There's no eye so unforgiving as that of a camera lens, unless it's that of King Silas himself. But Silas is dead. More dead than the video camera pointed at Jack right now, which has something of the living carrion-hunter about it, perched there on its tripod. A crow, perhaps. It's all greed and patience, and unblinking light reflected in dark depths.
"This'll be over soon," Jack says.
"It'll be over when you tell us what we want to know," the taller one says.
"I wasn't talking to you, dipshit," Jack says.
That gets him another hit across the mouth. Jack grunts as something soft inside his cheek tears, grinding against his teeth, and he spits a few more drops of blood into his lap. They haven't come right out and said anything about it, no comments along the lines of making him less pretty or splitting open those cocksucker lips, but they don't really have to, the way tall-and-ugly is ignoring plenty of softer targets in favour of smashing his fist into Jack's face again and again.
Well. 'Ignoring' is all relative.
Jack's knees are stiff and aching, the pain in his shoulder has begun another upwards climb on the slow rollercoaster of agony that signals a very, very broken bone, and he's starting to wonder if he's going to die of blood poisoning before blood loss, given the state of the floor and the weeping burns on his feet. But if he had one hand free, right now, the first thing he'd do would be to wipe his chin, because the tickle of drying blood there is driving him fucking nuts.
"We know you're working with the Knights of Selah," says the shorter man. "Let's try this again. Tell us what they're planning."
He's younger, too, hovering behind the other guy's shoulder like he's not sure of the etiquette in a torture scenario. Where to stand. Which fork to use first. And boy, has he ever been using his forks: more into his tools than his fists, that one. Jack's been catching him staring with something like puzzled betrayal on his face, mixed in with the sneers.
The cult of celebrity. Figures.
"You don't know a fucking thing," Jack says.
Tall-and-ugly grabs hold of Jack's hair and forces his head back, and Jack can't help whining in his throat at what this does to his shoulder.
"Then fix that for us," he says, stolid.
The other guy says, "We'll get the truth from you eventually, traitor. You'll confess it, right into the camera."
"Fuck you," Jack whispers.
"Yeah, you'd like that, wouldn't you? We know about you. The whole kingdom knows what you are."
Jack flinches. Most of it's for show. He rolls his bloodied tongue around his mouth and lets it peek out through his lips.
"Come closer, then," he says. "Give us a kiss."
Tall-and-ugly releases Jack's head and, in the same moment, slams his boot against the worst of the burns on Jack's ankle. Jack lets out a scream, short and harsh.
When he's got control of his neck muscles back, Jack stares into the camera and breathes. Shallowly, because of his ribs.
"So, yeah, they're definitely going to show you this tape," he says. "I'm impressed, farm boy. You're learning a bit about how to be king, right? You send other people to do this kind of work for you, so you can sit up there behind the glass, keeping your hands clean."
Shit. Jack tenses his forearms but manages not to look down, to keep his drawling defiance aimed right into the lens. He's been working so hard to keep the focus on his face, keep them annoyed enough that they just want to shut him up; he really doesn't want them to get any ideas about his hands.
"No more fighting down here in the dirt for you, Captain Shepherd, hero of the war—"
Oh, yeah, that does it. Tall-and-ugly holds himself like someone who's seen heavy action; he's been precise and professional, up to this point, but he won't take kindly to taunts about the war.
There's an audible crunch this time. Pain floods through Jack, coupled to a nausea so intense he almost vomits on the spot. He forces his eyes open, panting, unable to breathe through his nose without bubbling and choking. His head is spinning. There are bright lights and small darknesses in his vision.
"Wow," he says. His voice has gone thick and awful. "You're shit at this. Are you really all they could find to send? Are you the best interrogator the Gilboan army has to offer?"
The shorter one starts to say something, but tall-and-ugly stops him with a glance and then looks back at Jack. He's massaging his hand, though it's impossible to tell if any of the blood on his knuckles is his own, given how much of Jack's has already been contributed.
"No," he says. "I heard that was you."
Jack grins at him. Yet more blood spills over his lips, coppery and wet.
"Yeah," he says. "Look at you, you dragged that box into the room. Electroshock, right? And haven't called my attention to it, haven't even tried to open it. You just keep pounding away at me with your fists like that's suddenly going to start working, when you could have had those electrodes on my balls an hour ago. Why? Because you're too afraid I'd enjoy it?"
