To say that Ventor was fast was an understatement. After thinking about it for quite some time, Miriam came to the conclusion that the only thing she had ever seen that was faster than Ventor was an arrow in flight. Ventor could move more quickly than every other point of comparison; he was faster than a river’s rapids, he was faster than a falcon diving toward its prey, and he could easily beat any animal in a race, including the adventuresome brown dog that they’d own on the farm where she worked as a milkmaid. When that dog had seen something in the field, it would take off so fast that it was a blur, spending its energy in a handful of seconds and invariably returning back to the barn only slowly, panting heavily.
And it wasn’t just that Ventor was only comparable to an arrow in flight, he didn’t appear to even be all that much slower than one, not when he was moving as fast as he possibly could. Miriam had first found it impressive, then found it frightening, before finally accepting it was simply part of why the kingdom found men like Ventor to be a necessity. If a very light bodkin arrow moving extremely fast could punch straight through plate armor, what could be said of a man Ventor’s size swinging a sword like Ravener?
Most of the time, Ventor was carrying Miriam, which limited how quickly he could move, and he was going for raw distance traveled rather than pure speed. He had her wrap her arms around his neck, then he would carry her with his arms grabbing onto her thighs. It was an entirely indecorous means of travel, but it had the advantage of being several times faster than a wagon, or even a horse (though Donkerk had only a handful of those). Sister Constance kept pace alongside them, showing no signs of strain and barely making a sound.
While they moved quickly enough that they could have met up with Henry in the space of a single day, the real problem came with trying to track him. The road north split in many places, and it wasn’t entirely clear where Henry and the girl he was with were going. The only way to follow his trail was to stop in all the villages small and large along every road, asking around until they found someone who had seen the pair, then inquiring as to where the two had been heading. Half the time this was of no help; a blacksmith in Kennsing had told them that Henry had been headed south, not north, which they had later determined not to be true only after wasting a day with another round of questioning.
“We need a better plan,” said Miriam one night when they stopped to camp. Sister Constance was building them a fire while Ventor went through stretches. Miriam herself felt stiff and sore from being carried, but there was little that could be done about that. “We need to know where he’s going.”
“We ask every time we meet someone who has seen them,” replied Ventor.
“And they never know,” said Miriam. “Or they give answers which contradict each other. Henry is lying to them.”
“Or they’re lying to us,” replied Ventor. “It seems that Henry and his companion have a knack for making a good impression upon people. Have you noticed how guarded they become when we ask about him?”
Miriam had. She was on the verge of requesting that Ventor no longer be involved in seeking out witnesses, given the impression that he seemed to make, but then it would take them twice as long at every town they stopped through, since she would be the only one asking around. “I agree that there’s little to be gained in terms of actual direction he might be going,” she replied. “Most of what we get is just confirmation that they did pass through, which is valuable but underwhelmingly so.”
“What more can we do?” asked Ventor. “If there is a better way, it is imperative that we do it.”
“We’re getting quite far north,” said Miriam. “We assume that Henry and his new friend have a destination in mind. I’m starting to think that perhaps we should just try to figure out where it is they’re going from base principles.”
“We do not know the principles,” said Ventor. “We do not even know the name of his traveling companion. They’ve made a game of false names, especially in the last few towns.”
“Fiona is what she used early on,” replied Miriam. “And Henry used Henry. They weren’t trying to hide their tracks when they left Leshampur. Now … I’m still not sure that’s what they’re trying to do.”
“As I said, it’s a game,” replied Ventor. “In Trenebo he called himself Upsalis and she called herself Mandwim; those are the names of a pair of court rivals a few hundred years ago. In Calswitch she was Dominique and he was Monguin; those are the names of a competing king and queen in a play about the Scour. I do not recognize all that they reference, but I know enough to see the pattern. It is a game they play. They know that in these brief stops their names do not matter, so they invent names which act as sly nods to each other.”
“To what end?” asked Miriam.
“I do not doubt that Henry sees the utility in such a game,” replied Ventor. “It forces us to track him purely by description rather than simply by naming him. The stories we come across are now inconsistent with each other and require more work on our part. Were they not traveling together, it would be even more difficult to follow them north. Henry might have posed a game to this girl, saying to her, ‘I will pretend my name is that of a famous man, and you pretend that you are his famous counterpart.’”
“You think that they’re flirting?” asked Miriam.
“I do not know,” said Ventor. “I would suspect a great deal more. It is improper for a young woman to travel with a young man like that, specifically because of the risk of what they will do with one another. At any rate, we will need to account for her when trying to bring him in.”
“But to get back to my point,” said Miriam. “We would be aided by knowing where they were going. There can’t be all that many destination that a person would go to so far north.”
“There are five, by my count,” replied Ventor. “It’s an intriguing strategy, but I don’t see how it helps us.”
“You could travel to those places ahead of time,” said Miriam. “If you put in a message to be on the lookout for Henry and Fiona, then we don’t have to worry so much about catching up to them.”
“I must make due consideration either way,” said Ventor. “I have my instruction from the king. But there is truth to what you’ve said. If the methods of obfuscation Henry uses deepen, it is possible that we will not catch up to him until he’s at his destination. It might therefore make sense to arrive before him and make preparations to catch him.”
“But what does it do?” Henry asked Sofia, looking at her newfound bracelet made of stone.
“I don’t know,” said Sofia. She laid her hand on the bracelet and felt at its texture. “I think that Riccard was right, and this is a form of a spirit rather than a remnant.”
