The small, unassuming cottage with a sod-covered roof looked just the same as it ever had. Omarr and Hirrush stood back to look at their work, which mostly amounted to making sure that their work couldn’t be seen. Some of the wards would be activated only in the event of an emergency, but they had been prepared with the proper rituals and sacrifices, which meant physical evidence that had to be picked up after or washed away.
“It’s not enough,” said Omarr. “Not against Ventor. Henry said the man took an oath not to eat or drink, one he kept up for five years.”
“He’s the heir to Rector Delland,” said Hirrush. “You remember the stories about that old man, don’t you?”
“Which is why it’s not enough,” said Omarr. “We should be trying to find a way to kill the man, or force him to break his oaths.”
“Killing him wouldn’t be easy, and you know that oaths don’t break easy,” said Hirrush.
“He needs the armor,” replied Omarr. “It’s what lets him keep the oaths. Take away the armor and he’d have to break his oath within a day or two or die of dehydration. I don’t think we can tempt him or trick him into breaking his other oaths, but the armor? That’s his weak point.”
“Henry is handling it,” said Hirrush.
“If you really believed that was enough, you wouldn’t have set up these defenses with me,” said Omarr. “We should leave this place behind. With all the wards armed, perhaps it might be enough to slow the oathkeeper down enough that he couldn’t follow. We could leave Donkerk entirely. The king doesn’t like sending his oathkeepers beyond the borders, so we wouldn’t be followed.”
Hirrush sighed. “I’ve been thinking that perhaps once Henry was grown you and I might leave anyway. If it weren’t for Henry … but there are things which are important to the boy, especially at that orphanage. We need to stay, for him, at least for now.”
“Until the oathkeeper comes stalking toward us with a sword in one hand and Henry’s scalp in the other,” said Omarr.
“You’re being dramatic,” said Hirrush. “If he’d killed Henry, why would he bring the head to us?”
“Intimidation?” asked Omarr. He scratched his head. “But no, you’re right, he’d just kill us without asking questions or providing repartee.” He heaved a sigh. “It’s this feeling of helplessness that I hate. I wish it were me sitting in that orphanage with the oathkeeper across from me. Henry is taking such a risk and there’s nothing I can do to improve his chance of success. How are you handling it so well?”
“I’m a mentalist,” said Hirrush. “Or I was, once upon a time. My master told me that when we cannot control the world, we must control our minds. It’s harder to do without easy access to my mindscape, but that bit of training survived my mutilation.”
Omarr grunted. “Sorry if I touched an old wound.” He looked around their land. The silence was depressing. With the various rituals completed, there was no longer any clucking of chickens or bleating of goats to be heard. Both cows had given their lives with little in the way of ceremony. Replacing those animals would require the last of the ransom money they’d gotten from kidnapping the princess, but they would wait and see whether it wouldn’t be better to simply leave with that gold instead. To Omarr’s mind though, it certainly felt like the end of an era.
Sofia had tended to some lingering business in Leshampur before heading north. She was restocked with food and supplies, enough to see her through to the Citadel if she enlisted the help of some spirits to find foraging spots along the way. All she really had to worry about was Ventor, who would only be a problem if Henry didn’t keep up his end of the deal. There had been no way to avoid that risk once she’d visited the orphanage though; everything after that had only been a matter of minimizing the damage that had been done. Sofia had briefly considered writing Henry a letter once she returned to Marurbo, but then she remembered how her father was bound to react to that and shoved those unpleasant thoughts away before they could affect her mood too much. Her father was a problem for another day.
When she reached the bridge over the Perwhile River, Sofia was surprised to see Henry casting stones into the water.
“Henry?” she asked.
“Fiona,” he replied as he turned toward her. He was smiling, but there was something different about his expression. “Look, there’s no easy way to ask this, so I’ll just come out with it.” He took a breath. “Do you mind if I accompany you on your trip north?”
“Were you waiting for me?” she asked.
“If I thought I could get away with a lie, I’d say that I wasn’t,” said Henry. He shrugged and gave her a sheepish look.
“Why were you waiting for me?” she asked.
“Can we walk and talk?” asked Henry. “I live down the road and need to go that direction anyway, there’s no sense in slowing your progress any.”
Sofia narrowed her eyes. Walking with him felt like a trap of some kind, as though she would be agreeing to his request, but the whole thing felt like a trap. The question was what the purpose of the trap was. The only thing she could be sure of was that Ventor wasn’t involved, since he was far too blunt for a trap that looked this subtle. “Sure,” she replied. “We can walk.”
Henry turned on his heel and looked over his shoulder at her. “Well then, to answer your question, I was waiting for you because I wanted to travel with you.”
“You don’t know where I’m going though,” said Sofia as she fell into step behind him. She reached a hand into her satchel to feel that the knife was still there, just in case she needed it.
“It’s not really about the destination,” said Henry. “It’s more about the journey.”
“The journey with me, specifically?” asked Sofia.
“Yes,” said Henry. “That’s the one.”
“And if I said that I was another month away from my destination?” asked Sofia.
“I … well, I would probably say that means you’re headed to the Citadel, so I’d start asking questions about why,” said Henry. “But your real question was why I’d be willing to travel for a full month just to be with someone who I haven’t spent more than an hour with, and that … it’s hard to explain.”
“You’re clever,” said Sofia, smirking despite herself. “Surely you’ll find a way to present your case.”
“You were skeptical about me being widely read,” said Henry. “You were right to have doubts. Most of the more rural people can’t read terribly well. I wouldn’t call it abject illiteracy, but they don’t need a command of language for anything beyond reading from an almanac. The king —” Henry paused for a moment. “The king made a mandate that every person should be able to read, but even if that policy had been a success, when would the common farmer ever get a chance to use that skill? Paper and ink are as cheap as they’ve ever been, but transcribing and binding a book is just as labor intensive as it was a hundred years ago. Even though people know how to read, most don’t, given there’s a lack of material available to them. We’ve got ledgers, mostly, not informed texts that make us wiser about the nature of the world. I did my best to consume every book that crossed my path, then I altered my path to seek out more books.”
“Consider the groundwork laid,” said Sofia. “I’m listening.”
“You’re an apprentice to one of the sages, one of the most learned men in all of Donkerk,” said Henry. “You’re the first person my own age who might be on my level.”
“Oh?” asked Sofia. “Might?”
“Well,” said Henry. “I can’t be sure. Just because you’ve had access to a variety of books or training from someone very wise doesn’t mean that you’re intelligent.” He held up a hand. “No offense intended.”
“So you’re planning to tag along in order to make an evaluation?” asked Sofia. She frowned. “To see whether I’m worthy of you?”
“To see whether we’re worthy of each other,” said Henry. “But yes, that’s more or less it. You’re a unique, shining jewel of a person and I’d be a fool if I simply let you walk out of my life.”
“Hrm,” said Sofia. “You’re laying it on thick.”
“Sorry,” said Henry.
“No, that’s okay,” said Sofia. “A shining jewel? I suppose I could live with that. But you still don’t know where I’m going or what I’m doing once I get there.”
“Well, will you tell me?” asked Henry. He was still walking slightly ahead of her, but at this he looked behind him to meet her gaze. His eyes were a light blue.
“I’m still deciding if I want a companion,” said Sofia. “I have some money, but not enough to pay for the traveling expenses of two people.”
“I can pay my own way,” said Henry. “So long as we can stop a few miles from here to speak to my father.”
“Well, even so,” replied Sofia. “I’d have to know that you would be an asset instead of a hindrance.”
“Don’t you think it’s a little unfair to say something like that without me being able to defend myself?” asked Henry. “Because I don’t know what it is we’d be doing in the north, I can’t really say whether I’d be helpful. I’d try to make my case, certainly, but I don’t know that my many and diverse skills would be applicable.”
“And what are your skills?” asked Sofia with a laugh. She was enjoying this, despite herself. She’d already decided that he could come with her, but now it was a matter of having him grovel for an appropriate length of time. It was strange, she’d been a princess for all her life and never wanted someone to prostrate themselves before her, or even treat her any different, but now that she was in disguise the compulsion was overtaking her. It was helped by the fact that Henry seemed more than willing to play along. Sofia idly wondered whether this was what having a friend was like.
