“Forward movement,” said Henry.
Sofia had thought that the world had gone silent when she’d used the power of the Boreal Crown. This was something else entirely, silence that left only the sound of her beating heart and the rustle of her hair. Yet it was familiar somehow, and stirred up a memory of — Ulf. That was it, teleporting around the castle with him, that same blackness, that same absence of sound. Henry had done it, was doing it, with claws wrapped gently around her waist.
“Forward movement,” said Henry again, louder this time, but it was literally the only thing that there was to hear. Sofia was vaguely aware of a hand gripping her wrist, but it wasn’t disturbing her at all. There was little to do but accept it. Henry had claws now. Forever? There were stories of mutilations like that, dark magic turned to dark purpose, cows made large as carriages so that the nobles of Neth could be carried in their rib cages. What had he given up for those claws? What had he given up for this?
It was cold in this place, but as soon as Sofia began to shiver, the Boreal Crown began to warm her, not just where it rested on her head, but all over, all at once. She hadn’t known that it could do that, but she supposed that there were times she had seen her father looking noble among hunched up advisers in their coats as they stood outside in the dead of winter. Her father, who was — not dead. Not necessarily. Not until Sofia had heard it from someone’s lips. She wouldn’t assume that the crown had done what it had always, unfailingly done for hundreds of years.
They walked. There were no sounds of footsteps. There were only bodily sounds, the sound of breathing, the sound of clothing rubbing against skin, the creaking of joints and shifting of bones. They walked for what seemed like a long time, but must have only been minutes. It was still far longer than Ulf had ever taken to get from one place to another — and that was what Sofia trusted that they were doing.
They spilled out of something approximating a doorway, which appeared without warning in front of them. Sofia slipped from Henry’s grasp and sat down against a wooden wall. She immediately took the crown from her head and placed it in her lap, without really thinking about it. The room they were in was small, no larger than a storage shed really. In the center of it sat a large rectangular object, which was covered by a canvas tarpaulin. Henry hoisted himself up to sit on that, being careful with his claw hands. The two Foresworn Sisters stood awkwardly where they’d come out.
“Queen Sofia, this is Sister Constance and Sister Miriam,” said Henry, gesturing to them with a claw. “They’re from the orphanage at Leshampur. Sisters, this is the Queen of all Donkerk.”
Sofia nodded to them, both too tired and too jittery for a proper introduction. “It’s too early to be calling me queen,” she said. “Where are we, Henry?”
“You’ve been here before,” said Henry. “It’s my family farm.”
“How?” asked Sofia. She was looking at his claws, which he held up for her to see. He was short one, on his left hand.
“Dark magic,” said Henry. He glanced over at Miriam and Constance. “Forgive me, but I was worried I didn’t have a choice.”
“Are those claws … forever?” asked Miriam, which was a question that had been at the back of Sofia’s mind. She wasn’t sure what she would do if the answer were yes.
“They last about ten minutes,” said Henry. “They’ll shrivel soon enough, leaving my fingers looking like prunes, and within half an hour you won’t be able to tell I’d had them at all.”
“Henry, can you tell me what’s going on?” asked Miriam.
“It’s complicated,” said Henry. He bit his lip and glanced at Constance. “How did you come through?” he asked.
“Constance followed you,” said Miriam. She glanced at the small, painfully old woman who had moved so fast there wasn’t even a blur. Miriam turned to Sofia. “She’s taken the third elevation of the Oath of Silence, your grace.” She finished with an awkward little bow, then turned to Henry. “There’s something I need to tell you before you step out that door.”
“The house blew up,” said Henry. He pointed to a high window above the only door, which was providing the entirety of the light. It was shattered. “I thought something like that might have happened. There are traps around too, you’ll have to watch out for them if they haven’t been cleared by now. Though I’m not really sure why anyone would go to the effort.”
“Traps?” asked Sofia.
“Dark magic,” Henry clarified. “I have their locations memorized though, so I can guide us out.”
Sofia looked at his claws, which were shrinking down, as he’d said they would. She hated the casual way that he talked about it. He had spilled his blood, she had seen that, and he’d done it to give himself these claws to help save her … from whatever was waiting for her in Marurbo. She stood up and brushed herself off, then replaced the crown on top of her head.
“Well, time is wasting,” she said. “If my father and brother died an hour ago,” which she prayed to the crown they had not, “There’s a chance we can get to the capital while things are still in motion.”
“It’s a month to Marurbo,” said Henry.
“Not if we go by way of the Trenten Woods,” said Sofia.
Henry frowned. “Rafting down the river will only cut off —”
“I said nothing about rafting,” said Sofia. She gave him a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes.
“Can we talk?” asked Henry. He glanced at the sisters. “Privately?”
“We’ll be outside,” said Miriam.
“Um,” replied Henry. “You don’t know where the traps are, better that we’re the ones to step out.”
He ushered Sofia outside and closed the door firmly behind them.
“Stay close behind me,” he said as he walked. Sofia did as he said.
The small cottage where Henry had introduced her to her kidnappers was gone, erased down to its foundation. It had been distributed unevenly around the farm and into the woods beyond. It had rained here recently, leaving the small pieces of wood damp. Sofia wondered how long it would take until it all rotted away and there was no trace of that cottage having ever existed.
“It was their send-off,” said Henry. “Once they got the books out, they decided that if they were going to have to leave, they wanted this place undone forever. Hirrush was always funny about nostalgia like that. He hated reminders of the past, even reminders of good memories. And Omarr … I think for him it was the idea that this was their home for so long, and if they just left it, then maybe some other family would come in here after a year or two had passed and the crown had reclaimed the land. To him that would have been an insult.”
Sofia crossed her arms. “How petty,” she said.
“Yes,” said Henry. He looked at the ruined cottage. “But I told you that they aspired to neutrality. To balance. So it was okay to do some evil, to do stupid, petty, selfish things, so long as they also did some good.”
“What was it you wanted to talk about?” asked Sofia.
“I need you to face reality,” said Henry.
“And in what way am I not?” asked Sofia. Her arms remained folded across her chest.
“You’re not acting like your father is dead,” said Henry. “You were, at first, but then you saw that there was a way that perhaps he wasn’t, and —”
“Do you want me to cry?” asked Sofia. “Do you want me to pound my fists against the dirt and scream about how unfair the world is, before I even know anything about what’s happened? Would that be at all helpful?”
“It would be more helpful for it to happen now than later,” said Henry. He shook his head. “There’s a mentalist technique of wiping away emotions, turning a cloudy sky bright and sunny, but it never works for long, not if that emotion is caused by something concrete within the mind. If you don’t fix the underlying problem, you’re just putting the storm off for another day, and it’ll be worse when it returns. If there’s something dangerous waiting for us in the capital, which I have to assume there is, even putting prophecy aside … I don’t want to put anything off until the critical juncture.”
Sofia pursed her lips. Then something clicked. “Are you … are you a mentalist?”
“Er, yes,” said Henry. He shuffled his feet. “That was one of the things I had meant to tell you back at the Citadel.”
Sofia brushed her hair from her face, idly touching her temple. “And you never —”
“No,” said Henry. “I wouldn’t have dared even if I wanted to. I had to assume that you were under the protection of the royal mentalist.”
“Ibrahim is dead,” said Sofia with a frown. She hoped that she didn’t sound too distrustful.
“That wouldn’t affect the seed — wait, he’s dead?” asked Henry.
“In a coma,” said Sofia. “Or was when I left, without much hope of revival.”
He rubbed his forehead. “I’m not actually sure that we should go to the capital then. I need to retreat into the mental realm for a bit to consult.”
