Henry had given Sofia the magical bracelet to smooth out his passage through the walls, then she had left with it. Sister Verna had locked the door behind them when she’d left, after a brief but angry questioning about how it was Henry had gotten out of his room.
Leaving the room through the door would be as simple as using dark magic. Henry had a pen knife in his pocket, which he could use to harvest his own blood, nails, hair, skin, or even flesh. There were a few dozen rituals that could be done using exclusively using those things, with no need for herbs, spices, salt, candles, precious gems, or any of the other mainstays of dark magic — those ritual ingredients that kept cropping up again and again. The most likely ritual to get Henry out was a heating ward, which he could apply to the door in order to burn through it.
The natural problem with that plan was that it would be clear what Henry had done to anyone even remotely knowledgeable, if not exactly how he had done it. Any plan in which Henry outed himself as a dark wizard was a bad one, assuming that Sofia wouldn’t take it upon herself to tell everyone in the Citadel, which didn’t seem like a safe assumption at all given how their conversation had gone.
With nothing else to do and no one to talk to, Henry decided to go looking for Ventor.
While he had never been inside Ventor’s mindscape, Henry had been around Ventor often enough to know what his mind looked like in the mental realm; it was nutmeg, a steely gray, and if listened to closely, you might hear the sound of a padded foot on a floorboard. Henry hadn’t given too much study to the exterior of the mind, but he remembered virtually everything that he had ever experienced since becoming a mentalist. Minds were unique enough that it was easy to tell if someone you knew was nearby.
Henry sank into his mindscape, intending to drop directly into his breaching room, but instead found himself standing on the stony island which made up the bulk of his mindscape’s setting. The cabin wasn’t far from him. Standing in front of it was a woman dressed in the blue of a Foresworn Sister, with flowing hair down to the small of her back and a stylized wimple that was more like a hat than a concealing headdress. She was standing with one foot propped up on a body that Henry recognized as a facsimile of his own.
“I had to disable your defenses when I arrived,” the woman said, nodding to the body. “He was really quite insistent that I was trespassing on your mind and unwanted, but he didn’t have enough personality to carry on any sort of conversation.”
“That’s a standard defense,” said Henry, speaking cautiously. “If you strip your constructs down, they won’t be able to reveal anything that you don’t want another mentalist to know.”
“Unfortunately, there is a significant drawback to that,” the woman replied. “If he knows nothing, then he cannot sate reasonable curiosity. You will note that I did not kill him, thereby saving you a few minutes work. I hope that you appreciate that, and take it as a sign of goodwill.”
“For all I know you had enough time to alter him,” said Henry. “It’s faster just to make a new one than to check that one over.” With a wave of his hand, the body beneath her foot disappeared. “Are you … Sister Marigold?”
“My reputation, as always, precedes me,” said Marigold with a smile. “Your reputation, unfortunately, does not. It isn’t often that mentalists come to the Citadel. Who are you, and why have you entered my domain?”
“Henry,” said Henry. He would have extended a hand to her, but she had trotted into his mindscape, which was rude at best and a serious threat at worst. “I’m here looking for the missing pages from a ledger in an orphanage in Leshampur.”
“Why?” asked Marigold.
“I believe it will reveal who my birth mother is,” said Henry. “Or at least give me the clues that I need to start looking.”
“And what does mentalism have to do with that?” asked Marigold with a cocked eyebrow.
“Absolutely nothing,” Henry replied.
“If you have a breaching room, which you do, then you rate as one of the hundred most powerful mentalists in Donkerk,” said Marigold. “Yet I know all of the most powerful mentalists in Donkerk by their names and reputations, and I have met with a fair fraction of them. I know all of the people who you might have possibly apprenticed under in order to gain such skill at a young age. None have sent me a letter of courtesy saying that you exist. When you arrived at the Citadel, no mention was made of your mentalism. This leaves several intriguing possibilities.”
“Oh,” said Henry. He could tell that this wasn’t likely to go his way.
“Or you could simply tell me,” said Marigold.
“Ah, well,” said Henry. “Would you believe that my teacher was a secret mentalist known to practically no one in Donkerk?”
Marigold looked around her and sniffed the air. “That was a half-truth.”
“You can tell by smelling the air?” asked Henry.
“Your mindscape is a reflection of yourself,” said Marigold. “A lie is explicitly not a reflection of the self; it is a warping of facts, arguments, or emotions, all of which exist here. If a mentalist is within your mind, and they have vision enough to see it all at once, and power enough to watch for changes, then yes, any lie can be detected as such merely by looking at what warps and twists when you speak.”
“That seems like something you could overcome with training,” said Henry. “Holding the mind still is an elementary technique to keep memories from changing when accessed, it shouldn’t be impossible to hold everything down while lying.”
Marigold was watching him closely. “You’re too clever by half,” she said. “Tell me who your teacher was.”
“That would be a betrayal of confidence,” said Henry.
“Another half-truth,” said Marigold. “You’re giving the answer you think helps you the most.”
“There’s no shame in picking the best defense,” said Henry.
“There is shame in hiding things,” said Marigold.
“No, hiding things is just a tool that we use for various purposes,” replied Henry. “You can hide things because of pride or for glory.”
“And is that why you’re hiding something from me?” asked Marigold. “Because you’re attempting to do good?”
Henry frowned and seriously considered the question. “Yes,” he said. He hoped that would register correctly within his mindscape; the very first thing he was going to do when he had time to himself was to invest in learning how to lie.
“Tell me about the girl,” said Sister Marigold, switching tracks.
“Um … she really is the princess of Donkerk, run away from home to — apparently — speak with her mother, who everyone thought was dead but is actually living here as a Foresworn Sister,” said Henry.
“That wasn’t what I meant,” said Marigold. “Tell me about who she is.”
“Ah,” said Henry. “Are you sure that you don’t want to just ask her yourself? So far as I know, we’re not on any time limit except for that imposed by —” he hesitated. “I’m sorry, but did you know my name before I gave it?”
Marigold smiled at him. She was pretty here; Henry wondered how much that was a reflection of her form in the physical realm. “There is a power to knowledge and knowledge about knowledge.”
Henry sighed with frustration. “There’s an oathkeeper who might be following me and might also have come ahead in order to request that I be held so he can … well, that part is a mystery to me, but presumably he’s going to take me to the capital, which would be my first step if I knew what he knew.”
“Thus our time limit,” said Marigold with a thoughtful nod. “I had seen him come here a few days ago, but news of what he was here for had not yet reached my mind.” She got a far away look in her eye. “The only two minds within my considerable range which are not known to me are yours and hers. Now, tell me about the girl.”
Henry almost began speaking, but thought better of it and summoned his thoughtform of Sofia into his mind. She was not as she appeared in the real world; her hair was much longer and the same red color as it had been when she’d visited the farm at five years old. She was wearing a simple white dress with embroidery to embellish it, and though Henry didn’t know enough about fashion to know whether it was something that a princess might wear, it was at least more towards the style of noble dress than Sofia’s practical outfits.
