After a year had passed, Rowan had gone far beyond what Psychic Superiority had to say on the matter of dark mentalism. It was clear now that Walther Cremlau had only been picking at the edges of an idea far larger than himself. From the marginalia of the book, Rowan doubted that the man had the mentalist training to breach another mind, which accounted for the hesitance that was visible in his prose. Rowan wouldn’t have moved nearly so fast if he had been making every ritual sacrifice from his own mind.
He had used Amelia a few times, because he had already removed her defenses, but eventually she began to show symptoms of the losses she was suffering at Rowan’s hands. She was listless and depressed, though Rowan had no idea why. He had sacrificed a few of his own memories and the removal had been so complete that there wasn’t even a memory of a memory. He couldn’t fathom why it would be different for her, or if he was simply reading into her moods more than he should have been. Regardless, the damage to her mind was visible enough that she constituted a risk, so Rowan was forced to stop using her. A gentle word to the castle’s butler had gotten her fired from her position and put somewhere far from away from the castle. Rowan had met with her while she was gathering her things from the serving quarters and given her a handsome sum from his own purse, and she had looked at him with wet eyes before wrapping him in a hug that was so unwelcome he felt like taking the money back.
Once Amelia was gone, Rowan moved farther afield. Rowan was always accompanied by two oathkeepers whenever he left the castle. Sofia wasn’t allowed to leave the castle at all, which was slowly draining her if the bags under her eyes were anything to go by. The oathkeepers represented a problem for Rowan, given that they would be keeping their eyes on him, but thankfully mentalism was something that could be done without much to give it away in the physical world. All Rowan needed was an excuse to sit still for long periods of time without having to interact with anyone. The theater provided an excellent excuse to do that, especially with a private balcony and hundreds of ripe minds below him.
He had breakthrough after breakthrough, and he began to write his own book on the subject of dark mentalism, stuffed safely in a room within his mind rather than being committed to pen and paper. The book quickly grew thicker than Psychic Superiority had ever been, though in part that was because writing the book was as simple as thinking a sentence. Rowan became adept at fighting the thoughtforms of Ibrahim whenever he happened to encounter them. He built up his defenses higher than they had ever been before, while at the same time keeping in place the veneer that Ibrahim expected to see. In the playhouses and theaters around Marurbo, he was able to see many minds and catalog their differences, carefully marking those which showed the most promise for his dark mentalism. All was going well until Ibrahim requested a meeting in the sitting room.
“Our next lesson wasn’t for a week,” said Rowan as he sat down in a chair. He was wearing fine clothes and scented with rose water. A year’s work had made him feel more confident in his interactions with Ibrahim.
“Do you know why I wanted to train you in mentalism?” asked Ibrahim. His hands were folded in his lap.
“It allowed you access to the heir apparent of the kingdom,” said Rowan. “There’s no mystery there. My father agreed because he foolishly thought that you were loyal.”
“The bladed tongue has decided to make an appearance,” said Ibrahim. He smirked at Rowan.
“Go on then,” said Rowan. “Tell me why you wanted to train me.”
“I wanted to train you because I imagined remaking you in my image,” said Ibrahim. “Your father neglects you, that much is obvious even to someone who hasn’t spent time in your head. I had thought that you and I could have that kind of relationship with each other.”
“How did it go wrong then?” asked Rowan. “Or did I misunderstand you? Was it that you wanted the same bond of resentment and contempt?”
“It went wrong the moment I stepped into your mind,” said Ibrahim. “The moment I saw what you were, I knew that there could only ever be a shaky alliance between the two of us. You’re incapable of forming an honest bond.”
“You came here for a frank discussion about my failings as a human being?” asked Rowan.
“To an extent,” said Ibrahim. “I have found signs of a rogue mentalist within the city and wondered whether you might know anything about it.”
“No, I’m afraid not,” replied Rowan. He narrowed his eyes.
“The damage I’ve seen is subtle, in most cases,” said Ibrahim. He steepled his fingers. “There’s only a sensation of something missing, but no obvious evidence. There’s a difference between something removed and something forgotten; these people have had something removed. All the same, the tracks have been covered, sometimes artfully.”
“Things removed? Such as?” asked Rowan.
“Memories,” replied Ibrahim. “Skills. Relationships. Emotions. I don’t mean the temporary emotions that I change on a daily basis, Rowan, I mean whole emotions like fear or anger carved out of a person.”
“Well I can’t fathom why anyone would do that,” said Rowan.
“I couldn’t either,” said Ibrahim. “Not until I thought of you. You’re the boy who cut off a bird’s wing just to see what would happen. There was always pleasure in the destruction for you.”
It was a relief, in a way, to hear the accusation come out. Even better, Ibrahim hadn’t dropped so much of a hint about dark mentalism, which meant that Rowan would have an advantage if it came down to force.
“You haven’t spoken to my father about this,” said Rowan. “Otherwise we wouldn’t be having this clandestine meeting.”
