Rowan sipped his wine across from his father, not looking at the conspicuously absent chair to his left. They were eating in the Blue Room, as was custom. Dinner was venison steak and mashed yams, both done with an expertise that elevated them above their status as common peoples’ food. For the first three days of Sofia’s disappearance, King Aldric had insisted that a place be set for her so that she would be able to eat something when she was returned, but now the only reminder she was gone was the chair she normally sat in and the silence that filled the air.
“What will you do if she never returns?” asked Rowan.
“The oathkeepers will find her,” said the king. He pushed his food around with a fork.
“She’s young,” said Rowan. “She’s naive about the ways of the world and has been ever since you decided that you would lock her up. Something might happen to her before your puppets track her down.”
Aldric stared at Rowan with piercing eyes. “Don’t say such things. Not about your sister and not about the oathkeepers.”
“I was only asking what you’ll do if she doesn’t return,” said Rowan. “Surely you must have a plan?”
Aldric sighed, but he kept proper posture and the Boreal Crown did not waver on his head. “I know you mean only to wound me,” he said. “But the question is not without founding, no matter how callously delivered. My dukes will ask the same; perhaps they already do in private. First the royal mentalist and now this … it does not look good. For now I have said that your sister will return or be returned, but if that does not happen …”
He trailed off and stared at his plate. Rowan would have given anything to know where that line of thought was leading his father. The king was only in his forties, but he seemed impossibly old across the dinner table.
“You should bring me out into the light,” said Rowan. “Sofia is gone. So be it. You’re papering the kingdom with a reward for her return, which is showing everyone that you’ve lost track of her. That’s not what I would have done, but that’s nothing that can be changed now. What you need to do is show strength. You wish to keep the dukes in line? Give me to them. Show them that the family line is strong. Show them that we are a legacy, a continuity of father and son.”
King Aldric looked up from his food and met Rowan’s eyes with a grimace. “I would never do that,” he said quietly. “You insult me in one breath and ask for my support in the next. You never learned the value of honeyed words or the need to keep your true thoughts hidden. If you had wanted into my good graces, you should have been better at pretending to not be such a foul creature. But even then, you wouldn’t have managed to fool me. Your lust for power is too transparent to allow you to acquire it.”
Rowan felt his mood darkening considerably, mostly because his father was right. Rowan had fallen into the habit of barbs too easily when the conversation began, simply because it had felt so right. Yet it had been this way before too, years back when Rowan had still loved his father, when Rowan had thought that there was something he could do to curry his father’s favor. Not even motivated interest was enough to break through. It shouldn’t have mattered that King Aldric didn’t like his son, Rowan was only offering himself up as a tool to placate the dukes. The more thought Rowan gave the matter, the more angry he grew. He had only been nasty to his father because his father had started it first. The kingdom would fall in Rowan’s hands one day, one way or another, but Aldric refused to give his son due consideration. Then he had the gall to make the accusation that it was Rowan who was power hungry.
The rest of the dinner was eaten in silence. When Rowan had finished, he left for his room without any further exchange, then laid on his bed and fell into his mindscape. If the negotiations with his father had gone poorly, at least there were other paths to try.
His first stop was Ibrahim’s mind, which was still a flat desert with an endlessly starry sky. Rowan had burrowed down, trying to find some rooms, or anything that would give him access to the mentalist’s memories, but there seemed to be nothing but more sand. It had taken Rowan an embarrassingly long time to recognize that the mindscape he was entering into was only an antechamber, connected to the real thing by some narrow path Ibrahim had hidden. Once he’d realized that was true, Rowan had screamed and cursed, the noise hidden from the oathkeepers outside his door by the fact that he’d been restrained enough to keep his rage within the mental realm. Ibrahim had at least one defense still in place, but owing to the difficulty of the technique it would be hard to crack, especially since Ibrahim had left this particular matter from Rowan’s training regime. It wasn’t in Ibrahim’s many books either, though for a mentalist it was nothing to simply keep a copy of sensitive material in the mind instead of on paper. Unfortunately, the antechamber that Ibrahim had constructed barred Rowan’s access to the very materials that might allow him to bypass that barrier. It was a key that lay within the room that it had locked.
Rowan’s second stop was to his father’s mind. The seed Ibrahim had left behind had been swiftly dispatched, leaving only an empty house for Rowan to explore. The skies were overcast and the wind was strong enough to rattle the windows, but this was only a reflection of his father’s mood. The house was of a simple style, like those favored in the farmlands of Donkerk. Rowan’s grandfather, King Oswald, had taken his children out for vacations to a farmhouse in order for them to experience the life of their subject firsthand, without all of the servants to do the work for them. Rowan’s father had spoken of those times fondly, though he’d never given his own children such an experience. Aldric’s mindscape was surely a reflection of that formative experience, though the interior of the place was far more expansive and finely decorated than the farmhouse of his youth must have been.
It was hard to make sense of another person’s mind. The memories were rarely stored in sensible ways and more complex things like skills or languages were difficult to find and comprehend. A mentalist could shape their own mindscape into something sleek and efficient, but for someone whose mind had been mostly untouched, the mindscape was symbolism which almost perfectly obscured meaning. Every piece of the mind had some representation in the mindscape, but finding and unraveling those representations was the hardest trick a mentalist could master. It was for this reason that changing a person’s mind from within the mental realm was exceedingly difficult, at least if the mentalist had any desire for the results to be predictable.
