The sitting room had become Rowan’s private place. It was the site of his first foray into disobedience against Ibrahim, as well as the accomplishment of a martial victory in the mental realm over his old master. Both those victories were private ones, never to be shared with another living soul, which made the sitting room seem like a place of secrets. Rowan found himself coming there often, which led to him eventually requesting that the castle staff divert all others who might wish to use the room for their own purposes. In that way, the sitting room would never be occupied when Rowan had need of it, and the feeling of secrecy could remain. Most of what Rowan was doing was mentalism, which could be done from virtually anywhere in the castle so long as his body stayed comfortable, but there was something about the sitting room that got him in the mood for subterfuge.
The sitting room was near enough to the center of the castle that Rowan could breach any mind he wanted to, though the farther ones required him to expend a bit of extra effort. Much of the work he did was in removing all of the seeds that Ibrahim had placed in the minds of the castle’s subjects and replacing them with his own. It weakened their defenses against mentalism, as Rowan’s seeds were nowhere near as strong as Ibrahim’s had been. Rowan had at first tried to conserve his resources and beat Ibrahim’s seeds without any support from dark mentalism, but he could only manage to best the weakest of seeds in the most deficient of minds. All others required the use of a sword, which would rust through after the fact and need to be replaced with a ritual that required a happy memory. Rowan’s strategy was to chain these excursions, killing Ibrahim’s seed with a sword, then using a happy memory of the mind he’d just breached in order to make a sword for the next one.
It was grueling work which Rowan did in fits and starts. Killing various versions of Ibrahim had been satisfying at first, but now it was merely rote. The script they followed was similar each time, first disbelief that he was there, then wariness, then a warning that they would tell the real Ibrahim. Sometimes Rowan told them that Ibrahim was comatose, while other times he simply got down to the business of killing them. It was necessary work, on the assumption that his father would eventually bring on a new mentalist. It was impossible to know what direction Ibrahim might have left his many seeds. If Rowan had been in his place, he would certainly have made plans for revenge to be carried out by his many seeds.
He dispatched with three of Rowan’s seeds, held in the minds of a scullery maid, a messenger, and a cook, then decided to take a break in the real world. It was important not to neglect the physical self, so he had his servants keep a decanter of water available to him as well as a platter of meats and cheeses. This time when he came back up from his jumbled castle mindscape though, he was surprised to find the seat across from him occupied by a dour-looking girl with bags under her eyes and her hands on her knees.
“Who are you?” asked Rowan. Her dress was a light green and plainly styled, completely unlike the uniforms that were used int the castle.
The girl looked up at him. “You really don’t remember me?” she asked.
“I don’t,” said Rowan. There was no need for courtesy. When speaking to a noble there were protocols of etiquette to follow in circumstances like this, polite nothings to express embarrassment at the slip of memory and gratitude at the chance to meet anew. Here Rowan could simply be blunt. “Who let you in here?”
“I was owed a favor,” she said. She folded her hands in her lap and squeezed them together. “You took my memories. I want them back.”
Rowan couldn’t remember who the girl was. For an ordinary person, this might have been embarrassing, but Rowan was a trained mentalist. It was supposed to be impossible for him to forget anything; he had whole books stored in his head which he could quote verbatim. Every conversation was a memory, trapped in amber and ready to be recalled at a moment’s notice. Rowan simply did not forget a face. Yet it was clear that he had, which could mean only one thing; he had given up the memory on purpose.
“I have no idea who you are,” said Rowan. “You have no right to be here, and no right to hurl accusations against me.” The smart thing to do might have been to get up immediately and distance himself from her, but Rowan was growing increasingly certain that he actually had done something to her and then wiped away the memory of her for one reason or another. Curiosity about what had happened between them was getting the better of him.
“I was a serving girl,” she said. “My name is Amelia, you called me by it every time we met. You called me into this very sitting room, on eight different occasions. The first time I had naive thoughts about what you wanted from me, but you explained that it was only a bit of mentalism that you wished to practice. Every time it was the same. I would sit in this chair and you would sit in that one, you with your eyes closed and me trying my best not to worry about what it was you were doing.” She gripped her knees. “I never felt any change, not at the time. But as the weeks went on, I found myself in bad moods more often than in the past, for no real reason. Eventually I was let go. You gave me money, in person, from your own purse.”
Rowan pursed his lips. He had no memory of any of that. Yet it made no sense to deny it outright, not before checking to make sure that there were no witnesses to corroborate. Better to lie about why he had given her money than deny something there might be evidence for.
“I did nothing to you,” said Rowan. “I think you misunderstand mentalism if you think that I could make you so dour. A mentalist’s affect on mood is only temporary. We can change a sunny day into a rainy one, but we can’t make it rain forever, not without going into the mind over and over again.” Still he didn’t get up from his seat to call in the guards.
“You took my happy memories,” said Amelia. “I didn’t find out until I moved back in with my parents. They couldn’t understand what had happened to me, they thought that surely it was some scandal I didn’t want to share with them. Then one night my father started talking about this time we’d gone to an apple orchard in the country when I was nine years old. We helped my uncle with the harvest, then drank cider into the night. I was confused. He described it in detail, but I had no recollection of any of it.”
“Your own poor memory —” Rowan began.
“There were dozens like that!” Amelia shouted. Her voice echoed against the walls. “I talked to every person in my life and asked them about the happy times we’d had together. I recognized none of what I was told. You, you stole my memories, I want them back.”
Rowan frowned. If he had done something to her memories, which seemed likely, he had no way to undo it. The memories weren’t taken, they were sacrificed in a dark ritual. He could no more bring a dead chicken back to life. He had little trouble believing that he had sacrificed his own memories during the course of testing some ritual or another, and any interaction he’d ever had with Amelia was just as surely gone.
“I did not steal your memories,” said Rowan. “Such a thing is a possibility with mentalism, but far beyond my abilities. There was only one person in Marurbo who could have accomplished something like that, and he has fallen ill. I am sorry that you feel I am responsible. If you would like, I can arrange for a sanitarium visit.” In the back of his head, he was wondering how many witnesses she had lined up to testify against him and what it was they would say.
Amelia stood up. “Remember that I gave you a chance,” she said. She turned away and walked out the door.
Rowan had bitten back a threat of his own. As soon as she stepped from the room, he sunk back into the mental realm and located her; her mind was gentle mournful music, a dim pink light, the smell of vanilla, and feel of starched cotton. He did not enter it immediately, only tracked it as it left. Ibrahim had never shown Rowan the trick to correlating the mental realm with the physical, but Amelia showed no signs of stopping to speak with other people, and her path away from the castle seemed clear.
He would have slipped into her mind then and there to stop her before she could do more damage to him, but that would have only raised more questions that he didn’t want to answer. No, Amelia would have to be dealt with in a more subtle manner than that.
“Okay,” said Sofia. “Here’s one I’ve been wondering about. Why sage of sages?”
“I told you,” said Henry. “The system of sages is broken. It needs someone to unbreak it.”
“Well, yes,” said Sofia. She was walking beside him, since the road was wide enough to allow it. They had woken up from camping at around daybreak and headed out from there after a light breakfast made by Henry. In her opinion there was a feeling hanging in the air of not quite regret, but at least the gravity of the situation. They had made a commitment to travel together for weeks, which now seemed to her to be the height of impulsiveness, even if there was nothing clearly wrong in her reasons for agreeing to have him come with. This was real. They were actually doing it. How could that not be a little bit shocking to her? She tried to show none of that to Henry, and either he didn’t feel it, or he was trying to mask the feeling the same as her.
“Yes,” repeated Sofia. “The sages don’t do their job properly because they compete among themselves instead of trying to actually make the kingdom a better place. The king generally follows the advice of the sages, or at least chooses from among the considered opinions of the sages, so if the sages aren’t doing their jobs, then the king will end up doing the wrong thing for the kingdom.”
“With no disrespect intended to your uncle,” said Henry.
“Of course,” said Sofia. She felt a pang of guilt that she quickly brushed aside. “But my question is why sage of sages? Why is the solution to that problem the creation of a new position of your own invention?”
“Look at the other alternatives,” said Henry. “I could become a sage who wasn’t explicitly in charge of handling the sages, but then I would just be stuck jockeying with the other sages for status and power. So it’s not enough to just be any old sage. I could just advise the king about how to handle the sages, but someone who advises the king is traditionally called a sage, so I’d be a sage of sages in all but name, which would be fine with me and not really worth splitting hairs over.”
