am… I am not a good follower. I am full of doubt, and I am full of faults and failings. But one of them is not disloyalty.”
Lucida was silent, taking it all in; she narrowed her eyes and glanced to Jet, saying, “You were with him. Chased him. Hunted him. You knew my brother’s thoughts on his betrayal.”
Jet nodded, looking at Coryphaeus, his compassion hidden by the mask on his face. Quietly, he said to Lucida, “As our brother loved me, for choosing to serve, so can I see the love in Legatus Aecus. This is a man of principle. This is a man who does as he believes he must, even if and when it seems wrong to others. He will do what he fears. He will do what is asked, if he can. I will get no false loyalty from him.”
“He tried to keep something that was not his,” Lucida said lowly, dangerously.
“It was not money. It was not lands. It was a slave that Immanis had discarded after play,” Jet returned, putting a hand on her shoulder, squeezing gently. “And when he had realized his error, he would have paid with his life. Immanis promised if he survived the hunt, he would be freed. He did survive, but he came back. To me. Remained with me so that I would not be alone when I woke. He offered me his life then, and he offers it now. It would be a great waste to throw away such loyalty.”
“I agree,” Lucida said, after a moment. “Indulgent as I have been, I am not prone to waste. I must recognize truth, even as I grieve for my Immanis.” She looked to the kneeling man and said, “You are spared, Aecus. And reinstated as an officer, Legatus. Sugite. Stand at the right hand of my Guardian, for you are a man of honor, and you will hold such a place in my household.”
“My Queen,” Coryphaeus whispered, his eyes wide. “I…”
Lucida’s response was as proud as she was, but the hint of a smile on her lips made Jet smile as well, in spite of himself. “Legatus,” she said gesturing for him to rise, and come to stand near her. “A Queen does not repeat herself.”
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