This is Issue #131 of DeathWatch, an ongoing Serial. Click that link to go find ‘A Beginning’ and read from there, if you need to catch up.
* * *
Once he’d shut and locked the door, Coryphaeus turned to look at Jules, saying, “How are you feeling?”
“Better,” she sighed. “I don’t… it’s coming, but not right now.”
“You’d better hope it comes before dinner,” Coryphaeus sighed, as well.
“I’d better hope?” Jules snorted. “What does that mean? You’re the one he’ll be furious with, that you kept me for yourself.” She paused, putting one hand down on the edge of a tall chest of polished mahogany, her pale fingers stark against the black wood.
Coryphaeus gritted his teeth and looked at Jules irritably, “While it’s true I’ve kept you to save myself, I am working to save your friends.”
“Well I humbly beg your lordship’s most perfect pardon for not hitting my knees in gratitude!” Jules returned. “Perhaps if you had decided to be humane earlier, I wouldn’t have had to watch a hundred of my crewmates kill themselves!” Her voice was shrill, tight, and she snarled at him through bared teeth. “I am not the monster here!”
“Your crewmates did not die because of me,” Coryphaeus said angrily.
“Yebat sebya they didn’t,” Jules hissed. “I begged for your help. I said I’d stay with you. I’d use this curse to save your life. To bring you power. And you spurned it and you let them die!”
“You threatened me,” Coryphaeus said, his hands clenching into fists. “You didn’t like my answer — that I wouldn’t be able to save your crew from the Prince’s judgement, and you took it upon yourself to threaten me with something base and humiliating, assuming that leverage would get you what you wanted. I didn’t tell you I didn’t want to save them, you insufferable wretch — I said I could not! All I would have accomplished is being accused of insubordination at best. Treason at worst! I wouldn’t have been able to do anything except damn myself. And let us not forget — while you shout in judgment of monsters –”
“Don’t you dare–” Jules began, looking furious.
“–I was not aboard a supply ship that scoured a valley with aetheric fire!” Coryphaeus hissed. “I was not a member of a crew that burned families and farms. Entire villages! Children!” The cords on his neck stood out; the Ilonan Officer was enraged as he stared down at Jules.
“We’re at war!” Jules said, standing toe to toe. She stared up at him, five feet of impotent rage.
“We are at war, Commander, and soldiers will die, as you and I should be prepared to die, and that is a fact,” Coryphaeus shouted down at her. “Soldiers, not children! Do you have any idea–” He paused, his voice tight as his eyes flinched shut. “–the stink of sloughed skin, melted and burned, piles of bodies, husbands attempting to shelter their wives, mothers attempting to shelter their sons and daughters–”
“–don’t–” Jules said, looking startled, her eyes widening.
“I saw what was left of a boy, perhaps ten, who in his last act, was attempting to cover his younger sister. To keep her from the flames. He managed it,” Coryphaeus said, his voice breaking. “But the little girl died anyway, poisoned by the air, choking on the smoke. Couldn’t have been more than six,” he spat.
“–please–” Jules said, her eyes welling with tears. She staggered back, looking sick.
“And every. Home. Full of death. The streets… hills of bone,” the legatus continued, reaching out to grab hold of Jules’s shoulders, to keep her close. “Your soldiers did not die because of my pride, you hateful wretch–”
“–I’m sorry–” she said, breathless, her eyes wide.
“–those monsters died because my great and terrible Prince declared it so. Because he felt he could not allow such an atrocity to go unpunished,” Coryphaeus said, just as breathless, looking down at her.
“Cory–” Jules pled, her face paling out, twisting in helpless anger. “Legatus–You said it was childish and–”
“It was childish. And horrific. And perhaps necessary,” Coryphaeus sighed, releasing her, wiping his own angry tears from his face. “Just… please, Commander. Stop fighting me. I am doing what I can. I… My Prince has the unenviable position of being the man who must make the decisions. He has the power to make them fierce, and to make them horrifying, and perhaps I would have made a different decision, but perhaps not. The point is, you and I must stand back and not draw his ire. For the love of harmony, Commander, will you please, please, please just… stop? You make it difficult for me to help you.”
“I can’t–” Jules said, putting her face in her hands. “I have to fight. I have to get out of here. I have to get what’s left of my crew out of here,” she said. “I can’t let them all die, as well,” she said, gritting her teeth. “I can’t watch it. I can’t–” she hiccuped, shaking her head in frustration. She looked up at Coryphaeus, and one of her pupils was wide, yawning, while the other was a pinprick. “I can’t do it alone.”
“And I have told you I will help you,” Coryphaeus repeated, clenching his jaw. “But at some point, you will have to trust me, in order for me to do so.”
“You want me to believe that you would help me, even though you have told me that you believe the Princes’s decision to be both childish and horrific… and right?” Jules said, gritting her teeth.
“Not right. Not at all right. But perhaps necessary,” Coryphaeus sighed, looking exhausted. He backed away from her and sat heavily on the plush bed that lay centered in the room.
“Necessary,” Jules said, looking at Coryphaeus, desperate to understand, to be understood. “Abramov did what he felt was necessary.”
He nodded, looking saddened. “In truth, Commander, we will all do what we feel is necessary.” He sighed, shaking his head, saying, “And I… I am not fit to judge the Prince. Nor your captain. Nor you. I do not know if I could have saved your crew, Commander. Perhaps it is fair that those who acted monstrously would be punished monstrously. Perhaps they only acted monstrously because they felt they, too, needed to punish monstrously. I am not able to choose who should live, and who should die.” His voice, already low, went rough with an unexpected grief. “Until your losses caused me to question my Prince, question myself — I have simply followed the orders of those folk who do. I am only a soldier, after all,” he said softly, and there were tears on his cheeks. His shoulders hung heavy with the weight of dozens upon dozens of useless deaths. “I do not ask your forgiveness — perhaps I am a monster, as well.”
Jules reached out, laying a hand on Coryphaeus’s head, a benediction of sorts, saying, “Perhaps we all are.”
Coryphaeus turned to look up at Jules, half-broken, and began to speak again, when instead, he stood up quickly, and reached for her once more. He cupped her face in his hands, looking at her eyes, studying the pale of them intently.
“What — what are you doing?” Jules said, shrugging out of his touch and taking a step back. That familiar, unfamiliar swimming, choking feeling was rising, and all she could see of him was a killer, hungry and reaching. She misread his concern as malice, as predatory, a swift and awful paranoia rolling over her. “Don’t–” she began, feeling like water was closing over her head. “Don’t–” she begged, lifting her hands to shield her face. She flinched from him with a high keen that cut off suddenly in her throat, leaving her trembling. Her eyes were wild in terror, in pain, but then blank and unfocused — as though she couldn’t see at all. “…Cory?” she whispered, reaching out for him, and then her eyes rolled back in her head and her knees buckled, and Julianna Vernon O’Malley slipped.
Coryphaeus lunged for her, pulling her against his chest as she fell, cradling her head from striking anything, and then twisting her to the side as she writhed, gagging. “Shhh,” he whispered, feeling her body shudder and convulse. “I’ve got you,” he promised, worry etched over his features. “I’ve got you, Jules.”
* * *