“It’s still not clear to me how you’d actually accomplish that,” said Sofia.
“I’ll go down to Marurbo and convince the king of my worth,” said Henry.
“As simple as that?” laughed Sofia.
“It’s not a laughing matter,” said Henry, though he gave her a smile. “I actually think it’s one of the biggest, most difficult problems that exists in the world.”
“What is?” asked Sofia. “You’re being deliberately vague, did you know that?”
“Well if it’s deliberate, then I must know it, mustn’t I?” asked Henry. “But I’m talking about convincing people. Let’s say there are two men selling their wares at a market. The first man is bad at talking to people and convincing them to buy his products, but he his wares are of excellent quality and fairly priced. The second man is a born salesman, very charismatic, but his wares are poorly made and he prices them too high.”
“What are they selling?” Sofia interjected.
“Why does it —” Henry stopped and caught himself. “You’re forming a counterargument that’s something like, ‘Well its the job of their customers to look at the rugs or whatever and see for themselves’ or ‘The man with overpriced wares will lose out over time because he won’t get repeat customers and word will spread that he doesn’t put out good candles or whatever’.”
“Precisely so,” said Sofia. “And I imagine that your counterargument to my counterargument is that this might be a perfectly fine line of reasoning if we were just talking about physical goods and sales, but we’re not, we’re talking about services like accountants or barristers, or more to the point, sages, where a layperson doesn’t necessarily know that they’ve been provided a substandard service or that they’ve paid too much. If your barrister loses a case and tells you that it was unwinnable, maybe you believe him because he’s a poor barrister but really good at convincing people that he was just put in bad situations.”
“Have you managed to convince yourself to switch sides?” asked Henry.
“Not quite,” replied Sofia. “I was trained in basic argumentation, and one of the most important skills is understanding where your opponent is coming from. That’s all I’m doing. You’re saying, basically, that any method of evaluation is going to give results that are more about the evaluation that’s being used than the thing that you’re attempting to get a measure of, assuming that it’s a complex evaluation.”
“Right,” said Henry. “If there were a test to become a sage, you’d end up with a bunch of sages who were good at taking the sage test, which wouldn’t necessarily be the same as having all the best sages, especially if your test was created by someone who wasn’t very good at creating tests, or didn’t actually want the best sages.”
“So you’d have to get someone who was very good at creating sage tests and really wanted what was best for the kingdom,” said Sofia. “But I don’t see how you do that. And I don’t see how the perfect person to become sage of sages can convince the king without also being really good at convincing people.”
“Yes,” said Henry. “It’s a problem. Though I have to imagine that having truth on your side helps.” He paused. “Or,” he said, then paused again.
“Out with it,” said Sofia.
“Is that a town ahead?” asked Henry.
Sofia had been focusing her attention on him, but she turned to look at the road. They did indeed seem to be within a quarter mile of a small town. Its windmills were turning slowly.
“Are you trying to change the subject because you thought better of what you wanted to say?” asked Sofia. “Or because you take pleasure in being pressed on the point?”
Henry laughed. “I was going to talk about the dark arts.”
“Blood magic,” said Sofia with a grimace. It was a foul thing to laugh about and almost instantly spoiled her mood.
“Oh, no,” said Henry quickly. “It’s … my fathers always said that dark magic — ritual sacrifice — implied that other things could be dark too. They would always joke about how maybe the local potter was a dark potter, or a farmer was a dark farmer. It was an absurd kind of joke, I guess. But sometimes it’s not so hard to think about how something that’s not magical could be dark. With the two sellers at the market I mentioned before, I don’t think it’s so much of a stretch to call one of them a dark merchant.”
“So you would get good at convincing people,” said Sofia. “I don’t like equating that to dark magic.”
“Sorry,” said Henry. “Forget that part of it.” He drew in a deep breath. The town was quite close now. “But what I’m talking about isn’t just getting good at convincing people of thing, it’s using all the broken systems that I can see to my advantage. It’s about not even trying to convince the king that he needs a sage of sages, it’s about … I don’t know, making a lot of money and then paying the king to be his sage of sages, which shouldn’t work but probably would work.” He looked at her. “That was all that I meant.”
“Well I don’t know about you,” said Sofia, “But I’m ready to take a bit of a break. Let’s see what’s in this town.”
‘I could marry the princess,’ was what Henry had been thinking. The shortest path to getting the king’s ear, from where he was now, was undoubtedly through Sofia. Saying that outright was probably a little too cheeky given who he was talking to. Henry had no qualms about teasing her, but at some point he would probably have to explain that he knew who she was, and perhaps she wouldn’t look too kindly on that teasing then. He wanted to be endearing, not insufferably smug.
There was also the issue of appearances. Marrying Sofia would get Henry close to both the king and the prince and automatically elevate him to a position of power within the kingdom, even if there was no actual authority handed out to the husband of the princess. But saying that was forbidden, because it would give Sofia the impression that he only wanted to become her husband because she was the daughter of the king. Even before Henry had crossed paths with her in Leshampur, he had seen that it was incredibly convenient that his personal and romantic goals laid nicely on top of each other, but at the same time it was inconvenient, because people would read motives that weren’t actually there. Most importantly, Sofia might start to doubt him, which would ruin his chances before he’d really had a chance to get anywhere with her. It all would have been a lot easier if she had just been a farmer’s daughter, because then there would be no question about conflicts of interest.
Henry had stopped himself and avoided the entire subject, but in his haste to get away from the appearance of callously pursuing her, he’d stumbled into a different topic of conversation that was better left alone. Dark magic was a delicate subject, one that he should have known — did know — Sofia wouldn’t be open-minded about. There were a multitude of arguments to be made in favor of dark magic, all of which his fathers had taught him from before the age he’d realized that he was being taught anything, but it was a topic best approached from the side. You should speak about how we kill animals for their food, then after establishing that this was just and moral, casually mention that you’d heard there were varieties of dark magic which weren’t any worse than cutting a chicken’s throat, so how bad could they really be? That was all theoretical though, since Henry had never talked to anyone about the fact that he and his fathers were dark wizards, not even Nathan.
Those were more or less the thoughts on Henry’s mind as they strolled into the town of Cherie. It was smaller than Leshampur by a substantial amount, but more than simply a cluster of farmhouses, as some of the smallest settlements in Donkerk were. The turning windmills spoke to industry, and a few of the buildings had helpful signs that indicated what services they offered, a courtesy for travelers that Henry didn’t think would be found in places that only needed to cater to locals. They had been in town for not much more than five seconds when Sofia slipped into a building whose signage showed three pitchers. Henry quickly followed after her, though he had no idea what they might need in there.
The shop’s shelves were filled with pottery, glazed in browns, yellows, and olive-greens. There were earthenware mugs, plates, and bowls lining the walls, giving the place a certain claustrophobic feel that the most tightly packed shops always had. The feeling wasn’t helped by the fact that the shop itself was quite narrow, with a curtain blocking off the back half. There was no shopkeeper in sight.
“What do we need from here?” asked Henry.
“Nothing,” said Sofia. She looked around for a moment, then called out. “Excuse me, can I get some help?”
“Then why are we here?” asked Henry as they heard noise from the back of the shop.
“Women’s intuition,” replied Sofia, which answered nothing. A spindly grey-haired woman wearing an apron streaked with clay pushed aside the curtain. Her arms were covered in clay from her hands to her elbow, though she was making an effort to wipe them on her apron. “Excuse me, said Sofia, but do you have a house spirit here?”
“So you’re not looking to buy anything?” asked the woman with a frown.
Sofia reached into her sack and pulled out a piece of silver, which she laid on the small counter. “I don’t mean to waste your time,” she said. “I was just wondering if there was a house spirit here, and whether I might speak with it.”
The shopkeeper took the piece of silver from the counter and gave it a brief inspection before slipping it into a small pocket at the top of her apron. “It’s a shop spirit,” she said. “If you see it, I might well call that good luck. She’s awful shy.”
“But she’s a problem?” asked Sofia.
The shopkeeper narrowed her eyes. “And who exactly are you?”
“Just a traveler,” said Sofia. “But one who is something of an expert in spirits, as is my assistant. We had heard about your troublesome spirit and thought that we might be able to give you advice.” This was all news to Henry, who had no real idea why they had stopped in this shop nor why they were lying to the shopkeeper. Henry was perfectly willing to play his part though. “What was this place before it was a pottery shop?” asked Sofia.
