Itzel hasn’t changed. That’s my first thought as she strides into Jonac’s quarters, a guard flanking her on either side. She’s still thin, like me. But she doesn’t come off as weak. It’s something about the way she carriers herself—some trick I never learned.
She still dresses like most of the Tantzi sutlers—the women among them, anyway. She wears a long, nut brown tunic over a homespun shift, thick hosen and rough leather shoes. Her only ornaments are the practical apron pinned to her tunic and the colorful kerchief pulling back her hair.
She meets my eyes as she comes to a halt, taking in Aric as well, who still has his good arm slung over my shoulder. I’m not sure if she recognizes him as the king’s bastard. Even if she doesn’t, she should be shocked to see me on such good terms with a Bonshev. And maybe she is, but she’s trained not to show it.
She shifts her attention to Ruvan and drops into a deep curtsy. There’s no clumsiness to it; not that I can see. “Your Highness.”
Ruvan nods in acknowledgment. “You have the advantage of me. I know you’re Shocha’s sister, but I don’t know your name.”
She takes his nod as permission to straighten up again. “I am Itzel of Co-Tal.”
Co-Tal is our village, though I doubt the name means anything to Ruvan. But he doesn’t ask her to explain. “Welcome to Crevlock Tower, Itzel of Co-Tal. Though I understand the other sutlers here know you by a different name.”
“The people of Tantzil think ill of those of us from Rokto-xar, Highness. Even if we follow the Sages. I thought it prudent to adopt a Tantzi name.”
Ruvan bites back a grin—an appreciative grin, I think. “And you follow the Sages, Mistress Itzel?”
“Of course.” She’s lying, and everyone here knows it. I admitted as much before the guards escorted her in. Why not? She wouldn’t have fooled anyone regardless.
But His Highness doesn’t challenge her. “I’m glad to hear it. Shocha, while he has many admirable qualities, does not yet appreciate their wisdom.”
“It’s my fondest hope that my brother learns to appreciate them.” Her eyes dart to me, and then back to the prince. “Is he your prisoner?”
Ruvan studies her before answering. I watch him carefully. I think he’s impressed with her self-command—and, yes, her bold-faced lies.
“No. The commander of this prison and garrison thought, with good reason, that Shocha was an enemy of Tantzil. He arrested him, but due to my brother’s recommendation and to Shocha’s services to our people, we’ve brought no charges against him. He’s free to leave and return to Rokofar, if he wishes to.”
“But he doesn’t wish to,” Aric says.
I sigh a little—but I smile a little too. I knew Aric wouldn’t be able to keep quiet, or keep that possessive tone out of his voice. I’m surprised he kept his mouth shut this long.
Itzel favors Aric with a brief curtsy. She must have guessed who he is by now. “Might my brother speak for himself?”
Aric exchanges looks with Ruvan, and then shakes his head. “Not, uh, verbally. My people cut out his tongue.”
I snort at that, but he’s right to take responsibility too. He’s told me often enough that he’d have done the same as Jonac.
“Cut out his tongue?” Her voice is calm and even. “To stop him from speaking the words of power?”
“Right.” Aric squeezes my shoulder. “We didn’t know what he was capable of. And we didn’t trust him not to blast us with his sorcery. Not back then.”
“Now I’d trust him with my life. Or my brother’s.”
Itzel looks steadily at me. I shift in response, freeing myself from Aric’s arm. But then I take Aric’s hand and hook his middle finger with mine.
She understands at once. But she raises her eyebrows at Aric, as if to make sure that he does. “Xosha says you’re married. To each other.”
Aric lets out a surprised laugh. “Officially he’s my manservant. But unofficially—yes. He’s as close as I’ll get to a spouse, anyway.”
“We’re all aware of the bond between them,” Ruvan says smoothly. “And we don’t mean to hide it.”
Itzel doesn’t look impressed. “Yet he’s a servant.”
“The position of manservant to any member of the royal family is highly coveted, Mistress Itzel. There’s no shame in it—quite the contrary.” Ruvan cocks his head at her. “We’re all attached to Shocha. Deeply attached. And we’re happy to welcome his sister as a guest of our household. I hope you will accept the invitation?”