“I had figured that out when I saw its body melt onto your arm,” said Henry. He was still incredulous about what had happened, and was having a hard time keeping his surprise from showing. What Sofia had done was unprecedented in any of the considerable volumes of literature that Henry had read.
“A melting body wouldn’t preclude the magical item from being a remnant,” said Sofia. She was walking down the road, using the same light step like nothing had happened. “I think it was Tantus who said that a magical item was basically a spirit’s corpse? But this is George, the river spirit. It’s as though you or I decided to become a sword. Very peculiar.”
“Can it turn back?” asked Henry.
Sofia stopped and touched the bracelet for a moment. “I’m not … oh. Um … I think it might be stuck like this. Or not really stuck, but …” she paused and shook her head, then started walking again. “It’s all intuition, you understand?” she asked. “It’s hard to translate what I’m feeling into a proper factual answer.”
“Is there a proper factual answer?” asked Henry.
“In this case, yes,” said Sofia. “From what I gather, this state is basically a spirit’s last in the physical realm, but it’s not really the end of the spirit because they return to the spiritual realm, and in the right circumstances they might be able to return to the physical realm again.”
“So George the river spirit came from the spirit realm, has become a magical item to travel with us, and will remain as such until,” he looked at Sofia and she shrugged, “… until some arbitrary point in the future, possibly forever, but he can always come back by whatever process it is that allows spirits to come to our world. Do I have that right?”
“Yes,” said Sofia. “But I think I might have been wrong in saying that the end was indefinite. Certainly all empirical evidence seems to support the idea that magical items stick around forever, especially given the example of the Boreal Crown, which has lasted centuries without showing any sign of an end … but when I touch the bracelet I feel like I might be able to, I don’t know, give it a nudge that would rapidly accelerate the process.” She stopped and looked down at the bracelet. “I could push George into the spiritual realm.”
“Well, probably don’t do that,” said Henry.
“But it would be interesting to know if I could, wouldn’t it?” asked Sofia. She looked down at her wrist. “I still want you by my side,” Sofia said to her wrist. “It’s just a very new world for me, do you understand?”
“And you still don’t know what it does?” asked Henry.
“Oh,” replied Sofia. “Yes, actually.” She reached down to grab a pebble from the ground, which she held up for Henry to see. When he was watching closely, she squeezed the rock between her fingers, flattening it as though it were made of taffy. When she let up, it sprang back, but not quite to the shape that it had been. Sofia dropped the pebble into Henry’s hand and smiled.
Henry stared at it in wonder. It was proof that Sofia had a real, true power, and he was mildly disappointed when his mind immediately went to thinking of what changes Sofia could wreak on the world. If this was the result of a small river spirit changing, what would happen when Sofia went to Kell, the spirit of the Juniper Ocean? But the power she held made their personal relationship all the more complicated, because Henry knew it would be hard to explain to her that he was both in love with her and saw enormous potential for wielding her as a force for good.
At some point, Henry had cottoned on that their mission wasn’t entirely on the level. Sofia wasn’t exactly sure when it had happened, though she supposed that it was possible he’d known ever since their first meeting back in Leshampur. Now though, he was taking steps to ensure that anyone following them would have more difficulty, which Sofia was both incredibly grateful for and annoyed by. The gratitude was simple enough, but her annoyance was a complex, layered thing; she knew that Henry knew, and Henry was bound to know that she knew he knew, but he had never broached the subject with her, nor her with him. It had come to join the list of things that they did not speak of. Worse, Henry was very good at veiling his actions.
“Do you mind if we take the Lamplighter Road?” he would ask. “The lake there is supposed to be quite pleasant, and my father told me to see it if I ever had the chance, plus it might allow me to catch some fish to supplement our diet.”
So they would follow the Lamplighter Road and visit the lake, which really was very pleasant, and they would eat fresh fish that Henry had caught and prepared using the last of a packet of butter they’d bought the day before, and it had been a perfect, idyllic and ideal day.
But at the back of Sofia’s mind was the thought that they were taking the Lamplighter Road because it was out of the way, where they wouldn’t have to pass through any towns or be seen by anyone. If you were wanted by the crown and fleeing from oathkeepers, of course you would take the Lamplighter Road. Henry always managed to make it seem incidental when things like this happened, enough so that she found herself sometimes thinking that perhaps Henry was simply being a good traveling companion.
The game of names had changed her mind. They had been visiting a grocer for supplies in another of the small towns that dotted the woodlands of Donkerk, when he had introduced himself to the shopkeeper as Upsalis. It had taken a moment for Sofia to place where she remembered the name from, and a moment after that before she realized that he’d chosen it for a reason beyond mere whimsy. If he was Upsalis, then she would certainly be Mandwim, though she doubted that their story would end in an ill-fated duel to the death. She had made her own introduction and seen a wide smile on Henry’s face.
They didn’t talk about the game of names; that was one of the unspoken rules. In fact, because they never talked about the game of names, all the rules were unspoken and had to be figured out as they went along. There were two sides to the game, depending on whether you were going first or second. Sofia preferred to go first, as she liked having time to think about who she was going to be when they came to the next town. When going second, it was all about thinking quickly enough to recognize the name in question and find the appropriate counterpart.