“The sitting room is hardly clandestine,” said Ibrahim with a light laugh. “But you’re right that I haven’t told your father. I was hoping that you and I could come to a solution on our own first.”
“Very well,” said Rowan. “I’ll at least hear your terms.”
“You must submit to me,” said Ibrahim. “As you should have from the start. No more of this ridiculous password at the center of your mind. No more keeping your head as a jumble of dark rooms too disorganized for anyone to see what you’re thinking. We will restructure your mind together, so that you can become the prince you were always supposed to be. There are thoughts which we might excise with some careful work.”
“You wish to make me a puppet,” said Rowan. “I’d always thought that you sought to control me, but I never expected that you would be so brazen. All this would presumably be without my father’s knowledge?”
“It would be without anyone’s knowledge,” said Ibrahim. “It would be difficult for you to be king if everyone believed that I was pulling your strings, even if I were not. The mere perception would cause a crisis of confidence. It is not uncommon for a king to be murdered so the Boreal Crown might pass to someone the public finds more worthy of the title. Of course, if you take the crown in a few decades time and show your true colors, that fate awaits you anyway.”
“Let’s say that I refuse this oh so generous offer of mental mutilation,” said Rowan. “What then?”
“I tell your father,” said Ibrahim. “I explain what I believe you’ve been doing. I describe the lengths that you’ve gone to in order to keep me from knowing your secrets. I have made a thoughtform of him in order to test his reaction. I have seen what he would do if such a matter were brought to his attention. You do not come out well; the results are much the same so far as your so-called mutilation is concerned, only now the burden of that secret spreads to those with less of a capacity to keep it. Without your cooperation, it is possible that we could hide the truth from the people, especially if we had oathkeepers bound in silence, but the outcome would be poor for everyone.”
Rowan frowned. “I need time to meditate,” he replied. “I have my own thoughtforms to consult with. Will you allow me that courtesy?”
“Of course,” said Ibrahim with narrowed eyes.
Rowan sank back into his chair and entered into his mindscape with a single step. Ibrahim had made an understandable mistake; he had underestimated Rowan. Ibrahim had no doubt made a thoughtform of Rowan to consult with and come up with mere cruelty as the most probable reason for the crown prince to be inflicting minor psychic traumas on people. That also meant that Ibrahim had no knowledge of dark mentalism; if he’d read something like Psychic Superiority, he would have immediately thought of ritual sacrifice as the motive.
Rowan quickly went to the mural room and touched the animals in the proper sequence to unlock his key. Once that was in hand, he was able to find a room that was hidden more deeply and more securely than any other; the armory. He’d sealed it with dark rituals that had cost him his own memories, but that made the place secure even beyond the native difficulties that his mind presented to Ibrahim. Once he was inside, Rowan looked out across his treasured possessions and began armoring up. In the mental realm that was as easy as touching the plates of armor and the bladed weapons. When he was finished, Rowan conjured a mirror for himself and took in the image he presented. He was covered from head to toe in full plate, but instead of gleaming armor with filigree embellishments, it was flat and black, made up of straight lines instead of curves. He was fearsome. He had known this day was coming; he had prepared for it.
All that was left was to bring the battle to Ibrahim. The royal mentalist would be ready. He was likely preparing even as Rowan made his way to the breaching room. That was unfortunate, but the circumstances dictated as much. Rowan found Ibrahim’s mind easily enough; the smell of sandalwood and the smoky green light were both far too familiar. The breach was accomplished with no resistance at all. Ibrahim had opened his mind wide.
Rowan landed in a crouch, looking around at the flat desert mindscape. An angry sun beat down above, causing a shimmer of heat all around. The bulk of Ibrahim’s mindscape was held in tunnels down beneath the sands, but Ibrahim knew little more than that. He had never been allowed inside. A hundred feet away from Rowan stood Ibrahim. He was smiling, with his hands behind his back.
“I expected you to take the third path,” said Ibrahim. “I spoke with your thoughtform. Attempting to fight me is futile, but you imagine that you have a slim chance, and to you that’s better than the peace we might have reached.” Ibrahim looked at the armor. “Did you think that I would be intimidated by that?”
“I thought there was a possibility,” said Rowan.
Ibrahim’s form jerked to one side, then twisted in on itself with a sickening snap of bone. A scaly black arm burst from beneath Ibrahim’s skin, which was followed by another. A scaly head emerged, bringing behind it an impossibly large body. The creature was thirty feet tall, with cloven hooves and blood-red wings. “Appearances are meaningless,” hissed Ibrahim. “You made a poor student because you were incapable of listening.”
“You made a poor teacher because all you said to me were things I could have read in a book,” said Rowan.
Ibrahim attacked first. His monstrous form had claws that he brought down in an overhead strike, which Rowan jumped away from. If his armor were a mere mental projection, a symbol of resolve, the claws would have sliced straight into his flesh, but the black plated armor provided by dark magic wouldn’t have been so easily broken. There was no sense in giving away that advantage yet though. The silvered sword Rowan held in his hand could end the battle in a single hit, if Ibrahim thought himself safe.
