“We need money,” said Omarr. After they’d put Henry to bed, they’d cracked a small cask of ale and drank from the large mugs. A fire crackled in the fireplace. Adrianna had come to like the two men, somewhat despite herself. They had taught her much. While their theft of Henry had soured her opinion, their subsequent adoption of him had warmed her back up. That had been five years ago. Now she acted as something of an aunt to the boy, stopping in from time to time to dote on him. For their part, Omarr and Hirrush seemed to be loving if unconventional parents.
“What do you do for money?” asked Adrianna. She grew most of her own food and took in coin from the people who came calling for her services. Disappointingly, much of it involved sex in one way or another, and Adrianna suspected that it was because the people were committing one taboo and didn’t care whether they compounded that taboo with the taboo about dark magic. Her gran had a thick book devoted to virility, pregnancy, and contraception, which she was forced to consult often.
“You know that we’re not conventionally moral people?” asked Omarr.
Adrianna looked up towards the ceiling, at where Henry lay sleeping in his room. He was a cute child, with rosy cheeks and curly blond hair. “I am aware,” she replied.
“We were kidnappers,” said Hirrush. Omarr shot him a look, but Hirrush continued. “It’s the simple truth, no sense in coating it with sugar. We never harmed the children, and each one of them was returned safe and sound —”
“Wait a minute,” said Adrianna. She pushed her ale away. “The duke’s son? That was you?”
“Just so,” said Omarr.
“As I was saying, we returned each of them safe and sound, and we made enormous piles of money doing it,” said Hirrush. “Not even as much as we could have. We always made sure to only ask for as much as we knew they could give to us without sparing it real thought.”
“You were kidnappers,” said Adrianna. “And you need money. So you’re going to kidnap again?” She felt slightly queasy, though partly that was because she was on her second mug of ale.
“We need to raise Henry right,” said Omarr. “We have no skills, and we can’t ply our one true trade. You’ve seen that the garden has expanded in recent years — look, it’s not that we want to do this, but when you weigh the harm caused against the good done, you have to see that on balance we’re in the right.”
“Or at least neutral,” said Hirrush.
“Harm against others,” Adrianna replied. “Good for yourselves.”
“Good for Henry,” said Omarr. Hirrush nodded. “We live a small life. A quiet life. We don’t need much, but we don’t have much either. The cottage has a lean to it that’s going to need fixing in the near future if we don’t want to risk a collapse. Henry grows out of his clothes almost as fast as we have them sewn. If we want him to be something more than just a farmer’s son … we’re going to need resources. We’ve never lived a life of luxury. It’s not about that. It’s about providing him with the sort of boundless world a child should have.”
Adrianna sighed. “You’ve already made up your minds,” she said. She looked around the cottage. It was simple and sturdy, with the exception of the lean. Nothing in it spoke of men who squandered their money, save perhaps for the rows upon rows of books that filled one of the rooms. She had always thought of Omarr and Hirrush as scholars of dark magic rather than practitioners, and they’d done little to prove her wrong. “What about the child you’re going to kidnap?”
“What about her?” asked Omarr.
“You have understandable gripes with the nobility,” said Adrianna. “I can understand how you think the loss of money would be justified. If you’ve thought about the horror of having a children stolen, perhaps you can justify it by thinking that these nobles deserve it. And possibly you’re even right. But what about the feelings of the child, who — and I mean no offense — who will have to live with being taken by the two of you?”
“She won’t remember it,” said Hirrush. “That much we can be sure of. We have magic to make sure of that.”
“She,” said Adrianna. “You’ve already been planning this. You’ve already picked out a target.”
Omarr laid his meaty hands on the table. “The problem is, we need a confederate.”
“Me?” asked Adrianna. “I’m not so motivated as either of you.”
“Three weeks ago a man died because you didn’t have a healthy calf,” said Omarr. “Don’t pretend that’s a problem that money couldn’t have solved. Don’t pretend that it didn’t affect you.”
Adrianna felt like a bucket of ice water had just been splashed on her. The numbness reached to her core. “I’m not pretending,” she replied.
“I’m only trying to say — look, having the money isn’t about greed, it’s about being able to rearrange the world to your liking. Gold paves many paths,” said Omarr. “The king has more money than he can possibly use, and he spends it on frippery and lavish displays. In our hands, we could do good — not just good for Henry, but for the people around us.”
Adrianna looked between the two of them. “King Aldric? Are you mad? Are you seriously saying that you intend to extract a ransom for the prince?”
“Not the prince,” said Hirrush. “The princess.”
“You’ll be killed,” said Adrianna. “Instantly. The oathkeepers, the royal mentalist, a thousand men and women with swords drawn and racing for you, and that’s leaving aside the logistics of penetrating the walls of the castle and getting out with a child.”
“And if you believed that we could do it?” asked Omarr. “No, don’t answer. We’ll tell you how we’re going to do it. When we’re done, you can think on it for a few days, mull things over, and then say whether you’ll accept our request for help.”
