“Not just no,” I blurted. “Hell no.”
“Wait, Howe. It’s not what you think,” Mal protested.
“It had better not be! That kind of magic is dangerous. It’s taboo and against the King’s law and…”
“And evil, yes. Howe, listen.”
“And if it’s not that, then is this actually an Accursed, or is this a possession? What, did you think you could get me to help you with a backwoods exorcism to bail you out of trouble?”
“No! Howe, please.”
I fumed and bit my tongue. Mal shuffled her legs until she was kneeling instead of sitting. I saw then that Naht was clinging to her gown again. My heart quailed under my anger, like a cork bobbing in a coursing river.
“Please, just hear me out,” she pleaded. “No necromancy. No psychomancy. I want you to hear about Naht, then I want to tell you what I want us to do for him.”
I leaned back a little and huffed to convey my assent.
I think back to this moment a lot. This is why Malisa had danced around this conversation so much. She was hoping that she could get me thinking—something I’m quite good at and inclined to do—and find a way in. She was afraid that she would find that my mind was already made up about the Accursed, and that I would get hot and defiant if she didn’t lead in gently. She had simply misjudged. My mind wasn’t made up about the Accursed; it was made up about magic.
So despite all her efforts, here I was, clammed up and acting like an ass.
Mal and I would, eventually, part as good friends. But I always remember this moment and what a cruel, stuck-up jerk I could be when I wanted to. And I fear that she might remember, too.
“Naht. Tell Horwendell about yourself. Don’t worry. He’ll be nice.”
Naht, the ten-year-old Accursed, eyed me. The deep, alien pools of his eyes twitched and searched as he began.
“My name is Aalduzinaht. My father picked the name. He was Accursed too. Horns and everything. He was smart. He did magic. He was a wizard, like you.”
My heart skipped a beat. Then a second. Mal noticed. I don’t think Naht did. He continued.
“But he’s… he’s gone. He’s dead. The King… didn’t like him. I think he knew it would happen. He gave me a backpack and sent me here. I need help. I don’t know what I’m doing.”
Naht was remarkably calm through this.
I was not.
My voice shook as I asked, “Naht, are you Gestradt’s son?”
“Yeah,” the child murmured.
I locked eyes with Mal. Her expression was stricken. I think Naht had probably told her a more detailed version of the story, and she was reliving it.
My stomach turned.
Gestradt Ut Zendaracchus had been the Royal Magister to the High King of Duranlach. That was a similar office to my own, but in service to a King rather than a Marquis. As such, we had corresponded frequently in decades past. The realms of Duranlach and Orlan were adjacent, and all told the demands of our offices were similar. When a dragon had been seen in flight off the coast of the Middle Sea, both of our Lords and their courts had taken a similar interest. When peasants sighted demons or spirits, we were often responsible for finding the proper resolution. When messages needed to be exchanged with urgency, it fell to our skilled hands and minds to do so. And when court didn’t demand our time, we had shared academic interest in abjuration and astronomy. Among the dozens of letters that cluttered my desk at any given moment, one of them was usually from Gestradt.
Gestradt was an Accursed. The Accursed are not welcome in most courts. They are hardly welcome in most villages. But the High King of Duranlach had a great respect for Gestradt, and he valued his companionship in his house and his advice at his court.
That, apparently, had ended when the High King surrendered his throne to the conquering Emault II, King of Orland. Emault must have ordered Gestradt executed.
I didn’t know. I didn’t know Gestradt was gone. I didn’t know Gestradt had a child. Aalduzinaht.
“I know I have to run,” Naht declared. “I just don’t know where. I don’t know what’s next. Mal has been nice, but I can’t stay here forever.”
We sat in silence. I was furious. I was tired. I was hurt. I was sick. I felt like I was swimming through it all, drowning in the midday stillness in the woods. Clouds passed overhead. Waves alternating cool and warmth passed silently over the glade.
Naht broke the silence, but just barely above a whisper. “But I guess I’m not just a sob story. I do like goat cheese. My dad always said I was clever enough to be a wizard some day. I can read, and I can sing a little.”
I put on a weary smile. I’m not sure if it even showed through my beard. “Naht. I’m sorry if I’ve been rude. You’ve been through a lot, and you seem like a good kid. And I’m very sorry about your father. He was a great man. I, um, need to talk to Mal, I think.”
Naht looked up, nodded, and got to about the “I” in “I understand” before Mal interjected, “Howe, anything you want to say to me he ought to hear.”
She was right, be that didn’t mean I had to be happy about it.