Henry seemed to give serious consideration to his qualifications before responding. “Well, I’m an expert forager. I know the names and taxonomies of every plant in Donkerk. I can identify and capture a large variety of wild animals. I have some moderate skills in trapping, skinning, and fishing. I know how to find true north without a compass. I don’t have many accomplishments as a healer, but I know how to clean wounds, make a splint for a broken bone, and I have an impeccable bedside manner. I’m very good with accounting and mathematics, extending into geometry and trigonometry. I speak Aaltan and Berep fluently and know Nethian and Xir well enough to stumble my way through. I know how to make a fair number of meals that we could eat on the road. I’m good at repairing things that are broken, so long as there’s not much metalwork involved. I have perfect pitch. I’ve read enough history to have a strong opinion on the underlying cause of the Juniper Rebellion and a few theories as to what happened to the Nethian Empire. I’m well-educated on the matter of spirits, though I don’t think that Tantus or Landon really knew what they were talking about, which throws the whole school of thought into question. I can handle a sword or a dagger in a fight and have enough training to incapacitate most full grown men with my bare hands. I’m leaving some things out, but I’m starting to feel like I’m bragging.”
Henry had delivered this while looking ahead, down the twisting road. Sofia stared at him.
“Some of those claims were quite bold,” said Sofia after the silence had stretched out between them. “Ir tomst tofmeste rotovoh?” she asked in Aaltan, which translated loosely to “What happens to a spirit upon their exit from the physical realm?”.
“Tomst tofmest imstrotovesti trovost, Herror Ganda — temostro Ganda?” Henry spit the words out with a casual ease.
“I’m sorry, that was a little fast for me,” said Sofia. “Aaltan was always one of my weaker languages.”
“Oh, I was just saying that the spirits leave the physical realm all the time,” said Henry. “I was going to mention the distinction that Herror Ganda makes, but I wasn’t sure whether you’d read him, or if you’d read him that you understood him.”
“Well you’re not getting into my good graces by insulting me,” said Sofia with pursed lips.
“I didn’t mean it like that,” said Henry. “Herror Ganda writes in a way that’s quite difficult until you get used to it, but that owes mostly to the fact that he was doing his own translations. Landon made an effort to translate Ganda from the original Xir sometime after the fact, but Ganda was already using largely invented or appropriated terminology and I’m not sure that Landon really understood what it was that Ganda was trying to get at. At any rate, if you hadn’t read Ganda I was going to give you an overview so that what I was saying wouldn’t sound like gibberish.”
“I’ve read Herror Ganda,” said Sofia. “But I take your point, you weren’t just making things up.”
“So you don’t want to talk about Ganda’s theories?” asked Henry with a laugh.
“Perhaps later,” said Sofia. “I don’t hold a high opinion of the scholars of that particular subject.”
“Later?” asked Henry. “So I can come with you on your trip north?”
“Sure,” said Sofia. “So long as you’re not a burden.”
Henry turned to her with a beaming smile. “Okay, we just need to make a quick stop at my home, it’s another hundred yards down this road.” There was a spring in his step as he kept walking. “I promise you won’t regret this.”
Henry walked down the path that led past the standing stone and toward the cottage where he’d made his home. Princess Sofia was walking just behind him, incognito as the sage’s apprentice Fiona. Not everything was right with the world, but all of his preparations over the past year had blossomed like a star flower, spreading forth pink petals and the promise of something great on the horizon.
“I’m home!” Henry called to the cottage. His fathers had been hard at work making wards, but Henry had been kept informed of both their boundaries and conditions. There was no danger to Sofia from the wards, not unless Henry’s fathers were foolish enough to activate all their defenses at once without the oathkeeper in sight. A working of dark magic wasn’t complete until the last ritual element was done with, which meant that one small piece could be held back until a final moment of need. Given that wards always had some effect, it was possible through careful planning to prime several wards to chain together. When a bat’s wing was ripped in half, a ward against physical intrusion would snap into place around the house. The formation of a spherical barrier would push a vial of mercury from its perch, which would complete a second ritual upon spilling into the ground, this one providing an electrical ward that would shock anyone who crossed it. Each ward activated another, with the chain of them something like a dozen deep. The methods for creating these chains, along with the descriptions of the rituals themselves, were part of the vast hoard of lore on dark magic, which Hirrush and Omarr were trying to defend against the prying of an oathkeeper. His fathers were undoubtedly on edge, as they had every right to be, but they wouldn’t spend their preparations idly.
Omarr stepped out from the cottage and came to greet them. He quirked an eyebrow when he saw Sofia, but his reaction was mild; he didn’t recognize her.
“It’s not the best time to be bringing a new friend home,” said Omarr.
“We need to talk,” said Henry. He turned slightly toward Sofia. “This is Fiona, she’s traveling from the south. Fiona, this is my father, Omarr.”
Sofia stepped forward and extended a slender hand to Omarr, who took it gently in his own enormous hand for a brief shake. Sofia’s eyes darted briefly to the missing fingers of Omarr’s left hand, but she was too well-mannered to dwell on the deformity.
“My son has the look of a boy with an idea,” said Omarr. He folded his hands across his chest. “Fiona, if you don’t mind, could you wait outside while we have a discussion? Once we’re done I can offer you some tea and something to eat.”
“That won’t be a problem,” said Sofia. She went over to the grass and sat down with her legs folded beneath her and started rummaging around in her pack. “I need to get this sorted properly anyway.”
Henry followed his father indoors, where Hirrush was reading from a book. It wasn’t a book of dark magic, which was the sort of thing that would have been stowed away the moment someone crossed onto their land. Instead, it was a book of geography which detailed, if incidentally, all the places a person could escape to if their life was under threat.
“I have a few things to say,” said Henry. “First and foremost, I told Ventor a lie that I might get caught in. I said I was going to an orphanage to the east, following a girl I’m supposedly courting. The girl — Regina, the butcher’s daughter — really is going east with her family, but I’m not going to be with her. I needed an excuse to be missing for some time, something that would account for my whereabouts. It wasn’t perfect, but I was under some time pressure if I wanted to catch up to Fiona.”
“Would Ventor check up on your story?” asked Hirrush with a frown.
“Possibly,” said Henry. “I’m warning you because if he finds out that I wasn’t telling the truth, he might try to find me. I don’t know how you’d want to handle that.”
“Next question,” said Omarr. “Who’s Fiona?”
“Fiona is the niece of a sage, apprenticed to him and sent north in order to gather information,” said Henry. “But that’s a lie, because Fiona is actually Princess Sofia in disguise. She doesn’t know that I know though.”
Henry’s fathers stared at him.
“She has no guards that I could see,” said Henry, barreling ahead. “I checked in the mental realm as well as the physical. If she was being followed, it’s at a great distance. Her hair is dyed and she’s dressing down, but once I realized who I was looking at all the details were there to confirm my suspicion. I managed to convince her that I would make a useful companion, so we’re headed north together, likely to the Citadel. I don’t know the exact purpose. Oh, and she told me the wording of the prophecy that I’d been trying to find for a year. Apparently I’m either going to save her, save the kingdom, or be the one responsible for her injury or death.” Henry glanced out the window to where Sofia was laying in the grass. She was gazing at the blue sky with a pensive look.
“Don’t chase prophecy,” said Hirrush. “There’s nothing good that can come from it.”
“I’m not,” replied Henry. “The prophecy doesn’t say that I should follow her, and I would do it even if there were no prophecy. There’s nothing in the prophecy that compels me to act in any particular way, except that it gives me cause for slightly more caution than would be usual.”
“You’re forcing our hand,” said Omarr with a sigh. “With you gone, Ventor would have to be a fool not to be suspicious of you, even if you’d given a masterful performance for him.” He followed Henry’s gaze and looked toward where the princess was examining the property. “But … I suppose we were planning to leave anyway, and we always knew that you would find your own path.”
