Rowan had learned much about dark magic through first principles.
First and foremost, the social aspects of dark magic must largely be about trust. If he followed a ritual which had been described in a book, he had to take the author at their word that their descriptions were full and correct. If any of the three requirements of sacrifice, ritual, or intent were wrong, it was possible that the sacrifice might happen but there would be no effect. There were many reasons to write incorrect instructions down. It could be a security measure against other dark wizards, an honest mistake, or simple incompetence.
Rowan had often thought that the kingdom’s policy of burning the books that dealt with dark magic was misguided, if their intent was to reduce the practice. Instead, they should have had dozens of scribes working to produce books which could be distributed around the country. A dull person who came across a book like this and tried one of the rituals would come to the conclusion that dark magic didn’t work. A smart person might come to the conclusion that this particular book contained rituals that did not work. The scribes could in turn makes books in which only some of the dark rituals were incorrect, adding in some uncertainty for the dark wizard, who would now be unsure of whether a ritual would work until he had actually used it. Because the scribes would be producing books which were indistinguishable from the real thing aside from their contents, the dark wizards would be unable to trust any books.
Rowan didn’t think that the High Rectory had done any such thing, but he read the book of mental magic with a great deal of skepticism anyway. The author of Psychic Superiority was writing about a combined area of dark magic and mentalism which was utterly foreign to Rowan — and Rowan had done quite a bit of reading on both subjects. It was entirely possible that the author, whose name was given in the front cover as Walther Cremlau, was simply insane. Yet the concept of mentalism married with dark magic was tantalizing. It made a deep and intuitive sense to Rowan. He decided that he would start at the fringes of the work, using a ritual which would cost little if it failed. All it would cost him was a happy memory.
There were a variety of ways to represent a memory in a mindscape. The standard, which had been laid out in Ibrahim’s books, was to separate the mindscape into distinct rooms, with each room filled with objects, and each object representing a memory. After each event of any significance, twenty seconds of meditation were enough to wrap the memory into a form which could be sorted and stored among the many rooms. There were two central flaws in this scheme. The first was that if the mindscape didn’t present itself as a building, some other method needed to be found unless the mindscape was to be remade wholesale. The second was that it allowed any other mentalist to wander in and see a neatly arranged collection of memories for the taking. Ordinarily this wouldn’t be a problem, because any mentalist worth his salt kept his mindscape completely closed off. Worrying about how easy it would be to rifle through neatly ordered memories was like worrying about how easy it would be to find the most precious artifacts once inside the royal vault; if some ne’er-do-well had made it that far, it was already too late.
Unfortunately, Rowan was still being instructed by Ibrahim. The royal mentalist came into Rowan’s mind whenever he pleased. If the memories were laid out nicely, organized in a way that would easily evoke their meaning at first glance, Rowan would be far too open to viewing. There were a great deal of things that he wished to hide from Ibrahim.
Rowan’s mindscape was a castle far larger than any that might have existed in the real world. Rather than each memory being an object, each memory was a room all of its own. Their arrangement was random; when it came time to place a new one, Rowan would roll dice in order to find the new location. His mindscape was an absolute jumble, incomprehensible to anyone, even him. Fortunately, he had a map.
The first thing he did, once he decided that he was going to try the ritual, was to create a thoughtform of Ibrahim. The map took some walking to, and his imagining of Ibrahim might be able to find some compelling reason not to do the ritual.
“It amuses you to make a thoughtform of the man who taught you the practice?” asked Ibrahim.
“It does,” replied Rowan. He was a mentalist; he was good at admitting his own feelings.
“And why have you created me this time?” asked Ibrahim. This particular thoughtform had a certain amount of continuity with those which had come before him. “You hope to use me against myself?”
“Not this time,” said Rowan. “I only seek advice. A book recently came into my possession called Psychic Superiority. You can imagine my eagerness to be superior. Yet the secret technique that this book taught was something I hadn’t considered. It describes a number of dark rituals which might be performed inside one’s own head, using the material of the mindscape as fuel.”
“Do you think that I’m ignorant of such techniques?” asked Ibrahim. “Do you think that I haven’t practiced them on my own? I’m the most powerful mentalist on this side of the Juniper Ocean. How do you think I arrived at that position?”
Rowan was silent as they walked down the dark, twisted hallways. The thoughtform of Ibrahim wasn’t Ibrahim, only what Rowan thought of Ibrahim. Yet this was one of those cases where the thoughtform could offer insight. Rowan had not previously considered that Ibrahim might have some knowledge of the nexus between mentalism and dark magic. As soon as the thoughtform said it though, the hypothesis came under consideration.
“Mentalists are rare,” said Rowan. “Much of what makes a mentalist comes from something innate in him, rather than an attribute which he might gain or lose through training. I suspect that you were simply born to be a strong mentalist. There’s no need to suggest anything dark. In fact, I believe it’s more likely that your answer is a reflection of my difficult relationship with you.”
“Perhaps I am acting as a counterbalance to your optimism,” said Ibrahim. “You believe that you have found a way to surpass me, yet you know that this thinking is motivated by the contempt you feel towards me. I therefore speak in such a way as to undercut this unfounded optimism.”
“I won’t pretend that I don’t want to level the playing field,” said Rowan. “I won’t pretend that I want to bring the days of you coming into my head to a definitive close. Why that’s not forbidden I have no real idea.”
“You know the reasons I have given,” said Ibrahim. “I cannot instruct you in proper defense without making a breach. I cannot ensure that your mind is stable. Though it would appear that I have been derelict in my duties if you are intending to use unknown dark magic within your head.”
“Practicing dark magic cannot hurt you if it’s unknown,” said Rowan. “If your intent does not match the spell, there will be no result for good or ill.”
“You will still lose a happy memory,” said Ibrahim. “You don’t have enough of those to spare.”
“It will only be a small one,” said Rowan. “One I can live without.”
“In Kalabash there is a method of execution whereby they extract a drop of a man’s blood once every hour for as long as he lives,” said Ibrahim. “Each drop alone is a pittance, enough that it might pass without notice. Yet taken together, they induce weakness, fatigue, unconsciousness, and finally death.”
“You’ve told me that story before,” said Rowan. “I didn’t think it gave a clear message. The implication is that it’s difficult to know when you’ve lost enough blood that you can lose no more, but it’s not a general argument against losing a single drop of blood. There are better analogies that you might have chosen. You would have to say that a second drop of blood inevitably follows from the first. But of course that’s not true of dark rituals.”
“I have only your intelligence,” said Ibrahim. “Perhaps that is why I haven’t come up with anything more clever.”
Rowan made no response to that. The Ibrahim of his imagining was always more acerbic than Ibrahim was in the real world, but this was a flaw in the thoughtform that he had given up on fixing. Speaking with Ibrahim was proving particularly unproductive, so Rowan folded space around him and cut the walk short by arrived at the key room in the blink of an eye.