“A gambling house,” said the shopkeeper. “One night a fight broke out and two men died, after which it was shut down by the mayor. The deed was cheap.”
“What’s the spirit’s name?” asked Sofia.
“Githa,” replied the shopkeeper. She pursed her lips. “But as I said, she’s shy.”
Sofia nodded thoughtfully at that and turned to the shelves of pottery she looked them up and down, then settled on a small sugar bowl with a lid. She picked this up, keeping one hand clamped over the top, then crouched down and carefully turned it over above the ground. When she removed the lid, a jumble of coins and ruined playing cards fell to the ground and slowly assembled themselves into something that looked like a frog.
“Hello Githa,” said Sofia in a cooing voice. “It’s such a pleasure to meet you.” She reached into her pouch and pulled out another silver coin, which she slid forward toward the spirit. “What sort of trouble have you been causing then?”
The spirit reached forward with a curl of bent cardboard and slid the coin beneath it, where it was gathering the other coins that had fallen out of the sugar bowl.
Sofia turned to look at the shopkeeper, who was staring at the scene taking place on her shop floor with wide eyes. “Spirits can’t actually speak, as such,” said Sofia. “So I was hoping that you would fill me in.”
“Well,” said the shopkeeper. “She steals. People come in to buy my wares, they pay a fair price, but then they leave with their purses lighter than they should be. I find the coins later on when cleaning up for the day. There was a time when I thought that my patrons were just being overly careless, but then rumors started to spread that I was a thief, and it wasn’t until a month ago that I caught Githa in the act. Now I have to warn everyone that comes in to check that they’re not leaving with less than they should be.”
“Is that true?” Sofia asked the spirit. She reached forward and touched the back of one of the ruined cards. “You miss the camaraderie of money, don’t you? The fluid exchange of funds must have been nice. In a place like this one was, it was more about money going back and forth than just a raw exchange of currency for goods. There’s something cold about a transaction made for a piece of pottery.”
Henry saw that the shopkeeper was looking at him for answers, which he could only answer with a shrug. He’d never seen someone talk to a spirit like that, and besides that, everyone knew that it wouldn’t do any good. Spirits were worse than pets in that regard, because they didn’t even respond to tone — or rather, they weren’t supposed to.
“Alright,” said Sofia as she stood up and dusted off her pants. “My recommendation is that you make the business of pottery more warm and inviting, for the sake of the spirit. A gambling den isn’t always a nice place —” she looked down to the spirit and whispered, “You know it’s true!” before looking back up, “— but Githa misses a certain part of it, which I think are probably the people who come to spend time with friends and spend inconsequential amounts of money.”
“Warm and inviting?” asked the shopkeeper. “How do you propose that I do that?”
Sofia shrugged. “I’m just telling you what the spirit wants. It will stop stealing once it has an easier transition to being the spirit of a pottery shop, but you have to be the one to make a bridge for it.”
“What’s the application method for your glazes?” asked Henry. He looked more closely at some of the pottery around them. “For some at least it looks like the patterns are made with brushing on a glaze. You might think about inviting people to try their hand at decoration in exchange for a discount.”
The shopkeeper frowned. “I might,” she said.
“Or you could buy or make a pot of stew and sell bowls along with something to eat,” said Henry. “Not all the time, but every once in a while.”
“I’ll take the advice under consideration,” said the shopkeeper with a measured tone before softening somewhat. She briefly touched the small pocket where she’d put the silver. “If you’re here to talk to spirits and offer you advice, I can hardly be charging you for that.”
“We’ll take a small bowl,” said Sofia. “We’ll need one on our travels anyway.” She picked a dark green one off the shelf and turned it over a few times. “This will do nicely.” A silver was grossly overpaying for a bowl like that, but Sofia pretended not to care, and the shopkeeper apparently took no offense at that charity.
When they were outside, Henry scratched his head. “What was that all about?” he asked.
Sofia shrugged. “Sometimes you have to go where you’re needed,” she said. “And I had said that I wanted a break from the road.”
Henry held his questions. Sofia’s mood had brightened, and he didn’t want to press her on topics that she might not want to be pressed on.
“I had a house spirit,” he said instead. “It formed when I was five years old. We called him Chippy, because the majority of his body was a chipped cup. But he never really did anything.”
“Most don’t,” said Sofia. If she had any latent memory of the cottage, she wasn’t showing it. “A house spirit that lounges around is content with the place it inhabits. Sometimes there’s a minor boon, but people expect those too often, especially in smaller places where the spirit isn’t likely to be so powerful.”
Henry walked on in silence next to her. Every time he tried to think of something to say, his mind went to another question he wanted to ask her. Of course, it would be odd if he didn’t have questions, but if she wanted to answer any of the obvious ones she would just volunteer the information, wouldn’t she? But Henry knew that if he had done something impressive and mysterious like that, he would have held back to bask in Sofia being impressed with him, and to force her to ask him questions that he knew she would find annoying to ask.
“Alright,” said Henry. “Do you want to tell me how you did that?”
“Hrm,” said Sofia. They were slowly making their way out of town without really discussing it. “Well, I believe when you pitched yourself as a companion you said, if I’m quoting correctly, that you were ‘well-educated in the matter of spirits’. And you set about trying to explain Herror Ganda’s theories to me. So you tell me how I did it.”
Henry looked her up and down. “Well,” he said slowly. “Let me count the impossible things. First I think is the business of finding the spirit. In Spiritual Awakenings Tantus describes his method for finding spirits, which is basically nothing more than following stories of people who have seen spirits and hoping that he comes across one, which he admits gives some bias towards those spirits who are seen most often. In Landon’s Segregation of Spiritual Entities he basically says that his method was to stick around a place for long enough, including places that weren’t known to have spirits, until he felt like he was no longer an intruder, but his contemporaries apparently thought he was exaggerating how often he actually tried.”
“His contemporaries?” asked Sofia.
“Rasmus and Goyne,” said Henry. When he saw her blank look he shrugged. “They were both published obviously, or else I wouldn’t have read them, but they weren’t prolific like Landon was and Rasmus in particular was a Tantusite scholar who I thought did some very good work at rephrasing Tantus but didn’t actually contribute anything much beyond that.”
“I see,” said Sofia. “You’re atrociously well-read then. That should make answering the questions easy.”
“If I had to answer based solely on the books I had read, I would say that you cheated,” replied Henry. “The easiest cheat would have been to hear about this troubled spirit from someone in Leshampur, then pretend that you hadn’t so you could go in there and ask questions that made it seem like you were just being prescient. Everything else would just be a matter of delivery; you made it seem like you were actually talking to the spirit because you had practiced using your voice, and the advice you gave to the shopkeeper was just … a story you told based on the evidence presented to you, not some truth you had actually gleaned from the spirit and its relation to the store. We’ll be far away before she’d see any dividends anyway.”
“So I’m a fraud?” asked Sofia.
“Well that’s what my answer would be solely from what the books have to say,” replied Henry. “But I’m fairly confident that you’re only a little bit of a fraud.” Sofia frowned at him. “I mean, you did say that I was your assistant.”
“Are you not?” asked Sofia. “Then what am I paying you for?”
“I’m getting paid?” asked Henry.
“Yes,” replied Sofia. “I bought you a ceramic bowl.” She dug into her pack and handed it to him. “I fully understand if you would like to carry it instead of me.”
Henry slipped the bowl into his pack without complaint. “So because I think you’re only a little bit of a fraud, you probably didn’t set that whole scene up in there in order to impress me,” said Henry. “Or if you did it to impress me, it didn’t require cold reading, foreknowledge, or a confederate. Which really only leaves three options for how it was done.”
“Three?” asked Sofia. She smiled at him. “Well I’m sure that if you throw out enough wild guesses you’re bound to get it right.”
“But if I say only one of the methods and you used the others, you’ll think I’m impossibly dull,” replied Henry. “Having lots of guesses makes me smart.”
“It makes you uncertain,” replied Sofia.
“It makes me smart and uncertain,” said Henry. “I know that everything you’ve seen of me suggests that there isn’t a single fact I don’t know, but I’m actually slightly less impressive than that.”
They crossed a stone bridge over a river that was swollen to its banks, as the road turned from the fields and back into a new, taller forest with trees that reached up to the sky.
“First option,” said Henry. “You have a magic item that allows you to detect spirits.”
“Can they do that?” asked Sofia.