Rowan moved quickly through the house until he found the room he wanted. The rest of the house was clean and tidy, but this single room was not just disused but in ill repair. The floorboards were warped and splintered, there was water damage on the ceiling, and bits of the wall had started to crumble. The furniture and decorations within were all similarly broken, dirty things. The room stood in stark contrast to the rest of the house. Rowan was certain that this was where he would find what he wanted. If his father’s mind held answers, this was where they would be. He picked up a flawed gemstone from a box on the side of the table and began the tedious work of unpacking the symbol.
It was five hours before he finally got it. As a proof of concept, it showed only that this method of information gathering was far too slow to be worthwhile. Rowan dove into the memory with resignation, knowing that it was almost certainly not worth the effort.
“We must speak of Rowan,” said a rich, mellow voice. Duke Pallwin sat atop a horse at the edge of a forest. His broad nose was red with the cold, as the memory seemed to take place in winter. Pallwin’s thick fingers held tight to the reins. “If you die and the crown passes on —”
“I know,” replied King Aldric. Rowan found himself speaking with his father’s voice, using the same tenor that was always backed by a hint of command. “The Boreal Crown is not something I take lightly.” Aldric took the crown down from his head and held it out in front of him. His fingers traced the prongs of it. Though by all appearances it was made of gold, it was nearly weightless in his hands. “I care for this kingdom, you know that I do.”
“Continuity is the watchword of every right-thinking ruler,” said Pallwin. “You should have remarried after Tanya’s unfortunate passing. Two children are not enough to ensure the continuity which we seek, especially not when they are specimens such as your son and daughter.”
“There is nothing wrong with Sofia,” said Aldric. His voice was so sharp that Pallwin staggered back from the force of it. That was the power of the Boreal Crown.
“She is young,” said Pallwin. “She has no training in the ways of the world, nor has she taken any responsibilities upon herself, nor has she been given any. If she were to take the crown, she would be guided by the sages, but the sages become unruly without a firm hand. Perhaps a worse scenario is that she would become the puppet of one of the other dukes. Donkerk has suffered under figureheads before. Yet before we speak of Sofia as queen, we must speak of Rowan.”
“No,” said Aldric. “There is nothing to discuss. There is no point you could bring up that I would not have already thought of. I have considered the problem of Rowan carefully.” Rowan flinched at that and nearly dropped from the memory.
“If you would grant me a pardon for what I must say,” said Pallwin. “You have taken a half measure with the boy.”
“A half measure is what was called for,” said Aldric. “I was looking to the future and dealing with the doubts that plague me.”
“It would be simplicity to kill him,” said Pallwin. “I understand your reticence and the complications involved, but it would be better for the kingdom if there is no chance the crown lands upon his head.”
Aldric hesitated. Rowan’s heart broke in that short span of time. His father was thinking of having him killed. “No,” said Aldric after some time had passed. “No, that would leave only Sofia as heir and with her fate so uncertain I cannot allow it.”
The memory ended there and left Rowan sitting on the bed in shock. His father should have beheaded Pallwin for the mere suggestion, let alone a brazen offer, but instead his father had considered it. The question remained as to why, if it went beyond the fights they’d had and the animosity they’d shared. Rowan looked around the room at the unpleasant memories of his father. There were secrets here which held a value, but no time to look through them all. Ibrahim had been dealt with. Sofia had been removed from the picture. The time for Rowan to make his move was drawing near. He would delve into the memories of his father, but eventually it would be time to act.
It was not a matter of chance that Henry was at the front of the orphanage when he saw the girl nervously circling. He had stationed himself there ever since Ventor had arrived, mostly so that he could review whatever information came in. The sisters were all still involved in the actual work of running the orphanage, but Henry had made himself into the point of first contact for anyone stopping in. Most of the people coming by were boys his age, eager to get the reward being offered by Ventor, which required nothing more than a brief interview and some marks on Ventor’s growing stacks of paper. On the rare occasion when a prospective parent came knocking, Henry would go to fetch Sister Miriam so she could speak with them.
“Sorry, it’s for boys only,” said Henry when he saw that the girl was coming to the door of the orphanage. She had short brown hair and dressed in a simple fashion, wearing loose brown pants instead of a proper skirt. She had a small satchel at her side and a sort of disheveled look that Henry associated with the exceptionally poor.
The girl cocked her head to the side and looked at Henry. “What’s for boys only?” she asked.
“The treats,” said Henry. “They’re only for boys, he won’t see you if you’re a girl. We’ve had a few try already.” He watched her puzzled expression. “Unless you’re not here about the prophecy?”
The girl opened her mouth and closed it again. “Well, I am, but … I’m sorry, I think we must not be understanding each other.” She stepped forward and extended a hand. “My name is Fiona, my uncle is one of the king’s sages. I came looking for information about a prophecy.”
“I’m Henry,” said Henry, shaking her hand. He re-evaluated her appearance. She wasn’t poor, as he’d thought, she was simply well-traveled. It was quite a distance from Marurbo to Leshampur, more than anyone would go on a whim. That also helped explain her accent. “Can you tell me what’s happening that’s stirred up the hornet’s nest?” he asked. “Ventor is bound by an oath not to tell anyone.”
The girl froze in place for a moment, then turned to leave, then turned back toward Henry. “Can we make a deal?” she asked.
“It’s always possible,” nodded Henry. “Though I suppose it depends on the specifics.”
“Alright,” said Fiona. “If I tell you what I know about the prophecy, you won’t mention to Rector Ventor that I was here?”
Henry looked behind him, toward the orphanage, then stepped closer to the girl and lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “I’ll agree to that if you’ll also agree to tell me why it is that you don’t want him to know you were here,” said Henry. “I’m sort of his assistant and I’d feel terrible if I were betraying him.”
