Valkin left his bedchamber exactly two months after his wife’s death. His sudden emergence, unannounced and unexpected, was a shock to the household staff, to his administrators at the Helg manufactories, and most of all to his son, who had settled comfortably into a frame of mind that Key had come to recognize as, if not happy, then at least temporarily content.
Seffa, whose friendship had always been unwittingly vital to Key, had become something more than a friend since he had cried in her arms. Something stirred inside him, now, perhaps not romantic and certainly not yet sexual, but a new realization had taken the place of his former view of her. Whereas before, Seffa had existed merely as a separate entity, slightly more interesting than the rest, whose gender and life outside their shared sanctum struck Key as entirely irrelevant, now he saw her differently. He saw that she was a girl, and a pretty one, one whose existence outside the walls of their cistern he knew little to nothing about. For the first time, the comfortable silence they had silently agreed upon regarding their private lives seemed like an obstacle.
The truth was, he found himself thinking about her when she wasn’t around, at times when doing so was both inconvenient and possibly inappropriate. Only his mother, and then in a more basic, less sparkling way, had ever figured so centrally in Key’s internal universe. For Key, the experience was by turns terrifying, frustrating, and fascinating. She was like a personal ghost that followed him through the day, a hallucination that lurked at the corners of his vision and the forefront of his mind.
It was into this prepubescent turmoil that Valkin Helg reared his paternal head. Key would wonder, later, if he had become incautious: might things have turned out differently if he had focused harder on keeping his activities secret?
Suffice it to say that when Valkin Helg emerged from the self-indulgent stupor into which he’d fallen following Marika’s death, it was to discover that the gap between his own values and those of his wayward son had widened considerably.
And Valkin Helg was nothing if not tenacious about getting what he wanted.
* * *
On the day that his father invited him to a private dinner, every alarm bell in Key’s carefully ordered brain went off at once. The small, trapped part of him that begged to be freed from the structured embrace of his brain screamed that he should run, that they should flee and never come back. You could take Seffa, it said to him, take her with you and leave. Leave home, leave Oridos—go somewhere, anywhere, where Valkin Helg wasn’t.
But Key, being Key, was unable to comply. The set of rules that governed him was too strict, too unforgiving. He would comply with his father because his father held rightful authority over him, however much he might wish it otherwise. The games he played with Valkin—the hesitation he showed in embracing his father’s life’s work—were small ones, he knew. It wasn’t in him to cross his father. Particularly now that Mother was dead. Something about his father’s seclusion following her death had convinced him that, despite what others may believe, his life was more set in stone now than ever.
Other children he was acquainted with—the children at school with whom he might have been friends had he been a different person—had lost parents, and oftentimes the loss of one parent, particularly a mother, led to a surprising amount of freedom for them. Some boys had fathers who were either too uninterested, too busy, or both to spend more than the odd moment thinking about their sons.
Valkin, though—Valkin made time.
Key spent a couple of awkward hours in his bedroom after school, waiting for the dinner bell. He had no additional lessons with is tutors today, and there wasn’t time to meet Seffa in the lab and make it back in time to meet his father. He found, to his complete lack of surprise, that he was not very good at waiting.
His room felt like it belonged to someone else these days. A younger version of Key, perhaps, or a less conflicted one. The books were all remedial, now, the toys in the closet left unplayed with for long years. He came back to it only to sleep. He took dinner in the kitchen, normally, eating in silence unbroken but for the scraping and chopping noises made by the cook, who seemed to enjoy silence almost as much as Key.
He came downstairs just before dinnertime, opening the dining room door to find his father already ensconced at the head of the table, draining a cup and holding it out to a servant to refill it. His black eyes swept over Key as he entered the room. The heavy doors shut behind him with an ominous thud, and for a long moment Key felt frozen to the floor, staring down the long table at his father. Something played in the man’s dark eyes, some glint of newness that only enhanced the anxiety thrumming in Key’s chest.
“Keynish,” said his father. “Sit down.” He gestured casually at the seat by his right hand.
The servants wasted no time. Key seated himself and less than a minute later found a plate in front of him, tender slices of duck breast served with barley and greens. It had been a long time since they had eaten in this room, even when his mother still lived. Valkin worked past any reasonable dinner hour, typically eating in his bedchamber. Once it had been with his wife sleeping beside him, having tried and failed to wait and dine with her husband. Now it was alone, and with greater relish, Key thought, though Valkin, too, had lost something when Marika passed.
“Pour the boy some wine,” said Valkin, around a mouthful of duck. The man’s eating habits put Key off his appetite. His father ate with soldier-like efficiency, often with his mouth open.
“I don’t want any,” said Key.
“You’ll have wine,” said Valkin. A servant put a goblet down in front of him and filled it with red wine. “You’re not a child anymore. And you’ll never be a man until you start acting like one.”
Valkin’s voice was unhesitating and harsh. He spoke as he tucked into his dinner, gesturing occasionally with his fork and knife to punctuate what he was saying.
“You cannot wait for your life to choose you, Keynish. You must seize it, by the throat if necessary. Seize it and take from it what you will.” He was silent for a few moments, chewing his food, as if to give his son the chance to consider his words.
Key took a bite of duck, glancing up from his plate to watch his father’s face. Valkin stared at the tablecloth in front of his meal, chewing mechanically.
Key had almost convinced himself that he was in the clear—that Valkin had invited him to dinner for some inscrutable reason of his own, and that dinner was all it was—when his father spoke again.
