It takes forever, it seems, for Guardsman Deferential to return with the promised bucket of water. Meanwhile, I’m restless. I’m not used to a damned cage.
And I know next to nothing about this tower. I was unconscious when they dragged me in here, and now all I can see is my own cell and a bit of the hallway beyond. But there must be cells on either side of us. I try to angle myself against the bars to get a glimpse of one or the other of them. No such luck. The walls of my cell jut out, preventing me from viewing any of the neighboring prisoners.
“Hello!” I call out. “Who else is here?”
There’s no answer, except the echo of my own voice. There are no prisoners next to us? No guards stationed anywhere near?
Well, fuck. That leaves me with no one but my Tainted friend. Perfect.
I turn toward him. He’s still sitting on the mattress. I haven’t seen him stand up straight yet, I don’t think.
I stare at him for a moment. I guess he feels the weight of my eyes, because he looks up.
“So, Shoch. It’s just you and me, huh?”
He gives me a cautious shrug in response.
“You’re the only thing I’ve got to keep me from going crazy with boredom.” I look him over. “Stand up.”
He doesn’t move.
“You can stand, right?” Is he damaged? I haven’t noticed anything wrong with him. Apart from his missing tongue, that is.
He seems apprehensive, though. And the way he’s holding his arms—it’s as if he’s ready to fend me off with them. He’s frightened, poor devil.
“What do you think is going to happen here, Shoch?”
He doesn’t answer. Not with a look or a gesture.
“You think I’m going to hand you a beating? For what, sport?”
He swallows, still looking wary. No, worse than wary. I think . . . I think he wasn’t worried about a beating. Or not only a beating.
“I see. You think I’d—what’s the polite phrase? Force my attentions on you?”
His eyes are wide now. Wide and alarmed.
“I suppose you might be pretty underneath that stubble. But I’ll try to control myself.”
He lets out one of those ugly grunts.
“Don’t be an idiot, Shocha. Do you think I want my hands—or anything else—on some demon spawn?”
Yes, he takes that as an insult. But I ain’t about to spare his feelings. Not when he keeps thinking the worst about me.
“Come on. Stand up. You can’t just sit on your ass all day.”
He looks away.
“I’m just going to teach you how to defend yourself, Shoch. You should want these lessons, if you really think I’m going to attack you.”
That earns his consideration, at least. He looks back up, studies me some, and then slowly rises to his feet.
I smile. “Good pet.”
That has exactly the effect I want. He wants to learn now. Of course, the lessons would be easier if I were willing to touch him. But no. The Sages only know what his taint does to normal folk.
“Stand like I am,” I tell him. “Mirror my movements.”
He has trouble with that. Maybe he’s never seen himself in a decent mirror or window? If he grew up in some peasant village, he might not have. Does Rokofar have peasant villages?
“No, put your other foot forward and—yes, that’s it. Now raise your fists like this. That’s your guard. Are you right handed?”
I’m almost surprised. I half expected a Tainted creature to be handier with his left. It would seem more suitable, somehow.
“All right, then. Guard up like this. Good. Now shadow my movements.”
I take things slow, attending more to his feet than to his hands. I want him to learn the sort of shuffle step that comes in handy whether you fight with a sword or with your fists. He has to learn how to stay on his toes, yet keep his feet from hopping around so that he can’t be thrown off balance. Not easily, anyway.
It takes time, but eventually he learns to mimic my movements. He shadows me from a distance, though. Maybe he doesn’t want to touch me any more than I want to touch him. Well, no skin off my back.
“Good, Shoch.” He’s getting faster on his feet. “Very good. Now I’m going to teach you to jab while you move—”
He stops. For a breath or two, he stands stock still. Then he scurries back to his corner. I blink, but then figure it out. The guards must be returning.
Yes. A moment later I can hear them too. I always thought my ears were sharp—but they’re nowhere near as keen as Shocha’s.
I turn to the bars and lean up on them a bit, expecting to see Guardsman Deferential. He’s there, alongside another guard. Neither of them are carrying a bucket—my stomach tightens as I realize they’re here on other business.
I’m about to ask what’s going on when I catch sight of the man strutting behind them. It’s an old friend of mine: the bastard responsible for dragging me into this hellhole.
“Well, well.” I muster up my cockiest grin. “What brings you to my cell, Jonac? Couldn’t keep away?”
“Aric.” He cocks his head at me, that brown skin of his seeming even darker in the thin light of this place. “I see your high opinion of yourself hasn’t suffered.”
“Not at all.” I meet his eyes. He’s just about my height, so neither of us has to look up or down. “But if you’re not pining for my company, why are you here?”
He treats me to a thin smile. “I need a word with the Tainted.”
“With Shocha?” I narrow my eyes. “Why? What’s he done?”
Jonac gives me an odd look. “You’re on a first name basis with a demon spawn?”
I shrug. “Not like there’s anyone else to talk to. Come on. What do you want with him?”
“Not that it’s any of your concern, but we have a few questions for him. Now, unless you want my club to renew its relationship with your head”—he fingers the bludgeon hanging from his belt—“I suggest you step back and keep out of the way.”
I look at Jonac and then at the guards trailing him. With a sigh I take a step backward and watch as he unlocks the cell.
Guardsman Deferential steps inside first. He’s wearing rough leather gloves, I realize. All of them are. None of them want to risk laying their skin on the demon spawn. Hell, they probably don’t want to touch him even with the gloves.
Just as well. I don’t suppose Shoch wants to be manhandled.
The other guard steps inside too. They’re both staring down at Shoch, who’s huddled in his corner. Jonac is waiting outside the bars, but that doesn’t stop him from addressing my cellmate. “Coming along peacefully?”
Shoch stares up at him, past the two guards. Fuck, those blood red eyes of his look ready to scorch something. Or someone. And if I didn’t know better, I’d swear that Jonac is within a breath of squirming.
The moment passes, though, and Shoch just nods. He stands up and starts walking, keeping his shoulders down and his eyes to the ground. The two guards escort him out, keeping an eye on him without touching him. That just leaves Jonac to close and lock the cell door again.
I frown at him. “Shoch has no magic. Someone cut out his tongue. He can’t speak any words of power.”
He grunts as he withdraws the heavy key and secures it to his belt. “I’m aware of that.”
“So why do you need to question him? He’s just been locked up in here, hasn’t he?”
“A word of advice, Aric. Don’t waste your protective instincts on a Tainted.” He peers into the cell. “Someone will be by with fresh water and a new chamber pot . . . eventually.”
But he just turns on his heel. I watch him follow the same path as the guards and Shoch, until he passes out of my line of sight.