She knew the names of all of her guards, but she only called them by their nicknames. Walrus had a thick mustache, and Egg was completely bald. Leech was pale, like the blood had been drained from his face, and Cyclops had a scar across one eye, though he could see with both. One of them she called Firewood, though she never explained it, and took a perverse pleasure in imagining him trying to figure it out and being unable to ask. He was one of the ones who had taken an Oath of Silence.
Aside from her guards, who took shifts watching over her, Sofia had two handmaidens, and though they had vehemently denied it, she had a strong suspicion that they were Foresworn Sisters. The Sisters weren’t generally known as warriors, because their order focused more on service and sacrifice for the greater good, but everyone knew that in a pinch they were nearly as capable as their brothers from the rectory. It would have been just like her father to recruit them to watch over her, so that she had an extra layer of protection. No doubt her ladies-in-waiting would one day fall into formation in perfect fighting stances.
“After I finish mathematics I’m going out of the castle,” Sofia declared.
“Very well, my lady,” said Brunhilda, the taller of the two. She had large hands for a woman, and when she brushed Sofia’s hair it was always just a bit painful. She was younger than her demeanor would have suggested.
“Where are we going, my lady?” asked Lacy. She was only twenty years old, and far more timid than Brunhilda. Of the two ladies-in-waiting, she was by far Sofia’s favorite.
“I haven’t decided,” said Sofia. “Some place with lots of people.” From the corner of her eye, she thought she saw Walrus form a frown beneath his thick mustache. Two weeks ago she had made a desperate plea to her father, and he had softened somewhat and relented. Sofia was allowed out of the castle so long as she tended to her education, and so long as she was back before nightfall, and so long as she promised not to try to evade her guards, as though that was even possible. This would be the first time testing that freedom.
Sofia’s hair now fell to the small of her back, and Brunhilda braided it expertly. While Sofia sat with her hands in her lap and gave serious thought to the matter of escape. Ever since she had been kidnapped, her father had kept her closely watched. Her memories of the kidnapping had been erased by the kidnappers, but though they’d never been found, she had trouble taking the whole thing seriously. Yes, being snatched up and missing five days of time was objectively terrifying, but when faced with what her father had imposed on her — a life with few friends and not even the least bit of privacy, she couldn’t help but think that he was overreacting. The kidnapping had been six years ago, and she’d lived more years after it than before it. Her memories of having free reign of the castle were indistinct, but she yearned for that time all the same. It seemed unfair that something that happened when she was only five would define her life so much.
Mathematics was the day’s lesson, and it was taught by a sage with a nose so large that it was a distraction. Sofia was good at math, but never felt much pressure to try that hard. Her father was of the opinion that mathematics was important to know, but also that it was work that was best left to the sages on a day-to-day basis. Sofia would never be queen unless something happened to her brother Rowan, but their father seemed intent on training them both all the same. Rowan was worse at math, but better at nearly every other subject, though he was three years older, and so comparisons weren’t really fair.
When mathematics was finished, Sofia changed into a dress that was more suited for walking among the masses. She selected a long blue one, and a circlet to sit on top of her head that held a smattering of small sapphires to match. When she walked through the castles, her guards and her handmaidens surrounded her, careful not to get so close as to touch her. It was sometimes fun to change direction at the last moment and watch them scramble to reposition themselves, but Sofia would often catch a hurt look that made her feel bad afterward.
They left out the eastern gate, over the wide bridge that connected the castle to the eastern side of the city.
“Still no destination in mind, my lady?” asked Lacy. “I’ve heard that the flower market is nice this time of year, though I’ve never been myself.”
“I want to see a spirit,” said Sofia. “Or at least magic of some kind.” Her guards and handmaidens exchanged looks, and Sofia nearly snapped at them for it.
“There’s a teahouse not far from here, my lady,” said Lacy. “The house spirit is the size of a bear, I’m told, made of old fabrics from when the place belonged to a clothier. He’s quite friendly.”
Sofia frowned, but nodded anyway. It was the best that she was going to get. What she really wanted was a proper adventure, but that was impossible with four armed men in tow, let alone those with the seven-pointed stars emblazoned on their chest. She had long ago decided that oathkeepers weren’t any fun.
The teahouse was a tall structure that sat near the edge of the sprawling docks on the eastern side of the city. Even as they stepped through the front doors, the sweet, grassy smell of tea flooded into Sofia’s nostrils. It wasn’t the drink of choice within the castle, but she’d long had an affection for it. The teahouse had high ceilings and crowded tables, and there was a hum of conversation that nearly stopped when they stepped through the doors, only to start again at increased volume. People were staring at them — at Sofia in particular.
A short woman in a loose-fitting dress came rushing over to them, smiling wide.
“My name is Madame Merringer, and you could only be the princess herself, come down from the castle!” said the woman with an exaggerated bow. “Are you here to try a sampling of our teas? We have them in all colors, varieties and flavors from around the world, with milk or sugar to adulterate them to your tastes.”
“I’m here to see your spirit,” said Sofia.
“Ah,” said Merringer. Her face faltered momentarily. “We’ve given him a room all of his own upstairs, but of course you’re welcome to see him.”
“I’ll have a tea up there, if you don’t mind,” said Sofia in her most grown-up voice. “Something with mint in it.” If she had known where the room was, she would have started walking towards it with her head held high, but since she didn’t, she was at the mercy of the woman, and holding her head high was far less impressive.
“One moment, my lady,” said Walrus, with his mustache twitching from side to side. “Is it dangerous?”
“Dangerous?” asked the woman.
“Is the spirit malevolent,” asked Walrus. “Is there any risk?”
“N-no,” said Merringer. She seemed taken aback. “And if there were any risk, you can be certain that I wouldn’t allow the princess near it.”
Walrus nodded, and that was that.
The room that had been reserved for the spirit was only large enough for a small study, but it was devoid of any furniture. That was quickly rectified as workers brought in a chair and a small table for her, but Sofia’s attention was drawn to the large pile of cloth in the corner. A steaming cup of tea was set on the table beside her, and she favored the server with a small bow, then sat down. She tried her best to ignore the fact that she was being watched.
“Good afternoon,” she said to the spirit. It moved a head made of strips of cloth in her direction. The spirit had no discernible eyes, but she could tell that it was looking at her. Sofia took a sip of her tea, and breathed in the vapors. She turned marginally to where the shop owner was standing. “What are its qualities?”
“Qualities?” asked Merringer. She seemed unsure of herself, which was no surprise. Few in the kingdom knew how to deal with a princess, or royalty in general. Sofia tried to ignore the fact that Merringer wasn’t addressing her with the proper title — the woman didn’t know any better, and titles didn’t matter anyway.
“Does it speak?” asked Sofia.
