Ariete turned his flint grey eyes on the large Elbiyan manor as his prison cart drew to a halt. The setting sun bathed the whitewashed wattle and daub walls in golden-red light. It was smaller than he expected, only two storeys and the top one half the size of the bottom. Fields of flax and wheat sprawled out for several miles in every direction, broken only by a few thickets of trees, and Ariete knew that the hills behind them would bear grapes for the wines Elbiya so loved.
On the plus side, a smaller manor house meant fewer defences. Three guards had accompanied him from the front. There might be three or four more already on site but he doubted they would put up much of a fight. They didn’t even seem to have a barracks or training ground.
“Get out, prisoner.”
Ariete shot a bored look at the guard who had spoken before obeying. Two of the three guards were significantly younger than him, and it showed in every second of their behaviour on the road. If they’d been Murkuri there was no way they would be given authority. By the cadence and pronunciation of their speech Ariete guessed they must be nobles, signed up for the glory of war with none of the sacrifice, hence the ‘simple’ escort job. The other guard was older and rougher, perhaps a common-born career soldier. Ariete had genuine respect for him. He did his best to keep the spoiled youngsters in line, despite obviously lacking in anything with which to discipline either of them.
Ariete was bound at his wrists and ankles in thick manacles, a leather collar around his neck with a chain looped through an o-ring to help his captors keep him under control. He’d made sure to give them no trouble on the journey. After all, they were doing him a favour. It might have taken months to infiltrate the manor if they hadn’t delivered him right to its door. He tried to keep the victorious smirk from his lips as they manhandled him down from the cart and towards the building.
As he walked, several Elbiyans came out to peer at him, their eyes wide and frightened. By their clothes and the dirt under their nails he judged them labourers, probably from the fields. Ariete turned his gaze away, uninterested. They weren’t the targets. He wondered if he would meet the lord in person before it was time to kill him.
One of the young guards yanked the chain around his neck and made him stumble. No doubt they were hoping for a reaction, but Ariete kept his cool. Kolbu and Sybane had chosen him for this mission partially because of how well he controlled himself. If nothing else, he knew he would not fail in that regard.
The guards led him towards a short stone structure set a little away from the manor. Where the manor was well-kept but showing its age, the little jail looked new. Ariete could still see the mortar in between the bricks, and there were only a few chips here and there where the masons must have gotten clumsy.
As they crossed the threshold one of the guards stuck out his foot to trip him, jeering as he did so. Ariete stepped over it with deft agility. He smirked as the guard fumed.
“Careful,” he commented. “Wouldn’t want to break your foot.”
The guard scowled and looked like he was about to say something, but the older guard intervened before things could escalate.
“Come on in, prisoner,” he said, taking the chain and guiding Ariete further into the jail. “This is your room. Innit cosy?”
“I feel right at home already,” Ariete sighed as he took the gloomy space in.
The guard chuckled and nudged him into the cell. It was six feet by ten, three walls of solid stone and the fourth of thick metal bars so that there was nowhere inside to hide. A wooden bed with a patchy blanket sat by the longer wall, a covered jug sat on the floor by the barred wall and there was a wooden bucket in the corner, but beyond that it was bare. The only natural light came from a barred window on the left hand wall.
The older guard followed him in and released the collar from his neck and the manacles at his ankles, but shook his head when Ariete held out his hands for the same.
“Leavin’ those on, ‘m afraid,” the guard told him. “Orders of the lord.”
Ariete nodded, impassive, though inside a prickle of concern ran through him. He’d banked on being free in his cell. He didn’t know if he’d have the right skeleton key for manacles in the stealth kit Bethilde had put together for him, and navigating the manor with bound hands might prove fatally complicated. He pushed a strand of short blonde hair off his tanned forehead and watched as the guard closed the cell door.
“Meals’re mornin’ an’ night,” he said. “An’ if you decide as yer gunna trade information for it, we can make it a bit more comfortable in there, ay.”
“Good to know,” Ariete replied. “Thank you.”
The older guard nodded and strung the keys onto a ring on his belt. Ariete watched him thoughtfully, then went and sat on the bed. There was no mattress. It was only a hard wooden board on legs. Compared to Murkuri standards for how to treat prisoners of war, it was abysmal, but he knew it was on the nicer side of how things could be with Elbiyans. The last time he’d been captured he’d been tied up at the bottom of a dirt pit for three days under the elements. Rancour still burned in his chest at those memories, though he was careful not to let it overwhelm him.