Adrianna thought about the man who had died in her arms for lack of coin. She thought about every man, woman and child who wouldn’t be able to pay the price that was demanded. She thought about the leak in her roof that wouldn’t go away. She thought about the book on physiology that she hadn’t had anywhere near the money to buy. She thought about Henry and the difference it would make for him. And she thought about the king, sitting in his throne room with a magical crown of gold, flanked by men in silver breastplates, and drinking his fine wines.
When she came back, Adrianna agreed to help.
Sofia was five years old.
The castle was her playground; she ran on bare feet down the hallways, beneath the arched doorways, around the seemingly endless number of people that worked for her father. She had three women to watch after her, but her father didn’t seem to mind that she would dart off away from them at the first chance she got, except for the one time she’d left the castle entirely and he had screamed at them for what seemed like hours. She hadn’t gone outside the castle before or since, but that didn’t matter too much, since there always seemed to be some new corner to explore, and there were three courtyards to play in if she wanted to be outdoors.
Her favorite toy was a small tiger. A tiger was an animal that they didn’t have in Donkerk. It had black and white stripes, and pointed ears, and flopped around by her side whenever she went running. Her father had shown her a picture of a tiger which had been drawn in a large book, and told her that it was just like a kitten the size of a horse, and that sounded wonderful. She had asked her father whether he’d be able to bring a real tiger into Donkerk from somewhere to the south, if just to visit, and her father had said he would try his best with a wink to one of his aides, which meant that he wasn’t going to try at all.
In the afternoons, she would curl up in a ball near one of the windows and nap in the sunshine, taking her stuffed tiger with her. Whichever woman was watching her would procure a chair from some nearby room and bring it over to sit next to her, which Sofia didn’t mind too terribly.
“You run too much,” Rowan said one day. He was three years older and often in a bad mood.
“No I don’t,” replied Sofia. She had her tiger clutched closely to her.
“When I’m king, I’m going to make a decree about running,” said Rowan. “I’m not going to allow it.”
“Maybe I’ll be king,” said Sofia. “And then I’ll make a law that says that people have to run around all the time.”
“You can’t be a king, you’re a girl,” said Rowan. “You would be a queen, like mom was. But you won’t be a queen either, because I’m older than you.”
Sofia asked her father about this and was told that this was mostly true, much to her consternation. Late that day she made an extra effort to dodge the woman who was looking after her and crawled off to some faraway part of the castle where there were extra beds for when people came to visit. The room she liked best there had a large bed with posts going up to the ceiling and lace hanging down. When the door opened up, she thought it would be the woman who’d been following her, but instead it was a large man with a thick black beard and meaty fingers.
“Who are you?” asked Sofia.
“No one,” replied the man. “Can you come here for a moment?”
Sofia set her stuffed tiger down on the bed and came closer. The man was well-dressed and smelled like the wheat. When she was five feet from him, he reached for her and grabbed her around the waist like her father sometimes did when he wanted to set her on his shoulders. She didn’t like the man grabbing her like that, but before she could tell him not to, he had pulled out a knife and cut off his finger. The world went black just after that, and all she could hear was her breathing, and the beating of her heart, and the huffing of the man as he carried her through blackness.
“Baking is a kind of alchemy,” said Hirrush.
“Like potions,” said Henry.
“Yes,” said Hirrush. “Like potions. You take these simple ingredients like eggs, flour, and butter, and by mixing them in the right quantities and doing the right things with them, you can create something wonderful.”
“Like cookies,” said Henry.
“Yes,” said Hirrush. Omarr and Adrianna sometimes talked to Henry in a higher voice, to let him know that they were talking to him and not to anyone else, but Hirrush never did that. He didn’t make any effort to use simple words either. While it was hard to understand the big words, Hirrush always answered questions. “Now, your father and I don’t trust alchemy, for the simple reason that alchemy so often doesn’t work. Alchemy is the realm of hucksters. But baking at least tells us that it’s possible to transmute one thing into another and make something more valuable than the sum of its parts. I believe that it’s good instruction on being precise when following rules, and learning when the rules that have been set out for you might reasonably be broken. Though alchemy might not be all that it’s cracked up to be, those lessons will serve you well when it comes time for you to practice true magic.”
They followed the recipe together, though Hirrush did most of the things that required true delicacy. They had just added in a handful of raisins when an ethereal doorway opened and Omarr stepped out of the blackness. He had a girl of around Henry’s age under one arm. It was one of the most impressive bits of magic that Henry had ever seen.
“You’re back!” cried Henry, momentarily forgetting about the flour on his hands and wrapping Omarr in a hug. Omarr had been gone for four whole weeks. He hadn’t said where he was going, though Henry had overheard enough to know that it was to the south.
“I’m back,” said Omarr with a sigh that didn’t sound too happy.
“Put me down!” cried the girl.