Of all the rooms in the sprawling castle that made up the mindscape, the key room was the most elaborate. It was adorned with an elaborate mural with all plants and animals that lived in Donkerk, from the wolves down to the smallest snails. The mural signified nothing, but allowed him to remember his passcode through use a mnemonic. He circled the room, touching each of the symbols in order, first a fox, then a bear, sixteen in total, each chosen at random with a roll from the dice. When it was completed, a section of the floor rose up from the middle of the grand room. The key to his mind was symbolized with a map, which he slid into a tube that materialized at his side. The structure of his mindscape came flooding into his mind; the jumble of disorganized rooms made sense again.
Ibrahim — the one in the real world — had surely noticed this scheme, but had made no mention of it. Rowan’s mind was as secure as it could be. Without the key, the mindscape was completely lacking in order. Without the mnemonic password, the key would remain secure against everyone. The mnemonic was stored as its own room within the castle, but there were so many that no one would be able to find it without already having the key. A mindscape wasn’t supposed to be so large and complex, so difficult to move around in, but that was what Rowan had chosen for himself.
The way to the happy memory was clear now. Rowan arrived there in a single step with a force of will. The room was a large one, with tall ceilings and panels painted green with gold trim. It was one of the brighter rooms in the mindscape, lit up by sunlight that pierced through the clouds. The windows held thick, clear glass that rivaled anything to be found in the castle where Rowan’s physical body lay. Here he could feel the memory come easily to him, as it had been on the day he had made it. A mentalist could relive memories just as they’d happened; it was one of the gifts of that brand of magic.
Rowan let himself sink into the memory one last time, just for a bit. He was being held up on his father’s shoulders to see the tall ships coming in from a successfully waged war. The crowds were cheering and his father was smiling. The smell of the wharf filled Rowan’s nostrils. His legs sat astride his father’s head, and his hands gripped the heavy gold of the Boreal Crown to keep from falling. The canvas of the ship’s sails billowed out with the salty wind. It was as vivid to Rowan as though he were there again, nine years old, small and innocent. The best was yet to come though, and as though responding to his anticipation, the water just behind the crew began to part as a creature many times the size of the ship came up from the depths. The elder spirit of the Juniper Ocean, Kell, rose up on six marbled gray legs. His single eye gazed out on the wharfs as gulls flew around his head. He was as big as a mountain. There was a moment of awe and silent apprehension about what the creature would do, until he reached forward with a scaly frond as thick as a man’s waist and touched one of the sailing ships on the crow’s nest. It was a blessing, plain for everyone to see the spirit of the ocean itself welcoming the crew members home. Rowan’s father, the king, whooped in joy with the full force of the Boreal Crown behind him, loud enough that Rowan felt it in his very bones.
He pulled out of the memory and regarded the room.
“There are other happy memories,” said Ibrahim. “Other memories which are not quite so precious.”
“There are principles to dark magic of which you are likely ignorant,” replied Rowan. “Sacrifice is one of the three requirements. If you sacrifice too little, the spell will have no effect. Yet if you sacrifice too much, the spirits are more than happy to take more than their fair share. It is said that many of the Nethian spells are sloppy in that way, giving more to the spirits than was necessary because no one wanted to test the requirements in order to see what the smallest thing they could get away with was. It’s the same with the accompanying rituals, for that matter. If the ritual requirement is that you draw a circle around the sacrifice, there is no penalty for drawing three circles which alternate clockwise and counterclockwise. Many rituals are more complex than they have to be, if only because no one bothered to figure out what the minimum requirement was.”
“Better to give three drops of blood then,” said Ibrahim. “So that you will know you didn’t fail because you were stingy.”
Rowan gave no response. He walked from the room and closed the door behind him, looking only briefly at the rich oak. A brief act of will brought a copy of Psychic Superiority to his hand, opened to the page that contained the ritual. He began tracing out a pattern around the door, precisely following the instructions in the book. The patterns were meant to call the attention of a spirit; they were more complex than anything Rowan had seen before, but the mental realm was less connected to the spiritual realm than it was to the physical realm. The signal to the spirits would need to be stronger.
“You will regret the loss of this memory,” said Ibrahim.
“No,” said Rowan. “The memory is a lie. My father doesn’t love me. He doesn’t want me to rule. My mind will be better off without the association to muddle my thoughts on the matter and I will have a boon from the spirits on top of that.”
Rowan finished his inscriptions around the door. His mindscape was different than the book assumed, but the mental realm was largely a place of symbolism, and this substitution felt right to him. Two of the three elements had been supplied; the ritual markings had been made and the sacrifice had been presented. Now there was only the question of intent. Rowan focused on the desired result, trying to push his will into a very specific shape.
The sword was in his hand a brief moment later, as though it had been there all along. Rowan couldn’t remember what the door in front of him had looked like before, but it was gray and cracked, like a log that had spent too much time in a fireplace. The missing memory was like a missing tooth in his mind; the sacrifice had been more complete than he had expected. He could remember deciding to remove the memory. He could remember the ritual. Yet he could not remember what his visit to the room had been like. He couldn’t remember the content of the memory at all, not even any dangling piece of it. When he pulled out the physical representation of the map, the room showed only as a darkened scar.
“You miss it already,” said Ibrahim. “Even without knowing what it was.”
“No,” replied Rowan. He waved at hand toward the cracked door and sealed away the spot where the memory had been. The scar was similarly erased from the map of his mind. It was as though the memory, whatever it had been, was never there at all.
The sword, however, remained in his hand.
“You told me once that only a weakling or a fool fights with physical weapons in the mental realm,” said Rowan. “We’ll see whether you’re right.”
Sofia found a large courtyard where she wouldn’t be bothered. Her oathkeepers, as ever, arranged themselves so that no one could approach without some defensive action being taken. She wanted to ask them if they had anything better to do, but of course the answer would be that they did not. Today it was the one she called Firewood, who could not talk, and the one she called Leech, who seemed to have a case of nerves even when things were going well. He was especially skittish around Ulf; if the porcelain hound were to cut him, Sofia imagined that the pale man might lose what little blood he had left.
Ulf was stalking beside her, looking larger than he normally did. She reached out a hand to pet him and watched the movement of the shards that made up his body. Though Ulf had no proper eyes, there was a suggestion of them in his features, a sort of indent in the way the head was shaped. Sofia was certain that he was looking at her, ready to hear what she had to say. She had decided that Ulf was a very good listener, as far as spirits went. That was why he had taken the form of a faithful hound.
“You can teleport,” said Sofia. She sat down on the grass, careful not to muss her skirts so as to prevent a talking to from the laundress. If she’d had her way, Sofia would have worn trousers, like a boy, cheap ones that she could stain all she liked. “So how is that done?”
Ulf was silent, of course. The only sounds he made were of porcelain clinking against the surfaces he walked on.
“I think, from watching you, that you only teleport when you want to,” said Sofia. “So it’s voluntary, not forced. I’ve never seen you do it though, so perhaps you’re shy about moving without moving?”
If Ulf were a proper dog, he would have wagged his tail.
“The books make mention of spirits disappearing when they pass behind trees,” said Sofia. “Or trotting off into a bank of fog and then being nowhere to be found. I suppose that raises the question of where a spirit goes when it disappears. Back into the spiritual realm for just a bit? Some other place within the physical realm? The sages are not clear on whether spirits taking a physical form is like visiting a different country or like deciding that you’re going to go to the library every day for a week. Which is it, Ulf?”
