I’m swaying. Shoch’s arm snakes around my waist, steadying me, but I’m not sure it’s enough. This can’t be a coincidence. Sages, Ruvan must have found another way to kill our father.
“Unlock the cell,” Jonac orders. Then he looks to me as one of the guards complies. “My lord, you should sit down.”
I don’t move. “Was Ruvan—was he with the king?”
“No, my lord. I’ll explain everything if you’ll just sit.”
Shoch is tugging me toward the cot now. I don’t fight him. I’m seated a moment later, with Shoch kneeling in front of me and Jonac looming over me, his face impassive.
“What happened?” My voice is cracking, but I get the words out.
“Your father was unusually tired this evening.” Jonac pauses to clear his throat. “It came upon him suddenly. He retired to his bedchamber early, with your mother and the Queen—excuse me, now the Queen Mother—to attend him.
“Were his servants there?”
For the first time, Jonac hesitates. “No, my lord.”
I try to take that in. I know our mothers are inseparable, but our father doesn’t sleep with both his wife and mistress at the same time. On the other hand, they have both attended him before—when he’s had some mild illness or injury, that is. But always with servants at hand.
“He was just tired?” I ask. “Not ill?”
“His physicians believe he took a small stroke, followed by a stronger one a short time later. The latter caused him to die in his sleep.” Jonac puts a hand on my shoulder. “Please accept my sincerest condolences.”
I turn my head to stare at his hand. He’s putting more weight on me than necessary—and that’s a warning not to pursue this any further.
But this was no stroke. After my father threw me down here, my mother and Ruvan’s mother took matters into their own hands. I don’t know what they did, exactly. Did they drug my father? Smother him with a pillow? Both?
“My lord? Do you think you’re well enough to walk back to your chamber?”
I stare up at him. He can guess what happened, same as me. And he doesn’t approve any more than I do. But he’s trying to tell me what’s done is done.
Shoch puts his hand over mine. He’s still kneeling in front of me. He doesn’t grunt and he doesn’t try to mime anything, but his eyes are begging me to let this go. Well, he would, wouldn’t he? He must be thrilled at this news. Not that I blame him.
Fuck. What would Veshnic say is the right thing to do now?
I have no idea. But a wild accusation against my mother and Ruvan’s—no, I can’t do that. I wasn’t there. I don’t really know what happened. And even if I thought my father’s physicians could prove that he’d been murdered, how could I stand to see our mothers arrested? They did this to protect me.
Jonac lets go of me. “Aric? You don’t need to remain in this cell. His Majesty intends to eliminate all charges against you and Shocha. That might take time, but—well, let’s walk you back to your quarters.”
Right. I can’t just sit here in shock.
“Yes.” I pause to tousle Shoch’s hair and then push myself to my feet. Shoch stands up as well, sticking right to my side. I take his hand in mine, even though I’m still looking at Jonac. “Lead the way.”
No one leaves Shoch and me in peace. There are guards in my chamber to make sure we behave. There are servants bustling in and out, covering tapestries and anything cheerful with black cloth. And there are tailors to make adjustments to the somber tunic I use for mourning—and to show me just where I should rend it. I just need one tear, apparently, to prove that I’m distraught at my father’s funeral. I suppose that means I’ll be attending—Ruvan will clear any charges against me and Shoch by then.
Finally, there’s a steady stream of courtiers, diplomats, priests and dignitaries. They know how close I am to my brother, so they hope to curry favor with him by being the first to offer their condolences to me.
No, that’s not fair. Some of them are here because of what they heard. Ruvan’s making no secret about what happened with Shoch’s wyvern, or the strange vision everyone in the room shared. Brave of him, considering how the Tantzi people have either ignored or dismissed the gods for so long. But who knows? Maybe they’re starved for them.
The priests want to know about all of it—about the wyvern, about Veshnic and about our chances with the barrier. And they want to know when I think Ruvan will free the four chiefs of our orders. I shrug in response. He’ll do it, no question, but I don’t know how long the bureaucracy takes.
I do a lot of shrugging. I’m still too numb to give details or make myself sound intelligent. It’s a good thing Shoch and Jonac are here. Jonac hurries people along and Shoch keeps plying me with tea or rubbing my shoulders, making it clear to everyone that I’m not up to conversation.
Until my brother arrives, that is.
The room hushes when he steps inside, followed at a discreet distance by Gael. Ruvan doesn’t look to his right or his left, even as every member of the crowd genuflects to him. No, he walks straight to me, kneels and kisses my hand. Before I can react, he’s back on his feet and tugging me into a bear hug.
I don’t fight the hug, but I’m not about to let him get away with the kneeling. “I’m not Veshnic, Ruv.”
“No, you’re my brother. But I know what I saw, Aric.” He pushes us apart a little and rests his hands on my shoulders. “Veshnic saw fit to work through you.”
The room is dead quiet now—and Ruvan ain’t exactly whispering. But at least he lets me go after that and turns to the crowd. He sorts through their condolences in short order and soon clears my chamber. Now it’s just him, Gael, Jonac, Shoch and me.
“Shocha,” Ruv says, “I need a moment alone with my brother. Would you mind taking a walk with Gael and Jonac?”
Shoch hesitates. Then he gives Ruvan a long, searching look. Whatever he sees satisfies him, because at length he nods.
Once they close the door behind them, Ruvan turns back to me. He doesn’t say anything, though. He’s waiting for me to gather my thoughts.
I swallow, thinking about what our mothers must have done to our father. How much planning did that take? Did Ruvan help them?
He’s still quiet.
“Listen, I . . . I need the truth, Ruv.” Fuck. I have to force each word out. “Did you know?”