Hirrush was more circumspect. “I’m not clear on why you’re following this girl,” he said as he ran his fingers through his hair. “The princess having run away from home and passed through Leshampur is interesting, but that’s nothing that should cause you to leap to your feet and begin pursuit. She’s pretty, I suppose, but there are pretty girls all over Donkerk.”
“If I were being completely cold about it,” said Henry. “I would say that she’s the key to every ambition I’ve ever held. She’s a direct connection to wealth, knowledge, and power, and since she doesn’t know that I know who she is, she’ll trust me more than she otherwise would and reward my service more than if I were only serving the crown in hope of reward.”
“But that’s not why you’re drawn to her,” said Hirrush.
“No,” said Henry. “She’s … we talked for a bit. Even with her lying to me, I felt like we were fast friends. Even if she were disowned, with all her royal ties sundered, I would still go after her.”
“Go then,” said Hirrush. “With our blessing. Your father and I will need to decide on our ultimate destination, but we’ll leave a message in the places we’ve discussed.”
Henry nodded. “I’m sorry this took precedence,” he said.
“We probably have time to save the books,” said Hirrush. “And our doom was close at hand in any case. If it’s a long time before we see you again …” He trailed off as the words failed to form.
“You turned out better than either of us had any right to expect,” said Omarr. “When you’re ruling this kingdom, remember the lessons we taught you and try to put a stop to the slaughter of people like Adrianna, if not people like us.”
Henry wrapped his father in a tight hug, then turned to his other father and repeated the gesture. None of them wanted to say that there was a good chance they would never see each other again, but the sentiment was still expressed by the strength of their goodbye. Henry was careful to wipe the tears from his eyes before he went back to join Sofia.
“They’re really letting you go then?” asked Sofia as they left the small cottage behind them. She shook her head. “I wonder at the sort of life where you’re free to leave for a month or two with practically no notice.”
“My fathers are understanding,” said Henry. He caught her look. “I never knew my mother. Omarr and Hirrush raised me together, so I called them my fathers.”
Sofia wanted to ask which one was his real father, but she didn’t know that he would take the question in the spirit in which it was intended. The more she considered it, the more she thought perhaps the question was simply one of unseemly probing. If she was really going to be with Henry for another month of travel, she could certainly wait until later.
“So,” Henry said into the silence. “You haven’t told me where it is we’re going or what we’re doing when we get there.”
“You were right when you guessed the Citadel,” said Sofia. “There’s a Foresworn Sister there who I need to have a long discussion with.”
“About the prophecy?” asked Henry.
“No,” replied Sofia. “This is a more personal matter.” She was hesitant to say that the woman she was after was her mother, but if she again assumed that she was to be traveling with Henry for a long time, then surely she’d have to tell him at some point. Similarly, she wasn’t sure that she could keep up the pretense of being Fiona, but that ruse would stay in place for as long as possible, at least until she could be reasonably sure that Henry wouldn’t turn against her.
“I’ve always wanted to see the Citadel,” said Henry. “I’ve heard that the core structure predates the Nethian output that became Marurbo, which makes it perhaps the oldest manmade building in the whole of Donkerk.”
Sofia was gratified by the change in subject. “I’ve seen paintings,” she said. “It’s shaped like a cluster of immense seashells, all glued together.”
“Few of my books had pictures in them,” said Henry. “There were simple diagrams that a scribe could easily copy, but for something like an exotic building it made more sense to just give a good description. I’ve made up my own images to fit the words, but I have little doubt that those images are wrong. There are so many places that I want to visit, just to see how the books line up with reality. There are a dozen places I need to visit in Marurbo, when I finally get down there.”
“I could show you around,” offered Sofia, though she realized that as a fantasy the moment the words left her lips.
“Oh, I’d like that. I’ve wanted to see the High Rectory for a long time,” said Henry. “For an order of ascetics, they have a large collection of artwork and some very elaborate architecture.” He smirked as he said it.
“It seems a little early to judge them, given that you only know a single oathkeeper and a handful of sisters,” said Sofia.
“Possibly,” said Henry. “Did you know many oathkeepers in the city?”
“A few,” replied Sofia. Her imagining of Fiona interacted with them from time to time in the castle. “They were good men. It’s hard for them not to be.”
Henry was silent for a few seconds as they walked beneath the large trees on either side of the road. “Meaning … they’re good because they keep their oaths?”
“In part,” said Sofia. “Oathkeeping is about sacrifice and duty, and if someone has kept an oath for years on end that says something good about them. I’m not so naive as to think that there aren’t bad oathkeepers, but on balance … yes, I think that keeping oaths is noble.”
“I’m not sure that I agree,” said Henry. “It’s a means to an end, but neither the means nor the end are particularly benevolent. If you think that the Oath of Silence is virtuous, then you have to believe that silence itself is a virtue. I think it’s important to show restraint when we speak, to make sure that we listen to other people, and to properly think about things before we act. But silence as silence … I’ve been working at the orphanage for a year now. I’ve gotten to know the sisters. There are times when the silence isn’t so good. This young girl, about seven years old, was dropped off at the orphanage. The only one available was Sister Florence. The girl was crying, because her parents had just died, and Florence sat on the bed with her, trying to soothe her by holding her close. The girl kept asking Sister Florence why this thing had happened to her parents, asking what was going to happen to her, and all Florence could do was try to comfort the girl in silence. When Florence was sitting next to that girl, she wasn’t thinking that silence was a virtue, she was thinking that it was a burden she would have to bear so she wouldn’t be looked down upon by her sisters. She let that girl suffer more than was necessary because she was afraid of what the others would think, not because she was acting altruistically.”
Sofia adjusted her pack as she thought about this. “The Foresworn Sisters are one of the last lines of defense if the kingdom were ever truly in need,” said Sofia. “If there were ever a disaster, or an attack, the king would call in the sisters and they would finally make use of their gifts. In the old days they used to train more, but even now they know that’s part of their duty. This sister you’re talking about — Florence — she might have been thinking that this was a cost that had to be paid, that maybe there was nothing that she could anyway, no answer she could give that would make things better. You can’t know another person’s thoughts, Henry.”
Henry chewed on his lip for a moment. “No, I suppose not. I stand by the general principle though. Oathkeeping isn’t about virtue, it’s about something that’s close to but distinct from virtue. The oathkeepers have convinced themselves of the rightness of giving up many things, but part of that must be because thinking that they’re morally right makes it easier to keep their oaths. I don’t know how Ventor does it, but it must be clear to him — and you — that hunger isn’t a virtue, it’s only a means to an end.”
“I see what you’re saying,” said Sofia. “The means aren’t virtuous, they’re only adjacent to virtue. But then there are the ends to consider, if we want to know whether the oathkeepers are good. I’m not sure how you’d make the argument that the women who run the orphanages and engage in unconditional charity aren’t good, or how you’d say the men who defend the kingdom from threats and strike down dark wizards aren’t good. Perhaps they’re not perfectly good, but I don’t think it’s sensible to hold them to so high a standard.”
“Ah,” said Henry. “We could argue on that point as well. I have a great many opinions on a great many things, I think I should warn you of that now. But the day is nice and our journey is long, and we hardly know each other yet. Besides, there will be plenty of time to argue about the moral authority of the oathkeepers later on.”
“Very well,” said Sofia. “I’ll make an appointment to have an argument with you in a few days time.”
“For now, why don’t you tell me about yourself?” asked Henry. “I know you live in Marurbo, that you have an uncle who’s a sage, and that you’re an apprentice, but not much else. You’ve seen the home I grew up in, so you have me at a disadvantage.”
“Is there anything in particular you’d like to know about me?” asked Sofia. Unfortunately, she’d have to answer as Fiona, but if he asked the right questions, she could give him something close to the truth. She would tell him the truth about herself, probably, but not until they were far away from any oathkeepers, especially Ventor.
“Tell me what your destination is,” said Henry. He waved his hand. “Not the Citadel, but beyond that. What are you going to accomplish with your life? Your uncle is a sage, do you plan on following in his footsteps?”
“Women can’t be sages,” said Sofia. “If you want to be a woman of learning, you need to join the Foresworn Sisters. That’s not to my liking.”
