Chapter 194 – Damien’s Report

Sebastien

Month 5 Day 9, Sunday 7:05 p.m.

Though she had returned to her other form, after an entire weekend of casting through most of her waking hours, Sebastien’s mind still felt like a well-used muscle, weak and on the verge of soreness. But her debts were paid, she had resources left over, and her Will was growing.

Sebastien stopped at her apartment to write a return letter for Professor Lacer.

She was very aware that once the letter left her possession, it would no longer be protected against divination. She did not want to lie, partially because doing so might damage his willingness or ability to help her, but she also had no intention of revealing too much.

His speculation had opened a broad spectrum of possible worries, but she could not follow up her previous question with one about Aberrants, or any questions about the incident in which Grandfather had died.

What is this physical tribute you have prepared?

I appreciate your thoughtful answer to my question. Regretfully, I cannot divulge more about the circumstances behind it, because I do not know. The only hint that was given to me I have already passed on. More research is required.

I would appreciate more information about this dream curse.

Sebastien paused, lifting her pen carefully away from the paper so as not to leave an ink blot. She also wanted to ask about the Red Guard’s experiments with shamanry, but his warning had been quite clear. However, that only made her more curious to learn about it.

She wouldn’t have considered this avenue if she were not desperate.

She had once been quite interested in divination, in the hopes of divining the future and gaining some tools to mitigate oncoming bad fortune. But she had no talent in the craft. And then she’d actually met a shaman. He claimed to be able to breach the walls between the mortal world and the domain of spirits in order to achieve similar effects to divination. He’d had her run errands for days to prove her dedication before giving her an alchemical concoction that was supposed to open her inner eye.

It left her spewing from both ends, incapacitated with pain and hallucinating for two days.

When she came to her senses, she was terrified, half dead, and had nothing to show for it but dreamlike memories that flashed behind her lids in sickly colors when she closed her eyes.

“You just don’t have the constitution for greatness, dearie,” he’d said.

She’d tried to kick him in the knee out of sudden rage but was too weak to do even that.

Ennis made it clear how much of a waste of time the whole endeavor had been. He was sure she would be better off pretending to be a shaman to con people out of a handful of coin.

Since then, she’d focused on practical magic, something she could use to affect her reality rather than trying to pull the answers to life from the ether.

But, no matter how much of a scam shamanry is, if there are any real techniques I could learn, perhaps I could create my own mental wards to reinforce whatever Grandfather did,’ Sebastien thought.

She continued writing.

Of myself: I am Siobhan Naught, but I am also the Raven Queen, and I have been called by other names. In some ways, names have a power all their own, but in other ways, they are just labels.

Sebastien hesitated before using the weird chant again, but she felt that it was cryptic enough while still being honest. It would allow her to reply to his request for information without really saying anything about herself or her life.

I am a changeling like the seasons, a daughter of shadow and light, of Charybdis mists and raven’s flight, and always I seek after mysteries.

Make of that what you will.

For your attempts on Myrddin’s journal, the man had capabilities and knowledge that I have never heard of from others. While many of his exploits are now thought to be exaggerated by rumor due to their implausibility, I know for a fact that several are quite literal. For instance, the ability to split one’s Will.

To my surprise, I have found that people do not practice casting two spells at once. I cannot be sure why.

I would caution against attempts at personal experimentation here, unless you are quite sure that a human such as yourself could survive the attempt without breaking. However, if you can find a method to recreate this ability, or someone capable of it already, you will make progress.

She was careful not to say that he would be able to read the book with that skill, because there could be some other barrier to success that she hadn’t yet encountered.

She resisted the urge to add more questions about the Red Guard’s secrets or where she might learn more about these recent advancements in shamanry. It might be taken as a request to violate his vows to them, and she was not sure how he might take that. Nor what his vows might require him to do, if she said something that made him believe she could be a threat.

I will see what might be found elsewhere, and then, if that bears no fruit, I will gauge how dangerous it might be to ask him. Perhaps once I have spent more time gaining his trust.

She dropped off the letter for Tanya to ferry on her way back to the University and made it back to the dorms only a few minutes before curfew.

The week passed uneventfully, spent on classes, homework and spell practice, and a search of the library for unrestricted books that might give her some deeper understanding of the things Professor Lacer had mentioned in his last letter. In what free time remained, she continued to practice light-refinement. One of the spell’s effects was supposed to be clearing intrusive mental forces. And what were here nightmares, if not for that?

Perhaps it was working, because though she had been dreading what might come after her experience under the sensory deprivation spells, her nightmares were no harder to deal with than usual. In fact, she slept easier than normal with a combination of light-refinement practiced during the day and Newton’s self-calming spell in the evening.

There were no attempts to scry her and no emergency communication from anyone she knew. She had completed the fourth repetition of the guiding light ritual, and though the symbol—and possible glyph—she’d created lingered in her mind longer each time, like the dark spot after staring at the sun, there had been no struggle with wild magic or backlash.

The next weekend, Sebastien went around the city improving her emergency stashes and creating a few new ones. She added more coin, water canteens with moisture-gathering arrays drawn on their bases, and some quick disguise items. Along with that, she left some of the orb-weaver silk sheets she’d been creating. Some, she had painted spell arrays on, in liquid that was a mixture of giant squid ink, dragon blood, and flakes of natural gold. To that, she had added the sap from two different trees to keep the ink from bleeding, even when exposed to the elements. Other sheets she left bare, to be used as needed with the bottle of conductive liquid and brush she added to each stash.

Sebastien didn’t trust this sense of normalcy. She suspected it was just the lull in the eye of the storm, and if she grew complacent, her future self would look back in desperate regret.

Damien had gone home over the weekend but apparently spent most of his time at Harrow Hill convincing Titus to give him a summer internship. He returned to the University with a tidbit of confidential gossip: several skilled people from the History department had been tasked with a special mission by the Westbay Family—find the Architects of Khronos.

Ostensibly, having expertise in an area that the terrorists had shown a theological interest in might help the faculty to discover clues that the average copper would miss.

In reality, they had been tasked to find themselves.

Siobhan almost spat out a large mouthful of wakefulness brew all over the study group’s classroom table and ended up breathing some of it in trying to suppress her amusement. ‘There’s no way that was an accident. Titus suspects them. It’s some kind of mind game. Maybe he wants to watch exactly what they do, where they focus…and what they ignore? Because the avenues they don’t pretend to explore are more likely to bear fruit?

But if they were doing this, it probably meant that they hadn’t been able to find enough evidence to connect Kiernan and the others to the Architects, which was somewhat surprising considering the amount of effort the coppers had been putting into it. After all, the Architects didn’t have the same advantages she did, and with a larger organization, there were bound to be more weak links.

Near the end of the year’s fifth month, at one-thirty in the morning with a full moon that hung low over the horizon, Sebastien completed the guiding light ritual. The symbol she had created was seared indelibly somewhere in the back of her mind, impossible to ever forget. She had a strange awareness of it that was ever-present but somehow not distracting at all.

Immediately, Sebastien used some of the remaining saltwater from the ritual and another of her glue-paper stencils to paint her symbol seven times over on the back of her thirteen-pointed star light coaster while whispering the now-familiar chant.

With each word and each pass over the sharp, winged symbol, more awareness grew in that new spot in the back of her mind reserved for the thing she had created. When she was finished, it had doubled to contain this second symbol, yet somehow still required the exact same amount of concentration. Which is to say, none.

But like the group proprioception spell or her improved philtre of darkness, when Sebastien focused on the light coaster, there was a distinct sense of her symbol’s location in the real world, in relation to her.

Sebastien closed her eyes, rotated the inner section to turn the light crystal on, and then hurled it into the Menagerie. Then, peeking occasionally to make sure she didn’t trip over anything, she used the awareness tucked away in the back of her mind to track it down once more.

She found it lying face down within some thick-leaved plants, turned off the light, and tucked it back into her pocket. She wasn’t yet sure exactly how she would use such an ability, but the spell itself was both fascinating to attempt and gratifying to have succeeded at. If only she knew more about the additional functions that could be added to symbols that had “taken” strongly.

After that, almost a month passed. Uncertain danger hung in the hair as heavily as the damp heat, pressing in on her skin and leaving her to struggle a little too hard for breath. She felt in her bones that her time was running out, but the days just kept passing without any events of particular note.

The most dangerous thing Sebastien did was the occasional disguised aid to Liza’s sleep-proxy testing. They were getting close to the end, and none of their test subjects had shown worrying symptoms or side-effects. In fact, they were all at least twice as healthy as they had been to start, though that could have been because the tests had provided both gold and food.

Professor Lacer still hadn’t replied to her latest letter. Sebastien found herself glaring at him in class more than a few times, wondering why he hadn’t written her back. She even checked to make sure Tanya was properly transferring their correspondence. Her only consolation was that he seemed as frustrated as Sebastien, if not even more so. Rumors even began to circulate about why he was in such a particularly bad mood.

In one, his secret love child with a princess of Silva Erde had just come calling, asking for Professor Lacer to help him depose the current rulers and take the throne, no matter that the monarchy was actually just an ornamental position in that country.

In another, Professor Lacer was arguing with the headmaster because he’d been disallowed from doing magical experiments on his students. People started cheering the headmaster on whenever they passed him, and though the elderly man had absolutely no idea what was happening, he accepted this enthusiasm with grand smiles and waves at his new fans.

Though no one knew what Sebastien suspected was the real reason, the most realistic rumor was that the High Crown was again trying to force Professor Lacer to take his heir as an apprentice, and Professor Lacer was running out of ways to refuse without seeming rude now that he had proved he was willing to take at least one apprentice.

The panic about the Raven Queen had died down with the lack of new events. The coppers were back to their normal schedules and arrest patterns, and the newspapers had long moved on to other topics. There was even some speculation that she had fled the country in fear of the High Crown’s retaliation.

At the beginning of the year’s sixth month, one of the coppers was found to be a spy for the Architects of Khronos. Almost before the word could even spread, the copper was found dead in her interrogation cell, and her only known contact with the Architects, a mercenary, disappeared.

Pretty much everyone agreed that he was dead, too.

And so the Architects of Khronos continued to elude the coppers, though the tension gripping Gilbratha tightened one notch further.

Near the end of the sixth month, on a Thursday evening, Damien came to her, pinch-lipped and even more tired-looking than normal. The perpetual bags under his eyes that didn’t seem to depend on how much sleep he got now had a bruised quality. Recently, he had fallen into his research project with an unquenchable focus that Sebastien recognized in herself.

“I have a mission report,” Damien said, handing her a contract-sized envelope that he’d already sealed with glue, wax, and a looping pen scrawl over the sealed edge to ensure that anyone trying to peek at or tamper with the contents would have a difficult time disguising their actions. “This is for you to give the higher-ups. It’s got everything in it.”

“I’ll handle it,” Sebastien promised.

Damien looked around mistrustfully, then asked, “Can we talk about what I found? You were going to be given this mission originally, so it’s not like any of the results should be secret from you?”

“We can talk about it,” Sebastien agreed. After all, she was the only “higher-up” in their little secret organization of two. “Do you want to go to the study group room?” Lately, Damien had often commandeered the empty classroom to have a large enough space to cast some of his more complex collation and word-search spells.

“No. Let’s go to my cubicle,” Damien answered.

Professor Lacer had given them both the spell array for the sound-muffling spell he often free-cast, but Damien hesitated to speak even after it was active. The number of boxes stacked against the cubicle wall had decreased somewhat as he removed content that wasn’t relevant, but a new shelf attached to the stone dividing wall held over a dozen binders stuffed with pages.

Sebastien waited silently, an odd mix of apprehension and excitement fighting in her stomach.

Finally, Damien spoke. “I have been collating all the articles that include suspicious rogue magic incidents. Some are definitely Aberrants, but others might be Aberrant related without being labeled as such.” He reached out and lifted one of the binders from the shelf, handing it to Sebastien.

She opened it, flipping through the newspaper clippings, sections of which Damien had underlined. The articles were pasted to the left side of each sheet, and on the right side Damien had written some notes and listed the basic information about the event in a more structured list.

“They’re organized by estimated power level, both of the Aberrant and of the magic used to respond,” Damien said. “Those are the weakest. Apprentice-level or lower.” He pointed to the binder farthest to the right, which was much less full. “And those are the ones inside sundered zones, or the ones so powerful that even a sundered zone won’t contain them. Archmage-level.”

“I want to read all of these,” Sebastien said, fascinated.

“I’ve just managed to successfully cast some information-collating spells that can take structured information and output it in concise numerical summaries in the form of different types of graphs or tables. There’s still a lot of work to be done for the mission, but I wanted to give the higher-ups a preliminary report…because I think I found something.” Damien rubbed his bloodshot eyes.

“It’s been a huge hassle. You wouldn’t believe how vague many of these reporters are and how much guessing I have to do about at least half of these incidents,” he said, staring at the boxes stacked up against the wall. “I ended up going to the census archives and pulling information on any named thaumaturges within those pages.” He pointed at the binders. “I verified whether or not they were certified and got their educational level, as well as their area of academic focus, if they had one.”

Sebastien narrowed her eyes. “Was there a trend?”

“I’m not sure yet. Not an obvious one, anyway. But that’s not my point.”

“What is your point?”

“The Red Guard is extremely competent and powerful. But the problem is, they’re so secretive, even when it doesn’t make sense that they would need to keep their methods confidential. I keep noticing it. They perform some crazy feat of magic that I’ve never heard of before, but the newspaper article barely gives two vague sentences for it. The papers that regularly provided more detail have all gone out of business within the last few decades, which is strange, right?”

Damien continued before Sebastien could respond. “And maybe that could just be a coincidence, but I can’t stop thinking about it. I suspect that the Red Guard has some kind of specific anti-Aberrant spells that they don’t want the public to know about. Just like how the details of the sundered zone spell are so secret.”

Damien rubbed his fingers over his chapped bottom lip and turned to face Sebastien. “There are innocent explanations. Like, they don’t want terrorists to develop counter measures to their proprietary spells. Or they don’t want stupid people trying to mimic their spells without the kind of training they go through to be able to control them. But I don’t think that’s it. I suspect… I suspect the Red Guard is using blood magic against the Aberrants.”

He paused to let the gravity of this accusation sink in, but Sebastien’s mind had jumped to the spell that ancient thaumaturge had cast at Knave Knoll, before she accidentally killed him.

That man was a rogue Red Guard agent who had abandoned his vows and gone on the run. And he’d cast a spell so strange that not only had she never heard of its like before, she couldn’t even understand how or why it behaved as it did. The meteor hanging in the air, the little dust-sized parasites phasing through matter, the walls and doors fusing together. It was complex and powerful and impressive enough to befit a Red Guard member, but why the flashiness? Why the wastefulness, when the same result might have been generated without the need to create any physical phenomena?