Fiona frowned. “I’ll agree to that conditional on the condition of you telling me what you know about what Ventor is doing here.”
“This deal is getting a little bit out of hand,” said Henry with a shrug. “Come on, I know a place where we can get a drink in private.”
They walked together over to the Crowning Rooster, which was several blocks from the orphanage. Henry slipped into a booth at the back, which was well away from the light. It felt suitably clandestine for their purposes, though the smiling barmaid called Henry by his name, which somewhat ruined the effect. Fiona ordered a plate of food as well, which further dampened the feeling that they were being secretive, though Henry supposed that it made sense to eat if they were going to be sitting down anyway.
“So,” said Fiona. “Tell me what Ventor is doing here.”
“But that’s the least important bit,” said Henry. “I want to know what the prophecy says.”
“Exactly. We don’t trust each other,” said Fiona. “Or rather, I don’t trust you. So we should start small.”
Henry watched her face. There were many women in his life, including the four Foresworn sisters and Adrianna, and there were a number of girls below ten years old inhabiting the orphanage, who pestered him sometimes, but there were no girls his own age. He was slowly deciding that Fiona was pretty, in a rough and wild way. She looked uncultured, but didn’t speak like it. Henry imagined that he appeared the same to her; he had a thorough education from his fathers and had read more books than most people ever saw in their lifetime, but it would be easy to mistake him for a simple-minded apprentice laborer.
“Sixteen years ago a baby was stolen from the orphanage,” said Henry. “Ventor is here in futile quest to find the boy that baby grew up into.”
“Futile?” asked Fiona.
Henry nodded. “I’ve mentioned as much to him, but he’s got his orders and has to find some way of fulfilling them, even if what’s being asked of him is basically impossible.” These were minor lies, but not ones that Henry felt bad about. “First, the baby might not have lived to become a boy. Second, the baby might have been taken far away from here. There’s no guarantee that he’s in the area. Third, Ventor has no method of authentication, even if he stumbled across the right boy. He’s been doing interviews, but so far that’s turned up nothing, and there’s no guarantee that the boy would even know he’d been stolen as a baby anyway. So yes, it’s futile.” That was more or less the argument that he’d used to convince his fathers to stay for the time being. That Ventor had already missed the boy he was looking for was, of course, a fourth mark against the quest, but Henry didn’t say that. “From what I can gather, this has to do with some prophecy that he’s trying to resolve, but he’s sworn an oath not to tell. Which is where you can fill in the gaps, right?”
The barmaid came by then and laid a plate of food in front of Fiona, a full steak with roasted parsnips on the side. The girl began tearing it apart with the serrated knife and wolfing it down with a minimum of decorum. After a few minutes of this she looked up at Henry with a bite halfway to her mouth.
“The princess has gone missing,” said Fiona. She set her fork down. “There’s a prophecy that she’s going to die, or at least be seriously wounded. She’s supposedly somewhere to the east, trying to commune with the spirit of the desert or something like that.” She was watching Henry closely. He tried not to give anything away by his expression. Even if he’d bluntly said that he’d spent a week with the princess in his youth, he doubted she would believe him, but there was no point in pushing his luck. “At any rate, all the sages, oathkeepers, and everyone else are working on this problem under the assumption that the prophecy is nigh.”
“Which is why you’re here?” asked Henry.
“The sage Baktar is my uncle,” said Fiona. “There was one likely reading of the prophecy that had the princess’ savior as being an orphan from Leshampur.”
“Huh,” said Henry. “So … the orphan that was stolen from the orphanage is going to save the princess?” He began to smile; he couldn’t help himself. He had been trying his best to get in a position where he could meet with Sofia on equal footing, but it appeared that he was literally prophesied to save her life.
“The prophecy is unclear,” said Fiona. “It’s not clear what fate is going to befall the princess, except that it’s going to be bad, probably. It doesn’t say what the savior is going to do, or whether he’s a savior of the princess or the kingdom or some totally unrelated thing. The princess is going to be hurt by a dark wizard, but that doesn’t really help any either.” She sighed, then caught Henry’s eyes. “At any rate, my uncle has been puzzling over this along with all the other sages, even the ones that don’t know a single thing about prophecy, and they didn’t really get anywhere. Worse, the king is trying to keep everything quiet. I didn’t know until just now that the supposed savior was lost. And apparently the effort to find him is futile.” She shrugged.
Henry sat back in the booth and watch Fiona as she continued to eat her steak in large mouthfuls. She had been smiling until she mentioned a dark wizard, which had immediately dimmed both of their expressions. Henry knew two dark wizards. He didn’t think his fathers would ever hurt Sofia, not unless they had a good, compelling reason, or if it was necessary to save Henry’s life. The more he thought about it, the more conditionals he had to add on. Just as he was coming to the conclusion that it was not just possible but likely, he realized that he actually knew another dark wizard: himself.
Henry would never intentionally hurt Sofia. Yet that was a thought that needed to be amended as soon as he’d had it. His fathers had instructed him well in dark magic; there were costs which had to be weighed against benefits. What made dark magic dark was the fact that it often created choices which were uncomfortable. Normal people liked to pretend that a baby’s life was infinitely valuable, but a dark wizard was dark because he could see that this wasn’t actually the case. Certainly a baby’s life had to be valued less than the life of two babies. Anyone who wasn’t willing to sacrifice one baby to save the lives of two babies was not only stupid but a complete monster — or at least, that was what Omarr had said. Henry had never really disagreed with that. And once you accepted that there was one scenario where it was acceptable to sacrifice a baby, you had to start wondering whether there were others. Surely two babies was wildly overshooting the value of one baby. Dark wizards were marked by their rejection of the absolutes that some people pretended actually existed. Henry therefore had to begin evaluating what, exactly, Sofia was worth to him. If fate as the agent of prophecy were to twist things up badly enough that Henry was forced to make a choice, would he sacrifice Sofia in order to save his fathers? Henry considered it for a moment before deciding that he probably wouldn’t sacrifice Sofia, but that decision would depend on the circumstances. Sofia didn’t have infinite value, at least. There were some situations in which he would hurt her, if he had to. It wasn’t impossible that the prophecy was implicating him.