That takes her by surprise. I’m not sure what she hoped to accomplish here, but I can smell her re-evaluating the situation. At length she sinks back into her deep curtsy. “I would be honored, Highness.”
“Very good. Once my brother has had more time to rest and heal, we’ll be leaving for Fallpoint. You’ll have suitable quarters there, among my wife’s ladies in waiting. Until then, we’ll have a private room prepared for your use here.”
“Thank you.” She turns back to me. Or to Aric, rather. “Your Lordship, might I have a word with you and my brother?”
“Of course.” Aric grins over at Ruvan, and then at Jonac, Gael and the guards. “Get out. All of you.”
“Shoch, pull out the chair for your twin.” My master waits until she’s seated and then eases himself down on the edge of the bed. “You might as well call me Aric. You’re my sister-in-law.”
She smiles. A surprisingly warm smile—and a genuine one, I think. It’s the first one I’ve seen from her today. But it soon vanishes. “Are you the one who cut out my brother’s tongue?”
Aric’s not upset by the question. He just shakes his head. “No. That happened before I met him.”
“And how did you meet?”
I stand there, probably looking stupid and awkward. She’s addressing Aric, not me. Of course she is. I’m worthless as a sorcerer now. Besides, he would outrank me in any case.
“We shared a cell here.”
Her eyebrows shoot up. “You were also a prisoner?”
“Yes. Misunderstanding with my father.” Aric looks over at me. “Come here, pet. Sit down.”
Itzel doesn’t react to his nickname for me. And she doesn’t react as I take a seat beside him and put an arm around him. She’s too busy composing herself.
“Well, since you did him no harm, I wish you both every happiness. And I’m”—she pauses for a supposedly heartfelt sigh—”I’m very glad for the chance to see my brother again.”
“Right. And happy that he’s in a perfect position to spy on Tantzil’s royal family, like as not.” Aric gives her a knowing look. “Couldn’t have worked out better for you, really.”
My whole body stiffens as I look from one of them to the other. But neither of them seem upset. In fact, they’re both smiling now.
“Looking to have me arrested, Aric?”
He shakes his head again. “No, Itzel. I’m sure Ruvan will figure out exactly what game you’re playing. And, if you want to fix the barrier as badly as we do, I’m sure you two will reach an understanding.”
“Shocha told you about the barrier?”
“And you believed him?”
“Hell yes. We, ah, made the acquaintance of one of the wyverns who crossed it.”
Itzel’s eyebrows shoot up again. “But, without Shocha’s powers, how did you—”
“Your brother still has some tricks up his sleeve.”
That doesn’t satisfy her. Not that it matters; she’ll just pester me later. “Well, I’m glad for it.” She hesitates. “And I am happy for both of you. I wasn’t lying about that. If my brother can’t serve as a full sorcerer any longer—well, he should be happy for a few years.”
Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck.
“For a few years?” Aric crinkles his brow. “We are going to fix the barrier, Itzel. I intend to live a long life with Shoch.”
Her mouth drops open. She’s not acting now—even she couldn’t gape like that on command. As for me, I . . . I let my arm drop.
“Itzel?” Aric stares at her. Then he turns to me. “What’s going on?”
My sister-that-was collects herself enough to answer. “I’m sorry. I thought he must have told you.”
I stare into Aric’s eyes, trying to convey—what? Apology? Grief? Neither of those seem right.
“Told me what?” His voice catches.
Fuck. And fuck some more. I wanted to tell him him in my own good time. But maybe it’s better this way. Whatever happens, happens now.
“Sorcerers of Rokto-xar make many sacrifices to keep us all safe,” Itzel says. Her voice is catching too. “They never live as long as the rest of us. The demon they join with destroys them from inside.”
“How long?” Aric’s voice is shaking now and his eyes are boring into mine.
I shrug and hold up five fingers.
“Five years? At most?”
He doesn’t say anything. Not at first. He just sits there staring at me.
Itzel doesn’t say anything either—I think he’s forgotten that she’s there, and I think she doesn’t mind that.
I put my hand on his knee.
Aric stares down at it, and then covers it with his own. “We need to get that thing out of you.”