Shoch lets out one of those ugly grunts of his as he shuffles toward me—and toward the corpse. He crouches down at my side, looking over the body.
I feel a twinge of guilt. No, not for allowing a Tainted so close to the deceased. That doesn’t matter now. I’m more worried about Shoch. He hasn’t had time to recover from those lashes yet. And I was the one who insisted that he come along.
“How’s the back?” I ask. “If it hurts to crouch like that—”
But he just shrugs as he leans forward, without touching me, to sniff the body. Yes, to sniff it. Just as if he were a hound.
“It is holy wood, isn’t it? That cloying scent?” And that’s still the dominant odor, despite the more familiar death-like smells.
He rolls his eyes. He won’t even deign to nod when the answer is that obvious.
Fine—I suppose I deserved that.
He sniffs some more and then puts his face as near to the corpse as he can without brushing his skin against it. Then he leans back on his haunches again and raises his eyebrows at me.
“What is it?”
He points to my hand and then the hand of the corpse. Of Tov Alecnu, I mean—criminal or not, he had a name. He was someone’s son.
I cock my head at Shoch. “You want me to touch Alecnu’s hand? Is that it?”
He nods but also raises his own, by way of demonstration.
“Oh, you want me to lift his hand up.” I study Shoch for a moment.
His blood-red eyes are serious and intent.
“All right.” I take Alecnu’s right hand—the one nearest me—and lift it a bit. There’s no resistance; rigor mortis hasn’t set in yet.
Shoch reaches out to touch the hand, but then draws back.
“It’s all right. You can touch him. He’s already ritually impure.”
But Shoch just puts his face near Alecnu’s fingernails, peering close. Then he nods, looking satisfied. Whatever he sees, it’s exactly what he expected.
All right, now I’m curious. I take a closer look myself. “Huh.”
“What is it?”
Málaf! I almost drop the hand—I forgot Jonac was right behind us. And his voice has a way of getting my immediate attention. Especially now, when it’s authoritative, curious and impatient all at once.
I glance up at him. “See for yourself.”
He leans down, right between Shoch and me, and takes a close look at Alecnu’s hand. And, more importantly, his nails. I watch as Jonac furrows his brow. Yes, he notices too.
“There’s no skin or hair caught under his fingernails,” Jonac says. He sounds more thoughtful than shocked. “Whoever or whatever did this to him . . .” he bites his lip.
“Alecnu didn’t fight back.”
“No.” Jonac stands up again and takes a step back from us. “He didn’t.”
I put the hand down and reposition myself in order to tilt the body toward me. It’s slack—almost flaccid. Regardless, I get my first real look at Alecnu’s face. Something clawed it up, just like the rest of him, but there’s enough left intact to get a sense of what he must have looked like.
He was young. Younger than me. Younger than Shoch, probably—I’d say no more than nineteen. Too young to be locked up with political prisoners.
As for his expression—there’s no fear there. I’m not sure that means anything, what with how limp his body is right now. But his eyes aren’t frozen in terror.
“He wasn’t afraid.” Jonac’s voice is thoroughly detached now.
Poor Alecnu—he’s just a puzzle to be solved. Not that I blame Jonac. He’s in charge here, after all. And he has a duty to figure out what did this so that he can protect the rest of us.
Shoch grunts again. At me, I mean. He’s looking for my attention.
“What is it, pet?”
He starts miming, pretending to drink something. Then he rolls his eyes back into his head—Sages, that’s eerie to watch—and, for a moment, lets his body go slack.
“Ah, you think—you think what, exactly?” I crinkle my forehead. “You think Alecnu drank something? That he was drugged?”
But Shoch shakes his head. Hard. Then he puts a finger to his temple and taps it.
“He doesn’t just think it,” Jonac interprets. “He knows it?”
Now Shoch nods. It’s a reluctant nod, though. He don’t care to acknowledge Jonac.
I bite back a small smile. “How do you know, Shoch?”
He taps his nose.
“You can smell it?” I start sniffing again. “You can smell what? Laudanum, you mean?”
“How?” I stare at him. That holy wood, combined with the foul smell of death and excrement, would mask any other scent.
Jonac snorts. “Your pet is part demon, remember? Perhaps his senses are keener than ours.”
“Maybe.” I look Shoch over. “Is Jonac right?”
I get a contemptuous little shrug in return. I can work that out for myself: yes, his senses are keener than ours. But I shouldn’t be impressed, because we set a low bar.
“All right, fine.” I don’t bother hiding my smile this time. “You have a superior nose. What else can you tell us about what happened here? Do you know what did this?”
His eyes flicker to Jonac and then back to me. At length he gives me half a shrug and half a shake of his head.
“What does that mean, Shoch?” I’m still keeping my voice gentle. “You’re not sure?”
He reaches for my hand. I give it to him and watch as he spells out his letters, pausing from time to time to mime instead.
“Well?” Jonac asks.
I swallow. “He’s not sure yet. He still wants to examine this room. And, ah, to ask you some questions.”
There’s a long moment of silence. Jonac looks from one of us to the other, weighing his options.
“Very well,” he says at last. “I’ll humor your pet, Aric. But first we see to the body.”
“Right.” The sooner we burn this poor bastard, the better. “We’ll need someone to prepare a pyre.”