This is Issue #57 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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He woke to the sound of his door being tried, the sound of his father snarling in the hall. Nixus scrambled back through the doorway connecting their rooms, and he laid back down, his heart thundering, and pretended to be asleep.
When the door banged open, he could not help but flinch; he rolled over to see what the fuss was about, but then his father was upon him, his breath reeking of aetheris, his hands tearing at the bedclothes.
“Visne mutto inter tibi crura, Phaedra?” Exosus growled. “Ego dabo vobis unum,” he hissed, undoing the laces at his braccae.
As he opened his mouth to cry out, to beg for peace, for rescue, but one of Exosus’s hands covered his nose and mouth, while the other sought to clear the fabric between them. He panicked as black blossoms began to explode behind his eyes; he couldn’t breathe.
“Docebo vos decet mulierem conversari–” Exosus was still snarling, growling like an animal, fumbling in his drunken mania. He did not notice they were no longer alone, not even as Nixus brought the statuette down against the back of his head. He slumped in the bed, his body jerking once, and then going still.
Nixus pulled him away, letting Father fall to the floor. “Come,” she said, offering her hand out, her expression grim. “Did he manage it?”
“Was I too late?” Nixus said, panting, looking fearful. “I had to find something heavy enough, my Coryfrater, to–”
Coryphaeus threw his arms around Nixus and silenced her, shaking his head. “He did not. He did not. You were not too late,” he promised her.
Once Nixus accepted she had not killed Exosus, and that Coryphaeus could not allow her to finish that job, she retied his braccae, took the statuette, and landed a blow squarely between the unconscious man’s legs, for good measure. Servants were called; Coryphaeus let Nixus speak — she was easily convincing as she explained the master of the house was in his cups and simply needed to be put to bed.
“I’ll join the army.”
“We’ll tell mother.”
“No!” Coryphaeus looked stunned, and frightened. He shook his head, holding Nixus by the shoulders. “You will tell no one. I’ll join the army.”
“You’re too young. He won’t allow it.”
“You cannot tell mother.”
“But why not?”
“She would blame me. Besides, he will not remember what happened,” Coryphaeus told her. He would remember it, always, he was sure, but Father would not. Even if he ever did, he would deny it. “He was drunk. He will deny it. I could be scourged in the square for such accusations. I will wait. I will wait, and I will avoid him. I will avoid bringing attention to myself for this. I have been hiding for fifteen years. I will continue to do so.”
Nixus relented, not knowing how else to help. The statuette was cleaned, and put back in her room.
All that remained was trying to sleep through the rest of the night.
Coryphaeus was certain he would not manage it.
Rather than have him sleep in his own bed, Nixus took him to hers. Laid to the pillow, cradled in his twin sister’s arms, Coryphaeus fell asleep, and stayed there dreamless, until the next morning.
It was of no use — whether Exosus remembered or would ever admit to himself of his actions that night, he behaved with nothing but cold disdain toward Coryphaeus from then on. He refused to call him anything but Phaedra, referred to him as ‘the most wretched daughter of mine’ and would show him not the slightest hint of anything approaching love or approval. Coryphaeus found all the braccae and shirts removed from his rooms, replaced with capistri and full skirts, scarves, and the most feminine of dresses. Every time he managed to get himself a pair of pants or a robe, it was inevitably found by a servant, who took it to launder, but then it never returned.
When suitors began to call for Nixus, several were arranged for Coryphaeus. He pled sick, pled monthlies, pled everything he could think of, to keep from being farmed off as a dutiful wife; it was easy to avoid being matched — no young man particularly wanted to be chained to someone who would rather be dead than married.
One afternoon, Exosus stormed into his room again, where he was busy with his studies. He’d been working hard to make certain he would get top marks for the entrance exam into the militia; it was only a few short weeks until his sixteenth birthday. He would be able to leave the dreaded family halls, and finally be free.
“What are you doing?” Exosus snapped.
“Studying, sir,” Coryphaeus answered meekly; he did not meet his father’s eyes, and behaved as quietly as he could.
“Yes, I suppose you think you’re so terribly clever. Off to join with the Prince in his army, hm? Going to defend the country? Do you think they take your kind, there?” Exosus’s voice was thick with hatred.
“I don’t know, sir.” Coryphaeus imagined that honesty, in some cases, was the only answer possible.
“You don’t know what kind you are?” Exosus said, eyes lit up as he ran with the tease, the imaginary bait taken in his furious mind. “I know what kind, child. You’re an abomination. Say you’re not my daughter, hmm?” He paced back and forth, a wretched panther in a cage of his own making.
“Y–I…” Coryphaeus looked up at Exosus, and then closed his mouth. There was nothing he could say that would take the look of disgust off his Father’s face.
“If you’re not my daughter,” Exosus hissed, “If you’re not a girl, I suppose you have no need of girlish things.” He flung open the closet, and began to tear apart the dresses he had tried to force him to wear. “No silky clothes,” he snarled. He flung jars and pots of unused makeups and perfumes at the vanity mirror. “No makeups.” He ripped the canopy for his bed, and then, standing beside it, frowned down at a small, misshapen lump laying at the pillows.
Coryphaeus felt his heart freeze. No. Poppa, the doll given to him by Mirus when he’d gone into a Legio. It was a constant companion. A memory of a better time, before things had come all undone.
Exosus must have seen the look on Coryphaeus’s face; he grabbed up the doll, and bared his teeth, growling, “And no dolls.” Before Coryphaeus could object, Exosus tore the thing open, and flung it to the floor, determined to crush his child in any way he could imagine.
He stalked back out, leaving Coryphaeus to pick up the tattered remains.
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