Title: Mutable: Chapter Twenty-Eight, Part One
Chapter Twenty-Eight, Part One
Amiru was alone when they got to him. At least, he appeared to be alone. He was the only other person there, as far as Cas could tell. But he wasn’t alone in his own head. That much was clear from the moment they walked into the room.
“Brother.” Amiru smiled at them as they walked in through the door.
“You’re not my brother,” Rone said coldly.
“In a sense that’s true…but I wasn’t talking to you.” Amiru looked straight at Cas. “We’re the only ones left, you know. The only Delacoeurians with phages.”
“How do you know that?”
Amiru shook his head. “How do you think?”
“You…” Cas considered it for a moment. “You got into—into the heads of our own people. Pendry, and Kaske, and Marigo. The ones who sold us out.”
“The ones who held us back, Cas,” Amiru said intently. “The ones who should have cut us free a long time ago. Our folk rotted in Shyne for over a century, and what did the people in power do about it? Nothing, as long as we kept them in power. They would rather have squatted on a dirt throne than risk their lives battling for the sun.”
“You hated Shyne.”
“Of course I hated it. It was a cesspit, and everyone in it who refused to fight for their freedom deserved to die there. But not enough people agreed with me to make my vision for the future come true. Our erstwhile leaders didn’t, not until I wore down their reserve.” The edge of his teeth glinted. “They were alert against potential phage infections, of course. It took years for me to get close enough to them for them to let their guard down. But eventually, it worked.”
“You’re talking about aiding and abetting the enemy in murdering us,” Cas insisted, his words rough-edged in his throat. “Our people are practically wiped out thanks to what you did.”
“They weren’t truly our people, Cas.” Amiru looked at him pityingly. “They were never ours. We were always meant for more. The phage makes us great. We shouldn’t bow to anyone, to anything. Especially not to a pompous, puffed up buffoon like this man.” He pounded his own chest with a fist. “Look at him! Coddled and cosseted all his life, born into the ultimate privilege, and all he can do with it is lounge around on his planet and revel in his superiority. Disgusting. These people might once have been innovators, but they’ve lost that quality, Cas. They’re hidebound now, rulebound. Caste bound, too—just look at their petty restrictions on their own ambitions. Lords of Metal, Lords of Mind…stupid rules to keep slightly more important sheep in line. Even their riots are an embarrassment to the word.”
“What, and you’re not an embarrassment?” Cas snapped. “You’re living as no more than a parasite—a host pretending to be the very thing that makes her special. You’ve given away so many pieces of yourself that I’m amazed you can even hold another person’s shape any more. And the more they die, the weaker you’ll become, until one day you can’t even remember your own name because you’ve carried so many.”
Amiru scowled. “Better than skulking around wearing my baby brother’s face and pretending to be in love with the king’s bastard kin just so I could escape Leelinge.”
Cas felt incredibly tired all of a sudden. “That’s not why I did it.”
“You can tell yourself that, but I know how much you disliked it there.” Amiru leaned back in his chair by the table and steepled his fingers under his chin. “Even if I could have persuaded you to take on the Leelinger elite with me, you would never have been satisfied on that planet. You and I, we were destined for this.”
“For Imperia?” Cas scoffed. “Coming here was just a means to the end of finding you, which I’ve done now. I’m tired of talking to you. You can leave that body, or I’ll force you out of it.”
“Cas…” Rone said, low and warning.
“You can’t just kill me,” Amiru said with a pleased tut-tut. “And that one know it. I’m the king, after all, and this is being recorded. No matter what justification you present, you’ll be sentenced to death.”
Cas squared his shoulders. “We don’t need to kill you. We just need to purge you.”
Amiru’s eyes glinted. “And you think you’re finally strong enough to do that, do you? To purge me from a thrall? You can’t even make thralls yourself, so what do you know about it?”
“I know that you’ve spread yourself so thin that you don’t have any more foot soldiers to throw at us,” Cas said. “I know that wherever you are, you’re weak. And in him, you’re weak. And I’m not going to let you have him.”
“Oh, Cas.” Amiru sighed with an air of satisfaction. “You’ve shaped your mind like a spear, slashing straight at whatever you see. If you really wanted to kill me, you would have taught yourself to think like a noose. It always helps to be a little bit more…flexible.”
What happened next happened so fast, Cas could hardly track it. Rone grunted, and a second later he was jerked backward off his feet. Cas spun around to go after him, but had to jump away when Amiru pulled a—what was that, a crossbow of some kind?—from behind his chair and fired it at him. The house’s prohibition on energy weapons didn’t stop a ballistic one, and the tip of the arrow slashed through the fabric at Cas’s collar, nearly cutting his throat. Blood welled up and spilled from the cut, but Cas had no time to focus on stopping it.
Rone was on his back, the cord that had lassoed his neck and pulled him down still there, and Riina—Christala—was crouched over him, her long-fingered hands bracketing his face. She hovered like an eel over its prey, latching onto his mouth with hers like a suction cup. And Rone…didn’t fight it. He didn’t move.
He didn’t even twitch.
And by then Cas knew what was happening, and he ran toward them but fell when he took an arrow to the back of his right thigh. Amiru laughed as Cas sprawled onto the floor, the pain of the wound intense but the agony of what he was watching, of what he felt in his heart, immensely more terrible.
Rone! RONE! “RONE!” he screamed, and dragged himself toward his husband. Another arrow struck by his head—just a warning shot, he knew that much, a message to leave well enough alone, but he’d fucking had enough. He rolled onto his side, pulled a dagger free from his belt and hurled it with all the force he could muster from his compromised position straight at Amiru. The knife hit him in the shoulder, sinking deep into the meat of it, and Amiru grimaced and dropped the crossbow.
“It doesn’t matter!” he called out after Cas. “It’s too late to do anything to stop it! He’s mine now, Cas! You had your chance at him, but he’s mine now!”
“No,” Cas muttered as he crawled. He was so close. She needed more time to transfer the phage—it didn’t want to leave the host body, didn’t want to risk it in a new shell. It would be reluctant, he just had to—
And then Christala gasped and fell back, and Rone sat up, and as he looked at Cas the purple sheen over his eyes drowned in an inky pool of blackness. The phage was within him—in enormous quantities, for it to manifest so clearly.
“Hello, sweetheart,” Rone said, and Cas wanted to scream again. Because that was his voice, the voice of the man he was married to, the man he loved.
But it wasn’t him. Not anymore.
“I think we need to talk.”