There were rules to what sort of name you could pick. First of all, you were picking a couple, not a single person, which dramatically reduced the number of possible names. Second, they had to be a man and woman, which reduced the names further. Third, the reference had to be one that you imagined the other person would get, because it was no fair being so utterly obscure that they’d have no choice. But fourth, it couldn’t be so common that whoever they were talking to would understand what was being said. Fifth, they couldn’t be a couple that was famous for their romance, because that might imply a connection between Sofia and Henry that wasn’t there. But sixth, the couple couldn’t be siblings, because that might imply that there wasn’t a budding romance between them — which, though they had never discussed it, there definitely was.
But of course these were unspoken rules, because the rules were implied by how the game was played, which was part of the fun.
It also made them harder to track. Sofia was keenly aware of that, given that she was already using a fake name. For a while she had wondered whether the game of names was meant to indicate that Henry knew she was the princess, or at least knew that she was using a false name, but she had set the question aside as though it didn’t matter all that much. It mattered quite a bit, but Henry had never asked her directly whether she was the missing princess. If he did know, then he was doing everything in his effort to make sure that the oathkeepers would have a difficult time tracking them, which Sofia suspected was the case.
As it stood, they arrived at the Citadel before any of this had been resolved.
The Silent Desert bordered the entire northeastern edge of Donkerk, running from the Berrung Mountains all the way down to the Juniper Ocean and helpfully providing protection against invasion or encroachment by other kingdoms. The Foresworn Citadel sat just at the edge of the Silent Desert. As legend had it, both the Citadel, the Silent Desert, and the Berrung Mountains had been created to ward off evil from entering the Scour, before it had become the Scour by whatever process that had happened. Sofia was skeptical of any text that purported to be that old, not least because they had been translated through a number of languages and touched by many hands.
The Citadel looked like no other building in Donkerk. It was rust-red and made up of what looked like massive shells gathered together, large domes set on their sides and buried halfway in the ground. On the whole, it was four or five times as large as the castle Sofia had grown up in, but from the placement of its small windows (all devoid of glass) it seemed the much of it was simply for show rather than inhabitable. The curved edges of the shells looked like they had been sandblasted smooth by the action of a thousand storms. Sofia doubted that the Citadel would ever be restored, since such a project would consume almost the entire economic output of Donkerk, and no one even knew that it had once looked like.
“Alright,” said Henry. “I think it’s time to renegotiate.”
“Renegotiate?” asked Sofia. She had stopped when the Citadel came into full view, and Henry had stopped just behind her. She glanced at him for a moment, then looked back at the Citadel, with the scrubland and desert behind it.
“When we set off I made many claims about what I knew and what I could do,” said Henry. “I offered my skills to you, and you accepted them. But that acceptance came with an understanding of certain risks inherent in taking on a traveling companion, namely that you didn’t know whether I would live up to my claims. I would therefore submit that I was in a rotten position of negotiation and took the best deal that I could, much like a merchant forced to sell his wares sight unseen. Now that you know me, I think that you have a measure of my true worth. And when we get to the Citadel, our arrangement reaches its conclusion … which offers me a wonderful opportunity for renegotiation.”
Sofia was silent for a moment as she looked at him. He was right that she had doubted him in the beginning, and that she had only a few lingering doubts about him now. And she hadn’t really given any thought to what was going to happen after they got to the Citadel; Henry was doing the majority of the navigation, which had allowed their arrival to sneak up on her. In the back of her mind, she had imagined that they would simply return to Marurbo together, where … they would simply stay together, she supposed.
“What is your opening offer?” asked Sofia.
“You are obviously both helpless and hopeless without me,” said Henry. “Yes, you made it to Leshampur just fine, you have very nearly the depth and breadth of education that I do, you have considerably more class and grace, you’re beautiful—”
“Foul!” cried Sofia. “I call foul on that. I haven’t had a bath in three days, I’m wearing no makeup, and my hair will probably have to be shorn completely and replaced with a wig when all is said and done. This is a typical negotiation tactic, you’re simply buttering me up. You did the same thing on the bridge. I believe the expression was ‘shining jewel of a person’?”
“You’ve seen through my clever machinations,” said Henry with a pout. “But as I was saying, aside from all your admirable qualities, and your abilities with spirits, and your connections in the capital, you don’t actually have that much going for you, and I’m skeptical that you would be able to make the return journey without me by your side.”
“I doubt I would be able to make any journey without you by my side,” said Sofia. She said this solemnly; she always enjoyed injecting seriousness into Henry’s moments of play, which this clearly was. He always rolled right past them.
“Precisely my point,” said Henry. “So to begin with, my offer is that I will escort you from the Citadel to Marurbo, as you had perhaps thought that I would do out of the kindness of my heart.”
“That seems like an offer which is very lopsided in my favor,” said Sofia.
“Well I wasn’t finished,” said Henry with a cluck of his tongue. “First condition,” he reached into his pack and pulled out a ceramic bowl, the one they’d picked up at the start of their trip. “I have been carrying this bowl for a very long time, and obviously can’t bear to part with it due to its sentimental value, but it’s heavy, so I would like you to carry it for me.”
“Done,” said Sofia.
“Well I wasn’t finished,” said Henry. “That’s why I said ‘first condition’, I was implying a second.”
“Ah, my mistake,” said Sofia.
“My second condition is that when we get to Marurbo, you’ll show me around and help me find a place to stay,” said Henry. “Otherwise I’ll have to return to Leshampur and make a weeks-long journey by myself.”
