The air tastes thin today. That’s the first thing I notice as the lot of us tramp outside.
I mean, it’s always thin. We’re higher up here at Crevlock Tower than we are in Fallpoint proper—and Fallpoint is more than a mile and a half above the sea. But I feel lightheaded and queasy, like some down-the-mountains farmer who just hiked his way up to the big city for the first time. Next my damned nose will start bleeding.
My brother looks over to me. “We have wood, bricks and stones at our disposal. Do you remember how an altar is supposed to be built?”
I shrug. “The old texts say different things. Sometimes the gods seem to be casual about it—don’t worry about us, just throw some old rocks together.”
Ruvan grins. “And other times?”
“Other times, they seem to want only the best. And the instructions are ridiculously specific. But I don’t have all those memorized.”
“Maybe it doesn’t matter. This isn’t for the gods.”
“Yes it is.”
He gives me a look.
“What? Ruv, I’m not about to sacrifice to some demon. The old gods are bad enough.”
“But will that work?”
I shrug again. “Damned if I know. Where’s Shoch?”
Right behind us, it turns out, miming something to Jonac. I bite back a smile. Jonac’s hands are gloved now—he doesn’t want to risk contact while Shoch spells out his words. What does he think will happen to him? He’s not going to perform the sacrifice, so he doesn’t have to worry about ritual impurity.
“What’s going on, you two?”
Jonac puts his hands on his hips. “Shocha needs to form a bond with one of us. That’s the idea, isn’t it? So that he can use one of us to speak through?”
“Right,” Ruvan says. “That will be me.”
But Jonac shakes his head. “No, Highness. We can’t have the crown prince bound to a Tainted!”
I elbow my brother. “He’s right. We don’t know what this bond will do, exactly.”
“I’ll take that risk—”
“No, Highness, you won’t.” Jonac sucks in a lung’s worth of air. “The security of Crevlock Tower is my responsibility.”
Ruvan opens his mouth to object, but then shuts it.
I cock my head at Shoch. His eyes look like they could burn a hole straight through Jonac.
“Listen up, pet. Jonac has a point.” I keep my voice gentle but matter-of-fact. “He is in charge here. Now can you forge this bond with him or can’t you?”
He grunts and nods. I understand what he’s saying. He doesn’t need to like Jonac in order to bond with him.
“All right, that’s settled. Now what’s first?” I ask. “Build the altar so it’s ready?”
Jonac turns to me and nods. “I think so. Apparently this . . . this bond”—his lips curl—“won’t last for long. So Shocha will create it right before you make the sacrifice.”
“All right.” I glance at the bricks and stones that Gael and a few of Jonac’s men have been gathering. Then I look at the rocky terrain, chockfull of crabgrass, out and around the stables. “There’s no good spot to choose for a battle.”
“No,” Jonac agrees. “But that doesn’t matter—if this thing can turn to smoke at will, it can elude us wherever we stage the fight.”
Ruvan looks from one of us to the other. “So we build the altar right out here?”
This spot is twenty yards or so from the stable and maybe thirty yards from the nearest entrance to Crevlock Tower. There’s no cover—not for us or for the wyvern-demon. But, like Jonac said, that don’t much matter. We just have to pray that the sacrifice keeps it busy long enough for Shoch to cast it back beyond the barrier.
I don’t like it, but I don’t have a better idea. So I sigh and give Jonac a questioning glance.
He shrugs in return.
“Yes,” I tell my brother. “Right here is good. Jonac, I need a razor sharp dagger to slit the burro’s throat with.”
“We have one.”
“Good. Oh, and water and salt. I can start my ablutions while we wait—fuck.”
“What?” Both my brother and Jonac say that, almost at the same time. I can’t tell which of them spoke first.
“Holy wood. We never performed sacrifices without holy wood to burn for incense. But that stuff is hard to come by even in Fallpoint, let alone up here.”
Shoch puts a hand on my shoulder and then shakes his head.
I cock my head at him. “We don’t need it?”
He points to himself.
“Shoch, are you saying that you have a stash of the stuff?”
He rolls his eyes and then points to himself again.
“You—you can make yourself smell like holy wood?”
Now he nods.
Jonac grunts. “That makes sense. He is part demon himself—and apparently they smell like that incense.”
“The holy wood is that sickly sweet scent you described?” Ruvan asks. “Shoch doesn’t normally smell like that.”
Shoch starts miming again. Wyvern wings—right, that means a demon. And then he points to himself again.
My brother swallows. “Shocha, are you saying that you—you can unleash the demon inside yourself?”
