This is Issue #78 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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The march in the night air was quick, silent, and desperately awkward. Jules bit her tongue hard enough to bleed, to keep herself from saying anything as she strode next to Nixus, all but running to keep up with the taller woman’s long strides.
Nathan and Sollerti walked ahead even faster, shoulder to shoulder, each of them eyeing the other without rancor, curious as to the weapons and strengths of the other.
Jules wore a dark cloak, as did Nathan; accompanied by the officers, they weren’t likely to be bothered, but at the same time, no one wanted any questions. At the docks, which were inordinately busy for the wee hours, Nixus stopped, and looked back at Jules. “You haven’t said much,” she noted. “That is not like you. Have you learned to hold your tongue?”
Jules looked up at Nixus and said nothing, simply waited to be shown where she should go.
“I liked you better when you had fight left in you,” Nixus said, sounding disgusted.
Jules shrugged, her shoulders slumped. “I liked you better when you weren’t vindictive about shit I can’t control. What, you want me to not be happy my husband’s alive?”
“I wanted you not to hurt my brother. You don’t understand what you did to him,” Nixus said, and this statement wasn’t a stab, like all the rest had been. Instead, it was low and aching. “He had a purpose, in the Army. He wanted that — but you inspired something different–”
A rather large grouping of pilgrims had docked, and was making their way up one of the gangplanks. The sudden influx of unwashed human, talking loudly, laughing, jeering, reminded Jules of something, and she felt white sheets of lightning fear crackle up behind her eyes.
“Shut up,” Jules said, or tried to say, but her tongue felt numb. It was like slipping, but not at all. It was more like remembering.
“Excuse me?” Nixus snapped.
“Shut up.” Jules panted, backing away from the gangplank, flinching from the grouping as they split like a river flowing around rocks, surrounding her, Nixus, Nathan, Sollerti. The rowdy pilgrims continued along the docks, headed for the main.
She saw, on more than one of them, when their cloaks fluttered, that they were wearing armor.
The black armor of Tenebrae.
“Nix–” Jules said, and her voice was lost in her throat.
Nixus turned back, and her hand went to her sword when she saw the fear on Jules’s face. She looked around, and saw the same soldiers, and laughed. “It’s fine, Westlander. You should be thrilled. We listened to your idea. Fight them in the air, yes? We called in pilgrims of our own. Every city state within Intemeritus Posito. To the Kriegs, they look like passengers. Pilgrims for the coronation. But every one is a soldier. We’re sending them off tomorrow, before the main offensive gets here, to stop them before the warships get over Ilona proper.”
Jules’s stomach squirmed with fear. She had a sickbelly anxiety in her, and she hurried her step, saying, “But Tenebrae?”
“So long as you don’t keep them at your back, it’s fine,” Nixus laughed. “Besides, they’re Plaga’s men now, and they got rid of the corruption in the ranks. He’s far more of an idealist than his father or brother ever were. He’s a man of honor.”
The queasiness that still roiled within Jules wasn’t precisely eased, but Nixus had started walking again, dismissive and in a hurry.
Nixus and Jules caught up with Sollerti and Nathan, and Nixus waved a hand at the ship. “There you go.”
Jules stared at it — it wasn’t a passenger ship. It wasn’t broken down.
“That’s… a Domitor,” Jules said, looking over at Nixus.
“That’s The Agilis,” Nixus said, glancing over at Jules. “She’s yours. My brother bought her for you. Why, I’ll never–”
“You know what?” Jules said, turning on Nixus, clenching her fists. “I’m tryina be polite. I really am, Summus, but y’make it damned hard. I saved him. He saved me. I didn’t ask for his love, and I told him more than a hundred times it would never work. I never lied. I never lied to him, and just because he cared for me when I bled, just because he made me come, you right bitch, don’t mean I owe him my heart!”
“So you don’t love him?” Nixus pressed, leaning in, baring her teeth.
“Maybe I do, an maybe I hate myself for it! How could I love a man I can’t forgiv–” Jules stopped short, staring at Nixus, furious.
“What’s that?” Nixus wondered, cocking her head to the side, crossing her arms over her chest, looking smug.
For a moment, all Jules could do was stare, breathing heavily, struggling not to cause a commotion that would garner the attention of the soldiers that had finally left the docks. “He let them all die, Nixus. To spite me. I can’t look at him without knowing that,” Jules said, defeated. Tears rolled over her cheeks. “Are y’fucking happy now?”
“No,” Nixus said softly, reaching to put a hand on Jules’s shoulder. “But I respect you for finally being honest — not just with me, but with yourself.”
“Oh, you’re a fuckin peach.” Jules barked with laughter, bitter.
“I believe that you love him, Westlander,” Nixus said solemnly, glancing past Jules, to the ship. “I believe you, now.”
Jules looked back over her shoulder at the ship, and then back at Nixus, and said, “I don’t suppose he bought me a crew for it? I’m right fucking amazing, but I’m not sure Nate and I can run one of these all on our lonesome.”
“You’ll have to figure that out on your own,” Nixus said, looking back at Jules. “I’ve still got a hell of a lot farther to go tonight. We all do.”
“I’m not running,” Jules said to Nixus. “This isn’t an escape for me.”
Nixus cracked a smile and said, “He’d have gotten you a Kriegic ship, if he thought that. Our ship means you’re on our side.”
“Are we friends, Nixus?” For all the previous hostility, Jules felt her heart lightening, felt the weight of such unacknowledged misery lifting off her shoulders.
“Friends?” Nixus said, frowning slightly. She looked as though the word were distasteful on her tongue. “Nos non sunt amici, Jules,” she said, shaking her head. “Friends can never inspire such fury.”
Jules heart sank all over again, and she lifted her chin, ready to lose herself in planning with Nathan any time now. She felt a little silly, having opened herself up to that. She should’ve expected that response. Then again, it made it all the more fiercely touching as Nixus stood taller, her back straight, as she offered Jules a salute, closing her fist over her heart.
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