The Dark Wizard

Of Donkerk

by Alexander Wales

National Novel Writing Month 2015

Target Word Count: 100,000

Current Word Count: 97,255

This is the 2015 draft, retained for historical reasons. Were you looking for the 2016 version, which is complete?

Table of Contents

The Orphan

The Kidnapping

The Drowned Witch

The Separate Paths

The Castle Spirit

The Wayward Princess

The Mentalists

The Journey North

The Fated Meeting

The Dueling Deceptions

The Orphan

Omarr and Hirrush stood over the onyx altar that had cost them a dauphin’s ransom. Lit candles burnt steadily in a carefully arranged pattern that zigzagged through the room, lending the air a faint smell of smoke. These arrangements were largely forgotten as the two men argued over the squealing baby.

“Does it have to be tonight?” asked Omarr. He held a gem-encrusted dagger in his meaty hand, which was no longer poised above the altar but instead held idly at his side.

“The tome was specific,” replied Hirrush. He ran his fingers through his lanky hair. “It has to be a new moon. So yes, tonight is the night, unless we want to wait another month.”

“Only I thought that perhaps he’d be wailing,” said Omarr. “He just looks so … so happy.” He frowned at the baby, which was making distinctly cute noises at them.

“I know what you mean,” replied Hirrush. “When I was younger, living in the city, there was a baby next door that cried through the night, every night, for a week straight. I couldn’t sleep for the screaming. I yelled sometimes, matched his volume as I tried to get my frustrations out, but of course it did nothing to deter him. He kept on wailing with a stamina that was impressive in retrospect. It was on those nights that I had decided that I would be capable of killing an infant, if it came to it.”

“Yes,” replied Omarr in dismay. “We could maybe try to make him scream at us, to make it easier?”

Hirrush leaned forwards. When he caught the baby’s attention, Hirrush twisted his face into the meanest, most vicious scowl that he knew how to make. The baby giggled and tried to grab at his nose, and Hirrush quickly withdrew, as though it were the hand of some sulfurous demon reaching towards him.

“Poke him with the dagger,” said Hirrush.

“What?” asked Omarr, staring at the dagger in his hand as though he’d completely forgotten that it was there. “Why?”

“Just to get him screaming,” replied Hirrush. “Just to make it easier, so that we can do it for real.”

You poke him,” said Omarr, holding out the bejeweled dagger to his partner.

Hirrush frowned. He made no move to touch the proffered weapon.

“I don’t know why you grabbed the happiest baby in the orphanage,” he said.

“I wanted to get out of there without making any noise,” explained Omarr. “He was nice and quiet, hardly did more than coo at me. I grew up in an orphanage, remember? The Foresworn Sisters can be vicious when it comes down to it, even for small offenses. I have no idea what they’d have done if they’d caught me and I wasn’t keen to find out. If you wanted a particular sort of baby, you should have said so. The tome only said he had to be healthy.”

“Well,” said Hirrush, clearing his throat. “Perhaps we can wait until next month then? When we’ve had time to acclimate to the idea a bit more?”

“Sure,” Omarr nodded. “Next month.” He looked down at the baby. “What do we do with him?”

“Take him back, of course,” said Hirrush. “And next month we’ll get a different one, one more … amenable to the, ah, process.”


Ventor loped down the roads as the sun set, trying to get to Leshampur before nightfall.

He moved with long, bounding strides because he was more powerful than an average man, with legs more capable of pushing hard against the ground. He was more powerful because he had taken six different oaths when he was ten years old and steadfastly kept them for twenty years afterward.

Ventor imagined the Oath of Fealty as a thin golden chain. He had been told to go to Leshampur, to find and retrieve the infant child foretold by prophecy, so he imagined the golden chain pulled taut ahead of him, urging him forward. Somewhere not too far ahead, that golden chain led to a baby, and from there threaded all the way back to Marurbo and the throne room. Only when the task was complete would Ventor allow himself to imagine the golden chain of fealty as laying slack on the ground, connecting himself to the king but demanding nothing.

The prophecy had come crashing down the moment the queen had gone into labor. Ventor had been one of five people to hear it.

A princess with hair of flame lays beneath the throne,

Vengeful spirits cloak her fragile form.

Blood-soaked clothes and shattered bone,

The dark wizard wrapped in brewing storm.

As the princess draws first breath,

The swaddled savior is left behind.

Where the blackened river crosses land of Neth,

The infant forged by those who shape his mind.

The king had gathered a council of sages within the hour. As his wife was talked through her second birth, he planned for the what the prophecy had foretold. The words were analyzed carefully. Prophecies were rare and rarely good. It was said that the utter destruction that resulted in the Scour had been heralded by a dozen prophecies in the three days preceding it, and the enormous wave that reduced Pereldra to rubble had been foretold in cryptic terms a good decade before it came to pass. The sages said that avoiding a prophecy was possible but difficult. More often than not the actions taken to avoid a prophecy ended up causing it instead. Still, if the unborn princess might be saved by some direct action, it needed to be taken.

Leshampur was one of fifty places identified by the sages. It had a river running through the center of it, and though it was not a river known for being particularly black, it had once been an outpost of the Nethian empire some six hundred years prior. The sages had argued amongst themselves about what the adjective “blackened” might mean. They had predictably arrived at a half dozen different conclusions. It was possible that the “blackened river” was not a literal river at all, but instead a coal mine or something similar, in which case Ventor’s journey would be for nothing.

He knew that it was unlikely that there was a child waiting for him in Leshampur, but he imagined that there was all the same. It was easier to push himself if he thought that he was doing something worthwhile, so he decided to think that this wasn’t all for naught. Sometimes it was just as easy as that. He’d been traveling for four days, and the princess had almost certainly been born already, which meant that the swaddled savior had already been left behind, assuming that the sages were correct in thinking that the obvious reading was the right one. If he had taken the odds at face value, he would have been tempted to stop by the side of the road and take another short rest with his breastplate laid on the ground beside him. Instead he pushed onward, taking no argument from his aching muscles. The forest turned to farmland, and the space between buildings grew smaller and smaller as he went. He arrived in Leshampur just as the last sliver of sun was swallowed by a nearby hill.

“I need to find the orphanage,” said Ventor to a startled villager.

“Where did you come from?” the villager asked. Ventor couldn’t tell what sort of profession the man held and didn’t much care. The golden chain of fealty was taut, but Ventor had no idea where it might be pulling him.

“I come on behalf of King Aldric himself, by his direct order,” said Ventor. “The orphanage, where is it?”

The villager stared dumbly at Ventor, taking in the seven-pointed star etched on his breastplate before coming to the slow realization that he was speaking to an oathkeeper for the king. Finally, he seemed to come to his senses. “It’s on the outskirts,” said the man. “On the other side of the city. I can take you there, if you need a guide.”

Ventor should have said a few words of thanks, but he had taken no oaths of kindness, so he merely sprang away from the villager and continued to take his enormous bounding steps as he crossed the city. He drew stares and shouts from people he passed on the streets, but he moved quickly enough that he didn’t have to deal with the commotion. He spotted the orphanage from three blocks away thanks to the small spire with a seven-pointed star at the top and put on an extra burst of speed that his sore body could barely handle. His oaths gave him more energy than a normal man had, but he’d been pushing himself to his limits for far too long. If there was no child waiting for him at the orphanage, his quest was far from over.

One of the Foresworn Sisters answered the door on the second knock and frowned when she saw Ventor standing before her. She was young and pretty, and she wore a winged wimple above her light blue dress. Ventor imagined his Oath of Chastity as a silver chain, and he imagined it binding him tightly as he looked at her.

“I hadn’t expected someone so soon,” said the Sister.

“So soon?” asked Ventor with a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.

“We sent out for a rector just this morning,” said the Sister. “But I can tell from the look on your face that you’re not here because of that request at all.”

Ventor frowned. “I’m afraid that I might be,” he said. “I’m seeking a child that was abandoned here sometime in the last four days, or who was abandoned elsewhere and then brought here.”

“You had better come in,” said the Sister. She gestured inside. “My name is Clarice. I fear that we have much to talk about.”


It had been a dark and stormy night when they had laid everything out for the ritual. Omarr had stolen the baby while the stars were obscured by thick, roiling clouds, with heavy winds to cover the sounds of him moving about. The rain had just started when he’d gotten back to the cottage, though the baby didn’t seem to mind. The flashes of lightning and sounds of thunder had been wonderfully atmospheric when they’d been handling the dagger, but now that they’d decided not to go through with it — at least not that night — the weather had taken another turn, and it was just a simple downpour that neither of them wanted to go out into.

Their library had just short of two hundred books in it, bought or stolen from all over Donkerk and the lands beyond. Thick illuminated tomes abutted skinny volumes bound with twine. The vast majority of these books related to magics, dark or otherwise, but after half an hour of searching, Omarr retrieved a slender little guide for farmers, which happened to contain within it instructions on how to care for a child if it had lost its mother. These instructions amounted to no more than five scant lines, but that was still more information than the dark wizards had before.

“A goat for a wet nurse?” asked Hirrush with a raised eyebrow. He glanced at the baby, which was swaddled in cloth and laid down on the table. “How credible is this book?”

“Well, it’s just for tonight,” said Omarr. “Once the storm has passed, I’ll take him back to the orphanage.”

“And then next month we’ll take one less …” Hirrush looked at the child. “Less animated.”

“I’ve been thinking,” said Omarr. “It will be harder to take a baby the second time. They’ll notice this one missing, and the Sisters will be more cautious. They’ll install locks, or purchase a dog, or simply keep someone on guard.”

Hirrush sighed. “That’s something we have a month to figure out. And I agree, it would have been better to have this done tonight, if we were going to do it.”

Omarr picked up the baby and rocked him back and forth like he’d seen a woman do once. The baby smiled at him and reached for his face.

“You’re going back to the orphanage,” Omarr said to the baby. “You got quite lucky tonight.” Though as he said it, he realized it sounded too threatening. Then again, they’d been meaning to sacrifice this baby, so perhaps it wasn’t fair to try pretending otherwise. He would have apologized to the baby, if Hirrush hadn’t been standing there, as little sense as that made. He had no idea how he would feel next month, but he was beginning to get the feeling that it wouldn’t matter what baby they managed to get their hands on. It had all sounded so simple in the abstract, though Omarr couldn’t say whether he would have been able to convince himself without Hirrush to talk to.

They brought in one of the goats from the small barn. To their faint surprise, the baby cheerfully suckled at its teat. Hirrush burped the baby, something they only knew to do from that same slender book, and afterward they changed his diaper, which required the sacrifice of some cloth to make him a new one. The baby fell asleep in Omarr’s lap not long after, having not once cried.

“I worry about returning him,” Omarr said in the morning.

“If it’s the Sisters, you need only lie to them,” said Hirrush. “Tell them that he was left on your doorstep. I don’t know what reason someone would have to steal a baby and then bring it back the next day, but the Sisters won’t either. I doubt you could be arrested for it. Questioned, perhaps, but not put under lock and key.”

“Only the next baby we steal, they’ll come asking after me,” said Omarr.

“A problem that can be solved with more lies,” replied Hirrush. “I can take him back, if you prefer.”

“Would you?” asked Omarr. He ran his fingers through his thick beard. “I would appreciate that.”

Half an hour later, Hirrush returned with a frown on his face and the baby cradled in his arms.

“Change of heart?” asked Omarr. He was on top of the roof of their cottage, repairing what the storm had torn up. The cottage was two stories high, with a top layered in sod that helped to compress the logs and keep the house from having drafts in the wintertime. From a distance, it reminded Omarr of an old man with green hair. The cottage listed slightly to one side, the result of three years of neglect after Hirrush’s father had died, before the two of them had come to claim the farmstead. They had talked about tearing it down and building a new place to live on the land, but money always seemed to find its way to other things: rare books, for the most part. The land itself grew wild, save for the area that the goats grazed the grass down to stubble. The small garden they kept out back was the only bit of farming that they cared to do.

“The storm was heavier than it seemed,” said Hirrush. He let the baby play with his finger, showing none of the fear he’d had the night before. “The bridge was washed out. The water alone wouldn’t have been enough for it, there must have been some bit of debris that struck it. At any rate, the waters are still too high and turbulent for fording or rafting, so it seems that we’re stuck with him for the time being.” Hirrush looked down at the child. “We can keep him for another few days, I suppose. I would drop him on someone’s doorstep, if we had any likely neighbors who might take him and if I thought I could do it without being seen.”

Omarr cleared his throat. “Another few days then, and we’ll bring him back after that.”


“As you said, a child was left here three days ago,” said Clarice. “There was no note left with him.” Her hips swayed as she led him down the hallway. Ventor idly wondered whether she had taken an Oath of Chastity as well. He imagined the same silver chain wrapped around the both of them, but if the chain was his alone, he would have to bind himself all the tighter.

“We took him in of course,” said Clarice. “Though most of the children we get are brought by their family along with some explanation of why they can’t care for the child, or by the guards following some accident that leaves the child without their parents, it’s not entirely uncommon for children to be left on the doorstep. Usually by young mothers who haven’t taken the Oath of Marriage.”

A strand of blond hair peeked out from beneath Clarice’s wimple. When she turned to talk to him, Ventor could feel his eye drawn to it.

“Two days ago, someone crept into the orphanage in the middle of the night and stole the baby,” said Clarice. They entered into a small office with a multitude of papers in neat stacks. “Of course we thought that it was the mother, or possibly the father, or some other family member. It’s not uncommon for there to a dispute of some sort, though we’ve never had an outright theft — we would of course prefer for these children to be with their families, so in most cases someone could simply come here and adopt the child in the usual fashion. Sometimes young women give their children to the orphanage and return years later when they feel that they’re able to care for a child.”

“And in this case?” asked Ventor as he took a seat. “Do you believe that someone left the child on your doorstep and stole him back under cover of night a day later?”

“I don’t know,” said Clarice. She leaned forward, and the shape of her breasts became visible under her dress. The Oath of Chastity had seemed so easy when he had taken it at the age of ten. “We don’t take this kidnapping lightly of course, no matter who perpetrated it. That was why we sent for a rector, in the hopes that we might be provided someone who could track down the kidnapper. But I take it that you’re not here for that reason.”

“There is a prophecy,” said Ventor. “It was ambiguous enough that I can’t say for certain, but I think it very likely that the child named in it was the one left at your doorstep. As to the culprits … the prophecy did not say. I have some skill in tracking though, and it’s possible that I might be able to track the kidnapper down. I gave my oath that I would try to find this child, or those who mean to raise him. Is there anything more that you can tell me?”

Clarice sat back in her chair, and folded her hands on top of the desk. “One of the Sisters raised a theory when it happened,” she said slowly. “There are those who would steal a child to raise as their own, in an attempt to bypass the process of adoption. We make supervisory visits to those who have claimed one of the children from us, which rankle some. But there are also those who might want a child for more nefarious purposes, particularly a young one. Dark wizards, or black witches.”

Ventor clenched his fists. “A problem in these parts?”

“Not as such,” said Clarice. “Which is why I don’t credit it much. There are a handful of hedge witches within a day’s walk of here, but none that I know of that have done anything truly black. Animal sacrifice seems to be the worst of it. It’s not impossible that one of them has gone over the edge, I’ll grant that. And no dark wizards, to my knowledge.”

“We don’t suffer such in the capital,” said Ventor evenly.

“I am aware,” said Clarice with a smile. “I don’t approve of it any more than you do, but when the dark practitioners aren’t directly hurting anyone it’s difficult to move the guard to do anything about it. That goes double when there isn’t anything that the guard can do about it. Take the matter back to the capital, if you wish.”

“I will,” said Ventor with a sigh. The wind seemed to go out from his sails. Four days was too long to travel. “I’ve pushed myself hard to get here so quickly, and it seems that this quest has turned into something completely different. Do you have a bed I could use for the night?”

Clarice’s mouth twisted into a mischievous smile. “I do,” she replied. She leaned forward. “Some beds are warmer than others.”

“I’ve taken an Oath of Chastity,” said Ventor, though he regretted it immediately after the words had left his lips. Clarice seemed completely unfazed by this.

“I as well,” she said. “But together we might examine the wordings of our Oaths and see what we might permit ourselves.”

Ventor cleared his throat, but before he could formulate a response to that, the Sister stood from her chair and moved past him, with her dress trailing behind her.


Adrianna came to their cottage five days after the new moon.

She had been a milkmaid before she became a witch. She came to the attention of Omarr and Hirrush the year before, when they heard a rumor of a hedge witch practicing close to them. It had taken a week for them to track her down, and once they did, they gave her a quick and dirty lesson in the social aspects of practicing the dark arts. She had inherited the profession from her great-grandmother, a fearsome old woman who had left one too many books behind, which Adrianna had proceeded to poke her nose into. The magic she did — as her grandmother before her — was mostly healing magic, the kinds which Omarr had often argued had no business being illegal. A sacrifice of the smallest toe on the left foot could remove a man’s limp and cure him of chronic pain for a time, but it was a crime all the same, albeit a crime that nearly everyone would look the other way on.

“Hirrush isn’t feeling well,” said Omarr as he let her into the cottage. It was the simplest lie they’d been able to think of. A quart of pig’s blood dribbled in a circle would keep any sounds from the second floor from reaching Adrianna’s ears.

“Anything I can help with?” asked Adrianna.

“No,” said Omarr quickly. “Though … do you know of a ritual to cure the common cold? And if so, what the price to be paid is?”

Adrianna frowned. “I would have to check gran’s books, but I believe that a sacrifice of a healthy tooth can cure someone of it.”

“A steep price,” said Omarr.

“They often are,” Adrianna replied. “Sometimes unreasonably so. People come to me with their problems, and all too often they turn away when I tell them what it will take to make the problem go away — if the problem can be made to go away at all. Just last week I had a man come to me with his son, who was wasting away. The poor boy was going to die, that was obvious all around. I told the man that it would cost his life to save his son. He decried me for a witch — which I obviously am — and he told me to keep my foul magics to myself.”

“Did you know he wouldn’t pay the price?” asked Omarr.

“I suspected,” Adrianna replied. “He had four other children — healthy ones. He wouldn’t be able to support them if he were dead. But even if the sickly son had been his only, I doubt he was the sort of man to give his life.”

Omarr checked that the kettle still had water in it. He put it on top of the pot-bellied stove before sticking another piece of wood in with the embers. When that was done, he tapped at his lips with his finger.

“Better to tell him that it was impossible,” said Omarr.

“Oh?” asked Adrianna.

Omarr nodded. “Better not to anger people for no reason. And as to the price … if he had been willing to sacrifice himself for his son, to let you spill his life’s blood on the ground, would you have actually gone through with it?” They had agreed not to tell Adrianna about the ritual they’d been ready to perform on top of the block of onyx, but perhaps he could get a sense of what her reaction would be.

“Maybe,” said Adrianna cautiously. “Would you?”

“We’re not in the business of helping people,” said Omarr. “But yes, I likely would. A life for a life isn’t an easy decision by any means, but there are times that it’s justified. If you can exchange forty good years for sixty, well, that can be seductive.”

“Seductive,” repeated Adrianna skeptically.

“But the point I was trying to make,” Omarr said, “Is that if you weren’t going to do it anyway, it’s better not to offer. If you’re a witch, one that people know, you need to make friends. That man might forget about you, but he might also harbor a grudge. When his son is being buried, he might be thinking of you and the offer you made him. And it might be that he gets angry with you. Might be he decides to rid the world of you.”

“I have my magic,” said Adrianna. “But I take your point. ‘Don’t upset the locals’ is the first rule you taught me. That was actually what I wanted to talk to you about.”

Omarr took the kettle from the stove and poured the hot water into a mug with curled fingers of dried wortroot he pulled from a twisted braid beside the kitchen window. The smell sucked at his nostrils and made his hair stiffen. “Did you upset the locals?” he asked.

“No,” said Adrianna. “But someone else did. Someone stole a baby from the orphanage in Leshampur.”

Omarr kept himself from freezing in place. “When? The bridge was washed out, last I heard. I’m surprised any news has come through.”

“There’s an oathkeeper come up from the capital,” said Adrianna. “He leapt across the river.”

Omarr swore, and nearly dropped the tea.

“I talked to him —”

Omarr swore again.

“Look, it’s fine,” said Adrianna. “He came by my gran’s place because he had heard some of the legends about her, and I told him that she’d died some time ago. He thought it was suspicious that I was alone, but I invited him in and we talked for a bit. He cautioned me away from dark magics, if you can believe that. He can’t prove anything, even if he suspects. He was after this missing child like a dog after a bone. I’m hoping that keeps him from going after me. I just thought you should know. There are plenty of people who know me, enough that could point him in my direction. I’ll lay low. So far as I’m aware, I’m the only one that knows about you, so you should be safe, but just in case — be on the lookout.”

“We will be,” said Omarr.

“Omarr, he passed through the wards like they weren’t even there,” said Adrianna with a frown. “It’s supposed to be hard to get to my place.”

“That would give away the game,” said Omarr. “Your gran put up those wards, and she was a clever one. Hirrush and I will stop by in a few weeks when this has blown over and inspect them a second time, but I have little doubt that there’s some bit of mental magic in there that allows passage for those who are only asking questions. If he’d found his way barred by black magic, he would have been on you in an instant, so the wards let him pass, and pretended at not being there.”

“It gave me a start,” said Adrianna. “But I suppose that your explanation makes sense.” She stood up from her chair. “I did have one other question, before I go.”

Omarr nodded, and took a long sip of his tea.

“Did you and Hirrush take the baby?” she asked.

Omarr frowned. “Yes.”

Adrianna turned away from him.

“He’s upstairs,” said Omarr.

“But you took him for some dark ritual?” Adrianna asked, still facing away from him.

“Yes,” said Omarr. He cleared his throat. “We didn’t go through with it.”

Adrianna let out a breath she’d been holding in and turned back around. Omarr had thought perhaps she would be crying, but her eyes were dry. “Well, let me see him then. We’ll have to wait for this whole thing to blow over, and then … then I don’t know.”

“You don’t need to have any part of this,” said Omarr.

“Nonsense,” said Adrianna. She put her hands on the side of hips. “You’re my mentors, and you’ve given me some strong protection already, and if you’ve done some fool thing, then I can protect you in return. It’s what gran would have done. Though she didn’t hold truck with human sacrifice.”

Omarr had seen enough of the wards around Adrianna’s place to know that this wasn’t strictly true, but he and Hirrush hadn’t shared that fact with Adrianna just yet. He got up from his chair and gestured for her to follow him up the narrow staircase to the second floor. The silence ward popped like a bubble as he passed through it, though the baby wasn’t making any noise. Hirrush raised an eyebrow at Omarr’s appearance, then frowned when he saw Adrianna behind him.

“We weren’t going to tell her,” said Hirrush. The baby lay cradled in his lap.

“An oathkeeper from the capital has shown up in Leshampur,” said Omarr. “He paid her a visit. Naturally her thoughts turned to us.”

Hirrush swore loudly, then gave a guilty look at the baby.

“What have you been feeding him?” Adrianna asked. She held out her hands, and Hirrush reluctantly handed the baby to her.

“He’s been suckling at one of the goats,” said Omarr.

“Hrm,” Adrianna replied. “I would say that he should have a proper wet nurse, but a goat or donkey is as good as he’d have gotten at the orphanage.” She spent a few moments checking over the baby and seemed to find everything satisfactory. “And what are you planning to do with him?”

Omarr and Hirrush looked to each other. The idea had briefly been floated that perhaps they could sacrifice him when the new moon came again, but that had been three days ago, and neither had mentioned it since then. The presence of an oathkeeper changed things substantially, mostly in that it cut their options down.

“We might keep him,” ventured Omarr.

“Keep him?” asked Adrianna. She looked between the two of them. “To what purpose?”

“To raise him,” replied Omarr. “If he went back to the orphanage he would more likely than not spend ten years eating gruel and getting whatever feeble education the Sisters provide him with. When he’s ten years old, he’ll be taken to the monastery and told to swear some oaths. If he keeps them, he’ll be an oathkeeper, bound to a pitiable existence in return for awe inspiring powers. If he doesn’t keep the oaths, he’ll be sent out into the world on his own with nothing but the clothes on his back and whatever he can steal.” Omarr had run away the day before initiation, but he’d seen the path that was being laid out in front of him.

“We haven’t decided yet,” said Hirrush. “But if there’s an oathkeeper on the lookout, it might be best to lay low either way.”

The baby cooed in Adrianna’s arms.


Two months passed before Ventor was called back.

It had taken him four days to get to Leshampur, but that was with an oathkeeper’s speed, and he’d pushed himself hard even then. He had sent a letter back to the capital in the morning, and the response had taken three full weeks to get back to him, carried by merchants and travelers. When the oathkeepers weren’t otherwise engaged, they were sometimes used as runners between the larger cities of Donkerk, but with the prophecy in the air those services had been halted.

He frowned at the letter as Clarice slipped an arm around his stomach from behind.

“Anything interesting?” she asked with a purr in his ear.

“I’m going home,” he said.

“Oh,” replied Clarice. She disentangled herself from him and sat back on the bed.

Ventor had not violated his Oath of Chastity, but it felt wrong all the same. They were skirting the spirit of the oath, even if they’d been careful not to cross the letter of it. He had gathered that he was not the first man she had done such things with, though he hadn’t dared to ask, for he suspected that he wouldn’t take her answer well. The other Sisters hadn’t commented on the arrangement that she’d made with him, though he had received a scowl from one of the older ones. One of the perks of being an oathkeeper was the fact that if anyone questioned whether you had broken your oath, you could simply make a twisting jump and land with perfect poise on the top of a two story building to answer them. The seven-pointed star on his chest signaled strongly to the people he met on the street, but not so strongly as the plainly visible power of his five oaths.

“I’ll miss you,” said Clarice with a soft voice.

“Miss me?” asked Ventor. He turned to look at her — to take her in. She had been forward on his first night in Leshampur, and she had never stopped being so. She was beautiful and confident, and even with their nights aside she had been a valuable aide to him as he ranged out around the city. Missing her wouldn’t be the half of it.

“We both knew that it wouldn’t last forever,” said Clarice. “Come now, no need to be sad about it.”

“No,” said Ventor. “If there were some way …” He trailed off.

“But there’s not,” said Clarice.

He’d wanted her to ask him to break his vows. He wanted her to feel as strongly about him as he did about her. His chest felt tight. His normally still heart was beating too fast. He imagined the silver chain of Chastity binding him tightly and the golden chain of Fealty pulling him back towards the capital. The letter from the king didn’t carry the full weight of a direct command, but it was plain enough that he needed to come back as soon as prudent. The two months in Leshampur had yielded little, with the most promising lead being the orphan that had been stolen the night after the princess was born. The trail had mostly evaporated.

“I visited a young woman shortly after I got here,” said Ventor. “Witchcraft runs in her blood. I visited her again two days ago, and there was something off about her, a falseness in her answers. She was sweating. A witch, I have little doubt of that, but it might be that she had some involvement with the kidnapping. I could write back to the king and ask for more time to pursue this.”

“Because of me,” said Clarice. “Not because you’re acting in the interests of the king that you’ve sworn your oath to.” Her voice was firm. She sat away from him, no longer touching.

“It’s not that simple,” said Ventor. “There’s a legitimate reason for me to stay.”

“No,” said Clarice. “This is how oaths get broken. You travel down a path, pretending it’s a good one, and one day you look back at the path you’ve walked, and you realize that it was bad all along. And just like that, the spell gets broken, and you’re left as nothing more than a mortal man.”

He wanted to ask if she loved him, but he didn’t want to her say no. He wanted to get angry with her, but he didn’t do that either. Instead, he simply walked away, without so much as a kiss to say goodbye.

It didn’t occur to him that perhaps he had been right in wanting to stay, even if is reasoning was clouded.

And so it was that the orphan was raised by two dark wizards.

The Kidnapping

“We need money,” said Omarr. After they’d put Henry to bed, they’d cracked a small cask of ale and drank from the large mugs. A fire crackled in the fireplace. Adrianna had come to like the two men, somewhat despite herself. They had taught her much. While their theft of Henry had soured her opinion, their subsequent adoption of him had warmed her back up. That had been five years ago. Now she acted as something of an aunt to the boy, stopping in from time to time to dote on him. For their part, Omarr and Hirrush seemed to be loving if unconventional parents.

“What do you do for money?” asked Adrianna. She grew most of her own food and took in coin from the people who came calling for her services. Disappointingly, much of it involved sex in one way or another, and Adrianna suspected that it was because the people were committing one taboo and didn’t care whether they compounded that taboo with the taboo about dark magic. Her gran had a thick book devoted to virility, pregnancy, and contraception, which she was forced to consult often.

“You know that we’re not conventionally moral people?” asked Omarr.

Adrianna looked up towards the ceiling, at where Henry lay sleeping in his room. He was a cute child, with rosy cheeks and curly blond hair. “I am aware,” she replied.

“We were kidnappers,” said Hirrush. Omarr shot him a look, but Hirrush continued. “It’s the simple truth, no sense in coating it with sugar. We never harmed the children, and each one of them was returned safe and sound —”

“Wait a minute,” said Adrianna. She pushed her ale away. “The duke’s son? That was you?”

“Just so,” said Omarr.

“As I was saying, we returned each of them safe and sound, and we made enormous piles of money doing it,” said Hirrush. “Not even as much as we could have. We always made sure to only ask for as much as we knew they could give to us without sparing it real thought.”

“You were kidnappers,” said Adrianna. “And you need money. So you’re going to kidnap again?” She felt slightly queasy, though partly that was because she was on her second mug of ale.

“We need to raise Henry right,” said Omarr. “We have no skills, and we can’t ply our one true trade. You’ve seen that the garden has expanded in recent years — look, it’s not that we want to do this, but when you weigh the harm caused against the good done, you have to see that on balance we’re in the right.”

“Or at least neutral,” said Hirrush.

“Harm against others,” Adrianna replied. “Good for yourselves.”

“Good for Henry,” said Omarr. Hirrush nodded. “We live a small life. A quiet life. We don’t need much, but we don’t have much either. The cottage has a lean to it that’s going to need fixing in the near future if we don’t want to risk a collapse. Henry grows out of his clothes almost as fast as we have them sewn. If we want him to be something more than just a farmer’s son … we’re going to need resources. We’ve never lived a life of luxury. It’s not about that. It’s about providing him with the sort of boundless world a child should have.”

Adrianna sighed. “You’ve already made up your minds,” she said. She looked around the cottage. It was simple and sturdy, with the exception of the lean. Nothing in it spoke of men who squandered their money, save perhaps for the rows upon rows of books that filled one of the rooms. She had always thought of Omarr and Hirrush as scholars of dark magic rather than practitioners, and they’d done little to prove her wrong. “What about the child you’re going to kidnap?”

“What about her?” asked Omarr.

“You have understandable gripes with the nobility,” said Adrianna. “I can understand how you think the loss of money would be justified. If you’ve thought about the horror of having a children stolen, perhaps you can justify it by thinking that these nobles deserve it. And possibly you’re even right. But what about the feelings of the child, who — and I mean no offense — who will have to live with being taken by the two of you?”

“She won’t remember it,” said Hirrush. “That much we can be sure of. We have magic to make sure of that.”

“She,” said Adrianna. “You’ve already been planning this. You’ve already picked out a target.”

Omarr laid his meaty hands on the table. “The problem is, we need a confederate.”

“Me?” asked Adrianna. “I’m not so motivated as either of you.”

“Three weeks ago a man died because you didn’t have a healthy calf,” said Omarr. “Don’t pretend that’s a problem that money couldn’t have solved. Don’t pretend that it didn’t affect you.”

Adrianna felt like a bucket of ice water had just been splashed on her. The numbness reached to her core. “I’m not pretending,” she replied.

“I’m only trying to say — look, having the money isn’t about greed, it’s about being able to rearrange the world to your liking. Gold paves many paths,” said Omarr. “The king has more money than he can possibly use, and he spends it on frippery and lavish displays. In our hands, we could do good — not just good for Henry, but for the people around us.”

Adrianna looked between the two of them. “King Aldric? Are you mad? Are you seriously saying that you intend to extract a ransom for the prince?”

“Not the prince,” said Hirrush. “The princess.”

“You’ll be killed,” said Adrianna. “Instantly. The oathkeepers, the royal mentalist, a thousand men and women with swords drawn and racing for you, and that’s leaving aside the logistics of penetrating the walls of the castle and getting out with a child.”

“And if you believed that we could do it?” asked Omarr. “No, don’t answer. We’ll tell you how we’re going to do it. When we’re done, you can think on it for a few days, mull things over, and then say whether you’ll accept our request for help.”

Adrianna listened.

Adrianna left.

Adrianna thought about the man who had died in her arms for lack of coin. She thought about every man, woman and child who wouldn’t be able to pay the price that was demanded. She thought about the leak in her roof that wouldn’t go away. She thought about the book on physiology that she hadn’t had anywhere near the money to buy. She thought about Henry and the difference it would make for him. And she thought about the king, sitting in his throne room with a magical crown of gold, flanked by men in silver breastplates, and drinking his fine wines.

When she came back, Adrianna agreed to help.


Sofia was five years old.

The castle was her playground; she ran on bare feet down the hallways, beneath the arched doorways, around the seemingly endless number of people that worked for her father. She had three women to watch after her, but her father didn’t seem to mind that she would dart off away from them at the first chance she got, except for the one time she’d left the castle entirely and he had screamed at them for what seemed like hours. She hadn’t gone outside the castle before or since, but that didn’t matter too much, since there always seemed to be some new corner to explore, and there were three courtyards to play in if she wanted to be outdoors.

Her favorite toy was a small tiger. A tiger was an animal that they didn’t have in Donkerk. It had black and white stripes, and pointed ears, and flopped around by her side whenever she went running. Her father had shown her a picture of a tiger which had been drawn in a large book, and told her that it was just like a kitten the size of a horse, and that sounded wonderful. She had asked her father whether he’d be able to bring a real tiger into Donkerk from somewhere to the south, if just to visit, and her father had said he would try his best with a wink to one of his aides, which meant that he wasn’t going to try at all.

In the afternoons, she would curl up in a ball near one of the windows and nap in the sunshine, taking her stuffed tiger with her. Whichever woman was watching her would procure a chair from some nearby room and bring it over to sit next to her, which Sofia didn’t mind too terribly.

“You run too much,” Rowan said one day. He was three years older and often in a bad mood.

“No I don’t,” replied Sofia. She had her tiger clutched closely to her.

“When I’m king, I’m going to make a decree about running,” said Rowan. “I’m not going to allow it.”

“Maybe I’ll be king,” said Sofia. “And then I’ll make a law that says that people have to run around all the time.”

“You can’t be a king, you’re a girl,” said Rowan. “You would be a queen, like mom was. But you won’t be a queen either, because I’m older than you.”

Sofia asked her father about this and was told that this was mostly true, much to her consternation. Late that day she made an extra effort to dodge the woman who was looking after her and crawled off to some faraway part of the castle where there were extra beds for when people came to visit. The room she liked best there had a large bed with posts going up to the ceiling and lace hanging down. When the door opened up, she thought it would be the woman who’d been following her, but instead it was a large man with a thick black beard and meaty fingers.

“Who are you?” asked Sofia.

“No one,” replied the man. “Can you come here for a moment?”

Sofia set her stuffed tiger down on the bed and came closer. The man was well-dressed and smelled like the wheat. When she was five feet from him, he reached for her and grabbed her around the waist like her father sometimes did when he wanted to set her on his shoulders. She didn’t like the man grabbing her like that, but before she could tell him not to, he had pulled out a knife and cut off his finger. The world went black just after that, and all she could hear was her breathing, and the beating of her heart, and the huffing of the man as he carried her through blackness.


“Baking is a kind of alchemy,” said Hirrush.

“Like potions,” said Henry.

“Yes,” said Hirrush. “Like potions. You take these simple ingredients like eggs, flour, and butter, and by mixing them in the right quantities and doing the right things with them, you can create something wonderful.”

“Like cookies,” said Henry.

“Yes,” said Hirrush. Omarr and Adrianna sometimes talked to Henry in a higher voice, to let him know that they were talking to him and not to anyone else, but Hirrush never did that. He didn’t make any effort to use simple words either. While it was hard to understand the big words, Hirrush always answered questions. “Now, your father and I don’t trust alchemy, for the simple reason that alchemy so often doesn’t work. Alchemy is the realm of hucksters. But baking at least tells us that it’s possible to transmute one thing into another and make something more valuable than the sum of its parts. I believe that it’s good instruction on being precise when following rules, and learning when the rules that have been set out for you might reasonably be broken. Though alchemy might not be all that it’s cracked up to be, those lessons will serve you well when it comes time for you to practice true magic.”

They followed the recipe together, though Hirrush did most of the things that required true delicacy. They had just added in a handful of raisins when an ethereal doorway opened and Omarr stepped out of the blackness. He had a girl of around Henry’s age under one arm. It was one of the most impressive bits of magic that Henry had ever seen.

“You’re back!” cried Henry, momentarily forgetting about the flour on his hands and wrapping Omarr in a hug. Omarr had been gone for four whole weeks. He hadn’t said where he was going, though Henry had overheard enough to know that it was to the south.

“I’m back,” said Omarr with a sigh that didn’t sound too happy.

“Put me down!” cried the girl.

Omarr pulled away from Henry and set the girl carefully on the floor of the cottage. She had long red hair, pale skin, and wore a light green dress that hung down below her skinny ankles. Her face held a scowl that looked small to Henry; she was the first person his age he’d ever met.

“I’m bleeding,” said Omarr with a steady voice.

“The cut was supposed to seal instantly,” replied Hirrush. “The ritual didn’t perform as expected?”

Omarr held up his left hand, where his pinky finger was completely missing. There was only a nub where it had been. Henry stared at it in fascination for a moment before returning his gaze to the redheaded girl his father had brought home. “Walking between realms went just fine,” said Omarr. “It wasn’t even as cold as they said, just blackness and forward movement until I got here.” He rolled up the sleeve on his right arm, and showed a red circle that was trickling blood. “She bit me.”

“You shouldn’t have picked me up,” said Sofia with her arms crossed. She looked around the cottage, and Henry watched her eyes darting from the dried herbs in the kitchen to the table and chairs, to the hearth, and back to his fathers. “Where is this?”

“You’ve been kidnapped,” said Hirrush. He opened a drawer and pulled out some gauze. He eyed the princess carefully, then when she showed no sign of movement, he began to tend to Omarr’s wound. “Where we are isn’t important. What’s important is that you behave. Don’t do anything too foolish until your father has paid us for your safe return.” Hirrush turned to Henry. “Keep up your work. And put on some water for tea.”

Henry spared another glance at the girl, then did as he was told, though he paid more attention to what his fathers were saying than to forming the dough into balls.

“My father is the king,” declared the girl. “He will have your heads.”

“Is that true?” asked Henry from the counter. He was standing on a stool.

“It’s true that her father is the king,” replied Omarr. He dug around in a pocket with his left hand while Hirrush wrapped his other arm. Omarr finally found a coin and flicked it to Henry, who caught it with a flour-covered hand. The back of the coin had a man’s head on it. He had a thick, bulbous nose and a rather serious demeanor, at least from what Henry could see on the coin. Henry idly wondered whether any kings ever smiled on their coins. “And it’s true that the king might want to take our heads — your father and I, that is, you’re not in any danger — but the plain fact of it is, we’re cleverer than the king. We full well intend to get away with it.”

“My father is clever,” pouted Sofia.

“Your father is strong, powerful, rich, and by most accounts charismatic above and beyond the magic of the crown,” said Hirrush. “Most people say he’s kind, and I have little reason to doubt them. But being clever is something that he leaves to his sages.”

Sofia looked unhappy, but said nothing. Her ferocity and pride faded in equal measure as the minutes passed.

“You can have a cookie when they’re done,” said Henry.

“And tea,” added Hirrush. “We have no quarrel with you.”

Sofia gave no response, but instead walked toward the front door. From his vantage point, Henry could see his fathers share a look, but they didn’t move to stop her. She pushed the door open just a crack, glanced back at Hirrush and Omarr, and poked her head out.

“I could run away,” she said, though it was nearly a question.

“You could,” said Omarr. “But you’re not in the castle anymore, and you don’t know where it is you are. No one but us knows that you’re a princess, Sofia. And if you stay here, you could be home in a handful of days. We have a bed made up for you already. We’ll make sure that you’re nice and warm at night. We even have some clothes for you to wear.”

“You can run away later,” said Henry, speaking loudly so that she could hear him from the kitchen. “It will be easy to get away when they’re asleep and can’t chase you.” His fathers gave him a disapproving look, but Sofia nodded and closed the door.

The kettle began to whistle. Hirrush, having finished bandaging Omarr’s arm, began to make tea. He took a small bottle from a high up shelf and added it to a cup full of hot water. Henry had never seen that herb used in tea before, but Hirrush gave him a look and he said nothing.

“The first cup for you,” said Hirrush to Sofia. He placed the cup in front of her, then moved past her to take the stairs up to the second floor. Sofia sniffed the tea, took a sip, and then began drinking it down. Hirrush had added a lot of sugar to it. She had barely finished the cup when she slumped over in her chair. Omarr caught her before she could slide off and hit the ground.

“Is she okay?” asked Henry.

“She’s fine,” said Hirrush, who was coming back down the stairs with a pair of pillows. He put one beneath Sofia’s head, and the other on the floor. When he laid down, he rested his head on top of it, close to Sofia’s. “She’ll wake up in an hour or so. I just hope I’m not too rusty.”

“What’s going on?” asked Henry as Hirrush closed his eyes.

“Your father’s going to take a peek inside her mind,” said Omarr. He walked into the kitchen and started making cookies with Henry, who had practically forgotten the task with everything that was going on. “One of the reasons that we’re going to get away with this kidnapping is that your father and I have skills that nearly no one else in the whole kingdom shares.”

“Inside her mind?” asked Henry. He scrunched up his face. “How does that work?”


It only took half a minute of meditation for Hirrush to step into his own mind. When he’d first begun the practice at the age of six, it had taken the instruction of a yogi, five hours of meditation, and the aid of a pinchwort tea, but the years of practice made it easy. The headaches would come later, when he had left the mental realm behind.

Hirrush’s mindscape was a large temple atop an immense spar of gray rock. There were a few scraggly trees that grew from small toeholds and a great white roiling mass of clouds that surrounded the column of rock and obscured the ground. Hirrush sniffed to himself when he saw how the clouds were moving. Within a few seconds they had gone still again, back to being a thick white sheet that undulated in a wind that could barely be felt. Hirrush was more nervous about this than he’d let on to either Omarr or Henry; the clouds below often reflected his emotions. Stilling them would still his troubled mind, but only for a time.

He made a quick tour of the temple before attempting the breach. Everything was where he’d left it. The library still held a copy of every book he’d read. He glanced over the memory representations, which all seemed in order and unblemished. His defenses were solid, even though several years had passed since he’d shored them up; he took the time to do this now, securing his mindscape against any possible intruders. His mindscape had once been where he spent most of his time, making modifications to the land and feeling the effects ripple through his mind. It had been freeing, a journey of mental modifications which had made him feel right with the world. If he was ever troubled or anxious, he had only to dive into his own mind to set things right.

The headaches meant that those days were over.

Knowing that he couldn’t put it off any longer, Hirrush walked up two flights of stairs to the viewing room on the top floor. Here he could feel the three other minds around him more keenly. Omarr’s mind was familiar, open, and accessible. The young mind of Henry had a golden note like a ringing bell. The third could only be Sofia. When Hirrush pressed against her mind with his own, the barrier between them felt spongy, with much more resistance than a five-year-old should have had. It wasn’t a good sign, but this course had been set from the moment the girl was taken through the spirit realm and brought to their house.

Hirrush moved through the barrier slowly, like moving through molasses, pushing against the mental matter that was abnormally thick. When he finally arrived inside her mindscape, it was with a sudden release, all the pressure gone at once. He popped into place on the lurching deck of a large ship at sea. There were undulating waves moving the ship and a thick downpour that obscured Hirrush’s vision. He held his hands out to the side and pushed against the storm, causing the waves to calm themselves and the rain to let up, though not entirely. Changing another person’s mindscape was difficult, an expenditure of his own mental energy, but there was no way that he’d be able to get anything done with the whole mindscape heaving about him.

The ship wasn’t accurate. That was common enough among mindscapes, which didn’t suffer from the same constraints as the physical world. His own temple was built in an architectural style that had never existed, and of course it raised questions about how anyone could have brought the materials up to build the temple, or how a living could be sustained so far from civilization. There were no animals, no edible plants, and not even any barrels to catch rain. Hirrush had contemplated making the changes required to have it be plausible, but that had been before the injury that left him with his headaches, and after that, idle mentalism had stopped.

The rigging of the ship consisted mostly of ropes that didn’t go anywhere, that hung from the masts and came down onto the deck without real purpose. It would have driven a sailor mad, Hirrush was sure. There were other details that his time as a ship passenger told him were wrong, a lack of tar on the sides, a few places where the boards seemed too short or the grain went the wrong way. With the sea mostly still, the ship had stopped moving so violently. The visibility had become good enough that he could see a lighthouse in the distance — a curiosity, given that most mindscapes had a background that lacked real clarity or distinction. He was sure that the meat of the mind was internal to the ship, in what were no doubt cavernous rooms that you’d never see on a real ship. In the mental realm, there was no need for a room to be constrained by the geometry of the hull which contained it.

Two thick doors led the way down to the innards of the ship, and these opened before Hirrush could make a move towards them. A tall man in robes of bright purple stepped forward. He was completely bald, and his face wore a scowl. The face was familiar to Hirrush.

“What good did you think this would do, Ibrahim?” asked Hirrush. “She’s five years old.”

“Better a weak defense than no defense at all,” said the royal mentalist. This was only a shade of the man, a fragment left behind from an excursion, but he was a threat all the same. “Still having headaches? I’m surprised you could even make a breach. Though I have to confess that I’m unsurprised that you would try to manipulate the mind of a child.”

“No manipulation,” said Hirrush with an even voice. He was steeling himself for the battle to come; he was more rusty than he had admitted to Omarr when they were making this plan. “I just need a baseline.”

