“You’re getting fat, boy.”
Harl felt his cheeks redden but he took the insult. He wasn’t fat as such, but the combination of the fine food they fed them here and the lack of exercise had taken away his city-rat sleightness. His skin was better, his bones even felt stronger, but he also felt slower. He felt… lethargic. He had spent the last few months eating and sitting in the darkness like some bloody mushroom. But he was whole which was more than could be said for those who were standing with him in Orinius’s study being looked over by Cole’s flat green eyes.
“You simply can’t-”
Cole cut of the furious Orinius with a flicked hand, not even looking over at the red faced scholar.
“I told you this one would be here when I got back didn’t I Orinius?” Cole sounded smug to Harl, and he didn’t like the small smile that toyed at the edges of the man’s mouth, the first one there Harl had seen.
Orinius made a dismissive noise, and looked back over the eight boys that stood before Cole, rage building again. “These are my best prospects Cole you can’t-”
“I can and I will. The King commands it.” Cole crossed his arms and continue his implacable stare at the boys. “These are the ones? Have your numbers told you anything? They all look different. All equally pathetic of course, but there’s nothing similar about them.”
“Leave the thinking to me Cole. I am in the process of working out a formula that might predict-”
“Skylin had a formula too, one he was always working on?”
Orinius snorted derisively “That mad man would not have known a true scientific method if one had bitten him-”
Harl felt some of the boys by him tense. Dresick was to his left, and Harl’s eyes darted to the still pink and red scarring about the hole in his head where his ear had once been.
Cole threw himself down casually on a nearby couch, sending up more dust. “How did the ones from Liosinium work out?”
Orinius paused. “The results were not… promising.” There was a darkness in that comment that made Harl shiver. More boys had arrived over the months in batches. Not many were left. “I was surprised that the King allowed you to harvest from the Centre of the World. You seem to have his ear…?”
“I have fuck all Orinius. A minor bureaucrat passed on the message. But Lios is getting impatient if he’s allowing me to scrape up even the dog shit from his celestial city. Especially when his hungry war needs more and more young male bodies to be thrown at it. Bear that in mind. Bear it in mind well”
Cole’s eyes found Harl’s. “This one. Not only still here but whole. How often does that happen?”
“It happens.” Orinius jabbed a sharp look at Cole that Harl spotted. “You know that it happens.”
Cole smiled wryly, and Harl liked it as little as the last one. “Feeling nervous yet Orinius?”
Orinius sighed dramatically and opened a large volume to flick through at his desk, barely reading the contents, but pretending to.
“This Captain. Tell me about him.” Orinius said lazily, as though it mattered nothing to him.
“I’ll tell you what I know but the man is of a type I’ve seen many times before, and as sure as blood is blood he’s dull. He’s of an established name. And a City-voln of Liosinium, so he’s smarter than most I’ll admit. Ambitious but loyal to Lios. He’ll stab you in the back to get a promotion but he’ll use that promotion to serve his King better. He’s a whorer, a murderer, and likely a rapist. Not that that’s ever held against the military. He’s a Button Man through and through.” This was the most that Harl had heard Cole speak, and his voice was darkly cynical but low and oddly melodius. It was a welcome respite from the black silence of five, six, one he’d been expecting to be in this morning. As he had been in every morning and long afternoon since he’d been left here, until he was not sure when night was day and day was night. His skin drank in the warm candle light and he felt himself closing his eyes in something like pleasure.
“Wake up, boy. I need you to look impressive for the fucking Captain.” Snapped Cole, his sharp woods-voln eyes missing nothing. Harl straightened in his new clothes, nodding slightly before he thought better of it. Cole ignored it.
The shirt itched a bit and the leggings were way too large, he’d had to hold them up with a robe belt and tighten them at the end with wrappings above the two left boots he’d been given. But it felt good to be in outside gear again and not the bloody tunics of the castle. Which meant… were they leaving? All he had heard was that he was to be presented to this Captain, a Button Man, who had to be pleased. Were they to join the King’s war at the front? That might explain Orinius’s annoyance. Whatever project was at hand here was not meant to involve the boys leaving.
