I stand by the body. By Alecnu, that is. I don’t have any prayers for him—I wouldn’t know who to pray to, even—but he deserves some companionship while we wait for Guardsman Deferential to return with a proper shroud.
“He’s not going out there unbound.”
The words startle me out of my thoughts. I tear my eyes off the corpse and turn back toward Jonac. “What?”
“You want to keep the Tainted at your side?” He’s pitching his voice low, but there’s an edge to it. “Even out there?”
Oh. Jonac will have to let me out of the tower to oversee the funeral pyre. He knows—or I hope he knows—that I have too much honor to try anything. Not while I’m acting as a priest. But Shoch?
I glance down at him. He’s crawling around the cell right now, sniffing at everything from pieces of straw to Alecnu’s wooden bowl.
He should have waited until the body was gone. I know that. So does Jonac. This . . . this is not respectful.
But Shoch doesn’t care about respecting the dead. And he seems to know more than we do about what happened here. Jonac has guards scouring the whole tower—and he told me himself that he ordered them to double up—but we’re still in the dark. So, in the end, we let Shoch have his head. Jonac only gave him one condition: keep away from the corpse.
And now? I don’t think Shoch remembers that the rest of us are here. He’s too intent on whatever it is he’s doing.
I bite my lip. He wouldn’t try for some half-assed escape outside, would he? Even if he could slip the guards. He’s better off under my protection than on his own in hostile territory. It’s a long way from here to Rokofar.
Fuck. I don’t know what Shoch will try or not try. But I turn back to Jonac regardless. “Neither of us are going to slip our leashes.”
“That’s not good enough.” He drops his voice again. “I’ll trust in your honor, but not the Tainted’s. Either he accepts manacles, or he goes back to your cell.”
Shoch won’t care for the manacles. Maybe he’d be better off staying behind. Probably nothing would happen—but, damn it, I don’t trust the guards here to leave him be. The rank and file can’t be happy with a Tainted in the tower. Especially after what happened down here. They might be afraid to touch Shoch, but they’ll bludgeon him quick enough if he looks at one the wrong way.
All right. I hate myself for saying this, but I spit the word out. “Fine.”
Jonac’s eyes soften. No, that must be a trick of the lamplight. He’s never had any sympathy for me.
“Good,” he says. “You can put them on him.”
“What? No! I refuse—”
“Aric, you’re the only one who’s not afraid to touch him!”
Oh, fuck me. I look down at Shoch again. Just my luck—he’s done searching the place and is staring straight at us.
“Come here, Shoch.” I keep my voice gentle, so it doesn’t sound so much like an order.
He stands up and makes his way over to me.
I cock my head at him. “You heard?”
He nods. I can’t read his expression. Sages, I hate how he can make his face blank like that.
“All right, then. It’s only while we’re outside.” I give Jonac a pointed look. “Isn’t it?”
“Yes.” He don’t look chagrined. No, he looks bloody satisfied instead.
I turn back to Shoch. “What did you find? Anything?”
He takes my hand and starts spelling against my palm.
“Private? You want this to be a private conversation between you, me and Jonac?”
I get a violent shake of his head in answer. Then he points at me and then back at himself.
“No, pet. Not just you and me. Jonac needs to know what’s going on too. Besides, you wanted to ask him some questions, remember?”
He doesn’t say anything to that.
“Shoch, listen. If you know what did this, you need to tell us now.”
But he shakes his head again and goes back to tracing letters against my hand.
Jonac glares at the both of us. “What’s he saying?”
“That he can’t be sure of anything yet.”
“And you believe him?”
“If he says he doesn’t know, then he doesn’t know!” I pause to suck in as much air as my lungs will hold. I need to keep calm. “Look, all three of us will sit down after we take care of Alecnu.”
Jonac meets my eyes and holds them. “Yes. We will.”
“This ain’t right.” Guardsman Deferential—I really should learn his name—clutches his lantern and raises it higher. He shakes his head as he watches other guards pile chopped wood onto the makeshift pyre.
“I’m sorry.” I glance at Shoch, who’s standing on my other side, his face blank again. His hands are manacled in front of him. I’m not sure how much he resents me for putting them on him—and I have no idea what he thinks of these proceedings.
I turn back to Deferential. “Look, Alecnu died bad. And we don’t know what from. But fire will purify his remains.”
“He was trouble, Highness. A lot of trouble as a prisoner. But he didn’t deserve this.”
‘Highness’ is not my title. I’m the king’s bastard, not a prince. I don’t bother to correct him, though.
“What happens to Alecnu now?” Deferential shifts a little to shine more light on the path leading to the pyre.
“I—uh, we burn his remains.”
“No, Highness.” His voice is tight. “I mean after. What happens to him?”
Damn. I hate questions like that. And, since I’m a priest, I get more than my share of them. “The Sages say we shouldn’t worry about what happens when we die.”
He scoffs. “Easy for them. They knew the truth, I’ll wager.”
“Oh, I doubt that. I don’t think they knew any better than we do.” I pause to blow air. “Whatever happens to him, it won’t be decided by this.”
That gets me a sharp look. “What do you mean?”
“Alecnu’s body isn’t pure enough for a burial. We can’t put him in the earth. But—look, that has nothing to do with what sort of man he was. If there’s any sort of judgment after we die, this won’t affect it.”
Deferential stares at me for a moment, his eyes flickering in the torchlight. But then he nods.
Good—maybe my words gave him some comfort. I turn back to Shoch, but he’s staring down at the ground now. He’s not even looking at the pyre. I shake my head a little, wishing I knew what was going through his brain.
And wishing I knew how to comfort him . . . if he even needs comforting. Maybe he’s just done with me for now because of the manacles.
Well, I’ll find out soon enough. After I say a few final words on behalf of Alecnu, and watch over him as he burns, I have that meeting with both Shoch and Jonac to look forward to.