“You’re not going to get it,” said Ibrahim. He lunged forward, with a knife flickering into his hand from nowhere. Hirrush dodged the first two slashes, and took the third on his forearm, but it was a simple matter of thought to heal the wound. Ibrahim’s fragment was powered by the brain of a child, a brain not yet developed enough to have any real force or direction behind it, even with whatever modifications the royal mentalist had made. Hirrush manifested a spear in his own hand and stabbed Ibrahim through the leg with a quick motion, which made a wound that didn’t close up at all. Ibrahim favored his other leg, and the knife he was holding flickered into the shape of a shield.

“It must be nice to beat me for once,” said Ibrahim. He spat to the side.

Hirrush made no comment. He simply grabbed the shield with one hand and shoved it to the side while stabbing forward with the spear. It struck Ibrahim’s fragment straight through the chest. He popped like a soap bubble. Hirrush held still for a moment, waiting for a second attack, but it never came. It was a pathetic battle, fought with real weapons, but it had been the best he could muster. No doubt if they had taken prince Rowan it would have been more of a challenge. Hirrush’s forearm looked fine, but still throbbed where the knife had sliced it.

Hirrush shook it off, and went exploring.


“But what’s he doing in there?” asked Henry.

“He’s just looking,” said Omarr. “He says that minds are like books, but that book is constantly being written in, and revised, and pieces of it are torn out. We want there to be no trace of us in the princess’s mind when we give her back, but that means that we need to know what it looked like before she spent time with us.”

“You can remove memories?” asked Henry with raised eyebrows.

“Hirrush can,” said Omarr. He opened the oven and peeked in at the cookies. “You need the baseline, and as he’s described it there’s a good deal of art to the removal itself. It’s easy enough for people to know that they’ve missed something — it’s not terribly stealthy. But yes, that’s more or less it. The princess will be aware of missing time, but she won’t know what it is that she missed.”

“Will I be able to go into people’s minds when I’m older?” asked Henry. “Like how I’ll do dark magic when I’m older?”

“Ah,” said Omarr. “Now that’s a question.” He glanced over at the two prone bodies. Hirrush laid with his lanky hair on the pillow, with his sharp elbows pressed into the floor. His face was tense. Beside him, Sofia had her mouth halfway open. The princess was drooling slightly. Her face was blank, with no sign of what was happening between the two of them. “Your father wants you to become a mentalist. But it can be dangerous, in ways that black magic isn’t. And there’s some question about whether you’d even be able to. Your father tried with me, but I never got farther than entering my mindscape. That itself is rare enough, though I had more of an advantage than most that try to follow that path. Hirrush thinks there are maybe a thousand people in all of Donkerk that can manage as much. Those that can cross the barrier between minds number in the tens. Maybe even less. But it’s possible, with training, that you could do what Hirrush is doing now.” Omarr pulled the cookies out from the stove. “There, perfectly done.”

Omarr watched Henry closely. He and Hirrush often talked about the future that they wanted for the boy, but it wasn’t clear what Henry himself would want. If he wanted to be a mentalist, Hirrush would try his best to train him in the art, though Hirrush had an enormous handicap in that regard. If Henry wanted to be a dark wizard, they would teach him everything they knew. They would try their best to steer him away from the bad paths. Too many dark wizards had met their end atop a pile of corpses, or corrupted by some new ritual they were sure was going to work, or cut down by the oathkeepers before they’d done much more than say the wrong things to the wrong people. But it seemed just as likely that Henry might grow up and want to become a baker, or a stonemason, or something completely unrelated to the lives of his fathers. Hirrush wanted to push Henry toward greatness, but Omarr would have been content to let the boy wander. He couldn’t say that either path was truly wrong.

“When will they wake up?” asked Henry.

“They’re not truly asleep,” replied Omarr. “Your father’s in a deep trance, and Sofia is … well, I wouldn’t call it sleep.”

“Will she be okay?” asked Henry.

“Perfectly fine,” said Omarr. “Before you came along, your father and I had less cause to be good. This will be the fifth time we’ve done this, and each time the child was returned successfully.”

Henry furrowed his brow. “You kidnapped the princess five times?”

Omarr almost laughed, but the subject was a bit too serious for that. “No, different children. Lesser nobility with far less at stake. It’s dangerous work. But each time the child was returned, with only a blank gap where their memories of us should have been. And your father and I would be wealthy for a time, until we spent all the money we’d gotten.”

Henry frowned. “But taking things that don’t belong to you is bad,” he said slowly. “Including people?”

“Yes,” said Omarr with a nod. “But good and bad are a balancing act. Every time, your father and I decided that the good was greater than the bad. The king will be mad at us. It will hurt him that his daughter is gone, and he won’t like parting with the money, but once that money is in our hands, we’ll be able to raise you properly without having to expose ourselves to the outside world.”

“Like when you brought that woman in?” asked Henry.

“That’s it exactly,” said Omarr.

Adrianna had come to their cottage several months ago, as she often did, though this time it was with a request; a woman was dying and Adrianna could do nothing to help her. They hadn’t wanted to have a part in it, but eventually Omarr began to crack under Adrianna’s pleading. On a chilly spring morning, the woman was brought to the cottage. It was the sort of exposure that the two dark wizards truly didn’t want, but Hirrush had dug up a book called Wasting Diseases and the Culling of Major Animals which detailed a ritual that would require using the block of onyx that they kept in the small shed behind the house. The block had cost a dauphin’s ransom and taken an enormous amount of effort to bring to the cottage in the first place. Because it was so heavy and unwieldy, there was nothing for it but to bring the woman into their inner circle. Omarr and Hirrush had argued about it, even though they were in agreement.

The ritual had required the sacrifice of two full-grown bulls, supplied by the woman’s husband. Omarr and Hirrush had laid the woman down on the block of onyx, positioned a bull on either side of her, and then slit the throats of both the bulls in unison. The beasts had kicked and sprayed hot blood, but as the outer spirits watched, the ritual took hold, and a blackness ripped through both of them like lightning. The animals crumbled into piles of black ash; the woman walked away with fresh, new innards. They had let Henry watch the preparations, but not the ritual itself. And now their presence was known, at least to that woman and her husband. They had a strong incentive not to tell anyone, since they’d paid for an illegal act to be performed on the woman. It was still a risk.

Hirrush and Omarr had little in the way of practical skills. They would have plied a trade in the dark arts, in the same way that Adrianna did, but people were more kind to witches than to wizards, especially a pair of wizards raising a small boy. Henry had changed things far more than they’d first expected he would. In the beginning they had treated him much like an animal, if truth be told. He needed to be fed and changed, and played with from time to time, but it was only slightly more work than when one of the goats had kids. Omarr wasn’t sure whether they would have kept him if they’d realized the depth of the commitment they’d made — much like the ritual itself, it was something that they’d decided on in the abstract, with the consequences not apparent until the reality of the decision unfolded in front of them. The boy had shaped their lives. Omarr would have thought that his reaction would be regret, but instead he was vaguely pleased by what a central focus the boy had taken for himself.

Sofia yawned and sat up slowly, looking around with glassy eyes. “Cookies?” she asked.

Omarr watched Hirrush carefully. He was slow to come out of the trance, and clutched at his head, digging his fingers into his hair. “Ow. Ow, ow ow.”

Omarr had prepared a different sort of tea, this one a mild sedative. He knelt down next to Hirrush and fed it to him slowly. Hirrush muttered another “Ow” and spilled a bit of the tea, but he drank most of it down. He laid back on the pillow, still clutching at his head. Henry had, of his own volition, put a half dozen of the cookies on a plate and brought it over to Sofia, who took one in each hand and ate them greedily. Hirrush would be out for the next few hours at the least, possibly even more, but if he’d gotten the baseline there was nothing much to worry about beyond the pain of the headache. Omarr turned his attention to the children.


Some hours later the four of them sat down to a dinner of roasted chicken, peas, and mashed potatoes. Sofia had been more relaxed for a time, following Hirrush’s excursion into her mind and the calming of her emotions, but now some sullenness was appearing. Emotional manipulation was difficult and never lasted long before it needed to be reapplied. Hirrush picked at his food, trying to ignore the pounding in his head. He was sluggish and practically worthless; though the sun hadn’t yet set, he was committed to going to bed just after he’d finished eating. Omarr could watch the children for at least that long. Hirrush had finished putting up the ward that would keep Sofia from escaping the property, but he had used the last of his father’s bones some years earlier. He wasn’t entirely certain that the substitution of bones stolen from a graveyard would hold so well. Thinking about it made his head hurt more. He took another sip of tea to help keep the pain down.

“No word from the capital, princess,” said Omarr gently. “We’ll have a response in due time though, and handle the negotiations. I’m sure he’ll see reason.”

“You should do what a king says,” said Sofia with a pout. She prodded at her chicken. “Is there magic in this?”

“No,” replied Omarr. “We don’t use magic on something so frivolous as making chicken taste better.”

“Could we?” asked Henry.

“If we acted on the chicken while it was still alive,” said Omarr. “Then, maybe. But dark magic isn’t for talking about at the table.”

Henry ate quickly, something that he had learned from Omarr. He stopped after two quick mouthfuls of chicken and looked at Sofia. “Why should you do what the king says?” he asked her.

“Because he’s the king,” said Sofia.

“But why is he the king?” asked Henry, skipping entirely over the question of kingly authority, which seemed to Hirrush to be the obvious place to challenge her. He and Omarr would have to teach him better methods of argument.

“He’s got a crown,” said Sofia. She tentatively ate a small piece of chicken. It apparently met with her standards, as she began to eat the rest of the food in bits and pieces without complaint. If she had learned proper manners, she had apparently decided that they were on hiatus for the duration of her kidnapping — she was a messy eater.

“So if I take his crown I’d be a king?” asked Henry.

“It doesn’t work like that,” said Omarr. “The king of Donkerk wears the Boreal Crown. I’ve heard he has only to think it, and the crown will land atop his head. It’s the most powerful magical item known to our kingdom, infused with the spirit of the land. The crown can’t be taken from him, and someone who doesn’t wear the crown wouldn’t be accepted as king.”

“Oh,” said Henry. “So he made a dark pact?”

“No,” said Sofia around a mouthful of food. “My father would never do that.”

“Eight hundred years ago,” Omarr began, “When Neth had broken and fallen, it was an untamed land, with just the outposts of the ancient empire. One of the officers left in Donkerk was the king’s great-great-great-and-so-on-grandfather. The land of Donkerk had a spirit once, like the ocean has the elder spirit Kell, and the desert has Pothis. The king’s ancestor treated with the elder spirit, and the kingdom was formed by the binding that they underwent.”

“So it was a pact,” said Henry.

“Was not,” said Sofia, though it didn’t seem like she knew whether to direct her glare at Henry or Omarr.

“Pacts are a fine line,” said Hirrush. “If I sold a passing merchant one of our chickens, the two of us haven’t made a pact, we’ve made a transaction. If I told you that I was going to give you a cookie, that wouldn’t be a pact either, only a promise that I’ve made to you that I can freely break. For a true pact, you need some trust, and either that trust comes from neither party being able to break the pact, or from the pact holding firm for a long time. A pact needs consequences, or retribution, or something solid to make it real.”

“So did the king make a pact or not?” asked Henry. His food was mostly forgotten.

“I’d have to handle the Boreal Crown to know for sure,” said Omarr. “And there’s a fat chance of that ever happening. Could be the spirit just likes having a king around and it’s more of a convenience than pact. But the crown’s sat atop the head of a member of the royal line for eight hundred years, through two invasions and a civil war, so I’d lean towards it being a powerful pact of some sort.”

“Eat your peas,” said Hirrush to both Sofia and Henry. “They’re not just a garnish.” It was the first thing he’d contributed to the conversation. His head throbbed afterward, like forcing the words out had pushed all the blood in his body into his head.

“So I can’t be king?” asked Henry.

“Not of Donkerk, no,” said Omarr. “You could call yourself a king, but everyone would look for the crown, and you wouldn’t have it, so they’d know not to follow you. The crown makes its way down the bloodline of the king, and you’re not his son.”

“I might be,” said Henry with a smile. He turned to Sofia. “I’m an orphan.”

“What’s that?” she asked.

“They don’t know who my mother is, and I’ve got two fathers, but I was born with a different father,” said Henry.

“My mother is dead,” said Sofia with a nod. “She died when I was born.”

“That doesn’t excuse either of you from eating your peas,” said Hirrush.

“I don’t like peas,” said Henry.

“I don’t like peas either,” said Sofia.

“No one likes peas,” said Hirrush. His head hurt, and he tried to shake it off. “That’s not the point of peas. They’re like a black magic that makes you go big and strong, and you just ignore the fact that they taste terrible.” Omarr stifled a cough. Hirrush looked towards Sofia, and though his head was swimming, he could see that he’d made a misstep by calling them magic.

“Think of it like a noble obligation,” said Omarr.

“What’s that?” asked Sofia.

“A noble obligation means riding out into battle to defend the commoners,” said Omarr. “It means facing down malevolent spirits, and saving damsels in distress.”

“That’s boy stuff,” said Sofia with a frown.

“Oh, there are plenty of women warriors,” said Omarr. “Now please, kindly, eat your peas.”


“How long are you going to be watching me?” asked Rowan.

“Until your sister is returned to the castle,” said Ventor. It was the third time the prince had asked.

“Can you leave?” asked Rowan. The prince had a mop of brown hair that seemed badly in need of cutting to Ventor, who kept his own hair cropped close to his skull. The prince laid back on his bed, looking at the ceiling.

“No,” replied Ventor. His eyes slowly scanned the room for the fifth time in the last ten minutes.

“I’d like to be alone,” said Rowan.

“I’m afraid that what you would like is not of concern to me,” said Ventor.

“By the power of your oath to the king, I command you to leave me alone,” said Rowan. He was eight years old, and he didn’t sound the least bit powerful.

“I gave my oath to the king,” said Ventor evenly. “Not to you. I am sorry that you dislike it so, but I have my orders, and I cannot disobey them.”

Rowan sat back on his bed and harrumphed. “When I’m king, will you follow my orders?”

“When you are king, I will take the Oath of Fealty anew and pledge my service to you,” said Ventor.

“When I’m king, I’m going to make it so that you don’t follow me around,” said Rowan.

Ventor had no response to that so merely turned to look out the balcony. They still had no firm idea how the princess had been taken from the castle, though it was a certainty that magic of some sort was involved. The sages had gathered together in conference, but they had produced nothing more than wild speculation. The castle once had hiding holes and secret passageways, but those had been closed off a hundred years ago. An investigation had shown that they were still sealed. Everyone who worked in the castle had been interviewed, and a good number had gone before the royal mentalist for further interrogation, though that had yielded nothing of any value. A goodly number of oathkeepers had dispersed into the city, on the theory that the kidnapper couldn’t have gotten far, but they hadn’t turned up anything either. There had been guards stationed at every entrance and exit. Someone should have seen something, if not when the kidnapper entered the castle, then at least when he left with Sofia.

“I’m going to the library,” said Rowan. He unfolded himself from the large bed he’d been laying on. “You can come with, if you’d like.”

Ventor suppressed annoyance and followed the prince.

“Ventor?” asked Rowan as they walked down the halls. “What were you like when you were my age?”

“I would prefer not to discuss that,” said Ventor.

“Because you would have to tell me the truth?” asked Rowan. He looked at Ventor with a gleam in his eye.

“No,” replied Ventor. “I don’t wish to discuss it because it was not a pleasant time in my life. I try not to dwell on troubling times.”

Rowan frowned. “When I’m king, I’m going to make you tell me about it. So you should just tell me now.”

“Why do you wish to know?” asked Ventor.

“You were an orphan, weren’t you?” asked Rowan. “Like all the oathkeepers?” He kicked a small pebble down the hall, and watched it skitter across the flagstones.

“I was,” said Ventor. “My father was sent off to fight in the Perrian War, and my mother died while he was abroad. But not all the oathkeepers come from such circumstances. Some are given by their families to the High Rectory, and some join later in life. Sometimes it comes after a failed apprenticeship, but often it happens simply because they feel a calling.” He would have preferred to speak of less personal things.

“I could be an oathkeeper,” said Rowan.

Ventor said nothing. There was some precedent for it, but the kings of Donkerk hadn’t held oaths since the Juniper Rebellion. It would make the High Rectory nervous even if they heard that the young prince had been idly saying such things. His claim that he would use Ventor’s oaths against him was somewhat more troubling on a personal level. He could only hope that the prince matured as he aged. Hopefully the kingship didn’t pass on early.

The library was a large one, with books stacked in neatly ordered rows and two large ladders that ran along curved tracks all about the place. Every book was the same size, with similar binding. When a new book was added to the exhaustive collection, it was rebound to make it the same as the others, with only a few exceptions. All in all, it was a fortune in books and not a small one. The librarian was a short woman with graying hair and half-moon spectacles. She looked up at Rowan and Ventor with surprise as they entered, then quickly shelved the book she’d been reading.

“Prince Rowan, it is a pleasure to see you again,” said the librarian. “What can I help you find this day?”

“I want to read about dark magic,” said Rowan.

The librarian and glanced at Ventor, adjusted her dress, coughed into her hand, then said, “I’m afraid I can’t help you.”

Rowan gave an exasperated sigh. “I don’t want to learn how to do dark magic, I want to know what it’s capable of. I want to know whether it was used to take my sister.” The librarian glanced at Ventor again, and Rowan turned to look his guardian up and down. “There’s nothing illegal in just knowing what dark magic does, is there? There have to be books about it.”

“It’s not illegal to know,” said Ventor. “But telling people what dark magic is capable of can often send them down the path of practicing dark magic. The king has decreed that we must be careful with who gains that knowledge.”

“Oh,” said Rowan with a frown. He turned back to the librarian. “So this library doesn’t have any books on dark magic at all?”

“Why dark magic?” interjected Ventor. “There are so many varieties of magic in the world, the eloists, the elementalists, the denialists, the mentalists, the spirit-callers — why focus on the one area that carries the risk of tainting you, if not in spirit, then in the public perception?”

Rowan turned back to Ventor. “You said that the knowledge is tightly guarded,” he said. “So even the sages probably don’t know as much about dark magic as they do about other kinds of magic. There’s a royal mentalist who knows everything about mentalism, and we trade with the Isles enough that we know what the eloists can do, but the dark wizards are a blank spot. We don’t have a sage of dark magic, do we?” Ventor shook his head. “I think it’s probably more likely that my sister was taken by a dark wizard, because dark wizards are always evil.”

Ventor thought on this. A big part of the problem was that he had no clear instruction in this regard. He had been commanded to protect the prince from harm, but it wasn’t clear that what he was asking for would really lead to any measurable harm, especially as it came from the right place — wanting to save his sister. Yet dark wizards often started out with good intentions. The king had only put Ventor in charge of the prince’s security, not his upbringing. When he’d started guarding the prince, he had assumed that he would simply stand in the corner without saying a word until the princess was found and the kidnappers brought to justice. Now he was being asked to make momentous decisions.

“We do have a few books about dark magic,” said the librarian carefully after Ventor had been silent for a long moment. “Nothing that would teach you even the most basic ritual, but a few that chronicle the most famous dark wizards of the age and a few that describe the signs a dark wizard is practicing.” She looked to Ventor, with her eyes pleading for guidance, but Ventor had none to give her. “Our oldest book on the subject is from the time of the Nethian Empire, before the founding of the kingdom. It gives an exhaustive detailing of the attributes of their monstrous warriors.”

“Bring me all of them,” said Rowan. “I’ll read at the table.”

The Drowned Witch

Sofia was faster than him, and that bothered Henry. She sprinted across the short grass with bare feet, her red hair floating on the wind behind her. He couldn’t keep up. He’d thought that she would tire herself out, but instead she just kept running, running in circles around him, or running away from him, making him feel slow and stupid. He didn’t feel bad when his fathers were faster and stronger, because they were bigger, but Sofia was his size. While he might have graciously accepted losing a race to her, he’d lost every race.

“Race you to that goat!” called Sofia, pointing at Frederick, an old goat with a long, curled horn.

Henry saved his breath and simply ran. For a moment he thought that he’d make it there before her, but then it became obvious that she was just toying with him. She ran like a streak of lightning to beat him by a full three seconds. Frederick lifted up his head and looked at them in the goat’s equivalent of surprise, which involved chewing on cud and slowly looking back and forth between them.

“I’m tired of racing,” said Henry.

“Because you lost?” asked Sofia. Her smile was a little bit mean.

“Can we play make believe?” asked Henry.

Sofia huffed, then shrugged her shoulders. “I’ll be a queen and you can be my tiger.”

“What’s a tiger?” asked Henry.

“It’s a big cat,” said Sofia, as though this were the most obvious thing in the world.

“I don’t want to be a cat,” said Henry. “Can we play inside? I have toys there.”

Sofia seemed hesitant, but nodded all the same. She liked him better than she liked his fathers. She’d been with them for two days, sleeping in the bed they’d set up beside his own. While she seemed fine while it was just the two of them, she was much more subdued when his fathers were around. He didn’t know whether it was because they were grown-ups, or because they were dark wizards, or because they had kidnapped her, but he could imagine that she was thinking about all those things. Omarr had been watching them from inside, but said nothing as Sofia dashed into the house and up the stairs with Henry close behind her.

“You have a small room,” said Sofia, and not for the first time. Henry didn’t know if she was right or not; this was the only home he’d ever known. Certainly his room was smaller than any other in the house. It was fitted into a corner of the house where the eaves dipped down low enough that his fathers had to duck, but it had a large window and plenty of space to put his toys down on the floor, even with the second bed tucked in for Sofia. His fathers had built in cabinets and drawers all over. Henry had stuffed them with all sorts of things that he’d collected from around the cottage and the lands that surrounded it. He had a drawer filled with interesting rocks in a variety of colors and shapes, dried flowers that he’d pressed into books with Hirrush, and bits of animals — the horn that Frederick had lost when he got his head stuck in a fence, a bird’s nest that had dropped from the crabapple tree, and a small turtle shell, among others.

“Do you have any real toys?” asked Sofia as she looked through the drawers at all of his treasures.

“What are real toys?” asked Henry.

“Things that are meant to be toys,” said Sofia. She picked up a tiny vial with a dead cricket inside. “This isn’t a toy.”

Henry took the vial from her. It had been one of Hirrush’s, but it had been dropped and developed a crack down the side. Henry had added it to his collection. The cricket had been found later. “He’s a mummy,” said Henry. “Trapped in his tomb, like the kings of the dead pyramids in the Scour.” He smiled, and look up at Sofia. “Don’t you make believe?”

“I do,” said Sofia. “But I make believe with real things. We could make believe that the grasshopper was alive in his bottle —”

“Cricket,” Henry corrected.

“— but he’s not a mummy at all,” she finished.

“That’s boring,” said Henry.

“If you had real toys it wouldn’t be boring,” said Sofia. She sat down on the floor, with her skirts around her, looking idly around the room.

“We could build a toy,” said Henry. He began to look into the drawers, which Sofia had left open. He pulled out a handful of utensils — two forks and a spoon, each with their imperfections, though not quite unusable. If his fathers knew he had these in his room, they would take a hammer and straighten the tines, then stick it back in the kitchen drawer. He laid the forks side by side, then picked up a teacup with a chip in it and placed it between them. He laid the spoon into the cup upside down, with the bowl of the spoon sticking out. “There, it’s a bird,” he said.

“It is?” asked Sofia. He could tell that she was only humoring him because she was bored, but that was okay.

“The forks are his legs, and the spoon is his neck and beak,” said Henry. He picked the assembly up, and pressed the forks against the sides of the cup. He made the bird walk by picking up the cup and moving the tines of the fork across the ground. The spoon slid around in the cup, and threatened to tip out.

A brief frown seemed to cross her face. She opened her mouth, then closed it again. “What does he eat?” Sofia asked.

“Pebbles,” said Henry. He walked the teacup bird over to where Sofia had set down a few of the rocks from his collection, and then used the spoon to pick them up one by one and put them into the teacup. Sofia watched for a while without saying anything. Privately, Henry decided that his cup-bird wasn’t eating the pebbles, but collecting them for a nest. The nest would be built someplace high up, away from the predators. He wasn’t sure what the cup-bird ate, just that it wasn’t really pebbles.

“He should eat noodles,” said Sofia.

“Noodles?” asked Henry. He looked up at her, and for a moment saw that her face had softened. She grew suddenly serious and turned her nose up at him.

“Noodles,” she repeated. “He should eat people food. He should slurp it up.”

Henry nodded, and continued to walk the bird around the ground. It was an awkward walk, with the tines occasionally poking into the small cracks between the floorboards.

“Do you have any noodles?” asked Sofia.

“We eat noodles sometimes,” said Henry. “I don’t know.”

“You should check,” said Sofia. “He’ll get hungry if he’s got nothing to eat.”

Henry set the bird down, and it became two forks, a teacup, and a spoon again, right until Sofia picked it back up. Henry glanced back at her as he got to the stairs, and saw a faint smile on her face. He was certain that when he got back, she would have invented all sorts of new rules for the bird.

“Dad, do we have noodles?” asked Henry from halfway up the stairs.

“Pasta?” replied Hirrush. “No, none cooked.” He was laying on the padded bench next to the fireplace, which contained nothing but a pile of embers that he occasionally stirred with a poker. His headache had gotten better, but it had still left him practically useless. Henry didn’t like see his father hurt like that, but both his parents had assured him that there was nothing to be done.

“Can I cook some?” asked Henry.

Hirrush opened one eye and looked at Henry. “I don’t think we have any.”

“Oh,” said Henry. He turned to go back upstairs, then turned back to his father. “We’re playing.”

“Good,” said Hirrush. His smile was strained and faded quickly. Omarr came in from outside and sat down in a chair next to Hirrush with a worried look on his face. Omarr gave a similarly strained smile, though obviously for different reasons.

Henry marched back up the steps to his room. He liked Sofia, but he imagined that she would tell him that they always had noodles in her castle. Before he could say anything though, he saw the cup-bird moving. Sofia had backed away from it. She was staring at it in wonder.

“What did you do?” asked Henry.

The forks that made the bird’s feet had bent. As the bird walked forward, Henry could see the metal hinging like a real joint. The whole thing was animate, the spoon-head dipping and bobbing like a gardener snake sniffing at the air. The flat of the forks held firmly to the side of the teacup without anything keeping them in place. It moved like it was its own creature.

“I didn’t do anything,” said Sofia softly. Neither of them could take their eyes off of it.

“Dad!” called Henry, without looking away from where the assembly of utensils was exploring the floor.

Omarr came up the stairs slowly, but stopped dead in his tracks when he saw what was in the room. “What have the two of you been doing?” he asked slowly. He slipped a penknife out from one of his pockets and poked it into the side of his index finger, which drew blood. Henry had seen this one or two times before, enough that it was almost boring, even if it was dark magic. Omarr spread the bead of blood over the tip of his finger, and pointed towards the cup-bird. The bird showed no reaction.

“It’s a house spirit,” said Omarr. He wiped his bloodied finger on his shirt. “We’ve never had a house spirit.”

“It can’t be,” said Henry. “We made it.”

Omarr looked at him carefully, but didn’t seem to have much of an answer to that.


Adrianna was having second thoughts.

Marurbo was the largest city in Donkerk by a wide margin, situated right where the Lenten River met the Juniper Ocean. The king’s castle was situated on a broad stretch of rock that split the river in two, right at the river’s mouth, but the city itself spread out on both sides of the river, the two halves stitched together by five separate bridges. It was said that a million people lived in the capital, and it was the center of both trade and industry for Donkerk and for hundreds of miles past it (though much of that area was desert, ocean, impassable mountains, or the Scour). Two weeks ago, the largest city that Adrianna had ever been to was Leshampur, which barely rated as a city at all. The capital had too many people and too much noise.

She sat in her room at the inn, and listened to one of the criers. There had to be hundreds of them in the capital, each staking out their own corner of the city. Omarr had come down with her, and on one of their first days in the big city she had asked him what kind of pay the king provided for that kind of work. He had laughed and told her that the criers were the ones that paid the city. A license for being a city crier ran into the hundreds of silvers. The criers made their money by yelling out enticements for the local businesses, driving people into taverns or shops whenever there wasn’t some pressing royal decree to be read out, a service which those taverns and shops paid handsomely for. The service of a crier, Omarr explained, was the difference between riches and ruin.

But Omarr had gone, and now she was stuck listening to the crier outside her window yelling in his booming voice about pickled fish.

It had been nerve-wracking when Omarr had left for the castle. After an hour had passed, she’d been sure that her door would be broken down by a whole squadron of oathkeepers, even though the whole plan was that Omarr would travel the Shadows Between Realms with the princess and end up back at the cottage some ten days of travel away. But Adrianna hadn’t been able to shake the feeling that something either would or had gone horribly wrong, and though Omarr didn’t even know which inn she was staying at — a precaution against his capture and torture that had done nothing for her confidence — she was certain that she was only minutes from some terrible fate arranged by the forces behind the king. She had been a milkmaid before her gran had died, and while she dealt with matters beyond the understanding of the common people, she still felt like she was horribly out of her depth, even after six full years of being a hedge witch. She wondered whether she would ever feel like her gran must have felt. Adrianna had to refer to the books constantly and trudge out to the leaning cottage to consult with Omarr and Hirrush. The few times she’d seen her gran use witchcraft, she’d done it with a confidence and power that suggested she could have thrown away her books long ago.

Armed men never showed up at her door. Eventually she’d had to go down and buy a bowl of soup. She ate it slowly, and was still sitting at one of the ale-stained tables when word first came that the princess had gone missing. She had asked whether the princess had run away or been taken, and though no one seemed to know, that at least told Adrianna that the princess had been taken, which almost certainly meant that Omarr had lost a finger and carried her through the Shadows Between Realms. The ritual was a powerful one that they’d dug up from some book or another, and though they had never used it before, Omarr and Hirrush had seemed confident enough that it would work. That faith had apparently been rewarded.

She sat in her bed, and listened to the town crier repeating the same things over and over again with only minor variations. Her job now was to wait.

The crier began to call the phrase “Eighteen fallen march on the waves” around noon on the third day. That was part of the instructions that Omarr had left behind when he had taken the princess. The king was signaling that the ransom would be paid. It was Adrianna’s cue to leave the inn and take up her part in the scheme. Her heart was beating fast, and her hands were already sweating, even though she hadn’t done anything yet. She wore a long dress that covered half-calf trousers, and a vest whose small pocket she patted a third time, just to make sure that the teeth were still there. She walked down to the docks, and found the small alley sheltered from view that she’d picked out several days ago.

Adrianna pulled one of the two teeth — top front incisors, mirrors of each other — from her pocket. The place where Omarr had written on it — when it had still been in the man’s mouth — was smudged, but she could still make out the circle he’d drawn. Omarr had killed the man with practiced ease. Though she knew it shouldn’t have an affect upon her, she couldn’t help but feel a little queasy.

She wasn’t sure how Omarr had found the man, and she hadn’t asked, but on their third day in the capital Omarr brought her to a tall, narrow house in a seedy part of the sprawling city. They’d made their way through a gathered crowd of solemn faces that spilled out into the creaky hallways. People watched them, but said nothing. Conversations died as they approached. Most of those they passed had the same hooked nose and high cheekbones, and all had straight black hair. Omarr moved like he knew where he was going, and people parted for him, giving him more room than even his broad shoulders needed. The house didn’t seem to be laid out with an particular plan in mind, but each room held people, all looking bleak. Eventually the seemingly endless series of doorways, hallways, cheap furniture, and musty smells gave way to a bedroom.

The man was old, though not so old that he should have been dying. He had the same nose as the men and women they’d passed on the way in and the same straight black hair, though it was streaked with gray. His eyes were watery and his skin was loose. He looked at Omarr with distaste. Omarr closed the door behind them, giving them privacy from the dozens of prying eyes.

“Well,” Omarr had said with a gentle smile. “No cold feet?”

The old man shook his head. “Two hundred gilders.”

“Two hundred,” agreed Omarr. “Does your family know?”

“You saw the looks,” said the old man. He coughed violently. Omarr watched with a frown. “You best pay my sons, else they’ll pulverize you.”

“So long as they don’t try to do that after they get their payment,” said Omarr. “Else I’ll sprout a set of wicked claws and rend them to pieces.” His voice was loud enough to carry past the door. “Seven trueborn sons?”

“Eleven,” said the old man. “Seven of them trueborn, at the least. I was told it wouldn’t matter if I had more, so long as it was at least seven.” He licked his dry lips. “Will this hurt?”

“Suffocation doesn’t hurt, if done right,” said Omarr. “And I give you my word that I’ll be doing it right, as little as that might mean to you. You’ll feel a sense of panic. You might try to fight back against me, but know that you’re doing this for your family. That animal instinct to fight won’t serve your interests.”

“Death,” said the old man. He closed his eyes. “Do what you will.”

Omarr stepped forward and used his thick fingers to lift the man’s upper lip. There was no protestation from the man, just a slight flinch and a tightening of his closed eyes. Omarr took a black pencil from his pocket and made two quick circles, one on each of the incisors.

“The symbols themselves don’t matter,” said Omarr. He kept his voice conversational. It took Adrianna a moment to realize that she was talking to him. “There are a number of rituals with a delayed effect that call for a symbol to be marked on the focus, but the mark is just to get the spirit’s attention. Most of the time when you see something fancy, a hundred lines each just so, a carefully precise ellipsis or angles measured in exact degrees, all done up in pretty colors — most of the time, a circle made in waxy charcoal will do just as well.”

Omarr took a pillow off the bed and pressed it to the old man’s face. Omarr was a big man, with a meat to his body like a bear, but he was friendly too, and in general he showed nothing of the obvious danger that a man like Hirrush presented. Adrianna had expected to see him conflicted, or saddened, but his face betrayed nothing of that. He was workmanlike, pushing the pillow firmly into the old man’s face, and when the old man began to kick and thrash, Omarr moved his head back from the flailing hands and put more of his weight into it. The thrashing became weak and feeble, then stopped entirely. After three full minutes had passed, Omarr pulled the pillow away and felt for the man’s pulse.

“I didn’t even learn his name,” she said softly.

“Mendel,” said Omarr. “Mendel Lavit, may he rest in peace.” He pulled a pair of pliers from within his tunic and turned to look at her. “He and I made a fair exchange, and I hastened an end that he knew was coming. He was in pain. Now, I’d recommend that you look away — this part you don’t need to see.” Adrianna heeded his advice, but that didn’t help to block out the wet crack as Omarr extracted the two teeth he’d marked.

When she turned back around, Omarr was setting two hundred gilders on a bedside table. The old man — Mendel — he looked almost peaceful, if not for the blood that dripped from his mouth. Omarr had wiped his hands on the bedspread, but they were still stained red.

After they were out on the street, having walked past the silent house full of Mendel’s sons and daughters, Adrianna finally asked.

“Why did you bring me?”

“You agreed to this,” said Omarr. “Six years as a hedge witch and still it’s a lesson you haven’t taken to heart. We sat in the cottage with you. We explained the plan. We said a man with seven trueborn sons would have to be suffocated for the spell we needed. We explained that we would find a man who was willing to give his life for a little gold, or if possible, who wanted to die. Mendel had days left to live. Maybe hours. I waited patiently, to give him as much time with his family, but don’t you see the point I’m trying to make?”

Adrianna shook her head.

“Talking is one thing and doing is another,” said Omarr. “There are good things — truly good things — that make our stomachs wrench. There are paths that we don’t follow because we feel some revulsion towards them, even when they’re the correct ones. And it goes the other way too! People think that they do the right thing just because that’s what makes them feel good, even when they’re visiting some horror on a stranger.”

That had been days ago. And now Adrianna stared at Mendel’s two front teeth, taken from his skull just minutes after he had died. It was far too late to back out, but some small part of her wanted to. Omarr had said that each tooth was good for four hours, but neither of them wanted to test it. Adrianna waited at the docks until she spotted the one ship flying a blue-green flag, then began to strip her dress until only the short pants remained. She put her hair back in a bun and picked up the reinforced pack that she’d stashed behind a crate. The last bit of preparation was to crush the first tooth with the heel of her boot. Once it was done she began to count the minutes remaining.

Adrianna moved to the edge of the wharf, between the two buildings that sheltered her from sight. She knelt down reached with her toe to dip it in the water and couldn’t help but smile when she saw the water move away from her. The spell had worked. She sat on the edge for just a moment, readjusted the straps on her backpack, then pushed herself off. Instead of splashing down into the water, it parted around her and swallowed her up. She landed with her feet on dry sand. She was at the center of a bubble of air, with water all around her.

It was time to collect the ransom.


“It’s not possible to summon a spirit into corporeal form,” said Hirrush. “They come on their own, not at the beck and call of people. Certainly not from anything a child could do.”

They’d sent the children upstairs just after an early dinner and now sat together at the table. Omarr had carried the spirit down, holding it gently, as far from his body as he could. When he’d set it on the table, it had paced in circles for a few minutes, then curled into a small ball by flipping the cup over and bending all the utensils up inside it. Every once in a while it would lift its cup up slightly, then settle back down again.

“Perhaps it came on its own,” said Omarr. He tugged at his beard, which he did when he was nervous. They’d kidnapped the daughter of the most powerful man around, but the small house spirit that sat on their table felt more troublesome. The kidnapping had been carefully planned, and the point with the largest chance of complications — stealing Sofia from within the castle — had gone off perfectly. The spirit seemed to herald an unraveling of their scheme, though neither men quite knew how.

“It didn’t come on its own,” said Hirrush. He’d claimed his headache was mostly gone, but he still sat hunched in his chair and cradling a cup of tea. “The odds against it happening now of all times is astronomical. This cottage has been in the family for three generations and the land around it for even longer. A hundred years for the spirit of this house to manifest it and it does it now, in the small window of time when we’ve got a stolen princess here?”

“The children claim they made it,” said Omarr. “That they put it together. It animated on its own, to hear them tell it.”

“Equally impossible,” said Hirrush, but he didn’t sound sure of himself. “But you’re right, that’s an important piece of information. It’s a clue.”

“What’s our worst case?” asked Omarr.

“Besides Adrianna getting caught, giving us up, and the king’s men torturing us to death?” asked Hirrush. “I should have gone into the witch’s mind and removed every trace of us from it. If I were as I was at my peak …”

“You’re still bitter,” said Omarr. “I don’t blame you for that one bit. But even at your peak you wouldn’t have been able to accomplish it, not when you had to stay back.” Hirrush grunted and looked away. “The past is painful enough without magnifying it.”

“Okay,” said Hirrush. He kept his eyes averted, then let out a sigh and turned back to Omarr. “Thank you for keeping me grounded.”

“It’s possible that my jaunt between the realms pulled the spirit through to the physical world with me when we made our exit,” said Omarr. “That creates a wrinkle, but not a big one. It would actually have some interesting applications, if it were true.”

“Unlikely,” said Hirrush. “The whole point is to take a bubble of physical space outside the realms. It’s mentalist theory applied to physical reality, mediated by spiritual entities. While you were in transit, you weren’t touching the spiritual realm at all, it shouldn’t have been possible to disturb it. And we interact with the spiritual realm every time we do dark magic, so if all it took was influence on the spiritual realm we’d be swimming in the things — one for the house, one for the farmstead, one for the creek — no, it shouldn’t have been that.”

“Shouldn’t,” said Omarr.

“Point taken,” replied Hirrush. “Shouldn’t, but might’ve.” He tapped his fingers on the side of his cup. “It could have been one of the children.”

“A spirit caller,” said Omarr. “A creature from myth.”

“We have to strongly consider the possibility,” said Hirrush. “The question is whether it was Henry or Sofia.”

“If it were the princess, I would think that we’d have heard about it,” said Omarr. “I did my research. She’s nothing special, so far as little girls go. Nothing to connect her with spirits in any way.”

“I think I’m partial to the theory because it wouldn’t change anything in the near-term,” said Hirrush. “If it’s Sofia, she’ll be back in the castle shortly. If it’s Henry, we can cross that bridge later.”

“And for now we do nothing?” asked Omarr. He pointed to the spirit that was curled up on their table, the edge of one fork sticking out from under the cup. “We don’t have much of a choice but to live with this spirit, I suppose?”

“I can comb through the books,” said Hirrush. “But we’re stuck with it.”

“They named it Chippy,” said Omarr. “They decided when I was putting them to bed.”

“Ah,” said Hirrush.

“Because of the chip,” said Omarr.

“Yes, I understood immediately,” said Hirrush. He rubbed his temples. “I’ll be glad when this is all over.”

“Will you still be able to go into her mind?” asked Omarr.

“No real choice, is there?” asked Hirrush. “Even if Ibrahim weren’t waiting back at the castle, she’d only have to talk for a few hours before descriptions of us went out to every town in the kingdom.”

“Do you regret picking her?” asked Omarr. “Do you wish we’d gone for easier prey?”

“We’ll never have to do this again,” said Hirrush. “And for my part, I’ll enjoy hearing stories about this for years to come. It’s petty, but so few people get to put egg on the king’s face.” He reached forward and touched the spirit with a fingertip, but it moved only slightly before settling back down. “We’ll figure this out later. But I suppose in the meantime that we’ll have to deal with having a house spirit.”


“Look at this,” said Rowan, pointing to a picture in one of the books.

Ventor leaned forward and dutifully took a look. The scale was given by a man who stood beside the beast. The top of the man’s head came even with the core of his monster’s spine. The beast had enormous claws on both its front and back legs and a swollen rib cage so large that it nearly touched the ground. Its head was small and its eyes beady.

“They used it to carry them around,” said Rowan. “There was a hole in the side. You could slip in and have it take you wherever you wanted to go.”

“A disgusting perversion,” said Ventor. “Do I need to remind you again that you were looking for some clue as to what happened to your sister?”

“Don’t you see?” asked Rowan. He smiled wide. “Maybe she was taken by this thing, or something like it!”

“You think that a monster of incomprehensible horror scaled the walls of the castle, snatched up the princess, and retreated, all without anyone seeing it?” asked Ventor. He was honestly curious whether the young prince thought that likely.

Rowan’s face fell. “No.” He turned back to the book, looking at the pictures more than reading the descriptions. “But it’s not incomprehensible, because people rode them around.”

“Incomprehensible to you or I,” said Ventor. “Not to the people of Neth. Such abominations are thankfully a thing of the past.”

“Could someone make one?” asked Rowan.

“No one knows how,” said Ventor. “The knowledge was either lost or destroyed. I firmly hope that it was the latter and not the former. In the heyday of the Empire they had beasts that could outrun even me, and I can run mightily fast. With dark magic there is always the threat that some secret will be uncovered again, or that some lost tome will be brushed off and sold to the wrong person. I very much doubt that you’ll find the answer in any of those books, but if I had to guess, whoever took her was a practitioner. There were kidnappers who worked very similarly to this some years ago, and they were dark practitioners. It’s a likely bet that these are the same men, or closely related.” His obligation to guard the prince had not left Ventor much time to keep abreast of the latest developments, but he had seen enough oathkeepers running by to know that something important was happening.

“But someone could rediscover how to make this monster, couldn’t they?” asked Rowan. “If they tried enough times?”

Ventor gave him a stern look, and not for the first time. He reminded himself that he wasn’t responsible for anything but the boy’s safety. “It’s possible,” said Ventor. “Which is precisely why we work tirelessly to stop the dark practitioners from gaining a toehold.” Ventor pointed to the picture the book was open to, a snake-thing with foot-long fangs and a whip-like tail. “This is a collection of the horrors of the Nethian Empire. The cost to create such a beast would be measured in bone and blood, or more likely in human lives. The Neth thought nothing of trying over and over, spilling blood by the gallon, stacking corpses like cordwood, until they arrived at this. There once was a set of instructions to create this creature, paid for in horrors above and beyond what the creature itself cost.”

Rowan frowned at that and closed the book. “There’s nothing in here about taking people anyway.”

“No,” said Ventor. “I’m sorry, but your search was doomed to failure. If there had been some scrap of information in these books, the sages would have already known it. Knowledge is their domain.”

“So they know dark magic?” asked Rowan. He reached for another book from the pile, which he’d been slowly going through one page at a time, skipping most of the words. Ventor had broached the subject of the prince’s studies to the king, who had seemed utterly unconcerned — though of course he had other things on his mind. Still, Ventor sometimes wished that the history and practice of dark magic had been more thoroughly scrubbed from the world. He wished that the library books could be burned, to erase so much as a trace of the evil empire and their terrible practices.

“No,” said Ventor. “The sages know the outcomes of dark magic though, and that is enough. Snatching a girl from within these castle walls is not a possible outcome of dark magic, at least so far as we know it.”

“Unless someone tried enough times?” asked Rowan. He furrowed his brow. “If they kept killing people over and over until they made something that worked?”

“No,” said Ventor for the third time. He pointed to the book with its pictures of the gruesome monsters Neth had spawned. “Dark magic works in flesh.” He pointed to the second book. “Dark magic works in wards. The flesh is what seduces the dark wizard, but the wards are what makes him truly dangerous. Yet with proper planning, even the greatest dark wizard is no match for an oathkeeper.”


Among its many other qualities, the Boreal Crown was as light as a feather. It sat atop King Aldric’s head, perfectly centered, its golden thorns reaching towards the clouds. Each thorn was thick enough that the crown was often compared to a deer’s antlers. Aldric had grown tired of being called a young buck within weeks. Though the seas rocked their boat, the crown stayed firmly in place. Aldric barely noticed it was there.

“It is not enough to get my daughter back,” the king said. The crown cut through the noise of the waves around them, and conversations stopped in their tracks. It was possible to reign in the effect, but usually there was no point. “They have not just stolen my daughter, they have made a grievous insult against the crown. That cannot stand.”

“There is risk, your majesty,” said Baktar, a sage with round glasses and ratlike teeth that he kept covered with his lips, even when talking, in a way that only served to draw attention to his mouth. “You must instruct the oathkeepers not to kill, or even badly injure whatever they find down there. If they do, they might be destroying any chance for the safe return of the princess.”

“There is no guarantee that anyone will be down there,” said Langauld, a sage with thinning hair and a mustache that seemed to be making a good attempt at compensating for it. He was the older of the two. “If they are capable of retrieving the gold from a thousand feet below the surface, as we suspect they must be given their demands, there would be no rush for them to claim it. They would only need verify that we have in fact dumped the gold from the side of the ship, and then return days or even weeks later to collect at their leisure.”

Aldric nodded along. He was glad that he had brought only the two sages, for if he’d brought a dozen he had no doubt that he would receive at least that many points and counter-points, addenda and corrections, on and on until he had lost all interest. For a time he had tried to make it known that the sages could not curry favor by being contrary, or by adding extraneous detail, but he had eventually realized that the sages cared less for his approval, and more for the approval of their peers. He rarely spoke with the full council anymore, and instead picked two or three from the bunch to stand in for the others. No doubt the subject had already been discussed to death and back again, and there was no reason for them to have it out in front of him.

