Chapter 101 – Game Plan

Sebastien

Month 1, Day 31, Sunday 9:00 a.m.

Sebastien took her first dose of the beamshell stimulant tincture immediately after her first meal of the day on Sunday. She had eaten every bit of her food even though she wasn’t hungry and had actually started gagging little toward the end. This ongoing lack of hunger was foreign to her, since, despite the cafeteria food’s low deliciousness factor, her normal appetite usually left her feeling vaguely unsatisfied with the amount.

Sebastien went into the bathroom, then, following the usage instructions very carefully, she measured out a single milligram and mixed the crumb-sized piece of paste into a cup of warm water, which she chugged. One milligram wasn’t even a full dose, but she was being cautious.

She clamped her mouth shut around the renewed desire to vomit. As her stomach settled, it began to tingle, as if the tincture inside her were crackling with lightning. This electric energy quickly spread outward, rushing up to her head and down to her toes, filling her with a flush of warmth and vibrancy.

Sebastien suppressed a giddy laugh.

With the new energy crackling along inside her, she headed to the library to fix her life.

She found an unoccupied table that caught some spillover light from the shimmering spelled glass that made up the library’s domed ceiling, basking in the brightness for a moment. The tincture had left her feeling a little buzzy and flighty, but she forced herself to stillness, considering her goal.

It’s time to take control and figure out my problem. I need a real plan, and a schedule to implement the plan.’ When she felt composed and calm, she opened her eyes and pulled out some note-taking supplies.

Okay, so like Tanya mentioned, list all the problems first before trying to come up with solutions to them,’ she thought. She scribbled a list of bullet points.

The coppers still have my blood, unless it was destroyed in the explosion.

I still owe the Verdant Stag almost eight hundred gold crowns of the original one thousand debt. Interest is a demon.

I’m feeling awake at the moment, but this isn’t going to do anything to stop the nightmares, which are the real problem.

I need to find something to give Damien a benign sense of purpose, focused on something that has less chance of getting me caught.’

I’ve got to maintain good academic standing in general, while also completing Professor Lacer’s auxiliary exercises, and also prepare something that will earn at least fifty contribution points in the end of term exhibitions.

She paused, staring at the list, then continued.

It’s also possible that there could be oncoming repercussions from Tanya’s University faction, or from the coppers, for my involvement in the Aberrant incident, even in my Sebastien Siverling identity.

She paused again, wondering if she’d covered everything. ‘If I fixed all these problems, would my life be alright?’ She considered Ennis for a moment, still imprisoned, but decided that she did not, in fact, care to do anything about that, and would be fine even if he was sentenced to work in the celerium mines for the rest of his life.

Finally, she added one last bullet point.

Do something about the Raven Queen’s reputation, and/or clear Siobhan Naught’s name?

That would definitely be ideal, but how she might go about doing that seemed extremely nebulous.

She waited a few minutes, letting her mind mull over the problems, trying to find issues she hadn’t dredged up, but finally decided that if she could deal with all the things on the list, it would be enough. Be that as it may, neither the size nor the severity of the list was trifling.

First, the danger of repercussions from the University or the coppers.’ She wasn’t entirely sure what she could do to mitigate such a nebulous threat. She would do her best to keep her eyes open and gather any relevant information, but her power in this instance was limited. Oliver had plenty of contacts in the coppers, and she had Damien, so there was a non-trivial chance that she would learn of danger to either identity before it became critical. But beyond that, realistically, she had to hope that the important people believed her about the reason for her involvement as Sebastien and thought her harmless. The coppers’ investigation was still ongoing, but if they found something to implicate her, she would have to deal with that when it happened.

Sebastien could, however, anticipate that the things that could go wrong, would go wrong, and attempt to be prepared for that eventuality. She might need to fight, or run. She might need to hide. She needed contingencies in place for the worst possible outcome. Options that she should have grasped before everything went to shit. If she had done this before, actually taking the safety of herself and those around her with deadly seriousness, and planned accordingly, maybe Newton would still be alive.

Her grandfather had told her once that it was hard for people to imagine experiencing the kind of catastrophe that had never affected them before. People in flood or storm zones only wanted to pay for wards strong enough to protect them from the strongest disaster in their own memory, not the strongest disaster that could realistically affect them. People read about accidents and crimes in the news, but didn’t believe those things would affect them or those they cared for. If they did, every house that could afford it would have anti-fire wards, and people would carry defensive artifacts when they left their homes, and would go to the healer at the first worrying sign of illness. Children thought they were immortal, because they’d never experienced death first hand.

