Another two days passed before Marius returned to the dungeon and Rohman did not spend that time in good spirits. Unable to muster the courage to consume the slop that arrived each morning, hunger was eroding his patience and sapping his strength. The murky liquid that was supposedly drinking water wasn’t helping matters either.
“You’re not serious,” he said the first time the guard arrived outside his cell carrying a bucket in one hand and a ladle in the other.
“Drink up, princess,” the man growled as he dipped the chipped wooden utensil into the bucket and held it up to the cell window. The weak light cast by the torch was enough for Rohman to see the oily filth sloshing to the floor and his lips curled in disgust.
“I don’t think so,” he replied with a shake of his head.
“Up to you,” the guard told him before moving on to the next inmate and making the same offer. The slurping sounds that reached his ears from down the hallway made Rohman’s stomach turn.
The same scene played itself out two more times that day before the guard began skipping Rohman’s cell during his rounds. Though the decision certainly saved his body from the invasion of a horde of malevolent bacteria, it also served to increase his fatigue. He was just starting to feel lightheaded when Marius finally reappeared.
When Rohman peered out into the hallway in response to the captain’s knock, he was certain he was hallucinating.
“How are you holding up?” Marius asked.
“Not as well as I thought,” he replied awkwardly around his dust-dry tongue. “My eyes appear to be telling me that I am standing out there with you.”
“That is excellent news,” Marius said with a grin, patting the man standing next to him with a heavy hand. “Since Krozun here is going to be taking your place in that cell.”
“He does so willingly?” Rohman asked, an eyebrow raised by doubt crinkling his forehead. The man, if nothing else, was certainly close enough in appearance to do the job.
“Oh, not at all.” Before Rohman could voice his concern Marius added, “But he has no way to let anyone know his thoughts on the matter. Is that not right Krozun?”
At this the doppelganger glared at the captain and opened his mouth to reveal crooked teeth, inflamed gums, and no tongue. The garbled noises that escaped his throat would have obviously been very uncomplimentary if they’d had a tongue to form them into coherent words.
“You lot are certainly fond of that particular punishment,” Rohman observed with a slight grimace.
“The king likes to have dissenting voices silenced,” Marius told him, obviously not fond of the idea either. “Enough talk for now - we need to get you moved before the change of guards. Take off your clothes so that Krozun can put them on; I have a fresh uniform waiting for you outside the showers in the stable.”
Rohman did as he was told and his replacement did the same while Marius unlocked the cell door. He shoved his clothes into Krozun’s arms as soon as the door opened and received a gargle and a sneer in return.
“In you go then,” Rohman said cheerfully and shoved him into the room. “I highly recommend the wine, but you might want to stay away from the steak – I just don’t think they cook it enough.”
“Put this on and let’s get upstairs,” Marius said, tossing Krozun’s filthy rags into his arms and snapping the lock shut.
“I’d rather go naked,” Rohman replied after a tentative sniff revealed a fouler odour than the one rising from the latrine bucket in the cell.
Marius contemplated forcing the issue but decided enough time had already been wasted. Instead he turned and led the way back to the stairs without a word and Rohman was forced to rush to catch up, his legs groaning in protest at the sudden exertion.
They climbed upwards in silence, Rohman falling further and further behind as his body was unable to maintain the effort required to match the captain’s pace. When Marius reached the door leading to the yard he glanced back and was startled not to find any sign of his co-conspirator.
“Some clean water would do me a world of good,” Rohman told him when he finally caught up, only his pride keeping him from crawling up the final steps on all fours. “Although I wouldn’t turn down a decent steak.”
“My apologies. Here, drink from my canteen.”
Rohman nodded his thanks and forced himself to take a few small sips, despite the temptation to drain it in one long thirst-quenching orgy. He’d made that mistake once before, after surviving a hike through drought ridden Appendora, and he had no interest in a repeat experience of the cramps and vomiting that had followed.
Once he’d sufficiently recovered, they exited into the night-cloaked courtyard and moved silently to the stables. Rohman stepped into a shower stall as Marius kept watch and the horses snorted their annoyance at the nocturnal disturbance.
The water wasn’t heated but Rohman was just content to have a bar of soap and clean water running over his body. He scrubbed until his skin was tingling from head to toe and then stood in the spray with his eyes closed for a few minutes. When he opened them again he found Marius waiting with a razor blade.
“For the beard,” he said. “No facial hair is allowed where you are going.”
Rohman shrugged and got to work without comment, glad to be getting rid of the prickly bristles that had been irritating his face. When he was finished he grabbed the towel that had been draped over the side of the stall and began drying himself off as he looked around for the promised change of clothes.
“Put this on first,” Marius said, holding out a pair of trousers so white they nearly glowed in the darkness. Rohman noticed that his left hand was hidden behind his back but made no comment as he began to get dressed. “Before I take you to your room I have a couple of pieces of... unpleasant news for you.”
“Nothing can be worse than staying in that damned cell.”
“I am pleased that you think so.” Marius hesitated, chewing on his bottom lip, and Rohman felt his heart sink slightly lower in his chest. “The first... is that your hair needs to be cut.” He brought his left hand out of hiding and Rohman could just make out the scissors held there.
“What? How short?”
“The ponytail has to go.”
“This is absolutely necessary?” Rohman asked, one hand going unconsciously to the back of his head.
“Unfortunately it is one of the requirements for your new location in the castle. Speaking of which...”
“What is the second bit of... unpleasant news?”
“You will have a roommate.”
“That doesn’t sound that bad,” Rohman said, naive relief washing over him and easing the tension from his shoulders.
“He can be a little... difficult to deal with.”