“I — I wasn’t aware that spirits were capable of that,” said Merringer. “He makes noises, sometimes. Rasping noises.”
“There was a spirit in the North Woods that spoke,” said Sofia. “It was nonsense poetry that didn’t quite rhyme.” She looked at the house spirit in front of her. “He’s sad.”
“Sad?” asked Lacy. “My lady, -”
“Sad,” repeated Sofia. “He doesn’t want to be in this room.”
Everyone in the room was silent. Sofia was thinking, and the silence distracted her, mostly because she could readily imagine what the others were thinking. In a way, it was like having their thoughts in her head, talking over her. “Walrus, can you and the others leave me alone?” she asked.
“No, my lady,” replied Walrus. “I am bound by your father’s orders.”
Sofia nodded. She’d expected as much. She’d learned the exact wording that her father had used, but it was a wording that had been constructed by the sages, and there was no obvious way around it. Arguing with the oathkeepers had not produced results in the past. There weren’t many stories where oathkeepers were the villains, but in them, the hero always turned the oath against the oathkeeper. That didn’t work in real life. So instead Sofia tried to pretend that she was all alone.
The spirit was sad. It seemed obvious to her. And he didn’t want to be in the room. He was big, for a house spirit, and Sofia could see how that would cause problems. He wouldn’t be able to move around down where all the people were without bumping into chairs and tables, which was probably why he’d been given a room to be alone in. But he was a spirit of the teahouse, intrinsically tied to the place. He didn’t want a room for his own, because the whole of the teahouse was his. Yet now he was a nuisance to the owner, and that couldn’t have made him feel very good. From what her tutors had told her, spirits didn’t have conventional feelings or intelligence as such, but Sofia wasn’t sure that she believed that.
She took another sip of her tea, then stood up and began walking to towards the spirit. She could hear the oathkeepers stirring behind her, but they said nothing. They would wait until she got too close for comfort. Merringer had said that the spirit wasn’t dangerous, but spirits weren’t always the most predictable things.
“Why are you made of cloth?” asked Sofia. She looked at the scraps that made up its bulk, and the buttons that were affixed in seemingly random places. “It made sense, when this was a shop of cloth, but you’re a teahouse spirit now.”
The spirit responded by lifting its head and letting out a rasping sound.
“I see,” said Sofia, though of course she couldn’t understand the spirit at all. “And I’m sure that it was. But times change, and buildings change, and holding onto the past isn’t good for you.” She crept closer to it.
“My lady -” came Walrus’s rough voice. She heard him moving, though not with the lightning speed that the oathkeepers were known for.
“Just a moment,” said Sofia. “I think I’m getting somewhere.” She held her hand out, only a few feet from the spirit now. “It’s okay.”
The spirit moved forward, revealing a surprisingly long neck, and sniffed at her hand. It rasped some more, almost making a snuffling sound. Then it opened its toothless maw, and bit her. Sofia tried her best not to react, and the fact that her oathkeepers weren’t moving seemed to indicate that she was successful at that, but it hurt enough to bring tears to her eyes. There were, she was fairly certain, a half dozen needles driven into her hand. If she tried to pull away, or gave some sign of distress, the oathkeepers would come forward and hurt the spirit, and that would just make things worse. You couldn’t kill spirits, not really, and if you tore apart their body they would come back fearsome and angry. Sofia was fairly certain that they wouldn’t be able to lock the second form of this spirit in a room.
“Are you alright, my lady?” asked Walrus.
“Yes,” said Sofia, hoping that her voice wouldn’t give her away. “Everything’s good. We’re calm, aren’t we?” This last was directed at the spirit, which gave no response. Sofia was fairly sure that her hand was bleeding, but that strangely didn’t seem to matter too much. “You just can’t be made of cloth anymore,” she said to the spirit. “You need to be a teahouse spirit.”
The spirit shook its head from side to side, moving her hand with it. Sofia bit her lip to keep from crying out, but she wasn’t entirely successful, and a small noise of pain escaped. The oathkeepers rushed in at once, by her side in an instant, and the pried the spirit’s mouth open. The moment her hand was free, Walrus lifted her up like she were nothing more than a doll and carried her from the room.
“Let me go!” screamed Sofia.
Walrus clamped his hand down over her mouth. He tasted salty. “My lady, it wouldn’t do to make a scene. We’re going back to the castle with all due haste, and it is your choice whether to cause a scandal or go of your own free will.” He removed his hand slowly. His hard eyes were watching her closely, waiting to see how she would react.
“I was going to solve it,” said Sofia. “I was going to make him happy again.”
Walrus shook his head. “You’ll have to speak on the matter with your father, my lady,” he said. He looked down at her hand, where blood was trickling down to her fingertips. Sofia held it out away from herself, trying to keep from getting any on her dress. “He’ll want to have words. With the both of us, I imagine.”
When Sofia returned to the castle, her father yelled at her for risking her life, then told her about the prophecy.
“Delland has Fallen,” said Rector Longhew.
The words took a moment to make their full impact felt. Ventor hadn’t spoken with Delland in years, in part because of his permanent position as guard to the prince gave him little time for socialization. It had been two full decades since Ventor had been collared by Delland in the crowded city streets. There had been a time when he’d foolishly thought of Delland as a father figure, or at least a close mentor. And now the man had broken his oaths. Ventor spoke quietly with the other guards and slipped away. So long as the prince was going to stay within the castle reading his books, as it seemed would be the case today, it was within the bounds of the king’s instructions for Ventor to slip away for something important.
It took half an hour to reach the High Rectory. The building was practically a castle in its own right, though it hadn’t been built with defense in mind. The inner courtyard was accessible from two large arched corridors, each of which was built wide enough that two oxen could pass by each other. The edifice was a gray marble that had been quarried from high in the mountains to the west. The upper levels were made with thick timbers, most of which had been part of the building for longer than they had been part of a tree; Ventor had been tasked with replacing a few of them when he had been a lesser oathkeeper. Ventor had looked on the Rectory with wonder as a child, and lived in it with unhappiness as an initiate, but now it was simply a fact of his life — the seat of power for the oathkeepers, run by his brethren, but immutable and uninteresting for all that.
He found Delland in an opulently furnished room, eating grapes, cheeses, and cured meats from an earthenware platter. The man was nearly eighty years old, and his face was creased with wrinkles. Delland drank from a jug of wine without bothering to use a mug. The Strangheid Armor sat in pieces on the padded lounger beside him.
“Why?” asked Ventor.
Delland looked at him with unfocused eyes. “Rector Ventor? Come to shame me?”
“No,” said Ventor. “Only to understand, so such a fate does not befall me.” Ventor stood with perfect posture by the door, not wanting to get too close.
“Or is it that you wanted?” asked Delland, gesturing to the Strangheid.
“It’s not for me to take,” said Ventor evenly. “The council will decide.”