“And did he mention offspring?” Orinius asked.
“You want them?”
“If they are male. Put down any females, they are of no use. But a live male specimen would be of interest.”
Cole nodded, and scanned his eyes over the lads again who shifted under his gaze.
Orinius looked up “Shall I relieve the Captain’s boredom in the visitor’s parlour and take them there now?”
“Let him wait.”
“For a man with King Lios’ ear-”
“I don’t have-!”
Orinius corrected himself “For a man who works so closely with the King’s agents you certainly seem to enjoy antagonising them.”
Cole smiled darkly again. “Yourself included Orinius.”
“Especially me I think.”
“Just because I take the King’s gold doesn’t mean I have to like the cunt.”
Harl and the other boys reacted to the blasphemy but clamped down on the shock on their faces quickly before any beatings followed. Cole watched them carefully.
“Very well.” Cole stood, sweeping his wide brimmed hat back over his long dark hair, hiding his eyes in shadows. “We can take them over now.”
Orinius nodded and stood, his thick embroidered robe falling into its usual stiff, almost triangular shape. He gestured to the boys and they formed themselves into a line facing towards the outer door of the study, the same door that they had lined up outside a thousand years, or a few months, ago. They followed Orinius like a badelynge of ducklings behind their fretting mother. They wound their way back through corridors, but Harl could not recognise any familiar features and they could have been travelling anywhere in the castle. The only familiarity were the numbers on the doors and the chilling knowledge that behind some of them, behind all of them perhaps, were boys like him, waiting in the darkness for pain or a very limited freedom and a good meal. Finally, they turned up a corridor that had no numbered doors, and at the furthest end a single fine oaken door with craftily wrought iron hinges and scrolling.
Orinius unlocked it and they entered, Cole closing the door behind them all and stepping forward to were a beefy man with a slicked moustache lounged in a cushioned chair by a roaring fire. The man stood reluctantly, easily reaching the same height as Cole, who was by no means short, but with a stocky width of muscle underneath his long fine navy coat. Firelight flickered off of the man’s golden buttons that ran down the front of the coat, closing it over a military uniform. This was the Captain.
“Cole.” The man smiled without warmth. “Are these the men you bring me?”
“I never promised you men, Rickarn.” Cole gestured to them “But they are fit enough.”
“That one has no ear. Holy Lios, that one is missing a hand!”
“He has another.” Cole shrugged. “What is that city-voln expression? Something about beggars and options?”
“Very funny Cole.”
Orinius stepped forward “You do not have to take them. They are needed here.”
The Captain sighed theatrically. “If only I had other options. But the war leaves us short of men, and this must be dealt with. Can they even wield a sword?”
“I doubt they’ve ever touched one.” Said Cole, ignoring the Captain’s grimace at that news.
“Have they ever followed orders?”
“They follow the masters’ orders all the time here.” Orinius noted haughtily.
“To go and sit and wait. That’s not the same as following orders in combat!” Harl hid his surprise that the Captain knew about the rooms.
“Some city-voln scraps and a woods-voln who’ll no doubt stab me as soon as look at me. You’ve outdone yourself Cole.”
Cole took off his wide brimmed hat and bowed in an elaborate way with an elegance that surprised Harl. He’d seen grand men do that while he’d been outside, hanging from the boughs of sickly city trees to watch the fancy parties sometimes held at the temples of Lios in Bara for auspicious dates like the King’s birthday. Cole was a good mimic.
Captain Rickarn straightened himself, set his mouth beneath the greasy moustache and glared at Cole. “Let us get them to the carts them, we should set off as soon as soon as possible.”
Harl felt his heart both sink in despair and rise in hope. To be back in the carts that had brought him to this hell again filled him with dread, but there was a chance that once they left the castle he might find a way to lose himself in the woods, as he had not been brave enough to do before. Before he had truly known what awaited him at the end of the cart’s route. Before he’d known about room five, six, one.