Ruvan greets his wife with a kiss on the mouth. He hardly needs to bend down; she’s almost as tall as he is. Her hair is shorter than his, though. Short and severe. There’s just enough of it to cover her head and frame her face.
I’ve never seen a Tantzi woman with hair cropped like that. And she is Tantzi, or pale enough and blond enough to pass for one.
When they break apart, Her Highness turns to me. She doesn’t say anything. She studies me instead with a cautious, curious look. I’m tempted to squirm. She seems to think I really am a potentially dangerous stray.
Aric would grin if he were here, and tease me about that look. And then he’d tell her not to worry, that I’m at least half-tamed.
I force myself to meet her gaze. She can’t harm me. I have her husband’s protection, and he’s the crown prince. He outranks her. Besides, I don’t know if she means me any harm. She looks undecided.
“Anvis, this is Shocha, Aric’s servant and spouse.”
Bow. I’m supposed to bow. I pull off a clumsy one.
She favors me with a thin smile as I rise. “Our new friend from Rokofar. Or brother-in-law, I should say.”
I nod and try to catch her scent, without any obvious sniffing. A trace of lemongrass clings to her—that’s some sort of perfume, I suppose. There’s no fear emanating from her, though. She doesn’t have the bone-weariness of living in fear day in and day out, like Ruvan’s mother and step-mother do.
“You look much like your sister,” she continues. “Apart from your eyes, of course.”
Right. She received Itzel into her household. I almost forgot.
“Shocha, this is Renic.” Ruvan nods at the man who came in with Her Highness. I hadn’t much noticed him. Like Gael, he seems to have mastered the trick of deflecting attention from himself.
He offers me a friendly enough smile. He must be from one of the foreign lands to the west, overseas—his straight black hair and narrow eyes give that away. But he’s dressed in the Tantzi style.
“His Highness has told me a lot about you, Shocha.” He holds out his hand; if he’s wary of my red eyes, he’s not showing it. “Good things.”
I take his hand and shake it, trying to look him over without being obvious about it. We’re about the same age. And his frame is as thin as mine, though I envy his wiry muscles. But I’m taller than he is. I have an inch or two on him, at least.
“Let’s sit down,” Ruvan says. He takes hold of a chair and brings it near the fireplace. The rest of us follow suit, until we’re all sitting in a semi-circle. Gael gets up to inspect the door, making sure it’s shut tight. Then he checks the shutters on the windows before joining us.
“My father is meeting with Lord Gavric, who will be serving as judge for the priests.” Ruvan eyes each of us in turn. “When I spoke with him this morning—my father, I mean—he had no intention of backing down. He wants to bring the full weight of the law down on them.”
Anvis blinks. “Not just on Feovan?”
“No. He thinks they’re all equally guilty of plotting to restore the priesthood to its former grandeur.”
“We’re back to the same question, Highness,” Renic shifts so that he’s resting the ankle of one leg on the knee of the other. “Your father never liked priests, but he never hated them with this sort of ferocity before. As for Feovan—even he can’t be fool enough to think that he can make the priesthood a rival to the throne.”
Ruvan snorts. “Feovan wouldn’t say no to power like that. But he wouldn’t commit treason for it either. Or sedition.”
Anvis folds her hands on her lap. “I still think this has something to do with Crevlock Tower—with that demon you fought there. Your father is reacting to that.”
“No.” Ruvan shakes his head at her. “He arrested Aric before we knew there was any demon—any wyvern, I mean—near Crevlock. And that was an obvious move against the priesthood.”
She taps her fingers on her knee. “But arresting Aric—I know you think that was out of character for him. But I disagree. Your father has a long habit of reminding all of us, one way or another, that we’re at his mercy.”
Ruvan opens his mouth—but his jaw just hangs there. He doesn’t say a word.
I close my eyes, trying to work through this. In Rokto-xar priests hold all the power. No one would dare challenge that. Only sorcerers rival them in importance, and we can’t do our work without them. We need our priests and their sacrifices.
It was never that way for the Tantzi, but their priests once held as much power as their king. There must have been blood spilt over that—how could that arrangement lead to anything but an endless tug of war?
But this was back before the Sages. And the Sages didn’t arise until after the barrier. Before that—fuck, it’s hard to imagine the time before the barrier. Demons were loose. And everyone must have known that, from commoner to king.
“Shocha, are you paying attention?”
I open my eyes. Ruvan, Anvis, Gael and Renic are all staring at me, but I’m only half seeing them. My brain is too close to the answer.
“Shocha?” That’s Gael this time. He sounds worried.
I grab hold of Ruvan’s arm.
“Don’t worry.” Ruvan’s voice is soothing. “He just wants to tell me something. What is it, Shoch?”
That’s the first time he’s called me by my nickname. But that doesn’t matter. I take his palm and start tracing my letters into it.
“What’s he asking?” Renic sounds curious, nothing more.
Ruvan is focusing on my words. “What happens when the barrier fails?” He raises his eyebrows at me. “You can answer that better than I can. But we’re all in for a world of pain. And countless deaths.”
No! That’s not what I meant. I shake my head and try again.
He frowns. “Politically? What happens politically if the barrier fails?”
“We’ll be back to a basic question of survival,” Anvis says slowly. “The Sages—people might abandon their teachings.”
“We’d become like Rokofar,” Gael adds. “Shocha says that their priests sacrifice humans so that their sorcerers—sorcerers like him—can banish the demons.”
“Would we?” Renic looks skeptical. “I only just learned about these demons—or wyverns or whatever they are—and this barrier. But our Sages spoke out against human sacrifice over and over. They made it clear that death was better. Would we really abandon that?”
Ruvan’s face goes white. “My father wants to make sure we don’t.”
Everyone stares at him.
“That explains his attack on the priesthood. That’s why he insisted on that suicidal war against Rokofar.”
“No.” Anvis is shaking her head. “The timing is wrong. None of us knew about this barrier until you, Aric and Shocha returned from Crevlock Tower. The war against Rokofar was years before that. And as for this attack on the priesthood—you haven’t even told your father the whole story of Crevlock yet.”
Ruvan and I exchange glances.
“We didn’t know about the barrier—none of us sitting here, I mean, apart from Shocha.” Ruvan is speaking slowly, as if he’s still puzzling this out. “But some Bonshev did. Aric told me that Jonac knew about it, because he fought against Rokofar.”
Anvis looks at me and then back at her husband. “Jonac who?”
“Sorry, the commander of Crevlock Tower.” Ruvan creases his bow. “I don’t know if he believed the barrier was real, but he had at least heard of it.”
Gael swallows. “So your father must have had reports of it.”
“Yes. From at least the time of our war against Rokofar. Maybe earlier, for all we know. And I think he took those reports seriously.” He pauses, as if he’s making up his mind about something. Then he stands up, pulling me to my feet with him.
I stare up at him, confused.
There’s an apology in his eyes now. “We need to speak with my father, Shocha. Both of us.”