A heavy curtain was placed over Francis’s vision and body for days on end. Constantly he woke in and out of a state of panicked awareness to dreamy stupor. Sometimes he had woken up screaming, hands frantic as he sought something to hold onto. A warm hand, large and soft, always slipped into his and squeezed tightly. A whisper drifted into his pointed ears, but before he could turn his head to seek who it was that was so soothing, a needle pressed into his arm and he fell unconscious once more. When the pain was bad and at its height, he dreamed that he chased those hands to hold him and shake the pain from his limbs.
It felt like he had slept for ages when the veil pulled away from his gaze and for the first time Francis had full control over his limbs. His leg felt like a swollen, angry creature attached to his body, bigger than the rest of him. It took him a few controlled breaths to contain the pain and to turn his head and lift his arms. Every part of him ached and under the loose shirt he wore he already saw bruises on his arms and chest from where he had been thrown from his horse. The room was dark, cast somewhere in between night and day with filters of light shooting in through the windows.
Francis took a deep breath, turned his head carefully, and examined the room. They were inside Howley Fort, but the infirmary that had felt so bright and large in his fever dreams was instead small and private. They had moved him away from the general infirmary and for a moment he felt bitter, knowing he should be resting amongst his injured men. They needed to see that even he bled and suffered for their cause. For a moment he laid there, angry and frustrated at the pain that was clouding his every movement. He could remember the violence of the battlefield, the blur of blood and bodies and the scream of canons as they blew the ground apart right under his feet. Francis winced, the memory of Octavius throwing him, panic and fear in the horse’s eyes as the shot ripped through Francis’s leg.
The room smelled pungently of medicine and smoke and a distant, chalky smell that made his jaw lock closed, startled.
The Colonel turned his head and he startled at the image of Adrian, bent over a long table full of glasses, herbs, and other medical equipment. Adamas ore glowed in his hands and carefully he mashed herbs together while others boiled in tins above the hearth fire. The blue caught on the lenses of his glasses, the Adamas flared in his fist a moment as his hand clenched tight over it. The mixture in the pot flared and a satisfying little blue puff of smoke came up out of the mixture. The medic shifted his feet and a harsh clanging startled Francis for a moment. Though his neck ached, he turned his head to look down to the man’s feet.
Shackles, heavy and made of iron, were clasped about his ankles and a long and brutal chain tied him to the table he stood at.
For a moment Francis’s gut turned, unsure of how he felt about such a sight. But quickly good sense came about and he dashed any sentiment. Adrian was still an enemy of the Colonies. Whoever shackled him had clearly done it with much thought to safety.
With a wince, Francis cleared his throat and tried to sit up, groaning as pain flashed through his leg and up his spine. “Subaltern.”
Adrian did not look up from his precise work, but his voice did give away his subtle surprise. “You’re awake!”
Francis jerked a nod. “Yes,” he hissed, “and my entire body feels like it’s on fire.”
With careful, well practiced hands Adrian set down his work. The Adamas’s glow dimmed until it was nothing but a faint blue against the desk. The man turned and walked closer to Francis. The shackles kept him just at the distance and angle to only reach Francis’s leg. He would have to stretch uncomfortably, but it kept his arms away from the rest of Francis’s body. The Colonel made a face in a moment of pity, but his eyes settled into an unsure glare as Adrian reached to lift the cloth from his splinted leg. “I couldn’t keep giving you morphine, eventually you will hook on it and will be crying for it day and night. Now it’s up to you to be strong enough to fight.”
With Adrian closer, Francis could see the bruises now, how his jaw was black and blue and his cheekbone a little swollen. His clothes were filthy, disheveled, and the very same bloody garb he had arrived with in their camp. “I’m the injured one. Why do you look like you were dragged backwards through a thornberry bush?”
The subaltern turned away and returned to his table and the work on it. His back was straight and, despite the bruises, he looked more comfortable and confident than he had since he’d been captured. “It will be a slow recovery for you, but the worst of it is over. We seem to have chased the fever back and there’s no sign of infections. I’ve had to make some replicate disinfectants, while they are not as strong, they have been working much better than I initially thought they would.”
Frustration already boiled in Francis’s blood and the deflection only made it burn hotter. He tried to raise himself up, ready to bark a command. But the attempt made him weak and with a soft grunt he laid back, already winded from the lash of pain’s whip against his body. “How long have I been under?”
“About three or four days.”
So long. He must have missed so much and he felt dizzied for a moment. Questions swirled in his mind and he grasped at them to try and figure out what he needed to ask first. “How many did we lose?”
“I don’t know. They won’t tell me.” Adrian’s replied in a clipped tone.
Francis thought for a moment on Adrian’s own frustration of being blocked from information with bitter satisfaction. But before he could say more the door swung open and Major Felix Baxter arrived.