“What is it you want to know?” asked Sofia with her arms crossed.
“Oh, this is her?” asked Sister Marigold with delight. She gave a curtsy. “It is a pleasure to meet you, your royal highness.”
Marigold looked to Henry with a raised eyebrow, then ended her curtsy. “Is that an accurate modeling of her, or are you simply ignorant of the rules of etiquette?”
“I have several volumes memorized,” said Henry. He had always intended to find Sofia some day, and it made no sense to allow something as stupid as that to be a barrier.
“You treat your subjects with such disrespect?” Marigold asked the thoughtform.
Sofia grimaced, then gave a quick and perfunctory curtsy. “It’s difficult to give thought to propriety when one is being threatened,” said Sofia. “My handmaidens offered me no instruction on such matters.”
“I have given no threats here,” said Marigold with a smile.
“A dismantling of defenses is an implicit threat,” said Henry.
“And does she think as you do?” asked Marigold, nodding to the thoughtform. “Is it part of her true makeup to take offense on your behalf and stand beside you so?”
Henry frowned. “We’re going through something of a rough patch right now. Hopefully one that’s temporary. But if you’re interested in seeing her as she is, this is as close as I’m able to get.”
“You care for him then?” Marigold asked the thoughtform.
“I do,” said Sofia. “But even if I didn’t, I’ve never particularly liked mentalists.”
“You speak of Ibrahim,” said Marigold.
“No,” said Sofia. “Though I’ve never liked him either. When I was five years old I was kidnapped, as you surely heard. A mentalist went into my head to remove all memory of where I was stored or what had happened to me. From that point forward I haven’t trusted the profession.”
Marigold narrowed her eyes. “Now that is a detail unknown to me,” she said. “Ibrahim never mentioned it in any of our chats. Curious, that. You do not trust mentalists, but your brother seeks to become one under the tutelage of Ibrahim?”
“Rowan does not trust Ibrahim either,” said Sofia. “But my brother is hungry for power and eager to rule, so he follows the deal they brokered.”
Marigold turned to Henry. “Have you spoken with her directly about this?”
“No,” said Henry. “Prior to an hour ago, she hadn’t even told me that she was the princess.”
“So it’s worse than hearsay,” frowned Marigold. “I would go into her mind directly, but Ibrahim would be waiting there for me, and I imagine that this mind is one he has guarded most jealously from intrusion. Unless you have already defeated his countermeasures?”
“No,” said Henry. “I haven’t even made an attempt at seeing what the countermeasures might be. He’s the most powerful mentalist on this side of the Juniper Ocean.”
“The most powerful, save one,” said Marigold. She moved forward, toward the thoughtform of Sofia. “Are you good?” she asked.
“Yes,” Sofia replied.
“Are you intelligent?” Marigold asked.
“Yes,” Sofia replied.
“Are you committed to the wellbeing of this country?” asked Marigold.
“Yes,” Sofia replied.
“And are you ready to rule?” asked Marigold.
With each answer, Henry’s thoughtform of Sofia had grown louder and more confident, but here it stumbled with indecision — not Henry’s indecision over what the true Sofia would say, but a modeled indecision, part of his conceptualization of Sofia.
“My brother is crown prince and my father young and healthy,” Sofia began.
“If they were to die?” asked Marigold.
Sofia turned to look at Henry for guidance. Marigold snapped her fingers hard, like a thunderclap across the mindscape, and Sofia turned back toward her. With a start, Henry realized that he had lost control of her. Marigold had hijacked his thoughtform, taking his conceptualization of Sofia from him. Thoughtforms were like puppets, set up so that you could talk to them without focusing on the fact that you were the one pulling the strings. Marigold had interrupted that, somehow, taking the strings for her own but still feeding off of Henry’s knowledge. Henry could have ended the thoughtform, or wrestled for control of it, but he was entirely outclassed here.
“The crown is a cage,” said Sofia her eyes were slightly glazed. “It is a cage I understand, a cage that I could handle being in, but it would always be a cage, and I would never stop seeing it as such.”
“Would the kingdom be better under you than your father?” asked Marigold. Her fingers danced lightly at her side and there was an intensity to her gaze.
“Yes,” said Sofia. “My father is plagued by indecision and listens to too many voices speaking in his ear. He is competent enough for these times, but mere competence is a low bar.”
“And how do you compare to your brother?” asked Marigold.
“He would be more totalitarian than any king before him,” said Sofia. “I do not know whether he would wield that power for good or ill, but he would either be the best or the worst with little room in between.”
Marigold released her grip on the thoughtform and straightened herself with a pensive look as Henry dismissed Sofia from his mindscape.
“Did that answer the questions you had?” asked Henry.
“No,” said Marigold. Her eyes flickered up and down as she looked Henry over. “You love this girl, which taints your image of her, and she speaks with your guesswork rather than the words she has actually said. The accuracy of your perceptions is still in question, which means that the answers I desire are still out of bounds.” A far-off expression had come over her face as she spoke, which evaporated as she turned back to Henry. “Thank you for not trying to do this the hard way. I cannot offer you aid within the Citadel. I cannot protect you from Ventor even if he wishes you harm. Should you arrive in the capital, keep an eye on Ibrahim.” She frowned, then several pages appeared in her hand. “These are the missing ledger pages you had asked about. Will you consent to my leaving a dormant seed within your mind to aid your defenses against the royal mentalist?”
“Yes,” said Henry. That was unexpected, but he was beginning to see the edges of the game being played here, in which he was being considered a single piece.
“Better that he sees your own defense first,” said Marigold. “But if those are incapacitated, I will do my best to intervene on your behalf. And if you should want advice or information, that seed will supplement a thoughtform of me.”
To Henry’s ears that was a blatant power play, but he took no offense. It meant that Sister Marigold considered him important enough to want to whisper in his ear. Henry had only the vaguest knowledge about how the Foresworn Sisters organized themselves, and didn’t know whether Marigold was near the top of their hierarchy, but he would do everything in his power to ensure that their connection to one another was one of mutuality.
Marigold stepped from his mindscape in a showy flash of light.
Henry waited only a moment before calling up his thoughtform of Sofia. She had said some things that were certainly leaps of intuition on his part, which had not thus far been conscious knowledge. Clearly, it was time for them to do some talking.
Sofia returned to the room she had been given and sat down on the bed with her hands folded across her lap. Incredibly, she was not escorted through the building. Either the sisters did not take her claim of being the princess seriously, or they knew that there was nowhere else for her to go. Sofia placed more weight on the former than the latter. It was funny, in a way, to have her identity doubted so, given the lengths she had gone through in order to hide from everyone else.
The question was what to do now. Her mission had been accomplished, so far as that went. She supposed that she could have simply left the Citadel and gone east to the mountains or west to the desert, like she had said she would. Perhaps she would have been happier if that had been what she had done instead. No Henry, no mother, just a long walk filled with spirits rather than people. She looked down at her bracelet, the river spirit, and tried to imagine what that life would be like. She’d nearly lived it during her week riding around on the spirit of the Trenten Woods, and hadn’t found it even a little bit lonely. And yet that had been before Henry — before meeting a sixteen-year-old dark wizard of prophecy.
