This is Issue #92 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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Moving through the city just before first light, Sha was struck by how beautiful it all was. She had seen much of the Ilonan countryside during her years scouting, but always from far away, and never much city life. Even while she’d been in captivity, she saw little, and was certain she wouldn’t have appreciated what she saw anyway, but in these moments as she and Danival ran for the palace, she found herself oddly captivated by the architecture, the broad lawns, the sweeping staircases, fountains, and gardens laid out over the city, regardless of the wealth — or apparent lack thereof — of the people living in the area.
Getting close to the palace wasn’t hard; with cloaks on, they could all but walk right in — the coronation would be happening in a short amount of time, and everyone seemed welcome.
In fact, they were able to get a remarkable amount of information directly from citizens who were more than happy to talk about the coming ceremony.
While Danival was massive, especially compared to most people simply walking in the front gate — he wasn’t the only one. There were Kriegs who had been enslaved, fantastically tall Ilonans, hosts of men, women, children, and beasts of burden bringing in carts that were only barely inspected.
Any other day they may have struggled with getting in, but today, the Palace didn’t care overmuch about security. If you weren’t a Westlander, all you cared about was seeing your Guardian and Queen, an showing your support. All smaller squabbles were set aside in the face of what was coming.
Once they’d walked in to the main Palace courtyard, they looked for a place to sit and wait, to watch the short ceremony. “If she’s here,” Sha said, “she would be near the Guardian and Queen. She’ll show up on the vid screen. Once we get eyes on her, it’ll be easy to follow her; she’ll stick out easy enough.”
“She is memorable, yes, your little Celd?”
“She’s half Krieg, too,” Sha said absently, scanning the growing crowd. “General–“
“Not to be calling me this in foreign land. Size and accent enough are making me memorable enough, Sha,” Danival said quietly.
She nodded, shrugging. “Sorry — I just. Look around. Are you noticing what I’m noticing?” She gestured to the people filing in to the huge courtyard, and then pointed out to the city, the streets filling with people.
“What are you noticing?”
“That this… Is a lot of people. You were going to do the shipyards, the barracks — the Kriegic strike was going to be pretty intensive, General, but–“
“Is pilgrimage for coronation,” Danival said, staring straight ahead. “City will be full to bursting. Millions of enemy.”
Sha stared hard, but tried to make it look like she wasn’t. Her eyes rested on men and women here and there, but she kept getting her gaze caught by children, playing. Children, celebrating. Thousands upon thousands of them.
She felt her stomach roil as she remembered the valley, and what Abe had done.
Danival’s voice was low, casual. “This is war. You are soldier, O’Naiya. You are knowing this.”
“This won’t be war. This will be slaughter,” Sha said, her shoulders slumped. There was no real way to stop it, either. They were to get Jules and get out — out of the city, out of range of the attack.
“That is what war is,” Danival said. “There is no honor, no glory, no justice. War is brutal. War is killing. War is strongest becomes right. Survivors are victors,” he said. “Might rules.”
Sha felt like Kieron must have felt when she tried to explain that the Ilonans were the enemy, but they weren’t necessarily wrong or bad, and Centralis certainly wasn’t defeating them.
She felt betrayed.
“What did your intelligence say about this before we dropped?” Sha kept her voice low as she stood to his right, speaking nearly in his ear. “Did you know it would be so many people?”
“Yes. Is pilgrimage for coronation. Hundreds of thousands. Would be great blow against Ilona and all other city states. Capital, ruling family, land and people in ruins,” he answered.
“The Kriegs are prepared to escalate to that level? There are children here. Children.” Pale and shaking, Sha turned her face away and looked at the joy that surrounded them.
“Kriegs are prepared for acceptable losses. I am prepared for acceptable losses,” he told her quietly. “Especially with so many of them bearing the serpent.” His expression was grim as he pulled his cloak around himself a little more tightly.
“The serpent?” Sha looked around warily.
“Is on the armor. Can only see when they — there. That one, revealing it to another?” He nodded in the direction of a few men who were greeting one another like long-lost family, embracing, clapping one another on the back, speaking in joyous tones about the coronation and the coming celebration.
“They belong to army of murderous thieves,” Danival said quietly. “Much of Ilona is full of science, art, math, advances we owing to great minds. But animal savagery comes, too.”
“They don’t have the monopoly on that,” Sha said darkly. “You know what Abramov did?”
“Viridian Valley massacre, yes. We did not support this.”
“Only because you wanted to come and do it first hand?” Sha snorted, furious, trying not to clench her fists or grind her teeth. “What about acceptable losses?”
“Abramov burned non-tactical targets,” Danival said. “Entirely non-military. Capital is heart of Ilona. Black, monstrous heart. Kill its ruler? Reduce its army to ashes? Markets, industries, societies this side of Damnation Ridge collapse. Kriegsland will install government. Renegotiate alliance with Centralis.”
“Fuck, Nate had always said you were — that you had a hard-on for procedure. For Kriegsland and the military, and winning. That you were calculating and merciless.” Her voice grew angry, quieter but fiercer. She leaned in, baring her teeth at him as she leveled the accusation, “You know he joined my brother’s ship because you left him? He was my quarter and he died in this fucking forsaken city because I let him turn the ship because you–“
She stopped — Danival’s eyes, ice blue as they were, only looked hard. He watched her, silent, and accepted her admission of grief, of guilt.
He wore the same pain she did, and she shook her head, wishing they could both shake off the heaviness of responsibility, however indirect the weight.
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