"I'll make this simple." Tall-and-ugly reaches behind his back, elbow crooked in a way that tells Jack exactly what will be in his hand when it reappears. "Start talking, or we'll cut our losses."
When the gun barrel touches his forehead Jack inhales an icy surge of pure terror, controls himself, and exhales with what is probably an unwise amount of irritation.
"Now you're just embarrassing both of us," he says.
"Sir," says the shorter man. Jack really does need a better mental handle for him, but he can't decide between Terrible Buzzcut and Forks.
Tall-and-ugly's lip curls back over his teeth, and with good reason. If any of Jack's men had shown their hand like that during an interrogation, they'd have been banished from the room and raked over the coals afterwards. If Jack hadn't already known that David's soldiers have no intention of killing him, he sure as shit would now.
"You're right," says tall-and-ugly, in flimsy cover. "That'd be too easy."
He reaches out with the non-gun hand and puts it on Jack's shoulder, like they're friends, like he has something important to tell him.
Instead, he squeezes.
Jack screams so loudly he actually can't hear it, for a moment; the sound seems like something outside of himself; he's shrivelled, he's lightning, he's skin around pain and nothing else. When he manages to open his eyes and focus again, heaving breaths that narrowly escape being categorised as sobs, the man's stepped away—a surprise, Jack would swear he can still feel the iron grip of his hand, grinding bone against cracked bone—and the other guy is digging through his tray of goodies in search of something new to use on Jack. Right, then: Forks it is.
The camera's eye is still there, right in front of him. Impartial as ever. Jack can feel one of his own eyes starting to swell shut, but he manages to glare it down anyway.
"Don't you dare turn me off, David," he says. "The least you can do is fucking watch. If I can sit through this, then you can too."
The sudden bang of the door being blown off its hinges is loud enough that Jack startles against his bonds—fuck, shoulder—and it comes with a flash of light. Gunshots. Voices. Jack squints through smoke, sags back in the chair and watches tall-and-ugly go down with at least three bullets in him. People in black clothes and black masks over the top halves of their faces crowd into the room like a swarm of well-armed ants.
The semi-hidden face that ends up in front of Jack has blue eyes and a scar bisecting the upper lip, giving it a scornful flick. It's Chalmers, which means this is Alpha team.
"Benjamin," she says.
Her eyes sweep sharply over him, head to toe, before she takes her hand off her sidearm. Jack wouldn't have made it out of this place any more alive than tall-and-ugly, who's now lying as motionless as only meat can be, if there was any suspicion that his capture was a cover for something else. If he was passing information to the Gilboan army, instead of having it dragged out of him.
"I'll tell you what," Jack says, slurred with relief. "The last guy to save my life was a lot better looking than you are."
She snorts and draws her knife as she steps in to cut him loose. "You're not exactly a bunch of wildflowers yourself at the moment."
"By the way, if anyone asks," Jack mutters, when she's bent over him and working at the plastic ties, "you're with the Knights of Selah."
"Who's going to ask?" Chalmers slices the last tie and looks over her shoulder, where Forks is sitting still and wide-eyed against the wall with two guns trained on him. "Clean up the mess," she says.
"No, wait." Jack raises his voice. "My torturer, my rules."
"My team, my rules," Chalmers says, but she lifts two fingers to belay the kill.
Jack opens and closes his hands, braces himself with the one attached to his good arm, and levers himself into a standing position. For less than a second it's great, it's blissful, the novelty of not being seated, and then blood rushes back into his muscles, cramps, and oh God his feet, the soles, burns burns burns—
Jack makes a hiccuping sound and then vomits bile all over his blood-stained trousers and the filthy floor. The act of retching makes his ribs clench and ache. He only remains standing because he's still gripping the chair.
"Sir," one of the men says, addressing Chalmers. He's holding out the tiny tape from the video camera, which was knocked off its perch during the attack.
Jack wipes his mouth and chin on the back of his forearm and starts to shrug, then thinks better of it when his broken shoulder sends fire in a wave across his upper body. "Your boss should watch it, if he wants to. He can see exactly what I told them."
"We could hear you screaming from two levels up," Chalmers says. "Doesn't sound like you'd gotten around to telling them much that they wanted to hear."
