Xocha. Jonac pronounces it just right, with the sort of ‘ksh’ sound at the beginning that the Tantzi don’t seem able to handle. But why is he so proficient? Because he marched against Rokto-xar once, I suppose. And he questioned those of us his legion captured.
I swallow. Hard. I despise the sound of my name—my real name—on that man’s lips.
“Sister?” Aric is just catching up. “Shoch, you have a sister? A twin?”
I shake my head.
He quirks an eyebrow at me. “You don’t, pet? This woman is lying?”
How am I supposed to explain this? I shake my head again.
Aric sucks in all the air his lungs can handle—that’s what it sounds like—and then rolls his eyes. “Is she your sister or isn’t she?”
“Just a moment.” Ruvan silences his brother with a pointed look. “Jonac, this woman—what does she look like?”
“Very much like Aric’s pet, Highness.”
I glare at him—only Aric is allowed to refer to me that way.
Jonac ignores me. “She has the same slender build. The same dark hair, the same pale skin. But her eyes are blue, not red.”
“So she’s not Tainted.” Aric glances at me, an apology in his eyes. “I mean, she’s got no sorcery. She never joined with a wyvern.”
No. Itzel was never chosen for that.
Jonac clears his throat. “The fact that she’s not Tainted means she can pass for a Tantzi. Quite easily, I’d say—not all of you are blond.”
Aric shrugs. “What of it? Maybe Rokofar is like us. Most of us are Tantzi, but we have all types.”
“Yes.” Jonac’s eyes shift to me. “Tantzil has, ah, all types because we’ve converted other peoples to the Sages. Rokofar has all types because they’ve kidnapped so many people from other nations—to be used as slaves or sacrifices.”
Right. Of course that’s how he’d frame it. Tantzil brings the shining light of their Sages to the rest of us poor savages. But Rokofar is brimming over with slavers and blood-soaked altars. Never mind that those sacrifices have kept Tantzil safe all these centuries. Without them, the barrier would have failed ages ago.
“But, for all that,” Jonac continues, droning on like some dry, pompous sage himself, “only a few folk from Rokofar are as pale as Shocha or as dark as I am. The natives, I believe, are some sort of relation to Gael’s people.”
Gael snorts. “I’m not so sure of that. We’ve been rivals for ages—and our native languages don’t match up. If I spoke mine and Shoch spoke his, we wouldn’t be able to understand each other. At all.”
Aric lets out a bored, impatient sigh. “Look, what does any of this matter? So this woman—who might or might not be Shoch’s sister—could have Tantzi blood. And so could Shoch. So what?”
Jonac doesn’t answer. He doesn’t need to. He just stands there, serene and imposing, as the implication of a Rokofar woman who can pass as Tantzi dawns on everyone.
“You think she’s a spy, Jonac? Is that it?” Aric grunts. “Do you have any proof?”
Still no response. Jonac just lets the accusation hang in the air.
His Highness rubs his chin and then looks about the green. We’re still attracting stares and whispers, but I don’t think anyone is eavesdropping, per se. We’ve carved out our own little circle here, and the sutlers and guards are keeping a respectful distance. And the ones who pass by now and then don’t smell wrong to me—they don’t smell like they’re getting suspiciously close.
“Where is this woman, Jonac?”
“At the far end of the field, Highness. My guards are standing with her. They won’t harm her, of course, so long as she gives them no cause.”
“Let’s take this inside. Jonac, we’ll convene in your quarters. Have a guard escort this woman to us in a few minutes.”
He nods and then calls over his nearest underling. After conveying that order, he follows the rest of us—His Highness, Aric, Gael and me—back into Crevlock Tower.
If the guards at the main door find it odd for us to return without any wares, they keep that to themselves. They seem content to stand at attention, showing off their good form to the prince. Neither of them spare a glance at me.
Once we’re back in Jonac’s room—the one Aric has taken over—His Highness whirls to face me. “All right, Shocha. What’s going on?”
His tone is curious, not angry or annoyed. And he’s never done me any harm—far from it. He’s been a friend to me, of sorts. Yet when he towers over me like this, it’s hard to forget that he holds my life in his hands. If he ordered Jonac’s guards to seize me, even Aric couldn’t stop him.
“Relax, pet.” Aric puts his good hand on my shoulder. “We’re not upset. We just want to understand who this woman is to you.”
I shift so that I can take his hand and start tracing my letters against his palm.
“She’s your—your sister that was? Your previous twin?” He crinkles his brow. “I don’t understand.”
Of course he doesn’t. He still doesn’t know the first thing about sorcerers. I bite down on my lip in frustration, hard enough to draw blood.
“Easy there, pet.” Aric wipes my mouth. “Just explain it to me.”
I try to mime the joining. He understand that much, at least. And then he catches on.
“Shoch, are you saying that you don’t acknowledge her as a sister? Not after that joining ritual?”
How could I? When you join your being to a wyvern—when you embrace the power and responsibilities of a sorcerer—you become, in a real sense, dead to your family and friends. I can’t imagine trying to mime all that, though. Not now—and not in front of Jonac. So I just nod.
Aric shakes his head a little. Then he puts his good hand back on my face, caressing my cheek this time. “Shoch, she’s still related to you. She’s still your twin.”
“That’s not the way he sees it.” Ruvan looks fascinated as he turns back to me. “So your birth family—you don’t count any of them as your relatives any more?”
I shake my head.
“But she is his sister.” Aric won’t give up on that point. “And she is from Rokofar . . . Shoch, you do care about her, don’t you?”
I stare at him, unsure how to answer.
“I’m sure he does,” Gael puts in. “It’d be hard not to, wouldn’t it, even if you’re not supposed to anymore?”
“Come here.” Aric rolls his eyes as he shifts to put his good arm over my shoulders. “I’m guessing that Gael’s right. And if he is—look, pet, you need to tell us what’s going on. If this woman is a spy, it’s better for us to know that from the first.”
“It’s better if she is, actually,” Ruvan says.
“What?” I think Aric, Gael and Jonac all said that at once. I’m the only one there, apart from the prince himself, who isn’t shocked. Ruvan’s a canny one—I think I know what he has in mind.
The prince grins. “Don’t you see? We don’t have diplomatic relations with Rokofar. And I don’t see how we can establish them while they’re practicing human sacrifice. But we know what they’re up against now—we know that the barrier is failing. If she’s a spy who genuinely loves her country—”
“She might be willing to act as an unofficial messenger,” Aric finishes.
Aric stares at his brother, long and hard. “All right. But we’re not going to make her think that Shoch’s welfare depends on her behaving.”
I glance up at my master, surprised. Perhaps he knows his little brother better than I thought.