The man would have had to use an entire sack of beast cores to power such a spell, surely?

But Sebastien didn’t think he had. That kind of seeming wastefulness—limitless power spilling out in strange ways as an effect propagated—was seen only one other place.

Aberrants.

They seemed to break the laws of magic that those with unbroken Wills and coherent minds were restricted to.

What would happen if I tried to use a piece of an Aberrant as a spell component?’ Sebastien wondered.

If she were inclined to gamble, she would bet that, in the hands of a powerful thaumaturge, the resulting spell would look something like what had happened at Knave Knoll.

She thought of Newton, turned into strings the color of flesh and bone, spilling out and consuming every living, frightened thing it touched, like some kind of fungus. ‘What kind of effect would come from casting with a piece of that string?

Sebastien had one hidden in the floor under the chest at the foot of her bed, after all. She could test her theory.

No, no, I’m not going to do that. I have no idea how dangerous it might be, and I can learn from my mistakes. I will not recklessly endanger my life, nor the lives of those around me.

Sebastien swallowed, looking again at Damien’s chapped lips and wan face. ‘Is it possible I’m jumping to conclusions?’ She thought back over Professor Lacer’s lecture about what to do when you were suspicious. ‘I want to know the truth, no matter how it makes me feel.

“Is there any evidence that could, in the right light, act to disprove your suspicion that the Red Guard uses blood magic?” Sebastien asked. “Think hard.”

Damien blinked at her. “Well, except for the fact that blood magic is evil, and maybe—if that isn’t a lie too—leads to corrupted Wills and increased break events? The fact that the Red Guard is supposed to stand for justice and their oaths to protect the world from magic gone wrong?”

“Except for that,” Sebastien agreed. Because she knew that blood magic wasn’t evil. And the Red Guard might have their oaths, but they also did things like malign the dead and then place mind-controlling spells on their families. Which was, in her opinion, one of the actually evil ways to use blood magic.

“I can’t think of anything else,” Damien said. “Maybe there’s some secret reason for their actions that would never occur to me, but…” He trailed off helplessly.

Sebastien closed her eyes and breathed deeply. Then she opened them again. “There are some things I need to tell you.” She checked to make sure the sound muffling spell would still cover them and then motioned to the narrow bed. “Sit?”

She pulled her satchel’s strap over her head, reached inside, and turned on the dowsing artifact, which was currently using the other half of a small twig she’d broken and tucked in her pocket as a target. She turned up the artifact’s strength to its highest limit, then sat close enough to Damien that their arms touched. This close, he would be protected by the spillover effects, too. Maybe this was unnecessary, but it couldn’t hurt, and she had no idea what the Red Guard might be capable of anymore.

Sebastien cleared her throat and, haltingly at first, but then with growing ease, told Damien what had happened to Newton’s family.

“The Red Guard does blood magic on Lenore’s innocent citizens,” Damien whispered.

“That, in large part, was what your mission was about,” Sebastien said. “We wanted to figure out how often they play with people’s memories surrounding an Aberrant event. Because obviously, they are going to extensive lengths to lie to the public in at least some cases. But Damien…I don’t think they’re trying to hide the blood magic. Or, not just that. Those proprietary, powerful spells that they use against Aberrants? I think… I think they’re using Aberrant components against other Aberrants.”

By this point, Damien was so pale that if he hadn’t been sitting down, Sebastien might have worried that he would faint and collapse.

She told him about the attack on Knave Knoll, and specifically some of the details that hadn’t made it into the papers, though she didn’t mention how she knew.

“It makes a horrible kind of sense,” Damien croaked. He swallowed, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down. “You would need powerful weapons to fight powerful enemies. But this…if they’ve been lying about this, what else?”

Sebastien thought she understood what he was feeling. Unmoored, floating in space as the ground and walls that he had grown up believing in fell away. “I don’t know. But I think you should hand the mission over to me. You can teach me the spells you were learning, but it’s too dangerous for you to continue digging into this.”

“But not too dangerous for you?”

Sebastien pressed her lips together.

“No. I’m not going to stop,” Damien said.

Sebastien hesitated. “Damien…our organization isn’t as large or powerful as you might like to believe. We might not even be able to do anything impactful with the information. And if the Red Guard were to find out and come after us…I don’t know that we could stop them.”

“That just makes uncovering the truth even more important! The Red Guard aren’t bound by Crown law. They are an independent, non-political force, and if they are corrupt, we need to know!” He reached over and gripped her forearm. “Sebastien, if this is true, think about what it means. What happened to Newton?”

She stared at Damien.

Slowly, he released her arm. “I’m not giving up on this mission.”

 

Author Note 2/12: Days passed faster than my sense of time could keep up with, and today I looked up and realized we’ve only got a few left until the early release of this book on my shop. (It’ll be delivered midnight of the 15th from me, and the 20th for other bookstores.)

I don’t like having chapters on the Patreon be behind what people can access if they pay for the complete book, and we’re also almost at the 200-chapter milestone, which I wanted to give a bonus for anyway.

For these reasons, I’m going to do daily chapter releases until Saturday, when patrons reach the end of the book, after which I will go on hiatus while I write my way into Book 5.

 

Original Author Note: For fans of the story with a keen eye, applications for the Typo Hunting Team are open. If you’re a member of the grammar or spelling police and would like to help me out while getting to read the whole book early, you can learn more about the team here: https://www.azaleaellis.com/join-the-typo-hunting-team/

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If you don’t have the time for a large commitment, aren’t detail-oriented in that way, or just want to help out closer to the launch date, I’ll be opening up applications for the ARC team soon. There, you can get an advance copy of the book in exchange for a review.

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Chapter 193 – Almost New Again

Sebastien

Month 4 Day 30, Friday 7:05 p.m.

Sebastien’s elation, along with the feeling of inexhaustible energy, deserted her not long after she stopped casting the light-refinement spell, leaving her with trembling muscles, exhaustion, and a terrible thirst. But as before, some faint mist lingered within her for longer.

By Friday, she was so sore that she had to take a pain potion and massage an entire jar of salve into her muscles before she could make it to breakfast. When Damien learned that she had used her contribution points to earn a special spell, approved and translated by Professor Lacer, he flushed like a cherry with jealousy. But he didn’t ask her to share it. She had earned the knowledge, and to take it from her for free would be dishonorable. Even in this way, the culture of hoarding knowledge pervaded.

She suspected, however, that he was trying to come up with something worth trading for the spell instructions.

After school on Friday, she headed into Gilbratha proper to pick up the device she’d commissioned from an artisan weeks before. When she had explained how it should work, he had called it an escrima, which was apparently some kind of short stick weapon from the East.

That was not exactly an accurate descriptor.

The artisan’s hands were thick and powerful, his skin layered with old scars but his fingers dexterous. He handed over a cylinder of metal that appeared deceivingly simple. “Rather ingenious, if I do say so myself. I’m wondering if there might be a market for more of them ‘round here. Lots of thaumaturges.”

“Maybe,” Sebastien agreed, examining the spell rod she had commissioned. It was thick—it had to be, to fit the internal mechanisms—but not so much that her fingers had trouble gripping it. And it was heavy, which meant it could double as a bludgeoning weapon in a pinch. Approximately every inch, a thin line divided the rod, and on each resulting disk, the artisan had chiseled in a braille number, from one to twenty. The numbers repeated all the way around the cylinder, each on their own subsection.

Sebastien slid her fingers along the numbers and nodded to herself. ‘I can learn to recognize them.’ She gripped the rod on either side of a section in the middle, held it out in front of her, level with the ground, and then twisted.

The section between her hands sprang outward with a snapping sound as the springs activated, leaving her holding a metal rod with a framework disk extending from its middle. It looked as if the geometric bones of a dinner plate had grown out from the middle of the rod, leaving only a thin support beam running through the center.

The spell rod was based on the portable, expanding war Circles that the army used. They could be opened into a Circle or collapsed down into a compact star shape, with several thick metal rods attached to each other on scissor-like joints.

Sebastien twisted the rod again, and the framework disk collapsed back in on itself, appearing as just another section of the rod. “It has downsides,” she said. “Whatever carries the spell array has to be able to expand and retract, too. If this was meant to serve a more powerful thaumaturge, you might need to add a spell array made of metal, or bone, or powdered celerium sealed into a sheet of gold. But to make the spell array expand and retract along with the framework… Maybe you could manage it with precisely cut sheets that could dilate open and closed like an iris.”

Sebastien twisted each section of the spell rod open and closed, testing to make sure nothing caught or stuck. “But if you created even a small break in the spell array, where one line didn’t connect precisely to the next, you could end up causing some magical…accidents.”

The artisan peered at his creation with sudden distrust.

“I have a workaround for that, but it requires any spells I cast to remain below a certain capacity. This is more useful in battle than a tome, but it still requires both hands to use. Which means people would need to wear their Conduit as a ring or bracelet, or put it down every time they need to open a spell array or change spells.”

Of course, again that didn’t matter to her. She had a Conduit pressed to the skin of her back, so her hands could be free at any time.

“People would need to be very careful that they knew exactly which spell they’d just unfurled, because trying to cast a fireball in the heat of battle when you’ve just opened the disk for a food-preserving spell will not work as expected. More danger of Will-strain or even break events.”

Sebastien swung it a few times, listening to the sound it made as it cut through the air.

“It also only has two spots to place spells that should be flush against a surface or that should shoot from a particular spot,” she said, motioning to either end. “The middle disks would probably end up being a little awkward to use for most thaumaturges, because the rest of the device might get in the way. You’d need the spells to have some kind of directional focus, and then be sure that you were always holding the spell rod so that directional focus was pointed in the direction you thought it was. So you don’t end up shooting yourself in the face with a fireball from one of the inner disks. I think a lot of people who might like this would prefer using a battle or utility wand instead, and the more powerful would probably go for a tome.”

The artisan looked increasingly gloomy. “Are you sure it’s safe for you to be playing with that, lad? I didn’t realize all the dangers.”

“Of course!” Sebastien assured him, reaching for her money pouch. With the ability to use a minimalist enough spell array, she could hold the exact direction of a projectile spell in her mind and never need to worry about which of the three hundred sixty degrees of her spell rod were pointed away from her. And of course, there was always output detachment. “You could get rid of a lot of the downsides if you made the pieces detachable. If you’re interested in testing the market, I would be open to investing. I have at least one friend who would probably find it irresistible. And I’d bet there’s a market among beast hunters and adventurers. This thing can hold twenty different utility spells, from fire starters to emergency beacons to a rain repeller. You don’t need excessive power for any of that. And if you make a really long one, it could even double as a walking staff.”

The gleam had returned to the artisan’s eyes, and he rubbed his palms together. “You bring me down just to float me back up again, huh kid? How big an initial investment are we talking?”

Sebastien ended up getting stuck at the artisan’s shop for another hour, somewhat regretful of her earlier uncharacteristic talkativeness borne of excitement.

As she finally left, she made a mental list of the spells that she would insert into the spell rod. She had made some progress with the orb-weaver silk and hoped to be able to make a fabric upon which she could paint her spell arrays from that. For the sudden expansion and contraction that the spell rod required, such a thin, magically conductive fabric would work even better than the thick seaweed paper.

The seaweed paper would still be useful for larger spells or ones where she needed to cast a spell flush with another surface and output detachment wasn’t the best option.

The next day, it was in the newspapers that the Architects of Khronos had raided a Crown storehouse attached to a jointly funded research facility. Supposedly, they’d stolen thousands of gold worth of supplies and components and killed several of the guards.

Sebastien took every sentence with a huge crystal of metaphorical salt. She would have been more likely to get something approaching the real story from one of the people who were involved, or even from Oliver. At least this didn’t endanger her directly. She wasn’t called upon to contribute or do damage control. It had no connection to unassuming student, Sebastien Siverling.

She smiled. It was nice that the newspapers had something more recently interesting to focus on and could, perhaps, stop trying to wring some more juice from Sebastien’s other identity.

With painstaking practice over the next week, she was able to produce a silk fabric transmuted from cotton—which was close enough to the original to make the process easier—that she couldn’t tell apart from Professor Lacer’s sample, even when using the divination spells to examine her creation more closely. To satisfy Professor Lacer, she would need to be able to create orb-weaver silk fabric from anything, but for her current purposes cotton was enough.

On Friday, she found Gera had written in the notebook that the dogs were ready. Liza had agreed to help in exchange for the mirrored-healing spell, and so Siobhan spent a couple of hours on another painstaking transformation into the autumn-headed pirate maid. She didn’t know how some women did their hair and makeup every morning. Even with just the little experience she had, it was incredibly boring and time consuming.

After even more hassle taking a roundabout journey to make sure she wasn’t being followed, Siobhan arrived at Lynwood manor just after the last light of the sun had disappeared from the horizon. The night was moonless, and rain clouds blanketed the sky. They had wetted the streets earlier but were now calm.

Gera must have informed the guards that Siobhan could look different, because as soon as she said that she was expected for an appointment with the matron of the house, both guards’ eyes started to sparkle and they waved her in like she was the High Crown’s wife. She had to give them a secret, angry look for them to remember they should pretend she was just a normal citizen. They grew as stiff as two fence posts at the sight.

Siobhan sighed. ‘Next time, I’ll sneak in through the back garden.’

A servant escorted Siobhan to that same back garden, which was…destroyed. Dozens of dogs were scattered throughout it. They had dug up and trampled the flower beds and bushes, and it seemed at least one of them had been gnawing at the bark of the fledgling trees. There were more than Siobhan had expected.

Gera seemed somewhat frazzled, her hair tangled and her clothes stained as she tossed out various orders to the dogs’ caretakers. As soon as she saw Siobhan, she sagged. “Oh thank the stars you’re here,” she said on a heavy exhale. Louder, she announced, “Everything you requested is ready…ma’am.”

Gera led the way to the manor’s second floor, where they had cleared a large room of furniture and filled it instead with the necessary spell components, empty tables along the walls, and a few kennels. Siobhan busied herself setting up while she waited for Liza to arrive but was soon interrupted as someone knocked gently on the door.

Anders was on the other side, accompanied by the oldest, unhealthiest looking dog Siobhan had ever seen.

“This…is Bear?” The creature was pressing up against Anders’ leg as if to keep from falling over.

Anders went down on one knee, his head hanging low. Out of uniform, he looked different. Without the blue and gold, his strong features appeared more threatening, but somehow that seemed like a mask over a great well of fatigue.

