“So the barrier is failing, is it?”
I look up at Aric.
No! It’s wrong to think of him by his given name. I owe him more than just this . . . this affection. I owe him respect. But this is his fault. He introduced himself as Aric. He never used a title or a rank. And now I can’t think of him any other way.
He would laugh at me if he could hear me thinking this. Not in a mocking way—but I would see that teasing smile. And he would remind me that it doesn’t matter what I say in my head. It’s not as though I can repeat it out loud. Not with this stump of a tongue.
Aric is still speaking. “That’s what you and my brother talked about while I was lying here, knocked out from my injuries?”
I grunt my reply: he’s right, more or less.
“Well, not talked. Not on your part. I mean—” He cuts himself off and grins. “Fuck, you know what I mean.”
Yes, I know what he means. No talking for me, thanks to the prefect of this prison—that tyrant who thinks he knows me better than Aric does, because of one brief binding. But he’s no one. Aric is the only person who matters. And I need to reach his hand, so I shift my chair closer to his bed.
He meets me half way and smiles at the feel of my fingers.
“You’re all skin and bones. We’ve got to fatten you up. Real food, though. Not chicken blood.”
I snort and then smack his good shoulder with my free hand. This sort of play is not disrespect—or, if it is, it is the sort of disrespect that Aric enjoys. I can see him biting back a grin.
“Behave, pet. No smacking your master.”
I smack him again, just to remind him not to take my servitude for granted.
He laughs outright, acknowledging the message, but then his face turns serious. “So the barrier. We will find a way to fix it.”
I let go of him and pretend to be a priest. A priest making a sacrifice. Aric understands at once.
“Yes, I know your people have been—how do you say it? Feeding the barrier? Preserving it, maybe? Preserving it through blood. I don’t care. We’ll rebuild it or strengthen it some other way.”
I raise my eyebrows.
“No, I don’t know how yet. But we’ll find a way, even if we have to excavate every ancient temple in Tantzil. But no blood sacrifices, Shoch. Even if one of those wyverns is bearing down on us again.”
My master is a fool. It’s not his fault. All of these Bonshev—these ‘good folk,’ as they like to call themselves—are fools. And so were their Sages.
What do they know of the barrier? They don’t make the sacrifices. They don’t risk the joining, or live with the pain and hunger of it. No, they waste their time studying idiotic, empty words. Then they look down their noses at us, despising us even though the blood we shed keeps them safe and fat.
I tighten my grip on Aric’s hand and start miming with my free one—but he shakes his head. He can already guess my meaning.
“No, Shoch. I’m not going to change my mind about that. And I don’t care what my brother says—he’ll come around.”
No he won’t. Unlike the rest of this people, His Highness is not a fool. Aric should understand that much, at least, so I pretend to check him for a fever.
“Very funny. You’ll see, though.”
My poor, delirious master.
Aric laughs again. I think he’s an expert now at interpreting my expressions. “All right. Nothing I say is going to convince you—and we’re both tired. Listen, you don’t have to look after my sorry arse right now. I’ll live.”
I don’t move. It’s my responsibility—and my privilege—to look after him.
“You’re going to stay? Come here, then.” He tugs me toward him. “You shouldn’t be trying to sleep in a chair.”
I hesitate. I’m not quiet in my sleep, or motionless. The wyvern never lets me keep still for long. And Aric is injured.
“Look, there’s plenty of room.” He lets go of me and gingerly shifts to the far side of the bed. “See? No untoward advances. I promise.”
No, no, no. I shake my head, trying to convey that my virtue is not my concern—not at the moment. Then I point to the bandages wrapped around his shoulder and chest.
“Oh. Don’t worry. You won’t jostle me.”
See? He’s a fool. Except that . . . well, I didn’t thrash about the last time I slept next to him. I haven’t had a terrible night since we were locked up together, actually. Maybe something about Aric calms the wyvern in me. I wouldn’t put that power past him.
I slip off my shoes and lie down on the bed, outside of the covers.
He’s staring at me now, his eyes brimming with a jarring mixture of heat and gentleness. I’m grateful for that gentleness. And I . . . I know what that heat means. And I wish, for his sake, I could return it.
“Shoch, I do know how to take no for an answer.”
My face turns hot. I swallow and look away.
He makes this sound. I—I’m not sure how to interpret it.
I’m sorry, though. Sorry that I can’t give him what he needs. Sorry for the sacrifices. Sorry for the broken barrier. So I force myself to meet his eyes. Then I put a fist to my heart and point at him.
“Ah, I’m not sure what that means. Are you professing your undying love for me?”
I laugh a little—it’s an ugly sound without my tongue—and try to convey my exasperation. But I want to convey something else too: that I don’t want things to be like this. That I wish they were different. That I wish I were something different.
“You’re sorry? Is that what you’re trying to say?”
There’s no way to answer that by miming alone. So I take his hand in mine and begin tracing letters. I’m getting better at this—I’m not as painfully slow as I was in the beginning. And I don’t have to be as precise as I was back then; Aric has learned to fill in the articles and conjunctions and such on his own.
“You’re sorry that—that I live now?” He frowns. “Sorry that . . . that I can’t just live out my life following my Sages?”
I nod again.
“Shoch . . . .”
He understands now. He understands that I grew up knowing that the barrier was failing—knowing what happens when the wyverns break free. And that I would have spared him from that knowledge, were it in my power. That I would have spared him from all of this.
Aric doesn’t say anything—not right away. But there’s still enough daylight that I can see the gratitude and affection in his eyes, mixed with that same gentleness and that same heat.
He closes his fingers around mine. His skin is cool and soothing. “You should sleep, pet.”
I grip his hand, trying to convey something more. Something that I can’t say with words or with mimes. He just smiles a little in response. And I know he’s telling me to obey his order.
Sleep. He makes it sound like a simple command. But Rokto-xar will be on the watch for me. What if they’ve sent my sister-that-was to see if I’m still alive? If she received my message, then she knew where Moteka and I would be hunting for the rogue wyvern. She’s not one to keep information like that to herself.
And His Highness Ruvan? He’s a problem too. I don’t fear him exactly. And I don’t want to harm him. For one thing, Aric cares for him. And, for another—well, I think he has honor. I think he would have kept his word and released me, if I had wanted that.
But he’s not like Aric. He sees me as a tool. I think he sees everyone as a tool. He would do well in Rokto-xar.
And then there’s the barrier. After everything he’s seen, how can Aric still believe we can fix it without blood? How can he be that naïve? I hope that really was Vexak he saw in his vision. Veshnic, I mean—I should get used to the name Aric’s people use.
If it was Veshnic, and if Aric didn’t misunderstand him—if the god really doesn’t want blood sacrifices—well, maybe there’s some chance after all. Maybe my master isn’t completely delusional.
I bite my lip and dare to form a prayer inside my head. Forgive me for this blasphemy, Veshnic. Forgive me for addressing you when I am no priest. But if there is another way to rebuild the barrier, a way without blood and joinings, you must tell my master. And soon.
Very soon. We have less time than any of these ‘good folk’ know.