Chapter Eight: Sunstone Rock, Part Two

The young soldier lounged on his cot, outstretched like a lion napping under the shade of an acacia in the blistering savannah. He lay nude with his hands clasped under his head, pillowing it. Perspiration dappled his skin, forming tiny beads. Slowly, they swelled until they broke and trickled down his body, soaking the flimsy mat underneath him.

A canteen sat on the floor beside his bed, bone dry, and next to it was a crust of bread, turned stale since his morning meal.

Luxurious fabrics, from silks to furs, lay folded in neat piles along the wall. They shimmered in the gold sunlight like a mirage. A sybaritic dream of plush decadence, its lavish comfort as untouchable as a cloud.

The young soldier murmured, the drenched mat itching his back and legs. He shifted, his sweaty body hopelessly seeking a spot baked dry by the afternoon heat.

Footfalls clapped down the hallway, growing louder with each stride.

His eyes peeked open, and he roused from his nap. He knew those boots.

A key rattled into the lock, and it turned with a clink.

Then the door swung open.

Warden Janeva entered his cell. They wore their full, Carja uniform, each fold and seam crisp with their figure. Their armor, a standard blend of boiled leather and scale mail, was cinched neatly over the top, and together, the look presented an enviable fit and finish, worthy of an officer. Except that this was Sunstone Rock mired in its endless heatwave. Janeva's face was a deep crimson and sweat soaked their bandana through. The young soldier supposed it proved the warden's dedication to discipline despite the jungle's efforts to roast them all alive. He, however, felt no obligation to match the sentiment.

Janeva sighed and put a hand on their hip. "Where are your fucking clothes?"

The young soldier shrugged, then gestured lazily to the piles of fabric and the finished garments hanging from hooks on the walls. "Everywhere."

"No, not those clothes, you asshole," they growled. "Where are the clothes you should be wearing right now?"

He tucked his hand back under his head and arched his back from side-to-side, stretching his muscles. "Didn't seem like there was any point in putting anything on. I'm the only one in here."

"That's because every time we try to pair you with a cellmate, they almost immediately start banging on the door, desperate to get out."

"And then they start sobbing," the young soldier added, "And begging. And admitting to all sorts of crimes no one knew they committed. It's almost like I'm your best interrogator."

Janeva groaned and pinched the bridge of their nose. "You're not our interrogator."

He ignored them. "Besides, there's one prisoner who would love to be my cellmate. Just put that crazy Tenakth bandit in here with me."

"Ullia wants to kill you."

"Or fuck me," he said thoughtfully.

Janeva glared at him.

"Maybe she wants to fuck me and kill me…"

Janeva continued to glare.

"It might be both… Yeah, it's definitely both. I'm not sure in what order though. I mean, the one way is relatively straightforward, but imagine if she killed me first? The fucking afterward would be pretty tricky. At least for her. I would be dead, so I wouldn't have to worry about it. But we can agree that after all that, uh, she would absolutely eat me. Like carve off a chunk and not even cook it—"

"Enough!" Janeva snapped, and they dragged their hands over their face in exasperation.

"Are you all right, sir?" a guard called out, and three of them charged into the tiny cell, nearly tripping over the bundles of satin and lace piled by the doorway.

"I'm fine," Janeva said, waving them off. "Whenever I visit this cell, half of you guys show up and hover outside in the hallway as though you're sawtooths on patrol and I'm some hapless lancehorn."

"But, sir," one of them objected. "He killed someone last week."

"Not a guard. Or a warden," the young soldier quipped. "Just a prisoner who lacked a healthy respect for my boundaries."

"See?" Janeva said, then they patted the hilt of their sword. "Besides, he has more to fear from me than I do of him. After all, he's both unarmed and naked."

"Good point," he noted with a nod, then he tapped his lips with his finger, a misgiving boring into his mind. His eyes widened. "Wait! What do you mean I have more to fear from you? You're not going to rape me, are you?"

Janeva turned back to him, their expression cool and unreadable. "If I said I was going to rape you, would you put on some clothes?"

He frowned. "Maybe… Yes. Yes, I would put on some clothes. Unless clothes are your thing—"

They sighed. "I'm not going to rape you."

"Oh, good," he replied, and he clasped his hands under his head again, smiling contentedly.

Janeva breathed out a grumbling breath and cast their attention back towards the guards. "As I was saying—"

"They're gone," the young soldier interrupted, not sparing a glance at the empty doorway.

Janeva smirked. Then they approached the foot of the cot and tapped him on the ankle. He folded his legs to the side, making room, and they sat down. Together, they listened to the jungle beyond the cell's narrow windows. Exotic birds warbled and called, their melodies punctuating the buzzing hum of cicadas. And slowly, the sunbeams carving the floor moved, their pace matching the sun as it arced towards the western horizon.

"How long has it been since you showed up in my office begging to be imprisoned?" Janeva asked, breaking the companionable silence.

"Begging?" he said with a smile in his voice. "Wasn't I threatening to be imprisoned?"

"No, you were definitely begging," they said, eyeing him coolly. "If begging could potentially be a catastrophic kind of violence…"

He snorted.

"So, how long do you think it's been since that day?"

The young soldier shrugged. "Time kind of blends together here, and there isn't much in the way of seasons in the jungle."

"Two years."

His eyebrows rose. "Wow. That long?"

