I keep my head down as I trail behind Jonac. It’s tempting—sore tempting—to look around and get a better sense of Crevlock Tower, but I train my thoughts on the victim instead. I can’t do my duty if I’m distracted. Jonac knows that; he doesn’t say a word to me.
Shoch is still behind me with the guards flanking him. I take that on faith instead of glancing back. But I can hear all three sets of footfalls, and that keeps my mind at ease.
We walk down four stories all told—I notice that much. And this last floor . . . I think we’re in the cellars now. It’s much colder than it is up above. And it’s a damp sort of cold, as if the walls cling to every drop of moisture.
Jonac slows down. My nose wrinkles. That’s not some musty, dank smell ahead. No, it’s something far sweeter—almost cloyingly sweet, with a citrusy tang to it.
Fuck. I stop cold and finally look up.
Jonac stops too and turns to face me. “What’s wrong?”
I swallow. “You don’t recognize that smell?”
“Only enough to know that it’s out of place. Some sort of sweet incense? We have no idea how it got here. Especially since there’s no other trace of the stuff. No ash, no nothing. Only that damn, syrupy scent.”
Fuck, fuck, fuck.
“You recognize it, Aric. That much is certain.”
“Yes.” I close my eyes for a second. “It’s holy wood. Our people—I’m counting you as an honorary Tantzi—used to make incense from it. Then we’d offer it up with blood sacrifices. That was before the Sages, of course. They put an end to it. Not just the sacrifices, I mean. They banned holy wood too.”
“Then how do you recognize it?”
“We—priests, I mean—still use the stuff in a, ah, private ritual. To mark a priest’s coming of age.”
He raises his eyebrows.
“What? Sometimes tradition wins. Even against the Sages.”
Jonac doesn’t say anything to that. In fact, he’s looking behind me now . . . and his face is grim. “It’s not banned in Rokofar, is it? I think your pet recognizes that scent too.”
I turn toward Shoch. He’s standing a few paces back, in the fresh tunic I made Jonac fetch for him, flanked by the guards. He meets my eyes, but otherwise keeps still.
“Well, Shoch? Is it banned?”
He stares at me for a few more seconds and then slowly shakes his head.
“No, it’s not banned in Rokofar? You still use it there for blood sacrifices? Nod your head if I’m right.”
I swallow again. Despite all the moisture down here, my mouth is parched.
“Stop, Jonac.” I turn back to him. “My pet’s been with me—you know that. He has no words of power now. He can’t sneak out of our cell to offer up a blood sacrifice.”
Jonac doesn’t argue. Oh, he wants to. I can see that. But he bites his tongue.
Good. There’s still the corpse to see to. I nod for him to lead the way again. But I don’t keep my head down this time. I want to see everything.
“It’s not far.” He heads off slowly, as if he’s summoning the strength to deal with the body. “There are only a handful of cells down here. We use them when we need to isolate a prisoner.”
Isolation—that’s a cruel punishment. The legion has been known to use it too. A friend of mine suffered it for a month. He said he’d beg for the lash before going through that again.
“The guards come down here?” I glance at the walls. There are niches carved into them every so often, just as above. And, just as above, they all hold lamps. “They must keep these lights burning. And they must feed the prisoner.”
“Yes. There’s a patrol every few hours.” Jonac stops and steps aside, leaving me to stare into the one cell that isn’t empty.
Sweet, holy Sages. The arms and legs of this poor bastard are lying at irregular angles, bones broken and askew. And his clothing . . . I can’t even tell what he was wearing. It’s torn to shreds. And that damned cloying sent is everywhere—but it’s mixed with something else.
Sweat. Excrement. Rotting. Decay.
I step into the cell. I will not vomit—that’s what I promise myself. My head is swimming and I’m damned near choking on these smells, but I will not fucking vomit.
That works, at least for now. I step closer and closer and finally crouch at the victim’s side. All right, maybe I can will myself to become nose-blind. I have to in order to concentrate on the task at hand.
He was blonde, like me. The victim, I mean. A pure-blood, probably. Not that it makes any difference. All that matters is determining how he died, and how best to bury him.
If it’s even possible to bury him. Jonac is right—something mangled this man and clawed him up. Something unclean. No knife or sword made these cuts . . . and neither did any animal, I’d wager. But that’s not the worst of it.
There’s no blood. Well, there is. But not nearly enough of it. It should be everywhere. Instead, it’s—I don’t know how to explain it. It’s like most of it was sucked out of him, leaving only little caked spots behind.
All right. All right, I have to keep calm. I’ve seen bad deaths on the field. This is . . . all right, this is much worse. But I still have a job to do, damn it. I refuse to panic. Especially in front of Jonac. “What—what was this man’s name?”
Tov, son of Alec. The name means nothing to me. Not off hand. “And his family?”
“Mostly deceased. They were chandlers from Fallpoint.”
Chandlers? I wonder what a chandler did to land in Crevlock Tower. But it’s not my place to ask. I’m not here to judge him.
“Aric, is this some sort of blood sacrifice?” Jonac is still by the cell door. He won’t come any closer until I give the word.
“No,” I answer. “There would be an altar—even a makeshift one. And Alecnu’s throat would be cut. And there’d be something to catch the blood as it drained.”
“But the blood is gone, isn’t it? And something lit the incense that goes along with sacrifices.”
“I suppose. But it doesn’t add up.” I pause to bite my lip. Then I glance over at Shoch. He’s still with the guards, still a few paces behind. “Come here, pet.”
“What?” Jonac stares at me. “You can’t let him near the victim! We agreed on that.”
I give him a level look. “Jonac, I don’t think this was a blood sacrifice, no. But something happened. Something . . . unnatural. Maybe Shoch can tell us what. That’s why he’s here, isn’t it?”
“But the burial—”
“No.” I shake my head. “Whatever happened to Alecnu—look, there’s nothing I can do to cleanse his body. I won’t allow him to be buried. He’ll have to be burned.”
One of the guards—I think it’s Deferential, but I’m not sure—gasps. Jonac does a better job of controlling himself. He gives me a hard, angry look, but he manages a nod.
I look over at Shoch again. He’s just standing there, stone-faced.
“Come on, Shoch.” That’s an order, but I keep my voice gentle. “Forget what I told you before, all right? Trust me, your taint can’t make this worse than it already is.”