Shoch drops my hand. Just drops it, before he finishes tracing his words against my palm. He’s tense and alert, so the rest of us take a hint and ready our weapons.
But it’s only Jonac—Jonac with four guards behind him. He strides into the room with a grim set to his face.
Ruvan takes a deep breath. “Report?”
“Two more dead, Highness.” Jonac squares his shoulders. “Two of my men. They were clawed up, their limbs broken and askew. That too-sweet scent was in the air. And all their blood . . . well, something either drained it or licked it up.”
My throat tightens. “Just like Tov Alecnu.”
Jonac sighs. “Yes. But these men fought back—I have to believe they fought back. One was gripping his bludgeon . . . but there was nothing on it. No blood, no skin. As if he only struck air.”
“Or smoke,” Ruvan mutters.
I swallow. Hard. “These guards. Did I know them?”
Jonac nods. “One of them: Ben Bogdanyu. He was in and out of your cell. And you spoke with him outside, I think. While we lit the pyre for Alecnu.”
Guardsman Deferential. Fuck. “You—you had better take me to their bodies. We’ll have to burn them, but they’ll still need a priest.”
But Shoch grabs my arm and shakes his head at the same time.
“Don’t go?” I lift my eyebrows. “Why not? Shoch, these men deserve whatever final rites I can perform for them—”
But he lets go of me and starts miming wings. Then he points to his stomach and rubs it.
“The demon is—it’s hungry?” I frown. “Damn thing should be satiated. At least for a little while.”
But he shakes his head again. Violently this time. He keeps rubbing his stomach, faster and faster.
I look to my brother and then to Jonac. Hell, I even look to Gael and the other guards. But none of us seem to get his meaning. Jonac and Ruvan are just staring at him, trying to puzzle it out. Gael is trying hard not to stare at him. And the other guards—well, they’re ignoring him and keeping on the watch.
Shoch has had enough. He grabs my free hand—I still have the dagger in the other—and starts spelling out letters.
“Never enough? There’s never enough what?” I stare at him. “You mean there’s never enough blood for this thing?”
He nods and goes back to miming. Rubbing his stomach faster and faster again. Rolling his arms faster and faster.
“Shocha.” My brother’s voice is weirdly gentle right now. “Shocha, are you saying that the more this thing feeds, the hungrier it gets? The—the less time before it attacks and feeds again?”
He nods again, slowly this time.
“We still need to do something with those . . . with those men,” Jonac says. Then he clears his throat and strengthens his voice. “We’ll protect your master as best we can, Shocha, but—”
I cut him off. “That’s not what he’s worried about.”
Shoch tugs on my arm, as if he begs to differ.
“All right.” I smile a little. “That’s not all he’s worried about.”
My brother smiles a little too, but his face grows serious as he turns back to Jonac. “We’ll see to the bodies at length, I promise. Station your guards outside this room to keep watch—and make sure they don’t let anyone interrupt us, barring another attack. We’re not helpless here, but we need to draw up our plans.”
Jonac studies Ruvan for a moment, but then he nods and gives the order. The guards look—well, fuck. They look terrified. They’re used to minding political prisoners, not hunting down demons. But they’re good men. Well, they would be, wouldn’t they? They’re Jonac’s men. And right now they’ve got an order that’s simple enough to focus on.
Once we’re alone Jonac’s eyes flicker from Gael, to me, to Shoch and back to Ruvan. “What is this about, Highness?”
Ruvan doesn’t answer directly. He catches Jonac up first on everything Shoch has told us about this demon—including his questions to me about how true a priest I am.
“Shocha seems to think that a blood sacrifice can help us somehow,” my brother explains.
My stomach tightens at his tone. “Ruv, you can’t even consider this—”
“Wait.” Jonac waves a hand to shut me up. “What does this have to do with my question? Can someone else speak the words of power?”
We’re all looking at Shoch now. Even Gael is staring at him.
Shoch, meanwhile, is looking straight at me. He holds up two fingers.
I cock my head at him. “You need two things?”
He nods and takes hold of my free hand again. He doesn’t rush this time as he spells out his words—it’s as if he wants to get each one exactly right.
“There’s a ritual you can attempt to—to what? Bond with another person?”
Shoch doesn’t answer me. He just keeps tracing his letters.
“To bond with another person and . . . and speak through them.”
Now he nods again. But he keeps tracing too.