“All magic items are, so far as I’m aware, unique —”
“Henry, I have read Landon, Tantus, Herror Ganda, Riccard, and a half dozen other spiritual thinkers,” said Sofia. Her voice was gentle but firm.
“I wasn’t saying that because I thought you needed me to explain it to you,” said Henry quickly. “I was trying to lay out what I believed to be the principles in play, so that you could correct me if I went wrong somewhere. I’ve read all the same books as you have, or maybe a few more if you haven’t read Rasmus and Goyne, but up until half an hour ago I still would have said you couldn’t have known that there was a spirit in that shop, nor picked out the precise sugar bowl it was hiding in.”
“Fair point,” Sofia grumbled. “Sorry.”
“Magic items are unique,” said Henry. “So while I haven’t heard of one that detects spirits, I’m not going to rule it out completely. There’s a legendary sword named Ravener that supposedly detects dark magic somehow, but I have no idea whether that’s just a myth, nor how it works, and anyway it would be different from what we’re talking about, but not by that much. So that’s my first guess; you have a hitherto unknown magic item that allows you to find and speak with spirits.”
“Nope,” said Sofia with another smile. Her smiles were radiant, even when they were mischievous, as this one was. Henry was finding that she was a bit snotty, but just not in the way that he thought she would be. There were no royal pretensions to her, but there was an air of superiority that seemed entirely wholesome and fun.
“Alright,” said Henry. “Second guess: I was wrong and you are something of a fraud, but the fraud that you are is an interesting one, which is a hidden mentalist.”
“Also wrong,” replied Sofia. “So wrong it’s not even worth talking about. No points for that one.”
Henry had been ready to go with an explanation of how a mentalist might have been able to accomplish what would otherwise have appeared to be a simple con. Either Sofia was denying him another opportunity to show off, or she wanted him to get on with the guess that was actually right.
“Okay,” said Henry. “Then you’re a spirit caller.”
Sofia pursed her lips and raised an eyebrow at him. “And what is that?”
Henry began to open his mouth for an explanation before remembering who he was talking to. “If you’re a spirit caller, then you know more about spirit callers than anyone who has ever written a book on the subject.”
Sofia nodded. “Well I think that’s probably true.”
For five years, Ventor had felt a thirst like burning fire in his throat. Every instinct screamed to him to seek water, to bury his face in a stream and swallow from it until he was near the brink of passing out from lack of air. He often felt it possible that he was more thirsty than a person could plausibly be without magic; he had read stories of people in the Scour or the Silent Desert coming to the brink of complete dehydration and sometimes even dying of thirst, but at a certain point their bodies began to fail, which set an upper limit of how strongly a person could ever feel thirst. For Ventor it was different. The Strangheid kept him physically hydrated, so that there was no risk of him suffering any ill effects that would have impacted him in battle, but it did nothing for the psychological feeling of thirst. Ventor would never collapse from thirst so long as he had the Strangheid, and his brain would never be so starved of water that he would begin to hallucinate. To his understanding, this meant that it was entirely possible that he was more thirsty than any man without the Strangheid could ever be.
So when he woke up, no longer thirsty, he was surprised to discover how long it took him to realize that fact. He opened his eyes to a room whose curtains had been tightly drawn to accept as little light as possible. He was sitting in a bed that creaked under his weight, and a quick hand to his chest confirmed that he was still in the Strangheid, which was no less comfortable than it had been when he had — fallen in battle? He looked around the room at the spartan furnishings and slowly began to recognize the place as one of the rooms of the orphanage at Leshampur. He touched his throat gingerly and felt no pain there. It seemed impossible that this was what not being thirsty felt like. He had gone so long without water that he’d begun to imagine normal people as feeling like they were sloshing around with water in their stomachs, nearly choking on the wetness in their throat.
Someone has given him something to drink in his sleep. His oath did not specifically forbid that. The Rectory had designed its oaths such that it was difficult to force a rector to violate their oaths, but it was balanced against the knowledge that a clever rector might seek to lift the constraints of an oath through clever workarounds. It was only through true, cognizant denial that an oathkeeper would gain power, so if Ventor had arranged for a confederate to pour water down his throat in his sleep every night, he never would have achieved the heights that the Strangheid was meant to push him to. Being given water — and, based on the pangs of hunger missing in his stomach, some kind of gruel or broth — did not violate his oath, but he would have to make sure that whoever had done it was told that they could not do it again, and to take steps to ensure that they would not be able to do it against his explicit orders even if they tried.
For a brief moment Ventor basked in the feeling of wanting for nothing.
His reverie did not last. The golden chain of fealty was pulling on him. He imagined it taut, wrapped around his waist and tugging him into a sitting position, so he sat up. He imagined the chain snaking from the room, slipped between a crack where the door met its frame, so he stood and moved toward it. His ribs were giving him enormous pain, especially in the lower left of his rib cage, and he felt dizzy enough to faint, but he made it to the door and opened it into a hallway, just in time to see Sister Miriam.
“What happened?” he asked.
“I’ve been wanting to ask you the same thing,” said Miriam. She pushed lightly against his chest, and he allowed himself to be forced back into the room. “I can tell you what you saw, but I don’t understand any of it.”
“How long was I out?” asked Ventor as he sat down on the bed. He kept his tongue confined to his mouth as much as possible, and tried to conserve breath, the better to stave off the feeling of thirst. He knew it was going to come, and when it did, it would be like knives driven into his mind.
“A week,” said Miriam. “We weren’t sure that you would ever wake. The physician ventured that you were only alive because of your oaths and that the lightning had cooked your brain.” She hesitated. “He was most upset that we would not allow him to remove the Strangheid from you, but I did not know the specifics of your oaths so far as that went, and did not want you to have you fall.”
“The Strangheid can be safely removed by another,” said Ventor. “The only risk to me is thirst and hunger, which I have no way to sate without it.” He paused and swallowed. “I must ask that you never give me food nor drink when I am unconscious or asleep, not even if you believe that it will save my life. I must also request a lock on my door if I am to stay here another night.” He looked around. “I note we are back in Leshampur. The last thing I recall was being on the farm. The cottage was destroyed and there was a glow to Ravener —” he looked around the room quickly and located a gleam of metal beneath the bed, then relaxed. “— and after that I know nothing.”
“To answer the question you asked me then,” said Miriam. “I did not meet with success. I spoke with Hirrush, Henry’s supposed uncle, but he denied knowing where Henry was and said that he knew nothing of dark magic. I got the sense that he was lying on both counts. He refused a full pardon for whatever crimes he might have committed. I had returned to you in order to deliver that news and suggest that perhaps you could,” she waved a hand. “Not that the use of force was necessarily warranted, but … well, it was all moot. The cottage was destroyed down to its foundation and you were struck by three lightning bolts.”
She shook her head. “You were unmoving on the ground, so I stood still for a long time, thinking that I would be next to die. After that failed to happen I picked up your sword and waved it about, trying to do as you did and use it to detect a ward. You had found none on the way in, but I came across nine on the way out, some of them in places where I knew you had already checked.”
Ventor nodded. “And you avoided them,” he said.
“Yes,” nodded Miriam. “Whenever the sword glowed, I went a different way. There was no discernible pattern them, but after a time I began to get the impression that whoever had laid them allowed themselves a method of egress from the property. Thanks to the sword I was able to give the boundaries a wide berth, all but the last, which seemed to circle the property entirely. It was nearly sundown when I decided to just cross it; the path it followed made me think that it was the same one you had spotted, made with talc and meant to report on our presence. I couldn’t be certain that it was as harmless as you said, but apparently it was.”
“So you escaped a maze of dark magic,” said Ventor. He looked her up and down. “Yet you have not been carrying your oaths so long, and I do not suppose that you would be capable of lifting the likes of me, not in full armor.”
“I … left you for dead,” said Miriam. “You groaned from time to time, so I knew that you lived. It was the source of some stress. But I could not carry you, and …” she trailed off, allowing her thoughts to be opaque, “I went back to the orphanage and told them everything. Sister Constance plucked the sword from my hands without speaking a word — she’s of the third elevation of the Oath of Silence — and returned with your body slung over her shoulder twenty minutes later.”
“I shall have to thank her for that,” said Ventor. He tried to remember which one was Constance and decided that she was the woman who had seemed ancient when he’d arrived at the orphanage sixteen years ago. “I assume there is no news of Henry?”
