The ceiling was white. That was the first thing he noticed. He knew it was a ceiling, not a wall, because of the glowing lantern hanging from a bronze hook in one corner. Gradually his eyes focused and details became apparent - the paint was cracked and peeling. It had been painted over many times, in different colors; here and there a spot of dull green showed underneath the white, and occasionally some faded orange was exposed from beneath the green. An unpainted wooden beam split the ceiling in two, starting just above the set of drawers on the far side of the room and finishing directly above his head. He was lying on something soft - a matress, probably, but no pillow. Something prickly and uncomfortable touched the bare skin of his hands and feet. A blanket, but a poor one at that. The rest of his body did not feel it - he was clothed. His head ached, his right foot hurt, and his arms were sore. Air came in long, heavy breaths. There was a sudden ringing in his ears. Soon it became clearer. Voices. In the far left corner of the room the top of a head was visable. It started towards him, and he could make out two green eyes beneath wavy brown locks and a copper hairband. The head stopped, turned around, and said something to the door. A man's voice answered, in a language he couldn't understand. He tried to lift his head, but was too weak. His groan was noticed by the head, and it turned around and again began walking towards him. A face became visable, a young and beautiful-looking woman, and two slender shoulders supporting a silk purple stola. As she reached him, she lifted his head, and placed a pillow underneath. He didn't see where she got it from. The woman spoke to him. Her voice was soft, comforting, and he didn't pick up the first few words. "Huh?" he murmered. His voice sounded hoarse and unfamiliar. "I said, you're awake, finally. How do you feel?" "Lousy." Above the drawers was a mirror. The face that stared back was completely bandaged, with only a mouth and eyes visable. He recognized the eyes as his own. "Where am I?" "You're in Vetallun." She smiled for the first time. "Do you remember anything?" His head seemed empty, and it was hard to concentrate. Perhaps it was all those bandages, stifling his thoughts. Maybe it was that smile. "A blade through my foot... I fell," he managed. "Yes. You've been in battle." "Battle?" The ringing returned to his ears. He didn't catch what she said next. "... a cavalier, at any rate. We found you on the ground, bleeding from the ankle. Your skull was fractured as well, probably from the fall. You're lucky we found you and realized you were alive." "Did we win? My horse, did you..." His words were interrupted by a sharp pain in his temple, forcing him to cry out. "You should get some more rest," the woman said. "I'll be back here in a few hours with some soup and bread. If you need anything before then, there's a bell on the nightstand." He tried to nod to her, but all he managed was a grunt. The woman turned and walked away from him, through the door and into a hallway. He tried to make out what was past the hallway, but it was dark, and another burst of pain forced him to stop. The door closed behind her.
* * * * *
When he woke up it was day. He hadn't noticed it was night before because he hadn't noticed the window to his right. This time the lantern on the ceiling was out and light poured through the window, casting shadows on the far wall. Faint voices carried on quiet conversations somewhere nearby. After a while the woman returned, carrying a silver tray in her left hand and a cloth napkin in her right. She moved the bell aside and set the tray down on the nightstand, then eased his body into an almost-sitting position, with the wall supporting his head and the pillow cushioning his back. The napkin she placed in front of him. "Are you hungry?" she asked. She took a bowl from the tray and held it for him to see. Inside was a white chowder, filled with bits of red and green. He grunted a yes, and she began spooning the soup into his mouth. With the stiff bandages it was hard to move his jaw, and often the soup would spill onto the napkin. When the bowl was empty, the woman wiped his chin with the clean side of the napkin. "I'll be back with some tea," she said over her shoulder as she took the tray and napkin and headed for the door. As she reached it it swung by itself, revealing a tall, dark figure with a hood shrouding his face. The woman seemed startled at first by this stranger but soon recovered, and the two began conversing in sharp whispers. As they walked away a sandal emerged from the darkness of the hallway and kicked closed the door.
Again he rolled his body to get a better view of the room. This time, however, he rolled too far and fell off the bed, hitting his head on the nightstand. He squirmed with a shooting pain that seemed to tear at his brain, and fell unconscious.