They had all been in agreement that he had no place on the ship, but he had ignored them. It was bad enough that his only daughter had been taken. He couldn’t be seen as weak. There was a dominant idea among the both the commoners and the lesser nobility that the Boreal Crown secured the royal line against intrigue. It was, after all, not possible to steal the crown, as the king could command it to his hand with a thought. Even assassination would only transfer the crown to some other member of the royal line. Yet the royal history of Donkerk was littered with examples of the complexity of the powers, if anyone cared to look. King Elthar had been a puppet of his mentor, controlled in every respect after his father’s death. King Ganduin had been poisoned into a deep sleep, and a duke had worn the crown for three months, claiming a false lineage. Now, even if Sofia could be safely returned to him, there were those who would see that blackmail might be a path to leverage.

“Lower the anchors,” said Aldric, when he was informed that they had reached the appropriate spot.

He would find the men responsible for taking his daughter, and he would punish them for all the world to see.


Adrianna walked downhill along the sea floor, keeping her eyes pointed in the direction of the ship she’d spotted from the wharf. It was hard not to stare at the hidden world she was passing by, but the old man’s death had bought her eight hours of free movement, and she couldn’t bear the thought of wasting it. There was also the thought in the back of her mind that she would be killed almost instantly if she hadn’t gotten out of the water by the time the spell reached its end. She watched carefully for fish, but the few she spotted seemed to shy away from her. The ground was bone dry beneath her feet, courtesy of the same spell that kept the water away from her and the air pure. As she walked towards the ship, she put more and more distance between herself and the surface. The air grew colder, and the bubble grew smaller, but Omarr had told her to expect those things. It got darker, and Adrianna forced herself to think of all the things her share of the money could buy. It didn’t entirely work as a distraction.

She had been walking for ten minutes when a vial of blood she’d been carrying in one of her pockets burst. The blood was her own, taken much earlier and mixed with a liquid that would keep it from clotting. As soon as it happened, she knew what had happened — the ritual kept her breath from fouling the air, but did nothing for the pressure. The vial had been corked and sealed, with the intent that it could be broken by throwing or crushing it. As she’d gone deeper, the pressure had gotten to be too much. The vial had been intended as an emergency measure in case something had gone wrong and the king’s men had planned some counterattack — to throw up a quick ward or sprout claws to fight back. Adrianna had two more vials, which seemed to be intact, but she broke the wax seal and pulled out the cork to keep them from bursting as well.

She saw the ship lower two immense, round anchors, one on each side, drifting to the sea floor on long chains like tendrils, and she hurried her pace. When the plan had been explained to her, she had thought that she had gotten the easy end of the deal, but now she was having second thoughts. If she could have sacrificed a finger to collect the gold and be home again, she likely would have, but that only proved that dark magic was not best practiced when a witch was motivated by temporary concerns. The sea floor was cold and dark, and she imagined shapes moving around her.

The gold bars began to drop down shortly after she got under the ship. There were twenty of them altogether, and Adrianna stood back as she watched them plummet down and tumble in the currents. Each one hit the seafloor with a plume of kicked-up sand, and she tried to mark them carefully. When the last had fallen, she spared a last look up at the ship and walked over to the nearest bar of gold. As it passed into her bubble, the water was pushed away from it. Dull metal gleamed in the faint light. It was cold to the touch, the heat robbed by its descent, and it was heavy in a way that felt unnatural. She had practiced with a bar of lead, but it still shocked her just how heavy a small amount of gold was. In total, the king had dumped five hundred pounds of gold into the ocean.

The two anchors of the ship rested nearby, each connected by a long chain. If Adrianna had known more about ships, she might have questioned their shape, or how they sat on the seafloor. As it was, she had put the first two gold bars into her reinforced pack when she saw a stream of bubbles coming from them.

Adrianna was on her guard almost immediately. She stood up, pulled a wickedly sharp knife form its sheath, and clutched at the two unbroken vials of blood with her other hand. Her first thought was of sharks, though of course that made no sense. Her second thought was of another dark wizard come to challenge her. Omarr and Hirrush had scoffed at that idea, given everything the king had done. Besides that, the ritual she was using to walk on the seafloor was far from well-known. Yet each anchor now seemed to be divesting itself of a shape, which couldn’t mean anything good. Adrianna wanted to run, but the ground here was a fine sand, and she was carrying sixty pounds worth of gold.

The white shapes resolved themselves into pale men. They swam quickly and powerfully towards her. It shouldn’t have been possible for them to be so far down. They should have drowned. They were oathkeepers, almost certainly, but even then they shouldn’t have been able to ride the anchors down and stay beneath the waves for so long. Omarr had taken an inventory of the oathkeepers, just to ensure that none of them had a relevant power that would stop the whole scheme before it started. Yet there was no way that Adrianna could deny the speed at which they swam. She had only seconds to decide whether she should fight or flee. She had two vials of blood and a dagger, a tooth that would provide for another four hours underwater, and two gold bars. Omarr had said that properly prepared, an oathkeeper was no match for a dark wizard, but there were two of them, swimming towards her with bare chests, and she was far from prepared. Yet she couldn’t outrun them either.

She threw the first vial to her feet and used it to shape a second ward around her, this one against physical intrusion. Her concentration was shaky, but it would buy her a handful of minutes. The second vial she poured over her hands, wetting them with her blood. Four quick cuts with the dagger were enough to call the spirit’s attention. It was sloppy, and the results weren’t quite predictable. Her hands trembled and ached as the magic took hold of her bones and flesh, and the claws erupted just seconds after the first oathkeeper hit her shield.

The force pushed her backwards, and she tumbled to the ground. The oathkeeper pounded down against her shield with fists that seemed to move in slow motion in the water. The water was likely the only thing that restrained his power enough that her ward stood up to the hammer blows of his fists. He was older, and had a slightly frantic look on his face. The oathkeepers were known for their willpower, but even then, fighting under six hundred feet of water while holding his breath must have been panic inducing.

Adrianna struck out, raking her claws across the oathkeeper’s chest. Omarr had said that they would slash straight through muscle and skin, raking across the bone, but either the water was slowing them too much, or the oathkeeper’s resilience neutered them, because her attack seemed to do little more than cloud the water with his blood. His assault on her shields continued unabated. Adrianna scrambled backward, and he swam after her, soon joined by the second oathkeeper. She lashed out with her claws, striking at their arms and legs. She had only seconds before the ward would give out. They’d be able to suck in the clean air from the bubble around her, and pin her to the ground.

The dagger had fallen to the ground beside her, and she snatched it up awkwardly with her clawed hands. She had seen Omarr prepare the ritual, and he had talked her through it. Spit and blood around the finger, a freely flowing wound, and a word to bring the spirit’s attention. Adrianna spit on her fingers, then sliced at them with the dagger. The ward broke, and an oathkeeper’s bloody hand reached forward to grab her, but then she was in the cold blackness between the realms.


King Aldric watched silently as the anchors were drawn up. Five hundred pounds of gold had been dumped into the ocean, and whatever had gone on down there was sadly beyond his power.

The anchors had been made from a pair of disused temple bells, each large enough to hold a man inside once the clapper had been removed. They had cleared out one of the drydocks and tested them in the middle of the night, and worked without sleep to get them in working order, with weights at the bottom to prevent it from tipping. A man couldn’t dive down to six hundred feet — not while also hoping to fight a battle with a dark wizard — but the oathkeepers had been lowered with the anchors, and that would give them a slim chance. Of course, as the sages said, it was just as likely that the dark wizards would watch from afar with a spyglass and pick the gold up at their leisure, even if it meant that they had to scour the sea floor for it. Not for the first time, King Aldric considered the ramifications of putting a dark wizard into his employ. It would have to be done in secret, a tool hidden away from the oathkeepers, the sages, and the rest of the nobility, but it would still be possible. There were condemned prisoners whose life could be put to use. It would be distasteful, but the king could not decide whether it would be truly immoral. But to voice that out loud would weaken him in the eyes of his allies, and the men under his control.

The first anchor was raised onto the deck, heaved up by the oathkeepers, who still had difficulty maneuvering it. Rector Orrigold tumbled from it, bleeding from dozens of cuts all over his body. The oathkeepers had consulted among themselves and decided against wearing armor, on the theory that if there was anything to see under the water, the armor would slow them down far too much. Rector Orrigold was sixty years old, though it was hard to tell be looking at him. A pair of medics attended to him, trying to staunch the flow of blood. He was a muscular man, as most of the oathkeepers were, the benefit of intensive training that only added to the power of his oaths. His life’s blood seeped out onto the deck.

“A witch,” he said, trying to move the medics aside. “A lone witch, with air all around her. We tried to retrieve her, but she vanished when we breached her wards. Rector Perrin ran short of breath as we swam back to the bells.”

King Aldric nodded. Orrigold had taken the Oath of Silence before Aldric had even been born, and had broken it now to deliver this information, and the only reason that Orrigold would have done that is if he knew that he was dying. Seventy years of oaths, and more power than most men could hope for in their lifetime, gone in an instant. The witch had escaped, but at least they knew that dark magic had been involved. The sages had told him that dark magic was incapable of pulling his daughter from the castle, but here was proof that they did not know so much as they supposed.

If the oathkeepers had managed to capture the witch, they might have had some leverage. As it was, it was unclear whether he would ever see his daughter alive again.


Hirrush had been nursing his headache and watching the sun go down when Adrianna stepped out of the darkness and immediately collapsed onto the floor of the cottage. He went to her immediately, trying to ignore the pounding pain in his head, and turned her over. She wasn’t moving, and blood was trickling from her ears. Both hands had taken the shape of claws, one of which was missing a finger.

“Omarr!” he called. “Adrianna’s here!”

Omarr had been outside, but rushed in right away. He swore when he saw her. “Check her eyes,” said Omarr.

Hirrush lifted her eyelid, and a bloodshot eye stared back at him. Omarr swore again, and rushed back outside. Hirrush began to strip Adrianna’s clothing off, using a knife from the kitchen to cut it away instead of bothering with trying to remove it the proper way. He didn’t know quite what was wrong with her, but clothing would do nothing but get in the way for whatever Omarr was thinking.

“What’s wrong with aunt Adry?” asked Henry. Hirrush turned to look at the stairs, and saw Henry and Sofia standing there, watching him.

“Henry,” said Hirrush calmly. “I want you to take Sofia upstairs and not come down until we get you.”

“Is she going to be okay?” asked Henry.

“I don’t know,” said Hirrush. “Go.”

Henry dashed towards the table and scooped up the spirit, then hammered up the stairs with Sofia close behind him. Hirrush would have to have a talk with him later about obeying instructions, but for now, Adrianna would have to take priority. He had pulled the immensely heavy pack from her back just as Omarr came back in, with Frederick, their oldest goat, behind him.

“Diver’s sickness,” said Omarr. “There’s a huge amount of pressure when you’ve got six hundred feet of water sitting on top of you.” The goat seemed pleased to be in the house, and showed no reaction as Omarr grabbed the knife that Hirrush had been using. “Diver’s get sick when they come up too fast.” Omarr took a half-empty cup of tea from the table, and poured it out over Adrianna. Two feet from her, it hit an invisible ward and slid off in a curve towards the floor. “She must have made the whole trip all at once.”

Hirrush nodded. He and Omarr worked closely together, but neither had seen the point in duplicating their knowledge. Hirrush had cobbled together the ritual for moving between the realms, while Omarr was the one that had unearthed the spell to ward against water — one that they’d routinely used in their life before Henry. “What do we do?”

“Treat the symptoms,” said Omarr. He patted the goat on its flank. “Sorry old friend, but this is a time of need.” He looked to Hirrush. “We’ll likely need more, if we want her to stand a chance at a decent life afterwards. A half dozen chickens, a human femur, and blood from one of us. Best to do it when the damage is fresh.”

Hirrush nodded a second time. “I’d be willing to give far more for her, even if we didn’t need to know what went wrong.”


Adrianna woke up to a spoon pressing against her face. She shook her head slightly, and felt the world shifting around her.

“He likes you,” said a boy’s small voice. He sounded very far away. Adrianna opened her eyes, and had to blink a few times before Henry came into focus. Right next to her face was a collection of silverware and a chipped teacup, which were moving of their own accord.

“Don’t move around,” said Omarr. “You’re going to need some time to recover.”

Adrianna looked around the room. Omarr and Hirrush were both there, and next to Henry was a small girl. She nearly laughed at the absurdity of seeing the princess of Donkerk sitting in the dark wizards’ cabin. Instead she coughed, and tasted blood.

“You need to tell us what happened,” said Omarr. He leaned down next to her and held her hand.

“The oathkeepers came for me,” said Adrianna. Her voice croaked. “The anchors weren’t anchors at all. They were pockets of air. I should have realized, but I’d never even been on a boat before.” She breathed in, and her chest felt tight. “All that gold is sitting on the ocean floor now. Maybe they even grabbed it back.”

Hirrush stepped to the side and gestured towards the table. “Not all of it, anyway.” The two gold bars she’d grabbed sat side by side. She had nearly forgotten about them. The whole fight was a blur.

“I had claws,” she said. “I put up a ward. They were pounding away at it, and I kept slicing through their skin, but they just didn’t stop. They must have been holding their breath the whole time, but they didn’t seem to care. They only wanted me dead.”

Omarr and Hirrush looked at each other. “Did they get a good look at your face?” asked Hirrsuh.

“No,” said Adrianna. “I don’t know. It was cold and dark down there.” She looked back and forth between the two of them, trying to ignore the children. “I’m not going back to the capital though. They won’t expect us to be so far away. They won’t come looking.”

“Hrm,” said Omarr. “No one needs you to. Those two bars, melted down, sold off to the right people … it will be enough.”

“Enough,” said Hirrush. “And it would be worth it to make another trip down to see whether they recovered the rest.”

“I have the other tooth,” said Adrianna. She reached for her vest and realized that she was wearing different clothes. The thought of the two dark wizards undressing her brought a brief, irrational shame that she worked hard to suppress. All three of them had seen enough bodies to know better. They had almost certainly saved her life. If she’d gone with her first instinct and pushed through the shadows to her own house instead of theirs, she would have died. “How long was I out?”

“The better part of a day,” said Omarr. “We need to get this one home,” he said slowly, gesturing towards Sofia. She looked at him with a small, unhappy frown. “Enough playing with fire.”

“Can Henry come with me?” asked Sofia.

Henry smiled. “I’m her knight,” he said with a look towards his fathers. “When Sofia is the queen, I’m going to have a castle all of my own.”

“We’ll talk about it,” said Omarr. “For now, how about a cup of tea for all of us?”


Ibrahim strode down the corridors of the castle, listening to the clicking of his heels against the flagstones. He preferred the indirect routes that had little traffic, most of the time. Mentalists were rare, and there were all sorts of rumors about what they could do, enough so that he got frightened glances from commoners he passed by. He had done nothing to correct the public perception of him, though he had at least spoken with the sages enough that they wouldn’t make unreasonable demands of him. In the wild fantasies of the commonfolk, the royal mentalist was capable of scooping out a person’s mind and replacing it with his own, or laying bare all of their secrets while engaged in casual conversation. The last thing that he needed was for the king to ask him to do any of those astonishing feats.

Sofia had been discovered wandering the corridors of the castle just after dawn, rubbing her eyes and stretching out like she hadn’t been missing at all. She had been hugged by her father, seen to by the royal physicians, and now it was time for him to delve into her head and see what could be extracted. The princess seemed to remember nothing of the missing five days, but it was unclear whether this was some unknown form of dark magic, the result of some alchemical concoction, or whether the memories had simply been repressed. It was his job to find out which it was, and if possible, give the king’s men a trail to follow. He hadn’t heard the full story, but something had gone wrong with the ransom.

“Do not touch her mind,” said King Aldric, in the voice of command that was utterly unique to the Boreal Crown. It seemed to press down on a person, and compel obedience. The effect was easy enough to recognize and shrug off, even for someone without decades of practice in controlling his own mind, but Ibrahim let himself feel it. He had no pretensions towards altering the child’s mind in any way. “Go inside. Look carefully. But change nothing.” Ibrahim nodded.

They were in a room next to Sofia’s bedroom, with a thick stone wall between them. Material provided no resistance to mentalism, though distance did. It would have been easier to make the connection if he had been allowed to administer a sedative, but he hadn’t dared to ask the king. Instead, Ibrahim sat down in a stuffed chair that had been prepared for him, closed his eyes, and entered his mindscape.

It was an enormous structure composed of crystal, the whole of it suspended in a rounded glass bottle that tumbled through the stars. He stood in the entryway only briefly, then teleported himself into the viewing room. The room was a crutch, but a convenient one that he had never quite gotten rid of. The king was easy enough to see, and the oathkeepers that swarmed all around them. The view gave little in the way of direction or distance, but it was possible to probe at the connection and make a guess at relative location. Ibrahim checked each mind in turn until he found that of the princess, a small mind that was still growing, not yet set in its ways. Ibrahim pushed against it, feeling less resistance than there should have been, and stepped onto the deck of a ship at sea.

His thoughtform was waiting for him. He had planted it just after she had learned to speak. Though he had told the king that it was to provide a defense against other mentalists, in truth the defense was so minor that it was hardly worth the effort. He had read, in one of the many books he had purchased with the king’s money, that an early thoughtform would have a subtle effect on alignment as time went on, and since there was no downside — and because he was concerned above all with his security — he had made it a point to plant one in each of the royal children, after securing the permission of the king.

The thoughtform walked towards him, a faint smile on his face. It wasn’t him, not exactly, only a construct, but -

The thoughtform manifested a blade when he was only feet away, and swung it upward into Ibrahim’s belly. He looked at it in shock, with his eyes wide, but when the thoughtform stabbed him a second time, Ibrahim snapped from his inaction and caught it by the wrist before it could make a third cut. The cuts had gone deep, and he sealed them slowly as he held the thoughtform in place. It used its spare hand to draw another blade from the air, but Ibrahim was ready, and caught this one too. The thoughtform clenched its teeth, but it was an imagining placed in the mind of a five-year-old girl, and weak enough that it was no real challenge.

“Who are you?” asked Ibrahim. The thoughtform said nothing. Ibrahim spit up blood, which wasn’t a good sign. The wound was by no means mortal — hardly any were within a mindscape — but it would take weeks of meditation to stop from feeling a pain in his gut. It the traitor had gone for his neck, it would have been even longer. “Who are you!” shouted Ibrahim. When there was again no response, Ibrahim reached out with his will and crushed the thoughtform.

Someone had been in Sofia’s mind. It was a worrisome thought. Ibrahim clutched at his stomach for a long moment. The wounds had sealed shut, and he was certain that his flesh would be unblemished, but the phantom pain was strong, and it would linger. He shook it off, straightened up, and went to go see what damage had been done.


“She had memories removed, my lord,” said Ibrahim. “It was a skilled mentalist. There are few enough of them in Donkerk, but I know of none with the capability to do this — at least, none which are not above reproach. The mentalist in question might have done more, but it’s difficult to say. Mental manipulation can be a subtle thing. I would not be able to accomplish much within a span of five days, even with unfettered access, but while I can claim to be the most proficient mentalist that I know, I cannot claim that I know all mentalists.”

“A mentalist and a dark witch,” said King Aldric with a frown. “I can only pray that these forces arranged themselves in pursuit of my gold, and not for some other, more foul purpose.”

“The princess is returned,” said the sage Langauld. “They must have thought it to their advantage to do so. Perhaps they thought that it would deter you from hunting them down.”

“Or perhaps they thought that it would ensure that any future attempts at kidnapping would be met with compliance,” said the sage Baktar. “This kidnapping will be the topic of conversation for weeks to come.”

King Aldric nodded. “We will hunt them,” he said, pushing on the power of the crown to amplify his voice and instill belief in the men around him. “In the meantime, the guard will be doubled around the children. I don’t believe for a moment that whoever has done this is done.”

Yet weeks passed with no progress in tracking down the kidnappers. Hundreds of people were brought in for questioning, and dozens were put to death for committing crimes of dark magic, but there were none who seemed likely to have actually committed the kidnapping itself.

After three months had passed, resources were slowly and quietly removed from the investigation, and the public executions slowed to a stop.

The kidnapping was never quite forgotten. It was a black mark for the king, which he suspected was by design. Sofia did not quite understand what had happened to her, but even after all the fussing over her was done, she seemed to never be too far from an armed guard, and her days of running freely through the castle were at an end. If the utility of having a dark wizard in the royal service had not been lost on the king, the same was true for his son, who kept the book of monsters in his room, where he looked at it often.

Far to the north, Adrianna would ever after walk with a slight limp, and her hearing never quite returned to what it was. She learned only later that she had killed the two oathkeepers, who had seemed so fearsome and invincible when she was fighting them. She thought of them whenever she looked at her missing finger. Hirrush and Omarr gave her more than her share of the gold, but even so, she came by their cottage less frequently, and then spent more of her time with Henry.

Omarr and Hirrush used their gold sparingly, and indulged themselves little. The small spirit that the children had summoned scurried around their feet and made a nuisance of himself.

And for his part, Henry spent the next years feeling lonesome, and thinking of the princess.

The Separate Paths

She knew the names of all of her guards, but she only called them by their nicknames. Walrus had a thick mustache, and Egg was completely bald. Leech was pale, like the blood had been drained from his face, and Cyclops had a scar across one eye, though he could see with both. One of them she called Firewood, though she never explained it, and took a perverse pleasure in imagining him trying to figure it out and being unable to ask. He was one of the ones who had taken an Oath of Silence.

Aside from her guards, who took shifts watching over her, Sofia had two handmaidens, and though they had vehemently denied it, she had a strong suspicion that they were Foresworn Sisters. The Sisters weren’t generally known as warriors, because their order focused more on service and sacrifice for the greater good, but everyone knew that in a pinch they were nearly as capable as their brothers from the rectory. It would have been just like her father to recruit them to watch over her, so that she had an extra layer of protection. No doubt her ladies-in-waiting would one day fall into formation in perfect fighting stances.

“After I finish mathematics I’m going out of the castle,” Sofia declared.

“Very well, my lady,” said Brunhilda, the taller of the two. She had large hands for a woman, and when she brushed Sofia’s hair it was always just a bit painful. She was younger than her demeanor would have suggested.

“Where are we going, my lady?” asked Lacy. She was only twenty years old, and far more timid than Brunhilda. Of the two ladies-in-waiting, she was by far Sofia’s favorite.

“I haven’t decided,” said Sofia. “Some place with lots of people.” From the corner of her eye, she thought she saw Walrus form a frown beneath his thick mustache. Two weeks ago she had made a desperate plea to her father, and he had softened somewhat and relented. Sofia was allowed out of the castle so long as she tended to her education, and so long as she was back before nightfall, and so long as she promised not to try to evade her guards, as though that was even possible. This would be the first time testing that freedom.

Sofia’s hair now fell to the small of her back, and Brunhilda braided it expertly. While Sofia sat with her hands in her lap and gave serious thought to the matter of escape. Ever since she had been kidnapped, her father had kept her closely watched. Her memories of the kidnapping had been erased by the kidnappers, but though they’d never been found, she had trouble taking the whole thing seriously. Yes, being snatched up and missing five days of time was objectively terrifying, but when faced with what her father had imposed on her — a life with few friends and not even the least bit of privacy, she couldn’t help but think that he was overreacting. The kidnapping had been six years ago, and she’d lived more years after it than before it. Her memories of having free reign of the castle were indistinct, but she yearned for that time all the same. It seemed unfair that something that happened when she was only five would define her life so much.

Mathematics was the day’s lesson, and it was taught by a sage with a nose so large that it was a distraction. Sofia was good at math, but never felt much pressure to try that hard. Her father was of the opinion that mathematics was important to know, but also that it was work that was best left to the sages on a day-to-day basis. Sofia would never be queen unless something happened to her brother Rowan, but their father seemed intent on training them both all the same. Rowan was worse at math, but better at nearly every other subject, though he was three years older, and so comparisons weren’t really fair.

When mathematics was finished, Sofia changed into a dress that was more suited for walking among the masses. She selected a long blue one, and a circlet to sit on top of her head that held a smattering of small sapphires to match. When she walked through the castles, her guards and her handmaidens surrounded her, careful not to get so close as to touch her. It was sometimes fun to change direction at the last moment and watch them scramble to reposition themselves, but Sofia would often catch a hurt look that made her feel bad afterward.

They left out the eastern gate, over the wide bridge that connected the castle to the eastern side of the city.

“Still no destination in mind, my lady?” asked Lacy. “I’ve heard that the flower market is nice this time of year, though I’ve never been myself.”

“I want to see a spirit,” said Sofia. “Or at least magic of some kind.” Her guards and handmaidens exchanged looks, and Sofia nearly snapped at them for it.

“There’s a teahouse not far from here, my lady,” said Lacy. “The house spirit is the size of a bear, I’m told, made of old fabrics from when the place belonged to a clothier. He’s quite friendly.”

Sofia frowned, but nodded anyway. It was the best that she was going to get. What she really wanted was a proper adventure, but that was impossible with four armed men in tow, let alone those with the seven-pointed stars emblazoned on their chest. She had long ago decided that oathkeepers weren’t any fun.

The teahouse was a tall structure that sat near the edge of the sprawling docks on the eastern side of the city. Even as they stepped through the front doors, the sweet, grassy smell of tea flooded into Sofia’s nostrils. It wasn’t the drink of choice within the castle, but she’d long had an affection for it. The teahouse had high ceilings and crowded tables, and there was a hum of conversation that nearly stopped when they stepped through the doors, only to start again at increased volume. People were staring at them — at Sofia in particular.

A short woman in a loose-fitting dress came rushing over to them, smiling wide.

“My name is Madame Merringer, and you could only be the princess herself, come down from the castle!” said the woman with an exaggerated bow. “Are you here to try a sampling of our teas? We have them in all colors, varieties and flavors from around the world, with milk or sugar to adulterate them to your tastes.”

“I’m here to see your spirit,” said Sofia.

“Ah,” said Merringer. Her face faltered momentarily. “We’ve given him a room all of his own upstairs, but of course you’re welcome to see him.”

“I’ll have a tea up there, if you don’t mind,” said Sofia in her most grown-up voice. “Something with mint in it.” If she had known where the room was, she would have started walking towards it with her head held high, but since she didn’t, she was at the mercy of the woman, and holding her head high was far less impressive.

“One moment, my lady,” said Walrus, with his mustache twitching from side to side. “Is it dangerous?”

“Dangerous?” asked the woman.

“Is the spirit malevolent,” asked Walrus. “Is there any risk?”

“N-no,” said Merringer. She seemed taken aback. “And if there were any risk, you can be certain that I wouldn’t allow the princess near it.”

Walrus nodded, and that was that.

The room that had been reserved for the spirit was only large enough for a small study, but it was devoid of any furniture. That was quickly rectified as workers brought in a chair and a small table for her, but Sofia’s attention was drawn to the large pile of cloth in the corner. A steaming cup of tea was set on the table beside her, and she favored the server with a small bow, then sat down. She tried her best to ignore the fact that she was being watched.

“Good afternoon,” she said to the spirit. It moved a head made of strips of cloth in her direction. The spirit had no discernible eyes, but she could tell that it was looking at her. Sofia took a sip of her tea, and breathed in the vapors. She turned marginally to where the shop owner was standing. “What are its qualities?”

“Qualities?” asked Merringer. She seemed unsure of herself, which was no surprise. Few in the kingdom knew how to deal with a princess, or royalty in general. Sofia tried to ignore the fact that Merringer wasn’t addressing her with the proper title — the woman didn’t know any better, and titles didn’t matter anyway.

“Does it speak?” asked Sofia.

“I — I wasn’t aware that spirits were capable of that,” said Merringer. “He makes noises, sometimes. Rasping noises.”

“There was a spirit in the North Woods that spoke,” said Sofia. “It was nonsense poetry that didn’t quite rhyme.” She looked at the house spirit in front of her. “He’s sad.”

“Sad?” asked Lacy. “My lady, -”

“Sad,” repeated Sofia. “He doesn’t want to be in this room.”

Everyone in the room was silent. Sofia was thinking, and the silence distracted her, mostly because she could readily imagine what the others were thinking. In a way, it was like having their thoughts in her head, talking over her. “Walrus, can you and the others leave me alone?” she asked.

“No, my lady,” replied Walrus. “I am bound by your father’s orders.”

Sofia nodded. She’d expected as much. She’d learned the exact wording that her father had used, but it was a wording that had been constructed by the sages, and there was no obvious way around it. Arguing with the oathkeepers had not produced results in the past. There weren’t many stories where oathkeepers were the villains, but in them, the hero always turned the oath against the oathkeeper. That didn’t work in real life. So instead Sofia tried to pretend that she was all alone.

The spirit was sad. It seemed obvious to her. And he didn’t want to be in the room. He was big, for a house spirit, and Sofia could see how that would cause problems. He wouldn’t be able to move around down where all the people were without bumping into chairs and tables, which was probably why he’d been given a room to be alone in. But he was a spirit of the teahouse, intrinsically tied to the place. He didn’t want a room for his own, because the whole of the teahouse was his. Yet now he was a nuisance to the owner, and that couldn’t have made him feel very good. From what her tutors had told her, spirits didn’t have conventional feelings or intelligence as such, but Sofia wasn’t sure that she believed that.

She took another sip of her tea, then stood up and began walking to towards the spirit. She could hear the oathkeepers stirring behind her, but they said nothing. They would wait until she got too close for comfort. Merringer had said that the spirit wasn’t dangerous, but spirits weren’t always the most predictable things.

“Why are you made of cloth?” asked Sofia. She looked at the scraps that made up its bulk, and the buttons that were affixed in seemingly random places. “It made sense, when this was a shop of cloth, but you’re a teahouse spirit now.”

The spirit responded by lifting its head and letting out a rasping sound.

“I see,” said Sofia, though of course she couldn’t understand the spirit at all. “And I’m sure that it was. But times change, and buildings change, and holding onto the past isn’t good for you.” She crept closer to it.

“My lady -” came Walrus’s rough voice. She heard him moving, though not with the lightning speed that the oathkeepers were known for.

“Just a moment,” said Sofia. “I think I’m getting somewhere.” She held her hand out, only a few feet from the spirit now. “It’s okay.”

The spirit moved forward, revealing a surprisingly long neck, and sniffed at her hand. It rasped some more, almost making a snuffling sound. Then it opened its toothless maw, and bit her. Sofia tried her best not to react, and the fact that her oathkeepers weren’t moving seemed to indicate that she was successful at that, but it hurt enough to bring tears to her eyes. There were, she was fairly certain, a half dozen needles driven into her hand. If she tried to pull away, or gave some sign of distress, the oathkeepers would come forward and hurt the spirit, and that would just make things worse. You couldn’t kill spirits, not really, and if you tore apart their body they would come back fearsome and angry. Sofia was fairly certain that they wouldn’t be able to lock the second form of this spirit in a room.

“Are you alright, my lady?” asked Walrus.

“Yes,” said Sofia, hoping that her voice wouldn’t give her away. “Everything’s good. We’re calm, aren’t we?” This last was directed at the spirit, which gave no response. Sofia was fairly sure that her hand was bleeding, but that strangely didn’t seem to matter too much. “You just can’t be made of cloth anymore,” she said to the spirit. “You need to be a teahouse spirit.”

The spirit shook its head from side to side, moving her hand with it. Sofia bit her lip to keep from crying out, but she wasn’t entirely successful, and a small noise of pain escaped. The oathkeepers rushed in at once, by her side in an instant, and the pried the spirit’s mouth open. The moment her hand was free, Walrus lifted her up like she were nothing more than a doll and carried her from the room.

“Let me go!” screamed Sofia.

Walrus clamped his hand down over her mouth. He tasted salty. “My lady, it wouldn’t do to make a scene. We’re going back to the castle with all due haste, and it is your choice whether to cause a scandal or go of your own free will.” He removed his hand slowly. His hard eyes were watching her closely, waiting to see how she would react.

“I was going to solve it,” said Sofia. “I was going to make him happy again.”

Walrus shook his head. “You’ll have to speak on the matter with your father, my lady,” he said. He looked down at her hand, where blood was trickling down to her fingertips. Sofia held it out away from herself, trying to keep from getting any on her dress. “He’ll want to have words. With the both of us, I imagine.”

When Sofia returned to the castle, her father yelled at her for risking her life, then told her about the prophecy.


“Delland has Fallen,” said Rector Longhew.

The words took a moment to make their full impact felt. Ventor hadn’t spoken with Delland in years, in part because of his permanent position as guard to the prince gave him little time for socialization. It had been two full decades since Ventor had been collared by Delland in the crowded city streets. There had been a time when he’d foolishly thought of Delland as a father figure, or at least a close mentor. And now the man had broken his oaths. Ventor spoke quietly with the other guards and slipped away. So long as the prince was going to stay within the castle reading his books, as it seemed would be the case today, it was within the bounds of the king’s instructions for Ventor to slip away for something important.

It took half an hour to reach the High Rectory. The building was practically a castle in its own right, though it hadn’t been built with defense in mind. The inner courtyard was accessible from two large arched corridors, each of which was built wide enough that two oxen could pass by each other. The edifice was a gray marble that had been quarried from high in the mountains to the west. The upper levels were made with thick timbers, most of which had been part of the building for longer than they had been part of a tree; Ventor had been tasked with replacing a few of them when he had been a lesser oathkeeper. Ventor had looked on the Rectory with wonder as a child, and lived in it with unhappiness as an initiate, but now it was simply a fact of his life — the seat of power for the oathkeepers, run by his brethren, but immutable and uninteresting for all that.

He found Delland in an opulently furnished room, eating grapes, cheeses, and cured meats from an earthenware platter. The man was nearly eighty years old, and his face was creased with wrinkles. Delland drank from a jug of wine without bothering to use a mug. The Strangheid Armor sat in pieces on the padded lounger beside him.

“Why?” asked Ventor.

Delland looked at him with unfocused eyes. “Rector Ventor? Come to shame me?”

“No,” said Ventor. “Only to understand, so such a fate does not befall me.” Ventor stood with perfect posture by the door, not wanting to get too close.

“Or is it that you wanted?” asked Delland, gesturing to the Strangheid.

“It’s not for me to take,” said Ventor evenly. “The council will decide.”

Delland lifted up a strip of smoked lamb like it was the first time he’d seen such a thing then plopped it into his mouth and closed his eyes as he chewed. “You want only to know why?” asked Delland. “Why a man would throw away the oaths that he made when he was ten years old?” He took another swing of dark red wine. “Do you ever think we take them too young?”

Ventor had been seven years old when he was caught stealing a piece of candy from a corner store. It was a fluffy bar made of egg whites and sugar, and he had thought he’d gotten away with it until a hand grabbed him by his shirt and lifted him up into the air. Ventor was twisted around to face an immensely tall man with a neatly trimmed gray mustache. The man was wearing full plate armor that was a tawny brown. It reflected the overhead sun.

“I am Rector Delland,” the man declared. “What is your name?”

“You ain’t a ‘keeper,” said Ventor. His fear had quickly turned to anger. He’d dropped the candy. He pointed to the armored chest. “No star.”

Rector Delland smiled. “I’ll tell you what. We’ll go back and pay for this candy, and then I’ll buy you a bowl of soup. A young boy can’t live on candy alone.” Delland held up the candy bar, which he must have snatched from the air right when Ventor had let go of it. That was Ventor’s first hint of the old oathkeeper’s speed, and the only reason he didn’t try his luck with running.

Delland had given money to Ventor to pay for the candy, and made Ventor apologize, and afterward Delland had bought Ventor a bowl of soup and sat down at a table with him. People kept looking at them, but Delland didn’t seem to mind. Ventor ate half of the soup and all of the trencher that had come with it before he broke the silence.

“You ain’t eating?” he asked. Ventor had been waiting for some change in mood, or for Delland to push the whole bowl into his face. His experience with adults had taught him to beware of kindness. He wasn’t an orphan, but he was as close to one as a child in the capital could be. His father had died in some far off war that Donkerk wasn’t even a part of, and his mother never-ending line of drunken suitors which compelled him to stay out of the house.

“I don’t eat,” said Delland.

Ventor sucked grease off his spoon. “Not ever?” he asked after a time.

“Never,” said Delland with an upturned smile. “I’ve taken an Oath.” He thumped at his breastplate with a closed fist. “This armor gives me all the sustenance I need.” Delland leaned forward with a twinkle in his eyes, and lowered his voice into a conspiratorial whisper. “It’s magic.”

Ventor’s eyes went wide. “Dark magic?”

Delland’s laughter was a booming, exaggerated thing that drew looks from everyone that wasn’t already watching them. “No,” he said with a wide smile. “No, the Strangheid was a spirit once, one that took a liking to people so much that he decided he wanted to protect them. Now I wear it, to protect the people and see the armor serve its purpose.”

It was the bowl of soup and the promise of steady meals that drew Ventor into the rectory, but it had been Delland who gave him the will to see it through, and by the time Ventor had taken his first oath four years later, he had become an oathkeeper in the truest sense.

Now Delland was sitting in front of him, eating food while Ventor looked on. Now it was Delland who was the wretch, and Ventor the oathkeeper.

“Too young,” said Delland. “Too young, too young.” He had a pickled meat in his mouth. “You wanted to know why? Well, I’ll tell you. The seeds of doubt were planted years ago. There was a young girl — the pretty kind they like for testing vows. A whore in maiden’s clothing. She was brazen, I’ll tell you. She had wide hips and a — you know, there was never any prohibition on cursing, but it’s been decades since I’ve done it all the same — an ass that your eyes couldn’t help but track. Perhaps she thought that because I was an oathkeeper, and an old one, that I was someone safe, someone that she could practice her wiles on without fear of rejection or untoward advances. Or perhaps I simply imagined it all, and she was only a serving girl a quarter my age who was drawn in by the allure of the forbidden. I didn’t do anything. I let her taunt and tease me. The power of the oaths comes from going contrary to our desires, and inflaming the desires could only make me stronger. So I thought.”

Delland had kept drinking the wine, and even though it was likely watered, he’d become less coherent even since Ventor had entered the room. The Strangheid was one of a kind, a suit of full plate that kept the body strong without need for food or drink, but while it removed the need, it didn’t remove the desire. Though the wearer of the Strangheid would be as fit and healthy as if he were getting his daily meals, he always felt on the edge of starvation and dehydration. Delland had taken an Oath never to remove the armor, never to willingly imbibe even a drop of water, or snack on even a small morsel of food. He’d gone some sixty years without wine, and now he was trying to make up for the lost time all at once.

“She leaned towards me one day,” said Delland. “And she whispered in my ear that when it was time for me to take my armor off, she would bed me.” Delland gave a hollow laugh and popped a dried apricot into his mouth. “And you know, I still don’t know whether she was just saying that to say it, or because she had a misunderstanding about the fact that service is unto death, but it didn’t matter. It got me thinking about all the things that I would never do. Never. It’s such a huge word. My first oaths were at ten, and I knew nothing of what I was promising then. I donned the Strangheid at twenty, and if it’s possible, I knew even less then than I did at ten. Never ever.” He laughed. “Never ever ever. Never women, never wine, never lies, never sweets. Never bread, never water. Never remove that armor.” He paused. “That fucking armor.” He shook his head. “I was old, and I thought on those things that I’d never do, how I would die in that fucking armor. Who knows how long I’ll live. Another year? Five? Was I to give every last scrap of my life to the rectory?”

“So you broke your oaths,” said Ventor. “You decided to be selfish, and deprive the rectory of its strongest member.”

“I’d been having these thoughts,” said Delland, with his mouth half full. “I kept imaging how easy it would be to break my oaths, in a way that I hadn’t since I was only a boy. Do you know how I broke my oaths? Someone had left a single, solitary grape on their table. I don’t normally go down to the dining hall, but I was feeling nostalgic, and when I saw that grape … well, it all came crashing to a head, and I picked up the grape and ate it. The enormity of what I’d done struck me some minutes afterward. It was all over. Seventy years since my first oath, and sixty of those in the Strangheid, gone just like that.” Delland stood up, nearly knocking over the now-empty pitcher of wine. “And now that I’ve eaten and drank my parting gift, I’m off to find some women. Disgraced oathkeepers are probably not in heavy demand, but I can try my best.”

Delland moved past Ventor, heading for the hallway, but stopped and gestured to where the Strangheid lay in pieces. “That’s yours, by the way.”

“Mine?” asked Ventor. The whole encounter had been a shock, and unspeakably sad, but this truly gave Ventor pause. “The High Rectory -”

“I’m the authority on that armor,” said Delland. “The powers that be have been preparing for my death for ages. I gave your name some years ago. Before me there were false starts, men who couldn’t resist the frantic hunger that comes with the oaths. I told them to go for someone older — someone with long-standing oaths under his belt. I don’t know what they’ll think given recent developments, but I think it likely that you’ll be at the very top of a very short list.”

“Delland,” Ventor began. “You can start over, you don’t need to forsake us completely.” It was a feeble argument, and he knew it. Delland could make his oaths anew, and start right back at the bottom, but when the older brothers had a Fall, they rarely tried to start again. It took so long to gain the power that it hardly seemed worth it.

“I wouldn’t take up the Strangheid, if I were you,” said Delland. He watched Ventor’s face carefully, then moved on out and into the halls.

Ventor looked at the Strangheid. For years he’d wanted to be Delland’s successor, and now that the opportunity had presented itself, the whole thing was soured. Yet if the offer came, Ventor couldn’t imagine that he would say no.


A woman with streaks of gray in her hair made her way down the path from the main road with a young boy in tow. She circled the standing stone twice rightwise and once leftwise with a touch of impatience clear from the way she clutched at the boy’s hand. He was eight years old, but his mouth hung slightly open, and his eyes didn’t seem to focus on the world around him. A thick white scar marked the left side of his head, peeking out from his closely cropped hair. The woman spit to the side as she passed a tall oak tree that sat next to the path. None of what she did made any difference to the wards. She’d already passed through the wards a hundred feet ago. Henry watched this all from the second floor of the cottage using a spyglass.

The woman stopped short of the cottage, and waited with a firm grip on the boy’s wrist. Hirrush stepped out from beneath the eaves had hidden him, and approached the woman and the boy.

“Did Gregory Clarke send you?” asked Hirrush.

The woman furrowed her brow. “How did you know that?”

“A guess,” said Hirrush. “Who are you, and what are you doing on my land?”

“Claire Mortigaine,” said the woman. She nodded to the boy. “My grandson, Nathan. He was kicked in the head a year ago, and hasn’t been right ever since.”

The angle was wrong for him to see it, but Henry could hear by the tone of his father’s voice that he was frowning. “And?”

“I need you to fix him,” said Claire. Her face twisted. “I want you to tell me the cost.”

“I’ve heard there’s a witch near by,” said Hirrush. “If dark magic is what you want, best to seek her out, though I have no idea where she might be.”

“I did,” said the old woman. “Adrianna is a distant relation of mine. She said that her dark magic wasn’t so powerful as all that.”

Hirrush nodded. “What the boy needs is a mentalist. I’m only a humble farmer,” he said, placing his hand on his chest, “But I do know that dark magic is for matters of the body, not matters of the mind. Go find a mentalist. And tell Gregory not to send people my way — it’s liable to start up rumors.”

“The mind sits within the brain, doesn’t it?” asked Claire. “A dark wizard could fix the brain, and the mind would follow.” Her nails were digging into the boy’s wrist, and he let out a soft moan.

“Again,” said Hirrush, with a kindness that Henry didn’t expect. “I don’t know anything about such matters.”

“Lies,” spat the woman.

“The royal mentalist can handle cases such as this,” said Hirrush with tight lips. “Or go north, to the citadel of the Foresworn Sisters. There are a handful of others around the kingdom that might be able to do as much as those two, if you don’t like those options.”

“I was told that to get the attention of the royal mentalist requires a great deal of time to wait your turn, or a great deal of money to skip ahead,” said Claire. “I don’t imagine that it’s much better at the Citadel, only with less work to be found. I have more than my fair share of material possessions, but compared to the nobility or the merchants it’s nothing. If you turn me down … well, maybe I do make my way down to the capital with my grandson in tow. Then I put in a request for the mentalist’s time, and I waste my savings on room and board while I wait on the man to get round to me. And for all the weeks, months, or even years that would take, maybe the mentalist takes one peek inside my grandson’s head and says he can’t help. Or worse, that he could, but it would take too much of his precious time. How likely does that sound to you?”

“Likely,” said Hirrush.

Her blue-gray eyes were hard. “His father, my son, died four years back. I had four other children, but two died in childhood and two were taken by the monasteries. Nathan was my son’s only child, and Nathan’s mother passed shortly after he was born. He was left to me. He’s the only chance remaining for my late husband’s family line to continue. I’d pay a high price to have him whole again.” She stared at Hirrush. “A very high price.”

Hirrush nodded. “All the same. I’m not your man.”

Claire had a pained look on her face, but turned away from Hirrush and pulled the boy with her, heading back up the path. Hirrush stood and watched them for a long time, even after they were out of sight, and Henry in turn watched Hirrush. Eventually Omarr came out and put his hand on Hirrush’s shoulder. Their backs were to Henry, which made reading their faces hard, but it was quite enough that they were easy to hear.

“I listened,” said Omarr. “Is this something we can do with dark magic?”

“No,” said Hirrush.

“Does this woman represent a threat to us?” asked Omarr.

“Adrianna aside, there are six people that know about us,” said Hirrush. “None that know enough of the truth to get us killed. Adrianna is our canary in the coal mine, grim as that is. If the rectors come charging in, they’ll go after her first.” He clucked his tongue. “Six, and now seven. Eight, if you count her boy.”

“But is she a threat?” asked Omarr.

“Yes,” said Hirrush. “She’s desperate, and she thinks that we can help. And she’s right, but for the wrong reasons.” He sighed. “Dammit.”

“Talk to me,” said Omarr with a calm voice. “Is there any way that we can make this happen? What’s the cost to us?”

“I could do it,” said Hirrush. “Depending on what’s going on in the boy’s mind, it might take as much as a month. Maybe more.” He ran his fingers through his lanky hair. “And I wouldn’t be able to come up for air, not with the headaches. The last time was with the princess, and going in twice in the span of two days nearly killed me. You’d have to take care of me, feed me broth, change my clothes, all that sort of thing.”