“You’ve gone quiet,” said Fiona. Her plate was completely clean, save for a small puddle of juice from the steak, which she was sopping up with a piece of bread. “But it would appear that our agreement has come to its logical conclusion, so I suppose I’ll leave you to your thoughts.” She began to slide out from the booth, but Henry put up a hand.
“The agreement was that I wouldn’t tell Ventor you’d come by,” said Henry. “That’s something that I have to do in perpetuity. And you told me that you would tell me why you didn’t want Ventor to know you’re here.”
“Ah,” said Sofia. “I was thinking maybe you forgot about that.”
Sofia was spinning lies faster than she ever had before. She’d done some freewheeling improvisation during her sojourns into Marurbo, but those were almost always brief encounters that didn’t dig too much beyond the pleasantries. It had been easy to pretend to be someone who merely worked in the castle instead of being a princess. She’d never been caught, but that didn’t count for much. Now though, she was speaking to this boy who had a direct line to Ventor, one of the most fearsome oathkeepers in the kingdom. Anything she said to Henry might leak back to Ventor. She had to hope that Henry would keep his word, but she needed something to tell him that would convince him to keep his mouth shut.
“There’s always been tension between the oathkeepers and the sages,” said Sofia. She would start with the truth, which was always more compelling than fiction. “The oathkeepers are charged with the defense of the kingdom and the sages are charged with keeping the king informed so that he can properly run the kingdom. Or at least, that’s how it’s supposed to be. The High Rectory has a large degree of autonomy and the sages don’t really have an organizational structure —” Sofia paused. “I’m sorry, I’m babbling.”
“No,” said Henry. “I have time. I don’t know too much about how things are done in the south. I’ve read quite a bit, but there’s often a large difference between theory and reality.”
“You’ve read?” asked Sofia with a frown.
“In books?” asked Henry with a puzzled look.
“No, I just meant … the majority of the commoners in the farmlands are illiterate,” said Sofia. “Those that are literate don’t have a wide variety of books to read. And even if you did have the books to read, that doesn’t mean you have the critical thinking you’d need to question whether the books are telling you something true. No offense.”
“I’ll take it as a compliment,” said Henry with a grin. “But you were telling me why it is you don’t want Ventor to know you’d stopped by?”
“Ah, yes,” said Sofia. “Well, as I was saying, the sages are nominally in charge of giving the king advice about all sorts of things so he can run the country, and the oathkeepers are in charge of defending the kingdom against all manner of threats, but there are places where things get muddy. For example, the High Rectory has argued that famine is a threat to the kingdom that their oaths compel them to defend against. In theory, the only thing stopping them from building granaries or even clearing land to create tenant farmers is the direct order of the king himself telling them not to.” She almost stumbled there and said my father. She was becoming too invested in her explanation and made an effort to compose herself. “The oathkeepers wouldn’t actually do something like that, because they wouldn’t want the king to become involved and there’s the political issue of what the dukes would think of the matter, but they do stretch their power in various ways, mostly by giving advice to the king on how to run his country, supposedly as part of their primary mandate of defending the kingdom. It goes the other way as well, of course. The sages know that the oathkeepers are one of the tools of governance and a large number of the oathkeepers have taken the Oath of Fealty which makes them extremely trustworthy. The sages often give the king advice on how to treat the oathkeepers.”
Henry’s eyes lit up. “I think I can fill in the rest. The oathkeepers and the sages aren’t working together, they’re playing against each other. You’re an agent for the sages, probably the best that they could do on short notice — no offense — and you were told to avoid the oathkeepers because this was supposed to be their side of the division of responsibilities. If the prophecy is sixteen years old, that gives them plenty of time to have fought over the matter.” He leaned back in his seat. “If I told Ventor about you, I’d be giving ammunition for the oathkeepers to use against the sages. Worse, once that happened your uncle would probably be upset with you.” He cocked his head to the side. “How’d I do?”
Sofia watched him. He was too clever by half, which meant she probably didn’t want to spend too much time around him. “You’re close,” she said. Because it was all lies anyway, there was no point in validating what he’d said. “My uncle was more worried about me being deputized. The oathkeepers have a perennial need for personnel, which means that they pull in people from wherever they can in a time of crisis. Since I’m technically working for the crown already, Ventor has the authority to take command of me, which means that the whole trip would be for nothing.”
“For nothing, unless you helped to solve the actual problem at hand,” said Henry with a nod. “The credit would go to the oathkeepers, true, but something would still be accomplished by your presence. Obviously the individual preferences are getting in the way of actually accomplishing goals. You want to please your uncle, so you won’t do the proper thing and just talk to Ventor and offer your help.”
Sofia felt her face redden, even though what she’s told him were lies. She had never been called dishonorable before. The irony of being upset about that slight while lying through her teeth and under disguise was not lost on her, but it didn’t help her to feel much better about things. “I think I can work things out better without Ventor anyway,” she said.
