Aric stares at me. His eyes are narrow, his face is red and his jaw is set. I can smell the anger and determination emanating from him—as strong and fierce as burnt pepper.
He wants it done. Now. Unbind me from my wyvern—from this thing that’s killing me. Never mind that he won’t like what he’s left with, just so long as he gets to keep his pet by his side.
No, that’s not fair. He wants to protect me. Now and always. I suppose once he adopts a stray, he feels forever responsible for it.
“Listen to me, Shoch—”
His Highness strolls into the kitchen before he can finish. I’ve never been so grateful to see him.
We don’t bow, either of us. I suppose we really are past all that, at least when it’s just family. And it feels odd to think that I’m included in that family, but they both treat me as if I am.
Ruvan puts a gentle hand on Aric’s back and looks over the fresh bandages. Then he gives me a nod of approval. “Good work, Shocha.”
I open both my hands to him without mouthing the words. He understands regardless.
“You’re welcome.” He pulls up a stool and seats himself next to his brother. “Are you good to travel, Aric? I know I said we’d wait the week out, but I don’t like keeping away from Fallpoint that long. Especially not now.”
Aric gives me a look—a look that says we’re not finished—and then answers the question. “I agree. We’re bringing Itzel, right?”
Ruvan snorts and glances at me again. “Oh yes. Shocha’s, ah, sister-that-was has a lot to say about everything. Especially concerning the barrier.”
What would Itzel know about the barrier, beyond the fact that it’s failing? She’s not a priest or a sorcerer.
“Do you trust her?” Aric winks at me. “I’m not sure Shoch does.”
“I trust that she wants to repair the barrier as badly as we do.” There’s a spark of admiration in Ruvan’s eyes. “She risked her life, coming forward the way she did. She must have known she was exposing herself as a spy.”
It’s Aric’s turn to snort. “You know better than that, Ruv. She’s not a spy. She’s a sutler who happens to be passing herself off as a Tantzi to avoid prejudice. And she follows the Sages to boot.”
His Highness grins. “She actually knows her stuff when it comes to the Sages.”
“I suppose they train their spies well in Rokofar. What about Jonac? Is he staying behind?”
Jonac? I stiffen at his name, but Aric doesn’t notice.
“Yes. Don’t worry, Aric. I’ll reward him for all his service here.”
“Reward him how?”
Fuck. Aric cares that Jonac gets his proper reward? It sounds as if he and Ruvan have discussed this before.
“I’ll badger Father into giving him a title and a position of importance in the capital. For now, though, he’s going to organize his men and start excavating around the Tower.”
“For more of those ancient jars—like the one that contained all those parchments about the sacrifices.”
All the material that some priests once buried to hide from the Sages. How had Aric forgotten?
“Oh, right.” He looks embarrassed. “And we need to tear this tower down—that old temple is right beneath us.”
“Yes, but that has to wait.” Ruvan knits his brows together. “I’ll have to handle Father just right. Meanwhile, though, I have a list of all the prisoners here. We’ll see who we can reasonably pardon and who we can send elsewhere.”
“Good.” Aric nods at me. “I hope you like research, pet. I’m planning to install you in the Marsic Archives—that’s an enormous library that ought to have something about the temple here.”
I grunt at him, offended.
“You already know what the Marsic Archives are?” He smiles at me. There’s a genuine apology in it, I think. “Sorry, Shoch.”
“Nice to know our chief library’s fame extends to Rokofar.” Ruvan elbows his brother. “So we leave tomorrow?”
“Yes. I can ride.”
“Are you sure? I can arrange for a litter . . . .”
Aric punches him on the arm. “Not if you want to live long enough to reach Fallpoint, you won’t.”
Ruvan pretends to look disappointed—though I’m sure he would have relished the chance to see his big brother borne in a litter. “Very well. But I’m pulling rank on you and sending you to bed early. It’s not an easy journey down the mountain. You should rest up.”
“Fuck off, Your Highness.”
“I’m not joking about this.”
Aric stares at him.
Ruvan stares right back.
Aric looks away first. Then he rolls his eyes, to make it clear that he won’t accept this with good grace. “Fine. Come on Shoch. Let’s get to bed.”
I make sure my master’s well-fed and comfortable—no easy task, since Aric grumbles the whole time about being sent to sleep early—but I don’t climb into bed beside him. Not yet.
Aric glares at me. “Don’t think you’re staying up, pet. If I have to suffer, so do you.”
He’s not suffering. His brother is right: he needs the rest. But I don’t, so I sit down on the edge of the bed, facing him. Then I point to the desk.
Aric follows my finger. “The desk? What about it?”
I make a scribbling motion with my hand.
“You want to write something? What? A letter?”
I nod. There’s still ink and paper there, and no one said I couldn’t use it.
I point at him.
I nod again.
He bites his lip, looking me over. “All right. You must have a lot you want to say—and I guess that’s easier than miming it. But I have a condition.”
A condition? I cock my head at him.
He reaches up to tousle my hair. “Say whatever you want to say to me in this letter. But then tell me everything you know about the ritual. The one that can separate you from the wyvern.”
No. I start shaking my head—
“This isn’t up for debate, Shoch. I outrank you, just like Ruvan outranks me. I obey my brother, you obey me—that’s how this works.”
It’s my turn to roll my eyes. I don’t need a lecture on the hierarchical structure of this family; I understand it perfectly.
“You going to do as I ask, pet?”
I stare at him.
He stares back.
Fuck. He’s right—I do owe him my obedience. So I sigh and nod.
He tousles my hair again. “Good. Leave a lamp burning or as many candles as you need—they won’t keep me up.”
Right. The sun is setting now—the last rays are pouring through the windows, bathing everything in a pinkish-orange light that seems to turn the stone floor into a burnished copper. But it will grow dark enough soon.
“And when you come to bed, come to my good side.”
Why? I mouth the question.
Aric blushes. Just a little, but he does. “Because I want to hold you tonight, all right?”
I keep quiet. I’m not sure what to say or mime.
He lets out a long, uneven sigh. “Look, you’re not skittish about being close to me anymore. And you must trust me by now. You have to know that I won’t force you into anything. I won’t try anything either.”
By now? I should remind him that we’ve only known each other for a week, if that. But I don’t. After all we’ve been through, it feels like longer.
And I do trust him. So I put my hand on his cheek. His skin is cool to my touch. It always is; he has no wyvern inside him to heat him up. I take a moment to savor that coolness—and to savor the warmth in his eyes. And then I nod.
He turns his head so that he can plant a kiss on my palm. Then he looks me in the eye again. “Thank you, Shoch. Now go write your letter.”