Omarr pulled away from Henry and set the girl carefully on the floor of the cottage. She had long red hair, pale skin, and wore a light green dress that hung down below her skinny ankles. Her face held a scowl that looked small to Henry; she was the first person his age he’d ever met.
“I’m bleeding,” said Omarr with a steady voice.
“The cut was supposed to seal instantly,” replied Hirrush. “The ritual didn’t perform as expected?”
Omarr held up his left hand, where his pinky finger was completely missing. There was only a nub where it had been. Henry stared at it in fascination for a moment before returning his gaze to the redheaded girl his father had brought home. “Walking between realms went just fine,” said Omarr. “It wasn’t even as cold as they said, just blackness and forward movement until I got here.” He rolled up the sleeve on his right arm, and showed a red circle that was trickling blood. “She bit me.”
“You shouldn’t have picked me up,” said Sofia with her arms crossed. She looked around the cottage, and Henry watched her eyes darting from the dried herbs in the kitchen to the table and chairs, to the hearth, and back to his fathers. “Where is this?”
“You’ve been kidnapped,” said Hirrush. He opened a drawer and pulled out some gauze. He eyed the princess carefully, then when she showed no sign of movement, he began to tend to Omarr’s wound. “Where we are isn’t important. What’s important is that you behave. Don’t do anything too foolish until your father has paid us for your safe return.” Hirrush turned to Henry. “Keep up your work. And put on some water for tea.”
Henry spared another glance at the girl, then did as he was told, though he paid more attention to what his fathers were saying than to forming the dough into balls.
“My father is the king,” declared the girl. “He will have your heads.”
“Is that true?” asked Henry from the counter. He was standing on a stool.
“It’s true that her father is the king,” replied Omarr. He dug around in a pocket with his left hand while Hirrush wrapped his other arm. Omarr finally found a coin and flicked it to Henry, who caught it with a flour-covered hand. The back of the coin had a man’s head on it. He had a thick, bulbous nose and a rather serious demeanor, at least from what Henry could see on the coin. Henry idly wondered whether any kings ever smiled on their coins. “And it’s true that the king might want to take our heads — your father and I, that is, you’re not in any danger — but the plain fact of it is, we’re cleverer than the king. We full well intend to get away with it.”
“My father is clever,” pouted Sofia.
“Your father is strong, powerful, rich, and by most accounts charismatic above and beyond the magic of the crown,” said Hirrush. “Most people say he’s kind, and I have little reason to doubt them. But being clever is something that he leaves to his sages.”
Sofia looked unhappy, but said nothing. Her ferocity and pride faded in equal measure as the minutes passed.
“You can have a cookie when they’re done,” said Henry.
“And tea,” added Hirrush. “We have no quarrel with you.”
Sofia gave no response, but instead walked toward the front door. From his vantage point, Henry could see his fathers share a look, but they didn’t move to stop her. She pushed the door open just a crack, glanced back at Hirrush and Omarr, and poked her head out.
“I could run away,” she said, though it was nearly a question.
“You could,” said Omarr. “But you’re not in the castle anymore, and you don’t know where it is you are. No one but us knows that you’re a princess, Sofia. And if you stay here, you could be home in a handful of days. We have a bed made up for you already. We’ll make sure that you’re nice and warm at night. We even have some clothes for you to wear.”
“You can run away later,” said Henry, speaking loudly so that she could hear him from the kitchen. “It will be easy to get away when they’re asleep and can’t chase you.” His fathers gave him a disapproving look, but Sofia nodded and closed the door.
The kettle began to whistle. Hirrush, having finished bandaging Omarr’s arm, began to make tea. He took a small bottle from a high up shelf and added it to a cup full of hot water. Henry had never seen that herb used in tea before, but Hirrush gave him a look and he said nothing.
“The first cup for you,” said Hirrush to Sofia. He placed the cup in front of her, then moved past her to take the stairs up to the second floor. Sofia sniffed the tea, took a sip, and then began drinking it down. Hirrush had added a lot of sugar to it. She had barely finished the cup when she slumped over in her chair. Omarr caught her before she could slide off and hit the ground.
“Is she okay?” asked Henry.
“She’s fine,” said Hirrush, who was coming back down the stairs with a pair of pillows. He put one beneath Sofia’s head, and the other on the floor. When he laid down, he rested his head on top of it, close to Sofia’s. “She’ll wake up in an hour or so. I just hope I’m not too rusty.”
“What’s going on?” asked Henry as Hirrush closed his eyes.
“Your father’s going to take a peek inside her mind,” said Omarr. He walked into the kitchen and started making cookies with Henry, who had practically forgotten the task with everything that was going on. “One of the reasons that we’re going to get away with this kidnapping is that your father and I have skills that nearly no one else in the whole kingdom shares.”
“Inside her mind?” asked Henry. He scrunched up his face. “How does that work?”