Siobhan had thought that the number of homeless dogs collected to provide the Sacrifice was excessive, but now that she saw Bear, she felt that even three hundred might not be enough. Even Gera’s description hadn’t done the creature justice. He had once obviously been a terrifyingly large dog, but now it was surprising that he even managed to stand on his own three feet. She would have believed it if someone told her this was not a dog but in fact a dog-shaped magical beast aligned with death and decay.

She stared down at Anders incredulously. ‘He scammed me! I’m supposed to make this dog healthy again? Who does he think I am, Myrddin!?

But of course she couldn’t say that aloud. “Bring him in. The process will likely take all weekend. We will need to go slowly so as not to shock his system. Do you know if any of the potions he’s on will react negatively to sedatives?”

Liza finally arrived halfway through Anders’ recounting of everything he had been doing to keep Bear alive. She set her leather healer’s bag on one of the tables and then began to remove the surgery equipment from within.

Anders stared at each tool as she removed it, the skin around his eyes growing pinched.

“Bear will be sedated for any procedures that might bring him excessive discomfort,” Siobhan assured him preemptively. “Please have someone bring in the first Sacrifice. You may wait outside while we work, if you wish.”

Anders kneeled down again to hug Bear, whose tail wagged listlessly, and then did as Siobhan requested.

She and Liza went over the spell they had modified once more, ensured that the spell arrays were perfect, and then Liza walked Siobhan through the process of ritually removing a dog’s testicles.

Siobhan had not wanted to kill to boost Bear’s vitality, and with her new understanding of how transmogrification worked, she had realized that maybe she didn’t need to. There were more ways to approach the concepts of “life,” “youthfulness,” and “vitality” than the obvious. Reproductive organs were inherently associated with all of those ideas. Maybe they wouldn’t work quite as well to improve Bear’s health as the more direct Sacrifice of a brain for intelligence or a life for more health, but all that mattered was that it could work.

After all, the city was overpopulated with homeless animals. So much so that, during the winter, they often became a food source of last resort for those in the poorest parts of the Mires. They had an almost unlimited supply of donors. This would help Bear while simultaneously tackling the problem of overpopulation.

The entire surgical operation, which was done inside a spell array they had drawn on one of the tables, only took about thirty minutes. When they were finished, they used a few dabs of healing potion on the Sacrificial dog and set it aside in one of the kennels to wake up naturally.

Then came the process of feeding the testicles to Bear, who seemed particularly unenthused about the idea. They were forced to find a potion to artificially increase appetite as well as chop up the testicles and add them to a broth that Bear could lick up.

Liza, who was better at math and had more experience with blood magic than Siobhan, had estimated that rather than the thirty percent efficiency they might have gotten with a full-vitality Sacrifice—with Bear eating the heart and lungs—they were instead getting something like eight percent efficiency. And for a dog as old and unhealthy as Bear, that efficiency might be lowered by half again, with his body simply unable to process all of the improvements. For that reason, they had slightly modified the spell to affect him more gently over a longer period of time. Which meant they needed to complete the whole process eight to twelve times for the same effect. Each time would provide diminishing returns, but with care and enough Sacrifices, they might be able to boost him by thirty to forty percent overall.

They monitored Bear afterward and took several diagnostic scans to ensure he was healthy over the next couple of hours. In between tests, Siobhan taught Liza the mirrored-healing spell.

“This is…so simple,” Liza said with wonder. “And yet, it has such wonderful utility. It’s not even necessarily restricted to fresh wounds. If anything, it’s like a flesh-based duplicative transmogrification spell. If it weren’t blood magic, can you imagine how useful this would be?”

“It’s definitely much cheaper than most healing magic,” Siobhan agreed. “Even if it could just be approved for use by certified healers…”

Liza grunted. “Unlikely. Circumstances would have to be dire for the Crown Families to approve an amendment like that. And only the desperate and the poor would be willing to receive healing based on blood magic.”

After Bear had no adverse effects, they did the second and third round of vitality boosting and left him to rest again while Liza got some practice with mirrored healing, using a few of the dogs that had been brought in with wounds as her patients. After a couple more rounds of boosting Bear’s vitality, the last of which Siobhan was allowed to do herself under Liza’s supervision, they opened the door to retire for the night.

Anders was waiting outside, sitting in a chair a few feet down the hallway. He sprang up immediately, his gaze searching their expressions and then moving down to look for Bear.

Siobhan stepped aside and motioned for the dog to walk past her.

One of Bear’s front legs was still missing, but she thought his hopping gait seemed a little less pained than it had when she arrived. His lolling tongue was wetter and pinker, and his wagging tail had enough force to thump her painfully on the way past.

Anders fell to his knees, taking stinky licks on his face while hugging Bear around the neck.

Siobhan held back a grimace of distaste. Anders was letting Bear lick him on the mouth. ‘Surely that isn’t sanitary?’ she thought. Aloud, she said, “Someone needs to remove the other dogs from the kennels. They should recover for about three days, after which they can be released back to wherever they came from.”

Anders stood. “The other dogs…are alive?”

Liza huffed. “Secretly your Raven Queen is a Titans-dammed bleeding heart. They’re all alive, barely any worse for wear. And that’s why this whole job is going to take the entire weekend.”

“I simply prefer not to harm those who do not deserve it,” Siobhan said. “And I think the development of a creative magical method to extend life is worth a weekend.”

Anders let out a shuddering exhale. “Oh. Oh, that’s wonderful.” He blinked rapidly, his eyes shining with a thin layer of tears that looked totally out of place on his rugged, menacing features. “I thought… Well, I thought you were going to Sacrifice them all in a blood magic ritual.”

Siobhan and Liza shared a glance, and Liza smirked. “Basins of blood, artfully arranged entrails, and vivisected corpses? Is that what you were expecting?” the woman asked.

His expression firmed. “I apologize.”

Liza let out a short, sharp laugh that was less mocking than it could have been. “No need. Despite the common perception, not all blood magic is so…flamboyant. That said, the tables and tools should all be sterilized, and each of the Sacrifices given a mild pain reliever when they wake. You were not totally wrong, after all.” She winked at Anders and walked past.

Liza returned home for the evening, but Siobhan remained in a luxurious guest room and made everyone except Millennium extremely uncomfortable at the breakfast table the next morning. Gera had her son basically confined to his room so that he wouldn’t intrude on their work, and he was blatantly sulking about it.

Saturday was much of the same, except that in between sessions of removing testicles and boosting Bear, Liza attempted to regrow a missing paw on one of the other dogs.

For something like this, mass was important. After all, the flesh and bone of the paw had to come from somewhere.

As Siobhan supervised Liza’s slow progress on the sedated test subject, she thought aloud. “Bear’s missing leg and eyeball would be a large percentage of his mass, and he doesn’t have an ounce to spare. If we want to fix him, we’re going to have to find another source of meat and bone. Maybe we could bring in a fresh cow or deer leg? Or if there are any recently killed dogs…”

Liza grunted, and Siobhan fell silent so as not to distract her. However, when Liza was finally finished regrowing the—hairless—paw, Liza said, “We shouldn’t try to pull flesh from elsewhere. Have you ever seen what happens when the body rejects an intruder? Infection, followed by death. A horrible, painful death. If we don’t perfectly copy the flesh of the dog we’re adding mass to, its body will somehow realize the invader and attack the new flesh. I cannot achieve such perfection, and I sincerely doubt you can, no matter how clear or forceful your Will.”

When Liza’s practice subject woke up, it spent quite a while licking at its hairless paw, then continued to limp around as it had done before, the paw dragging whenever it came close to the floor. The dog ate ravenously when offered food but, no matter how they tried to encourage it, refused to place weight on its new paw.

Siobhan used the magnifying divination spell learned from Professor Lacer to examine the structure of the new appendage, with specific attention given to the connection spot between old flesh and new. Everything looked perfect…at first. But some of the filament-fine threads that she suspected might be nerve fibers weren’t perfectly connected.

She switched to examining the dog’s other front paw to confirm her suspicions.

Liza had copied the other paw with passable exactness, but that was part of the problem. Real creatures weren’t exactly symmetrical. The blood vessels were properly attached, because Liza wasn’t an idiot, but in addition to some of the nerve fibers not quite matching, many of them seemed to fizzle out like burnt hairs before they reached all the way to the edge of the skin.

Siobhan could have tried to cast the magnifying divination spell simultaneously with the mirrored-healing—it was almost as if the two were created to work together, and with all the practice she had been getting lately, she thought that she might have been able to hold both at once despite their relative complexity—but that would have revealed her ability to split her Will.

I need to do that for Professor Lacer’s transmutation exercises, though,’ she realized. ‘I could speed up my rate of learning so much, if I could see my mistakes in real-time.

It was an exciting thought, but for the moment she simply tried to memorize exactly how the nerves in the healthy paw looked, then sedated the dog and cast the mirrored-healing spell once more. She went over Liza’s work with a metaphorical fine-toothed comb, urging the paw to perfection rather than just symmetry. She even thickened the skin of the paw-pad somewhat, so that it wouldn’t be as tender and sensitive.

By evening, the dog was walking. Though not quite perfectly, since he seemed to have forgotten what it was like to have all four paws.

Liza, disgruntled, questioned Siobhan about what kind of exercises she did to improve her clarity, forcefulness, and soundness. Tentatively, Siobhan explained the exercises Professor Lacer had given her the term before, along with the variations she practiced to approach satisfactory levels of control over each, though of course she didn’t mention where any of the spells came from.

They put the dog out in the back garden again, where he grew excited and sprinted around at full speed, his ears tucked to his head, tongue hanging out with joy, and tail streaming out behind him. He stumbled often, and each time would stop to stare and lick at his new paw. But there were no pained whimpers and no limp dragging, and the paw mostly kept up with his attempts to become a racing dog.

Martha, who had come out to give the dogs their evening meal, did a double-take when she saw him with all four paws. She stared at Siobhan for an uncomfortably long moment, then returned to her work at the urging of the impatient dogs, her expression pensive.

They continued their work after dinner, and Liza made another attempt to regrow flesh long lost, this time in the form of docked ears and tail. Again, Siobhan had to come along behind her and refine her work, which had Liza wordlessly grinding her teeth for the remainder of the evening.

On Sunday, Siobhan did at least half of the testicle-removal surgeries. If only her capacity were high enough, she thought she could cast the whole vitality transference spell on her own—without having to modify it so that it took all day. But it would be years yet before she reached Liza’s strength.

On each dog they used as Sacrifice, she began to cast the magnifying divination spell to examine their eyeballs in exhaustive, meticulous detail, while Liza continued to practice mirrored healing. She was getting better, and even had a few divination spells of her own to examine her results, but she struggled to get the same exhaustively fine detail as Siobhan.

Liza’s capacity is so high, she probably hasn’t needed to care about perfect efficiency in decades. And if you don’t need exact perfection for most things, it would be easy to get out of the habit of extreme precision,’ Siobhan mused.

By this point, Bear had received over three dozen boosting spells, and most of the dogs in the back garden were recovering. Bear’s appetite had grown explosively, to the point that they needed to bring in extra food beyond the testicle soup, and he kept barking and trying to jump around. Being so big, his bark was loud and deep enough that the whole manor could hear it, and he was heavy enough to knock Siobhan or Liza over if he jumped onto them when they weren’t braced for it.

Liza snapped her fingers at him, pointed to the ground, and ordered, “Sit!”

Bear’s butt plopped directly onto the ground within his spell array’s Circle, though his tail was wagging so fast they had to ensure he wasn’t damaging the spell array, which had happened several times already.

After three final sessions of vitality transference, they sedated Bear and brought in the youngest and largest of the Sacrifice dogs as a reference so that Siobhan could remove the film of cataracts and then tweak the lens in Bear’s remaining eye.

After that, Liza worked to copy that eye into Bear’s empty socket, and Siobhan followed up with a refinement pass. Attaching the optic nerve was delicate and difficult, and Siobhan couldn’t help but lament how foolishly the eyeball was put together. Surely there was a better way to design such an organ?

They covered the new eye with a patch and allowed Anders into the room before the sedatives wore off so that the whole thing wouldn’t be too much of a shock on the ancient dog’s system.

When Bear finally awoke, his tail started wagging so hard that it shook his whole body. He limped and jumped around the room, his missing leg doing little to deter him from looking around, though every few steps he took he would return to press his shoulder against his master’s leg.

When Anders took off Bear’s eye patch, the dog froze. He looked around slowly, then let out a deep, explosive bark of shock.

Bear’s tail wagged so hard he literally knocked himself off balance, and he rolled on the ground barking until Anders rubbed his belly.

Tears fell onto Bear’s short, still-thin fur. “Thank you,” Anders squeezed out in a hoarse voice.

“We can fix the missing leg, too,” Siobhan said. “But Bear needs to gain weight before it would be safe. His vitality has been boosted, but the effects will take time to show. His appetite has already improved, so he should put on weight quickly. With the proper nutrients, his organs should return to working as they’re meant to, and his joints might even loosen. Visibly, his hair will grow in thicker and maybe lose some of the grey. In a few months, if he’s gained enough weight, we can return to grow him another leg. But unless we do it in sections, it will certainly be a strain on his body. I would suggest you get him a prosthetic in the meantime. Perhaps a wheel attached to a harness, as the least invasive option. Or, if you have the gold for it, a clockwork artifact with some complex instructions, to mimic his existing leg.”

Or,” Liza said, “now that Bear is healthier, once a little time passes and all the residue from his potion regimen clears from his system, he might be able to accept a course of limb-regrowing potions that use chameleon components. It will be more gradual, and though it is said to be quite a protracted, unpleasant experience, you would not need to rely on us. It would be less of a shock to Bear’s system, and his happiness could be managed by some strong anti-itch and pain potions.”

Siobhan was a little embarrassed. She had forgotten that option even existed.

Anders cleared his throat and sniffed wetly, then stood. “How long does he have, now?”

Siobhan and Liza shared a look. Neither of them really knew for sure. That was the kind of thing you needed a whole data set to be certain of, and they only had this one dog. Siobhan decided to err on the side of caution. It would look very bad if she overestimated, and this breed of dog was probably lucky to make it to the age of ten normally. “Two years extra, if you manage his health carefully. If he begins to show signs of deterioration, you may call upon me to perform this service once more. Preferably before his status becomes this dire.”

Anders nodded with determination, then took a knee in front of her. “Thank you.”

Siobhan waved at him to rise. “You paid for this,” she reminded him. “And dearly.”

“It was worth it,” Anders said, looking her straight in the eyes.