“Let me see your hands,” said Sofia, taking them from him without waiting for him to respond. The scabs on his fingers had begun to fall off, leaving wrinkled pink flesh beneath them. The claws themselves were almost entirely gone. And on his left hand was a nub where one finger was missing entirely. “You recall the prophecy?” she asked.
“I’m a mentalist,” said Henry. “It takes me effort to forget things.”
“The dark wizard wrapped in brewing storm,” said Sofia. “You think that’s not you?”
“I … I don’t know,” said Henry. “But I know that I would never hurt you, so if you’re injured and I’m there standing over you, it’s because I’m protecting you.”
“You would never hurt me?” asked Sofia. “If it were me or Donkerk, which would you pick?”
“Sofia —” Henry began. It bothered her, how easily he had slipped into calling her that name. She had come to like the way that he said Fiona. She had liked that whole life.
“Look,” she snapped. “One the one hand you have the kingdom,” she said. She held up a hand. “All the trees, dead. All the grass, brown and lifeless. All the rivers, boiled into steam until only dry riverbeds are left. Every crop spoiled in the field, every animal rotting among the dying foliage. Every spirit banished. And every man, woman, and child, bled out in their homes.” She held up her other hand. “Or me, dead at your feet. Which do you prefer?”
“That’s not fair,” said Henry.
“It’s how you think, isn’t it?” asked Sofia. She knew she wasn’t being fair, but she didn’t particularly care. None of his lies had really hurt her, none of them were forgivable, save for this truth about him and how he saw the world. But that had been there all along, if she were being honest with herself. They had talked around the issue often enough.
“If that was what was before me,” said Henry. “If I had no other, more clever paths to take, if I knew that those would be the results beyond a shadow of the doubt … I would want to save you, but I would hope that I would be strong enough to choose to save the kingdom instead.”
Sofia turned away from him. There wasn’t supposed to be a good answer, but Henry had tried anyway. He’d given an answer that softened the blow of what he’d said. And worse, she knew that was how he actually felt, because it was how she felt about him. If it were Henry on the one hand, and the entire kingdom on the other, she would choose the kingdom, but she would feel wretched about it.
“This is one of the things that I didn’t want to be talking about when we got to the capital,” said Henry. “If you’re about to get hurt, then I don’t want it to be because we were fighting amongst ourselves.”
“But you are a dark wizard,” said Sofia. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re non-practicing, which you definitely aren’t, it’s in the way that you think.” She went to run her fingers through her hair, but touched the crown instead. She let her hands fall to her side. “Whatever we find, if my father and brother are dead, if it’s foreign invasion or another dark wizard come to take over, I want you to do what’s best for the kingdom. If you feel you need to use dark magic, I won’t fight you over it just because it’s dark magic. Just do what’s best for the kingdom.” She turned to look at Henry and saw him frowning. “Is that unreasonable?” she asked.
“No,” said Henry. He hesitated. “It’s not ideologically pure.” He stopped himself from saying something again, but Sofia decided that she would let it lie. In the course of their conversation, his fingers had turned back to normal. It wasn’t quite a good omen, but Sofia decided to take it as one.
“Come on, guide us out of this place and I’ll introduce you to a friend in the Trenten Wood.”
The doorway had appeared for only a second. They hadn’t even stepped through it; it seemed to swallow them up without any motion on their part, nor on its. It was dark magic, blackest magic, the kind which had undoubtedly been used to kidnap the princess so many years ago, and which was now being used to kidnap her again. She had been within his grasp, ready to transport south as his Oath of Fealty required. Ventor wondered whether there was something he could have done differently, given what he had known at the time, but shut that line of thought down as soon as it sprang to life in his head. He had not knowingly violated his oath; knowing in retrospect that other options would have been better would only aggravate him without providing illumination. Besides that, he needed to be looking forward rather than backward, because the orders he had been given seemed to require it.
Ventor ran to the south. He didn’t know where the doorway had taken them. In theory, it could have taken them anywhere. He tried his best to think back to the kidnapping and what they had learned about the ritual then. There had been so little evidence to go on, just a witch at the bottom of the ocean picking up gold bars from within a bubble, and a complete lack of evidence toward what had actually happened to remove the princess from the castle. The witch had vanished, which seemed to imply that the doorway had a range to it at least as far as the shore had been, which meant a mile at least. If that was what Henry had done — and if Sister Miriam remained useless, and Sister Constance remained traitor — then they could be anywhere, moving in any direction. Anywhere Ventor went, he might be putting more distance between himself and the princess he had promised to bring in.
So Ventor did the only thing he could think to do. He ran to where he knew they would eventually be: Marurbo.
They left the two sisters behind in Leshampur.
“Be careful,” said Miriam. She wrapped Henry in a hug. “I don’t know what this was all about, but you have to know that I trust you, dark magic or not. If I were to have a son, I would want him to be like you.”
Perhaps earlier, Henry might have blushed at the praise, but now he only nodded. “If I’d had a mother …” He shook his head. “Take care of the children for me. If Ventor comes by looking for me, tell him that we’ve gone to Marurbo. And if my fathers ask after me, which I don’t think they will, tell them the same.” Henry rubbed his temple. “Actually, tell my fathers ‘Gin and Pickle’, they’ll know what I mean.”
For her part, Sister Constance only gave them a single nod, but Henry hadn’t really suspected anything more. He wondered whether Constance had only come along to stop Ventor, whether she had known that he was the sort of man who might need to be stopped, but it was impossible to say. He had always liked her. Now he felt gratified, knowing that his intuition about the small, elderly woman had been correct.
Henry and Sofia headed out of Leshampur to the Trenten Wood. Henry wasn’t sure how long this current peace between them would last. To him, it seemed as though they were doomed to fight forever. This was an underlying structural issue, like the foundation to a house being built slightly off, and so long as that foundation was crooked, the problems would keep coming back. Either he would have to convert her, or she would have to convert him, and even that might not solve their issues. Henry wanted to curse his fathers for having saddled him with so much of this unpleasantness — but they had been the reason that he’d met Sofia in the first place, and they had been responsible for his education, and besides that, he didn’t think that he could have asked for a better childhood than the one they had given him. He wasn’t sure that he would say that they loved him, but he knew that they had been willing to sacrifice nearly anything for him, which seemed like a pretty good sign of love.
When they reached the edge of the Trenten Wood, Sofia took off her shoes and stepped directly onto the loamy soil. She wriggled her feet around for a moment and squinted into the densely packed woods.
“Is this friend … human?” asked Henry.
In response, a bear the size of a living room appeared in front of them. Its fur was dotted with small, violet flowers in full bloom, a color which could also be seen in the irises of its enormous eyes — eyes that were staring Henry down. Excepting its size and the flowers, it very much appeared to be a normal bear, to wit long claws and sharp, rending teeth.
“Henry, this is the spirit of the Trenten Wood,” said Sofia. “The Trenten Wood, this is my …” She looked at Henry. “This is my sage of sages.” She frowned slightly, perhaps thinking of the sorts of things a dark wizard might do in that position of power. “We are due back in Marurbo with some urgency and if you could find it in your heart to take us on a tour of your prodigious length, we would be most appreciative.”
The spirit sniffed at Henry, then poked Henry in the chest with his wet nose.
“He finds you grudgingly acceptable,” said Sofia. She stepped toward the spirit and rested a hand on his snout. He opened his mouth slightly, and she slipped one of her bare feet in a gap between his teeth. The spirit lifted her and she moved with him as though floating, as it turned around and deposited her on his back. “You’re going to have to climb,” Sofia called down to Henry.
Henry dutifully walked over to the side of the spirit and began his ascent. He was careful not to crush or otherwise disturb the flowers, though more out of a surfeit of caution than anything else. Once he was near the top, Sofia grabbed his hand and helped him up. She was sitting happily in the center of the creature’s back with a smile on her face.