But again, there was no response from the porcelain hound. Sofia reached up to scratch him behind a blue and white shard that might as well have been his ear. He wasn’t a dog, she knew that, but she imagined that Ulf liked being treated like one all the same. It was true that he was very wolf-like at times, but he had always seemed somehow domestic to her.
“Alright,” said Sofia. “It’s time to do some proper science. I’m going to need your cooperation though. I want you to teleport.” She stared at Ulf. “Go on, do it. Do it … now.” Ulf remained where he was, sitting at attention.
Sofia turned to Leech and Firewood. “I need you to look away,” she called to them. “Ulf doesn’t like people looking at him when he does his business.”
“We are charged with your safety, my lady,” said Leech. He spared a glance toward Ulf.
“If Ulf ever decided to hurt me there’s not a thing that you could do about it,” said Sofia. She laid her hand on the spirit, not even watching as the shards turned inward and presented dull edges to her touch. “You’re fast, but he’s got very many sharp bits to him. Besides that, my father didn’t instruct you to keep me safe because he was worried about spirits, he wanted to make sure that no dark wizards could get to me again, didn’t he?”
“We will not abandon our duty,” said Leech, but Sofia could sense some reservation in his voice.
“A dark wizard is more liable to come through the doors than over the walls,” said Sofia. “You’ll still be able to hear me. If you hear anything other than me speaking to the castle’s spirit in an encouraging tone, you can spin right around and come save me. But until then, you’re impeding scientific progress.”
Leech looked toward Firewood, whose face was impassive. Sofia had come to know her guards fairly well. Walrus would never have gone for it, but part of Leech’s nervousness came from a desire to please. Firewood was an enigma, mostly because he didn’t speak. Sofia wouldn’t have been surprised if he shook his head, but after a few moments of frowning he sighed and turned to face the doorway. Leech followed suit shortly after. This was as much privacy as Sofia usually got.
“Alright,” Sofia said to Ulf. “It’s just you and me, pretty much. All I want is for you to teleport for me, just so I can watch it happen. Move from where you are, over next to that tree.”
To her complete surprise, the spirit listened. The air shimmered slightly around it, warping like hot air over a bright red stove, then Ulf vanished, only to reappear beside the tree a half a second later. Sofia’s eyes widened and she hastened to open up a notebook to make notes, cursing herself for not preparing better. She had taken this for a lark, not something that she could actually make happen. For a moment she tried to imagine how the scholars would have phrased it, but then decided that the scholars would probably just jot down whatever they were thinking in the moment and make it readable later on (or readable with considerable effort, in some cases).
Subject was completely gone for a period roughly a heartbeat, not visible in the physical realm whatsoever. Travel was accompanied by a faint distortion in the air. Unknown if that was as fast as he can move. Unknown if he can move through physical things but assumed that he can because of the time he escaped from the bedroom? Unknown why he listened to me.
“Why did you listen to me, Ulf?” asked Sofia. She set her pencil down in the fold of the notebook. “For that matter, why did you let me see?” The spirit stalked toward her with its porcelain paws, until it was close enough to touch. It bowed its head down to her and rubbed the side of her cheek with why might have been its nose. The broken dishware was cold, but the affection of the gesture was unmistakable.
“Oh,” said Sofia. “Well I like you too.” She didn’t say it out loud, because Leech and Firewood were surely listening, but the day’s study was giving her some ideas that would have to be put to the test as far away from the notice of her guards as possible. She wanted to see whether Ulf could bring someone with him when he moved; if he could, that would be the key to true freedom.
Henry did his duties at the orphanage without complaint and always went to find more as soon as he was finished with what he’d been assigned. In part he enjoyed working with his hands, but he also wanted to establish a pattern. Because he always came to the sisters asking what more he could do, they would allow him to seek them out rather than the other way around. If he later needed to get into places where he wasn’t supposed to be, it would be unlikely for anyone to go looking for him. Henry had often found that good behavior was the best policy, since it not only came with its own rewards but made bad behavior much easier.
He began his days eating breakfast in the cottage with his fathers, usually hard-boiled eggs and porridge with just a dash of cracked black pepper. After that he made the trek to Leshampur, walking down a road that got more familiar with every passing day. This was prime thinking time for Henry; he let his mind wander as he passed beneath the canopy of trees and crossed over the thick river that had once prevented him from being returned to the orphanage that he was now going to. Thinking about how his life might have ended up different was one of the things he spent his travel time on.
Once he came to the orphanage, he would greet the sisters, then take a task from Sister Miriam or Sister Loris. The other two sisters, Sister Florence and Sister Constance, had both taken an Oath of Silence, which made speaking to them more trouble than it was worth. It was by way of Sister Constance that Henry learned the oathkeepers had different levels of commitment; while the oath that Florence had taken permitted her to communicate in writing, the Third Elevation of the Oath of Silence which bound Sister Constance didn’t permit anything more than pointing or nodding. Sister Miriam was personable and talkative though, so Henry found himself speaking with her most often.
At noon the orphans were fed. There were perhaps thirty in total, enough to fill the largest room in the orphanage. Afterward, during quiet time, the sisters ate their own lunches and Henry joined them.
“You’ve been doing fine work,” said Sister Miriam as she ladled out five bowls of stew. The orphanage had stew more days than not, changing their menu only when there was a donation that brought in some variety. The stew tended to have more vegetables than meat, but Henry didn’t mind that too much. Sister Miriam always gave ample portions. “You have a much stronger ethic than I would have thought from a boy being punished.”
“Thank you,” said Henry as he took the bowl of stew.
“Have you thought about joining the Rectory?” asked Miriam. This drew some looks from the other sisters.
“I’m a bit old for it, aren’t I?” asked Henry. He tasted the soup. Today there was a surfeit of barley, but it had been cooked long enough to be tender.
“I didn’t take my own oaths until eighteen,” said Miriam. “It’s true that the orphans are folded in at the age of ten, but it’s often thought that age brings a certain sort of demeanor with it, which the High Rectory looks upon kindly.”
“Sister Constance took five oaths when she was twelve,” said Loris. Constance nodded along with that; the woman was in her nineties, with no obvious signs that she was a powerful denialist. Henry had no grandmothers, but Constance was what he imagined his grandmother on Hirrush’s side to be like. She was a short woman with hair that was nearly white. She seemed scrawny but unyielding; she had demonstrated more control over the orphans than any of the other sisters without ever saying a word.
“I didn’t mean it as disparagement, obviously,” said Miriam. “I only wanted to tell Henry that starting late was no real impediment to oathkeeping.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” said Henry. He stirred his stew with his spoon for a while. “How many oathkeepers end up breaking their vows?”
The table was silent save for the sounds of eating. When Henry looked up, he saw the sisters looking down at their food.
“Too many,” said Miriam. “Some are simply not cut out for the life, but they’re rarely oathkeepers for long. I’ve heard as much as a third of those who enter into the Sisterhood fall within the first year and the numbers aren’t much better for the Rectory. It’s a balance of taking as many oaths as you can manage while not skirting too close to consigning yourself to a life you don’t think is worth living.” Her eyes flickered to Constance, then she hurriedly looked down at her soup again. “Not everyone is up to the demands of duty.”
