Aric and I follow Ruvan and his guards outside the Tower. My master leans on me for assistance at first, but soon stops using me for a crutch. I’m surprised, but pleased with his progress.
I stick by his side, enjoying the hint of wind on my face. It’s a cool breeze with just a trace of mist to it. The afternoon sky is bright, but not blinding. Strange how the sun seems farther away in the mountains than it does at home. We’re closer here than we are in the desert, but there’s no need to shield my eyes.
I glance down at my hands. This is my first time outside Crevlock without either chains binding my wrists or some rogue demon to send back beyond the barrier. And my first time without the tower guards watching my every move. They seem accustomed to my presence now, and far more interested in the fact that the crown prince is among them.
His Highness grabs the attention of the sutlers as well. It doesn’t take them long to recognize him: he stands a head taller than most of the men here, including Aric. His personal guards—like Gael—are wearing his livery. And the tower guards trip over themselves to show him due deference. No wonder the sutlers point and whisper before they perform their clumsy bows and curtsies. I smile at that—they make my own attempt at genuflecting look graceful.
Ruvan takes it all in stride. He smiles and waves at the sutlers and even pauses to chat with a few. Aric and I trail right behind him. All eyes stay on His Highness—no one spares a glance for the red-eyed monster in his company.
Well and good, but what are we supposed to be looking at, exactly? The only thing of interest to me is the small selection of fresh fruits. I tug at Aric’s sleeve and then raise my eyebrows as I gesture toward the various carts and wagons.
He cocks his head at me. “What are we here for? Is that what you’re asking?”
I nod and point at the fruits.
“Yes, we’ll get some of those.” He elbows me. “If you promise to eat a full meal for a change, I’ll get you any food you want. And we’ll need another decent tunic for you—something to wear until we can get you into Ruv’s livery. Better shoes too. Maybe even some woolen hose. I’ll wager it gets colder in these mountains than it does in Rokofar.”
He’s serious. I stare at him in disbelief.
Aric stops walking. “Doesn’t it?”
I snort. Rokto-xar is frigid at night. I shiver and then try to mime the sun setting and the stars in the sky.
It takes him a few guesses, but eventually Aric catches on. “It’s cold there at night?”
When I nod, he starts repeating the mimes—until His Highness comes back to fetch us.
“Try to keep up, you two.” Ruvan grins at me and then ruffles Aric’s hair, as if he were the older brother. Aric takes it in good part, though.
I smile at both of them. It’s hard not to.
“All right, all right,” Aric says. “More clothes for Shoch—that’s the first thing. And don’t scrimp, Ruv. He needs something sturdy and warm.”
Ruvan frowns. “We’ll buy sturdy linen and wool for him, at least. I spotted some fabric, but nothing sewn up yet.”
“That’s fine.” My master hooks his good arm through mine. “Someone here must have skill with a needle.”
I hope he doesn’t think that someone is me. I didn’t study any practical crafts back home—but he’s probably guessed as much. He’s looking around at the sutlers instead.
I was about to point back toward the fruit, but my body stiffens at that voice. It’s Jonac. Fuck, what does he want? Can’t he leave the three of us alone?
But I’m the only one who’s annoyed to see him. Aric and Ruvan both have a smile for him—never mind that this man cut my tongue out and flogged me. Never mind that he still doesn’t trust me. Never mind that he still looks at me as though I rank below a cockroach.
And never mind that he always looks at Aric with an expression that’s part exasperated, part contentious and part—I don’t know what the term is. Enticed? My stomach twists. I shift a little, putting myself even closer to my master.
“Forgive the interruption, Highness.” Jonac performs one of his curt, practiced bows. “There’s a woman here. A merchant. At first she demanded to speak with me on a prisoner’s behalf, but once she realized you were present, she demanded to—”
“Plead her case before the prince himself,” Aric finishes. He shifts his good arm so that it’s around my shoulders now. Then he nods at his brother. “I think you should hear her out. Anyone with the balls—er, guts—to walk up to Jonac and demand an audience must be worth listening to.”
Jonac glares at him, but His Highness just snorts. “I’ll see her. Is she here to plead for her husband?”
“Her brother, Highness. A twin brother, I believe.”
Why is my mouth so dry? Why am I having trouble swallowing? Jonac’s words should mean nothing to me.
I had a twin, true, but that was before the joining. Now she’s only my sister-that-was. Granted, she knew I was near the tower—the message I sent before my capture saw to that. And she might have heard of an imprisoned Tainted. But she wouldn’t show her face here. And if she did, she wouldn’t dare claim kinship. Not now. Not unless . . . not unless she’s playing some deeper game with these Bonshev.
Jonac isn’t looking at me. Good. Perhaps this has nothing to do with me. Some other prisoner could easily have a twin. Besides, I’m not a prisoner. Not anymore.
“Very well,” Ruvan is saying. “Any idea who the prisoner is?”
Now his eyes are on me. They’re on me and they’re hard and penetrating. Fuck, fuck, fuck. Itzel, what have you done?
Jonac takes his sweet time about continuing. He’s enjoying every second of my discomfort. I stare at him with all the hatred I can muster.
He nods at me, acknowledging that hatred—we both know it’s mutual—and finally comes to the point. “She called him Xocha, Your Highness.”