Rowan crouched down and launched himself at Ibrahim, holding his sword out in front of him. A backhand strike from Ibrahim knocked him out of the air; Rowan went tumbling across the sand of the desert, disturbing its perfectly even surface. He stood up and mended a bone that had been broken, sparing only a quick thought to the matter.
Ibrahim had changed form again while Rowan was picking himself up off the ground. He was a big, beefy man, the kind that might be found working a forge or butchering a cow. In his hands was an immense firearm, which Rowan could only take as an affront. He only had a moment to take in the sight before the weapon discharged without visible smoke or sparks. Rowan took the full force of the blow on his chest, which sent him flipping backward into the air and knocked the wind from him before he remembered that such things didn’t matter in the mental realm. Rowan landed in a crouch with his armor smoking but otherwise unharmed.
“How did you learn that technique?” demanded Ibrahim.
Rowan laughed. “You said I was a poor student.” His sword gleamed in his hand. “You wanted to rape my mind.”
“You cannot win,” said Ibrahim. “No matter how strong that armor is, you cannot stand against me here. Submit. Teach me your technique and I will be gentle with you. I will try to preserve as much as I can when I remake you.”
“No,” said Rowan. “I think I’ll make you work for it.”
Ibrahim’s meaty form shed its muscles, which fell from his body in thick, wet strips that stuck to the sand. Revealed beneath the discarded musculature was a sleek, reptilian form, more a snake than a man. It slithered across the desert toward Rowan with impossible speed, whipping up sand as its barbed tail swished behind him. Rowan grit his teeth and settled into a fighting stance.
The snake-like form of Ibrahim turned to the side just as it came near Rowan and slid past instead of charging forward. The barbed tail whipped forward at Rowan, who swung his sword down at it. If the sword had been an extension of Rowan’s mind, it would have disintegrated on contact; such was the power of a master mentalist in his own mind. Yet the sword had been brought into existence by dark magic and was more real in the mental realm than either of them could hope to be. It sliced cleanly through Ibrahim’s tail. Rowan felt the sting on his unprotected face; when he touched it with his hand, his fingers came away with green foam.
Ibrahim let out a scream. His form had been bisected and he scrambled to make a new one. Rowan’s sword was beginning to rust, but unlike with the thoughtforms, a single blow wasn’t enough to wipe it away entirely. With great effort, Rowan reached back across the breach and pulled a second sword from his armory, this one longer than the first.
“Wheregone weens thao?” roared Ibrahim. He gasped at his own words. His body settled on something close to what he looked like in the physical realm, a tall man with cold eyes. “Yon haggar ittre em,” he said. “Ipsem!”
The second strike was easier to land than the first; when Rowan’s blade went through Ibrahim’s head, the whole mindscape shook as though rocked by the mightiest earthquake, but while the sky swirled with green and the sand moved in waves that retreated away from Rowan, the mindscape held. Rowan closed his eyes and let a smile creep onto his face. The royal mentalist was no more.
After a year had passed, Henry had gotten to know Sister Florence better than he had ever imagined possible at the start of his investigation. Her mindscape was a large tree with rooms built into it, most of which followed the contours of the knots and the twisting of the trunk. The area surrounding the tree was grassland, and beyond the clear that the tree sat in was a forest full of much smaller trees, though that was mere scenery and not the true shape of the mind.
Sister Florence had a conventional mind, in many ways. There were none of the defenses that Hirrush had warned about and no peculiarities that would make things difficult. That didn’t mean that combing through her memories was easy. The first thing Henry had picked up was a jagged iron caltrop sitting atop a dresser full of other such objects, which was one piece of furniture in a room full of them, and that in turn was only one room of thirty-seven.
Henry entered into Florence’s mind from a tavern where he sat with a mug of ale, which came to be his daily tradition once he’d done his work at the orphanage. The tavern was just close enough to make a connection, so long as Florence wasn’t gone, and a single ale was enough that Henry could sit in peace for a long time, at least after he’d made it known that he liked his quiet.
That first caltrop had taken two days of study before he’d been able to unlock its secrets. Turning a foreign memory from an object in the mental realm to something which could be viewed was difficult, abstract work, and worse than that, the tricks learned in interpreting one memory didn’t always translate to interpreting another memory. The caltrop turned out to be a childhood memory of eating porridge with raisins in it on a cold spring morning; it had nothing to do with Henry’s ultimate goal of finding the ledger’s missing pages.
Henry did go faster as time went on, but more because he was training mental muscles than because knowing Florence better really helped him. After two months had passed, he could clear a dozen memories in a single hour, which seemed impressive until he thought about how much there was to do and how little time each day was devoted to the effort.
By the time a year was up, Henry’s progress had plateaued and held steady at thirty memories an hour, one every two minutes. He rarely stayed with any memory for its full duration; it was simply a matter of picking up the object, rotating it around to see its features, discovering the territory that the object was mapping, then diving in to have a look around, usually only for a few seconds. Florence’s life could be divided into broad periods, from her time in an orphanage much like the one she helped run, to her training with the Foresworn Sisters, and finally a solid, uninterrupted twenty year period at the Leshampur orphanage.
