This is Issue #13 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!
* * *
“Tu!” Lorem’s shout was piercing; he never called Aneen by his name, only ‘You’ and ‘Idiot,’ usually.
Aneen was used to the treatment; he could remember no other. He loped up to the navarchus’s side and stood still, murmuring, “Etiam, Navarchus?” Waiting for an order, Aneen would let his mind quiet. He tried to turn it back, back before the cold, dark water, back before waking on a table, before a man who was paying for his arm — for him, really.
“We receive reports the air forces are mobilizing. This is not good for our business. They are not interested in us, but in the war they are stirring up. It does not matter — the other ships won’t fly as much, if there are war games going on about us,” Lorem said, quietly talking, leaning against the rail while the quartermaster and swain directed the crew.
The quarter turned, Aneen’s name on his lips — or rather, his version of Aneen’s name, which was far less polite than Lorem’s ‘idiot,’ when he saw the man talking to the Navarchus. His eyes glittered with hate, and he turned away, sneering, and went to directing the other men.
Lorem didn’t notice at all, and kept right on talking quietly to Aneen. “We may move territory,” he said, and cocked his head, gesturing for Aneen to follow him.
Once, Aneen thought perhaps he remembered salt in his lungs. Once, he thought he remembered flying. Crashing. Huge ships falling from the sky, splitting open and exploding against the ground, tearing up great wounds of black earth. He didn’t like that memory, but he held to it, wondering how true it was, and how recent. He’d tried to ask his fellow airmen about such things, but his Ilonan was poor, and they pretended not to know what they called the vulgar tongue.
Only Lorem treated him with something halfway toward consideration. Aneen followed the navarchus without hesitation, until Tenuis shut the door behind them both, and then pointed to the maps on the table. There were plenty of the known world, but Lorem pulled a few close, tapping them to get Aneen’s attention — which was held at that moment by the items littering the walls of the navarchus’s chambers: some where superstitious relics, half-tied knots, feathers braided together, and bottles of what looked like aetheris vapor. Lorem himself was decorated like that, well dressed and then covered in tiny details of what Aneen had assumed were nostalgic souvenirs of a sort, or superstitious items kept for luck.
Aneen turned and lifted his eyes to Lorem, who was studying him as well. “Here’s where we are,” the Navarchus said, pointing at section of the map. “And here,” he added, gesturing to another section, “is where the Kriegs will invade.”
“The Kriegs?” Aneen said, frowning slightly. He closed his eyes and could smell tobacco leaf and gun oil. It made his heart hurt.
“Yes, stercore. The Kriegs. Reports say they are finally coming down from the north,” Lorem sighed.
“A full invasion?” Aneen wondered, leaning over the map, ignoring the way his heart felt heavy in his chest, heavy and tight, thundering.
“Yes,” Lorem sighed. “Our illustrious Prince, may he live forever, long may he reign, has finally angered our neighbors with his merciless, bloodthirsty ways.”
“We should fall back,” Aneen said, pointing to the map. “Here. Seplasia. The perfumed lands. It isn’t far from where we are now. But first, we should warn the Prince, long may he reign.”
“The Prince?” Lorum snorted, looking up at Aneen. “I was just beginning to believe you had half a brain in there, boy. Why should we do such a thing?”
“Loyalty, Navarchus?” Aneen said, looking confused.
Lorem looked touched, and sighed, reaching up to put a hand on Aneen’s shoulder. “Maybe my second is right, and you really don’t belong on this ship,” he sighed.
At that, Aneen looked distressed, looking around, looking at his hands, looking at the one of flesh, and the one of metal, then looking to Lorem. “Please,” he said. “Please let me stay. I work hard. I won’t fail you.”
“You do. And you won’t,” Lorem said, sighing, shaking his head. “Get back out there. Give the word to the pilot. We’ve got a long haul ahead of us.”
“Navarchus?” Aneen wondered, looking confused.
“If we want to get to Seplasia before the Kriegs arrive, boy, we don’t have long to warn our prince now, do we?” He said, pursing his lips. His dark eyes looked back over the map, and he began to make notes, pulling out other papers, and checking charts.
