This is Issue #56 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 walk to House Aecus from where Jules had been spending her days and nights was not terribly far, but it felt eternal, as she stepped carefully behind Coryphaeus’s feet, staring at his boots. Her hands were clasped behind her back, and she scurried along after him, not daring to look up or around, for fear someone would notice her, and notice the fact that she was not behaving particularly servant-like.
Her shoulders and thighs stung; Nixus had welted her roughly, much to Coryphaeus’s protest, and Jules’s easy acquiescence. If Coryphaeus were to be seen as lenient toward his servant, it would cause problems. She bore the stripes of his pretended wrath with dignity, and did not wince when Nixus was looking, when possible.
They were welcomed into the home of the newly-dead noble, their childhood home, with no real fanfare. Servants were there to relieve them of their burdens, to bring them bowls of rosewater to wash their hands and faces. No family was there, to embrace them, to kiss their faces. They had arrived before word would reach the rest of the family, which was likely how their mother had wanted it to work.
When she asked after their mother, Nixus was told she was resting and would see no one, not even them, but that they were to be taken to their rooms, which had been made for them, that they were to work with the servants to make the house appropriate to receive guests as quickly as possible. Once family enough had arrived, the Guardian and the Queen would arrive, as well.
“Already?” Coryphaeus blurted aloud; in the marble halls of his childhood home, his voice felt too loud, out of place. He shook his head, cheeks darkened with blush, and looked toward the hall where his long-ago room had resided. He wondered if it still bore the stylings of all he’d struggled with as fifteen year old, or if it had been made into a guest area.
He motioned for Jules to follow him, and was both pleased and amused to note she was excellent at obeying, when she put her mind to it. He and Nixus walked side by side until they reached their doors, next to one another in the hall — they shared a wall, and a door had made their rooms easily one space, when they needed to be close.
Nixus opened hers and stepped in, as she had been doing for some time, the Summus who visited her mother and father regularly, a source of pride, even — as Exosus might’ve said — for a woman.
Coryphaeus opened his door, quietly hoping his hands did not shake as noticeably as he felt they did.
He fussed for the lamp dial, and watched the room come alive, thrown into light as the lanterns hissed into flame.
“Oh,” he said, staring into the room; he had not laid eyes on, nor set foot in it, for ten years, but it was as though he’d been home but yesterday. Tears welled in his eyes, and he looked around, touching this and that, his books, his collections of puzzles, his pieces of art, the crepundia that littered the shelves and cupboards of his room, his– “Poppa,” he said softly, picking it up from where it sat on the bed, a rag doll that looked so very old, and so very much beloved. A rag doll, dressed as a soldier in the Legio. He bowed his head, and closed his eyes.
“You’ve mutilated yourself!”
“I cut my hair–”
“No daughter of mine is going to behave like this.” It was as though Father’s voice rang in that very room, in that very instant.
“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you, father, I’m not–” It was so hard to explain.
“Not another word! Stupri cunni — mother always kissing at your wounds, always soothing your precious feelings,” Father snarled. “What, did she teach of you women’s love, hm? So you think if you want to bed women you must be a man? Is that the nonsense in your head?”
The feel of a blush, so fierce, so shaming, was fire in the cheeks. “No! I just–” All the carefully chosen words thought up beforehand simply withered on the tongue. Father had always been stern, had always loved his son more, his daughters less. He had always been so very hard to please that even scant praise was sought after.
It came easily to Nixus, but it never had, for Phaedra.
“Shhh,” Nixus soothed, holding him tightly. “It’s all right. It’ll be all right. In a few short years, you can join the Legios. They don’t care who you are, so long as you’re good at your job,” she promised. “You can change your name. Change your clothes. You can fit your outsides to match your insides. It’s been done. It’s not even rare. Father’s just.. backward.”
“Change my name.” He tasted the idea as he said it, and felt his heart grow lighter.
“Change your name, exactly.”
“But… who would I be?”
“You would be yourself, cupitus,” Nixus said quietly.
He wept in Nixus’s arms, his cheek pressed to hers. “I will be myself,” he said softly.
“You will be Coryphaeus,” Nixus whispered in the dark, curled around him in the bed, sharing the huge space, connected and talking of everything, as they had always done.
“Coryphaeus,” he said, marveling. “I like it.”
“I like your haircut.”
He smiled, wiped his eyes, and felt as though somehow, there was a way forward.
* * *