“I don’t doubt you,” said Henry. “But —”
The spirit began moving, causing Henry to clutch tightly to the fur. As Henry watched, the woods seemed to move apart to clear a path for the bear, though it was not clear whether they were actually changing their location, since they weren’t pulling up roots and the ground around them wasn’t bulging away. Henry had never read about anything like this in his books; Sofia had a studiously bored expression that wasn’t quite hiding her smile at his amazement. He had been about to ask whether this spirit could really cover the distance of the Trenten Wood in a single week given how quickly it would have to move, but apparently the answer was that spirits had more power than he’d believed.
“The Trenten Wood is such a place of beauty,” said Sofia. She was watching the scenery around them, eyes focusing and refocusing on every new thing there was to see. Her perch seemed quite steady, enough that she wasn’t using her hands, and Henry eventually eased his grasp as he found a sympathy to the bear’s movements.
“It is,” agreed Henry. He rarely looked at scenery with an eye toward beauty. It was always with a thought toward what animals there were for trapping, or what forage could be found, or in terms of what improvements could be made to the land in order to make it better for human use. He didn’t say that though, because he knew it would further the wrong impression that Sofia had of him, so they sat on the back of the bear and rode in silence.
They stopped infrequently, but always at the right times, just when Henry wanted to stretch, or needed to pee, or was starting to get hungry. They always stopped in pretty places with calm weather, which Henry thought had to be some kind of trick the spirit was playing, unless there really were that many cozy little places scattered all around the Trenten Wood. They saw no one through the rest of the day, which Henry figured was also some kind of trick, but one that he minded less.
Henry and Sofia did not speak much, and when they did speak, it was only to talk of the beauty of the woods they were moving through, or some bit of wildlife, or something of that nature. It seemed like there were hundreds of matter of utmost importance that they needed to discuss, but by mutual agreement they avoided them.
After the first hour sitting together on the back of the enormous bear, Sofia had moved over to Henry and sat directly in front of him, so that her back was against his chest. She grabbed his arms and moved them so that they were wrapped around her waist, holding her close to him. After they stopped by a spring for a short break, they climbed back onto the bear and resumed sitting together in that position. All communication about this new intimacy was done without words. Sofia would rest her hand on Henry’s so that her fingers lay in the grooves between his knuckles. She would squeeze his hand, and he would momentarily tighten his grip on her. She would take off her crown and run her fingers over its prongs, then lean back so that her head was pressed up against his neck. He would dip his chin to rest on her head, or sometimes, if their positions were right, give her a kiss on the top of her head. Often these motions were accompanied by one or both of them remarking on the scenery that was passing them by, which served to make this all feel both sly and matter-of-fact.
When night had fully fallen, the bear curled up in a small clearing, next to a large, moss-covered stump that was almost as big as it was. Sofia climbed down and prepared her bedroll, so Henry did the same.
“I need to do some work in the mental realm,” said Henry as he laid down and settled in. “So if you say something, it’s not that I’m ignoring you.”
“Okay,” said Sofia. She laid down next to him and looked up at the stars.
He waited for a moment, in case there was anything else she wanted to get out, then got into a comfortable position and fell into the mental realm, just outside his cabin. He paused for a moment, then conjured up his thoughtform of Sofia.
“You said that you were going to speak to the seed Marigold left,” she said with her arms crossed. Her form had changed slightly, with no act of will on the part of Henry; she was both more regal and more earthy, standing barefoot as though the land simply belonged to her and anything she did was by definition royal.
“I am,” said Henry. “But first I … want to know what’s going on with you.”
“You want to cheat,” said Sofia.
“It’s not cheating,” he said. “Sofia is free to imagine what I would say to any question she could think of. My imagination is just … more structured. And she’s the one sending these mixed messages.”
“Mixed messages are the result of mixed emotions,” said Sofia. “I don’t think I need to give you a rundown of everything that’s happened in the past day, but I’ve learned quite a number of things. Some of them push me away from you, others push me closer. I’m desperately in love with you, but that might be awfully stupid of me depending on what kind of person you are — and what kind of person I ultimately am.”
“You should kiss me,” said Sofia.
“I don’t want to make anything worse,” said Henry. “Not if … not if everything is going to fall apart.”
“I’m very skeptical that you would ever regret it,” said Sofia. “And if I’m being honest, I would probably enthusiastically welcome quite a bit more.”
Henry could feel his heart beating faster, somewhere out in the real world.
“Come on,” said Sofia. “I’m madly in love with you, I’m consumed with stress I’m trying to take my mind off of, we’re all alone, I’ve given you every indication of willingness, —”
Henry dismissed the thoughtform. He wasn’t sure that it didn’t need to be rebuilt in a more careful and delicate way, since it had been repeating back to him a number of things that he had been thinking during their ride on the spirit’s back. Would Sofia have really said those things, if stripped of her self-censoring? Henry looked to the weather in his mindscape; the clouds were limned with golden light and it was almost uncomfortably warm. That was not a very good sign of impartiality on his part.
He summoned the seed that Sister Marigold had left in his mind, which immediately blossomed into a thoughtform of her. She looked around for a moment, then smiled at Henry.
“I am here to give advice in whatever way I can,” she said.
“When we met, you asked what Sofia would do if her father and brother were dead,” said Henry. “Now that appears to have happened. What did you know?”
“You can’t simply ask for everything that I know,” said Marigold. “It would take far too long to disgorge it all.”
“I could take this seed apart,” said Henry with a scowl.
“I would very much like to see you try,” said Marigold. “I know tricks you haven’t even heard of before. I know tricks that are literally impossible for you.”
“You’re being uncooperative,” said Henry.
“So I am,” said Marigold. “The answer is that I knew nothing and suspected much.”
“And what is it you suspected?” asked Henry.
“I speak with Ibrahim’s thoughtforms often,” said Marigold. “Every time anyone of importance makes their way to the Citadel, I have a chat with the seeds he has planted for their supposed defense. They’re like letters we send one another, but of course with entire volumes worth of information. He has chattered with me often about young Rowan, sometimes asking for my advice in a way that seemed very calculated. There are quite a few stories about Rowan as a troubled boy deprived of his father’s affections. I didn’t know whether this was genuine or simply a matter of the games that a man like Ibrahim played. Much of it was and is unverifiable: rumor or worse. Ibrahim claimed that Rowan was possessed of a twisted mindscape, unnaturally warped right from the start then made worse when the boy learned mentalism.”
“What is it you thought was going on?” asked Henry.
“What I suspected?” asked Marigold. “It seemed like a play for power. The Boreal Crown is unique in how it warps the paths of power. The king can be killed, but there is no possibility for a coup. Instead, as has happened many times in the history of Donkerk, the crown might land on the head of one who can be controlled. I thought that I had the measure of Ibrahim; he was out of favor with the former king, so sought another path. Either he could restructure the prince’s mind to his benefit, given the proper maneuvering, or instead argue with the dukes for the removal of the prince in concert with the removal of the king, putting a young and unprepared princess into power.”
“That was your measure of Ibrahim?” asked Henry.
“It is hard to know another mentalist,” said Marigold. “Especially when you have spoken with them only by way of seeds that have traveled hundreds of miles. There are ways of cloaking and hiding, subversions available to the skilled. Perhaps I am wrong and he was more noble than I imagined him to be. But in either case, if he has truly been removed from the picture, then given what I know about the state of the court, there is only one likely candidate who has removed him.”
Henry paused. “Rowan himself.”
“It is conjecture,” said Marigold. “And I do not know how Rowan would have accomplished it, unless he is a far greater mentalist than Ibrahim ever gave him credit for.”