Delland lifted up a strip of smoked lamb like it was the first time he’d seen such a thing then plopped it into his mouth and closed his eyes as he chewed. “You want only to know why?” asked Delland. “Why a man would throw away the oaths that he made when he was ten years old?” He took another swing of dark red wine. “Do you ever think we take them too young?”
Ventor had been seven years old when he was caught stealing a piece of candy from a corner store. It was a fluffy bar made of egg whites and sugar, and he had thought he’d gotten away with it until a hand grabbed him by his shirt and lifted him up into the air. Ventor was twisted around to face an immensely tall man with a neatly trimmed gray mustache. The man was wearing full plate armor that was a tawny brown. It reflected the overhead sun.
“I am Rector Delland,” the man declared. “What is your name?”
“You ain’t a ‘keeper,” said Ventor. His fear had quickly turned to anger. He’d dropped the candy. He pointed to the armored chest. “No star.”
Rector Delland smiled. “I’ll tell you what. We’ll go back and pay for this candy, and then I’ll buy you a bowl of soup. A young boy can’t live on candy alone.” Delland held up the candy bar, which he must have snatched from the air right when Ventor had let go of it. That was Ventor’s first hint of the old oathkeeper’s speed, and the only reason he didn’t try his luck with running.
Delland had given money to Ventor to pay for the candy, and made Ventor apologize, and afterward Delland had bought Ventor a bowl of soup and sat down at a table with him. People kept looking at them, but Delland didn’t seem to mind. Ventor ate half of the soup and all of the trencher that had come with it before he broke the silence.
“You ain’t eating?” he asked. Ventor had been waiting for some change in mood, or for Delland to push the whole bowl into his face. His experience with adults had taught him to beware of kindness. He wasn’t an orphan, but he was as close to one as a child in the capital could be. His father had died in some far off war that Donkerk wasn’t even a part of, and his mother’s never-ending line of drunken suitors compelled him to stay out of the house.
“I don’t eat,” said Delland.
Ventor sucked grease off his spoon. “Not ever?” he asked after a time.
“Never,” said Delland with an upturned smile. “I’ve taken an Oath.” He thumped at his breastplate with a closed fist. “This armor gives me all the sustenance I need.” Delland leaned forward with a twinkle in his eyes, and lowered his voice into a conspiratorial whisper. “It’s magic.”
Ventor’s eyes went wide. “Dark magic?”
Delland’s laughter was a booming, exaggerated thing that drew looks from everyone that wasn’t already watching them. “No,” he said with a wide smile. “No, the Strangheid was a spirit once, one that took a liking to people so much that he decided he wanted to protect them. Now I wear it, to protect the people and see the armor serve its purpose.”
It was the bowl of soup and the promise of steady meals that drew Ventor into the rectory, but it had been Delland who gave him the will to see it through, and by the time Ventor had taken his first oath four years later, he had become an oathkeeper in the truest sense.
Now Delland was sitting in front of him, eating food while Ventor looked on. Now it was Delland who was the wretch, and Ventor the oathkeeper.
“Too young,” said Delland. “Too young, too young.” He had a pickled meat in his mouth. “You wanted to know why? Well, I’ll tell you. The seeds of doubt were planted years ago. There was a young girl — the pretty kind they like for testing vows. A whore in maiden’s clothing. She was brazen, I’ll tell you. She had wide hips and a — you know, there was never any prohibition on cursing, but it’s been decades since I’ve done it all the same — an ass that your eyes couldn’t help but track. Perhaps she thought that because I was an oathkeeper, and an old one, that I was someone safe, someone that she could practice her wiles on without fear of rejection or untoward advances. Or perhaps I simply imagined it all, and she was only a serving girl a quarter my age who was drawn in by the allure of the forbidden. I didn’t do anything. I let her taunt and tease me. The power of the oaths comes from going contrary to our desires, and inflaming the desires could only make me stronger. So I thought.”
Delland had kept drinking the wine, and even though it was likely watered, he’d become less coherent even since Ventor had entered the room. The Strangheid was one of a kind, a suit of full plate that kept the body strong without need for food or drink, but while it removed the need, it didn’t remove the desire. Though the wearer of the Strangheid would be as fit and healthy as if he were getting his daily meals, he always felt on the edge of starvation and dehydration. Delland had taken an Oath never to remove the armor, never to willingly imbibe even a drop of water, or snack on even a small morsel of food. He’d gone some sixty years without wine, and now he was trying to make up for the lost time all at once.
“She leaned towards me one day,” said Delland. “And she whispered in my ear that when it was time for me to take my armor off, she would bed me.” Delland gave a hollow laugh and popped a dried apricot into his mouth. “And you know, I still don’t know whether she was just saying that to say it, or because she had a misunderstanding about the fact that service is unto death, but it didn’t matter. It got me thinking about all the things that I would never do. Never. It’s such a huge word. My first oaths were at ten, and I knew nothing of what I was promising then. I donned the Strangheid at twenty, and if it’s possible, I knew even less then than I did at ten. Never ever.” He laughed. “Never ever ever. Never women, never wine, never lies, never sweets. Never bread, never water. Never remove that armor.” He paused. “That fucking armor.” He shook his head. “I was old, and I thought on those things that I’d never do, how I would die in that fucking armor. Who knows how long I’ll live. Another year? Five? Was I to give every last scrap of my life to the rectory?”
“So you broke your oaths,” said Ventor. “You decided to be selfish, and deprive the rectory of its strongest member.”
“I’d been having these thoughts,” said Delland, with his mouth half full. “I kept imaging how easy it would be to break my oaths, in a way that I hadn’t since I was only a boy. Do you know how I broke my oaths? Someone had left a single, solitary grape on their table. I don’t normally go down to the dining hall, but I was feeling nostalgic, and when I saw that grape … well, it all came crashing to a head, and I picked up the grape and ate it. The enormity of what I’d done struck me some minutes afterward. It was all over. Seventy years since my first oath, and sixty of those in the Strangheid, gone just like that.” Delland stood up, nearly knocking over the now-empty pitcher of wine. “And now that I’ve eaten and drank my parting gift, I’m off to find some women. Disgraced oathkeepers are probably not in heavy demand, but I can try my best.”
Delland moved past Ventor, heading for the hallway, but stopped and gestured to where the Strangheid lay in pieces. “That’s yours, by the way.”
“Mine?” asked Ventor. The whole encounter had been a shock, and unspeakably sad, but this truly gave Ventor pause. “The High Rectory -”
“I’m the authority on that armor,” said Delland. “The powers that be have been preparing for my death for ages. I gave your name some years ago. Before me there were false starts, men who couldn’t resist the frantic hunger that comes with the oaths. I told them to go for someone older — someone with long-standing oaths under his belt. I don’t know what they’ll think given recent developments, but I think it likely that you’ll be at the very top of a very short list.”