Sofia got up from her bed and went to the wall that joined their rooms. She looked at the bracelet for a moment, then reached forward and poked a hole in the wall. The red stone was like fresh clay to her touch, but naturally her hand came away bone dry. When her hole was just large enough to see through, she put her eye up and peered through. Henry was sitting on his bed in the lotus position with his eyes closed. His eyes were visibly shifting beneath his eyelids.
“Henry,” she called through the small hole.
Henry was slow to rouse. He blinked rapidly and looked around as though getting his bearings. But surely he couldn’t have been sleeping like that.
“Henry,” she called again.
When Henry saw the hole, he leapt up from his bed and walked over to her.
“Hi,” he said. “I’m sorry about earlier.”
Sofia frowned at him, but all he could see of her was a single eye looking at him. That was as she preferred it. Really, she shouldn’t even be talking to him. There wasn’t any way that their conversation wouldn’t devolve into one long argument again. But when she opened her mouth, it wasn’t something snarky or cruel that came out.
“I met my mother,” said Sofia.
“How was she?” asked Henry.
“She broke her oath of silence to speak with me,” said Sofia. “But she gave the impression that oaths are not something she takes too seriously. She wasn’t what I had expected. I … I never told you about what it was like to be a princess. Or what it is like, I guess.”
“You did,” said Henry. “Not directly, no, but you talked about both your father and the king with some frequency. And naturally they’re the same person, and I knew that, so it wasn’t too hard to see what you were revealing to me. You talked about the castle quite a lot, which you had said Fiona lived in.”
“Those are just trappings,” said Sofia. “I mean … none of that is about being a princess. Fiona was a character, close to myself, but she never had to deal with marriage proposals from dukes or gossip winding itself through Marurbo. She never had to worry about being a symbol of royal authority.”
“It’s a cage,” said Henry. “Not a cage you asked to be born in, but not necessarily one that you’re intent on leaving forever, even if you’ve taken some time to go be yourself and travel the trails.”
Sofia rested her head against the cool stone. “You see, this is what makes this all so difficult,” she said to the hole in the wall. “You know me. You know things that I never told you, just from having known all of the other parts of me. I’m a puzzle, and you have ninety pieces out of a hundred, which means that you can just make guesses about what the other ten look like and you’re bound to be right.”
“That shouldn’t make it hard,” said Henry, but there was something in his voice that acknowledged the difference between shouldn’t and doesn’t. “Tell me about your mother.”
“How evil do you think the average person is?” asked Sofia.
“Um,” said Henry.
“You have an opinion on everything, you told me so,” said Sofia.
“I think that most people don’t think about good and evil at all,” said Henry. “The average boy in Leshampur grows up, takes an apprenticeship, graduates from that into a trade, marries a woman suggested to him by a matchmaker, has a handful of children, trains some apprentices of his own, and then dies. People think about what makes them happy, not about moral balance.”
“But an outside observer might weigh moral balance,” said Sofia. “They might tally up things like … suffocating a crying child.” Henry was silent from his side of the wall for long enough that Sofia looked through the hole at him. He was deep in thought. “You’re thinking,” she said.
“I want to phrase it correctly,” said Henry. “I’m worried that I’ll sound like I’m judging people.”
“I’m asking you to judge people,” said Sofia. She widened the hole slightly to hear him better.
Henry sighed. “I think that the mark of a good society is that it’s easy to make good decisions and difficult to make bad ones. If the path of least resistance is good, then most people are going to be good. If the path of least resistance is bad, then most people are going to be bad. So … I think that if you’re asking me how evil the average person is, the real question ends up being how evil the world is. Society is only a part of it really, because there are a lot of things that society isn’t even responsible for. Is the world set up for us to be good or bad? Something like that.”
“That doesn’t sound judgmental at all,” said Sofia.
“Oh,” said Henry. “Well I said that most people would be bad if that were what was easiest, but obviously I think there are some people who wouldn’t. And maybe this is also obvious, but I count myself among the people who would try their hardest to be good, even if being good were difficult.”
Sofia thought about her mother telling an oathkeeper to murder an actress. Henry was half right. For most people, it was just about what was easy and hard. But the half he was missing — or more likely, just hadn’t mentioned — was that people were different. Henry was talking about a moral topography that people navigated as inexorably as raindrops rolling downhill, but the terrain wasn’t the same for everyone, even those who had started in the same place. Sofia always found it difficult to order things from oathkeepers, even small, inconsequential things, because it hadn’t seemed right to take advantage of them. Her mother appeared to have no such compunctions. Sofia couldn’t imagine taking pleasure from clamping a hand over her infant son’s mouth, no matter how loud he was being … and yet her mother had apparently done it out of weakness.
“I think you’re wrong,” said Sofia. “Or just … not entirely right. If one man thinks nothing of stealing, then the path toward evil is easier for him than for the man who feel revulsion over taking something that’s not his. You’d say that one is more evil than the other, right?”
“You’re talking about tendencies and inclinations,” said Henry. “I think those are different from —”
“I miss you,” said Sofia. She pulled the hole in the wall wide enough to stick her head through.
“I miss you whenever we’re apart,” said Henry.
They sat in silence, watching each other.
“You know, if Ventor comes to fetch you, I think we’ll probably have a much less pleasant journey south together,” said Sofia. “He doesn’t put up with nonsense, and I happen to know that you enjoy a good bit of nonsense. And I would hate to have gone through all that negotiation for no reason.”
“There are things we need to talk about,” said Henry.
Sofia shrugged. “Nothing serious, I hope?”
“Serious,” nodded Henry. “I don’t want you to just brush it all to the side like it were nothing.”
“But we don’t have to talk about it right now,” said Sofia. She pulled her head back from the wall and slid her hands through the stone to open it up wide enough for her to climb through. She wasted no time and made her way to Henry. She stood next to him with her feet touching his, and after looking up at him for just a moment, she laid her head against his shoulder and slid her arms around him. He returned the hug with strong hands pressing against her back.
“You’re still Henry, right?” Sofia murmured into his shoulder.
He hugged her tighter, then turned his head enough to kiss her on the side of her head, just above her ear. She felt herself grow warm at that. They had never really touched before, not like this. Sofia buried herself deeper into his shoulder. It felt good to talk to him. It felt good to be with him. Sofia wasn’t sure that it was good, not in a moral sense, but it was certainly the path of least resistance. Besides, he was supposed to save her life, wasn’t he? And prophecy had never been wrong before.