“That’s fair,” said Sofia. She barely felt the twisting in her guts anymore when he mentioned her supposed life in Marurbo. But she wasn’t making a promise that she couldn’t keep, it would only turn out differently than he had thought.
“And finally, you have to tell me why it is we’re going to the Citadel,” said Henry.
Sofia paused. “And you choose now to press me on this? When we’re literally in sight?”
Henry shrugged. “I was hoping that you would tell me of your own accord.”
“My mother is a Foresworn Sister,” said Sofia.
Henry squinted at the Citadel. “Well, that wasn’t what I was expecting.”
“And what were you expecting?” asked Sofia.
“I don’t know,” replied Henry. “I thought … I thought it would be … I don’t know.”
“Oh come on,” said Sofia. “I know you well enough to know that you’re not telling me something,” she said. “You had your own thoughts about why I was going to the Citadel, you just don’t want to tell me what they were.”
“You’re right,” said Henry. “And if you’ve come here to meet your — estranged?” Sofia nodded. “— mother, then I think maybe my thoughts can wait until all that is resolved. Especially if we’ll have an entire trip down to Marurbo for me to say what I was thinking.”
Sofia was sure now, more than ever, that he knew she was the princess. That was the topic that he had been dancing around, those were the thoughts that he had been concealing, and it was the fact that she was a princess which they would have to discuss later. She was ambivalent about putting that conversation off, but now they were too close to the Citadel, and a conversation which would surely require all of her attention. Henry had declared his intention to stay beside her; she could come clean with him afterward, he seemed to be saying. He knew, and maybe had always known, but he wanted them to stay as they were for just a little while longer.
“Come on then,” said Sofia. “Let’s get this over with.”
She headed to the Citadel, and Henry followed behind.
The entry room of the Citadel was tall enough to hold a lesser building inside it. The small, square windows along the front face of the Citadel provided sunlight, though little enough at this time of day that it took Sofia’s eyes some time to adjust to the interior. Everything was the same rust-red as the outside, though there were reliefs all along the inside. There was sand too, from the Silent Desert, piled up in the corners high enough that they could have buried a wagon. The path from the immense double doors — themselves wedged open and seemingly kept that way for centuries — had been cleared though, leading the way to a Forsworn Sister who was reading from a book behind an oak desk that the entry room utterly dwarfed. The Sister looked up at the sound of their footsteps, but it was still quite some time before they were within speaking distance.
“Welcome to the Foresworn Citadel, my name is Sister Verna,” said the Sister. “What is your business here today?”
“I’ve come to see Sister Ariel,” said Sofia. “Though I’m not entirely sure that would be the name she was here under. She would have come here fifteen or sixteen years ago.”
“And him?” asked Sister Verna, nodding to Henry.
“He’s my traveling companion,” said Sofia. She felt a flush of irritation.
“Actually, I was hoping to look through some of your files, while I’m here,” said Henry. He tried to keep his tone apologetic.
“Files?” asked Sister Verna.
“It’s unimportant,” replied Henry. “Please help her before helping me.”
“And who are you to ask after Sister Ariel?” asked Sister Verna, turning back to Sofia.
Sofia glanced at Henry. She bit her lip. “I am Sofia, princess of Donkerk, and Sister Ariel is my mother.” Henry winced, unseen by Sofia. The game had been up for quite some time, by his measure, but this made it official.
Sister Verna frowned. “Forgive me, but do you have any proof of your identity?”
Sofia stared at her, mouth slightly open.
“Does it matter?” asked Henry, stepping forward. “I was under the impression that Sisters here were allowed to take visitors at their pleasure, just as they’re allowed to anywhere else in Donkerk. Is that not the case?”
Sister Verna looked at him in something like a scowl. “Sister Ariel has taken the second elevation of the Oath of Silence,” she said. “She is unlikely to accept any visitors given that they would present a temptation to her oaths. If I did not do my best to gain accurate information about potential visitors, I would be derelict in my duties — which would be a violation of my oaths.”
“What would constitute proof of my identity?” asked Sofia.
“A royal seal,” replied Sister Verna without hesitation. “A letter from the king. Oathkeepers to vouch for you under the Oath of Honesty. I am sorry, but it is not credible that the princess of Donkerk would appear at the Citadel with no advance notice, no guards, and no advisers besides a young boy who —” she stopped and shook her head. “I do not believe that you are the princess on the basis of the evidence you have presented. Simply saying it does not make it so. Unless you have proof you have withheld?”
Sofia’s hands were clenched into fists. “You have not heard that the princess ran away?” she asked.
Sister Verna shook her head. “We have received no such news. If we had, I might give your claim more credit.” She turned to Henry. “I can certainly help you with your request to look at records, but a meeting with a Sister who has taken an Oath of Silence is not something we take lightly.”
“She’s my mother!” shouted Sofia. Henry touched her shoulder, steadying her. She closed her eyes and let out a sigh. “She is my mother,” Sofia repeated. “I have traveled all this way to speak with her, I won’t be turned away at this late stage. Can you … perhaps tell her that there was a young woman here to speak with her, aged sixteen years old, making apparently baseless claims about being the princess and also her daughter?”
Sister Verna looked at the two of them and twitched her lips. “I suppose that would be acceptable. If Sister Ariel does not wish to meet with you, a meeting that I stress must be entirely one-sided, you will have no further recourse.” When that drew no outburst from Sofia, Sister Verna sighed and turned back to Henry. “I take it the both of you will be staying with us in through the night? We have beds available for travelers.”