Liza offered to give Bear’s new care requirements to Anders in exchange for his help cleaning up the room, and Siobhan spent a half hour visiting Millennium before she left.

Behind her, Gera stood with a lost look, her hands limp at her sides. “What am I supposed to do with all these dogs?”

 

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Chapter 192 – Nine Full Breaths

Sebastien

Month 4 Day 17, Saturday 9:45 p.m.

After allowing time for her burning eyes and shaky breath to settle, Sebastien had done her homework while considering what to say to Ana. She worked slower than usual.

When she finally confronted the other young woman that evening, Ana nodded her head easily. “I did deny his contract. You know I can forge my father’s signature.” She frowned suddenly. “Is that a problem? I did it so that I could offer you something valuable in exchange for your help, even if indirectly. Did you have a personal investment in that sub-commission? I thought, in the worst-case scenario, I could forge it again, well, just like I ended up doing.”

“You did it because everything is transactional with me?”

Ana reached forward and touched Sebastien’s elbow. “I shouldn’t have said that. It’s not actually true. You do plenty of things without being paid for them. And what I was requesting… Only an idiot like Damien would agree to commit a crime against a member of the Thirteen Crown Families without reservation.” She chuckled. “I did it so that I could offer you a favor. I thought it would be very gauche to write you a cheque or something. Sebastien, what’s wrong?”

Sebastien shook her head quickly. “Nothing.” She stepped away, just in case Ana got it into her head to give Sebastien her second hug of the day.

Ana’s eyes narrowed. “Lord Dryden was upset about it,” she deduced. “Did he cause problems for you, Sebastien? Do you need help?”

Sebastien let out a choked laugh. “I think I can handle it.”

Ana pursed her lips doubtfully. “You’d let me know if you did, though, right? I have some power now, you know?” She plucked pridefully at the collar of her shirt.

In the end, she ushered Sebastien back into the dorms, and somehow drew all of her friends into Sebastien’s small cubicle with a few subtle words and the reveal of a package of tiny butter cookies. They didn’t leave until one of the faculty shut off the dorm’s lights, despite Sebastien’s several attempts to get some solitude.

After that, the week passed so quickly Sebastien didn’t even feel it slipping through her fingers. There had been no divination attempts, no sudden emergencies or disasters, and her only immediate source of frustration was the ongoing feeling of discomfort when she tried to release her iron grip over the idea-source of transmogrification spells. It felt wrong to ask for darkness and get a strange, almost unreal sensation of cold to go along with it. She hated the lack of precision and specificity. She hated the knowledge that her spells were being, in some small part, controlled by the minds of a hundred million random people. It didn’t feel safe, and more than that, it didn’t feel right to give up her grip over any part of the magic.

But at least her spells were working. She hadn’t even been suffering from flashes of nightmare trying to break through the shields of her dreamless sleep spell, as long as she recast it halfway through the night. She guessed it might be because her Will was growing stronger. If she worked hard enough, maybe she could outpace the next disaster and actually be ready to face it.

On Wednesday, Sebastien completed the second repetition of the guiding light ritual. She had done a second, thorough search for similar glyphs and found nothing concerning, but what really convinced her to continue was the fact that she’d had no trouble the first time, even with Will-strain.

And again, the second repetition of the ritual gave her no cause for concern, despite her watchfulness.

And now, Sebastien was riding around in a fancy carriage with a man and woman who were paid to show her houses and apartments available for long-term rental. It was not going well.

The man was like a self-righteous pencil who sniffed judgmentally every time he saw a bit of dirt, and the woman laughed at everything Sebastien said, even though she hadn’t made a single joke. They had shown her three apartments and two houses already. Each was overly fancy, unreasonably priced, and in the parts of town where the coppers regularly patrolled. One even included private guards, and their upkeep was part of the rent.

As their carriage stopped in front of the sixth place of the morning, Sebastien took one look at the building and shook her head. “No.”

“No?” the pencil man repeated in his overdone high-class accent.

“No,” Sebastien confirmed. They had stopped in front of a two-story house covered in windows. There was barely enough space between it and the houses on either side for a broad-shouldered man to walk. At the house on the right, an elderly couple sat in rocking chairs on their front porch. At the house on the left, children played in the front yard, and their mother looked out of the window and waved at Sebastien with a pleasant smile. The lawns were manicured, and the street clean.

Across from Sebastien, the woman laughed awkwardly.

“I am serious,” Sebastien said. “Don’t you have any cheaper options? Perhaps in the poorer parts of town? Or a place with a lot of privacy. A small cottage surrounded by a high fence. Or an apartment with thick walls and no windows. I don’t care if it’s a little run-down.”

Really, Sebastien was hoping for some place where the neighbors weren’t the type to make friends or notice a bit of strangeness, where she could make modifications to the structure without anyone noticing or complaining that she had no permit, and that certainly wouldn’t be frequented by coppers or guards.

“No…windows?” the woman asked, laughing uncertainly.

The two housing agents shared a look, and then the man opened his ring binder and began to flip through listings. “I have no listings without windows.” His tone of disdain said that they were a reputable company and didn’t represent people who would try to rent out hovels. “Might I suggest a thick, light-blocking curtain? Perhaps velvet. If both privacy and price are also a concern…” He huffed, as if Sebastien had given him an unreasonable request, but finally picked up the little bell hanging by the carriage door and spoke into it to give the driver a new address.

They traveled south for the better part of an hour in a silence that the woman gave up on filling. But the apartment they finally reached was…not bad. It was an attic apartment, the third floor above a house that had been divided vertically into two other units.

On the eastern side lived two men who shared the rent. They were either not at home or felt no need to peek out of their two small windows in curiosity, so Sebastien only knew this because the agents told her. In the western side was an extended family packed in tight. Apparently a couple had taken in other family members after a tragedy, leaving them with three adult women, one man, and several children of varying ages.

The family might have been a dealbreaker if not for the symbol finger-painted in yellow and black on the inside of their front window. It showed a moon with the silhouette of a wolf’s mug howling up into the night—the symbol of the Nightmare Pack.

The pencil man, when asked, rattled off some statistics about crime and theft that he tried to make sound as good as possible, but which were egregiously high when compared to the numbers he’d given her at several of the other locations.

The attic apartment was accessed by a set of stairs running diagonally up the back of the building. It had three windows, each on different walls, but only one with glass to let in light instead of sealed wooden shutters. And that one was cut into the ceiling, facing up and out so that no one could see in. Each window was big enough that she might crawl through it in an emergency. And finally, a locked hatch door in her floor would allow her into the family’s space if she broke the lock and forced her way through. ‘Multiple ways to get in or out in an emergency,’ Sebastien thought.

The attic’s floor space was fairly large, but the angled ceiling meant at least half of the area would require her to duck down to move around, lest she knock her head. A few old cabinets, a chest of drawers, and a narrow bed frame remained, gathering dust. There was no stove or running water, a chimney flue but no fireplace, and the rent was dirt cheap. There were signs of old wards carved into the floor and walls for sound muffling and temperature regulation, though all had long run out of power.

“A thaumaturge lived here,” she said. “The owner is okay with magical modifications?”

“As long as you pay a year in advance, don’t destroy anything, and sign a contract making you liable for repairs on any damages you inflict.”

“I’ll take it,” Sebastien said. Really, she just needed a place to keep certain things safe and away from prying eyes. And adding extra wards would be a good project for her. Come Harvest Break, she would no longer be able to stay at the University.

She signed the paperwork, wrote a cheque, and then shooed both agents out and down the narrow stairs. Then, she changed the physical locks on the doors and windows and added basic locking wards, which she tied to a series of strings that would break if the wards did. She was careful to establish the clarity of her casting to ensure that the magic would remain coherent enough to bypass her divination-diverting ward if necessary.

Then she opened up the paired journals she had given Gera and Liza, and wrote to both of them. Her message to Liza was longer as it included her thoughts on the magic that might be used to heal Anders’ dog. The most straightforward way would be to kill a dozen or so dogs and funnel their vitality into him. But Siobhan simply wasn’t willing. The second obvious option was to take a smaller amount of vitality from each Sacrifice. Just not enough to kill them.

But taking vitality wasn’t as simple as removing a year or two from the end of their lives in exchange for a few more months for Bear. Even if she could modify the quality-transference spell that she’d learned from working with Liza so that it didn’t require Bear to eat one of their vital organs, even taking some of their vitality would be more like giving them a horrible illness that they would never fully recover from. It would tax their bodies irrevocably and make them more likely to succumb to illness, injury, and old age.

However, if Sebastien’s idea worked, they would lose something much less precious. And the rest she could probably handle with the mirrored-healing spell.

Sebastien tucked the journals away into the small chest of drawers, which was probably meant to be a bedside table, and shoved that into one of the inconvenient corners where the roof almost met the wall, far enough away that the sympathetic link wouldn’t come into contact with the area effect of her divination-diverting ward.

She spent the rest of the day cleaning the place from top to bottom, and when she became exhausted, she left for food and a mattress to put on the bedframe.

That evening, she made a long list of all the modifications she needed to make to the space, along with things to buy or create to make the apartment livable. She then spent the rest of the evening working on Myrddin’s journal. As ever, her efforts were futile, but she was getting better. It was rarer that she got stuck on unrecognized glyphs, and her Will flitted from concept to concept more easily. Even splitting her Will required less effort as she grew more accustomed to the practice. ‘Soon,’ she vowed, glaring at the incomprehensible pages.

She had planned to go back to the University, but she ended up staying the night and the next day as well. It was nice to have a private space to herself, without the sounds of a hundred other people echoing through a long room. And as long as she kept a vial of moonlight sizzle beside her head while she slept, the darkness could easily be dispelled, and along with it, her fear.

Still, it would be nice to have some things to make the place seem less cold and bleak. Some magical plants that didn’t need excessive care. Maybe a fish to keep her company.

A quick check of her linked journals showed responses from both Gera and Liza. Gera was making good progress on gathering the dogs Siobhan had requested, and Liza had left six pages of notes about Sebastien’s method to improve Bear’s health. Liza had also left some scathing comments about her lack of continued involvement in the sleep-proxy tests while simultaneously urging against her presence…and asking for more gold. And in a small postscript, Liza added that the Archaeologist had escaped the Retreat’s custody.

This sent a rush of sudden fear through Sebastien. If someone were to question the Archaeologist, it might lead back, eventually, to Liza. “Has he run away, or could he have been kidnapped?” she asked.

A response came back after less than an hour of waiting. There were no signs of a struggle, and the man had taken what few belongings he had with him. All evidence, and his obvious paranoia, pointed to him having gone into hiding. And with what Sebastien now knew about Myrddin’s journals, perhaps he had made the right choice.

On Sunday, she finally found a response from Professor Lacer.

She returned to the room she’d rented before opening it. Her heart pounded as she pulled a single sheet of paper from the envelope.

 

I have prepared a physical tribute that I believe you would be quite interested in, but I am happy to exchange knowledge. In fact, curiosity is my reason for contacting you, as I believe you know. There are too few deserving of my interest.

Is my knowledge of rare and dangerous magic your reason for contacting me?

As for your payment in knowledge, I have several thoughts:

Perhaps, this being is contained within its own memory, such as a sub-personality encapsulated away from the main consciousness, triggered by certain recollections. An example might be a younger version of a person, triggered by thinking about or reliving a traumatic experience that was originally experienced in youth. Shoddy memory wipes can sometimes cause symptoms like this.

Two hundred years ago, there were records a curse that trapped a woman within eternal sleep. After her death, the perpetrator was discovered. They revealed that the woman had been trapped within a memory, reliving it over and over, but had failed to find the key to break the binding magic. The curse had been meant to teach a vindictive lesson.

I have heard tales of shamans whose minds become lost forever in the spirit world, leaving their bodies an empty shell, soon to die. This may seem somewhat counter to what you are asking, but recent advancements in shamanry among research-dedicated agents of the Red Guard have them attempting to create wards of a sort—walls and protective structures—within the spirit world itself. A futile effort, like building castles of sand before the waves. But, if the anchoring was successful, a spirit-walking shaman could protect their mind against erosion within this structure, perhaps. Some have hypothesized that the soul is, in fact, separate from the body—and specifically separate from the brain. There is no corroborated evidence of this, to my knowledge. But if it was indeed the case, and the soul contained information, then perhaps a shaman could continue to exist in some coherent form within the spirit world, even after their body had died from neglect.

This is not my area of expertise, and I must warn you against being known to explore this path of magic. Even if it does hold the answers you seek, it is possible that activity within the spirit realm could leave traces, and the Red Guard does not allow experimentation along this path. It is too dangerous.

Or, perhaps you are speaking of something more unambiguous. A way to somehow strip a being from their body and condense their consciousness into information, then encode it into the form of a memory? Memories are never forgotten, but by breaking all connective bonds of recollection, one could force forgetfulness and thus lock the memory, and the consciousness, away.

The last would require some ability to isolate what creates consciousness, which, as far as I am aware, is yet beyond us. But an advanced simulacrum of consciousness, of intelligence, could be possible.

If you wish more detailed information from me, I will require more information about the nature of your curiosity. As it is, I am speculating blindly within a vast cosmos of possibilities, and my usefulness is limited.

In return, I have a question of my own. Are you truly Siobhan Naught? And if so, were you always? Tell me of yourself.

Furthermore, since you hinted at it, now you must tell me the trick to Myrddin’s journal.

 

Siobhan memorized the letter easily enough, then lit it on fire and watched it burn away to ash. Professor Lacer’s response had ignited her thoughts in a greater blaze than the paper itself, but it was less directly helpful than she had hoped. She didn’t know enough detail to guide her questions.

And what about shamanry could be so dangerous that the Red Guard actively forbids people from experimenting with the spirit world? It must be very easy to become an Aberrant from doing the wrong thing.’ It made a certain kind of sense, because she’d heard the spirit world likened to a dream realm that intruded upon the thoughts even as the thoughts spilled out into the surroundings. It probably took an exceedingly strong Will to safely do more than visit.

Resolving to think on the matter for a while before replying to him, she locked up her new apartment, having left the two warded chests behind. Each was hidden separately and doubly warded with a trigger that would alert her if they were disturbed. One held Myrddin’s book, the other her selection of stolen celerium.

Sebastien’s life continued on with a suspicious lack of problems or obstacles, which only made her attack the few that she could still do something about with more rabid intensity. She researched the web of connotative connections. She asked others what they thought, what they felt, when given concepts like “light” or “darkness.” She cast her transmogrification spells over and over, hoping that her feeling of discomfort would abate.