The older guard had settled on a wooden stool opposite and folded his hands over his belly. He was short and stocky, probably slowing down with his age but still no doubt strong enough to cause problems in a fight. Ariete leaned back against the cell wall.
“What’s on the dinner menu?” he asked. “Gruel and bread, or bread and gruel?”
The guard chuckled again.
“Most likely scraps after everyone else’s fed,” he replied. “Don’t worry, we won’t let you starve. Word is Sybane might trade for you.”
“She might,” Ariete agreed. “No doubt she’ll be glad to hear I’ve been fed as well as the dogs.”
The guard chuckled again and Ariete grinned, then they lapsed into silence. Ariete decided to find something better to eat once he was out.
As it turned out, the scraps were quite good. The lord had eaten boar and potatoes with a hearty vegetable soup, and even after all the rest had eaten it seemed there were decent cuts left. He sat up and watched as a slender young servant in his early twenties carried in a tray, accompanied by the noble guards. Ariete was struck by how much he resembled a certain barkeep he’d enjoyed only a week or so earlier. Soft, dark blonde hair framed a tanned, freckled face set with eyes of glimmering green. Those eyes settled on him immediately. There was no hiding the brief flash of wanton desire that flickered in those emerald depths, but it was gone almost before Ariete could register what it was. He suppressed a sigh.
It seemed Elbiya was full of pretty youths who bedded women whilst lusting over every half-decent man they laid eyes on. Unfortunately, in Ariete’s experience, most had their heads so twisted with Elbiyan nonsense that it was barely worth the time to fuck them.
Although, he had recently decided, Leaf had been sensible from the start. He had growing affection for his brother-in-law, despite his misgivings when he’d stumbled out of the woods that day out of the blue. Rune also seemed quite happy with his bride. And Silas… well, Silas was good company, despite everything.
But he could tell by the way this one looked at him, equal parts scared and haughty, that he would find no joy there.
“That’s the brute, then?” the youth asked.
“Not much of a brute,” one of the guards scoffed. “He barely made a peep the whole way here. He’s a kitty-cat.”
The blond chewed his lip, pausing. He glanced at the young guards.
“I don’t like how he looks at me,” the youth said. “I don’t like his eyes.”
“That’s strange.” Ariete smiled when the youth jumped at his words. “I think yours are lovely.”
The servant scowled and cast a nervous look once again at the guards. They didn’t seem concerned. Looking back at Ariete, the servant gave a haughty sniff and stepped forward. Ariete stood up, perfectly calm, to collect his food, but the youth took it badly. He jumped again, jolting the tray, and spilled some soup over the side of the bowl. The two young guards guffawed. Narrowing his eyes, the servant pursed his lips and spat directly on one of the potatoes on Ariete’s plate. Ariete gave him a cool glare.
“Still better than what they eat in your lands, no doubt,” the servant scoffed.
Ariete could almost feel the fear radiating off the lad. He stayed still in his cell as the older guard stood and opened the door, considering. The older man cast a disapproving look at the servant, but Ariete knew he wouldn’t say anything if the nobles didn’t. Over the several days’ ride to the manor he’d gotten the impression the older man was more of a babysitter than a superior. The servant held out the tray, but the older man shook his head.
“Go on and give it to him,” the guard said. Ariete suppressed a surprised grin. It seemed the old man had more spine than he’d thought.
The servant’s pretty green eyes widened in shock and he looked quickly to the nobles, but there was no help there. They chuckled and nodded as well. Ariete kept his face neutral as the servant turned panicked eyes on him, though internally he found it hilarious. The servant took a nervous step, then stopped and looked at the young guards.
“Will you come with me, Alder?” he asked. “Please?”
“Come on, Kit,” Alder taunted. “Don’t be a baby.”
Ariete waited patiently as the servant gathered his courage and began taking shaky steps towards the open door. As he crossed the threshold, Ariete gave a loud sigh, making him jump again. He deposited the tray quickly and hurried out. Ariete walked over to the tray before the door had closed and picked up the potato. He straightened up to find the servant watching him, half defiant, half scared.
“Kit?” Ariete asked. The servant went white. Ariete grinned and stuck out his tongue, deliberately licking the clear, bubbly liquid off the potato, never breaking eye contact. It didn’t taste of anything but Ariete narrowed his eyes nonetheless.
“Ugh!” Kit’s nose crinkled in disgust. “What are you doing?”