A line drawn from the Citadel to the High Rectory would almost perfectly bisect the kingdom of Donkerk. The Citadel was far to the north, not quite at the boundary of the lands Donkerk claimed, but certainly past where useful resources could be extracted from the land or crops could be grown. By contrast, the High Rectory sat in Marurbo, the largest city in Donkerk by far, placed at the center of commerce and society. The organizations that both headed were mirrors of each other, reflecting and sometimes in opposition to each other. The rectors were warriors, ready to respond with force to threats both internal and external. The sisters were peace-workers, tending to children at the orphanages and working at charitable hospitals to help the ill or injured.
There was something about the Citadel that made Ventor uneasy. The sisters and the rectors were mirrors of each other, but they were not perfect mirrors, and there were incongruities in their purpose. Ventor was not well-studied on the Citadel — there had never been a reason to be — but he instinctively viewed them as a dancing partner who was keeping a slightly different tempo.
“So this is where he’s gone?” asked Miriam as they walked toward the Citadel. It had just come into view, but Ventor hadn’t wanted to talk any time to admire the view, not when his instructions had said that he should move with all due haste.
“Now remember,” said Ventor, ignoring the question. “We don’t want to spook him. We want a calm, rational conversation about why it is imperative that I return to Marurbo with him. It is unlikely that he knows anything about what happened on his family farm, and it would be better if he did not find out until his cooperation had been secured. You have taken no Oath of Honesty, which means that you have a distinct advantage.”
Sister Constance walked alongside them, as silent as ever and giving no indication that she would have had any input even if she were capable of communicating with them. The third elevation of the Oath of Silence effectively required a complete retreat from the world. Why Constance had decided to come with them was still a mystery to Ventor and seemed ill-advised given that she was leaving the orphanage short-staffed.
“I won’t lie to him,” said Miriam. “I think it would be wrong, and besides that, it’s bad strategy. I might not be compelled to tell the truth in order to keep an oath, but I’m a lousy liar. And as you said, Henry will likely not have heard about what happened to his childhood home, but it’s not certain.” She hesitated. “You still believe that the dark wizards made it out alive?”
“I have never known a dark wizard to take his own life,” said Ventor. “They believe in no higher purpose, so the thing they hold most dear is their continued existence, to the detriment of everyone and anyone around them.”
Miriam nodded. “That means that they’re an unknown element at this point. We can’t assume that his family members didn’t meet up with him. If he asks about them, or about anything else, it’s better to just tell him the truth.”
“You don’t trust Henry not to lay a trap for you,” said Ventor.
“He’s a clever boy,” said Miriam. “And it’s a trick we often use with the children. Asking questions that you know the answer to is a good way to trap someone in a lie.”
“When I came before, I asked them to separate him from the girl, to the extent that’s possible,” said Ventor. “She’s still an unknown. If she is with him, you can offer them both as much as is reasonable.”
“I know,” said Miriam.
She seemed to have been beaten by the miles; Ventor was concerned that she wouldn’t have the stamina for talking to Henry, which was her entire job. Ventor himself was worse for the wear, mostly as a result of his ravenous hunger and monstrous thirst having returned in full force, seeming more piercing for their brief absence. Miriam had made her complaints about her thighs being tender from being carried, and a crick in her back from sleeping on the hard ground, which had made Ventor consider the prospect of bashing her head in with a rock, especially after she and Constance ate their meals. Yes, Ventor had been pushed by this particular mission, but it wouldn’t be too long before he could return to the castle and be free of the temptations and frustrations of the road.
They came from the front doors and walked through the enormous entry room with its dunes of sand which had drifted in from the desert. Ventor found it haunting, in a very unpleasant way. It wasn’t clear who had built this room or why, or even how, but it was surely designed to make a person feel insignificant, and the Citadel had clearly adapted it as their point of entry in order to impress that feeling upon their visitors.
“Can I help you?” asked the sister sitting behind her desk. Her eyes moved rapidly between the three of them.
“The boy, Henry,” said Ventor. “Though that’s not the name he would have given.”
“No,” said the sister. “That was what he called himself. They just left.”
Ventor lunged forward and gripped the desk, restraining himself from bashing it to pieces. “He was not supposed to leave,” said Ventor. “He was not supposed to leave at all. I gave very specific instructions.”
“I’m sorry,” said the sister. She had recoiled backward. “But we didn’t allow them to leave, they escaped.”
Ventor could feel his blood pumping through his veins and sweat beginning to bead up on his forehead. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. They had made up time again and again, losing it to backtracking or intentional misdirection on Henry’s part. They should have arrived at the Citadel only hours after Henry, that the Citadel would lose him through abject incompetence —
“Do you want to investigate how they left or do you want to go after him?” asked Miriam. She rested her hand on his elbow, with the feeling barely perceptible through the Strangheid.
“Which way did they go?” Ventor asked the sister at the desk.
“I … I do not know,” she replied. “But Sister Marigold might.”
“Bring her here,” said Ventor. “No, take us to her instead, it will take less time that way.” He rested his hand on the pommel of Ravener. “Now!” he shouted.
The sister leapt from her chair with a start and began moving at once. Ventor followed after her, close on her heels. He could sense the presence of Miriam and Constance behind him, but he said nothing to them. He knew that he was behaving erratically, but he found that he did not care, not so long as the mission was completed.
“There is an issue,” said the sister who was guiding them through the warrens of the Citadel. “Due to her oaths, Sister Marigold cannot speak with you.”
“She will have to break her Oath of Silence then,” said Ventor. That was so sacrosanct a thing to say that Ventor was surprised that there was no oath against saying it. Forcing someone to violate their oaths for any reason was a crime punishable by exile from the order, if not death.
“Her oath is more complicated than that,” said the sister. “She is confined to the mental realm, never to return her consciousness to the physical world.”
Ventor felt something like a slap to his brain in the split second that sentence finished as the world turned to black around him. The effect was lifted in a moment, leaving Ventor standing on top of a bitterly cold mountain. A hollow, empty monastery sat behind him, looking exceptionally lifeless. His sword was gone, as was the Strangheid. Thirst and hunger still consumed him.
“We are in your mind,” said a woman who had not been standing there just moments before. She was seven feet tall and startlingly beautiful, though she was dressed similar to one of the sisters. “I am Sister Marigold. We need to talk.”
“I am bound by my Oath of Fealty to carry out my duty to my king,” said Ventor. “I have said that I would perform my mission with all due haste and I intend to do that. Release me from your spell.”
“There is no spell,” said Marigold. “Only an advanced technique of mentalism known to precious few and capable of being performed by only myself. While you may be bound by your oaths, I am not so encumbered. Know that if you answer swiftly, I will release you swiftly, and know too that I will ask nothing of you which will violate your oaths.”
“Tell me where Henry is,” said Ventor.
“He is traveling with the princess Sofia down a road to the east, still well within my range,” said Marigold.
Ventor’s eyes widened. “The princess?” he asked. “You are certain?”
“Certain enough,” Marigold nodded. “You intend to return her to the castle, but there are things I must ask of you first.”
“Ask,” said Ventor. “Quickly.” The king had said that Ventor should return Henry with all due haste, a wording that gave considerable leeway in determining how much haste was due. His order regarding the princess had no such give to it. If Ventor could make this conversation move more quickly by any means, he was obliged to do it.