Henry rubbed his face. “Okay,” he said. “But that leaves the question of what’s happened to the king and the prince.”
Marigold gave Henry a sad smile. “And what makes you think that something has happened to the prince?”
“The crown passed to Sofia,” said Henry. “The other explanation …”
“What has Sofia told you about her mother?” asked Marigold.
“The whole of it could fit in a five minute conversation,” said Henry.
“I am well-acquainted with Sister Ariel, now the Queen Mother,” said Marigold. “I have looked into her memories at the request of the king.”
Henry swallowed. “And there you found … ?”
“Oh, a great many things,” said Marigold. She brushed some imagined dust from her shoulder. “The king was only concerned with those things I thought might concern him. There were many things that might have caused some horrible scandal if they got out, which I reported dutifully on. And then there were the infidelities.”
“Meaning,” said Henry slowly. How was he going to explain this to Sofia? “The prince is not the king’s son.”
“Oh, nothing so firm as that,” said Marigold. “You are not so skilled at the investigation of memory just yet, but it can be quite difficult to place a memory in time. If the Queen Mother had carnal relations with a dozen men over the course of her reign, that wouldn’t matter, we would need to isolate those memories to just a small handful of weeks to see whether the prince was trueborn. But of course those things which become patterns blur into not being a memory at all. And Ariel herself is convinced that her son was sired by the king.”
“And what do you think?” asked Henry.
“I thought the chance was low,” said Marigold. “I said as much to the king, through our intermediaries, and never heard a word in response. But given that the crown has landed on Sofia’s head, I must weigh the chances differently.”
“That almost seems like a best case scenario,” said Henry. “Sofia comes into Marurbo, bearing the Boreal Crown, finds that while her father is dead her brother still lives, and he’s there to help her with her transition to power as well as to —” Henry had been watching Marigold’s face as he spoke. “Okay, that’s optimistic, I can see that.”
“The king was only in middle age,” said Marigold. “What is it you suppose happened to him?”
“That seems like a worst case scenario,” said Henry. “The king is dead and the prince is the bastard who killed him. And if he did that for power … then we’ll have to contend with him.” Henry sighed. “Okay, this was helpful. I will remember your aid.”
Marigold nodded and vanished without a trace.
Henry stood in his mindscape, thinking. Marigold was right; all of what she had said was rumor or worse than rumor. It was conjecture from hearsay, and not the hearsay of someone trusted. The only concrete piece of information that Marigold had was that the former queen had a number of affairs which might possibly have coincided with Rowan’s conception. It was enough for him to start preparing some contingencies, but like it or not, they wouldn’t know more until they found someone who had gotten news of what was actually happening in the capital.
He found himself summoning his thoughtform of Sofia again.
“We have dark days ahead of us,” Henry said to her.
“I know that,” said Sofia. “And dark days behind us. It’s a veritable calendar of dark days.”
“And you don’t want to talk about it?” asked Henry. “You don’t want plan out what we’re going to do?”
“We’d have to make a thousand plots,” said Sofia. “We could plan until we were blue in the face. There are too many variables in play. We’d be piling stress upon ourselves for no good reason. Don’t you understand that this is why I need you close to me?” She took a step toward him. Pieces of the white dress she wore fell away like flower petals, revealing more of her figure. “Don’t you think that your lips against mine could wipe away all these thoughts, if only for a moment?”
Henry dismissed the thoughtform again. His cheeks were flushed and the world had taken on that now-familiar golden hue. He would rebuild the thoughtform, so it reflected his own thoughts less. That sort of thing taking place in the mental realm was embarrassing and disrespectful.
When he dropped from the mental realm and into the physical one, he found Sofia curled up next to him. She was resting her head on his chest and had draped his arm around her. One of her hands had slipped between the buttons on his shirt to rest on his bare chest. Her crown was carelessly tossed aside, resting on the dewy grass. She was snoring softly; when she felt him move, she gave him a sleepy squeeze. Henry kissed her on top of the head. She gave him a lazy kiss back on the chest, then snuggled closer to him.
Miriam moved through her life at the orphanage like a spoon through molasses. There were so many things that she had done for so long that they had become reflexive, instinctive, ingrained into her life so strongly that they passed by without thought. A month gone had atrophied those patterns. Miriam found herself staring at a pot of stew, wondering what it was she was supposed to be doing with it (adding dried spices, that was it). She stared at a pair of socks trying to work out how she normally helped the children into them (oh right, she held them in her lap with their feet sticking out). Eventually she found herself back in the well-worn grooves, but she was more aware of them now, and they were not as smooth as they had been before.
When Ventor burst into the orphanage and came to find her, Miriam felt her heart begin hammering in her chest with fear and excitement, in a way that she found exhilarating. He approached her with bloodshot eyes and laid his hand on the pommel of his sword.
“They went to Marurbo,” Miriam said before a question could come from him. She would have lied to protect Henry, especially from Ventor, but it was Henry who had given her the instruction. “You don’t have to do this.”
“I do,” said Ventor. “Where in Marurbo?”
“I don’t know,” said Miriam. “Henry mentioned something about gin and pickles, but he didn’t seem to think that you would know what that meant.
“Sofia is with him?” asked Ventor.
“You don’t want to follow them,” said Miriam. “You don’t want to bring her in, not if there’s danger. You can break your oaths and take rest here. Eat. Drink.” Her fingers felt numb and her hair was standing on end. Was there anything in Ventor’s oaths that would keep him from killing her out of spite? She already knew that he had no Oath of Pacifism.
He turned away rather than respond to her and pushed his way through the orphanage and back onto the road.
After two weeks in the Trenten Wood, Henry asked Sofia in a very gentle way whether it had taken as long on her way up from the capital. Sofia knew that he had already done the math in his head. Henry knew how quickly Ventor moved, he knew when Ventor had arrived in Leshampur, and he knew when Sofia had come into town and first met him at the orphanage. It would have been impossible for Sofia to have taken more than two weeks to traverse the Trenten Wood, else she could not have arrived in Leshampur so far ahead of the news that she had run away.
“I don’t control the spirit,” said Sofia. She patted the bear’s back as she rode along, then on a whim plucked one of the purple flowers on his back and stuck it behind her ear. A small bud rose up from the fur to take its place and bloomed within a handful of seconds. “He’s taking on a tour of his domain and showing its beauty to us. We trust that he’ll get us where we need to go and that he knows the urgency of our journey.”
“But you’re the one that communicates to him,” Henry insisted. “He responds to your desires. They’re part of your dialog with him.”
Sofia shrugged, but Henry was (of course, as always, annoyingly) right. She didn’t want to go to Marurbo. Something had happened to put that crown on her head, and she didn’t want to know precisely what it had been. She knew that this was a matter of great urgency, that what happened in the capital would color her life forever, even if it was only a peaceful transition of power. She didn’t particularly want it to happen quickly though, because every day spent in the Trenten Wood with Henry riding on the back of a great spirit was undoubtedly going to be better than a day filled with court politics — or whatever worse thing might await them.
Sofia put some effort into communicating her precise wishes to the spirit. It was true, she explained, that nights beneath the stars with Henry were a precious, irreplaceable gift. It was also true that she was grieving for her father and brother, who were most likely dead, and in these woods, devoid of responsibility and away from everyone but her closest friend was the best place for such grief. But she could not extend this time forever; a queen could not eat berries in the woods for lunch, spit-roast fish over an open fire for dinner, and wake to a roguishly handsome dark wizard running his fingers through her hair.
