This is Issue #65 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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“Famulo,” Coryphaeus said, smiling to Secta. “I thank you for taking special pains with my servant; feel free to rejoin your master in the festivities.” He went to Jules’s side and put the food and drink on a table beside her, eyeing the bucket with no small amount of hesitance and disgust.
“She has neither seen, nor purged, Legatus,” Secta said, rising. “And–though it may be bold to say it–“
Jules’s head snapped up; she stared at Secta, imploring. Don’t. Don’t do it. Say nothing. Say. Nothing.
Secta caught Jules’ expression; his eyebrows lifted, and he paused in the middle of speaking.
“Yes?” Coryphaeus wondered, looking back at Secta, expectant. “What is bold, then?”
“I… am happy for your rising, Lord. This is your house, now, is it not? Though death is not necessarily always a joyous thing, this occasion marks a dawn for your family.” Secta’s honeyed voice made a smooth recovery; he smiled, bowing low. “I wish all blessings of the Guardian upon you.”
“Ah… thank you, yes.” Coryphaeus smiled, nodding to Secta, and gave a light wave to dismiss him, so he could turn his attentions to Jules, who kept her head down, waiting for them to be alone.
Once Secta had finally left the room, Jules snagged the aetheris and swigged it down, then moved to take the plate of food, trying to make herself eat slowly. “Thank you. I feel like I haven’t truly eaten in weeks.”
“You haven’t truly eaten in weeks,” Cory said, moving to stand up and meander around the room, looking over the bits and baubles that decorated it, the banner of the house crest that belonged to his father. A great phoenix was semi-wound in a hooded serpent’s tail, the bird’s talons piercing the serpent, the serpent’s fangs piercing the flank of the bird. Coryphaeus had found it a spectacular reminder of never becoming too focused on a singular outcome — both the phoenix and the serpent thought themselves winning — but both were soon to die.
He remembered his father droning on about the true meaning involving something about the black field upon which the figures rested — the shadow overcoming both beasts — that all things fell to death at some point, and their struggles were neither epic nor worth remembering. Only those who sought to serve past petty needs of the moment would ever accomplish true goals.
Coryphaeus lifted his own glass to the banner, snorting in salute and then drinking.
Jules wry voice was easily heard over the clamor of his own thoughts. “N’my country, y’know, w’call that ‘daddy issues’.”
Coryphaeus coughed into his drink, rolling his eyes, and looked over at Jules, saying, “Couldn’t maintain the facade for the entire duration, could you?”
“D’ye really want me t’pretend, when we’re alone, Legatus?” Jules wondered, setting her clean plate aside. She stood, without wavering, and uttered a long, low sigh of satisfaction. “M’I really t’play the facade for you even when no one’s watching?”
“If Nixus were here, what do you think she’d do?”
“She’d call one of us a stupri cunni, roll her eyes, and leave the room again,” Jules said aptly.
“No, I meant the banner. Do you think she’d salute him? Drink to him?” Coryphaeus wondered, frowning.
“I–” Jules looked up at the banner, her eyes moving over the tapestry threads. It was an expertly woven thing, beautiful even in the horrible way it portrayed the dying beasts. The surrounding details, past the field of black, were breathtaking in their precision. “I dunno,” she admitted. “Why d’you ask?”
“She killed him,” Coryphaeus said, voicing aloud the thing he’d been fairly certain of, since seeing the site of his father’s death, and then absolutely certain of, once he read the note written to himself.
“She what?” Jules’s eyes went huge. She moved to stand in front of him, saying, “But–“
“She and I spoke, one night, while you were in and out of aetheris, trying to master the visions, and then she left. She stays with her Legios, with Sollerti, most times, but I’d heard from various servants who still give me information, that she came here. Stayed the night,” Coryphaeus said softly.
“A few days later, while she was with us, my father was announced dead. I’ve seen Nixus truly surprised. She wasn’t. And… the letter from my father was–” He drank more aetheris and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “There is no way in this world my father wrote those words with his own hands.”
“If you know–” Jules said, looking worried.
“It’s possible the whole house knows. We’ll never bring it up, outside this moment. The aetheris will keep our secrets between us,” he said, nodding and gesturing to her with his glass. He drank the last of it and set it aside.
“Your sister killed your father.”
“And named me sole heir in his note,” Coryphaeus said. “My mother gave our house a new name, and the Guardian blessed it. I am the eldest son of a very wealthy family,” he says, looking to Jules.
“What.. what would Nixus get out of it?” Jules wondered.
“She’d get left alone. She doesn’t want the money. She doesn’t want to be married off. She wants to be in the military. She wants to run her own life. I was the one who joined it only to get away from him. I’d wanted to know how to run the household for years. At best I’d have been married off… somewhere. Anywhere far from him. But now–” He laughed, tears on his face, giddiness overwhelming him. “I am a legitimate son, Jules. I’m free. Free from him. Free from being tied to the military. Free.”
“Congratulations?” Jules’s voice worried faintly — she wasn’t sure what that meant for her, and what he would expect of her… as a slave.
Coryphaeus turned from the banner, where he’d been marveling at his mother’s intricate tapestry work, his eyes flitting from flowers and leaves to birds and script and all manner of details he’d never noticed, and looked to Jules. “It’s been… it is known. There have been Lords before me, who have–“
Jules’s eyes darkened; she cocked her head to the side. Don’t you dare. Don’t you keep me a whore in this pretty cage. Don’t offer that to me. She advanced on him, fury in her eyes.
“They have set aside their concubina,” he began, trying not to stutter. “Retired them, in a way. Gave them a house and household,” he said, smiling tentatively. “Relieved them of all obligation to his desires.”
“What?” Jules frowned slightly, looking bewildered. That certainly didn’t go in the direction she’d expected.
“It’s been done before, I am saying to you, Commander. When I publicly take the place as head of this house, I could set you free. I could give you money, land, or just.. my seal, and a way out,” he offered, looking hopeful. “Or we could go with my original plan — I simply smuggle you out, with resources, but considering the place will be a war zone–“
“Y’tryin awful hard t’get rid of me, Legatus.” Jules tried to keep her voice level, when she spoke.
“Only because I finally accepted that’s what you want,” Coryphaeus quipped.
Jules made sure she didn’t let her expression twist to hurt — instead, she smirked in something between smugness and irritation. “N’what if the thing that makes me wanna get away from anyone is when they try to make my decisions for me? What if you don’t know what I want?” Jules asked as she closed the gap between them, and kissed his mouth. What if I don’t know, either? But that was a thought best examined alone, while he was off busy with his family.
Coryphaeus looked shocked as her lips pressed to his; he stared at her glassily when she pulled back.
“Now go,” she said, her own heart thundering. “I’ll stay out of sight, but this is your celebration too, hmm? Y’have t’stop runnin off into darkened rooms. Who knows what all those guests are already gossiping about?”
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