“Shoch? Shoch, sorry, but I need you to wake up.”
My eyes fly open. Aric’s hand is on my shoulder. I sit straight up and stare down at him. The room is dark now—the only light comes from the embers of the fireplace. But that’s enough. I can see as well as if it were dawn.
Aric squeezes my shoulder. “I apologize. I do. But, uh—I need to piss. So I need you to move. And I need you to help me up.”
Of course. I should have anticipated this. I scramble out of bed and find the chamber pot. I can bring it closer to him, at least.
“No, leave it where it is, pet. I can walk over there. Just going to need a hand.”
The hardest part for Aric, it turns out, is sitting up and shifting his legs over the side of the bed. We manage it, though. He can handle himself after that—he has no trouble walking—but I stay by his side regardless. In case he needs steadying.
His bandages are soiled again. I can see that even through the loose tunic he’s wearing. But he’s still pissing, so I just grunt and point to them.
“Yes, I know. Someone needs to change them.”
I point to myself this time.
He finishes and lets his tunic hang down again. Then he grins at me. “Thank you. Help me back over. Then we need to talk.”
It’s easy enough to get him back to the bed. Once he’s sitting down again, he pats the spot next to him.
I take a seat there and wait for him to begin. Something is wrong. I can see that much by the way he’s furrowing his brow.
He doesn’t start right away. He puts his good arm over my shoulder instead.
It doesn’t feel wrong, having his arm there. I don’t stiffen this time.
“My brother’s a man of his word. You know that, don’t you?”
Do I? Perhaps. My gut tells me that His Highness is honorable, so I nod.
“So, ah, he meant what he said. If you want to leave, Shoch, you’re free to go. Not that I think you should—you’ve got no moral compass, pet. Not left to yourself.”
How am I supposed to respond? Maybe it doesn’t matter. He doesn’t expect me to answer. In fact, he keeps talking.
“But if you wanted to stay with us, but not belong to me—well, remember that Ruvan will make other arrangements for you.”
I shake my head. Violently. Then I point straight at Aric.
He smiles a little. “Good. I want to keep you. But fair warning: things are about to become more complicated.”
There’s a shrug I do now along with a small shake of my head. It’s supposed to mean either either ‘why’ or ‘how.’ Or both, in this case.
Aric understands. “If you stay with me, I need you for a partner in this. Finding out more about how the barrier was created, I mean.”
Of course. I try to convey that with another vigorous nod.
“There’s more, pet. My father—he won’t be thrilled with this research of ours. Or with my vision. He’s not fond of priests. We’re just a holdover from a superstitious era to him. And he despises the gods.”
I take his hand and start tracing letters into his palm.
He watches carefully. “Yes, that was before we encountered a live wyvern. I’m not sure how much that will change his mind. He can be stubborn about things. And irrational.” Aric pauses to blow air. “Look how he had me arrested for burying those poor bastards.”
Stubborn and irrational. Those are not good qualities in a ruler. My master doesn’t need me to say that, however, so I just point at myself and raise my eyebrows.
Aric favors me with a wry smile. “No, he’s not fond of you Tainted either. But he’ll see the value in you. You have a ton of knowledge we need. Even if he don’t want to know about old priests and such, he’ll want to learn more about Rokofar.”
I point at him and then at me, making a sort of circular motion in between.
“Will he care that you’re so close to me?” Aric snorts. “He’ll be glad for it. He’ll put you in our livery to show off our, uh, devoted Tainted pet.”
Devoted? I scoff at that—I’m only devoted to Aric.
“Yes, you’re my pet first and foremost. But you serve my family now too. And that’s how we need it to be. We want everyone to know that you have our collective protection.”
My stomach twists. I start tracing letters again, but Aric stops me.
“Shh. It’s all right. My father won’t take you away from me.” He leans forward a little, so he can rest his forehead against mine.