It only took half a minute of meditation for Hirrush to step into his own mind. When he’d first begun the practice at the age of six, it had taken the instruction of a yogi, five hours of meditation, and the aid of a pinchwort tea, but the years of practice made it easy. The headaches would come later, when he had left the mental realm behind.
Hirrush’s mindscape was a large temple atop an immense spar of gray rock. There were a few scraggly trees that grew from small toeholds and a great white roiling mass of clouds that surrounded the column of rock and obscured the ground. Hirrush sniffed to himself when he saw how the clouds were moving. Within a few seconds they had gone still again, back to being a thick white sheet that undulated in a wind that could barely be felt. Hirrush was more nervous about this than he’d let on to either Omarr or Henry; the clouds below often reflected his emotions. Stilling them would still his troubled mind, but only for a time.
He made a quick tour of the temple before attempting the breach. Everything was where he’d left it. The library still held a copy of every book he’d read. He glanced over the memory representations, which all seemed in order and unblemished. His defenses were solid, even though several years had passed since he’d shored them up; he took the time to do this now, securing his mindscape against any possible intruders. His mindscape had once been where he spent most of his time, making modifications to the land and feeling the effects ripple through his mind. It had been freeing, a journey of mental modifications which had made him feel right with the world. If he was ever troubled or anxious, he had only to dive into his own mind to set things right.
The headaches meant that those days were over.
Knowing that he couldn’t put it off any longer, Hirrush walked up two flights of stairs to the viewing room on the top floor. Here he could feel the three other minds around him more keenly. Omarr’s mind was familiar, open, and accessible. The young mind of Henry had a golden note like a ringing bell. The third could only be Sofia. When Hirrush pressed against her mind with his own, the barrier between them felt spongy, with much more resistance than a five-year-old should have had. It wasn’t a good sign, but this course had been set from the moment the girl was taken through the spirit realm and brought to their house.
Hirrush moved through the barrier slowly, like moving through molasses, pushing against the mental matter that was abnormally thick. When he finally arrived inside her mindscape, it was with a sudden release, all the pressure gone at once. He popped into place on the lurching deck of a large ship at sea. There were undulating waves moving the ship and a thick downpour that obscured Hirrush’s vision. He held his hands out to the side and pushed against the storm, causing the waves to calm themselves and the rain to let up, though not entirely. Changing another person’s mindscape was difficult, an expenditure of his own mental energy, but there was no way that he’d be able to get anything done with the whole mindscape heaving about him.
The ship wasn’t accurate. That was common enough among mindscapes, which didn’t suffer from the same constraints as the physical world. His own temple was built in an architectural style that had never existed, and of course it raised questions about how anyone could have brought the materials up to build the temple, or how a living could be sustained so far from civilization. There were no animals, no edible plants, and not even any barrels to catch rain. Hirrush had contemplated making the changes required to have it be plausible, but that had been before the injury that left him with his headaches, and after that, idle mentalism had stopped.
The rigging of the ship consisted mostly of ropes that didn’t go anywhere, that hung from the masts and came down onto the deck without real purpose. It would have driven a sailor mad, Hirrush was sure. There were other details that his time as a ship passenger told him were wrong, a lack of tar on the sides, a few places where the boards seemed too short or the grain went the wrong way. With the sea mostly still, the ship had stopped moving so violently. The visibility had become good enough that he could see a lighthouse in the distance — a curiosity, given that most mindscapes had a background that lacked real clarity or distinction. He was sure that the meat of the mind was internal to the ship, in what were no doubt cavernous rooms that you’d never see on a real ship. In the mental realm, there was no need for a room to be constrained by the geometry of the hull which contained it.
Two thick doors led the way down to the innards of the ship, and these opened before Hirrush could make a move towards them. A tall man in robes of bright purple stepped forward. He was completely bald, and his face wore a scowl. The face was familiar to Hirrush.
“What good did you think this would do, Ibrahim?” asked Hirrush. “She’s five years old.”
“Better a weak defense than no defense at all,” said the royal mentalist. This was only a shade of the man, a fragment left behind from an excursion, but he was a threat all the same. “Still having headaches? I’m surprised you could even make a breach. Though I have to confess that I’m unsurprised that you would try to manipulate the mind of a child.”
“No manipulation,” said Hirrush with an even voice. He was steeling himself for the battle to come; he was more rusty than he had admitted to Omarr when they were making this plan. “I just need a baseline.”
“You’re not going to get it,” said Ibrahim. He lunged forward, with a knife flickering into his hand from nowhere. Hirrush dodged the first two slashes, and took the third on his forearm, but it was a simple matter of thought to heal the wound. Ibrahim’s fragment was powered by the brain of a child, a brain not yet developed enough to have any real force or direction behind it, even with whatever modifications the royal mentalist had made. Hirrush manifested a spear in his own hand and stabbed Ibrahim through the leg with a quick motion, which made a wound that didn’t close up at all. Ibrahim favored his other leg, and the knife he was holding flickered into the shape of a shield.