He was a handsome man with bright orange hair shot with darker red tied tight in a little ponytail. Orange feathers fluttered along his skull and his long plumed tail lifted to see Francis awake in his cot. His skin had become a burned, bright red from his days in the sun of the waning Summer. His already thin face had become alarmingly sharp with the beginning of Fall and the lack of resources. But those bright eyes warmed immediately and slowly he came to stand beside Francis’s cot, blatantly blocking his view of their captive who returned to his work as soon as the Major arrived.
“Colonel Emberfell. Thank the earth you’re awake.”
“Major Baxter,” Francis gave a tired wave of the hand in greeting and sighed. “Report to me what’s been going on. Tell me of my company.”
Baxter took a chair from a corner of the room and set it down, settling into it as he leaned back with a frown. His tail curled about his leg as he tried to think. “You have missed very much in the last four days Colonel. I’m sorry to say there was another battle.”
Francis sucked in a breath. “How many did we lose?”
With a wan smile, Baxter held up a hand. “None, sir. It was smaller and contained and we had no casualties. We just chased the rest of the Pracis camp further off and into the woods. Your boy Atticus took it, cheeky little git.” His violet eyes gleamed at Francis’s look of pride and he shook his head. “Break that boy’s temper and he might be worth half a shot one day.”
“And what of the rest of my company? Have they all been settled?” Francis’s voice felt strained with barely contained worry. How much of his cavalry would they have to recover?
Major Baxter glanced over his shoulder once to glare at Adrian and then leaned in close again to speak quietly. “The Wiskusset 17th has moved into the barracks here just fine, sir. Bolstered the place quite well and gave us a fighting chance again when all the supplies were redistributed. The Empress’s Alchemists had done some damage, blew a lot of things sky high.” Francis’s eyes narrowed, noting how Baxter did not explain what things and he sighed a little.
“Do we have an exact count of how many are dead? Names?” Francis asked.
Major Baxter chewed his lip in fury and frustration. “We lost many. But nothing we can’t recover. Official reports are still being made up by the field medics and drummers.” His eyes slid to Adrian’s back, a wary press of his lips as he leaned closer again to whisper to Francis. “Reinforcements are coming from the General. Along with more supplies. Her orders are for you to move on to Swanford for the winter and bolster the protection of the town and the trade routes through there. We’re to cut off the supply line to Colonel Ralston’s camp.”
Francis’s eyes flicked to Adrian and caught the small twitch of a shoulder and the casual glance over at the name. He lifted his chin, looking Francis in the eye when he saw his questioning gaze had been caught. “I see,” Francis said wearily. “What does the General wish us to do with any captives?”
“Leave them here when the reinforcements arrive. They will have a wagon to take any prisoners back.”
Both of their eyes landed on Adrian’s back then, the Imperial tense as he slowly turned to them with his golden eyes blazing. “And what shall be done with me then?”
The gall, the absolute refusal to even pretend he hadn’t just heard their entire conversation. Francis stifled the shot anger and remembered he should be grateful. “You saved my leg. Possibly even my life.”
“I’ve done that with many people. In fact while you have been up and down I have been assisting with many of your injured. All of your injured. Your medics are deplorably trained in any basic skills of a chirurgeon.”
A bitter slap. It took all he had not to bristle, though his tail gave an irritated flick. “And how many of our other men have you saved?” Francis looked to Major Baxter then.
The Major seemed to be chewing on his next words. A twist came to his face and he clenched his fists in resentment. “Several,” he murmured with reluctance. “He stubbornly insisted on seeing the general infirmary, our survival rate is quite good and we haven’t had any amputations just yet. Though there are a couple of folk who aren’t going to be very lucky from the sounds of it.”
“I’ve made brews too,” Adrian spat, making Francis look up at him. “And ointments and redone how you store your wrappings, and your powders, and even sterilized all your instruments. Your people don’t know anything.” He looked to Francis, accusatory. “How could you have all these soldiers and not know how to care for their good health?”
It was the Colonel’s turn to press his mouth into a line and he felt the vibration of cold hate beside him from Baxter, “We do not have the resources the Empire does,” Francis said coolly. “We must make do with what we have.”
Adrian looked truly outraged now and he exploded into a rant, “But you have everything here! Everything! All the herbs, all the right things, you just don’t know how to make them! You’ve squandered resources and let your men die because you haven’t picked up basic Herbology or Chemistry!”
Major Baxter stood and let the chair he sat in flip back as he stormed over to Adrian, a good head shorter than the tall Imperial, but still Adrian stepped back at the look in his eye. It was a cold shock to Francis to suddenly understand where the new bruises on Adrian’s face might have come from. The man pointed at Adrian, voice firm and with a deadly quiet. “We don’t have big schools or fancy centers of your science here. The Empire never built them. We had to pay hefty taxes and then even bigger sums just to be brought over to learn the basics. The lucky few who showed promise got taken away to become Alchemists. All the others were sent back to make do. It’s not our fault your people hoard and steal all that we have!”