The next day, the spirit of the Trenten Wood stepped through the trees and brought them to the edge of its domain. Sofia dropped off the side, bringing her pack with her, then kissed the spirit on the side of his enormous snout and rubbed him fondly while Henry disembarked. She turned with Henry to look out at the field they were being left in and the smoke of a village by a crick down the hill. When they turned back around, the spirit was gone.
“We still made better time than anyone might have had a right to expect,” said Henry.
Sofia walked along in silence, staring at the village.
“How do you want to do this?” asked Henry.
“They’ll have news down there,” said Sofia. “We’re only a few days from the capital here. It’s been two weeks.” She reached up and touched the crown. “I should probably not announce myself like this.” It was an act of will to place the crown elsewhere. Where that elsewhere might have been, Sofia couldn’t have said, but it would come to her when called.
“Do you want me as intermediary?” asked Henry. “They’ll be speaking casually, without knowledge of who you are. It might not be the best way to get any news.”
Sofia swallowed. “No,” she said. “I’ll manage. It will be good practice.” For hearing that her father was dead.
The town was a small one, with a single tavern that was more a communal meeting place than a business. It was mid-day when they entered, which meant that there were a number of people sitting around with bowls full of stew. Conversation stopped as people looked up at her and Henry, but they returned to their meals quickly. Sofia and Henry sat down at a table and listened.
“You were saying, that you think he won’t last,” said a large man with fat fingers. “But not how you think it won’t last.”
“He’ll be killed,” said a skinny man with a shaggy beard. “I’m not saying whether he deserves it, but he’s made enemies like he thought there was some benefit in it.”
“It’s an ill omen to say that of the king,” said a third man, who wore a thick cowl.
“The only question is who will do it,” said the shaggy-bearded man. “Ill omen or no, that’s a fair question. Word is the oathkeepers have pledged to him, which means it’ll be a tough job for anyone except the oathkeepers themselves. There are still a thousand ways to get to him.”
“And then it falls to the wayward princess, does it?” asked the man with a beard. “Not sure that’s much of an improvement.”
“The king’s done nothing so terrible yet,” said the man with the cowl. “It’s two weeks into his reign, we should give him a chance.”
“And you like dark magic then?” asked the man with fat fingers.
“Excuse me,” said Henry, standing up from the table he was sitting at with Sofia. “What’s this about dark magic?”
The three men sitting at their table looked him over.
“King Rowan has declared an amnesty for those who practice dark magic,” said the skinny one.
“King Rowan,” said Sofia. Her voice was hollow. “He has the Boreal Crown?”
“Saw it myself,” said the skinny one. “From afar, but he came out to wave from the top of the castle. The coronation was just a few days after King Aldric passed, may he rest in peace. A good king, that one. Respectable. His son, not so much.”
“We should hope for all our sakes that the new king does well,” said the man with the cowl.
“Hope, but not expect,” said the skinny man with a shrug. He turned back to his stew, as did the others. When their conversation resumed it was lower, now that they knew they were being listened to.
“Come on,” said Henry. “We should get out of here.”
Sofia nodded and rose from her seat.
She made it three steps from the tavern before breaking down in tears.
Sofia didn’t like to cry and tried her best to do it as little as possible. Crying in front of other people was obviously not ideal, and crying in public was right out. But she still found herself crying in an alley at news that she had known was coming. Her father was dead and likely already buried, just as she had first thought when the Boreal Crown. And her brother … her brother had pronounced himself king with a fake crown upon his head. There was something about amnesty for dark wizards as well. That she would have to have a talk with him about. She wiped her eyes with the palms of her hands, wiped her nose with the edge of her sleeve, and tried to take a deep breath that ended with more tears coming up, because she now lived in a world where her father was dead.
Henry was there to comfort her. He rubbed her back and held her close in an awkward side hug. They were sitting just outside the tavern, drawing a few looks but no comments from those who passed by. Sofia was only vaguely aware of this, and couldn’t have brought herself to be embarrassed even if she had noticed. She cried, leaning her weight against Henry, until the tears dried up and left her with a hollow feeling.
“Okay,” said Sofia as she wiped her nose again. “Let’s go have a word with my brother.”
Henry rubbed her shoulder. “Are you sure that’s a good idea?” he asked.
“No,” said Sofia. “But … what else can I do?”
“I don’t know,” said Henry.
“Really?” asked Sofia. She rubbed her red eyes. “I don’t believe that for a second.”
“Well …” Henry said slowly. “We could speak with others. Those men in there said that your brother has the oathkeepers on his side; we could present you to the High Rectory in order to gain their aid. The dukes hold little power in Marurbo, but they have knights we could call upon for help. Your brother, if he has a crown at all, has a false one. You can provide proof that you are the true ruler of Donkerk with a single word … if that’s what you want.”
“If that’s what I want?” asked Sofia, gritting her teeth. Her thoughts had turned immediately to Henry’s fathers and the amnesty that Rowan was supposedly offering dark wizards throughout the land. But no, she could see that wasn’t what Henry had been saying at all. She felt her anger leave her. Henry was speaking on a truth they both knew; Sofia did not desire the throne. If her brother had claimed himself king, she could simply walk away and leave him to it.
“It isn’t what I want,” said Sofia. “But … it’s what I have to do, even if my brother —” the thought had been in her mind the entire time, but was only now revealing itself “— is innocent of the crime I suspect him of. The crown fell to me, not to him, for whatever reason.” But she knew the reason. Her mother’s words, ‘My vows did not stop me’ had shown their true meaning. And the reason Rowan had been shunned by their father, that too was clear now. He wasn’t her brother, only her half brother, and so the crown had passed him by.
“To the High Rectory then?” asked Henry.
“No,” said Sofia. “Nor to the dukes. My brother knows that he is not the king. He has made allies all the same. Either they’re manipulating him, or he’s manipulating them, but in either case we can’t go to anyone for fear that they’ll turn on us. If Rowan … if the worst is true of him, then we can’t expect that it would be beyond him to tell the oathkeepers to kill us.”
“So what would you prefer?” asked Henry.
“We’ll go to him directly,” said Sofia. “I’ll pretend that I know nothing of his deception.”
They spent the very last of their money on a simple dress for Sofia and a room that was rented by the hour in one of the seedier parts of Marurbo. That rental was accompanied by a leer from the innkeeper that made Henry blush but which Sofia barely reacted to — perhaps because she had already decided that she would do with Henry precisely those things the innkeeper expected of them, if not right this very instant.
Sofia cleaned herself using the wash basin, wiping the dirt from her arms and legs, cleaning between her toes and fingers, and in general trying to get the stink off the road off of her. She hadn’t taken a proper bath in two months, though she had let the rain do its work on her a few times, and dipped into a few rivers or lakes when it was warm enough to do so. She had always been careful never to undress when Henry was near, and for his part this became part of their unspoken code of conduct on the road. When she started stripping down to put on the dress, he stepped outside of the room, which was expected but still rankled. Wasn’t it he who was a self-declared disbeliever in propriety? She had given him not just hints but clear messages that only happened to not be vocalized. They had slept beneath the stars together, with her pressed against him. She often gave him kisses on the side of his head or on his chest, which he returned with warm affection.
As she put on the dress and frowned at all the places where it wasn’t tailored to her figure, or where the stitching was imperfect, she tried to think about it from his perspective. There could be no question that she wanted and needed him, but obviously there were things between them that were not resolved and in all likelihood never could be resolved. He wasn’t amoral, but his system of morality was decidedly at odds with her own, and how couldn’t it be when he was raised by the men who kidnapped her? Men, she had to admit, whose deaths she had unthinkingly advocated in the past and, in fact, whose deaths she might advocate as queen. She had every reason to believe that Henry loved her as much as she loved him, but perhaps he was being stupidly, unromantically prudent in not simply treating her as his wife (in the way that Sofia was already finding herself treating him as her husband).