Henry nodded. “It’s been a long time since we’ve had beds,” he said. “Your hospitality would be appreciated.”
Sister Verna rose from her seat and bade them to follow her as she went to a small door on one side of the room, which led into labyrinthine hallways of the same rust-red stone. As soon as they were on the move, Henry leaned in close to Sofia and whispered in her ear.
“We’re in trouble,” he said softly.
Sofia was led to a rather sparsely furnished room that seemed to have been carved out of stone. It had a bed, a small table, and chair to sit on, with a small square window open to the air. The door was made of wood, but only loosely fitted to the ocher stone around it.
“I’ll show your companion to his room, then have some conversations,” said Sister Verna. “It won’t be too much longer before I return; I’d ask that you not wander, so as not to disturb the other sister.”
Sofia had twisted her mouth, but said nothing. To her surprise, Henry came forward and hugged her, which she accepted gratefully. They had never hugged before; he smelled like the road, sweat and campfire smoke, not unpleasant, and he squeezed her just tight enough. When he pulled back, his smile was slightly pained. He gave her a small shake of his head, just slight enough that Sister Verna wouldn’t be able to see it.
It wasn’t until he’d gone that she realized he’d stolen her bracelet. She rubbed her wrist and frowned. Everything was out in the open now, but his response had been to ignore it, tell her that they were in trouble, and then take the spirit she’d convinced into a solid form. It wasn’t exactly a promising continuation of their friendship.
She didn’t have too long to think about it though, because only a few minutes later, the stone wall on the left side of the room peeled open and Henry stepped through. He spent only a few seconds sealing the stone shut, manipulating it like it was soft clay, then he turned to her and handed the bracelet back to her. The job he’d done on the wall was imperfect, clearly noticeable to anyone who cared to look; it appeared that the room he’d come from was one much like her own.
“We’re in trouble?” she asked him, keeping her voice low.
Henry nodded. “There are a few things that I haven’t told you,” he said. “Five or six, depending on how you count.” He looked at the door to her room and frowned at it before trying the handle. It was fastened shut from the outside. “I was hoping that we’d have some time to have a slower conversation about this, but um …” He looked back at the wall. “I did a pretty terrible job there, let me fix that up while I talk.”
“I can do it,” said Sofia. She walked over to the wall and began passing her hand over it, smoothing it out. “How long have you known that I was the princess?” she asked.
“I figured it out just after we’d met,” said Henry. “Figured it out is probably the wrong word. I made an intuitive leap.”
“I’d be upset about you lying if I hadn’t been lying to you in return,” said Sofia. “I take it that’s one of the things that you’ve been keeping from me. Are you an agent of my father then?”
“What?” asked Henry. “No. I mean, that’s not so crazy when I think about it, but no, I really was raised on the farm that we stopped at, and those really were my fathers.” He glanced at the door. “Um, going in order of urgency, I think Ventor is probably after me, which is why the sister acceded to my request and put us in these rooms. There was something in her eyes — she recognized me, or was at least reacting to me as though I was a known quantity. Which means that she knew to expect us, which means that Ventor probably came here ahead of us and told the sisters to expect us. I should have thought of that, because that’s what I would have done if I’d known that we were heading north to some unknown location. Either he guessed that it was the Citadel, or he went to all the places that he thought we might end up. But probably not, because —”
“You told Ventor about me?” asked Sofia.
“No,” said Henry. “Sister Verna was trying to separate us and turn you away, I think. She wouldn’t have done that if she thought that you were the princess. Ventor, if it is Ventor, was after me specifically.”
Sofia paused in her work. “And why would that be?” she asked.
“Well,” he said slowly. “It seems likely at this point that the prophecy you told me refers to me,” said Henry. “I’m the ‘swaddled savior’.”
Sofia looked him up and down. “You said that you weren’t,” she replied. “I asked you directly.”
“I lied,” said Henry. “It’s complicated, and I don’t really know how much time we have.”
“You said that you were helping Ventor to find the missing orphan,” said Sofia.
“In one sense that’s true,” said Henry. “But in another sense I was lying to him and obstructing his search so he wouldn’t realize that I was sitting there under his nose the entire time, mostly because I didn’t know what it was he wanted from me.”
“Wait,” said Sofia. “You said that you were born on that farm, and you said that Omarr was your father and Hirrush your mother’s uncle, but if you were taken from an orphanage, then who were those men?”
“They did raise me,” said Henry. “But I lied about them, I’m sorry. They’re the ones who stole me and raised me for their own.”
“But … I don’t understand why they would do that,” she said. She had finished with the wall, but without something to do with her hands she felt at a loss. “You said there were five or six things, how many have we gone through?”
“Three,” said Henry. He looked at the door. “To be honest, I keep hoping that Sister Verna will come back and interrupt us. I know I should have told you all of this earlier.”
“I’m trying to keep an open mind,” said Sofia. “You lied to me, and I lied to you, but I had been prepared to say to you that all my conversations were had in good faith, so … I suspect you’ll say the same to me?”
“Yes,” said Henry. “I’m still the same Henry. And if the prophecy is true, then I’m literally destined to save you from whatever it is you could need saving from, so keep that in mind.”
“You think that we were followed by Ventor,” said Sofia. “You have been hiding the fact that you’re the person that the crown has been looking for since the time we were both born. And you’ve saved the worst for last, haven’t you?”
