There’s an unnatural quiet to the room. Even in my sleep, I notice that. The background noise of guards murmuring to each other or tramping in and out ceases. Suddenly the only sound is the crackle of the fire—someone must have kept feeding it while Shoch and I were alseep—and a sort of surprised, respectful hush.
I open my eyes slowly, recognizing that kind of silence. The kind where the rank and file have just snapped to attention for a newly arrived officer. Jonac might inspire that . . . but no. He’s too familiar to the guards here.
Shoch isn’t next to me. Sages, for a second I’m more worried about him than whatever dignitary is making an entrance. But then I see him. He’s crouching between the mattress and the fireplace, staring straight at me. I push myself up a little. He doesn’t look hurt. Well, not worse than he already was.
I reach for him, but he shakes his head.
“Help me up,” I tell him. “I don’t care who’s watching.”
He hesitates, but he takes my hand. I end up pushing myself to my feet, though. Then I turn around and—and find my brother staring at me. He’s standing by the other side of the mattress. The side away from the fireplace, I mean.
My mouth falls open. But I pull myself together and take in his windswept hair, the mud on his boots and tunic—he rode hard to get here.
Of course. Jonac must have sent word to Fallpoint last night. He had to report the strange murder. And Ruvan, because he’s Ruvan, insisted on riding out himself.
Fuck, what am I supposed to make of that? If there’s an actual demon on the loose here, this is the last place my father’s heir should be. I know that in my head, but my shoulders sag in relief. There’s never been anything my little brother and I couldn’t handle together.
I sink to one knee—he is the crown prince, after all. But I grin as I stand up. “Ruvan! Málaf, it’s good to see you.”
He grins back as he walks over to us, veering around the mattress. Next thing I know he’s pulling me into a bear hug—and that’s exactly what it feels like. My brother and I both have the same muscular build, but he’s a head taller than I am. He’s just short of crushing me.
At length he lets me go, but then his eyes sweep over my pet. I reach for him again and drag him forward a little. “Genuflect, Shoch. Just like I did.”
Shoch swallows as he peers at my brother. I think he’s half impressed and half apprehensive as he puts a knee forward. He looks nervous and awkward as hell, but he manages something resembling a courtly kneel.
I catch Ruvan biting back another smile as he schools his features into that diplomatic look of his. Then he nods at Shoch, meeting his red eyes without flinching. “So you’re our prisoner from Rokofar. It’s Shoch? That’s your name?”
Shoch turns to me to provide an answer.
“Shocha, actually. Shoch for short. Jonac briefed you?”
“I thought it best.” That’s Jonac’s voice. I look over toward him. He’s standing in the doorway, watching us.
“All right.” Ruvan looks like he’s just come to a decision. “Shocha, I understand you’ve been assisting in the investigation. I’d like to speak with you. In private, please.”
Jonac and I exchange glances.
“I don’t recommend that, Highness.” Jonac is using his respectful tone, but there’s an edge to it. “Without guards, I can’t assure your safety.”
Ruvan lifts his eyebrows as he shifts to face him. “You think Shocha is dangerous?”
“I can’t promise that he isn’t.”
“Then why did you lock him up with Aric? Does my brother’s safety mean so little to you?”
Jonac doesn’t squirm. Not even an inch. There’s a part of me that admires the bastard for that.
“We cut out his tongue, Highness. I was sure he had no sorcery, no words of power . . . until someone or something clawed up Alecnu.”
I snort. “He doesn’t have sorcery, Jonac. The fact that you’re still standing here, unharmed, proves that.”
Jonac rolls his eyes. “We don’t know what he’s capable of, Aric. He’s not actually a pet. You should keep that in mind.”
“Look, Shoch was with me when—when whatever it was attacked that boy.”
“Enough.” My brother nods at Jonac. “I thank you for your concern, but I’ll take my chances.”
“Shoch doesn’t talk,” I remind him.
Ruvan shrugs. “You manage to communicate with him.”
“Yes. He mimes some and he, ah, spells words out into my palm.”
“He’s literate, Highness,” Jonac puts in. “We can fetch a quill and paper.”
“Thank you, but that won’t be necessary. Shocha and I will manage.” Ruvan turns to Shoch. “Assuming you don’t mind spelling words into my hand.”
Shoch swallows. I think he’s astonished that Ruvan trusts him enough to allow him to touch him. Hell, I’m astonished. My brother seems to have squashed any fear of Shoch’s taint. Does he trust my judgment that much?
No, it’s not that. Ruvan is just reckless when it comes to his own safety. Not that it matters in this case. I don’t think Shoch would try anything, even if he could speak his words of power.
I shake my head a little—my brother is still a damned fool—and then put a hand on Shoch’s shoulder. “You can trust my brother.”
He stares at me and then nods slowly. I let go of him and follow Jonac and the guards out of the room.