This is Issue #14 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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Still exhausted, still limping, Coryphaeus trudged through the walled-in hunting grounds, following the southern wall east, and then the eastern wall north, until he came to a steep slope leading down to a rocky beach.
It took him all of the morning, and by the time he reached the shore, he was slick with sweat, and he could feel his stitches pulling.
He walked without hesitation to the figure robed in black that knelt at the water’s edge, and stood behind it for a time, silent, waiting.
After a long while, he moved closer, pulled a bottle of water from a pack at his hip, and unscrewed the cap. He knelt beside the figure, and offered out the bottle, saying nothing.
There in the sun, silent, scorched from the heat, the figure took the bottle, drank beneath the hood and scarf it wore, then handed the bottle back.
Coryphaeus stood, then, and offered out a hand, gesturing for her to follow him. “Come,” he said softly. “You will not find what you are looking for, here.”
He led her away from the water, and she followed him, her head bent, her eyes dulled.
When they arrived at his apartments away from the regular barracks, he pulled the doors shut, and all the shades. In silence, he got her food, and in silence, he watched her not eat. He made up a bed for her, and let her lie in it, eyes open, staring at the ceiling.
When he went to check on her later, she was in the same position, unmoved.
He ate, and slept, and went to check on her again, and she was gone.
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The third time he retrieved her from the beach and walked her back to his rooms, he did not leave her, when he put her down to sleep, but instead, sat down in the room with her, waiting in front of the door. She laid still for hours, until finally she sat up, walked the paces of the room, then moved to sit back down on the bed, and lay herself in it, motionless, staring up at the ceiling once more.
He left her that way for only long enough to get her food, and to relieve himself. He took to catching naps against the door, waiting her out, watching her.
One morning, he brought her food, and sat down beside her, and offered her a spoonful, bringing it to her lips. She stared at it, for long moments, and then blankly opened her mouth, accepting the nourishment.
She ate, entirely, choosing each mouthful as he offered them.
He did not force her, and she did not resist.
With a full belly, she finally fell asleep, and Coryphaeus nearly wept with relief as exhaustion claimed him as well.
when he woke, she was gone again.
* * *
“Please,” he said. “Commander, he’s not here.”
“How would you know?” Her voice was rough with disuse, but it came, nonetheless.
Coryphaeus was stunned by her response; he blinked stupidly at her for a few moments before finally saying, “Because I’ve checked.”
“What?” Jules said, equally as stupefied. She hadn’t been expecting something so simple and straightforward.
“Because… I’ve searched for him. He gave his life for mine, and I don’t even know why,” Coryphaeus said quietly. “I’ve searched for him, and I’ve had my sister search for him, and my men search for him, and he is not in the capital city, nor is he in the sea.” He looked out at the water, squinting against the sun’s glare.
Jules looked down at her hands, and then back to Coryphaeus, pained. “You did that? You looked for him?”
“If it were within my power, I would bring him back to you, Commander. In an instant,” he whispered. “I’m so sorry, I–” He turned away, choked up, swallowing roughly.
“Why?” Jules wondered, looking up at him, anger and confusion on her face. “Legatus, why? What does any of it matter to you?” Exhaustion had all but claimed her; she looked drawn and pale, miserable.
“Because I know what it is to be alone!” he finally shouted, his hands clenched into fists. “Because I know what it can be like to have no one but yourself, and to realize you’re aren’t even certain of that. You say you know what I am — you think you know me. Do you know my father tried to have me put to death?”
Jules blanched; she stared at Coryphaeus in shock.
Coryphaeus kept on, pressing. “He tried to kill me. My own brother? Cut off his left hand in repayment for the dishonor of what I am. My sister was kept from me while I was locked away in an attempt to be cured. I was not touched for two years except to cause pain,” he said, his voice cracking as he gritted his teeth, determined to hold back a distressed sob.
He pulled open his robes, then, and bared his scars, his stitches, his wounds. “Do you see these?” He gestured to the crescent scars in the faint creases of his muscled chest. They scrawled against his bronzed flesh in a study of silver and pink, pulling at the flesh, pulled at by the flesh, shining but not smooth, the taut texture of mutilated meat, marking up the smooth expanse of his skin as much as any of the tattoos on any of the other Ilonans.
Jules couldn’t help but stare, frowning slightly, looking at them, imagining what his body had been like, before its change.
“These I had done, to myself. They hurt, but they did not hurt half so much as this one,” he said, pulling the robes open further, to show the silver line etching down from his navel, disappearing into the waistband of his black braccae. “This one was from my father. He cut into me as though I were an animal to be gutted.”
Wide-eyed, Jules stood before Coryphaeus, and lifted a hand to lay it against his chest, splaying her fingers over his skin.
“Why you? Why do I care? Because you’ve been gutted, too, Commander,” he whispered, chest heaving with panted breaths beneath her touch.
“No,” Jules said, her skin paling. She moved to take a step back, but Coryphaeus stepped forward, and offered out his arms. At no point did he confine her, did he hold her and keep her from being able to be free, but he surrounded her, all the same, strength and safety, solid heat.
“You flinch, if someone is too close, and yet you still hope,” he murmured, keeping her near, his touch there, but light.
She stopped pulling away, and trembled in his arms, looking up at him, her pulse pounding in her ears. “You don’t know me,” she whispered, pleading.
“I know you’re alone, and yet you still fight,” Coryphaeus said, lifting up one hand to cup it near her cheek.
She leaned into the touch, closing her eyes for a moment, letting his hand cup her cheek. Red lashes grew dark with tears, and she looked up at him, earnest.
Coryphaeus pressed closer, bending his head down, while Jules tipped hers up, a giddy rush filling her, her cheeks suffused with a heady blush. “I’m not brave. I’m terrified,” she said, staring up at him, and he could feel the thunder of her heart against his chest, battering against her ribs, a caged bird, mad with captivity.
“I know. And yet you still love,” Coryphaeus whispered. “Commander?”
“Yes, Legatus?” She could feel the warm edge of his lips nearly against hers, and the heat of them was a profound sweetness.
“I know you are grieving, and I know I am not the m-“
He did not get the chance to finish his sentence; she pressed close, and whispered, “Call me Jules,” against his mouth, and kissed him where he stood.
It did not matter she was a Westlander. It did not matter he was Ilonan. For that moment, whatever had warred between them surrendered on both sides.
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