Occasionally Henry would come across a memory that made him feel guilty. He found one encoded in a length of copper wire that showed Sister Florence kissing another girl in a darkened room at the age of fourteen; he hurriedly put that one back and tried to forget it. He also bore witness to Sister Florence’s menarche, which was uncomfortable for different reasons. Henry had sampled some of the bigger memories first, on the theory that his kidnapping would loom large, but he got too many things that weighed heavily on his mind; Florence crying over the body of a child who had died from croup, Florence being sanctioned by one of the elder sisters, Florence watching the body of a fellow sister being dragged from the river and not knowing whether it was murder or suicide … they went on and on, each one hitting Henry harder than the last, because with each he gained context into her life.
None of this brought him closer to finding out who his parents were.
“How many memories do you have left to go?” asked Hirrush on morning over eggs and bacon.
“If I can look at thirty every hour, then another six months,” said Henry. “I could go faster if I packed more hours into the day, but I don’t want to raise suspicions, especially not if they would lead back to the cottage.”
“You could stop working for them,” said Omarr. “Spend all day in the tavern instead. That cuts your time by a few months, at the very least.”
“Dad, once I find what I’m looking for, I’m going to leave,” said Henry. “Do you want that to happen faster than it’s already going to?”
“No,” said Omarr. He shook his head. “You need more training is all I was thinking. Your dark magic needs work, even if your mentalism is excellent.” He looked Henry up and down. “You’ve grown into a fine young man. The hard labor you’ve put yourself through has done wonders.”
Henry blushed and ate down his eggs. He hadn’t been unaware of the transformation, but it was still an embarrassment to have it pointed out by his father. If he could pass for handsome in a certain light, that was an advantage he would take, one that might be necessary if he wished to win the hand of princess Sofia some day.
Hirrush stretched out and yawned. “Is it time to start talking about what happens if you look through every memory this woman has and find nothing?” he asked. “I hardly think that you’ll just move on to the next one.”
“I’ve been thinking about it,” said Henry. “Every memory I look at makes me think that maybe it’s not to be found, but I’d kick myself if I just left in the middle of this project and it turned out that I had only a little further to go. To your question about what I would do if I was confident that her mind didn’t have what I was looking for … I don’t know. I might make a trip to the High Rectory, given that they’re the ones who carried out that investigation in the first place.”
His fathers both frowned, but Henry knew that if he insisted, they wouldn’t stop him. Of course, the High Rectory was in Marurbo, conveniently located next to the castle that by all accounts the princess never left, but Henry didn’t mention that.
After a year had passed, Sofia was a legend in Marurbo. She snuck out of the castle more nights than not, and each time she let herself wander until she found a spirit in need of her services. The tavern had been the first once, with others following. Because she only ventured out at night, she sometimes had to break into empty buildings in order to converse with the spirits, but that seemed like a small thing given that everyone in the city was one of her father’s subjects. Sofia learned to pick locks after a frustrating few hours in the darkness trying to find a way into a barber shop where a spirit was mewling for her.
At the time she’d been born, perhaps one in every thousand buildings had a house spirit. Now the number was closer to one in every hundred. Sofia had an inkling that this had something to do with her; the timing, at any rate, was suspicious. Because of this, she felt more of a desire to deal with the spirits than she otherwise might have; if she was a spirit caller, or something like it, then it was her duty to use that ability for the betterment of the people of Donkerk, just as Rowan was obliged to use his gift for mentalism to aid the public (especially so after Ibrahim had suffered his stroke).
The daytime was a waste, for the most part. The subject that interested Sofia the most was that of the spirits, but she had already gone far beyond both books and sages. Her father had lined up plenty of tutors for her, ones that would teach her economics and politics, but both seemed equally boring and pointless to her. Rowan had gotten an education in all the same subjects, but he was the crown prince and she was just a girl.
Sofia’s father hadn’t spoken of marriage yet, but it was only a matter of time. Donkerk was widely known for how the royal family married for love, but without being able to leave the castle, Sofia couldn’t see how she would ever find someone, if indeed that was something that she wanted. Given the limitations, it seemed certain that her father would arrange a marriage, either with a young duke or to secure an alliance with a distant nation across the ocean. Sofia had resigned herself to that fate, as she had resigned herself to most aspects of being a princess.
She was sitting for a painting in her most regal attire when Rowan came into the room.
“It’s looking well,” he said.
Sofia sighed, but kept her position. The painting had been her father’s idea, one that she didn’t have the heart to say no to, and besides that it was a noble obligation. The portrait would take multiple sittings for Orsos, the painter, to get his art as true to life as possible.
“How is Ibrahim doing?” asked Sofia. She tried to keep her face in the same relax position as it was before her brother entered the room. “Father thinks that it’s a grievous blow to the kingdom and I’d like to have some news to assuage his concerns.”