“There is, as a matter of fact,” said Miriam. “After what happened at the cottage, I tried my best to figure out what had happened to Henry. I spoke with everyone I knew had ever interacted with him, which included a wide variety of laborers he’d worked with in the course of getting the orphanage fixed up, and all the merchants who he brings us supplies from, and then parents who had spoken with Henry prior to adoption from the orphanage. It was that last that finally gave me something to work with; Gregor, the shoemaker, has taken in three children for fostering, the last largely on Henry’s insistence. He saw Henry speaking with a young girl at the Crowning Rooster. So I went there and spoke with everyone I could. From what I can gather, this was just before he came to us saying that he was going to leave for … wherever it was that he left to.”
“A girl,” said Ventor softly. “Her hair —”
“Short and brown,” said Miriam. “Plainly dressed and with poor manners as well, so it seems unlikely that she’s the princess. But she does seem to be the reason that Henry took his sudden leave of absence. They didn’t leave the Crowning Rooster together though, and neither of them were in a hurry.”
“You know the princess is missing?” asked Ventor. He shook his head and immediately regretted it. “Of course, the news would have reached Leshampur while I was out.”
“There’s nothing to explain why Henry would choose to follow her,” said Miriam. “Nor to explain who she is, or what she was doing in Leshampur, or what she might have been talking about with Henry. But just today I heard from a farmer at the edge of town who had seen her heading north, alone.”
“North along the Miller’s road a week ago,” said Ventor. He rose to his feet. “I must follow her.”
“I had the same idea,” said Miriam. “I sent a letter south to Marurbo when the cottage was destroyed, then another this morning to summarize what I had learned. But news moves slowly, and from what we’ve been hearing the kingdom is very nearly in disarray as all the king’s men search out the princess.”
“I was the only one instructed to find Henry,” said Ventor. “I am the only one so far north. There is no way that the princess would have been able to travel so far so quickly, especially not given the alarm that’s been raised.”
“I was hoping that reinforcements would come from the south,” said Miriam. “But failing that, I’m going to head north to follow the girl, and possibly find Henry.”
Ventor frowned at her. “Why?”
“I want to know who he is,” said Miriam. “He worked here for a year. He was kind and ready with a helping hand whenever it was needed, even if it wasn’t asked for. I don’t have any idea why he was really here, nor why he left, but his childhood home was just destroyed, and … if he needs to be brought in, perhaps I’m the one to do it.” She shrugged. “I’ve found someone to cover my duties here and gotten the consent of the other sisters. I was informed that Saint Avant did something similar.”
“Saint Avant recovered the boy-king Bardo from the woods,” said Ventor. “Even if he is the supposed savior of this kingdom, I cannot imagine Henry being anywhere near so noble.”
“I’m just trying to do what’s right,” said Miriam.
“Very well,” said Ventor. “I will accompany you.”
Miriam stared at him.
“Henry does not like or trust me,” he said. “I do not believe he trusts you either, given the lies that he has told, but I do believe that he likes you. You might convince him of the need for his cooperation, even as you failed to do so with his father. Besides that, I can speed your journey; a week’s head start means you have little other hope of catching up to them. And if the boy is a dark wizard, as his father is, you will need someone with knowledge.”
Miriam folded her arms. “Alright,” she said finally.
Ventor found himself wanting to ask her why it was she didn’t like him, but then he remembered that she had never taken the Oath of Honesty, not even the First Elevation, so her answer would simply be some polite dismissal of the question. He would have told her everything that he liked and disliked about her, had she asked him, but he knew that she wouldn’t ask. Either way, he needed her. If Henry was a dark wizard in his own right, he was too dangerous to drag back to Marurbo kicking and screaming, not unless he came of his own volition, and Ventor was in no position to make the argument. His oaths demanded that he try what tactics he thought would result in the best outcomes, even if that meant wounding his pride.
Miriam had a bag packed and ready to go, while Ventor needed nothing for travel. When they went to say their goodbyes though, Ventor was surprised to see that another of the sister’s had packed a bag to go. It was the old one, Sister Constance, a woman who was completely silent and practically ancient. There was a disparaging phrase used by young oathkeepers against old ones, ‘held together by oaths’ and that was all Ventor could think of when he looked at her. Blue veins were visible beneath wrinkled, paper-thin skin, and the few strands of hair visible beneath her wimple were so pale white they were practically translucent.
“You’re coming with us?” asked Miriam, who seemed just as surprised as Ventor.
Sister Constance nodded once.
“But why?” asked Miriam.
Sister Constance said nothing in response to that, but at her elevation of the Oath of Silence, it was likely she had no way to communicate her reasoning. Instead, Constance simply moved toward the door and nodded to it. Let’s go, your questions are for naught.
“Can you keep up with me?” asked Ventor.
Constance nodded at him.
“Then your company is welcome,” said Ventor. There was something he liked about the old woman. Perhaps it was that he could imagine the unbelievable weights of oaths she had kept for eighty years. “Let us be off.”
In one sense, it was undeniable that Henry and Sofia had grown close to one another over the course of a week’s travel. They talked more often than not. Sofia seemed ready to test his statement that he had an opinion on everything, so she asked him questions about all sorts of esoteric subjects. They spent a long morning discussing the Juniper Rebellion, and had an extended lunch by a quiet river talking about the ethical implications of raising animals and then slaughtering them for their meat. They stayed up late one night looking at the stars while Sofia probed Henry about his opinions on purely counterfactual scenarios. If the kingdom were ruled by spirits rather than a king, would Henry find that just? If there were an upside down world floating above their own, only accessible by going to the tip of the Berrung Mountains and dropping upward, what infrastructure would Henry suggest as sage-of-sages to facilitate trade with the overworld? That had eventually descended into silliness as sleepiness overtook Sofia.
In another sense, they were like two bugs caught in jars. The jars were then put on a shelf, touching each other, close but separated entirely by these layers of glass. There was too much that they were hiding from one another; Henry supposed that if he were to extend the analogy, they were bugs trying to pretend that the glass simply wasn’t there. But while a bug might have been incapable of escaping his jar, for Henry it would have been simplicity to destroy their mutual deceptions. But Henry also knew that broken glass could cut people, to further strain the metaphor.
“I’m putting it off,” Henry said to the construct of Sofia within his mindscape. He found himself often spending ten or twenty minutes before going to sleep. He had refined his model of her considerably. The physical changes had been the easiest for him to do, given how much time he spent in close proximity to her. All of the non-superficial aspects of her were much more difficult, and it was a balancing act of viewing her warmly but creating a thoughtform that was accurate to her flaws and experiences. He was still missing pieces of her, including all those which she had chosen to keep hidden from him.
She sat with him in his mindscape, with one leg draped over the arm of the stuffed chair he kept for her in the cozy little basement of his mind. That detail was the product of something that he’d come to know and love about Sofia; it wasn’t just that she was casual about the defiance of social conventions and propriety, it was that she knew them all and had made a conscious decision to avoid them. Her thoughtform was usually dressed in trousers and a shirt, common clothes rather than the frilly dress he’d had her wear before.
“Are you putting it off because you think that it will be catastrophic and end our friendship forever, or because you think it will be difficult and would rather have an easy but false life with me?” asked Sofia.
Henry thought on that. “What do you think?” he finally asked.
“I don’t like dark wizards,” said Sofia. “Not even a little bit. I’m grudgingly sympathetic to the use of dark magic for curing the incurable and preventing children from becoming orphans, but it doesn’t sit well with me, and if you try to draw moral equivalence between killing and eating an animal and killing that same animal for ritual sacrifice, there’s a small chance that my response would simply be to declare the consumption of meat unethical.”
Henry sighed. “That’s background,” he said. “Not prediction.”
“Well I like restating problems before looking at consequences of solutions,” said Sofia with a laugh. “That’s more background for you.”
“It’s not really that funny,” said Henry.
“No,” replied Sofia, smiling at him. “But you need levity.” She nodded to the ceiling. “Your mindscape keeps reverting to stormy weather. Which I think tells you how bad you think this is. All you’re going to get from me is a restatement of your own opinion.”
“Which is that you would leave me if you knew I was a dark wizard,” said Henry.
“In our current circumstance it wouldn’t be hard to leave you,” said Sofia. “We’re traveling together, that’s the ideal time to leave someone. Now, you could say that it was only your fathers that were dark wizards, that you only learned the rituals from them, and that you had no intention of ever continuing the practice …”
“But that would be a lie,” said Henry. “Right. In which case, why not just tell the more convenient lie and say ‘Dark magic, what dark magic?’”