“It must be nice to beat me for once,” said Ibrahim. He spat to the side.
Hirrush made no comment. He simply grabbed the shield with one hand and shoved it to the side while stabbing forward with the spear. It struck Ibrahim’s fragment straight through the chest. He popped like a soap bubble. Hirrush held still for a moment, waiting for a second attack, but it never came. It was a pathetic battle, fought with real weapons, but it had been the best he could muster. No doubt if they had taken prince Rowan it would have been more of a challenge. Hirrush’s forearm looked fine, but still throbbed where the knife had sliced it.
Hirrush shook it off, and went exploring.
“But what’s he doing in there?” asked Henry.
“He’s just looking,” said Omarr. “He says that minds are like books, but that book is constantly being written in, and revised, and pieces of it are torn out. We want there to be no trace of us in the princess’s mind when we give her back, but that means that we need to know what it looked like before she spent time with us.”
“You can remove memories?” asked Henry with raised eyebrows.
“Hirrush can,” said Omarr. He opened the oven and peeked in at the cookies. “You need the baseline, and as he’s described it there’s a good deal of art to the removal itself. It’s easy enough for people to know that they’ve missed something — it’s not terribly stealthy. But yes, that’s more or less it. The princess will be aware of missing time, but she won’t know what it is that she missed.”
“Will I be able to go into people’s minds when I’m older?” asked Henry. “Like how I’ll do dark magic when I’m older?”
“Ah,” said Omarr. “Now that’s a question.” He glanced over at the two prone bodies. Hirrush laid with his lanky hair on the pillow, with his sharp elbows pressed into the floor. His face was tense. Beside him, Sofia had her mouth halfway open. The princess was drooling slightly. Her face was blank, with no sign of what was happening between the two of them. “Your father wants you to become a mentalist. But it can be dangerous, in ways that black magic isn’t. And there’s some question about whether you’d even be able to. Your father tried with me, but I never got farther than entering my mindscape. That itself is rare enough, though I had more of an advantage than most that try to follow that path. Hirrush thinks there are maybe a thousand people in all of Donkerk that can manage as much. Those that can cross the barrier between minds number in the tens. Maybe even less. But it’s possible, with training, that you could do what Hirrush is doing now.” Omarr pulled the cookies out from the stove. “There, perfectly done.”
Omarr watched Henry closely. He and Hirrush often talked about the future that they wanted for the boy, but it wasn’t clear what Henry himself would want. If he wanted to be a mentalist, Hirrush would try his best to train him in the art, though Hirrush had an enormous handicap in that regard. If Henry wanted to be a dark wizard, they would teach him everything they knew. They would try their best to steer him away from the bad paths. Too many dark wizards had met their end atop a pile of corpses, or corrupted by some new ritual they were sure was going to work, or cut down by the oathkeepers before they’d done much more than say the wrong things to the wrong people. But it seemed just as likely that Henry might grow up and want to become a baker, or a stonemason, or something completely unrelated to the lives of his fathers. Hirrush wanted to push Henry toward greatness, but Omarr would have been content to let the boy wander. He couldn’t say that either path was truly wrong.
“When will they wake up?” asked Henry.
“They’re not truly asleep,” replied Omarr. “Your father’s in a deep trance, and Sofia is … well, I wouldn’t call it sleep.”
“Will she be okay?” asked Henry.
“Perfectly fine,” said Omarr. “Before you came along, your father and I had less cause to be good. This will be the fifth time we’ve done this, and each time the child was returned successfully.”
Henry furrowed his brow. “You kidnapped the princess five times?”
Omarr almost laughed, but the subject was a bit too serious for that. “No, different children. Lesser nobility with far less at stake. It’s dangerous work. But each time the child was returned, with only a blank gap where their memories of us should have been. And your father and I would be wealthy for a time, until we spent all the money we’d gotten.”
Henry frowned. “But taking things that don’t belong to you is bad,” he said slowly. “Including people?”
“Yes,” said Omarr with a nod. “But good and bad are a balancing act. Every time, your father and I decided that the good was greater than the bad. The king will be mad at us. It will hurt him that his daughter is gone, and he won’t like parting with the money, but once that money is in our hands, we’ll be able to raise you properly without having to expose ourselves to the outside world.”
“Like when you brought that woman in?” asked Henry.
“That’s it exactly,” said Omarr.
Adrianna had come to their cottage several months ago, as she often did, though this time it was with a request; a woman was dying and Adrianna could do nothing to help her. They hadn’t wanted to have a part in it, but eventually Omarr began to crack under Adrianna’s pleading. On a chilly spring morning, the woman was brought to the cottage. It was the sort of exposure that the two dark wizards truly didn’t want, but Hirrush had dug up a book called Wasting Diseases and the Culling of Major Animals which detailed a ritual that would require using the block of onyx that they kept in the small shed behind the house. The block had cost a dauphin’s ransom and taken an enormous amount of effort to bring to the cottage in the first place. Because it was so heavy and unwieldy, there was nothing for it but to bring the woman into their inner circle. Omarr and Hirrush had argued about it, even though they were in agreement.