“Sorry if that was a bad question,” said Henry.
“It wasn’t a bad question,” said Miriam. “It’s just cause for sadness, that’s all. It causes us to think about those who lost their way.”
Henry had no intention of becoming an oathkeeper. He’d initially thought that perhaps he could take an oath for something he didn’t care too much about, but Omarr had explained that oaths only really worked if the oathkeeper felt the weight of being constrained, which seemed unfair to Henry. Even if he’d kept an oath, he saw no compelling reason to join the Rectory. Free oathkeepers were rare, but that was what Henry would have wanted to be, if there weren’t other paths open to him. Yet the conversation stuck with him through the rest of the day all the same.
Henry was beginning to have reservations about his plan. Rifling through the ledgers would be a betrayal of the trust he’d built with the sisters, even if he didn’t get caught. Every day after he returned to the cottage, he built up a simulacrum of the orphanage in his mindscape, putting every detail into place so he could have a proper map. Yet as the days passed, he found that he had less and less enthusiasm for the project. The key to his past obviously lay within the ledgers, but there was no good way to get time alone in there. His mentalist training meant that he would only need to glance at the pages in order to retain everything they said, but there were simply too many ledgers for him to find the right one quickly, let alone find the right page within the ledger. His other option was to speak with one of the sisters about the orphan that had gone missing, but that seemed unreasonably risky and he wasn’t confident that he could pull it off.
Henry lay in bed and sighed at the ceiling. The house spirit came along and patted him on the head with its spoon, but somehow that was little comfort.
Sofia waited until after midnight to make her escape. She had an enormous wardrobe, but very little that was suitable for sneaking around. In the end she was able to find a pair of trousers in the bottom of a drawer. She thought that they were riding trousers, though the stables were outside the castle walls, which meant that she had never ridden a horse. Sofia was certain that she looked ridiculous in a shift and trousers, but the whole point of the escape was not to be seen, so she didn’t imagine that the indecorous outfit would matter much unless something went wrong. When she was done tying her long red hair back, she turned to Ulf.
“Are you ready?” she whispered to him. There were two oathkeepers standing just outside her door. A sage would probably have said that Sofia’s question didn’t matter given that the spirit had no capability for speech, but it felt important to treat Ulf like she would a person. His only response to her question was to step towards her, but that was all she really needed.
“I’m going to climb up on you,” whispered Sofia, keeping her voice so low she could barely hear it. “And then I want you to teleport us out of here.” She touched Ulf’s flank, feeling the cold porcelain. She didn’t know quite how she was meant to mount the hound, but simply swung up onto him as though she knew what she was doing. It wasn’t too much of a surprise when Ulf rearranged himself to accommodate her. It wasn’t like she imagined a saddle to be, and the pieces of dishware were cold even through her clothing, but she was firmly in place. Despite the sharp edges that made up Ulf, everything touching her was smooth. She wrapped her arms around his neck and held on tight. “Alright Ulf.”
There was a feeling of coldness that accompanied a moment of pitch blackness. Every small sound that Sofia had been hearing cut out, from the constant murmur of the river that surrounded the castle to the noises of the insects in the air. All the remained was the sound of her heart. She had no time to soak in the experience though, because a short moment later she was sitting with Ulf atop one of the battlements of the castle.
The whole of Marurbo was laid out before them. They were at one of the highest points in the castle, a lookout tower that hadn’t been staffed in a very long time. The only features were the evenly spaced gaps in the circular wall for archers to fire from and a trap door that led down the tower. It was disused; there was dirt and dust piled up in one corner and droppings from birds spattered around. Given the view it offered her, there was nowhere that Sofia would rather be. She could see every fire still burning in the city, every building small and large illuminated by the starlight. There was a wind whipping over the tower she stood on, bringing the salty smell of the ocean with it. Sofia could see across the water all the way to the Fingers, where the Tower of Adair was burning brightly. Toward the north, the city gave way to striped fields, which in turn gave way to rambling woods and the streams and creeks that fed the Lenten River. It filled Sofia with a dizzying sense of possibility.
Best of all, she had no chaperon. She had no idea where the closest oathkeeper was, but she was sure that he was far away. The two outside her door would still be standing there, thinking that they were giving her protection. The sensation was just as pleasant as she had thought it would be.
“Well Ulf,” said Sofia slowly. She started at a whisper before remembering that there was no cause for that. She said the words in a loud and confident voice. “Where shall you and I go?”
Ulf looked at her with what she imagined was a shrug. His body was still deformed to provide a seat for her.
“We need to test your limits,” said Sofia. “I think I’d like to set foot outside the castle tonight, if you can manage it.” She climbed back on top of him and a moment later, they were somewhere else, with that same sensation of cold, dark, silence in between, but longer this time. There was something familiar about it which she couldn’t quite place.
When Sofia looked around, she saw that they hadn’t quite left the castle. Instead, Ulf was standing on the eastern bridge, one of the pair that connected the castle to the city around it. Sofia looked around quickly, but at this time of night the guards patrolled the walls of the castle instead of sitting outside the enormous gate that prevented entry. She was beyond the castle walls, at any rate, if still on the island. The bridge stretched out in front of Sofia, beckoning her. She could walk into the city from here. It was possible that a guard would see her, but for a moment that seemed like a small price to pay. Perhaps it might even be a boon; if her father knew that the castle could no longer hold her, he would relax his grip.
“Come Ulf,” said Sofia, her voice back to being soft and quiet. “Let’s go into the city. You can whisk me away if anything goes wrong, can’t you?”
Ulf said nothing, so Sofia started off. She looked back when she didn’t hear the clattering sound of Ulf walking behind her. The spirit was sitting at the edge of the bridge, standing stock still.
“Follow behind me?” asked Sofia.
Instead, Ulf laid down, spreading the pieces of himself out like a pudding that had sat on the plate too long.
“You can’t leave the castle?” asked Sofia. She walked back toward Ulf. “I was worried about that. You’re the spirit of the castle, so I suppose it follows from that. The books weren’t very clear on the matter.” She looked across the bridge, to the large city that laid beyond it. “I wanted to see it so badly, to run free without men in full plate covering every step …” She turned back toward Ulf and saw something in the way he was splayed out. “But of course you’re doing your best, and I appreciate that more than I can say in words. If you can’t leave the castle,” Sofia paused slightly, because those words weren’t right. “If you’re the castle, I can’t ask you to not be the castle. Show me around. Show me all the hidden places the no one goes, the quiet corners and rooms that never get used. I want to see the secret places, like I did when I was a girl.”
Ulf perked up at that. She wasn’t quite sure how much he understood what she was saying, or whether he could comprehend the words at all. He didn’t have any ears to hear with, just broken blue-white triangles of what had once been plates. It was possible that he was reading her intentions directly, looking into her mind like a mentalist would, or finding some layer of abstraction. There were tests she could do to falsify those hypotheses, but anything that she could do in the courtyards could wait.