“Even though they’re good women?” asked Henry.
“They are,” said Sofia. “But it’s not for me. Even if I thought I could handle making the oaths, I wouldn’t want to live out my life in a convent. I want to cross the oceans. I want to speak with the elder spirits. I want to climb mountains. There are so many things that I’ve only read about in books, mountain vistas and sweeping plains, great deserts and foul swamps. There are people out there, people who I could never meet in Marurbo. People like you, in fact. I want to uncover every rock and open every door, until the world has no more mysteries left in it, no splendors I haven’t feasted my eyes on, no meals I haven’t tasted. That’s impossible to do in a single lifetime, but I think I might as well try.”
“You’re making a good start already,” said Henry. “We’ll see the Citadel, and from there it’s not too much work to venture into the Silent Desert, at least for a day or two.”
They walked in silence for a bit.
“My father didn’t want me to go,” said Sofia. “He would have stopped me, if he’d found out I was leaving in time. I sometimes feel like I wasted the first sixteen years of my life not doing anything worthwhile, never venturing beyond the lines my father drew in the sand.” The words came out quickly. Sofia had never talked to anyone about these things, aside from Ulf. “It’s not that he didn’t mean well, but he was too protective. He tried to shield me from the breadth of the world.”
“Did you feel bad about leaving him?” asked Henry.
“A little bit,” Sofia admitted. “I feel less guilt than I thought I would. There will be a reckoning when I get home, but until then, I’m living more every week on the road than I had in every year stuck in the house.” She looked at the untouched nature around them. They were in the space between towns, where the woods hadn’t been turned into farmland. The road was little more than packed dirt and taking a few steps off to the side might have let her imagine that she was in the wilderness. “What about you? I’m going to become a great explorer, if I have my way. What’s Henry’s ideal destination?”
“Oh, nothing so grand as you,” said Henry. “I’m going to fix Donkerk.”
“Fix it in what way?” asked Sofia. “It’s not broken, so far as I can see.”
“Of course it’s broken,” said Henry. “The only reason that people think it’s not broken is that it’s been broken for so long that they’ve gotten used to it. When I was growing up there was a paddock gate that didn’t latch properly. When you closed it, you had to move a rock over so that it would stay closed and the goats wouldn’t get out. It was like that for years, as long as I could remember. When I got older, my fathers even showed me how to move the rock so that the paddock would stay closed. At some point they’d stopped thinking of the gate as being broken. Their temporary solution had become a permanent one, even though it was a constant inconvenience. Two years ago, I fixed it, and the improvement was immediately obvious to all of us — if my fathers had stopped to think about the gate, they would have realized that this was a fix that they needed to find the time for ages ago. It’s the same with Donkerk. There are hundreds of things that just happen without anyone really thinking that it’s for the best, but at the same time not thinking about actual solutions.”
There was that word again, ‘fathers’, which gave Sofia pause. She shouldn’t have flinched at it, given that her own family was fractured. “You want to make Donkerk better,” said Sofia.
“Yes,” said Henry. “It’s broken in ways that most people give little thought to, and I’d like to fix it.”
“People might get a little nervous if you tell them that you’re going to solve problems they don’t know they have,” said Sofia. “In fact, it makes me nervous.”
“We were speaking before about books,” said Henry. “The king wanted to encourage literacy, but there weren’t books for people to read, so they didn’t end up reading. What the king should have done was to increase the amount of written material that his commoners would have access to, and more than that, make books that the commoners would honestly want to read. Bookbinding is expensive, but there are solutions that are cheaper, and since the king has a large amount of both money and power he could have put his efforts towards improving the processes by which books were made. Block printing with metal plates would have been a start. But the fact that the king’s sages didn’t identify this weakness in the plan for increased literacy is a sign that the system of sages is broken too. The sages are competing against one another with no real oversight and no metrics by which the quality of their wisdom can be judged, at least in normal circumstances. If you look at what really moves the sages, providing the best possible advice to the king is only a tertiary concern.”
“You want to increase the number of people who can read by replacing the sages?” asked Sofia. She could see now what Henry had said about having many opinions.
“I don’t think the sages need to be replaced,” said Henry. He gave her a cautious look. “Your uncle would still have a job. I’m only suggesting that just as there is a sage of spirits and a sage of agriculture, there should also be a sage of sages in order to ensure that the whole system is working as it ought to be. If you’re asking what I’d want to do, being the sage of sages sounds like a good first start. Once I’ve gotten Donkerk into shape, I’ll start working on the rest of the world.”
“You’re not lacking for ambition, I’ll give you that,” said Sofia.
“This from the girl who wants to open every door?” asked Henry.
He smiled again, in a way that was impossibly charming. In many ways, what Henry was saying echoed Rowan’s grand designs, but there was something indescribably different about them. They both had plans for changing the world, but Rowan treated the kingdom as his birthright. Henry seemed to want to change things because he thought they needed changing. Rowan wanted to change things because he could. Sofia knew that she wasn’t being charitable toward her brother, but it was sometimes hard to be. Rowan didn’t have the same charm that Henry had.
“Don’t worry,” said Henry. “The first thing I’ll do as sage of sages is to appoint you as the royal explorer. I’ve always felt that we know too little about the world.”
Rowan delved into his father’s mind yet again. The dusty room that was supposed to keep his father’s secrets was slow to give up anything, in a way that was wholly frustrating. Rowan was uncovering much, but almost all of it was irrelevant. If Rowan hadn’t known better, he would have thought that the room was a false front, a trap for anyone seeking answers. The real secrets would be stored somewhere else, looking completely innocuous. The only person who could have managed such a thing was Ibrahim, and Ibrahim wasn’t so paranoid as to do something like that when the king’s mind was already defended by a powerful seed. Without the armory at his disposal, Rowan would never have been able to get past Ibrahim’s remnant, and Ibrahim would have known that. Still, King Aldric’s mind wasn’t giving up its secrets as quickly or as easily as Rowan would have liked.
The biggest thing Rowan had found so far were the affairs. King Aldric had sought out a number of women from all over Marurbo and had his way with them, always in disguise. Roughly half of the memories within the dusty room related to these affairs in one way or another. The affairs were not happy things, not even in the moment of the act, which made the purpose of them clear. King Aldric was siring bastards in order to ensure that the royal line could be controlled.
Rowan’s grandfather had only a single child before dying young, and he had been the only child of his generation to bear children due to severe mortality. The royal line was thus greatly reduced, leaving Rowan and Sofia as the only heirs of note. If Aldric died, the Boreal Crown would pass to Rowan. If Rowan died, the Crown would pass to Sofia. Yet if Sofia then died, no one truly knew where the crown would pass to. It was possible that it would pass to a third cousin, of which there were too many to count, most of them now belonging to ducal lines. However, because the magic that imbued the Boreal Crown did not care one whit for whether a son or daughter was trueborn, it was also entirely possible that the Boreal Crown would land on the head of a middle-aged farmer whose father had been a bastard. There were a number of reasons that this could not be permitted.
King Aldric was siring bastards as a way of taking matters into his own hands. He had long ago committed not to marrying again, a matter on which he seemed entirely firm. Instead, he had sons and daughters with needy women around town, taking to the duty with a somber attitude. When the children were born, they would be provided for by a fund which had been marked for the training of learned men. Rowan had so far seen eight of these bastards, his half-brothers, each of them given a fine education in and around Marurbo. They had no idea about the nature of their parentage and neither did their parents, but if King Aldric’s son and daughter both died, these bastards would have some semblance of the education needed to be an effective ruler, if not the mindset. The kingdom would be saved from all the problems that would come from a true commoner becoming king at a moment of crisis, or worse, one of the dukes assuming power. The king checked on his bastards often, if the memories were anything to go by, but there was no contact, only reports delivered by the oathkeepers.
Rowan had panicked when he’d found the first bastard, but only because he hadn’t been able to tell the date. If his father had sired bastards before Rowan had been born, the Boreal Crown would have gone to them instead of Rowan. Numerous forays into King Aldric’s mind had shown that all of the bastards post-dated Sofia’s birth though.