But she…she should have known better. Her life with Ennis might have been relatively safe and mundane compared to her current circumstances. And she might have gotten used to not being able to prepare for everything, for lack of knowledge and funds. But she knew how dangerous, how horrific, how absolutely devastating life could really be. She could have tried harder to be ready for it, and taken the danger of what they were doing more seriously, rather than assuming that somehow things would just work out.

Sebastien had known better, intellectually, but she could see now that she hadn’t believed things could really go so wrong, because she hadn’t acted with the caution someone who believed would have shown. And maybe, even now, there was something waiting to destroy this new, precarious life she had built. Even if she did everything right, there was not even an ounce of fairness in the world. Catastrophe could, and would fall on those that did not deserve it, and it could come with all the power and shock of a meteor fallen from the heavens. It had to be her job to decrease the chances of that as much as realistically possible, and that meant preparation of the kind that didn’t come naturally to a human brain. Preparation for the things that could go wrong, not just things that had already gone wrong.

She added more bullet points to the list.

Make preparations for if I am caught.

Imagine various doomsday events and ways that I might avoid or make it through them. Run drills?

Try to train myself to be less foolish. Perhaps some sort of mental trigger that I respond to by stopping and considering the potential consequences more seriously, and only move forward if I realistically believe I am prepared?

The thought spurred a horrible realization, one that might have been hiding in the back of her mind for some time now, waiting for her to acknowledge it. ‘I shouldn’t have gone back downstairs for my bag. There is nothing in it so valuable that I should have willingly faced the Aberrant.

Her grip on her pen tightened at the thought. ‘If I had left the bag, the worst possible thing that could have happened is them realizing that Siobhan Naught and Sebastien Siverling are the same person. Perhaps, if things escalated, I would have had to escape Gilbratha. But the worst case scenario leading from my decision to go back and retrieve it is that I could have died, or became a second Aberrant.

She let the pen drop to the table as a full-body shudder rolled through her. She understood the concept behind calculating worthwhile risks. It was based on a simple formula of desirability vs. likelihood.

Dying or becoming an Aberrant were the worst possible outcomes, with a value of negative one hundred. Getting caught and giving up her schooling would be horrible, but at least if she was alive she had a chance to overcome somehow, so that outcome had a value of negative seventy. At the time, getting kicked out of school had seemed totally unacceptable, but when compared to the threat of dying, it was immediately obvious that school wasn’t nearly as important as she’d been thinking.

Then, to pick which option she should have gone with, she only needed to multiply the likelihood of each event with its desirability value. If the coppers had found her bag, and the bracelets on Newton’s arms, she guessed that Sebastien Siverling had a seventy percent chance to get caught, making the overall utility value of that choice negative forty-nine. It would have been smartest to just give the whole ruse up as a lost cause and escape preemptively, but there was actually still a chance she could have continued on if she played everything right.

Going down there to confront the Aberrant face-to-face had almost killed her. If not for the flash of a waking nightmare, it would have. In truth, she was ridiculously lucky to be alive to have this realization right now. And the decision had still almost gotten her caught. If she’d been just a little slower, instead of finding Sebastien escaping, the Red Guard would have found the Raven Queen, insensate and basically captured for them.

With a ninety-five percent chance of a break event or death, with an additional chance of capture even if she avoided the first two, the value of that choice was negative ninety-five, at least.

Her calculated utility values could be off, because factors in the real world didn’t come in discrete, whole numbers, and there were so many variables and potential outcomes that she couldn’t anticipate. But there was almost no way that facing down the Aberrant could have been the correct choice.

“Why am I so stupid?” she whispered to herself as tears pooled in her eyes, burning like acid. Before they could fall, she tilted her head back, opening her eyes wide and staring at the ceiling until they subsided. Perhaps the Aberrant’s hums really had been affecting her judgement, as she had claimed to Professor Lacer and the Red Guard. She almost hoped that was the case, because the alternative was that something was deeply wrong with her judgement.

She took a few deep breaths and swallowed down her shame. “I just have to do better. I can do better,” she said to the ceiling.

When her fingers could hold the pen again, she made a list of sub-points with all the things she needed to do to prepare for the possibility of a fight or flight situation. The list was even longer than her original list of problems, but at least each point was something she could actually accomplish. Tentatively, she marked which ones were the most critical, knowing that there would be more to come and that no matter how much she might wish it, she couldn’t do everything at once.

Attached to this problem was the blood sample the coppers had. Eagle Tower was in the process of being repaired, and unless the coppers had lost her blood or it was damaged in the explosion—which she couldn’t count on—they would be trying again. The next time, Tanya’s little trick wouldn’t work.