It did not abate. And then she realized, in a sudden epiphany while eating dinner on Wednesday, that she had been going about the whole thing wrong. Maybe some thaumaturges could give up control to the ephemeral amassed understanding, easily and willingly allow a hand on the reins other than their own. But she could not. And she should not have to.

While transmogrification spells were not meant to use her as the idea-source, that did not mean she had to give up guidance or control. Perhaps the spells should not use her ideas directly, but those ideas should still be the guidelines for as well as the borders of what it drew from the greater common consciousness.

She stood up without finishing her meal, rushed back to the dorms, and set up the spell that would allow darkness to descend from the component of an autumn leaf. “I am the master,” she said to herself, applying her Will with every word, though she channeled no power yet. “Darkness will descend, as I command it, pulled from every idea of the long dark winter that exists or has existed. Every memory, every thought, every dream. Darkness from above, exactly. No more, no less. Heed me,” she snarled.

And when she cast, night spilled over the upper bounds of her Circle, like an egg of ink cracked over a dome. It flowed down quickly, and so thick that she could barely make out the leaf within. There was no chill wind, no eerie sense of death or solitude, no foggy impression that she had given up complete and utter domination over this small half-sphere within her Circle.

Sebastien stared at it for a while, her heart pounding with exultation, and then she let the spell drop. The sun had not yet set. She stood up and left the dorms, heading to her special clearing in the Menagerie with ground-devouring strides.

When she reached it, she rolled her shoulders and stretched her legs, thinking of all the things the light-refinement spell was meant to do. The filtered light would heal, repair, and energize. It would refine her, just as she refined it. And not only her body, but also, and most importantly, her mind. It would strengthen her mind, shore up her natural defenses, and bring her clarity. It would anchor her Will to something too robust to strain, too powerful to break. It would reduce her need for sleep.

“The light will heal me, rejuvenate me, but it will also make me more. I will refine it, and be refined in turn,” Sebastien announced, once again filling her words with her Will. “Heed me.” She fell into the first stance of the movement.

She had practiced this spell—the humming, the precise movements, the purposefulness—until she could complete the entire sequence three or even four times without collapsing. Usually, she would start to see a visible mote of light around the time that she finished the first repetition.

Now, it appeared after only nine full breaths.

She had thought she understood how the spell worked—some sort of energy conversion from light into something her body could use, that also burned away impurities. Energy that would speed her mind and fill her cells with vigor. But that had only been her rationalization.

She did not understand how this spell worked or what it was really doing to her body and mind. But she thought she understood, now, what it meant to call upon the weight of an idea so pervasive that it had worked its way into everyday simile and metaphor. ‘It is not true,’ some part of her thought. ‘But it does not need to be true. It is real, and this accumulated force of conviction has true power behind it. And one day, I will understand not only how to control it but how it works. Genuine understanding.

It was a promise steeped in hubris, but with hair-thin lines of light trailing her every movement, hanging in the air, and flowing in through her forehead, she meant it.

Her veins seemed to fill with molten honey and her mind with the song of the cosmos. All she could see were the ever-refining patterns of light. All she could hear was her own humming, which traveled through the folds of her brain before doubling back like ripples in a pond. Where each wave passed, filaments of brightness grew, tiny stars exploded into children that grew into stars themselves, and the illumination revealed the weight and gravity of the space surrounding it, which was not empty but filled with her Will. It was not water, but still seemed somewhat like an ocean—too small to be called such, but determined and crushingly inexorable despite its weakness.

She stopped, finally, not because she grew tired, but because the last sliver of the sun had slipped over the horizon. She panted, her body drenched in sweat, every cell bursting with life.

“Oh,” she said into the darkness of the Menagerie.

And then she laughed.

 

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Chapter 191 – Secrets Kept

Sebastien

Month 4 Day 17, Saturday 8:25 a.m.

Sebastien’s carriage driver offered her a newspaper—a way to increase his tips, no doubt. It was the Daily Sun, and of course it was filled with drivel, as usual. After her recent experiences Sebastien would never trust what this paper wrote about anything. There was nothing new within, merely more gossip and speculation about her. They had reached the point of trying to wring water from a dry rag.

They were digging into Ennis Naught’s past again, and under the journalist’s pen the man seemed awful enough that even Sebastien had to admit that, as lacking a father as he might have been, he was not that heinous.

She tossed the paper aside halfway through the article and leaned her head back against the padded seat. Her muscles were so tense that her skull ached with every beat of her heart. Her conversation with Oliver flashed into her mind, and she swallowed hard, then rapped on the ceiling of the carriage and called out a new destination.

Instead of back to the University, the driver took Sebastien to a costume and cosmetics shop. There, she used some of the actual coin left to her name to buy two nice wigs, a few more pairs of colored contact lenses, and a book on stage makeup for actors, complete with illustrations and a cosmetics kit. After some deliberation, she also picked up a costume that was touted as a female pirate’s outfit. Really it was just tight leather pants and a puffy linen shirt, a half-corset that would cinch in her waist while leaving her chest free, and a lot of cheap costume jewelry along with a stencil to draw on some fake tattoos. And a fake, stuffed parrot.

The secret compartment in her satchel was stuffed to the brim now that it had to hold two small chests—and Myrddin’s journal, which she had retrieved from its hiding spot for good—and so the main, visible section of her satchel bulged with her purchases.

From there, she took another carriage to a housing agency, gave them a list of requirements, and scheduled a tour day for the coming weekend. Finding long-term accommodations of her own would be more expensive through the agency because of their fee, but she wanted to separate this task from the people who might otherwise be able to help her. And on her own, she simply didn’t have the time or connections to handle it easily.

By then, it was already approaching noon, and Sebastien made a third venture, back to the novelty shop she’d gotten the light-crystal coasters at. She picked up two sets of the embarrassingly pink journals that Ana and Nat used to communicate with each other. They were stupidly expensive despite being relatively low-powered and having all the standard problems of sympathetic connections.

Damien had been right. She needed a way to communicate with others more easily, especially now that she wouldn’t be going to Dryden Manor and simply talking to Oliver when she needed anything. She would have preferred a distagram to the journals, but even though she could afford one, technically, she didn’t have the necessary connections to buy one.

On a whim, she looked for the light coasters, finding them in a half-empty box marked “sale.” After a moment of hesitation, she decided to buy them all, lest she find she needed more once the stock had already sold out. Even if she didn’t need a couple dozen thirteen-pointed-star disks, these would be good objects on which to practice her beacon-imprinting once she had completed the guiding light ritual.

When her fingers started to tremble and unbidden thoughts of the beamshell tincture prickled up, she forced herself to stop and eat the lunch Sharon had packed for her despite the sick feeling in her belly that was smothering any sensations of hunger. The meal helped settle her, and she even splurged for a cup of coffee that was fifty percent cream and zero percent magic.

A random woman came up and tried to start a conversation with Sebastien about some party that was she was organizing in a nearby park, but it quickly became awkward enough that the woman took the hint and left.

Sebastien finished off the last of her coffee and laid down a few coins on the table. As she rose to leave, her eyes caught on the coin. ‘Was that woman trying to get me to give her money?’ she realized suddenly.

She looked down at herself, remembering how much her clothes had cost. It did somewhat make sense why people would assume she was the kind of person who would toss a few gold to charity on a whim. ‘Even if these clothes are from last season,’ she thought with a wry smile.

From there, Sebastien rented a room with a sink and a mirror, transformed into Siobhan, and spent the next three hours struggling with her disguise. She wore the shorter of the two wigs, a short, ragged bob. It was high quality and reminded her of an autumn forest, or perhaps an earthy sunset. Once she figured out how to get all of her own hair pinned flat to her head and out of the way, wearing the wig was the easy part.

After that, she flipped through the book on stage makeup and, with a half-dozen failed attempts that she washed off in the sink, she subtly changed the look of her face. She rounded the natural almond shape of her eyes, and with some foundation slightly lighter than her normal skin tone, she softened the definition in her cheekbones, rounded her jawline, and made her chin seem slightly more pointy. Very, very carefully, she gave herself freckles and then put in contact lenses that would subtly lighten the striking darkness of her eyes.

Finally, she put on the pirate’s outfit, which—without the costume jewelry, tattoos, or the stuffed parrot—didn’t look too ridiculous. The pants were a little tight and didn’t have nearly enough pockets, and in this body the half-corset pushed her chest up and out to moderate effect. She even went so far as to utilize a few spell components to give herself an earthy, musky smell, and put dirt under her fingernails.

Siobhan reviewed her work in the mirror. This disguise was not meant to go unnoticed. It was simply meant to be so far from the idea everyone had of Siobhan Naught—or the Raven Queen—that it would never cross their mind to suspect her. She tilted her head to the side and smiled brightly at her reflection.

This woman was more brash, carefree, and straightforward. A little alluring, with the form-revealing clothes, but the type to drink foamy beer and punch anyone who offended her in the face. Underneath the thin veneer of roughness, she was secretly soft and cute. She knew no magic but could tell a dozen raunchy jokes. Even Ennis probably wouldn’t recognize her if he passed her on the street.

Siobhan walked back and forth a few times, taking long, hip-swaying strides while she kept one side of her mouth in a subtle smile, her eager gaze taking everything in. She did not consider herself a skilled actress, but it was impossible not to have picked up anything from Ennis after having been pulled into so many of his schemes over the years.

When she felt ready, she sneaked out of the inn and swaggered off to the Nightmare Pack’s underground fighting arena. People noticed her, but they didn’t think about her. The only downside was that without her overblown reputation, it was a lot harder to talk to the underground arena’s manager alone, and when she finally managed, he assumed she was there to sign up for the fights. When she denied this, he grew quite irritated and told her to “stop wasting his time and show herself out” of his office with a sharp, dismissive wave.

Siobhan was forced to lift one hand to her mouth and whisper the chant for her shadow-familiar spell.

As her shadow stretched out beside her and rose over the edge of the manager’s desk to loom over him, the man froze. He looked up very slowly. His face paled as he met the illusory gaze of her shadow, which was really only darkness beneath the hood. His gaze trailed excruciatingly slowly from it to her.

She gave him a lopsided grin and lifted one hand to waist height to wave cheerily. “Hi again! It’s me.”

The manager’s eyelids fluttered, and he sagged back into his seat with a weak moan as his knees failed him.

Siobhan let her shadow collapse back into its natural state beneath her, staring at the swooning man with dismay. ‘What do I do?’ she wondered. She had taken two steps forward, mentally reviewing the basic medical knowledge she’d gained, when the manager jerked back from her, almost toppling his chair over.

She stilled, arm outstretched.

He scrambled out of the chair and bowed so deeply his head thumped into his desk. He reeled back, took another step away from her, and bowed again. He stayed that way for a few long seconds of silence.

Siobhan cleared her throat. Perhaps it would be best to simply pretend none of that had ever happened. “I require someone discreet to run a small errand.”

The manager straightened, staring at a spot somewhere over her left shoulder. His forehead was red where he’d smashed it, and would probably bruise.

“I need someone to request a meeting with Gera of the Nightmare Pack, or, if she is busy, to some other competent and trustworthy leader. Discretion is paramount. It is more important than speed.” She hesitated, but decided that, as frightened as the man still seemed to be, it was important to be clear, even to the point of repeating herself. “I am happy to wait.”

“It will be done at once, my queen,” the man said with yet another bow. He tried to rush past her, but she stopped him.

“Take this,” she said, handing him a tiny jar of bruise balm. It was a travel size, which she’d thought perfect for adding to her caches of emergency supplies throughout the city.

He stared at her as if she’d tried to hand him an explosive stink bomb.

“For your forehead,” she explained.

Moving slowly, he held out his hand and accepted the tiny jar from her, eyes wide. “Thank you.”

Discretion,” she repeated to his back as he scurried through the doorway.

While Siobhan waited, thankfully without any signs that the manager had shouted her presence to all the arena’s employees, she pulled out one of the warded chests she’d purchased from Liza. She unlocked it and set it on the edge of the manager’s desk. Then she set up some dye and a color-changing spell to transform the four journals into a more appropriate black. When that was finished, she adjusted the light crystal in a few of the coasters into the same thirteen-pointed-star shape as before.

Finally, a soft knock sounded on the door.

“Come in!” Siobhan called cheerfully, maintaining her false persona just in case.

The manager opened the door and Gera entered, followed by Lord Lynwood. She moved to stand in front of Siobhan and bowed.

Lord Lynwood frowned in confusion. “I believed we were here to meet the Raven Queen. Are you her messenger?” he asked Siobhan, his voice smooth and deep.

Gera swept her leg out and kicked him in the ankle, then shaded one side of her face with her hand, as if trying to conceal her expression as she gave him an angry, urgent look and jerked her head at Siobhan. She pulled her hand away and smiled, close-mouthed. “Lady Raven Queen, thank you for calling us. I hope you have rested well?”

Lord Lynwood did a double-take at Siobhan, who was still sitting in one of the two guest chairs. His eyes widened.

“I have. Now it is time to move forward again. I have promises to keep.”

Very carefully, Lynwood pressed his hands to the sides of his legs and gave her a quarter-bow. “My apologies, my lady. Your skill at transformation is…remarkable. I hope you will not take offense at my lack of discernment.”

“Of course not,” Siobhan assured him. “Be at ease, both of you.”

The manager surreptitiously closed the door, as if he were afraid of what might happen if anyone noticed him escaping.

Siobhan looked at the closed door. “He was much more enthusiastic the first time we met.”

Gera’s mouth twisted wryly. “If I might speak plainly?”

Siobhan nodded.

“He was very concerned that you disliked the royalty suite so much that you…burnt all the bedding. He has called for an audience with myself and Lord Lynwood three times within the last week to enquire what might have been the cause of your ire and how he might mitigate any repercussions.”

Siobhan blinked. She almost wanted to laugh, but as the Raven Queen, that might undermine her image.

“He has delicate nerves,” Lord Lynwood added with subtle humor, his wolf-amber eyes creasing at the corners. They reminded her of a duller, darker version of the almost glowing eye she had seen from that thing while under the sensory deprivation spell.

She shook her head to rid herself of the memory. “I was not displeased. I burnt the bedding and towels for my own reasons. There will be no repercussions.”

Gera bowed her head. “Thank you. I will inform him.”

Siobhan realized that, despite there being two other chairs in the room, one was adjacent to her and the other was the manager’s. Gera and Lynwood were both standing awkwardly beside the desk, facing her, but showed no inclination to take either seat. Siobhan stood and moved to take the larger chair behind the desk, waving for them to take the guest seats. “I called you here to discuss the fates of those I managed to save from the High Crown, as well as the boons I have yet to fulfill. What is the current situation?”

