“Málaf!” The curse slips out before I can bite it back. Not that it matters. I don’t know who else is stuck in this hell hole with me, but I doubt any of them are sticklers for manners. But that’s not the point. I don’t like strangers knowing that I can speak the old tongue.
I squint my eyes open and sit up a little. My head is throbbing. Jonac must have clobbered me with something after that thrashing I handed to one of his men. Bastard. Still, he left me on top of a straw mattress with a wool blanket thrown over me—not shivering on the floor. Thoughtful of him.
There’s not much light. I can make out the iron bars of my cell and the hallway beyond. That’s thanks to a niche in the hallway wall where someone left an oil lamp burning. Iron bars—so there are individual cells in Crevlock Tower. Just as well. I should have only two or three other prisoners to deal with. That’s better than a tower-full all crammed together.
No, scratch that. There’s only one other person in here.
Looks like he’s sleeping, this new companion of mine. He’s turned away from me, facing the wall, bundled up in a blanket on top of a straw mattress of his own. For the moment, I let him rest. But I keep half an eye on him as I turn my attention to our cell.
I’m accustomed to better quarters, at least when I’m on leave from my legion. This cell is—I don’t know. Ten foot by ten foot, at most? The walls and floors look like some sort of grayish stone, but they’re not. They’re a clever form of concrete; my little brother took the trouble to explain that before sending me here. I snort at the memory as I glance at the ceiling. There’s a narrow slit of a window, way up there. Should get some sunlight during the day.
So much for my accommodations. Now back to my new cellmate. I can just make out his dark, tousled hair and a hint of pale skin. Pale enough that he might be pure Tantzi.
I’m purebred myself. There’s no hiding that. Light skin, light hair—more dirty blonde than the classic straw color, but it serves—and a fetching pair of hazel eyes, if I do say so myself.
Not that those eyes or the rest of the package mean anything to Jonac. That man’s got no real Tantzi blood, and he ain’t impressed with those of us who do. His people are from down the mountains, far to the south. You can tell by that dark brown skin of his. As dark and rich as I’ve ever seen.
Never mind Jonac. It was a bad day for me when I first laid eyes on him—and that was long before he was stationed here to play nursemaid to political prisoners.
Back to my new companion instead. My nose twitches. Sages, he stinks. But everything here stinks.
I push myself up to my feet so I can stare down at him. He’s on the scrawny side, judging by the outline of the blanket, though he might have some wiry muscles hidden under there. Is he armed? Not likely. The guards would have taken any dagger or knife away. But he might have some makeshift blade in his mattress.
Jonac’s no fool—he stripped me of all my weapons. But I’m still handy with my fists. And I’ve got the muscle to back them up.
I wonder if my new cellmate feels me staring. Probably, because now he’s rolling over, sitting up a little and rubbing his eyes open. Fuck, they’re red! His eyes, I mean. Not bloodshot. They’re an actual fucking crimson red.
He’s a Tainted. Jonac left me in here with a fucking demon-blooded Tainted.
The man must really want me dead.
We stare at each other. Me and this demon spawn, that is. There’s not a sound from either of us, except for our long, slow breaths. Maybe we’re both forcing ourselves to breathe slow and easy. Maybe neither of us wants to show fear.
He looks human. And, yes, he could pass for Tantzi—a few of us have dark hair. I wouldn’t know about his demon ancestry, except for those blood red eyes. He’s young looking, too. Twenty-five or so? I have five or ten years on him, assuming his kind age the way normal folk do.
I don’t know how much time has passed, but we’re still staring at each other, sizing each other up. He is scrawny. I can take him, if he doesn’t have some twisted sorcery up his sleeve. But he hasn’t attacked me yet. Hell, he hasn’t even stood up. So I crouch down, putting us eye to eye.
“You’re one of the Tainted?” I know how to start a conversation.
He doesn’t answer. He just gives me a wary look.
This creature must be from Rokofar. What language do they speak there? I don’t think I’ve ever heard it. But he ought to know the trade tongue I’m using. Everyone does.
“Do you understand me?” I ask. “At all?”
He keeps staring at me, but at length he nods.
“Good. Are you, then? Tainted?”
He still looks wary, but he manages a snort anyway. I think that’s his way of saying that he can’t believe I asked something so obvious.
“So you are.” I study him. Málaf, his eyes are eerie. “My name is Aric. Yours?”
He still doesn’t answer.
“What’s the matter with you?” I shake my head at him. “We’re stuck in this cell together—we might as well be civil.”
I roll my eyes. “Make up a name, then, if you don’t want to tell me your real one.”
He looks down at the floor and leans out over his mattress like he’s searching for something. It doesn’t take him long to find it: a layer of dust thick enough for him to take his index finger and write a word.
Shocha. That’s what he writes.
I cock an eyebrow at him. “Shocha? Just like that? To rhyme with, uh, roach-ah?”
He grunts—it’s an ugly grunt—and nods.
“Fine, Shocha.” I’m still crouching in front of him, still studying him. “That’s a—an odd name, but I don’t suppose you can help that.”
That earns me a shrug. Nothing more.
“Can you talk?” I ask.
He looks up at me and just stares. He’s taking my measure, I guess. But whatever he sees in me, it must satisfy him. Because he finally shakes his head. And then he opens his mouth. Most of his tongue is gone. Cut out by knife, looks like.
“Oh. Why did someone—what happened?”
He writes in the dust again. I swallow as I read the word: sorcery.
I shake my head again. Slowly this time. “No one needed sorcery to cut out your—oh. You’re the sorcerer? All your kind are, ain’t they? So someone did that to—to what? Stop you from witchery?”
He nods this time.
I can feel bile in my throat. Well, what did I expect? He’s a demon spawn. Of course he has magic. “Can you—can you still do things that are, uh, against nature? Even without speaking words of power?”
He stares at me and then looks around our little cell—at the walls, at the ceiling, at the floor, at the bars. I think he’s telling me that if he could magic his way out of here, he would.
“All right.” I’m not sure I believe him. I can’t really imagine a demon spawn with no witchery. There’s even a small part of me that thinks I should strangle this thing, before he can do me any harm. Or maybe even just on principle. He’s not human, after all. Even if he looks it. And he must be dangerous, with or without words of power.
He’s still staring at me. Is he reading my thoughts? Looks like it.
I swallow. “You don’t attack me, I won’t attack you. I give you my word. We’ll stay out of each other’s way. You keep to your side of the cell and I’ll keep to mine.”
I’m not lying. I wasn’t sure at first, but I’m not.
In the end, he just shrugs and rolls back over. He believes me enough to risk putting his back to me.
I don’t put my back to him. And I don’t close my eyes. But I leave him alone for the rest of the night.