She’d considered the problem before, and had a few different ideas about how she could get rid of the blood. Most of them weren’t feasible, requiring either a very powerful thaumaturge, or a group of them, to channel enough power. The coppers weren’t entirely incompetent. Evidence was well-protected. ‘Liza offered to solve the problem for eight hundred gold crowns. Is there any way I could afford to hire her?’ Looking at the next point on her list of problems, which was her overwhelming debt, Sebastien set that idea aside.

Her best bet was still working out how to combine the reverse-scry spell with a curse, which meant she would need to research and practice sympathetic curses.

This extracurricular project was one she wouldn’t be requesting Professor Lacer’s help on. He might be willing to overlook something like the sleep-proxy spell, and maybe even research into curses, but he was too sharp for Sebastien to give him any hints about her identity. That could end up going very badly for her.

However, maybe Liza would be willing to consult for a much-reduced price, with some wheedling or extra incentive. Liza knew more about divination than anyone else Sebastien knew, and maybe could even suggest some better ideas about how to handle the situation. If Sebastien could afford it.

Which brought Sebastien to her next issue. Funds.

Even beyond the amount she owed to the Verdant Stag, it seemed like all other types of problems were easiest to solve when one had coin to throw at them, either directly or indirectly. It reminded her of a joke she’d heard once. “If your fireball spell isn’t solving your problem, you need a bigger fireball.” With enough gold, Sebastien would have entirely new ways to solve her problems, including hiring competent help or simply bribing important people to do what she wanted. Of course, that level of wealth was well beyond her reach. Sebastien was now at the point that an entire weekend spent brewing for the Stags until she reached exhaustion would cover about two weeks of interest, plus a little left over. That was huge, compared to where she’d started.

She thought back to the concoctions she’d seen in the Verdant Stag’s little apothecary. She hadn’t taken any particular note of the prices, but her mind was a steel trap. She closed her eyes, trying to recreate her experience as she walked through the shelves. She frowned as the details refused to come to the clarity she was used to, even after a couple minutes of effort. ‘Perhaps my memory was impaired by how fatigued I was at the time.

Still, she had the initial list Katerin had given her of what concoctions they were willing to buy, and a good idea of what the shop’s new offerings cost. With more estimation than she would have liked, she was able to roughly calculate which items would get her the best return on investment for her time and effort.

Sebastien still wanted to brew the regeneration potion for the practice it would give her Will with that type of magic—which was convenient as it was also one of the most lucrative options. She also still needed more practice with binding magic like the group proprioception potion, or the fish-based water breathing potion, which Oliver had mentioned the day before that the Verdant Stag would now buy.

But other than that, she needed to be focusing on the most high-value items. Many of those she had no experience with. Impotence relief potions, for example, were very lucrative, but she discarded that option because they were best brewed by a man—a man in a full state of arousal. She technically might have been able to meet that requirement, but she wasn’t interested in doing so in Oliver’s office, not for any amount of coin.

With her current capacity, a huge batch of the potion of moonlight sizzle could be worth it. Other than that, elixir of euphoria, Enkennad’s draught of shadowed concealment, and wit-sharpening potion were likely to be the most lucrative. She added a potion of night vision, feather-fall, and fleetfoot to the list, because they would be useful all-purpose battle magic that would probably pay well, and she wanted at least one or two of each to keep for herself anyway. If she could conceal herself, see where the coppers couldn’t, and move where they could not follow, she would have a significant advantage of surprise.

The alchemy was actually quite lucrative, it only seemed like she didn’t make very much from it because most of those earnings went toward her debt. The difference in income between a thaumaturge and a commoner was absolutely cavernous. An unskilled commoner might earn about five silver per day, or one hundred thirty gold per year, skewing slightly higher for men and lower for women. Most common families had everyone contributing what they could, even the elderly and the children. A huge chunk of the family’s wages would go toward basic food and lodging, with the rest going toward clothing and healthcare. Taxes took what little might have been leftover. A simple emergency could leave them homeless, or a family member dead for lack of healthcare, because they were living constantly on the knife-edge of poverty.

In contrast, an Apprentice-certified thaumaturge, even though they were only legally allowed to practice magic under the supervision of a Master or for their own personal use, but couldn’t sell items or services directly to others by themselves, could make forty gold a month. If they were skilled and found a good Master to employ them, that is. That was four hundred eighty gold a year, almost four times as much as an unskilled commoner. It was enough to support a family, frugally, all on their own, and if they budgeted well they might even have enough left over to save for emergencies.