When Sofia mounted him again, Ulf transported them again. He took her to the tops of the castle walls, into storerooms she had never known existed, down into tunnels and passageways that she was entirely ignorant of. Sofia had thought she’d seen everything there was to see in the castle, but it was a big place, and Ulf was taking her for a tour. He ran on all fours as they teleported from place to place, sometimes racing along the sloped castle roofs and other times going down hallways at a breakneck pace. She saw people once or twice, but as soon as they started to turn her way Ulf would take her away, back to that dark, quiet place for just a moment before bursting back into the world and dashing off somewhere else. Sofia grinned and gripped him tight, enjoying not just the adventure but the energy she could feel from the spirit she was clinging to.
There was another moment of blackness, naggingly familiar in a way that Sofia couldn’t put her finger on, then Ulf came to a stop on a gently sloped roof next to a pair of open windows. Light was streaming out from within. Sofia tensed when she heard her father’s voice.
“The dukes are not happy,” said King Aldric. He sounded old and haggard.
“The prophecy looms,” said another voice. Sofia recognized it as one of the sages, Langauld. She didn’t dare look in the window, for fear that they would see her. She had been ready to whisper to Ulf that they should retreat, but there was that word hanging in the air, prophecy.
“It’s worse than they know,” said her father. “Worse than I’ve let anyone know, not even you.”
“My liege?” asked Languald. “If there were extra verses I was not privy to —”
“No,” Sofia’s father replied. “There is nothing more of the prophecy itself, only the circumstances around it. If I’d only been given a definite time, I might know how to proceed. Curse prophecy. Curse it for tying my hands, for making me second guess my every action, wondering whether I’m traveling closer to doom or farther from it. I tried not to let it get to me, but when Sofia was taken, I saw the hand of fate in that, taunting me. I thought the prophecy would be fulfilled then. Yet she was spared her ultimate fate. I could only take it as a warning against thinking that it was only prophecy I had to worry about.”
“My liege,” said Langauld “If there is something more I should know, some way I might be of service, I would bid you not to keep such information from any sage, let alone myself.”
“No,” Sofia’s father said. “I am tired. It has been a long day. Have the council of sages go over the prophecy again. Try to find other interpretations.”
“There are none,” said Langauld. “We have exhausted every reading.”
“You still think the orphan from Leshampur was the savior?” asked Sofia’s father. “Could it have been someone else, somehow, by some reading that was eliminated too quickly?”
“There are those within the council who would be pleased to hear your doubts,” said Langauld. “You know that prophecy can open itself too wide.”
“I know,” said Sofia’s father. “Yet grasping at straws might still comfort me and my dukes, if nothing else.”
There was a moment of silent darkness as Ulf took them away. When Sofia could see again, she found that they were back in her room.
“An ominous way to end the evening,” said Sofia. She climbed from Ulf and sat on her bed; he followed her and took up his customary position curled up near the footboard. She leaned over and kissed him on what passed for his forehead. She stayed sitting for a long time, looking out her window and thinking about her father’s words before undressing and climbing into bed for a long-delayed sleep.
Amelia was nervous, but Rowan didn’t really blame her for that. He was the crown prince after all, handsome if not charming and with a great deal of weight to throw around. If he’d wanted something untoward from her, resisting him would carry heavy risks. Beyond that, the royalty of Donkerk were often known to marry for love, which meant that if he had taken an interest in her she stood a chance of ascending to the throne, which would have given any serving girl a case of nerves. Amelia was young and inexperienced, which would have made it worse for her. His intentions weren’t insidious or romantic, but she couldn’t know that.
“The royal mentalist, Ibrahim, he put a thoughtform in you when you first began working here, didn’t he?” asked Rowan. They were alone in one of the sitting rooms at his request, without a chaperon. That would have caused a scandal if she were noble.
“He did, my lord,” said Amelia. She smoothed her black skirt again, though it was already smooth.
“It didn’t hurt, did it?” asked Rowan.
“No, my lord,” said Amelia. She looked towards the closed door. “There were others who had the same done.”
“You will do for my purposes,” said Rowan. “All I need from you is to sit there without doing anything while I enter your mindscape. Can you do that for me?”
“My lord,” said Amelia. She brushed some hair from her face and cleared her throat. “Yes, my lord.” She might have been preparing to voice an objection, but a moment of hesitation had wiped away her resolve.
“Good,” said Rowan. “This will take no longer than half an hour. You are not to move during that time, only sit still.”
“But what are you going to do?” asked Amelia. “My lord,” she added belatedly.
“It’s a form of training,” said Rowan. “Nothing you need to worry about. I swear on the Boreal Crown that there is no risk to you.”
Before she could speak another word, Rowan leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. That wasn’t strictly necessary for meditation, but it had the benefit of closing off any line of inquiry from his subject. He waited a moment for her to interrupt him, but when none came, Rowan sank into his own mind until he was fully within it. He opened his eyes on the cold stone walls of a corridor in his mindscape.
The breaching room had only been constructed within the past year, under instruction from Ibrahim. Rowan had used it a few dozen times in total, always as part of his training with the royal mentalist. The process had rankled at Rowan’s sense of autonomy; Ibrahim wanted to control every detail of the changes to Rowan’s mind. Still, there was no arguing with the construction of the room. It was a firm, solid place, a room that stood apart from the jumble of his mindscape. It took the form of a place of worship, similar to the one at the heart of the High Rectory, with windows that were tinted blue and surrounded with elaborate woodwork. As with much of the mental realm, this was symbolic, intended by Ibrahim to evoke a sense of gravity and connection to the wider world. There were no pews cluttering things up, nor a pulpit, only glowing spheres that hung in the air, each a mind somewhere around him. Ibrahim had said that with training it was possible to map the location of other people based on what could be seen in the mental realm, but so far that was beyond Rowan.
Amelia was easy to locate all the same. Her mind was gentle music, a light pink light, the smell of vanilla and feel of soft cotton. It was the most distinct of all the minds in the breaching room and not at all difficult to draw closer to his own in preparation. He spread the fluffy mass of it down onto the floor then jumped towards it, letting his weight become symbolic of movement. Rowan had done this a dozen times before, but there was still a sensation of being caught in the natural barrier between them. It took an exercise of will to keep himself pointed in the right direction, moving toward a breach instead of back toward his own mindscape. Eventually the breach was completed, which caused Rowan to stumble into the serving girl’s mind. He had time to take in a large white cube in a field of garishly green grass before Ibrahim was standing in front of him with a sword drawn.
“What are you doing here?” asked Ibrahim. “We didn’t arrange for this.”
This was only an echo of Ibrahim though, a seed planted in the girl when she’d come into the employ of the castle. A girl like this would be easy prey to the manipulations of someone with skill in mentalism. One of the royal mentalist’s duties was to give what protections he could to those in the service of the king. The thoughtform of Ibrahim here was one of Ibrahim’s own creation, a shard of himself copied onto the girl’s mind so that she wouldn’t be without defenses. The effectiveness of such a thoughtform depended on the mind it inhabited and the resonance between the host and the guest, but they were always a deterrent against someone with ill intent.
“You’re not lowering your sword,” said Rowan. He drew a blade of his own, the one he’d given up a happy memory for.
“What are you doing here?” asked Ibrahim. “I would have alerted this seed if I had instructed you to breach this girl’s mind. What do you hope to gain?” He was in a fighting stance, with the sword out in the space between them.