“Very well,” I groaned. “Mal, I don’t know how much we can help him. If Naht stays, sooner or later the good Reeve is going to find him, and I think it would be best if that never happens. And the heavens know I can’t take him in. Henri is a good liege but is not about to accept an Accursed child into court.”
Mal tilted her head. “You’re forgetting something.”
“What?” I grumbled. Then I thought. “Oh. The… body thing. You can’t seriously mean it, can you?”
“Yes, I can,” she declared with a smile. “Howe. You know about the Rite of the Lóng, right?”
I felt my head beginning to spin. “What? The Empire? Mal, that’s thousands of miles away and I’m not even sure if I believe half the stuff I read about it.”
“Think about it! Naht needs to leave here. The further from Duranlach, the better. And the Empire is, like you said, pretty far. And the Emperor…”
“… metaphorically invests imperial servants with his power. What’s that got to…”
“No,” Mal interrupted, “literally reincarnates his officers. I’ve met one, Howe. He had scales. Eyes like pools of lava. Talons an inch and a half long. They felt like an iron file.”
I sat, jaw agape, while Mal pressed her advantage.
“The Emperor knows how to transmute souls. How to give them new physical form. Permanently.”
“Right. So long as they pass the ‘imperial examinations’, whatever those are,” I retorted.
“The way I see it, the Emperor is the one who knows. So that’s where we go. We’re clever people. We’ll find a way to get it out of him.”
I shot a hand up to stop her. “First off, isn’t this all a little misguided? Aalduzinaht. Aalduzinaht. That’s a Deep name. Gestradt wanted that… wanted this heritage to be a part of his son’s life, as little as I understand that. Shouldn’t we consider that maybe it’s better for Naht to try to carry on and understand what it means to be Accursed? Isn’t this rash?”
There was a glint in Mal’s eyes.
“You’re evading. And besides…”
Naht cut in. His voice cracked. “Mister Horwendell. Please. She’s right.”
I looked from Mal to Naht. He didn’t meet my eyes.
“My dad… he didn’t deserve it, but it happened anyway. Because of the curse. He wouldn’t want it to happen to me. He said so.”
I put both my hands up, now, palms outward.
“Fine. So, a journey across the sea to the north. There’s merit to it, if a long shot. But you’re asking a lot of me, Mal. I don’t know that I can come.”
Mal gave Naht a reassuring touch on the shoulder. “Naht, this part is between Horwendell and I. Head inside for a moment, please.”
Naht looked to the both of us, stood, and ambled around to the front of the cabin.
“He’s ten. I’m sure he’ll be listening, you know,” I chided.
“Yeah. But this is our way of telling him it’s your personal business, not his.”
“Thanks, Mal. But still. I don’t think I can do this.”
“And why not?” Mal’s voice was softer. Gentler. Not just quieter. The edge had left.
“My life is here. I study here. I serve here.”
“And you can leave it, Howe. The Marquis can find a new court wizard.” She hastened to add, “not one as clever as you, but one that will serve his meager needs.”
I winced. I didn’t have a good answer for that. “You say that like it’s so easy.”
“It is, in a way. It would be easier to stay here in my cabin than to walk all the way back to Ilianath.”
“You’re asking me to walk way farther than Ilianath,” I pointed out.
“And you’ll be better off for it.” She had been creeping closer to me during this conversation, and at this point had laid one of her forearms across my knees and was leaning on it. I hadn’t noticed until just then. It was her way of showing me she cared, I think.
“What do you mean by that?”
“You’ve always wanted to accomplish something great. The Marquis can’t help you with that. In fact, he’ll hold you back from it.”
A sighed, trying to hide a scowl, twisting my mouth to and fro. I couldn’t.
“Let me think about it. But maybe we can try doing this my way, first?”
Mal arched an eyebrow, and I continued. “I can try contacting one of the Lóng. They’re his officers, right? One of them might know or might help us learn.”
Mal’s shoulders slumped slightly—maybe a little too much, like she were exaggerating a sigh. “Alright, Howe. We can try doing this your way. But I want to help Naht. I want you to help Naht. I think you want to help Naht. Will you promise to come if we make the journey?”
I thought about it for a long time. I thought about it as we sat out in the midday sun. I thought about it as we went inside and had supper (mushroom and leek soup, spiced with black pepper). I thought about it as Mal and I caught up, and as we joked and shared stories with Naht. I thought about it as the sun started to hang low in the western sky and the cool evening of the woods fell upon us like a hush over a crowd.
I was still thinking about it when I started to say my goodbyes. I was still thinking about it when I opened the door, and across the threshold from me stood Reeve Piear of Fertheaux, clad in a suit of chain and brandishing a polished steel sword.