“He’s still insensate,” replied Rowan. “I’m tempted to go into his mind to see whether I can help to rebuild it, but he was capable of a frighteningly strong defense before the stroke and I worry that I’d be putting myself in undue danger.”
“Father won’t like to hear that,” said Sofia. “But I suppose I can pass the message along. You could tell him yourself, if you’re ready to make peace.”
“If you understood politics, you would know that we’re in a state of peace,” said Rowan. “We eat at the same table without throwing barbs at one another.”
“It’s a truce,” said Sofia. “A temporary cessation of hostility. None of the proverbial soldiers are fighting, but they’ve still got swords in their hands.”
“He’s doing everything in his power to set me up for failure when I assume the throne,” said Rowan. “I’m shut out of meetings and my ideas are ignored. The dukes know that if they try to curry my favor they risk drawing the ire of their king. The same goes for tradesmen and scholars. I don’t even have access to a reasonable stipend from the treasury. If you want a peace between father and I, talk to him about why he’s so intent keeping me from being a proper successor.”
“Father believes that his rule has plenty of time left,” said Sofia. “He’s barely in his forties. Grandfather aside, the men in our family tend to live long lives. If father believes that he’s got two good decades left, of course he would chafe at the idea of you preparing for his death.”
Rowan shook his head. “That’s not enough to explain it,” he replied. He looked to the painter, who was listening to every word, then toward the door where oathkeepers stood guard. “But enough about our dear father. How go your adventures with the hound?”
Sofia tried to keep from blushing and failed. “They go well. People still fear him, even after all this time, but I think in part he enjoys that. A castle like this one is place of majesty, but it’s also a defensive fortification, meant to make people think twice about a siege.”
“Donkerk hasn’t seen war in a very long time,” said Rowan. “We only contribute troops to the wars our allies get into, and those far across the ocean. I don’t think there are any records of someone attempting a siege on the castle.”
“It’s not a matter of that,” said Sofia. “Ulf takes a certain view of this castle, one that incorporates the murder holes and battlements.”
“Do you really think that you can speak to the spirits?” asked Rowan. “I would have thought that flight of fancy would have been left behind in your youth. From what I’ve heard, there’s supposed to be someone with true power over the spirits in the city. If I had more pull, I would arrange for them to have a meeting with you, if only as a courtesy.”
Sofia felt her spine go stiff. Rowan knew. He wasn’t hiding it. How he knew was a different question, but it was possible that he had used mentalism to find the answer. Sofia had no ability in that area, not even weakly, so tended to find the whole thing rather boring. Now though, her brother had leverage over her. He was letting her know that he had leverage over her.
“I have some work to do in the city,” said Rowan. “We’ll talk again later though; we often go too long without chatting.”
Sofia gave him a stiff nod. If her brother was displaying his leverage, the question was what he planned to use it for.
Henry had been going through the rote process of looking through Florence’s memories so quickly that he almost missed the clue. The memory was one of disdain and envy towards Sister Clarice, the one that Sister Miriam had replaced. Clarice was almost shockingly pretty, though memories were not always an accurate recording of reality. The memory was a brief one, just of Sister Clarice briefly putting her hand on a man’s waist, but while the focus of the memory was on Sister Clarice, the clue was in the man, whose armor bore the seven-pointed star of the High Rectory. He’d seen rectors in Florence’s memories, but he’d never seen this man before. Henry stepped through the memory three times in rapid succession, trying to pin down the time based on the context clues. The only thing he had to go on was Sister Clarice, whose age he was unsure of. She looked younger than she had in other memories though, which was promising. Henry had a section of his own mind devoted to topic of the orphanage and dipped into that briefly to pull up an image of Clarice as seen in other memories.
Once he’d verified that the year was right, Henry took the memory in hand and tried his best to attune to it. No memory was an island, alone and independent, instead they all connected to each other, sometimes in haphazard or unexpected ways. Following memory links was something Hirrush had said was done only within one’s own mind, but Henry thought that he had enough of a handle on Florence to try. He pushed at the memory — a sprig of rosemary — with a small amount of will, and hundreds of faint lines appeared, each pointing to some other memory. Henry smiled. From there it was only a matter of trying to narrow it down. Given the content of the memory he was holding, there would be links to the orphanage itself, to Clarice, to the outfit of their station, to the High Rectory in general, and all manner of other things that could conceivably stitch together a string of thoughts. All Henry wanted were more memories of the rector he’d seen.
A half hour later, he was rewarded with a clear window into a new memory, this one much longer.
“I cannot tell you the prophecy,” said the rector. The memory supplied his name as Ventor. He was sitting at the head of the table with the sisters surrounding him. By the cast of the light, it was dark out. “It would suffice to say that the king wishes to end it, or failing that, to mitigate it.”
This wasn’t the memory that Henry was looking for, but it was as close as he had gotten in a very long time of searching.
“We are trying to help you,” said Florence, her speech clearly enunciated and words precise. She had taken her vow of silence later in life; the shock of hearing the silent woman speak had worn off long ago. “If you will not relay the prophecy to us, we might not know to provide you with a detail we cannot imagine would be crucial to your investigation.”