“Delland,” Ventor began. “You can start over, you don’t need to forsake us completely.” It was a feeble argument, and he knew it. Delland could make his oaths anew, and start right back at the bottom, but when the older brothers had a Fall, they rarely tried to start again. It took so long to gain the power that it hardly seemed worth it.
“I wouldn’t take up the Strangheid, if I were you,” said Delland. He watched Ventor’s face carefully, then moved on out and into the halls.
Ventor looked at the Strangheid. For years he’d wanted to be Delland’s successor, and now that the opportunity had presented itself, the whole thing was soured. Yet if the offer came, Ventor couldn’t imagine that he would say no.
A woman with streaks of gray in her hair made her way down the path from the main road with a young boy in tow. She circled the standing stone twice rightwise and once leftwise with a touch of impatience clear from the way she clutched at the boy’s hand. He was eight years old, but his mouth hung slightly open, and his eyes didn’t seem to focus on the world around him. A thick white scar marked the left side of his head, peeking out from his closely cropped hair. The woman spit to the side as she passed a tall oak tree that sat next to the path. None of what she did made any difference to the wards. She’d already passed through the wards a hundred feet ago. Henry watched this all from the second floor of the cottage using a spyglass.
The woman stopped short of the cottage, and waited with a firm grip on the boy’s wrist. Hirrush stepped out from beneath the eaves had hidden him, and approached the woman and the boy.
“Did Gregory Clarke send you?” asked Hirrush.
The woman furrowed her brow. “How did you know that?”
“A guess,” said Hirrush. “Who are you, and what are you doing on my land?”
“Claire Mortigaine,” said the woman. She nodded to the boy. “My grandson, Nathan. He was kicked in the head a year ago, and hasn’t been right ever since.”
The angle was wrong for him to see it, but Henry could hear by the tone of his father’s voice that he was frowning. “And?”
“I need you to fix him,” said Claire. Her face twisted. “I want you to tell me the cost.”
“I’ve heard there’s a witch near by,” said Hirrush. “If dark magic is what you want, best to seek her out, though I have no idea where she might be.”
“I did,” said the old woman. “Adrianna is a distant relation of mine. She said that her dark magic wasn’t so powerful as all that.”
Hirrush nodded. “What the boy needs is a mentalist. I’m only a humble farmer,” he said, placing his hand on his chest, “But I do know that dark magic is for matters of the body, not matters of the mind. Go find a mentalist. And tell Gregory not to send people my way — it’s liable to start up rumors.”
“The mind sits within the brain, doesn’t it?” asked Claire. “A dark wizard could fix the brain, and the mind would follow.” Her nails were digging into the boy’s wrist, and he let out a soft moan.
“Again,” said Hirrush, with a kindness that Henry didn’t expect. “I don’t know anything about such matters.”
“Lies,” spat the woman.
“The royal mentalist can handle cases such as this,” said Hirrush with tight lips. “Or go north, to the citadel of the Foresworn Sisters. There are a handful of others around the kingdom that might be able to do as much as those two, if you don’t like those options.”
“I was told that to get the attention of the royal mentalist requires a great deal of time to wait your turn, or a great deal of money to skip ahead,” said Claire. “I don’t imagine that it’s much better at the Citadel, only with less work to be found. I have more than my fair share of material possessions, but compared to the nobility or the merchants it’s nothing. If you turn me down … well, maybe I do make my way down to the capital with my grandson in tow. Then I put in a request for the mentalist’s time, and I waste my savings on room and board while I wait on the man to get round to me. And for all the weeks, months, or even years that would take, maybe the mentalist takes one peek inside my grandson’s head and says he can’t help. Or worse, that he could, but it would take too much of his precious time. How likely does that sound to you?”
“Likely,” said Hirrush.
Her blue-gray eyes were hard. “His father, my son, died four years back. I had four other children, but two died in childhood and two were taken by the monasteries. Nathan was my son’s only child, and Nathan’s mother passed shortly after he was born. He was left to me. He’s the only chance remaining for my late husband’s family line to continue. I’d pay a high price to have him whole again.” She stared at Hirrush. “A very high price.”
Hirrush nodded. “All the same. I’m not your man.”
Claire had a pained look on her face, but turned away from Hirrush and pulled the boy with her, heading back up the path. Hirrush stood and watched them for a long time, even after they were out of sight, and Henry in turn watched Hirrush. Eventually Omarr came out and put his hand on Hirrush’s shoulder. Their backs were to Henry, which made reading their faces hard, but it was quite enough that they were easy to hear.
“I listened,” said Omarr. “Is this something we can do with dark magic?”
“No,” said Hirrush.
“Does this woman represent a threat to us?” asked Omarr.
“Adrianna aside, there are six people that know about us,” said Hirrush. “None that know enough of the truth to get us killed. Adrianna is our canary in the coal mine, grim as that is. If the rectors come charging in, they’ll go after her first.” He clucked his tongue. “Six, and now seven. Eight, if you count her boy.”
“But is she a threat?” asked Omarr.
“Yes,” said Hirrush. “She’s desperate, and she thinks that we can help. And she’s right, but for the wrong reasons.” He sighed. “Dammit.”
“Talk to me,” said Omarr with a calm voice. “Is there any way that we can make this happen? What’s the cost to us?”
“I could do it,” said Hirrush. “Depending on what’s going on in the boy’s mind, it might take as much as a month. Maybe more.” He ran his fingers through his lanky hair. “And I wouldn’t be able to come up for air, not with the headaches. The last time was with the princess, and going in twice in the span of two days nearly killed me. You’d have to take care of me, feed me broth, change my clothes, all that sort of thing.”
“I don’t mind taking care of you,” said Omarr.
“There are other considerations,” said Hirrush. He rubbed his forehead. “We can’t have anyone knowing I’m a mentalist. Ibrahim isn’t looking for me, but if word managed to reach him about a mentalist skilled enough to reconstruct a simpleton’s mind, he would come looking. You and I together could probably kill him if he came alone, but there’s no chance that he would do that. He’s a cautious man.”
“We could rob the woman of her memories?” asked Omarr, but Hirrush was already shaking his head.
“Doable, if I were in better shape, and we were clever enough about it,” said Hirrush. “But there’d need to be some reason for the grandson to be gone, some plausible explanation that wouldn’t cause her to panic, and if we were going to go that far, we’d be better off just using the plausible explanation and not mucking about in her mind.”
“Use dark magic,” called Henry from the window.
They both turned backwards to look at him. “When did we raise such a little eavesdropper?” asked Omarr.
Henry shrugged. “You can’t talk outside and expect me not to hear. Wait a second, I’m coming down.”
