We both survive till morning. Me and the Rokofar demon spawn, that is. He made it through the night without using any of his witchery on me—I kept an eye on him the whole fucking time to be sure.
I studied him some more too. I don’t think he’s been here much longer than I have. His beard looks too new. If he’d been here for any significant amount of time, it’d be long and unkempt, wouldn’t it? Instead it’s only just past the stubble stage.
I run my fingers over my chin. Say goodbye to this pretty, clean-shaven face. The guards ain’t going to trust me with a razor.
The demon spawn is waking up now. I’m sitting cross-legged on my mattress, still watching him. He slept soundly, as far as I can tell. Apparently he trusted in the truce we declared.
I smile at him as he opens his eyes. “Morning, Shoch.”
He narrows his eyes at the nickname. But then he shrugs and nods. That’s his way of wishing me a good morning in return, I suppose.
“Any chance they’ll feed us something decent in the next hour or so?” I have no idea what sort of nourishment the guards provide.
He makes a show of looking me over. Then he tugs at his tunic—it’s a rough, homespun linen—before pointing at mine.
I look down at my clothing. I’m wearing linen too—no silks here—but of much finer quality.
“Yes, I’m dressed better than you are, Shoch.” Decidedly better. “What are you getting at?”
He makes a series of gestures which involve pointing at me, pointing at himself, and miming . . . something. Bowls of food?
“Oh, I see. You think they’ll feed me better than they feed you?”
“You may be right. I outrank you, like as not.” I pause. “But if they give me anything halfway decent, I’ll spare some for you.”
He looks surprised. That looks annoys me. What, does he think I have no decency?
“Why not? I know you’re a Tainted but—” I break off.
Shoch narrows his eyes at me again.
I really should stop now. No reason to antagonize the poor bastard. Except that he already thinks the worst of me. “Don’t worry. I can afford some scraps for you. Hell, I’d do that much even for a dog.”
His eyes are murderous now.
“Want to attack me, Shoch?” I give his scrawny muscles a pointed look. “I hope you do have some sorcery up your sleeve. Otherwise, you don’t stand a chance.”
There’s a long moment of silence before he looks down. I can’t help but gloat. That round was all mine.
But there’s not much satisfaction in besting someone who has no way—probably—to defend himself. And since when do I make sport of the underdog? Granted, this one is a Tainted underdog, but still.
“Sorry, Shoch.” I run my fingers through my hair. “That was uncalled for. Should we cry peace?”
He just turns away.
Fine. I have other things to think about—like making certain I don’t turn scrawny myself. I have no sword to practice with, but that doesn’t stop me. There’s plenty else I can do to keep in fighting form.
I end up using the floor, the walls—even the bars—to keep my muscles trim. And I box against an imaginary opponent. Not an ideal practice session, but it will do for now. At least I’ve worked up an appetite by the time our meals arrive.
Shoch was right. A deferential guard arrives with food. Well, deferential to me. He hardly spares a glance at the Tainted, and then it’s only to make sure he’s well out of the way. Shoch, for his part, seems relieved at the lack of attention. Hell, he’s doing everything he can to make himself less noticeable. He’s all but curled himself up into a ball in the corner of the room.
The guard has a bowl of gruel for him, complete with a piss poor excuse of a spoon. But I’m important enough to warrant the gruel plus a generous soldier’s ration of beef jerky, slightly stale bread and a hard-boiled egg.
There are two other guards with this deferential fellow, watching carefully as he opens the cell and hands the food in. I take note of that. Just for future reference.
“Thank you,” I tell the deferential one. He’s young and looking a little awe-struck. Probably never met a member of the royal family before. Not even a royal bastard like me.
“You’re welcome, uh—”
He doesn’t know what to call me. I just favor him with my friendliest smile.
“Uh, sir. I’ll be back later with a bucket of water, sir.”
I nod my gratitude, but don’t do anything to press my luck. This one might prove to be a source of a lot more favors than just a better meal, if I bide my time.
We’re left to our own devices after that. Me and the Tainted, I mean. I turn back to Shoch, but he’s still facing away from me. At least he’s back on his mattress, though. He’s not tucked into the corner anymore. But he’s just staring at the wall as he eats.
I scarf down my own meal, but I save a bit of the egg, a quarter of the meat and almost half of the bread for him. “Here.” I reach over and push the bowl toward his side. “Eat up.”
He shifts a little so he can turn toward me. Then he gives me a hard look and shakes his head. Málaf, what now? Is he saying he’s too proud to accept my scraps?
“Don’t be an idiot,” I snap. “Look at you. All skin and bones.”
He turns all the way around this time. Then he extends his index finger and finds another bit of dust. I crane my neck to see what he’s writing.
Not your pet.
I raise my eyebrows at him. “Pet?”
He just keeps giving me that hard look. It’s not murderous anymore, but it ain’t friendly either.
All right. It’s wrong, but I can’t help it. I smile at him—a half-teasing smile. “Shoch, when I compared you to a dog before? I wasn’t thinking of you as my pet.”
He looks confused now. He has no idea what I’m trying to say, or how to take it.
“You’ll have to work your way up to that status, boy.” I continue. “Right now, you’re just a dangerous and unpredictable stray.”
He almost chokes at that. But I can see an answering smile tugging at his lips. He’s trying to swallow it, but it’s there.
“Peace?” I ask.
He snorts—but it’s a friendly kind of snort.
“That’s better,” I tell him. “Go on. Eat the damned food.”
He takes the bowl and digs in. I watch him for a moment, but then I lie back on my mattress and risk shutting my eyes. Shoch is Tainted, I remind myself. Really, he ain’t much better than a dangerous and unpredictable stray. But at least he ain’t rabid. And I don’t think he’s going to try anything just now.