“When I say that I cannot,” replied Ventor. “I mean that I am bound by my oath of obedience not to repeat those words I heard. That extends to those cases when it would be expedient.”
“It’s a foolish command to give a person,” said Sister Clarice with a frown.
“I agree,” said Ventor. “Yet part of the oath is not to question the orders as they come, even when they are foolish or ill-advised.”
“We know that this missing baby is the child of prophecy,” said Sister Florence. “We know that you seem concerned with dark wizards far more than I would expect from even a man of your station.” She looked to the other sisters, and Henry’s eyes looked with her. Sister Constance was looking no less old than she was in the present day. “Does that give us anything we can work with?”
“There’s a witch to the north,” said Sister Clarice. “She’s a young one, but worth pressing.”
The memory ended there and Henry watched it again, though there was nothing to gain by that. He had heard it all the first time, and besides that he had perfect recall; the rector that had been searching for him was following a prophecy. Assuming that he didn’t break his oath, and assuming that the king didn’t rescind the command, the prophecy wasn’t known by any of the people that Henry had access to. Henry carefully marked out his place within Florence’s mind and stepped out of the mental realm. He was relieved to find that his corner of the tavern was just as he had left it, complete with the untouched ale sitting in front of him. He left that behind to go back to the orphanage.
Sister Miriam gave him a mildly puzzled look when she saw him walk in. “I thought that you were gone for the day,” she said. “In fact, I recall you leaving an hour ago. I would ask if you had forgotten anything, but if you had I wouldn’t think that you’d waste and hour of your time retrieving it instead of simply waiting until tomorrow.” She was holding a child in her arms, with a cloth over one shoulder.
Henry stopped for a moment to think about the best way to approach this. In truth, he should have devoted his thinking time on the way home to the problem of broaching the question of the prophecy, but the agony of waiting felt like it would kill him. He needed to talk with someone; talking to his fathers would barely be better than talking to himself, or talking to a thoughtform, because they wouldn’t have any more information than he did.
“What ever happened to the woman you replaced?” asked Henry.
“Sister Clarice?” asked Miriam. She shook her head. “Why on earth would you ask about her?”
“I was having an ale at the Red Feather,” said Henry. Miriam frowned at that but Henry continued on before she could admonish him. “I overheard some conversation about her and they said,” a piece of the memory passed through his mind, “They said that she broke her vows because she fell in with a rector some years back. One that lived here. It got me thinking about what you’d said earlier, about how sometimes people lose their way. I thought rather than listening to gossip I would get the answer straight from the source, so I could know the truth.”
Miriam clucked her tongue. “You shouldn’t listen to what people say, especially when they’re speaking about things that they know nothing about. Asking those involved doesn’t mean that you’re not seeking out gossip. And as you know, I took my vows not too long ago and came in to replace Clarice, so even if I were to tell you anything it would still be second hand.” She rocked the baby in her arms. “Clarice left the Foresworn Sisters of her own accord. That’s all either of us need to know about the matter.”
“The things that they were saying were unkind,” said Henry. “It bothered me, even if I knew to ignore it. I just wanted some assurance that the oathkeepers are a righteous as I’ve been told.” Henry chose his words carefully. “I had been thinking about what you’d said, about it never being too late to join the High Rectory. You were two years older than I am now when you took your vows. But if what I heard was true, and the oathkeepers don’t take their oaths as seriously as I’d thought, then maybe it’s not for me. So I thought I would come talk to you first, as you’ve never been dishonest with me.”
“Well, you certainly know what tactic to take with me,” said Miriam. “You’re not telling me the whole truth, but I suppose you have your reasons.” Miriam looked down at the baby. “It’s true that rectors sometimes live at this orphanage. Leshampur isn’t large enough to have any rectors permanently assigned to it, so in the rare event that one of the rectors needs a place to stay, they come here instead of finding somewhere else. There are certain oaths that come with restrictions that might be difficult to handle if they were speaking with an innkeeper who’s only seen an oathkeeper a handful of times. More than that, the rite of shelter is one that binds our organizations.”
“So a rector did live here?” asked Henry.
“Rectors have, in the past,” said Miriam. “And some have had arrangements with the sisters.”
Henry frowned. “But you can’t get married,” he said. “My father said there were other oaths as well, ones that prohibited a man and woman from laying together.”
“There are different elevations of oaths,” said Miriam. “A man and woman who are not allowed to kiss each other might still be able to hold hands and enjoy a sunset together. There are those who hew to what they believe to be the spirit of the oath and those who follow the letter of the oath. I think that might be the point that you have some concern about. I’m given to believe that Clarice followed the letter of her oaths but not the spirit. That’s always dangerous for an oathkeeper; it leads to the wrong sort of weakness.”
On any other day, Henry might have asked about what the right sort of weakness was, but the thought of a prophecy was still looming large in his mind. “I can understand that, I think,” said Henry. “But why would an oathkeeper stay here for so long? This would have been more than a decade ago.” Henry could have gotten the date right to within the month, but didn’t want to put the connection forward for her to see.
