This is Issue #34 of DeathWatch, an ongoing Serial. Click that link to go find ‘A Beginning’ and read from there, if you need to catch up.
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Her copper skin and dark hair shone in the light of the candelabras and chandeliers. She looked impossible, dressed like Immanis, rather than a servant. She wore silk brocade. She wore jewels. She wore tattoos and body paint. The plain uniform of the servants had fitted her, and this fit her, too, but it gave Jet more than pause — had she said or done something he took to heart that was a trick? Had she been playing with him, as a cat does a mouse?
“Don’t be mad, caro,” she whispered across the table, as Immanis continued to talk with his guests. “I wasn’t lying. I never get to meet the ones my brother hunts. They choose death too quickly. You don’t have their fear.”
Jet’s eyebrows shot up. Don’t have their fear? He was nothing but afraid! “I–”
“You’re not mad at me, are you?” she said, almost pouting, but then a glint in her eye showed that, too, to be a ruse. “Because if you get sullen, you’ll become infinitely less interesting.” The smirk on her face was the same one curving Imannis’s lips; she had as much the heart of a predator as he did, and Jet knew he would be a fool to forget it.
Didn’t he have every reason to be sullen? Didn’t he have every right to be angry? To be confused?
He sat back, swallowing roughly, and considered his words as he schooled his expression, carefully curving his own lips into the faintest of smiles. He had no idea what he was doing, here. He was out of his league, out of his element, out of his everything. He didn’t know the language, and he didn’t know how to survive here, thousands of miles from home.
He could use a friend, couldn’t he? Even if that friend had sharp teeth.
“Not mad at all,” Jet said. “Just feeling a little stupid I didn’t know who you were.”
“How could you have? And this way I find out how you treat people who serve,” she said, shrugging. Wine bearers came around, and she lifted her glass, and motioned for Jet to do the same.
He watched the purple-red liquid flow into his glass and when he’d received it back, he watched her to see if she would raise hers in a toast, or simply drink. Everyone around the table was still talking, though now and then they stared at both him and Lucy, conversing quickly in Ilonan. When he caught himself straight-faced, he pushed the smile back to his lips, not wanting to appear sullen now, or ungrateful.
Lucida lifted her glass in a silent toast, nodding to him, and then drained it of its contents, watching him.
When she put it to her lips, he mimicked her movement, and as she drank, he resolved to put his glass down only when she did. When she set hers, empty, on the table, he did only a moment afterwards, breathless.
When she laughed, he did, as well, feeling lightheaded in a way that left his spine tingling and his legs restless, his hands hot and his head swimming.
There had been a saying, centuries ago, that the Allied Territories brought up and then destroyed, as they slowly took over more and more of the world, starting wars, attempting to subdue other cultures: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” The Allied Territories did not believe in partaking of culture and learning it; they burned it down and replaced it with what they’d decreed as civilized culture.
Jet knew would not survive a war where he was the only one on his side if he behaved in that fashion; and as such, he would have to forget, would have to become.
“When in Ilona,” he muttered to himself as he allowed his glass to be refilled.
Wine made it easier.
A rather large amount of wine on an empty stomach was a poor choice, on his part, but he weathered it, watching Lucida, watching Immanis, waiting for the food, and when that came, watching the customs of eating to make sure he did not do anything improper or downright offensive.
Luckily, eating in Ilona wasn’t anything too different than eating back at home, or even at the Academy, though the food here was rich, and the courses plentiful. He must have tasted a dozen different things, strange pulpy fruits with bitter rinds, dried fish flavored with ashes — he had asked Lucy to translate it repeatedly until he believed her — and something called a chutney he found he loved, regrettably so, once he knew it had been made with red ants and their larvae.
Hours passed in a dizzying rush of food and drink; he answered questions as Lucida and Immanis translated, asked questions of his own, and as the dinner party broke up, he stumbled away from the table with Lucida, talking with her about nothing in particular, laughing as he tripped over a rumpled carpet, laughing harder when she did the same thing a moment later.
She led him to the massive doors he’d been shown to before, but this time, she walked in with him; he didn’t quite realize where he was until the doors shut behind him, and then he paused, blinking, trying to clear his head. “This isn’t my room,” he said, chuckling.
She answered him in Ilonan, grinning at him, her dark eyes shining, and grabbed him by his jacket, pulling him in after her.
“Wait — no, this isn’t –” he began, laughing. “I don’t–”
She put a finger to his lips, and leaned in very, very close, her breath warm against his ear, panting briefly, paused. He parted his lips to talk, but she pressed her finger harder against his mouth, silencing him further. “Do you have a knife,” she whispered, pressing her cheek to his, her lips near the corner of his mouth.
“In my front pocket,” he breathed, his heart racing, his eyes wide in the dark of her barely moonlit room, “Wh–”
Her lips crushed against his, then, tasting of wine and coriander, of orange and turmeric. Startled as he was, he didn’t stop her, didn’t even try to; the kiss was sharp, and he tipped his head to the side and kissed her back without thinking. The last time he’d felt warmth like this was the night before Kieron left him, and it was a welcome sensation, human and hungry.
She smelled of jasmine and cinnamon as she took a step closer and pressed herself against him, opening her mouth to deepen the kiss and pull him close.
He gasped against her lips as her hand slipped into his pocket, and then he grew quite still as she shifted her hand against him, searching for–he hoped–the knife.
All the while, she kept kissing him, and he trembled as he moved to put his arms around her, kissing her in return, his head spinning, his heart racing, thundering against his chest.
She found it, closed her hand around it, and lifted it from his pocket with deliberate care, her tongue against his teeth.
With one hand she opened the knife, drawing back just enough that he could still feel her heart beat now matching his, racing, as she whispered against his mouth.
“We’re not alone.”
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