Rowan shrugged away his hesitations. He’d gone too far now; Ibrahim checked in on his seeds from time to time and eventually he would make contact with Amelia. The shard would speak of this incursion to its master. Ibrahim would know then. Either he would tell the king or use it as leverage, but either result would be bad for Rowan. Of course, if the thoughtform was utterly destroyed, Ibrahim would assume that it had been a simple rejection, as happened from time to time. Rowan wondered whether the thoughtform knew that it was soon to end. It was hosted on the mind of a serving girl, hardly as powerful or intelligent as the real Ibrahim was.
“Lay down your sword,” said Rowan. “I command you as crown prince of the kingdom of Donkerk.”
“I cannot allow you in here,” said Ibrahim. “You have no right to this girl’s mind. I would accuse you succumbing to your baser urges, but I know you better than that.”
“As you so often remind me,” replied Rowan. “I note that you haven’t dropped your sword.”
“I don’t have all my memories available to me,” said Ibrahim, “Only what I could fit here. But nothing at my disposal tells me that you have the skill to beat even this shadow of me.”
Rowan lunged forward with his sword. He was well-trained in swordplay, but Ibrahim had given him little instruction on how to properly fight in the mental realm. Most of his education on the subject had come from reading books, or from sparring with thoughtforms he had created. He knew that it was largely about the application of will and the manifestation of symbolic strength, but that was a far cry from being battle-hardened.
Ibrahim parried the sword aside, then shot a bolt of lightning from his palm. Rowan blocked that with a torrent of water, which he turned to ice and used as a second weapon. When he swung with his sword of ice, Ibrahim bounded backward, then pressed off against an invisible wall to come rushing back at full speed. Rowan put up a defense, but he had so little time to react that his parry was weak. Ibrahim’s sword caromed off of Rowans and bit into the flesh of Rowan’s shoulder. Ibrahim sat in a crouch with his sword in front of him.
“Leave now and I won’t have to give you a permanent scar,” he said. “I’ll even ask my better self to be lenient with you.”
Rowan’s shoulder bled, until he corrected the wound. His body here was only a reflection of his mind; any wounds he took were all in his head. It was nearly impossible to kill a man while in the mental realm, but cumulative injuries could cripple his ability to fight until his mindscape was left without much in the way of defense. Even a battle against a seed like Ibrahim had left in Amelia was a battle of attrition. That is, unless you had a sword that was forged of something more than simple imagination.
Rowan moved forward again, putting his focused will into his speed. He crossed the distance between them with a single step and attacked with a flurry a blows, raining them down on Ibrahim so quickly that there would be no hope of a proper defense. It would have been unwise in any other circumstances and led only to wearing himself down while giving wounds that were easy to recover from. When Rowan’s blade finally hit though, the sword sliced cleanly through, finding no resistance and leaving only ash in its wake. The wound spread outward as Ibrahim fell backward. He collapsed into the grass, spreading ash around him.
Fighting Ibrahim would be far harder, but this had given Rowan some measure of the royal mentalist’s strength. A direct assault on Ibrahim’s mindscape would be suicide, with or without the sword, but if it happened on Rowan’s home ground, things might be different. The next time the royal mentalist stepped past all the defenses, Rowan would be ready for him. Yet even as he had that thought, he noticed his sword beginning to rust. He touched it lightly with a single finger, which only seemed to speed up the process. The book had said nothing about the sword only holding a single charge. Rowan couldn’t remember what happy memory he had given up for the weapon, but to lose it now, on something that was little more than a glorified test, struck him as being patently unfair.
As the last bit of the sword crumbled into the wind, Rowan looked to the large white cube that sat in the middle of Amelia’s mindscape. If the sword could only be used once, he would have to make more of them. The ritual book had never specified that the happy memory had to be one of his own.
Henry took up a position outside the orphanage and watched it closely. He pricked his thumb for a moment and made the small ritual of sensing to track where the sisters were, making sure that all four of them were in their beds. Once he’d confirmed that, he crept forward and opened the window he’d left unlocked earlier in the day.
The truth was, he should have done it months ago, from the second or third day that he’d been doing odd jobs for them. He’d known early on that going through the ledgers in the daytime wasn’t going to be an option, but he’d continued on because there was a part of him that enjoyed the charade. It wasn’t too hard to imagine that being his life, if he’d grown up differently. He could have settled into a life of doing simple work for people, talking to them over lunch and ready with a smile whenever there was work to be done. Henry had two dark wizards for fathers though, and the princess of Donkerk still loomed large in his memories. He was an accomplished mentalist for his age, according to Hirrush, and his fathers both agreed that he would be a masterful dark wizard one day if he continued going down that path. Henry’s destiny didn’t seem to have much room for the mundane.
The office was locked, but the lock was simple to pick, and Henry slipped right in. He had waited for a night when the moon was full and there were few clouds so that he would be able to read by the moonlight. It would still take him quite a while to find what he was looking for, but he had plenty of time. He’d already arranged to sleep in the next day in order to make up for the lack of sleep.
There were several dozen ledgers, each thick and bound in leather. They were in chronological order, but there were no dates written on the spines, so Henry had to take them out one by one until he reached the right year. From there it was a matter of narrowing it down to the specific week that he’d been taken. He imagined that there would be many notes on the subject, because babies weren’t often taken from the orphanage in the middle of the night. Henry had already talked to Hirrush and Omarr to get the dates right so that he could find what he was looking for. He hadn’t asked either of them to come with him, even though he’d known that they would have said yes. He suspected that one or the other was close by, ready to intervene if things went wrong, but he hadn’t seen either of his fathers following behind him.
Henry came upon a gap in the ledger where several pages were missing. He wasn’t terribly surprised to find that they almost exactly covered the time that spanned from his presumed date of birth date of birth and just shortly after he was kidnapped. He continued on anyway, rapidly flipping through the pages in the moonlight so that he could look at them later in his mindscape with less to distract him. Once he was done, he quietly slip the ledger back into its spot on the shelf.
He slipped back out of the orphanage, as silently and unnoticed as he had slipped in. The only difference was the feeling of the weight on his mind.
“I don’t know what to do,” said Henry at lunch. He’d slept straight through breakfast, only waking up when Hirrush did.
“Is it so important?” asked Omarr.
“No,” Henry replied quickly. “It’s strange that those exact pages were removed though, isn’t it? Doesn’t that strike you as odd?”
“Not really,” replied Hirrush. “They lost a baby. There would probably have been an investigation. It’s possible that the pages were removed then. Or perhaps one of the sisters was particularly torn up about it and wanted to erase that stain on their history. There are lots of reasons for someone to want to remove that portion of the ledger that contained your time there.”
“Was it one of you?” asked Henry.
“How can you ask that?” asked Omarr.
“Oh hush,” said Hirrush. “The boy is being reasonable. He tells you he’s looking for his birth parents and you immediately go on the defense, trying to make him feel bad about wanting to see whether he had a birthright.”
“I wasn’t —” began Omarr.
“Oh come off it,” said Hirrush. “I don’t want our son to leave any more than you do.”
“I never said I was leaving,” said Henry.