"Yeah," Janeva said, nodding. "And I have to ask, what the fuck are you still doing here?"

He frowned, and an ache burrowed its way into his chest.

"I'd let you stay forever, you know that?" they continued, their gruffness eroding to reveal something wistful.

He'd heard the tone before. In the words spoken by soldiers as they knelt over wounded comrades, watching them rasp their final breaths.

Janeva's gaze roamed over the fabrics, the splendid colors painful in their beauty. "If it was up to me, I'd let you stay cloistered in this cell where you can sew these gorgeous garments for the rich until one of us dies from old age. But after two years, I can't stop thinking about why you begged to be incarcerated in the first place."

"I was looking for somewhere safe," the young soldier said, looking up as he reflected on that day. "Somewhere I could think about what to do next."

"Yes, somewhere safe. Except now I'm wondering if it's been too safe."

He sighed, and the ache tightened into a knot.

"You know when I enlisted in the army," Janeva said, their hands absently fidgeting. "There was no one else like me. Battalions of men, with all their bravado, and then me. I'm not a woman, but I'm close enough. So, I worked very hard to rise through the ranks. I wasn't gifted like you, but I matched your ruthlessness and determination. I led my men to victory better than anyone else and with minimum casualties. That's how I earned this post. Being the warden of Sunstone Rock was an enviable assignment for any officer, and it was made even more prestigious by the fact that I'm not a man. So, when I came here, I was satisfied. I'd reached the top. Risen as high as I could go. And then news arrived that Ersa was made captain of the royal vanguard."

He snorted. "An Oseram woman and her Oseram allies are the ones who protect our Carja king. It's a bit humiliating for the army when you think about it."

"In all honesty, the army could use a little humility after the last sun-king's reign. But Ersa's appointment made me realize what Sunstone Rock truly is. It's a trap. Sure, it's an important role to be the warden. What I do is essential to Carja's future. But it's also so peaceful out here. The solitude has an allure, and it fills every one of us, prisoners and guards alike, with a sense of safety. As though all the horrors in the world are happening elsewhere. I think on some level you must have felt it back when you were lost. It's what drew you here."

"But there is no growth without the possibility of failure," he said under his breath, the words bitter with truth.

Janeva nodded. "When I accepted the warden position, I decided I'd gone far enough. I had proven what someone who isn't a man can achieve. I surpassed all expectations, and then I stepped away from the world, satisfied and secure. I chose safety, and so I chose to let my story end. And Ersa, I can't say I don't envy her. But she takes the risks, so she deserves every accolade. I, on the other hand, am tired of the challenge, so perhaps I can do something for you if I'm not willing to do it for myself."

"You're evicting me?" he asked sardonically, his tone more biting than he intended.

They looked at him, catching his eyes, and smiled. "I'm freeing you from this trap. This stifling hellhole that swallows people up like quicksand."

His jaw worked, the ache in his chest throbbing. "I've spent two years thinking about what I should do next, and I haven't found any answers. I don't know if I'm ready."

"Yeah, you might not be ready," Janeva agreed. "But if you're going to find those answers, you've got to fight. You've got to risk yourself. This place... it's too comfortable."

At that, he laughed and swiped a hand across his abdomen slick with sweat. "Sure, this place is a fucking resort."

"You know what I mean. It's not your body that's afraid of risk. It's your mind. And your heart."

He blew out a breath. "I know. It's just that I'm still a weapon. I don't feel any remorse for what I've done. I don't feel anything at all except the thrill of being the one who's still alive at the end. It's as if that's all I am, and in its absence, I cease to exist. I'm nothing."

"If that's what you believe, you're not going to find the answer at Sunstone Rock. Prisons are designed to erase their captives. You're nothing more than a number on a cell door here. A number that doesn't mean anything beyond these walls and towers."

"A number that means nothing," he said softly to himself. "Somehow, it fits."

Janeva clasped him by the ankle and gave him a reassuring squeeze. "You're still haunted by whatever it was that made you. It's blinded you to what you mean to others and to what you could become. You don't realize it, but you're more than an arrow crafted to be used and then thrown away. At least to one person in this world. So, if you don't trust your own judgement, trust mine. In the two years you've been imprisoned here, you've never hurt anyone who didn't have it coming. They were all assholes who regretted making a shiv."

"Being killed with your own weapon is embarrassing," he said thoughtfully, then he sighed. "But if you free me, where do I go from here? What should I do?"

"Go someplace you've never been," they offered. "Someplace where your reputation doesn't precede you. There's a Carja envoy heading east into Nora territory. Avad wants to reforge ties with them after the damage done by his father's rule. So, follow them and find some assholes who have it coming."

He smiled, showing teeth.

Then Janeva let their eyes roam over the room again, dwelling on the piles of fabric, and they sighed sadly. "I am going to miss having my uniforms and armor custom tailored though."

"That's how I know you're selfless bastard for casting me out."

They chuckled softly. "The real tragedy are the tears of all these rich people who won't get their fancy clothes anymore. Though if they only knew who was making them. I think half of them would throw them into a fire out of fear and the other half would pay triple for them."

They rose to their feet and turned to the side to look at him, genuine care warming their expression. "Now get out there and be unsafe. And never come back here again."

Then, without a moment's hesitation, they strode out the open door.

And it didn't close behind them.