The garment he’s given to wear is little more than a bolt of fabric with a hole cut into it so that it can go over his head, a rough length of cord fastened around his waist to hold the open-sided tunic somewhat closed. He’s not given anything for his feet, and the bare flagstones beneath him are as cold as they are hard. Around his neck, the thick metal collar grows heavier with each passing heartbeat, his mood sinking somehow even lower when he hears the guards discussing what they’ve been told to do with him. If there were any other options open to him he’d fight for his freedom, but there’s no chance of that now that the manacles around his wrists have been refastened and linked to the collar around his neck and the cuffs around his ankles with a cumbersome chain. Like this he can walk with restrained steps, nothing more.
He’s led from his cell, four guards escorting him through the dungeon and up into the castle itself. Eskel commits the path to memory, counting the doorways and passages they pass, marking each point as they go even if his footsteps are too small to be of use in measuring the distances accurately. His chance might not come immediately, but he intends to be as ready as possible when the opportunity to escape does present itself.
The path doesn’t seem to take too long. By his guess, they’ve taken the direct route. They’re either stupid, or confident he won’t escape. Either way, Eskel has gained knowledge he’ll need later, and he lets it sink in as they stand there, waiting to be admitted through the ornate double doorway.
When they open, Eskel keeps his gaze lowered, but not so low that he can’t see the deep red carpet leading up the centre of the room, towards a dias where a figure sits on the leftmost chair. The walls are hung with tapestries woven with gold and silver thread, the scent of perfume hanging in the air. Compared to the finery encircling them as Eskel is walked forward, he is beyond plain. At least he is somewhat clean, although the reason behind his freezing dousing is likely to prove to be an unpleasant one.
He glances up when he’s brought to a standstill before the dias, catching sight of a well-dressed young man with brown hair and clear blue eyes. He looks bored, slouching and idly swinging a golden goblet in his hand.
“The prisoner, as requested, your Highness.”
“Hmm,” he hums, eyes roving over Eskel. His attention lingers. “Those chains are in the way. Remove them.”
The guards hesitate, and then one steps forward, unfastening the heavy chain. They clatter to the ground, still attached to Eskel’s ankles.
“Big, isn’t he?” the prince comments, seeming pleased. “Undress him.”
The command seems easier for the guard to follow. Eskel grits his teeth as the cord is yanked from his waist, the cloth torn from him and leaving him standing there, naked and exposed, completely uncovered before the prince’s keen gaze.
“Very nice,” is the verdict, and Eskel hates those words. His body is pleasing only in its ability to fight, not to fuck, and the spoilt princeling seems to be interested in the latter.
A graceful hand is extended. “Hand me the key. I’ll put him back in his chains when I’m done.”
“Your Highness,” the guard with the key bows, stepping forward and handing the key over. Pale fingers curl over it, the prince’s gaze still on Eskel.
“Now go. I’m not to be disturbed until supper.”
The guards leave. Eskel is grateful for that. It means his chances of escape have increased significantly. All he has to do now is somehow get the key from the prince and—
And what, he doesn’t quite get round to considering, because the prince is stepping forward, his expression having shifted. He looks tense, and weary, but his attention isn’t on Eskel. He stoops to collect the discarded garment, stopping just in front of Eskel.
It’s only surprise that keeps Eskel from acting. He can’t help wondering what’s happening, holding still to see where this goes.
“As beautiful as you are,” the prince says, sounding as sad as he looks, in spite of the smile that tugs at his lips but doesn’t reach his eyes, “that’s not what I wanted you here for.”
He eases the cloth over Eskel’s head, tucking it between his chest and bound wrists so that it might fall into place and conceal him again. That done, the prince takes the key and, for some reason, uncuffs Eskel’s wrists. The metal falls with a heavy sound onto the pile of chains, and then the prince kneels , similarly freeing Eskel’s ankles. As he works them open, Eskel stares down at him, knowing it would be the perfect opportunity to strike him, to flee.
He doesn’t move.
The prince stands up, reaching for the collar around Eskel’s neck. Eskel watches him closely as he removes the last restraint which had served to tether him to the wall like a dog, but now is little more than ornamentation demarking his captive status.
“What do you want me for, then?” he asks.
The prince prises the collar away, and then drops with it without any regard for where it falls. “We both want our freedom.”
The breath leaves Eskel’s lungs as he stares at the prince. There’s no trick to his word, no lie. Eskel wonders, but doesn’t ask, what it is that the prince wants to be free from. “I am to be your kidnapper?”
The prince tosses the key to the floor too, walking round the dias and pulling a tapestry aside to reveal a door.
“Are you coming?”
Well, he certainly isn’t staying. “Won’t someone see us?”
The prince shrugs. “Perhaps, but by the time they do it won’t matter. Come, I have clothes and supplies waiting.”
He’s thought this through. Everything is deliberate, and planned. It plays into Eskel’s hands, yes, but Eskel finds himself looking at the prince and feeling a faint tug of sympathy. The spoilt creature he’d been stripped for is nowhere to be found. The prince seems earnest now, determined to escape something that means he’s willing to throw himself at the mercy of a brutish criminal. Eskel could be anyone. He could do anything he liked to the prince, and then escape well before his actions and flight are uncovered. He’s being trusted, no doubt purely out of necessity.
He follows, the door snicking softly shut behind them. As the prince locks it, Eskel hears him ask: “What’s your name?”
He doesn’t expect the warm hand that closes around his. The fingertips are rough, as if hardened by countless hours of plucking at strings – all in the wrong place for it to have been caused by a bow.
He doesn’t expect to be given a name in return.
“I’m Prince Julian. Or, I was.”
Eskel is tugged along the darkened passageway, led through near pitch black by the young prince who is sure-footed and tangibly shaking with nervous excitement.
“From now on, please call me Jaskier.”
‘From now on’. As if he assumes they will be around each other for longer than it takes to flee the castle.
Well, Eskel thinks as they slip into a dingy room and he sees the prince quickly changes into peasant clothing, grabbing a lute case and slinging it over his shoulder, it wouldn’t be the worst thing to have ever happened to him.