Shoch scoffs at my words by letting out a half-hearted sigh. I don’t think he has the energy to argue—he just accepts the fact that I’m a stubborn idiot when it comes to this topic.
I ought to get him out of here, back to our room, but he’ll need more time to recover first. So I don’t nudge him or jostle him. I just let him put even more of his weight on me as we both sit there on the floor.
“Separate Shocha from his demon?” My father narrows his eyes at me. “How? By some sort of priest-craft?”
Ruvan’s eyes are on me too. He’s giving me a warning look, silently begging me to be careful with my answer.
Is that what we’ve come to? We’re both afraid to speak our minds in front of our father?
I wrap my arms more tightly around Shoch. I’m not sure if I’m protecting him or if I need that fiery body heat of his.
“Well?” My father folds his arms across his chest. Did he always look impatient like that?
I swallow. “It has nothing to do with me being a priest, sir. It’s as I said. Shoch thinks that he and the wyvern inside him are bound up together. That they’re one being now. But that’s not true. The beast that was looking out of Shoch’s eyes wasn’t Shoch. It was just—just a wild animal.”
He keeps staring at me. Maybe he’s still wondering what to make of me calling the wyvern a ‘wild animal.’ I tried to explain, when we first got back to Snail Rock, that it was an animal and not a demon. I don’t think that message sank in.
“They’re still two individuals.” His voice is calm. “I understand that much. But how do you intend to separate them?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t gotten that far. Shoch’s people have a ritual, but it’s—it’s not something we can do here. Besides, their way will probably kill Shoch. But I think we can separate them without harming either one.”
My father looks outraged now. “Without harm—I know you want to protect Shocha. But the wyvern?”
“We’d have to find a way to banish it, sir, of course.” Banish it, but not harm it. Shoch comes first; that goes without saying. But ideally, I want the wyvern unscathed too. I think I’m a little attached to it now—but even I’m smart enough to keep that to myself.
Ruvan finally shifts so that he’s not kneeling at Shoch’s side anymore. He sits cross-legged instead. “Fine. We free Shocha from this thing and banish it. But you have no idea how?”
All right. I’m sounding stupider and stupider. Why did I open my mouth? “No.”
My brother’s not done with me. “Aric, separating these two—you’re not planning some priestly ritual, are you? You can’t perform any rites. Not anymore. Forgive me, but you’re intimate with a sorcerer from Rokofar now.”
Shoch stiffens. I’m not sure if he’s still smarting over the fact that we consider him unclean, or if—Veshnic help us—he wants to make it clear that we haven’t consummated this marriage of ours yet.
I squeeze his arm to keep him quiet. To judge by the look Ruvan is giving me, a lot depends on this answer. He wants our father to stop thinking of me as a priest. Maybe Ruv believes that will protect me from the man’s wrath against the lot of us.
“Shocha’s not ritually pure—that’s true.” I keep my voice slow and even. “I thought at first I could just cleanse myself whenever I was needed as a priest. I did that when I performed funeral rites at Crevlock Tower. But Shocha and I weren’t, ah, married yet.”
Ruvan looks satisfied. “Once word of that gets out, no other priest will view you as ritually clean, no matter how many ablutions you undergo.”
“No,” I agree. “They won’t. I’ll still be a priest—nothing can change that. But I’d step back. I suppose, in normal times, the colleges would have to make a formal decision about whether I was fit to perform any rites. And they’d probably decide against it.”
Ruvan scowls at me—just for a second, but he does. He didn’t want me to bring up the colleges. Not while our father is still persecuting the heads of them.
Fuck. I’m wishing more and more that I had never opened my mouth. I should have just carried Shoch out of here and locked us up in our room.
But now I’ve said what I’ve said. Might as well clear the air with my father. “Sir, what’s going to happen now? Will the priestly colleges still exist after these trials?”
Ruvan’s face is completely neutral as he turns to watch our father’s reaction—but I know he’s seething inside. I know I’ll hear it from him later.
As for our father—for a moment, his eyes are hard. Vicious, almost. But then they change. The expression in them changes, I mean. His whole face softens. He turns away from me then and motions to his guards. One of them brings him a chair. I watch him sink into it slowly, moving as if he were an old man.
That throws me. I don’t think of my father as old. I don’t think of him creaking at the knees or giving into any of the ravages of age. But he looks his age right now. He looks old—almost decrepit—and tired.
Now that he’s settled, he looks to his guards again. With a quiet word and another wave of his hand, he orders them out of the room. Ruvan and I exchange glances. Shoch tenses up in my arms, but wisely keeps his mouth shut. This isn’t the time for one of his ugly grunts or some attempt to trace his words.
My father breathes in deep before he speaks up again. “I’m sure Shocha has told you where things stand by now, Aric. He’s a sorcerer from Rokofar; he’ll know the truth of the matter. And I’m equally sure you’ve confided in your brother—you’ve always been a loyal servant to him.”
I think Ruvan and I swallow at the same time. I’m the one who answers, though. “Are you referring to the barrier, sir? To the fact that it’s failing?”
Ruvan speaks up this time. “I know we haven’t discussed this matter in depth, sir. We needed privacy for that—”
Our father holds up his hand. “I knew the barrier was breaking long before your adventure at Crevlock Tower. Rokofar is not the only one with spies, and ours are not completely incompetent.”
My brother laughs a little—a laugh without any humor in it. “That’s good to hear, sir.”
I blink. My brain seems to be stuttering. My father knew? For how long? “I don’t understand, Father. If you know the barrier is failing—why aren’t we trying to fix it?”
“There’s no fixing it, Aric.” His voice is tired too—but there’s steel behind it. “If Rokofar with all its sacrifices and sorcery can’t repair it, then we must accept that it can’t be done.
No. I refuse to accept that. And I open my mouth to tell him as much, but he shakes his head at me.
“We’re not going to become Rokofar, Aric.” My father musters enough strength to stand up again—all the better to glare down at me, I suppose. “We’ll go out fighting these demons or beasts or whatever they are. We won’t make sorcerers, and we won’t allow any human sacrifices.”
“Because there won’t be any priests to make those sacrifices.” Ruvan’s staring at the man as he speaks. Staring with a look of fascinated horror.
“No,” our father agrees. “We’ll break the priesthood once and for all. If that means executing their leaders—and those who would defend them—so be it.”