Shoch kneels before I do; he must have figured out who was standing at the door. Small wonder. My father cuts an imposing figure, especially with two royal guards in full livery flanking him.
He’s not wearing his crown, of course. No impressive robes of state, either. No, he’s dressed in a stark black tunic. No fancy embroidery or gems. Like a proper Bonshev, he’s keeping to plain, simple clothes.
That black sets off his pale, freckled skin and graying blond hair. I’m probably looking at a mirror image of myself in twenty years—I take after him more than Ruvan does. At least in looks.
He’s narrowing his eyes at me. Oh, right. I pull myself together and drop down to one knee.
I don’t hear him step inside, but a moment later his boots are in front of me. Then I feel his hand on my good shoulder. It’s a warm, comforting grip—not an angry one.
Judging by that grip, I have permission to rise. I stand up just in time for him to wrap his arms around me. It’s a gentler embrace than usual, in deference to my bandages.
“I’m glad you’re home, Aric.” He releases me and steps back to look me over. “And you’re looking well, despite the injuries.”
“They’ll heal up shortly, I hope.” I hesitate. “Uh, how much did Ruvan tell you?”
“Enough to make me want to hear this tale from your mouth.” He snorts. “And meet this Tainted companion of yours.”
“Oh, right.” I turn to Shoch. “It’s all right, pet. Stand up and greet my father.”
He’s awkward straightening up—I still need to teach him some courtly grace. For now, though, I just take his hand in mine. “Father, this is Shocha—a sorcerer of Rokofar.” I glance toward the fireplace, where Itzel is somehow holding a deep curtsy. “Oh, and this is his twin sister, Itzel. Shoch, Itzel, this is my father, King Petroc.”
“Your Majesty.” She rises to her feet.
My father studies Itzel first. “You have no taint.”
She doesn’t flinch. Far from it—her blue eyes are sparkling. “No, Majesty. I’m a mere merchant, not a sorcerer.”
“I see.” He turns to Gael. “Escort Miss Itzel of Rokofar to the princess’s chambers, please. My son and daughter-in-law are waiting to greet her there.”
Gael bows. Itzel looks to me. There’s concern in her eyes. Genuine concern for her brother, I think.
I give her a reassuring look. My father won’t do anything to Shoch. Does she think I’d have brought him here if there were any danger of that?
Itzel seems to accept my judgment. She has no choice—not really. So she performs a smaller curtsy this time and then follows Gael out the door.
My father, meanwhile, has turned his attention to Shoch. And he’s not hiding his curiosity or distaste. “Red eyes but no tongue?”
Shoch swallows, glances at me, and then turns back to my father. Then he manages a nod.
“Jonac cut his tongue out,” I explain. “He wanted to make sure that Shoch couldn’t speak any words of power.”
My father rubs his chin. “Ruvan says he’s bound to a demon, not spawned by one? And that he can still command this demon with a specific ritual?”
Damn my little brother. I wish he had waited to let me explain that part. But it’s not his fault, I’ll wager. Father probably cornered him.
“Sorry, sir.” I pull Shoch a little closer to me. “Yes. It’s not that his people breed with demons—we were wrong about that. But their sorcerers . . . I don’t know how it works, exactly. Somehow they bind themselves and a demon together. And they use the words of power to control that demon, I think.”
“Yet Shocha was still able to command his demon? Even without his tongue?”
“Right. He went through that ritual with Jonac. It allowed him to—I’m not sure how to describe it. He sort of spoke through Jonac, I guess.” I look my father in the eye. I want this to be absolutely clear. “It’s a good thing he did, because Shoch was able to banish the renegade wyvern.”
“Wyvern?” My father raises an eyebrow.
“Uh, demon, that is.” No, I’d better tell him the truth right now. “No, demon’s the wrong term, sir. They’re wyverns. Actual wyverns. Predatory and dangerous as hell, but not demonic. At least, they’re not like the demons we used to imagine. Anyway, we wouldn’t have been able to banish the creature without Shoch.”
He grunts. “Yes, Ruvan will vouch for his heroics. And yours—but we’ll come to that later. Tomorrow, most likely.” He pauses to look Shoch over again. “And what is this Tainted to you, Aric?”
I tighten my grip on Shoch’s hand. “He’s my servant. And my . . . my spouse.”
There’s no shock on my father’s face. Ruvan gave him some warning, then. Ruv probably told him that the Tainted are safe to touch as well, because my father doesn’t seem worried about Shoch’s skin against mine.
The fact that he’s not shocked—that’s an advantage, I think. I was right: My father doesn’t mind me settling with a Tainted. Well, not a Tainted that Ruvan has vouched for, at any rate. And that makes sense. No Bonshev woman will want to lay a hand on me now, so it’s even less likely that I’ll father a child of my own. And as long as I’m childless, Ruv’s little girl is secure in the line of succession.
My father is studying both of us now, but at length he nods at me. “You’re tired from your journey, I imagine.”
“That’s an understatement, sir.”
He smiles. “I understand that Shocha has taken good care of your wounds, so I’ll leave you to his ministrations.”
I squeeze Shocha’s hand. “Thank you.”
“Your mother and step mother are anxious to see you, but that can keep until you’re rested. You are not, however, to leave this room—except under guard.”
Fuck. “Am I still under arrest, then?”
“You’re in Ruvan’s custody now, and he’s placed you under house arrest. We’ll discuss the matter further come morning.”
“Yes, sir.” That’s more or less what I expected, so no point in complaining. I should just keep my mouth shut. I should just follow Ruvan’s advice and let him handle this.
But that’s not what I do. No, I’m too stupid to keep quiet. “Father, I couldn’t leave those men unburied, even if they were deserters—”
The word is cold and final. And suddenly his eyes are hard. Fuck me, but he’s still angry about this. Why? How can my father, as an exemplar among the Bonshev, demand a priest to leave the dead—any dead—to beasts and scavengers?
“We’ll discuss this further tomorrow. I suggest, for now, that you rest.”
My face is hot now. I can feel it. But he’s right—it’s time to shut up. “Yes, sir.”
“Good night, Aric.” He pauses, looking Shoch over one last time. “Good night, Shocha.”
I kneel again in response, tugging Shoch down with me. He has enough sense to follow my lead and keep his eyes on the floor as my father leaves the room.
One of the guards remains—he gives me an awkward nod of apology as we stand back up again. “I’ll be right outside the door, sir.”
He doesn’t expect us to cause any trouble, then. I suppose I should be grateful for that. “Thank you.”
I wait till he leaves and then collapse down on the bed. Shoch stays standing, staring down at me.
“That could have been worse.” I’m talking to the ceiling as much as to Shoch, but he grunts regardless. “My father must like you well enough—and Ruvan must have sung your praises. That’s why he trusts you alone with me. And that’s something.”
Shoch just lets out another ugly grunt. I think he’s chiding me for annoying my father. And he has a point.
I push myself up a little. “My father will calm down. Don’t worry.”
He snorts this time.
“He will. Ruvan will talk to him. But never mind that.” I nod over to my satchel—I left it on the floor. “Your letter’s in there, pet. Fetch it for me. Now that we’ve got a moment to breathe, I’d like to see what you have to say.”