This is Issue #76 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!
* * *
Jules laid on the bed, her eyes glassy, her stare blank. Coryphaeus had turned her, so if she happened to vomit, she wouldn’t choke. He fanned her hair out behind her, the riot of red curls tangled; there was ornamental grass stuck in it, from where she and Nixus had rolled about in the lawn, on the flags, fighting their quiet, ridiculous fight.
He sat beside her, looking at her, looking through her, his eyes on her, his mind somewhere in the middle distance. “Do you have any idea… Do you have any inkling of what my life has been for the last half of a year, after having met you?”
She said nothing, lost in her own world, her lips parted, but not by words.
He continued, his expression shifting between pain and awe. “I spent my youth… apart. Less than whole, in the eyes of my father. I spent two years without any touch. I was supposed to have left for the army. I was supposed to get out, but I was a prisoner in my own home, in my own body. When I finally did manage to free myself, to make something of myself, to get into the army and secure a commission as an officer? Once I’d won the respect of my men, once I’d managed to claim victory over my own life, your heavens-damned backwards swamp of a country violated the sanctity of our borders. Your ship burned a swath through thousands of people,” he said, his voice gentle, regardless of the words he spoke.
If she’d been conscious, she might finally have held her tongue and simply let the misery come; she knows she could have done something. She could have stopped Abe. She could have done something more, somehow. She belonged to the army that likely would never have punished a man for doing such a thing. And so she’d have been silent, still — but not as silent as she was, then, her chest rising and falling in a slow, even rhythm. Almost like sleep.
Not at all like sleep.
He rubbed his face, shaking his head. “And you fell out of the sky, and you threatened my life more than once. Called me a monster. I’ve seen hatred and fear before, but the two of them on your face that day made me wonder just how far removed you cousins of ours had finally become. My prince had promised we would all be joined again, one day, that you would fall to your knees knowing the error of your ways and beg forgiveness to be brought back into our house.”
He took Jules’ hand and said, “The way my father imagined I might do. You made me wonder if we’d had it wrong, all along, if your freedom was simply your right. Or if perhaps, my freedom had been an error. You made me question things I had not imagined I could question. And then you threw my secret in my face, threatened me with something I am not certain you could comprehend.”
Coryphaeus paused then, and reached to cup Jules’s cheek in his hand, running his thumb over her lips. he was silent for a long time, before he jerked his hand back, as if realizing the intimacy, as if it burned him to touch her in that fashion.
He put his hands in his lap and watched them as he whispered, “I saved them, Jules. The rest of your crew. I didn’t want you to know I’d done it, didn’t want you to think it was to make you love me, or bed me, or even stay here in this place you could never belong. The ones sent to slavery, the ones given to the night watch, the ones that had been sent to be tongue-cut or bound in shackles in both mines and kitchens. I will never have forgiveness for those that died in the great room, never have forgiveness for those who died in the Hunt, never truly have your forgiveness for the hesitation, the cowardice, the hubris I displayed in denying your plea. Not really.”
Jules said nothing, slipped or unconscious or play the world’s cruelest trick.
He swallowed roughly, biting his lip, and closed his eyes. “Never, really. But I got two of your friends over the wall, and Nixus got them even further, and as for the rest, I called in every favor, paid handsomely, and in all honesty, thank the heavens my father is dead and I have come into an inheritance, because I had gambled on being able to pay for the rest somehow, and now I can.” He coughed, clearing his throat. “I saved them. I did what I could. I tried to keep my promise to you,” he said softly.
Tears spilled; he looked down at her, shaking his head, a pained smile tight against his lips. “I’m giving you your army Jules, giving you your men. I tried to save them, and I’m trying to save you, now, as well.”
He rose from her side, and left her there, in Nixus’s apartments.
* * *
“You’re not the face I expected to be seeing.” Nathan’s voice was low, easy.
Coryphaeus felt faintly infuriated that the man wouldn’t even seem tense, as though he had nothing to fear from the Legatus. “Very little comes as expected.”
“Mm. Like you, bein a halfway-decent guy?”
Then again, perhaps it wasn’t arrogance. Perhaps it was trust. Coryphaeus looked at Nathan, saying, “I have been known to be an honorable man.” He gestured that Nathan should come, and follow him.
“Lead the way,” Nathan said softly, and moved swiftly after the Legatus; it didn’t take long to make it to Nixus’s apartments. When Nathan saw her on the bed, he knelt at her side and touched her cheek with a reverence Coryphaeus wondered at. Did his own face radiate that sort of adoration? Was it so plain to those around him?
“Can you get her out?”
“Sure?” Nathan looked faintly perplexed. “She’s a slip of a thing; I can carry her while she’s down.”
Coryphaeus swallowed a desert of dashed hopes, closing his eyes. “Out of Ilona.”
Nathan’s brows lifted; he shared a cocky smile with Coryphaeus, chuckling. “You’re damned right I can.”
Turning his face from Jules, Coryphaeus opened his eyes and focused his gaze on Nathan. “F’I give you a ship, can you get the other two hundred of you out, too?”
* * *