“What do you know of Rowan?” asked Sister Marigold. She sat down with her legs folded, which given her immense size was just enough to bring her to eye level with Ventor.
“The crown prince is hungry for power,” said Ventor. He kept his pronunciation clipped and spoke with no regard for niceties. “He seeks revenge for small slights, he is widely suspected of being responsible for the deaths of animals around the castle, his father does not love him, and he once told me that when he was king he would use my oaths against me. He is smart but unprincipled. His father seems unwilling to put in the work to change him and has left the boy to be raised by his tutors. Is that enough for you?”
“The king was incautious with the wording of his command,” said Marigold, nearly beneath her breath. “Rowan spends a fair amount of time with the royal mentalist, Ibrahim?”
“He did, before Ibrahim fell into a coma,” said Ventor. When he saw her look, one of wide-eyed surprise, he quickly continued on. “We do not know whether it was a mental attack, but suspect that it was so. It happened shortly before the princess Sofia ran away from home, though did not appear to be connected with that. My news from the capital is long out of date, but when I left there was little hope for Ibrahim’s recovery.”
“You are under and Oath of Honesty?” asked Marigold.
“Yes,” said Ventor.
“Go then, when I release you it is imperative that you keep the two of them together and protect them both when they return to Marurbo,” said Marigold. “Inform the king that his son must be sent away, preferably to the Citadel where I can get a look at his mind. Ibrahim was the second strongest mentalist in Donkerk, he should not have fallen, and either Rowan is in grave danger or he is a grave danger.”
Ventor was sent reeling backward, tearing through the ground as though it were made of paper, left seeing only blackness until the world resolved itself around him. He was sitting in a hallway of the Citadel with a number of sisters huddled around him, among them Miriam and Constance. Ventor bolted to his feet; there was no time to lose, no longer any slack in his schedule. Without thinking too hard about it, he grabbed Miriam by the waist and put her over his shoulder, despite screams of protest, and began to run. East, the woman in his head had said. It was unfortunate that fulfilling her request was impossible.
Rowan sat in his mindscape, in a room he had specially built over the past week. It was a throne room, which his castle hadn’t previously had, but unlike his father’s throne room, it was built for rule instead of for simply for appearances and the social niceties of being king. The room had every relevant piece of information that Rowan had ever read about both the existing laws, the major players, and whatever data had been collected from different regions. Beyond that, there was a large map of Donkerk and its surrounding environs, which could be expanded in a way only possible in a mindscape to show the entirety of the known world. In contrast to the rest of his mind, which was still a jumble of rooms and corridors, the throne room was perfectly organized and meticulously detailed.
There were twenty thoughtforms standing around at any given moment. Ibrahim had said that a skilled mentalist could hold a group conversation with two thoughtforms at once, or three at the very extremes of talent and with terribly low fidelity. The problem was that for a thoughtform to be more than just an empty shell of a person, to be more than scenery speaking words you had prepared for them, the model of a personality needed to use part of your actual intellect. Anyone could imagine what Sofia might say, then imagine what King Aldric might say, then imagine what Ibrahim might say, and this wasn’t really much different than what a playwright did, but hosting three independent beings was an enormous strain for a normal person.
Dark magic offered a way around that. Among the spells that Rowan had discovered was one to give a thoughtform permanency and power beyond that of the mind it was in. The coterie of thoughtforms in Rowan’s throne room did not rely on his own intellect, but were sustained by sacrificial magic. Unlike the magical swords he had been using to defeat Ibrahim’s remnants, the thoughtforms appeared to be entirely stable on their own, though annoyingly they did not update on new information as Rowan learned it, nor did it appear that they could be changed after their creation without killing them entirely, which Rowan had learned the hard way much to his dismay. (The ritual required a very specific type of memory, that of a parent for their most loved child, which was so far-ranging that Rowan was hesitant to use it simply because of how it might expose him. He had targeted men and women with children who had died young, which he figured on being a mercy to them. When those had been exhausted, he moved on to older people with the first signs of dementia. The results were weaker, but still worthwhile.)
“The king is forty-one years old,” said one of the sages with a frown. His form was that of Baktar, a man with round glasses and rat-like teeth, but his personality was so far removed from Baktar’s that he was Baktar in appearance only. All Rowan’s sages knew as much as he knew when he’d made them, and all were loyal to him, so the major differences he’d decided on between them — the reason to have more than one — were their unique trains of thought. Baktar had been made both cautious and pessimistic, prone to argument even for a sage. “Aldric’s father and paternal grandfather died young, but not from natural causes. The Queen Mother is sixty-eight, and her mother and father both lived until quite recently. Assuming that nothing happens to Aldric … well, it’s unknowable, but given the resources available to the king and his lifestyle, I suspect that he might hold the crown until his eighties.”
“At which point I will be in my sixties,” said Rowan.
“During the period of stability following the Juniper Rebellion, it was common for kings to live into their nineties, which meant that the princes would take up the crown at the age of sixty or more,” said the sage Langauld. He was the designated court optimist, specializing in turning a sour situation sweet. “But it was very common for those kings to pass on responsibilities to their heir, ensuring that by the time the Boreal Crown passed on, the king would be not just well-acquainted with the court, but with rule itself.”
“A process which should have started already,” said Rowan. It was a continuing sore point with his father, something which was always put off for another year.
“There is no rush,” said Langauld. “As stated, he is quite young and fit, with little risk that he will pass.”
“I don’t intend to ever let you rule,” said King Aldric. “It won’t be long until you are married; you ask for responsibilities and I will say that one of those responsibilities, better done sooner than later, is to find a wife and start a family. You will naturally attempt to put it off, which will give me room to put off giving you lands to manage and men under your command. But of course if you do find a wife and have a child, I will just find some other excuse to deprive you of power. At worst, you will only be allowed to rule for a scant twenty years in your twilight while your son has every right to pressure you for power of his own. At best, you will die young and the crown will skip you entirely.”
“You’re fortunate that I left,” said Sofia. “I was never interested in being a queen, but now I’ve proven myself unfit, which gives father more of an incentive to trust you.”
“I will never trust him,” said Aldric with a snort.
“Trust can be forced,” said Ibrahim. “Directly. But you are not so good at mentalism that you could manage it. If you had kept me around, perhaps I could have taught you that subtle art, but alas. Everything you do in the mental realm is propped up by dark magic, it’s a shame you haven’t discovered a ritual for this.”
Rowan grit his teeth. The thoughtform of Ibrahim had been built incorrectly, and because it had been built by ritual, it was unchangeable. It was still useful, to some extent, which was why Rowan had not destroyed it, but the thoughtform was belligerent and always hinting at secrets it knew which it would never share. It was undoubtable that Ibrahim had kept aspects of mentalism from Rowan, the better to control him, but given that Rowan didn’t actually have that knowledge, the thoughtform didn’t either, which meant the needling was worse than useless.
