It’s almost morning by the time we shuffle back into Crevlock Tower. I half expect to be taken back to my cell—no reason Jonac can’t interrogate me and Shoch there—but instead he leads us into a private chamber. His own, I think. He is in charge here, after all, and there’s probably not a better room available.
I walk into the middle of it, Shoch trailing in my wake, and look around. There’s a narrow but sturdy bed off to the side, a massive desk in front of me, several chairs scattered about and a fireplace on the side of the room opposite the bed. A fireplace that’s lit up and blazing. We’re in the annex section of the tower, then. There’s no chimney in the main part. No one cares if the prisoners freeze.
“Not bad.” I turn toward Jonac. “Your place, I presume?”
“Yes. Take a chair, please.”
I pick one and set it so that my back will be close enough to the fire to get some warmth. Then I nod at Shoch to follow suit.
He gives me a pointed look and then glances down at his manacles.
“Oh, right.” I stand up and walk over to him. “Jonac, do you have the key?”
He doesn’t, but one of the guards provides it. A moment later, the manacles are off and Shoch is dragging a chair next to mine. Jonac sets another one in front of the pair of us—a better one. But at least he’s not sitting behind the desk, glowering at us like some schoolmaster with a cane at his disposal.
Jonac doesn’t waste any time. He looks straight at Shoch. “Tell us what you know.”
Shoch turns to me, ignoring Jonac and the guards.
“He’s right, Shoch. We need whatever information you have.” I hesitate. “Look, I know you told me something about this earlier. About you sneaking across our border. And that you were—you know what? Just start from the beginning. As if I don’t know anything.”
He nods and starts miming. He takes my hand too, so he can pause to spell out some words in my palm.
I’m getting better at this, I think. “You and a friend—no, not a friend? A companion? A comrade?”
He nods at that last one and keeps up his combination of miming and spelling. Jonac’s eyes are intent on him now, but Shoch is entirely focused on me.
“You left Rokofar together?” I scrunch up my brow, remembering. “No, not left. You were sent out together?”
I remember him talking about this earlier. Well, not talking. Spelling and miming. But my stomach tightens this time. I hadn’t thought through the implications of his past before. Now . . . now this all looks different.
Shoch is spelling out words now, not miming at all. I think he wants me to understand this next bit exactly.
“You were sent out to hunt something. Yes, I remember that.”
He points to the manacles.
“Right. An escaped prisoner.” Please, let it be a fellow Tainted he was after, and not one of my people. Rokofar kidnaps my people. Presumably to serve up the victims as blood sacrifices.
Shoch nods to answer my question and then goes back to tracing letters.
“All right. So this prisoner escaped from Rokofar. Was he a Tantzi? One of my people?”
Shoch shakes his head again.
“Was he human?”
“A Tainted, then?”
Shoch spells out one word against my palm.
I swallow. “Demon? You mean—I don’t understand.”
Jonac snorts. “He means a full blooded demon, Aric. Not a just a human with demon blood in him.”
My brain stops functioning for a full minute. I swear it. I just gape at Shoch. If Jonac is right . . . .
“Wait.” I try to shake off my shock. “Just wait a minute. Shoch, you were hunting a demon? A full demon—not just some half-breed like you?”
He gives me a look I’m not sure I know how to describe. His red eyes are hard, but somehow fond and amused at the same time. It’s the sort of look my little brother gives me when I dare to comment on court politics. A look that says I’m endearing but out of my depth, and I have no idea what horrors regularly occur.
I can tolerate that look from my brother—he’s the crown prince, after all—but I’ll be damned if I’ll tolerate it from my pet demon spawn.
“First of all—” I break off to make sure I keep my voice steady and low. “First of all, you people worship demons, don’t you? Even if one did break the barrier and slip into our world again . . . well, why wouldn’t you be bowing before it?”
“Because they don’t worship demons.” Jonac folds his arms over his chest and sighs. “They think they’re protecting the rest of us from the demons by strengthening the barrier with their sorcery and their blood sacrifices.”
I turn to stare at Jonac. He probably knows what he’s talking about—he served in a campaign against Rokofar. A campaign that ended almost as soon as it started, because it was ill-informed and ill-planned. But he probably questioned enough Tainted prisoners to understand something of how they see the world.
“Is all that true, Shoch? Is that how you see it?”
Shoch spells into my hand again, taking extra care with each letter.
I grunt. “That’s not just how you see it—that’s reality?”
“That’s—ah, all right.” I glance over at Jonac. “You’ve heard this before?”
I cock my head at him. “But you don’t believe it.”
“No.” His voice is cautious. Uncharacteristically cautious—usually he has the abrupt, straightforward tone of a man accustomed to being in command. Now he sounds almost tentative.
“But?” I prompt.
“But I think some of the Tainted do. Including your pet.”
“Well, I’ll agree with that much.”
I pause to turn back to Shoch. He’s glaring at Jonac, probably for doubting his words. But at least he’s acknowledging the man now. That’s a step in the right direction.
“All right, Shoch.” I keep my voice gentle. I want to soothe any ruffled feathers of his. “Tell me more about this demon. Did you and your comrade find it?”
“Did you capture it?”
Shoch shakes his head and points at Jonac.
I look back and forth between them. “I don’t understand.”
“This supposed demon slipped through their fingers.” Jonac says. His voice isn’t tentative anymore—it’s tight. “Because my men found these Tainted hunters before they got the chance to complete their, ah, mission.”
Fuck. “They thought they were spies, didn’t they? Your men, I mean. They thought Shocha and his pal were spies. Or worse.”
“Yes. There was a fight. Shocha’s comrade ended up dead. And Shocha ended up in our custody.”
I close my eyes. “And this supposed demon ended up free.”