“How?” asked Henry. He didn’t seem incredulous, only genuinely curious. It was fair question.
“You said yourself that what Ventor is doing is futile,” said Sofia. “The only thing he knows about the lost orphan is that it’s a boy between the ages of fifteen and seventeen, but possibly passing for younger or older, which means one out of every hundred people. You fit that description and I doubt that Ventor would be able to tell if you were the orphan he was looking for.” Sofia paused. “You’re not, are you?”
A wide grin split Henry’s face and he began to laugh. “No,” he replied.
“Well it didn’t hurt to check,” said Sofia. “But even you saying that wouldn’t help Ventor, because you could be lying, or you could be ignorant. So Ventor’s doing his best, but he’s going down a path that can’t possibly lead him where he needs to go.”
“And you’re going to do better?” asked Henry.
“Well,” said Sofia. “Maybe I could. The prophecy has been gone over with a fine-toothed comb a thousand times by the sages, with each line picked apart and each assumption looked at closely. So if I wanted to find the missing orphan I would try to think of something that hadn’t been thought of by dozens of men who gave the matter thousands of hours of thought. I can do that better without an oathkeeper bossing me around.”
“And have you?” asked Henry.
“Have I what?” asked Sofia.
“Have you thought of something that no one else thought of?” he asked.
“No,” Sofia replied. “But that doesn’t mean trying isn’t a good option.”
“But you do know the full prophecy then?” asked Henry. He leaned forward in his seat. “Can I hear it?”
Sofia shifted in her seat. Henry had been nice enough to her. She’d never really had a friend before; she’d had hand-maids and guards, and her brother Rowan, but none of them were really friends. She had spirit friends, Ulf chief among them, but she didn’t really think that they counted either. In a different time and place, Sofia thought that she and Henry could have become friends. He was easy to talk to, in part because he was quick to pick up her lines of thought. Yet Ventor had been prohibited from speaking the prophecy, presumably for some reason. The only question was whether her father had given that command out of his usual paranoia or whether there was some greater reason she was ignorant of.
“I’m not supposed to say,” said Sofia. Henry’s face began to fall. “But … okay.” She had memorized that prophecy and the words came out easily.
A princess with hair of flame lays beneath the throne,
Vengeful spirits cloak her fragile form.
Blood-soaked clothes and shattered bone,
The dark wizard wrapped in brewing storm.
As the princess draws first breath,
The swaddled savior is left behind.
Where the blackened river crosses land of Neth,
The infant forged by those who shape his mind.
Henry’s brow was furrowed while he listened. When Sofia was finished, he sat there with his eyes focused on a spot in the middle of the table, not moving at all.
“Do you need me to repeat it?” asked Sofia.
“No,” replied Henry. “I have a good memory. I’m just trying to untangle it.” He shook his head. “I wish I could speak to the sages and get their interpretations. They’d be mostly wrong, but even then … Ventor had mentioned that the princess had gone away. That’s why he came up here, right?” He looked up at Sofia and she was worried that the disguise would fail her. Yet the boy was still grinding his gears against the problem she’d laid before him, even given what she’d said about sages having gone through everything. She had no idea why he would think that he’d be able to figure out something that had eluded far more learned men. “Only the prophecy is about the princess laying beneath the throne, so she’d be in even less danger elsewhere, wouldn’t she? Does the princess know the prophecy?”
“She does,” said Sofia. She resisted the urge to smile. She had never tired of speaking of herself in the third person. “But ‘throne’ doesn’t have to mean the throne the king sits on. It could be a dark wizard’s throne of bones. Or sometimes ‘throne’ is used to mean a sovereign power, like when we say that someone is going to assume the throne.”
“So the princess might not actually be safe,” said Henry. “I thought she was maybe just being headstrong in running away, but if she’s in danger … you said she went east?”
“Or west,” Sofia shrugged. “She was going to commune with one of the elder spirits.”
“But the line was ‘vengeful spirit’ — wait, no, ‘vengeful spirits’, so maybe —”
“I’m sorry,” said Sofia. “But you’re not adding anything new. We have no way of knowing why the spirits are vengeful. We don’t know how the word ‘cloak’ is being used, so we don’t know whether the connotation is positive or negative or maybe even both. You’re not going to figure this out on your own in the course of an afternoon.”
Henry’s lips twitched. “Well, you said that was our best option, didn’t you?”
“I said it was my best option,” replied Sofia.
Henry blinked at her. “Sorry, I just thought that if you’re going to be around Leshampur, I can get you whatever information you need from the orphanage, and you’d need someone who knows the area anyway.”
“I’m not staying,” said Sofia. She knew that wasn’t a wise thing to admit, but she said it anyway. If she told him she’d be staying at an inn in town, he would eventually try to find her. She imagined him being put out at the realization that she had lied to him. More practical than her concern over hurting his feelings was the thought that it might compel him to tell Ventor.
“Well … where are you going then?” asked Henry.
“North,” replied Sofia. “Beyond that, I won’t say. But I do wish you and Ventor luck.”
“Oh,” said Henry. “You’ll be leaving soon?”
“Just as soon as we’re done here,” said Sofia. “Given that we’ve fulfilled every exchange of information we’d agreed on and then some … I really do need to get going.”
“Well,” said Henry. “Thank you for telling me some things that you didn’t have to. If you were staying … well,” he said again. “I wish you were staying. If you come through Leshampur again on your way back south, I wouldn’t mind hearing what you found. And if I’m ever in Marurbo, I hope it’s not too presumptuous for me to think of you as the one person I know there. I might look you up.”
