“No.” Ruvan peers down at me, his eyes a mixture of sympathy and exasperation. There’s no hint of guilt, though.
“So, you didn’t know what—” I stop to swallow. “What our mothers meant to do?”
He sighs and puts his hands back on my shoulders. “Aric, we don’t know that they did anything.”
“Please. Father dying like that? That’s no coincidence.”
“We don’t know that.” His voice is firm now. “We don’t know what happened.”
I’ve been trained since I was a child to obey that voice. I might be the older brother, but my father always made Ruvan’s authority clear. And this is the first time I’ve ever questioned it.
But he’s saying the same things I just told myself. Over and over.
“All right,” I say. “Whatever happened last night, you didn’t have anything to do with it.”
“No. I—Aric, after what I saw, I couldn’t.”
“After what you saw?”
He tightens his grip on my shoulders. “Yes. Back in that chamber, with the wyvern—Veshnic was there.”
“No, don’t stop me. He looked out at us, Aric. He looked at us through your eyes.”
Ruvan’s eyes are shining at the memory. But I don’t remember it that way. I had my hands full with soothing the wyvern. Veshnic must have helped with that, but I can’t explain what Shoch and my brother think they saw.
“You don’t understand—you don’t know what it was like.” Ruvan is gushing now. “For the first time, I knew we weren’t alone. There’s a god on our side. A god who actually cares enough to help us.”
He stops and lets go of me. His face is bright red. I don’t think he’s ashamed, exactly, but he’s embarrassed as hell.
“Aric, I haven’t lost my mind. I know what I saw. And I know what some of our people think about the gods. But Veshnic’s not evil or indifferent. I could tell.”
“I agree, Ruv. Veshnic is on our side. But that doesn’t mean he’s going to fix everything. He hasn’t so far.”
“Oh, I understand that. That’s the way of gods, according to the Sages. The few religious ones, I mean.” He gives me a wry smile. “The gods don’t fulfill our desires—they correct them.”
“Gods or the one god?”
Ruvan shrugs. “I presume they’re all one—that’s the ancient teaching, isn’t it? But that’s a matter for you priests to debate. All that matters to me is that Veshnic, at least, hasn’t abandoned us.”
I walk over to the bed and take a seat.
“And I know something else.” Ruvan pulls a chair up in front of me. He sits down on it and leans in close. “I know he didn’t approve of what Shoch and I plotted.”
Fuck. I turn my head away. I can feel his breath—it’s hot on my face—but I can’t stand to look at him right now. This is too raw.
“Aric, I’m sorry. Shocha and I shouldn’t have conspired against Father. No matter how much the man deserved it.”
I don’t say anything. And I still don’t look his way.
“What are you thinking?” His voice is soft now. Almost unbearably soft, like he’s expecting the worst.
“Ruv . . . .” I sigh as my voice trails off. Then I finally force myself to meet his eyes again. “I just—look, Shoch doesn’t know any better. But I didn’t want him to have more blood on his hands. And you’re better than this.”
It’s his turn to be quiet now.
Just as well. It’s hard for me to put my thoughts into words. “Maybe I don’t have a right to judge. Father turned into—”
“Someone who would commit judicial murder? Someone who despises priests so much that he’d execute his own son?”
I just shrug.
“He would have burned Shoch at the stake, you know. All because I dared to kneel to you—to give a priest that honor.”
“I know. Ruv, he was always hard. But when—when did this happen? When did he become like this?”
“Good question.’ He gives me a sour smile. “He was always worse than you realized—you spent all that time in the legion, remember, away from here. But he wasn’t this bad.”
“Maybe it was learning the truth about these so-called demons.”
“And the truth about the barrier.”
“Right.” I snort. “Because he thought we’d become like Rokofar.”
“Yes—and he wasn’t wrong about that. But he’d rather see us all destroyed.” Ruvan leans back in his chair, giving me some space. “Maybe it wasn’t his fault. Our grandfather became just as paranoid and cruel.”
“Well, don’t expect me or Shoch to send you to Veshnic before your time.”
“Oh, you won’t have to. Anvis will see to it.”
My mouth drops open. But he’s right. His wife is at least as formidable as our mothers, if not more so.
Ruvan grins. “Don’t worry—if it comes to that, I won’t blame her.”
“So you don’t blame our mothers either?”
“I don’t know if they did anything, Aric. And neither do you.” He folds his arms across his chest. “Do you honestly want to pursue this?
“No.” The word is easier to say than I thought it would be.
“Good. Then don’t bring it up with them. Just act as if you believe that our father died of a stroke.”
My whole body stiffens.
“Aric, for all we know, he did. He was in poorer health than he let on.” He reaches out and puts a hand on my knee. “Please?”
He’s right. If I don’t want to pursue this, I have no right to bring it up with my mother or his. “All right.”
“Good.” He pushes the chair back and stands up. “I’m not sure I can cut through the charges against you and Shocha by the funeral. But you’ll both be there, even if I post some sort of nominal guard with you. And we’ll have to find an official way to recognize Shoch as both a citizen of Tantzil and your, ah, spouse. Give him the same rank as you, perhaps—”
“What? I don’t have an official rank—not a noble one.”
“Well, it’s high time to change that. Father should have seen to it years ago.”
“I don’t think priests can have a rank, Ruv.”
“Fuck, that’s true. I suppose we should maintain that tradition—especially since priests are about to gain more power in their own right.”
He grins. “Don’t panic. I don’t mean to let your lot take over our country. This is not a theocracy, and it never will be.”
But Ruvan’s not done. “Yes, but things are different now. Everything is going to change, Aric. And you’ll be in the center of that.”