This made it all the more puzzling that King Aldric had put so much distance between himself and his trueborn son. The king had taken to siring bastards because he saw that as his duty to his kingdom, giving them each an education that rivaled Rowan’s own, yet for all that foresight, the king had shown little interest in training his one trueborn son the business of actually ruling the kingdom of Donkerk. The answer to this puzzle had to be somewhere within the king’s mind, but so far it had eluded Rowan.
Ventor had first gone to the eastern edge of town, then down the road for long enough to catch up to the caravan making its way to the shrine of Saint Poris. There were sixty miles between Leshampur and the small town of Trokin, which was several days of sedate travel with oxen pulling the wagons. Ventor could cover a mile’s distance in the space of half a minute if he was moving at a dead sprint, so it was hardly any trouble to close the distance.
“I’m looking for Regina, the butcher’s daughter,” said Ventor to the pilgrims, who were staring at him with slack jaws. He would have asked for Henry, but it was already clear that the boy wasn’t among the travelers. If he had been, he would have raised his head and asked why Ventor was there. It would have been a breach of trust between them, but such was the price of oaths.
A young girl tentatively raised her hand. “I’m Regina.”
“Are you acquainted with a boy named Henry who works at the orphanage?” asked Ventor. “Blond hair, blue eyes, and possessed of a charming manner?”
Regina blushed. “I know him,” she said. “Did he send you for me?” As if Henry had some command of the oathkeepers. The notion was so preposterous that Ventor had to keep himself from scowling.
“I take it that you spoke with Henry about this pilgrimage,” said Ventor, not deigning to answer her question. “What did he say?” As they spoke, Ventor kept pace with the wagon, hardly feeling the effort of moving even with the weight of the Strangheid and Ravener resting in a sheath against his hip.
“I told him that I was going to pray at the shrine,” said the butcher’s daughter. “I asked him whether he had plans to come with. He spends so much time at the orphanage, after all, I thought he’d have some interest in seeing the site of a real saint. He said he would think about it, but that was a week ago. I thought perhaps he would show up this morning, but then we left. He could still catch up to us, like you did, I suppose.” A thick-necked man that Ventor took to be her father frowned through this.
“Thank you for your answer,” said Ventor. He stretched for a moment and turned back toward Leshampur. The boy had lied. Not just that, it had been a deliberate, calculating lie. It might have been one thing if Henry had made something up, but he must have heard this girl’s request and thought that it would make for a convincing story. If he hadn’t been so artless in telling the lie, it wouldn’t have been until the pilgrims returned that Ventor realized anything was wrong. Yet for all that, Ventor believed that Henry had been in a hurry. The question was why.
Ventor had taken his first two steps down the road when a smell hit him. He paused for a moment to take it in, a sickly sweet smell that made his mouth water. He turned to see one of the pilgrims eating slices of honeyed pear from a small jar, sliding one after another down his mouth. The man seemed to think nothing of it, and for a brief moment Ventor wanted to break the man’s face apart. Six years of hunger had taught Ventor that some people didn’t deserve to eat, didn’t treat food with the respect it was due. Ventor had stolen a jar of honeyed pears during his misspent youth, in the months before Rector Delland had picked him up off the streets and inducted him into the holy order. The stolen pears had dripped with amber liquid, smelling of the spices that were used to season them, cinnamon and cardamom, brown sugar and butter, lemon and cloves and —
“Are you alright?” the man asked.
“Fine,” replied Ventor. “Just considering my next move.” He bounded away before he could make a mistake that would cost him his oaths, but the smell lingered until long after it should have faded.
Nathan was another young boy, roughly Henry’s age. He had a scar along one side of his head that was only partially covered by shaggy brown hair. Ventor had expected him to be a bit simple the first time they met, as Nathan had that look about him, but he acted much like any other child his age. Ventor had met many boys during his time in Leshampur, but they’d all begun to melt together in his mind, like sugary treats that had sat in a store window for too long. Aside from his scar, the only thing that marked Nathan as out of the ordinary was his friendship with Henry. That was why Ventor had made note of him. The two boys had lived near each other at one point, to hear Henry tell it, though Nathan now took up residence as an apprentice candlemaker in Leshampur.
“When was the last time you saw Henry?” asked Ventor. He stood in the chandler’s shop with wax drippings crunching beneath his feet.
“Two days ago, it must have been,” said Nathan. He touched the scar on the side of his head, which seemed to be a nervous habit. “Why, are you looking for him?”
“Yes,” said Ventor. “Do you know where he might have gone?”
“No idea,” replied Nathan with a smile. “He was always talking about going off to find the love of his life, but I’d have thought he would have said goodbye if he were leaving.”
Ventor frowned. “The love of his life?”
“Well,” said Nathan cautiously. “It’s not my place to say, given that it’s the sort of thing that always got him blushing.”
“By the power of my station, I compel you,” said Ventor. “The life of the king might be in danger.”
“Really?” asked Nathan. He shrugged. “Well I don’t see how it could help, but Henry met this noble girl some years ago. He never told me that specifics of how they met, nor did he ever let her name slip out, but he was real smitten with her. He always said that he was going to track her down. That’s why he was —” Nathan stopped in mid-sentence and closed his mouth for a moment. “Well, that’s why he’s so eager to prove himself,” Nathan continued, speaking quickly to cover the silence he’d made. “He learned how to do all sorts of things so that he would be able to impress her when they finally met again. Did you know he speaks five languages?”
“I wasn’t aware,” said Ventor. He rubbed at his throat for a moment, trying to relieve the aching thirst. As usual, the light massage did nothing for him. “He’s a very peculiar boy.”
“He breaks the mold,” Nathan agreed, looking at the candles all around them.
“Tell me, why did he go to work at the orphanage?” asked Ventor. “So far as I can tell, he was never paid for his labor. There was some lip service paid to him working off some spiritual debt, but I never quite believed that.”
Nathan turned away. “I never got the full story,” he said.
“Yes you did,” replied Ventor. “Tell me what he told you, in full. My authority in this matter is effectively limitless.” One hand went to rest on the pommel of Ravener, but the truth was that Ventor could have inflicted grievous injuries on the boy without any need for a weapon.
“Henry is my friend,” said Nathan. “He has been since we were little. What his family did for me … I couldn’t repay that by betraying his trust.”
At times like this, Ventor’s temper could cloud his vision. He had once been a calm and reserved man, but the years of hunger had worn away at his nerves. He now found it easy to be angry with a young boy who’d done little but show loyalty to his friend. That anger was just a reflection of the clawing hunger and aching thirst Ventor lived with every day. Violence might compel an answer from Nathan, but it was hardly clear thinking. Knowing that didn’t make Ventor any more calm, but the chain of the Oath of Fealty compelled him to find his answer in the proper way.
“And what did his family do for you?” asked Ventor. He made sure not to grit his teeth. It was the honeyed pears, that was the cause of his foul mood.
Nathan stared at the floor. “I was kicked in the head by a mule,” said Nathan. His fingers went to the scar on the side of his head, seemingly of their own accord. “Hirrush put me back together.” He looked up at Ventor. “I’m not supposed to talk about it, but only because they’re private people. It wasn’t dark magic, you have to understand that, he just … it was like I was a broken cup and all the pieces had to be glued back together. Most people, if they see a broken cup, they throw it out, or maybe put it to use in some other way, but Hirrush made me whole.” Nathan seemed to regain some lost resolve and stared Ventor down. “I won’t tell you anything. Even if Henry hadn’t been like a brother to me, his father earned my loyalty the hard way.”
Ventor watched the boy. Those who shape his mind … the sages had long wondered whether that referred to mentalism. If the candlemaker’s apprentice was telling the truth, there was a mentalist of some considerable power practicing some miles to the north — and that man was a relative of Henry’s. The pieces were finally clicking into place. The savior had been under Ventor’s nose the entire time, looking on and even helping in the investigation. Had Henry known that he was the stolen orphan? Ventor couldn’t imagine that he didn’t. Yet that left the question of why Henry wouldn’t have said anything, and why he had left so suddenly. But then, Henry hadn’t known why Ventor was looking, had he?