A shadow emerged from the wall and took form next to the rest of the council, who reacted to it with unease. It was sleek and black, like liquid tar, shaped only vaguely like a person and lacking any features besides two red eyes like ember sunken into its head. This was a thoughtform too, one that Rowan had built special. It was a voice for the evil in him. He had never heard of someone making such a thing, but of course it would be less useful if you could only have one or two thoughtforms to speak with at a time.
“Kill your father,” it said.
The rest of the council erupted in noise, but Rowan silenced them to allow his evil a chance to speak.
“Your father seeks to limit your rule,” it said. “You do not intend to use this kingdom for your personal gain, as your father seems to believe, you seek to reform it, to make it better, to fix all of the problems that your father has introduced to it. It is not simply that your father does not trust you, it is that he is preventing you from doing good.” His evil often spoke of good. “A long rule does not just give us a greater chance for good by maximizing years of influence, it gives structure and stability to any decrees we put forward and solidifies relationships. The dukes will fall at our feet if they know we will be king for decades, but they would have no such incentive if they know that our time will soon be up. Your relationship with your father cannot be repaired. There is no other path to power given how your father blocks your every effort. And if you were ever to do it, best to do it now, when Sofia is gone, and when we might gain the greatest number of years from the act.”
The oily black thoughtform gave a long sigh, like that of a man who has just drunk an entire glass of wine in a single go. “Kill your father,” it said.
Rowan lifted the silence he had placed on his council and waited to see if someone could talk him out of it.
Rowan and his father rarely ate dinner together anymore. It had started with excuses from the king about meetings and plans, important business which could be done over a simple pot of stew in a room with space to spread papers about, or with a platter of meats, cheeses, and bread to share with advisers. Rowan had made an effort and said that he could attend these meetings with his father, but of course the king hadn’t been extending an invitation, and there were always a bevy of excuses ready to go in order to keep Rowan from the inner workings of power. Rowan knew from experience that attempting to argue against those excuses would lead to escalation rather than compromise, so he had stopped trying. Eventually the excuses stopped altogether as their dinners became a thing of the past and the new status quo asserted itself.
Yet Rowan knew that there was still a peace between him and his father. They did not like one another, and they both knew that this dislike was mutual, but they were still father and son, and now that Sofia was gone, their familial bond was more meaningful. King Aldric would block his son from power, certainly, but if Rowan made a reasonable request, like a quiet dinner together, his father would accept. The request implied that there might be a peace-making between them, and while the king certainly had no interest in making peace, it was a matter of courtesy to entertain the notion.
They ate in the Blue Room, with a small centerpiece of bluebells between them. There was a third place set for Sofia, which Rowan tried his best not to take offense to. She was the favored child, but it was right for a father to miss his daughter, even if he would not miss his son. Their first course was an appetizer of roasted marrow with a gremolata and horseradish, which they ate in silence until it was cleared away.
“Is there any word of Sofia?” asked Rowan.
“No,” replied King Aldric. “The reports come in by the day, but they only give notice of where she is not.” He looked up at Rowan. “Aside from what she had told you, do you have a theory as to where she has gone?”
Rowan shook his head. “None,” he replied. “If the oathkeepers have not found her thus far, then I have to assume that she’s somehow outpaced them. It’s possible that she hid aboard a ship that set out at dawn —”
“No,” said the king. “You were not privy to the decision, but I sent half the ships in the navy to track down every single departure in the harbormaster’s log. All the ships were searched from top to bottom, as though we were tracking the most cunning smugglers. The fleet has returned with a great many reports, none of which make mention of a girl with long red hair.”
Rowan frowned as the second course arrived, a pork fillet with braised cabbage and potatoes. He watched carefully as his father ate away, but did not touch his own food. There was no one in the room with them, but serving girls came and went with the changing of the courses. They had perhaps ten minutes alone together. Rowan sunk down into his mindscape, landing gently on the flagstones of his breaching room. He strode quickly to where his father’s mind hung in the air, then entered it without so much as pausing.
He changed his father’s mindscape with an act of sheer will that was made easier by how much preparation he had put into the day. Thousands of candles sprang into place around the farmhouse that was the central feature of Aldric’s mindscape. The candles were not all unique, but they were nearly so. They came in all colors, from blue to white to pitch black, their wicks were made with materials from horsehair to braided cotton, with cores of zinc or paper, thick and thin, twisted and curved, in every variety that Rowan thought reasonable and a few he thought were not. Rowan lit them all and snuffed them out, first altogether and then in random sequences as quickly as his mind could manage it — which was very quickly indeed, given he was a dark mentalist with a plan.
Woven through the candles were patterns. There were squares within circles within triangles, done as shell after encompassing shell, hundreds all told. There were smaller patterns to the north, south, east and west, or as near as those directions could be figured in the mental realm, and those smaller patterns were reflections and repetitions of the larger one, circumscribed and inscribed shapes. The patterns were written with a mixture of materials; Rowan had used the blood of a lion, a goat, a sow, and so on, he had used hair, sinew, bone meal, talc, salt, the ash of a hundred different varieties of trees, the ink of a deep-ocean squid, wax drippings, on and on. This was the mental realm, where such things were as easy as thought and will.
Rowan turned his attention to the sky and began his manipulations there. He made it nighttime, then with a wave of his hand brought out the moon. But that was not enough, so he brought forth a second moon, and a third, until all phases were visible at once.
That, at last, was sufficient.
A dark ritual required three things. The first was ritual, which Rowan had throughly covered by simply performing all ritual steps he had ever heard of, then extrapolating to likely additional steps.
The second requirement was intent. A dark wizard needed to hold his head the result he expected. If you had the ritual correct but held the wrong intent, the spell would fail. But Rowan was a mentalist, and one who had been lent considerable strength by prior rituals. He could hold more than one intention within his mind. In fact, he could hold hundreds. It was a terrible strain to intend so much at once, but he only needed it for a few seconds.
The third requirement was sacrifice. Rowan brought ever ounce of power he had to bear and destroyed his father’s mind.
He backed out of the mental realm a half second afterward to see his father staring straight ahead with a slightly slack jaw. Rowan breathed out a sigh. It was done, whatever else happened. If Aldric lived out the rest of his life, it would be as a mindless creature, bereft of knowledge, emotion, memory, or thought. Yet if that happened, there was a risk that the sages, dukes, and oathkeepers would run things in his stead, unwilling to give up power or perhaps commanded by the king not to hand over the reigns in any case short of death.
That was why Rowan had laced the cabbage with briarwort. It had been a difficult thing to do, requiring an extraordinary amount of manipulation in the mind of the head chef. The finger would land squarely on the man’s head, and he would swear that he had meant to put in bay leaves instead of briarwort, which would lead to questions about why there was something so dangerous as briarwort in the kitchen — but that was all for another time, a discussion that Rowan could steer. The important thing was that he would not be implicated; briarwort left a person insensate, then put them into a deep sleep, and finally killed them. Mentalism would play no part in the king’s death. The entire dark ritual had only been to extract value from the mind before it was lost forever. Rowan could admit that it was a matter of catharsis, a way of finally attacking his father that was less duplicitous than simple poison. But in the end, it didn’t really matter.
