This is Issue #8 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 jungle air was warm, slick, heavy and hot and wet. It had been raining for hours, and though the canopy was thick and green, the dark earth was slick with mud; it was hard to run, but it felt good to do it. In the night, running beside his love, he took great gulps of the damp air, and let it fold its cool fingers around the fire within him.
They burst out of the underbrush with a cry, already covered in the blood of their prey, and saw more quarry, still, to be cornered. It wasn’t until he had one pinned, squalling little rabbit that it was, that he saw its eyes, wide and full of fury, that he understood what had happened.
The fire within him sang with victory, with triumph. He had finally caught the one thing he’d been chasing this whole time. He laughed, reaching down to touch the face of his prey — his fingertips stroked along its cheek, and he opened his mouth to reveal the divine joke, the ridiculous comedy of it all.
“It’s me,” he said, but the words were wrong. They came in Ilonan. They came in what his body promised was his mother tongue, instead of the language he shared with his prey, his true prey, the boy he had tried to capture since the day they were parted.
He could hear his lover calling to him, but he couldn’t listen; everything in him was consumed by the way those blue eyes looked up at him, in terror and fury.
“It’s me, Key,” he promised, and reached up to take off his mask. He couldn’t, though — it wouldn’t come away. The monstrous face he wore, the painted mask that gave him an air of bestial savagery simply wouldn’t come off. He pulled, and pulled, but the mask wouldn’t come off — it was a part of him now.
He began to panic.
“Please.” Kieron’s voice sounded so far away.
He thrashed, gasping, struggling, trying to pull the painted mask away from his face.
“Jet, please.” The panic was spreading, into Kieron’s voice.
He gagged, clawing at his face, rolling and shifting, struggling, begging. Don’t let this happen. Don’t let me lose you.
He couldn’t see the one he’d captured anymore; everything was black, hot, suffocating.
He could hear his name being called, but he couldn’t see, couldn’t breathe, couldn’t escape. In the dark, he bared his teeth, reaching wildly. When his arms connected with another body, he crushed it close, growling, “Take it off. Let me go.”
“JET!” The voice cried out, pained, choked. “Master, please!”
Jet came awake, suddenly in the dark, in bed, tangled in sheets, caught with his face pressed to a pillow, his hands savagely twisting the plain bed robes of his famulo, tightening them around his throat. He released Secta immediately, scrambling back and away.
The young man collapsed against the bed, panting, pulling the fabric from his neck, saying over and over again, “Paenitet me. Paenitet me…”
“Why are you sorry?” Jet whispered, stunned. “I am the one who attacked you.”
“I should know better, Master, than to approach you while you sleep. You have not rested enough and your heart is wounded. I remember when we met first and I thought to give you a shave while you were in the bath. You are not like any other I have served, my Guardian — you do not like to be served unbidden, and I should have remembered it,” he said, his face darkened with shame in the candlelight.
Jet sat up, looking around, frowning. “Why did you seek to wake me? Has something happened?”
“You were having a nightmare,” Secta began, “and so I–”
“How did you know?” Jet asked, suddenly feeling nervous. He hoped he hadn’t been talking, or crying out in his sleep.
“You–” Secta frowned, pursing his lips, briefly, looking to Jet with concern as he attempted to choose his words.
“Out with it,” Jet sighed, his shoulders slumping.
“You have nightmares every night, Master,” Secta said quietly. “The only nights you have ever slept in comfort here were in his bed.”
Jet’s eyes stung as he turned away; he pulled free of the sheets and said, with a level of resignation that broke Secta’s heart, “Then I suppose we must get used to them. Those nights are gone.”
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Restless nights became irritable mornings that turned into arduous days of political machination and maneuvering. Lucida and Gemma were excellent at navigating the requests and challenges of the Ilonan nobility, while Jet and Acer were left to deal with the reports coming in regarding Kriegsland.
“We should not wait for their attack. They are building strength,” Acer said around a swallow of tea. “Already they had crossed the border, and then returned. They may have dropped scouts.”
“Kriegsland has never invaded; to do so would leave their most beloved cities vulnerable. They have maintained ties with the Allied Nations–” Jet said, frowning down at his untouched plate of breakfast.
“Who have invaded Ilona and massacred thousands,” Acer reminded, none-too-gently.
Refusing to launch an assault against their northern neighbors — in part because he did not feel the Ilonan army capable of completing such a move, and in part because he knew Kieron had escaped to the north, and he wondered just how safe his childhood love could be, after all that had happened, Jet began again, “They have not crossed the border–”
“They have!” Acer interrupted, slapping the table.
Guards in the room tensed, turning their attention more toward the men arguing. As one, they turned, walked out the doors of the room, and went to shut them. As they closed, one last figure slipped in.
“Lower your voice,” said Coryphaeus, as he walked into the room on steadier legs than he’d had the last time Jet had seen him. “It is not your place to speak so to the Guardian,” he said evenly.
Acer looked abashed, shaking his head. “I–”
“And you are no strategist,” the Legatus said to Jet, without hesitation. “Neither politically nor with your military. You are brilliant in a single fight, because you cannot die. You have an advantage your soldiers do not. Take the advice of your advisors, Guardian — it is why we are here.”
“My apologies,” Jet sighed, rubbing his face. “You are in the right, the both of you. I need your advice; I need your help in this, if we are to maintain order. The reports of the Kriegic war offense are building, and our people need to know they are safe.”
Acer relaxed, shooting Coryphaeus a look of thanks, and said to Jet, “Perhaps if not a direct assault, at least a marshaling of all our forces. Ilona is situated to take the brunt of the attack if either the Westlanders or the Kriegs come; we should summon the armies from the east. The forces my father sent were disloyal, but that doesn’t mean every city state is. Lucida and Gemma are certain there are loyal men at other houses–”
“I will go,” Coryphaeus offered. “It will give me a chance to speak with my sister, with my own soldiers. And when I return, guardian, I will bring back with me an army the likes of which you have never before seen.”
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