“I won’t press further,” said Ventor. He turned to go before looking over his shoulder. “If you happen to see Henry, or you have some way of getting a message to him, let him know that I’m looking for him. The kingdom is in grave need of his services.”
It was near sunset when they found a campsite, where they stopped to spend the night by mutual agreement. Sunset was far too late to make camp, but they’d been talking to each other for hours and time had slipped away from them. They’d be eating dried meat from their packs instead of settling in for a stew, though Henry still went through the work of making a fire in the pit that some kind soul had left behind for them. He had taken a fair amount of supplies from the cottage before he left, including a bedroll, a good knife, a waterskin, and a small pot, which seemed to be everything that a knowledgeable person might need to make their way through long stretches of wilderness. Henry cheated slightly in starting the fire. There was a small ritual that required nothing more than a drop of blood smeared in a circle, which Henry provided while Sofia was otherwise occupied. The ritual created a ward that kept heat from leaving its small area, which led to a build up which eventually ignited the wood it was drawn on. Henry sucked at the cut on the side of his thumb as he admired his handiwork, which was about the time that Sofia came to sit down.
“Well let me ask you this,” said Sofia. “Is there anything that you don’t have an opinion on?” The campsite’s previous occupants had moved two large logs around the fire pit, and Sofia sat down on one in a way that had to have been deliberately unladylike.
“Opinions are easy,” said Henry with a shrug. “So long as I know anything at all about a topic, I’m going to have an opinion. Sometimes that opinion is going to be wrong, but one of the great things about opinions is that you can change them. And if you share your opinions, you’re much more likely to come across someone who disagrees with you and can help you to be less wrong, which is why I give my opinions so freely. Maybe the oathkeepers are nothing like what I imagine them to be. Maybe the small number of them I’ve met aren’t representative of the whole. I don’t think it’s out of the question that I might meet an oathkeeper who’s spent decades studying all of the same things that I’ve thought of and stands ready to demolish me in a debate. So long as I don’t start thinking of my opinions as something sacred, there’s no harm in them. So no, there’s nothing that I can think of that I don’t have an opinion on.”
“There’s something I’d like to hear from you then,” said Sofia. “Tell me your opinion of the king.”
It was unfair of the princess to ask that of him, especially since he was pretending not to know that she was the princess. Still, Henry imagined that he would done the same in her position. “That’s a big question,” said Henry. “I’ll start with a caveat. I only know the king through looking at the kingdom. So far as I know, the king hasn’t written any books for me to read. His decrees tell me very little, because he’s not the one to actually write them. So I judge the king by his kingdom, or at least the parts of it that he’s actually exercised control over.” Sofia waved a hand for him to get on with it. “The king is kind and benevolent, but he’s also plagued by uncertainty, which hurts him immensely on a number of levels. He can recognize good virtues, but he’s better at encouraging them among other people than following through on them himself. He’s got less power than people think he does, which seems to mostly be a result of having taken the throne at a young age, along with that lack of direction.”
Sofia was frowning. She scooted closer to the fire, which was now crackling along, and warmed her hands. “You’re right that you don’t know him,” she said. “But … I think you’re correct. I never really thought that much about the king, even though he’s … well, a central figure in my life. Uncertainty isn’t what you’d think of if you saw him, but in some ways what you’re saying makes sense.”
“The Boreal Crown masks some of it,” said Henry. “The rest he just fakes because it’s expected of him. For the record, my opinion was formed before I knew about the prophecy, but now that I know it I think that probably played into it. Can you imagine being king and knowing that your daughter was going to be murdered but not being able to stop it?”
“Prophecy isn’t set in stone,” said Sofia. “And the prophecy doesn’t say that the princess is going to die, or even that she’ll get hurt.”
“All the same,” said Henry. He paused for a moment, trying to gauge Sofia. “So you’ve heard my opinion, what do you think of the king?”
Sofia stared at the fire for a long while before answering. Henry wasn’t sure how honestly she would answer the question, or whether she would try to answer as her alter ego would, but this had been something that he’d been curious about for a while. In his long-ago dream of meeting Sofia again, her father had been an unfortunate roadblock to their potential relationship.
“King Aldric tries is best,” said Sofia. “He listens to his sages, even though they squabble amongst themselves more often than not and can’t always agree on even basic matters of fact. He fights with his son about almost everything and treats his daughter like she’s made of glass. I don’t have any idea what his plan for the future is, given that he’s shown no interest in handing responsibility to either of his children. I think that ties into the uncertainty that you were talking about, which I had never noticed until you said something about it. He cares deeply about the kingdom.” When Sofia finished there was a feeling of melancholy in the air, along with the feeling that the princess had left something unsaid. He cares deeply about the kingdom, but that’s not enough. Henry could only guess at what was going through Sofia’s mind. She looked up at him with a faint smile. “We’ve got a long day ahead of us tomorrow,” she said. “I think it’s time to get some sleep.”
They slept side by side with the open air above them. They talked more, for a bit, about inconsequential things, but eventually the gaps between topics of conversation grew longer and longer, until Sofia wasn’t responding at all. Henry dropped into the mental realm for a few moments to take a look at Sofia’s mind, a honeysuckle and rosemary ball of brightly glowing light that was the only other mind within reachable distance. He was tempted to go into her mindscape, but he had little doubt that the royal mentalist had left her with a frighteningly strong defense. He was content to look at the glowing ball though. Henry had dreamed of Sofia for a long time. Now they were together. It wasn’t what he’d imagined it would be, but he was happy nonetheless.
Miriam was in the middle of looking through the ledgers when Ventor walked into the room.
“Tell me everything that you know about Henry,” he said. “It is very possible that time is of the essence.”
Miriam put in a bookmark to save her place. She relished a break from the numbers. “Henry came to us nearly a year ago, led by his father. He was sent to work here as punishment because he had insulted some other boy for not having parents, I believe. He’s worked diligently ever since, though his obligation has long been fulfilled. We don’t pay him, though perhaps we would if the crown saw fit to provide more funding to its orphanages.” Miriam looked down at the ledgers. “I’m not sure what else you would want to know about him.”
“Describe his father,” said Ventor.
“He was a tall man, large around the waist with broad shoulders. A farmer, I think. I only spoke with him once.” Miriam frowned in thought. “He was missing two of his fingers.”
“A sign of dark magic,” breathed Ventor.
“Or a sign of a farming accident,” said Miriam. “I’ve known more than one man who’s lost a finger while threshing, or during butchery, and it’s not something I’d look twice at.”
“Has he ever mentioned that his uncle was a mentalist?” asked Ventor.
“What?” asked Miriam. “Never. Who did you hear that from?”
“A friend of Henry’s claimed that his mind had been made whole,” replied Ventor. “It fits the prophecy, if Henry lives with a mentalist. And if he lives with a dark wizard as well. He lied to us about where he was going, incidentally. He had lied about going to see his dying grandmother, and again about going on a pilgrimage to be in the company of a girl. I spoke with that girl and Henry was nowhere to be seen.”
“Surely there must be some sort of mistake,” said Miriam. “I’ve known Henry for a long time. He’s a good boy.”
“He’s a liar,” said Ventor.
“Perhaps he didn’t lie, but —”
“The things he has said are at odds with reality,” said Ventor. “I need to find him, but I have no idea where he went off to. You know where his parents live?”
“Yes,” said Miriam. “I can give you directions. It’s up the Miller’s road to the north, past —”
“Better if you come with,” said Ventor. He gestured to the Strangheid. “The armor I wear will be seen as a threat by those who wish ill upon the kingdom, even if I leave my sword behind, which I’m not keen to do. Arms and armor are a detriment to diplomacy, more often than not, especially when speaking with someone who would rightfully be brought to justice in better circumstances. I cannot avoid being a threat, but you can help to make it clear that all-out battle is not expected or wanted.”
“You’d send me into what you think are a pit of vipers?” asked Miriam. The danger, real or imagined, was less shocking than the idea that the senior oathkeeper would want to use her in such a manner. “You think a mentalist and a dark wizard would treat me kindly?”