“I don’t mind taking care of you,” said Omarr.

“There are other considerations,” said Hirrush. He rubbed his forehead. “We can’t have anyone knowing I’m a mentalist. Ibrahim isn’t looking for me, but if word managed to reach him about a mentalist skilled enough to reconstruct a simpleton’s mind, he would come looking. You and I together could probably kill him if he came alone, but there’s no chance that he would do that. He’s a cautious man.”

“We could rob the woman of her memories?” asked Omarr, but Hirrush was already shaking his head.

“Doable, if I were in better shape, and we were clever enough about it,” said Hirrush. “But there’d need to be some reason for the grandson to be gone, some plausible explanation that wouldn’t cause her to panic, and if we were going to go that far, we’d be better off just using the plausible explanation and not mucking about in her mind.”

“Use dark magic,” called Henry from the window.

They both turned backwards to look at him. “When did we raise such a little eavesdropper?” asked Omarr.

Henry shrugged. “You can’t talk outside and expect me not to hear. Wait a second, I’m coming down.”

He nearly tripped over Chippy, who was pacing back and forth in front of the door, and took the stairs two at a time down to the first floor. He’d had what he considered a good idea, and his fathers had always rewarded good ideas, even if they turned out to not be so good on closer inspection.

“Use dark magic,” said Henry a second time when he was next to them.

“You heard enough to hear that dark magic can’t do what we want?” asked Hirrush. “It’s possible we could heal the brain, but the mind doesn’t follow so closely as a person might think, especially if the brain’s had time to reorganize itself around an injury. There are people who have survived with whole chunks of brain missing, and healing them would do terrible things to how their mind works, like getting injured all over again.”

“But Mrs. Mortigaine doesn’t know that,” said Henry with a smile. “She already knows that you’re dark wizards, so we could have Nathan stay with us and tell her that it was part of some dark ritual while actually it’s just mentalism.”

Omarr grunted. “Well, that’s certainly a plan. We can talk it over. The important question is whether your father even wants to do it, since he’ll be the one faced with most of the costs.”

Hirrush sighed. “Give me some time to think about it. But right now, I’m leaning towards yes.”


“Vengeful spirits cloak her fragile form,” repeated Sofia. Her father had used his kingly voice, the one granted by the crown. She had lately found it annoying, but she could admit that a prophecy deserved to be said imperiously. “What does it mean?”

“We don’t know,” her father said. “Every one of my sages has heard the prophecy, and each of them has given a different opinion on the matter. Either the spirits will protect you, or they will attack you. Either you’ll be mentally fragile, or physically fragile, or fragile as a result of some horrific injury, or only pretending at being fragile. Every word of that prophecy has been picked apart. We won’t know its true meaning until it happens. But in the meantime, you are to stay away from spirits.”

Sofia frowned. Her father sat in the throne, which she also found annoying. No one else’s father ordered them around from a position of absolute authority. “Fine, your majesty,” she said with a sigh.

“I’m only trying to protect you,” her father said. His voice was gentle. He opened his arms wide. “Come here.”

It had been a long time since she’d sat on her father’s lap, and given the number of people in the throne room, it was highly embarrassing, but Sofia imagined the hurt look on her father’s face, and imagined all of the people in the room seeing that hurt look, and so climbed up to sit on her father’s legs and give him a tight hug. When you were a princess, you had to think about these sorts of things. She tried to be happy being close to him, to take in the sandalwood smell of him and remember being little, but while she was far from being an adult, she wasn’t a child anymore either.

Afterward, she stopped by the library, where — as usual — Rowan was reading. Her entourage mingled with Rowan’s, though eyes and ears were still on them.

“What’s a spirit caller?” she asked him.

Rowan ignored her for a few moments, then flipped a page. He was thirteen years old, and had grown insufferable, with the only consolation being that he spent so much of his time with his nose buried in his books. He finished whatever he was reading and looked up at her.

“I heard you were bitten by a spirit,” said Rowan. He looked at her bandaged hand, and seemed unimpressed. “Father is going to lock you down all the tighter now.”

“Can you at least point me to a book about spirit callers?” asked Sofia.

Rowan let out a sigh. “The spirit callers were a group of people with a close connection to the spiritual realm. There are a lot of stories about them, but they’re all old stories.”

“What kind of stories?” asked Sofia.

“Ridiculous things,” Rowan replied. “They were supposed to be like dark wizards that didn’t need to sacrifice anything, or oathkeepers that didn’t need to keep any oaths. The spirit callers could just tap the power of the spiritual realm directly. If an oathkeeper is worth twenty men in battle, a spirit caller was worth a whole army, because they could just call up the spirit of the battlefield for them, and it would lay waste to all their enemies.” He shrugged. “But probably none of that is true.” He laid a hand on the book in front of him. “Most of the words written in this library aren’t true.”

Sofia leaned forward and looked at the thick book he was reading from. It was difficult to read upside down, but she was able to figure out the word “Neth” and could guess at what her brother was looking at.

“Father said that you shouldn’t be reading those books,” said Sofia.

“It’s not about dark magic,” said Rowan. “He took all those books out of the library. This one is about the Nethian Empire. If only for the sake of actually providing information, it goes into some description of the way that dark magic was used, but it’s not a book about dark magic. You tell him that.” Sofia could tell that was intended more for the guards that were nearby than for her. Rowan had told her to always assume that everything that was said in the presence of the oathkeepers was reported back to him. “Besides, you should be grateful — I’m trying to figure out how it is that the kidnappers took you. I was hoping there was some reference to teleportation in here.” He closed the book and then patted its leather cover. “Unfortunately, it’s a little too clean of a history, written a hundred years after the fall.”

Sofia didn’t care about the kidnapping. If she could have erased that week from everyone else’s mind in the same way that it had been erased from hers, she would have done it almost without hesitation. It was bad enough that their father kept them on a short leash without her brother pretending that he was consumed by the same need to protect her. Of course, Rowan didn’t actually care about her safety, and the enduring mystery of how the kidnapping had been carried out. He only wanted a pretext for studying whatever he liked in the library. He had practically staked out the room for himself.

“I’m going to find some books to read,” said Sofia. She turned back to her handmaidens. “I’ll need a small platter of food. I’m going to be here with my brother for a while.”

She eventually settled on three thick books, A Catalog of the Major Spirits, Tales of the Nethian Spirit Callers, and The Species of Spirits. Though there were two large tables, she staked out a spot right next to her brother, mostly because she knew that it would annoy him.

A half hour later she was close to giving up.

“These books don’t tell me anything,” she huffed. Rowan looked up from his own book, raised an eyebrow, and then kept reading. “I wanted to know why spirits pick their form,” she continued. “Why house spirits are made of people’s things and nature spirits are made of animals. That seems like a thing that should be in a book.”

“It’s not true,” said Rowan mildly. “If you had read Species more closely instead of just flipping through the pages, you would have learned that there are exceptions to every rule. The rules are made up by people, not by the spirits.”

“But that doesn’t explain anything,” grumbled Sofia. She slouched in her chair. “I just wanted to help him.”

“The spirit that bit you?” asked Rowan.

“Yes,” said Sofia. She looked at her bandaged hand. The dressing would need changing soon.

Rowan sighed. “When I’m king, you’re going to have to stop being such a little kid all the time.”

Sofia felt like kicking him, but he was bigger and stronger, so she didn’t. Instead, she open the books back up and tried her best to read all the way through them. She felt confident that it wouldn’t take her long to know what Rowan knew. When she had found out as much about the spirits as she could from the books, she would go seek out another spirit to talk to, and eventually she would find a way to help the teahouse spirit.


Ventor first donned the Strangheid only two days after Delland gave it up. It breathed like a fine cotton and wicked away sweat. After a full day in the armor, Ventor felt cleaner than he did just after a bath. The armor gave a full range of motion, which had puzzled him until he realized that the armor was reactive. It moved and shifted in subtle ways to allow him to draw back a fist or drop into a crouch. The Strangheid had once been a spirit, and still retained some animating intelligence. The armor had fitted to him without any seeming consideration for the fact that Delland was half a foot shorter as Ventor was, with more narrow shoulders. The refitting would have taken a blacksmith weeks. If not for what Ventor was going to give up for it, he would have been ecstatic.

When the day was through, the hunger was worse than the thirst. His stomach didn’t growl, and he didn’t feel weak or trembling — sensations remembered from childhood — but he did feel the craving. It would get worse, with time, an unending hunger without hope for satisfaction. He hadn’t taken the oaths yet, but after the hunger and thirst had reached their peaks, and he knew that he could handle it, Ventor would wrap another chain around himself.

Rector Palin’s room was on the top floor of the High Rectory. He had taken the Oath of Isolation, and so was confined to a box ten feet to a side, but the room itself was much larger than that, enough that he could bring people to him and hold meetings. His box had small ports on it where he could push out a full bedpan or soiled bedding, and take in food, water, paper, pens, and ink. The box itself was without much ornamentation, but the room that it sat in the center of had long ago been used for something else, and it had all the touches of fine craftsmanship that the upper levels of the High Rectory had. Ventor looked out the wide windows at the teeming city streets of the capital, and the numerous plumes of smoke that marked the march of industry.

“Rector Palin,” said Ventor in a loud enough voice to carry through the vents in the box. “I am Rector Ventor. We met some years ago, when I was promoted to the king’s direct service. I stand before you now in the Strangheid, following Rector Delland’s oathbreaking, though I have not yet taken the oaths that accompany the armor. I come here upon the request of the council.”

“Yes, yes,” said the nasal voice within the box. There were very few who recalled what Palin actually looked like — the last time the man had seen open air had been before Ventor was born. “I recall remember our meeting. Delland’s recommendation carried weight, though only because it was made before his failure. His argument was not just for you specifically, but for someone older than he was when he took the Strangheid. Delland and I grew up together, did you know that?”

“No,” replied Ventor.

“We were both orphans,” said Palin. “Long ago.” Ventor could very faintly hear the shuffling of papers. “The primary argument that Palin gave was that the Strangheid comes with oaths that not everyone is capable of carrying out. He put on the armor and said his first oath on the same day, and confessed to us that he had come close to breaking those oaths often within the first few weeks and months. He said that if he had known the costs, he would never have agreed to put on the armor in the first place. I suspect that part of his analysis was tainted by his belief that he wasn’t worthy to wear it, but we agreed that he had a point. Many who have worn the Strangheid have broken their oaths. I have gone through the numbers here, and of the forty-six men to have put it on, twenty-eight broke within the first month, and another twelve within the first year.” Palin cleared his throat. “Of course, there is the question of how much is lost with these broken oaths. Though it is no small thing for someone with two years in our service to break their oaths, it is far more costly to lose a man with twenty years under his belt. At the age of eighteen, you can take your oaths a second time, and begin to build back what was lost. At forty, it’s not so easy as that. How old are you?”

Ventor knew that Palin had the information sitting in front of him. “Forty years old,” he replied.

“Ah,” said Palin. “Well, you see my point. The desires stirred by the Strangheid are some of the most powerful known to the High Rectory, and though you have proven yourself, we need to be sure that we do not lose you to these new oaths.”

“I understand,” said Ventor. “So far I find it tolerable.”

“There are matters to discuss,” said Palin. Again there was a sound of papers being shuffled. “You have taken the Oath of Chastity. Tell me about the women you have been with.”

Ventor felt the hairs stand up on the back of his neck. He wanted to object, or to pretend that he knew nothing, but he had taken the Oath of Honesty. The castle had spies and peddlers of information to keep the king informed of matters his subjects might want to keep hidden, but the High Rectory had no need for that. The oath allowed him to demur, but there were ways for them to punish him for it, the first of which was taking the armor from him. “There have been three,” said Ventor. “Sister Clarice was the first, in Leshampur, ten years ago. It ended when I was commanded to return home. A few months later there was Sister Landain, here in the capital. That lasted for two years, before she took a more restrictive oath which required more modesty on her part. A year afterward there was Sister Primrose, and that arrangement lasted for eight months before she ended it.” He cleared his throat. “In none of these cases have I broken my Oath of Chastity.”

He was worried that Rector Palin would ask him for specifics, to enumerate acts and times, but the question he asked instead cut even closer to his core. “Which of them did you love?”

“Sister Clarice,” said Ventor, trying his best not to hesitate. It was curious how much the desire to lie and conceal remained, despite the years he’d kept his oath of truth. “Only her.”

“Hrm,” said Palin from within his box. “I have not experienced human touch since taking the Oath of Isolation. Wearing the Strangheid is a lesser fate in that respect, but it does bear consideration. Your hands are bare, and the Strangheid does not come with a helm, but that is all the touch you will be allowed. You will never feel a hand on your chest, or a kiss on your collarbone.”

Ventor swallowed. That was too specific — perhaps the High Rectory had looked into his background. The very last thing that Sister Primrose had done was to plant a kiss on his collarbone. She had asked him to break his vows, and he had refused. It had taken him a long to time realize that he had loved Clarice, and practically no time at all to realize that he didn’t love Primrose. The Strangheid represented an end to dalliances with the opposite gender, but he had already brought an end to those on his own.

“Do you understand, Rector Ventor?” asked Palin.

“I understand,” said Ventor. “And I feel myself ready.”

Three days later, with the hunger clawing at him like a wild animal, Ventor took his oaths, and consigned himself forever to the embrace of the Strangheid.


Nathan was the most boring person that Henry could imagine, which wasn’t terribly kind, but true all the same. He couldn’t really speak, only say single words, usually while pointing, and he didn’t like to play. The first day that Nathan had come to the cottage, Henry had tried his best to engage him, but that hadn’t worked at all. He’d then made the mistake of complaining to Omarr, who had given him a long lecture on how it probably wasn’t Nathan’s fault that he got kicked in the head, and even if it had been his fault, he would still deserve compassion, no matter how boring he was to be around, or how much work was involved in tending to him.

“It’s nearly noon,” said Omarr. “Time to see what your father is up to.”

Henry had been reading a book on the varieties of spirits, but dutifully put it down and went over to the living room. Hirrush laid on a mattress that they’d moved there, while Nathan sat upright in a chair, not seeming to mind at all. They’d given him a tea to make him sleep for the initial breach, but that wasn’t a solution that they could employ for the full month it would take to reshape his mind.

Henry closed his eyes, slowed his breathing, and after a few minutes of focusing, stepped into his mindscape.

Henry had first started training when he was seven years old, and Hirrush had seemed a little put out by how easily Henry had accomplished that first step. From then on, Henry had daily lessons on mentalism from his father, and was slowly becoming respectable at it, though there were a large number of techniques that he hadn’t been able to do even once, let alone master. Mentalism took both training and aptitude, and while Hirrush was hopeful, it was more likely than not that Henry would simply run into barriers that he’d never be able to surpass.

Henry’s mindscape was a small cabin which sat on top of an island, and the island in turn rested in the center of a small lake. Beyond the lake were fir trees, but Hirrush called that area of the mindscape the fringe, and had said that it held no real meaning as far as the mind was concerned. Henry hadn’t yet swam out there to go exploring, but some day he would. Hirrush had told him that he’d be disappointed, and Henry had tried to accept that. The cabin itself was the focus on the mindscape. It was made of thick logs which had been expertly cut to fit together, and every wall had at least one window that looked out onto the lake. Inside, it was small and cozy, with a fireplace that seemed to burn forever and chairs that had been hewn out of trees by someone with an ax and desire for somewhere to sit. There were two basements stacked on top of each other below the cabin, but those had been added in later as a concession to the practicalities of a budding mentalist.

Hirrush was waiting for him, leaning against the front door. His father was taller in the mental realm, with hair that was a bit shorter and more cleanly cut. Changing form was relatively easy — even Henry could do it — but Hirrush was only slightly different from how he appeared in the physical world. Henry wondered whether his father even realized he’d made changes. He probably did. The more that Henry read, the more he realized that his father was at the very top tier of mentalists, crippling headaches aside.

“There are clouds hanging in the sky,” said Hirrush. “It’s not threatening to rain, but it’s colder than you might expect. The winds are slow but biting. What does that tell you?”

Henry looked up. Weather was usually associated with mood, and normally his mindscape had a bright blue sky dotted with fluffy white clouds. Lately it had been like this. “I don’t know,” said Henry. “I know what I’m feeling, but I don’t know how you’d read that from the weather.”

“You didn’t even try,” said Hirrush with a frown. “But that’s alright. Do you want me to change it, or do you want to try yourself?”

“I can try,” said Henry. He turned his head to the sky, and closed his eyes. Mentalism was an art of sorts, and for Henry it helped to close his eyes. Hirrush had said that was a crutch that would need to be removed, but at least he didn’t say anything as Henry worked. The trick was to picture the change that you wanted to see, and impose it on the mental realm. Henry pictured a cloudless sky, with the sun beating down, and warm weather to replace the chill. When he opened his eyes, the gray blanket of cloud cover was sliding apart to reveal blue sky and a yellow sun, brightening the lichen covered rock that the cabin was built on. Almost immediately, Henry felt better — the boredom and loneliness had been cleared away, and the lingering sadness that Henry had barely even recognized had gone with it.

“Better?” asked Hirrush.

“Yes,” said Henry. It wouldn’t last, not without fixing the underlying problems, but he did feel better. “We miss you.”

“That’s not all though,” said Hirrush. “This cursed injury … if I had been in your mind on a regular basis, I would have seen it earlier. Or even if I was a better parent, I suppose. You need friends. You need socialization, more than just me and your father.”

“I’m sorry,” said Henry. “Can you fix it?”

“It will have to wait until I’m out,” said Hirrush. “I’m sorry, but this is taking my full attention for the time being. You can talk to your father and see what he says about the matter, but he’s stuck taking care of both me and Nathan. It’s known that we’re caring for a child, and we’ve spread around the story that you’re a distant relation of Omarr’s.”

“I meant helping with mentalism,” said Henry. He looked around, at the small copse of trees that grew from the thin layer of soil on his rocky island and the bed of pine needles they had dropped. It was still difficult for him to identify meaning within his mindscape, though Hirrush had been helping.

“Modifying desires is difficult,” said Hirrush. “I’m having to do some of that with Nathan. Would you like to see?”

“Can I?” asked Henry. It might have been his imagination, but the mindscape seemed to get a little brighter.

“I think so,” said Hirrush. “His mind was a mess before, but it’s getting into shape now. The rough work has been done.” He smiled. “Beside that, it will give you a chance to practice breaching.”

Henry’s face fell, and the world dimmed slightly. “I’m tired of trying.”

“Just try once,” said Hirrush. “Then if you can’t make it, I’ll pull you through.”

“Alright,” said Henry. He moved past Hirrush and into the cabin, then opened the trap door to the lower levels. When he’d first managed to make it to the mindscape, the cabin hadn’t had a basement, but when he’d described the place to Hirrush, Hirrush had gotten a number of books down off the shelves and began talking excitedly about what kinds of changes could be made while keeping the mindscape mostly as it was. Changing the mindscape changed the mind, but if the modifications were done properly, it was possible to add on without heavy alterations to how a person thought. Most people weren’t even able to access their mindscape, let alone alter it — Henry was special in that regard.

The first basement had hardwood floors and a bookshelf that stretched all across one wall. There was a useful trick that a mentalist could do to store a book that they’d read into their mindscape. It required only a little more focus while reading. Not all of the books had been perfectly recorded — some had gaps in them, or wordings that weren’t entirely correct, but Henry had a small collection that he’d be able to refer to even when he was far away from the home library. Hirrush had insisted on a number of reference books to start with, and Henry had dutifully slogged through them, which he was now thankful for. If he ever needed to know how to calculate the phases of the moon or the angle of inclination of the stars, he would be able to retreat into his mindscape and consult the books.

Aside from the books, the basement had a number of paintings put up on the walls, which served as a focus for his memories. The mindscape of the uninitiated was a cluttered place, and memories weren’t at all clear, but a mentalist could make their memories more blatant. All of the most important events from the past two years had been crystallized and preserved. A small painting made only a week before would let Henry see in vivid detail the day that Nathan had been brought to their house by his grandmother. There was another, much larger painting of a young girl with red hair, but that one was a reconstruction and not a true memory at all. Henry thought about Sofia more than he probably should have. Hirrush eyed the painting, but said nothing.

The second basement was more of a cellar, with stone walls and a slightly musty smell that reminded Henry of the damp leaves of autumn. One wall was taken up by an inky blackness with three points of light on it. This was his viewing room, a way to visualize the mental realm outside of his own mindscape.

“Think of the mental realm and the physical realm like air and water,” said Hirrush. “The mindscape is like a bubble floating on the surface of the barrier between the realms, projected there by your brain.” He gestured towards the flat blackness and the three points of light. “That large one there is me.” The point of light flared brightly. “The analogy is incomplete, but when you try the breach, I want you to think of two bubbles pressed up against each other, so that there’s only a thin layer between them.”

“Dad, I’ve tried this a dozen times before,” said Henry.

“I tried a thousand times before I got it,” said Hirrush. “And I’m here now to help you. You’re not trying to get to his mind, you’re trying to get to mine. I’m receptive — I’ve weakened the barrier between us. These are the ideal conditions.”

Henry sighed, and held out one hand. The flat image of three points of light was deceptive, in a lot of ways. The mental realm had only a loose relation with the physical realm, and while the viewing room would have him believe that their minds were independent little spheres circling each other lazily, the reality was more like they were pages of a book, each sitting right next to the other. Henry twitched his fingers, feeling at the barrier between his mindscape and Hirrush’s, then Omarr’s, then Nathans, and back to Hirrush again. He stared at the light for a moment, and tried to get a sense of it. The barrier was thin and pliant, and he heard a fair sound like a massive bell being rung several miles in the distance. A master mentalist wouldn’t have had to hold out his hand, or even really think about it, but Henry had tried this often enough to know that he was far from a master.

The first time was an abject failure. He’d pushed hard against the barrier, while keeping his body perfectly still, and got nothing but more and more resistance. Henry kept himself from looking at his father, and tried again, even though he didn’t have to. This time the resistance stopped increasing to match him, but he felt no progress at all, and when he pulled back he felt like he’d been stuck to the barrier somehow, momentarily caught between the mindscapes and only slowly pushed back into basement. On the third time it was nearly effortless. He landed in his father’s mindscape from six inches off the ground and staggered around as he caught his balance.

“Marvelous,” said Hirrush. He had a wide grin on his face. “After the first time it gets much easier. Now come along, I’ll help you with the second breach.”


It was hard to get time alone.

Rowan had three guards, fewer than Sofia. His father was more protective of her, in part because of the kidnapping, but also, in part, because he liked Sofia better. Rowan was fairly certain of that, and thought about it often. Perhaps it was that Sofia was both powerless and relatively inoffensive; King Aldric liked feeling more powerful than his subjects, including his own children.

Rowan had a number of people he corresponded with from all over the world. Donkerk was nestled between the Silent Sands to the east, the Juniper Ocean to the south, and the Berrung Mountains to the west (with the Scour beyond that), giving it no close neighbors to speak of. Still, Rowan was in correspondence with the wider world made available through the merchant ships that passed through the capital, and it was somewhat rare that a week would go by without a letter coming or going. Contacts were easy to come by for a boy who would become king, and Rowan was grateful for that, and wary of making promises that he couldn’t keep when he took the throne from his father. A year ago, one of these contacts — the Halfway Sage of Kandune — had sent him a firearm, along with instructions on its manufacture.

Rowan had one of the royal alchemists create the black powder for it from sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter, and carefully followed the instructions to load it with one of the dozen small metal balls. The explosion had been loud enough that half the castle heard it, and the metal ball had gone straight through the straw dummy that the servants had set up and embedded itself in the wall. The smoke held a pungency that smelled delightful to Rowan’s nose, and he’d looked down at the firearm with glee. Here was a weapon whose like had never been seen in Donkerk before. In a fit of what he now recognized as foolishness, he had taken the firearm to his father and talked excitedly about training smiths in their production and getting the alchemists to set up a system for making larger quantities of the powder.

His father had nodded along, and then done nothing about it. It had taken Rowan a full week to work up the courage to broach the subject a second time, but when he had, his father had simply said that the idea was unworkable for a number of reasons, without bothering to list off any of those reasons. Rowan had later shown up to the council of sages, which drew nervous looks from them, and asked them to explain. They had argued among themselves for more than an hour, speaking about the threat that firearms represented to the oathkeepers, about the cost of changing production, or the need to import experts from across the ocean (which would surely cost a fortune, and likely explained the motives of the Halfway Sage), but in the end it was clear enough that his father had simply rejected the idea because it had been presented by his son.

Rowan didn’t hate his father, not exactly, but he did look forward to the day that he was taken seriously. That, or the day that the crown passed to his head. In either case, the very first thing that he would do would be to get rid of the guards, or at least make it so that they couldn’t watch him every hour of the day. He found himself staying within the castle more often than not, if only for the fact that his guard multiplied whenever he went out into the city.

The only place that Rowan was ever truly alone was the privy, and so that was where he practiced dark magic.

Rowan had a fascination with magic. Ibrahim had been teaching him mentalism, and he’d finally been able to access his mindscape the month before at only thirteen years old, which had been impressive even to the royal mentalist. He’d spent a week researching oathkeeping, though there didn’t seem to be that much to it, and he’d taken an oath himself in the privacy of his bedroom without anyone to see it. It had been a simple oath not to eat sweets, and he’d broken it six months later. But his real focus was on dark magic.

Mentalism was constrained by the practitioner’s natural talent, and took an enormous amount of work. Oathkeeping took no effort at all, apart from making life less pleasant to live, and it didn’t show results for ages. Dark magic didn’t depend on skill, only on knowledge, and somehow that seemed more fair to Rowan. On top of that, everything that Rowan could find seemed to indicate that sometimes the sacrifices weren’t sacrifices at all. A few of the rituals used hair, which barbers all around the kingdom cut and threw away on a daily basis. True, from what Rowan could find hair was the weakest possible material for use in dark magic, but it was still being wasted. There were slaughter yards in the capital as well, places where gallons of blood and buckets full of offal went to waste. Dark magic could be done by giving up those things that were already being sacrificed on a day-to-day basis, and yet Rowan’s father didn’t speak a single word about making any change.

Rowan had stolen a knife at dinner, a thin one with a sharp blade. He’d carefully hidden it in his tunic, something that he only dared to do because Ventor was away and his guard numbered only two. Immediately after he was done eating, before a servant could come in to take his plate away and notice the missing knife, Rowan had excused himself and gone to the library, where he’d spent a nervous few hours trying to read up on the more uncommon varieties of house spirit.

It wasn’t until he was alone in the privy that he pulled the knife out and cut himself. He chose the upper thigh, where the wound would be easy to hide. The cut was small and shallow, but enough to draw a drop of blood. Rowan dabbed that onto his finger and thought about the desired effect. Dark magic was about costs, it was true, but you also needed to have an understanding of the effect as well. A single drop of blood smeared on a fingertip would do nothing without the knowledge that it was a spell of detection — the most basic of wards.

Rowan held his finger out, and felt an odd sensation as it met with resistance. He moved it slowly, feeling out the contours of some invisible object. There were certain directions that his finger simple didn’t want to point. After some time had passed, he realized what it was his bloodied finger didn’t want to point at — his oathkeeper guards. It was a thrilling bit of magic. The spell had been buried in one of the library books, small and insignificant enough that it had escaped censoring. It was practically useless to Rowan, but it was magic all the same.

If that single spell had escaped censoring, perhaps there were others as well. And if there weren’t, the royal dungeon held more than a few dark wizards and witches. Rowan would find a way. And on his first day as king, he would be ready to revolutionize the world.

The Castle Spirit

The castle finally got a spirit when Sofia was fifteen years old.

She had imagined the spirit for a long time. Most of the books said that every place and every thing had a spirit, from the cobbler’s shop to the temple gardens, and from the forests to the trees. The spirits themselves stayed in the spiritual realm most of the time, doing whatever it was that spirits did there, but every so often they took a form in the physical realm. That meant that the castle had a spirit. So far as Sofia had been concerned, it was only a matter of time before it gave itself a physical form.

Her father had barred her from visiting any of the known spirits in the capital, not even the nice and friendly ones, or any of the rash of new ones that had begun appearing in recent years. This was patently unfair, in Sofia’s opinion. And of course she wasn’t allowed to leave the city. The solution, she was sure, was simply to wait on the castle’s spirit to take a form. Her father could lock her up, but the castle spirit would be bound to her location, so there was nothing that he could do to stop her from talking to it. The only problem was that the castle had gone eight hundred years without having its spirit take physical form. Sofia spoke to the not-yet-corporeal spirit anyhow, bidding it to come into the physical realm to visit her.

When there were no foreign dignitaries or visiting nobles, dinner was held in the Blue Room, named for the wavy trim that ran along the edge where the wall met the ceiling. There was usually a blue centerpiece (flowers of some kind when they were available, or stalks of shaped blue glass when they weren’t) and the dinnerware was white porcelain with swirling blue around the edges. The decor of the room had been chosen by Sofia’s mother, and her father often mentioned that the dinnerware had been a wedding gift from Sofia’s maternal grandfather.

The family had been eating in silence after her father and Rowan had concluded one of their more subdued fights. There had been a loud crashing sound from the next room over, then screaming that the door did little to muffle. The guards moved to protect Sofia and Rowan with their swords drawn as quick as lightning. It wasn’t long before Sofia was rushed off to some other part of the castle, away from the “unpleasantness”. She was able to piece together what had happened from the hints and clues that people gave her afterward, as well as conversations she pretended not to overhear; the blue dinnerware had been stored in a large upright cabinet, and when one of the serving girls had gone to reach for it, something within the cabinet had broken off. The entire quantity of plates, bowls, and cups had come crashing down on her. She suffered severe lacerations and died some hours later from the loss of blood.

It was the next day when the spirit came trotting down the hallway towards Sofia.

The spirit was shaped like a hound, with shards of porcelain in place of fur. It moved with a fluid grace as it stepped towards her. The jagged pieces of plate that made its ears perked up slightly. It was a creature of blue and white, the pieces of it moving enough that it was hard to see any one part of the patterns that marked it clearly without taking in the whole mosaic. For just a moment, Sofia felt a connection to it, along with a sense peace. When her guards stepped forward, the peace was shattered.

Walrus picked her up with an arm around the waist and carried her away. The wind whipped through Sofia’s hair, and she could see the porcelain hound looking after her, in the gap between the two oathkeepers who had stayed behind. Then they were around the corner, out of sight of the spirit. Walrus didn’t stop until they’d put half a castle’s worth of distance behind them. He came to a stop in a large open courtyard, where the peach blossoms were thick on the ground.

“Unhand me!” cried Sofia. She beat against the back of his breastplate, which was quite ineffectual. “I am the princess of Donkerk and you shall unhand me at once!”

Walrus set her down carefully, after checking twice to see that she was unharmed. “I am bound by my oath to keep you from coming to harm, my lady,” he said carefully.

“It’s the spirit of the castle,” said Sofia. “He came to me!” She sat down in the grass and balled her hands into fists. “We have to go back. I need to talk to him.”

“No,” said Walrus. “I’m sorry my lady, but not until we have word that it’s safe. Perhaps not even then. I’ll need to consult with your father.”

“The spirit is a faithful hound,” said Sofia. She felt like crying. “Are they going to hurt him?”

“He seemed more like a wolf to me, my lady,” said Walrus. “Did you see the brown on him?”

Sofia shook her head. All she had seen was a sleek form of blue and white.

“It was dried blood, my lady,” said Walrus with a soft voice. He was a large man, but gentle for all that. Sofia knew that he’d taken some strict oaths, and must have been powerful because of them, but she had never quite been able to shake the impression of him as slow, not even after he’d run at a dead sprint in full plate with her on his shoulder. He wasn’t the least bit out of breath. “You weren’t there when that girl was bleeding out. I was. A broken plate, snapped cleanly? It’s like a razor. There was talk about how it happened, how it seemed unnatural, and now … it’s not out of the question that the spirit was the one who killed her. Spirits are of the darkness. Coming into the physical realm by taking a life isn’t out of the realm of possibility, if the sages speak true.”

“He wouldn’t,” said Sofia, though she wasn’t sure why she believed that. She’d spent nearly her whole life within the walls of the castle, and perhaps just couldn’t handle the thought that the castle’s spirit was a bad one. Somehow that would have reflected poorly on her and her family.

The sages convened, and eventually told the king that there was nothing for it but to keep the porcelain wolf. A spirit’s physical form could be destroyed with a sufficiently tenacious approach, but more often than not they came back from the spirit realm a second time, and then a third, getting angrier and more powerful with each incarnation. There were two abandoned castles in Donkerk that had been beset by malevolent spirits, each the subject of many tales. A hundred acres of the Darrund Wood had been marked off as impassable thanks to a particularly foul spirit that had manifested itself there. The cost of abandoning the jewel of the capital would have been immense, and the black mark on the king’s record equally large. There was much discussion among the sages about when such action would need to be taken, and some credit given to the myth that a spirit could only die seven times, but in the end, their solution was simply for people to be careful around the jagged creature. The servants, guards, and royal children were told to keep their distance from the spirit, and to avoid doing anything that seemed to agitate it.

Two weeks later, Sofia found it curled up with her. She had only vague recollections of it crawling into her bed at night, but in the morning the spirit was resting on her leg, with its spines turned inward at the point of contact so that only the rims of what once had been plates and bowls were touching her.

“Hi there,” she said softly. She reached out a tentative hand to touch it. As she did, she watched as the shards moved around to present blunt edges to her. Sofia spent some time stroking the spirit, running her finger down its back and watching as it moved itself so as not to hurt her. All the edges she could see were razor sharp, save for the places where it made contact with her.

“We’re going to need to get you out of here,” said Sofia.

One of her handmaidens usually woke her up and helped her to get dressed for the day. By the amount of light coming through her window, she was sure that she didn’t have long. The spirit hound cast a glance in Sofia’s direction, then laid back down on the bed. It would have almost been comical if not for the fact that she was going to be in an enormous amount of trouble, never mind that she didn’t ask the spirit to come to her (or at least, not out loud).

The door opened, and in the time between when Sofia turned to look at it and then back towards the spirit, it had vanished.

“What should we call the spirit?” Sofia asked Rowan at breakfast. Their father was away, hunting deer with one of his dukes. The king’s two children had both declined to come with. Rowan was eighteen, and had grown into his slender build. He wasn’t imposing, but he was faintly handsome, and perhaps would become more so in another five years time. Their father was a stout king, but Rowan would be a bookish one, and perhaps that would come across as wisdom. He was also perpetually unhappy.

“The castle spirit?” Rowan asked. He had taken to bringing books to the table when their father wasn’t around, which made him a poor conversational partner. “Ulf. It’s the old word for wolf.”

“But it’s not a wolf,” said Sofia. “It’s a hound.”

“A hound is only a tame wolf,” said Rowan with a beleaguered sigh. “And that spirit is far from tame. Besides, I’ve watched it from a distance on a few occasions now, and it seems much more wolf-like than hound-like.”

As the days passed, Ulf — a name which stuck — made a number of appearances near Sofia. He entered the study while she was taking lessons, scaring her history teacher half to death and setting her guards on edge. He trotted after her when she used the castle’s hallways. On one occasion, she was singing in the courtyard. Ulf sat down a safe distance away, creeping ever closer like the clinking of his shard wasn’t going to give him away, until eventually her guards had pulled her back into the castle. On more than a few nights she woke to the clatter of his porcelain paws as he crossed the floor and curled up on the foot of her bed.

It took a long time for the people who lived and worked in the castle to get used to Ulf. He cut more than a few of them, though never badly, and Sofia suspected that he was only trying to send a message of some sort, though she was at a loss to what that message would be. Eventually he became part of the tapestry of life in the castle.

Sofia dreamed of being a true friend to Ulf, and having him follow behind her as she walked across the courtyard lawn with bare feet. She dreamed it in the same way that she dreamed of being free of her entourage, able to slip out into the city without drawing stares. She promised herself that some day she would find a way.


“Why do you like her better?” asked Rowan. He had his feet up on a small stool by the fireplace, and leaned back in his chair with his eyes closed.

“You know that’s not true,” said his father’s voice.

Rowan opened one eye. His mindscape was a castle, larger by far than the castle he called home, but with nearly every room empty. The one they sat in had furniture that he’d made with his own will, but as soon as he left it would dissipate to nothing, and the fire would put itself out. The creature that shared this mental room looked and sounded like Rowan’s father, but was only another construct of Rowan’s will. He had recently learned how to create thoughtforms from Ibrahim; the first thing that he’d done was to make a version of his father. It was only how he imagined his father to be, but Ibrahim had said that the technique could be illuminating all the same, if you knew your subject well enough to model them. Hidden truths could sometimes be extracted from your own perceptions of another person.

“You’re lying to spare my feelings, as you often do,” said Rowan. “It’s strange that my feelings only seem to matter to you when you’re being direct, given that you are so casually cruel to me in other ways.”

“I am not cruel to you,” his father replied with a stern voice.

“Yet you don’t want me to be king,” said Rowan. He could feel the temperature drop as his anger grew. That was an easy enough thing to change from within a mindscape, but Rowan wallowed in it. His brain was playing both parts of the conversation; the extra effort that came with lightening his mood wasn’t welcome. Besides that, this wasn’t really his father. Venting his anger here was without any real cost. There was no reason to force himself not to be angry. “At every turn you deny me even the smallest scrap of power. I tried to work with the oathkeepers in apprehending dark witches. You turned me away. I spent hours revising our contract with the Kingdom of Lerringer. You tossed it aside with barely a second glance, claiming that I had too close a relation with them. Every suggestion I give, you brush away. Every time I’ve spoken of a transition of power, you have changed the subject. Why?”

“I am only forty,” said his father. The thorned crown sat firmly on his head. Though his dark beard had streaks of gray in it, he looked every bit as powerful as Rowan remembered him looking when he had been a child. Perhaps that was because he was a projection of Rowan’s imagination — he made a note to check on the king’s physical appearance in the real world when he had stopped his meditations. “I have a long reign ahead of me. By the time you take the crown, you will have children of your own, and perhaps by then you’ll know why I’m reticent to have you walk the path of rule.”

“Tell me why!” shouted Rowan. He would never dare to speak to his father like that outside of his mindscape.

“Dead dogs,” said his father. “Down in the kennels. We put a man to death for that crime, but I know that it was you.”

Rowan flushed, despite himself.

He had started going down to visit the hound master when he was fifteen years old. The castle was home to a large number of dogs, from the tall hunting dogs that his father took with on trips to the small rat catchers. Rowan’s father had encouraged his interest in the dogs, the first time that he’d shown any real approval of his son’s activities. King Aldric was not a man of books or learning, despite the fact that he had pushed hard for the education of his children. Rowan had felt almost embarrassed for his ulterior motives.

Animals died more often than humans. They could make a fuss if they were hurt, but couldn’t bear witness. The higher animals — dogs, cats, pigs, horses — had rudimentary mindscapes which were easy to manipulate, and that was a further incentive. He started small, taking blood from the dogs with cuts in hidden places that the hound master wouldn’t notice, or would mistake for an accident. After he had permission to sleep with the dogs, he could do this in his room. Unlike Sofia, who was the focus of the dark prophecy, he didn’t have guards standing in the room with him while he slept, only outside the door. Rowan would make the cut and collect the blood, and if the dog yelped, he would shush it in a comforting voice, as though it was just being a nuisance.

Dark magic had three primary components. The first was sacrifice, which could be something as simple as a lock of hair. The second was the ritual itself, though some bits of dark magic were simple enough that they needed none. And the third, and most difficult so far as Rowan was concerned, was intent. The very first spell he’d cast — a simple ward for sensing — had taken blood as the sacrifice, smeared on the fingertip for the ritual, but would have accomplished nothing if not for Rowan’s inkling of what it would do.

The books never described all three parts of a ritual. Instead, there would be passages like “There exists a ritual which requires the removal of a toe; it will appear as a smooth nub with no scarring to speak of.” Or “By means of dark magic, a dark wizard may project a field around himself which presents a barrier to physical intrusion.” The information had been deliberately segregated so that valuable information about dark magic could be compiled and maintained without any actual risk of someone practicing dark magic using that information. Knowing one or even two parts of a ritual provided little headway. All the same, even without a proper book on dark magic, Rowan suspected that he could create a ritual of his own. There were patterns, if you looked closely enough.

The number of variables were immense, and the breadth of rituals were wide. Even among those examples he could find which called for dog’s blood, some specified that it needed to be from a newborn dog, or the second of its litter, or one born under a full moon. No doubt that the books were leaving out steps, and of course none of them said what effect the spells were hoping to accomplish. Every night he thought it was safe enough, he would bleed one of the dogs and try the various combinations. His first success came from using dog’s blood to trace a circle on the floor while thinking of wards. It made a small and painfully weak ward as large as the circle, which offered only slight resistance to the prodding of his finger before popping. Still, it was something, and Rowan repeated the exercise from time to time, changing little things here and there to see whether the dark ritual would still work. He would use more blood or less, trace a larger circle or a smaller one, vary the thickness of the line, or make subtle changes to his intent. He kept the notes locked away in a chest deep within his mind. The hardest part of dark magic was trying not to get caught, but though there were a few close calls with the hound master finding the cuts or his guards inquiring about the sounds, Rowan was careful, and made sure that the evidence was never enough to damn him.

The first dog he killed was an old one. He’d climbed out of his window and used the sensing ward to avoid the guards, and to make sure that the hound master wasn’t anywhere near the kennels. The dogs all knew him, and didn’t stir at his arrival. The dog’s name was Clark, and it was the work of only a few seconds to slit his throat when everything had been set up. Clark had lived a long life, and moved slowly, and with pain. It was a mercy, in a way, though Rowan wasn’t so delusional as to believe that was why he’d done it. Though he’d made every effort to maximize the chances that it would work, the ritual was stillborn. Rowan held his matted fur tightly and cursed, then cleaned everything up and went back to bed.

He was on his way to kill the sixth one when the sensing ward revealed a guard to him. He’d retreated as quickly and quietly as possible, and the next day learned from the hound master that the oathkeepers had taken up the matter of investigation into the matter of a brazen dark wizard who was killing the castle’s dogs. Rowan had stopped visiting the hound master after that, and his nocturnal activities came to a halt. He went so far as to seal his window shut so that there could be no question of his escape. Two weeks later, he had heard that they’d captured a man and put him to death for the crime. The news came as a mixture of relief and guilt.

Rowan had to remind himself that it wasn’t his father that was accusing him, only his imagining of his father. It was a projection of his worst fears, not a reflection of what his father actually knew. He let out a long breath.

“So what?” he asked. “Neth was built on dark magic. They persisted for hundreds of years. You can’t even protect your own children.”

His father’s face twisted into a scowl, and Rowan smiled. It was good to end on a high note, and so he dismissed the thoughtform of his father, which popped like a bubble. Rowan plucked the crown from the air, and placed it on his own head. It was a stupid, childish fantasy to wear the crown like this within the confines of his own mind, but it felt good all the same, and so Rowan did his best to simply revel in being stupid and childish. He snuffed the fire out with a thought, and walked down the corridors of his mindscape, whistling a happy tune.


“Who were my real parents?” asked Henry as they milked the goats.

“Ah,” said Omarr. His hair was gray, but his beard was still a solid black. He’d lost weight as he’d aged, but not enough that he couldn’t be a strong, imposing figure when he needed to be. “That is a question.”

“I mean, you and dad are my parents, obviously, and I’m grateful for everything that you’ve done in raising me, but I was reading through Ancestral Aegis and started thinking that if I ever wanted to get the maximum value from those rituals, I would need the bones of my grandfather, or even my father,” said Henry. “And I don’t think that you or dad would count for the purposes of a ritual.”

“Ah,” said Omarr with a sigh of relief. He let the plink plink sound of goat’s milk hitting their buckets fill the air. “So this is just about dark magic?” He looked up to see Henry’s expression, which was difficult to read for once. It wasn’t that Henry was bad at deception, he just didn’t take to it well. More often than not he had the bluntness of his fathers.

“I guess so,” said Henry. He focused on the goat’s teats. “Mostly, anyway. I mean, I know I was an orphan, and I think it was better that I was raised here, but I wonder, you know? About how my life could have been different?”

“Ah,” said Omarr for the third time. “I was an orphan too. Did you know that?”

Henry sighed. “Yes dad.”

“But I never really wondered,” continued Omarr. “They didn’t want me, and I never saw any reason to want them. I had a much harder life than you’ve had, and they were the ones who consigned me to it. If anything, I wanted revenge. I was quite angry when I was younger, if you can believe that.”

Henry kept milking in silence, and eventually Omarr dropped his eyes and focused on the work. Just when he’d thought that the conversation was well and truly over, Henry spoke up. “But if I wanted to know who my parents were, all I would have to do is go to the orphanage in Leshampur and look through their files?”

Omarr stopped and sat back on the small milking stool. “Henry, you know that your father and I didn’t exactly get you through legitimate means.”

“I know,” said Henry. “But dad said that they spent some time looking for me after you took me, and I thought that maybe that would mean that they would have some information on who my parents were?”

“You won’t be able to just walk in there,” said Omarr. He looked out the barn door towards the house, wishing that Hirrush was there with them, but he’d gone into town to get cheesecloth for later in the process. “If a sixteen years old boy asks about a boy that was taken sixteen years ago, it’s going to raise eyebrows.”

“Dad, I know,” said Henry. “I was thinking that I could have some kind of story.”

“Like you’re your own lost twin?” asked Omarr with a laugh.

“I’m not a little kid anymore,” said Henry with a childish pout. “No, I was thinking that I could go to work at the orphanage, and dig into their ledgers when no one was watching.”

“The orphanages are run by the Foresworn Sisters,” said Omarr. “I haven’t been back there, but when we took you there were four sisters. We’re talking about women with keen hearing and nothing better to do with their lives than snoop around. I don’t think they’d let you do their work for them, and I don’t think that you’d be able to peep in the ledgers without them knowing about it.”

“But you grabbed a baby out of the orphanage without them knowing,” said Henry. “And I know for a fact that they sometimes have craftsmen there to fix things that they don’t know anything about. They take care of a lot of their own upkeep, but some of it they’re just not any good at, and with taking care of all the children as well I think they’d welcome my help.”

Omarr rubbed at his face without thinking, and got a strong whiff of goat. “You seem awfully well-researched,” said Omarr. “This isn’t just idle speculation?”

