Shoch is at the desk now, stiff and awkward. He’s got his quill in hand, plus ink and blotter, and plenty of paper piled in front of him. He should be all set, but he keeps shooting nervous looks my way. I guess he’s not used to taking dictation.
Well, none of us are. He’ll have to suit. I’ll just remember to go slow.
My brother, meanwhile, is half-sitting and half-leaning on my bed, facing me. He’s peering at me with curiosity, but his whole body is relaxed. Well, why not? We just sent the damn demon—I mean wyvern—back beyond the barrier. And we didn’t lose anyone doing it. A prince can’t ask for more than that.
Still . . . I don’t know. I don’t quite believe this tranquil act of his. I know Ruvan. I know when he’s putting on a show. Something is still worrying him. The men we already lost? Before the sacrifice, I mean. But that’s not it. I know that in my gut. Just like I know not to ask. Not yet.
I shift my attention to Jonac. He’s next to me, in the chair by the bed. His back is as straight as a fucking measuring rod. And he’s got his arms folded over his chest. He’s not actually glowering at me, but it looks like he wants to.
Fuck, I don’t know what to make of that. I thought the man would be happy with me for once.
What about Gael? Yes, he’s here too. Not sure how I missed him, but he’s right near Shoch, leaning sideways against the desk. I guess he’s taking advantage of the fact that he’s not officially on guard duty at the moment.
There are guards here, though. Two stand near the fireplace, trying to look unobtrusive. My brother’s men, by their livery. And two more are by the door. They’re Jonac’s. All of them will overhear this, but that can’t be helped.
I turn back to my brother. “Those two guards who died—they still need a priest.”
“I know. Not you, though. Not while you’re injured like this. We’ve sent their remains on to Fallpoint. Don’t worry, they’ll know to burn them.”
“Oh. All right.” That’s probably for the best.
Ruvan gives my leg a gentle punch. “So why are we here? Do you want to record the words you spoke at the altar?”
“No.” I shake my head as hard as I can. “No. I’m never saying that again—I’m done with sacrifices.”
Ruvan and Jonac exchange looks, but neither of them says anything.
“So what do you need to dictate, Aric?” Jonac’s voice isn’t hostile, exactly. No, it’s guarded.
I stare down at the bed. “After I slit my arm open and—and offered myself to Veshnic, the god appeared to me.”
The room falls silent. Completely silent.
“The god?” Ruvan stares at me. Sort of like the way you’d stare at a child who just told you about his imaginary friend.
“Yes.” I give him a challenging look—for a second. But then I just shrug. “Damn it, Ruv. I don’t know if this was real. But I think . . . I think it was important.”
He opens his mouth and then shuts it again. Then he leans back a little, crinkling up his forehead.
I glance at Shoch. He’s wide-eyed, but I can’t tell if that’s in a good way or a bad way. Gael just looks astonished. And Jonac—I don’t even look at Jonac. I just turn back to my brother.
“All right, Aric.” Damn. That’s his let-me-soothe-my-daughter-out-of-a-tantrum tone. “You said those words to Veshnic, slit your arm open . . . and then the demon attacked you. This, ah, vision? It was after that?”
“Yes.” I roll my eyes. “I know I was unconscious. I just told you—I don’t know if it was real.”
“Right. That’s fine. Just tell us what happened.”
I breathe in deep. Then I plunge right in, explaining just how it was. How I was lying there on the altar. How the holy wood smelled different. Less cloying. How the light was bright, but it didn’t hurt my eyes. How I thought Veshnic was actually Shoch at first.
Shoch drops the quill at that. I grin over at him. “Yes, pet. He looked just like you, this supposed god. Except for his blue eyes. And he treated me—well, pretty much the way I treat you.”
He freezes. I don’t think he knows how to react to that.
I wink at him. “Even called me ‘pet.’ I swear it.”
All right. That wins me a smile from Shoch. I don’t know if he believes me, but he relaxes. At least a bit.
Jonac snorts. “If we needed more proof that this was just some hackneyed dream . . .”
I shrug. “Maybe, but—look, just hear me out.”
Ruvan nods. “Go on.”
So I do. I tell them everything I remember. Shoch’s quill scratches in the background—he’s better at keeping up with me than I thought he would be. Probably better than he thought he would be.
I don’t hide how disrespectful I was or how foul mouthed I was. I don’t hide how Veshnic called me on our supposed commitment to the Sages when it comes to their pacifism. And I’m careful to recount the three things he requires from me—from us?—as exactly as I can.
“That’s it.” I’m finished now—finished with the whole story—but I feel like I should reiterate. “Prayer, repentance, and doing the right thing while leaving the results to him. To Veshnic, I mean. He don’t demand sacrifices.”
My brother gives me a thoughtful look. Thoughtful and neutral. Yes, he’s wearing his diplomatic court-face now. “And he—ah, Veshnic—thinks that demons aren’t really demons.”
“No. I told you about the garden bit. They aren’t demons. They just don’t belong here, that’s all.” I purposely stop myself from glancing at Shoch again. I’ve got no excuse to call him a demon spawn now. I wonder if he realizes that.
My brother, meanwhile, is still on point. “But Veshnic didn’t tell you how to strengthen the barrier?”
Ruvan and Jonac exchange glances again.
I look from one of them to the other. “What? What are you not telling me?”
Ruvan shifts so that he can lean toward me again. Then he puts a hand on my knee. “Aric, Shocha says the barrier is failing.”
“What?” I turn my head so I can stare at my pet. He’s facing me. The quill is back in its holder on the desk. The papers are spread out now, allowing the ink to dry. “Shoch, is that true?”
There’s an apology in those red eyes of his.
I struggle to sit up, but my brother and Jonac between them stop me. They push me back down—and they’re not gentle about it.
“Damn it, Aric!” Ruvan is furious. Well, at least that’s a genuine emotion out of him.
“Don’t undo our good work.” Jonac nods at the bandages as he sits down again. The bandages that are practically mummifying me.
I give up and stay put. “What does that mean?”
Ruvan sighs. “If Shocha is right, it means . . . look, we’ve got a lot to talk about.”