“I will be by your side,” replied Ventor. “I will be there to protect you. I have killed dark wizards before and my mind has the best protections that the royal mentalist can provide.”
“Very well,” said Miriam. She began to gather her things. “You’re not worried that I’ll slow you down?”
“I am,” replied Ventor. “But I believe that my chances with you are better than without, even given the delay. If Henry picked a direction to leave at random, I have little hope of ever finding him, assuming that he does not want to be found. But if there are clues to be followed that clue me in to some ultimate destination or purpose, I will be bound to find him eventually. The risk lies in losing those clues, not in lacking raw speed.” He looked her up and down. “Besides that, if we need to move quickly, I can simply carry you.”
Miriam blushed at that. She wondered how he would do it, whether he would throw her over his shoulder or carry her in his arms like a husband carries his newlywed wife. She couldn’t think of a way he could manage it that wouldn’t be indelicate. There were already enough rumors about what the Foresworn Sisters and the Rectors got up to together without people seeing her carried off by a man like Ventor.
“It’s a long walk,” said Miriam. “Do you need me to grab you a waterskin?”
Ventor’s mouth drew tight as his eyes stayed on her.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” said Miriam. “That’s right, it’s not a —” but she stopped herself before saying that it wasn’t a problem. She didn’t know the full details of his oath, but all oaths cost a person something, otherwise there wouldn’t be any point. “Let’s just get going,” she said.
They left the orphanage after a leaving a quick note for the other sisters, then headed north along the Miller’s road and over the bridge that crossed the Perwhile. It was a sunny day, with just enough clouds to keep the sun from beating down. The songbirds were in full chorus as Miriam and Ventor made their way. It was as pleasant of a day as anyone could ask for to chase after a young boy.
“You can’t tell me what the prophecy says,” Miriam ventured. “But you can tell me what you expect of Henry, can’t you?”
“Expect of him in what regard?” asked Ventor.
“In regards to the prophecy,” said Miriam. “Everything you’re doing centers around the prophecy, which it would be helpful for me to know, but you can’t violate your oaths by telling it to me. However, everything that you’ve done since coming to Leshampur reflects that prophecy, and you’ve done nothing to hide those reflections. I’m not allowed to know what kind of stone was thrown into the pond, but I’m allowed to see the ripples that it produces, right?”
“Yes,” said Ventor. “There are commands the king might have given that would bind my hands even tighter, such that I would be compelled to not let any information slip out at all.”
“So produce some ripples,” said Miriam. “Tell me what you expect to be true of Henry, assuming that he’s the one you’re looking for.”
Ventor frowned and twitched his mustache. “I expect him to have skills beyond what he’s shown thus far. I was told just today that he speaks five languages. That might be true, but there would likely need to be more. What, precisely, I cannot say, but it would be some element of his nature which could not be duplicated by every institution controlled by the king.”
“That’s a tall order,” said Miriam. “Especially for such a young boy.”
Ventor nodded. “It is also possible that he has no special skills at the moment, but might grow into them given time. I have little doubt that when I bring the boy to Marurbo the king will want training and testing to begin at once, simply to give him the best chance of doing whatever it is he might be meant to do.” Ventor stared at the road ahead of them. He was keeping up a quick pace which was uncomfortably fast for Miriam. There was no doubt that she was slowing him down considerably. “How does one learn five languages at his age?” asked Ventor.
“He reads a lot,” said Miriam. “He was never shy about showing off some little piece of trivia he’d picked up from somewhere, nor about borrowing books to read in his free time. Though five languages … I wouldn’t have thought that you could learn so much from books, even if you were exceptionally bright.”
“No,” said Ventor. “And his father is a simple farmer?”
“That’s what I was told, but I suppose we’ll see, won’t we?” asked Miriam.
The entry to the farm where Henry had grown up was barely visible from the road, as it was simply two wagon ruts leading into the woods with grass growing up between them. It stood in contrast to the other paths they had passed on their way, which were properly leveled and built for heavy use. What kind of farmer allowed the primary entry onto their land to be so overgrown and ramshackle? One possible answer was that Henry’s father wasn’t actually a farmer at all.
Ventor drew his sword, Ravener, which reflected the dappled sunlight with its mirror finish.
“I don’t think there’s cause for that quite yet,” said Miriam.
“Ravener can detect the boundaries of wards,” replied Ventor. “If you see a glow on it, you will know that we are about to pass through some bit of dark magic, which I would prefer not to do if that’s even remotely possible.”
Miriam followed behind Ventor as he walked forward with a surfeit of caution. He moved carefully, sometimes swiping the sword through the air then nodding as if that had confirmed some suspicion. Miriam knew very little about dark wizards, and had never — to her knowledge — met one. There were persistent rumors about a witch living somewhere to the north who would treat ailments that a physician could not touch, and there were tales she’d heard variations on from the time she was a young girl, but dark magic had always seemed a bit unreal. Ventor was treating it as a clear and present threat based on the mere mention of a man missing two fingers.
“Let’s say that Henry is missing his fingers because of dark magic,” said Miriam. “Why would that necessarily mean that he’s a dark magician himself?” she asked.
“It wouldn’t,” replied Ventor. He swung his sword through the air in front of him again, to no obvious effect, then stooped down to look at the ground in front of him. “It might have been the result of an accident, as you said. Or perhaps he has only given a piece of himself as part of a magical trade through some intermediary, which would be only half so damning as being a practitioner himself. I do not believe that we can risk charity in this case.” He held himself in a squat as he looked into the woods, first to the left and then to the right. “Broken branches,” he explained. He traced a semi-circle with his finger. “Someone traveled this way very recently, going perpendicular to the road.” He touched the ground briefly and then lifted his fingers to look at them. “Talc. There is no ward here, but there was one, or will be one soon. They wiped the circle away after they made it, but not well enough.”
Miriam peered at his fingers. “Broken branches and a bit of white powder are enough to know that?” she asked. Ventor knew more than her, clearly, but it was impossible to contain her skepticism. Of all the strangeness she’d ever seen from Henry, there was nothing to indicate that he’d been raised by bad parents.
“I have dealt with many dark wizards,” said Ventor. “I have dealt with many wards. This one is common, meant to warn of intruders and nothing more. Instead of acting as a warning to them, it now acts as a warning to me.”
“But you said there was no ward,” replied Miriam.
“There are different elements to a ritual,” said Ventor. “They need not all be done at the same time. In many cases a dark wizard will choose to delay, so that in a moment of need he can complete the last part of his ritual and activate whatever effect he desires. Disconnection and delay are valuable tools.”
“And why would they delay a ward such as this?” asked Miriam.
Ventor shrugged. “It might be that he thought he had more time than he did. This ward is good for no more than a day. Once set up, it would be prudent to leave its activation for as long as possible.” He looked into the woods. “If the ward is circular, it would have taken the better part of a morning. We must go carefully. This speaks to preparation.”
They went more slowly down the path after that, with Ventor making more checks with his magical sword, though he still turned up nothing.
The farm was nothing like Miriam had imagined it would be. She pictured farmhouses as sturdy, functional things, but this was more of a cottage than anything else. Grass grew from its roof, giving the impression that the structure had risen out of the earth like a sprouting seed. There were no plowed fields to be seen, nor any crops growing in ordered rows. Instead there were open fields and large penned in areas situated next to a few outbuildings. All in all, the place was idyllic but not much like an actual farm. The land was hardly being put to use. There was something else off about it, which took Miriam a moment to notice; it was silent. The fences spoke to animals, but there were none in sight, and no sounds coming from the barn.
Ventor hesitated with his sword in hand. “Ravener will detect any wards that might be in place,” he said. “But it will also serve as a message of hostility. It is clear by now that Henry’s father is a dark wizard, but capturing or killing him is of far less importance than bringing the boy to Marurbo alive.” He ran his tongue beneath his upper lip, causing his mustache to bulge out. “Are you brave?” he asked.
“I like to think that I am,” replied Miriam. She knew that wasn’t the same as saying that she was actually brave.