“Nathan’s been going to Leshampur to find an apprenticeship,” said Henry. “So I asked him to look in on the orphanage for me.”

“Henry,” said Omarr with a gentle voice. “We can’t let on to Nathan where you really came from. Bad enough that he knows we’re dark wizards.”

“He doesn’t know,” said Henry. “I told him that I was curious about the oathkeepers.”

“Alright,” said Omarr with a wave of his hand. “That’s unimportant. You have a plan, now let’s stop beating around the bush. Out with it.”

“Well,” said Henry slowly. “I’m not a craftsman, and I’m too young to pretend to be a craftsman, but I was thinking that they probably wouldn’t turn down free help from me. But it would probably be suspicious for me to volunteer there for no reason at all, or just because I was kind, so I was thinking that maybe it could be a punishment.”

“A punishment?” asked Omarr.

“That part needs a little help from you,” said Henry. “I’d need you to come with me and tell the Sisters that I had done something bad, and needed to work off my spiritual debt in a pious way.”

Omarr sighed. “I’ll have to ask your father,” he said. That was always a good way of stalling for time. “You know that the Foresworn Sisters aren’t anything to be trifled with? They may not have the same prestige as the men of the High Rectory, but they can be just as dangerous. Maybe even more so, if only for how often they’re underestimated.”

“I’ll be super careful,” said Henry. “When dad gets back I’ll ask him right away.”

“Henry … just remember that we’re still your parents, no matter what those ledgers show. And you’ll have to lie to keep our secrets safe.” Omarr looked down at his left hand, where he was missing two fingers. It didn’t definitively mark him as a dark wizard, but it came close. Most likely it would have to be Hirrush who took the boy to the orphanage, if they agreed to let him go.

Unfortunately, their son was growing up.


When Ventor lost the trail, he decided to climb a tree.

It would have been impossible for a normal man in a normal set of full plate, but Ventor was an oathkeeper wearing the Strangheid. It was awkward to grip at the tree, but the armor accommodated him, and his enormous strength made up for the difficulty. It took only a few minutes to get high enough up that the branches couldn’t support him. The Strangheid felt light, but he knew that was only the power of his oaths. Still, he was high enough to scan the horizon, and past the expanse of leaves, as he expected, was a thin trail of smoke.

He dropped forty feet to the ground and relished the strain on his legs. There was very little that caused him to feel real exertion these days, which meant that there was little to take his mind off the agony of the thirst and hunger.

Ventor picked up his sword and threw his pack over his shoulder. The sword was a piece of magic that had been gifted to him by the king after a particularly harrowing trip into the Scour to save a collective of scholars there. The blade was perfectly mirrored and blood-warm to the touch even in the dead of winter. One of its two truly useful magics was that it never dulled — when the king had given it to Ventor, he had said that they were a good match for one another. Unlike the Strangheid, which belonged to the Rectory, the sword was truly Ventor’s, the only item he could claim to have ownership over. He had named it Ravener, and never let it leave his side for long.

He stopped when he could see the plume of smoke between the trees, and drew the sword. He held it out in front of him, in a stance more suitable to wielding a rapier, and advanced slowly. It didn’t take long before Ravener’s second truly useful magics made itself known. The tip of it gave off a faint glow, and Ventor stopped his advance. The glow marked the edge of a ward made by dark magics, which appeared as a band on the blade. The sages had thought that it was likely a reflection of the spiritual energies at the boundary of a ward, but given the prohibitions against dark magic enforced by the king, Ventor had taken that with a grain of salt. The important thing was that Ravener could define the edge of a ward, and noticeably disrupt it. Some wards would collapse and alert their owner when breached. Others would react with some deadly effect. There were only a handful of wards that could kill, and those that did used methods that were far from consistent. The difference between going into a witch’s domain with an early warning of where the wards were and going without was like night and day.

Ventor watched the plume of smoke carefully. It was a cooking fire, he was fairly sure. He might have been imagining the scent of roasting meat suffusing the air, but it was difficult to tell. He had been suffering from phantom smells since the second week of wearing the Strangheid, among other effects. He had, for a time, been less effective than before he’d put on the armor. Now though, six years later, he finally had some measure of power from the new oaths he’d taken. That power would only grow as time passed, even as the clawing hunger in his stomach and burning thirst in his throat remained as only bad as they’d been after the first month.

Ventor stroked his mustache and looked at the empty air where the ward stood. It was dangerous to enter a witch’s domain, but it was also dangerous to stand outside it. Ventor was fairly confident that he wouldn’t be beaten if she were given time to prepare a better defense, but he didn’t want to take too many chances. He had a choice between waiting until she left her domain, or moving in quickly. He stared at the rising smoke and felt a twinge of doubt that he would be able to find the place again once the fire was put out. He moved forward.

The first ward felt like a shot of ice to the veins when he passed through it, but that was no true threat, only a kind of magic used to keep out wolves and bears, and to serve as a warning for anyone who might stumble onto the land without knowing where they were. The second ward hit him like a bolt of lightning, and his muscles tensed up as it passed through him. A farmer would have been put flat on his back for an hour or more, but Ventor was an oathkeeper, and not so easily stopped. He was moving again within a few seconds. The third and fourth wards passed quickly by, noted only by the glowing of Ravener, but seemed to have no effect. A witch’s domain was often layered like an onion, with wards wrapped within wards as a means of defense. The fifth ward was a physical one, stopping Ventor briefly, but there was no physical ward that could hold him long, and Ventor resorted to the time-honored tradition of using his immense oathkeeper’s might to beat a physical ward into submission. No doubt the ward was as strong as the witch could make it, but it still fell to half a minute of being pummeled with Ventor’s fists. That was when the dogs attacked.

Each was the size of a full-grown buck, and for all Ventor knew, they had never been dogs in the first place. Dogs were what they looked like though, and they bounded towards him on long legs with their tongues hanging half out of their mouths. There were three in total, and if their immense size weren’t enough of a clue, Ventor could see a grotesque musculature beneath their fur, with bits of bone peeking out on their flanks.

Ventor stabbed the first dog to reach him, which gave the other two an opportunity to flank him. There was no real danger, not with full plate, and certainly not when that full plate was the Strangheid, but Ventor fought cautiously all the same. It was always possible that this witch knew something that the others had not, and that these creations had some manner of poison that would drop him dead the instant their fangs punctured his skin. He tried to carefully watch both of them, but the creatures had some level of intelligence, and positioned themselves so that only one was in his view at a time.

As Ventor swiveled his head, the one he didn’t have his eye on lunged at him. He whipped around and got his vambrace in the thing’s mouth, pushing backwards hard so that it was gagging on his forearm and unable to bring down the full force of its bite. The other attacked from behind, and Ventor struck out blindly with Ravener. He felt the weight of contact, and the sound of a whimper. The one with its mouth open pulled backward, and Ventor brought his sword around to stab it in the belly, where it skittered off a bony plate there. A second strike slipped between bones and struck into its flesh, which left the creature limping and letting out ragged breaths, its thoughts of biting him forgotten. Venter spun around and dealt the last of them a killing blow, then finished off the limping one.

“Those took me a year to make each,” called a croaky voice from the house.

Ventor turned to see an old woman with bushy gray hair standing in a small doorway. His first instinct was to sprint towards her and run her through with his sword, but he held back. His early years of fighting had been marked by a certain impulsiveness, but he was past forty now, and took a more strategic approach. If the witch had made herself known to him, there had to be a reason for it. Either she was stalling for time or baiting him into a trap. Ventor knew better than to hope that she had simply accepted her fate. Moving in for the kill needed to be a considered choice though, one that weighed what he knew of her on a personal level.

“Do you know what crime brought me to your attention?” asked the witch. “It’s not common for us to know that the end is coming, but in my case it was clear as day. I helped a man and his wife get with child. Nine months later she died in childbirth. He blamed me, and no doubt went mewling to the crown. I offered my condolences to him after his wife died, and he spat at me. He said that the mistake they made in meddling with dark magic had damned him, his wife, and their unborn child.” She pointed a crooked finger towards Ventor. “You know dark magic doesn’t work like that. It’s not about costs that only make themselves apparent later. That’s what oathkeeping is for.”

The air smelled of blood, but on top of that was whatever the witch was cooking. It was pork, Ventor was fairly sure, and his mouth was flooded with saliva. He edged closer, with Ravener guiding the way, and stopped when it once again began to glow. The wards this close to the house were no doubt the most severe, no longer made to warn or subdue, but simply to kill anyone who the witch hadn’t cleared, if that were at all possible.

“I could have run,” said the witch. “But I’m old, and the thought of spending my last years on the lam, being chased down by the likes of you — well, it made me tired just thinking about it.”

“You tried to kill me,” said Ventor. Ravener was stuck halfway through the ward, and the witch was displaying a steely confidence that Ventor didn’t like one bit. She was clearly goading him into attacking, but he didn’t yet know why; the nature of the ward that Ravener had revealed was a mystery.

“I had to at least try,” the witch replied with a smile that was missing too many teeth. She rolled up her sleeves. “I’ve never been one to lay her neck down and wait for the sword to fall.” She pulled a dagger from her clothing and pressed it against the inside of her wrist, watching Ventor the whole while.

In his younger years, Ventor would have dashed forward and suffered the consequences, if only to stop her from working her dark magics. Now though, he was more hesitant. It could well be another level to the trap. Ravener still showed the boundary of the inner ward. It wasn’t until the witch began to cut her own hand off that the balance of probabilities flipped and Ventor was forced to move.

He was hit with a blast of cold as he crossed the boundary, like the one that he’d run through at the outskirts of her domain, but this one stayed with him. Frost appeared on his mustache almost instantly, and it took a force of will not to shirk back from the suddenly freezing temperature. He rushed forward anyway, closing the distance to the witch. Her gray hair was tinged with frost. Any trace of a smile had been wiped from her face. Her hand was hanging halfway off, connected by only a flap of skin, and something was growing from her wrist. Ventor swung his sword at her neck as hard as he could. Ravener glowed brightly as it passed through half a dozen wards, but those were no more substantial than air to his weapon, and his ludicrous strength allowed him to decapitate her cleanly.

The cold failed to abate, and Ventor moved quickly, taking only a moment to ensure that the witch was well and truly dead. It had grown colder even in the short period of time that it had taken him to kill her, a cold deeper than any winter’s night Ventor had experienced. When he looked around, he could clearly see the ward’s edge by where the grass and leaves weren’t frosted over, and he ran towards the warmth, only to find himself stopped right at the edge. What he’d thought was one ward seemed to be two, one to void the area of heat and one to prevent him from leaving. It had been a trap after all, but he’d misunderstood the witch. She had no will to survive. For her own reasons, she had only wanted to take him out with her.

Ventor pounded hard at the ward as the cold clutched at him. The Strangheid kept him warmer than he would have been, but it did nothing for his face and hands. His knuckles split as he hammered at the ward with all his might. A physical ward of this size couldn’t stand up for long, not against someone as strong as he was, but as he kept attacking the barrier, he felt panic creep into his mind. He couldn’t stop from shimmering, and his face was so numb he couldn’t feel it. The cold gripped at him and stung his eyes, slowing his movements. The ward was a strong one. He had begun to slow down when it collapse, and he tumbled forward onto the ground and out of the cold. His lungs strained when he breathed, and he still couldn’t feel his face, but he was alive, and for the moment, the danger seemed to have passed.

After a few minutes, he stood up and surveyed the damage. Three dead creatures that might be mistaken for dogs, and a witch short a head and a hand. The ward of cold hadn’t extended far past the area outside the front door of the house, which must have been why she lured him there. With a ward that strong, it wouldn’t last long.

Ventor shook his head. What he saw before him represented an enormity of sacrifice given to the dark spirits — blood, flesh, bone, and life. All of it had been destroyed in the space of half an hour. He would spend the next hour dowsing out the wards and burning whatever books and bodies he came across, but in the back of his mind, he wondered whether there was anything he could do to make these witches turn from their dark ways. So much, destroyed so quickly, and yet it seemed to do nothing to deter them.


“And they bought it?” asked Nathan. He was taller than Henry by a few inches. While he still had the long scar on the side of his head, he had nothing of the same dullness that he’d had when he’d been brought to the cottage six years ago. If you didn’t know it, you’d say that he was just an ordinary farm boy. He wasn’t exceptional in many ways, though he was a steadfast friend to Henry. Henry often wondered whether his father was responsible for that. The mental work had been called reconstruction, but there was a fair amount of guesswork involved, and some of Nathan’s personality and memory had been created from whole cloth when there was nothing left to salvage. Henry had watched much of it, but he still didn’t understand the theory, let alone have the ability to repeat it.

“There wasn’t anything for them to buy,” said Henry. “I was honest.”

“So you told them that you wanted to track down your parents?” Nathan asked.

“I told them that I was curious, which is true,” said Henry.

“True, but not the whole truth,” said Nathan with a smirk. “Because you’re laying the groundwork for going after her.”

Henry felt his cheeks grow warm as he blushed. There were days that he wished he’d never said anything about Sofia to Nathan, but whenever he tried to imagine it, he didn’t see how they could be friends without Nathan knowing. He didn’t know the full truth, since Henry had a healthy respect for his fathers’ paranoia about the oathkeepers. So far as Nathan knew, the girl was the daughter of a minor noble that he’d met years back. Nathan had pressed, but Henry had never given the name, because he didn’t want to have to keep the lie and the truth next to each other in his head. He had told Nathan the truth, but not the full truth, and that was the only way that he could have someone other than his fathers to talk to about this.

“Nobles are more snotty than you think,” said Nathan.

“How would you know?” asked Henry.

“Well I’ve been to Leshampur plenty of times, haven’t I?” asked Nathan. He said the name ‘Leshampur’ like it wasn’t just an hour’s walk to get there, as though it were Marurbo itself. “I’ve seen the duke’s daughter getting carried around on one of those hand carting things that people carry.”

“A litter,” supplied Henry.

“Like with puppies?” asked Nathan.

“Spelled the same,” said Henry. “The fancy name is a palanquin.”

“Well,” continued Nathan, “I saw the duke’s daughter getting carried around on a palanquin, and at every stop she made she’d get out with this fancy dress and these dainty feet. The men carrying her had to get her right up to the door of wherever she wanted to go, like she couldn’t be bothered to step on the same streets as the rest of us.” He paused. “She’s not the girl you’re after, is she?”

“No,” said Henry. “She lives further away.”

“Curious, that,” said Nathan. “And you’re still not wanting to share more about how it was that the two of you met?”

“No,” said Henry. “Once I find out who my parents are, and when I know where I come from, I’ll track her down and see whether there’s even a little bit of a chance that she’d be interested in getting to know me again. If things go well, I’ll bring her back here to meet you, okay? But not until then.”

“So I’m never going to meet her is what you’re saying,” said Nathan with a smile. He must have caught a look on Henry’s face. “Oh come on, I’m not saying it’s completely hopeless, but you have to understand that there are a lot of suitors out there for noble girls, boys and men looking to trade up.”

Henry said nothing at that. The more he looked at it, the more it seemed like talking to Sofia again would require a series of unlikely events. His secret hope, one he could recognize as irrational, was that he would find out that one or the other of his parents was a noble. In stories, orphans were heir to the throne all the time. The world didn’t work like stories did, but it wasn’t entirely unreasonable to think that perhaps he had some sort of noble blood. He conservatively put the odds at one in fifty.

Either way, once he knew the truth of his parentage, or knew that he would never know, Henry was headed south to the capital. He spent too much time thinking about Sofia to do otherwise. He had a better recollection of his childhood memories than most, but his image of Sofia had grown larger than those memories could contain. He had to see her, if only just once, before he could get on with his life. There were a half dozen dreams about what might happen when he met her, but he could recognize that none of them were the likely outcome, even if he were the son of a noble.


Rowan was studying the inner workings of a firearm when there was a knock on his door. As a general rule, he kept it open when he wasn’t sleeping, in the hopes that it would show he had nothing to hide. The hallway outside his room wasn’t well-traveled, and an open door allowed his guards to stand outside with their backs to him. Despite his arguments, he still hadn’t gotten his father to budge on removing them entirely. The knock was entirely perfunctory — Ventor stood in the doorway in his light brown armor, with a book held in one hand.

“My one-time bodyguard,” said Rowan with a smile. He set the pistol down, being careful not to damage it. It was a masterwork that he doubted he would ever fire, with a long barrel that would make it somewhat unsuitable to being used with one hand. The Halfway Sage had likened it to a hand-and-a-half sword that could switch between functions, but Rowan had his doubts. Either way, it was a thing of beauty, with elaborate patterns in the inlaid silver. “What do you have for me there?”

“I’ve been witch hunting on your father’s orders,” said Ventor. The man seemed to have little sentimentality for three year’s he’d spent as Rowan’s guard. He hefted the book, which was covered in black leather and had a thick spine. “She had thirty-two books in her collection, almost all about dark magic, or known to me as reference material. This one is about mentalism.”

Rowan raised an eyebrow. “And why are you bringing this to me?”

“I checked with the librarian to see whether we had a copy of it, and she informed me that we did not,” said Ventor. He looked down at the book. “Psychic Superiority. It’s free of wards, and I’ve looked it over enough to see that it contains nothing of the dark arts. When Ibrahim returns, he’ll no doubt want to have a look at it, but failing that, I was wondering whether you might have any insights.”

Rowan waved towards the stacks of books on his desk. He went to the library less frequently these days, preferring to keep a small collection of books close at hand in his chambers. “Put it there and I can take a look at it later. I find it doubtful that some witch living in the middle of nowhere would have a book on mentalism that’s not known to the royal library. More likely it’s a reproduction under a different name — that used to be common to avoid royal taxes.”

Ventor set the book on the pile with the others, and after meaningless conversation that Ventor wasn’t good at and Rowan wasn’t interested in, Ventor left the room. Rowan managed to wait until the oathkeeper’s steps were no longer audible down the corridor before snatching the book up off the pile and opening it up, the firearm he’d been working on forgotten.

On first flipping through the pages, it was clear that the book was an original. The writing was done in a neat, workmanlike style with a uniformity of letters that suggested a long career of putting words to paper. Interspersed with the words were drawings, which came every handful of pages, and sometimes splashed across a two page spread. There were diagrams, but also sketches of what the author purported to be interesting mindscapes found in his travels. It wasn’t immediately clear who the audience of the book was for, but it seemed to be something between a diary and an instruction book. Rowan was mildly disappointed at that — he had suspected that Ventor had missed something, and that it had some connection to the dark arts, but he was growing more convinced by the page that it was simply the ramblings of a halfway skilled mentalist.

He almost missed the first ritual. The section began with the rather familiar mentalist concept of giving an explicit form to a particular idea, though the author seemed to insist on using his own, invented terminology for the act. There followed a series of instructions that seemed to make little sense, and at the end, the claim that it would erase the idea from the mentalists mind forever and grant a boon to mental acuity. Rowan had to read it three times before he realized that it was suggesting a dark ritual performed from within the mind. If he’d been in his mindscape, he had little doubt that he would have been able to watch the mood of the place change wildly, from doubt to belief, and from excitement to fear and guilt at being found out. If the ritual were a true one, he would have to test it, and he would have to keep the book a secret from Ibrahim, but it was perhaps the most exciting thing that Rowan had seen in a handful of years.

He flipped through the next few dozen pages, and saw twenty more rituals. A slow smile crept onto his face.


Sofia was waiting with Ulf by her side when the sage came into the room. He started at the sight of the hound, but said nothing about it, and only bowed to her before taking the chair across from her. Lammarck was a pudgy man with a neck that was too long for his round face, and he was balding as well, but his unfortunate looks had done nothing to keep him from being one of the foremost sages on the subject of spirits. He cleared his throat noisily.

“My lady, it was my understanding that your father forbid you from consorting with that spirit,” said Lammarck.

“He did,” said Sofia with a nod. “Only he didn’t tell Ulf that, so the spirit has been following me around for the past few days, wholly ignorant of the royal decree.” She tilted her head to the side. “And you can drop the formalism, I only want to ask some questions.”

“Very well, my lady,” said Lammarck. He nodded to the spirit. “Questions about that one?”

“Yes,” replied Sofia. “Sort of. I want to know about spirits in general.”

Lammarck coughed politely into his hand. “What about them? It’s a vast subject.”

“Well,” said Sofia slowly. “In Riccard’s Spirits of the Kamnian Wilds, he says quite firmly that magical objects are a sort of final form of the spirits. In the same way that people are born, grow up, grow old, and die, the spirits venture from the spiritual realm into the physical realm, roam about for some length of time, and then in some way acquire a less ambulatory form. Do I have that right?” Of course, Riccard hadn’t said it like that, because he was incredibly long-winded and liked to digress into vaguely related topics whenever the opportunity presented itself.

Lammarck nodded. “Yes, I think so.”

“But in Tantus’s Spiritual Awakenings, he says that magic items are left behind by the spirits when they depart from the physical realm back to the spiritual. And in Landon’s Segregation of Spiritual Entities he proposes that it’s a mistake to call all these different things spirits at all, and that the spiritual realm might as well be a fiction for how much we can make useful statements about it. Landon proposes three different classifications, which each have classifications below that. And Herror Ganda doesn’t seem to believe in spirits at all, which I’m not sure that I really understand.”

Lammarck’s eyes were wide. “You’ve done quite a bit of reading,” he said. “Almost enough to rival your brother. Women scholars are rare. I have to say I’m impressed.”

“The Foresworn Sisters have lots of scholars,” said Sofia with a frown.

Lammarck waved his hand. “Yes, but I meant outside the Citadel. Real women.” Sofia clenched her teeth at that. “Anyway, I don’t understand what the question is.”

“Who’s right?” asked Sofia.

“Ah,” said Lammarck. He shrugged. “Take your pick. I do believe that there’s an objective truth, but I don’t believe that we’re close to knowing it.”

“But why?” asked Sofia. “Why haven’t we found out what’s true and what’s false?”

“The spirits are elusive,” said Lammarck. “And truth is perhaps more elusive than the spirits, as a general rule.”

The rest of the meeting was unproductive. Lammarck knew more than her, but seemed uninterested in getting to the heart of the matter. He had read all of the books she had, plus many more, and had interacted with a large number of spirits, but he simply seemed to have no spark of curiosity to him. So far as she could tell, Lammarck enjoyed absorbing new information, but had no compulsion to synthesize it into anything new, nor to learn anything new about the actual world. It was enough for Lammarck to simply know the positions held by the major thinkers past and present.

After some quiet reflection, Sofia decided that it was time to do some truth-seeking of her own. Luckily, she had ready access to a spirit. She patted Ulf on his head, barely even noticing the way his sharp edges moved away from her hand.

“It’s time for you and I to do some experiments,” said Sofia.


Miriam had taken her oaths late, at the age of eighteen. It was traditional for the first oaths to be taken at ten years old, following at least a year of study. The Sisterhood was technically open to women of any age, and they had welcomed Miriam with open arms, but she had always felt like something of an outcast before being placed in the orphanage in Leshampur. There were only three other Sisters at the orphanage though, and Miriam spent a large amount of her time with the children, or talking with prospective parents, or people that wanted to give up their children, or with the various tradesmen that supplied the orphanage with the materials that it needed to function.

“And look at this fine crop of strapping young men!” cried Rector Henrich. There were three in total; Julian, Patrick, and Liam. The boys were ten years old, and Miriam had known them for nearly half their lives. Julian had talked at length about becoming an oathkeeper, and when Miriam watched him play with the other children, he almost always pretended at having powers. Patrick seemed more reticent, though that was probably because his mother still lived in Leshampur. For the past year he’d wanted nothing more than to have her come back to the orphanage and pick him up, but though he’d written her more than one letter, and even sneaked out one night to knock on her door, she wanted nothing to do with him. Liam seemed ambivalent towards leaving, but he was ambivalent towards most things, and had a disaffected demeanor far beyond his years.

“A fine crop indeed,” repeated Henrich. He moved to Miriam. “Anything that I should know about these young men?”

A perverse part of her wanted to give him some reason not to take them, so that they could stay in her care forever, but she knew that was a flight of fancy, and she couldn’t think of any reason that the High Rectory would refuse them in any case. She merely shook her head. She hugged each of the three boys goodbye, and kissed Patrick on the top of his head, because it seemed like he needed it. And with that, they simply walked away, likely out of her life forever.

“Sometimes they come back,” said Sister Loris when Miriam returned to the small office that held two desks for paperwork. She was already noting in the ledger that the three boys had been taken by the Rectory. The orphanage was an old one, and there were stacks of old ledgers that lined the office walls, each of which recorded the major events in the lives of the children that passed through it. Miriam found it heartbreaking to think about the small and large tragedies that were written in those books. During her first year at the orphanage, a baby girl had died of a creeping sickness. The name had been added to those ledgers. In part, Miriam cried because she could imagine how many similar stories future centuries would tell, and how many other orphanages the kingdom held.

“There’s a boy at the door,” said Sister Loris. She was in her forties, and she had developed a very slight ability to see into the future. The usual powers that oathkeeping gave were strength, speed, and an increased constitution, but every once in a while there was someone like Loris that got a bit of something extra. She downplayed it, but Miriam knew that the Citadel’s interest had been piqued. Just half a second after Loris had said it, there was a knock on the front door. Miriam adjusted her wimple, smoothed her dress, and went to answer.

There was indeed a boy at the door. He was young, though Miriam was bad at guessing ages for children older than ten. He had curly blond hair and a slightly crooked nose, and he was doing his best to look chastised even though he clearly wasn’t feeling it. Children were terrible liars, in Miriam’s experience. The man just behind him was tall and thick, a butcher or blacksmith. He seemed like the sort of man who worked with his hands all day, or like someone who was born with a particular build that would inevitably lead them into the kind of job that involved putting as much power behind a tool as possible. Two missing fingers attested to that. He had a thick black beard, and hair that flowed down to his shoulders in tight curls.

“Can I help you?” asked Miriam.

“Tell her,” said the man in a gruff voice. One of his large hands rested firmly on the boy’s shoulder.

“I got in a fight,” said the boy. “So dad wants me to work for you, just for a bit.”

“For as long as it takes,” said the man.

“We don’t have much work that needs doing, I’m afraid,” said Miriam. “And we can’t pay.”

“No payment needed,” said the man. “Consider it a charitable contribution to the cause. I’ve always believed in a man paying off his sins with hard work, and I see no reason that shouldn’t extend to boys as well.”

“Well,” said Miriam, looking between the two of them. “Three of the older boys just left today, so I suppose we might be able to use some assistance for a week or two.”

“That should be all the time it takes for the boy to make up for his particular sins,” said the man.

“We won’t be looking after him,” said Miriam. “If he’s slack in his assigned duties, we’ll tell you if you ask, but we will not take him as our charge.”

“I trust him,” said the gruff man. “He takes lessons well.”

“But not lessons about how to treat other children?” asked Miriam. It came out more prickly than she’d intended.

“It would seem not,” the man replied. “We live an hour’s walk from here. So as not to waste the journey, I’d prefer he starts today.”

“Very well,” said Miriam. To her surprise, the man left without saying another word to her, nor to his son. The boy watched his father go for a bit, frowning at his back. The slight had hurt him. The punishment certainly seemed a bit extreme for what the crime had supposedly been, but she had the sense that there was something lying under the surface. The father and son didn’t look much alike; that was often cause for friction, in Miriam’s experience.

“I’m Henry,” said the boy, once he realized that his father had left them in an awkward situation. He held out his hand. “I’m not really so bad.”

“Miriam,” replied Miriam as she shook his hand. “You’re not going to run off the first chance you get?”

“My parents have always liked that I take punishments seriously,” said Henry. “I’m not petulant.”

“Tell me about the boy you fought,” said Miriam.

Henry shifted around. They were still standing at the entrance to the orphanage. Miriam would have invited him in, but there was something strange about him that she wanted to get out of the way first.

“I’d rather not say,” said Henry. He watched her face. “He’s … his name is Nathan. We were friends, but he made fun of me for … well, it’s complicated.” He wrinkled his nose. “Talking it out wasn’t part of the deal.”

“Very well then,” said Miriam. “Though you haven’t heard the last from me on that matter. Your father might be right that hard work is good for the soul, but in my experience hard work alone isn’t enough to hack at the roots of bad behavior.” She looked Henry up and down. There was something that he wasn’t telling her, but that could wait. “Now come along, the gutters haven’t been cleaned since last spring. I’ll show you where the ladder is.”

The Wayward Princess

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 visit 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 heat warped the air over a hot 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 leading 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 drawing 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 investigate. 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. 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?

The Mentalists

After a year had passed, Rowan had gone far beyond what Psychic Superiority had to say on the matter of dark mentalism. It was clear now that Walther Cremlau had only been picking at the edges of an idea far larger than himself. From the marginalia of the book, Rowan doubted that the man had the mentalist training to breach another mind, which accounted for the hesitance that was visible in his prose. Rowan wouldn’t have moved nearly so fast if he had been making every ritual sacrifice from his own mind.

He had used Amelia a few times, because he had already removed her defenses, but eventually she began to show symptoms of the losses she was suffering at Rowan’s hands. She was listless and depressed, though Rowan had no idea why. He had sacrificed a few of his own memories and the removal had been so complete that there wasn’t even a memory of a memory. He couldn’t fathom why it would be different for her, or if he was simply reading into her moods more than he should have been. Regardless, the damage to her mind was visible enough that she constituted a risk, so Rowan was forced to stop using her. A gentle word to the castle’s butler had gotten her fired from her position and put somewhere far from away from the castle. Rowan had met with her while she was gathering her things from the serving quarters and given her a handsome sum from his own purse, and she had looked at him with wet eyes before wrapping him in a hug that was so unwelcome he felt like taking the money back.

Once Amelia was gone, Rowan moved farther afield. Rowan was always accompanied by two oathkeepers whenever he left the castle. Sofia wasn’t allowed to leave the castle at all, which was slowly draining her if the bags under her eyes were anything to go by. The oathkeepers represented a problem for Rowan, given that they would be keeping their eyes on him, but thankfully mentalism was something that could be done without much to give it away in the physical world. All Rowan needed was an excuse to sit still for long periods of time without having to interact with anyone. The theater provided an excellent excuse to do that, especially with a private balcony and hundreds of ripe minds below him.

He had breakthrough after breakthrough, and he began to write his own book on the subject of dark mentalism, stuffed safely in a room within his mind rather than being committed to pen and paper. The book quickly grew thicker than Psychic Superiority had ever been, though in part that was because writing the book was as simple as thinking a sentence. Rowan became adept at fighting the thoughtforms of Ibrahim whenever he happened to encounter them. He built up his defenses higher than they had ever been before, while at the same time keeping in place the veneer that Ibrahim expected to see. In the playhouses and theaters around Marurbo, he was able to see many minds and catalog their differences, carefully marking those which showed the most promise for his dark mentalism. All was going well until Ibrahim requested a meeting in the library.

“Our next lesson wasn’t for a week,” said Rowan as he sat down in a chair. He was wearing fine clothes and scented with rose water. A year’s work had made him feel more confident in his interactions with Ibrahim.

“Do you know why I wanted to train you in mentalism?” asked Ibrahim. His hands were folded in his lap.

“It allowed you access to the heir apparent of the kingdom,” said Rowan. “There’s no mystery there. My father agreed because he foolishly thought that you were loyal.”

“The bladed tongue has decided to make an appearance,” said Ibrahim. He smirked at Rowan.

“Go on then,” said Rowan. “Tell me why you wanted to train me.”

“I wanted to train you because I imagined remaking you in my image,” said Ibrahim. “Your father neglects you, that much is obvious even to someone who hasn’t spent time in your head. I had thought that you and I could have that kind of relationship with each other.”

“How did it go wrong then?” asked Rowan. “Or did I misunderstand you? Was it that you wanted the same bond of resentment and contempt?”

“It went wrong the moment I stepped into your mind,” said Ibrahim. “The moment I saw what you were, I knew that there could only ever be a shaky alliance between the two of us. You’re incapable of forming an honest bond.”

“You came here for a frank discussion about my failings as a human being?” asked Rowan.

“To an extent,” said Ibrahim. “I have found signs of a rogue mentalist within the city and wondered whether you might know anything about it.”

“No, I’m afraid not,” replied Rowan. He narrowed his eyes.

“The damage I’ve seen is subtle, in most cases,” said Ibrahim. He steepled his fingers. “There’s only a sensation of something missing, but no obvious evidence. There’s a difference between something removed and something forgotten; these people have had something removed. All the same, the tracks have been covered, sometimes artfully.”

“Things removed? Such as?” asked Rowan.

“Memories,” replied Ibrahim. “Skills. Relationships. Emotions. I don’t mean the temporary emotions that I change on a daily basis, Rowan, I mean whole emotions like fear or anger carved out of a person.”

“Well I can’t fathom why anyone would do that,” said Rowan.

“I couldn’t either,” said Ibrahim. “Not until I thought of you. You’re the boy who cut off a bird’s wing just to see what would happen. There was always pleasure in the destruction for you.”

It was a relief, in a way, to hear the accusation come out. Even better, Ibrahim hadn’t dropped so much of a hint about dark mentalism, which meant that Rowan would have an advantage if it came down to force.

“You haven’t spoken to my father about this,” said Rowan. “Otherwise we wouldn’t be having this clandestine meeting.”

“The library is hardly clandestine,” said Ibrahim with a light laugh. “But you’re right that I haven’t told your father. I was hoping that you and I could come to a solution on our own first.”

“Very well,” said Rowan. “I’ll at least hear your terms.”

“You must submit to me,” said Ibrahim. “As you should have from the start. No more of this ridiculous password at the center of your mind. No more keeping your head as a jumble of dark rooms too disorganized for anyone to see what you’re thinking. We will restructure your mind together, so that you can become the prince you were always supposed to be. There are thoughts which we might excise with some careful work.”

“You wish to make me a puppet,” said Rowan. “I’d always thought that you sought to control me, but I never expected that you would be so brazen. All this would presumably be without my father’s knowledge?”

“It would be without anyone’s knowledge,” said Ibrahim. “It would be difficult for you to be king if everyone believed that I was pulling your strings, even if I were not. The mere perception would cause a crisis of confidence. It is not uncommon for a king to be murdered so the Boreal Crown might pass to someone the public finds more worthy of the title. Of course, if you take the crown in a few decades time and show your true colors, that fate awaits you anyway.”

“Let’s say that I refuse this oh so generous offer of mental mutilation,” said Rowan. “What then?”

“I tell your father,” said Ibrahim. “I explain what I believe you’ve been doing. I describe the lengths that you’ve gone to in order to keep me from knowing your secrets. I have made a thoughtform of him in order to test his reaction. I have seen what he would do if such a matter were brought to his attention. You do not come out well; the results are much the same so far as your so-called mutilation is concerned, only now the burden of that secret spreads to those with less of a capacity to keep it. Without your cooperation, it is possible that we could hide the truth from the people, especially if we had oathkeepers bound in silence, but the outcome would be poor for everyone.”

Rowan frowned. “I need time to meditate,” he replied. “I have my own thoughtforms to consult with. Will you allow me that courtesy?”

“Of course,” said Ibrahim with narrowed eyes.

Rowan sank back into his chair and entered into his mindscape with a single step. Ibrahim had made an understandable mistake; he had underestimated Rowan. Ibrahim had no doubt made a thoughtform of Rowan to consult with and come up with mere cruelty as the most probable reason for the crown prince to be inflicting minor psychic traumas on people. That also meant that Ibrahim had no knowledge of dark mentalism; if he’d read something like Psychic Superiority, he would have immediately thought of ritual sacrifice as the motive.

Rowan quickly went to the mural room and touched the animals in the proper sequence to unlock his key. Once that was in hand, he was able to find a room that was hidden more deeply and more securely than any other; the armory. He’d sealed it with dark rituals that had cost him his own memories, but that made the place secure even beyond the native difficulties that his mind presented to Ibrahim. Once he was inside, Rowan looked out across his treasured possessions and began armoring up. In the mental realm that was as easy as touching the plates of armor and the bladed weapons. When he was finished, Rowan conjured a mirror for himself and took in the image he presented. He was covered from head to toe in full plate, but instead of gleaming armor with filigree embellishments, it was flat and black, made up of straight lines instead of curves. He was fearsome. He had known this day was coming; he had prepared for it.

All that was left was to bring the battle to Ibrahim. The royal mentalist would be ready. He was likely preparing even as Rowan made his way to the breaching room. That was unfortunate, but the circumstances dictated as much. Rowan found Ibrahim’s mind easily enough; the smell of sandalwood and the smoky green light were both far too familiar. The breach was accomplished with no resistance at all. Ibrahim had opened his mind wide.

Rowan landed in a crouch, looking around at the flat desert mindscape. An angry sun beat down above, causing a shimmer of heat all around. The bulk of Ibrahim’s mindscape was held in tunnels down beneath the sands, but Ibrahim knew little more than that. A hundred feet away stood Ibrahim. He was smiling, with his hands behind his back.

“I expected you to take the third path,” said Ibrahim. “I spoke with your thoughtform. Attempting to fight me is futile, but you imagine that you have a slim chance, and to you that’s better than the peace we might have reached.” Ibrahim looked at the armor. “Did you think that I would be intimidated by that?”

“I thought there was a possibility,” said Rowan.

Ibrahim’s form jerked to one side, then twisted in on itself with a sickening snap of bone. A scaly black arm burst from beneath Ibrahim’s skin, which was followed by another. A scaly head emerged, bringing behind it an impossibly large body. The creature was thirty feet tall, with cloven hooves and blood-red wings. “Appearances are meaningless,” hissed Ibrahim. “You made a poor student because you were incapable of listening.”

“You made a poor teacher because all you said to me were things I could have read in a book,” said Rowan.

Ibrahim attacked first. His monstrous form had claws that he brought down in an overhead strike, which Rowan jumped away from. If his armor were a mere mental projection, a symbol of resolve, the claws would have sliced straight into his flesh, but the black plated armor provided by dark magic wouldn’t have been so easily broken. There was no sense in giving away that advantage yet though. The silvered sword Rowan held in his hand could end the battle in a single hit, if Ibrahim thought himself safe.

Rowan crouched down and launched himself at Ibrahim, holding his sword out in front of him. A backhand strike from Ibrahim knocked him out of the air; Rowan went tumbling across the sand of the desert, disturbing its perfectly even surface. He stood up and mended a bone that had been broken, sparing only a quick thought to the matter.

Ibrahim had changed form again while Rowan was picking himself up off the ground. He was a big, beefy man, the kind that might be found working a forge or butchering a cow. In his hands was an immense firearm, which Rowan could only take as an affront. He only had a moment to take in the sight before the weapon discharged without visible smoke or sparks. Rowan took the full force of the blow on his chest, which sent him flipping backward into the air and knocked the wind from him before he remembered that such things didn’t matter in the mental realm. Rowan landed in a crouch with his armor smoking but otherwise unharmed.

“How did you learn that technique?” demanded Ibrahim.

Rowan laughed. “You said I was a poor student.” His sword gleamed in his hand. “You wanted to rape my mind.”

“You cannot win,” said Ibrahim. “No matter how strong that armor is, you cannot stand against me here. Submit. Teach me your technique and I will be gentle with you. I will try to preserve as much as I can when I remake you.”

“No,” said Rowan. “I think I’ll make you work for it.”

Ibrahim’s meaty form shed its muscles, which fell from his body in thick, wet strips that stuck to the sand. Revealed beneath the discarded musculature was a sleek, reptilian form, more a snake than a man. It slithered across the desert toward Rowan with impossible speed, whipping up sand as its barbed tail swished behind him. Rowan grit his teeth and settled into a fighting stance.

The snake-like form of Ibrahim turned to the side just as it came near Rowan and slid past instead of charging forward. The barbed tail whipped forward at Rowan, who swung his sword down at it. If the sword had been an extension of Rowan’s mind, it would have disintegrated on contact; such was the power of a master mentalist in his own mind. Yet the sword had been brought into existence by dark magic and was more real in the mental realm than either of them could hope to be. It sliced cleanly through Ibrahim’s tail. Rowan felt the sting on his unprotected face; when he touched it with his hand, his fingers came away with green foam.

Ibrahim let out a scream. His form had been bisected and he scrambled to make a new one. Rowan’s sword was beginning to rust, but unlike with the thoughtforms, a single blow wasn’t enough to wipe it away entirely. With great effort, Rowan reached back across the breach and pulled a second sword from his armory, this one longer than the first.

“Wheregone weens thao?” roared Ibrahim. He gasped at his own words. His body settled on something close to what he looked like in the physical realm, a tall man with cold eyes. “Yon haggar ittre em,” he said. “Ipsem!”

The second strike was easier to land than the first; when Rowan’s blade went through Ibrahim’s head, the whole mindscape shook as though rocked by the mightiest earthquake, but while the sky swirled with green and the sand moved in waves that retreated away from Rowan, the mindscape held. Rowan closed his eyes and let a smile creep onto his face. The royal mentalist was no more.


After a year had passed, Henry had gotten to know Sister Florence better than he had ever imagined possible at the start of his investigation. Her mindscape was a large tree with rooms built into it, most of which followed the contours of the knots and the twisting of the trunk. The area surrounding the tree was grassland, and beyond the clear that the tree sat in was a forest full of much smaller trees, though that was mere scenery and not the true shape of the mind.

Sister Florence had a conventional mind, in many ways. There were none of the defenses that Hirrush had warned about and no peculiarities that would make things difficult. That didn’t mean that combing through her memories was easy. The first thing Henry had picked up was a jagged iron caltrop sitting atop a dresser full of other such objects, which was one piece of furniture in a room full of them, and that in turn was only one room of thirty-seven.

Henry entered into Florence’s mind from a tavern where he sat with a mug of ale, which came to be his daily tradition once he’d done his work at the orphanage. The tavern was just close enough to make a connection, so long as Florence wasn’t gone, and a single ale was enough that Henry could sit in peace for a long time, at least after he’d made it known that he liked his quiet.

That first caltrop had taken two days of study before he’d been able to unlock its secrets. Turning a foreign memory from an object in the mental realm to something which could be viewed was difficult, abstract work, and worse than that, the tricks learned in interpreting one memory didn’t always translate to interpreting another memory. The caltrop turned out to be a childhood memory of eating porridge with raisins in it on a cold spring morning; it had nothing to do with Henry’s ultimate goal of finding the ledger’s missing pages.

Henry did go faster as time went on, but more because he was training mental muscles than because knowing Florence better really helped him. After two months had passed, he could clear a dozen memories in a single hour, which seemed impressive until he thought about how much there was to do and how little time each day was devoted to the effort.

By the time a year was up, Henry’s progress had plateaued and held steady at thirty memories an hour, one every two minutes. He rarely stayed with any memory for its full duration; it was simply a matter of picking up the object, rotating it around to see its features, discovering the territory that the object was mapping, then diving in to have a look around, usually only for a few seconds. Florence’s life could be divided into broad periods, from her time in an orphanage much like the one she helped run, to her training with the Foresworn Sisters, and finally a solid, uninterrupted twenty year period at the Leshampur orphanage.

Occasionally Henry would come across a memory that made him feel guilty. He found one encoded in a length of copper wire that showed Sister Florence kissing another girl in a darkened room at the age of fourteen; he hurriedly put that one back and tried to forget it. He also bore witness to Sister Florence’s menarche, which was uncomfortable for different reasons. Henry had sampled some of the bigger memories first, on the theory that his kidnapping would loom large, but he got too many things that weighed heavily on his mind; Florence crying over the body of a child who had died from croup, Florence being sanctioned by one of the elder sisters, Florence watching the body of a fellow sister being dragged from the river and not knowing whether it was murder or suicide … they went on and on, each one hitting Henry harder than the last, because with each he gained context into her life.

None of this brought him closer to finding out who his parents were.

“How many memories do you have left to go?” asked Hirrush on morning over eggs and bacon.

“If I can look at thirty every hour, then another six months,” said Henry. “I could go faster if I packed more hours into the day, but I don’t want to raise suspicions, especially not if they would lead back to the cottage.”

“You could stop working for them,” said Omarr. “Spend all day in the tavern instead. That cuts your time by a few months, at the very least.”

“Dad, once I find what I’m looking for, I’m going to leave,” said Henry. “Do you want that to happen faster than it’s already going to?”

“No,” said Omarr. He shook his head. “You need more training is all I was thinking. Your dark magic needs work, even if your mentalism is excellent.” He looked Henry up and down. “You’ve grown into a fine young man. The hard labor you’ve put yourself through has done wonders.”

Henry blushed and ate down his eggs. He hadn’t been unaware of the transformation, but it was still an embarrassment to have it pointed out by his father. If he could pass for handsome in a certain light, that was an advantage he would take, one that might be necessary if he wished to win the hand of princess Sofia some day.

Hirrush stretched out and yawned. “Is it time to start talking about what happens if you look through every memory this woman has and find nothing?” he asked. “I hardly think that you’ll just move on to the next one.”

“I’ve been thinking about it,” said Henry. “Every memory I look at makes me think that maybe it’s not to be found, but I’d kick myself if I just left in the middle of this project and it turned out that I had only a little further to go. To your question about what I would do if I was confident that her mind didn’t have what I was looking for … I don’t know. I might make a trip to the High Rectory, given that they’re the ones who carried out that investigation in the first place.”

His fathers both frowned, but Henry knew that if he insisted, they wouldn’t stop him. Of course, the High Rectory was in Marurbo, conveniently located next to the castle that by all accounts the princess never left, but Henry didn’t mention that.


After a year had passed, Sofia was a legend in Marurbo. She snuck out of the castle more nights than not, and each time she let herself wander until she found a spirit in need of her services. The tavern had been the first once, with others following. Because she only ventured out at night, she sometimes had to break into empty buildings in order to converse with the spirits, but that seemed like a small thing given that everyone in the city was one of her father’s subjects. Sofia learned to pick locks after a frustrating few hours in the darkness trying to find a way into a barber shop where a spirit was mewling for her.

At the time she’d been born, perhaps one in every thousand buildings had a house spirit. Now the number was closer to one in every hundred. Sofia had an inkling that this had something to do with her; the timing, at any rate, was suspicious. Because of this, she felt more of a desire to deal with the spirits than she otherwise might have; if she was a spirit caller, or something like it, then it was her duty to use that ability for the betterment of the people of Donkerk, just as Rowan was obliged to use his gift for mentalism to aid the public (especially so after Ibrahim had suffered his stroke).