If she were to work as an alchemist for the Verdant Stag full time, working a reasonable amount every weekday instead of pushing herself to exhaustion, she could make about seventeen hundred gold a year, significantly more than the average Apprentice’s wages, and more than enough to pay off her debt. ‘Of course, that would require them to be able to actually move that kind of volume of the low-power concoctions I’m able to brew.

Sebastien stared at that number on the paper before her for a moment, reconsidering her conception of how generous the Verdant Stag was really being with her. They could have, fairly, offered her much less compensation. Of course, it helped that they didn’t pay the thirty percent magic tax, they had no Master thaumaturge trying to get rich off the backs of their lessers, and they didn’t spend extra money on a fancy storefront, fancy decoration, or any marketing besides word-of-mouth referrals. Even their potion vials were the cheapest versions.

But despite the generous sum she made from alchemy, she only had ten weeks total before the next term started, and she would need to pay for more classes. She had slightly over fifty gold to her name, if she didn’t count the dozen coins sewn into her clothing, which she wouldn’t, because that was hidden away for exactly the kind of emergency she was trying to be better prepared for.

If I spent all of my free time brewing, every weekend until next term, and then the whole of the Sowing Break, and didn’t put any of the earnings toward the loan at all, I could maybe eke out three hundred extra gold. Altogether, I could barely afford the fees for six classes next term. Realistically, with my other expenses, that’s five classes, not six.’ The thought pained her, but dropping a class wasn’t the worst thing that could happen to her. She could learn a lot through self-study in the library, after all. And at the moment, the extra free time sounded heavenly.

Still, unless she dropped a class she would have zero coin left over for any other endeavors, including her new preparations. It also left her no time for taking a break. Alchemy alone wouldn’t be enough.

Even if Sebastien had cared only about coin, dropping out of the University to spend all her time brewing wasn’t an option. The Verdant Stag had given her that loan as an investment, and they were expecting greater things from her than low-level alchemy. Beyond the knowledge and skill the University would impart to her, the access to higher-level magics would become invaluable.

A thaumaturge needed variety and new magics to grow. Simply increasing the power channeled through the spells they were already familiar with was insufficient. Even if she could brew a batch of twenty, or a hundred regeneration potions, eventually the homogeny in practice would lead to a stagnation in her Will’s growth. Thaumaturges who became Archmages moved on from simple spells to complex ones that bent the world in new and interesting ways, their skills constantly building upon the foundation they created until they reached heights of understanding and skill that the average working-class thaumaturge couldn’t even imagine. There were no Archmages who were only alchemists, or only diviners, or only skilled with any single particular craft of magic.

Sebastien was willing to take requests from the Stag for other favors, as long as they were lucrative and relatively safe, but she couldn’t control if or when they would have work for her, or what kind of work it would be. Unlike most of the other missions the Verdant Stag might give her, alchemy was low risk, and she could control her own schedule.

Tutoring was another option, and she was sure that plenty of the people who loved to titter and gossip about her would be interested in paying a few coin to get an hour of forced interaction with her—especially some of the more foolish young women with so little stuffing in their heads that she was sure they must be struggling in classes. But tutoring was high-effort, low pay, unless she could somehow fill up an entire classroom with people who were willing to pay multiple silvers each for a single lecture. Sebastien simply didn’t know anything people would pay that much to learn. Nothing legal, anyway.

Prostitution was also not an option she was willing to consider.

Beyond those ideas, she could make coin selling spell information at the secret meetings. She would need to be careful of that, since the University knew the Raven Queen either attended personally or had a contact who attended. Even so, the secret meetings were too useful a resource to give up.

Sebastien created a list of sub-points to make attending safer. Many of those tasks were duplicates from the fight-or-flight preparation, but some were new. The first step should be reporting the possible issue to the group’s administration, so they could increase security.

And maybe, now that she didn’t have to trail Tanya, Sebastien could convince Liza that they should travel to the meeting together, which would make at least half of the trip significantly safer. Anyone foolish enough to accost Liza would regret it the same way they would regret slipping their foot into a boot that a brown recluse spider had commandeered.

The final option to earn coin was accepting requests as the Raven Queen, as she had done with Lord Lynwood. Even if she couldn’t answer peoples’ questions or solve their problems, they would have to give something of value just for the chance to meet with her. It seemed likely to backfire, with as high of a downside as the potential upside, but she could consider it if she got desperate.

Contribution points could also be exchanged for items of value, or used to directly offset the cost of tuition. The fifty points she was required to earn in the exhibitions were worth only about five gold in actual coin, however, and the amount she’d accumulated so far, even with the ridiculous bonus Grandmaster Kiernan had given her, was barely enough to make a dent in the cost of classes.