She pockets the tape anyway, of course. She's a professional.
"Hand me your knife," Jack says.
Chalmers eyes him. "Seriously, Benjamin, you're a gut wound away from the ICU, and I'm not even sure you're not hiding one of those. Sit down and wait for the medics."
Jack lifts his hand clear and stands on his own two feet. Takes one step towards Forks, then another.
"Knife," he says.
Chalmers sighs and pulls it from its leg sheath, and passes it over hilt-first. Jack bundles all the pain into a fuzzy red cloud and holds it at bay for long enough to walk between the two members of Alpha and crouch down in front of Forks. He holds the knife up, tilting it to and fro in the light. It's dark, probably ceramic. Keen-edged. The man's eyes follow it like a hypnotist's pendulum.
Jack does another showy one-handed turn, getting the blade into a better position, and then reaches down suddenly and slices off two of the man's fingers, clean at the knuckle, where his hand is resting on the concrete floor.
The knife is sharp enough, and Jack fast enough, that it takes Forks a few seconds to realise what's happened.
"God," he chokes, then, "oh, augh, oh," and clutches the bleeding stumps to his chest. Firm pressure, that's it. He's not as dumb as he looks.
Jack holds out the bloodied knife, delicately, and someone takes it from him. He stares into Forks' eyes. Part of him is searching for that spark of bewildered anger, the death of whatever currency Prince Jonathan Benjamin of Gilboa might once have had to spend amongst the men of his own army.
"I know, it seems almost a pity, after you went to all that effort, but don't worry: we'll send the film on to your superiors once we're done with it. Unedited, I promise. And I want you to carry a message to King David. Are you listening?"
He waits. Eventually Forks realises the question isn't rhetorical, shivers, and nods.
Jack smiles and colours his voice with sarcasm.
"Tell him I'm so sorry about the mess, but it's time I made it clear which side I'm on. Tell him...he has no idea how far I'm willing to go."
"Wait," David says. "Are you—am I getting this right? Are you actually offering to have Jack assassinated?"
General Holland gives David a look that says, more or less: I can't believe you would come out and say something that crass. The first time David encountered this look, it made his face burn and his tongue stumble over itself, but it loses its power after the first fifty times or so.
David glances around the room. The other members of his security council fail, one by one and with varying degrees of embarrassment, to meet his eyes.
"No," says David. "I can't believe I have to say this, but no. That is Prince Jonathan of Gilboa you're talking about. He's my wife's brother, and," flatly, before anyone can make any pointed comments about the last queen's brother and how well that worked out, "he was once my comrade and my friend. I believe he still could be, one day.”
"Of course, sir. However—"
"I am tabling this topic," David says.
It's raining. David knows this only because he can hear the faint drumming sound of the water striking surfaces high above and below him, and because the light that streams through the window behind him has a cool quality to it, like sheets gone thin from too many washings. The king might stand high above the city, looking out, but he sits with his back to the window. David's mouth is dry with talking, and the tall glass of water in front of him, poured from a steel jug more lovely than most of the vessels in his mother's kitchen, tastes ashy and sterile. He wants to stand on the street and tip back his head, open-mouthed to let the rain pour in.
"Carmichael?" David says. "You're making that face."
"Jack Benjamin's defection notwithstanding, sir," Raymond Carmichael says, "we cannot table the Knights of Selah forever."
"I know," David says. He sighs and rubs his hands over his eyes. He takes a drink from his glass. As though this is a signal, everyone else in the room sits up and rustles their papers and looks more alert. "Premier Shaw has sent me a very polite letter which I'm pretty sure means we're still friends with Gath in all the important ways, but everything Premier Eliade says is so diplomatic I've got no damn clue what it means."
"Hannis Eliade is no fool," says Holland. "He knows he's on dangerous ground."
"We have the latest internal polls from Nebo," says Sameen Gross. "Page six of the briefing packet, Your Majesty."
David flicks to it obediently.
"Eliade's popularity has climbed two points," Carmichael says, with irritating kindness, just as David finds the poll results himself. "He's holding on to power. But members of his own party have been seen meeting openly with General Russe."
There's a pause. The rain drums more loudly on the distant roof. If David stares hard at the reflective surface of the table in front of him, he can see flickers of movement that might be large raindrops gathering momentum and swallowing smaller ones in their plunge down the window.
