My brother puts an arm over my shoulder. “The altar isn’t much to look at, is it?”
I snort at the two pile of stones—it was impossible to get them even—and the large slab that rests uncomfortably on top of them. I’ve done the best I can with the texts I remember. Shocha has helped too. Why not? He’s seen altars in action. But still. This is a piss poor effort.
“No,” I agree. “Let’s hope the texts that say the gods ain’t too particular have the right of it.”
Ruvan grins, but then he hesitates. “Are you—Aric, you will go through with this, won’t you?”
Good question. A blood sacrifice—bile surges up my throat just thinking about it. “Ruv, I’ve committed my share of sins. But this . . . . ”
“It’s not human sacrifice. Remember that. And this is a desperate situation.”
How can he be so cold about this? I swear to any god who might be listening, sometimes I don’t know my own little brother. No, that’s not true. He’s always been the logical one. But that’s no excuse.
I shift so I can stare up at him.
He lets his arm drop and cocks his head at me.
“That’s how our ancestors justified human sacrifice,” I remind him. “And that’s how they justify human sacrifice in Rokofar. Look at Shoch! He thinks we should perform one here.”
Ruvan swallows and starts rocking back and forth on his feet. “All right. Look, I don’t like this either. But what would you rather? Sacrifice one burro to some old gods who either don’t exist or don’t give a damn about us . . . or let this demon tear through the whole tower? Do you want to see every last man here ripped apart?”
“No. But tell me something, Ruv.”
He stops rocking and stands still. Then his shoulders stiffen. “What?”
“What if this doesn’t work?” I keep my voice calm and measured. “What if the blood of a burro isn’t enough to lure this thing to us? If we find out that Shoch is right—that only human blood will do the trick—what then?”
He locks eyes with me. “Then we recite a collective Bavít-nar.”
I keep staring up at him. He is ruthless, but he’s telling the truth. This is our only chance. There won’t be any human offering if it fails. No, we’ll all say the Bavít-nar—the Lay Us Down in Peace with our Ancestors—and prepare ourselves for any judgment we might face. Just in case there’s a world to come.
All right, then. I’m breathing a little easier now. It’s like some pressure on my chest just let up—or some cobwebs in my lungs just got swept away.
“Good,” I manage. “Good.”
My brother nods and turns back to the altar. He moves closer to offer some last minute supervision.
Me, I close my eyes. If this doesn’t work, Ruvan can’t stay here to be slaughtered. I think of Anvis, his wife. And Daris, his daughter—my niece. She’s the light of both our lives, that little one.
Plenty of the men here have wives and children. I know that. But Ruvan is also the crown prince. We can’t ignore that fact. No, he’ll have to make a run for it. Maybe some priest or scholar in Fallpoint will find some other way to handle this demon.
Ruvan won’t agree to go, of course. But Jonac can always bludgeon him. And I know for a fact that Jonac won’t object to that plan.
Someone tugs at my sleeve. I open my eyes to find Shoch at my side.
“What is it, pet?” I suppose it’s all right for him to touch me—I haven’t gone through my ablutions yet. “Do they have the chicken blood prepared?”
He nods, but takes hold of my hand and starts tracing his letters.
“First—who will I sacrifice to? Is that what you’re asking?”
He nods again.
I shrug. “Not to a demon. The gods in general, I suppose.”
But Shoch shakes his head. Hard. Then he traces again.
“Specific? I have to specify one deity?”
“Shoch . . . why? Look, the gods are probably all one anyway.” That theory is even older than the Sages: all the gods and goddesses are just different aspects of some sort of divine unity. Some temperamental divine unity, if you believe the stories.
My pet gives me a careful look. I don’t think he disagrees, exactly, but he’s not satisfied. He traces a little more.
He nods over and over. And then he traces into my palm again—but not letters this time. No, he traces a symbol: an eye. An eye inside . . . oh. I know what he’s getting at now.
“The eye in the shield.” The protective god with the impossibly blue eyes, he means. “Veshnic?”
Shoch squeezes my hand.
So they know our gods in Rokofar. No, that’s not fair. They aren’t just our gods. Even Jonac’s people have depictions of Veshnic, though I think they call him by a slightly different name. They paint him with dark, rich skin . . . but still those unearthly blue eyes. A blue that no human ever boasted.
“Shoch, do you choose patron deities in Rokofar?”
He gives me a look that I have no problem interpreting: of course they do. They’re not godless barbarians like we are.
I shake my head at him, trying to take that in. “So Veshnic is yours? Well, we consider him the kindest of the gods, though that’s not saying much. I’ve heard the tales—the gods set a low bar.”
Shoch gives me a playful shove. To punish me for my blasphemy, I suppose.
“All right, all right! I won’t take it back, but I’ll say this much for the Blue-eyed Prince. If anyone were going to show you mercy for binding yourself to a demon, he’d be the one.”
Shoch rolls his eyes and starts miming and tracing again.
It doesn’t take me long to figure out what he’s getting at. “Oh, I’m the one who’ll need mercy, am I? At least in my own fucked up mind?”
“Can’t argue that. To me, this sacrifice—well, gods or no gods, this is a grave sin.”
Shoch doesn’t see it that way, but he doesn’t belabor the point.
“All right, pet. I’ll offer the burro to Veshnic.” I take a deep breath, trying to summon up words that at least sound appropriate. “May he protect us from this demon, may he help you banish it beyond the barrier, and may he show his mercy to us all.”
He gives me an odd look. And then he smiles and starts tracing again.
I grin at his words—I can’t help it. “Maybe I’m a real priest after all, huh? Well, I’ll do my damnedest.”