By the end of the day, Ruvan has sorted a few things out. Our father’s funeral will be tomorrow. Some middling, inoffensive priest will preside over his burial.
Shoch and I will be there without a guard for an escort. Ruvan has sorted out the charges against me, so I’m a free man again. My father didn’t bother to formally charge Shoch with anything, so he’s free as well.
I haven’t seen my mother yet. Or Ruvan’s. They’re keeping to their chambers, two adjacent rooms near the king’s. Near the previous king’s, I mean. But tomorrow morning—before the funeral—Shoch and I, along with the rest of the family, will be joining them there. And we’ll pretend that this is just an ordinary, everyday sort of tragedy. People lose their fathers and husbands to strokes. Somehow we’ll talk and embrace like a normal family in mourning.
And after tomorrow? Ruvan won’t waste any time. He’ll have Crevlock Tower torn down stone by stone to get to the ancient temple beneath it. If there are any secrets about the barrier there, he’ll find them.
He also means to build a new temple to Veshnic here in the city, and put me in charge of it. I don’t know how the people will react to that—we haven’t had a religious royal family in generations. But he’s throwing a bone to the anti-religious by elevating Jonac. The former commander of Crevlock Tower will gain some official position at court, marry high, and become part of Ruvan’s inner circle.
Jonac saw Veshnic in that chamber, same as Ruvan and Shoch and Gael. But he’s standing on his principles—he’s not going to bow his head to ancient superstitions. So he’ll represent all the Tantzi who want to follow the Sages alone, and leave the gods to an archaic past.
Meanwhile, Ruvan expects me, Shoch and Itzel to take part in a diplomatic mission to Rokofar. I told him he damned well better send a party of experienced ambassadors with us.
Fuck, I’m only a soldier and a mediocre priest. I’m not suited to running a temple or pretending to be a diplomat. But I’m not as sick to my stomach as I should be over all this. Maybe I’m still too numb to feel the weight of it.
Shoch is cagey, though. He’s been pacing our room for a while now. I take a seat on the bed, letting my hands fall between my knees, and raise my eyebrows at him. “What’s wrong, pet?”
He stops pacing and looks me over. Then he sticks his nose up, doing an impression of someone haughty and annoying.
“That’s not me, is it?”
He shakes his head and points to his skin. Then he points at the dark, rich wood of the bed.
All right: dark, rich skin. “Oh, Jonac.”
“What about him?”
He raises his eyebrows and points at me.
“Jonac and me? Shoch, I told you the truth. Yes, there was something between us once. There isn’t now.”
He gives me a look of disbelief.
“It’s friendship, Shoch. Friendship and respect.”
Now he’s nodding at me. Vigorously.
“What? You can’t stand even a friendship between us? That’s not fair, pet.”
No, that’s not it, because now he’s shaking his head and looking frustrated.
“All right, all right. Come here.”
He stares at me for a moment. Then he rolls his eyes, as if communicating with me is taking every last ounce of his patience. But after that, he finally steps over to the bed and takes a seat beside me.
I put an arm around him and shift, tugging him toward me until we’re both lying on the bed instead of sitting. “There, that’s better isn’t it?”
“Is this really torture?”
That draws a smile from him. He shakes his head and curls up closer to me.
“Good. Now start over, pet. What about Jonac?”
He takes my hand and starts tracing his letters into my palm.
“Friendship and respect?”
He nods and points to himself.
“Shoch, we are friends, you and me. In some ways I’m closer to you than to anyone—even Ruvan.”
He just gives me a look.
“Oh. So this is about respect.”
Shoch doesn’t answer that—he doesn’t need to.
“I respect your courage—I respect the hell out of it.” I shake my head a little, remembering that vision of him in Rokofar. “How you found the guts to coax that wyvern inside of you, even knowing what it could do to you—I can’t imagine that. But . . . .”
He gives me a grunt of encouragement.
“But I don’t trust your morals. You weren’t raised to value the words of the Sages. You were raised to—to think nothing of human sacrifice.”
I get a grunt of protest this time.
“All right, all right. Not to think nothing of it. I know you honor the victims. But you don’t see anything wrong with human sacrifice. I do, pet. And Jonac does. And Ruvan does. And Gael. And Veshnic does too—that’s what I believe. I think human sacrifice is against his will.”
He pushes away from me and starts a round of frantic gesturing.
“Shh. I know, I know.” I tug him toward me again.
He doesn’t resist.
“I understand why your people do it. Look, Shoch, I’m not blaming you. I’m not angry with you—I was never angry with you. It’s just that—”
Shoch starts tracing again before I can get the words out.
