This is Issue #111 of DeathWatch, an ongoing Serial. Click that link to go find ‘A Beginning’ and read from there, if you need to catch up.
* * *
“Your cadet is still unconscious,” Aecus said quietly, sitting down across from Jules. “How is your head?” he asked, handing her a mug of something that smelled distinctly like engine degreaser and a lightning storm.
“Better?” Jules said. “This smells like rancid aetheris.”
“It is thinned. Most Westlanders can’t stomach the full-strength liquor,” Aecus said. “Your cadet–”
“–Brody–” Jules supplied.
“–Brody,” Aecus said, nodding, “mentioned the aetheric field generated by the engine was what eased the symptoms of your, ah–”
Jules left the man hanging, on that one, staring at him over the mug.
“–condition? The aetheris… it should help in the same way, I believe.”
Jules shrugged. “You got me, Legatus. I haven’t been this way long. When the Maxima blew — this happened,” she explained. “Kieron’s been dealing with it his whole life.”
“There are others, in Ilona, who bear witness to Prophecy. Mortem vigiliae,” Aecus said. “The Death Watchers. Some only think them mad. Others think they are touched by the divine.”
“What do you think?” Jules wondered.
Aecus evaded. “What did you see?”
“…your sister. Stabbing you. Only I didn’t see it. I felt it. I was you. She was angry with you for siding with me. Believing me. She put her sword through me and lifted me up, on my toes, like she would slice me in half from the middle outwards,” Jules said softly, putting one hand at her belly. “It burned like the sun, and you died,” she explained.
“Where were we?” he wondered, looking pale.
“Somewhere in the city proper, I’m guessing,” Jules said. “Dusty street, bright sunlight. Busy. Surrounded by people. Just off a market square, maybe? Are you — do you believe me?”
“I do not know,” Aecus said, looking down at his own mug, frowning. “Are you sure it was Nixus?”
“As sure as I am that you’re you. Are you, you? I mean, I can’t tell,” Jules didn’t mean to be smug, but she was tired and aching, and the answer came out more joking than she meant it.
Aecus’s wrath was sudden. He slammed his hand on the table and leaned in, raising his voice, fury in his eyes like when he called her Liar. “I do not have time for games! You are leveling serious accusations regarding an officer of the Ilonan Martial Forces! You are an enemy spy and soldier, and you are claiming knowledge of things that make no sense! Why would Nixus–”
“Shadows!” Jules said, her eyes lighting up with the sudden remembrance. “She said something about… shadows,” Jules said. “That’s it — when you died, she said long live the shadows–”
“I am losing patience with the charade. If you have played the long game, Centralite, to get your friend aboard this ship, you will not see it set in Ilona. I will tie the both of you to a sandbag and have you thrown overboard after cutting your throat for good measure,” he said, pulling a thin dagger from his belt.
“Vivat Tenebrae,” Jules said, setting down her mug. “I swear, she–”
Aecus looked startled and then leaned ever closer, baring his teeth. “My sister,” he raged, “would have nothing to do with those honorless thugs. Enough of this!” He reached for Jules and brought the knife to her throat. “Have you any last words, Commander?”
“Non effundatur sanguis meus es, Coryfrater!” Jules cried out, closing her eyes. She opened them again, when the strike did not come.
Aecus was staring at her, as though she’d managed to stab him. He held her, still, his eyes locked to hers, barely inches away. “What did you say?”
“She said it. She said it. She said ‘You’re… not my blood’,” Jules translated, panting, her eyes wide, watchful.
“The last word. What was the last word,” Aecus whispered.
“Coryfrater?” she said. “Something about you being her brother?”
“How could you know?” he wondered, looking baffled, absently setting the knife aside. “She hasn’t called me that… for decades. How could you possibly–”
“I swear — I saw it. I was there. I was you. She was furious with you that you believed me. You were caught up in finding out the truth of something, and she told you to drop it, and you wouldn’t, and she killed you for it,” Jules said, panting, still eyeing the knife. “Looked almost happy to do it, too,” she blurted.
Aecus released Jules, and rolled his eyes, sneering his displeasure. “I appreciate your candor.”
“You’re welcome,” Jules retorted.
The fire in Aecus’s gaze made her close her mouth and sit down.
The silence between them rolled on for what felt like an eternity.
Finally, he looked to her, determination on his face. “I want you to tell me what you saw. Exactly what you saw. What you heard. What you smelled. Everything.”
Jules related it, as well as she could remember it, grimacing when she described the pain of the wound, trying to give him every detail.
When she was done, Aecus said, “Again.”
Cocking her head to the side, Jules frowned, trying to ascertain if she heard him correctly.
Aecus said softly, “Again, Commander. Tell me again.”
She nodded, and repeated the tale, word for word, how they were alone, but not, in the midst of the busy, chaotic street, all full of dust and people and bright sunlight.
The fifth time he asked her to repeat herself, she finally drank what was in the mug to soothe her throat. Her eyes watered, and she felt like she could breathe fire, but she sighed when it was down, nodding to herself, and asked, “Why again?”
“You are telling me that at some point within the next day or two, my older sister stabs me to death in the streets of my homeland,” Aecus murmured. “I aim to cheat that future, Commander. And I shall need your help to do it.”
“…what makes you think I would help you survive?” Jules wondered, setting down the mug she’d been holding.
Aecus pulled a flask from a uniform pocket, and refilled it, carefully watching how much he poured in.
Jules could tell, this time, from the luminescence of the drink that it was a pure draught. She picked up the mug, but didn’t yet drink.
“I believe you,” Aecus said quietly. “That you tried to stop the man responsible for the destruction of the valley. I also believe you cared for that man, but knew what he was doing was a terrible thing. I believe you are a soldier, Commander. Not a monster. Because of this, in exchange for your help, I will petition the Prince that you should be spared.”
She knocked back the swallow of aetheris she’d been given, gasping to feel it burn behind her eyes. “No,” she murmured. “Spare my crew. I’ll help you, to whatever end please you, but set them free. Send then home. Every last one.”
“You’re asking for the impossible. What could you possibly give in return?”
Jules tapped the mug, and Aecus raised a brow. “Are you going to kill your sister?” she wondered.
He drank from the flask without flinching, and poured her another swallow more. “No,” he growled. “And neither will you.”
“Then you’ll need me,” Jules said, raising the mug and toasting him before she drank it. “Let every single one of my crew go, and I’ll keep you alive.”
“And how will you do that?”
“Mortem vigilia. I’ll watch death for you.”
* * *