Almost as if she had been planning this report, Gera spoke immediately. “Those affiliated with the Verdant Stag were returned to their care. I understand they are handling things competently, with secrecy, relocations, or in the case of their enforcers, safety among numbers. There was an attempt to arrest one Mr. Gerard, but this failed without casualties. I am not sure the plan for their people going forward. Mr. Gerard now has a bounty on his head.”

“How much?” Siobhan asked.

“Fifty gold.”

It was practically nothing. Only the most desperate and incredibly foolish would go against the Verdant Stag for such an amount. Especially when everyone knew that they would give loans to the desperate, and then provide jobs for them to pay off their debts.

Gera continued. “The boy Theo, of course, is safe from accusations of treason. The High Crown could never admit the truth. But I doubt Ms. Russey will allow him to see the sun again without a blooded guard on either side.”

Theo would chafe at the restrictions, but Siobhan understood. “And your own people?” she asked.

“We have kept them safe within wards. There have been no attempts to scry for them, and they told me that you destroyed whatever samples the Pendragon Corps took?”

“All that I knew of,” Siobhan agreed. It was also possible that their enemies had simply given up on sympathetic magic. That had been the point of feeding a couple drops of her blood in time-release capsules to a few dozen ravens. She wanted to prove to them that their efforts were truly hopeless. There was no point in hiring more and more powerful diviners, because even if they “found” her, they would discover only what she wanted them to.

“We have offered relocation to another city, but to an individual, all have declined. They do not wish to run and hide when they have done nothing to deserve such punishment. Additionally, I believe your presence in the city provides some comfort. Deidre Johnson particularly seems emboldened by it.”

Siobhan frowned. “Who?”

Gera paused, her mouth slightly open. “Deidre Johnson… The woman with the burns?”

“Oh.” So that was the praying woman’s name. “I hope they understand that I am not all-powerful or omniscient. That I was able to help recently was largely due to Millennium’s quick thinking and particular abilities. The High Crown’s men had misjudged my talents and were taken by surprise. In addition to that, they were quite literally divided because of the events going on in the city, and so we only had to overcome a portion of their number. Luck was on our side.” While her reputation came in handy quite often, it wasn’t worth it if innocent people placed themselves in danger because they thought she could save them.

“I understand,” Gera said.

Siobhan narrowed her eyes. The other woman didn’t seem properly concerned. ‘Does she really understand?

“We also have reason to believe that for most of our people, the Pendragon Corps is not aware of their identities. They were taken by happenstance and were not carrying identification papers. Without their blood or hair samples, the Pendragon Corps would have to track them down based on the memories of their appearance alone. So we hope to provide them new identity papers and place them in more secure positions. All except Millennium and Deidre Johnson will likely be safe from notice.”

Gera hesitated, then added, “Miss Johnson is…enthusiastic.”

Lord Lynwood snorted with uncharacteristic crudeness.

“We’ve been allowing her to stay in the manor for her own safety. She has begun to hold gatherings in the dining hall, which…” Gera coughed awkwardly. “I hope it does not cause offense, but there really isn’t the space for it, and while all that come to the gatherings are surely trustworthy, I would feel more assured if there was less traffic in and out of the manor. Would it be alright to set her up with a separate community gathering space? They would have no trouble purchasing guards, I think, though if you wished we could provide the security as part of the repayment for the favor you have done us.”

It sounded like some sort of support group. Siobhan could understand why someone who had gone through something as traumatic as Deidre might want to be around others who could understand her experiences. “As long as all involved know the danger that meeting publicly could bring, I don’t see the harm in it. But, if possible, it would be best to keep these gatherings secretive as long as Deidre or anyone else with a connection to me is in attendance. Perhaps they could all contribute a small amount to security and afford wards and a guard or two. While I understand Deidre’s desire to be among people with similar experiences, I will not be funding her efforts.”

Gera nodded slowly. “She is also compiling a book of sorts about…well, about you. She’s been talking to various people who’ve interacted with you and writing their experiences. It seems harmless, but I know that you lean toward secrecy by nature. Should I tell her to stop?”

Siobhan leaned her head to the side, wondering the purpose of such work. Perhaps it was simply another way to deal with trauma. “I hope she’s aware of how the Crowns would react to such a book being published.”

Lord Lynwood shook his head. “Miss Johnson is perhaps a little zealous, but she is not oblivious. Simply bold…and angry.”

Siobhan sighed. “I understand that.”

“She is not a member of either the Nightmare Pack or the Verdant Stag, you know, just a civilian who saw a young boy in danger and tried to do something about it. I am grateful to her,” he added. “She would have made a good enforcer, if her calling didn’t lie elsewhere.”

The idea of someone writing some kind of eye-witness memoir about the Raven Queen made Siobhan feel quite ambivalent. She almost told them to stop Deidre, but a thought gave her pause. ‘Perhaps a well-researched exposé covering the truth of Siobhan Naught and the Raven Queen could help me some day, if things went to shit and I desperately need to sway public opinion, or the mind of a fair judge, or something.

“I will allow it, but only if she avoids taking the exaggerated rumors as truth. If she is going to write such a book, it should be as factual as possible. That is very important to me.”

She paused, then added,  “When she finishes a first draft, I will read it and give corrections or suggestions.”

Gera’s lips wobbled as if she couldn’t decide whether she was worried or delighted.

“We will help her on her search for truth,” Lord Lynwood said, his smile standing out sharply against the darkness of his skin. “I must say, I never expected this, but I am fascinated to see what comes of it. We certainly live in interesting times.”

Siobhan had the momentary feeling that she was missing something, but then realized that of course Gera had mixed feelings about all of this. She wanted revenge on the High Crown, which telling the truth might help, but she was probably worried about Millennium’s part in it being revealed, or the backlash that exposing the High Crown’s deplorable actions might trigger. Lynwood was more aggressive by nature and seemed ready to take on anyone for the sake of his adopted nephew.

“What about Mr. Parker’s family?” Siobhan asked.

“We retrieved his daughter and sister-in-law immediately,” Gera said. “They are both safe, though the daughter is understandably distraught at the loss of her father. His sister-in-law is…frustrated by the situation, which she feels she is not responsible for but must pay for nevertheless. We have paid off their house and retrieved the deed, which has been placed in his daughter’s name. However, for safety reasons they have decided to rent the residence out while they move to Paneth, where they will live under assumed names. The Nightmare Pack has agreed to manage the property for the next ten years. By then, Mr. Parker’s daughter will be grown and able to make her own decisions on how she wishes to proceed going forward.”

“You have done well. Thank you both.”

The woman’s blind eye widened, and she shifted uncomfortably in her seat, but Lord Lynwood merely nodded to Siobhan.

“What of the man who yet lives? Mr. Anders requested my boon go toward his dog.”

This time, Lynwood spoke. “The man remains in our manor. There were several scrying attempts the first day, but they have stopped now. He generally keeps to himself, with only his dog for company. He will not leave until you have seen to the creature and performed whatever rejuvenating magic you are capable of, but I believe it might be possible to recruit him on a long-term basis, if all goes well. He would be an asset in what is to come, even considering that they have a sample of his blood.”

Lynwood and Gera shared a look, and then the woman said, “I do not mean to doubt you, my lady, or to pressure you into action, but I have doubts about Bear’s—the dog’s—ability to cling to life much longer. Mr. Anders already has him on a complex and delicate regimen of healing potions, but…it is a miracle the creature has lived this long already.”

Siobhan’s stomach sank. “Tell me about this Bear’s condition. In detail.”

It took Gera three entire minutes to cover everything that was wrong with the dog, as well as what Anders was doing to keep him alive against all odds.

What did I agree to?’ Siobhan lamented internally. Aloud, she said, “This is a difficult task indeed, but I will do what I can.” It would require blood magic. But if Siobhan could help it, she didn’t want to go around killing a half-dozen dogs to boost Bear’s vitality, even if some people did consider the animals a nuisance to the city. Even if she could probably find some that were miserably starving and might die by next winter anyway.

“I have an idea,” she said. The notion wasn’t something she might have considered previously, but it wasn’t so different than what she and Liza were doing with the sleep-proxy spell. Siobhan had been musing about how transmogrification really worked, and if she was right, then there was no need to Sacrifice the life of another to boost Bear’s vitality.

She could Sacrifice something adjacent to a life.

“If you will hire Liza’s help as my assistant and gather a few dozen dogs, I will consider our debt paid.”

“A few dozen dogs?” Gera repeated.

“Males without homes, preferably. The more, the better. Feed them up and get them healthy enough over the next few weeks to survive a shock. When they are ready, you can inform me through this.” Siobhan handed over one of the sympathetically linked journals. “These are simple and fairly weak, but effective within the limits of Gilbratha. Their magic will not work in my presence, however. I am in the process of implementing a workaround for that issue, and I will inform you through the journal when you may begin to reply to me. Monitor it frequently. Inform me at once if Bear’s condition takes a turn for the worse before the other dogs are ready. And if you would be so kind, please deliver this one to Liza,” Siobhan added, sliding a journal from the second bound pair across the table.

“Should either of you be in danger of losing these journals, or allowing control to slip into another’s hands, you should destroy them instead.”

“I will be vigilant,” Gera promised.

Finally, Siobhan pointed to the warded chest on the edge of the desk. “I have an errand I would like to request, as well. Within, you will find several gold bars and some berserker potions. Please take them. I would appreciate it if you could sell the potions and exchange the gold bars for gold crowns through a discreet intermediary. The serial numbers may have been logged, and I cannot use them as they are.”

“You have need of coin?” Lynwood asked.

Is he trying to subtly ask about what I plan to spend it on?’ Siobhan speculated. “I believe everyone finds coin useful.”

“That is true. It is only that I never imagined you…purchasing anything.”

Siobhan suppressed the urge to roll her eyes. “I assure you, my reputation as a thief is much exaggerated.”

Gera elbowed her brother in the side, and whatever Lynwood was about to say turned into a nod of his head instead.

“You may keep ten percent of whatever coin is returned, as a fee for facilitating this,” Siobhan said. “The remainder I will pick up when I come to the manor to see to Bear.”

Gera refused. “My son’s life is worth much more than some gold, and more than the repayment you have requested of me thus far.”

Since Siobhan couldn’t very well argue that Millennium’s life wasn’t worth very much, she was forced to concede.

But there was one last thing they could do for her. The Nightmare Pack should have the same kind of resources that Oliver did, so she requested multiple sets of false identity papers, the details of which she’d written down while working on her disguise. This task, she insisted on paying for, as it couldn’t be considered in any way related to Millennium’s rescue.

When Siobhan finally left the arena, she checked the lock box for a letter from Professor Lacer but found nothing.

While meticulously removing all traces of her disguise and reassuming her other form, her thoughts rolled over recent events as if they were so many stones to be polished by repetitive handling. As she got into a carriage on the way back to the University, pieces of her conversation with Oliver kept rising to the surface.

Sebastien was not sure how she had expected her confrontation to go, but it seemed obvious, now, that he would try to turn the whole thing around on her. She almost wished he could be, clearly and cleanly, an enemy.

If he were telling the truth, Oliver may not have harmed her maliciously, or actively, apart from the dubious terms of the loan. ‘But did I really not deserve the truth? Did I not deserve his trust about an issue that indirectly—and in some ways directly—involved me? It’s so important, he can’t have thought that I would react well if I ever found out. Of course, he probably never expected that I would find out.

His comment about the lopsidedness of their relationship flashed through her mind, and some miserable emotion that was too complex to identify wriggled through her chest. Maybe that part was true, a little. But her imperfections and unintentional wrongs did not mitigate or sanction his own.

He didn’t even apologize,’ she thought. Instead, he had once again chosen to try to manipulate her into responding how he wanted.

She didn’t want to make an enemy of the Verdant Stag. It was best for both of them to work together to ensure neither was caught. And at the very least, she thought she could probably trust Oliver not to have her assassinated, as long as she didn’t blatantly move against him. But she would no longer consider him a friend, and one day, when the identity of the Raven Queen was no longer needed, perhaps their relationship would fray away to nothing.

And did Ana actually sabotage his textile contract?

By the time Sebastien got to the dorms, the buzzing in her mind and the heavy stone in her stomach had become unbearable. She sat cross-legged on her narrow bed, her back against the cold stone divider and her face to the window, and cast Newton’s vibrational calming spell. If she could not calm her mind directly, she would forcefully adjust her mood via her body.

Damien arrived a few minutes later and knocked on the stone beside her cubicle curtain.

Sebastien let the spell fall away and called for him to enter.

“Sebastien, can you help me with duplicating this stupid ribbon? I’ve tried sixteen times in the last hour and I cannot get the texture—“ Damien cut off as his gaze catalogued her expression.

She cleared her throat. “I might be able to help. Have you tried the divination spells to examine the fabric yet?”

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

She lifted a hand to touch her face, wondering how he had known. She hadn’t started crying without realizing it, and she thought her expression was rather bland. If she were as good a liar as Oliver, Damien would never have suspected.

Damien hurried to sit on the bed beside her. “No one suspects anything about your escape from the kidnapping attempt, do they?”

She shook her head silently.

“Are you in danger? Is anyone…hurt?”

Sebastien realized suddenly that she was doing to Damien something very similar to what Oliver did to her.

Damien deserved better.

She cleared her throat again, her face feeling oddly numb, as if she existed at a great distance and was merely puppeteering her body. “No, it’s not about that. I need to tell you something. Or more like…” She trailed off, confused about what exactly she was trying to do and how to make it work. “Let’s go to the study room.”

Damien remained gravely silent as they traveled, until they were safe within the confines of the same inefficient sound-muffling spell that he’d come up with last time.

“I am upset about something I’m not going to reveal to you,” Sebastien announced before Damien could speak.

He blinked at her.

“I’m not going to lie to you, but I’m not going to tell you. I have a secret. Multiple secrets. And I don’t think you can guess them, but I hope you won’t try, just in case. I don’t want to deceive you, but I cannot ever tell you the truth. And the secrets…well, they do affect you a little bit. They’re big. They’re important. And…I’m sorry.” Her voice broke, and she lifted a hand to her mouth to keep any more words from spilling out. Her eyes burned, and she looked toward the ceiling to keep the unexpected tears from falling.

Before Sebastien could anticipate his movements, Damien stepped forward and wrapped his arms around her. He ignored her full-body flinch and just…stayed like that until her muscles relaxed. He was shorter than her, so his hair pressed into her chin, and her arms were pinned awkwardly at her sides. He seemed almost as awkward at giving hugs as she was at receiving them. His voice was slightly muffled as he spoke into the fabric of her shirt. “It’s okay.”

Sebastien sniffed. “What?”

