For the first week and a half of his imprisonment all he knew was darkness.
Adrian slept fitfully on the cold ground, trying to tuck up his bound legs and arms close to his body to preserve what heat he could contain and to calm the racing of his anxious heart. Despite his best efforts to keep warm, the start of fall had brought an unbearably piercing chill to the air, and it was hard to stay comfortable. They kept the rough spun bag over his head during the days he was left out in the open and other days he was left in a guarded tent, tied to the center pole driven deep into the ground.
Adrian had realized early on that they were traveling. But where they were exactly going was lost to him. These were not lands he knew well and even the wind sounded foreign. It made him long for the warmer climate of Pracis, where the waters were sweet and the land was forgiving to the likes of him. Atelaer seemed full of nothing but biting gusts and even harsher people.
He trained his pointed ears for the noise outside and the hissing of angry voices. Adrian knew that during his first two days, while he tried to tuck his arms under his aching head to rest, there were two men outside the tent arguing and shoving each other violently. They were trying to figure out what to do with him and he knew that once or twice someone had come asking to kill him themselves.
To him it would have been a welcome mercy.
All sense of time and distance had escaped him, for all he knew when they moved him from place to place they were going around in circles. Or they could have been taking him farther and farther away from Empire barracks and any chance of escape. The camp was a terrifying and arduous ordeal, much different than the comfort of home. It was shambled together by tents made of linens and the thick tarp of old sails. Only the officer’s tents seemed to carry any semblance of refinery and sense to their design and layout. Adrian longed for escape, to return to the simple life he had led and his studies.
Yet he was here with his fellow countrymen, fighting rebel colonies to the north. Why? He was told that the enemy had designs of ruining the peace and splendor of their home. He could only assume that was true.
“The Colonel wants to take him to the General.”
Cold fear dropped into Adrian’s stomach and he rolled as quietly as he could, gazing at the shadowy figures outlined on the tent walls.
The other voice huffed, “Better if we just skipped the niceties. Why waste valuable time and energy to move to the General?” They sounded high-pitched; more than likely a woman.
Adrian shifted uncomfortably, shivering from the cold against the rough spun mat they had placed under him. His throat ached with dehydration and it was scratchy when he tried to raise it. “H…hello?”
The voices outside paused, one of the figures giving a jerky movement away from the tent flap and physically turning from its opening. So they were going to ignore him then.
“Hello?” Adrian called, louder this time, as he tried to swallow past the dryness.
“What do you want?” the woman hissed, ducking her head inside with a ferocious look on her face.
Adrian shrunk away, shoulders tucking defensively in as he tried to look her in the eye. They were luminous blue eyes that glinted like a cat’s in the darkness, and her green skin turned a ghastly gray from the firelight outside. The feathers on the sides of her face fanned out in her anger. She was small and young. Something Adrian had learned while they’d traveled. Her name was Private Junia, but he had been too afraid to speak to her and her cohort, Private Curran. They were resentful that they were forced to guard him.
He dragged his tongue over his teeth, feeling the ache grow stronger. Between pride and survival, Adrian would choose to live.
“Water,” he rasped. Curran outside scoffed loudly, but Adrian’s face hardened and he pressed on. “May I have some water…please?”
Junia’s eyes narrowed, her thin lips pursed in disgust as he spoke. The first time he had spoken to her he had been too informal, had asked her if she painted her skin green or if she was born that way in a blunt attempt to get to know her. His fascination and confusion in the first days had earned him a few hard scuffs to the jaw.
Her feathers gave a soft shutter along her face. She glared from the sides of her eyes as she turned away without an answer. He could feel his hope of relief sink as she turned her slight back to him, but she then poked her head out of the tent and said, “Oy. Go get the loon a flagon of water aye?”
“What?” her companion snapped.
Adrian’s eyes widened when he saw the outline of a fluffy tail lash.
“Why the hells would we waste good water on him?”
“Cause he got interrogation in the mornin’, you oaf. Colonel finally gonna get somethin’ out of him. If he can barely talk how he gonna be any use?”
“Better he don’t talk. He should just stay silent and accept what he’s done, take it like a man.”
Junia hissed, stomping one foot at Curran’s flippant tone. “Go get it already or I’ll tell the Colonel! Then maybe we can have a trial for you being a big lazy bear!”
There was a stiff silence before Curran snarled and stormed away, shouldering his rifle as he disappeared from the lights shining on the tent.
With a huff, Junia slipped back in, snapping the tent flap closed and returning her opalescent gaze onto Adrian. He could think of nothing to do but stare at her boots, dirty and falling apart and stitched with rough threads of twine. She had a straight back, short and skinny and dressed more like a boy than a young woman, though Adrian would never be able to guess her actual age.
“No weird questions today?” she snapped, “No rude comments about being green?”