“And if you can speak your words of power through someone else—Shoch, can you cast this thing back to the other side of the barrier?”
He stops tracing, but he doesn’t let go of my hand. He nods instead and then uses his free hand to hold up a finger in warning.
I sigh. “I’m not going to like this, am I?”
He shakes his head and traces one word: blood.
“You need a blood sacrifice to forge this bond?”
He shakes his head again and goes back to spelling out the words.
“You need . . . you need to drink blood?”
Fuck. He’s part demon, I remind myself. Or he’s joined with a demon or . . . or something. Does that demon drive his sorcery? Does he need to feed it in order to use his words of power?
I swallow down the bile in my throat and look over at my brother. He’s wearing his court-politics face right now—it’s scrupulously neutral. Jonac, meanwhile, isn’t bothering to hide his disgust. But he’s holding his tongue. And Gael . . . well, Gael is staring at my pet with a sort of morbid fascination.
All right. All right, I have to force myself to reserve judgment. “Shoch, you don’t mean human blood?”
He shakes his head.
“And you don’t need me to—to ritually sacrifice some poor animal?”
He shakes his head again.
“So if we, uh, slaughtered a chicken . . . that would be enough?”
That earns me a nod.
All right. All right, drinking blood—that’s an anathema. But if it gives him the power to send the damn demon back across the barrier, I’ll stomach it. And I can stand to forge a bond with him. Hell, he’s already my servant and my pet. And my responsibility.
“Fine, Shoch. If you drink chicken blood or some such—that will let you bond with me? Then you can speak the words of power through me?”
He shakes his head and points at me.
“Not me? It can’t be me?”
Now he’s nodding again.
I blink. “Why not? Shoch, you and me—we already have a bond of sorts. Won’t it be easiest?”
He traces one word on my palm: priest.
“I’m a priest, right. Oh, you need me to act as a priest? Am I supposed to preside over this bond? Like a marriage or something?”
He lets out a silent laugh as he shakes his head yet again. A laugh with no real humor in it. Then he looks me in the eye and holds up two fingers.
“Right. You said you needed two things. Or, uh, you need us to do two things.”
“So the first is to provide you with fresh blood to drink—and that will, uh, fuel your sorcery? You can use it to make a bond with one of us and speak the words of power through that person.” I furrow my brow at him. “Am I right so far?”
“But you can’t bond with me, because you need me to act in my capacity as a priest—Shocha, is this where the blood sacrifice comes in?”
He nods and traces another word: lure.
“Lure?” Fuck. I understand now. “A blood sacrifice will lure the demon to us?”
He doesn’t have to nod this time. I know I’m right.
The air in the room turns cold—I swear it does. I can feel the chill on every inch of my skin. Gael and Jonac and my brother are all watching us. Can they feel it too? It doesn’t matter. I push the thought of them aside. This is between me and Shoch.
“Was that your original plan, pet?” I keep my voice low and measured. “That comrade of yours—was he a priest?”
Shoch gulps down a breath, but then he nods.
“And you two—you meant for him to perform a blood sacrifice to lure the demon to you. And then you would speak the words of power to banish the thing?”
He looks me in the eye—straight in the eye—and nods again.
I stare into those blood red irises. Deep into them. Then I put down my dagger, right on Jonac’s desk. I don’t trust myself to hold it right now. “What sort of sacrifice, Shoch?”
He doesn’t answer. There’s no need.
I take a step nearer to him and put my hands on his cheeks, cradling his head. “You told me, Shoch, that you hadn’t harmed anyone here. Or even back in Rokofar. That you hadn’t performed any sacrifices. But that’s because you’re a sorcerer, not a priest. And that’s the only reason, isn’t it?”
Still no answer.
“You—you meant for your priest to perform a human sacrifice here, didn’t you?”
He puts his hands on top of mine. Gently.
“You almost had the demon once—before Jonac and the prison guards found you. Did you . . . Shoch, did this priest of yours cut someone’s throat?”
He shakes his head.
“Then how did you find the demon? Dumb luck? Fuck me, that’s it. You got lucky once—but you’d have sacrificed someone if you had to.”
Shoch keeps looking me in the eye. And there’s all the sympathy in the world there. Sympathy and apology and . . . and something like devotion. But there’s a coldness there too.
I recognize that coldness. I’ve seen it in soldiers who’ve served one campaign too many. In soldiers who have learned the true, full cost of an all-out war.