The ritual had required the sacrifice of two full-grown bulls, supplied by the woman’s husband. Omarr and Hirrush had laid the woman down on the block of onyx, positioned a bull on either side of her, and then slit the throats of both the bulls in unison. The beasts had kicked and sprayed hot blood, but as the outer spirits watched, the ritual took hold, and a blackness ripped through both of them like lightning. The animals crumbled into piles of black ash; the woman walked away with fresh, new innards. They had let Henry watch the preparations, but not the ritual itself. And now their presence was known, at least to that woman and her husband. They had a strong incentive not to tell anyone, since they’d paid for an illegal act to be performed on the woman. It was still a risk.
Hirrush and Omarr had little in the way of practical skills. They would have plied a trade in dark magic, in the same way that Adrianna did, but people were more kind to witches than to wizards, especially a pair of wizards raising a small boy. Henry had changed things far more than they’d first expected he would. In the beginning they had treated him much like an animal, if truth be told. He needed to be fed and changed, and played with from time to time, but it was only slightly more work than when one of the goats had kids. Omarr wasn’t sure whether they would have kept him if they’d realized the depth of the commitment they’d made — much like the ritual itself, it was something that they’d decided on in the abstract, with the consequences not apparent until the reality of the decision unfolded in front of them. The boy had shaped their lives. Omarr would have thought that his reaction would be regret, but instead he was vaguely pleased by what a central focus the boy had taken for himself.
Sofia yawned and sat up slowly, looking around with glassy eyes. “Cookies?” she asked.
Omarr watched Hirrush carefully. He was slow to come out of the trance, and clutched at his head, digging his fingers into his hair. “Ow. Ow, ow ow.”
Omarr had prepared a different sort of tea, this one a mild sedative. He knelt down next to Hirrush and fed it to him slowly. Hirrush muttered another “Ow” and spilled a bit of the tea, but he drank most of it down. He laid back on the pillow, still clutching at his head. Henry had, of his own volition, put a half dozen of the cookies on a plate and brought it over to Sofia, who took one in each hand and ate them greedily. Hirrush would be out for the next few hours at the least, possibly even more, but if he’d gotten the baseline there was nothing much to worry about beyond the pain of the headache. Omarr turned his attention to the children.
Some hours later the four of them sat down to a dinner of roasted chicken, peas, and mashed potatoes. Sofia had been more relaxed for a time, following Hirrush’s excursion into her mind and the calming of her emotions, but now some sullenness was appearing. Emotional manipulation was difficult and never lasted long before it needed to be reapplied. Hirrush picked at his food, trying to ignore the pounding in his head. He was sluggish and practically worthless; though the sun hadn’t yet set, he was committed to going to bed just after he’d finished eating. Omarr could watch the children for at least that long. Hirrush had finished putting up the ward that would keep Sofia from escaping the property, but he had used the last of his father’s bones some years earlier. He wasn’t entirely certain that the substitution of bones stolen from a graveyard would hold so well. Thinking about it made his head hurt more. He took another sip of tea to help keep the pain down.
“No word from the capital, princess,” said Omarr gently. “We’ll have a response in due time though, and handle the negotiations. I’m sure he’ll see reason.”
“You should do what a king says,” said Sofia with a pout. She prodded at her chicken. “Is there magic in this?”
“No,” replied Omarr. “We don’t use magic on something so frivolous as making chicken taste better.”
“Could we?” asked Henry.
“If we acted on the chicken while it was still alive,” said Omarr. “Then, maybe. But dark magic isn’t for talking about at the table.”
Henry ate quickly, something that he had learned from Omarr. He stopped after two quick mouthfuls of chicken and looked at Sofia. “Why should you do what the king says?” he asked her.
“Because he’s the king,” said Sofia.
“But why is he the king?” asked Henry, skipping entirely over the question of kingly authority, which seemed to Hirrush to be the obvious place to challenge her. He and Omarr would have to teach him better methods of argument.
“He’s got a crown,” said Sofia. She tentatively ate a small piece of chicken. It apparently met with her standards, as she began to eat the rest of the food in bits and pieces without complaint. If she had learned proper manners, she had apparently decided that they were on hiatus for the duration of her kidnapping — she was a messy eater.
“So if I take his crown I’d be a king?” asked Henry.
“It doesn’t work like that,” said Omarr. “The king of Donkerk wears the Boreal Crown. I’ve heard he has only to think it, and the crown will land atop his head. It’s the most powerful magical item known to our kingdom, infused with the spirit of the land. The crown can’t be taken from him, and someone who doesn’t wear the crown wouldn’t be accepted as king.”
“Oh,” said Henry. “So he made a dark pact?”