“Negotiate on my behalf,” he said. “It will require you to brave his magic, both whatever invisible traps have been set and whatever he might personally bring to bear against you. If he is a mentalist as well, as has been suggested to me, you will be vulnerable to that as well.”
Miriam looked closely at Ventor. She had hoped to see him pained at being forced to make this request, but there was only steadfast determination in the set of his jaw and the intensity of his gaze.
“I ask this of you because I believe it is the most realistic way of accomplishing the goals my king has set me,” said Ventor. “I do wish the situation were different, but if I stride forward to confront Henry’s supposed father myself, the situation will undoubtedly end with violence. Henry worked with me. He knew me well enough to know who I was. I cannot imagine there’s a dark wizard in this kingdom who would welcome me into their home without a fight, not even if I were stripped of my sword and armor.” He hesitated and sheathed his sword. “If anything happens to you, I will avenge you, so long as that lies within the boundaries of my oaths.”
Miriam adjusted her dress and straightened her wimple. “What do you have to offer in negotiation?” she asked. “You want only to take Henry to the king, so that he might be of service to the crown, but if his father is disinclined? Explanation is not negotiation. What can you give?”
Ventor grimaced at the cottage. “I can offer nothing, as I have no grant of authority from the king and no powers of discretion,” he said. “You can only offer those things the king might be persuaded to offer, but you cannot promise them unless you would like to violate your Oath of Honesty.”
“I’ve taken no such oath,” said Miriam.
Ventor gave her a look. “It is one of the foundational — no, there is no time for such a discussion. I would not compel you to lie, only to stress that the king has a great deal of power and would be willing to go to great lengths in order to secure the boy. It is possible that the king would grant a full pardon for any crimes that this man might have committed.”
Miriam swallowed and took a step toward the cottage. “You’ll avenge me?” she asked.
“It is possible that my orders will make that impossible,” said Ventor. “It is also possible that I will not have the time to avenge you. But given those caveats, yes, I will do my best within the constraints I am operating under.”
Miriam had always known there was much to dislike about the Oath of Honesty. Nevertheless, she strode forward without the assurance she’d been seeking from Ventor. She didn’t actually want him to avenge her and lay waste to whoever might kill her, she wanted Ventor to say that everything was going to turn out alright, but she supposed that his oath wouldn’t allow him to say that either.
She steeled herself and walked down the path without further conversation. She wasn’t sure that Henry’s father was actually a dark wizard, and even if he was, she wasn’t sure that he would have set up a trap to indiscriminately kill whoever walked into it. That made it easier to approach the cottage; if she was walking into danger either way, better to pretend that the danger didn’t exist. The path to the cottage curved between a ten-foot tall stone and a lonely-looking tree. In the brief moment when the stone obscured her view of the cottage, a man appeared by the door, startling her. It wasn’t the man she’d seen a year ago when Henry had been dropped off at the orphanage, but a slender man with long, greasy hair and a dour expression. He gestured for her to come forward. She swallowed and made her way over.
“Sister Miriam,” he said. “Henry has told us much about you.”
“I’m sorry,” said Miriam. “But I can’t say the same.”
“I’m Hirrush,” he said. “Omarr you’ve already met. You’re here about Henry?”
“Yes,” said Miriam. She was ten feet from Hirrush, who was standing next to the cottage, a distance that seemed uncomfortable to her but which she didn’t want to close. “I was …” She didn’t know quite how to broach the subject of prophecy and dark magic. “He said that he was going on a pilgrimage.”
“Yes,” said Hirrush. He folded his arms.
“He wasn’t actually going on a pilgrimage though,” continued Miriam. “I’m sorry, but can I speak with the boy’s father?”
“Has Henry done something wrong?” asked Hirrush as he stared at her.
“No,” said Miriam. “Or … he lied to me, which was wrong, but he’s done nothing beyond that. He’s not in trouble.” Miriam paused for a moment. “I’m sorry, but what’s your relationship with him?”
“I’m his uncle,” said Hirrush. “His mother, Patrice, was my sister. I’ve helped to raise the boy. You say that he hasn’t actually gone on this pilgrimage?”
“He has not,” replied Miriam. “We were wondering whether you knew where he’d gone.”
“You and Ventor?” asked Hirrush, nodding up the path to the forest. Miriam looked behind her, but Ventor was nowhere to be seen. “Henry was of the opinion that the oathkeeper from the capital didn’t trust him much.”
Miriam was silent for a moment. “Do you know where Henry has gone?” she asked.
“If he says that he has gone for a pilgrimage, then perhaps that’s where he’s gone,” said Hirrush.
“Did he tell you that?” asked Miriam.
“Yes,” replied Hirrush. “But if he has gone somewhere else, I wouldn’t worry too much. The boy can be excitable, but he has the skills necessary to make his way in the world, and the sense to come home if he gets in over his head. I don’t like the thought that he lied to us, but I can’t say I didn’t do worse in my youth.”
Miriam bit her lip. She was almost certain that this man was lying to her, but she didn’t know how to call him on it. Eventually she just decided that it was best to be forthright. “Are you a dark wizard?” she asked.
Hirrush laughed, then looked at her face for a moment while running his fingers through his hair. “You’re serious?” he asked. “I don’t believe any dark wizard would respond in the affirmative if asked that question.”
“It is important to the kingdom that Henry be found,” said Miriam. “I don’t know the specifics of it, but there is little that the king wants more. It is entirely possible that he would grant you a pardon for your crimes.”
“Well I’ve committed no crimes,” said Hirrush. “So that offer doesn’t sound so terribly sweet to me, even if I had any idea where it was that Henry went off to, which I don’t.”
Miriam looked back to the woods where Ventor was waiting.
“Is this where you call in the brute to strong arm me into telling you what I know?” asked Hirrush. “Do all arguments the king has with his subjects devolve to force?”
Miriam turned back to look at him. The venom in his voice was unexpected. “You said you knew nothing,” she replied.
“Will he believe that?” asked Hirrush. “Or will he try to squeeze an answer from me? Will he force his way into my home? I’m a simple farmer, there’s no way that I can resist a mighty oathkeeper, and he knows it.”
“Please,” said Miriam. “It would be better for Henry if this could be resolved amicably. A full pardon —”dis
“Do you have that authority?” asked Hirrush.
“No,” said Miriam. “But the king —”
“The king would have no incentive to honor any agreement,” said Hirrush. “By the time we came to his attention, all use would have been extracted from us, and a display of honor toward dark wizards would come with many costs and few benefits.” He gave her a humorless smile. “We had told Henry that dealing with oathkeepers would lead to trouble.”
“Where did he go?” asked Miriam. “That’s all we need to know. It’s a matter of prophecy, of the safety of the princess and of the kingdom itself.” But she knew that she was losing him, if she hadn’t lost him already.
“As I’ve told you,” replied Hirrush. “We know nothing more than you do.”
Miriam turned away from him and headed back up the path. When she got to the standing stone, she turned to look back at the cottage, but Hirrush was nowhere to be seen. She frowned and wondered at what she might have done differently. The problem was that Henry had clearly talked to them, not just about where he had gone, but about everything that was happening at the orphanage. She would have been surprised if Hirrush knew as much about the prophecy as she did. And it was also clear that they were, if not dark wizards, then at least the sort of people who harbored enmity towards the crown. That wasn’t a particular surprise, given the king’s campaign against dark wizards had claimed so many lives.
When Miriam reached the woods, she found Ventor standing with his mirrored sword in his hand and a grim expression on his face.
“I don’t suppose you’ve met with success?” he asked.
But before Miriam was able to answer, an enormous explosion came from behind her, flattening the grass and shaking the trees. Miriam turned to look just as the fireball was beginning to fade and the first matchstick pieces of the cottage began to rain down. She turned back to Ventor as she felt the blood drain from her face.
In his hands, his sword, Ravener, had begun to glow. He stared at it with raised eyebrows then opened his mouth to speak. Lightning from a cloudless sky struck him three times in the chest. He fell to the ground with smoke rising from him as the sword, no longer glowing, slipped from his hands. All around them was the smell of smoke and the sound of debris hitting the ground.