“I have been in contact with the headmaster of your academy,” he said, taking a neatly cut cube of meat between his teeth and chewing it. Key froze, a bite of his own duck halfway to his mouth. “I informed him that I would be taking you out of school starting immediately.”
The tines of his fork hit his plate with a chime. Key was vaguely aware that his mouth hung open, but his brain didn’t seem to be working correctly.
“Starting this coming Secondday, you will join me at the manufactory to begin learning the industry.” Valkin forked up a mouthful of barley and chewed it. “Your mother thought that we should coddle you. I do not. It’s past time you started preparing for the life you’re actually going to have.” He glanced at Key, briefly. “Neither of us has the luxury of pretending, anymore.”
Key didn’t know what he meant by that. He was still stuck on the fact that Valkin was taking him out of his school—had taken him out, in fact. He’d done it without so much as consulting him. Key wouldn’t have expected to be asked, but he was surprised that he hadn’t even been given advance notice. This coming Secondday was the day after tomorrow. Firstday was the final day of the weekend. He would never go back to his academy.
“But, my books,” said Key. Losing his books were the least of his concerns, but it was what bubbled out. “My textbooks are at school. And my notebooks. And—”
Valkin only shook his head. “I instructed the headmaster to do as he wished with whatever belongings you might have left behind. You won’t need them in the Forge.”
“Why would I need anything in the Forge?” he snapped, throwing his fork down. “What’s there for me?”
His father looked at him flatly, then placed his fork and knife gently down on his plate with small ticks. “What is there for you?”
“What is there, for me?” yelled Key. Blood rushed to his face; he felt a pressure in his forehead. “What has ever been there for me? Nothing! Nothing. Just a few sooty buildings filled with sweaty, stupid workers that you work like slaves. I want nothing to do with your filthy enterprise, and I never have!
“I want to study science! It’s more fascinating than any amount of manufacturing, or any amount of money could ever be! There are other things in this world, father! Other ambitions than your own.” The burst of anger that had driven him to make this uncharacteristic outburst deflated, and Key found himself breathing heavily and staring at his barely touched dinner.
“Mother understood,” he finished. “She wanted…she wanted me to be something different.” Than you, Key thought, keeping the words to himself. She wanted me to be different than you.
“Ah,” said Valkin, leaning back in his chair. He’d remained silent during Key’s tirade, staring at his son with an unchanging, icy glare. “Well, then.”
Key happened to look up as his father lashed out at him, sweeping the knuckles of his right hand across Key’s face with enough force to knock him out of his chair. He did it with a savage calm, returning to his meal without another word.
For his part, Key found himself on the wide floorboards, dazed. When he wiped at his nose and mouth, his fingers came away bright crimson. He looked at it in horror. He had never liked the sight of his own blood.
Father had hit him. Father had never hit him before, not even when Key could tell he was at his angriest. Because Mother was there, he knew, her weak, ineffectual form nonetheless a formidable barrier against Valkin’s temper.
He pushed himself up, first to his knees, then to his feet, and stood close by his father’s chair. Valkin glanced at him, cutting his food.
“Got some fight in you after all, do you?” his father said. “Good. It will serve you well. Now, if we’re past—”
“I hate you,” said Key, with no emotion.
“Good,” said Valkin.
The moment felt like something had turned over and died.
* * *
He had known, on some level, what he would do next for longer than he cared to admit. It was always somewhere at the back of his mind, lurking, waiting for the right moment to present itself.
Key walked directly from the dining room up the main stairs, wiping his bloody nose on his sleeve. Several of the servants had scattered when he’d thrown open the dining room doors; they looked at him with varying expressions of pity, derision, and fear.
He packed a few things in an old ditty bag: a few changes of clothes, a bar of soap, a handful of pencils. Several notebooks and a package of biscuits. He tied the bag closed and put it on his bed, sitting down next to it. He’d certainly be seen if he left now, and he didn’t want anyone following him. He would wait for dark, then, until the servants went to sleep and his father locked himself into his rooms.
His mind racing, too tense and upset to read, Key laid back in his bed and contemplated the plaster ceiling of his room. Occasionally he reached up to probe gently at his sore nose. His upper lip was swollen and painful. He didn’t mind the pain, though, as it helped him keep his nerve.
He would not cry. Not only because he had rarely cried during his short life, and then only to his mother and now to Seffa, but because he refused to prove his father right by acting like a chastened child.
Valkin Helg respected nothing so much as action—action by force, generally. He was fairly certain that he did hate his father, but hate, like love and sorrow and fear, was a word that other people used to describe feelings Key did not have. What Key had was logic, and a deep seated sense of self-determination that required a different response to his current predicament.
He would not be convinced to let his son walk his own path. Key saw that now. There had never been any question that Valkin would get what he wanted. His mother had known it, and pitied him for it. Certainly Valkin knew it. Even the servants, that ogling gaggle of faces that had surround him for years, seemed to have known it before Key himself.
In place of embarrassment Key felt only determination. He would respond in the only way Valkin would understand: by doing. His father would wake up the following morning to find his son gone from his life forever, proving to everyone—to their household, to Mother, to Father, to Key himself—that Valkin Helg could no longer control him.
The thought of Father’s face when he discovered that Key had left must have been pleasant indeed, because the tension seemed to flow out of his body. He was left with only a warm feeling of safety, and something else that felt like opportunity.
A few breaths later, he fell asleep.