Title: Mutable: Chapter Twenty-Nine, Part One
Chapter Twenty-Nine, Part One
Christala looked at Cas in complete and utter horror. “You’ve killed him!” She crawled over to Rone’s side and inspected his face, checked his pulse, every one of her movements jerky and frantic. “You’ve fucking killed him! You know he won’t be able to handle so much of the phage, he’s too old…I can’t believe you…you…” She banged her fist against the floor as she glared at Rone’s body. “This won’t work without him, Cas!”
Cas had his own ideas on whether or not he’d actually gone and killed Rone, but there was no point in bringing them up with Christala. Focus on what you know. “I wasn’t about to let you make him into a thrall.”
“You said you loved him! How could you do this to someone you love?” She turned and looked at him in utter incomprehension. “Why wouldn’t you want him to live? At all costs, to live? Isn’t that what love is supposed to mean?”
“Living as your slave would be worse than dying,” Cas said with complete honesty. Rone was thrashing some, and the rapid eye movement happening beneath his eyelids was startling, but Cas still wasn’t convinced that all was lost. “And I think of everyone I’ve ever known, you’re the least likely to be an authority on love.”
Her face went still and cold. “You don’t know anything about me. About how I love.”
“No, I don’t,” Cas murmured. “I’ve never seen any love in you, except for yourself. And even that has been tainted by all the blood you’ve spilled learning how to make your own pleasures. That’s all this entire exercise has been for you—a new way of pleasing yourself, a new way of playing a very old game. You didn’t love your own people enough to want to save us, and you don’t love the system enough to spare it the horrors of war. If that’s all your love amounts to, then it’s not even enough to fill a snail’s shell.”
“What about you?” she snapped back. “You speak like you’re some sort of authority on love, when in reality you’ve never valued the love you had, not ever! You had a family that adored you, a brother who worshipped you, and you still couldn’t get away from them fast enough. You preferred to risk the phage rather than stay and work with them, and after you survived, you never went to see them. I remember, when everyone was let go for holidays.” Her eyes seemed to bore into Cas’s face. “I didn’t have anywhere to go, so I stayed behind, but you did too! When you had people who wanted you! And then they died, and you were forced to pay attention to your brother, but you never wanted to, did you. What kind of love is that?”
“Two children was one too many for them to care for.” It sounded, it even felt, like a rationalization, but Cas knew it was the truth. “They were sick for years. After my mother had Beren, I knew I had to go. They needed to focus on him.” Beren had been a sickly child as well, taking up every moment of their parents’ time and then some, but it had been all right. Cas had been healthy, one of the healthiest kids in the city—leaving was the best thing he could do for his family, and he’d known it even at the age of ten.
“And here!” Christala went on like she didn’t even hear him. “Here you have your own children, here you have a husband who, for better or worse, is actually married to you—someone compelled to love you! And what did you do to him?” She slapped the ground next to Rone’s head. “You poisoned him with phage!” She brought her hands to her head and clutched her temples, moaning. “I can feel it killing mine, it’s burrowing deeper into his brain…his mind will be putty in less than a minute. You’ve ruined everything, Cas!” Christala wailed like an animal. “You’ve ruined him! Taking Amiru back will be so much less satisfying now.”
That was as good an invitation as he was going to get recorded by the cameras. Cas detached the stained, sooty sash he still had over his shoulder and wound it carefully between his hands. He didn’t speak—there was no point in arguing with her—just edged closer and closer until finally, he was close enough to make his move. He lunged, flipping the loop over her head and drawing it tight even as he turned his body away from her, his hands moving in opposite directions as they drew the makeshift garrote tight. If he had her properly, she would be leaning against him back to back now, choking out her last breaths and unable to reach him with her lashing limbs…
He didn’t have her properly, not tight enough to hold well. She rolled off to the side, trying to get one of her own arms around his neck as her other hand chopped at his grip. She still had enough of the phage in her body to harden the edge of her palm, and Cas let go of the sash with a curse as he felt a small bone break. He turned into her and got his feet up between them, kicked her hard in the hip to splay her out as he tried to loop his free leg around her head. He got her, and smashed her head down to the ground, but she rolled over his leg into a crouch and snapped her foot around in an arcing kick.
He saw it coming, he knew exactly where it was going to land, but he still couldn’t quite manage to avoid it. He took the ball of her foot to the side of his head, and reeled back against the floor as the thud sent sparks spinning across his vision.
Grasping hands found his ankle, and a moment later—snap. Cas tried not to scream, but he hadn’t felt such deep, inescapable pain without the phage’s dulling factors since he was a kid. The breath tore out of his lungs, leaving him gasping, and as the hands found his knee, he kicked again—without finesse, without control, just kicked in a frenzy of fear and panic. It didn’t stop her. His leg was controlled, positioned just so off the ground, so that his lower leg was higher than his hip, and then—crack. He felt his knee forced in on itself and screamed once more. A surge of adrenaline let him sit up and lash out at Christala with his hands. He clawed desperately, felt his fingers rake her face, but then she grabbed his wrists and forced him back into the ground.
Christala’s face was right above his, her eyes wide, mouth open as she panted. Hot breath struck his cheek like a slap. Cas watched as the furrows he’d raked in her cheek slowly, crawlingly, knitted themselves closed. “You were never strong enough for this,” she told him. “You could never take me on directly. You knew it, so you sabotaged my plan. But I’ll find a way to rebuild, Cas. And when I do?” She leaned in closer to him, until her lips hovered just over his, and whispered, “I’ll start by killing those children. The ones you could have saved, if you’d just stood aside. I’ll cut out their bones one by one, and I’ll tell them it’s all because of you.”
She reached down and wrapped her hand around his throat, sharpening the tips of her fingers so she could dig in and around his trachea. Cas choked—she was literally going to rip his throat out, and there was nothing he could do about it.