Hirrush sat down on the bed beside Hirrush, laid back, closed his eyes, and dipped into the mental realm. He looked over his cottage, spent some time making sure that everything was in order, and then breached into Hirrush’s mind. He found Hirrush sitting on the edge of a cliff, looking out onto calm clouds. A thoughtform of Omarr sat beside him.
“You can’t stay here forever,” said Henry.
“It seems to me that I can,” replied Hirrush. “You said that there were nurses to provide me with food and water, and to turn me every so often to prevent bedsores, plus the necessary attention paid to excretory functions. That’s all a man needs to stay in the mental realm forever. I’ve been speaking with that enormous seed of Sister Marigold, and that seems to be more or less how she handles it. I was even thinking I might take some oaths. The kingdom needs a new royal mentalist, after all, and so far as I know Marigold and I are the most powerful there are on offer now that Rowan and Ibrahim are gone.”
“Dad,” Henry began. He looked at the thoughtform of Omarr. “Can you get rid of him?”
“Heh,” said Omarr. “How’s that for remembrance?”
Hirrush waved a hand and the thoughtform disappeared. Henry sat down to take his place.
“You’re going to come out with a terrible headache,” said Henry. “You’ll also be weak from a week with no movement. And yes, you’re going to have to face the fact that dad died. But it’s better for you to face the world as it is. I’m worried that this is going to become a fantasy life. You told me that it had happened to mentalists before.”
“I never really understood it before,” said Hirrush. “It always seemed so sterile to me. But the other option is that I go to face the loss. There were only two people that I cared about in this world Henry, only two that I would have done anything for. Now there’s only one, and you can come to visit anytime you want. The other is available to me only as a vestige.”
“I’m sorry,” said Henry.
“Don’t be,” replied Hirrush. “He gave his life willingly. Granted, he’d rather not had to give his life, but he knew the risks going in, and he was willing to brave them for you. I don’t blame him for that. I faced risks of my own. But that doesn’t change the fact that he’s gone.”
Henry sat in silence with Hirrush as they looked over the clouds. Henry had only ever seen clouds in Hirrush’s mindscape, a vast blanket up them below the cliff edge. He wondered what the ground looked like, if there ever was a ground to look at.
“I cracked Ibrahim,” said Hirrush.
“What?” asked Henry.
“Sorry, I meant for it to be a surprise, but melancholy overtook me and I forgot,” said Hirrush. “Ibrahim was using an antechamber to hide his mindscape from anyone who entered. It’s a bit of paranoia that assumes all other defenses will fall. I learned the theory but he crippled me before I ever invested the time into constructing one for myself. Breaking his wasn’t simple, but it taught me enough that I think it would be safe to teach you. Anyway. His mind is open for the plundering.”
“Can you bring him back?” asked Henry.
“No,” said Hirrush. “Even if I thought that would be for the best, his mind is dead and his mindscape is a sterile place. The best I might be able to do is put in a seed so large and so complete that the body would essentially be a puppet under my indirect control. It would be a months work, maybe more, but if I stay here I’ll have little better to do.”
“If you’re royal mentalist there will be people to heal,” said Henry. “There will also be defenses to put in place.”
“Do you think I would want such a job?” asked Hirrush.
“No,” said Henry. “Though … there’s still the unexplored area of ritual magic in the mental realm. We’ve done practically nothing with it. It would fall under your purview.”
“So long as I did it ethically?” asked Hirrush.
“Yes,” said Henry. “Consenting subjects only would be the first rule, but there would be others too, I’m sure.”
“Tempting,” said Hirrush. “But I would have to remain in the mental realm, likely for good.”
“Which you already want to do,” said Henry.
“Rowan had thoughtforms with autonomy,” said Hirrush. “I suppose those would help to alleviate the boredom somewhat.”
Henry furrowed his brow. “What was their cost?” Henry asked.
“Oh, I have no idea,” said Hirrush. “But I suppose that I’ll be to work cleaning up his messes for quite some time if I’m your deputy mentalist, so that might provide some illumination. And if there’s anything on offer in Ibrahim’s mind, or the books that people have been bringing in … we’ll see.”
Henry looked out on the clouds. He wished that there was something he could do for his father, some way that he could make things right, but the loss of Omarr had impacted them both, and there was no salve for that wound.
“I’m going to marry Sofia,” said Henry. That was something he hadn’t said aloud before. The mental realm had always felt like a safer place for releasing truths.
“It’s not the outcome I expected when we kidnapped you,” said Hirrush with a smile.
“I was hoping to track down my birth mother first,” said Henry.
“Ah,” said Hirrush. “So you found your answers at the Citadel?”
“Yes,” said Henry.
“But the only reason that you wanted knowledge of your birth was to help you with the girl, and that’s no longer needed,” said Hirrush. “Seems to me that’s a mystery that no longer needs its solution.”