“You could change your mind,” said Sofia, looking around the basement. “Restructure this place so that you actually believe the lie.”
“It’s a whole moral framework,” said Henry. “I only vaguely understand the opinion I’d be switching over to. Even with my model of you, you just think that dark magic is wrong because you were told that enough times when you were little.”
“I was kidnapped by dark wizards when I was five years old,” said Sofia. She had turned serious, which was never a good sign.
Henry pinched the bridge of his nose. “Yes, I know that, but you were returned safe and sound, and that shouldn’t really be a black mark against dark magic in general.”
“It’s a validation of bad thing anyone has ever told me about dark wizards,” said Sofia. “And you know, you know that this isn’t an argument that you will ever win. The most you will do is make yourself feel superior for having the more logically consistent position, which will in turn make me feel bad about not being able to defend my system of ethics, and Henry, that will make me leave you.”
“So you’re leaning towards this being catastrophic?” asked Henry.
“It depends on your approach,” replied Sofia. “But I’ve seen all the approaches that you have to offer, and none of them are very good, which you already know. Worse, you’re on a time limit because you pretty much have to reveal almost everything to me when I reveal everything to you. Otherwise you make all the lies worse, since coming clean gives me the moral high ground. But I don’t find our situations to be at all equivalent to each other, because my reasons for hiding things from you are completely justified, while your reasons for hiding things from me are basically that you are evil.”
“I need to get some sleep,” said Henry. He’d already stayed up late enough that he was worried he would be groggy in the morning. The storm clouds had already come back and could be heard rumbling overhead; he dismissed them with irritation.
“I’m not perfect,” said Sofia. “I mean, Sofia isn’t perfect either, but this thoughtform is what I meant. It’s built by you and might be tainted by all the stress, doubt, and anger in your mind.”
“Anger?” asked Henry.
Sofia sighed. “You need sleep,” she said. “Sleep is more important than talking about your feelings.”
If Henry hadn’t been talking to himself, he might have questioned that, but instead he simply stepped from his mindscape and back into the physical realm, where he was laying down in a bedroll next to Sofia. He took a moment to look at her, and how peaceful she looked in her sleep. She was lying to him too, but his thoughtform of her had been right; her reasons were entirely justified and nothing for her to stay up late worrying about.
It was odd that Henry wasn’t asking more questions.
There were a hundred odd things about Henry, when Sofia stopped to think about them. He had supposedly grown up on a farm, but he was incredibly well-read, enough to rival her formal education in most areas and surpass it on a few rare topics. He had somehow gotten himself into the service of the most powerful oathkeeper in Donkerk, then abandoned that service immediately to go travel with her, despite not even knowing where it was that she was going.
All of that could be explained away in one way or another. His fathers (a phrase that still caught Sofia by surprise even given how often Henry used it) had been scholars before becoming farmers. He had just happened to be working at the orphanage when Ventor came, and his education made him an invaluable assistant to someone desperately in need of one. It made sense, in a way, if you squinted right and then assumed that Henry was simply a remarkable person far at the ends of probability. But that didn’t explain why he wasn’t asking more questions.
“I see one,” Henry said as they walked beside a babbling brook. He pointed to the water, where a small spirit the size of a human head was perched on top of a rock and watching them as the water flowed over its webbed feet. It was itself very rock-like: smooth, grey, and river-worn. The eyes were animalistic though, sunken into the head like the rocky exterior was a mask it was wearing.
“By my count that’s twenty-three,” said Henry. “Which means that we’ve crossed the threshold and have seen more spirits during this trip than Riccard saw in his lifetime.”
“If I recall correctly, he considered magical items to be another form of spirit,” replied Sofia unenthusiastically.
“Well, yes, but no one else seems to believe that,” replied Henry. “It’s a hard concept to sell me on.”
Sofia frowned and looked at the ground, rather than at the river spirit looking at them. “You could ask me,” she said.
Henry looked at her. “Ask you whether magical items are a form of spirit?”
“Every time we come across a spirit you remark on it,” she said. “But I told you that I was a spirit caller and … you were just content to accept that and move on, even when you ask so many questions about literally every other thing.”
“I’m sorry,” Henry said quickly. “But it didn’t seem like it was a topic you wanted to talk about. After you said you were a spirit caller you changed the subject, which I took as you wanting to broach the subject on your own terms.”
“And I do!” said Sofia, “But you’re really just that nice and understanding about,” she waved her arms in the air. “Just, all of it! There hasn’t been a spirit caller since the Nethian Empire, and they were supposed to be nonexistent in the waning days. How can you of all people think that allowing me to speak on my own terms is more important than ancient, powerful magic?”
Henry shrugged. “Maybe I care more about you than I care about ancient, powerful magic.”
“That’s … awfully sweet of you,” said Sofia. It made her feel better, almost instantly, like a warm egg being cracked on top of her head, even though it wasn’t very helpful. “But there are all these hard questions that I don’t want to talk about, and that we’re never going to talk about if you don’t ask me, so you had better start asking me if you ever want to have these conversations.” She stopped for breath. “And we probably should have these conversations.”
“So I can be a better assistant?” asked Henry. She glared at him. “Alright, do you want to go from hardest to easiest or the other way around?”
Sofia chewed on her lip. “I just don’t want to answer your questions. But … easiest first, please.”
“According to legend, spirit callers are capable of bending or outright breaking the rules of every other paranormal art. Oathkeeping without oaths, elemental binding without a chosen element, eloism without competition among equals … and dark magic without sacrifice.” He looked at her. “How powerful are you?”
“I don’t know,” said Sofia. This one was, gratefully, simple, and more importantly it was detached from her, able to be answered completely objectively. “It’s a combination of things. Spirits show up around me more often than would occur by chance. I have a knack for finding them, though I don’t know quite how that works. When I talk to them … do you know how when you look at a book you don’t really see the individual letters? It’s like that, but I’m not even really aware that there are letters, it just comes into my head, but not like a voice or anything. It’s knowing without knowing where that knowledge comes from.”
Henry nodded. “When you speak to them, that’s just vocalization of what you mean to tell them through other means?”
“I guess,” said Sofia. “To be honest I never really tried it any other way.”
“Have you handled magical items?” asked Henry. “If Riccard was right, you should have control over those.”
“It’s not control,” said Sofia. “It’s calling. Speaking. It’s more … abstract than just using a spirit like a puppet.”
“Is there are reason that you haven’t tried it?” asked Henry. “Why you haven’t tried any of the things the legends say you should be able to do, if you really are a spirit caller?”
Sofia looked at the ground, then at the river spirit, which was following them by ducking beneath the water and swimming upstream before finding a new rock to view them from.
“It’s complicated,” said Sofia. “Do you think that spirits have moral worth?” She continued on without waiting for him. “I do. I think you might — you specifically, not the plural you — might argue that they’re nothing more than animals, or animal equivalents, but with some extraordinary powers, and that they’re not anything more than pets at best, but then we’d have to circle around to whether or not it’s right for people to raise animals for the slaughter. And you might say that it’s okay for us to eat dogs, except that we all decided that it wasn’t okay to eat dogs for some reason, which doesn’t really make that much sense when you think about it considering how little separates a dog from a pig.”
“I never said that,” replied Henry.
“But you said many things that were quite a bit like that,” replied Sofia. “And you’re not arguing the point, or even the language, only whether you specifically said it, which I think means that I have the measure of you.”
“I don’t know whether spirits have moral worth,” said Henry. “I think I would have to meet with the elder spirits to decide for sure.”
“Well that’s all that I’m saying,” said Sofia. “A part of it was that I thought about whether Riccard was really right and magical items were spirits, rather than just remnants of their time in the physical realm, or their corpses, or something like that. And what would happen if I managed to undo a magic item? To revive it, or uncalcify it, or whatever it is that would happen to make it a spirit again? Or if I snipped the oaths of an oathkeeper, just by accident, ruining a decade of denial?” She paused for breath. “There’s a bit of dark magic woven into the fabric of the castle. It’s a ritual that dates back to the Nethian Empire, when it Donkerk was a colony. I never tried to find it though, never tried to touch it, or call to the spirit maintaining the magic, because … what if I broke it? A magic that people had died for, one that was completely irreplaceable, and — did I tell you about the first time I tried talking to a spirit?”
Henry shook his head.