“Okay,” said Sofia. But he’d be looking up Fiona, a girl who didn’t actually exist. She felt a twinge of shame.
“It was nice meeting you,” said Henry. “I’ll keep my mouth shut around Ventor.”
“I’m sure you will,” said Sofia. “And it was nice meeting you too.”
She slid out from the booth and laid a few coins on the table, then walked away without looking back. She felt miserable for lying to a nice boy who was doing his best to help, but there wasn’t any other choice. She couldn’t have revealed herself as the princess without risking a swift end to her journey north, especially not after Henry had seemed so concerned about the princess. They might have gotten along fine when she was just an assistant to one of the king’s sages, but there was something about the title of princess that caused people to react differently. Sofia had gone incognito enough to know that. As Sofia left the tavern, she focused on the road ahead of her. Leshampur had been a diversion, nothing more. Henry would fade into the distance as she covered the miles. She was sure she’d never see him again.
Henry was overwhelmed, for perhaps the first time in his life. Ventor’s appearance had been monumentally important, but it was merely mysterious and threatening, not confusing. The prophecy was on a whole different level. It had so many different words and clauses that it was tempting to simply give up and declare it indecipherable. Yet Henry felt sure that the prophecy was speaking of him. He didn’t know whether he was the dark wizard, but he was almost certainly the swaddled savior. He was ‘forged’ by his parents, who had shaped his mind in two different ways, the first by the lessons they’d imparted and the second through the mentalism he’d been taught by Hirrush. There was no longer any doubt in Henry’s mind that he was the one Ventor was looking for.
But beyond the matter of the prophecy there was something else that was warring for his attention. He’d felt a connection to Fiona, as though she were a long lost friend, or maybe even something more. She had been keeping things from him, obviously, but if the circumstances had been different, Henry was certain that they would have been fast friends. He felt a pang of guilt at that when he remembered Princess Sofia, who had long been the object of his affections. Her looks were the lesser part of Fiona’s appeal, but she was pretty, even if she was the sort of pretty girl that you had to spend some time around before realizing it. This caused some unwelcome confusion on top of the serious analysis that the prophecy required.
He walked back to the orphanage while he tried to arrange his thoughts. Once there, he found a quiet place next to the work shed, where he was shielded from view and was almost never disturbed. Henry had a knack for finding places like this. The one next to the shed had the benefit of being outside, on the orphanage’s plot of grass, and wouldn’t require him to see Ventor or Miriam, who might be ready with a task for him. He slipped into the mental realm and began to organize his thoughts.
He started with the issue of Fiona, because that required less in the way of serious thought. It was primarily an emotional problem rather than a logical one, but it would be an impediment to working on the prophecy. For the task of untangling his reaction, he created a thoughtform of Sofia.
This was not the first time he’d made a thoughtform of the princess. Hirrush had been his first thoughtform, because it was easier to practice with someone you were familiar with, but Sofia had been the second one he’d created. The memories of Sofia from when Henry been five years old predated his time as a mentalist, so they were far less distinct than any others. Worse, unless you knew the right techniques, memories warped and changed when you remembered them. Henry had remembered his time with Sofia quite frequently. Henry’s memories of Sofia were therefore less clear than they could have been, and where they were distinct, they probably weren’t accurate. He’d used them to make a thoughtform anyway. Obviously a five year old Sofia wouldn’t have been worth much, so he’d made her as he’d imagined she would be at his age.
The thoughtform of Sofia was a fantasy. The likeness was probably completely wrong, the personality was crude guesswork, and she was more a reflection of Henry’s own desires and biases than anything else. Mentalism came with introspection, and Henry was naturally introspective on top of that, so he was completely aware of both the shortcomings of his model of Sofia and the flaws in his own mind that caused him to take comfort in the creation anyway. He knew that the real Sofia would likely be a let-down if he held his Sofia up as a standard. He’d tried to add in some flaws to the thoughtform, both physical imperfections and rough parts to her personality, but it was difficult because he liked Sofia. She was still a fantasy. She stood in front of him in an elaborate pink dress and smiled.
“I’ve always said that you only liked me because I was first,” said Sofia. She went and sat down in a rocking chair.
“It’s so hard to tell whether that’s true,” said Henry. “Especially because up until now there hasn’t been a second.” He imagined a chair for himself, then sat in it as it appeared behind him.
“You should have made friends with girls your age,” said Sofia. “Then you would have known for sure whether I was special.”
“It’s hard to imagine a princess not being special,” said Henry.
“Maybe I’m a brat,” said Sofia. “I certainly was when we were little. Or maybe I’m so stupid that you’ll have to explain things to me three times before I understand. Or worse, after the third time I would only pretend to understand in order to save face.” She grinned. “I don’t suppose you could say the same about Fiona.”
“Don’t mock me,” said Henry with a smile. He often wondered whether it would be the same way with the real Sofia, whether his construction was at all similar to how she must be in real life. Certainly he was missing a number of details. Her physical appearance probably wasn’t right, given that he’d only known her when she was five and had tried to age her up from there. The thoughtform had inevitably had pieces filled in from other people Henry knew. The anatomy of her was mostly based on what Henry had studied in his fathers’ books.
“You should follow her,” said Sofia. She had turned serious, as she did sometimes.
“I’m not going to follow her,” said Henry. “What would I even say? That I wanted to go on an adventure together?”
“Why not?” asked Sofia. “You’ve been looking for a reason to leave home. You know it’s not safe in the long term, not with Ventor out for blood. So go. Follow her.”