“The point is,” said Hirrush. “If Henry was thinking about all the reasons that someone might have torn out those pages, there’s no reason that he shouldn’t think about us. We should be glad that he asked us directly instead of beating around the bush or trying to trap us in a lie.” He paused slightly with a piece of bread halfway to his mouth. “You didn’t take those pages, did you Omarr?”
“Of course not,” said Omarr. He shifted in his seat. “At any rate, the pages are gone, so you’re at a dead end.”
“Not true,” said Henry. “There are four Foresworn Sisters at the orphanage. Three of them were there the night I was taken. They would know what happened to the pages. I can’t exactly ask them without giving myself away, but if I breached their minds …” He trailed off and looked to Hirrush.
Hirrush swallowed a piece of grilled squash and wiped his mouth before beginning. “Problem one, you don’t know whether any of them are mentalists. That’s a remote possibility, but it would almost certainly mean that you’d have to kill the woman in question if you didn’t want to be revealed and captured. Problem two, you don’t know whether any of them have had defenses constructed for them. There are ways around that, and there’s little harm in making a probe to find out, but it’s a ding against the plan. Let’s say all that pans out though and there’s no competing mentalism to deal with. You’re still left with the problems of creeping into someone else’s mind, during which you’ll be vulnerable. You’ll be trying to track down a single memory, or a cluster of memories, from within an unstructured mind that’s had no organization applied to it. You step into one of the minds and then what? There’s a ninety-year-old woman with a full lifetime of experiences. It’ll be a warehouse full of junk. The only way to find what you want will be to look at each symbolic object, do your best to untangle it into something you can view, view it, then move on to the next one. Worse, you can’t get negative feedback; if the memory you want isn’t there at all, the only way to know that is to look at every single memory.”
“The kidnapping was important,” said Henry. “It should be one of the larger memories. I wouldn’t start with Constance, I would start with Florence. She’s in her thirties, there’d be less to go through.”
“At a conservative estimate, you’re looking at hundreds of hours,” said Hirrush. “That’s assuming that she’s got the memory at all.”
“It would also be a violation of her mind,” said Omarr.
Hirrush waved a hand. “Let’s not pretend that we’re above that. The Foresworn Sisters don’t have much in the way of scandal anyway, as a general rule.”
“Well okay,” said Henry. “Let’s say that I spend one hour every day rooting around in Florence’s mind. That means it would take … what, a year? I could handle that.”
“You’ve already been spending enough time at that orphanage,” said Omarr. “I’d thought that we’d be bringing that chapter to a close soon.”
“I know you don’t like them,” said Henry. “But they’ve been kind to me.”
“They send those boys and girls off to a life of slavery,” said Omarr. He grit his teeth. “They fill the childrens’ heads with notions of honor and duty. They teach sacrifice but pretend that’s not what it is. It’s dark magic mixed with sanctimony and slathered in self-deception.”
“I’m not planning on joining them,” said Henry. He laid his hand on his father’s. “I don’t endorse what they’re doing. But this is important to me. I’m growing up. You need to let me follow my own path.”
“He’s right,” said Hirrush.
“I know he’s right,” said Omarr. He shook his head and looked out the window to where the animals were grazing. “You still need training as a dark wizard, Henry, for your own protection. Especially if you plan on living a dangerous life.”
“I’ll strike a balance,” said Henry.
Sofia’s life began to revolve around her nighttime excursions with Ulf. With him by her side, she was able to get into the nooks and crannies of the castle. She was able to find some more practical clothing with a visit to the laundress’ room, which meant that every night she went out started with having Ulf take her to her secret cache of clothing on top of the castle’s highest tower and changing into them with Ulf patiently looking the other way. After that they would roam together for at least an hour before she needed to get to bed. She thought of the process as turning back into a princess again, though obviously one didn’t stop being a princess just because of a change in clothing. The lack of sleep made it harder to get through lessons with her tutors during the day, but that was a small price to pay. She napped frequently and no one seemed to care, except for one time she and Ulf stayed out until sunrise and she slept in so late that the royal physicians were called in; they prescribed her a tea, which she refused to drink. She and Ulf spied on people, though never overheard anything as juicy as on the first night. They wandered the ramparts, just out of view of the guards. They went down into the underbelly of the castle, where even the servants rarely went, and together they traced out a map of the castle.
It took a month for Sofia to get bored.
“It’s not that I’m bored of you,” she told Ulf as they sat at the top of her tower. “I’ve just that there’s no novelty left anymore. All the exploration is done. We go to your favorite spots, or my favorite spots, but while I still love you, the relationship necessarily has to change. You are, and always will be, a faithful friend. But … I’m starved for adventure. I can’t settle into this castle just yet. Will you help me to leave?”
Sofia had gotten better at reading Ulf’s moods with all the time they were spending together. He didn’t seem happy, but she thought that she could sense something of acceptance.
“Good,” she said. “One more ride, wherever you’d like, then I want you to drop me at close to the edge of the bridge as you can manage.” Sofia was in her commoner’s clothing, with a heavy hood to hide her distinctive red hair and practical shoes. She mounted Ulf easily, pleased that he wasn’t as glum as he might have been about the prospect of their time together coming to an end.
The tour of the castle was a whirlwind of frantic teleportation, tracing all across the roofs and courtyards, beneath archways and into empty rooms. Each transition was accompanied by a moment of silent darkness, which was now simply familiar instead of naggingly familiar. She’d done her research into the spirits, but the books were worthless. So far as she could tell, she was the first person to have ever rode along with a spirit when it disappeared, but given how easy it had been she didn’t think that could possibly be correct unless she was a spirit caller. If she was a spirit caller, then the books were wrong about their supposed abilities, which she didn’t find too surprising given the abysmal state of scholarship on the subject of spirits.
Ulf’s teleportation went faster and became less controlled. He would set foot in one area for only a brief moment before moving on again. Sofia let this go on, perhaps longer than she should have, before leaning down to whisper in the piece of porcelain that served as his ear.
“I’m coming back,” said Sofia. Her voice took on an odd harmonic as they moved in an out of the blackness. “I’ll only be gone for the night.”
They came to a halt in the middle of the eastern bridge. Sofia stepped off of Ulf’s back and bowed to him. “Thank you for showing me that. I’ll treasure it while I’m away in the city. Tomorrow night it will be just you and me, together in my room, okay?” Ulf stood still and silent on the bridge with her. She hoped that there were no guards watching, but if there were, it was too late to do anything about that. The bridge was poorly lit at night, in any case. “I’ll need you to get me back to my room. I won’t be gone longer than an hour.”
With that, Sofia set out into the city of Marurbo for the first time in five years. She had the sense that Ulf was watching her, but she resolved not to look back on him. There was no sense making this any harder than it had to be.
Sofia had no real objective in mind. This first time out into Marurbo was more of a proof of concept than because of any pressing need. There was nothing that she had a pressing need of. Every material whim was provided for by the servants of the castle and she had only to ask if she wanted something delivered to her. She and Rowan both made heavy use of the castle library, which held a copy of nearly every book in the kingdom, and there was little she really believed that the books could teach her anymore, at least about the subjects that interested her. No, what she was really after were the spirits the city contained, but that would take more planning than she’d been able to do. The city did hold one other prize though, which was the experience of the city itself.