“No,” said Sofia around a mouthful of food. “My father would never do that.”
“Eight hundred years ago,” Omarr began, “When Neth had broken and fallen, it was an untamed land, with just the outposts of the ancient empire. One of the officers left in Donkerk was the king’s great-great-great-and-so-on-grandfather. The land of Donkerk had a spirit once, like the ocean has the elder spirit Kell, and the desert has Pothis. The king’s ancestor treated with the elder spirit, and the kingdom was formed by the binding that they underwent.”
“So it was a pact,” said Henry.
“Was not,” said Sofia, though it didn’t seem like she knew whether to direct her glare at Henry or Omarr.
“Pacts are a fine line,” said Hirrush. “If I sold a passing merchant one of our chickens, the two of us haven’t made a pact, we’ve made a transaction. If I told you that I was going to give you a cookie, that wouldn’t be a pact either, only a promise that I’ve made to you that I can freely break. For a true pact, you need some trust, and either that trust comes from neither party being able to break the pact, or from the pact holding firm for a long time. A pact needs consequences, or retribution, or something solid to make it real.”
“So did the king make a pact or not?” asked Henry. His food was mostly forgotten.
“I’d have to handle the Boreal Crown to know for sure,” said Omarr. “And there’s a fat chance of that ever happening. Could be the spirit just likes having a king around and it’s more of a convenience than pact. But the crown’s sat atop the head of a member of the royal line for eight hundred years, through two invasions and a civil war, so I’d lean towards it being a powerful pact of some sort.”
“Eat your peas,” said Hirrush to both Sofia and Henry. “They’re not just a garnish.” It was the first thing he’d contributed to the conversation. His head throbbed afterward, like forcing the words out had pushed all the blood in his body into his head.
“So I can’t be king?” asked Henry.
“Not of Donkerk, no,” said Omarr. “You could call yourself a king, but everyone would look for the crown, and you wouldn’t have it, so they’d know not to follow you. The crown makes its way down the bloodline of the king, and you’re not his son.”
“I might be,” said Henry with a smile. He turned to Sofia. “I’m an orphan.”
“What’s that?” she asked.
“They don’t know who my mother is, and I’ve got two fathers, but I was born with a different father,” said Henry.
“My mother is dead,” said Sofia with a nod. “She died when I was born.”
“That doesn’t excuse either of you from eating your peas,” said Hirrush.
“I don’t like peas,” said Henry.
“I don’t like peas either,” said Sofia.
“No one likes peas,” said Hirrush. His head hurt, and he tried to shake it off. “That’s not the point of peas. They’re like a black magic that makes you go big and strong, and you just ignore the fact that they taste terrible.” Omarr stifled a cough. Hirrush looked towards Sofia, and though his head was swimming, he could see that he’d made a misstep by calling them magic.
“Think of it like a noble obligation,” said Omarr.
“What’s that?” asked Sofia.
“A noble obligation means riding out into battle to defend the commoners,” said Omarr. “It means facing down malevolent spirits, and saving damsels in distress.”
“That’s boy stuff,” said Sofia with a frown.
“Oh, there are plenty of women warriors,” said Omarr. “Now please, kindly, eat your peas.”
“How long are you going to be watching me?” asked Rowan.
“Until your sister is returned to the castle,” said Ventor. It was the third time the prince had asked.
“Can you leave?” asked Rowan. The prince had a mop of brown hair that seemed badly in need of cutting to Ventor, who kept his own hair cropped close to his skull. The prince laid back on his bed, looking at the ceiling.
“No,” replied Ventor. His eyes slowly scanned the room for the fifth time in the last ten minutes.
“I’d like to be alone,” said Rowan.
“I’m afraid that what you would like is not of concern to me,” said Ventor.
“By the power of your oath to the king, I command you to leave me alone,” said Rowan. He was eight years old, and he didn’t sound the least bit powerful.
“I gave my oath to the king,” said Ventor evenly. “Not to you. I am sorry that you dislike it so, but I have my orders, and I cannot disobey them.”
Rowan sat back on his bed and harrumphed. “When I’m king, will you follow my orders?”
“When you are king, I will take the Oath of Fealty anew and pledge my service to you,” said Ventor.
“When I’m king, I’m going to make it so that you don’t follow me around,” said Rowan.
Ventor had no response to that so merely turned to look out the balcony. They still had no firm idea how the princess had been taken from the castle, though it was a certainty that magic of some sort was involved. The sages had gathered together in conference, but they had produced nothing more than wild speculation. The castle once had hiding holes and secret passageways, but those had been closed off a hundred years ago. An investigation had shown that they were still sealed. Everyone who worked in the castle had been interviewed, and a good number had gone before the royal mentalist for further interrogation, though that had yielded nothing of any value. A goodly number of oathkeepers had dispersed into the city, on the theory that the kidnapper couldn’t have gotten far, but they hadn’t turned up anything either. There had been guards stationed at every entrance and exit. Someone should have seen something, if not when the kidnapper entered the castle, then at least when he left with Sofia.