By this time tomorrow, he would be king.
Sofia and Henry held hands as they walked down the road away from the Citadel. Sofia was the one who had made the move; she had simply slipped her hand into his as they were walking, without saying a single thing about it before or after. Henry could feel the callouses on her hands from all the days they’d spent together, evenings foraging in the forests and collecting firewood, mornings cleaning animals that had been trapped during the night. She was less soft than she had been when they first met, and he hadn’t thought of her as a pampered princess then. He liked her as she was. He was certain that he would like her as she became, even if she lost the definition in her muscles from the constant hiking through poorly kept back roads, even when the callouses faded from her hands, even when she was subsisting on a diet more substantial than fish, berries, nuts, and the occasional rabbit.
“Is there any reason that we couldn’t do this forever?” asked Sofia. “With the two of us working together we could live off the land indefinitely. We could see every sight there was to see in Donkerk, then make our way south and get on some ship heading across the ocean. I don’t have any skill as a sailor, but you could teach me —”
“I don’t know how to sail either,” said Henry.
“Really?” asked Sofia. “I suppose not, if you grew up on a farm. For some reason I assumed that it was a skill you would have taught yourself just for the sake of completeness.”
“No,” said Henry. “I know the names for every knot there is, as well as how to tie them, and I have some academic knowledge of ship repair and maintenance, and obviously the terminology isn’t too difficult to get right, but I’ve never been within a hundred miles of the ocean. The most I’ve ever done is swimming in a slightly larger than average lake.”
“Well I’m sure that we could become novice deckhands,” said Sofia, picking up where she’d left off. “It’s not like it’s a profession that requires true apprenticeship. And we’re both clearly comfortable with a rough sort of living, I don’t think we’d mind hardtack and boiled water for a few weeks. That would let us travel the world, especially once we’d gotten the relevant skills. Just Henry and Fiona, seeing everything there is to see, opening every door together.”
“Henry and Sofia,” Henry corrected. He was silent as they walked together. He didn’t want to spoil Sofia’s good mood, but — “I don’t think that’s the best use of our life.”
“Oh?” asked Sofia. “And our life, singular?” She gave him a teasing smile. “You’d normally only hear that from two people who had betrothed.”
“You were the one who wanted to hold hands,” said Henry. He held up her hand in his, as if to remind her, then gave the back of her hand a quick kiss before letting it fall down between them. Sofia blushed.
“And-and I suppose that you didn’t?” asked Sofia. She was trying to hide her smile. “If, after all, you were thinking about how to spend our apparently very singular life together.”
“Traveling the world sounds nice,” said Henry. “But it doesn’t sound good. I mean, it doesn’t sound good in the moral sense. We’re two skilled and intelligent people with every option available to us. And honestly, you have a enormous amount of raw power, not just with your connections in the capital, but you’re a spirit caller, the lone practitioner of a lost art. If we decide that what we want is to live as wanderers of no higher purpose, then I think that would make us bad people.”
“You still want to fix the kingdom,” said Sofia. Her smile had faded away. “To fix the world.”
“When I was growing up, my fathers said that we should leave the world no worse than we found it,” said Henry. At the mention of his fathers, a frown flickered across Sofia’s face. He knew that it would take a long time before she heard that expression as anything other than ‘the men who kidnapped you’. “That always struck me as so … un. Uninspired, unambitious, unkind, like they just wanted to look out for themselves and when they died, it would be like they had never existed at all. They wanted the world no worse, but they didn’t care if it were also no better.”
Sofia was silent beside him, but and Henry felt her hand slip from his. He continued on, trying his best to make his point; at least they were still walking together. It wasn’t a conversation which would make her happy, but it was one they needed to have.
“I always think about this man,” said Henry as he looked at his feet. “He’s not anyone I ever knew, he’s just a generic man. But he and I are walking on a mountainside path when the stone breaks away beneath him. He doesn’t quite fall to his death, because he’s able to grab a small bit of unbroken ledge. And I think … how evil would it be to not give him aid? Because in my mind it would be entirely, unquestionably evil. The scenario often changes, so that sometimes there is some risk to me, some cost, and I think about how high that cost would be that I would decide that the man’s life was forfeit. And I think about whether its different if the man isn’t asking for my help, or doesn’t know whether I’m there or not, or if anyone sees me help him, or whether its appreciated. But I think the conclusion that I keep coming to is that I have to help him, because fading into the fabric of the world isn’t enough, not when the world fails so often. Goodness is a duty.”
He had talked too long. He knew that. And he had, in a roundabout way, called her romantic ideal of a never-ending journey together evil. There were personal reasons that she held a disdain for duty. She had talked about her overbearing father often enough, anyone in her position might have seen what Henry was talking about as a chain. He had crashed in on her good mood, which he felt certain was contrary to the underlying reality of their relationship together and what she had learned about him. Perhaps it would have been better to leave it all for later.
Sofia stopped walking and Henry turned to look at her, ready with an apology.
She was crying.
She held the Boreal Crown in her hands.
“No,” said Sofia. “No, no, this —” she looked up at Henry. “This is my father’s.”
Henry looked at her, then back down at the crown. “It just appeared?” he asked.
“On my head,” said Sofia. “I felt its weight settle on me like a feather, the spirit inside greeting me like an old friend …” She was having trouble breathing, so she sat down in the middle of the road, still gripping the crown tight. She turned the crown over in her hands, hoping to somehow see a sign that it was a fake. It was gold, polished to reflect the light, with prongs like a deer’s antlers rising above the circlet where it rested on the head. Every detail was there. More than that, she could feel the spirit, the spirit of all Donkerk, and the wondrous powers that the crown bestowed. She could feel how to speak with the king’s voice, how she could press down on people, who she could silence a crowd, the sheer command it was imbued with — and there could be no doubt that it was authentic.
“I shouldn’t have this,” she said. She wiped at her tears.
“Is there —” Henry began. He looked at her with cautious, tender eyes. “Is there any precedent for the crown to pass to the next in line without a death?”
“None,” said Sofia. She let go of the crown and let it fall into her lap. Her hands were shaking. “But that doesn’t mean that it couldn’t have happened,” she said quickly. “I’m a spirit caller, the first in hundreds of years, maybe I was thinking about the crown and it just came to me because … because of my power. Because it heard my call, even if I didn’t want it, didn’t mean it.”
“If you believed that you wouldn’t be crying,” said Henry. He laid a hand on her shoulder, which she batted away.
“I’m crying because of you!” she shouted at him. “Because you’re just so good and pure and — and you were telling me that I couldn’t have the things that I wanted because of who I was born to, because I’m — the princess.”
“That crown says that you’re the queen,” said Henry.
Sofia picked up the crown and threw it as hard as she could into the woods.
