As Oscar stood in the doorway, staring at the two figures, he strongly felt like running away. Of course, it was far too late now. Old Helen knew who he was, and the King was also there. The King is actually here, and he’s watching me.
“Erm,” Oscar said. What was he supposed to do? Apologize for eavesdropping?
King Samuel returned to his seat and nodded. “I found this boy outside. I’m guessing you know him?” he said to Old Helen.
“Oscar Turner,” she said.
Old Helen was about seventy, with dark locks. The middle portion of her hair was white, forming a bright streak down. She adjusted her stance on the chair and squinted one eye at Oscar.
“What were you doing here?” she asked.
Oscar’s mouth opened. Was he supposed to acknowledge the King first? Would he be better if he didn’t? What would happen to him after this interrogation was over? His mind backtracked, trying to find a line of retreat.
“We came here to ask you for help!” Thymia said.
Curses. Oscar looked to the genie, which had rose to the center of the table, facing both the King and Old Helen.
“I— ,” Oscar began, knowing it was too late for damage control. Old Helen just looked at him. He could already hear her saying, “There goes your plausible deniability, Oscar.”
King Samuel reached out a hand, which passed through Thymia. “I am highly intrigued,” he said. “Please, take a seat, Oscar.”
Oscar sat down. He dimly noticed that the King’s reaction to the genie made it less likely that the genie was only in his head. That’s comforting, but also not very important right now.
“So what help did you come to me for?” Old Helen asked. “I’m assuming you weren’t coming for our guest here, who I’ve been careful to keep secret.”
“I, ah, found a genie,” Oscar said. He gestured at Thymia, who was still floating above the table.
“So you have. This is very odd,” she said.
“Yes, very odd. This is really, really odd,” Oscar said, pressing his point. Please, don’t focus on how I violated social norms and trespassed on your property. “I found Thymia, that’s the genie’s name, on the beach here, when I was skipping stones.”
At this, King Samuel straightened up and stared intently at Thymia.
“And?” he asked.
“And I’m able to grant wishes!” said Thymia.
“Sort of,” Oscar added. “Thymia’s way of ‘granting wishes’ is offering moral support.”
“Support for?” asked Old Helen.
“For whatever friend Oscar wishes to do,” said Thymia.
There was a slight pause in the room. Everyone stared at Oscar.
“So, if Oscar wished for something to happen, you would help him?” clarified Old Helen.
“Yes,” Thymia said.
“What if I called myself Oscar?” asked the King. “Would you grant my wishes then?”
“No, because you’re not the real Oscar,” said Thymia.
“What if I somehow made a duplicate of the real Oscar?” Old Helen asked. “Who would you listen to?”
“I can always tell who the real Oscar is,” said Thymia. “So, just the real one.” Oscar thought back to the imaginary tether that kept Thymia always several feet away.
A mad glint appeared in Old Helen’s eye. She picked up a butter knife.
“What if I held this to Oscar’s throat and forced him to wish for something I wanted? Would you still help him?” she asked.
Oscar was not amused.
“No, because Oscar wouldn’t really have wished for it!” Thymia said. “You’d be forcing him to wish for something he doesn’t really wish for!”
“Ah, but Oscar really would wish it,” said Old Helen. “Because if he doesn’t wish for what I want, I’d kill him. And surely he doesn’t wish to die?”
Oscar shook his head, on cue.
“That’s not how it works!” said Thymia, visibly upset.
“Hmm, what if I tortured Oscar until his mind broke?” asked Old Helen. “What if I drove him insane, until the only thing he wished for was something I wanted? Then it’d be the real Oscar and he’d really wish for those things.”
Oscar looked to King Samuel, who merely nodded sagely along.
Thymia looked on the verge of a breakdown. The genie’s round limbs were crawled up in a ball. Oscar felt his mind beginning to shut down again.
Think. What could he say in this situation? If Old Helen hypothetically (Oscar had to remind himself, for Old Helen was not a violent person) did decide to torture him, how would Thymia know whether or not to help him? Obviously Thymia wouldn’t want to do anything he really didn’t want to do. But how could he express that? After he’d been brainwashed, he wouldn’t be thinking straight. He’d have to somehow rely on his past self…
“Ah!” said Oscar. Old Helen and the King turned to him. “I got it.”
Thymia turned to him.
“Thymia, I want you from now on to only help me with wishes that come from a version of me that hasn’t been altered through torture or anything I’d consider bad,” said Oscar. “So if, in the future, I get kidnapped or go insane or anything else, please disregard those wishes.”
“Of course,” said Thymia, looking relieved.
“Clever,” said the King.
“Not a bad solution,” said Old Helen. “Precommiting so that you won’t give in to blackmail or value changes, trusting on the genie’s discretion.”
King Samuel appeared deep in thought. “You appear the clever sort, Oscar.”
Oscar kept quiet, unsure how to respond after the adrenaline of the past minute. What does he want from me?
“Also,” the King spoke up, “I’d like to borrow Thymia.”
“Borrow?” asked Oscar.
“This fellow here, as I’m sure you’ve gathered, is our own King Samuel,” said Old Helen. “I’m sure you know of his artifact expeditions?”
“I was planning to search the beaches and coves for my next relic,” King Samuel said. “Which was spoken of as a guardian spirit.”
“And that’s… Thymia?” asked Oscar. The pieces began to fit together in Oscar’s mind. A relic near the beach?
“Oh, no, I’m afraid. I’ve read very little of genies in my searchings,” said King Samuel.
“Oh,” said Oscar, deflating.
“But there is a task I’d like to borrow your genie for. Have you heard of the Thousand Chests?”