“Shoch?” Aric jostles me. “Wake up, pet.”
My eyes shoot open. I don’t remember drifting off.
Aric is climbing out of bed now. “Just a moment!”
Apparently I slept right through someone knocking at the door. What’s the matter with me? Since when is Aric more alert than I am?
Not that it matters. It won’t take us long to get ready; we fell asleep in our tunics and hosen. We might be a bit rumpled, but we’re only missing our shoes—damn, where’d they get off to? I climb out after Aric and start searching for both pairs.
“Yours are over by the desk,” Aric tells me, guessing what I’m after. “Mine are—there they are. Under the bed.”
A minute later we’re both properly shod. Aric’s not satisfied, though. He crooks a finger at me. “Come here, sweetheart. Let’s make sure we both look decent.”
Sweetheart? That’s a new one. How many endearments is he planning to subject me to?
He told me earlier that he considers me half-feral. Now I’m his sweetheart? Fuck. I want to show him my displeasure, but it would take too long to spell and mime all that out.
I suppose he sees how frustrated I am, because he walks over to me and puts his hands on my shoulders. Both hands; he’s starting to get his range of motion back with his bad arm.
“Don’t worry,” he says. “We’ll work out more mimes between us so you can get your words out faster.”
It’s a good promise. He’ll live up to it, providing his father doesn’t arrest him again first. So I smile at him and smooth out his tunic. He does the same for me. Then I see to his hair—short as it is, he still managed to muss it.
He winks at me when I’m done. “Thanks, sweetheart.”
Bastard. But I can’t help grinning back at him.
He lets his arms fall to his side as he turns around. “Come in.”
A guard opens the door and two women promenade inside. They’re both true Tantzis, with the fair hair and skin to prove it. They’re both in their fifties, I’d wager, and both dressed richly but soberly. And they both have the same stately look to them—so stately that at first I can’t tell which is the queen and which is the royal mistress.
But once I peer at their faces, I can see which gave birth to Aric. It’s the one with the softer, gentler look to her. She has as sweet a nature as her son, like as not. The same sort of sweet nature that made Aric think it was a good idea to protect a Tainted sorcerer and adopt him for a pet.
The other is taller and her eyes are . . . stricter. I think that’s the right word. Stricter and more inquisitive. Yes, she must have given birth to Ruvan. I can’t seem to catch her scent, though. Or, I do, but there’s something off about it. There’s something off about both their scents.
“Bow, Shoch,” Aric whispers from the corner of his mouth. “And stop staring.”
He’s already bowing, I realize. I feel my face heat up as I follow suit.
Aric takes my hand as he rises, making sure I straighten up at the same time. “Shoch, this is Her Majesty, my step-mother. And this is Her Ladyship, my mother.”
I was right about which one was which. But Ladyship? I never heard that Aric’s mother was noble-born, so she must have picked up an honorary title at some point.
“Mama, Mother, this is Shocha.” He tightens his grip on my hand. “He’s a sorcerer of Rokofar, but he’s chosen to remain with me as my servant and spouse.”
Interesting. He calls his birth mother “Mama” and his step-mother “Mother.” It seems both women had a hand in raising him. Meanwhile, neither is betraying any surprise at the introduction. Ruvan must have warned them ahead of time.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Shocha,” Her Ladyship says. She sounds sincere. She even manages not to stare at my red eyes.
“Indeed,” Her Majesty says. She uses a neutral tone that leaves the word open to interpretation. And she’s not bothering to hide the cool, appraising look she’s giving me. Still, it’s an even look. Not one that shows her disapproval of a Tainted.
I turn back to Aric and motion toward the chairs.
He nods. “Good idea, pet. Ah, shall we all sit by the fireplace?”
“We’ll take you up on that, love, but Ruvan will be here in a moment for Shocha,” Her Ladyship nods at me. “He’ll take you to his chambers, where his tailor is waiting for you.”
“Yes,” Her Majesty agrees. “You’ll need a proper livery.”
“No, Shocha’s not leaving my sight.” Aric says that with a good-natured smile, as if he’s just a love-sick newly-wed rather than a suspicious master. “Ruvan can bring the tailor here.”
“Nonsense,” Her Majesty says. “The man should be just finishing with Ruvan as we speak; he’s all set up in there.”
I know the mothers just want to get rid of me so they can speak with Aric in private, but I can’t help casting him a look of triumph. So much for that leash.
He gives me an exasperated look in return, silently warning me to behave.
I glance back at the mothers. I don’t think that exchange was lost on either of them. And I still don’t know their names, I realize. Not that it matters. Even if I could speak, I’d only be calling them Your Majesty and Your Ladyship.
That scent on them is far more important. I wish I could ask Aric about it, but I don’t mean their perfume or the like. No, this is something only a sorcerer could pick up. It’s a strong emotion, but not an immediate one. They don’t smell as if they’re overjoyed to see Aric and they don’t smell as if they’re afraid to be in the same room with a red-eyed Tainted.
But why? Why aren’t they over-joyed to see Aric? This meeting might be awkward because of my presence, but why don’t they seem relieved that he’s here and unharmed? He was off at the wars and then locked up in Crevlock Tower. Weren’t they worried for him?
And perhaps Ruvan told them that he approves of me, and that he approves of my relationship with Aric—but, still, shouldn’t they be terrified of a sorcerer? Even one who can’t speak any words of power?
Ruvan chooses that moment to walk in the door. Both women turn to him, but neither with a smile. No, they’re anxious instead. Oh, they look calm and collected, but that’s just an act.
And suddenly I understand that scent—it’s not an immediate fear of sorcery, no. It’s a dull, steady fear, and I don’t think it has anything to do with magic or Rokto-xar. It’s the kind of fear that some people live with day in and day out, as if they’re waiting for an ax to fall.
Ruvan’s mother glances at her son and then back at me. For just an instant, our eyes lock. Then she’s pasting a smile on and saying something or other to Aric.
But that instant was enough; that dull fear is specific in its concerns. This woman is quietly terrified for both her sons.