“True,” said Henry. He fidgeted with his hands.
“Not that I’d begrudge you finding answers,” continued Hirrush. “So long as you understand why you’re looking for them in the first place.”
“I don’t think it’s any great mystery anyway,” said Henry. “I mean, I know enough to know that she was a young girl who just didn’t want a child. Putting a child in an orphanage isn’t any more complicated than that most of the time. I’ve known that since the first week I worked at the orphanage.”
“So go have a yell, if you’d like,” said Hirrush. “Yelling makes a lot of things better. I yelled at my father’s grave a hundred times over, which made me feel wonderful about the injustices that had been visited upon me. Omarr … well, his story is familiar to you. If I were being uncharitable, I might say that his whole life was a form of yelling at the world, save perhaps for you and I. Perhaps you have too level a head for such things.”
“Probably,” said Henry. He scooted over and gave his father a hug. “I’ve always appreciated that you didn’t let any of that get in the way of raising me.”
Hirrush hugged him back and gave him a smile. “I’ve always said that how you turned out was to your credit, not ours.”
Queen Sofia had offered Ventor a place in the High Rectory, but he had refused her. He had acted in accordance with his oaths, but he had acted dishonorably. The same could be said for many of the oathkeepers. Many of them were now dead, cut down by the wrath of spirits. Ventor believed that to be justice, but there was no justice in him being spared. Ventor could not in good conscience stand beside his brethren who had chosen better than he, even with the queen’s grace.
Travel was slow and hard now. Ventor couldn’t move faster than the wind anymore, and the journey north to Leshampur had taken him six weeks rather than one. He’d sat on the backs of wagons and rowed a raft up the Lenten River, paying his way with labor and guard work. He was still strong, for a normal man, tall and with a proud bearing that people seemed to like. Ventor had thought that people would mistake him for an oathkeeper, that he would have to explain himself over and over again to everyone that he met, but while there were some idle questions about his profession, his shameful past was virtually invisible to the people he met. He had always been a silent man, in part because he did not wish to risk violating his oaths with some careless phrase, and in his life after oaths he kept that silence, for the most part.
Ventor hadn’t made a plan for what he would do once he reached Leshampur, but his feet guided him as though he’d been imagining it for the past month. He had learned her address months before, when he’d been an oathkeeper. At the time he had called it due diligence, since she had been there when the boy — when Henry — had been taken, but perhaps he had just been lying to himself. He had done that a lot, when he was an oathkeeper.
He found the house easily enough. He waited in front of the door, trying to decide what words he would say to her. It felt odd, not having to tell the truth anymore. Lying, even by omission, was a habit that he was going to have to pick up. He knocked on the door before he could think of a lie that he might tell her, so that he would force himself to be honest.
Clarice, no longer a sister and now just a woman, opened the door. She was nearly forty now, less slender and sprightly than she’d been when she’d first met him, but Ventor found her no less beautiful. She looked him up and down as she wiped her hands on her apron.
“Can I help you?” she asked.
“You were a sister, some sixteen years ago,” said Ventor.
“I was,” she nodded. “I broke my oaths some three years ago.” If she felt any shame, she didn’t show it on her face.
“I came to the orphanage seeking a prophecy,” said Ventor.
It took Clarice a moment, but then her eyes widened. “Ventor?” she asked, looking him up and down.
“I’d worried that you had forgotten me,” said Ventor. “I know there were others, for you …”
“No,” said Clarice. “I mean, there were, but you were special.” She stared at him. “I haven’t thought about you in a long time.”
Ventor moved to straighten his armor, which was always his way when he needed to pause for a moment, but his hands fell to his sides when he remembered that it was long gone. He wanted to explain everything to her, to tell her the story of his rise through the ranks of the oathkeepers, of the witches and wizards he’d killed, the torture he’d endured while wearing the Strangheid and the iron will that had gotten him through his hardest moments, a will that sometimes felt malleable and false.
“Would you like to come in?” asked Clarice. She undid the tie on her apron and set it aside.
Clarice tossed back her head and laughed. “After all this time and everything that you must have been through, you’re thinking that it’s improper?” She leaned forward, grabbed him by his hand, and led him into the house.
Sofia sat in front of her father’s grave. The gravestone was a simple one, showing only his name, date of birth, and date of death. Rowan had arranged for it to be put there, and the first time Sofia had seen it she had wanted to tear it down and make a new one. Three pieces of information about her father weren’t enough, there needed to be more, some way of truly remembering him. His birth and death were almost meaningless in the face of what he had used his life for. But it hadn’t taken her long to start thinking about all the things that she would have to include in order to paint the proper picture of her father. She would have to include the negatives as well, if she wanted to truly remember him as he was. In the end, she decided that perhaps the gravestone was fine as it was; it would be something for her to meditate on when she came to visit.