"Well, if nobody else is going to do it, I'm going to ask the question. Are we worried about a coup being imminent?” says David.
"Are we worried," asks his Minister for Defence, with a small smile, "or is Eliade worried?"
"Enough sophistry, Celia," says Carmichael.
Celia Halphen gives a prim cough, sets down her blue pen and picks up a black one. This is the equivalent of glaring daggers, for her; David digs the heel of one shoe into the top of another and resists the urge to roll his eyes.
"If Russe takes power, Nebo becomes instantly hostile to a significant portion of its own people, and it's only a matter of time before we end up deciding whether we can handle a flood of Potnyan refugees," Gross points out. "We're their only land border."
"I don't know about hostile," begins Holland, and Gross raises one of her neat eyebrows.
"If Eliade spends any more time kissing their lazy feet, he'll end up with plague blisters on his tongue," she says. "Calling them rats, and not even in private. Russe said that to a reporter's face."
"Not to mention that Eliade is an ally, and Russe is a potential threat to that ally," David says firmly. "That's still our position."
The meeting moves on to domestic matters. David's tired and his neck is tight by the time it finishes. Security briefings always give him a feeling like someone's tied threads to his shoulder blades and is twisting the ends together around their fist.
That feeling only starts to ease when he's in his private study, looking at Michelle's yellow-lit face on the screen of his laptop. She's upgraded the microphone and her voice comes through beautifully, and David can no longer tell if the swishing hum of rain is on her side as well or his alone.
"Is it raining where you are?" he asks.
"It was earlier," she says. "It's cleared up now." There's a gentle amusement in her voice that says they can talk about the weather for as long as he needs. That's enough to needle David; he slumps a bit further in his seat and tells her about the security meeting, and about General Holland's oblique offer.
"You know, I guess I should be glad he ran it past me at all. I really think if I hadn't been an army guy myself, he might have gone and done it anyway, and expected me to be grateful afterwards."
Michelle gives him a look that every single one of the Benjamins has given him at some point. It's not unkind, but it still makes him feel like he just walked in off the farm with mud and pigshit coating his boots.
"Maybe not," she says. "He might have just wanted to see what you'd say."
"They all think I'm hopelessly naïve, to believe in Jack's better nature."
Michelle gives a sad, tense smile, and sweeps her hair back out of her face. Something about the gesture is exhausted, and David aches to pull her into his arms, to smell the vague cloud of scent from her hair conditioner that always fills the air when she moves her hair around in that way.
"You're a good man, David. The best sort of man, to be able to think well of Jack even after...whatever happened between you two. And whatever he's doing now."
"I don't believe he's working against me," David says honestly.
Michelle sighs. "I don't know what to believe," she says. "Every time I feel like I have a handle on my brother, I lose it again. He got you onto the throne, we both know that, but his whole life he's wanted to be king. I can't forget that he wanted it badly enough that he turned on our father. I just—I don't know, David. He's disappointed me too many times. I can't be impartial. But that's why you have advisors. At least listen to them."
David nods. "Thanks. I'll consider that."
"David," Michelle says.
"Shit. I'm sorry." David drops his head into his hands and peeks a smile through. "It's getting automatic. Are you proud, or disappointed?"
I'll consider that is one of the phrases emerging often from David's mouth these days. It doesn't mean yes, it doesn't mean no. It doesn't mean I agree or I disagree. It's conciliation, diplomacy; just one of the bundle of skills that Silas so helpfully forced David to develop by using him as a mouthpiece, dragging him around two countries, and putting him on trial.
Michelle starts to reply, then looks quickly over her shoulder in response to a noise that David can't hear.
"She's up," Michelle says. "Do you want to see her?"
"Of course I do," David says.
Michelle stands and disappears from the frame of the camera, then reappears with a wriggling bundle in her arms. She shrugs one sleeve of her shirt down, baring her breast. David shifts forward on the leather of his seat as though being closer to the computer will bring him closer to his daughter.
"Hi, Simone," he says. "Hey there."
"Hi, Dad," says Michelle softly.
"She's definitely bigger," David says. He folds his arms on the desk and gazes at the smudge of black hair on Simone's head, the way her tiny face is both stern and blissful as she turns to feed. The royal family of Gilboa exists in a cosy technological silence for a while.
