The soldiers had cleared two bunks at the end of the room for Seryn and Aled. They were tucked behind a wall, like that corner had once been storage before they needed the extra space, but Seryn didn’t mind the seclusion. The man who showed her in couldn’t leave fast enough for her. As soon as he was gone, she stowed her things under the bunk, pried her feet out of her boots, stripped out of her coat and slept. She didn’t really remember falling into unconsciousness, just the feel of the thin mattress bending around her shoulder, and the pleasant weight of her coat on top of her.
It was dark when she opened her eyes again. Yellow light flickered on the far wall. Aled was somewhere behind her, joking with another soldier as he came closer. The soldier wasn’t responding much, and apparently didn’t find Aled very funny.
Sitting up, Seryn slid her feet to the floor. She didn’t feel much rested, just quieted. Her mind was sleepily empty, her body comfortable sitting still.
Aled turned the corner and waved his escort back. His saddlebags were slung over his shoulder, and he dropped them neatly onto the end of the bunk. Without looking, he tossed her a heavy round of bread and sank onto his bunk with a satisfied smile.
“Thought you’d be asleep,” he said.
Seryn tore off a piece of bread with two fingers. “I’m awake,” she told him before she stuck it in her mouth.
He paused. “You all right?”
Leaning forward, he settled his elbows on his knees and tilted his head to look at her. “You’re sure? You look a little dead.”
She shook her head, starting to dismiss it.
“And you’ve looked it a couple times over the last few weeks.” Aled sounded more curious than concerned and Seryn looked at him. Too quickly, she realized. His eyes narrowed, and he leaned closer to her.
Sitting back, she swallowed the bite in her mouth, then shook her head. “It’s been a long day.” She glanced purposefully over her shoulder, like there was something that annoyed her on the other side of the wall. “These aren’t the friendliest people I’ve ever met.”
“I know…” Aled flicked the rest of the room a look that would have rivaled the sharpness of his sword.
“How did it go?” Seryn asked slowly.
“Perfect, the entire patrol I rode with believes that I’m a jester, not dangerous,” Aled said. He grinned. “Exactly the way I like it.”
Seryn blinked, too tired to play his games. “Did you report to Macsen?”
“No.” Aled shook his head. “I thought he might wonder where you were.”
“And I wanted to talk to you…” Aled paused, just barely. “About what to tell him.”
Seryn straightened up slowly. His expression had smoothed since he sat down, until he was eying her earnestly, hands folded in front of him.
“What did you find?” she asked.
Aled rubbed his fingers against each other. He looked around the barracks, took a breath, then faced her again on the exhale. “They’re everywhere in this city,” he said, voice low.
Seryn let out a breath.
“I mean, everywhere,” Aled repeated. “I wasn’t outside the walls for five minutes before I spotted the first one, and every half hour, I found another. And those are just the ones that I could spot riding past. You figure each one has a family somewhere, with one or two more, and double that are just better at hiding it? Seryn, they have an army of us just inside this city.”
“So Deaver’s plan will work here,” Seryn said. “We’ll deliver the good news in the morning.” Quickly, she shoved another bite into her mouth, hoping that would stop the conversation before Aled carried it to stupidity.
“Or, we could tell him we didn’t see anyone,” Aled pressed.
Seryn clenched her jaw and shook her head.
“Why not?” Aled asked.
“That’s enough,” Seryn whispered.
“We could–” Aled began.
“Stop.” She met his eyes squarely.
Aled pulled back. He blinked, then looked away. His eyebrows were bent together, his jaw slack, like he’d suddenly remembered that she was a commanding officer, and he’d already run too far over the line.
“If we tell him how many there are, this king will do the same to them as ours did to us,” he said very slowly. He looked back at her on the last word.
She chewed through her next bite and shrugged. “Yes,” she said. “He will.”
Aled stared at her.
“And they’ll be luckier for it,” Seryn told him.
“No, they won’t,” Aled said. His tone was as gentle as he could make it, as if that would cover the rebellion in his words.
Seryn watched him for a long moment, trying to sort her syllables into the proper words. “We’re the lucky ones,” she told him deliberately. “We’re the ones who have never had to hide. We’re the ones who have never worried that we might get seen and killed. We’re the ones who never stood in between those rutted pillars, with our arms stretched out on chains, because an idiot king believed that a ring of keimon on his palace was better than a wall, whether they wanted to be there or not. Whether they were fed, whole, awake or not.”
“That’s not what they have here,” Aled said.
“Not yet,” Seryn returned.
He looked to the floor.
“Do we wait until they do?” Seryn asked. “Until enough of them have been tortured and killed that this makes sense to you finally? How many people have to die before you’ll feel all right with what should have been done in the first place?”
Aled shook his head, wordless.
“I’ll tell Macsen what we found,” Seryn told him. “You can sleep in.”
Aled nodded once and it looked almost like a bow. “Yes, ma’am.”
They didn’t speak another word while she finished her round of bread, and the lights on the wall flickered down to nothing. He slid onto his bunk and rolled his back to her. In a few minutes, he was asleep, easy breaths sliding in and out of his chest. Seryn tucked her coat back up to her chin and laid down. Sleep caught her quick, and she sank into it, running every thought out of her head to the parade beat of her pulse.