“I tried to go in order of urgency,” said Henry. He looked to the door again, as though that would somehow save him. “My fathers are dark wizards, that was why they kidnapped me.” He held up a hand. “But they didn’t sacrifice me, because they weren’t as ruthlessly pragmatic as they thought they were.” He knew as soon as the sentence left his mouth that had been the wrong way to phrase it, even if it was correct.
“It’s pragmatic to sacrifice a baby to evil spirits?” Sofia asked. Her voice was louder now, as silence was slowly being forgotten. It was doubtful that Sister Verna was anywhere near, given how much time alone they’d already had.
“I’m not defending what they were going to do,” said Henry. “Only what they did do, which was to raise me to be exactly the person you know today.”
“But you are defending them,” said Sofia. “Why else would you say that it was pragmatic?”
“Well, it’s … let’s say that if you killed one baby you could save the lives of every person in Donkerk,” said Henry. He shook his head. “No, I’m sorry, can we just set this aside? I mean, we’ll have to talk about it at some point, but just, not now?”
“And what’s your answer?” asked Sofia. Her cheeks were red and her eyes alight with fire. “No, I know it already, because I know you. I know just from the look on your face that’s a trade you would eagerly make. Not just for all the lives in Donkerk, but something much smaller than that. Ten thousand lives, a thousand, a hundred, ten? That’s the entire problem, it’s deciding that nothing is truly sacred, everything can be weighed and measured until you’ve decided that it’s right to trade one life for another, that torturing a man to death is worth it if you can raise crop yields by five percent, it’s literally exactly the thinking that turned the Nethian Empire into an orgy of blood and death until it crumbled under the weight of its own moral malfeasance.”
Henry grit his teeth and held back every argument he was prepared to make. He was certain that arguing against her was ill-advised, even if he thought that he could do it dispassionately, which he didn’t think was the case. She was calling his fathers evil, and while they certainly weren’t good and never claimed to be, they at least aspired to neutrality and balance, to take no more from the world than they gave to it. Henry considered himself good, but that goodness took into account the same balance his fathers had taught him and merely pressed down on one side of the scale. You couldn’t do that if you thought that babies were so valuable that there was literally nothing that you should ever trade a baby for. Henry felt like that even though he’d been that baby.
“Are you a dark wizard?” Sofia asked Henry.
Henry took a breath.
“The fact that you’re not answering no —”
“It’s not —”
“I’m not a practicing dark wizard but I do know a number of rituals and I don’t think mere knowledge should be held against me,” said Henry.
“If you know who I am, then you know that when I was five years old I was kidnapped by dark wizards,” Sofia seethed. “I was taken, from the most secure place in all of Donkerk, and held against my will for a week while my father, the King of all Donkerk and bearer of the Boreal Crown, was helpless to do anything for me. For eleven years afterward my father kept me under lock and key, not allowing me out of the castle, and the worst part about it was that I could see that he had a point.”
Henry shut his eyes closed tight, so that he couldn’t see her face. What came next would undoubtedly be painful. “I really don’t want to tell you this, because it’s going to make you angry, and I think you have every right to that anger, and I think that it was wrong of them, but you should know that it was my fathers who kidnapped you.” With his eyes closed, Henry listened to the silence in the room. He slowly opened his eyes to see Sofia staring at him. She had taken a few steps back from him.
“They what.” Sofia’s voice was flat, her face blank.
But Henry had nothing to say in his fathers’ defense. They had reasoned that she would remember nothing and suffer no injury, that bloodying the king’s nose would be both public and private good, that the ransom would allow them to raise Henry without need for other, smaller thefts or blackmails or ransoms. Henry knew that none of that would soften the injury Sofia left, nor cure her sense of betrayal. He had known that this moment was coming for quite some time, knew that while there were many arguments that he could make in defense of his fathers, they were not in the right, and none of them would actually soften the blow Sofia felt, nor take the sting from the wound.
“Who even are you?” asked Sofia.
“I’m sorry,” said Henry. There wasn’t much more to say.
And of course Sister Verna chose that moment to unlock the door and come in.
Sofia walked down the corridors of the Citadel, practically stomping as she went. She was following behind Sister Verna, but could scarcely think about where they were going on what she had even come to the Citadel to do. Henry. He was a dark wizard, or as good as a dark wizard. His fathers were dark wizards with bonafides. And she had met them! Talked to them even, seen them wave to her as they left a farm with no animals, all killed in dark rituals no doubt. Hadn’t the large one been missing a few fingers? That was a dark wizard through and through, willing to carve away pieces of himself for whatever reason seemed sensible at the time. And Henry was supposed to be her savior? Well that was only one reading of the prophecy. The sages had said that perhaps it was only the kingdom that was supposed to be saved, and it would be just like Henry to kill her in order to save the kingdom from some terrible fate.
Well, no. It wouldn’t be just like Henry to do that. Killing her to save the kingdom was not a terribly Henry-like thing. It was a dark wizard way of thinking, and Henry was a dark wizard, so by the transitive property it was a Henry way of thinking, but … it wasn’t typical of Henry. If you were trying to describe Henry to people, you wouldn’t start with ‘Oh, he’s exactly the sort of sacrifice a princess to save a kingdom.’ And really, it did seem rather selfish for Sofia to say that she thought her life was worth more than the entire kingdom, or even more than a hundred thousand people, or a thousand, or a hundred, or even ten. Dark wizards thought in terms of those exchanges, and that was the crux of what led them down dark paths, but that didn’t entirely absolve Sofia of having to think about the hypothetical. It would never come down to that, but if Sofia said that she would never sacrifice her own life for the lives of ten other people, then wasn’t she saying that she was worth more than those ten people? Wasn’t that exactly the sort of attitude that her father had said was a sign of rot within royalty?
