We don’t go directly to the corpse. We follow Jonac to a small room instead, one floor below our cell. It looks like a tiny, cramped parlor for guardsman. There are three wooden chairs—two of them have blankets tossed over them—a stool and a rickety old table. The table is the only thing that interests me: it’s holding a basin of water and a small jar of salt.
I nod in approval—as long as the table holds up, that basin and jar are exactly what I need. In ideal circumstances, I’d bathe in purified water and put on a plain linen robe before going near the body. But with a clawed up victim, it don’t seem right to waste time on those niceties. I’ll settle for simple ablutions instead.
First thing’s first, though. I turn to Shoch and place a hand on his shoulder. His bare shoulder—he still needs another tunic. Well, we can fix that before we go to the body. Meanwhile, I can almost feel Jonac glowering at us both in disapproval. And I can hear the two guardsman gasping, even though they’re standing a few feet back now.
Well, fuck the lot of them. They might be afraid to touch a Tainted, but I’m not. Not anymore. So I keep my focus on my new servant.
“Once I wash my hands and face in that room, you can’t touch me. So if you want to spell anything into my palm, now’s your chance.”
Shoch nods. He doesn’t reach for my hand, though. He hesitates instead, and then gives me a bewildered shrug.
I understand what he’s asking. “Look, all I want you to do is peer inside the death-room—but don’t get too close. Jonac’s not wrong about your kind. You will pollute the corpse.”
His eyes flash. This time he does grab for my hand—and he starts spelling furiously.
“Slow down—oh. Why am I touching you, then?” I treat him to a gentle grin. “I know your Taint can’t do the victim any harm now, Shoch. Poor bastard is already dead.”
He keeps spelling.
“You’re right. It hasn’t done me any harm either. But I’m not worried about anything physical. I’m worried about ritual impurity.”
He stops moving his fingers, as if he’s digesting that.
“See? You understand me. Look, even I’m ritually impure right now. That’s why I need to perform ablutions before I go see the body.” No amount of cleansing would cure Shoch of his impurities, though. But I don’t mention that.
Shoch starts spelling again.
“That’s right, pet. Just look for traces of sorcery. Tell me what you notice when I’m all done with my rituals. Can you do that?”
He furrows his brow, turning the question over in his mind.
I glance at Jonac. He’s staring at the two of us, looking intrigued and disgusted at the same time. I put my attention back on Shoch, though, as he starts tracing letters.
“Are we going to remove the body? Of course. It’ll have to be buried. Or—” I cut myself off. If the prisoner really was a victim of sorcery, we might not be able to bury him. His body would contaminate the earth the same way a Tainted’s would. But I’m not going to say that out loud. Not yet. “When I’m done, someone will take the body out.”
Shoch spells some more, pausing to mime here and there.
I take in what he’s asking and turn to Jonac. “The death-room—that’s right where it happened, isn’t it?”
“Yes. The death-room, in this case, is the prisoner’s cell.”
“All right. Ah, once we take the body out—when we don’t have to worry about Shoch polluting it—he wants to come into the cell and examine it.”
Jonac’s eyes harden with suspicion, but at length he nods. “Very well. Just keep a tight leash on your pet.”
Shoch stiffens at that. He finally deigns to glance Jonac’s way—and all I can see in his eyes is sheer hatred. There’s not even a trace of fear there.
Fuck. This is the first time I know for sure that Shoch has no sorcery left. If he did, Jonac would be a smoldering pile of ash by now.
All right. In fairness, I can see Shoch’s point. The man did cut his tongue out. But without any words of power, my pet is defenseless. He has to remember that, so I tighten my grip on his shoulder. He notices, but his eyes stay on Jonac.
“Look at me, Shoch.”
He does. He takes his sweet time about it, but his eyes finally meet mine. Sages, they look like they’re on fire.
“Good boy.” I keep my voice soft. “Listen, I know you don’t like being called a pet. But you’re a prisoner of my people now. You want to survive, right? So this is how it’s going to be.”
He points at me and then starts tracing into my palm again.
“What’s he saying?” Jonac’s rigid now. Well, he’s always rigid—he’s got a proper soldier’s posture. But somehow he seems even more formal and intimidating than usual.
I shake off that thought and smile a little at Jonac’s question. “Shoch says that I’m the only one allowed to refer to him as a pet.”
Jonac grunts. “That’s almost touching.”
“It is, isn’t it?” Yes, I’m ignoring the sarcasm in his voice. Bad form, I know, but I can’t help myself.
That’s enough banter, though. I turn back to Shoch and do my best to give him a stern look. “You don’t make the rules here. Understood?”
Shoch glares at Jonac again, still not bothering to disguise his hatred. Damn it. He had enough sense to be afraid of the man before. I hope that fear returns once his anger burns out.
It’s not that I won’t protect him. But there are practical limits to that protection, and I don’t have the power to change that. Besides, antagonizing the commander of this prison won’t help either of us.
I think Shoch understands all that. It costs him something—I can see that in his face—but he finally looks back at me and nods his head in agreement.
“Good. Now take a step back. You’re going to remain with those two guardsmen while I go through these ablutions. Then the three of you will follow Jonac and me to the death-room.” I pause. “Don’t worry, Shoch. They won’t hurt you. You’ll be near me the whole time.”
He nods again. I let go of his shoulder and he lets go of my hand. Then I watch as he takes a step back. The guardsmen don’t seem ecstatic to have him in their charge, but they’re both too well trained to complain.
I shake my head a little and then turn back to this tiny, cramped parlor. A few strides and I’m inside. I pour some of the salt into the basin, close my eyes and begin chanting in the old tongue—chanting words from a time long before the Sages.
The chant doesn’t last for long. Soon I’m splashing the water on my face and rubbing it on my hands. And that’s all there is to the cleansing ritual—or at least to this stripped down version of it.
I turn back to Jonac. “Take me to the corpse.”