Aneen’s eyes were wide as he looked to his commanding officer. “No, Navarchus.” He hurried out of the quarters onto the deck and for a moment was disoriented.
This isn’t my ship, he thought. This isn’t—
A blinding headache pierced his skull; he clapped both hands to his head for a moment, until it passed.
“Ut movens!” The quarter master’s voice was piercing as well; he shoved Aneen forward, and it was all Aneen could do to keep himself from sprawling to the deck as he struggled to find his balance. He hurried for the pilot’s seat, scrambling away from the quartermaster, who turned to follow him.
“Aerisrego,” Aneen said, panting, leaning in the door, struggling with using Ilonan, trying to make himself understood. “Iussu Navarchus — reverti? Et capitalis… Retro.”
“Capitalis?” roared the quartermaster, standing just behind Aneen. “Nequam sus!” He began to shout at Aneen, and at the pilot, countermanding the order, and when the pilot did not comply, he pulled a pistol from his side, and leveled it at the man, snarling in frustration.
It wasn’t until the Navarchus revealed himself, standing behind the quartermaster, that the man pulled back, looking more than a little embarrassed. He growled a quick apology which was greeted with a blank look from Aneen, and a curt nod from Lorem, and was gone in a moment.
That night, Aneen could not sleep. He stood at the rail, the wind in his face, nodding to those who walked the watch, staring out at the night, the clouds, the stars. In the distance, he imagined he could see the faint glow of the stars upon the surface of the inland sea, but they were miles and miles off, yet.
After a time, he turned to see the Navarchus had joined him. The man held out a glass of something to him; he took it with a careful hand, looking it over, and when the Navarchus lifted his, Aneen did the same. When Lorem drank, Aneen did the same, wheezing briefly, when he felt the burn slide down his throat. When he coughed, Lorem Tenuis laughed aloud, and it made Aneen smile.
For a brief moment, he felt home.
For a brief moment, Lorem Tenuis saw something in Aneen’s eyes that made him question his decision to keep the man, and he put his hand on his blade, his expression uncertain.
Aneen lunged forward, wrapping his arms around the man, and spun, putting him to the rail. There was the sound of metal on metal, but in the darkness, Lorem could not tell where the threat came from; he felt a blade kiss past his cheek, and then heard the grunt of Aneen taking some kind of impact.
He drew his own blade, even as he watched Aneen turn, putting himself between Tenuis, and whatever else was in the night.
Again, again, the clash of metal on metal; sparks flew, and Aneen cried out in frustration and fury.
The crew took up the cry, realizing there was a fray. Torches and lights were brought out, but it was over almost before it began — in the glare of the light, Lorem saw Aneen on the deck, his metal arm around the quartermaster’s throat. The quartermaster was stabbing at Aneen wherever he could reach, and the blood was startling, more so for the fact that Aneen would not let go.
Aneen held the quartermaster, looking up at Lorem, expectant, waiting, flinching as the knife in the man’s hand sunk into his thigh, bit into his hand. The crew stared, watching Aneen, watching the Navarchus, watching the quartermaster flail.
None of them seemed to know what they should do — but they knew what they shouldn’t do: interfere.
Tenuis watched Aneen quiver, holding tight, staring up at him, just waiting, taking strike after strike, bearing it.
Eventually, the quartermaster spasmed violently one last time, and then went still, his eyes falling shut.
The crew seemed to let go of their collective breath.
At that, the sound of the man’s neck breaking was sudden in the ship’s silence. Aneen released the body, and slowly moved to crawl away, panting as he reached Lorem’s feet.
The crew stepped back, as a group, giving them space.
Aneen knelt, looking up at Lorem, bleeding. “Paenitet me, Navarchus,” he gasped.
“What have you done, Aneen?” Tenuis said, looking over at the body of his first mate.
“He wanted to kill you. He wanted me dead, and you protected me.” Aneen’s voice trembled, there on the deck, the wind in his hair. He kept his exhausted eyes on Lorem as he spoke, wiping sweat from his face with a bloody hand, painting himself in crimson. “So I protected you. Poenam seditionis… Morte est,” Aneen said, “navarchus mei.”
The penalty for mutiny is death, my captain.
* * *