He nearly tripped over Chippy, who was pacing back and forth in front of the door, and took the stairs two at a time down to the first floor. He’d had what he considered a good idea, and his fathers had always rewarded good ideas, even if they turned out to not be so good on closer inspection.
“Use dark magic,” said Henry a second time when he was next to them.
“You heard enough to hear that dark magic can’t do what we want?” asked Hirrush. “It’s possible we could heal the brain, but the mind doesn’t follow so closely as a person might think, especially if the brain’s had time to reorganize itself around an injury. There are people who have survived with whole chunks of brain missing, and healing them would do terrible things to how their mind works, like getting injured all over again.”
“But Mrs. Mortigaine doesn’t know that,” said Henry with a smile. “She already knows that you’re dark wizards, so we could have Nathan stay with us and tell her that it was part of some dark ritual while actually it’s just mentalism.”
Omarr grunted. “Well, that’s certainly a plan. We can talk it over. The important question is whether your father even wants to do it, since he’ll be the one faced with most of the costs.”
Hirrush sighed. “Give me some time to think about it. But right now, I’m leaning towards yes.”
“Vengeful spirits cloak her fragile form,” repeated Sofia. Her father had used his kingly voice, the one granted by the crown. She had lately found it annoying, but she could admit that a prophecy deserved to be said imperiously. “What does it mean?”
“We don’t know,” her father said. “Every one of my sages has heard the prophecy, and each of them has given a different opinion on the matter. Either the spirits will protect you, or they will attack you. Either you’ll be mentally fragile, or physically fragile, or fragile as a result of some horrific injury, or only pretending at being fragile. Every word of that prophecy has been picked apart. We won’t know its true meaning until it happens. But in the meantime, you are to stay away from spirits.”
Sofia frowned. Her father sat in the throne, which she also found annoying. No one else’s father ordered them around from a position of absolute authority. “Fine, your majesty,” she said with a sigh.
“I’m only trying to protect you,” her father said. His voice was gentle. He opened his arms wide. “Come here.”
It had been a long time since she’d sat on her father’s lap, and given the number of people in the throne room, it was highly embarrassing, but Sofia imagined the hurt look on her father’s face, and imagined all of the people in the room seeing that hurt look, and so climbed up to sit on her father’s legs and give him a tight hug. When you were a princess, you had to think about these sorts of things. She tried to be happy being close to him, to take in the sandalwood smell of him and remember being little, but while she was far from being an adult, she wasn’t a child anymore either.
Afterward, she stopped by the library, where — as usual — Rowan was reading. Her entourage mingled with Rowan’s, though eyes and ears were still on them.
“What’s a spirit caller?” she asked him.
Rowan ignored her for a few moments, then flipped a page. He was thirteen years old, and had grown insufferable, with the only consolation being that he spent so much of his time with his nose buried in his books. He finished whatever he was reading and looked up at her.
“I heard you were bitten by a spirit,” said Rowan. He looked at her bandaged hand, and seemed unimpressed. “Father is going to lock you down all the tighter now.”
“Can you at least point me to a book about spirit callers?” asked Sofia.
Rowan let out a sigh. “The spirit callers were a group of people with a close connection to the spiritual realm. There are a lot of stories about them, but they’re all old stories.”
“What kind of stories?” asked Sofia.
“Ridiculous things,” Rowan replied. “They were supposed to be like dark wizards that didn’t need to sacrifice anything, or oathkeepers that didn’t need to keep any oaths. The spirit callers could just tap the power of the spiritual realm directly. If an oathkeeper is worth twenty men in battle, a spirit caller was worth a whole army, because they could just call up the spirit of the battlefield for them, and it would lay waste to all their enemies.” He shrugged. “But probably none of that is true.” He laid a hand on the book in front of him. “Most of the words written in this library aren’t true.”
Sofia leaned forward and looked at the thick book he was reading from. It was difficult to read upside down, but she was able to figure out the word “Neth” and could guess at what her brother was looking at.
“Father said that you shouldn’t be reading those books,” said Sofia.
“It’s not about dark magic,” said Rowan. “He took all those books out of the library. This one is about the Nethian Empire. If only for the sake of actually providing information, it goes into some description of the way that dark magic was used, but it’s not a book about dark magic. You tell him that.” Sofia could tell that was intended more for the guards that were nearby than for her. Rowan had told her to always assume that everything that was said in the presence of the oathkeepers was reported back to him. “Besides, you should be grateful — I’m trying to figure out how it is that the kidnappers took you. I was hoping there was some reference to teleportation in here.” He closed the book and then patted its leather cover. “Unfortunately, it’s a little too clean of a history, written a hundred years after the fall.”
Sofia didn’t care about the kidnapping. If she could have erased that week from everyone else’s mind in the same way that it had been erased from hers, she would have done it almost without hesitation. It was bad enough that their father kept them on a short leash without her brother pretending that he was consumed by the same need to protect her. Of course, Rowan didn’t actually care about her safety, and the enduring mystery of how the kidnapping had been carried out. He only wanted a pretext for studying whatever he liked in the library. He had practically staked out the room for himself.
“I’m going to find some books to read,” said Sofia. She turned back to her handmaidens. “I’ll need a small platter of food. I’m going to be here with my brother for a while.”
She eventually settled on three thick books, A Catalog of the Major Spirits, Tales of the Nethian Spirit Callers, and The Species of Spirits. Though there were two large tables, she staked out a spot right next to her brother, mostly because she knew that it would annoy him.
A half hour later she was close to giving up.
“These books don’t tell me anything,” she huffed. Rowan looked up from his own book, raised an eyebrow, and then kept reading. “I wanted to know why spirits pick their form,” she continued. “Why house spirits are made of people’s things and nature spirits are made of animals. That seems like a thing that should be in a book.”
“It’s not true,” said Rowan mildly. “If you had read Species more closely instead of just flipping through the pages, you would have learned that there are exceptions to every rule. The rules are made up by people, not by the spirits.”
“But that doesn’t explain anything,” grumbled Sofia. She slouched in her chair. “I just wanted to help him.”
“The spirit that bit you?” asked Rowan.
“Yes,” said Sofia. She looked at her bandaged hand. The dressing would need changing soon.
Rowan sighed. “When I’m king, you’re going to have to stop being such a little kid all the time.”
Sofia felt like kicking him, but he was bigger and stronger, so she didn’t. Instead, she open the books back up and tried her best to read all the way through them. She felt confident that it wouldn’t take her long to know what Rowan knew. When she had found out as much about the spirits as she could from the books, she would go seek out another spirit to talk to, and eventually she would find a way to help the teahouse spirit.