“I mean, I’m not so nosy that I must know all your secrets. Not that I’m not curious. I totally am. Especially now that you’ve done this dramatic confession and everything. I really want to know. But I don’t have to know. If you ever feel that you can talk about it, I will listen and I will keep your secret.”

“You don’t know what you’re saying,” Sebastien murmured. “You can’t know.”

“Well…that’s true. But I think I know enough. I know you.” Damien released his awkward hold on her and stepped back. His cheeks were flushed, and he couldn’t quite meet her gaze. He tugged at the neck of his shirt. “I’m on your side, okay? That’s what I’m trying to say. Myrddin’s balls, why are you making me say such embarrassing things out loud, Sebastien?” He threw a halfhearted punch at her shoulder.

She sidestepped it, to both of their surprise, and then let out a watery chuckle.

Before Damien let the spell fall, he added, “If you need help with whatever this huge, horrible secret is, you can come to me. I might be more useful than you think.”

“Umm. Thanks.” Sebastien knew that would probably never happen, but it was the sentiment that counted.

 

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Chapter 190 – A Bitter End

Oliver

Month 4 Day 17, Saturday 8:10 a.m.

Oliver was meeting with Anastasia Gervin in his home office when he caught a glimpse of movement out of the corner of his eye. It drew his gaze to the wrap-around window behind his desk.

Sebastien was outside.

She stood in front of the wrought-iron entrance gate, looking up at the manor. She firmed her jaw, squared her shoulders, and stepped through.

This last week had been one of the most unpleasant in recent memory. The Friday before, on the day of Ennis Naught’s sentencing, Oliver had planned to take advantage of the opportunity to show himself in a very public place while “Lord Stag” made appearances elsewhere, at a time when the coppers would be too distracted to spend all of their resources trying to catch him. And if he had also thought to take some vindictive pleasure in seeing Siobhan’s father get what he deserved, surely no one would judge Oliver for that?

He had been at ease, because Siobhan knew of the danger the day presented and would stay safe under Liza’s wards. The worst Oliver had imagined happening was that Ennis Naught might be sentenced to death, and Siobhan, despite her disdain and resentment for the man, would be distraught at the fate of her father.

But from the very beginning everything had gone wrong. 

Katerin had broken the flimsy bracelet linked to its pair on Oliver’s forearm by mid-morning. He had rushed to her side, arriving to find her frantic at what seemed to be the pre-meditated and extremely determined kidnapping of her nephew. They both imagined horrible things and speculated desperately about who might want leverage over Katerin and Oliver. Or revenge. 

A moment of hope had appeared when one of the Verdant Stag subjects who owed them a favor arrived at the Verdant Stag with news. They had recognized Theo during the boy’s desperate attempt to escape and had taken the initiative to follow the kidnappers’ wagon on foot. Unfortunately, they had lost it after following it north for a few blocks.

Even with a strand of Theo’s curly copper hair, the Verdant Stag’s thaumaturges were too weak to find the boy.

Katerin had snapped and tipped over her solid wood table with a heaving roar, and then collapsed sobbing in Oliver’s arms. 

He had picked her up and bodily stuffed her into a carriage, which they rode with reckless speed through the clogged streets to Lynwood Manor.

Surely, Gera would be able to find Theo, Oliver had thought. No one could divine like a prognos. Especially not one that was forced to use magic constantly in everyday life.

But Gera had left earlier that morning without telling anyone where she was going. And then they discovered that her son was gone, too.

Oliver sent someone for Liza, but she didn’t answer her door.

It was only then that he had broken the bracelet that would call Siobhan to his aid. But she never came. Dread had filled Oliver’s belly to overflowing. This confluence of events had to be purposeful. Enemy action. And if Liza wasn’t opening the door, how could he be sure that Siobhan was safe behind her wards?

When the cloud of ravens began to coalesce in the Mires, Katerin had gotten it into her head that the coppers had caught everyone and were going to reveal them at Ennis Naught’s trial. Maybe to bait the Raven Queen into arriving. Maybe to execute them all as a reminder of their power.

Oliver thought it more likely that the Architects of Khronos had been behind it. They hadn’t found the book when they attacked and raided the Verdant Stag, but maybe they still weren’t convinced that he was uninvolved in its theft. Maybe they hoped to ransom off the people he cared for in exchange. That didn’t exactly explain Millennium Lynwood’s disappearance, unless perhaps the Architects suspected the Nightmare Pack of having the book, too, and were covering all their bases.

How the cloud of ravens played into it, Oliver wasn’t sure. But it was too unsubtle to be safe to approach personally. The best he could do was send a squad of enforcers dressed in plainclothes and hope that the ravens were only a decoy, and not Siobhan’s desperate cry for help.

Under Katerin’s urging, Oliver had gone to the Edictum Council while Katerin called on every favor and pulled every string the Verdant Stag had access to. Some of the higher-ranking coppers on the Verdant Stags’ payroll were assigned at the sentencing for the day, but despite the risks Oliver took to question them, they knew nothing. Oliver had barely been able to appear normal as he mingled among the nobles, trying to pick up any gossip or clues that could give them a chance. Any chance.

Something grew sick inside of Oliver when the raven delivered its letter to the center of the Edictum Council floor. Surely…someone was framing the Raven Queen? Taking advantage of her reputation, just as Oliver had speculated might be possible. Either that, or things had gone desperately wrong. Was Siobhan turning herself in? Wild ideas spiraled through Oliver’s head like debris carried within a tornado.

He almost hadn’t been able to control his reaction when Damien Westbay, of all people, decided that they should team up to figure out what was going on and ensure Sebastien’s safety. Westbay hadn’t been entirely useless, but he was painfully naive. Someday, that would get him into trouble that he couldn’t get himself out of, and then it would break him.

When a divination team at Eagle Tower was attacked, Oliver finally grew suspicious. This might be someone trying to take advantage of the Raven Queen’s reputation…but it could also, maybe, be the Raven Queen herself. And not out of desperation and fear. This was too well coordinated for that. It had been planned in advance.

After one of the most torturously frantic days of Oliver’s life, spent in excessively high states of anxiety as he ran around uselessly, his thoughts spiraling into ever-darker realms as the hours passed without hope, Katerin sent him a message on his distagram, which he’d moved into his carriage for easy access. 

Siobhan, Theo, Millennium Lynwood, and all the people that had gone missing along with them were fine. Oliver had rushed to the Nightmare Pack’s underground arena. But though everyone agreed that the Raven Queen had entered, and Katerin said Siobhan was sleeping in a room upstairs, Oliver was not allowed entrance.

When he had gotten the full story, and particularly Gera’s part in it, all the stomach-eroding worry that he had felt dropped away. It left behind anger, but beneath that, and more lasting, was a persistent dread. The anger burned hot, flaring up a few times over the week to come only to burn itself out again, but the dread never left. It grew worse every day that passed.

And now, Sebastien was here. Some of the anger flared up again as he was reminded of her thoughtlessness, her lack of care for him or the others under her protection that would lead her to create such a huge spectacle without even a warning. But underneath it, his dread crystallized into something hard and sharp.

Miss Gervin cleared her throat, dragging Oliver’s attention back to her. 

Had she been talking? “I’m sorry, I grew momentarily distracted. What were you saying?”

Miss Gervin stood, slipping the sheaf of papers they had been working on into her purse, which hardly looked large enough to hold them. “That’s quite all right,” she said with a smile. “I think we’ve covered the most critical bits. Why don’t we schedule a follow-up in two weeks?”

Oliver tried to keep the relief and impatience from his face. Anastasia Gervin was an extremely useful connection and receptive to his ideas in a way that few in the Crown Families were. He didn’t need to risk offending her just because he wanted to rush from the room and find Sebastien.

But when Oliver opened his office door to see Miss Gervin out, Sebastien was standing outside the door, back as stiff as a wooden soldier.

Sebastien’s eyes widened as she saw Miss Gervin.

Miss Gervin’s eyes flicked between them in the silence that followed, and then she took a large step forward and slipped her arm through Sebastien’s, tucking her hand into the crook of Sebastien’s elbow.

Sebastien relaxed somewhat, giving the other girl a grateful smile.

Ana squeezed her arm, then gave Oliver a bright, toothy smile that was aggressively perfect. “Sebastien! I’m so surprised to see you here. My father is letting me handle some parts of the business now, remember? I am collaborating on a very optimistic endeavor with Mr. Dry—oh, I’m sorry. With Lord Dryden here.” She rolled her eyes. “Mother is thrilled.” Another squeeze of Sebastien’s arm as she sidled a little closer until their shoulders bumped. “Do you want to get breakfast together, the three of us?”

At first, Oliver thought that she was flirting, trying to assert some kind of romantic claim. But she hadn’t pressed the side of her breast into Sebastien’s arm. Her tone was more cold than playful. And something hard and protective had come into her eyes that reminded Oliver of a guard dog.

She thought she was offering comfort and protection. And based on the way Sebastien gave her a small smile and didn’t even flinch at the touch of her hand, despite the way Oliver had seen her recoil from an accidental shoulder brush with a stranger on the sidewalk, Miss Gervin was successful.

Oliver frowned. What had Sebastien been telling her friends about him?

“That’s okay,” Sebastien said, gently disentangling Miss Gervin’s grip from her arm. “I had breakfast already, at the cafeteria, and now I’m too full to eat again. I just need to discuss some things with Oliver.”

Miss Gervin, to her credit, didn’t hesitate or ask Sebastien if she was sure. She just nodded to them both and walked away with a nonchalant wave over her shoulder. They watched her descend the stairs, and then, with a wave of invitation from Oliver, Sebastien followed him into his office.

Sebastien stood behind the chair Miss Gervin had been sitting in, her slender-fingered hands resting upon the wood frame of its back. She didn’t even wait for Oliver to sit down behind his desk. “Did you steal one of Myrddin’s journals?”

Oliver’s heart jumped as if it were trying to tear itself free of his chest. He stared at her for three frantic beats and then said, “I did.”

Sebastien showed no signs of surprise. “I also have one of Myrddin’s journals,” she said, as nonchalantly as if they were talking about cravats from a favorite tailor. “Just not the one people think. One of the other four.”

“You’ve been busy,” Oliver mumbled past numb lips. How long had she been working on this? Had she suspected him for a while now, or had someone else discovered the truth and told her?

“The one you have contains a method to transmute pure celerium from beast cores,” she said. She paused a moment for him to speak, but when he remained silent, she continued. “Do you know what the one I have contains?”

Oliver had to clear his throat before he could speak. “I don’t. Do you?”

Sebastien didn’t answer his question. “You used me as a decoy,” she accused, still seemingly without feeling.

If Oliver’s dread were tangible, it would have been slicing into his internal organs with every breath. They were at the top of a precipice now, and he could see no way of stopping their descent. Not when she looked like that.

Sebastien’s face was emotionless, and for the first time her eyes reminded him of those of a shark: cold-blooded, predatory, and uncaring. Responses ran through Oliver’s mind, different ways to try and mitigate disaster, to hold up the crumbling brick of their relationship, built so gradually and now tearing apart.

Before he could land on some magical answer, she spoke again. “Did you somehow cause Ennis to steal the journal?”

She knew too much. He couldn’t lie. “I didn’t. But…it’s possible the thief I hired took it upon herself to place a compulsion. Something to sow confusion. She left the country upon completing the mission, and I haven’t heard from her since.”

Sebastien nodded to herself thoughtfully.

“I didn’t tell you because you didn’t need to know. And I didn’t actually use you as a decoy. Not really.” His words were coming faster even though he tried to slow them, to keep them measured and with the perfect intonation that would somehow make her believe him. “I tried to keep you safe, even though I could have just let you be. That placed me in more danger. If I had ignored you completely, even if you were caught, even if my thief made a mistake when altering the expedition’s logs and they somehow discovered that an additional book was missing, I wouldn’t have been implicated. The information within can be used for the greater good. A way to create celerium could be the great equalizer for our society, as well as an insanely lucrative source of income.”

Sebastien raised one eyebrow and said dryly, “And with the celerium mines running dry, the power you would hold would be enormous.” 

Oliver already had another argument lined up, but his thoughts stuttered and tripped over each other. “What? The mines aren’t…”

She frowned darkly, accusingly.

“You really have been busy,” he said, the words slipping out without his conscious thought. It was a mistake. 

Her frown disappeared, replaced by the faintest sneer of disgust. 

“That would make a lot of sense,” he said carefully. “But I didn’t know that. I thought that those in power had just been restricting the flow of celerium into the market for the last couple decades as a way to artificially increase the price. Collusion to line their pockets by creating scarcity. But if that’s true, it…has major implications. If that’s true, I might need to accelerate my timeline on getting it decrypted.”

She scoffed. “You expect me to believe you didn’t already know?” Before he could respond, she snapped, “Or that our connection was solely for my benefit? That you gave me a loan with fifty percent interest and asked me to commit crimes to pay you back…just to keep me safe?”

“I didn’t know,” he said softly.

Sebastien sneered, one side of her upper lip drawing back to reveal the teeth beneath.

Something about that expression, not just angry but disgusted, sparked a bloom of anger. “I won’t apologize for acting in the best interest of all the people who we have helped, and all who we could still help, Sebastien. Every young child and aspiring free-caster could go to school. We could be an entire nation of thaumaturges. We could end poverty, scrub out the corruption and entitlement, and save lives. What you have now could be for everyone, without any of the struggle or the danger.”

Sebastien opened her mouth to retort, but Oliver held up a hand to stop her. “Listen. I will tell you once.” He paused, drew a deep breath, and repeated more softly. “Please listen. I didn’t intend things to work out the way they did. I never planned for Siobhan Naught to steal a book in my stead, or become the Raven Queen, or my friend. I may not have shared all of my secrets with you, but that has never been a requirement of our relationship, never a promise I made. And if you wish to speak of my manipulations, I admit it freely. As I said before, I have never bound anyone to me with a leash they cannot break, and that includes you. I may want to lift this country, this world, out of its own shit, but I am no saint. I do what is necessary, not what is right. But do not pretend that you have not acted similarly.”

He allowed the pause to linger, staring at her hard.

Sebastien returned his gaze defiantly.

“That little spectacle of yours, did you ever stop to think about the danger it might bring to the Verdant Stag? To the innocent people who you’ve never even met and apparently don’t care enough about to consider? Do you have any idea how many unwarranted arrests the coppers have been making in the last week to bring people in for questioning? I can’t even keep track of them. Did you consider the more direct harm that causing a widespread panic might do? That innocent people could be injured?”

Her expression had stilled again, but it wasn’t as dead as before. “Were people…injured?”

“Several.”

