I don’t have to demand an audience with Jonac. Hell, I don’t even have to wait till morning to see his glowering face. He turns up right outside my cell instead, not ten minutes after Shoch is done rejecting any potentially amorous advances from me, present or future.
Shoch hears him approaching first, of course—I can tell by the way he jumps up from his mattress and then scurries to the far corner of the cell. I shake my head a little. At least he doesn’t curl himself back into a ball.
I hear the footfalls a moment later. It sounds like two men, at least, coming nearer. No, it’s three: Jonac flanked by Guardsman Deferential and one of the respectful guards who brought our supper. Deferential is carrying a lantern, giving me a much better look at the lot of them.
I stand up and summon another cocky, flirtatious grin. “Kind of you to drop by, Jonac. Not to mention fortuitous—I was just thinking of you.”
He doesn’t smile back. But he’s not wearing his usual stern, disapproving look either. No, his brow is furrowed instead and he’s hesitating the way someone does when they’re about to bring you bad news.
And however much we antagonize each other, Jonac wouldn’t gloat about any ill tidings for me. He’d look exactly like he does now: somehow stoic and anxious at the same time.
I feel my stomach clench. “What is it? What’s happened?”
He doesn’t answer right away. That’s all my brain needs to plunge into the worst possibilities: my father’s heart failed him. My brother broke his neck while galloping hell-bent for leather on that half-tamed stallion of his. My step-mother—no, I can’t keep doing this. I order my brain to stop. That doesn’t work, but I force myself to ignore the dire scenarios it keeps parading in front of me.
Jonac, meanwhile, is taking a deep breath. “I’m afraid I must call upon you in your capacity as a priest.”
“As a priest?” I stare at him.
He stares back, his dark eyes solemn.
He’s not joking. That much is obvious. And I doubt he wants my blessing for some mundane task. Nor does he have a bride to marry or an infant to name. “Someone’s dead?”
“Yes. A prisoner. His passing was . . . unexpected.”
His passing? Since when does Jonac resort to euphemisms for death? He’s a soldier, same as me. The Sages know he’s seen his share of corpses. But something about this particular death has rattled him.
He swallows and waits a long moment before proceeding. “I would have sent for a priest from Fallpoint. One who’s not, forgive me, incarcerated. But the Sages say—”
“Not to tarry.” You’re not supposed to pick and choose your priest, but accept the nearest one at hand. People tend to ignore that for weddings, but not for burial rites.
“Yes. Precisely.” He pauses again. “Will you come?”
“And see to the body? Of course.” Now it’s my turn to hesitate. “But Shocha comes with us.”
“What?” Jonac’s eyes widen—from shock, probably. “The Tainted? Why?”
“Because I don’t trust your people alone with him. I want him in my sight.”
His eyes harden now. “Aric, you can’t bring him near the . . . the departed. He’ll pollute the body!”
All right. He has a point. I glance over my shoulder at Shoch. He’s staring at me, obviously following this conversation. I can’t read his expression, though. I can’t tell if he’d rather be left here in the cell. But it doesn’t matter. I won’t accept that as an option.
I turn back to Jonac. “Your guards can stand with him just outside the death-room. His Taint won’t pollute the corpse from there.”
“Aric—” He breaks off. “This was not a—this man did not die from natural causes.”
I blink. “What, did some other prisoner kill him?”
“A guard then?”
Jonac shakes his head. Then he stares directly at Shoch. “Something clawed him to pieces.”
“Clawed him to pieces?” My brain stutters this time. How is that even possible? This is a walled up, guarded prison, not the wilderness. “Ah, I’m assuming you don’t keep wild animals in the tower.”
“No. It was sorcery, more like.”
Fuck. I have no idea what to say to that. At length, though, I force myself to glance at Shoch again. He’s still staring at me. And he’s still unreadable.
I turn back to Jonac. “He’s been with me. And he has no tongue—no words of power.” Shoch can’t have done this. I’d have known. I’d have seen something. “He hasn’t made any suspicious gestures either, or drawn any alien symbols in the dust and dirt.”
Jonac peers at Shoch and then back at me. It’s a near thing, but I think his eyes look more exasperated than outraged now. “I wasn’t accusing him. Not yet. But I won’t have that Tainted near the victim!”
“Wait, think this over.” I grip the bars of my cell so I can lean closer to Jonac. “You and I can’t identify sorcery—not for certain. But maybe Shoch can.”
If he wasn’t so rattled, Jonac would have laughed out loud. Instead, the sound comes out as a short bark. “You trust that creature to help us investigate this? To tell the truth?”
“He’s my pet. And he’s under my protection—and my family’s.” I pause to let that sink in. “He’ll be honest with me.”
‘He’s a monster, Aric, not a pet. And your family scarcely knows of his existence, much less that you’ve adopted him.”
“They’ll know soon enough. And my brother will back me on this.” I press my face closer to the bars and lower my voice. “And this is what you wanted, isn’t it? You know how I am with strays. You were hoping I’d look after him—that I’d win his trust.”
Jonac’s eyes bore into mine.
I don’t flinch.
“The Tainted stays out in the hall, under guard.” Jonac moves closer to the bars. “We don’t let him near the victim.”
“Of course not.”
“Good. As long as we understand each other.” He nods to Guardsman Deferential, silently ordering him to unlock the cell.
I let go of the bars, run my fingers through my hair and then turn around to face Shoch. “Come here, pet.”
Shoch keeps staring at me. All right, I’m not absolutely sure he’s going to obey me. In fact, it looks like he’s still debating that with himself. But then he stands up and, without looking at Jonac or either of the guards, silently moves to my side.
I hide my relief as I turn back to Jonac. “We’re ready.”