This is Issue #91 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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Faeles Ferox, Legatus of the Darkest Heart, Tenebrae’s most vicious, victorious, horrific Legio, raised her brows and leaned in, listening, rapt like some child before bedtime, hearing an especially captivating story.
“She drank it down.” Gemma continued the tale, watching the Legatus, her eyes narrowed. “Every last drop. She fell asleep, believing her husband had given her something to soothe her. Instead, the venefica gave him the purest essences of distilled aetheris and sonoria radices. It woke the sight in me when I was nothing more than a swimming babe in the dark of my mother’s belly.”
“And your mother?” Faeles wondered.
“Became nothing more than a living doll,” Gemma said, her eyes glassy and far off. “My father thought to let her finish bearing me, that perhaps when it was done, she would return to him. So when I was to be born, I was cut from her. My father ordered the chiurgeons to dispose of me, but instead I was taken to a merchant family that had been longing for a child. My mother was given back to my father, but she never truly woke. She healed, and would eat and drink, but she was nothing. He’d ruined her for nothing. And I ended up here, in Ilona, the daughter of a merchant. The mother that took me in, once she had me, had six other daughters, but I had been favored. I had been chosen.”
“You are still chosen, Domina,” Faeles said. “You do command the shadow army. The Darkest Heart is yours to wield. With it, you could rule all of Intemeratus Posito.”
“All in time,” Gemma said. “The citystate already has a ruler. My Queen. She and the Guardian will rule. They will have a child. The Venator line will continue.”
“But you could claim the Guardian,” Faeles said, looking pleased with the idea. “You could have him, straight out. A fine specimen he is,” she chuckled, her voice a low purr. “I imagine that body paint would–” Faeles’s voice cut off suddenly as she felt the cold pressure of a knife dig against her throat.
“In case I did not make it plain enough, Faeles,” Gemma said softly, “The Guardian belongs to My Queen. Tenebrae and I are a weapon she will yield against the coming storm. I am not interested in his body paint, nor what lies beneath it. His power is sacred. His protection of our land is sacred. I will not allow you to continue to profane such a thing, and if you insist, Legatus, the Darkest Heart will be ruled by its second in command before you manage to finish your disgusting statement.”
“I apologize,” Ferox whispered, swallowing against the blade. “Paenitet mea, Domina. It was foolish of me to press such a vulgar idea. Spill my blood to salve such a slight, if it pleases you, or accept that it will not happen again.”
“And if it does?” Gemma wonders, watching the woman before her.
Ferox leaned in, and the knife slipped briefly against her skin; she could feel the sting of it, but she did not flinch. “If you cannot accept my word, our bond is useless,” she said. “Cut my throat now and be done with it.”
Gemma bared her teeth, irritated, refusing to let it lie. “I–
The Legatus reached up, grabbing hold of Gemma’s hand, and pulled the knife tighter against her throat. “Cut it now, Domina. I am Faeles Ferox and I will only bow so low. Forgive the slight, or cut my throat. Be willing to–”
Gemma moved only a little, but it was enough.
Ferox hadn’t seen the second knife. She fell silent, her eyes so wide the whites showed, like a panicked horse.
“Think twice before you command me, Legatus. I am your Domina. You lead the Darkest Heart, and I lead you,” Gemma hissed. “You know I will not cut your throat. You are worth more to me. But I will cut you elsewhere that will not render you worthless to me or to the army.”
The Legatus swallowed roughly as she closed her eyes and bowed her head. “I apologize, Domina. I forget myself.”
“Well, remember quickly, Ferox. I have little patience for fools. I require far more loyalty. I don’t require your submission, merely that our goals and priorities align. You cannot require my direction for each action, or I will have to shepherd you through every instance — how will you be worth anything to me, then?”
Faeles was silent.
Gemma carefully withdrew the knife from where it had been pressing between the other woman’s thighs. “I will answer myself, then. You will not. You will not be worth anything to me,” Gemma said, biting the words off. “You have little respect for the Guardian. Listen to me when I tell you this: he is the salvation of everyone on this side of the Luminora.”
“Due respect to you,” Faeles began quietly, “but the being called the Guardian is an elevated Westlander–”
“He was reborn through blood. His novo, Faeles. It was witnessed by much of the palace, by dozens of chiurgeons,” Gemma said quietly. “He heals all wo–”
“There are rumors that is merely trickery, camera-work, little more than a stage-magician’s act,” Faeles’s interruption was low, urgent.
“Do you wish to kill him yourself?” Gemma laughed at the ludicrous idea. “Go, Faeles. Do as I have instructed. There will come a time when you will see his power for yourself. If you still disbelieve then, have your crisis of faith at his feet, not mine.”
“I hear and obey, Domina. The Darkest Heart is yours. We are your shadow army,” Faeles Ferox promised, bowing to Gemma.
“And what will that army do for its leader?”
“Keep her safe. Fail to assassinate the Queen.”
“Kill Acer Plaga in the confusion.”
“It is as the prophecy wills,” Faeles murmured.
When the Legatus left, Gemma crawled back into her bed, and lit her huqqa once more. She smoked the rest of the resin she had with her, trying to recapture the taste of Lucida’s aetheris-stained lips against hers.
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