The barrier is fading? No. No, I refuse to believe that. If it were fading, and if that stupid vision of mine meant anything, Veshnic would have told me something useful. He would have told me how to strengthen it.
I crane my neck and stare straight at Shoch—I want to hear this from him.
He understands. He doesn’t like this—what, he doesn’t want me to know?—but he pushes away from the desk, stands up and walks over to the bed. Ruvan shifts to make room for him. But Shoch, because he’s Shoch, just stands there, awkward and uncertain.
Oh. He doesn’t know the protocol here. Whether or not he’s supposed to sit down next to the crown prince, I mean.
My brother summons up a smile for him. A warm smile. “It’s all right, Shocha. Take a seat.”
“Don’t worry, pet.” I wink at him. “We’ll teach you when you need to be formal, remember? Meanwhile . . . look, I need you to tell me about the barrier.”
He turns to my brother, studies him for a moment, and then sits down facing me. He takes my hand—gingerly, as if I’m somehow more fragile than I was a few minutes ago. It’s considerate of him, I suppose, so I bite back an exasperated grin.
He starts tracing his letters and miming. And some of mimes—how do I explain this? Whenever he makes this slashing motion with his hand, I know it means either ‘no’ or ‘enough’ or ‘that’s it.’ If he holds up one finger, it means ‘but’ or ‘wait’ or sometimes ‘and then it gets worse.’ And whenever he makes a rolling gesture, I know that means ‘but there’s more’ or ‘and then.’
There are more of these patterns. He’s up to thirty, at least. If we keep working on them, he’ll hardly have to spell anything. And there have to be other uses we can put this miming to . . . .
Fuck. I’m just distracting myself. I don’t want to hear what he’s telling me.
But his words are clear: more and more demons are slipping through the barrier. And nothing the priests or the Tainted are doing in Rokofar is helping.
They’ve used blood sacrifices for centuries, he says. My stomach twists at that.
Why, though? We already knew this much. We knew that while the Sages denounced our priests and protested our temples, Rokofar isolated itself from their influence. Hell, Rokofar gave their priests more power and . . . and, well, became the Tainted.
All right, we were wrong on some of that. Not everyone from Rokofar is a Tainted. Not everyone has words of power at their disposal. No, Shoch belongs to a special class. A special class that binds themselves to demons. Wyverns, I mean.
Shoch is still talking about the sacrifices.
“Wait.” I clamp my fingers down on his hand before he can explain any more. “First of all—your priests are hereditary? Like ours?”
He nods and starts tracing again.
“Some are from the same bloodlines as ours?” Something about this doesn’t add up for me. “So you have Tantzi priests?”
“That makes sense.” My brother rubs his chin. He looks—well, fascinated, actually. “Think about it, Aric. Three thousand years ago our priests create the barrier. It holds until now. One thousand years ago, when there’s no living memory of anyone seeing a demon, people grow tired of the endless sacrifices. The age of the Sages begins. People tear down the altars and temples. Some of our priests remain and ride out the storm—”
“But others flee to Rokofar,” Jonac finishes for him.
Ruvan nods. “Exactly.”
“Some fled to my people as well.” Gael’s face is more thoughtful than perturbed. He’s as curios as my brother, I’ll wager. No wonder Ruvan chose him for one of his personal guards.
“And Jonac’s too.” Ruvan is still excited by this wealth of new information. “That’s why most priestly lines on the continent come through the mother—it’s their influence at work, like as not.”
“Right,” Jonac agrees. I can’t read him—his expression is still too guarded. “And most every priest today probably has some Tantzi blood in them.”
I turn back to Shoch. Something still doesn’t sit right with me. But I give him a small, encouraging smile and loosen my grip on his hand. “And the sorcerers? How do they fit into all this?”
Shoch looks me over. His eyes are sharp and judgmental. Like he’s trying to decide if I can handle this information.
“Now, Shoch.” I give him a look. “I asked you a question. I expect you to answer it.”
That doesn’t wipe the judgmental look from his face. So much for my authority. But he does answer me. He answers by scratching just a few words into my palm.
I stare at him. “Are you sure?”
He nods. His eyes are wide an earnest now.
“Aric, what’s he saying?” Jonac’s voice is sharp.
“Um, he says that sorcerers—they’ve been around longer than the barrier. They helped the priests build it.”
No one says a word. Not for a long minute.
“Wait,” Ruvan says. “Wait. Our priests put the barrier up.”
I nod at him. “I know.”
“But—” He breaks off, as if he’s trying to make sense of this. “But that would mean that we Tantzi . . . we were the first ones to bind a human and demon together.”
“Yes.” I swallow. “Shoch is saying that we created the Tainted.”