Henry watched the princess closely as she sat in her pink dress with her hands folded in her lap. There were many reasons to create a thoughtform, but one of them was that it allowed a second viewpoint, a new lens to project the mind through. Henry could only handle one at a time, but Hirrush had said that a master mentalist could hold a whole round table discussion with various aspects of himself. His imagining of Sofia was doing something unexpected, which was exactly where thoughtforms had the most utility.
“You’ve hit on something,” Henry said. “What is it?”
Sofia shook her head. “I don’t know. There was something that you were thinking about. I must have made an intuitive leap, but what I what information I leapt over … I don’t know.”
Henry’s recall was nearly perfect, especially over short time spans. “I was thinking about you,” he said. “I was thinking that you’re not what she would look like.” He leaned forward and rested his chin on his hand.
“That was it,” said Sofia. She began to smile, then laugh. “That was it!”
“Alright,” said Henry with a wave of his hand. “Let me in on the joke?” It would have been trivial to merge her thoughts back into his own, but that always made the construct seem less real to him.
Besides, she seemed unreasonably happy. Sofia wasn’t able to contain her smile. Her face was a picture of pure joy. “Henry, she was me.”
Ventor did not allow himself to believe that this venture was hopeless. The Oath of Fealty did not compel him to have hope, but he knew that he would perform better if he maintained the belief that what he was doing would somehow bear fruit. The boy, Henry, had laid out the hopelessness of it all on the first day, but Ventor had no better options. Even if he had been able to line up every single boy in Leshampur and the surrounding regions, he wouldn’t have been able to pick out the savior. There was no guarantee that the savior was anywhere near Leshampur either. There was no guarantee that the savior was alive. A letter with the king’s seal would countermand the order, but until that time Ventor was stuck seeking the savior promised by prophecy.
Much of his time was spent with interviews. There was a very low chance that he would incorrectly identify any of these children as the savior. There was a very high chance that he would let the savior slip by. To that end, he kept a file on each of the children that came to his attention. Ventor normally strode into battle with his tawny armor and mirrored blade, but now he had become an elaborate machine for taking in paper and ink and producing reams of information, enough to fill several books. The supplies were commandeered from a local bookbinder, who was quite happy about the matter given that he would receive well above market price for the inconvenience of losing his stock. Most of Ventor’s days consisted of speaking to people, though that had never been something he was terribly good at. He spoke with many of the potential candidates, of course, but also with many of the adults. He was looking for some crack he could slip his fingers into so that he could obtain some leverage on the problem. Unfortunately, interviews took quite a bit of time, as did compiling all the relevant documentation he needed to keep every fact straight. Ventor had uncovered a number of unseemly aspects about the town, but they were matters of infidelity, abuse, and petty crime, not anything that concerned the missing orphan. He took reports of dark magic more seriously; there would come a time in his investigation when he would be bound to seek out the witches and wizards that had come out of the woodwork following the purge he’d enacted sixteen years ago.
“Who do you suppose that was at the door?” asked Ventor.
Sister Miriam looked up from the papers. “Hrm?” she asked.
Miriam did not exude raw sexuality in the same way that Sister Clarice had, but Ventor had little doubt that she would be amenable to the same sort of arrangement that he’d made with other sisters. Those avenues had been sealed to him now, first with a greater elevation of the Oath of Chastity and later with the Strangheid Armor, but that didn’t stop him from feeling his urges. The wimple Miriam wore framed her face in a way that did wonders for her looks and her blue dress sometimes hugged her figure when she reached for things. He might have asked for the homely Sister Loris to aid him instead of Sister Miriam, but part of being an oathkeeper was testing your urges, and besides that, the desire for Miriam’s body was little enough compared to the constant companions of thirst and hunger.
“There was a knock on the door a while ago,” said Ventor. “Henry answered it, then left.”
“Oh,” said Miriam. She went back to her papers. “You’ll have to ask him when he gets back.”
“Tell me again how he came to work here?” asked Ventor.
Miriam sighed and stretched out, then steepled her fingers in front of her. “You still don’t trust him,” she said.
“He’s made himself very useful,” said Ventor. “I only have to wonder why he would do that.”
“Henry is a bright young boy looking for some purpose,” replied Miriam. “I’ve spoken with him often about becoming an oathkeeper, though I’m not entirely sure that it would suit him.”
Ventor gave no response to that. Henry was a bit old to be taking oaths, but Ventor had been old. Miriam had been as well, though Ventor had learned that through Henry and never discussed the matter with the sister directly. Henry didn’t seem like he had the right temperament for oathkeeping, but that was again a place where he mirrored Ventor. It was widely known that passionate, active boys made for the strongest oathkeepers. It was the act of denial that gave the oaths their power, after all.
“Once this business is concluded I might speak to the boy,” said Ventor.
“Do you have any idea when that might be?” asked Miriam. She gestured to the piles of paper in front of them. “The documentation grows by the day, but I’m not sure that we’re drawing closer to a solution.” This was normally the point where she would say that she would be better able to help if she could hear the prophecy herself, but this time she thankfully left that unsaid. The reminder of his current failure stung enough without an insinuation that his Oath of Fealty was holding him back. He was thankfully spared from making a response by Henry entering the room. The boy was slightly out of breath and Ventor stood with one hand on his sword.
“What’s the matter?” asked Ventor.
“My grandmother is dying,” he said. “My father came to fetch me, but I had to stop by to tell you I’ll be gone for a few days, maybe as long as a few weeks.” He took a moment to catch his breath as he looked to the entrance to the orphanage. “My father’s been all over the city looking for me, I really need to get going and hope it doesn’t cause you too much trouble.” He turned to leave, back the way he came.
