I’m sitting cross-legged on the floor. I’ve got Shoch’s head cradled in my lap. He seems more-or-less aware, and he has one hand tucked loosely in mine.
“That’s it, pet. Just breathe.” I stroke his hair with my free hand. “You’re all right.”
“Should we fetch him some water?” Ruvan is still kneeling at Shoch’s side, frowning with concern.
I shrug. His guess is as good as mine. “What do you think, Shoch? Water?”
He gives me a weak shrug of his own. Not helpful.
Ruvan sighs. “Well, Gael will be back with a physician soon.”
That wasn’t my idea. And I don’t like it. “What’s a physician going to do for him? That wasn’t the falling sickness, Ruv. His wyvern was panicked.”
“Aric is right, I think. Apparently Shocha’s demon doesn’t care for crowds.”
That’s not Ruvan. No, that’s my father’s voice.
Fuck. Somewhere in the back of my head, I knew he was here, hovering toward the other side of this small chamber. I caught a glimpse of his somber robes when I rushed inside. I knew he stayed here, keeping his distance as me, Ruvan and the guards held Shoch down to stop him from thrashing around on the floor.
I ought to commend those guards later. Most people are terrified to touch a Tainted. But they did their duty—and why am I worried about this right now? Probably because my father is waiting for an answer.
“Shoch was in the middle of a crowd at least once back at Crevlock Tower, sir.” I bite my lip, remembering the funeral pyre. “We were outside, though. And it was a cool enough night.”
“Not a hot receiving chamber mobbed with courtiers and their servants.” Ruvan shakes his head. “I’m sorry. I should never have brought Shocha with me.”
Why did you? Why did you want him at your side when you spoke with our father? I’m burning to ask that, but it will have to wait. I’m not sure what Ruvan has up his sleeve, but whatever it is, I don’t want to discuss it here. So I shrug again instead. “You didn’t know. None of us did.”
“Well, one thing seems plain.” My father cocks his head at Shocha as he takes a step closer. His guards move to stand in front of him—protecting him from the Tainted, I suppose, just in case—but he waves them to the side. “Despite that thing inside him, Shocha seems more a danger to himself than anyone else.”
Ruvan stares at me, willing me to stay calm. And I do—I force myself to.
The words are fair enough. I know that. Shocha’s not some innocent young man. He’s a sorcerer who’s more than capable of murder. But my father’s tone still irritates me. I have to fight the urge to let go of Shoch and ball my hands into fists. And I have to swallow down the bile that’s suddenly surging up my throat.
“That’s true, Father,” I manage. “Shoch is—you know he doesn’t have a tongue. He can’t command the wyvern without it.”
“Except in this ritual you mentioned.” My father’s voice sounds curious and untroubled. He wants to know more about Shocha, but he doesn’t see him as a threat.
That’s good. That’s exactly what I wanted. I banked on the man putting Shoch on display, proving to all the world that we had tamed a Tainted from Rokofar and made an obedient servant out of him. But there’s something about that detachment in his voice—something that makes me want to grab Shoch and take him away from here. Take him someplace where it would just be me and him. Fuck the court. Fuck Fallpoint. Fuck the barrier. Fuck Veshnic, even.
Shoch lets go of my hand and tugs at my sleeve—a feeble tug, but I understand him. “He wants up. Give me a hand, Ruv.”
My brother and I get Shoch to the point where he’s at least sitting. Not exactly on his own, though. In fact, I shift myself so I’m sitting behind him. He leans back against me.
“You’re remarkably good with him,” my father comments. “And from what I saw, you were able to quiet that demon inside him.”
“I don’t know about that, sir.” I’m lying. That creature did respond to me. But why? I don’t have any special talent when it comes to soothing wild animals. Why would something so feral and predatory turn peaceful just because I asked it to? “Maybe the wyvern wore itself out on its own. I just happened to arrive at the right time.”
But Shocha grunts, looking for my attention again. Then he points at my father and nods.
My father chuckles. “I think your pet agrees with me.”
I roll my eyes. Trust Shoch not to know when to keep his opinions to himself. “Apparently. Don’t know what I did to earn the wyvern’s regard, though.”
Ruvan gives me a serious look. “It did settle down as you kept talking to it. Maybe—I don’t know. Maybe it trusts you because it’s a part of Shoch. And Shoch trusts you.”
“No.” I shake my head, thinking back to the creature that stared at me through Shoch’s eyes. That wild, panicking animal that was so different from him. “No. That beast has a will of its own. And it’s separate from Shoch, despite their joining ritual.”
Shoch lets out another one of his ugly grunts to argue with me.
“Shh, pet. I know what I’m talking about.” And I do. No idea why I’m so certain, but I am. “That thing is trapped inside you, Shoch. You’re not one with the wyvern—you’re both each other’s prisoners. And I know we can free you two from each other.”