There were no mirrors in the room, so Sofia summoned her crown to her hand and looked herself over in the polished shine of its gold band. Her image was warped and smaller than she might have desired, but she could tell that she had not moved too terribly much toward looking queenly, or even that much like a princess. Her hair in particular was a mess. She was not ready to go before her brother and demand answers from him, nor to tell him bluntly that she was his queen, but it could not wait.
She would have Henry by her side. She hoped that would be enough.
The castle sat atop a stout rock that split the river, with two bridges going to either side that connected it to the city proper. The gates were wide open and there was a trickle of foot traffic as staff, functionaries, merchants with deliveries, and the assorted lifeblood of the castle went in and out. For a moment Henry thought that they would be able to go right in, but they were stopped by an oathkeeper who moved with unsurprising speed to block their path.
“What business do you have in the castle?” he asked.
“I am Sofia, princess of Donkerk, here to speak with my brother,” said Sofia. Her voice was different than it had been on the road. There was always something high class about it, but now it dripped nobility. Her bearing had also changed; she was standing taller and more poised. Henry tried to do the same, but while he had read everything there was to know about etiquette, he wasn’t at all practiced.
The oathkeeper looked her over. There was no humor in his eyes, nor skepticism, just a blank assessment.
“I will have to call in someone to confirm your identity,” said the oathkeeper.
Sofia nodded graciously. “Any of my handmaidens will do, as will any of the oathkeepers who acted as my guards. Or …”
A small door just inside the gate opened up, and an enormous wolf made of blue and white porcelain shards bounded out of the castle, then trotted past a number men and women who quickly got out of its way. When it came next to Sofia, the oathkeeper backed off. The spirit circled her once, nearly brushing up against Henry, and moved its head up and down her as though sniffing her or looking her over. After a few moments of this, which Sofia spent with a smile on her face, the spirit settled into a sitting position next to her.
“Is that confirmation enough?” Sofia asked the oathkeeper. “Ulf has been my faithful companion for quite some time, and I his only slightly less faithful princess.”
“Yes, your grace,” the oathkeeper bowed. “Please, right this way.”
Henry followed closely behind Sofia, on the opposite side of her from the wolf spirit, which was walking beside her. “You didn’t say anything about this spirit,” said Henry.
“He’s one more ally,” said Sofia. She glanced at the creature, whose name was apparently Ulf. “I’d advise against touching him.”
Henry had been privately worried about the amount of muscle that they were bringing to this meeting. Consultation with Marigold had led him to believe that he and Rowan were, at best, equally matched as mentalists, and if Rowan had the oathkeepers swear an Oath of Fealty to him … well, Sofia had the Boreal Crown, but it was possible that wouldn’t be enough. A spirit made of cutting edges was a welcome addition to their ranks.
They were led through the hallways of the castle. Henry had seen a picture or two, but it was really nothing when compared to the Citadel. The castle was large, but it had clearly been built by people as he knew them. The construction methods might have differed, and the scale was certainly larger, but there wasn’t all that much that separated this place from the orphanage at Leshampur. There were hundreds of rooms which Henry did not know the purpose of, and windows looking out onto the Juniper Ocean. What caught Henry’s eye more was the sight of the city, which he found far more impressive than any castle could hope to be; the castle was an artifact stuck in amber, built centuries ago and renovated only incrementally since then, but the city was a living, breathing thing tended to by hundreds if not thousands of people, many with their own diverse views on how things should be done and some of them not in the employ of anyone but market forces. The castle was the heart of the kingdom, that was true, and it was of great importance, but Henry couldn’t imagine that a king could find more grandeur in the castle than in the capital city.
The throne room was smaller than Henry had expected it to be. It wasn’t quite a cramped place, but it easily could have been given the wrong furnishings. The ceilings were not as high as Henry had expected, and the windows let in only enough light to see by, not enough to cast long shadows or bathe the place in illumination. The castle had been built for defense and crafted of thick, sturdy stones, so it made sense that the throne room should be smaller, but Henry couldn’t help but think that there were surely dukes with larger chambers for receiving their subjects.
An even dozen oathkeepers lined either side of the throne room in silver breastplates, each inscribed with a seven-pointed star. Two sages stood on either side of the throne in their traditional green robes. And in the throne itself, sitting with his hands on his knees and a stiff posture, was Rowan. He was dressed in finery that put what Sofia was wearing to shame. On his head was a crown that looked, to all appearances, exactly like the one which Henry had become increasingly acquainted with over the last two weeks. The golden prongs gleamed in the sunlight. Rowan himself was different than Henry had expected; he was more pale, his hair thicker, his nose more bulbous. Henry tried to read his face, but it was too difficult to guess what the pretender to the throne might be thinking. Certainly this display that greeted them was something of a hint; it was a show of force and a statement of legitimacy.
“Brother Rowan,” said Sofia with a curtsy. “I have returned from the Citadel.”
“I am still your brother,” said Rowan. “But before that, I am your king.”
“I have heard rumor that our father has passed away,” said Sofia, avoiding the question of title. This was a worrying start to their conversation. “I desperately hoped that you would tell me this was not the case, but I see that you wear the Boreal Crown.”
Rowan took the crown from his head and inspected it for a moment. “The crown is a burden passed down to me unexpectedly by our father, but I have done my best to ensure that the transition was smooth and peaceable.” He replaced the crown on his head. “I am only sorry that you were gone for the funeral. We might have held off if we knew that you were coming home so quickly.”
“I came as soon as word reached me,” said Sofia. Henry nearly winced at that. It was another barb, one that Rowan might pick up on. Better for her to play the subservient sister so that they could leave and make plans, in Henry’s opinion. “Tell me, what fate befell him to perish so young and in such good health?”
“He was poisoned,” said Rowan. “It happened during a meal we both shared and I was spared only because I saw his averse reaction before I had eaten any for myself. The investigation into who, precisely, was behind the poisoning is still ongoing, though I expect that we will have a trial within a few days. I do hope that you will stick around for that.”
“Stick around?” asked Sofia.
“I do not intend to keep you so closely monitored as father did, nor shall I restrict your movements,” said Rowan. “You have certain obligations to this kingdom, such as finding a suitable partner for marriage, but I suppose you’re already well on your way there,” he said, gesturing at Henry. Sofia clenched her jaw but otherwise gave no reaction. Henry stood stock still, not daring to interrupt. “There is work to be done overseas and I can imagine no better advocate for our kingdom than yourself.”
“Tell me,” said Sofia. “Did they ever discover what it was that happened to Ibrahim? When I left it was suspected that there was a rogue mentalist somewhere in the castle.”
“Nothing was ever found,” said Rowan. “The mental realm remains a mystical place in many respects, even for this kingdom’s most proficient practitioners.”
Sofia narrowed her eyes at her brother. Ulf subtly shifted position beside her, bracing himself slightly as he responded to what she was feeling.
“Do you wish to know what our mother says?” asked Sofia. “Or have you discovered it yourself already?”
“I’m not sure that I understand what you mean,” said Rowan. He was watching her closely now.
“I was King Aldric’s only child,” said Sofia. “Is that why you killed my father?”
Rowan pursed his lips. “You speak madness,” he said.
Sofia reached out in front of her and plucked the Boreal Crown from midair. She straightened her shoulders and placed it onto her head. The two sages beside Rowan exchanged glances that spoke volumes and there was a murmur of conversation among the assembled oathkeepers.
“I am the Queen of Donkerk,” said Sofia. “Were it a lesser title, I would ask that you surrender your claim, but in the face of the Boreal Crown nothing can even rise to the level of claim. You are not king.”
