This is Issue #108 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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When the horse came to a sudden stop, Jules lifted her head; the officer laid a gauntleted hand against the back of her neck, saying quietly, “Seruate.”
She knew that one easily. Stay down. She turned her head to look for the others, for Kieron and Hana, but could not see them for the crowding of Ilonans.
Another horse was galloping toward them quickly, and came to a stop, rearing up. Jules could see the soldier astride it was a woman, and based on her uniform, she was of a higher rank than the officer who had her.
“Another toy, Legatus?” the woman laughed, her Ilonan musical.
So he was a Commander, like her. Jules listened sharply, to make certain she understood as much as possible.
“This one will be useful, Summus Nixus,” the officer responded.
And she was a top cavalry officer. The Ilonans had this much cavalry simply waiting around in farmlands? Was it a terrible coincidence that so many were here or had their forces grown so big so quickly?
Nixus snorted, rolling her eyes. “Aren’t they all? When you’re done with it, I’ll want a report in the war room.”
“We aren’t headed back to the capital?”
“A delay of three days, no more. The wreck of the Eburneis Dea will prove useful, for materials and intelligence.”
Jules knew they meant the Jacob — it had been the Ivory Goddess when it belonged to Sha’s brother, but she changed the name of it when she applied for the commission. She knew it was somewhere in the distance, a burning carcass of nothing, except perhaps the tomb of her lovers.
“Was there anything left?” the Ilonan commander wondered curiously.
“Enough that two Westlanders walked out of it,” Nixus growled. “They’re being questioned. Like you should be doing with your toy, there. Unfortunately, one of the Captains thought it important to kill as many Westlanders as possible — they fired on the wreckage. It will take some time to figure out if anything is salvageable. But if any maps survived or any intelligence remains, we must collect it, of course.”
Jules stiffened, and tried to control her breathing. Two. Two others walked out. She wanted to scream a thousand questions at the arrogant bitch who talked about her as though she wasn’t there, but instead she laid against the officer’s horse like a piece of meat, and waited.
“But won’t the Prince want these brought before him?” The Ilonan’s words were innocent enough.
The woman who outranked him seemed irritated as she answered. “We’re only staying just a little longer. Two Domitors will return to Ilona and herald our return. There is no rush.”
“But if we do hurry,” Jules’s captor said, “We could bring them as wedding gifts.”
Jules could tell that for one brief moment, the Summus on the horse near them was rather furious with the other officer’s challenging reponses. “Have you been listening in on private channels?”
“You leave the speaker open, and you prefer I do not question you,” the commander answered, almost playfully.
Nixus sighed, loud and long. “This is true. Plans have changed, then. The sun has set, and the storms will only be getting worse through the night. Camp should be set. Alert your runners to flag the ships and send the signal. We’ll ride for Ilona at dawn. Any wormskin that can’t walk will be put down and left to green the farmlands they blackened,” Nixus growled.
“Affirmative, Soror,” the Ilonan officer said, sounding solemn.
Jules’s eyes widened as she stared at the muddy, trampled ground. Sister? Perhaps it would come useful to know.
“It’s a wonder I don’t have you flayed for insubordination,” the woman said, rolling her eyes, her voice sounding dry and irritable. “Go. Tell the others.”
Jules’s officer nodded, wheeled his horse around and took off quickly. She bounced and shifted, slid. For one, brief, wrenching moment, she felt herself slip from the top of the horse, and knew she would fall beneath its pounding hooves. She exhaled, closing her eyes, and did not try to hang on. It could all be over. I could just give up.
A strong hand seized her flightsuit and hauled her back up and over the horse’s spine, saying, “Do not think you can get away from me so easily, Centralite.”
At being grabbed, her survival instinct kicked back in, and Jules’s eyes snapped open. She hissed and snarled like a cat cornered by a hound, flailing briefly. “No? What if I commanded it of you? You take orders well from women, yes? Or perhaps just your sister?” she said, spitting the words, waiting for his reaction, wondering if he’d let her fall. If she could survive being trampled. If she could get away in the confusion. She felt herself begin to slide again.
He snorted, rolling his eyes, saying, “Summus Nixus is my commanding officer. You’re my prisoner. There is quite a difference.” When she slipped that time, he jerked the horse to a stop and grabbed hold of her, simply wrestling her briefly until she was sitting in front of him in the saddle. It was uncomfortable, still, but far better than being laid across the horse. He grabbed her chin and turned her face to look at him. He peered down at her over her shoulder, and in his eyes Jules was stunned to see concern. “Are you trying to provoke me?” he wondered.
Jules stared up at the man, her already pale eyes faded in exhaustion. She forgot, for a moment, why she’d nearly let herself fall from the horse and instead, tried a different tactic to keep the conversation on her own terms. “Who survived the crash?” Jules asked, breathless. “The Jac–the Eburneis Dea? Who walked away from it?”
“I would not know. Nixus will handle them. They are not of my concern,” he explained, shrugging. “Now hold on; I must deliver this message, and then perhaps I will be able to question you properly.”
Something about the lightness in the man’s tone was enough to make Jules’s stomach turn; she jerked her chin back out of his hand and faced front, gripping the braided mane of the horse beneath her. “Ride, then,” she said dully. “Let’s get this over with.”
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