However, that brought her to the problem of the end of term exhibitions. As Ana had suggested, Sebastien would go through the University’s internal newspaper, which she never read normally, pulling back issues from the library to look up what earned contribution points among the type of spells she could actually cast.

She kept noting down possibly useful preparations and solutions until her mind ran dry, then ranked them by priority. Many of her problems would require more thought, and perhaps some discussion with Oliver, and quite a few of her possible solutions were temporarily beyond her reach, either because she couldn’t afford them, or because she wasn’t strong enough to implement them.

Finally, when she was finished, she stared at the ink-heavy pages in front of her to memorize them, then took them into the nearest bathroom, which wasn’t warded to set off an alarm from simple magic use like the library was, and burnt all the evidence to ash. She poured the ash into one of the self-cleaning chamber pots, watching as it disappeared.

Then she found the back catalogue of newspapers and began her research on the exhibitions. Professor Lacer had been right. Flashy things that would impress an audience of non-experts seemed more likely to be rewarded, at least among students of the lower terms. Examples were: fire or water-molding spells that were visually impressive and seemed like the kind of thing a storybook sorcerer would cast; a pair of shoes that let the wearer walk about a foot above the ground; a witch with a phoenix familiar actually got points for some sort of fire dance that, as far as Sebastien could tell, didn’t require any magical skill, but showed “impressive control of her bound companion.”

Scowling, Sebastien returned to her table only to find it occupied, so was forced to search for another table to continue her planning.

I should do something with light,’ she mused. That alone would be moderately impressive for a first term student, because light was a more difficult energy source to use, and a delicate spell output to control. It was also rather flashy, by nature.

Sebastien scribbled down some ideas of things that were within her capabilities, but still might seem more impressive than they actually were to a layman. She modeled her ideas off the kind of thing that would be popular in a traveling circus. ‘Ideally, whatever I come up with will use the same principles from the Practical Casting exercises. I need over a hundred more hours of practice on those by the end of term, anyway.’ Combining the two was only efficient.

Hopefully, by the end of term her Will would have continued to grow at the recent explosive rate. With all the practice she was getting with new, difficult magic, it seemed an inevitability. It had been a big disappointment to learn that while her sleep-proxy spell might be viable, it wasn’t within her grasp as a thaumaturge, and she was looking forward to rectifying that.

Sebastien straightened. ‘I know someone who could easily cast that spell. Liza might be expensive to hire…but what if I could obtain her help…without pay?’ The idea felt shocking, almost subversive, but Liza had proved she was interested in new, useful magic. Enough to pay Sebastien for it, if it was fascinating enough.

Sebastien stood. She still had problems to solve and potential disasters that she didn’t know how to solve, but she would need more time to think them over. In the meantime, she’d realized an opportunity to work on the one project that would lighten the constant, bone-crushing weight of all her other obligations.

And we’re back to the regularly scheduled Thursday chapter, which should continue without interruptions, barring accidents or extreme circumstances.

Want to get an email with links as soon as a new chapter comes out on my website, or get monthly Inner Circle news about my writing? Sign up for your preference here: https://landing.mailerlite.com/webforms/landing/q4b8d8

Subscribe
Notify of
guest
5 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
vee
vee
1 month ago

> She frowned as the details refused to come to the clarity she was used to, even after a couple minutes of effort.
Spooky. I hope this isn’t anything permanent!

>The Verdant Stag had given her that loan as an investment, and they were expecting greater things from her than low-level alchemy.
…Why can’t she just take a term off? It would let her lay low a bit, and there are clearly other places to learn magic outside uni so she can still improve and not stagnate. Honestly, I think she’s a bit too attached to the university. It’s way too high up on her priority list. Her goal is to learn magic, not to gain a license.

Qwat
Qwat
22 days ago

Expected utility calculation, I did not expect to find it here. 🙂 Based on this she would choose a scenario where she dies 3 out of 10 times (7 nothing happens) over a scenario where she is expelled 5 out of 10 times (5 nothing happens). That is kind of shocking, she really values the university highly, though she has already risked quite a lot for it, so I guess it fits the character.

Kilimandaros
Kilimandaros
22 days ago

they would regret slipping their shoe into a boot that a brown recluse spider had commandeered

Shouldn’t it be ‘foot into a boot’?

Isa Lumitus
Isa Lumitus
19 days ago

Well, Siobhan’s doing well so far. She just needs to keep looking for synergies to solve as many problems as possible with the same effort. Maybe she could talk to Lacer about taking a term off while she does some practical work for him. Work that, by law, has to take place outside Glibratha. Do this while the coppers are using the repaired divination tools, and don’t come back until they give up.