I don’t stop him. I’m not sure why—maybe it’s the way he’s looking at me, with that gentle, fond smile of his. In my whole life, no one’s ever looked at me like that. No one in Rokto-xar could afford to.
“Just—listen, Shoch. My father is going to draw the same conclusions that Ruvan did. He’ll think you’re my lover. Let him. He don’t need to know that you’re too chaste for that.”
That makes no sense, even by the bizarre standards of these Bonshev. Won’t His Majesty want Aric to marry someday? How can that happen if everyone thinks he’s slept with a . . . a Tainted? I try to mime and spell that out.
Aric just shakes his head. “I can’t get married. Ruvan and his wife have only produced a daughter. If I were to have a son—well, even though I’m a bastard, people would see that boy as a rival to the throne. I won’t take a mistress either. Even an illegitimate son of mine could cause trouble when it comes to the succession.”
I just stare at him.
He laughs as he straightens up again. “Don’t look so horrified! It’s fine. I prefer pretty fellows like you anyway. And a few who aren’t so pretty, just for variety.”
There’s a cold, hollow pit in my stomach now. I don’t want my master cavorting with nameless men. Or worse, men who aren’t nameless to me. What if he looked Gael’s way?Or—gods. What if he looked to Jonac?
“Don’t worry, pet.” Aric winks at me. “You and me, that’s the closest I’ll come to tying the knot. Even if you are chaste. There’s no hide-the-sausage games after marriage anyway, or so I’m told. Not with your spouse.”
My mouth drops open. Though I would prefer it, I’m not always chaste. There are certain rituals that a sorcerer of Rokto-xar undergoes. Intense, precise, carefully regulated rituals that only take place at particular times. Casual ‘hide-the-sausage games’—assuming I understand what he means by that—are only for peasants.
But that doesn’t matter. Not right now. What matters is that Aric sees me as a spouse of sorts. I’m flattered. And honored. But I have to tell him. He has to understand the full price of my sorcery.
“One more thing, Shoch.” Aric’s mind is already jumping to a different subject. “Like I said, our main purpose will be to find out more about how the barrier was made. My brother can help us get around our father, if necessary. But you’ll be a manservant of sorts too. Especially now—I need you to draw a bath and help me with these bandages. And help me shave. We both need to get rid of these beards.”
I nod. I’m still trying to figure out exactly how to tell him.
He misunderstands my lack of enthusiasm.
“Look, I’m a soldier. Or I was. I’ll be more self-sufficient once I’m healed. Meanwhile, I know this sort of servitude might be beneath you—”
No! I can’t say that out loud, but I try to make it clear. Serving him is not beneath me.
“Thank you, pet.” He shifts so that he can tousle my hair. “I suppose the bath can keep till morning. So can the bandages—they’ve held up this long. Let’s see if we can snatch a bit more sleep.”
Somehow I manage a nod. And I manage to help him back into the bed.
He holds out his hand. “Joining me? Come on. You need more rest too.”
I take his hand and trace my letters against his palm.
Aric snorts. “Soon? All right. I’m holding you to that. I expect to wake up and find you by my side.”
He will. But I need time to myself first. So I watch him for a moment—just long enough to make sure he closes his eyes. Then I turn around and cross the room. The fireplace needs tending.
I put fresh logs in first, setting them carefully in place. There are no bellows in sight, so I get on my hands and knees to blow on the coals. How humiliating—if I had my tongue, one word of power would spark the embers. But eventually my breath serves, and the fire springs back to life.
It burns steadily. I take a seat on the floor, cross-legged, and watch the smoke waft up the chimney. I curl my lips. It might as well be my life force wafting away. The joining gave me power—power to harness the magic of the wyvern in me. But the wyvern will have its revenge. It’s burning me up and hollowing me out. I’m not sure how many years I have left.
And if Aric honestly regards me as a spouse—even without his ‘hide-the-sausage’ games—he has a right to know. A right to know that our time together will be short.
Assuming the barrier doesn’t crumble completely before it matters.