The daytime was a waste, for the most part. The subject that interested Sofia the most was that of the spirits, but she had already gone far beyond both books and sages. Her father had lined up plenty of tutors for her, ones that would teach her economics and politics, but both seemed equally boring and pointless to her. Rowan had gotten an education in all the same subjects, but he was the crown prince and she was just a girl.

Sofia’s father hadn’t spoken of marriage yet, but it was only a matter of time. Donkerk was widely known for how the royal family married for love, but without being able to leave the castle, Sofia couldn’t see how she would ever find someone, if indeed that was something that she wanted. Given the limitations, it seemed certain that her father would arrange a marriage, either with a young duke or to secure an alliance with a distant nation across the ocean. Sofia had resigned herself to that fate, as she had resigned herself to most aspects of being a princess.

She was sitting for a painting in her most regal attire when Rowan came into the room.

“It’s looking well,” he said.

Sofia sighed, but kept her position. The painting had been her father’s idea, one that she didn’t have the heart to say no to, and besides that it was a noble obligation. The portrait would take multiple sittings for Orsos, the painter, to get his art as true to life as possible.

“How is Ibrahim doing?” asked Sofia. She tried to keep her face in the same relax position as it was before her brother entered the room. “Father thinks that it’s a grievous blow to the kingdom and I’d like to have some news to assuage his concerns.”

“He’s still insensate,” replied Rowan. “I’m tempted to go into his mind to see whether I can held to rebuild it, but he was capable of a frighteningly strong defense before the stroke and I worry that I’d be putting myself in undue danger.”

“Father won’t like to hear that,” said Sofia. “But I suppose I can pass the message along. You could tell him yourself, if you’re ready to make peace.”

“If you understood politics, you would know that we’re in a state of peace,” said Rowan. “We eat at the same table without throwing barbs at one another.”

“It’s a truce,” said Sofia. “A temporary cessation of hostility. None of the proverbial soldiers are fighting, but they’ve still got swords in their hands.”

“He’s doing everything in his power to set me up for failure when I assume the throne,” said Rowan. “I’m shut out of meetings and my ideas are ignored. The dukes know that if they try to curry my favor they risk drawing the ire of their king. The same goes for tradesmen and scholars. I don’t even have access to a reasonable stipend from the treasury. If you want a peace between father and I, talk to him about why he’s so intent keeping me from being a proper successor.”

“Father believes that his rule has plenty of time left,” said Sofia. “He’s barely in his forties. Grandfather aside, the men in our family tend to live long lives. If father believes that he’s got two good decades left, of course he would chafe at the idea of you preparing for his death.”

Rowan shook his head. “That’s not enough to explain it,” he replied. He looked to the painter, who was listening to every word, then toward the door where oathkeepers stood guard. “But enough about our dear father. How go your adventures with the hound?”

Sofia tried to keep from blushing and failed. “They go well. People still fear him, even after all this time, but I think in part he enjoys that. A castle like this one is place of majesty, but it’s also a defensive fortification, meant to make people think twice about a siege.”

“Donkerk hasn’t seen war in a very long time,” said Rowan. “We only contribute troops to the wars our allies get into, and those far across the ocean. I don’t think there are any records of someone attempting a siege on the castle.”

“It’s not a matter of that,” said Sofia. “Ulf takes a certain view of this castle, one that incorporates the murder holes and battlements.”

“Do you really think that you can speak to the spirits?” asked Rowan. “I would have thought that flight of fancy would have been left behind in your youth. From what I’ve heard, there’s supposed to be someone with true power over the spirits in the city. If I had more pull, I would arrange for them to have a meeting with you, if only as a courtesy.”

Sofia felt her spine go stiff. Rowan knew. He wasn’t hiding it. How he knew was a different question, but it was possible that he had used mentalism to find the answer. Sofia had no ability in that area, not even weakly, so tended to find the whole thing rather boring. Now though, her brother had leverage over her. He was letting her know that he had leverage over her.

“I have some work to do in the city,” said Rowan. “We’ll talk again later though; we often go too long without chatting.”

Sofia gave him a stiff nod. If her brother was displaying his leverage, the question was what he planned to use it for.


Henry had been going through the rote process of looking through Florence’s memories so quickly that he almost missed the clue. The memory was one of disdain and envy towards Sister Clarice, the one that Sister Miriam had replaced. Clarice was almost shockingly pretty, though memories were not always an accurate recording of reality. The memory was a brief one, just of Sister Clarice briefly putting her hand on a man’s waist, but while the focus of the memory was on Sister Clarice, the clue was in the man, whose armor bore the seven-pointed star of the High Rectory. He’d seen rectors in Florence’s memories, but he’d never seen this man before. Henry stepped through the memory three times in rapid succession, trying to pin down the time based on the context clues. The only thing he had to go on was Sister Clarice, whose age he was unsure of. She looked younger than she had in other memories though, which was promising. Henry had a section of his own mind devoted to topic of the orphanage and dipped into that briefly to pull up an image of Clarice as seen in other memories.

Once he’d verified that the year was right, Henry took the memory in hand and tried his best to attune to it. No memory was an island, alone and independent, instead they all connected to each other, sometimes in haphazard or unexpected ways. Following memory links was something Hirrush had said was done only within one’s own mind, but Henry thought that he had enough of a handle on Florence to try. He pushed at the memory — a sprig of rosemary — with a small amount of will, and hundreds of faint lines appeared, each pointing to some other memory. Henry smiled. From there it was only a matter of trying to narrow it down. Given the content of the memory he was holding, there would be links to the orphanage itself, to Clarice, to the outfit of their station, to the High Rectory in general, and all manner of other things that could conceivably stitch together a string of thoughts. All Henry wanted were more memories of the rector he’d seen.

A half hour later, he was rewarded with a clear window into a new memory, this one much longer.

“I cannot tell you the prophecy,” said the rector. The memory supplied his name as Ventor. He was sitting at the head of the table with the sisters surrounding him. By the cast of the light, it was dark out. “It would suffice to say that the king wishes to end it, or failing that, to mitigate it.”

This wasn’t the memory that Henry was looking for, but it was as close as he had gotten in a very long time of searching.

“We are trying to help you,” said Florence, her speech clearly enunciated and words precise. She had taken her vow of silence later in life; the shock of hearing the silent woman speak had worn off long ago. “If you will not relay the prophecy to us, we might not know to provide you with a detail we cannot imagine would be crucial to your investigation.”

“When I say that I cannot,” replied Ventor. “I mean that I am bound by my oath of obedience not to repeat those words I heard. That extends to those cases when it would be expedient.”

“It’s a foolish command to give a person,” said Sister Clarice with a frown.

“I agree,” said Ventor. “Yet part of the oath is not to question the orders as they come, even when they are foolish or ill-advised.”

“We know that this missing baby is the child of prophecy,” said Sister Florence. “We know that you seem concerned with dark wizards far more than I would expect from even a man of your station.” She looked to the other sisters, and Henry’s eyes looked with her. Sister Constance was looking no less old than she was in the present day. “Does that give us anything we can work with?”

“There’s a witch to the north,” said Sister Clarice. “She’s a young one, but worth pressing.”

The memory ended there and Henry watched it again, though there was nothing to gain by that. He had heard it all the first time, and besides that he had perfect recall; the rector that had been searching for him was following a prophecy. Assuming that he didn’t break his oath, and assuming that the king didn’t rescind the command, the prophecy wasn’t known by any of the people that Henry had access to. Henry carefully marked out his place within Florence’s mind and stepped out of the mental realm. He was relieved to find that his corner of the tavern was just as he had left it, complete with the untouched ale sitting in front of him. He left that behind to go back to the orphanage.

Sister Miriam gave him a mildly puzzled look when she saw him walk in. “I thought that you were gone for the day,” she said. “In fact, I recall you leaving an hour ago. I would ask if you had forgotten anything, but if you had I wouldn’t think that you’d waste and hour of your time retrieving it instead of simply waiting until tomorrow.” She was holding a child in her arms, with a cloth over one shoulder.

Henry stopped for a moment to think about the best way to approach this. In truth, he should have devoted his thinking time on the way home to the problem of broaching the question of the prophecy, but the agony of waiting felt like it would kill him. He needed to talk with someone; talking to his fathers would barely be better than talking to himself, or talking to a thoughtform, because they wouldn’t have any more information than he did.

“What ever happened to the woman you replaced?” asked Henry.

“Sister Clarice?” asked Miriam. She shook her head. “Why on earth would you ask about her?”

“I was having an ale at the Red Feather,” said Henry. Miriam frowned at that but Henry continued on before she could admonish him. “I overheard some conversation about her and they said,” a piece of the memory passed through his mind, “They said that she broke her vows because she fell in with a rector some years back. One that lived here. It got me thinking about what you’d said earlier, about how sometimes people lose their way. I thought rather than listening to gossip I would get the answer straight from the source, so I could know the truth.”

Miriam clucked her tongue. “You shouldn’t listen to what people say, especially when they’re speaking about things that they know nothing about. Asking those involved doesn’t mean that you’re not seeking out gossip. And as you know, I took my vows not to long ago and came in to replace Clarice, so even if I were to tell you anything it would still be second hand.” She rocked the baby in her arms. “Clarice left the Foresworn Sisters of her own accord. That’s all either of us need to know about the matter.”

“The things that they were saying were unkind,” said Henry. “It bothered me, even if I knew to ignore it. I just wanted some assurance that the oathkeepers are a righteous as I’ve been told.” Henry chose his words carefully. “I had been thinking about what you’d said, about it never being too late to join the High Rectory. You were two years older than I am now when you took your vows. But if what I heard was true, and the oathkeepers don’t take their oaths as seriously as I’d thought, then maybe it’s not for me. So I thought I would come talk to you first, as you’ve never been dishonest with me.”

“Well, you certainly know what tactic to take with me,” said Miriam. “You’re not telling me the whole truth, but I suppose you have your reasons.” Miriam looked down at the baby. “It’s true that rectors sometimes live at this orphanage. Leshampur isn’t large enough to have any rectors permanently assigned to it, so in the rare event that one of the rectors needs a place to stay, they come here instead of finding somewhere else to stay. There are certain oaths that come with restrictions that might be difficult to handle if they were speaking with an innkeeper who’s only seen an oathkeeper a handful of times. More than that, the rite of shelter is one that binds our organizations.”

“So a rector did live here?” asked Henry.

“Rectors have, in the past,” said Miriam. “And some have had arrangements with the sisters.”

Henry frowned. “But you can’t get married,” he said. “My father said there were other oaths as well, ones that prohibited a man and woman from laying together.”

“There are different elevations of oaths,” said Miriam. “A man and woman who are not allowed to kiss each other might still be able to hold hands and enjoy a sunset together. There are those who hew to what they believe to be the spirit of the oath and those who follow the letter of the oath. I think that might be the point that you have some concern about. I’m given to believe that Clarice followed the letter of her oaths but not the spirit. That’s always dangerous for an oathkeeper; it leads to the wrong sort of weakness.”

On any other day, Henry might have asked about what the right sort of weakness was, but the thought of a prophecy was still looming large in his mind. “I can understand that, I think,” said Henry. “But why would an oathkeeper stay so here for so long? This would have been more than a decade ago.” Henry could have gotten the date right to within the month, but didn’t want to put the connection forward for her to see.

“It’s a forgotten chapter in the history of this orphanage,” said Miriam. “A baby was stolen and never found. The oathkeeper came here trying to find the culprits. After a few months of little in the way of results, he left. This is all secondhand, you understand. So far as I know, the baby was never found.”

Henry frowned. There was no way to ask about the prophecy without giving himself away. It was doubtful that Miriam knew anything anyway. Finding out about the prophecy was wrapped up in all the same problems as trying to find his birth parents; it required him to reveal things that he wasn’t supposed to have any way of knowing about. He had much more information than when he’d started the day, but it wasn’t helping him at all, only raising further questions.

“You shouldn’t take the story of Sister Clarice as instructive,” said Miriam, misunderstanding his silence. “If you joined the Holy Rectory, I don’t think that you would see many people following the same paths. It is true that the higher elevations of the oath of chastity are rare, but those who take them are lauded.”

“I understand,” said Henry. “I’m just trying to figure some things out. I’m not sure that I want to follow in the footsteps of my parents, doing things the way they’ve done them, but if I don’t do that, then I need to take another path.”

“There’s nothing wrong with farming, if that’s what you want to do,” said Miriam.

“No,” replied Henry. “I suppose not.”


Sofia resisted the urge to leave the castle for a few nights after her talk with Rowan.

“I don’t know what to do,” she said to Ulf. “What do you suppose father would say if I came clean?”

Ulf cocked his head to look at her. Whatever else her problems, Ulf was at least happy to have her spending her nights with him. They sat on top of the rooftop of the castle, looking out at the city.

“Father would tell me that I had been reckless and prohibit me from doing it again,” said Sofia. “He would station oathkeepers in my bedroom at night, so that I would lose my last scrap of privacy. He would increase the guards around the perimeter of the castle so that they would be able to catch me as I was leaving or when I returned. And you … I’m not sure what he would do with you Ulf.”

The porcelain wolf settled down and spread its shards out. It didn’t seem particularly concerned about the king’s wrath.

Or, instead of telling father, I could wait and see what it is that Rowan wants from me. I suspect Rowan thinks he can make a pawn out of me. But I’m not sure that makes sense either, since he has to know that any hold he has over me is tenuous at best. He can’t possibly have some better leverage against me, because there isn’t anything that I’ve done that’s objectionable. Even when I sneak out of the castle I go to help people! If the truth got out to the public it would be the furthest thing from a scandal.” Sofia laid back on the roof of the castle with curls of red hair cushioning her head. “Do you know, I think it’s a terrifying thought, but Rowan might have been trying to be nice to me. It didn’t occur to me until just now that perhaps he was letting me know that he knew in order to show that I had nothing to fear from him. I suppose that would make a twisted sort of sense. And if that’s the case, that means that I’m free to leave the castle as I please.”

Ulf raised the shards of dinnerware that made up his head. Though he lacked any conventional anatomy, Sofia was certain that he was giving her a disapproving look.

“I know,” she said. “If Rowan knows, that means that other people probably know too, which means that even if he was trying to be friendly to me I need to be more careful.” She frowned. “I wonder how it is that he knows. I’ll have to ask him.” She looked out over the castle and spotted a lit window right where she’d expected it to be; Rowan was staying up late reading again. “In fact, perhaps I’ll ask him now.”

The conventional path would have involved having Ulf teleport her back to her room, ensuring that she had no telling signs of her outdoor excursion, then getting an escort from the oathkeepers. Sofia elected to use the much more daring method of simply having Ulf teleport her into her brother’s room. She was worried about startling him and causing him to scream, but which would have brought the oathkeepers, but instead he sat in a relaxed position on a fluffy chair with his eyes glazed over and his breathing shallow. He was deep in a mentalist trance. Sofia sat down in a chair across from him and bid Ulf to give them a bit of privacy. Rowan had never liked the spirit.

It was only ten minutes later when Rowan came awake. He didn’t seem terribly surprised to see Sofia sitting in front of him, but mentalists were supposed to have a way of sensing things from within the mental realm. Rowan would have known his own sister.

“You’ll need to be quiet,” he said at barely above a whisper. “It would be unfortunate if we were heard.”

“Understood,” replied Sofia at the same volume.

“Is this a show of power?” asked Rowan. “Proving that you can break into my room without raising the guards?”

Sofia shook her head. “I just wanted to talk. You know that I’ve been escaping the castle at night.”

Rowan nodded. “I won’t tell anyone,” he replied. “But I might have to ask you for a favor soon.”

“Is your silence contingent on me doing this favor?” asked Sofia.

“No,” replied Rowan. “It’s something that I think you’d want to do anyway.” He leaned forward in his seat. “I want you to run away from home.”

Sofia folded her hands in her lap and looked up at the books on Rowan’s shelves. “Why would I want to do that?”

“You chafe at this castle and father’s overbearing attempts at protecting you,” said Rowan. “That’s why you’ve been sneaking off almost every night.”

“How did you know about that?” asked Sofia.

“Mentalism,” replied Rowan. “If we’re both in our rooms, your mind tended to be the furtherest that I could see from within my mindscape. One night I was staying up trying to solve a mentalist problem and saw you flickering around in a way that was puzzling. You were always tired the next day. Once I started to hear the gossip from around the city,I began to put the pieces together; seeing you and Ulf walk side-by-side down the halls clinched it in my mind. You’ve been using the castle spirit as a mount, if my guess it correct.”

“I don’t want to run away,” said Sofia. “I only want more freedom here in Marurbo.”

“You haven’t listened to my full request though,” said Rowan. He took a deep breath and held it for a moment. “Father said that our mother is dead. She’s alive and living far to the north. I imagine that you’d want to visit her on your own anyway, but there are questions that I want to know the answers to.”

“That can’t be,” said Sofia. She had been ready for almost anything Rowan could have said, but not that. “Father wouldn’t have lied to us like that.”

“You think more highly of our father than I did,” said Rowan.

“But why?” asked Sofia. “Why would he send her away and pretend that she was dead? It makes no sense.” She had to keep from raising her voice above a loud whisper.

“These are the questions that I want answered,” said Rowan. “You’ve shown a proficiency in slipping past the guards. All you would need to do is make your way to the north, find our mother, and get to the bottom of it. If I had enough pull here in the kingdom, I’d get all of it done on my own, but father confines me to the castle and gives me no resources of my own to play with.” He leaned forward. “Ibrahim would have been able to track you in the mental realm. With the seed he planted in your head, he would be able to work out where it was that you were going. It’s painful for me to say this, but his illness provides us with an opportunity.”

“How do you know these things?” demanded Sofia.

“I received a letter three years ago,” replied Rowan. “I maintain correspondence with a large number of people around Donkerk. One of the Foresworn Sisters at the Citadel is a master mentalist, so of course she came to my attention. The letters back and forth take months. Eventually, she revealed to me that our mother is alive and well, living these as a sister herself. Beyond that, Sister Marigold did not feel comfortable saying, despite the numerous inquiries I sent to her. I sent letters to mother as well, but she’s taken an oath of silence that extends to the written word.”

“Numerous inquiries … but if it takes a month or longer to get a letter there,” Sofia paused. “Rowan, how long have you know this?”

“Three years,” said Rowan. “Do you recall father and I not speaking to each other for a few weeks? I confronted him —”

“You what?” asked Sofia.

“Keep your voice down. I confronted him and he wouldn’t tell me anything.” Rowan shook his head and sat back in his chair. “He admitted the truth, but wouldn’t speak on it further. I don’t know whether mother is in exile or whether she’s there of her own volition. All I know is why father covered it up. He needed to appear strong for his dukes, so he could maintain control of the kingdom.”

“But he’s got the crown,” said Sofia. She was having trouble breathing. It felt like her whole life had been a lie. She wanted to believe that Rowan was lying, but it didn’t feel like he was. How often had her father talked about her mother? But for what Rowan was saying to be true, Sofia would have to look at her father in a very different light.

“He’s got the crown,” said Rowan. “But contrary to popular belief, the Boreal Crown isn’t everything. It gives him power, more than he typically shows, but Donkerk plays its own games with our allies across the ocean and the dukes and the rectors provide their own pressures. Ruling a country is a complex task, one that I’ve done my best to train for. When father lies, it’s usually because he’s trying to keep or consolidate power.”

“No,” said Sofia, straining to keep her voice at a whisper. “Some of what you’re saying is true, or at least you believe that it’s true, but I won’t turn on father so easily. I need to speak with him. If he tells me that mother is alive, I’ll slip out of the castle and make the trip to the Citadel, but not until then.”

Rowan shrugged. “Do that then. It’s possible that he’ll tell you more than he ever told me. You are his favorite, after all. But if you then decide that you want to hear mother’s side after all, father will know where you’re going from the moment that he finds out you’re missing. And of course given that father has been lying to you for your entire life, you won’t be able to trust his version of the truth without hearing mother’s side of it. Better for you to make your journey now, when I can help you lay down false trails so that you won’t get caught a mile away from the city. If father brings you in, you can have your conversation with him then.”

Sofia hesitated. Rowan was making too much sense. She would need time to think it over.

“Do you remember how long it took for him to tell you about the prophecy?” asked Rowan. “You’ve been escaping from the castle and running roughshod around the city for what, the better part of six months?”

“A year,” replied Sofia. Her voice felt hollow.

“You chafe under father’s grip, the same as I do,” said Rowan. “If there was ever a time for a private, familial rebellion, it’s now. Take some time, think it over, don’t do anything rash, and come find me when you’ve seen the light. It’s only an extension of what you’ve already been doing. I know that you’re taken with the spirits and have some skill with them, perhaps even supernaturally so. Think of what you could see of the world as you travel. Think about that and about finding the truth.”

The Journey North

Ventor was called into throne room on a particularly bad morning. One of the serving girls, a freshly hired one, had brought breakfast to his room by mistake. He had stared that the tray of food. The sausages had been fried enough that the skin had cracked, revealing grease and juice inside. There were six small tomatoes that were still on their vine together, and those had been fried as well so they were cooked through. Everywhere his eyes landed there was another marvel, a glob of blackberry jam on top of a piece of buttered toast, a baked roll with soft cheese inside it, a hard-boiled egg decorated with a pinch of salt and pepper, on and on, a full breakfast that his mouth would have watered at even if he hadn’t been without food for six years and three months. He had taken the plate with shaking hands and thanked the serving girl, who hadn’t seemed to realize that anything was wrong. He’d sat in his room with the plate on a desk in front of him, staring at it for a good twenty minutes. He went so far as touching the food, bringing it to his nose to sniff at it. Every other oath Ventor pictured as a chain, but the Oath of Hunger and the Oath of Thirst were like twin animals clawing him hollow from the inside.

Ventor hadn’t broken his oath. He’d come close, trembling with a hot sausage inches from his tongue, but at the last second he’d thrown the plate out his window instead. He had cried, but it wasn’t the first time that the twin oaths had done that to him. He had been careful not to let his tears fall into his mouth.

By the time a messenger had come to fetch him, Ventor had pulled himself back together. There was usually a deep catharsis in coming upon a temptation and resisting it, but six years had weakened the thrill of conquest that he’d once felt at keeping the animal oaths at bay. Ventor was coming to wonder how many years he had left in him. Delland had lasted sixty years in the Strangheid. Ventor couldn’t imagine himself enduring for that amount of time, if he managed to survive the trials and tribulations of hunting witches and wizards for the king.

The throne room was bedlam when Ventor entered. There were a dozen other oathkeepers, nearly all that were stationed in the castle, even those that should have been sleeping. When Ventor entered, they looked to him as though he would know what to do, even though he’d never led anyone in his life. The Strangheid had a special power among the oathkeepers; it was a symbol of everlasting devotion and sacrifice. It didn’t matter at all that Ventor had come within a bare inch of breaking his oath.

“My daughter went to her room at the usual time last night,” said King Aldric. His voice cut through the chatter, stilling the sages in mid-sentence. His gaze was firmly on Ventor. “This morning, her handmaiden came to her room to wake her for the day. The door to the bedroom was locked, which was not terribly unusual. It wasn’t until well after breakfast that more insistent efforts were made to bring the princess from her slumber. A key was found and used to open her bed chambers after giving her plenty of warning. When the door was opened, she was not there; her perfectly made bed had a note on it. That note claimed that she decided to go west, in order to commune with Lantis, the spirit of the Berrung Mountains. When my son was informed of this, he revealed that Princess Sofia had spoken with him some days prior about what conditions in the Silent Desert were like. It is Prince Rowan’s contention that the note was a false trail laid for us to deflect our attentions. He believes that Sofia’s target is not Lantis, but Pothis instead. The princess is, at most, twelve hours away from Marurbo at this moment. If you are in this room, then you are privileged in knowing the prophecy that came before my daughter’s birth. We must now behave as though the prophecy is nigh and the kingdom itself is in utmost danger.”

Ventor nodded to his king. An order was going to come soon and the Oath of Fealty would become his guide once more. “I will do whatever it takes to see her returned,” said Ventor.

“The sages must think on the matter,” said King Aldric. “Be ready to leave at a moment’s notice.”

With that the room became lively once more. Ventor stood with the other oathkeepers as the sages spoke with each other. He had questions, like how such an escape could even happen given that she was under guard by two oathkeepers throughout the night, but he didn’t suppose that his questions would do much more than distract from the issue at hand, which was getting the princess back. The other oathkeepers looked uncomfortable; this was, in part, their failure.

“We can split our resources between east and west,” said one of the sages.

“Those aren’t the only two options,” said another sage. “If the princess has left one false trail, it is possible that she’s two. She might have gone north, or boarded a ship going south. It’s possible that she’s staying in the city and not traveling anywhere at all.”

“So we cannot know where she is going,” said the first sage, “Which would mean that we should use some method to cover as much ground as possible in all directions.”

“Nonsense,” replied a sage with a thick black beard. “We are not dealing with fair dice. We must gather all the information that we know about how the princess thinks and make a distribution of probabilities, then spend our resources in such a way that we expect the highest possible return.”

The conversation continued on in this vein for quite a long time. Ventor chafed at it, but there was little to be done about it. The sages would do their thinking and the king would make the ultimate decision, but until that time, Ventor would await his orders. The other oathkeepers had preparations to make so that they could be ready for an extended journey, but Ventor never removed his armor and carried his sword with him everywhere he went. He had no need to stock up on food or carry skins of water. His station of authority meant that he had no need for money either. He had no friends to say goodbye to and no obligations that he would be leaving on the floor.

The sages eventually came up with a plan for sending the oathkeepers along all the major roads away from Marurbo, stopping in every town along the way in order to enlist the help of the locals. Given their travel speeds, the oathkeepers could ensure that the entire kingdom would know that the princess was missing within the week. With a sizable reward on offer, everyone would be looking for her. It would be a scandal for the king, but he had waved that concern aside as though it were nothing.

Ventor was the last of the oathkeepers to be given an assignment. When it came his turn, the king had the sages and the prince leave the room as well. Ventor could feel nervous anticipation at the thought of what was coming. There was something that the king wanted done, something that required secrecy.

“By the power of your oath to me,” said King Aldric. “I command you to travel to the orphanage at Leshampur with all due haste and seek the savior promised by prophecy. If you find my daughter while trying to find the savior, I command you to bring her back to the castle with all due haste, whether my daughter wishes to return or not. If those two commands conflict, the second command takes precedence over the first.”

“I understand, my king,” said Ventor. The Oath of Fealty was a thin golden chain, stretched out behind Ventor and pulling him backward almost immediately. “I shall leave at once and not return until my task has been completed.” Ventor turned and walked away without listening for an answer. It was rude, but his oath did not care about such things. Ventor was on the hunt again.


Saying goodbye to Ulf had been the hardest part. He had understood that she was leaving the castle, and seemed to know that this was necessary, but he wasn’t happy about it. Sofia had met dozens of spirits, but Ulf was the one she had the strongest connection to. He was also the one that she knew best. He would miss her, and she would miss him. When he dropped her on the bridge, she gave him a tight hug that squeezed the pieces of porcelain together, then kissed him on the curved white and blue shard that made up his forehead. Then she was off, without a second look backward.

Sofia had waited until the night of the full moon, which made walking in the dark easier. Once she was past the Grunwich Tower that marked the border between Marurbo and the farmlands, she ducked into a copse of trees in order to complete her disguise. Her ringlets of red hair hung down to the small of her back when they were loose, which was too distinctive if she wasn’t wearing a hood. She gathered her hair up at the back of her head and used a sharp knife she’d taken from the kitchen to slice through it all. After that she pulled out a bottle of dye she’d taken from the royal alchemist and began rubbing it into her hair. Once she was done, she washed up in a nearby stream and looked at the results in a hand mirror, trying her best to reflect the moonlight so she could get a look at herself. She looked like a different person, less royal than before. Her skin was more fair than she would expect from a girl who had worked as a washerwoman or a maid, and her fingers were clean and slender, but the resemblance was close enough. She had stories ready for those who would question her.

Sofia was past the point of no return. If all went well, no one would know that she was gone for hours, by which time she would be twenty or thirty miles from Marurbo. She would take the back roads and take advantage of the kindness of out-of-the-way strangers. The oathkeepers would be looking for her, and they would move quickly, but they had a wide area to search. The first days would be the most difficult, but after those had passed, it would simply be a matter of keeping her head down and traveling as swiftly as possible. It would take two months to get to the Citadel, where Sofia hoped she would meet her mother.


“Sacrifice, ritual, intention,” said Omarr. “Those are the three components to dark magic. It’s only the first that makes it dark though; the intention might be good or bad, and the ritual is usually nonsense meant to signal the spirit, but it’s the sacrifice that makes people shiver, and sometimes that’s even for good reason.”

Henry sat on the soft grass outside the cottage as his father lectured. Sometimes the lesson of the day involved practical matters of dark magic, like how to properly draw geometric shapes for a ritual or how to distinguish diopside from augite. Dark magic required a frighteningly large amount of knowledge about the natural world because the ritual ingredients and materials meant for sacrifice were often quite specific. Henry felt fortunate that his mentalist training had given him effectively perfect memory, which meant that he could easily pass any knowledge drill that his father gave him. Omarr had given up on those two years prior, in favor of teaching Henry processes and theory that mere memory didn’t help with.

Today, the lesson seemed to be about people.

“Sacrifice can be usefully divided into those which are permanent and those which are not.” He held up his left hand, where two fingers were missing. “The reticence is understandable for those things which you can’t get back. But for blood? Hair? Nails? The magic is weaker, but the magic can be used time and again. A strand of hair and a drop of spit can create a simple ward that will ensure a door stays shut for quite some time. A vial of blood can grant a few minutes of wicked claws for fighting, or six hours of night vision, or a few dozen other things. Even among those sacrifices that require a limited resource, there are those which no person should object to. Your father and I have saved all of your baby teeth for use in any ritual that might require them. And of course even with something so extreme as taking a life, there are sometimes ways of minimizing the cost. So the question then becomes, why are there such extreme prohibitions in place?”

Henry shrugged. The question was obviously rhetorical and he didn’t imagine that his father would enjoy a proper debate on the subject.

“People are stupid,” said Omarr. Henry frowned. “They’re irrational. Boys hear from their fathers that dark magic is bad, then when they get older they tell their sons the same thing. People associate blood with injury, so they see any use of blood as something to be squeamish about. I know you don’t like to hear it, but if you mean to practice the dark arts in Donkerk, you need to know that people are stupid.”

“I don’t think people are stupid,” said Henry. He rested his hands on his knees. “I don’t think the sisters are stupid. And I’ve talked to enough people in Leshampur to know that they’re more or less like you and I.”

“You haven’t talked to any of them about dark magic though, have you?” asked Omarr.

Henry shook his head. “You impressed upon me that this would be a bad thing.” That was an understatement. He had so many memories of being lectured on the bad things that would happen if he let the truth slip that they all blurred together.

“Good. Let’s say that something bad happens once you leave here. A man’s leg breaks while you’re traveling with a caravan, for example. The wound gets badly infected and the man is going to die. You have your baby teeth among your effects and without considering it too much, you perform the ritual to cure him of his sickness and restore him to health. Now, if people were smart, you wold expect that the man would be grateful, and since the only sacrifice was something that you unambiguously owned, there would be no cause for anyone to be alarmed. Yet the result is likely that you would be attacked or turned in to the oathkeepers.”

“That doesn’t make them stupid,” said Henry. “They could be acting in their own self interest. A man might be grateful that I saved his life, but if I was revealed as a dark wizard in a more public way then he might get in trouble by not having turned me in. That would make him selfish or cautious, not stupid.”

“You’re being charitable,” grumbled Omarr. “I sometimes fear that your father and I have done too much to shield you from the harsh realities of the world. You have never watched a man die while knowing you could save him. You’ve never seen the inside of a hospital that sits a mile from an abattoir where unused blood flows into the sewers, wasted. There are cemeteries where bones, skin, hair, and flesh all lay unused, rotting into the ground for no discernible reason.”

“I know all that,” said Henry. “I haven’t experienced it like you have, and I won’t until I make my own way through the world, but I do know it. That doesn’t mean that people are stupid.”

“Stupid was the wrong word,” called Hirrush. He walked toward them from the cottage. Henry hadn’t know that his other father was listening in, but it didn’t surprise him. “Irrational was right, but it doesn’t fully contain the disdain that your father feels, so he uses stupid instead.” Hirrush nodded to Omarr. “Your father and I have seen enough of the world to know that most people are incurably irrational. I have seen men die, knowing that I could save them at the cost of revealing myself as a dark wizard. I have revealed myself as a dark wizard and had my services refused by dying men. One on occasion I continued on anyway, trying to prepare the necessary ritual, but the man fought against me, smearing the lines I was drawing in the dirt even as he was bleeding to death.”

“He might not have understood,” said Henry quietly. “He might have thought that you were trying to kill him, not rescue him.”

“You normally have a strong sense of empathy,” said Hirrush. “It’s failing you now though. Someone with access to all the same information you have, someone who has read all the same books, who knows all the same arguments, might still disagree with you. I won’t claim that I know what was going through that man’s head as I tried and failed to save his life, but to say that he would have allowed me to do what needed to be done if only we had time to have a civilized chat is simply wrong.”

“I think I understand,” said Henry. “But you’re arguing two different things then. One, people are irrational and do things that directly contradict what their own interests and values might be. Two, people are different in some core way that isn’t reducible to just the facts at hand. So there’s a disorder to the mind which makes dark magic dangerous around them, but even without that disorder it might still be dangerous.”

“I know you won’t be home for much longer,” said Omarr. “Working at the orphanage was just your first step toward finding your own way through life and I don’t have any illusions about this cottage being able to hold your attention for long.”

“It’s not that,” began Henry.

“We’re not offended,” said Hirrush. “What your father is trying to get across is that people are dangerous, even beyond mere abilities. If you’ve got any ambitions at all, you’re going to run up against other people, those who are irrational or those who are rational with their own goals that differ from your own. Worse, you’re going to encounter systems of people that don’t really exist for any reason that anyone understands and which no one individual is capable of changing.”

“We’re worried you’re going to try too much,” said Omarr. “We’ve equipped you as best we can, you’re more skilled as a mentalist than your father was at your age —”

“Don’t give the boy an ego,” said Hirrush.

“— and all you’re really missing is an oath if you wanted to have the trifecta of power. You’re strong, Henry, and you’re going to get stronger as the years go by, but there are still challenges that are beyond you. Call people stupid, or irrational, or say that they’re just aligned along a different axis than you, but understand that it’s you against the world. The injustices that you find, the ones that you’re going to be compelled to fix, those are the ones that have been most resistant to fixing. There are problems with experience, ones that are intractable. Don’t throw yourself against the rocks.”

Henry frowned and looked very solemn. He stared at the ground in front of him as his fathers shared a look. “I think a reasonable person can see the horror of the world and shirk back from it. I think you can throw up your hands and say that the way things are is how they’ll always be, that the problems we see, or at least the big ones, are still around because they’re just so frighteningly difficult. You can be reasonable and intelligent, and you can still think those things.” Henry looked up and met his fathers’ gaze. “If you’re telling me not to try changing the world, then I can’t promise that. I’ll be careful. I’ll be clever. But once I’ve tracked down my parents and talked to Sofia, I’m going to find those big, intractable problems and work on the solutions.”

Henry stood up and walked away, across the pasture with the grazing goats and toward the road. He had no firm destination in mind, but the conversation was over. His fathers had tried to warn him about a certain type of people without really thinking about the fact that they might be the sort of person they were warning about. He could count on one hand the number of times his fathers had done something that wasn’t for themselves or for him. He was grateful for the life they’d provided him, and for the skills and training they’d given him, but he wasn’t planning on leaving just because of wanderlust or the need to make his own way in life. His fathers, unfortunately, were wrong.


Ventor knocked twice on the door to the orphanage. Though Leshampur had seen some changes in the sixteen years since he’d come through, the orphanage looked the same as it ever did. He was certain that it had experienced some wear in that time, but his memories weren’t sharp enough that he could compare the thick oak door to how it had been. If anything it was in better repair than it had been. The orphanage had been standing for a hundred years, replacing wood when there was rot and taking on a fresh coat of paint every decade or so. It was reassuring to think that in a hundred years, the orphanage would probably still be standing, in more or less the form it took now.

A young girl of not much more than twenty swept open the door. She wore the wimple and a powder blue dress that draped to the floor, which marked her as a member of the Foresworn Sisters, but the youth of her face betrayed her as very much a junior member of her order. She was pretty, in the way that young women often are, and Ventor felt a slight tug at his Oath of Chastity, which he imagined as a silver chain about his neck. She looked him up and down, and her eyes widened with every inch they traveled.

“Is Sister Clarice available?” asked Ventor. “It’s quite urgent.”

“She’s not here,” said the sister. She had no Oath of Silence then, which was something of a relief. More than that, she seemed to recover quickly from having taken in his imposing figure, which was another point in her favor. In his hunting of witches and dark wizards, Ventor had come to know the value of someone who could resist the urge in being tripped up by the unexpected. “She left the order three years ago. Is there perhaps something that I can help you with?”

Ventor felt a tightness in his chest. The image of Clarice laying naked in the moonlight floated unbidden through his mind, a memory sixteen years old but no less vivid for the passage of time. “She is Fallen,” said Ventor. “She betrayed her oaths.”

“Who did you say you were?” asked the sister. “I am Sister Miriam and if there was something that Clarice could have helped you with, perhaps I can help in her stead.”

“I am Rector Ventor,” said Ventor. He straightened his back and gestured to his chest. “I bear the Strangheid, which does not permit insignia, but I am a member of the High Rectory. I can demonstrate my oaths, if you require such.”

Miriam seemed to relax. “That won’t be necessary,” she replied. “Especially given my induction was so recent I cannot respond in kind. Yet you still haven’t told me what it is you wished from Clarice.”

“A child was stolen from this orphanage sixteen years ago,” said Ventor. “I came here then and attempted to find whoever had stolen the child, but to no avail. Now desperation requires the search to begin again. Sister Clarice was instrumental in providing me with assistance last time and I had hoped that she would be able to do so again. If she is fallen, she is worthless for this endeavor and you will have to serve as my liaison during my time in Leshampur.”

Miriam’s eyes widened. “Oh, you’re that Ventor, I had been given some background but only one of the others sisters has speech. I’ll prepare a room for you right away and of course answer any questions that you might have. In the meantime, if you’d like to remove your armor and get more comfortable, I’ll inform the others that you’re here.”

“I do not remove the armor,” said Ventor. He felt himself stiffening and tried to relax. Just as the serving girl hadn’t meant offense by giving him breakfast, this sister did not understand the pain that she caused. “I do not eat or drink either, and I have taken the Fifth Elevation of the Oath of Chastity. Please make no further offers.”

Miriam gave him a curt nod. “Henry,” she called with a look over her shoulder. “I know you’ve been eavesdropping, make yourself useful and take the rector to the receiving room.”

A small blonde boy, too old to be an orphan, stepped out from behind a doorway and gave the sister a bow. “If you’ll follow me?” he asked.

“You could apologize for listening in,” said Miriam.

“Curiosity is nothing to apologize for,” replied the boy with a grin. “I try not to apologize if I don’t mean it.”

Miriam gave a harrumph, but went off her own direction.

“You’re not an orphan,” said Ventor as he followed behind the boy. The king’s wording, ‘all due haste’, echoed in his mind. There were other wordings that the king could have used, ones which would have bound Ventor more tightly, but ‘all due haste’ gave some leeway, so long as Ventor was doing his best to move forward. “If you were an orphan, you would have been sent to the rectors years ago. Why are you here?”

“I’m useful,” said Henry. “I fix things that are broken, clean things that are dirty, help out with the children from time to time if there’s a crisis, run errands that the sisters are too busy for, speak for the sisters that have taken oaths of silence when Miriam isn’t around, and generally help things run smoothly.”

“How old are you?” asked Ventor.

The boy opened the door to a room and paused slightly to take in Ventor’s armor. “Sixteen,” he replied. “If you need anything at all, let me know. This is the room that they use for talking to prospective parents, or for other business that requires some privacy. I can bring you a pen, ink, and paper if you’d like. You’re going to be looking for a child?”

“A boy,” said Ventor. “Your age, in fact.” His eyes narrowed, but the boy looked at him with simple curiosity. “Who are your parents?”

“My father is Omarr, a farmer some ways outside of town,” said Henry. “My mother, Patrice, died when I was six years old. I don’t really remember her though. If you’d like, I can help to round up some of the children my age. The sisters stay at the orphanage, for the most part, but I know plenty of people around Leshampur. It wouldn’t hurt to sweeten the pot if you wanted to bring people in, some torts or trifles for those who aren’t moved by civic duty.”

Ventor pursed his lips. He didn’t honestly believe that he could be so lucky as to find the prophesied savior sitting inside the orphanage he’d been stolen from sixteen years ago. Besides, he had an immediate feel for the boy as something of a scoundrel. Ventor had started his life as a miscreant and knew how a young boy with loose morals might weasel his way into the employ of those who didn’t truly need him. On top of whatever they were paying him, Henry likely took his own cut when he went to buy things for the sisters. Once he had inserted himself into the middle, he could skim his own portion from the top.

“Your service would be appreciated,” Ventor said to the boy. “In the meantime, I will need the pen and paper yhat you mentioned. There is much work to be done here if I might hope for this investigation to bear fruit.”


Sofia had been surprised by the number of spirits she encountered on her journey north. House spirits, like Ulf, were supposed to be found in one in every thousand buildings. Nature spirits were more common, but also more rarely seen, simply because there was so much more to nature. If a lake had a spirit which had taken physical form, fishermen might row their boats across the placid water for decades without ever catching sight of it. Houses and structures were also inherently centered around humans, so of course house spirits would have an interest in people. Not so the nature spirits, who mostly didn’t care about people so long as there was some measure of respect involved. Seeing a nature spirit was supposed to be something transcendental and unique, the kind of experience that a person got once or twice in a lifetime. Occasionally people developed a relationship with a nature spirit; a hunter might see the same spirit a number of times and take it as an omen for good or ill, or a prospector might spend a few days walking side by side with the spirit of the claim he’d staked. That was supposed to be even more rare though. Those were stories that made their way into books as exceptions to the rules that governed spirits.

Sofia saw three nature spirits in her first day on the road. The first was a squirrel with bright colors in its fur and eyebrows so large that they looked almost like wings. It had leapt from tree to tree, following her at a distance but making a fair bit of noise, until finally Sofia turned around and curtsied to it, which either scared it away or let it know that she was no threat. The second was a large bird, which flew at a sedate pace such that it cast a continual shadow over her and spared her the harshness of the sun. Once she was done walking through the wide field, the bird was nowhere to be seen. The last had been a creature that was something like a turtle, with a shell made of bark that twisted up in an improbable corkscrew on its back. It drank from the river while she refilled her waterskin and because it ignored her, she did it the courtesy of ignoring it in turn.

There was something special about Sofia, some connection to the spirit world that no one else had. House spirits were supposed to be one in a thousand, but they’d been one in a hundred instead, maybe even more. Nature spirits were supposed to be rare and reclusive, but she’d seen three in the course of a single day. Had those spirits been there all along and only been more eager to see her than they ought to have been? Or had they come from the spiritual realm to the physical realm just because of her presence? It was said that everything had a spirit, from the smallest rock to the largest mountain, but most of the time the spirits simply stayed in their own plane of existence that laid next to the real world like a sheet of paper. Sofia had no idea how anyone could have tested that, so took the idea with a grain of salt.

At mid-day she took a nap on top of a large, flat rock. When she woke up, she ate meat and cheese from her pack for supper and continued on. She was traveling light, with only a single change of clothing and enough food to last her for two days, along with enough money that she could buy whatever it was she needed along the way. Stopping in towns was dangerous, because that was where she was most likely to encounter someone looking for her, but it was a necessary part of the plan if she hoped to make it to the Citadel in a reasonable amount of time.

Her first proper stop was on her second day, when she walked into the small town of Gull’s Hollow. There was only a single tavern, but they offered a pot of beef and rutabaga stew that was a welcome change from the meats and cheeses that Sofia had been eating from her pack.

“Traveling alone?” asked the innkeeper.

“Unfortunately,” replied Sofia. “My uncle is a sage and sent me off by myself to gather some information on plants and animals.”

The innkeeper nodded. “Well, you be careful. There’s doings afoot. Heard from a friend this morning that they saw an oathkeeper running at full tilt, fast enough to kick up a trail of dust. That’s a bad omen if ever there was one.”

“I’ll keep a look out,” replied Sofia. She felt bad that her father was worrying about her, but between the note and Rowan’s story, he shouldn’t have been so concerned. She was grown; her father should have known that she could take care of herself.

The real test would come when she came across someone who was on the lookout for her, but that would thankfully wait for another day. Her disguise seemed adequate at least, and she had a dozen stories ready to go in case anyone asked about who she was, some of which she had the props to back up, but if she was caught she had no real illusions about being able to escape.

On the third day she came across the Trenten Wood, a long stretch of forest that hugged the River Lenten for a long stretch of a hundred miles. The terrain alongside the river was rocky, which meant that the paths weren’t suitable for trade, especially given the much easier travel that was available by boat. Sofia had decided ahead of time that she would take the more difficult roads though, in part because she wanted to limit her exposure to people as much as was practical. The oathkeepers would hopefully avoid the Trenten Wood in favor of stopping at the settlements that flanked it, which meant that the only real risk she ran would be at the various landings where roads wound themselves through the thick canopy cover and away toward the towns outside the forest.

Sofia was only an hour into the Trenten Wood when she felt something watching her. She continued on for a few paces before turning to look at it; what she saw was a large bear the size of a carriage. Dotted all through its fur were small, purple flowers, and its eyes were that same color as well. Sofia had no doubt that she was looking at the spirit of the Trenten Wood. She had almost expected to see it, given the experiences of the past few days, but she hadn’t thought that it would be so large. When it caught her eye, it rose up on its hind legs and let out a loud road that shook pine needles down all around them. Sofia wanted to scream, or to run, but neither of those would have done her any good, so instead she simply watched the spirit and prepared a speech.

“They talk about you,” said Sofia. “People have tried to settle the Trenten Wood since Donkerk was just an outpost, but you always get in the way.” She stared right into the bear spirit’s eyes as it trundled towards her. “It’s not in the history books, but I think they must have tried to kill you, maybe a few times, and you always came back stronger and meaner for it.” The spirit stopped a few feet from her, sniffing the air. Still Sofia didn’t move. “I don’t think you’re bad. I think you know that given the choice, people would cut down the trees for lumber and plant their crops on the cleared land. If they did that enough, there wouldn’t be a Trenten Wood anymore. You’re just defending yourself from people who haven’t learned to live in harmony with the land, people who think they know better.”