“At ease, Major Baxter!” Francis barked.
Adrian’s face became a bright, jittery red and he looked away. Baxter rocked back on his feet and turned on his heel to glower at Francis with a lash of the tail. “He’s disrespectful, he orders everyone around, and he acts like he’s better than all of us. Just ship him off with the other captives, Colonel.” Major Baxter stepped closer, stern. “He’s a murderer. He killed that little boy. Don’t think your soldiers did not tell me how you acquired an Emperor’s Alchemist. Saving one leg won’t redeem the murder of a child.”
Francis watched as Adrian’s shoulders tensed, as he gripped the pestle a little harder and his eyes frantically looked away. Grief stricken. Adrian was absolutely grief stricken to have such an accusation flung at him and his face turned to stone. For a long moment Francis was lost in thought and ran his hand gingerly over his splinted leg. He frowned down to it with a sharpened focus in his mind for once not muddled by drug.
“He didn’t do it.” Francis watched as Adrian’s head lifted slowly and his pale golden eyes rounded in surprise and wariness.
Major Baxter was outraged. “Are you saying your company are liars?”
Francis simply shook his head and winced as he tried to sit up and prop more pillows behind his back. “He didn’t do it,” he said again and glared right back at Baxter. “If the Subaltern wished me dead he would have let me bleed out. Would have let you all take a saw to my leg and be pleased to know I was useless. A murderer does not save my life and that of as many of our people as you let him get his hands on.”
Silence hung thick and roiled between them in the room. Baxter’s fists clenched and he shook with his wrath. His voice held a deadly quiet as he spoke, “Are you saying you’re forgiving him, Colonel?”
Francis flicked his gaze to Baxter, the Adamas blue of his eyes an icy and cold color as he stared the Major down. Calm, smooth as glass, he replied, “I am saying no such thing. I am saying he is not a murderer. Nor will we be sending him to the General.”
Adrian’s wariness only mounted and he sank his teeth into his lip to chew on it. What were they to do with him then? If not to send him to the gallows? Slavery? Forced to stay here and rebuild walls for their dilapidated fort and carry heavy bricks?
“I want him to stay with the Wiskusset 17th and help us. If he does…then at the end of this war we let him free.”
This was a different kind of silence. It wasn’t angry or charged with hatred. It was just baffled and quiet confusion as the two men looked at the Colonel lying in the cot and looking immensely pleased with his idea.
“What?” Baxter and Adrian said together.
“I see a mutual convenience for both of us Subaltern Soleil,” Francis gave a calm smile, twinged with pain. “You stay with us. Help our injured and teach Corporal Silversmith what you can and when this war is over or the Corporal feels he has learned all he needs to know…you can go free. Go back to your Empire with your head on your shoulders and food in your belly and clothes on your back.”
Baxter pushed his hands through his hair and the feathers along his cheeks flared out. “Colonel this is insanity! You cannot possibly be offering this to an Imperial. He’s more likely to poison us all and run the first chance he gets!”
Francis kept his eyes on Adrian, unable to help the smug look on his face. It was satisfying to see the man quiet and contemplating. They both knew he had to weigh his life in his hands. “I don’t think you will…will you Subaltern?” Francis prodded.
Those eyes could burn like fire when they caught the candlelight right and the look Adrian shot to Francis caught and blazed. But the Colonel only raised his chin and did not waver as he met that stare. The words Adrian spoke were quiet, full of bitterness, “I will think about it.”
Francis gave a little huff and waved a hand as if to shoo them away from his bedside. “Fine. Do not think too long. When reinforcements arrive I will need a decision. To send you to the hands of the General and to your fate of the gallows- or to keep you here to serve in the infirmaries and teach instead.” Francis looked between them and gave a rough sigh of frustration when the Major did not immediately leave. “Dismissed Major Baxter! Earth below let me rest. I’ve had enough of you two gawking at me. Send for water and something to eat and tell Lieutenant Octavia to be here before sundown with a report.”
Still with a look of great annoyance, Major Baxter turned to leave before he came up short and paused. He turned to Adrian and eyed how he was shackled to the table with a sigh. With a rustle, he brought some keys from his pockets and he unlocked the chain but kept the cuffs about the Imperial’s ankles. Adrian murmured a quiet sound of appreciation and waited patiently for the Major to leave the room. When he did, Adrian looked a little lost, but walked immediately to the window to stretch up and look out it.
“Do not make me regret this decision, Subaltern.” Francis said to Adrian’s back, voice level and cold.
Adrian turned, slowly, to look at Francis with an answering frown. He weighed it, constantly, like one of the goddesses holding a scale.