Henry put the little pat of cheese in his mouth. He chewed it and swallowed it. He had come to this shop many times when he was a child. The Thalls were only barely patrician, and far from aristocratic, and so as he grew older he recognized that the many things he had thought of as luxurious and refined as a child were actually his family’s misguided attempts to display extravagance that were absent true taste.
He had gone through several phases during his teenage years after discovering this about his background. He had rejected it for a time and tried to adopt the persona of a down-to-earth proletariat, only to grow bored of that joyless existence that seemed to regard aesthetics and indeed intellectual nuance as untrustworthy. Then he had tried to persuade his parents to cultivate true refinement. When that failed, he decided instead that there was an odd sort of dignity in being an eccentric. He may not be one of the society’s elites, but if he were to focus on some esoteric profession, he might become a distinct enough individual to earn his place in society as the object of curiosity among his social betters.
The Arcane seemed like the appropriate direction for this study. It was unconventional, yet steeped in tradition occupying that sweet spot between respectable and esoteric, and so when he went off to university, he chose that as his specialization.
Despite its simplicity, he had always liked this type of cheese – a cold and crumbly Kelishire. It was salty and sharp – or at least it had been in the past. Now the taste was mostly absent. Instead, he had merely the texture.
The price of power, he thought.
It had been in university that Henry met his good friend Richard Airbright. After sharing a few compelling post-seminar discussions with the scion of that ancient house, Henry had briefly experienced a romantic infatuation with him, though this ended mere days later when Henry met Chloe, who frankly made Richard seem quite underwhelming by comparison.
He had told Richard, Chloe, Esmeralda, and the others about his variable romantic preferences, despite the fact that among the ruling class, this was simply Not Done. It had been quite the relief to find that none of his closest friends at university seemed to mind much. Still, he had always kept his brief infatuation with Richard to himself. He had had no interest in complicating what had become a rewarding platonic friendship.
The odd thing is that he remembered these feelings, but he could not conjure them as a truly recalled experience. The very thought of being physically intimate – with a man or a woman – had become hollow. He was neither repulsed nor drawn to it.
It was like the cheese.
A great deal of time had passed in that strange period when he was bound to that tomb in Faewatch. He had been aware of the passage of time, but his thoughts had been locked in such a way that he had been unable to count the days.
It was not the first time he had experienced such a finite eternity. The process of his transformation had been similar, or rather, it had been something on a far larger scale. Richard had forced him to experience the second eternity because of the effects of the first.
He was sitting on a bench on the street. Men and women passed by him. His sense of smell had been the first to fade when he underwent his transformation. Scent was something most notable in its absence. The people passing him surely had scents that wafted off of them at all times, and he could analyze these in a sort of intellectual way, but he could not call upon the actual sensation of experiencing them. He could merely account for them, process them. It was as if he were reading a book that described their sweat and perfume. He remembered that he knew what those smelled like, but the actual phantom sensation he might have conjured for himself when he was a human never came.
He did not hate them. That would have defeated the purpose. The goal, as Henry Thall saw it, was to create a world in which there was no hatred. That was, admittedly, one side of a fairly heavy coin, but he was convinced that it would all be worth it.
There had been a voice in his head in the earliest days, when he had still been at University, when Richard was only beginning to piece together why Henry’s skin had gone chalk-white. The voice had questioned what the White King truly represented.
The doubts had not gone away, exactly, but he knew them as irrelevancies. The White King would come, with or without his help.. His doubts were moot. The Royal Arcane Society was lending its assistance, quite unwillingly, one dead arcanist at a time. And among them was a high-ranking member of the House. The faceless men even communicated to him that some astronomers in Arizradna had discovered the location of Arashka, putting the entire plan one step farther along, though there was some ambiguity as to whether the Agents had been able to record the data before the observatory was sabotaged.
Perhaps he had overestimated Richard Airbright’s ability to interfere. His relationship with the warlock had perhaps skewed his priorities. But Richard had entered the field of play, and something would have to be done about it.
You can’t save him by turning him, came that old voice.
He had been over it several times. Richard had rejected his offer decades ago, and there did not seem to be much of a point in trying to get him to change his mind. The man had summoned a demon to safeguard him from such things. But then, Richard had always been the reckless one.
Strange to think he had fathered a child. His greyed hair and wrinkled skin had been expected. Time had passed – several decades, Henry had quickly discovered. Yet somehow he had never considered that Richard might have had offspring. There was a whole new generation of people walking this world. Sweet Clara could not have been much older – perhaps ten years at the most – but somehow the notion of a young prostitute willing to make a desperate deal had an eternal quality to it, and so he had not even really thought of her as belonging to any particular generation. Clara existed to him merely as a concept outside of time. Only just now did he consider that if his life had gone in a very different direction, someone like Clara might have been his own daughter.
Yet he did not feel sorry for this life unlived. Perhaps he felt sorry that he was bereft of wistful thoughts, but the entire thing was such an abstraction that he could not, even if he tried, conjure up some sort of emotional response to the whole thing.
In those late nights at university, in their studies of esoteric legends – stories passed on by golems out of the Redlands who had long since ground themselves into dust – there had been a burning passion to discover this new form of power. Henry had been the one to achieve it. And now? Perhaps maturity was learning to be satisfied with the achievements one had attained.
Perhaps that was what Richard had discovered over his years as a true adult. Maybe that was why Ravenfort had not burned to the ground to make way for the great Richard Airbright’s glorious future. There was some disappointment in that, even if Thall could plot an imagined trajectory that Richard’s life had taken since binding his best friend like some paltry demon – a life in which the goal of being the most powerful man in the world had faded and his concerns turned to the practical challenges of adulthood.
But Henry Thall was ageless. He had not lost his ambitions. The White King had given him a purpose. It was time to stop hesitating. Time to act.
(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2016)