Henry stared at it with wide eyes as it hit a tree trunk, then began jogging after it.
“Stop,” said Sofia. Henry stopped and looked at her. She held out her hand to the open air. The crown materialized into her grasp. “The crown cannot be lost, stolen, broken, melted, or tarnished. It is inviolable.” Sofia closed her eyes. “I didn’t want it. Never. There was never a point in my life where I wanted this crown to be mine.”
“I’m sorry,” said Henry.
“My father and brother are dead,” said Sofia. She placed the crown on her head and slowly rose to her feet. “I’m going to need your help for this.”
“You have it,” said Henry.
Sofia had been preparing to say that she didn’t just mean this current crisis, that of the crown landing on her head, but everything, all of it, that if she were queen she would need him to be her sage of sages, her knight, and yes, probably her husband. She was going to ask that of him because she wanted to hear him say that of course that was what he had meant, that he was the firmament upon which the rest of her life would be built.
Before she could say any of that, Ventor came around the bend, carrying a woman with him.
Miriam’s bones ached all over from being carried, especially by her ribs, which had rested on Ventor’s armor in an awkward way. She had thought that he had been moving fast on the way to the Citadel, but what he had just done was true speed, a mad sprint that tossed her about and left her hair whipped by the passing wind. It had all taken a minute, maybe two, until she was being set on her feet and left to get her bearings.
“Princess Sofia, we must go,” said Ventor.
Miriam looked at the two teenagers standing in the middle of the road. One was Henry, looking the same as he ever had, though perhaps with hair bleached a little more blond by the sun and skin with a darker tan. Beside him was a girl with short brown hair. Miriam had heard descriptions of her a hundred times by now, sometimes calling her mousy and other times calling her pretty. None of them had mentioned that she was wearing a crown which looked suspiciously like the one which appeared in every portrait of the king.
“There is just enough space within the bounds of my orders for a very brief conversation in which I convince you of the necessity of your return to Marurbo,” said Ventor in quick, clipped tones. That, at least, explained why he had brought Miriam. “Your father has so ordered it and his word is law.”
“No,” said Henry. He stepped between Ventor and Sofia. “The crown has passed to her, which means that something has happened to both her father and brother. Marurbo cannot be considered safe.”
“My orders would not disappear with the death of the king,” said Ventor. “I have sworn no Oath of Fealty to Sofia. Princess, I will be taking you with me to Marurbo with or without your consent.”
Miriam watched as the girl — apparently the princess Sofia after all, now Queen Sofia — went to stand beside Henry, the boy who had spent a year working in her orphanage.
“No,” said Sofia. “Henry is right. Return to Marurbo is wise, but doing it quickly without first understanding what has happened is foolish.”
“I will keep you safe, as I was so ordered,” Ventor began.
“No,” said Sofia. Her voice held a hard edge of command to it, which brought a silence down among them. To Miriam’s shock, the silence extended to the world around them, as the rustling sound of wind in the leaves and the noises of animals and insects completely ceased. No, more than just the sounds not being heard any more, they had stopped. When the Queen spoke, her kingdom listened. The crickets had stopped moving to hear what she had to say; the winds had arrested themselves so that the leaves could listen.
“Henry speaks truth,” said Sofia. “I am not willing to give my family up for dead, but if something has happened to them, caution is more valuable than speed by far. I will take you into my service now and you will accompany me south at whatever pace I deem appropriate.”
“You cannot countermand your father’s orders,” said Ventor. “I cannot amend my oath to him. I must take you. It will be better for you if you are willing, but if you are not, we are going all the same, with my deepest apologies.”
“Break your oath,” Sofia commanded.
“I cannot —” Ventor began, then stopped himself. Miriam could see on his face that he had nearly told a lie. “I will not throw away twenty-five years of keeping oaths so easily.” He advanced on her, moving quickly.
Henry stepped into his path. “I don’t want to hurt you,” said Henry. “Tell me the exact phrasing of your oath and perhaps we can find a way around it, together.”
Ventor grabbed Henry by the wrist and twisted his arm around, then shoved him to the side, where he tumbled to the ground and quickly rolled to his feet. Ventor grabbed Sofia by her arm even as she tried to pull away from him, and he soon had her pinned.
“Long term!” shouted Henry. “In the long term she is your queen and you will be beholden to her, which means that the integrity of her oaths will lie in your hands, and all she needs do is give contradictory orders to end your oath of fealty, same as you could do now of your own volition.”
But Ventor was lifting Sofia up to carry her as she kicked and beat at his chest. She was using the crown as a weapon, driving the golden prongs into his armor to no effect.
Miriam was frozen in place. She had never trained for this. She had never signed on for it either. All she had wanted to do was to find Henry and bring him home, whether or not he was the boy of prophecy. The children had a point, but now they were fighting this battle that they could not possibly win, not against a trained oathkeeper with twenty-five years of oaths under his belt and two incredibly powerful magic items he had been granted by the king. There was simply no way —
Henry had grown claws. His hands were twisted and scaled with scabs, with blood dripping down onto the ground, and there was a pen knife laying on the ground, where there was more blood. Miriam’s eyes widened. And then Henry wasted no time in racing back to Ventor to attack him with the claws and use them to try prising apart his armor or slipping between the plates of it. Ventor was down to a single hand, so he pushed Henry away — with a hollow thunk against an invisible barrier, sending him sprawling again — and set Sofia unceremoniously on the ground. Then Ventor drew his sword, Ravener, whose mirrored edge glinted in the sunlight.
“Stop!” cried Miriam.
“By my authority as queen, do not kill him!” screamed Sofia, with the full weight of the Boreal Crown behind her. Henry, Ventor, and Miriam all dropped to one knee as a silence once again ripped through the forest around them. But it did not last, as Ventor staggered to his feet and came at Henry, whose had raised his claws — claws! — in a defensive position.
A blur of blue and white went past Miriam. It stopped next to Ventor and resolved itself as Sister Constance, with one spindly arm raised above her head, grasping Ventor’s sword arm. He looked at her in disgust, but when he attempted to brush her aside, she stayed immobile, as did he.
“Run!” Miriam called to Henry, though by now it was clear that he was practicing dark magic and had for some reason, by some means, taken the princess north with him. And there was no outrunning Ventor, not even if Constance stayed his hand.
Henry ran instead to Sofia and grabbed her by the waist. She recoiled from his claws, but he held fast, and after a moment she stopped her struggling. Miriam took two steps toward them, not knowing what she might do. Henry was doing something with his claws —
Constance and Ventor had been locked in place together, but he shifted his weight to throw her instead. She was as strong as him, perhaps stronger, but she weighed a good deal less. She would have gone flying, but she held her grip and swung around his arm to land firmly and with her just above him. She pushed him away, hard, her bony hands sending him several feet into the air. She sprinted to Miriam, grabbed her hand, and yanked her hard toward the two children, who were passing through an ethereal doorway.
Miriam found herself in the cold black.