Mal and I talked it through, ducking branches and sidestepping thickets, while Naht tagged along in a weary, stumbling melancholy. That I was no longer in good standing with the Reeve was unfortunate. That Naht was without a home was worrying. But the appearance of the woman in white, a powerful magus engaged in a bloody-minded pursuit of Naht, was what finally settled the question. I could not abandon the child now; it would be tantamount to murder.
But that meant I could not return to court. I still didn’t know why Gestradt had been killed, but if Naht was right, it was at King Emault’s orders. I could envision dreadfully few situations in which Emault would suffer his vassal, Marquis Henri IV of Ilianath, to give the dead man’s son a home in court.
The world’s possibilities laced out from there in my mind like ley lines penned across a faded map. The three of us could go anywhere. We could assume any identity and find a home in any locale. Relative anonymity in a bustling hub of trade, perhaps, or the intimacy of a little farming village like Fertheaux. We could make a new life among the nomads of the eastern Veld—it was said they would welcome anybody willing to live their life of hardship—or seek out the fabled Old Kingdom in the river valley beyond. We could be craftspeople or mystics or farmers or vagabonds. Naht’s Accursed nature complicated many of these possibilities, but on the other hand, I was gifted with long decades of study that I could surely adapt to any trade, and Mal with raw, magical talent and the gainful personality that can assure people that she can be trusted to use it. Most people, anyway.
We could be anywhere, we could be anybody, and all I could think about was how much I wished I could go back to my desk in my cozy tower study.
I have to say, being dead gives you stunning perspective just how silly we can be in life.
At any rate, Mal still believed in one of these possibilities in particular: the north. She was moved by Naht’s plight not just to help him find a new life, but to know, truly, that he could have the life either of us could have. If the Emperor was capable of the magic he was reputed to be, Naht could be cured of his curse.
I was skeptical that it would work, but Mal’s mission was too noble to refuse.
“Why should Naht settle for any less?” she asked. “And how could we settle for less on his behalf?”
I sighed in agreement. “Indeed. It wouldn’t be right. We’ll go north. Nevertheless, I fear we risk making a long and treacherous journey to find nothing. I’ll seek out some readings along the way. Please, keep your mind open to changing course if we learn something new, will you?”
“I will, I promise. And… Howe?”
I turned to meet her eyes. They sparkled.
“Thanks. I know I’m leaning hard on you for this. I’m grateful.”
I waved a hand as I inclined by head under an incoming branch. “Fah. May I ask a favor?”
“Why bother to ask? You know I’ll say yes. What is it?”
“I should like to officially resign my office. Somehow or another. I think Henri ought to know.”
Mal smirked. “The same Henri we’re afraid would… you know?” She motioned subtly over her shoulder toward Naht.
“Yes, yes… the same one. I thought Spook could take care of it for us.”
“Oh? What do you think of that, my friend?”
Mal brushed a wave of her black hair behind her left ear, revealing the pale little owl. It started awake and blinked as we passed under a stray sunbeam, craning its neck to squint first to Mal, and then to me.
“I don’t think he’ll mind,” Mal cooed. “Too much.”
With that, we stopped, and I took a moment to retrieve a roll of parchment (and my spellbook to use as a writing surface) from my satchel. I wrote in the neatest hand I could as a sort of apology for the perfunctory nature of the note, which informed Henri that I had resigned my office and would not return to it.
So as we emerged from the woods and began our journey along the old imperial road to the north, Spook took flight, carrying with him the severance of my past.
Later that afternoon, Naht and I sat by a bubbling creek under a dirt ridge that sagged with the weight of roots and rocks. The ridge served to hide us from any curious eyes that might pass by on the road. Mal had continued around the bend into the next little farming village, Peraise, to try to find us lodging. Preferably with someone who wouldn’t complain about the company of a seeming-demon-child and a fugitive former court wizard. Mal seemed confident she could find it. Naht and I wanted desperately to believe her, if only because hope helped quiet the hunger and the fatigue.
Naht had nearly exhausted himself with the day’s walking and the week’s worry. Nevertheless, he had enough energy to fidget with the tip of his tail as he sat on a patch of bare dirt by the water.
I regarded him as I paced about and straightened my travel robe (hoping I would soon get to wash the dirt and the burrs out of it). His eyes, despite their lack of pupils, were no less expressive than any human’s. His brows furrowed over them and their edges were drawn tight with the same tension that pulled his ears back and drew his shoulders up. It was hard to discern, but his eyes still darted about, up, down, and around the glade. They glanced at and cataloged everything around him… except, it seemed, me.