The last time she’d been out of the castle had been five years ago, for the ill-fated meeting with the teahouse spirit. She hadn’t been paying close enough attention to everything that was around her. The smells were what struck her most; the damp cobblestones, the smoky smell of extinguished fires, mixed with an undertone of something human, sweats and oils, grimy but in some way also pleasing. The castle had the same smell of people, but not left so free as in the city. There were people about, even given the late hour, but so long as Sofia walked with purpose, there was no one who paid her any attention. She loved the feel of it, just as she loved the feel of being away from the oathkeepers who kept pace with her during the day.
Eventually she found herself before a tavern that was brightly lit and nearly devoid of people. She stepped inside without really thinking about it and came up to the counter, where a gruff man was standing in front of a row of kegs.
“How old are you?” asked the man.
“Old enough,” replied Sofia. This was the first person she’d spoken to who didn’t know her identity. “I’ll have an ale, whichever is freshest.”
The barman snorted at that, but he didn’t challenge her. Instead, he pulled on the handle of one of the kegs, catching it in a mug that had more than a few scratches and dents to it. When it was full, he set it in front of Sofia and nodded to her. “I’ll be seeing the king’s head for that.”
Sofia had stolen a number of coins from the royal treasury and had taken the time to figure out what prices were like out in the real world. Laying a thick gold coin worth as much as the whole tavern would have sent up waves, but laying down a thin piece of copper probably would have raised the barman’s eyebrows as well. Sofia placed one bronze coin next to the drink, which had her father’s head emblazoned on it. The barman slid it into his pocket and Sofia took a sip of the ale. It tasted like wheat.
“Are you closing soon?” asked Sofia.
The barman looked around the place, which was nearly empty. “We’re open another three hours,” he said. “Not much coin to be had from it with these crowds, but …” he looked at Sofia. “You’re not from around here? You don’t speak like you know these streets.”
“I’m just passing through,” said Sofia, which was true enough. She would have to work on her accent and learn how to talk like these people, if she wanted to walk among them. That seemed like a useful skill for a princess to have anyway.
“I suppose there’s no harm in telling,” said the barman. “Everyone already knows. Business is slow because of the spirit in the basement.”
“A house spirit?” asked Sofia. She perked up at that.
“Not like in the tales you heard when you were little,” said the barman. “It came in a month ago and started driving away customers. They say if you treat a spirit well he’ll treat you well in return, but this one has been a little goober from the very first day we spotted him.”
“In what way?” asked Sofia.
“I’m the one supposed to be listening to your woes,” said the barman with a smile. He got out a rag and started wiping down the bar. “We had some like you in early on, people with an interest in the spirits, but that boon was short-lived once the scholars and the sages had us neatly penciled into our books.”
“I’d like to know about the spirit, please,” said Sofia. She reached into her pocket and pulled out another coin. “If you’re fallen on hard times, perhaps you’d consider some payment for the story?”
The barman looked down at the silver coin. “Thought you sounded rich,” he said. He picked up the coin with a sniff. “I can’t say it’s a good deal on your end though, given I’m easy to talk into sharing my problems.”
“What has the spirit been doing that’s so bad?” asked Sofia.
“Practical jokes,” said the barman. He shook his head. “Only they’re not very funny. He’s broken three chairs making people tip over backwards. He’s salted drinks when people weren’t looking. It’s expensive nuisance is what it is. Maybe it was good for a laugh the first time, but you fall victim to it once and that’s enough to find somewhere else to go. There are too many taverns in this city in the first place, which means too much competition. I can’t have a spirit fouling things up and expect to stay in business for long, but I can’t sell the business when that damnable spirit is around here.”
“Can I see him?” asked Sofia.
“If you can find him,” replied the barman. “More likely he’ll find you.”
Sofia lifted her mug to take another drink, but found it stuck to the bar. She pulled at it again, but it remained firmly in place. Just as she was about to pull at it a third time, the barman laid a hand on her wrist. When she looked up at him, he pulled his hand away, but he shook his head and then nodded toward the mug.
“Does it have a name?” asked Sofia.
“Darnald,” said the barman.
“Come out, Darnald,” said Sofia to her mug. “I want to talk to you.”
“Talking to them doesn’t do anything,” said the barman. “I’ve tried my share of yelling and pleading with it.”
“It just takes the right sort of talking,” said Sofia. “Darnald, please come out?”
A small, translucent white puddle seeped out from beneath Sofia’s mug and puffed itself up. The figure was small and bipedal, but its only feature was a single eye and it had no arms. Something about the way it was standing gave Sofia the impression of shame at being caught. There was something else beneath that though, some emotion she couldn’t read in its posture.
“You were going to make me splash ale on myself, weren’t you?” asked Sofia. “That must be one of your tricks. You hold the mug down until someone pulls really hard, then let go so that it goes flying.”
Darnald sank into itself slightly, causing the eye to be lower on his body.
“He’s listening to you,” said the barman. His eyes were wide.
“You just need to do the right sort of talking,” replied Sofia. “Darnald, why have you been doing these things?”
The spirit bent down and exposed what would have been its stomach to Sofia. She wasn’t sure what it meant by that. In a dog, it might have been meant as submission, but the spirits spoke their own language, which was only halfway borrowed from animals. Someone who treated Ulf like a dog would quickly get something wrong; Sofia had plenty of experience rolling her eyes at people who got that happy, excited look on their face and tried to call the porcelain spirit. Yet somehow she knew that there were spirits who would respond to that. Sofia needed to understand the tavern spirit before she could deal with it.
“Does this place have music?” asked Sofia. After a moment she looked up at the barman, who was giving her a skeptical look.
“Do you hear music?” he asked.
“I thought taverns were supposed to have music,” Sofia replied with a blush. “I don’t think it has to be music, necessarily. Just … the spirit wants something like that. Entertainment, joy, surprise.”
“So I pay a musician to come in here for music?” asked the barman. “The expense would ruin me, even if you were right.”
“No,” said Sofia. She reached forward and touched the spirit gently on its head, a tender loving gesture that it wiggled away from. That wasn’t the right approach for this spirit anyhow. “No, what the spirit wants is a quality to the tavern. It wants this to be a merry place.” She hesitated. “Was it, before the spirit came?”
“It was a place for men to get their drink,” said the barman. He looked sideways at the spirit.
Sofia sat back on her stool. “Well, then make this a merry place,” she said. “That’s my professional opinion.”
“Professional, eh?” asked the barman. He stopped short of laughing at her, but Sofia was certain that was only because he had spent so long in a bad mood. “And what profession might that be?”
“I’m a spirit caller,” said Sofia.
The barman had laughed at that, but even after Sofia left the tavern there was something that felt right about the idea. Spirit callers were supposed to be powerful, the most powerful of all any type of magic user, but none had been around for ages and even then they had been rare. Sofia had been able to diagnose the problem with the tavern spirit in five minutes time. Perhaps she wasn’t a spirit caller, but it didn’t seem out of the question that her ability to understand spirits transcended just her interest in the subject. After all, how probable was it that her first night wandering the city would bring her to a spirit, let alone bring her to one that was in need?