Rowan narrowed his eyes. “I had thought that we might come to an accord,” said Rowan. “You ran away from home, and even before that it was clear that you were not suited to rule. Arrest her.”
This last was directed to the oathkeepers. Nine of them moved forward, toward Sofia. The spirit had moved in front of her with its shards fully facing out, cutting edges exposed.
“I am your QUEEN!” shouted Sofia.
The full weight of the Boreal Crown was behind that last word. Sofia’s dress exploded out away from her, the scraps of fabric vanishing in midair, to reveal a regal gown of red and gold that she couldn’t possibly have been concealing. The dirt and grime was gone from her face; her hair had twisted itself into an elaborate braid. Even the stone bracelet on her wrist had reshaped itself into a complement of her new appearance, its look more ornate and its twists a mirror to her braid. Henry had thought that she was beautiful before, but there had never been such an undercurrent of raw power to her. She older than her years, not just willing to bend the world to her will, but entirely capable of it. If she was at all surprised by her sudden transformation, she managed not to show it.
Henry had been driven down to one knee by the force of her shout, as had everyone else in the room. For a brief moment every head was bowed toward her, even Rowan’s, but the magic of the crown was not all powerful, and the spell not everlasting. The oathkeepers began staggering to their feet, slowly and unsteadily. Henry was faster; he had felt the power of the Boreal Crown a few times now, and while not able to fully resist it, he had begun to develop mentalist tricks for getting himself back on track.
“We need to go,” he said to Sofia in a low voice. For a moment he felt like she would refuse to leave and make a stand here, but as the oathkeepers approached, Sofia grabbed Henry by the hand and with her other hand, reached down and planted her palm on the back of the growling spirit, heedless of its jagged edges. It was then that Henry saw a frightening sight; Rowan was closing his eyes, entering the unmistakable trance state of a mentalist.
Everything went cold, black, and silent. It was the same place they had moved through, the twilight realm that Henry had sacrificed his pinky finger to walk through. It lasted for only a moment though, and they were standing in a chilly breeze at the top of the castle.
“We’re not safe,” said Henry. He looked at the breathtaking view of Marurbo and had to actively stop himself from gawking at the sight. They had been through the city streets, but he hadn’t seen the city laid out before. “Your brother is trying mentalism and I don’t know if we’re far enough away. Can Ulf take us further?”
“No,” said Sofia. “He can’t leave the castle. The best he could do is set us on the far side of the bridges. But in broad daylight —”
“Is that a conceptual limit, by preference, or because it’s actually impossible?” asked Henry. He shook his head. “I need to go into the mental realm to defend us, it’s up to you to ensure that we get out of here, I’ll be helpless.” He held up his hand and pointed to the ball of his thumb. “Squeeze this part, as hard as you can, and I’ll come back if he’s not in the middle of killing me.”
“Rowan wouldn’t —” Sofia began.
But time was of the essence and a debate about what Rowan would or wouldn’t do could wait until tomorrow. Henry fell into his mindscape without waiting another second. The winds were picking up there, whipping the water into whitecap waves. Henry gestured and made manifested Marigold’s seed.
“Can you breach with me?” he asked.
“Unconventional,” she replied, “Not without risks to me, though none to you. Focus and concentrate on me as though you were breaching with an alteration to your physical forms.”
Henry was about to protest that he’d never done anything like that, but there wasn’t any time for a lesson, not if Rowan was already in the process of making a breach of his own. He moved them to the breaching room with a thought, found Sofia’s mind, a thing of honeysuckle and rosemary. His mind was momentarily split toward two different tasks, the first keeping Sister Marigold with him and the second moving into Sofia’s mind.
Henry landed on the deck of a ship that was rolling hard side to side, nearly capsizing with each oversized wave that hit it. Henry was nearly tossed from the ship on the first wave before he reoriented himself so that the deck was his frame of reference. That did nothing for the nauseating visual of swells of water approaching from the left and then the right, with a pale blood-red moon swinging back and forth overhead.
He was just in time to catch the tail end of a fight. Rowan was more pale in the mental realm than in the physical world, taller, more muscular, and handsome in a much sharper and more angular way. He was dressed in a black armor whose pieces seemed to have been welded into place with ugly seams. He held a mirrored sword in his hand and took a stance that Henry recalled from a text on fighting styles that he’d once read. Rowan’s opponent was a man who had loomed large in Henry’s childhood — Ibrahim, completely bald, dressed in purple robes.
Ibrahim’s thoughtform was cut down in a single stroke. The gleaming sword that Rowan had used for the job immediately began to rust, so he threw it to the side and summoned another into his hand. He gave Henry a curt nod. It was at that point that Henry realized that Marigold had not made the trip with him; she was nowhere to be seen.
“And who might you be?” asked Rowan. “My sister found herself a pet mentalist?”
“Something like that,” said Henry with an arrogant grin he didn’t feel. The seas rolled back and forth around them, spilling water onto the deck then tilting it away. They were using the same trick to stay stuck in place, as though the ship weren’t rolling at all. They were unevenly matched and Henry had never fought a proper battle in the mental realm. He quickly gave himself gilded armor and a silver sword to match Rowan’s.
Rowan laughed. “You think that construct is a match for this blade?”
Henry hesitated. He was increasingly sure that if there were a fight, he would lose. That meant that his best option was not to fight at all. In lieu of talking Rowan out of a fight, he could at least stall for time.
“I’m a dark wizard,” said Henry.
Rowan stopped. “Ah,” he said. “So it’s not a construct at all. You’re more interesting than I’d given you credit for.”
Henry found this baffling, but at least it seemed to be working. “The amnesty is about acquiring knowledge,” said Henry. That, he thought, was the only thing that made much sense. “I have hundreds of books in my mindscape which I would give freely if we can arrive at some kind of arrangement.”
“You heard her,” said Rowan, gesturing to the mindscape. “She is queen!” His words were a mockery. “There is no basis for trust between us. I did, after all, kill her father.”
“What about Ibrahim?” Henry asked, flailing for something that would extend the time until Rowan attacked.
“What about him?” asked Rowan.
“I was trained by a rival of his,” said Henry. “Someone who would have wished the man dead. I can make introductions —”
“Intriguing,” said Rowan. “But I think I’ve decided to test whether you’ve taken dark magic as far as I have.”
The ship began to flood with thoughtforms. They were all in Rowan’s image, with each one carrying a sword equal to his own, though they didn’t have his ugly black armor and wore robes instead. Henry boggled at their numbers. A thoughtform was a complicated thing, and to hold more than one, let alone a dozen — no, now dozens — which meant that they weren’t true thoughtforms but simply projections of force, and conservation of mental effort applied —
Henry was panicking. He stilled his mind as the first of the thoughtforms approached and brought his will to bear on the fight. It swung at him with its sword and Henry blocked with his own; he was nearly struck in the head as his blade was cleaved in two. He backed away and dodged a second attack, but the rest were following behind. Henry wished that he’d spent more time sparring within his own mind, or that he’d paid more attention to Omarr’s lessons on street fighting, enough to synthesize them into practical skill.
When the thoughtform moved to strike again, Henry twisted his body out of the way — twisted and warped it, changing his shape in a way that would be impossible in the physical realm — and grabbed the sword hand to redirect the swing to follow through. It was blocked by an identical sword wielded by an identical Rowan. Henry thought up a dagger and quickly stabbed the Rowan he was holding with it, twice in the stomach and once in the throat. He let the body fall to the ground, and stole its sword for himself, just in time to block a strike against him.
It quickly became clear that Rowan wasn’t spreading himself thin by making so many copies of himself. They were acting too independently, coordinated but without a unity of mind. He had been backing up continuously and was now running out of ship; the thoughtforms were penning him in an allowing him no means of escape. He could retreat back into his own mind easily enough, but that would leave Sofia unprotected, which Henry did not doubt would mean her death.