He nods, looking solemn and determined.
“Is that what sorcery is, Shoch?” I put a hand on his arm. “You feed the—the demon you’re joined to. Feed it blood. And then the demon works the magic through your words of power?”
He has to trace letters into my palm to answer.
“Well?” Jonac asks.
Fuck. What am I supposed to say? I’ll have to go with the truth. I can’t lie, especially with my brother standing right here. Besides, we all deserve to know the stakes.
“He, ah—yes. That’s basically what’s going to happen. So we have to hope for two things. That Shoch’s demon half is strong enough to defeat this thing . . . and that Shoch is strong enough to keep it under control.”
That’s met with a round of silence. Shoch doesn’t take his eyes off of me, though. He’s gauging my reaction.
I put my arm around his shoulder and pull him in for a half-way hug. I need him to know that we’re behind him. That we’re all allies in this. And that this doesn’t change anything between him and me.
And it doesn’t. I already knew he was part demon. I thought that was because of his ancestry. Instead it’s because—well, fuck if I understand this. He’s joined or bonded or whatever to one of these creatures. But he’s still Shoch.
He doesn’t resist the half-hug. Hell, I think he welcomes the contact.
Ruvan puts a hand on Shoch’s arm. But then he shakes his head.“You’re strong enough to join with a demon and control it, Shocha—but you want to stay with us and play servant to my idiot brother here?”
Shoch looks panicked for a second.
“He’s teasing, pet.” I rub his shoulder. “Don’t worry, we’re happy to have you stay. He’s not trying to make you leave.”
Jonac snorts. “Since we’re not likely to survive this thing, it’s probably a moot point.”
“Probably,” Ruvan agrees. “But Shocha, Aric is right. I am happy to have you stay—you can provide us with invaluable information about Rokofar. Information that might help us avoid another war.”
Shoch nods—slowly, though. He’s agreeable to that, I suppose, but he thinks Ruvan has something more on his mind.
“But—” my brother breaks off and shakes his head. “Shocha, you must have been held in some esteem in Rokofar. We’ve always thought that sorcery came naturally to your people, but that’s not the case, is it?”
He shakes his head.
“So only certain people go through with this joining?”
I feel my stomach clench. “Ruv, Shoch told me before that he had no power to stop the sacrifices. He wasn’t in a position of authority—look at him. He’s got no air of command to him.” I glance down at him. “Sorry, pet.”
He just shrugs.
“He doesn’t have a soldier’s air of command,” Ruv agrees. “But there are other positions of prestige. Shocha, answer straight. Are sorcerers like you looked up to?”
His eyes dart to mine before he answers. But then he nods.
“Doesn’t matter.” I glare at my brother. “He belongs to me now, all right?”
Ruvan rolls his eyes. “Aric, try to remember that we don’t allow slavery in Fallpoint.”
“Very funny. But this ain’t slavery. Shoch can leave if he wants—you saw to that. So this is between him and me. And if he stays, Ruv, he’ll be safest as a servant in the royal household. He won’t have enough authority to get under anyone’s skin. And we can protect him from any mob that gets ideas.”
“Highness, assuming we all live long enough for this to matter, Aric is right.” Jonac folds his gloved hands in front of him, conspicuously not laying a finger on Shoch. “Though I wonder why Shocha sees us as an attractive option.”
I snort. “You cut out his tongue, Jonac. Maybe he ain’t so valuable at home anymore.”
Shoch shifts so he can take hold of my hand and start tracing his letters.
“You want to stay with me, is that it? Wherever I go?”
I ruffle his hair. “Good pet.”
He elbows me. All right, there are limits.
I take that in good part, though, and grin down at him. “Once I get out of my, ah, legal difficulties, I plan to stay in Fallpoint—I think my time in the legion is done. But if something happens to me, you’ll serve my brother, right?”
Shoch looks Ruvan up and down. At length he nods.
“Thank you, Shocha.” My brother nods back at him. “Like Aric, I’ll do my best to protect you.”
Shoch seems satisfied with that. As for Ruvan . . . I’m not sure. He likes to know why people act the way they do, and I don’t think he’s figured Shoch out yet. Even if he assumes that Shoch is my lover—I haven’t told Ruvan how monk-like he is—well, maybe Ruv doesn’t see that as reason enough for his devotion.
Or maybe he’s afraid that we won’t be able to figure Shoch out. That he’s just too . . . too alien.
But none of that matters. He wants to stay. I want to keep him. We’ll sort out the rest as we go. Meanwhile, we have an altar to build.