Working all day for his sworn enemy's military had left Dustan with a foul taste on his tongue, but he assumed that many of his fellow prisoners felt the same. They walked as they ate their supper—a bowl of slop with a few pheasant legs stuck into it—being herded en masse back to their bunks. Dustan's hands felt blistered from the hot bottles of magical liquid he'd been handling, but they looked all right. Faern said that the burn was beneath the surface. This did not comfort Dustan.
They reached the room and handed their bowls—whether empty or not by that point—to the guards, and began to climb up into the bunk beds. It wasn't until just that moment that Dustan remembered his bunkmate. The man who had technically saved his life the night before, yet who he had never bothered to catch a glimpse of. Now, he couldn't even remember which bed had been his the previous night. Glancing around, he made note that everyone else seemed to be returning to their same beds—perhaps they had some personal things that they kept there. He caught glimpses of a ribbon here, an old photograph there. The things they'd managed to grab before they fled their burning homes. Glancing ahead, he saw Faern climb into his own bunk—he was all the way at the top, and somehow managed to reach it in record speed. The old man continued to amaze Dustan by the moment. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw the woman—whose name he finally learned was Bea, slide into her bed a row or two above where he was. Using her as a guide,
he climbed up a few more rows, and peered into the bunk that he thought was his. He looked back at her again. Catching him looking, she raised an eyebrow, then rolled her eyes and nodded.
He climbed in. There was no one else yet. Leaning back on his elbows, he watched people climb past, every moment wondering which would pause to climb into the bunk with him. Shutting his eyes, Dustan noticed the way the lids burned against them. He hadn't realized just how tired he really was until just that moment. He could feel his body sinking into the bed as if it were soft and comfortable. Having been hunched over all day, he found he wasn't totally abject to the utter firmness of the bunk. His back popped as he rolled his shoulders forward slightly, his head lolling to the side.
Something brushed his legs, and he opened his eyes to see that the lights had already been turned out. Despite this, he could vaguely make out a figure climbing across him to get to the empty space near the wall.
"Oh, sorry. I could have moved over," Dustan began, but shrugged away the rest when the man finished climbing over him. Briefly, his weight had been on him. It wasn't much at all; he was very thin.
"It is fine," he said simply, and lay down beside Dustan. They weren't touching, but Dustan could distinctly feel that the other man was shivering.
"Are you cold?"
"A little. It is fine."
Dustan could recognize that same accent from before. It was strange, thick and still a little hoarse, like he didn't talk much these days. He tried to imagine the region of Aur that the accent was from. "Sorry about last night. Thanks for that."
"It was nothing."
"Didn't expect to wake up here, you know? Thought I was dead, really. When the guards caught me, I thought I'd be pulled into little pieces and fed to their horses, for sure. Those Terthians are real cruel bastards."
The man said nothing for a moment, before sighing softly, "Yes, some are."
Dustan lay in the dark, listening to the soft rasp of the other man's breathing. "How long have you been here?"
"Two months. I was caught in one of the border cities… I thought it would be safe for someone like me to hide there. But I was wrong."
"Someone like you?" The border cities were well known to be eccentric mixtures of culture, but had become very dangerous of late. They had been pretty accepting of everyone prior to that, but now Dustan imagined they were either deserted or split to sides. Probably the Terthian sides. Their forces had crossed the border long ago… As things were now, the Aurish army didn't stand a chance.
"What's your name?" Dustan could feel the man roll over beside him, now facing him.
"Dustan of Shoreswidth." He extended a hand across his chest, gently resting it on the man's thin upper arm to let him know it was there, before retracting it and holding it open toward him. "Nice to meet you."
The man tensed when touched, but slipped his hand into Dustan's quickly, squeezing it without much strength. "Edel."
"Edel." Dustan repeated, and shook his hand before retracting his own, frowning a little. "No offense, Edel, but you don't sound so good."
"I've been sick for months. The air is rich with spores this time of year, and well, I have allergies…" he sighed softly.
"I see," said Dustan apologetically, his eyes shutting in the dark.
For a time, things were quiet. Dustan began to nod off a little, propelled into sleep by the power and weight of his day's work.
"I hear you're a spy," Edel said softly, whispering it nearly directly into Dustan's ear. Jumping slightly, Dustan glanced over at him. He could hear Edel move away slightly too. He must have been unaware just how close he was to him.
"what? I'm not! I mean…" he sputtered, clearing his throat and glancing around in the dark.
"Shh," said Edel. "It's okay."
Dustan frowned, offering up nothing. He wasn't sure who he could trust here. Would they kill him if they found out he was in Her Majesty's Intelligence? Would they care at all? After all, it wasn't like he could go anywhere or do anything about it.
"I want to try to escape," Edel whispered even more softly.
"Escape," he hissed near his shoulder. "I have been working on a plan."
Dustan rolled onto his side at this, facing his bunkmate. If he had a way to get out of this place, Dustan was definitely in, whether he should have found him trustworthy or not at this point was now mum. "What? Really?" he did his best to keep his voice down, though Edel still shushed him.
Dustan was amazed. How could anyone escape a prison like this one? There was no way out—nope. Dustan couldn't think of a single way it was possible.
Every day, Edel had stayed behind instead of going to work. It sounded absurd—how could the guards not have noticed him? Didn't they check the room to make sure they'd all gotten out? Yet without fail, he remained. Once the guards had left the room, he climbed up to the top bunk. At the very top, there were vents no bigger across than three hands stretched lain from palm to tip, and no taller than two. Dustan did the math in his head, and he couldn't conceivably imagine any man fitting through such a hole. Not to mention, it apparently had bars on it.
Yet Edel said that he had cut the barred grate so that it came away from the window, and he was confident he could fit through it. It had been that way for weeks, he said.
"So why haven't you left yet, then?" Dustan asked, but excited and perpetually wary.
"I would fall to my death. I need someone to lower me down from the window."
Dustan blinked, imagining the maneuver. He frowned. "So if I help you escape, what do I get out of it, then?" He could tell that this conversation was going in that direction. He'd played to his patriotism, and sure, he did get a buzz from the idea of helping a prisoner escape Terthian clutches, but what he really needed was an escape plan of his own, where he would wind up escaping, too. And he highly doubted he could fit through that window.
"I could get some friends, and we could return to break you out."
"Yeah. That sounds really promising." Dustan grunted and rolled over, putting his back to the other man.
"Well, all right. I do not yet know how I would help you to escape in return. But I do have something of value to you."
"I can tell you the recipe for the magic fuel."
Dustan rolled his eyes, "I already know the recipe. I've been boiling those rocks down all day."
"But you don't know what they do. I do. I can tell you anything about them."
Dustan grunted. It was tempting, to be sure. To turn down such an offer would cause him shame. But what good was he, knowing this information, if he couldn't tell it to his Queen?
"No dice," he said, shrugging and shaking his head, "I have to get out."
Edel listened silently, before sighing. "All right. I shall think of a way."