I hate sleeping on my back. Not that I mind Shoch pressed against me like this. He turned over in his sleep, so now his back is leaning against my side. And that’s perfect. I want to roll over and spoon him to me, but these fucking bandages of mine are in the way.
Málaf. Back to sleep—that’s the answer. The bandages will come off soon enough, so just ignore the discomfort. I keep my eyes shut and start counting every breath. Breathe in, one. Breathe out, two.
A familiar scent tugs at my nostrils, screwing with my count. It’s like holy wood, but not so mawkish or cloying.
My eyes shoot open. I turn my head toward the fireplace—that’s where the scent is coming from.
It’s not as dark as I expect, even though the lantern has long since burned out and the fire—well, the fire should be nothing but dead coals. Instead it’s bright and lively. And Shoch is standing near it with his back to me, warming his hands over it.
No. Shoch is at my side. I can feel the weight of his head against my arm. I can feel the the heat of his body; his skin is always warmer than mine or anyone else’s, thanks to that wyvern of his. I turn my head the other way just to make sure I’m not imagining things. Yes. He’s here.
So that’s not Shoch by the fireplace.
I pull my good arm out from under Shoch’s head, gentle as I can. He doesn’t wake up. He just grunts in his sleep and curls himself into a ball, as if he were a cat. I tousle his hair and then climb out of bed.
The wooden floor is smooth to the touch of my bare feet. There’s no rug right by my bed, because the oakwood is such a luxury. It must have been imported from far up north. Or maybe it’s even from overseas. Either way, it’s firm and dry and there’s not a hint of rotting. I keep my mind on that wood as I move forward, because I’m almost afraid to think of the figure up ahead of me.
Something stops me. No, not stops me. It’s more like something is physically pulling me back toward the bed, as if there’s a rope tied around my waist. I pause and glance over my shoulder.
I’m lying on the bed. I can see myself on it. And I can see Shoch still curled up on the other side of me, his back to me.
Fuck, fuck, fuck. How am I lying on the bed but standing here at the same time?
“It’s all right, pet.”
I turn toward that voice. Why not? It’s familiar now. Familiar and . . . and strangely comforting.
Veshnic is facing me now, looking exactly like Shoch in one way and not at all like him in another. He stands straighter than Shoch does and his body, even though it’s thin, has more muscle to it. He’s a little more filled out too. And his eyes aren’t a fiery red. No, they’re still that startling, unearthly blue. Shoch’s real eyes—they were blue before he joined with that wyvern—must have been a pale reflection of Veshnic’s.
I don’t feel like I’m tethered to the bed. Not anymore. So I walk up to him—Veshnic, I mean—and drop to one knee. Then I take his hand and kiss it. His skin is still burning hot, but it doesn’t burn my lips or fingers at all.
He reclaims his hand and crouches down so we’re at eye level.
I don’t look up at him. Not yet. “I’ve been trying to pray to you, my Lord.”
“I’ve been trying, but I don’t have the words. I know you said it was easy. I know you gave me all these options, but—”
He smiles—a gentle, half-amused smile. I can’t see that smile, because I’m still staring at the floor, but I can sense it. “Talk to me now.”
I sit cross-legged too, but I still don’t meet his eyes. I don’t look up at all. I just sit there, feeling the heat from the fire on my face, watching the occasional spark flare up and die as it comes into my view.
“Aric?” he prompts.
“All right.” I breathe in deep. He did say that petitions were one kind of prayer. I hope he meant it. “I want you to help Shoch and me with this ritual. The one to separate him from his wyvern.”
Veshnic doesn’t say anything. Does that mean he approves? I finally look up at him, but I can’t read his expression. There’s compassion in his eyes, but not a yes or a no.
Fuck. I don’t know what to do, so I just keep going. “Look, I know I should be asking about the barrier. And I will—I want to pray to you about that too. And about the four priests my father arrested. Ruvan told me to let him handle them, but . . . that doesn’t matter right now. All I can think about is Shoch.”
He doesn’t chide me for that. He doesn’t speak at all.
“Shoch is going to die if we leave that creature inside him. He says he’s got five years, at most. He could—I mean, something could go wrong tomorrow, couldn’t it?”
Still nothing from Veshnic.
“We need to find another sorcerer to perform this ritual. Help us with that. And spare Shoch from—from everything that can go wrong.”
More silence. A weird kind of silence, because Veshnic is so . . . present. But there’s nothing comforting about it. Not right now.
“Look, my Lord, I don’t want Shoch to get hurt in this. I don’t want him to die from a botched ritual. I don’t want him to commit suicide when everything’s done and his wyvern is gone. I don’t want his brain to be damaged. I don’t want him to feel dead inside.”
Still more silence.
I roll my eyes. “Málaf. Will you say something?”
He cocks his head at me. “Do you remember the three things I asked of you?”
“Yes.” I count them off on my fingers. “Pray to you. I know I’ve failed on that, but I’ve been trying.”
“That’s all right, pet. Keep going.”
“Um, repent when I’m in the wrong. And do the right thing, but leave the results to you.” I swallow. “My Lord, freeing Shoch from that demon—from that wyvern, I mean—is the right thing.”
He gives me a thin smile this time. “Does Shocha agree?”
Fuck me. Of course he would ask that. “No. But he doesn’t get a say in this. I’m his master—that’s by his choice as much as mine.”
“Yes, I’m aware of that.” He narrows his eyes at me, but he doesn’t look angry. He looks thoughtful.
I start fidgeting and twisting my hands together. “Well?”
“Will you help us with this ritual? Will you protect Shoch?”
“He’s always under my protection, Aric.”
I snort. “I don’t mean in some cosmic, I’m-always-with-you way. And you know that, my Lord.”
Veshnic’s not impressed. “And you know my answer. If you think that separating Shocha from his wyvern is the right thing to do—and if you can accomplish that without wronging anyone—then you should help him go through with it. But leave the results in my hands.”
Without wronging anyone. Fuck. I’ve been so worried about Shoch that I forgot about that part. “Um, the way Shoch described the ritual—he said the point of the other sorcerer is to banish the wyvern once it’s freed.”
“Right. So, um, to hold the wyvern in place long enough to banish it—we need human blood. That’s why there’s always a priest at this ritual. To perform the sacrifice.” Like I did, when I offered myself to Veshnic.
“I thought you swore off sacrifices.”
“I have.” I glare at him. I don’t know why he doesn’t smite me for that, but he still seems more amused than angry. “You said you wouldn’t ask for them.”
He keeps quiet, waiting for me to continue.
“So I need you to show me how to keep the wyvern’s attention without human blood.” Damn it, that sounded like a command. “I’m not trying to give you an order, my Lord. I’m—I’m begging here.”
Those startling, alien blue eyes of his bore into me, probing me. But then he seems to reach a decision. In one fluid, graceful movement he pushes himself to his feet. Then he holds out a hand to me. “It might help if you understood more about the making of a sorcerer. So time for a journey, I think.”
I take his hand and let him pull me up. “To where?”
He gives me a grim sort of smile this time. “To Rokto-xar.”