“It bit me,” said Sofia. “My father was furious with me, and everything was ruined, at least for a while.” She watched as the river spirit popped up on a new rock some twenty yards past them.
“That’s only half of it,” said Henry.
“It is?” asked Sofia.
“Being afraid of failure, sure, that’s sensible,” said Henry. “You don’t want to do something that you can’t undo, you don’t want to meddle with forces that you don’t understand, the process is more intuitive than a scientific field of study might be, okay, fine. But if that were the only thought going through your head, you would have been smart about it. You would have found a magical item that wasn’t worth terribly much and tried to explain to the owner what the risks were. You would have talked to the oathkeepers to show them what you were capable of and done a test on someone who consented to it. The explanation you’re giving by itself isn’t enough.”
Sofia shifted her bag on her shoulder. “Well I don’t know what to tell you, those were the things that I was thinking of.”
“You were worried about success,” said Henry. “You told me, on the day we first met, that you wanted to go see the world, to open every door, to cross every ocean. You want to leave Donkerk, maybe not forever, but … certainly in the short term that’s the path you want your life to be on. But if you went to the oathkeepers and asked them for help testing the limits of what you could do, and you found that you could amplify their abilities so that a week of keeping silence would give them what had taken a decade before? You would be invaluable. And the more valuable you were, the worse it would be, because if you became the crux of power within the kingdom, the king would never let you leave the safety of his castle.”
Sofia frowned. “That makes me sound awfully selfish,” she said.
“You’re not arguing that it’s not true,” said Henry. “You’re only arguing how it makes you sound, which I think means I have the measure of you.” He smiled at her, but she didn’t return it. “And incidentally, I don’t think that it’s selfish to want a life of your own, especially not at our age.”
It wasn’t quite what she had wanted to talk about with him, but she felt better all the same. She had thought that any conversation about spirit calling would naturally lead to the question of why she was making this trip, or to Henry remarking on the fact that Sofia and Fiona both seemed to share a fascination with spirits. She was waiting, in essence, for Henry to force her into revealing herself, which she would surely have to do as soon as he began to see past a disguise that increasingly seemed paper-thin. She had mentioned her older brother to him, as well as her over-bearing father, and Fiona and Sofia were far too alike each other in far too many ways.
But it didn’t matter. Henry was right; he had the measure of her. He could tell her things about herself that even she didn’t know. Spirit calling was scary, in part because there was no guide to how it should be done and no possible tutor to guide her way. But it was also scary because it meant that she was special in a way that risked penning her in and placing a heavy burden on her shoulders, one above and beyond the burden of being the royal princess and second in line for the throne.
“That’s stupid,” said Sofia.
“Which part?” asked Henry.
Sofia realized that she’d been walking in silence for quite some time. Henry had apparently been content to walk alongside her, giving her space to think. She was grateful to him for that, and for a dozen other things.
“It’s stupid that I would keep from testing myself just so I could pretend that I was just some girl,” said Sofia. “If I would be compelled to put myself in service to the kingdom because of my abilities, it can’t possibly be morally correct to keep myself from knowing my abilities. That shouldn’t result in a clean conscience at all. And if there’s an argument to be made for me freeing myself of the bonds of the kingdom, then that argument probably doesn’t get much weaker if I have unique powers that would be useful to the crown. So let’s figure this out.”
She turned toward the brook that they’d been following, found the river spirit, and started toward it, cutting her way through tall grass and heading down the minuscule valley the brook had carved into the land. When she got to the water, she sat down and began removing her socks and shoes.
“Do you need help?” asked Henry as he followed her.
“Hold this,” said Sofia, handing him her satchel. “Don’t let my socks run off.”
She stood up, hiked her pants, and waded into the babbling brook. The stones were smooth and the water was cold, but it was refreshing. “George!” she called to the river spirit, which wasn’t far away.
“It’s name is George?” Henry asked, his own voice raised slightly over the sound of running water.
“I don’t know,” Sofia called back. “I don’t think it matters what you call them.”
The river spirit sat, unmoving, as she approached it. She could see more detail of it up close; its webbed feet were slightly orange, and the place where they were attached to its smooth, rock-like body was a small hole, as though someone had made the body first, then realized only afterward that the spirit would need legs. It had no mouth or nose, only eyes, which were watching Sofia cautiously.
“George,” said Sofia to the spirit. She was still holding up the cuffs of her pants, exposing her legs to the spray of cold water and the chill of the air. “I want to know whether you and I can be friends. I have a number of spirit acquaintances, none that I think you would have met, but I only really ever had one spirit friend. He’s a wolf made out of plates.”
Sofia tried to listen, and when that didn’t work she tried to feel. She had been doing this sort of thing for a year now, ever since she had managed to escape the castle with Ulf, but she had always treated it the same, like a conversation. It was difficult to think of her nighttime jaunts as being a rut, but she was starting to expect that this is what they had been. She had found out that the books she’d been reading about the spirits were worthless, but she hadn’t pushed herself to learn what lay beyond them.
George was the spirit of this brook. It wasn’t a particularly long brook, and it curved only gently for most of its length, from where it petered out until it met with a larger river. Sofia would have been mildly surprised to find out that the locals had given the brook a name, given that they were traveling on a back road with very few houses in sight, but she could tell that George took pride in his brook. He knew the position of every rook and the flows of water in both torrential downpour and long dry spells. There were some rocks that were smoothed down by decades of flowing water, and other rocks that had just begun being worn, and this was something George had a strong opinion on, though Sofia couldn’t quite tell what that might be.
“I have an offer,” said Sofia to the spirit. It was too hard not to speak, even if she knew the words themselves weren’t doing much good. “Henry and I are going north, to the Citadel, and we would like you to accompany us. This brook is your home, and we would never want otherwise, but we have no spirits with us right now. We can’t offer you anything,” she hesitated, “Except the experience of being with us and seeing — being part of — the physical world. What say you?”
The spirit leapt for her. Sofia didn’t flinch, not because she had nerves of steel, but because she had somehow known that it was coming. George hit her wrist, which was still holding up a cuff of her pants, and for just a moment seemed to stick to her. Sofia watched as its rocky body twisted around her wrist, enveloping it. During this process, the spirit’s legs fell off and dropped into the brook, one by one; they floated downstream and out of sight. The band of gray rock around Sofia’s wrist twisted and moved, applying pressure but never causing pain, until finally it settled into shape as a loose bangle of stone.
Sofia held it up, letting her pant leg drop into the water. It had been done, with nothing more than a simple offer; Sofia had acquired her first magical item. She turned to Henry and waved. When she saw him staring at her with his mouth open, she let out a laugh.
Escaping from the castle was easy, since Rowan had gone through an appreciable fraction of his father’s darkest memories. King Aldric, in pursuing the production of his many bastards, had cause to slip from the castle under cover of darkness many times, always with as little notice drawn to himself as was possible. Aldric kept confidence with a great many people, but almost none of them knew about his outside arrangements, which was entirely by his design. For Rowan’s purposes, the only ones that mattered were the oathkeepers who stood guard at the castle’s two bridges into Marurbo.
The Oath of Fealty was a powerful thing. It did not tend to grant any particular powers to the oathkeepers themselves. After all, oaths gave power because the denied the oathkeeper something they wanted, and it was always in the king’s own best interest to keep his oathkeepers from wanting to contradict his orders. The power of the oath came from the levers it installed in the oathkeepers; if they had taken an Oath of Fealty, they could be instructed to a silence that was nearly absolute. Oathkeepers did Fall, that was true, especially if too much stress of denial was placed upon them, but it was rare, especially for the well-kept oathkeepers that worked directly in service to the king.
No oathkeeper had ever pledged their fealty to Rowan, and he was increasingly of the belief that if his father had his way, none ever would. But the oaths were based around perception, not truth. The oathkeepers were not bound to obey the king, they were bound to obey the person they thought was the king. To that end, the only thing that Rowan needed to do was to pretend to be his father.
This was where the memories of his father came in handy; Rowan had seen a few of these excursions, enough to know the disguise that his father wore when going incognito about the city and the words he spoke to the oathkeepers that would allow him to pass and bind them to silence.
The one tricky part, which required some thought, was the Boreal Crown. It was an incredibly powerful item in its own right, but the fact that it was unique allowed the king of Donkerk to prove his identity beyond a shadow of a doubt. It was not explicitly woven into the Oath of Fealty that the king present the crown as proof of identity, but it was a custom. King Aldric’s memories showed that every time he left in cover of darkness, he would pull the crown from beneath his robes and flash it briefly in the light of the lit torches.