Ventor first donned the Strangheid only two days after Delland gave it up. It breathed like a fine cotton and wicked away sweat. After a full day in the armor, Ventor felt cleaner than he did just after a bath. The armor gave a full range of motion, which had puzzled him until he realized that the armor was reactive. It moved and shifted in subtle ways to allow him to draw back a fist or drop into a crouch. The Strangheid had once been a spirit, and still retained some animating intelligence. The armor had fitted to him without any seeming consideration for the fact that Delland was half a foot shorter as Ventor was, with more narrow shoulders. The refitting would have taken a blacksmith weeks. If not for what Ventor was going to give up for it, he would have been ecstatic.
When the day was through, the hunger was worse than the thirst. His stomach didn’t growl, and he didn’t feel weak or trembling — sensations remembered from childhood — but he did feel the craving. It would get worse, with time, an unending hunger without hope for satisfaction. He hadn’t taken the oaths yet, but after the hunger and thirst had reached their peaks, and he knew that he could handle it, Ventor would wrap another chain around himself.
Rector Palin’s room was on the top floor of the High Rectory. He had taken the Oath of Isolation, and so was confined to a box ten feet to a side, but the room itself was much larger than that, enough that he could bring people to him and hold meetings. His box had small ports on it where he could push out a full bedpan or soiled bedding, and take in food, water, paper, pens, and ink. The box itself was without much ornamentation, but the room that it sat in the center of had long ago been used for something else, and it had all the touches of fine craftsmanship that the upper levels of the High Rectory had. Ventor looked out the wide windows at the teeming city streets of the capital, and the numerous plumes of smoke that marked the march of industry.
“Rector Palin,” said Ventor in a loud enough voice to carry through the vents in the box. “I am Rector Ventor. We met some years ago, when I was promoted to the king’s direct service. I stand before you now in the Strangheid, following Rector Delland’s oathbreaking, though I have not yet taken the oaths that accompany the armor. I come here upon the request of the council.”
“Yes, yes,” said the nasal voice within the box. There were very few who recalled what Palin actually looked like — the last time the man had seen open air had been before Ventor was born. “I recall remember our meeting. Delland’s recommendation carried weight, though only because it was made before his failure. His argument was not just for you specifically, but for someone older than he was when he took the Strangheid. Delland and I grew up together, did you know that?”
“No,” replied Ventor.
“We were both orphans,” said Palin. “Long ago.” Ventor could very faintly hear the shuffling of papers. “The primary argument that Palin gave was that the Strangheid comes with oaths that not everyone is capable of carrying out. He put on the armor and said his first oath on the same day, and confessed to us that he had come close to breaking those oaths often within the first few weeks and months. He said that if he had known the costs, he would never have agreed to put on the armor in the first place. I suspect that part of his analysis was tainted by his belief that he wasn’t worthy to wear it, but we agreed that he had a point. Many who have worn the Strangheid have broken their oaths. I have gone through the numbers here, and of the forty-six men to have put it on, twenty-eight broke within the first month, and another twelve within the first year.” Palin cleared his throat. “Of course, there is the question of how much is lost with these broken oaths. Though it is no small thing for someone with two years in our service to break their oaths, it is far more costly to lose a man with twenty years under his belt. At the age of eighteen, you can take your oaths a second time, and begin to build back what was lost. At forty, it’s not so easy as that. How old are you?”
Ventor knew that Palin had the information sitting in front of him. “Forty years old,” he replied.
“Ah,” said Palin. “Well, you see my point. The desires stirred by the Strangheid are some of the most powerful known to the High Rectory, and though you have proven yourself, we need to be sure that we do not lose you to these new oaths.”
“I understand,” said Ventor. “So far I find it tolerable.”
“There are matters to discuss,” said Palin. Again there was a sound of papers being shuffled. “You have taken the Oath of Chastity. Tell me about the women you have been with.”
Ventor felt the hairs stand up on the back of his neck. He wanted to object, or to pretend that he knew nothing, but he had taken the Oath of Honesty. The castle had spies and peddlers of information to keep the king informed of matters his subjects might want to keep hidden, but the High Rectory had no need for that. The oath allowed him to demur, but there were ways for them to punish him for it, the first of which was taking the armor from him. “There have been three,” said Ventor. “Sister Clarice was the first, in Leshampur, ten years ago. It ended when I was commanded to return home. A few months later there was Sister Landain, here in the capital. That lasted for two years, before she took a more restrictive oath which required more modesty on her part. A year afterward there was Sister Primrose, and that arrangement lasted for eight months before she ended it.” He cleared his throat. “In none of these cases have I broken my Oath of Chastity.”
He was worried that Rector Palin would ask him for specifics, to enumerate acts and times, but the question he asked instead cut even closer to his core. “Which of them did you love?”
“Sister Clarice,” said Ventor, trying his best not to hesitate. It was curious how much the desire to lie and conceal remained, despite the years he’d kept his oath of truth. “Only her.”
“Hrm,” said Palin from within his box. “I have not experienced human touch since taking the Oath of Isolation. Wearing the Strangheid is a lesser fate in that respect, but it does bear consideration. Your hands are bare, and the Strangheid does not come with a helm, but that is all the touch you will be allowed. You will never feel a hand on your chest, or a kiss on your collarbone.”
Ventor swallowed. That was too specific — perhaps the High Rectory had looked into his background. The very last thing that Sister Primrose had done was to plant a kiss on his collarbone. She had asked him to break his vows, and he had refused. It had taken him a long to time realize that he had loved Clarice, and practically no time at all to realize that he didn’t love Primrose. The Strangheid represented an end to dalliances with the opposite gender, but he had already brought an end to those on his own.
“Do you understand, Rector Ventor?” asked Palin.
“I understand,” said Ventor. “And I feel myself ready.”
Three days later, with the hunger clawing at him like a wild animal, Ventor took his oaths, and consigned himself forever to the embrace of the Strangheid.
Nathan was the most boring person that Henry could imagine, which wasn’t terribly kind, but true all the same. He couldn’t really speak, only say single words, usually while pointing, and he didn’t like to play. The first day that Nathan had come to the cottage, Henry had tried his best to engage him, but that hadn’t worked at all. He’d then made the mistake of complaining to Omarr, who had given him a long lecture on how it probably wasn’t Nathan’s fault that he got kicked in the head, and even if it had been his fault, he would still deserve compassion, no matter how boring he was to be around, or how much work was involved in tending to him.
“It’s nearly noon,” said Omarr. “Time to see what your father is up to.”
Henry had been reading a book on the varieties of spirits, but dutifully put it down and went over to the living room. Hirrush laid on a mattress that they’d moved there, while Nathan sat upright in a chair, not seeming to mind at all. They’d given him a tea to make him sleep for the initial breach, but that wasn’t a solution that they could employ for the full month it would take to reshape his mind.
Henry closed his eyes, slowed his breathing, and after a few minutes of focusing, stepped into his mindscape.