“It’s a forgotten chapter in the history of this orphanage,” said Miriam. “A baby was stolen and never found. The oathkeeper came here trying to find the culprits. After a few months of little in the way of results, he left. This is all secondhand, you understand. So far as I know, the baby was never found.”
Henry frowned. There was no way to ask about the prophecy without giving himself away. It was doubtful that Miriam knew anything anyway. Finding out about the prophecy was wrapped up in all the same problems as trying to find his birth parents; it required him to reveal things that he wasn’t supposed to have any way of knowing about. He had much more information than when he’d started the day, but it wasn’t helping him at all, only raising further questions.
“You shouldn’t take the story of Sister Clarice as instructive,” said Miriam, misunderstanding his silence. “If you joined the Holy Rectory, I don’t think that you would see many people following the same paths. It is true that the higher elevations of the oath of chastity are rare, but those who take them are lauded.”
“I understand,” said Henry. “I’m just trying to figure some things out. I’m not sure that I want to follow in the footsteps of my parents, doing things the way they’ve done them, but if I don’t do that, then I need to take another path.”
“There’s nothing wrong with farming, if that’s what you want to do,” said Miriam.
“No,” replied Henry. “I suppose not.”
Sofia resisted the urge to leave the castle for a few nights after her talk with Rowan.
“I don’t know what to do,” she said to Ulf. “What do you suppose father would say if I came clean?”
Ulf cocked his head to look at her. Whatever else her problems, Ulf was at least happy to have her spending her nights with him. They sat on top of the rooftop of the castle, looking out at the city.
“Father would tell me that I had been reckless and prohibit me from doing it again,” said Sofia. “He would station oathkeepers in my bedroom at night, so that I would lose my last scrap of privacy. He would increase the guards around the perimeter of the castle so that they would be able to catch me as I was leaving or when I returned. And you … I’m not sure what he would do with you Ulf.”
The porcelain wolf settled down and spread its shards out. It didn’t seem particularly concerned about the king’s wrath.
“Or, instead of telling father, I could wait and see what it is that Rowan wants from me. I suspect Rowan thinks he can make a pawn out of me. But I’m not sure that makes sense either, since he has to know that any hold he has over me is tenuous at best. He can’t possibly have some better leverage against me, because there isn’t anything that I’ve done that’s objectionable. Even when I sneak out of the castle I go to help people! If the truth got out to the public it would be the furthest thing from a scandal.” Sofia laid back on the roof of the castle with curls of red hair cushioning her head. “Do you know, I think it’s a terrifying thought, but Rowan might have been trying to be nice to me. It didn’t occur to me until just now that perhaps he was letting me know that he knew in order to show that I had nothing to fear from him. I suppose that would make a twisted sort of sense. And if that’s the case, that means that I’m free to leave the castle as I please.”
Ulf raised the shards of dinnerware that made up his head. Though he lacked any conventional anatomy, Sofia was certain that he was giving her a disapproving look.
“I know,” she said. “If Rowan knows, that means that other people probably know too, which means that even if he was trying to be friendly to me I need to be more careful.” She frowned. “I wonder how it is that he knows. I’ll have to ask him.” She looked out over the castle and spotted a lit window right where she’d expected it to be; Rowan was staying up late reading again. “In fact, perhaps I’ll ask him now.”
The conventional path would have involved having Ulf teleport her back to her room, ensuring that she had no telling signs of her outdoor excursion, then getting an escort from the oathkeepers. Sofia elected to use the much more daring method of simply having Ulf teleport her into her brother’s room. She was worried about startling him and causing him to scream, but which would have brought the oathkeepers, but instead he sat in a relaxed position on a fluffy chair with his eyes glazed over and his breathing shallow. He was deep in a mentalist trance. Sofia sat down in a chair across from him and bid Ulf to give them a bit of privacy. Rowan had never liked the spirit.
It was only ten minutes later when Rowan came awake. He didn’t seem terribly surprised to see Sofia sitting in front of him, but mentalists were supposed to have a way of sensing things from within the mental realm. Rowan would have known his own sister.
“You’ll need to be quiet,” he said at barely above a whisper. “It would be unfortunate if we were heard.”
“Understood,” replied Sofia at the same volume.
“Is this a show of power?” asked Rowan. “Proving that you can break into my room without raising the guards?”
Sofia shook her head. “I just wanted to talk. You know that I’ve been escaping the castle at night.”
Rowan nodded. “I won’t tell anyone,” he replied. “But I might have to ask you for a favor soon.”
“Is your silence contingent on me doing this favor?” asked Sofia.
“No,” replied Rowan. “It’s something that I think you’d want to do anyway.” He leaned forward in his seat. “I want you to run away from home.”
Sofia folded her hands in her lap and looked up at the books on Rowan’s shelves. “Why would I want to do that?”