“I’m going to the library,” said Rowan. He unfolded himself from the large bed he’d been laying on. “You can come with, if you’d like.”
Ventor suppressed annoyance and followed the prince.
“Ventor?” asked Rowan as they walked down the halls. “What were you like when you were my age?”
“I would prefer not to discuss that,” said Ventor.
“Because you would have to tell me the truth?” asked Rowan. He looked at Ventor with a gleam in his eye.
“No,” replied Ventor. “I don’t wish to discuss it because it was not a pleasant time in my life. I try not to dwell on troubling times.”
Rowan frowned. “When I’m king, I’m going to make you tell me about it. So you should just tell me now.”
“Why do you wish to know?” asked Ventor.
“You were an orphan, weren’t you?” asked Rowan. “Like all the oathkeepers?” He kicked a small pebble down the hall, and watched it skitter across the flagstones.
“I was,” said Ventor. “My father was sent off to fight in the Perrian War, and my mother died while he was abroad. But not all the oathkeepers come from such circumstances. Some are given by their families to the High Rectory, and some join later in life. Sometimes it comes after a failed apprenticeship, but often it happens simply because they feel a calling.” He would have preferred to speak of less personal things.
“I could be an oathkeeper,” said Rowan.
Ventor said nothing. There was some precedent for it, but the kings of Donkerk hadn’t held oaths since the Juniper Rebellion. It would make the High Rectory nervous even if they heard that the young prince had been idly saying such things. His claim that he would use Ventor’s oaths against him was somewhat more troubling on a personal level. He could only hope that the prince matured as he aged. Hopefully the kingship didn’t pass on early.
The library was a large one, with books stacked in neatly ordered rows and two large ladders that ran along curved tracks all about the place. Every book was the same size, with similar binding. When a new book was added to the exhaustive collection, it was rebound to make it the same as the others, with only a few exceptions. All in all, it was a fortune in books and not a small one. The librarian was a short woman with graying hair and half-moon spectacles. She looked up at Rowan and Ventor with surprise as they entered, then quickly shelved the book she’d been reading.
“Prince Rowan, it is a pleasure to see you again,” said the librarian. “What can I help you find this day?”
“I want to read about dark magic,” said Rowan.
The librarian and glanced at Ventor, adjusted her dress, coughed into her hand, then said, “I’m afraid I can’t help you.”
Rowan gave an exasperated sigh. “I don’t want to learn how to do dark magic, I want to know what it’s capable of. I want to know whether it was used to take my sister.” The librarian glanced at Ventor again, and Rowan turned to look his guardian up and down. “There’s nothing illegal in just knowing what dark magic does, is there? There have to be books about it.”
“It’s not illegal to know,” said Ventor. “But telling people what dark magic is capable of can often send them down the path of practicing dark magic. The king has decreed that we must be careful with who gains that knowledge.”
“Oh,” said Rowan with a frown. He turned back to the librarian. “So this library doesn’t have any books on dark magic at all?”
“Why dark magic?” interjected Ventor. “There are so many varieties of magic in the world, the eloists, the elementalists, the denialists, the mentalists, the spirit callers — why focus on the one area that carries the risk of tainting you, if not in spirit, then in the public perception?”
Rowan turned back to Ventor. “You said that the knowledge is tightly guarded,” he said. “So even the sages probably don’t know as much about dark magic as they do about other kinds of magic. There’s a royal mentalist who knows everything about mentalism, and we trade with the Isles enough that we know what the eloists can do, but the dark wizards are a blank spot. We don’t have a sage of dark magic, do we?” Ventor shook his head. “I think it’s probably more likely that my sister was taken by a dark wizard, because dark wizards are always evil.”
Ventor thought on this. A big part of the problem was that he had no clear instruction in this regard. He had been commanded to protect the prince from harm, but it wasn’t clear that what he was asking for would really lead to any measurable harm, especially as it came from the right place — wanting to save his sister. Yet dark wizards often started out with good intentions. The king had only put Ventor in charge of the prince’s security, not his upbringing. When he’d started guarding the prince, he had assumed that he would simply stand in the corner without saying a word until the princess was found and the kidnappers brought to justice. Now he was being asked to make momentous decisions.
“We do have a few books about dark magic,” said the librarian carefully after Ventor had been silent for a long moment. “Nothing that would teach you even the most basic ritual, but a few that chronicle the most famous dark wizards of the age and a few that describe the signs a dark wizard is practicing.” She looked to Ventor, with her eyes pleading for guidance, but Ventor had none to give her. “Our oldest book on the subject is from the time of the Nethian Empire, before the founding of the kingdom. It gives an exhaustive detailing of the attributes of their monstrous warriors.”
“Bring me all of them,” said Rowan. “I’ll read at the table.”