Sofia was finding that meditation difficult. She had always known on some level that her father was a flawed man, but she had never known the depths of those faults until after his passing. It wasn’t just what had happened with Rowan, it was everything that she had been slowly uncovering. There was rot within the High Rectory, discontent among the dukes, and a number of thorny issues with foreign kingdoms. All that dated back to before King Aldric had been killed and Rowan had spent his three weeks as king, which had of course exacerbated every issue the kingdom was facing.
There was a tragedy to her father that she was slowly understanding. He had inherited the crown early on, perhaps before he was really ready. His wife had betrayed him in more ways than one. His relationship with both his children had been uncomfortable, one marred by suspicion and dislike and the other one marred by a fierce and protective love that strained their relationship to the breaking point. It was hard not to blame her father for that. Perhaps if Sofia had been in charge of his tombstone she might have had carved, ‘He loved his son too little and his daughter too much.’ Or perhaps just ‘He loved poorly’. On reflection that was far too cruel a thing to put on a tombstone.
Henry laid a hand on Sofia’s shoulder. She wasn’t quite ready to go, but Henry was there to help her understand when she should be ready. She stood up and bowed her head, then began the walk back to the castle with her escort surrounding her.
“So,” said Henry once they’d left the graveyard. He had met her there and kept his peace, but he was clearly itching to talk. “I’ve been thinking.”
“As is your way,” said Sofia.
“Yes,” nodded Henry. “I was thinking that we need to leverage your abilities as a spirit caller. It’s the simple path toward solving our problems, because it’s a novel solution space.”
“Hrm,” said Sofia. “And of the three major problems we face, which do you think it helps with?” She glanced toward the oathkeepers surrounding her. They had to know that they were one of the problems, but it seemed impolite to speak that truth aloud. Half of those around her were powerless and there more for the impression of strength; Rowan had gotten many to swear an Oath of Fealty the him, and while only a minority followed his treasonous orders, that meant that many oathkeepers had broken their oaths and were forced to start over.
“The biggest problem the oathkeepers face is attrition through oathbreaking,” said Henry. “They have an incentive to stack as many oaths as they can bear, which often results in overestimation and an unbearable load, or mental issues that develop over time. Some of that I can probably learn to alleviate with mentalism, but I’d like to have you start testing as soon as possible to see whether you can snip the connection between the spirit and the oathkeeper. You said that you almost managed it with Ventor.”
“Almost,” said Sofia. “You don’t actually want to snip it, you want to … make an agreement with the spirit, I suppose. The relationship is one of trust built up over the years, or at least analogous to that, so perhaps there’s a path to negotiation.”
“Good,” said Henry. “I won’t count that as settled until you sit down with a prospective oathkeeper.”
“Our problems are more in the short-term,” said Sofia. “If this worked, it would be to prevent attrition, which is a long-term issue.”
“It hits on multiple angles,” said Henry. “Recruitment becomes easier if people can walk away after ten years of service and have powers to show for it. I mean, you’re right that oathkeeping in general is a long-term prospect, but that’s part of the reason that I think short-term solutions aren’t the right way to go. We need to get the longer-term stuff started right now so that we can reap progress as soon as possible.”
“I sent off a letter to the Citadel this morning, asking for their aid,” said Sofia.
Henry frowned. “I think that’s … inadvisable.”
“Which would be why you advised against it,” said Sofia.
“Yes,” said Henry. “I didn’t actually think that you would overrule me.”
“I rule over you,” Sofia said gently. “You’re thinking in the big picture, trying to make moves that work on a timescale of decades. I’m trying to stabilize now.”
“I know,” said Henry. “I understand why you did it but maintain that upsetting the established order of the kingdom is not exactly the path toward stability. But I defer to your assessment.”
Sofia wondered whether those words pained him. There was something of a distance between the two of them since the battle for the castle. She decided to simply ask him.
“How does that make you feel?” she asked.
“Uncomfortable,” said Henry after a period of silence to think about it. “Having disagreements used to be more fun when everything was hypothetical. If we didn’t agree, then we would continue to not agree and it would be a brick in the wall of our relationship — a way for us to know each other better. You have this ability to just … win. Or maybe that’s the wrong word, but you can reject my arguments completely and irrevocably. I can’t do the same to you.”
“Ah,” said Sofia. “Then I’m willing to grant you a guarantee of autonomy in your chosen fields. On any question of mentalism, we will confer about options but I will defer to you. The same goes for anything having to do with your role as sage of sages.”
A smile flickered over Henry’s face for a moment before disappearing. “And what about in the field of ritual magic?” he asked.
That was his new term for dark magic, which Sofia found a little bit disingenuous. Yet through the power of the spirit of Donkerk, she herself had become a practitioner of dark magic, and while the death of Rowan weighed heavily enough on her that she wasn’t willing to say that it wasn’t dark, she was starting to come around to Henry’s way of thinking.
