“Don’t worry, Shocha. I don’t think my father means you any harm.” Ruvan’s voice is soft, almost drowned out by our footfall.
I’ve been keeping my eyes trained on the tiles of this endless hallway, but I look up at that. Then I grunt, shake my head and trace a letter into the air—the first letter of Aric’s name.
“You’re worried about Aric, not yourself?” He smiles a little. “Someday you’ll have to tell me exactly what my brother did to earn your devotion. Not that I’m complaining, mind.”
That day will never come, because I have no way of explaining it. No, that’s not true. Given enough time with a quill or enough time to trace my letters, I could tell Ruvan how Aric clasped hands with a ‘Tainted’ when the rest of his people wanted gloves on before they tortured me. How he cast himself as my provider and defender, simply, I suppose, because he wanted a pet.
But there’s no way of explaining the warmth of his smile, or that light in his eyes that’s caring and condescending at the same time.
I don’t grudge Aric that condescension—he’s earned it. I’m not angry that he insists on my obedience. Both our respective countries prepared us to serve or be served, depending on the circumstances. It’s only natural that Aric regard Ruvan as his superior and me as his inferior.
But how did he regard Jonac? That question worms its way into my brain, twisting and burrowing. I don’t mean while they were at Crevlock. I mean when they served together in one of the legions. My stomach tightens as I try to imagine it. Did they see each other as equals? Did they laugh together as friends?
Ruvan interrupts my thoughts. “I need to make a point about you to my father. A point that should work in Aric’s favor—yours too, I think. Just . . . don’t take it as an insult.”
I give him a questioning glance, but he’s not looking at me. There’s noise coming from up ahead, just around a bend. The noise of too many people talking and laughing at once. And the smell—it’s overwhelming and almost nauseating, even from this distance. Too much perfume by half.
Fuck, as Aric would say. Outside of a temple, I never dealt with crowds in Rokto-xar. No sorcerer does. Our senses are too keen. I’ll pay later for this crowd, like as not. My head will pound from the cacophony of voices and my stomach will roil from all the competing smells.
Ruvan doesn’t seem to notice anything wrong. I doubt Gael does either. He’s right behind us, unobtrusive once again in Ruvan’s shadow.
As we turn the corner, the hallway widens into some sort of reception chamber. It’s as crowded as I expected, with a host of guards and courtiers and minstrels and servants and pages. Unlike the royal family, these nobles and their sychophants seem to ignore the Sages’s preference for somber clothes. It’s more like a festival in Rokto-xar, with bright colors as far as the eye can see. But more dazzling than Rokto-xar, because there are fancier patterns—stripes and checks adorn hose and shirts and shifts and cottes.
Gael nudges me from behind. Right. That’s a reminder to keep my eyes down. We don’t want anyone noticing the red of them.
We’re successful, I think. The crowd parts for Ruvan, and he’s the obvious center of attention. I fall into step behind him, next to Gael. With my eyes on the floor, I can see how much more stylized even the tiling is here: the whole floor is a vast mosaic, though I’m not certain what it represents. I would have to see the chamber empty to find out.
Ruvan slows as people perform their bows and curtsies. He stops to talk to this one, to smile at that one, to take the hand of this other. He has a kind word for one of the youngest pages and a compliment for one of the minstrels. I stay silent with my head bowed through all of it. I almost wish I had my livery already—I would look more like I belonged here. Though I suppose the crowd assumes I’m a servant regardless. And except for my eyes, I can pass for Tantzi.
I breathe in deep as Ruvan pauses yet again. People are all around us, keeping the bare minimum of polite distance. I swallow and force myself to ignore the sweat forming on my neck and palms.
The wyvern in me is waking up. I’ve kept it calm of late, even without my voice. I can manage well enough in solitude, and something about Aric seems to soothe the beast. And the quieter this beast is, the better. Less pain for me.
But it’s aware now. Aware and confused by all the color and smells and sounds. I close my eyes. Please, Highness, I need you to move along.
There’s a hand on my back. I know the feel of it, the weight of it, so I don’t panic. It’s just Gael. I open my eyes and risk a glance at him.
“What’s wrong?” he whispers.
After two or three deep, slow breaths, I point to myself. Then I put my finger over my lips.
I shake my head.
“Oh, you need quiet?”
I nod. Quiet would be good. Aric would be even better—but he’s still a prisoner in his own chambers.
Gael keeps one hand on my back and, I think, taps His Highness with the other. I can’t tell for sure, because my eyes are trained on the floor again.
“Highness,” Gael whispers. “Shall we?”
He glances back at the two of us—I don’t see it, but I can feel his eyes.
“Yes,” he answers. Then he excuses himself to the people and starts moving again. I can’t see where we’re going and I don’t care, as long as it’s away from all this.
Someone opens a door for us—guards, I’m sure. Then we’re over the threshold and in another chamber, smaller than the one before but still large enough to hold dozens of people. And there are dozens here. A smaller crowd, but just as disorienting.
Ruvan keeps moving, even as everyone bows or curtsies. One foot in front of the other, I tell myself. Keep breathing—yes, that’s it—and then another door opens.
It leads to a smaller chamber this time. Fuck, it’s the king’s chamber. It must be, because as soon as the door shuts behind us, Ruvan and Gael sink to one knee. I do the same, still breathing deep.
“What’s wrong with Aric’s pet?”
That’s His Majesty’s voice. I don’t look up at him. No, I hold still, keeping to one knee, hoping he’ll mistake this as an act of respect rather than a bid for time. I need the extra seconds to regain some sense of equilibrium, to lull the wyvern back into a half-slumber, at least.
Ruvan puts a hand on my shoulder—he must have stood up again. “I don’t think he’s used to the crowds here. Give him a moment.”
“Stand up, Shocha.”
I do my best to obey His Majesty. I climb to my feet, still awkward. I have none of the practiced grace of Aric or Ruvan or even Gael.
His Majesty is close. Fuck, he’s moving closer, crowding me.
“Father, I think he needs air. Why don’t we take a step back—”
But the king’s not listening. I don’t meet his eyes—I don’t need to. He’s testing me. He’s testing the wyvern inside me. Doesn’t he understand that it’s trained to my voice? That without my tongue, I have little chance of controlling it?
My breaths are short now. My sight—it’s blurred. The wyvern is wide awake and panicking and I know what’s coming. It’s going to throw me on the floor and thrash inside me until it wears itself out or someone calms it.
And His Majesty wants to see it all first hand.