Obtaining the crown was a non-starter. It didn’t ever leave the presence of the king for long, and if the king ever wanted it back in his presence, all he had to do was will it back on top of his head or into his hand. That was one of the reasons that the crown was so special. If Rowan couldn’t have the crown, then he would have to settle for a crown; he settled on an obscure historical relic.
Fifty years after the Juniper Rebellion, there had been another rebellion, this one far less widely known and also much less successful. King Callos had left his kingdom for a few months in order to take a grand tour of the Juniper Ocean in order to meet with Donkerk’s foreign trading partners. He took with him a large part of his castle staff and a good number of sages and oathkeepers, leaving his trusted childhood friend and close adviser in charge of the kingdom in his stead. This turned out to be a mistake, as less than a week following the king’s departure, his adviser had come forward wearing what appeared to be the Boreal Crown. He declared that King Callos had died and that he, King Pettin, was now not just ruler-in-fact but ruler by right of the spiritual crown of Donkerk.
It wasn’t entirely clear how Pettin thought that he would get away with this. He used lies to cover for the obvious problems with his story, like the fact that King Callos had both heirs and siblings that the Boreal Crown should have sought out first. Some historians had theorized that Pettin was at the center of a coup attempt rather than just being an innervate liar. At any rate, the whole thing came crashing down after a few weeks when King Callos returned in full force, and since Pettin hadn’t done anything too dramatic, the whole thing was forgotten quite quickly as nothing more than a bad dream. The only thing that remained was a souvenir for the archives; the golden facsimile of the Boreal Crown.
Stealing it was easy, since as a general rule the castle was not set up to prevent the crown prince from stealing from it. The disguise was equally easy, since Rowan had more than enough resources to procure the requisite cloak and fake beard like his fathers. Rowan practiced the motions his father used, altered his gait to be like his father’s, then practiced his father’s voice, but those things came more easily to a mentalist, since they were largely a matter of mental control.
He flashed the crown at the oathkeepers like he had done it dozens of times before, spoke the right instructions under his breath as he passed them, and slipped into the night to find Amelia.
Mindscapes of non-mentalists were funny things.
Rowan had a map within his head of the entire city of Marurbo, which sat in a single room of his tumbledown castle. That map was nearly perfect, having been first created from detailed maps of the city and then filled in with a study of the city from the castle’s tallest tower, and later detail filled in with sojourns into the city under guard during various excursions. The map was only nearly perfect, since if, for example, a building burned down, Rowan’s mental map would not account for it until he heard about it. It was otherwise unerring; if Rowan had seen a building once, he knew every detail of it, from the number of panes in each window to the height of the doorknobs.
In every other head he’d been in, not only was finding a map difficult, and not only were those maps often disconnected from one another, they were almost universally impressionistic. The castle butcher had a mental map of Marurbo, but there were only six locations defined with any detail, and the distances between them were based almost entirely on how far away from each other the butcher felt they were. Only the major streets were on the map, half of them were mislabeled, and if you stared at the map for long enough, it began to warp and buckle as the butcher’s mind made guesses about what was where.
It was from minds like these that Rowan had drawn Amelia’s location. She still had friends within the castle, that much was clear from her sudden appearance in the sitting room. Rowan had the measure of Amelia’s mind, which meant that it wasn’t too hard to search out the signature of it in other minds. There were limits to who might have been able to bring her into the castle, as well as limits on who she would have interacted with among the castle staff, which reduced the pool of suspects to something tolerable. Finding the actual memory of a meeting with Amelia would have been incredibly time consuming, but that was where the mental maps came in handy. Those were easy to search, even if they did not correlate well with the real world. It was all the easier because the majority of the castle staff lived within the castle, which inevitably caused their mental maps of Marurbo to rot out and leave only recent or important places in their mind.
Amelia’s home was apparently a tall, narrow house in a disreputable part of the city. This was little help; the homes here were all tall and narrow, the result of small lot sizes and little restrictions on building height. But Rowan had a picture of the home in his head, as well as something approaching referential directions, so in combination with his own near-perfect map he was eventually able to locate a building that appeared to be a match.
He was wildly out of place, of course, and had no real experience with pretending to be someone of low birth, but it was late at night, which was exactly the right time to be hiding in the dark recesses of an alley. He sank into his mindscape and immediately landed in the breaching room.
There were more minds than he had ever seen in one place. The castle was largely, and populated by staff, advisers, guests, and visitors, but it was nothing compared to the mass of humanity packed into this place. Each of these narrow houses held a family, and they slept many to a room. Within the cathedral-like breaching room, they were a storm of impressions and sensations which combined to be nearly an assault, but Rowan had no real need to look at the whole; his target was easy enough to find, since he knew her mind.
He breached into Amelia’s mind, which turned out to be a plain brownish green field dominated by an immense off-white cube. Lightning flickered through yellow-green clouds that roiled overhead. A thoughtform of himself greeted him with a curt nod.
“What has transpired here?” Rowan asked his seed.
“Too much was taken from her,” his seed replied. “It wasn’t enough to damage her immediately, but the effect on her mood was a catalyst for other negative changes.” It glanced at the field around them. “This place was once green.”
Rowan frowned. He sensed judgment from his seed. A quick check showed that it was an older one; Ibrahim had said that it was somewhat common for a weakly made seed to become warped and infected by the mind it was hosted within, if it wasn’t outright rejected. Rowan formed a sword in his hand from pure will and strode forward to his thoughtform. He cut it down with a single stroke, killing it; the thoughtform had expressed to surprise and offered no defense.
The question of what to do with Amelia was a complicated one. Utterly destroying her mindscape was out of the question. She would be left insane or comatose when Rowan was done, and there was little doubt in Rowan’s mind that she had told her story to a number of people already, including her family. If the damage left her in a coma, it would establish too much of a pattern for Rowan’s father to ignore after what had happened to Ibrahim.
Something else needed to happen to her, something he could not be blamed for.
Rowan created a new seed within her mind, then created a few that were hosted within his own mind to assist. He directed their attention to the sky, where lightning flickered through the putrid clouds, then began to work with them.
Emotion was commonly — but not always — represented by weather within mindscape. It gave a mentalist an immediate clue to how their target was feeling, which could be helpful on its own, but the real trick of emotion was that it was changeable. If you concentrated, you could change the weather within a person’s mind, which would in turn affect their emotional state. If you needed a person calmed, you could dip into their mind to still the raging seas and temporarily cause their anger to leave them. It did nothing for the underlying causes of the emotion, but in the short term its effects could be startling. The first thing that Rowan had learned was the calming of his own mind.
Here, in Amelia’s mindscape, Rowan and his thoughtforms did the opposite. Lightning moving through roiling yellow-green clouds was a representation of deep inner turmoil, but it was nowhere near extreme enough for Rowan’s purposes. He pushed the clouds until they were no longer roiling but instead spinning around the off-white cube like turbid waves, then increased the intensity of the lightning until the cracks of thunder were like hard slaps against the ground. For a moment it was deep and rhythmic, until Rowan changed the timing in a subtle way, making the thunderclaps echoing withing Amelia’s mind off-rhythm, dissonant and grating.
Still these changes were not enough, so Rowan pushed harder the weather, raising the temperature until it felt hot enough to boil his flesh. He changed the colors of the clouds from the already putrid yellows and green to add in inky blacks and blues the color of a bruise, then streaks of blood red. In a final burst of inspiration, he sucked the air up from the ground and allowed it to join the swirling clouds above. He kept breathing through an act of will, reminding himself that he needed no air to breathe in this place. As he kept the pressure up, he watched two of his thoughtforms fall.
With a flash of black, Rowan was ejected from not just Amelia’s mindscape, but the mental realm altogether. He dipped back in only briefly, just enough to check the breaching room and ensure that Amelia’s light had been extinguished.
In another person, it might not have worked, as their mind would have resisted the changes too much. But Amelia had already had her happy memories stripped from her, and she had already been driven to the brink. Mindscape was metaphor, and Rowan wasn’t entirely sure what the changes he had been making to the weather were causing her to feel. Nor did he know precisely what had happened — what precise end she had been driven to. It was almost certain that, feeling as she did, she would have contemplated it before, or had some plan in place which only needed to be carried out.
All Rowan really cared about was that the threat to his sovereignty had been ended.