“Well,” said Sofia. “I’d want veto power, which is the same as saying that I want to stomp my foot and have my way, isn’t it?”
“In a way,” said Henry. “But there I’m inclined to have someone to stop me from crossing a line, and I can’t think of anyone that I would rather have.”
“Good,” said Sofia. “Though I have to warn you that I’m going to argue the side of caution. Few of the dukes are going to be in favor of dark — ritual magic in any form, not least because it would be a threat to their holdings.”
“Actually,” said Henry. “I was thinking that with your help we could find — or possibly invent — rituals which are specific to the holdings of each duke in order to improve their comparative advantage. Duke Elliott exports enormous amounts of pork, so a pig bone ritual would presumably be looked on favorably by him. And I haven’t yet told you my idea about gaining the duke’s support through spirit calling.”
Sofia raised an eyebrow.
“Having a manifestation of a spirit in the physical realm is almost always a net good, right?” asked Henry.
“No,” replied Sofia. “The spirit of the Trenten Wood has spent much of the history of Donkerk attacking anyone who attempts to log the forest. And there are far worse examples than him.”
“Well, okay,” said Henry. “Let’s instead say that any spirit you would call to come join the physical realm would be a net good, right? Because you would be able to know ahead of time whether they would be trouble.”
“Possibly,” Sofia admitted. “Though I mostly know things from the spirit’s perspective when I ‘speak’ with them, so it would take some research to prevent such errors.”
“And a physical manifestation of a spirit in the form of a magic item is also a net good,” said Henry. “One which a duke might be very appreciative of.”
Sofia frowned at that. “If the spirit is willing … I suppose. But we’d be giving the dukes power, if we handed them arms and armor, or even simpler trinkets.”
“Whether it’s wise depends on why the dukes are discontent,” said Henry. “Under your father it was a perceived weakness; a gift shows to them favor, and yes, gives them power, but it also demonstrates power. You’re showing them what you can do and reinforcing the stories that are spreading about you. If you can bring in a spirit to walk through their woods, then you can implicitly command greater spirits than that.”
“A threat-gift,” said Sofia. “There should be a word for that.”
“Of course, to do that, which there’s every legitimate reason to do, you and I would have to take a long tour of Donkerk,” said Henry.
“And I can’t be away from the throne for so long,” said Sofia with a frown.
“Well no, I was saying just the opposite,” said Henry. “There’s no reason for the queen to stay in her castle and there’s every reason for her to travel around the kingdom.”
“I’m the queen,” said Sofia. “It’s not some separate person.”
“It sort of is,” said Henry. “The queen has all these responsibilities and rules for what she can do and how she can behave. Those are layered on top of you … but they’re not you. You have your own wants and needs. It’s best if you acknowledge the differences and then put effort into finding areas of commonality.”
“But even if I do what you suggest and go around the kingdoms, we both know it won’t be the same,” said Sofia. She passed by an elderly couple who bowed deep at her passing, which she greeted with a grateful nod then tried not to think about.
“I agree,” said Henry. “But we couldn’t expect it to be the same, could we? I know you wanted to have a summer that lasted forever with me, but … there will be other summers together, both literal and metaphorical. We’re going to have to spend some time at sea after all, I think that will be just as wonderful as riding on the back of a great big bear.”
“At sea?” asked Sofia.
“There’s historical precedent,” said Henry. “Once we have the human infrastructure in place to keep Donkerk running without us, we’re going to have to turn our view toward the other kingdoms across the Juniper Ocean.”
“Which in your eyes means that we’ll take up sailing,” said Sofia.
“Yes,” said Henry. “After all, we’re going to have to take some kind of vacation for our honeymoon, aren’t we?”
Sofia nearly stopped in her tracks. “A honeymoon presupposes a wedding,” she said.
“It does,” replied Henry.
“And a wedding is typically preceded by a proposal of some sort,” said Sofia.
“Hrm,” said Henry. “I guess you’re right. As your sage of sages I must advise that accepting a proposal of marriage right now wouldn’t be the right call, even if you do have an exemplary suitor. A marriage might distract from the kingdoms’ problems, but it might also be seen as a distraction in bad faith, and it would eat a fair amount of time and attention from your staff. Of course, you don’t have such a proposal on the table, at least to my knowledge, so it’s a moot point.”
Sofia walked with him in silence for a moment. “No,” she said after a time. “I accept your advice as sage of sages, but you are overruled. Were I to have a proposal from an exemplary suitor, a man who has saved my life on a number of occasions, a scholar who knows his esoterica, a mentalist, an outdoorsman, and yes, an ethical dark wizard … well, I should think that I would want to marry such a man as quickly as possible. Alas, as you said, I am not so fortunate as to have such a proposal.”
“Not yet,” said Henry. “But perhaps someday very soon.”