Henry had first started training when he was seven years old, and Hirrush had seemed a little put out by how easily Henry had accomplished that first step. From then on, Henry had daily lessons on mentalism from his father, and was slowly becoming respectable at it, though there were a large number of techniques that he hadn’t been able to do even once, let alone master. Mentalism took both training and aptitude, and while Hirrush was hopeful, it was more likely than not that Henry would simply run into barriers that he’d never be able to surpass.
Henry’s mindscape was a small cabin which sat on top of an island, and the island in turn rested in the center of a small lake. Beyond the lake were fir trees, but Hirrush called that area of the mindscape the fringe, and had said that it held no real meaning as far as the mind was concerned. Henry hadn’t yet swam out there to go exploring, but some day he would. Hirrush had told him that he’d be disappointed, and Henry had tried to accept that. The cabin itself was the focus on the mindscape. It was made of thick logs which had been expertly cut to fit together, and every wall had at least one window that looked out onto the lake. Inside, it was small and cozy, with a fireplace that seemed to burn forever and chairs that had been hewn out of trees by someone with an ax and desire for somewhere to sit. There were two basements stacked on top of each other below the cabin, but those had been added in later as a concession to the practicalities of a budding mentalist.
Hirrush was waiting for him, leaning against the front door. His father was taller in the mental realm, with hair that was a bit shorter and more cleanly cut. Changing form was relatively easy — even Henry could do it — but Hirrush was only slightly different from how he appeared in the physical world. Henry wondered whether his father even realized he’d made changes. He probably did. The more that Henry read, the more he realized that his father was at the very top tier of mentalists, crippling headaches aside.
“There are clouds hanging in the sky,” said Hirrush. “It’s not threatening to rain, but it’s colder than you might expect. The winds are slow but biting. What does that tell you?”
Henry looked up. Weather was usually associated with mood, and normally his mindscape had a bright blue sky dotted with fluffy white clouds. Lately it had been like this. “I don’t know,” said Henry. “I know what I’m feeling, but I don’t know how you’d read that from the weather.”
“You didn’t even try,” said Hirrush with a frown. “But that’s alright. Do you want me to change it, or do you want to try yourself?”
“I can try,” said Henry. He turned his head to the sky, and closed his eyes. Mentalism was an art of sorts, and for Henry it helped to close his eyes. Hirrush had said that was a crutch that would need to be removed, but at least he didn’t say anything as Henry worked. The trick was to picture the change that you wanted to see, and impose it on the mental realm. Henry pictured a cloudless sky, with the sun beating down, and warm weather to replace the chill. When he opened his eyes, the gray blanket of cloud cover was sliding apart to reveal blue sky and a yellow sun, brightening the lichen covered rock that the cabin was built on. Almost immediately, Henry felt better — the boredom and loneliness had been cleared away, and the lingering sadness that Henry had barely even recognized had gone with it.
“Better?” asked Hirrush.
“Yes,” said Henry. It wouldn’t last, not without fixing the underlying problems, but he did feel better. “We miss you.”
“That’s not all though,” said Hirrush. “This cursed injury … if I had been in your mind on a regular basis, I would have seen it earlier. Or even if I was a better parent, I suppose. You need friends. You need socialization, more than just me and your father.”
“I’m sorry,” said Henry. “Can you fix it?”
“It will have to wait until I’m out,” said Hirrush. “I’m sorry, but this is taking my full attention for the time being. You can talk to your father and see what he says about the matter, but he’s stuck taking care of both me and Nathan. It’s known that we’re caring for a child, and we’ve spread around the story that you’re a distant relation of Omarr’s.”
“I meant helping with mentalism,” said Henry. He looked around, at the small copse of trees that grew from the thin layer of soil on his rocky island and the bed of pine needles they had dropped. It was still difficult for him to identify meaning within his mindscape, though Hirrush had been helping.
“Modifying desires is difficult,” said Hirrush. “I’m having to do some of that with Nathan. Would you like to see?”
“Can I?” asked Henry. It might have been his imagination, but the mindscape seemed to get a little brighter.
“I think so,” said Hirrush. “His mind was a mess before, but it’s getting into shape now. The rough work has been done.” He smiled. “Beside that, it will give you a chance to practice breaching.”
Henry’s face fell, and the world dimmed slightly. “I’m tired of trying.”
“Just try once,” said Hirrush. “Then if you can’t make it, I’ll pull you through.”
“Alright,” said Henry. He moved past Hirrush and into the cabin, then opened the trap door to the lower levels. When he’d first managed to make it to the mindscape, the cabin hadn’t had a basement, but when he’d described the place to Hirrush, Hirrush had gotten a number of books down off the shelves and began talking excitedly about what kinds of changes could be made while keeping the mindscape mostly as it was. Changing the mindscape changed the mind, but if the modifications were done properly, it was possible to add on without heavy alterations to how a person thought. Most people weren’t even able to access their mindscape, let alone alter it — Henry was special in that regard.
The first basement had hardwood floors and a bookshelf that stretched all across one wall. There was a useful trick that a mentalist could do to store a book that they’d read into their mindscape. It required only a little more focus while reading. Not all of the books had been perfectly recorded — some had gaps in them, or wordings that weren’t entirely correct, but Henry had a small collection that he’d be able to refer to even when he was far away from the home library. Hirrush had insisted on a number of reference books to start with, and Henry had dutifully slogged through them, which he was now thankful for. If he ever needed to know how to calculate the phases of the moon or the angle of inclination of the stars, he would be able to retreat into his mindscape and consult the books.
Aside from the books, the basement had a number of paintings put up on the walls, which served as a focus for his memories. The mindscape of the uninitiated was a cluttered place, and memories weren’t at all clear, but a mentalist could make their memories more blatant. All of the most important events from the past two years had been crystallized and preserved. A small painting made only a week before would let Henry see in vivid detail the day that Nathan had been brought to their house by his grandmother. There was another, much larger painting of a young girl with red hair, but that one was a reconstruction and not a true memory at all. Henry thought about Sofia more than he probably should have. Hirrush eyed the painting, but said nothing.
The second basement was more of a cellar, with stone walls and a slightly musty smell that reminded Henry of the damp leaves of autumn. One wall was taken up by an inky blackness with three points of light on it. This was his viewing room, a way to visualize the mental realm outside of his own mindscape.
“Think of the mental realm and the physical realm like air and water,” said Hirrush. “The mindscape is like a bubble floating on the surface of the barrier between the realms, projected there by your brain.” He gestured towards the flat blackness and the three points of light. “That large one there is me.” The point of light flared brightly. “The analogy is incomplete, but when you try the breach, I want you to think of two bubbles pressed up against each other, so that there’s only a thin layer between them.”
“Dad, I’ve tried this a dozen times before,” said Henry.
“I tried a thousand times before I got it,” said Hirrush. “And I’m here now to help you. You’re not trying to get to his mind, you’re trying to get to mine. I’m receptive — I’ve weakened the barrier between us. These are the ideal conditions.”