“You chafe at this castle and father’s overbearing attempts at protecting you,” said Rowan. “That’s why you’ve been sneaking off almost every night.”
“How did you know about that?” asked Sofia.
“Mentalism,” replied Rowan. “If we’re both in our rooms, your mind tended to be the furtherest that I could see from within my mindscape. One night I was staying up trying to solve a mentalist problem and saw you flickering around in a way that was puzzling. You were always tired the next day. Once I started to hear the gossip from around the city,I began to put the pieces together; seeing you and Ulf walk side-by-side down the halls clinched it in my mind. You’ve been using the castle spirit as a mount, if my guess is correct.”
“I don’t want to run away,” said Sofia. “I only want more freedom here in Marurbo.”
“You haven’t listened to my full request though,” said Rowan. He took a deep breath and held it for a moment. “Father said that our mother is dead. She’s alive and living far to the north. I imagine that you’d want to visit her on your own anyway, but there are questions that I want to know the answers to.”
“That can’t be,” said Sofia. She had been ready for almost anything Rowan could have said, but not that. “Father wouldn’t have lied to us like that.”
“You think more highly of our father than I did,” said Rowan.
“But why?” asked Sofia. “Why would he send her away and pretend that she was dead? It makes no sense.” She had to keep from raising her voice above a loud whisper.
“These are the questions that I want answered,” said Rowan. “You’ve shown a proficiency in slipping past the guards. All you would need to do is make your way to the north, find our mother, and get to the bottom of it. If I had enough pull here in the kingdom, I’d get all of it done on my own, but father confines me to the castle and gives me no resources of my own to play with.” He leaned forward. “Ibrahim would have been able to track you in the mental realm. With the seed he planted in your head, he would be able to work out where it was that you were going. It’s painful for me to say this, but his illness provides us with an opportunity.”
“How do you know these things?” demanded Sofia.
“I received a letter three years ago,” replied Rowan. “I maintain correspondence with a large number of people around Donkerk. One of the Foresworn Sisters at the Citadel is a master mentalist, so of course she came to my attention. The letters back and forth take months. Eventually, she revealed to me that our mother is alive and well, living these as a sister herself. Beyond that, Sister Marigold did not feel comfortable saying, despite the numerous inquiries I sent to her. I sent letters to mother as well, but she’s taken an oath of silence that extends to the written word.”
“Numerous inquiries … but if it takes a month or longer to get a letter there,” Sofia paused. “Rowan, how long have you know this?”
“Three years,” said Rowan. “Do you recall father and I not speaking to each other for a few weeks? I confronted him —”
“You what?” asked Sofia.
“Keep your voice down. I confronted him and he wouldn’t tell me anything.” Rowan shook his head and sat back in his chair. “He admitted the truth, but wouldn’t speak on it further. I don’t know whether mother is in exile or whether she’s there of her own volition. All I know is why father covered it up. He needed to appear strong for his dukes, so he could maintain control of the kingdom.”
“But he’s got the crown,” said Sofia. She was having trouble breathing. It felt like her whole life had been a lie. She wanted to believe that Rowan was lying, but it didn’t feel like he was. How often had her father talked about her mother? But for what Rowan was saying to be true, Sofia would have to look at her father in a very different light.
“He’s got the crown,” said Rowan. “But contrary to popular belief, the Boreal Crown isn’t everything. It gives him power, more than he typically shows, but Donkerk plays its own games with our allies across the ocean. The dukes and the rectors provide their own pressures. Ruling a country is a complex task, one that I’ve done my best to train for. When father lies, it’s usually because he’s trying to keep or consolidate power.”
“No,” said Sofia, straining to keep her voice at a whisper. “Some of what you’re saying is true, or at least you believe that it’s true, but I won’t turn on father so easily. I need to speak with him. If he tells me that mother is alive, I’ll slip out of the castle and make the trip to the Citadel, but not until then.”
Rowan shrugged. “Do that then. It’s possible that he’ll tell you more than he ever told me. You are his favorite, after all. But if you then decide that you want to hear mother’s side after all, father will know where you’re going from the moment that he finds out you’re missing. And of course given that father has been lying to you for your entire life, you won’t be able to trust his version of the truth without hearing mother’s side of it. Better for you to make your journey now, when I can help you lay down false trails so that you won’t get caught a mile away from the city. If father brings you in, you can have your conversation with him then.”
Sofia hesitated. Rowan was making too much sense. She would need time to think it over.
“Do you remember how long it took for him to tell you about the prophecy?” asked Rowan. “You’ve been escaping from the castle and running roughshod around the city for what, the better part of six months?”
“A year,” replied Sofia. Her voice felt hollow.
“You chafe under father’s grip, the same as I do,” said Rowan. “If there was ever a time for a private, familial rebellion, it’s now. Take some time, think it over, don’t do anything rash, and come find me when you’ve seen the light. It’s only an extension of what you’ve already been doing. I know that you’re taken with the spirits and have some skill with them, perhaps even supernaturally so. Think of what you could see of the world as you travel. Think about that and about finding the truth.”