“Stop,” said Ventor. The command came out more harshly than he’d intended, but the boy stopped in his tracks and turned back around. “Who was it that came by an hour ago? You left with them.”
“It was my friend Nathan,” said Henry. “He was in town and wanted to go to the market.” He glanced toward the door.
“You said that your father looked all over the city for you,” said Ventor. “Yet the first place he would have looked would have been here. You’re lying to me.”
“Now hold on,” began Miriam.
“Sorry,” said Henry. He looked to the door again, as though he was going to make a run for it despite Ventor’s overwhelming speed. “I shouldn’t have lied, but I didn’t want to burn my bridges here and I really do need to be going quickly. Would it suffice to say that I’ll be shirking my duties?”
“No,” replied Ventor. “Explain yourself.”
“He’s a volunteer,” said Miriam. “He doesn’t have to explain anything.”
“The kingdom is in crisis,” said Ventor. “I will not let him slip by without so much as a cursory answer. I would be derelict in my duty if I did so.”
“I know,” said Henry. He shook his head. “There’s a girl that I’ve been courting, Regina, the butcher’s daughter. I found out from Nathan that she’s leaving for a pilgrimage to the east, to visit the shrine of Saint Poris. She’s leaving in a half hour, but I need to get home, pack my things, and tell my parents, then race back and try to catch up with the oxen before nightfall. If I do, I get to spend four uninterrupted weeks together with her.” He looked to Miriam. “We’d have our own bedrolls, of course.” He looked back to Ventor. “Is that enough? Can I leave now? The time on the road will give me plenty of opportunity to write you both a fabulous apology for leaving you in the lurch like this.”
“Don’t ever lie to me again,” said Miriam with a resigned sigh. “Let the boy be a boy,” she said to Ventor.
Ventor frowned at Henry. “Go,” he said. There was more that Ventor was going to add, but the boy practically flew as he raced out the door.
“Would you really have held him?” asked Miriam. “Children lie all the time and Henry is so firmly in my good graces that he’s allowed a few moments like this.”
“He fits the profile,” said Ventor. “Surely you’ve noticed that?”
“You’ve had more opportunity to observe Henry than any other child,” said Miriam. “I recall seeing a sheaf of papers devoted to him somewhere in here.”
Ventor looked at the door Henry had left out of. “I’m looking for unusual things,” said Ventor. “I’m watching for a crack in the facade. Henry was always unusual, but this elevates him further.”
“You think that Henry was an orphan here?” asked Miriam. “What possible explanation can there be for him coming back here and then lying about it to us for more than a year?”
“I don’t know,” said Ventor. “But I don’t like the questions it raises. Prophecy is a tricky thing. Strange questions with unpredictable answers would be nothing too terribly strange by the standards of prophecy, at least to hear the sages tell it.” He rubbed at his chin. For a moment he’d almost forgotten his hunger, that was how much thought he was putting to the matter of Henry. “I won’t stoop to following him, especially since he would notice me easily, but I think it might soothe my anxiety if I went to corroborate the young boy’s story.”
Henry ran north. Sofia had started out before him, but she’d most likely been trying to set a good pace for the day rather than moving at a jog. He couldn’t be entirely certain that she was telling the truth about where she was going, but if she’d been lying about that as well he would have no chance of finding her again. She had plenty of reasons to stick to the back roads, but if she were going north she would have to cross the Perwhile River. There was only one bridge that allowed for that, the one that had washed out the night that Henry was to be sacrificed. The poor structural integrity of that bridge was likely the reason that Henry had escaped from a life in the orphanage, but it had been rebuilt, thicker and stronger than before. If Henry could make it to the bridge ahead of Sofai, he had a good chance of finding her again, no matter which roads she took to get there.
He’d taken the time to rush through the memory of their meeting before leaving. She had lied to him, but he couldn’t hold that against her. What the princess was doing in Leshampur was a mystery, though not a complete one. She’d left her home and put on a disguise along with a false identity that was close to her real one. She’d avoided Ventor because he would recognize her and bring her home. She had come to the orphanage because she naturally had an interest in the prophecy, but she’d folded as soon as she’d heard that there was an oathkeeper inside, which meant that either was she preparing to mount a covert infiltration later in the night, or the orphanage wasn’t her primary objective.
Henry pounded down the road until he was breathing hard. If his reading of prophecy was right, then he was supposed to be the savior of the princess. Even if he hadn’t known that he would have tried to track her down, but the prophecy rattling around in his mind lent a certain sense of urgency to the matter. The part of the prophecy concerned with a dark wizard was ambiguous, but it didn’t have to mean anything bad. There was nothing to say that a dark wizard couldn’t protect the princess, though if she was bleeding and her bones were broken that didn’t bode well.
After every mile, Henry took a moment to step into his mindscape, landing right in the breaching room. He looked around at the minds that were within his range, trying to find Sofia. In the course of Hirrush’s instruction in mentalism, he had described Sofia’s mind as being a light purple with a floating tenor, but that had been when she was five years old. Henry could make a breach from a sixty yards away in ideal conditions, but he could sense a mind from a full half mile, a distance that Hirrush had seemed legitimately impressed by. The mental realm didn’t entirely map to the physical realm in terms of distance and direction, but it would hopefully be enough that he could see Sofia when he got close enough. Another check showed only a small cluster of minds to the east, likely a family in their house, along with the minds of a few creatures that were complex enough to register to Henry’s mental sense, if lacking in all but the most rudimentary of mindscapes.
Henry started jogging again, trying to think of what he would tell the princess when he reached her.