Sephys let his eyes slip closed as the horse rocked beneath him, saving his sore feet from the rough stone of the road heading towards the castle of the land. His cheek still stung, but he didn’t dare lift his hand to wipe away the blood—he hadn’t been ordered to. He could feel the breathing of his new owner behind him through his thin clothes. It grew faster and more erratic as they grew closer to the castle, and he couldn’t guess why.
It irritated him to no ends. He could have escaped if he played the subservient, foot-kissing slave for just a while longer. It wouldn’t be long before the merchant grew tired of him, and sold him to some lord, and he could have stole away at night or once he reached the lord’s home. The boy had decided to take all his plans and turn them to dust. The merchant had called him a prince—it was almost certain he was going to serve in a castle with guards at every corner and eyes on the walls. He needed a new plan.
His mind wandered to his brother. He had gotten away. Sephys had saw him spin away at the last second of the battle, and watched his retreating figure from where he was tied to a wooden post, alongside another hundred or so captives. He wanted to believe that his brother wouldn’t have abandoned the battlefield so quickly if he knew that he had been captured, and if he knew what would happen to him. The thought made him smile bitterly. The chance of his brother caring if he was sold or not was almost as slim as his chance of escaping.
“Ser Gaarwain, take him to the servant’s quarters.” The prince said, dismounting as they stopped at one of the towers of the castle, “Make sure he’s treated well.”
“Yes, my lord.” The knight said, inclining his head.
Sephys slid off the horse, stumbling as his feet landed on the ground. The prince reached out to grip his upper arm, steadying him until his feet could take his weight again. Sephys sunk his head, bowing low to the prince, before limping after the knight.
The servant’s quarters weren’t so far from the tower itself. It was made of wood, and looked more like a stable from the outside, but it was clean inside, and crammed with mattresses made of straw and scratchy, but thick blankets. The room was nearly empty and only one boy, slightly older than himself glanced up when they entered.
“Someone will tell you what is expected of you.” The knight dismissed, before backing out of the servant’s quarters. Sephys stepped inside once he couldn’t hear the knight’s footsteps retreating.
When he did look up, the boy that had first seen them enter was in front of him, a crooked smile on his face, “Where are you from, then?”
Sephys shook his head, lowering his eyes.
“Well, no matter.” The boy laughed, “I’m Aaric.”
Sephys nodded, returning a weak smile. Aaric seemed harmless, if anything.
“I dunno what you’ll be doing here, but you can’t walk around stinking like a pile of rotting fish.” Aaric told him, clapping a hand on his shoulder, “Come on. I’m sure you want new clothes as well.”
He made Sephys wash in a wooden tub filled with icy water that twisted his insides and made him shiver violently. It was a little better once he was in a clean, woolen shirt and pants, but the moisture still soaked the shirt, and his feet and face stung more because of the water.
“Well, you at least look half human, now.” Aaric said with another huffing laugh. Sephys nodded in answer, but he wasn’t sure if it was a jape of sorts, or not. He was half the size he had been when he was first captured and it had been days since he had last eaten. Aaric was probably right, and he probably looked more skeleton than he looked alive.
He was stopped at the door of the servant’s quarters by a solemn woman, who looked down on him with something akin to disgust, “You’re to serve Prince Illyon from now. Go to the kitchens.”
Aaric had stopped behind him, “I’ll show you the way then.”
The kitchens were larger than any he had ever seen before, with several ovens burning at once, and more people than comfortable were fluidly moving amongst each other, yelling to be heard over the commotion. A tray was shoved into his arms, and the quick order to take it up to Prince Illyon barked at him.
Sephys nearly ran from the kitchens, Aaric close behind him.
“You’re lucky.” Aaric said, “The prince’s chamber is close from where we are.”
There was, like he thought, a guard at the door of the foot of the stairway that lead to the prince’s chamber. He hardly glanced at Sephys as he walked past, however. The stairs weren’t very steep or long, but he still felt sore as he reached the top, and his arms trembled. It didn’t help that the warm smell of fresh bread and meat wafted up to his face, making his mouth water. He just swallowed thickly, and shifted the weight of the tray over to his other arm to quickly knock on the door.
Sephys scowled, and nearly spilled the contents of the tray when he pushed the door open. It took him a second to remember his position. He knelt when he was inside, praying that his arms could bear the tray for a moment longer.
“You don’t have to do that.” The prince said, moving aside to let him set the tray down on the table by the bed. The prince’s chambers were large, with an arching window at one end that looked out to the sea, lush carpets covering the stone floor that was bliss under his feet, and decorated with heavy tapestries of sigils of different lords.
He nodded, and stepped back, waiting to be dismissed. All he wanted to do was go back down to the servant’s chambers and find a bed to sleep on. He had spent the last month sleeping on damp ground that smelled suspiciously like fish and rot, and any mattress would be a welcome change. He felt exhausted enough to be able to ignore the gnawing hunger in his stomach and fall asleep on his aching feet.
“Are you treated well?” The prince asked, reaching for the bread. He had a strange look on his face that Sephys didn’t dare to imagine true. It was just a fluke, perhaps, but he could have sworn that the prince looked concerned.
Sephys nodded again, thinking back on Aaric. It was the kindest he had been treated for a while, and it was enough that he didn’t know how to react to it.
“Good.” The prince murmured, ripping the bread in his hands. He handed out a piece to him, “You look starved.” He said, “I have no appetite—you should eat.”
Sephys hesitated before he took the bread from the prince, staring down at it incredulously.
“You’ll be serving me, now.” The prince continued, setting the other half of the bread down, “It won’t be much work—bringing meals to my chambers, dressing and bathing me, saddling my horse, and such. That isn’t a problem for you, is it?”
Sephys shook his head, his fingers curling into a tight fist. It couldn’t be true. He couldn’t have been pulled out of hell this easily. This had to be a cruel jape that the gods were sharing before they returned him to the merchant’s cells.
“Would you tell me your name?” the prince asked, gentle, as if he was talking to a frightened beast.
Sephys frowned, taking in a sharp breath. He couldn’t disobey his owner, but he also couldn’t…
“Can you speak?”
Sephys shook his head, letting out the breath he had been holding with a soft whoosh.
“I’m sorry for prying, then.” The prince smiled, “I hope you forgive me for my rudeness.”
He couldn’t believe his ears.
“Get some rest.” The prince ordered, “You’re dismissed.”
Sephys fled from the room, and he didn’t even remember the bread still in his hand, until Aaric had pointed it out as he settled into the bed next to his. The prince’s face burned in his mind as he gratefully wolfed down the warm bread.