She blinked slowly but didn’t flinch.

“And more have been harmed during arrests or questioning. That part, you might argue, isn’t your fault, but if I had known about your plan, I could have made preparations that might have mitigated the severity of the situation. And this time, you might say, was out of desperation. But it’s not the first time you put aside morality or honor when it suits you. Did you really expect that I would think it a coincidence when the textile sub-commission that I had worked out and agreed upon with Lord Gervin suddenly fell through? And just before you came to me with such an advantageous solution to my newly created problem. You were saving yourself, to be sure, but risking harm to everyone that sub-commission would have helped. Thousands of people given work, tens of thousands given warm clothing through the winter months or dressed in something other than rags. If you hoped that I wouldn’t notice your sabotage, you should have been more subtle.”

Sebastien rocked back on her heels. She frowned in seeming confusion, looking away and muttering, “Ana,” to herself.

“Your friend did not tell me. She had no need. I am not so foolish. But I didn’t even hold that scheme against you, Sebastien. Because even though we’re on the same side, I have never expected altruism of you. I have considered us friends. I have given gifts of monetary value, knowledge, and protection. I have gone out of my way to keep you safe, even at danger to myself.” He laughed bitterly, and Sebastien flinched. 

“But when it comes from you to me, it is always a transaction,” Oliver continued. “You will never act on my behalf unless receiving something in return. And perhaps you became used to my generosity, to the point that you expect it and become angry if I do not immediately, even preemptively, give to you. So, let us transact, now. If you want complete honesty from me, want to know all my plans and secrets and all the ways I move under the surface of this city…what will you give me in return?”

Sebastien’s pale skin first grew even more sallow, and then her cheeks flushed with rage, her black eyes glinting. For a moment, her shadow seemed to waver like a ripple over the surface of a pond. “So be it,” she whispered, her voice trembling. She swallowed and lifted her chin. “Should you wish to speak with me again, you will pay tribute, like the rest of those who treat with the Raven Queen.”

And with that, she spun on her heel and made for the door.

“Wait.”

She stilled, then turned slowly to look at him again.

“Does anyone else know about the book? The one I have?” he asked.

When she smiled it was a small, mean thing. “No. And I will not tell them. We will keep each other’s secrets, hmm? A fair trade.

Oliver watched her leave, and then listened to her walk away at a measured but fast pace. A few minutes later, she said a warm goodbye to Sharon, was forced to accept a picnic basket of food, and left.

The echo of the front door, though it had been closed gently, seemed to reverberate through Oliver’s bones. He forced himself not to watch her leave through the window. Instead, he pressed his trembling fingers to the cool wood of his desk. Then he let his head slump down onto his hands.

He had lost something precious, and it was more bitter than he ever imagined.

 

Edit 1/18: Azalea’s Arcane Alcove is opening up to everyone. If you want to discuss the books, theories, ships, and everything else under the sun with other readers who share similar interests, come hang out with us. I’ll be there for a few hours after dinner, too.

I did an AMA in The Library category/subforum a couple weeks ago, which you might find interesting to read through. https://alcove.azaleaellis.com/t/ama-ask-me-anything-600pm-mt/142/64



Original Author’s Note:
I’m just days away from sending this book off to my editor. It’s definitely the longest yet.

What do you think, should Oliver have apologized?

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Chapter 189 – A Great Divide

Sebastien

Month 4, Day 17, Saturday 12:55 a.m.

This time, Siobhan wasn’t able to hide her shock. ‘The celerium mines are running dry?’ The question echoed in her head, drowning out all other thought for a long moment.

“You…didn’t know,” Grandmaster Kiernan said, his eyes wide. He frowned. “Lord Stag didn’t even tell you what you were stealing? Perhaps it’s him you should be paying a visit in the middle of the night.”

“There’s another misconception at play here, but let’s set that aside for the moment. Tell me more about the celerium. No secrets, no lies.”

Grandmaster Kiernan swallowed hard but nodded readily. “A select few people have known for a while. That’s why prices have been rising so steeply. The Church of the Radiant Maiden, some of the Crowns, and a few among our number have been quietly buying up all the high-quality celerium on the market. Slowly, so as not to cause a panic. The Red Guard has probably been doing the same, but who knows with them.”

“Celerium isn’t the only thing that’s been rising in price,” Siobhan noted, her mind calling up the tags on various rare components in the market. She’d thought they were exorbitantly priced just because she was in Gilbratha, where they gouged you for everything.

Kiernan raised his hands, palms up in a half-shrug. “Well, yes. People aren’t oblivious. Components that are useful for particular battle and protective spells are being stockpiled, and the whole thing creates a ripple effect. Other people see prices on rare components rising, or can’t secure their usual supply, and they buy a little more than they need in case the situation continues. It becomes a vicious cycle and spills over into other areas.”

Siobhan tightened her hands into fists, then stretched out and flexed her fingers wide. “How long are Lenore’s celerium mines expected to last?”

Kiernan shook his head. “I only have estimates. Five years, maybe ten. But the mining is slowing down as we go. The Crowns have known about the issue for a while already. They’ve searched the entire country for any other celerium deposits and found nothing.”

“Five years,” Siobhan murmured. That was nothing. Five years until they ran out of the most valuable commodity on the planet.

“Without the book, our only hope will be to venture outside of the known lands in search of other deposits, or fight over the few remaining mines that still have supply. Silva Erde has a mine with a few decades remaining, according to our spies. Osham… Unless they’ve done a great job of keeping new sources confidential, they’re in a similar situation to us. They’re blustering as always about being the strongest, undefeatable and infallible, but it’s just propaganda.”

“What else is being done? Surely, with this much time to prepare…”

Kiernan’s lips twisted, sending his bushy mustache sweeping to the side like a broom. “Well, the Crowns’ most loyal thaumaturges and a select group here at the University have been working on creating ultra-pure artificial gemstones, blood gems from compressed magical beast blood, and any way that we might reconstitute shattered celerium into a whole once more. That, along with more arcane attempts to imbue objects with greater channeling capability. But just as in the thousands of years before this, none have come up with anything that can stand beside celerium. None except Myrddin,” he corrected quickly.

Thaumaturges have been using the celerium up for millennia now, shattering it into uselessness bit by bit, thinking that the deposits would never run dry,’ Siobhan thought. ‘I never even considered that celerium was a thing that could run out. It seems so obvious now, but I never questioned the status quo.

Aloud, she said, “It will create a class divide between thaumaturges that can afford celerium and those who cannot.”

Kiernan let out a humorless, breathy laugh, sliding back to sit more fully in his chair. “Oh, yes. But it will also create a power divide. Do you know the surest way to break a Conduit, besides channeling more than it can handle? Well, of course you do.” He waved his hand sharply. “Opposing another thaumaturge’s Will. Even if people are willing to carry around huge gemstones as celerium alternatives, and take the increased risk of Conduit failure in everyday life, none of the other options can reliably stand against celerium in combat.

The man gritted his teeth and added slowly, “Whoever can supply a competent force with celerium has a reasonable chance to control the nation. And whichever nation has access to celerium can hope to take over the known lands. The days of an empire loom on the horizon once more.”

Siobhan’s black sapphire Conduit pressed against the back of her ribs once more now that she was healed. It had a capacity of around seven hundred fifty thaums, but to be safe she would need to keep any spells channeled through it at six hundred fifty thaums or less. When she had gotten it, that seemed such a large number, and so far off. Now…she was almost there already. And if she needed to go up against a thaumaturge in battle, fighting for control of a spell array or to oppose the output of some spell they cast, she would need to keep the capacity lower or risk a sudden shattering.

Kiernan’s gaze was sharp like an eagle’s. “You didn’t know, but you’re not as worried about this as I would have expected.”

Siobhan felt that she was extremely worried, and appropriately so, but she stared back at him silently.

“They say you can cast without a Conduit. Is that true?”

“It is not.”

He paused, his expression suggesting he didn’t quite believe her. “If the High Crown gets his hands on that book, the power of the Crown Families will only grow. And with their power, their abuse will grow, too.” Kiernan’s scarred, knobby-jointed hands tightened into fists in his lap as he stared out into the dark. “And obviously, we at the University are a threat to them. They’ve made it so by their very fear of that reality. We have a great, if subtle, power over Lenore. We are the only accredited institution to provide Masteries. We create inventors, soldiers, Grandmasters. We mold those who hold great and terrifying power. And we have retained the right to admit or deny who we want from these august grounds. So the Crowns want us bound tightly.”

Kiernan looked back to Siobhan. “Each shackle and lock they place on us chafes more than the last. There are restrictions on what components we are allowed to buy, and how much. Audits to ensure we aren’t hoarding components that are considered potentially dangerous or useful in battle. Restrictions on the number of direct Apprentices we are allowed to take, as well as how many sponsorships we are allowed to give. Vows we are each required to take if we want to teach, requiring loyalty to the Thirteen Families—and the High Crown—even above loyalty to the nation. They can commandeer our services to help with difficult missions without advance notice. More aptly put, University professors are subject to a random draft.” 

His fists were white in his lap and his mustache trembled with rage. “People drafted to perform these dangerous missions tend to be those who the Thirteen Crowns feel are a threat. And somehow, somehow, they end up dying on the mission with surprising regularity.”

Siobhan had not known this, but she couldn’t say that she was particularly surprised to hear it. “So what is your plan?”

Kiernan hesitated, finally releasing his clenched fists. He rubbed at his swollen, rheumatic knuckles. “We only wish for freedom. Surely you can understand that? Freedom for everyone, not only ourselves. A life out of the shadow cast from the Crown Families’ boot. Free industry, so that merchants do not need to receive their favor to do business. Freedom to pursue knowledge and power. Freedom to know the truth of history and shine light into the dark shadows. The right to rule Lenore would come from worth, inconsiderate of bloodline or connections. New members of the ruling council would be brought in based on qualifications, and the old who were no longer worthy would be deposed. We would make things better, don’t you see? If only we had the book. Someone like you would be welcome in the kind of world we build.”

Somehow, Siobhan doubted it, but she didn’t say so aloud. During a long moment of silence, she considered the ramifications of several different responses. Finally, she said, “You have given me much to think on. Now I will do the same for you. People believe they know me and understand my actions. Have you ever considered that the book you are looking for never made it to Gilbratha?”

Kiernan leaned forward, frowning. “I…don’t understand. What do you mean?”

Siobhan knew there was some possibility that she really did have the book that could transmute beast cores into useable celerium, but after everything she’d learned, she strongly doubted it. The right kind of hint might lessen the pressure on her while still not directly betraying Oliver. The Architects of Khronos had already suspected and even raided the Verdant Stag, but they didn’t find what they were looking for. Kiernan should be susceptible to misdirection.

“Originally, the expedition into the Black Wastes retrieved five books from Myrddin’s hermitage.”

Kiernan’s sharp intake of breath revealed his ignorance.

“Everyone believes that if they find Siobhan Naught, they can obtain the method to transmute celerium. You might have wondered why I didn’t know of it, if I have that book? A book which was in truth taken by coincidence, or perhaps a compulsion, though I cannot be sure because I was not there at the time. But I do not hold the book you are searching for. Inside my book was something else, contained in a space-bending array that might have grown weak with time. Something powerful, precious, and old, but certainly not the kind of thing that could do what you hope for. Either your information about what Myrddin was working on is very wrong, or Ennis Naught didn’t steal the book that everyone thought he did.”

Kiernan stared at her, wide-eyed and clearly thinking hard, but the question he asked next wasn’t what she expected. “What happened to Siobhan Naught?”

Siobhan tilted her head to the side. Obviously, she was sitting right in front of him. Why was he speaking as if she was someone else? Surely everyone knew that, even if she were sprouting feathers from her hair and acting theatrically, the Raven Queen and Siobhan Naught were the same person?

But maybe they don’t,’ she realized suddenly. ‘Could that be an opportunity to clear my name? If I could detach my original identity from the crimes of the Raven Queen… I’ll have to be vague about it. I’m not sure exactly where this misunderstanding stems from.’ She didn’t have time to consider all the ramifications. This opportunity faded with every moment that passed. “Siobhan Naught was innocent,” she said softly. “A promising young thaumaturge, but not powerful or skilled enough to evade capture. But now I am here, and I am none of those things.”

Siobhan could only hope that these words wouldn’t come back to bite her in an unforeseen way, as the things she did without proper consideration so often did.

Kiernan, though, just nodded slowly, staring hard as if trying to see her face underneath the shadows of the cloak. “So the book we need is…missing?”

She hummed noncommittally. That was the question she had expected him to ask from the beginning, or close to it. “It seems so. I have one, you have three, and so another party must have the last. Now, I cannot be sure which is missing, but if Myrddin did write about such feats, then it seems likely to be the book you are all so desperately searching for. And the person who could manage such a smooth deception, letting no hint slip of their involvement? If I were you, I would be very careful how I went about investigating the location of the fifth book.”

Kiernan let out a harsh breath, sagging as he brought his fingertips up to his forehead. “Give me discernment,” he muttered, almost too low to hear. He lifted his head and lowered his hands to look at her. “But you could decrypt it, if you did have it? Could you decrypt the others, the ones we have, too?” He didn’t pause for her to answer, speaking more to himself than to her. “Even if they don’t have the culmination of Myrddin’s research, they might have hints of what developmental path he took along the way. We might be able to devise our own solution independently, if we knew the right direction.”

“I…might be capable of reading them.” ‘Someday,’ she added silently. She smiled wide and allowed the expression to leak into her voice. “But you would have to offer me a tribute that would make it worth my time, and the danger. Do you have anything that could tempt me?”

Kiernan fell silent, his gaze moving down and to the side as he thought.

Siobhan stood. She had learned all she needed, and it was time to go before she made a mistake or the tides of irony brought on some horrible, unexpected danger. She moved to walk away, but behind her, Kiernan called, “Wait!”

She turned, glad that he had stopped her, because she remembered something important. “Tanya Canelo,” she said.

Kiernan frowned. “Yes?”

“She has asked for my protection, and done a favor in advance to pay for it. If you cause her harm, you will pay in kind. She is not yours anymore. You may continue to employ her, if you wish, as long as you remember that she is mine.” There. Hopefully it would act as some portion of protection for the other woman against being sent out on further suicide missions. ‘No matter what he says, it seems Kiernan and the High Crown are not so different in that way. He is a hypocrite.

Stating an affiliation to Tanya might make it harder to use her for covert activity, but Tanya’s life had to be worth more than Siobhan’s convenience.

As Siobhan reached the edge of the tree line, she activated the dowsing artifact and allowed herself to disappear into the shadows between their towering trunks.

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