This is Issue #94 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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After the few meetings with Acer and other leaders who had knelt before them, Jet and Lucida left the confines of the Palace to meet the people, and let the revelry continue — .
When Jet stepped out into the courtyard, wearing his braccae, his knives, his paint, his mask, the crowds roared in jubilation. Telescreens across the citystate showed him in all his glorious delight, and both he and the Queen stepped into the fray of the people who had come to join them, touching hands, giving blessings, walking unafraid through the crowds.
Dani didn’t surge forward with everyone else; he let the crowds pass him, as they moved to try to be closer to both the Queen and the Guardian. He turned, and saw that Sha had been lost in the surge. Alarmed, he watched her carried forward in the crowd, her face turned toward the Guardian.
She wasn’t in the crowd — she couldn’t see them at all.
What Sha saw was rain, muddy ground, and the Guardian, with Djara in his arms.
She could taste the rain on her lips, the blood in the air. Djara was not yet dead, not quite dead, mostly dead, dead with a sword of black glass run through the middle of her, punched out just under her ribs, through her belly, where she used to slap her hands, laughing when Nate teasingly complained of being airsick from her flying.
Djara, who had loved Penny.
Sha staggered in the rush of people, drowning in a cold rain that wasn’t falling. Her eyes were wild, whites showing like those of a spooked horse — she tossed her mane of bronze braids and curls, stamped her feet, tried to suck in calming breaths but could only smell blood.
The beast in front of her was painted in it.
He wore lines of Djara’s blood on his face, painted a red X on his body, let his skin steam with it as her life ended.
She reached for the pistols at her hips, the ever present deathbringers that had solved even the problem of her broken brother. She had not killed the savage animal in the Hunt, but she would, now.
She would, now.
Her fingers slid around the grips of her guns, and she felt hate rise in her throat — she readied herself to scream it at the monster that had taken so much from her. Tension filled and left her, filled and left her, as though it were her breath, or the blood that howled in her ears.
Before she could pull those guns free, a shadow crossed over her. The solid presence of Danival blocked her path, and she bared her teeth, looking up at him, wild-eyed, fury burning in her, with nowhere else to go. “Move,” she hissed. “You fucking move, you fucking behemoth.”
“Is not the place for this, Captain,” Danival said.
“You don’t get to tell me–“
“I am not getting to order you, but I am telling you.” His voice was low, and he moved slowly, carefully, keeping himself between her and the royal retinue. “You are here for your friend. You will miss chance in getting friend if you are attempting to be killing Ilonan’s guardian.”
Sha stared up at him, hating that he assumed he was right, and let her shoulders slump as she looked away, fuming. “Fine,” she hissed. “Fine, we’ll do nothing. He’ll work the crowd and–“
“Is not nothing. Think hard and–“
“I’m sick of you telling me my own priorities, General.”
“And I am sick of many things, Captain, but I am doing them anyway, because I jump with you to find this woman, the wife of young man I knew lifetimes ago. If you throw yourself at Guardian now, what becomes of her?”
Sha’s eyes glittered, furious, undaunted. “Maybe I put her in your hands. Maybe I leave her to fend for herself. She’s strong. Maybe she doesn’t need to be rescued.”
Danival fell silent, glowering, and then simply stepped back, and out of the way. “Clearly I am not understanding motivations. Is not my place to be knowing your heart.”
She stepped past him, hesitant, now, her hands no longer on her guns, and moved to get closer to the Guardian, who had paused in his crowd-going.
She stood back, watching, as he was presented with a small troupe of young men and women, dressed in very simple, grey shifts and braccae. They held their chins up, as no prisoners might, and seemed definitely out of place.
“Who are these beautiful citizens?” Jet looked them over, curious as they stared at him, dressed in simple grey shifts and braccae.
“These are the eldest sons and daughters of the ruling houses from the citystates east of Ilona, my Lord,” Acer called, from back near the door. “As you requested?”
“Ah, yes.” Jet’s eyes lit up, and he nodded. He began to pull small knives of black glass from where they were carefully strapped to his skin. He gave each of the young men and women a knife, and then opened his arms and simply stood before them.
Many of the troupe looked almost frightened, but stood before the Guardian, ready, waiting — though they obviously didn’t know what for.
“I had heard there were some within our lands that doubted my love for my Queen, for this soil, for you, my people,” he called out. “Chosen by the Prince. Dead, and returned. There are those that believe me unworthy. Even as you have seen me confirmed as the Guardian, have seen me fall, and rise — there are those who believe I am little more than a staged trick, made of smoke and mirror.”
Acer felt the bottom of his stomach drop out. He wasn’t certain what Jet had taken from their earlier talks; he could only hope the Guardian did not have it in him to slit the throats of the children of those who knelt, but still spoke in threats and whispers.
Whatever it was Jet had taken from their earlier talks, he confessed to the people before him, “To you, I say — yes, I was a Westlander. Yes, I was born and raised as your enemy. Yes, I was a cadet in the very army that burned a scar through the Valley.”
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