The spirit tilted its head to the side and looked at Sofia.

“You never give problems to people who are just passing through,” said Sofia. “So I hope you’ll treat me just the same as them. We’ve stopped encroaching on the Trenten Wood because you used force against us, but I think we both wish that it hadn’t come to that.” She held a hand forward, palm up. “I can’t speak for all people, but I’m not going to do anything to hurt you. Deal?”

The spirit moved forward and nudged her hand with a surprisingly warm nose.

“Good,” said Sofia. She let out a sigh of relief. “You can keep me company while I walk, if you’d like.”

She turned to move, putting the massive spirit behind her, but the moment she did, she felt herself yanked backward. She almost lost the grip on her pack when she landed in a thick expanse of fur, but she closed her eyes tight and held on to her belongings with one hand while the other dug deep to grab a handful of the spirit’s shaggy fur. After nothing more happened, Sofia righted herself and looked around; she was sitting on top of the spirit, right in the small of its back. When she had situated herself a little bit better, the spirit began to move, trundling forward through a forest that seemed to move out of its way.

Sofia leaned down and hugged the spirit close.

“Thank you,” she breathed. “When I get home, I promise I’ll try my best to make sure you don’t have to hurt anyone again.”


Henry spent an inordinate amount of time at the orphanage. Ventor’s arrival was a truly frightening thing; it threw everything into jeopardy. Omarr and Hirrush were both in danger, as was Adrianna, not to mention Henry himself. He wasn’t sure what the oathkeeper wanted with the missing child, but it clearly had something to do with the prophecy. Why this was being dug into now, sixteen years after the fact, was a question that Henry kept coming back to. Something must have changed.

“I could dip into his head,” said Henry on the first night. “He’s dangerous, I need to know what he knows. With the speed that I can chew through memories, if I worked through the night it wouldn’t take me longer than a day to find a recent memory and from there I might be able to work backwards in order to get at the instructions that were given to him or the text of the prophecy itself.”

“He’s important,” said Hirrush. “The armor he wears is magical. You said the sword seemed to be too. That means he’s not just any oathkeeper, he’s one with a high rank, a one-man army. Most probably, his orders come from the king himself. That means that the royal mentalist will have planted a seed in his head, which in turn means that any attempt to breach his mind will be met with lethal force. You can’t attempt it, not safely.”

“If we breached together?” asked Henry.

“I’m rusty,” said Hirrush. “Perhaps if we worked the job together, we’d stand a chance, but it would leave me crippled for days afterward. I wouldn’t mind killing an oathkeeper, it’s just a question of whether conventional means are better.”

“I don’t want to kill him,” said Henry.

“He wants to kill us,” said Omarr. “He’s the same man who came here sixteen years ago. He killed a few hedge wizards then and did it with a ruthless efficiency. You said he doesn’t eat or drink? There are bound to be some powerful oaths there. It’s even possible we’re dealing with the most powerful oathkeeper in all of Donkerk.”

“I still don’t want to kill him,” said Henry.

“I don’t either, for what that’s worth,” said Adrianna. The witch had been brought in for an emergency council. She was the most at risk out of all of them, owing to the fact that she had been practicing in a semi-public manner for quite a long time. Her patrons were numerous; any of them could turn her in.

“It’s not a matter of voting,” said Hirrush. “It’s a matter of whether we’d even be capable of it.”

“We should start preparing for a rapid exit,” said Omarr. He looked down at his left hand, where he was already missing two of his fingers. “We’ll do the ritual ahead of time and be ready to enact it at a moment’s notice.”

“And leave all this behind?” asked Hirrush. “The books alone are worth a considerable fortune. All our implements, the onyx altar … it’s our home, Omarr.”

“Home is meaningless if we’re dead,” replied Omarr. “I have two caches set up, one in Marurbo and the other in Nalian. We can go to either, but we should decide now. Once we’re prepared to leave, then we can think of killing the oathkeeper.” He saw Henry’s look. “Or not killing the oathkeeper and trying to stick this one out.”

“I passed his first inspection,” said Henry. “If I stay close to him, I can have some control of where he decides to look. He’s been sent on a fool’s errand anyway. If he was sent by the king, the king is acting in desperation. And in the worst case scenario … I can hand myself in.”

“Don’t be daft,” said Omarr.

“We don’t know what the prophecy says,” replied Henry. “Maybe the king wants me dead, but we can’t be sure. Maybe I’m supposed to be his adviser.”

“That’s precisely why it’s too dangerous,” said Hirrush. “It’s uncertain.”

Henry rubbed his forehead. The only upside was that they were listening to him and arguing the point instead of simply trying to dictate the next move or cutting him out of the conversation entirely. “Ventor doesn’t know I’m the one that he’s looking for. If I leave suddenly, the sisters will notice, which will draw Ventor’s attention. If we’re going to evacuate to one of the boltholes, we need to make some excuse that explains where I went, unless we want Ventor on the scent. He’s under the Oath of Fealty, which means that he’ll be tenacious. He’ll have to be, or he’d lose all that power he worked so hard to gain.”

Omarr swore. “You’re right. You’re a known quantity. If you disappear, Ventor would come by the cottage, where he’d find dozens of major wards and a whole library full of books, any one of which is a hanging crime to own.”

“You could tear up the wards and burn the cottage as you leave,” said Adrianna. “But … that would be suspicious as well, if there weren’t bodies to find in the fire.”

“I have a ritual for that,” said Hirrush. “One to reshape the bones of a cow. We could stage a house fire.”

“That’s drastic,” said Henry. “Let me get in some time by Ventor’s side. I can help guide his investigation. I can keep him from thinking that I’m who he wants. Maybe I can find out what he wants from me.”

“That’s courageous,” said Omarr with a frown. “Exactly the sort of thing that your father and I are worried about.”

Yet the next morning, they let him go. Henry’s fathers were making preparations in a number of ways, so that they might slip away without leaving behind a trace, and so that if worse came to worst they would be able to open up with all the firepower available to them. Adrianna was understandably reluctant to come with them, but her life was in danger far more than theirs was. For his part, Henry tried to pretend that everything could stay the same in the wake of the oathkeeper’s arrival. So long as the future didn’t hold too many more surprises, maybe that was even possible.


The spirit of the Trenten Wood took Sofia on a circuitous path through his domain. She had thought that the Trenten Wood was mostly the same, simply trees clustered around the Lenten River and its tributaries, but the spirit was eager to show her that she was wrong. He took her to a small clearing that held a gentle lake, walked beside her as they came across a family of deer, and gave a happy roar when they found a blackberry bush for her to eat from. There were many rocks that jutted up from within the thick, loamy earth of the forest, and there were places where the trees were nearly overtaken by brush. Sofia slept huddled against his massive form, luxuriating in the heat that he gave off. She tried to track their location by the sun, but after the second day she was throughly lost and couldn’t tell whether they were making progress north at all. Ulf had been possessive in the same way, leaving her side only rarely. Sofia began to worry that their tour of the Lenten Wood wasn’t taking her north at all, but just as she was trying to figure out how to communicate her will to the spirit, they broke through a line of trees, beyond which was a large town.

“Leshampur,” said Sofia. “So you did know. What’s more, I think you’ve saved me quite a few days of travel and some awfully sore legs at that.” She climbed down off the spirit and looked at the buildings arrayed before her. Leshampur was the last port of trade along the Lenten, before it became unsuitable for travel by boat.

The spirit of the Trenten Wood turned its head around and buried its muzzle in its fur. When it turned back around, it had one of the small purple flowers that adorned its back clutched gently in its teeth. He prodded Sofia with his nose, just once, then held the flower toward her. She plucked it from his teeth and tucked it behind her ear, then wrapped him in as much of a hug as she could, which wasn’t very much given his size.

“Thank you,” she whispered. “You were a good help, and I enjoyed seeing your forest.”

When she pulled back, the spirit cocked its head to the side.

“I remember what we talked about,” said Sofia. “I’ll talk to my father when I get back and I’ll make sure that we come to an arrangement regarding people trying to encroach.”

The spirit bear huffed once and turned away, trundling back off into the woods without much more in the way of goodbye, leaving Sofia all alone. She turned to look at Leshampur. Her pack was nearly empty of food following her time in the Trenten Wood, even with the occasional stop to eat from the bounty of the forest. She smelled more than she thought a princess was ever supposed to smell, though she didn’t find it terribly offensive. She didn’t have terribly much dye left for her hair either. Sofia was going to have to stop in Leshampur, there was no way around that. Given that she was stopping though, there was one minor bit of business that she could look into; Leshampur was the home of her prophesied savior. With a number of goals in mind, Sofia strode forward, toward her destiny.

The Fated Meeting

Rowan sipped his wine across from his father, not looking at the conspicuously absent chair to his left. They were eating in the Blue Room, as was custom. Dinner was venison steak and mashed yams, both done with an expertise that elevated them above their status as common peoples’ food. For the first three days of Sofia’s disappearance, King Aldric had insisted that a place be set for her so that she would be able to eat something when she was returned, but now the only reminder she was gone was the chair she normally sat in and the silence that filled the air.

“What will you do if she never returns?” asked Rowan.

“The oathkeepers will find her,” said the king. He pushed his food around with a fork.

“She’s young,” said Rowan. “She’s naive about the ways of the world and has been ever since you decided that you would lock her up. Something might happen to her before your puppets track her down.”

Aldric stared at Rowan with piercing eyes. “Don’t say such things. Not about your sister and not about the oathkeepers.”

“I was only asking what you’ll do if she doesn’t return,” said Rowan. “Surely you must have a plan?”

Aldric sighed, but he kept proper posture and the Boreal Crown did not waver on his head. “I know you mean only to wound me,” he said. “But the question is not without founding, no matter how callously delivered. My dukes will ask the same; perhaps they already do in private. First the royal mentalist and now this … it does not look good. For now I have said that your sister will return or be returned, but if that does not happen …”

He trailed off and stared at his plate. Rowan would have given anything to know where that line of thought was leading his father. The king was only in his forties, but he seemed impossibly old across the dinner table.

“You should bring me out into the light,” said Rowan. “Sofia is gone. So be it. You’re papering the kingdom with a reward for her return, which is showing everyone that you’ve lost track of her. That’s not what I would have done, but that’s nothing that can be changed now. What you need to do is show strength. You wish to keep the dukes in line? Give me to them. Show them that the family line is strong. Show them that we are a legacy, a continuity of father and son.”

King Aldric looked up from his food and met Rowan’s eyes with a grimace. “I would never do that,” he said quietly. “You insult me in one breath and ask for my support in the next. You never learned the value of honeyed words or the need to keep your true thoughts hidden. If you had wanted into my good graces, you should have been better at pretending to not be such a foul creature. But even then, you wouldn’t have managed to fool me. Your lust for power is too transparent to allow you to acquire it.”

Rowan felt his mood darkening considerably, mostly because his father was right. Rowan had fallen into the habit of barbs too easily when the conversation began, simply because it had felt so right. Yet it had been this way before too, years back when Rowan had still loved his father, when Rowan had thought that there was something he could do to curry his father’s favor. Not even motivated interest was enough to break through. It shouldn’t have mattered that King Aldric didn’t like his son, Rowan was only offering himself up as a tool to placate the dukes. The more thought Rowan gave the matter, the more angry he grew. He had only been nasty to his father because his father had started it first. The kingdom would fall in Rowan’s hands one day, one way or another, but Aldric refused to give his son due consideration. Then he had the gall to make the accusation that it was Rowan who was power hungry.

The rest of the dinner was eaten in silence. When Rowan had finished, he left for his room without any further exchange, then laid on his bed and fell into his mindscape. If the negotiations with his father had gone poorly, at least there were other paths to try.

His first stop was Ibrahim’s mind, which was still a flat desert with an endlessly starry sky. Rowan had burrowed down, trying to find some rooms, or anything that would give him access to the mentalist’s memories, but there seemed to be nothing but more sand. It had taken Rowan an embarrassingly long time to recognize that the mindscape he was entering into was only an antechamber, only connected to the real thing by some narrow method was Ibrahim had hidden. Once he’d realized that was true, Rowan had screamed and cursed, the noise hidden from the oathkeepers outside his door by the fact that he’d been restrained enough to keep his rage within the mental realm. Ibrahim had at least one defense still in place, but owing to the difficulty of the technique it would be hard to crack, especially since Ibrahim had left this particular matter from Rowan’s training regime. It wasn’t in Ibrahim’s many books either, though for a mentalist it was nothing to simply keep a copy of sensitive material in the mind instead. Unfortunately, the antechamber that Ibrahim had constructed barred Rowan’s access to the very materials that might allow him to bypass that barrier. It was a key that lay within the room that it had locked.

Rowan’s second stop was to his father’s mind. The seed Ibrahim had left behind had been swiftly dispatched, leaving only an empty house for Rowan to explore. The skies were overcast and the wind was strong enough to rattle the windows, but this was only a reflection of his father’s mood. The house was of a simple style, like those favored in the farmlands of Donkerk. Rowan’s grandfather, King Oswald, had taken his children out for vacations to a farmhouse in order for them to experience the life of their subject firsthand, without all of the servants to do the work for them. Rowan’s father had spoken of those times fondly, though he’d never given his own children such an experience. Aldric’s mindscape was surely a reflection of that formative experience, though the interior of the place was far more expansive and finely decorated than the farmhouse of his youth must have been.

It was hard to make sense of another person’s mind. The memories were rarely stored in sensible ways and more complex things like skills or languages were difficult to find and comprehend. A mentalist could shape their own mindscape into something sleek and efficient, but for someone whose mind had been mostly untouched, the mindscape was symbolism which almost perfectly obscured meaning. Every piece of the mind had some representation in the mindscape, but finding and unraveling those representations was the hardest trick a mentalist could master. It was for this reason that changing a person’s mind from within the mental realm was exceedingly difficult, at least if the mentalist had any desire for the results to be predictable.

Rowan moved quickly through the house until he found the room he wanted. The rest of the house was clean and tidy, but this single room was not just disused but in ill repair. The floorboards were warped and splintered, there was water damage on the ceiling, and bits of the wall had started to crumble. The furniture and decorations within were all similarly broken, dirty things. The room stood in stark contrast to the rest of the house. Rowan was certain that this was where he would find what he wanted. If his father’s mind held answers, this was where they would be. He picked up a flawed gemstone from a box on the side of the table and began the tedious work of unpacking the symbol.

It was five hours before he finally got it. As a proof of concept, it showed only that this method of information gathering was far too slow to be worthwhile. Rowan dove into the memory with resignation, knowing that it was almost certainly not worth the effort.

“We must speak of Rowan,” said a rich, mellow voice. Duke Pallwin sat atop a horse at the edge of a forest. His broad nose was red with the cold, as the memory seemed to take place in winter. Pallwin’s thick fingers held tight to the reins. “If you die and the crown passes on —”

“I know,” replied King Aldric. Rowan found himself speaking with his father’s voice, using the same tenor that was always backed by a hint of command. “The Boreal Crown is not something I take lightly.” Aldric took the crown down from his head and held it out in front of him. His fingers traced the prongs of it. Though by all appearances it was made of gold, it was nearly weightless in his hands. “I care for this kingdom, you know that I do.”

“Continuity is the watchword of every right-thinking ruler,” said Pallwin. “You should have remarried after Tanya’s unfortunate passing. Two children are not enough to ensure the continuity which we seek, especially not when they are specimens such as your son and daughter.”

“There is nothing wrong with Sofia,” said Aldric. His voice was so sharp that Pallwin staggered back from the force of it. That was the power of the Boreal Crown.

“She is young,” said Pallwin. “She has no training in the ways of the world, nor has she taken any responsibilities upon herself, nor has she been given any. If she were to take the crown, she would be guided by the sages, but the sages become unruly without a firm hand. Perhaps a worse scenario is that she would become the puppet of one of the other dukes. Donkerk has suffered under figureheads before. Yet before we speak of Sofia as queen, we must speak of Rowan.”

“No,” said Aldric. “There is nothing to discuss. There is no point you could bring up that I would not have already thought of. I have considered the problem of Rowan carefully.” Rowan flinched at that and nearly dropped from the memory.

“If you would grant me a pardon for what I must say,” said Pallwin. “You have taken a half measure with the boy.”

“A half measure is what was called for,” said Aldric. “I was looking to the future and dealing with the doubts that plague me.”

“It would be simplicity to kill him,” said Pallwin. “I understand your reticence and the complications involved, but it would be better for the kingdom if there is no chance the crown lands upon his head.”

Aldric hesitated. Rowan’s heart broke in that short span of time. His father was thinking of having him killed. “No,” said Aldric after some time had passed. “No, that would leave only Sofia as heir and with her fate so uncertain I cannot allow it.”

The memory ended there and left Rowan sitting on the bed in shock. His father should have beheaded Pallwin for the mere suggestion, let alone a brazen offer, but instead his father had considered it. The question remained as to why, if it went beyond the fights they’d had and the animosity they’d shared. Rowan looked around the room at the unpleasant memories of his father. There were secrets here which held a value, but no time to look through them all. Ibrahim had been dealt with. Sofia had been removed from the picture. The time for Rowan to make his move was drawing near. He would delve into the memories of his father, but eventually it would be time to act.


It was not a matter of chance that Henry was at the front of the orphanage when he saw the girl nervously circling. He had stationed himself there ever since Ventor had arrived, mostly so that he could review the information first. The sisters were all still involved in the actual work of running the orphanage, but Henry had made himself into the point of first contact for anyone stopping in. Most of the people coming by were boys his age, eager to get the reward being offered by Ventor, which required nothing more than a brief interview and some marks on Ventor’s growing stacks of paper. On the rare occasion when a prospective parent came knocking, Henry would go to fetch Sister Miriam so she could speak with them.

“Sorry, it’s for boys only,” said Henry when he saw that the girl was coming to the door of the orphanage. She had short brown hair and dressed in a simple fashion, wearing loose brown pants instead of a proper skirt. She was wearing a small satchel at her side and had a sort of disheveled look that Henry associated with the exceptionally poor.

The girl cocked her head to the side and looked at Henry. “What’s for boys only?” she asked.

“The treats,” said Henry. “They’re only for boys, he won’t see you if you’re a girl. We’ve had a few try already.” He watched her puzzled expression. “Unless you’re not here about the prophecy?”

The girl opened her mouth and closed it again. “Well, I am, but … I’m sorry, I think we must not be understanding each other.” She stepped forward and extended a hand. “My name is Fiona, my uncle is one of the king’s sages. I came looking for information about a prophecy.”

“I’m Henry,” said Henry, shaking her hand. He re-evaluated her appearance. She wasn’t poor, as he’d thought, she was simply well-traveled. It was quite a distance from Marurbo to Leshampur, more than anyone would go on a whim. “Can you tell me what’s happening that’s stirred up the hornet’s nest?” he asked. “Ventor is bound by an oath not to tell me.”

The girl froze in place for a moment, then turned to leave, then turned back toward Henry. “Can we make a deal?” she asked.

“It’s always possible,” nodded Henry. “Though I suppose it depends on the specifics.”

“Alright,” said Fiona. “If I tell you what I know about the prophecy, you won’t mention to Rector Ventor that I was here?”

Henry looked behind him, toward the orphanage, then stepped closer to the girl and lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “I’ll agree to that if you’ll also agree to tell me why it is that you don’t want him to know you were here,” said Henry. “I’m sort of his assistant and I’d feel terrible if I were betraying him.”

Fiona frowned. “I’ll agree to that conditional on you telling me what you know about what Ventor is doing here.”

“This deal is getting a little bit out of hand,” said Henry with a shrug. “Come on, I know a place where we can get a drink in private.”

They walked together over to the Crowning Rooster, which was several blocks from the orphanage. Henry slipped into a booth at the back, which was well away from the light. It felt suitably clandestine for their purposes, though the smiling barmaid called Henry by his name which more or less ruined the effect. Fiona ordered a plate of food as well, which further dampened the mood, though Henry supposed that it made sense to eat if they were going to be sitting down anyway.

“So,” said Fiona. “Tell me what Ventor is doing here.”

“But that’s the least important bit,” said Henry. “I want to know what the prophecy says.”

“Exactly. We don’t trust each other,” said Fiona. “Or rather, I don’t trust you. So we should start small.”

Henry watched her face. There were many women in his life, including the four Foresworn sisters and Adrianna, and there were a number of girls below ten years old inhabiting the orphanage, who pestered him sometimes, but there were no women his own age. He was slowly deciding that Fiona was pretty, in a rough and wild way. She looked uncultured, but didn’t speak like it. Henry imagined that he appeared the same to her; he had a through education from his fathers and had read more books than most people ever saw in their lifetime.

“Sixteen years ago a baby was stolen from the orphanage,” said Henry. “Ventor is here in futile quest to find the boy that baby grew up into.”

“Futile?” asked Fiona.

Henry nodded. “I’ve mentioned as much to him, but he’s got his orders and has to find some way of fulfilling them, even if what’s being asked of him is basically impossible.” These were minor lies, but not ones that Henry felt bad about. “First, the baby might not have lived to become a boy. Second, the baby might have been taken far away from here. There’s no guarantee that he’s around here. Third, Ventor has no method of authentication even if he stumbled across the right boy. He’s been doing interviews, but so far that’s turned up nothing, and there’s no guarantee that the boy would even know he’d been stolen as a baby anyway. So yes, it’s futile.” That was more or less the argument that he’d used to convince his fathers to stay for the time being. That Ventor had already missed the boy he was looking for was, of course, a fourth mark against the quest, but Henry didn’t say that. “From what I can gather, this has to do with some prophecy that he’s trying to resolve, but he’s sworn an oath not to tell. Which is where you can fill in the gaps, right?”

The barmaid came by then and laid a plate of food in front of Fiona, a full steak with vegetables on the side. The girl began tearing it apart with the serrated knife and began eating it down with a minimum of decorum. After a few minutes of this she looked up at Henry with a bite halfway to her mouth.

“The princess has gone missing,” said Fiona. She set her fork down. “There’s a prophecy that she’s going to die, or at least be seriously wounded. She’s supposedly somewhere to the east, trying to commune with the spirit of the desert or something like that.” She was watching Henry closely. He tried not to give anything away by his expression. Even if he’d bluntly said that he’d spent a week with the princess he doubted she would believe him, but there was no point in pushing his luck. “At any rate, all the sages, oathkeepers, and everyone else is working on this problem under the assumption that the prophecy is nigh.”

“Which is why you’re here?” asked Henry.

“The sage Baktar is my uncle,” said Fiona. “There was one likely reading of the prophecy that had the princess’ savior as being an orphan from Leshampur.”

“Huh,” said Henry. “So … the orphan that was stolen from the orphanage is going to save the princess?” He began to smile; he couldn’t help himself. He had been trying his best to get in a position where he could meet with Sofia on equal footing, but it appeared that he was literally prophesied to save her life.

“The prophecy is unclear,” said Fiona. “It’s not clear what fate is going to befall the princess, except that it’s going to be bad, probably. It doesn’t say what the savior is going to do, or whether he’s a savior of the princess or the kingdom or some totally unrelated thing. The princess is going to be hurt by a dark wizard, but that doesn’t really help any either.” She sighed, then caught Henry’s eyes. “At any rate, my uncle has been puzzling over this along with all the other sages, even the ones that don’t know a single thing about prophecy, and they didn’t really get anywhere. Worse, the king is trying to keep everything quiet. I didn’t know until just now that the supposed savior was lost. Apparently the effort to find him is futile.” She shrugged.

Henry sat back in the booth and watch Fiona as she continued to eat her steak in large mouthfuls. She had been smiling until she mentioned a dark wizard, which had immediately killed his mood. He knew two dark wizards. He didn’t think his fathers would ever hurt Sofia, not unless they had a good, compelling reason, or if it was necessary to save Henry’s life. The more he thought about it, the more conditionals he had to add on to that statement. Just as he was coming to the conclusion that it was not just possible but likely, he realized that he actually knew another dark wizard: himself.

Henry would never intentionally hurt Sofia. Yet that was a thought that needed to be amended as soon as he’d had it. His fathers had instructed him well in dark magic; there were costs which had to be weighed against benefits. What made dark magic dark was the fact that it often created choices which were uncomfortable. Normal people liked to pretend that a baby’s life was infinitely valuable, but a dark wizard was dark because he could see that this wasn’t actually the case. Certainly a baby’s life had to be valued less than the life of two babies. Anyone who wasn’t willing to sacrifice one baby to save the lives of two babies was not only stupid but a complete monster — or at least, that was what Omarr had said. Henry had never really disagreed with that. And once you accepted that there was one scenario where it was acceptable to sacrifice a baby, you had to start wondering whether there were others. Surely two babies was wildly overshooting the value of one baby. Dark wizards were marked by their rejection of the absolutes that some people pretended actually existed. Henry therefore had to begin evaluating what, exactly, Sofia was worth to him. If fate as the agent of prophecy were to twist things up badly enough that Henry was forced to make a choice, would he sacrifice Sofia in order to save his fathers? Henry considered it for a moment before deciding that he probably wouldn’t sacrifice Sofia, but that decision would depend on the circumstances. Sofia didn’t have infinite value, at least. There were some situations in which he would hurt her, if he had to. It wasn’t impossible that the prophecy was implicating him.

“You’ve gone quiet,” said Fiona. Her plate was completely clean, save for a small puddle of juice from the steak, which she was sopping up with a piece of bread. “But it would appear that our agreement has come to its logical conclusion, so I suppose I’ll leave you to your thoughts.” She began to slide out from the booth, but Henry put up a hand.

“The agreement was that I wouldn’t tell Ventor you’d come by,” said Henry. “That’s something that I have to do in perpetuity. And you told me that you would tell me why you didn’t want Ventor to know you’re here.”

“Ah,” said Sofia. “I was thinking maybe you forgot about that.”


Sofia was spinning lies faster than she ever had before. She’d done some freewheeling improvisation during her sojourns into Marurbo, but those were almost always brief encounters that didn’t dig too much beyond the pleasantries. It had been easy to pretend to be someone who merely worked in the castle instead of being a princess. She’d never been caught, but that didn’t count for much. Now though, she was speaking to this boy who had a direct line to Ventor, one of the most fearsome oathkeepers in the kingdom. Anything she said to Henry might leak back to Ventor. She had to hope that Henry would keep his word, but she needed something to tell him that would convince him to keep his mouth shut.

“There’s always been tension between the oathkeepers and the sages,” said Sofia. She would start with the truth, which was always more compelling than fiction. “The oathkeepers are charged with the defense of the kingdom and the sages are charged with keeping the king informed so that he can properly run the kingdom. Or at least, that’s how it’s supposed to be. The High Rectory has a large degree of autonomy and the sages don’t really have an organizational structure —” Sofia paused. “I’m sorry, I’m babbling.”

“No,” said Henry. “I have time. I don’t know too much about how things are really done in the south. I’ve read about how the kingdom is structured, but there’s often a large difference between theory and reality.”

“You’ve read?” asked Sofia with a frown.

“In books?” asked Henry with a puzzled look.

“No, I just meant … the majority of the commoners in the farmlands are illiterate,” said Sofia. “Those that are literate don’t have a wide variety of books to read. And even if you did have the books to read, the critical thinking you’d need to question whether the books are telling you something true. No offense.”

“I’ll take it as a compliment,” said Henry with a grin. “But you were telling me why it is you don’t want Ventor to know you’d stopped by?”

“Ah, yes,” said Sofia. “Well, as I was saying, the sages are nominally in charge of giving the king advise about all sorts of things so he can run the country and the oathkeepers are in charge of defending the kingdom against all manner of threats, but there are places where things get muddy. For example, the High Rectory has argued that famine is a threat to the kingdom that their oaths compel them to defend against. In theory, the only thing stopping them from building granaries or even clearing land to create tenant farmers is the direct order of the king himself.” She almost stumbled there and said my father. She was becoming too invested in her explanation and made an effort to compose herself. “The oathkeepers wouldn’t actually do something like that, because they wouldn’t want the king to become involved and there’s the political issue of what the dukes would think of the matter, but they do stretch their power in various ways, mostly by giving advice to the king on how to run his country, supposedly as part of their primary mandate of defending the kingdom. It goes the other way as well, of course. The sages know that the oathkeepers are one of the tools of governance and a large number of them have taken the Oath of Fealty. They often give the king advice on how to treat the oathkeepers.”

Henry’s eyes lit up. “I think I can fill in the rest. The oathkeepers and the sages aren’t working together, they’re playing against each other. You’re an agent for the sages, probably the best that they could do on short notice — no offense — and you were told to avoid the oathkeepers because this was supposed to be their side of the division of responsibilities. If the prophecy is sixteen years old, that gives them plenty of time to have fought over the matter.” He leaned back in his seat. “If I told Ventor about you, I’d be giving ammunition for the oathkeepers to use against the sages. Worse, once that happened your uncle would probably be upset with you.” He cocked his head to the side. “How’d I do?”

Sofia watched him. He was too clever by half, which meant she probably didn’t want to spend too much time around him. “You’re close,” she said. Because it was all lies anyway, there was no point in validating what he’d said. “My uncle was more worried about me being deputized. The oathkeepers have a perennial need for personnel, which means that they pull in people from wherever they can in a time of crisis. Ventor has the authority to take command of me, which means that the whole trip would be for nothing.”

“For nothing unless you helped to solve it,” said Henry with a nod. “The credit would go to the oathkeepers, true, but something would still be accomplished by your presence. Obviously the individual preferences are getting in the way of actually accomplishing goals. You want to please your uncle, so you won’t do the proper thing and just talk to Ventor and offer your help.”

Sofia felt her face redden, even though what she’s said was a lie. She had never been called dishonorable before. The irony of being upset about that slight while lying through her teeth and under disguise while on the lam was not lost on her, but it didn’t help her to feel much better about things. “I think I can work things out better without Ventor anyway,” she said.

“How?” asked Henry. He didn’t seem incredulous, only genuinely curious. It was fair question.

“You said yourself that what Ventor is doing is futile,” said Sofia. “The only thing he knows about the lost orphan is that it’s a boy between the ages of fifteen and seventeen, but possibly passing for younger or older, which means one out of every hundred people. You fit that description and I doubt that Ventor would be able to tell if you were the orphan he was looking for.” Sofia paused. “You’re not, are you?”

A wide grin split Henry’s face and he began to laugh. “No,” he replied.

“Well it didn’t hurt to check,” said Sofia. “But even you saying that wouldn’t help Ventor, because you could be lying, or you could be ignorant. So Ventor’s doing his best, but he’s going down a path that can’t possibly lead him where he needs to go.”

“And you’re going to do better?” asked Henry.

“Well,” said Sofia. “Maybe I could. The prophecy has been gone over with a fine-toothed comb a thousand times by the sages, with each line picked apart and each assumption looked at closely. So if I wanted to find the missing orphan I would try to think of something that hadn’t been thought of by dozens of men who gave the matter thousands of hours of thought. I can do that better without an oathkeeper bossing me around.”

“And have you?” asked Henry.

“Have I what?” asked Sofia.

“Have you thought of something that no one else thought of?” he asked.

“No,” Sofia replied. “But that doesn’t mean trying isn’t a good option.”

“But you do know the full prophecy then?” asked Henry. He leaned forward in his seat. “Can I hear it?”

Sofia shifted in her seat. Henry had been nice enough to her. She’d never really had a friend before; she’d had hand-maids and guards, and her brother Rowan, but none of them were really friends. She had spirit friends, Ulf chief among them, but she didn’t really think that they counted either. In a different time and place, Sofia thought that she and Henry could have become friends. He was easy to talk to, in part because he was quick to pick up her lines of thought. Yet Ventor had been prohibited from speaking the prophecy, presumably for some reason. The only question was whether her father had given that command out of his usual paranoia or whether there was some greater reason she was ignorant of.

“I’m not supposed to say,” said Sofia. Henry’s face began to fall. “But … okay.” She had memorized that prophecy and the words came out easily.

A princess with hair of flame lays beneath the throne,

Vengeful spirits cloak her fragile form.

Blood-soaked clothes and shattered bone,

The dark wizard wrapped in brewing storm.

As the princess draws first breath,

The swaddled savior is left behind.

Where the blackened river crosses land of Neth,

The infant forged by those who shape his mind.

Henry’s brow was furrowed while he listened. When Sofia was finished, he sat there with his eyes focused on a spot in the middle of the table, not moving at all.

“Do you need me to repeat it?” asked Sofia.

“No,” replied Henry. “I have a good memory. I’m just trying to untangle it.” He shook his head. “I wish I could speak to the sages and get their interpretations. They’d be mostly wrong, but even then … Ventor had mentioned that the princess had gone away. That’s why he came up here, right?” He looked up at Sofia and she was worried that the disguise would fail her. Yet the boy was still grinding his gears against the problem she’d laid before him, even given what she’d said about sages having gone through everything. She had no idea why he would think that he’d be able to figure out something that had eluded far more learned men. “Only the prophecy is about the princess laying beneath the throne, so she’d be in even less danger elsewhere, wouldn’t she? Does the princess know the prophecy?”

“She does,” said Sofia. She resisted the urge to smile. She had never tired of speaking of herself in the third person. “But throne doesn’t have to mean the throne the king sits on. It could be a dark wizard’s throne on bones. Or sometimes ‘throne’ is used to mean a sovereign power, like when we say that someone is going to assume the throne.”

“So the princess might not actually be safe,” said Henry. “I thought she was being headstrong in running away, but if she’s in danger … you said she went east?”

“Or west,” Sofia shrugged. “She was going to commune with one of the elder spirits.”

“But the line was ]vengeful spirit’ — wait, no, ‘vengeful spirits’, so maybe —”

“I’m sorry,” said Sofia. “But you’re not adding anything new. We have no way of knowing why the spirits are vengeful. We don’t know how the word cloak is being used, so we don’t know whether the connotation is positive or negative or maybe even both. You’re not going to figure this out on your own in the course of an afternoon.”

Henry’s lips twitched. “Well, you said that was our best option, didn’t you?”

“I said it was my best option,” replied Sofia.

Henry blinked at her. “Sorry, I just thought … well, if you’re going to be around Leshampur, I can get you whatever information you need from the orphanage, and you’d need someone who knows the area.”

“I’m not staying,” said Sofia. She knew that wasn’t a wise thing to admit, but she said it anyway. If she told him she’d be staying at an inn in town, he would eventually try to find her. She imagined him being put out at the realization that she had lied to him. More practically, that might compel him to tell Ventor.

“Well … where are you going then?” asked Henry.

“North,” replied Sofia. “Beyond that, I won’t say. But I do wish you and Ventor luck.”

“Oh,” said Henry. “You’ll be leaving soon?”

“Just as soon as we’re done here,” said Sofia. “Given that we’ve fulfilled every exchange of information we’d agreed on and then some .. I really do need to get going.”

“Well,” said Henry. “Thank you for telling me some things that you didn’t have to. If you were staying … well, I wish you were staying. If you come through Leshampur again on your way back south, I wouldn’t mind hearing what you found. And if I’m ever in Marurbo, I hope it’s not too presumptuous of me to think of you as the one person I know there. I might look you up.”

“Okay,” said Sofia. But he’d be looking up Fiona, a girl who didn’t actually exist. She kept her mouth shut though.

“It was nice meeting you,” said Henry. “I’ll keep my mouth shut around Ventor.”

“I know,” said Sofia. “And it was nice meeting you too.”

She slid out from the booth and laid a few coins on the table, then walked away without looking back. She felt miserable for lying to a nice boy who was doing his best to help, but there wasn’t any other choice. She couldn’t have revealed herself as the princess without risking a swift end to her journey north, especially not after Henry had seemed so concerned about the princess. They might have gotten along fine when she was just an assistant to one of the king’s sages, but there was something about the title of princess that caused people to react differently. Sofia had gone incognito enough to know that. As Sofia left the tavern, she focused on the road ahead of her. Leshampur had been a diversion, nothing more. Henry would fade into the distance as she covered the miles. She was sure she’d never see him again.


Henry was overwhelmed, for perhaps the first time in his life. Ventor’s appearance had been monumentally important, but it was merely mysterious and threatening, not confusing. The prophecy was on a whole different level. It had so many different words and clauses that it was tempting to simply give up and declare it indecipherable. Yet Henry felt sure that the prophecy was speaking of him. He didn’t know whether he was the dark wizard, but he was almost certainly the swaddled savior. He was ‘forged’ by his parents, who had shaped his mind in two different ways, the first by the lessons they’d imparted and the second through the mentalism he’d been taught by Hirrush. There was no longer any doubt in Henry’s mind that he was the one Ventor was looking for.

But beyond the matter of the prophecy there was something else that was warring for his attention. He’d felt a connection to Fiona, as though she were a long lost friend, or maybe even something more. She had been keeping things from him, but if the circumstances had been different, Henry was certain that they would have been fast friends. He felt a pang of guilt at that when he remembered Princess Sofia, who had long been the object of his affections. Her looks were the lesser part of Fiona’s appeal, but she was pretty, even if she was the sort of pretty girl that you had to spend some time around before realizing it. This caused some unwelcome confusion on top of the serious analysis that the prophecy required.

He walked back to the orphanage while he tried to arrange his thoughts. Once there, he found a quiet place next to the work shed, where he was shielded from view and was almost never disturbed. Henry had a knack for finding places like this. The one next to the shed had the benefit of being outside, on the orphanage’s plot of grass, and wouldn’t require him to see Ventor or Miriam, who might be ready with a task for him. He slipped into the mental realm and began to organize his thoughts.

He started with the issue of Fiona, because that required less in the way of serious thought. It was primarily an emotional problem rather than a logical one, but it would be an impediment to working on the prophecy. For the task of untangling his reaction, he created a thoughtform of Sofia.

This was not the first time he’d made a thoughtform of the princess. Hirrush had been his first thoughtform, because it was easier to practice with someone you were familiar with, but Sofia had been the second one he’d created. The memories of Sofia from when Henry been five years old predated his time as a mentalist, so they were far less distinct than any others. Worse, unless you knew the right techniques, memories warped and changed when you remembered them. Henry had remembered his time with Sofia quite frequently. Henry’s memories of Sofia were therefore less clear than they could have been, and where they were distinct, they probably weren’t accurate. He’d used them to make a thoughtform anyway. Obviously a five year old Sofia wouldn’t have been worth much, so he’d made her as he’d imagined she would be at his age.

The thoughtform of Sofia was a fantasy. The likeness was probably completely wrong, the personality was crude guesswork, and she was more a reflection of Henry’s own desires than anything else. Mentalism came with introspection, and Henry was naturally introspective on top of that, so he was completely aware of both the shortcomings of his model of Sofia and the flaws in his own mind that caused him to take comfort in it. He knew that the real Sofia would likely be a let-down if he held his Sofia up as a standard. He’d tried to add in some flaws to the thoughtform, both physical imperfections and rough parts to her personality, but it was difficult because he liked Sofia. She was still a fantasy. She stood in front of him in an elaborate pink dress and smiled.

“I’ve always said that you only liked me because I was first,” said Sofia. She went and sat down in a rocking chair.

“It’s so hard to tell whether that’s true,” said Henry. “Especially because up until now there hasn’t been a second.” He imagined his own chair, then sat in it as it appeared behind him.

“You should have made friends with girls your age,” said Sofia. “Then you would have known for sure whether I was special.”

“It’s hard to imagine a princess not being special,” said Henry.

“Maybe I’m a brat,” said Sofia. “I certainly was when we were little. Or maybe I’m so stupid that you’ll have to explain things to me three times before I understand.” She grinned. “I don’t suppose you could say the same about Fiona.”

“Don’t mock me,” said Henry with a smile. He often wondered whether it would be the same way with the real Sofia, whether his construction was at all similar to how she must be in real life. Certainly he was missing a number of details. Her physical appearance probably wasn’t right, given that he’d only known her when she was five and had tried to age her up from there. The thoughtform had inevitably had pieces filled in from other people Henry knew. The anatomy of her was mostly based on what Henry had studied in his father’s books.

“You should follow her,” said Sofia. She had turned serious, as she did sometimes.

“I’m not going to follow her,” said Henry. “What would I even say? That I wanted to go on an adventure together?”

“Why not?” asked Sofia. “You’ve been looking for a reason to leave home. You know it’s not safe in the long term, not with Ventor out for blood. So go. Follow her.”

Henry watched the princess closely as she sat in her pink dress with her hands folded in her lap. There were many reasons to create a thoughtform, but one of them was that it allowed a second viewpoint, a new lens to project the mind through. Henry could only handle one at a time, but Hirrush had said that a master mentalist could hold a whole round table discussion with various aspects of himself. His imagining of Sofia was doing something unexpected, which was exactly where thoughtforms had the most utility.

“You’ve hit on something,” Henry said. “What is it?”

Sofia shook her head. “I don’t know. There was something that you were thinking about. I must have made an intuitive leap, but what I crossed over … I don’t know.”

Henry’s recall was nearly perfect, especially over short time spans. “I was thinking about you,” he said. “I was thinking that you’re not what she would look like.” He leaned forward and rested his chin on his hand.

“That was it,” said Sofia. She began to smile, then laugh. “That was it!”

“Alright,” said Henry with a wave of his hand. “Let me in on the joke?” It would have been trivial to merge her thoughts back into his own, but that always made the construct seem less real to him.

Besides, she seemed unreasonably happy. Sofia wasn’t able to contain her smile. Her face was a picture of pure joy. “Henry, she was me.”


Ventor did not allow himself to believe that this venture was hopeless. The Oath of Fealty did not compel him to have hope, but he knew that he would perform better if he maintained the belief that what he was doing would somehow bear fruit. The boy, Henry, had laid out the hopelessness of it all on the first day, but Ventor had no better options. Even if he had been able to line up every single boy in Leshampur and the surrounding regions, he wouldn’t have been able to pick out the savior. There was no guarantee that the savior was anywhere near Leshampur either. There was no guarantee that the savior was alive. A letter with the king’s seal would countermand the order, but until that time Ventor was stuck seeking the savior promised by prophecy.

Much of his time was spent with interviews. There was a very low chance that he would incorrectly identify any of these children as the savior. There was a very high chance that he would let the savior slip by. To that end, he kept a file on each of the children that came to his attention. Ventor normally strode into battle with his tawny armor and mirrored blade, but now he had become an elaborate machine for taking in paper and ink and producing reams of information, enough to fill several books. The supplies were commandeered from a local bookbinder, who was quite happy about the matter given that he would receive well above market price for the inconvenience of losing his stock. Most of Ventor’s days consisted of speaking to people, though that had never been something he was terribly good at. He spoke with many of the potential candidates, of course, but also with many of the adults. He was looking for some crack he could slip his fingers into so that he could obtain some leverage on the problem. Unfortunately, interviews took quite a bit of time, as did compiling all the relevant documentation he needed to keep every fact straight. Ventor had uncovered a number of unseemly aspects about the town, but they were matters of infidelity, abuse, and petty crime, not anything that concerned the missing orphan. He took reports of dark magic more seriously; there would come a time in his investigation when he would be bound to seek out the witches and wizards that had come out of the woodwork following the purge he’d enacted sixteen years ago.

“Who do you suppose that was at the door?” asked Ventor.

Sister Miriam looked up from the papers. “Hrm?” she asked.

Miriam did not exude raw sexuality in the same way that Sister Clarice had, but Ventor had little doubt that she would be amenable to the same sort of arrangement that he’d made with other sisters. Those avenues had been sealed to him now, first with a greater elevation of the Oath of Chastity and later with the Strangheid Armor, but that didn’t stop him from feeling his urges. The wimple Miriam wore framed her face in a way that did wonders for her looks and her blue dress sometimes hugged her figure when she reached for things. He might have asked for the aid of Loris instead, but part of being an oathkeeper was testing your urges, and besides that, the desire for Miriam’s body was little enough compared to the constant companions of thirst and hunger.

“There was a knock on the door a while ago,” said Ventor. “Henry answered it, then left.”

“Oh,” said Miriam. She went back to her papers. “You’ll have to ask him when he gets back.”

“Tell me again how he came to work here?” asked Ventor.

Miriam sighed and stretched out, then steepled her fingers in front of her. “You still don’t trust him,” she said.

“He’s made himself very useful,” said Ventor. “I only have to wonder why he would do that.”

“Henry is a bright young boy looking for some purpose,” replied Miriam. “I’ve spoken with him often about becoming an oathkeeper, though I’m not entirely sure that it would suit him.”

Ventor gave no response to that. Henry was a bit old to be taking oaths, but Ventor had been old too. Miriam had been as well, though Ventor had learned that through Henry and ever discussed the matter with the sister. Henry didn’t seem like he had the right temperament for oathkeeping either, but that was again a place where he mirrored Ventor. It was widely known that passionate, active boys made for the strongest oathkeepers. It was the act of denial that gave the oaths their power, after all.

“Once business is concluded here I might speak to the boy,” said Ventor.

“Do you have any idea when that might be?” asked Miriam. She gestured to the piles of paper in front of them. “The documentation grows by the day, but I’m not sure that we’re drawing closer to a solution.” This was normally the point where she would say that she would be better able to help if she could hear the prophecy herself, but this time she thankfully left that unsaid. The reminder of his current failure stung enough. He was thankfully spared from making a response by Henry entering the room. The boy was slightly out of breath and Ventor stood with one hand on his sword.

“What’s the matter?” asked Ventor.

Henry glanced at the sword. “My grandmother is dying,” he said. “My father came to fetch me, but I had to stop by to tell you I’ll be gone for a few days, maybe as long as a few weeks.” He took a moment to catch his breath as he looked to the entrance to the orphanage. “My father’s been all over the city looking for me, I really need to get going and hope it doesn’t cause you too much trouble.” He turned to leave, back the way he came.

“Stop,” said Ventor. The command came out more harshly than he’d intended, but the boy stopped in his tracks and turned back around. “Who was it that came by an hour ago? You left with them.”

“It was my friend Nathan,’ said Henry. “He was in town and wanted to go to the market.” He glanced toward the door.

“You said that your father looked all over the city for you,” said Ventor. “Yet the first place he would have looked would have been here. You’re lying to me.”

“Now hold on,” began Miriam.

