This is Issue #43 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!
* * *
The sounds that came from the belly of the ship were inhuman; the agony was beginning to wear on the men — it even wore on Tenuis. They’d finally begun to quiet when the navarchus went down the ladder, and passed the three different locks that kept the rest of the crew from being nosy. He made himself go into the room where the chiurgeon was working, though the scents of blood and fear were thick, and off-putting.
“I was just finishing up,” the man murmured smugly. “He’s waking. I wondered if he would. Was good you let me have him. He would’ve come to no good, memory loss or no. He’s just like them.”
“Cease talking,” Tenuis said, crossing the room to look at the thing laying on its stomach. His heart was heavy with misery and regret in equal measure. He had thought himself better than a monster. He had imagined this thing as both brother and son. Now, what had he done?
It was recognizable as Aneen, still.
Aneen turned his face up to look at Tenuis, and Tenuis could see the tears on his cheeks, and the blood on his flesh. “Navarchus,” Aneen murmured. “Paenitent mei.”
Tenuis’s stomach churned as he turned away, and looked to the chiurgeon, saying, “What is left, then?”
“Testing,” the man said, fussing over some readouts, leaving bloody fingerprints on white papers. “The implants are secure, and the muscle stim has made it so he’ll be able function as though he grew that way. Just needs a few days for the rest of the sedatives to wear off so it doesn’t tear itself to pieces on the first try.”
“Navarchus?” Aneen pled.
Lorum nodded to the chiurgeon, and began to walk away, determined to keep from looking back at Aneen.
“Nav–navarchus,” he panted, straining from where he lay on the table, struggling to get up, a sheet covering the bloody ruin of his back. The chiurgeon came back to him, injected him with something, and he simply laid back down on the table, closing his eyes, struggling to speak, still.
* * *
The next time Lorum Tenuis went into the belly of the ship, Aneen was sitting quietly in the dark, with his head bowed. He looked up, as he saw Tenuis come down the ladder, and Lorum saw his expression shift from blank to hopeful, to pleading. “Navarchus?” he whispered. He reached out a hand, but the shackles at the wrist kept it from going far.
Tenuis lifted the lamp, and looked at the wreckage of the man he’d pulled out of the inland sea. He still felt a measure of affection for him far greater than he was comfortable admitting, and the fury and betrayal he felt every time he looked at him overwhelmed the good feelings, and rendered them confusing. All he could see was the tiny, broken body of his seer, still in her chains, hanging there. All he could see was the adoration on Aneen’s face crumbling, confirming him as not a leader, but a slaver. Was it Aneen’s fault that Lorum realized he was not the navarchus, not the man he wanted to be? “Up,” he said, and moved to unlock the chains at his wrists and ankles.
Aneen stood, and waited for his next command.
Tenuis stared at Aneen for long moments before finally turning and walking away, saying, “Come.”
The deck was mostly cleared; Aneen stumbled out into the whorl of it. He stumbled, briefly, the wind buffeting him. He turned at looked at the chiurgeon, who led him with the navarchus toward the rear of the ship, but Tenuis only stared at him with pained eyes.
“Navarchus,” Aneen called. “Paenitent mei. I had to. She begged me to. Please, I–“
“Hush, boy,” Lorum said softly. “Do as you’re told, hmm?”
“Yes, Navarchus,” Aneen promised, nodding eagerly. He looked down at his hands, at the one of flesh, and the one of metal, and voiced no complaint. Instead, he complied with what he was asked as he was strapped into a rigging safety harness. He took the wakestrap he was given without reticence. He even climbed atop the rail, looking to Lorum Tenuis again.
The ship picked up speed, and Aneen watched Tenuis’s face transform from pain to worry, and perhaps even hope. “Navarchus,” he whispered quietly. “Does this mean you forgive me?”
“Hush, boy,” Lorum said again, moving to stand up with him. “Just… make me proud, panumpoppa.”
“I will,” Aneen said, smiling hopefully to Lorum, nodding. “I–“
“Make me proud–” Lorum said, and he pushed Aneen right off the back of the ship, “–and fly.”
The shock on Aneen’s face was all encompassing. He reached for Lorum, but missed, and in a moment of blind panic, an odd reflex took over.
The very thing the chiurgeon had worked on came into play, and Aneen felt muscles and tendons in his back suddenly scream into motion. There was a flutter, a sound of knives leaving their sheathes, and the massive wings that had been built and fused into his back opened up, flaring wide. They caught the sun, and shone brilliantly, brass and bronze and copper and fire — but more importantly, they caught the wind.
Aneen let out a whoop of terror, victory, and excitement as he rose in the sky, and as he reached the end of the wakestrap, he rose even higher, like a kite climbing. He stared down at the ship, laughing, feeling the wind in his face, tasting the clouds, and–
* * *
“What d’y’mean you’ve never been? Come on!”
“Are you kidding me? You’re going to get me killed.”
“Abe wouldn’t hurt a puppy.”
“No, but he’d crush me!”
“I can’t believe Sha hasn’t made y’try this.”
“Just hold on. Y’trust me, don’t you?”
“Not in the slightest.”
And with that, she bucked backwards, and he uttered a high, sweet shriek. They fell, and she laughed like everything in the world was made of joy. He held to her, shaking, and then felt the way the wind suddenly pushed up, buffeting the wakeboard. Her voice was clear and lovely. “Open your eyes, little bird!”
He opened his eyes, and the world took his breath away.
* * *
Where are your wings, little bird? Is that why you fell?
* * *
–it was Nathan who opened his eyes and looked down at Lorum Tenuis, the man who’d saved his life and given him back his arm. The man who’d given him back to the sky. The man he killed for. The man he’d betrayed. He looked out over the world below, and looked up at the sky all around him.
He looked at the empty space on his third left finger, looked down at Lorum, and began to undo the harness that held him to the ship.
The navarchus saw this, and ordered the chiurgeon to help him haul the man back down. Panicked, he cried out, “Aneen! Boy! Don’t do this!” He hauled the wakestrap in, hand over hand, heart pounding, thundering in fear.
Nathan was nearly within arm’s reach when it was apparent he was holding to the strap and nothing else. “Thank you, navarchus, for saving my life,” he called.
“You’re welcome, Aneen, I–” He reached out and offered his hand, trembling.
Nathan waited until he was close enough that when he reached out, he could take hold of the ring on the leather thong about Tenuis’s neck. He snapped the thong, and ducked Lorem’s grasp, saying “Snälla förlåt mig.”
And then he let go.
* * *