But Henry had lied to her! She had lied to him, naturally, but it hardly even counted as lying if he had known she was lying the entire time, and she hadn’t gone too far out of her way to trick him, per se, she hadn’t taken views that she didn’t actually hold and she didn’t make up details about some imaginary family — save for Fiona’s uncle — and it wasn’t like she was hiding things that were undesirable. She had pretended to be poorer than she was, less connected than she was, all things that she was sure made her more attractive to him. Henry had lied about … well, things that would have gotten him killed, in large part. If Sofia had a secret that would have gotten her father and brother killed, she would never have uttered it to anyone, not even Henry. And from Henry’s position it would have been even worse, because he knew that Sofia hated dark wizards, he had to have, and he’d known that she had the power to rain fire down on his fathers, to send the might of the kingdom’s oathkeepers after them, which her father would do as soon as she told him … which wasn’t to say that they didn’t deserve it, but Henry had told her when he didn’t have to.
Aha! But he did have to! He thought that Ventor was coming after them, which meant that it was all going to be out in the open soon … but did Ventor know anything about Henry’s fathers being dark wizards? All evidence pointed to Ventor knowing nothing about any of it. Which meant that perhaps Henry really didn’t need to tell her, and really would have been better off continuing to lie to her, strictly from a not-getting-his-fathers-murdered perspective.
Sofia was angry, and knew that she was right to be angry, but one of the least pleasant feelings in the world was being unable to figure out why the position you hold is the right one.
“Sister Ariel has held her vows for fifteen years,” said Sister Verna. “At the first elevation of the Oath of Silence, you may not speak. At the second elevation of the Oath of Silence, you may not write. It is that oath which restricts Sister Ariel from conversation with you. She may answer your questions with a set of hand signals we use within the Citadel, but I presume that you do not know them?”
“No,” said Sofia. They stood in front of a wooden door several stories up from the ground level. Sofia was struck with the sudden realization that her mother was beyond those few inches of wood. Her brain had been stuck on Henry, when she should have been thinking about this meeting. She couldn’t decide whether that was a point against him or not.
“Good,” said Sister Verna. “Sister Ariel has also taken other oaths, but I believe it is only conversation that you can tempt her with today. Unless you have food or drink on your person?”
“No,” said Sofia again. She had never met her mother. Without Rowan’s intervention, it seemed likely that she never would have. Somehow, despite a journey of six weeks, it all seemed to be going too fast.
“If she really is your mother, I will have to tell her about your indiscretions with that boy,” said Sister Verna. “You still won’t tell me how he managed to pass through two locked doors to enter your room?”
Sofia shook her head. “No.”
Sister Verna made a hrmphf, then opened the door.
It was a simple room, as Sofia had begun to imagine that all of the rooms at the Citadel were. It wasn’t a bedroom, like Sofia expected that it would be, but instead a meeting room with a long, heavy table surrounded by chairs. In one of those chairs, squarely at the center of the long table, a middle-aged woman sat patiently. Sofia stepped inside and pulled up a chair; she tried not to wince as the door shut behind her.
There were paintings of Queen Ariel within the castle. She had been young when the paintings had been done, in her early twenties, shortly after Sofia’s father, King Aldric, had taken the throne at a frighteningly young age. She had not been in the castle for long. She had Rowan, then Sofia, and that was when the king had declared her dead and presumably, she had been sent up here to live out the rest of her life as a mute. She had been pretty as a youth, and was still pretty now, though her face was marked with lines at her eyes and mouth, and her hair was streaked with gray. In the paintings she wore finery, but here she only wore the traditional light blue dress of the Foresworn Sisters, though without a white wimple. For someone like Sofia, who had spent hours looking at those paintings, there could be no mistaking that this was the same person.
“Didn’t you care about us?” asked Sofia. She could feel tears welling up in her eyes. This was not at all how she had wanted to start this conversation.
Her mother gave her a slow solemn nod.
“Didn’t you ever think that I needed a mother?” asked Sofia.
Her mother nodded again, quicker this time, but then pointed to herself and quickly brought her hand sideways in a chopping motion.
“Not you?” asked Sofia. Her mother nodded. “Why?” asked Sofia. “Why did father force you out?”
But her mother was already shaking her head. She began to make hand signals, then stopped and laid her hands on the table for a moment. She pantomimed a crown over her head, then made a motion to lift it up and place it on the chair next to her. She pointed at it, then shook her head, then pointed to herself and nodded.
“He … didn’t force you out?” asked Sofia. “You left on your own? But why?”
The former queen let out a long sigh. She raised her hands for a moment, to mime out some explanation, then let them fall to the ground.
“I would have been a bad mother,” Sofia’s mother said.
It took Sofia a moment to realize that her mother had just broken her vow of silence. “That doesn’t make any sense,” said Sofia. “You thought you would be worse than having no mother at all? We thought you were dead!”
“Your father and I worked it out,” said Ariel. “We both wanted what was best for the kingdom. We both agreed that I was unfit. I came here as a punishment, but it was one I inflicted on myself, because I knew that I deserved it.”
“Why?” Sofia nearly yelled. “What did you do that was so bad?”