Fuck. We haven’t talked about this, and I don’t want to. “Look, I don’t know what to say about my father—or about what you and Ruvan planned to do to him. I think you were both wrong. Ruvan thinks that too, now. But my father’s death saved our lives. Yours and mine, I mean. And the lives of those priests too.”
He keeps tracing.
“No, Shoch. I don’t think Veshnic intervened to make my father die when he did. I think my mother and Ruvan’s took matters into their own hands—and I’m pretty sure you reached that conclusion too. Hell, I think everyone in this court did. But they’re all too relieved to make a fuss. And—Sages, what does that say about my father?”
Now he’s giving me a look of sympathy, mixed with something I can’t interpret. Not in the flickering light from the lanterns and the fireplace, anyway.
“I think . . . I think it comes down to this, Shoch. Ruvan regrets that plot. I know you don’t—and I don’t blame you for that. And I know you were trying to help me. And believe me, I’m grateful for that.”
He stays quiet, giving me that same intense look.
“But gratitude isn’t the same as trust. I’m going to have a hard time trusting Ruvan’s judgment the way I used to. And I don’t trust yours at all, Shoch.”
He grunts and starts miming.
“No. How do you expect me to respect your judgment on morality, Shoch? We’re worlds apart on that.”
He grabs my hand and entwines our fingers. Then he raises his eyebrows at me with a questioning shrug of his shoulders.
“Then how can I see you as my husband?”
Shoch nods and lets go of my hand so he can trace two names into my palm.
“Ruvan and Anvis—they trust and respect each other? Is that what you’re getting at?”
“Well, that’s true. So I wonder if she knew about the plot, or if it was just you, your sister, Ruvan and Gael.”
He starts to mime again, but I hold up a hand to stop him.
“No, even if you know, don’t tell me.” I pause and turn my head toward the fireplace. It’s burning down now. Should I feed it another log or two? Or should I just rely on our blankets and our shared body heat tonight? Shoch isn’t as hot to the touch as he used to be. Not with the wyvern gone. But we can keep each other warm . . . .
Shoch grunts at me and tugs on my arm. Right. He deserves my full attention for this talk.
“There are different kinds of marriages, pet.” I sigh. “Ruvan and Anvis—that’s a marriage of equals. Well, technically he outranks her, but for practical purposes they’re partners. You and me—we’re not partners in the same way. I expect you to obey me.”
His face is red now as he goes back to tracing.
“Are you just a pet, then? Is that what you’re asking?”
I smile at him. I can’t help it. “I do like keeping you for a pet.”
“Shh. You’re more than that, though. I love you, Shoch. I want to wake up next to you every day for the rest of my life. I want to us to take care of each other, to work together, to talk about everything together.”
“You want all that too? Good. Then don’t lie to me or do anything you know I won’t approve of. And don’t get more blood on your hands. All right?”
He nods again. Slowly, this time.
“Come on. Let’s get to sleep—”
Shoch tugs at me.
“What is it?”
He mimes some more and traces more letters into my palm.
“You want to learn about the Sages? Why? You despise them.”
“You want to earn my trust and respect?”
“Look, that will take more than you just learning about the Sages. Can you see yourself renouncing human sacrifice?”
Shoch waves his hand in a maybe, maybe not sort of way. And then he goes back to tracing.
“When we can afford it—when we figure out how to fix the barrier?” I grin and shake my head. “That’s not how it works, pet. So where does that leave us?”
He scoffs and mimes wearing a collar and a leash—with me holding the end of the leash, apparently.
“You’ll obey me, huh?”
“Yes, Shoch. I trust you to keep your word this time.”
He grins, as if to say that counts for something.
“Good.” I wink at him. “Now be a good pet and let your master get some sleep.”
But that’s not what he has in mind. Next thing I know, he’s shifting so that he’s on top of me, straddling me.
Fuck. I’m, ah, intensely aware of him right now. And suddenly sleep is the last thing on my mind. The last thing on his too.
We’re both breathing harder now, both reaching for each other. Then our mouths are together, and it’s strange that his tongue is mostly gone, but that doesn’t matter.
No, it doesn’t matter at all. We’re both touching, groping . . . aching to find a rhythm between us. We start moving together, rubbing against each other, tunics and all.
Of all the things we could be doing, this sounds tame, I know. But for one stupid second I try to slow us down. I need to make sure he really wants this—or at least can tolerate it. He just gives me a grunt that’s half amused and half annoyed. And then he gets on with it.
Fine—I’m not about to fight him. And I’m not numb at all now, I realize. Hell, no. I’ve never been so glad to be alive.