That was a stupid thing to say. What if Shoch really is a spy? Or what if there’s some guard in earshot of us? The last thing I need is someone reporting that my brother and I question His Majesty’s sanity.
I pat Shoch on the shoulder. “Let me start again. My father is a . . . a hard man. He has it in his head right now that a certain group of men—deserters from the legion—ought to have been left unburied after their execution. Food for the vultures, I suppose.”
Shoch blinks at me, as if he’s trying to understand what the problem is.
“What? You don’t see anything wrong with that?”
“Well, I don’t know what your lot does in Rokofar. But that ain’t our tradition, and the Sages would have been horrified.”
Shoch takes my hand and starts tracing letters on my palm again, stopping now and then to mime something instead.
“What did I do? I presided over the burial of those poor bastards.”
He spells out some more.
“Yes, Shoch. Against my father’s wishes. I couldn’t leave those bodies exposed.”
No spelling out this time—his eyes say it all.
“Why? Because it was my duty as a priest. And because they paid for their crime with their lives. Their bodies, at least, deserved respect.”
He points to himself.
I squint at him. “You? You what?”
Shoch starts miming, pretending to shovel something. Oh, he’s pretending to bury a body. Then he points to himself again.
“Would I—would I bury a Tainted?”
Fuck. I wish he hadn’t asked me that. “No. No, we don’t bury your people. But we don’t leave them out as food for wild animals either. We, uh, cremate them.”
Shoch cocks his head at me.
“Why?” Fuck, fuck, fuck. Should I spare his feelings? No. Better to be honest. “Look, we don’t want—well, whatever’s infecting you to infect the ground too. Burning is just . . . it seems cleaner all around.”
He grabs my hand and starts spelling again.
“What will happen to me? Oh, for disobeying His Majesty?” I shrug. “Damned if I know. In theory, if my father really means to accuse me of treason, there’ll have to be a trial. But it won’t come to that. He’ll see reason.”
Shoch looks uncertain.
“He will. I told you my father’s a hard man. But he’s a fair one too. Once he gets over his anger at those deserters, he’ll come around.”
My companion considers that, and then traces just one word: good.
I smile. “You don’t want me to be executed for treason? That’s a good pet.”
Shoch makes a face at me before turning back to my palm.
“Slow down—I can’t see what you’re trying to spell out . . . dangerous stray?”
He looks me in the eye—I’m staring straight into those blood-red irises—and nods.
“Huh. I did call you that, didn’t I? Dangerous and unpredictable.”
He lets go of my hand and nods again.
I push myself to my feet and start pacing. Not that there’s much room to pace in—damn this cell. It’s cramped and . . . eerie. Especially now, with the light from that one slit of a window fading. Everything is turning dark and shadowy as the little oil lamp in the hallway flickers.
What am I supposed to make of Shoch? Is he my enemy, or isn’t he? I haven’t been treating him like an enemy. But my people have good reason not to trust his—and good reason to attack on sight.
“All right, Shoch.” I turn back to him. “You said you didn’t harm anyone here at Crevlock Tower. Or use any words of power. What about before you were taken prisoner? Did you hurt one of us? Kill one of us?”
He shakes his head. Slowly, but he shakes it.
“You’ve never harmed one of us?”
For a long minute, he just sits there. No response. But just when I’m about to lose patience, he points to his eyes.
“You watched what?” My stomach starts to churn. “One of your kind hurt one of my kind?”
“Kill one of my kind?”
“Where was this? Here? No. In Rokofar, then?”
He nods to that.
I crouch down in front of him. “What happened, Shocha? They say—they say the Tainted still practice human sacrifice. Is that true?”
He’s clutching his blanket now and staring down at his lap. But he’s still nodding.
“Is that what you saw? Some priest of your people sacrificed one of mine?”
His face turns almost as red as his eyes—I can see that even in this dim light.
“I’ll take that for a yes.” There’s bile in my throat now. I have to swallow it down to stop myself from hurling. Fuck me—it’s all true. This creature has watched his priests cut the throats and drain the blood of my people.
I grab his forearms and then stand up, dragging him along with me. He’s so surprised that he drops his blanket. It falls to the ground.
“Look at me, Shoch.”
His eyes snap up to mine, like he’s terrified to disobey.
“Do you have any power in Rokofar? Could you stop the sacrifices?”
This time he just mouths the word: no.
He might be lying. I have no reason to trust him. But—well, he doesn’t strike me as a man of authority. Poor bastard hardly has any backbone. All right, he’s got a little sass to him. But no air of command.
But he’s still one of them. He’s still a savage, Tainted demon spawn.
There’s no one else here with us. I could strangle him. I could claim that, tongue or no tongue, he attacked me with some strange sorcery. That he drew words of power in the dust to make a sacrifice out of me for his demonic ancestors. For all I know, that’s exactly what he’s plotting.
Hell, I don’t even need to make up a story. Who’s going to blame me for killing him?
Shoch’s eyes are wide now. Whatever he sees in my face, it frightens him. He moves to push away from me, but I tighten my grip. I don’t move my hands around his neck, though. Not yet. But if I’m going to do this, it has to be now. I know that . . . but my hands still don’t move.
I’m not going to choke him. I can’t.
I pull Shoch to me instead. He stiffens, but he doesn’t resist. I think he’s decided that he’s dealing with a madman, and that it’s best to try and placate me.
He’s a skinny thing. That’s more obvious now that we tore up his tunic for bandages. Oh, right—he’s still in pain from the whipping. The last thing he needs is an embrace.
I let go of him. “Sorry, Shoch. I’m—I’m sorry. I forgot about your back.”
He doesn’t back away slowly. He grabs my hand instead and starts tracing another word into my palm. One look at his face tells me that it’s a question.
“Revenge?” I cock my head at him. “You mean, do I want revenge on you for what your priests did?”
He doesn’t respond. He doesn’t have to.
I put my hands on his cheeks. “No, Shoch. I don’t want revenge against you. I’m going to look after you, all right? I’m officially promoting you from stray to pet.”
He ain’t reassured—and I don’t blame him. Why should he believe that I can help him? At best, Jonac might leave him to rot in this cell. At worst . . . well, there are few laws here to protect the life of a Tainted.
“Listen. I might be in prison, but I’m still a member of the royal family. I still have influence and people I can call on for favors.”
He still doesn’t look hopeful.
“Go on.” I release him and give him a little shove toward his mattress. “Get some sleep. I need some time to myself.”
And that’s the Sages’ own truth. I need time to figure out how to get word to my brother. How to tell him that I’ve got my own pet demon spawn now—and that I need his help to protect the little monster.