Adrian’s head lifted to glance at her with a wince of worry at her tone. He hadn’t the energy to try to make conversation; all he wished for was to stand properly and stretch and fill his belly with water and a proper meal. He wondered where the hens he had befriended had gone. They were an amusing, beautiful blue of sapphire and green jade, so unlike any color he had seen on a chicken before. He knew that the Adamas Ore had done things to morph the creatures and people that lived in Atelaer, but he did not know it would go to such extents. Not that he had seen many chickens at all before, unless they were cooked upon his plate. But they were docile, large and fluffy and friendly due to him feeding them scraps of his stale bread. They were always gone by nightfall, off to rest in whatever traveling coop they had been given.
As he thought of the hens in an attempt to ignore the woman glaring down at him, one question did come across his mind and made suspicion swell inside of him: “I’m to be interrogated?”
“For the death of Alfonse. Best to fess up and tell all your secrets before you get to Surryfield. They got people who are a lot meaner to get you to talk.”
“I didn’t kill anyone.”
Junia scoffed, a feathered tail lashing. “No one believes you.”
Adrian’s shoulders tensed and he tried to sit up a bit straighter; he didn’t know what to say to that. “Who was Alfonse? Why was a boy wearing a Private’s coat?”
Junia stiffened, giving a slow and miserable tilt to her head as she scuffed a boot at the dusty ground. “He was the Colonel’s favorite. A drummer boy.”
Adrian’s eyebrows furrowed in confusion. “But…he was supposed to be in a white coat then. Untouchable. Why-”
“Be quiet!” Junia shouted, whirling and striking him hard across the jaw.
The punch dizzied him and brought Adrian tumbling to his elbows and knees. He saw stars behind his lids as he tried to get a grip on where the floor and sky were.
Junia’s voice was shaking with grief as she shouted, “Silence yourself…you killed him. We all know it! They all told us what they saw! He was just a boy and you killed him!”
Dizzy, head aching from the blow and blood coming from his split lip Adrian lifted his eyes to watch Junia storm out.
The shadowed figure of her companion returned and for a moment they spoke low and furiously. With a harsh breath Junia ripped the flaps of the tent back open, glaring at Adrian as he sank back and brought up his arms in a cross to block another blow. Her face twisted and with a grunt she threw the flagon at him, water splashing across his shirt and onto the dusty floor. “There’s your damned water your rat!”
Curran’s rough voice followed with a growl, “I hope the Colonel does a number on you.”
The flap of the tent closed, lacing up tightly so that no one could come in again for the remainder of the evening.
Adrian was shaking as he got up and sat back against the pole of the tent. His bound hands ached as he pulled them taught, trying to make the pain of it drown out the howling void of fear that was swallowing his chest whole at the thought of morning.
The Colonel’s voice carried well through the officer’s tent, despite his attention lingering on the last few words of a document under hand at the spindly desk. The sunlight of dawn had just begun to paint the ivory canvas around them in warm tones.
Returning the quill to its inkwell, Francis turned to acknowledge the guest to his quarters. “Have you news from our intrepid courier for me?”
“Aye, sir,” replied the Atelan man with an expressionless face of sable and umber. He stepped forward with a piece of parchment shuffled from his coat sleeve.
The men exchanged quiet looks before Francis took to reading the correspondence.
“Well done, Atticus. So the Imperials are on the move east of us. Hoping to force a surrender of Fort Howley I presume. I can’t imagine they’re left with much of a choice after our interference last week.”
“It would appear that way, Colonel.”
Francis’s brows furrowed. “I’m almost certain Major Baxter at Fort Howley will require our additional forces. This will delay our march to the barracks in Surryfield, however.”
“With respect, Colonel, perhaps this gives us time to gather information from the prisoner.” Atticus paused, working his jaw. “Forgive me if I don’t understand why it’s necessary to take him to Surryfield when justice for his crimes can be handled among us.”
The wintery eyes of the Colonel narrowed dangerously at Atticus, as he folded the correspondence letter closed and tossed it on the desk briskly. “I am a passionate man, just as any of us serving in the Wiskusset 17th, Lieutenant. But I do not to submit my emotions to savagery. He will be trialed fairly by the General’s protocol at the barracks.”
Atticus’s verdant eyes flashed. “Savagery? Do you think the Emperor’s army honors us with the same courtesy? That man out there killed Alfonse!”
“You will be wise to hold your tongue, Lieutenant, and keep your pistol in its holster!” boomed Francis, standing and making the irritated thrash of his tail known. “You are dismissed.”
Narrowing his eyes, Atticus gave a reluctant bow of his head and turned out of the officer’s tent.
Francis stood quietly for a few moments, plucking his thoughts and contemplating the hour of his interview with the prisoner in question. Tethering his saber and drawing a cloak over his shoulders, the vacant bedding beside his desk drew his attention. How curious; he hadn’t seen any of his hens all morning.