I didn’t know what to do.
I had thirty years of experience as a courtier. Courtiers learn, if nothing else, how to speak to people, how to persuade them, and how to connect with them. As a courtier-wizard, my duty was to impart wisdom upon them while maintaining and building those connections, which meant, generally, not making them feel like children. Courtiers and rulers very much do not appreciate being made to feel like children.
Naht was a child. My skills and instincts didn’t apply.
Or did they? He had been through so much already. It seemed wrong to condescend to him as one might a child.
The only thing I knew for sure was that the child hurt, and I couldn’t abide it. So I started talking.
“Naht, are you all right?”
“I… I think so.”
“Nonsense. Naht, you look sad.”
“Then why’d you ask?”
“It was a rhetorical question.”
The boy eyed me. I could see him filing some version of the idea of a “rhetorical question” away for later mischief.
“Everything I know is gone, and my dad is dead. I don’t know what I’m doing here.”
“And,” I gestured with my index finger, “it is quite normal to be sad about that. I used to be a court wizard, and, circumstances being what they are, now I am not. I am sad about that too.”
“So what’s this about? Can’t we just be sad?”
I stroked my beard. It was out of habit, I swear. Although I do hope it made me look thoughtful. “You can be sad, Naht, but I want you to be all right. I want to help.”
“I don’t get it,” said Naht. But I think he got it. If not now, maybe some time later.
We paused to regard a tiny splash in the creek. A minnow flopping over a rock or a falling acorn, maybe.
“I want to ask a question of you. If you don’t want to answer it, that is fine. I do not wish to rush you through things right now.”
“It’s about the woman in white. I’m sure you know she meant ill. Did you recognize her? Do you know what she was talking about?”
“You mean, the ‘knowledge that was hers’ or whatever?”
I felt my eyebrows tighten. “Yes, that. Do you know something? Some secret?”
“No, I… I don’t know. I don’t know what she wants. My dad taught me symbolic calculation. He taught me how to read. Some history and logos. He had started to show me admixtures, just for fun, I think. But none of that is… secret, is it?”
“No. None of that is forbidden or terribly unusual. They’re all very common to teach a young student.”
Naht suddenly un-tilted his head and looked me directly in the eyes. “Wait. You’re a wizard, right? Don’t you all know each other? Don’t you recognize her?”
“Hmm.” I hadn’t considered that. “I am a wizard,” I confirmed pointlessly. “It’s a long story, but I suppose I’ll tell it. The word just means ‘wise person’. Most wizards are court wizards, like I am. Well, like I was. It just means that we’re a ruler’s source of knowledge, especially broad knowledge about history, astronomy, and logos. The High King of Duranlach trusted your father to know many things, or at least to be able to learn about many things quickly. Almost all of us court wizards practice magic. It’s just so useful to us.
“At any rate, there are just shy of three dozen court wizards in the south right now. Each of the seven kings and queens have one, and many dukes and lesser lords have their own, and a few participate in the College of Apostles. We don’t all know each other, but we all know each other’s names. Your father and I met in person once, and we exchanged many letters.
“Now… twenty or so of those court wizards are women. Five I have met, and none of them were the woman in white. That leaves somewhere around fifteen of them. Just thinking about it now… there are only two or three others whose names come to mind who I believe are skilled enough to even attempt a projection. And they are all women my age. She was younger. I do not think the woman was a court wizard.”
“What about non-court wizards?” offered Naht.
I scrunched my mouth about in thought. “All of the best wizards are court wizards. There are others who are wise enough to warrant the name, to be sure, but none capable of that sort of magic.”
Naht jabbed a finger at me. “My dad talked about that once. He said you were being classist.”
I leaned back and laughed out loud. He had me there.
“And besides,” Naht continued. “Mal isn’t a court wizard. But she’s better than you.”
I laughed even harder. The kid was scoring points left and right, and I had no defense.
When I opened my eyes, I saw that Naht looked a little puzzled, so I reeled myself back in.
“Ah, yes. Maybe that is unfair of me, the bit about non-court wizards. But it’s true, I think. Anyway, as for Mal. Mal is not a court wizard. Mal is also not a wizard. Mal is…”
“A witch!” Mal completed the sentence for me. “That’s not what he was going to say, but it’s what I am.”
We both turned to greet her. She stood on the ridge above us, all smiles, arms akimbo.
“Let’s go,” she declared. “There’s someone in town you should meet.”