After a few minutes, Michelle looks up and smiles at David again. "By the way, I'm sending Lucinda back to you. She should be in Shiloh tomorrow."
"Are you sure you can do without her?"
Michelle makes a face. "All she's doing here is providing a convenient punching bag for my mother. And she won't punch back."
"Punch back against Rose?" David smiles. "I don't know many who would."
Michelle starts to open her mouth. She closes it again, too late to stop the name from slipping silently into the space between them, and glances away. David nods, rueful, and makes a decision.
"Michelle, when you get back to the city, we have to talk about Jack. Properly."
Michelle looks back at him. Now the sadness around her mouth is skirting the edge of an old anger, well-worn, all the colour gone out of it. David swallows a sickly mouthful of guilt.
"I thought there might be something to talk about," she says.
"You didn't ask," David says, surprised.
"You didn't tell," says Michelle. "David, this life is secrets. I guess I just trust that you're keeping the right ones."
"Remind me why you aren't here blinding my cabinet with your brilliance?" David asks. "Come on, let's swap. I can feed Simone. I can be a punching bag."
Michelle smiles. "I'll be back soon. And you're doing well, you know you are, you're just beating yourself up for not being perfect at it. You have to make sure you're celebrating the little victories."
She's right. All things told it's a miracle that things aren't more unstable, that the centre is holding.
"Yes, but your father was right about a lot of things, and innovation was one of them. I don't just want to be keeping my head above water, I want to progress. It's not enough to have done a good thing. We have to keep on doing more."
"I know," Michelle says. She yawns, sudden and wide. One of her fingers strokes across Simone's cheek and David feels a phantom flicker on his own fingertip, like a butterfly's wing. "It's a long race, David. It's the rest of your life. It's all right to pace yourself."
"I love you," David says. "Both of you."
"We love you too," Michelle says. She kisses her fingers and they loom suddenly huge and pink in David's vision as she touches them to the camera.
When the screen is black, David is restless, not ready for sleep but not wanting conversation with anyone likely to provide it here. He could go and make himself a sandwich, some cocoa; he's picked up the Benjamin habit of haunting the kitchen at odd hours. He knows why they did it, now. It's the only room in the palace that doesn't feel like a palace.
David closes the laptop and wanders over to the study window as lightning blinks in the distance. He counts the seconds; there are almost seven before the thunder comes, and it's quiet, just a half-hearted rumble. The storm's a fair way off yet.
He's still thinking about Jack. In particular, about the possibility that Holland might have ordered Jack's execution of his own accord, or that the orders to the small unit in Nebo might have been corrupted despite Carmichael's careful channels of intelligence. He imagines someone bringing him word—bringing him proof, photographs of Jack lying dead somewhere—
The rain-streaked window is cool. David rolls his forehead against it, side to side, swallowing down panic. Useless. He's king of Gilboa and his power is second to none. His brothers won't visit, his wife is a face on a screen, he won't be able to hold his daughter for weeks yet, and Jack is. Jack is.
"Thomasina. I thought we agreed you would at least pretend to knock, after nine at night."
"I'm sorry, sir," she says. Her face, when David turns around, is not sorry. It's not anything. "I have something for you," she says. "Raymond Carmichael seemed certain you would want to be disturbed."
The envelope is yellow and sealed. David can feel the hard rectangular object inside; too large for a flash drive, too small for a phone. Just the right size to be a tape from a portable camera.
"There was a message as well," Thomasina says. "Verbal. The messenger in question will be available for an audience tomorrow."
"Where is he now?"
"The hospital," David says. Dread writhes for a moment in his stomach.
"Yes," says Thomasina. She taps one neatly trimmed fingernail against the envelope. "However, I'm told he also wrote the message down. It's included."
"Thank you," David says. "Is there anything else?"
"Is there anything else, sir?"
"No. Good night, Thomasina."
She has way of announcing her exits and not her entrances; David hears the click as she closes the door behind her. Another far-off flirt of a lightning bolt illuminates the edges of shadows in the empty study. David turns the envelope in his hands. His heart is punching his sternum with unsteady knuckles.
"Fuck you for doing this to me, Jack," he whispers. The words burn on his lips, cleansing, like spirits. "Fuck your plans."
He tears the envelope open.