Two days after the bar fight, Jules felt much better, no doubt thanks to Ghia’s care of him before she left.
He missed her bright presence already, but refused to show it. He’d had enough teasing from his superiors that night already, and didn’t want to give Caelum and Yarrow any excuses to rag him.
Sighing, he left the tavern for some fresh air. It was silly to dwell on it anyway – he’d see her in a few days, for the rest of them would leave on the morrow. She’d be just fine. His stomach clenched as all the things that could happen to her on the road ran through his head.
Forcing himself to think happy thoughts, he walked the length and breadth of Mudflat, getting used to exercise again after his bed rest. It wouldn’t be too hard – he’d not been out for very long. A day of hard riding would set him to rights, he was sure.
His arm felt great, and he thought he could probably take the bandage off already. If he did and it became infected, however, Ghia would kill him. Anyway, his left arm was too precious to him for him to be reckless with it.
Reaching the end of the town, he turned into the alleyways to find his way back. The alleys in Mudflat were a veritable maze, but there was nowhere you couldn’t go in them. They were a staging ground for the small shows played out by the criminal underground in Mudflat. Not that they were very far underground. There was nothing clandestine about them.
Deep in the alleys he rounded a corner and came to an abrupt stop at the sight of his bellica in front of him. She reclined against the wall almost casually, her eyes lazily following him. Jules was too smart to believe in her apparent nonchalance.
“Ma’am,” he said cautiously.
She inclined her head. “CMO Jules.”
A long silence passed, Yarrow giving him a searching look. He stopped himself from fidgeting uncomfortably.
At length she shrugged and nonchalantly examined her fingernails. Jules felt a frisson of unease run down his spine. No one with any sense relaxed when Yarrow seemed at ease.
“You see a lot of things, don’t you, Jules.”
It wasn’t a question, but Jules found himself answering anyway. “Aye, Bellica. I’d like to think I’m observant.”
“Observant.” A longer pause, and Jules couldn’t stop his fidgeting now. “Good quality to have in certain professions.” Her eyes flew to his, her gaze almost cutting him with its sharpness.
The purpose of this meeting became apparent to Jules. He squared his shoulders and set his jaw, staring at his bellica determinedly. “A good quality to have as CMO, yes. If what you were suggesting were true, don’t you think I would have reported long before now?” Though in truth he couldn’t fault her her suspicions, it still angered him to have his loyalties called into question.
“I wouldn’t know, Jules,” she shot back breezily, her expression level as she cleaned under her nails with her dagger. “How your kind operates is not something I acquaint myself with.”
Outright accusation. He almost couldn’t believe it. “I would think a Bellica should be aware of how her Chief Medical Officer operates – I assume that’s what you meant by ‘my kind’.” He glared at her and got one in return – it should have put him in his place but Jules was tired of this game already. “If you’ll excuse me, ma’am,” he said, moving to go around her.
Like lightning her hand landed flat against his chest, stopping him in his tracks. “I won’t. I need something more solid than words, Jules. Prove your allegiance to me.”
And commit treason against the Sceptre? Juno. Some choice. Not that I have one, anyway. He stepped back, arms open, feeling defeated before the test began. “What would you have me do?”
Her eyes flickered, focusing on something behind Jules. He spun to find Caelum.
“There’s a traitor in my Regiment, Jules, but it is not you,” came Yarrow’s voice from behind him. “Kill the real traitor. Prove your loyalty.”
Jules went cold. His stomach dropped and he felt like throwing up. He knew who, of course. He couldn’t not know who it was. He asked her anyway, desperately wanting to be wrong.
“Who is the traitor, Bellica?”
A pause. “He stands before you.”
“How am I supposed to pledge myself to my bellica by killing her major?”
“Because she ordered you to. That should be enough, CMO Jules.”
A wave of nausea hit Jules as he grimaced and drew his sword. He didn’t want to kill Caelum – for all the major’s faults, Jules liked the man. Maybe it wouldn’t matter. The sword was heavy in his arm and the skin and stitches around his nearly-healed wound pulled tight. Why did it have to be the left arm? Fortuna, why have you forsaken me?
He nodded at Caelum, who appeared strangely calm. “Nothing personal, Sir.”
They moved into fighting stances. Caelum nodded at him, his own sword in hand. “Understood.”
A pause as they measured each other, and then it began, two figures in the alley suddenly one, only the clash of their steel to show where they joined. Jules grunted as pain lacerated his arm. He felt a warm wetness under the bandage and knew he’d torn open the newly knit skin. I hope the stitches held, or Ghia will have my head.
He pushed Caelum back harshly, and while the major regained his balance Jules tossed his sword to his right hand. It would be difficult, but better than using his injured arm. No sooner had he gripped his blade than they were at it again, the clashing of their swords ringing out in the still alley. Somehow Jules gained the upper hand, though how was beyond him, and he knocked Caelum’s sword out of his hand. A swift kick had the major on his back, and Jules took the opening, pinning Caelum to the ground.
“Surrender,” he said, pointing his sword at Caelum’s throat. I don’t want to kill you.
“Never hesitate in the kill, Medic,” Caelum answered equably, flipping Jules off him. “You learned that in basic training,” he said as he went for his sword. Before he could press his momentary advantage, Jules was on his feet again and defending.
Jules shrugged with one shoulder. “Basic training doesn’t cover killing one’s superior officers.”
They squared off, circling each other like hungry animals. Caelum lunged, Jules parried. Back to pacing, looking for weaknesses. A few more clashes of steel and Jules saw it – and wondered how he could miss something so obvious. Caelum now held his sword with his right hand since Jules had wounded his sword hand. Every time he defended, his left hand twitched upwards, before he remembered he fought with his right hand.
With a lunge Jules attacked Caelum’s left, and the momentary lapse on the major’s part was enough. Jules disarmed the man effectively and knocked him to his feet. With no pause he placed his foot on Caelum’s chest and applied a bit of pressure, stopping the major from rising. He took his sword in both hands and held it above the man’s head, ready to drive it into his skull.
And hesitated. Could he? Did he dare do this?
With a grunt he drove the sword down. It slid into the mud beside Caelum’s head, leaving the major unharmed.
Caelum’s lips quirked slightly – in mirth. Jules stepped back, and looked between his bellica and his major. Yarrow had much the same look on her face.
A set up. All planned. They’d never expected him to actually kill Caelum. His willingness to do so was the proof Yarrow needed. Had he actually done the deed, all sorts of things could happen on the road. He didn’t have to return to Atherton.
He shook his head in disgust. “Does my loyalty mean so little to you?”
They didn’t answer. He didn’t expect them to. He retrieved his sword from the ground and cleaned and sheathed it, heading back to the tavern as he did so. He needed a nap. And a fresh bandage for his arm.