There’s a hand on my arm. My brother’s hand, I realize.
“Aric, listen to me—”
“No.” I don’t take my eyes off of Shoch as I answer. Or my hands off his face. “No, Ruv. We’re not—this is human sacrifice he’s talking about!”
“He would have let his priest friend kill one of us. Or whatever poor bastard they could get their hands on.”
“Aric, listen.” Ruvan keeps his voice soft, but tightens his grip on my arm. “Let Shocha go.”
I ignore that and keep staring straight into Shoch’s eyes.
He’s staring straight back. And he’s not afraid of me. He’s just—well, like I said before. Sympathetic and devoted and . . . and cold.
“Highness?” That’s Jonac. “We don’t know for certain that Shocha has been truthful with us. I’m inclined to believe him at this point, but—”
“He’s telling the truth.” The words are out of my mouth before I can stop them. And—and that’s as it should be. I don’t want to stop them.
Shoch still has his hands over mine. I’m standing there with my hands on his cheeks, and he’s covering them with his own. His skin is still warmer than mine. And his fingers are still—they’re bony. Fuck, he’s still a scrawny thing.
I let go of his face—but only so I can grip his shoulder with one hand and point a finger at him with the other. “Listen, pet. If we make it out of this alive, you don’t leave my fucking sight.”
“Aric, enough!” My brother lets go of my arm—out of frustration, I think. I turn to him in time to watch him run his fingers through his hair.
Ruvan puts his hand down and inhales deep. “If we make it through this, I’m going to secure a pardon for Shocha. A pardon for whatever crimes he committed here or intended to commit here. He’ll be free to return to Rokofar, if that’s what he wants.”
“A pardon? How about you secure a pardon for me, your own brother!”
“I’ve made progress with Father. You’re under my custody now—if we live long enough for it to matter. Shocha can stay with us or go back to his own people.”
“We can’t send him back to Rokofar! Not with—he can’t go back to someplace where they teach him ritual murder.”
Shoch makes this strangled sound. He points to me and then grabs my hand—the one I was using to point a finger at him. He starts tracing fast. So fast that he’s tripping over some of the letters. But it doesn’t matter. I know what he’s getting at.
Jonac grunts. “What’s he saying?”
“That he’s not going back. That he’s staying with me even if I cut his throat open with that dagger you gave me.”
Ruvan rolls his eyes. No, I don’t see him doing it—I’m back to staring at Shoch. But I know my brother.
Shoch is still going, but I clamp my fingers down on his hand. That stops him from tracing any more. “I’m not going to hurt you, you idiot. Ever. But you don’t know right from wrong. I can’t trust you on your own.”
He just stares at me. I think he’s holding his breath.
“So if we live, pet, you stay by my side and you obey me. In everything.”
Shoch just nods. He looks—he looks relieved. And strangely satisfied.
My brother, meanwhile, doesn’t bother to hide his disdain for our agreement. “Well, there’s a promise that can never go wrong.”
I glare at him.
Jonac clears his throat. “In case we’ve all forgotten, we have yet to survive this demon. Or come up with a creditable plan to defeat it.”
“Right.” I glare at Shoch now. “A plan that don’t include human sacrifice.”
“No plan should include your participation, Highness.” Jonac sighs. “You should leave Crevlock Tower and return to the safety of Fallpoint.”
I scoff. Jonac is right, mind. My brother has no business being here. But fleeing from danger is not his style.
“No.” Ruvan shakes his head. “I’m not turning tail.”
“He’s right, Ruv. You have a wife and daughter, remember?” He’s not going to listen, but I have to try. “And you’re the crown prince. And—”
“And I’m no safer riding for Fallpoint than I am staying here. The demon’s not bound to these walls, is it Shocha? What’s to stop it from overtaking me and my men?”
Shocha lets out one of those ugly grunts of his. He seems to be agreeing with my brother.
“All right, then.” My brother takes another deep breath. “Let’s talk this out. Shocha, in order to lure the demon to us—why do we need a blood sacrifice at all?”
“Right.” I give Ruvan a nod of approval. “Forget the ritual. We could slaughter every last chicken they keep here. Fill one room up with blood. That ought to attract this thing.”
But Shoch is shaking his head.
“It only wants human blood? Is that what you’re saying, pet?”
Now he’s nodding—or half-nodding, anyway. So there’s more to it than just that, but that’s part of it.
“But you’re going to, uh, feed the demon in you with chicken blood.”
It takes a lot of miming and tracing letters for him to answer that.
“What’s he getting at?” Jonac demands.
I shake my head a little. “I think the gist is that he has some say in how to fuel his demonic side.”
Ruvan frowns. “And that means what? That the demon we’re dealing with will just respond instinctively? Is there some kind of power in a ritual sacrifice that it can’t resist?”
I whirl to face my brother. “Ruv, it doesn’t matter! This is human sacrifice we’re talking about. We can’t.”
“Of course not, Aric. But—”
Gael interrupts. “Would you sacrifice an animal, sir?”
“What?” I look over at my brother’s guard.
He hesitates. “Among my people—before we came to the Sages, I mean—our priests would try to placate the gods with a . . . well, with the sacrifice of a horse.”
“Because it was supposed to be the only animal as valuable as a human,” Ruvan says. “Right, I’ve heard that.”
Jonac looks to me. “Well?”
I sigh. “We never sacrificed horses. Up here in the mountains, mules are more valuable—but they’re bastard animals. So, on the rare occasions when a priest couldn’t sacrifice a human, a burro had to do.”
Shoch starts shaking his head and miming again. I think the general idea is that this discussion is irrelevant—we’re dealing with demons, not gods. And the demons won’t be fooled by the blood of a burro.
“We can’t sacrifice a human, Shocha,” my brother says. “So we’ll have to try some kind of animal.”
I stare at my brother. “You’re serious?”
“Do you have a better idea?”
“Ruv, the Sages don’t allow any kind of blood sacrifice—”
“The Sages weren’t dealing with a demon who slipped the barrier!” He turns away from me in order to face Jonac. “We need a chicken to slaughter so Shocha can drink its blood, and a burro that’s . . . that’s in good shape. You have both available?”
Jonac’s face is ashen. Well, as ashen as his dark skin can get, I mean. He doesn’t like this any more than I do. That much is clear.
But he squares his shoulders regardless. “Yes, Highness. We do.”