Taking a stein full of birdseed with him, the Colonel emerged from his tent with breath puffing from his nose in the crisp air and heavy fabrics billowing behind him. Soldiers stopped and bowed their heads in respect as Francis passed, despite their commanding officer’s eyes being more attentive to the ground between their feet and along the bottom trappings of canvas.
However, it wasn’t long before a sight least expected snared his icy gaze as he spotted the blue rump of a fat hen scuttling under the tent of the captive being held. A moment’s pang of apprehension stung Francis in the chest. He couldn’t afford to lose another hen, let alone by the hands of a petty Imperial.
The tent flap briskly opened with the Colonel’s arrival, the shape of his face torn between bewilderment and offense at the scene inside.
Adrian was resting uncomfortably against the center pole; half asleep and with his hands were bound tight and low. Angry red marks and bruises glowed on his freckled skin. The hens were clucking amiably, wandering about him with one trying to take residence in his lap. Their plump behinds spilled over onto the dusty ground while they clucked softly and pecked bits of stale bread from the alleged murderer’s hands. The others milled about the tent with a calm and curious air. Of course, not a feather ruffled or harmed.
Francis’s frown deepened, quietly witnessing the captured man sing low and under his breath. It sounded of the L’Eyon language, a manner of rhyme crooned softly to himself and his feathered guests, and they returned it with pleased clucking and stretching of their necks to inspect Adrian’s hands for more food. They had been lured there by the promise of an easy, fattened meal.
“Bread will spoil them, you know.”
Francis’s voice made Adrian give a violent jerk, and the hens gave startled squawks. Adrian’s eyes flew open and he tried to sit up straighter, spilling the creatures from his lap. Their wings fluffed and flapped in irritation at being disturbed. He looked up, fire shining in golden eyes that made the cloaked Colonel nearly take a startled step back himself. Bruises bloomed along his face, and his long red hair had become further disheveled from abuse. His mouth was pale and cracked from dehydration, cheeks sunken as he tried to shift and sit up with what little dignity had been left to him.
“It’s all I have,” Adrian rasped after a beaten of quiet.
“The bread is for you, not my regiment’s livestock,” Francis barked with raised alarm at the haggard, beaten appearance. He gripped the tent flap open and stuffed his displeased face outside. The guilty shadows of Privates Maitiu Curran and Camilla Junia sunk in on themselves. “Did I not make my orders clear, privates?! Get this man some damned water, now!”
“Yes, Colonel! Right away, sir!” The two jumped in unison, hands on their hats as they bolted down the hill towards the river.
Francis turned back into the tent, face livid with anger.
Adrian was watching the imposing figure of the Colonel with distrust and a startled frown etched into his face at the booming voice. He looked down to the creatures, carefully petting the beak of one with an inflamed finger. He spoke with a rasp to his voice. “You...wish for them back?” It was a quiet statement, already missing the small comfort of the fuzzy and docile hens.
Francis pressed his thin mouth into a line. “No.” He bent, setting the birdseed the hens ate in front of Adrian’s feet. “As long as you feed them correctly.”
Thoughtful, Adrian reached for the stein and brought it closer. He took up a handful, suppressing a smile as the hens clucked happily and pecked at his hand. “They are....very soft. Big too.”
Francis heard how ill and suspicious the man was. His gaze lingered on the Imperial’s trappings, grimacing with how the men had tied him. His hands were bound so tight his fingertips were an aching red and swollen, his wrists were rubbed raw and brought low so he could never stand or sit straight.
Sighing, Francis unsheathed a small silver blade and stepped quickly over to the other man.
Adrian shrunk back, seed falling from his hands to his lap and the ground as he brought them up to block a blow. A ferocious look flamed brightly in his eyes, ready for a fight and the interrogations that were promised.
Closing his eyes to find patience, Francis cut the rope loose and frowned at the bits of blood along the captive’s wrists. “Stand, stretch, we will begin when they return with water for you to drink.”
“My interrogation,” Adrian murmured. He swallowed and brought his aching hands close to his chest with a wince. It felt odd to stand. Francis took a large step back to allow Adrian space as he stretched and straightened, his back giving uncomfortable cracks as he twisted this way and that.
Francis flushed and moved even further back. Adrian was a good head taller than he, with a long braid that fell down to the backs of his knees. His shoulders were broad and what remained of his muscle showed through his sleeves.
Francis sniffed and raised his chin. “We shall speak like gentlemen. The Wiskusset 17th is honor bound to treat you fairly as a prisoner until we reach Surryfield. Despite our quarrel with the Imperials’ presumptuous oppression, we aren’t that different, you and I. The General shall determine the terms of your return to the Imperials, whether it be on foot or in casket.”