* * * * *
The first thing he noticed when he woke up was that the voices he'd heard earlier had stopped. The second thing was that he was still on the floor. The third thing was that it was a good deal later; the room was dimmer, the shadows longer. He tried to get up, and found that he was a good deal stronger than he had been earlier, though still too weak to stand. His hand found the bell on the nightstand and rang it several times. The ringing hurt his ears; other than that, nothing happened. He gritted his teeth, and grabbing the nightstand for support, pulled himself up so that one elbow was on the bed and the other resting on the window sill. With great effort, he pulled his head up and rested his chin on the nightstand. The window was now in front of him. Outside, a wide cobblestone street and a run-down tavern. A sign hung over the door, large, red figures painted on both sides. He squinted at the figures. Letters? He didn't recognize them as Iridine, or common. An immigrant area of town, perhaps? Strange, he didn't remember any bars in Vetallun, let alone foreign ones.
* * * * *
He didn't know how many weeks he spent in that bed. Most of the time he slept. Sometimes entire days would go by without him opening his eyes. One day a man came to see him. He thought it was the same one in the hooded cloak he saw earlier, but couldn't be sure. The man had an uneasy demeanor, and was less friendly than the woman. He had a paler complexion, and was heavily built. "I'm a cavalryman of Turma II," the man began, taking a seat on a stool next to the bed. "Only a few of our unit survived the battle. Our decurion was killed... we got detached from the main army. Without anyone to give orders, and afraid we might wander too far and be spotted by Cineran guards, we headed back to the village." The cavalryman stared at him, hesitating. He nodded for the man to continue. "My men are waiting outside. I heard that there was another of our number in town, an officer, that this one might have information that might help us. Sir, I need to know where the main army is camped, that we may rejoin them." The door swung open, the woman standing in the doorway. Seeing the man she nodded quickly and stepped back into the hallway to wait. The man leaned closer to hear his response. "The army... orders were..." He cringed as pain seized his forehead. Strange, his head had been fine for a couple of days now. "After the battle we headed..." Another, more powerful burst. "The centurion..." Again. Exhausted, he closed his eyes. The man and woman exchanged troubled glances. Finally the woman spoke. "Perhaps this isn't the best time," she said. "It looks like he hasn't recovered as quickly as I thought. We shouldn't push him." She put what she was carrying on the nightstand and whispered something to the man. He whispered back. "All right," said the cavalryman, managing an unconvincing smile. "We weren't planning to head out until tomorrow anyway. Shall I return next morning?" The woman spoke for him. "That would be great. I'm sure whatever he's having now will be gone by then." He nodded weakly. "Thanks," said the man, and turned to leave. The woman followed him. He muttered something as he reached the door, and she smiled and whispered something back. The door banged shut behind them.
Something was nagging him. Something big. Something that didn't seem right. He looked around the room, at the roll of bandages on the dresser, the bright red flowers in the vase. Then, carefully, he got out of bed. The pain in his head was gone, and standing up didn't hurt too much so long as he used the nightstand for support and didn't lean on his injured foot. He peered again out the window. The tavern was full, people just getting back from work probably. A few slightly drunk citizens were conversing outside. Though it was hard to hear their words, it was clear that they weren't speaking Iridine. He scanned the street for more clues. A beggar tore at a man's workshirt. A drover pushing a cart of pottery stopped to look inside the tavern. He squinted at the markings on the bowls. At the street corner was a soldier. He studied the man's uniform, and gulped. For a minute he stood there, blinking, then felt weak again and collapsed into bed.
* * * * *
The woman woke him up. She wasn't carrying her tray, like she usually did when she came to see him in the morning. "That man's here to see you again," she said. "Shall I let him in?" She turned towards the door. His eyes narrowed. "No." "Huh?" She whipped around, startled. "I won't betray my Republic. I'll tell you nothing." She blinked at him, then cleared her throat and nodded softly. "Are you sure about this?" she asked, her hand reaching towards her belt. "Of course." Her fingers wrapped around the silver dirk, pulling it slowly from its scabbard. The markings were Cineran. He followed the blade as she drew it along the side of the bed. It stopped at his neck. He gritted his teeth, staring into those green, deceptive eyes. They were the last thing he saw.