“Sorry,” said Henry. He looked to the door again, as though he was going to make a run for it despite Ventor’s overwhelming speed. “I shouldn’t have lied, but I didn’t want to burn my bridges here and I really do need to be going quickly. Would it suffice to say that I’ll be shirking my duties?”

“No,” replied Ventor. “Explain yourself.”

“He’s a volunteer,” said Miriam. “He doesn’t have to explain anything.”

“The kingdom is in crisis,” said Ventor. “I will not let him slip by without so much as a cursory answer. I would be derelict in my duty if I did so.”

“I know,” said Henry. He shook his head. “There’s a girl that I’ve been courting, Regina, the butcher’s daughter. I found out from Nathan that she’s leaving for a pilgrimage to the east, to visit the shrine of Saint Poris. She’s leaving in a half hour, but I need to get home, pack my things, and tell my parents, then race back and try to catch up with the oxen before nightfall. If I do, I get to spend four uninterrupted weeks together with her.” He looked to Miriam. “We’d have our own bedrolls, of course.” He looked back to Ventor. “Is that enough? Can I leave now? The time on the road will give me plenty of opportunity to write you both a fabulous apology for leaving you in the lurch like this.”

“Don’t ever lie to me again,” said Miriam with a resigned sigh. “Let the boy be a boy,” she said to Ventor.

Ventor frowned at Henry. “Go,” he said. There was more that Ventor was going to add, but the boy practically flew as he raced out the door.

“Would you really have held him?” asked Miriam. “Children lie all the time and Henry is so firmly in my good graces that he’s allowed a few moments like this.”

“He fits the profile,” said Ventor. “Surely you’ve noticed that?”

“You’ve had more opportunity to observe Henry than any other child,” said Miriam. “I recall seeing a sheaf of papers devoted to him somewhere in here.”

Ventor looked at the door Henry had left out of. “I’m looking for unusual things,” said Ventor. “I’m watching for a crack in the facade. Henry was always unusual, but this elevates him further.”

“You think that Henry was an orphan here?” asked Miriam. “What possible explanation can there be for him coming back here and then lying about it to us for more than a year?”

“I don’t know,” said Ventor. “But I don’t like the question it raises. Prophecy is a tricky thing. Strange questions with unpredictable answers would be nothing too terribly strange by the standards of prophecy, at least to hear the sages tell it.” He rubbed at his chin. For a moment he’d almost forgotten his hunger, that was how much thought he was putting to the matter of Henry. “I won’t stoop to following him, especially since he would notice me easily, but I think it might soothe my anxiety if I went to corroborate the young boy’s story.”


Henry ran north. Sofia had started out before him, but she’d most likely been trying to set a good pace for the day rather than moving at a jog. He couldn’t be entirely certain that she was telling the truth about where she was going, but if she’d been lying about that as well he would have no chance of finding her again. She had plenty of reasons to stick to the back roads, but if she were going north she would have to cross the Perwhile River. There was only one bridge that allowed for that, the one that had washed out the night that Henry was to be sacrificed. The poor structural integrity of that bridge was likely the reason that Henry had escaped from a life in the orphanage, but it had been rebuilt, thicker and stronger than before. If Henry could make it to the bridge ahead of Sofai, he had a good chance of finding her again, no matter which roads she took to get there.

He’d taken the time to rush through the memory of their meeting before leaving. She had lied to him, but he couldn’t hold that against her. What the princess was doing in Leshampur was a mystery, though not a complete one. She’d left her home and put on a disguise along with a false identity that was close to her real one. She’d avoided Ventor because he would recognize her and bring her home. She had come to the orphanage because she naturally had an interest in the prophecy, but she’d folded as soon as she’d heard that there was an oathkeeper inside, which meant that either was she preparing to mount a covert infiltration later in the night, or the orphanage wasn’t her primary objective.

Henry pounded down the road until he was breathing hard. If his reading of prophecy was right, then he was supposed to be the savior of the princess. Even if he hadn’t known that he would have tried to track her down, but the prophecy rattling around in his mind lent a certain sense of urgency to the matter. The part of the prophecy concerned with a dark wizard was ambiguous, but it didn’t have to mean anything bad. There was nothing to say that a dark wizard couldn’t protect the princess, though if she was bleeding and her bones were broken that didn’t bode well.

After every mile, Henry took a moment to step into his mindscape, landing right in the breaching room. He looked around at the minds that were within his range, trying to find Sofia. In the course of Hirrush’s instruction in mentalism, he had described Sofia’s mind as being a light purple with a floating tenor, but that had been when she was five years old. Henry could make a breach from a sixty yards away in ideal conditions, but he could sense a mind from a full half mile, a distance that Hirrush had seemed legitimately impressed by. The mental realm didn’t entirely map to the physical realm in terms of distance and direction, but it would hopefully be enough that he could see Sofia when he got close enough. Another check showed only a small cluster of minds to the east, likely a family in their house, along with the minds of a few creatures that were complex enough to register to Henry’s mental sense, if lacking in all but the most rudimentary of mindscapes.

Henry started jogging again, trying to think of what he would tell the princess when he reached her.

The Dueling Deceptions

The small, unassuming cottage with a sod-covered roof looked just the same as it ever had. Omarr and Hirrush stood back to look at their work, which mostly amounted to making sure that their work couldn’t be seen. Some of the wards would be activated only in the event of an emergency, but they had been prepared with the proper rituals and sacrifices, which meant physical evidence that had to be picked up after or washed away.

“It’s not enough,” said Omarr. “Not against Ventor. Henry said the man took an oath not to eat or drink, one he kept up for five years.”

“He’s the heir to Rector Delland,” said Hirrush. “You remember the stories about that old man, don’t you?”

“Which is why it’s not enough,” said Omarr. “We should be trying to find a way to kill the man, or force him to break his oaths.”

“Killing him wouldn’t be easy, and you know that oaths don’t break easy,” said Hirrush.

“He needs the armor,” replied Omarr. “It’s what lets him keep the oaths. Take away the armor and he’d have to break his oath within a day or two or die of dehydration. I don’t think we can tempt him or trick him into breaking his other oaths, but the armor? That’s his weak point.”

“Henry is handling it,” said Hirrush.

“If you really believed that was enough, you wouldn’t have set up these defenses with me,” said Omarr. “We should leave this place behind. With all the wards armed, perhaps it might be enough to slow the oathkeeper down enough that he couldn’t follow. We could leave Donkerk entirely. The king doesn’t like sending his oathkeepers beyond the borders, so we wouldn’t be followed.”

Hirrush sighed. “I’ve been thinking that perhaps once Henry was grown you and I might leave anyway. If it weren’t for Henry … but there are things which are important to Henry, especially at that orphanage. We need to stay, for him, at least for now.”

“Until the oathkeeper comes stalking toward us with a sword in one hand and Henry’s scalp in the other,” said Omarr.

“You’re being dramatic,” said Hirrush. “If he’d killed Henry, why would he bring the head to us?”

“Intimidation?” asked Omarr. He scratched his head. “But no, you’re right, he’d just kill us without asking questions or providing repartee.” He heaved a sigh. “It’s this feeling of helplessness that I hate. I wish it were me sitting in that orphanage with the oathkeeper across from me. Henry is taking such a risk and there’s nothing I can do to improve his chance of success. How are you handling it so well?”

“I’m a mentalist,” said Hirrush. “Or I was, once upon a time. My master told me that when we cannot control the world, we must control the mind. It’s harder to do without easy access to my mindscape, but that bit of training survived my mutilation.”

Omarr grunted. “Sorry if I touched an old wound.” He looked around their land. The silence was depressing. With the various rituals completed, there was no longer any clucking of chickens or bleating of goats to be heard. Both cows had given their lives with little in the way of ceremony. Replacing those animals would require the last of the ransom money they’d gotten from kidnapping the princess, but they would wait and see whether it wouldn’t be better to simply leave with the money. To Omarr’s mind though, it certainly felt like the end of an era.


Sofia had tended to some lingering business in Leshampur before heading north. She was restocked with food and supplies, enough to see her through to the Citadel if she enlisted the help of some spirits to find foraging spots along the way. All she really had to worry about was Ventor, who would only be a problem if Henry didn’t keep up his end of the deal. There had been no way to avoid that risk once she’d visited the orphanage though; everything after that had only been a matter of minimizing the damage that had been done. Sofia had briefly considered writing Henry a letter once she returned to Marurbo, but then she remembered how her father was bound to react to that and shoved those unpleasant thoughts away before they could affect her mood too much. Her father was a problem for another day.

When she reached the bridge over the Perwhile River, Sofia was surprised to see Henry casting stones into the water.

“Henry?” she asked.

“Fiona,” he replied as he turned toward her. He was smiling, but there was something different about his expression. “Look, there’s no easy way to ask this, so I’ll just come out with it.” He took a breath. “Do you mind if I accompany you on your trip north?”

“Were you waiting for me?” she asked.

“If I thought I could get away with a lie, I’d say no,” said Henry. He shrugged and gave her a sheepish look.

Why were you waiting for me?” she asked.

“Can we walk and talk?” asked Henry. “I live down the road and need to go that direction anyway, there’s no sense in slowing your progress any.”

Sofia narrowed her eyes. Walking with him felt like a trap of some kind, as though she would be agreeing to his request, but the whole thing felt like a trap. The only question was what the purpose of the trap was. The only thing she could be sure of was that Ventor wasn’t involved, since he was far too blunt for a trap that looked like this one. “Sure,” she replied. “We can walk.”

Henry turned on his heel and looked over his shoulder. “Well then, to answer your question, I was waiting for you because I wanted to travel with you.”

“You don’t know where I’m going though,” said Sofia as she fell into step behind him. She reached a hand into her satchel to feel that the knife was still there, just in case she needed it.

“It’s not really about the destination,” said Henry. “It’s more about the journey.”

“The journey with me, specifically?” asked Sofia.

“Yes,” said Henry. “That’s the one.”

“And if I said that I was another month away from my destination?” asked Sofia.

“I … well, I would probably say that means you’re headed to the Citadel, so I’d start asking questions about why,” said Henry. “But your real question was why I’d be willing to travel for a full month just to be with someone who I haven’t spent more than an hour with … it’s hard to explain.”

“You’re clever,” said Sofia, smirking despite herself. “Surely you’ll find a way to present your case.”

“You were skeptical about me being widely read,” said Henry. “You were right to have doubts. Most of the more rural people can’t read terribly well. I wouldn’t call it abject illiteracy, but they don’t need a command of language for anything beyond reading from an almanac. The king —” Henry paused for a moment. “The king made a mandate that every person should be able to read, but even if that policy had been a success, when would the common farmer ever get a chance to use that skill? Paper and ink are as cheap as they’ve ever been, but transcribing and binding a book is just as labor intensive as it was a hundred years ago. Even though people know how to read, most don’t, given there’s a lack of material available to them. We’ve got ledgers, mostly, not informed texts that make us wiser about the nature of the world. I did my best to consume every book that crossed my path, then I altered my path to become a seeker of books.”

“Consider the groundwork laid,” said Sofia. “I’m listening.”

“You’re an apprentice to one of the sages, one of the most learned men in all of Donkerk,” said Henry. “You’re the first person my own age who might be on my level.”

“Oh?” asked Sofia. “Might?”

“Well,” said Henry. “I can’t be sure. Just because you’ve had access to a variety of books or training from someone very wise doesn’t mean that you’re at all intelligent.” He held up a hand. “No offense intended.”

“So you’re planning to tag along in order to make an evaluation?” asked Sofia. She frowned. “To see whether I’m worthy of you?”

“To see whether we’re worthy of each other,” said Henry. “But yes, that’s more or less it. You’re a unique, shining jewel of a person and I’d be a fool if I simply let you walk out of my life.”

“Hrm,” said Sofia. “You’re laying it on thick.”

“Sorry,” said Henry.

“No, that’s okay,” said Sofia. “A shining jewel? I suppose I could live with that. But you still don’t know where I’m going or what I’m doing once I get there.”

“Well, will you tell me?” asked Henry. He was still walking slightly ahead of her, but at this he looked behind him to meet her gaze. His eyes were a light blue.

“I’m still deciding if I want a companion,” said Sofia. “I have some money, but not enough to pay for the traveling expenses of two people.”

“I can pay my own way,” said Henry. “So long as we can stop a few miles from here to speak to my father.”

“Well, even so,” replied Sofia. “I’d have to know that you would be an asset instead of a hindrance.”

“Don’t you think it’s a little unfair to say something like that without me being able to defend myself?” asked Henry. “Because I don’t know what it is we’d be doing in the north, I can’t really say whether I’d be helpful. I’d try, certainly, but I don’t know that my many and diverse skills would be applicable.”

“And what are your skills?” asked Sofia with a laugh. She was enjoying this, despite herself. She’d already decided that he could come with her, but now it was a matter of having him grovel for an appropriate length of time. It was strange, she’d been a princess for all her life and never wanted someone to prostrate themselves before her or even treat her any different, but now that she was in disguise the compulsion was overtaking her. It was helped by the fact that Henry seemed more than willing to play along. Sofia idly wondered whether this was what having a friend was like.

Henry seemed to give serious consideration to his qualifications before responding. “Well, I’m an expert forager. I know the names and taxonomies of every plant in Donkerk. I can identify and capture a large variety of wild animals. I have some moderate skills in trapping, skinning, and fishing. I know how to find true north without a compass. I don’t have many accomplishments as a healer, but I know how to clean wounds, make a splint for a broken bone, and I have an impeccable bedside manner. I’m very good with accounting and mathematics, extending into geometry and trigonometry. I speak Aaltan and Berep fluently and know Nethian and Xir well enough to stumble my way through. I know how to make a fair number of meals that we could eat on the road. I’m good at repairing things that are broken, so long as there’s not much metalwork involved. I have perfect pitch. I’ve read enough history to have a strong opinion on the underlying cause of the Juniper Rebellion and a few theories as to what happened to the Nethian Empire. I’m well-educated on the matter of spirits, though I don’t think that Tantus or Landon really knew what they were talking about, which throws the whole school of thought into question. I can handle a sword or a dagger in a fight and have enough training to incapacitate most full grown men with my bare hands. I’m leaving some things out, but I’m starting to feel like I’m bragging.”

Henry had delivered this while looking ahead, down the twisting road. Sofia stared at him.

“Some of those claims were quite bold,” said Sofia after the silence had stretched out between them. “Ir tomst tofmeste rotovoh?” she asked in Aaltan, which translated loosely to “What happens to a spirit upon their exit from the physical realm?”.

“Tomst tofmest imstrotovesti trovost, Herror Ganda — temostro Ganda?” Henry spit the words out with a casual ease.

“I’m sorry, that was a little fast for me,” said Sofia. “Aaltan was always one of my weaker languages.”

“Oh, I was just saying that the spirits leave the physical realm all the time,” said Henry. “I was going to mention the distinction that Herror Ganda makes, but I wasn’t sure whether you’d read him, or if you’d read him that you understood him.”

“Well you’re not getting into my good graces by insulting me,” said Sofia with pursed lips.

“I didn’t mean it like that,” said Henry. “Herror Ganda writes in a way that’s quite difficult until you get used to it, but that owes mostly to the fact that he was doing his own translations. Landon made an effort to translate Ganda from the original Xir sometime after the fact, but Ganda was already using largely invented or appropriated terminology and I’m not sure that Landon really understood what it was that Ganda was trying to get at. At any rate, if you hadn’t read Ganda I was going to give you an overview so that what I was saying wouldn’t sound like gibberish.”

“I’ve read Herror Ganda,” said Sofia. “But I take your point, you weren’t just making things up.”

“So you don’t want to talk about Ganda’s theories?” asked Henry with a laugh.

“Perhaps later,” said Sofia. “I don’t hold a high opinion of the scholars of that particular subject.”

“Later?” asked Henry. “So I can come with you on your trip north?”

“Sure,” said Sofia. “So long as you’re not a burden.”

Henry turned to her with a beaming smile. “Okay, we just need to make a quick stop at my home, it’s another hundred yards down this road.” There was a spring in his step as he kept walking. “I promise you won’t regret this.”


Henry walked down the path that led past the standing stone and toward the cottage where he’d made his home. Princess Sofia was walking just behind him, incognito as the sage’s apprentice Fiona. Not everything was right with the world, but all of his preparations over the past year had blossomed like a star flower, spreading forth pink petals and the promise of something great on the horizon.

“I’m home!” Henry called to the cottage. His fathers had been hard at work making wards, but Henry had been kept informed of both their boundaries and conditions. There was no danger to Sofia from the wards, not unless Henry’s fathers were foolish enough to activate all their defenses at once without the oathkeeper in sight. A working of dark magic wasn’t complete until the last ritual element was done with, which meant that one small piece could be held back until a final moment of need. Given that wards always had some effect, it was possible through careful planning to prime several wards to chain together. When a bat’s wing was ripped in half, a ward against physical intrusion would snap into place around the house. The formation of a spherical barrier would push a vial of mercury from its perch, which would complete a second ritual upon spilling into the ground, this one providing an electrical ward that would shock anyone who crossed it. Each ward activated another, with the chain of them something like a dozen deep. The methods for creating these chains, along with the descriptions of the rituals themselves, were part of the vast hoard of lore on dark magic, which Hirrush and Omarr were trying to defend against the prying of an oathkeeper. His fathers were undoubtedly on edge, as they had every right to be, but they wouldn’t spend their preparations idly.

Omarr stepped out from the cottage and came to greet them. He quirked an eyebrow when he saw Sofia, but his reaction was mild; he didn’t recognize her.

“It’s not the best time to be bringing a new friend home,” said Omarr.

“We need to talk,” said Henry. He turned slightly toward Sofia. “This is Fiona, she’s traveling from the south. Fiona, this is my father, Omarr.”

Sofia stepped forward and extended a slender hand to Omarr, who took it gently in his own enormous hand for a brief shake. Sofia’s eyes darted briefly to the missing fingers of Omarr’s left hand, but she said nothing about them.

“My son has the look of a boy with an idea,” said Omarr. He folded his hands across his chest. “Fiona, if you don’t mind, could you wait outside while we have a discussion? Once we’re done I can offer you some tea and something to eat.”

“That won’t be a problem,” said Sofia. She went over to the grass and sat down with her legs folded beneath her and started rummaging around in her pack. “I need to get this sorted properly anyway.”

Henry followed his father indoors, where Hirrush was reading from a book. It wasn’t a book of dark magic, which was the sort of thing that would have been stowed away the moment someone crossed onto their land. Instead, it was a book of geography which detailed all the places a person could escape to if their life was under threat.

“I have a few things to say,” said Henry. “First and foremost, I told Ventor a lie that I might get caught in. I told him I was going to an orphanage to the east, following a girl I’m supposedly courting. The girl — Regina, the butcher’s daughter — really is going east with her family, but I’m not going to be with her. I needed an excuse to be missing for some time, something that would account for my whereabouts. It wasn’t perfect, but I was under some time pressure if I wanted to catch up to Fiona.”

“Would Ventor check up on your story?” asked Hirrush with a frown.

“Possibly,” said Henry. “I’m warning you because if he finds out that I wasn’t telling the truth, he might try to find me. I don’t know how you’d want to handle that.”

“Next question,” said Omarr. “Who’s Fiona?”

“Fiona is the niece of a sage, apprenticed to him and sent north in order to gather information,” said Henry. “But that’s a lie, because Fiona is actually Princess Sofia in disguise. She doesn’t know that I know though.”

Henry’s fathers stared at him.

“She has no guards that I could see,” said Henry, barreling ahead. “I checked in the mental realm as well as the physical. If she was being followed, it was at a great distance. Her hair is dyed and she’s dressing down, but once I realized who I was looking at all the details were there to confirm my suspicion. I managed to convince her that I would make a useful companion, so we’re headed north together, likely to the Citadel, but I don’t know the exact purpose. Oh, and she told me the wording of prophecy that I’d been trying to find for a year. Apparently I’m either going to save her, save the kingdom, or be the one responsible for her injury or death.” Henry glanced out the window to where Sofia was laying in the grass. She was gazing at the blue sky with a pensive look.

“Don’t chase prophecy,” said Hirrush. “There’s nothing good that can come from it.”

“I’m not,” replied Henry. “The prophecy doesn’t say that I should follow her, and I would do it even if there were no prophecy. There’s nothing in the prophecy that compels me to act in any particular way, except that it gives me cause for slightly more caution than would be usual.”

“You’re forcing our hand,” said Omarr with a sigh. “With you gone, Ventor would have to be a fool not to be suspicious of you, even if you’d given a masterful performance for him.” He followed Henry’s gaze and looked toward where the princess was examining the property. “But … I suppose we were planning to leave anyway, and we always knew that you would find your own path.”

Hirrush was more circumspect. “I’m not clear on why you’re following this girl,” he said as he ran his fingers through his hair. “The princess having run away from home and passed through Leshampur is interesting, but that’s nothing that should cause you to leap to your feet and begin pursuit. She’s pretty, I suppose, but there are pretty girls all over Donkerk.”

“If I were being completely cold about it,” said Henry. “I would say that she’s the key to every ambition I’ve ever held. She’s a direct connection to wealth, knowledge, and power, and since she doesn’t know that I know who she is, she’ll trust me more than she otherwise would and reward my service more than if I were only serving the crown in hope of reward.”

“But that’s not why you’re drawn to her,” said Hirrush.

“No,” said Henry. “She’s … we talked for a bit. Even with her lying to me, I felt like we were fast friends. Even if she were disowned, with all her royal ties sundered, I would still go after her.”

“Go then,” said Hirrush. “With our blessing. Your father and I will need to decide on our ultimate destination, but we’ll leave a message in the places we’ve discussed.”

Henry nodded. “I’m sorry this took precedence,” he said.

“We probably have time to save the books,” said Hirrush. “And our doom was close at hand in any case. If it’s a long time before we see you again …” He trailed off as the words failed to form.

“You turned out better than either of us had any right to expect,” said Omarr. “When you’re ruling this kingdom, remember the lessons we taught you and try to put a stop to the slaughter of people like Adrianna, if not people like us.”

Henry wrapped his father in a tight hug, then turned to his other father and repeated the gesture. None of them wanted to say that there was a good chance they would never see each other again, but the sentiment was still expressed by the strength of their goodbye. Henry was careful to wipe the tears from his eyes before he went back to join Sofia.


“They’re really letting you go then?” asked Sofia as they left the small cottage behind them. She shook her head. “I wonder at the sort of life where you’re free to leave for a month or two with practically no notice.”

“My fathers are understanding,” said Henry. He caught her look. “I never knew my mother. Omarr and Hirrush raised me together, so I called them my fathers.”

Sofia wanted to ask which one was his real father, but she didn’t know that he would take the question in the spirit in which it was intended. The more she considered it, the more she thought perhaps the question was simply one of unseemly probing. If she was really going to be with Henry for another month of travel, she could certainly wait until later.

“So,” Henry said into the silence. “You haven’t told me where it is we’re going or what we’re doing when we get there.”

“You were right when you guessed the Citadel,” said Sofia. “There’s a Foresworn Sister there who I need to have a long discussion with.”

“About the prophecy?” asked Henry.

“No,” replied Sofia. “This is a more personal matter.” She was hesitant to say that the woman she was after was her mother, but if she again assumed that she was to be traveling with Henry for a long time, then surely she’d have to tell him at some point. Similarly, she wasn’t sure that she could keep up the pretense of being Fiona, but that would stay in place for as long as possible, at least until she could be reasonably sure that Henry wouldn’t turn against her.

“I’ve always wanted to see the Citadel,” said Henry. “I’ve heard that the core structure predates the Nethian output that became Marurbo, which makes it perhaps the oldest manmade building in the whole of Donkerk.”

Sofia was gratified by the change in subject. “I’ve seen paintings,” she said. “It’s shaped like a cluster of immense seashells, all glued together.”

“Few of my books had pictures in them,” said Henry. “There were simple diagrams that a scribe could easily copy, but for something like an exotic building it made more sense to just give a good description. I’ve made up my own images to fit the words, but I have little doubt that those images are wrong. There are so many places that I want to visit, just to see how the books line up with reality. There are a dozen places I need to visit in Marurbo, when I finally get down there.”

“I could show you around,” offered Sofia, though she realized that as a fantasy the moment the words left her lips.

“Oh, I’d like that. I’ve wanted to see the High Rectory for a long time,” said Henry. “For an order of ascetics, they have a large collection of artwork and some very elaborate architecture.”

“It seems a little early to judge them, given that you only know a single oathkeeper and a handful of sisters,” said Sofia.

“Possibly,” said Henry. “Did you know many oathkeepers in the city?”

“A few,” replied Sofia. Her imagining of Fiona interacted with them from time to time in the castle. “They were good men. It’s hard for them not to be.”

Henry was silent for a few seconds as they walked beneath the large trees on either side of the road. “Meaning … they’re good because they keep their oaths?”

“In part,” said Sofia. “Oathkeeping is about sacrifice and duty, and if someone has kept an oath for years on end that says something good about them. I’m not so naive as to think that there aren’t bad oathkeepers, but on balance … yes, I think that keeping oaths is noble.”

“I’m not sure that I agree,” said Henry. “It’s a means to an end, but neither the means nor the end are particularly benevolent. If you think that the Oath of Silence is virtuous, then you have to believe that silence itself is a virtue. I think it’s important to show restraint when we speak, to make sure that we listen to other people, and to properly think about things before we act. But silence as silence … I’ve been working at the orphanage for a year now. I’ve gotten to know the sisters. There are times when the silence isn’t so good. This young girl, about seven years old, was dropped off at the orphanage. The only one available was Sister Florence. The girl was crying, because her parents had just died, and Florence sat on the bed with her, trying to soothe her by holding her close. The girl kept asking Sister Florence why this thing had happened to her parents, asking what was going to happen to her, and all Florence could do was try to comfort the girl in silence. When Florence was sitting next to that girl, she wasn’t thinking that silence was a virtue, she was thinking that it was a burden she would have to bear so she wouldn’t be looked down upon by her sisters. She let that girl suffer more than was necessary because she was afraid of what the others would think, not because she was acting altruistically.”

Sofia adjusted her pack as she thought about this. “The Foresworn Sisters are one of the last lines of defense if the kingdom were ever truly in need,” said Sofia. “If there were ever a disaster, or an attack, the king would call in the sisters and they would finally make use of their gifts. In the old days they used to train more, but even now they know that’s part of their duty. This sister you’re talking about — Florence — she might have been thinking that this was a cost that had to be paid, that maybe there was nothing that she could anyway, no answer she could give that would make things better. You can’t know another person’s thoughts, Henry.”

Henry chewed on his lip for a moment. “No, I suppose not. I stand by the general principle though. Oathkeeping isn’t about virtue, it’s about something that’s sometimes close to but distinct from virtue. The oathkeepers have convinced themselves of the rightness of giving up many things, but part of that must be because thinking that they’re morally right makes it easier to keep their oaths. I don’t know how Ventor does it, but it must be clear to him — and you — that hunger isn’t a virtue, it’s only a means to an end.”

“I see what you mean,” said Sofia. “The means aren’t virtuous, they’re only adjacent to virtue. But then there are the ends to consider, if we want to know whether the oathkeepers are good. I’m not sure how you’d make the argument that the women who run the orphanages and engage in unconditional charity, or the men who defend the kingdom from threats and strike down dark wizards aren’t good. Perhaps they’re not perfectly good, but I don’t think it’s sensible to hold them to so high a standard.”

“Ah,” said Henry. “We might argue on that point as well. I have a great many opinions on a great many things, I think I should warn you of that now. But the day is nice and our journey is long, and we hardly know each other yet. Besides, there will be plenty of time to argue about the moral authority of the oathkeepers once we’ve reached the Citadel. For now, why don’t you tell me about yourself? I know you live in Marurbo, that you have an uncle who’s a sage, and that you’re an apprentice, but not much else. You’ve seen the home I grew up in, so you have me at a disadvantage.”

“Very well,” said Sofia. “I’ll make an appointment to have an argument with you in a few days time. Is there anything in particular you’d like to know about me?” Unfortunately, she’d have to answer as Fiona, but if he asked the right questions, she could give him something close to the truth. She would tell him the truth, but not until they were far away from any oathkeepers, especially Ventor.

“Tell me what your destination is,” said Henry. He waved his hand. “Not the Citadel, but beyond that. What are you going to accomplish with your life? Your uncle is a sage, do you plan on following in his footsteps?”

“Women can’t be sages,” said Sofia. “If you want to be a woman of learning, you need to join the Foresworn Sisters, but that’s not to my liking.”

“Even though they’re good women?” asked Henry.

“Even then,” said Sofia. “It’s not for me. Even if I thought I could handle making the oaths, I wouldn’t want to live out my life in a convent. I want to travel the world. I want to speak with the elder spirits. There are so many things that I’ve only read about in books, mountain vistas and sweeping plains, great deserts and foul swamps. There are people out there, people who I could never meet in Marurbo. People like you, in fact. I want to uncover every rock and open every door, until the world has no more mysteries left in it, no splendors I haven’t feasted my eyes on, no meals I haven’t tasted. That’s impossible to do in a single lifetime, but I think I might as well try.”

“You’re making a good start already,” said Henry. “We’ll see the Citadel, and from there it’s not too much work to venture into the Silent Desert, at least for a day or two.”

“My father didn’t want me to go,” said Sofia. “He would have stopped me, if he’d found out I was leaving in time. I sometimes feel like I wasted the first sixteen years of my life not doing anything worthwhile, never venturing beyond the lines my father drew in the sand.” The words came out quickly. Sofia had never talked to anyone about these things, aside from Ulf. “It’s not that he didn’t mean well, but he was too protective for my tastes. He tried to shield me from the breadth of the world.”

“Did you feel bad about leaving him?” asked Henry.

“A little bit,” Sofia admitted. “I feel less guilt than I thought I would. There will be reckoning when I get home, but until then, I’m living more every week on the road than I had in every year stuck in the house.” She looked at the untouched nature around them. They were in the space between towns, where the woods hadn’t been turned into farmland. The road was little more than packed dirt and a few steps off to the side might have let her imagine that she was in the wilderness. “What about you? I’m going to become a great explorer, if I have my way. What’s Henry’s ideal destination?”

“Oh, nothing so grand as you,” said Henry. “I’m going to fix Donkerk.”

“Fix it in what way?” asked Sofia. “It’s not broken, so far as I can see.”

“Of course it is,” said Henry. “The only reason that people think it’s not broken is that it’s been broken for so long that they’ve gotten used to it. When I was growing up there was a paddock gate that didn’t latch properly. When you closed it, you had to move a rock over so that it would stay closed and the goats wouldn’t get out. It was like that for years, as long as I could remember. When I got older, my fathers even showed me how to move the rock so that the paddock would stay closed. At some point they’d stopped thinking of the gate as being broken. Their temporary solution had become a permanent one, even though it was far more work. Two years ago, I fixed it, and the improvement was immediately obvious to all of us — if my fathers had stopped to think about the gate, they would have realized that this was a fix that they needed to find the time for ages ago. It’s the same with Donkerk. There are hundreds of things that just happen without anyone really thinking that it’s for the best.”

There was that word again, “fathers”, which gave Sofia pause. She shouldn’t have flinched at it, given that her own family was fractured. “You want to make Donkerk better,” said Sofia.

“Yes,” said Henry. “It’s broken in ways that most people give little thought to, and I’d like to fix it.”

“People might get a little nervous if you tell them that you’re going to solve problems they don’t know they have,” said Sofia. “In fact, it makes me nervous.”

“We were speaking before about books,” said Henry. “The king wanted to encourage literacy, but there weren’t books for people to read, so they didn’t end up reading. What the king should have done was to increase the amount of written material that his commoners would have access to, and more than that, make materials that the commoners would honestly want to read. Bookbinding is expensive, but there are solutions that are cheaper, and since the king has a large amount of both money and power he could have put his efforts towards improving the processes by which books were made. Block printing with metal plates would have been a start. But the fact that the king’s sages didn’t identify this weakness in the plan for increased literacy is a sign that the system of sages is broken too. The sages are competing against one another with no real oversight and no metrics by which the quality of their wisdom can be judged, at least in normal circumstances. If you look at what really moves the sages, providing the best possible advice to the king is only a tertiary concern.”

“You want to increase the number of people who can read by replacing the sages?” asked Sofia. She could see now what Henry had said about having many opinions.

“I don’t think the sages need to be replaced,” said Henry. He gave her a cautious look. “Your uncle would still have a job. I’m only suggesting that just as there is a sage of spirits and a sage of agriculture, there should also be a sage of sages in order to ensure that the whole system is working as it ought to be. If you’re asking what I’d want to do, being the sage of sages sounds like a good first start. Once I’ve gotten Donkerk into shape, I’ll start working on the rest of the world.”

“You’re not lacking for ambition, I’ll give you that,” said Sofia.

“This from the girl who wants to open every door?” asked Henry.

He smiled again, in a way that was impossibly charming. In many ways, what Henry was saying echoed Rowan’s grand designs, but there was something indescribably different about them. They both had plans for changing the world, but Rowan treated the kingdom as his birthright. Henry seemed to want to change things because he thought they needed changing. Rowan wanted to change things because he could. Sofia knew that she wasn’t being charitable toward her brother, but it was sometimes hard to be. Rowan didn’t have the same charm that Henry had.

“Don’t worry,” said Henry. “The first thing I’ll do as sage of sages is to appoint you as the royal explorer. I’ve always felt that we know too little about the world.”


Rowan delved into his father’s mind yet again. The dusty room that was supposed to keep his father’s secrets was slow to give up anything, in a way that was wholly frustrating. Rowan was uncovering much, but almost all of it was irrelevant. If Rowan hadn’t known better, he would have thought that the room was a false front, a trap for anyone seeking answers. The real secrets would be stored somewhere else, looking completely innocuous. The only person who could have managed such a thing was Ibrahim, and Ibrahim wasn’t so paranoid as to do something like that when the king’s mind was already defended by a powerful seed. Without the armory at his disposal, Rowan would never have been able to get past Ibrahim’s remnant, and Ibrahim would have known that. Still, King Aldric’s mind wasn’t giving up its secrets as quickly or as easily as Rowan would have liked.

The biggest thing Rowan had found so far were the affairs. King Aldric had sought out a number of women from all over Marurbo and had his way with them, always in disguise. Roughly half of the memories within the dusty room related to these affairs in one way or another. The affairs were not happy things, not even in the moment of the act, which made the purpose of them clear. King Aldric was siring bastards in order to ensure that the royal line could be controlled.

Rowan’s grandfather had only a single child before dying young, and he had been the only child of his generation to bear children due to severe mortality. The royal line was thus greatly reduced, leaving Rowan and Sofia as the only heirs of note. If Aldric died, the Boreal Crown would pass to Rowan. If Rowan died, the Crown would pass to Sofia. Yet if Sofia then died, no one truly knew where the crown would pass to. It was possible that it would pass to a third cousin, of which there were too many to count, most of them now belonging to ducal lines. However, because the magic that imbued the Boreal Crown did not care one whit for whether a son or daughter was trueborn, it was also entirely possible that the Boreal Crown would land on the head of a middle-aged farmer whose father had been a bastard. There were a number of reasons that this could not be permitted.

King Aldric was siring bastards as a way of taking matters into his own hands. He had long ago committed not to marrying again, a matter on which he seemed entirely firm. Instead, he had sons and daughters with needy women around town, taking to the duty with a somber attitude. When the children were born, they would be provided for by a fund which had been marked for the training of learned men. Rowan had so far seen eight of these bastards, each of them given a fine education in and around Marurbo. They had no idea about the nature of their parentage and neither did their parents, but if King Aldric’s son and daughter both died, they would have some semblance of the education needed to be an effective ruler, if not the mindset. The kingdom would be saved from all the problems that would come from a true commoner becoming king at a moment of crisis, or worse, one of the dukes assuming power. The king checked on his bastards often, if the memories were anything to go by, but there was no contact, only reports delivered by the oathkeepers.

Rowan had panicked when he’d found the first bastard, but only because he hadn’t been able to tell the date. If his father had sired bastards before Rowan had been born, the Boreal Crown would have gone to them instead of Rowan. Numerous forays into King Aldric’s mind had shown that all of the bastards post-dated Sofia’s birth though.

This made it all the more puzzling that King Aldric had put so much distance between himself and his trueborn son. The king had taken to siring bastards because he saw that as his duty to his kingdom, giving them each an education that rivaled Rowan’s own, yet for all that foresight, the king had shown little interest in training his one trueborn son the business of actually ruling the kingdom of Donkerk. The answer to this puzzle had to be somewhere within the king’s mind, but so far it had eluded Rowan.


Ventor had first gone to the eastern edge of town, then down the road for long enough to catch up to the caravan making its way to the shrine of Saint Poris. There were sixty miles between Leshampur and the small town of Trokin, which was several days of sedate travel with oxen pulling the wagons. Ventor could cover a mile’s distance in the space of half a minute if he was moving at a dead sprint, so it was hardly any trouble to close the distance.

“I’m looking for Regina, the butcher’s daughter,” said Ventor to the pilgrims, who were staring at him with slack jaws. He would have asked for Henry, but it was already clear that the boy wasn’t among the travelers. If he had been, he would have raised his head and asked why Ventor was there. It would have been a breach of trust between them, but such was the price of oaths.

A young girl tentatively raised her hand. “I’m Regina.”

“Are you acquainted with a boy named Henry who works at the orphanage?” asked Ventor. “Blond hair, blue eyes, and possessed of a charming manner?”

Regina blushed. “I know him,” she said. “Did he send you for me?” As if Henry had some command of the oathkeepers. The notion was so preposterous that Ventor had to keep himself from scowling.

“I take it that you spoke with Henry about this pilgrimage,” said Ventor, not deigning to answer her question. “What did he say?” As they spoke, Ventor kept pace with the wagon, hardly feeling the effort of moving even with the weight of the Strangheid and Ravener resting in a sheath against his hip.

“I told him that I was going to pray at the shrine,” said the butcher’s daughter. “I asked him whether he had plans to come with. He spends so much time at the orphanage, after all, I thought he’d have some interest in seeing the site of a real saint. He said he would think about it, but that was a week ago. I thought perhaps he would show up this morning, but then we left. He could still catch up to us, like you did, I suppose.” A thick-necked man that Ventor took to be her father frowned through this.

“Thank you for your answer,” said Ventor. He stretched for a moment and turned back toward Leshampur. The boy had lied. Not just that, it had been a deliberate, calculating lie. It might have been one thing if Henry had made something up, but he must have heard this girl’s request and thought that it would make for a convincing story. If he hadn’t been so artless in telling the lie, it wouldn’t have been until the pilgrims returned that Ventor realized anything was wrong. Yet for all that, Ventor believed that Henry had been in a hurry. The question was why.

Ventor had taken his first two steps down the road when a smell hit him. He paused for a moment to take it in, a sickly sweet smell that made his mouth water. He turned to see one of the pilgrims eating slices of honeyed pear from a small jar, sliding one after another down his mouth. The man seemed to think nothing of it, and for a brief moment Ventor wanted to break the man’s face apart. Six years of hunger had taught Ventor that some people didn’t deserve to eat, didn’t treat food with the respect it was due. Ventor had stolen a jar of honeyed pears during his misspent youth, in the months before Rector Delland had picked him up off the streets and inducted him into the holy order. The stolen pears had dripped with amber liquid, smelling of the spices that were used to season them, cinnamon and cardamom, brown sugar and butter, lemon and cloves and —

“Are you alright?” the man asked.

“Fine,” replied Ventor. “Just considering my next move.” He bounded away before he could make a mistake that would cost him his oaths, but the smell lingered until long after it should have faded.


Nathan was another young boy, roughly Henry’s age. He had a scar along one side of his head that was only partially covered by shaggy brown hair. Ventor had expected him to be a bit simple the first time they met, as Nathan had that look about him, but he acted much like any other child his age. Ventor had met many boys during his time in Leshampur, but they’d all begun to melt together in his mind, like sugary treats that had sat in a store window for too long. Aside from his scar, the only thing that marked Nathan was his friendship with Henry. They had lived near each other at one point, though Nathan now took up residence as an apprentice candlemaker in Leshampur.

“When was the last time you saw Henry?” asked Ventor. He stood in the chandler’s shop with wax drippings beneath his feet.

“Two days ago, it must have been,” said Nathan. He touched the scar on the side of his head, which seemed to be a nervous habit. “Why, are you looking for him?”

“Yes,” said Ventor. “Do you know where he might have gone?”

“No idea,” replied Nathan with a smile. “He was always talking about going off to find the love of his life, but I’d have thought he would have said goodbye if he were leaving.”

Ventor frowned. “The love of his life?”

“Well,” said Nathan cautiously. “It’s not my place to say, given that it’s the sort of thing that always got him blushing.”

“By the power of my station, I compel you,” said Ventor. “The life of the king might be in danger.”

“Really?” asked Nathan. He shrugged. “Well I don’t see how it could help, but Henry met this noble girl some years ago. He never told me that specifics of how they met, nor did he ever let her name slip out, but he was real smitten with her. He always said that he was going to track her down. That’s why he was —” Nathan stopped in mid-sentence and closed his mouth for a moment. “Well, that’s why he’s so eager to prove himself,” Nathan continued, speaking quickly to cover the silence he’d made. “He learned how to do all sorts of things so that he would be able to impress her when they finally met again. Did you know he speaks five languages?”

“I wasn’t aware,” said Ventor. He rubbed at his throat for a moment, trying to relieve the aching thirst. As usual, the massage did nothing for him. “He’s a very peculiar boy.”

“He breaks the mold,” Nathan agreed. Ventor was often worried that people would see the creeping insanity in his eyes, but no one ever had.

“Tell me, why did he go to work at the orphanage?” asked Ventor. “So far as I can tell, he was never paid for his service. There was some lip service paid to him working off some spiritual debt, but I never quite believed that.”

Nathan turned to look at the candles. “I never got the full story,” he said.

“Yes you did,” replied Ventor. “Tell me what he told you, in full. My authority in this matter is effectively limitless.” One hand went to rest on the pommel of Ravener, but the truth was that Ventor could have inflicted grievous injuries on the boy without any need for a weapon.

“Henry is my friend,” said Nathan. “He has been since we were little. What his family did for me … I couldn’t repay that by betraying his trust.”

At times like this, Ventor’s temper could cloud his vision. He had once been a calm and reserved man, but the years of hunger had worn away at his nerves. It was easy to be angry with a young boy who’d done little else but show loyalty. That anger was just a reflection of the clawing hunger and aching thirst he’d lived with every day. Violence might compel an answer from Nathan, but it was hardly clear thinking. Knowing that didn’t make Ventor any more calm, but the chain of the Oath of Fealty compelled him to find his answer in the proper way.

“And what did his family do for you?” asked Ventor. He made sure not to grit his teeth. It was the honeyed pears, that was the cause of his foul mood.

Nathan stared at the floor. “I was kicked in the head by a mule,” said Nathan. His fingers went to the scar on the side of his head, seemingly of their own accord. “Hirrush put me back together.” He looked up at Ventor. “I’m not supposed to talk about it, but only because they’re private people. It wasn’t dark magic, you have to understand that, he just … it was like I was a broken cup and all the pieces had to be glued back together. Most people, if they see a broken cup, they throw it out, or maybe put it to use in some other way, but Hirrush made me whole.” Nathan seemed to regain some lost resolve and stared Ventor down. “I won’t tell you anything. Even if Henry hadn’t been like a brother to me, his father earned my loyalty the hard way.”

Ventor watched the boy. Those who shape his mind … the sages had long wondered whether that referred to mentalism. If the candlemaker’s apprentice was telling the truth, there was a mentalist of some considerable power practicing some miles to the north — and that man was a relative of Henry’s. The pieces were finally clicking into place. The savior had been under Ventor’s nose the entire time, looking on and even helping in the investigation. Had Henry known that he was the stolen orphan? Ventor couldn’t imagine that he didn’t. Yet that left the question of why Henry wouldn’t have said anything. But then, Henry hadn’t known why Ventor was looking, had he?

“I won’t press further,” said Ventor. He turned to go before looking over his shoulder. “If you happen to see Henry, or you have some way of getting a message to him, let him know that I’m looking for him. The kingdom is in grave need of his services.”


It was near sunset when they found a campsite, where they stopped to spend the night by mutual agreement. Sunset was far too late to make camp, but they’d been talking to each other for hours and time had slipped away from them. They’d be eating dried meat from their packs instead of settling in for a stew, though Henry still went through the work of making a fire in the pit that some kind soul had left behind for them. He had taken a fair amount of supplies from the cottage before he left, including a bedroll, a good knife, a waterskin, and a small pot, which seemed to be everything that a knowledgeable person might need to make their way through long stretches of wilderness. Henry cheated slightly in starting the fire. There was a small ritual that required nothing more than a drop of blood smeared in a circle, which Henry provided while Sofia was otherwise occupied. The ritual created a ward that kept heat from leaving its small area, which led to a build up which eventually ignited the wood it was drawn on. Henry sucked at the cut on the side of his thumb as he admired his handiwork, which was about the time that Sofia came to sit down.

“Well let me ask you this,” said Sofia. “Is there anything that you don’t have an opinion on?” The campsite’s previous occupants had moved two large logs around the fire pit, and Sofia sat down on one in a way that had to have been deliberately unladylike.

“Opinions are easy,” said Henry with a shrug. “So long as I know anything at all about a topic, I’m going to have an opinion. Sometimes that opinion is going to be wrong, but one of the great things about opinions is that you can change them. And if you share your opinions, you’re much more likely to come across someone who disagrees with you and can help you to be less wrong, which is why I give my opinions so freely. Maybe the oathkeepers are nothing like what I imagine them to be. Maybe the small number of them I’ve met aren’t representative of the whole. I don’t think it’s out of the question that I might meet an oathkeeper who’s spent decades studying all of the same things that I’ve thought of and stands ready to demolish me in a debate. So long as I don’t start thinking of my opinions as something sacred, there’s no harm in them. So no, there’s nothing that I can think of that I don’t have an opinion on.”

“I have one for you then,” said Sofia. “Tell me your opinion of the king.”

It was unfair of the princess to ask that of him, especially since he was pretending not to know that she was the princess. Still, Henry imagined that he would done the same in her position. “That’s a big question,” said Henry. “The king is in charge of the kingdom, so if you want to know what I think of the kingdom you need to first know what I think of every single part of the kingdom. The kingdom is a reflection of the king’s will, or the failure of his will.