So Henry fought. He parried away one strike and sliced into flesh as he carried the stroke through, which surprisingly popped the thoughtform like a bubble and sent its sword clattering to the ground. These were no ordinary swords then, which made this all the more dangerous. Henry blocked another sword, and warped his body to avoid a second, but the third struck him in the arm and with a sickening lurch he found himself back in his own mindscape. The sword in his hand had begun to rust.
Something strange was going on here. Henry tried to breach into Sofia’s mind a second time, but to no avail; he hadn’t been hurt by the strike that had landed against him, but it was supposed to take more than that to push someone from a third party’s head. Henry got the distinct impression that Rowan was playing by a different set of rules.
Thoughts of returning to Sofia’s mind faded away as soon as Rowan breached his way into Henry’s mindscape. His clones or duplicates or whatever they had been — no one could actually have that many independent thoughtforms at once — didn’t seem to follow him, but Henry was waiting for their return. There was no way to win this fight either, he didn’t think. That meant he was relying entirely on Sofia.
“Quaint,” said Rowan.
“That sword isn’t a construct of the mind,” said Henry. “There’d be no reason to make your own sword rust.”
Rowan moved swiftly, sword flashing through the air, with a startling speed. Henry conjured up a blade for defense, then layered a transparent shield on top of himself, but if Rowan’s sword could slice through a construct of the mind like a sword, there was no reason that any other construct should stop it, which meant that the only option was to dodge. Henry realized just in time and curved his body out of the way with such a great force of will that he was left winded afterward. His guts ached from how he’d repositioned himself; that was a bad sign.
Rowan came in for a second strike, every inch the consummate swordsman. This time he moved in such a way as to force a more extreme dodge from Henry, but Henry knew that he didn’t have it in him to make it work, and that was a losing battle anyway. He strengthened his defenses as much as his will would allow.
With a flash of light, the sword was stopped in midair. Sister Marigold was standing beside Rowan with her fingers clasping the sword, carefully holding the blade so that its cutting edge didn’t touch her. Rowan tugged at his sword, but it didn’t budge. Henry stared at Marigold with mouth agape. She had called herself the most powerful mentalist this side of the Juniper Ocean, but for some reason he had thought she was merely boasting. And this wasn’t even her, only her seed, living in his head and using at least some of the resources of his brain for her existence. Rowan released the sword and drew another from thin air. How many of these swords did he have? Where did they come from, if not from his mind?
Just as Rowan was about to join with Marigold in battle, he disappeared. Marigold blinked at the blank space where he had been, then looked to the sword in her hand, which had not gone with him.
“A shame,” she said. “I was rather looking forward to seeing how well Ibrahim had trained him.” She ran a finger down the length of the sword as she inspected it. “And this is something new.”
Henry felt the world squeeze slightly, which was the signal he had linked to the area of his palm. He sighed with relief; for a moment he thought that Rowan had simply fled back to Sofia’s mind. Henry pulled himself out of his mindscape and into the physical realm. Sofia was standing over him; she breathed a sigh of relief when he opened his eyes. They were in a fashionable bedroom, with blood red curtains that framed a view of the city from quite some distance away from the castle.
“Where are we?” asked Henry.
“I have no idea,” said Sofia.
“I think we’re safe,” said Sofia. “I asked Ulf to take us to safety, anyway. One of your guesses was right; it was a matter of personal preference. I talked to him though and,” she paused, thinking about how to put it. She had begged and pleaded, certainly, pouring her heart out to him and asking again and again for him to take them beyond the range of Rowan’s mentalism. Seeing Henry laying limp against the stones of the castle had been panic inducing; she understood why he had done it, and that he wasn’t doing nothing, but it still felt like being abandoned to her own devices. She had eventually been reduced to yelling at Ulf, which hadn’t felt productive or produced any real response from the spirit. Not at first.
“And?” asked Henry.
“I made him,” said Sofia. “Against his will. I tapped into something I hadn’t known was in me. He … wasn’t pleased. It’s an affront to a spirit, to leave their place of residence like that. I hadn’t really realized. It’s blasphemy. Personal preference is putting it too mildly. It’s like if I asked you to cut off your own —” Sofia stopped and looked down at Henry’s hand, which was missing a pinky. “— fingers.”
“It came at cost to him?” asked Henry.
“The cost was knowing that he’d done it, I think,” said Sofia. She shook her head. “I’m still processing it, a bit. We were friends. He was my favored spirit. I’m not sure that’s the case any longer.”
Henry looked around the room. “Based on the view, we’re in the Borchwood Estate. Probably one of their spare bedrooms.”
“How can you possibly know that?” asked Sofia.
“I’ve seen detailed maps of Marurbo,” said Henry. “And I’ve been constructing a model in my head since we first stepped foot in the city. It’s just a matter of rotating the internal view until it matches what I see. Not perfect, but good enough in this case given that we didn’t move more than a mile. Though Borchwood Estate is just a label on a map.”
“Edwin, Lord Borchwood,” said Sofia. “I have no idea why Ulf would deliver us here, of all places.” She looked around the room. “But no one has come for us yet, so I suppose that’s a start.”
“I’m going to do a very minor bit of dark magic,” said Henry. “Stay calm?”
“What’s the sacrifice?” asked Sofia. Her heart had begun to slow back down after her confrontation with her brother — half-brother — and escape from the castle, but now it began speeding back up. He had already cut off a finger, what was next?
“Just a drop of blood,” said Henry. He pulled out the pen knife that he always carried around. Sofia had always through that handy, but it was clear that one of its purposes was this. Henry flicked the knife open and rolled back his pant leg. It only took a moment for him to nick himself. He had his drop of blood a moment later, smearing on his finger. This he lifted into the air and waved around the room. The motion was familiar somehow.
“What are you doing?” asked Sofia.
“It’s a resistance ward,” said Henry. “The closer the face of my finger is to a person, the more difficult my finger will be to move. Simple stuff, but lets you build up a map of where people are if you can feel the gradations finely enough and keep track of it all in your head. Which, naturally, I can.”
“Huh,” said Sofia.
“Step to the side?” asked Henry, with his finger pointed toward her. She scooted sideways. Of course if the black magic worked like he said it did, then it would detect her as well. Henry was looking for people. He was finding out whether other people were in the house.
“You could have used mentalism,” said Sofia.
“No,” said Henry as he finished waving his finger about. “It doesn’t give a good enough sense of where people actually are, not when we’re in an urban area. I won’t call it worthless, but its near enough.” He stuck his finger in his mouth and sucked the blood off it. “Sorry for doing that.”
“No better way to clean, I suppose,” said Sofia.
“I meant the dark magic,” said Henry. “I know it’s not what you would want me to be.”
“Oh,” said Sofia.
“There’s no one in the house,” said Henry. “I don’t know why, or how Ulf knew, but we should be able to escape.” He looked her up and down. Sofia was extremely conscious of the elaborate gown she was wearing and whatever the Boreal Crown had done with her hair, not to mention the crown itself sitting atop her head, its prongs gleaming gold. She wasn’t exactly the picture of indiscretion. “Sofia … where do we go from here?”
Sofia stepped toward the window and looked at the castle. “I grew up there. There was a time when I thought that my life was leading up to the day that I left. And then when I did leave, I started to think that maybe I could get out of ever going back. But I can’t. And now that I’ve seen him there, sitting on that throne, having murdered my father, I don’t feel so averse to the idea of rule.”
“Okay,” said Henry. “Then let’s find some new clothes for you. I think if we’re going to do this, there’s someone you should meet.”