Henry sighed, and held out one hand. The flat image of three points of light was deceptive, in a lot of ways. The mental realm had only a loose relation with the physical realm, and while the viewing room would have him believe that their minds were independent little spheres circling each other lazily, the reality was more like they were pages of a book, each sitting right next to the other. Henry twitched his fingers, feeling at the barrier between his mindscape and Hirrush’s, then Omarr’s, then Nathans, and back to Hirrush again. He stared at the light for a moment, and tried to get a sense of it. The barrier was thin and pliant, and he heard a fair sound like a massive bell being rung several miles in the distance. A master mentalist wouldn’t have had to hold out his hand, or even really think about it, but Henry had tried this often enough to know that he was far from a master.
The first time was an abject failure. He’d pushed hard against the barrier, while keeping his body perfectly still, and got nothing but more and more resistance. Henry kept himself from looking at his father, and tried again, even though he didn’t have to. This time the resistance stopped increasing to match him, but he felt no progress at all, and when he pulled back he felt like he’d been stuck to the barrier somehow, momentarily caught between the mindscapes and only slowly pushed back into basement. On the third time it was nearly effortless. He landed in his father’s mindscape from six inches off the ground and staggered around as he caught his balance.
“Marvelous,” said Hirrush. He had a wide grin on his face. “After the first time it gets much easier. Now come along, I’ll help you with the second breach.”
It was hard to get time alone.
Rowan had three guards, fewer than Sofia. His father was more protective of her, in part because of the kidnapping, but also, in part, because he liked Sofia better. Rowan was fairly certain of that, and thought about it often. Perhaps it was that Sofia was both powerless and relatively inoffensive; King Aldric liked feeling more powerful than his subjects, including his own children.
Rowan had a number of people he corresponded with from all over the world. Donkerk was nestled between the Silent Sands to the east, the Juniper Ocean to the south, and the Berrung Mountains to the west (with the Scour beyond that), giving it no close neighbors to speak of. Still, Rowan was in correspondence with the wider world made available through the merchant ships that passed through the capital, and it was somewhat rare that a week would go by without a letter coming or going. Contacts were easy to come by for a boy who would become king, and Rowan was grateful for that, and wary of making promises that he couldn’t keep when he took the throne from his father. A year ago, one of these contacts — the Halfway Sage of Kandune — had sent him a firearm, along with instructions on its manufacture.
Rowan had one of the royal alchemists create the black powder for it from sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter, and carefully followed the instructions to load it with one of the dozen small metal balls. The explosion had been loud enough that half the castle heard it, and the metal ball had gone straight through the straw dummy that the servants had set up and embedded itself in the wall. The smoke held a pungency that smelled delightful to Rowan’s nose, and he’d looked down at the firearm with glee. Here was a weapon whose like had never been seen in Donkerk before. In a fit of what he now recognized as foolishness, he had taken the firearm to his father and talked excitedly about training smiths in their production and getting the alchemists to set up a system for making larger quantities of the powder.
His father had nodded along, and then done nothing about it. It had taken Rowan a full week to work up the courage to broach the subject a second time, but when he had, his father had simply said that the idea was unworkable for a number of reasons, without bothering to list off any of those reasons. Rowan had later shown up to the council of sages, which drew nervous looks from them, and asked them to explain. They had argued among themselves for more than an hour, speaking about the threat that firearms represented to the oathkeepers, about the cost of changing production, or the need to import experts from across the ocean (which would surely cost a fortune, and likely explained the motives of the Halfway Sage), but in the end it was clear enough that his father had simply rejected the idea because it had been presented by his son.
Rowan didn’t hate his father, not exactly, but he did look forward to the day that he was taken seriously. That, or the day that the crown passed to his head. In either case, the very first thing that he would do would be to get rid of the guards, or at least make it so that they couldn’t watch him every hour of the day. He found himself staying within the castle more often than not, if only for the fact that his guard multiplied whenever he went out into the city.
The only place that Rowan was ever truly alone was the privy, and so that was where he practiced dark magic.
Rowan had a fascination with magic. Ibrahim had been teaching him mentalism, and he’d finally been able to access his mindscape the month before at only thirteen years old, which had been impressive even to the royal mentalist. He’d spent a week researching oathkeeping, though there didn’t seem to be that much to it, and he’d taken an oath himself in the privacy of his bedroom without anyone to see it. It had been a simple oath not to eat sweets, and he’d broken it six months later. But his real focus was on dark magic.
Mentalism was constrained by the practitioner’s natural talent, and took an enormous amount of work. Oathkeeping took no effort at all, apart from making life less pleasant to live, and it didn’t show results for ages. Dark magic didn’t depend on skill, only on knowledge, and somehow that seemed more fair to Rowan. On top of that, everything that Rowan could find seemed to indicate that sometimes the sacrifices weren’t sacrifices at all. A few of the rituals used hair, which barbers all around the kingdom cut and threw away on a daily basis. True, from what Rowan could find hair was the weakest possible material for use in dark magic, but it was still being wasted. There were slaughter yards in the capital as well, places where gallons of blood and buckets full of offal went to waste. Dark magic could be done by giving up those things that were already being sacrificed on a day-to-day basis, and yet Rowan’s father didn’t speak a single word about making any change.
Rowan had stolen a knife at dinner, a thin one with a sharp blade. He’d carefully hidden it in his tunic, something that he only dared to do because Ventor was away and his guard numbered only two. Immediately after he was done eating, before a servant could come in to take his plate away and notice the missing knife, Rowan had excused himself and gone to the library, where he’d spent a nervous few hours trying to read up on the more uncommon varieties of house spirit.
It wasn’t until he was alone in the privy that he pulled the knife out and cut himself. He chose the upper thigh, where the wound would be easy to hide. The cut was small and shallow, but enough to draw a drop of blood. Rowan dabbed that onto his finger and thought about the desired effect. Dark magic was about costs, it was true, but you also needed to have an understanding of the effect as well. A single drop of blood smeared on a fingertip would do nothing without the knowledge that it was a spell of detection — the most basic of wards.
Rowan held his finger out, and felt an odd sensation as it met with resistance. He moved it slowly, feeling out the contours of some invisible object. There were certain directions that his finger simply didn’t want to point. After some time had passed, he realized what it was his bloodied finger didn’t want to point at — his oathkeeper guards. It was a thrilling bit of magic. The spell had been buried in one of the library books, small and insignificant enough that it had escaped censoring. It was practically useless to Rowan, but it was magic all the same.
If that single spell had escaped censoring, perhaps there were others as well. And if there weren’t, the royal dungeon held more than a few dark wizards and witches. Rowan would find a way. And on his first day as king, he would be ready to revolutionize the world.