Silence stretched between them. Adrian looked straight forward, not quite meeting Francis’s eyes but actually looking more at his left ear.
Clearing his throat, Francis tapped his heel against the hard ground. “Name and rank?”
Again, only silence. Adrian’s shoulders stiffened and his mouth pressed into an angry line, pupils dilating as he glanced at Francis’s face and then looked swiftly away again.
A muscle ticked in Francis’s jaw, and he huffed as he looked down his long nose.
It was incredible to Adrian, that this other man was able to look down at him when he was so much shorter.
The Colonel flipped the tail of his blonde hair over his slim shoulder. “It will be easier to advocate a prisoner exchange fairly with your name and rank, sir.”
Worrying his lip, Adrian looked carefully at the Colonel’s face. For a moment there was silence again, but before Francis could bark another order at him, he answered in a raw voice, “Subaltern A...Adrian Soleil.” Rasping under his breath, he added, “E...Emperor’s Alchemist.”
Francis lofted a brow at the curious detail. “So you’re a doctor.”
“An Emperor’s Alchemist,” Adrian corrected with a bite to his voice.
Camilla poked her head in, not saying a word as she shoved a large leather skein of water towards the Colonel. Francis snatched it from her with a cold glare at her back as she fled again from the tent. Turning towards Adrian, he roughly handed the leather pouch that was icy with water out to him. “I am Colonel Francis Emberfell, and you will address me as such.”
Wary and watching the hens peck around his feet, Adrian stepped to the side and took it. He began to drink, resisting the urge to swallow long and deep for fear of vomiting it back up. He was slow and careful with his sips, wetting his mouth and dragging his tongue across his teeth. Sudden exhaustion overcame him, begging him to lay down and sleep now that he had a proper drink of water. Wary it would be taken away from him, Adrian kept the skein close to his chest, unable to make eye contact with the Colonel.
Francis narrowed his eyes, looking down at the hens that had taken up residence on Adrian’s boots. “His blood was on your hands. The boy. Do you still deny it?”
Adrian said nothing. His soft, pretty mouth turned down into a frown. He wasn’t pleased at the accusation, and furthermore, appalled it had even been suggested. To suggest the men and women of the Empire had such little honor as to harm a boy brought a sharp flare of anger to his chest. But he smothered it and took another careful drag of the water.
Francis gave a slow blink, watching the sharp insult spike through the captive. “I will be forced to engage your Colonel Ralston once more before our march to Surryfield. I’m sure you’ll be thrilled should he overwhelm my forces. Though, if you can’t be arsed to speak, I imagine your comrades will struggle to find you.”
At first it was stubbornness and pride that kept him silent. Now, Adrian was strangely used to it’s easy protection. The less he said, the less that could be used against him. Though he had half a mind to tell this prideful Colonel exactly what would thrill him.
In a brisk and abrupt fashion, the Colonel stepped forward with a sigh and re-snared the Imperial’s wrists, tethering them at a fair height to the center post in the tent.
Adrian closed his eyes and leaned back carefully against the wood, listening to the soft clucks from the hens scuttling under their feet. It was careful work, allowing the skein still clutched in his hands to drink from, but a bleak reminder that he was still a prisoner with an uncertain fate.
“I expect to see you after the battle, Subaltern.”
A sudden drape of heavy cloth stunned Adrian from his stubbornness just long enough for his eyes to open and realize the rebel Colonel had shed his cloak onto him.
Francis stood and turned at the exit of the tent. In the tailored blue livery of the rebellion, epaulets glinting on his shoulders, he was imposing and though Adrian loathed to admit it, impressive. Exposed without billowing fabrics, a tail tufted with golden hair flicked impatiently at his ankles once before the man disappeared beyond the tent flap.
Adrian watched Francis go, eyes wide at the sight of the long tail behind the spindly man disappearing through the rough canvas of the tent. He resisted the urge to curl into himself, to give into the anxiety that was making his heart race in his chest. Battle? Was there a battle tomorrow? He couldn’t remember; had it ever been mentioned in his camp? Or was this a development due to the loss the Empire had faced weeks prior? He ruminated on this thought, chewing his lip until it bled and the hens started to cluck at him as though they could feel his unease. Still, his mind continued.
Would the rebels win the fight again and they be chased away?
Or could they win and could they save him from this fate?
He shuddered in horror and thought about the men outside, the ones that would surely put him out long before he got to see freedom. Adrian tensed. He had heard rumors and whispers from his own solders about Colonel Francis and his cruelty. Even the Atelaer's own soldiers spoke of how tight-laced and hard he could be. So why was he showing such kindness? It made Adrian suspicious, but still...the warmth of the coat held the comfort of a better nights rest, something he needed after the last few days of capture.
It would be a long night, with the distant screams of flying cannonballs and adamsteel canons exploding across the night air to rattle him senseless.