Ariete didn’t answer, just licked his lips and grinned. The nobles by his side looked uneasy now too, a first since they’d collected the warrior from the camp near where he’d been captured. Only the older guard looked unconcerned.
“Alright, enough,” he grumbled. “On yer way lads. Let the man eat in peace.”
Ariete chuckled as the three youths left, Kit casting dirty looks over his shoulder.
“Don’t mind ‘em,” the guard told Ariete. “Alder there’s the lord’s son. Thinks he runs the joint, but ‘e’s got watch tonight and ‘e’ll probably be timid as a mouse once the sun sets an’ ‘is buddy goes to bed.”
“I don’t mind them at all.” Ariete picked up his plate and sat on his bed to eat. “We have little shits like that in Murku too. We just don’t give them military authority.”
“Aye, I’ll bet.”
The guard nodded and sighed as he resumed his seat in silence. Ariete left him to his thoughts and ate his food, already thinking of the tasks ahead.
The older guard let Alder in a few hours after sunset and handed over the keys. The young lord looked bored already, and Ariete could tell it wouldn’t be long before he was slacking off, perhaps even sleeping on the job. He had to act carefully.
As soon as the older guard left, Ariete lay down on his bed and pulled the blanket over himself. He slipped his hand into his trousers with slow, smooth movements, looking like he was just shifting to get comfortable, until he found the pocket sewn into the inside seam. There were a few packets in there. All contained different powders, but he had to be sure he’d gotten the right one. He pulled out one he hoped contained the powder he was after and gave it a surreptitious glance to confirm.
“How’s your bed?” Alder sneered, rocking on his stool. “Once I get off watch I’m going to sleep on silk sheets and goosefeather. Bet you wish you could too.”
Ariete scoffed, fumbling beneath the blanket to open the little leather sachet.
“If I had to choose, I’d rather have a good, long sleep on this wooden bench,” he replied. “Being waited on by a noble boy. You’ll change my piss bucket, right?”
“Like fuck I will.” Alder kicked at the leg of his stool.
Ariete took a small pinch of the powder and closed it in his palm, tucking the sachet closed and shifting on the bed to grin at Alder. The boy flushed and stuck out his jaw, defiant.
“That’s a shame.” Ariete pulled the blanket off and rose, leaving the sachet hidden on the bed, and strode over to the cell door. “I really need to go.”
“What are you doing?”
“I didn’t get to piss all day, I have to.” Ariete pulled his cock out with his free hand, keeping the boy’s attention away from his other fist. “I guess I’ll just have to go here.”
Alder jumped to his feet.
“Stop that!” He stared in horror as Ariete closed his eyes and leaned his head back as though in ecstasy. “Go in the bucket, you filthy savage!”
Ariete opened one eye as he emptied his bladder, lazy and unconcerned, and shot him a look he knew for certain would rile him. He’d practised it on Artux all his life. He knew exactly how infuriating it was. A smile tugging at the corner of his lips, his gaze smug and satisfied, and one eyebrow slightly raised in an expression that could only be a challenge. As hoped, Alder’s face went red and he unsheathed a dagger at his hip as he raced forwards.
“I’ll teach you, you—”
Quick as a flash, Ariete brought the powder to his face and blew it directly into Alder’s eyes. The boy gasped, the fine blue-white particles sucking into his throat, and he took a half-step back in shock. He opened his mouth as though to complain but nothing came out. Ariete grinned. Alder was out cold before he hit the floor.
Ariete stepped back and waited a few minutes for the air to clear. He had no idea what was in the powder, nor if Bethilde had intended him to breathe it or not, so he decided to play it safe. Alder was lying partially on his side, one leg bent up under his body and the other splayed out, mostly parallel to the cell. It looked uncomfortable. Ariete hoped the spoilt little shit woke up sore from it.
As he waited, Ariete contemplated his next move. The powder would keep Alder unconscious for a few hours. Ariete had but one task for the night. He must only plant the strange stone seeds from another sachet in his pocket, nothing more. But Bethilde had given him strict instructions on how to do that. The warrior-priestess insisted that they be no more than twelve feet apart and ring around every building where people slept. It was no small undertaking. There was the jail, the manor house itself, and another, smaller building he assumed was the servants’ quarters, as well as a couple of sheds and a stable. He would have to ring them all just in case. If he could achieve all that on the first night, the rest of his mission promised to be quite leisurely.
He dropped into a crouch to watch the air clear and grinned.