“A million things,” said Ariel. “I was a bad person, that was why I was so certain I would be a bad mother. My saving grace was that I knew I was bad, so that after every bad thing I did I would feel guilt and remorse for what I had done, even though I would know that it wouldn’t be enough to stop me the next time. On occasion I confessed to your father, or he would find out of his own accord, and we would shout at each other about it.”
“What —” Sofia began.
“I suffocated your brother,” said Ariel. “He would cry, wailing away, for no apparent reason, and my blood would begin to boil, thinking that he was being unreasonable, or that he was accusing me of something. So from time to time, I would clamp my hand over his nose and mouth and watch as he kicked and thrashed. But he was only a baby, and I was stronger than him by far. It felt good, knowing there was nothing he could do about it, knowing that his cries were finally about something real instead of just an assault on my ears for no good reason.” She looked down at the table and ran her finger along the grain of the wood. “I hurt him. It was nothing permanent, nothing that he would remember, but the pain and stress … that I inflicted upon him.” She looked up to meet Sofia’s eyes. “I did it many times. Eventually I would relent, before he fell unconscious, and he would cry some more. My anger at him would fade and I would feel wretched about what I had done. And then a few days later, the next time he was crying for no reason, I would suffocate him again.”
Sofia stared at her mother with her mouth agape. “That’s … horrible. But there are nurses that could have helped you when things got rough, it … it shouldn’t have been enough that you left.”
Ariel gave a hollow laugh. “Did you think I didn’t have nurses? I did. Did you think that perhaps this was the only bad thing that I did? It was not. I was petty and vindictive. I knew that about myself. I despised it about myself, in fact. But it didn’t stop me from taking spiteful revenge on those I felt wronged by. Your father had always been susceptible to my charms, that was the reason we’d gotten married in the first place, so I bent his ear to have little triumphs for my lesser self. Sometimes I was able to stop myself, never in the moment, but sometimes when I would realize a day later that I was being too awful for words.”
She shook her head. “I killed a young woman. I was widely loved by the people, because they thought your father and I had a romantic story. When Rowan was a year old there was a satirical play with myself as an empty-headed queen. Your father laughed it off as a joke, though I knew he didn’t find it funny. I went out in disguise to see the play for myself, to see this mockery of me that people imagined was so hilarious. Well, your father had given me an oathkeeper, and instructed the man to follow my commands. So one night when I was stewing about this woman, I told the oathkeeper to go kill her. I had never liked the man and thought he would break his oaths, but he hesitated only slightly before leaving the room to do as I had said. It wasn’t until fifteen minutes had passed that the gravity of what I had requested began to overtake me, but by then it was too late. It was the most horrible scandal you can imagine, covered up swiftly by both agents of the crown and the High Rectory, and it was my fault.”
Sofia said nothing. She didn’t imagine there was anything that she could say.
“Leaving was an act of love,” said Ariel. “If I had raised you, there was a chance that you and Rowan might have turned out like me, or that I might have seriously hurt you. I don’t know which is more likely, or which would have been worse. So I left.”
“I’m sorry I came here,” said Sofia. She pushed her chair away from the table.
“I’ve thought about coming back,” said Ariel. “Not as the queen, not after reports of my death, but back to Marurbo to see you and your brother. To be around. You’re old enough now.”
“Old enough for what?” asked Sofia.
“Me,” said Ariel, “When I left, when your father and I agreed it was for the best, we were thinking about what sort of household you would grow up in. I’m not pleasant to those in my life. Not even the sisters here. I have trouble with my baser impulses. But now that you’re grown, it wouldn’t have so much of an impact on you, I wouldn’t think. You came because you wanted to know me, well, perhaps you might still know me. Not over the course of a single conversation here, but perhaps while taking tea in the castle together, doing things with one another. Insulated from me still, but … if there is no longer a risk that I would corrupt you, that I would set a bad example, perhaps I could become something like your mother.” She paused and folded her hands in front of her.
“You’ve been here sixteen years,” said Sofia. “And you’ve admitted to me that you were,” Evil. “not a good person. What is there to know?”
“I’m a person,” said Ariel. She spread her hands, like a blooming flower. “I would have made a rotten mother, and I was not on balance a good person, but there was a balance. I had hobbies and interests. I had happy memories with your father. Even here at the Citadel, I have a life. Almost a happy one. And I know so precious little about you.”
Sofia curled her hands into fists. “I suppose,” she said. Perhaps that had even been something like what she’d wanted, before entering this room and speaking with this woman. “I’ll need some time to think. And I’ll need to talk to father. And … I think I would like to be done speaking with you.”
Ariel nodded. “I understand. I’m not doing anything of great import here.” She had a rueful smile. “Tell you father that I’m sorry about everything. Send Rowan my love.”
“Oh,” said Sofia. “Rowan. He wanted me to ask you … he wanted me to ask you why father hates him.”
Ariel turned from Sofia. “It would be hard to explain,” she said.
“Rowan said he sent you a letter,” Sofia replied. “You were under an oath of silence, but wouldn’t it have been possible to have one of the other sisters write for you? If you have hand signals —”
“No,” said Ariel. “I did not want to answer then, I do not want to answer now. My vows did not stop me anyhow, since I was never good at keeping them. It is not for me to say, nor you to know. I was sorry to hear from Rowan that he felt mistreated, but …” she trailed off, then grit her teeth. “Know that I am not being selfish in keeping my silence.”
Sofia stood up and left the room without another word.