Chapter 101 – Game Plan

Sebastien

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

Sebastien took her first dose of the beamshell tincture immediately after her morning meal on Sunday. She had eaten every bit of her food even though she wasn’t hungry and had even started to gag. This ongoing lack of hunger was foreign to her, since, despite the cafeteria food’s lack of flavor, her normal appetite usually left her feeling only semi-full.

Sebastien went into the bathroom, then, and following the usage instructions very carefully, she used a toothpick to measure out approximately one tenth of a gram and mixed the crumb-sized piece of paste into a cup of warm water, which she chugged. A decigram 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 fizzing inside her, she headed to the library to fix her life.

One unoccupied table caught some spillover light from the shimmering spelled glass that made up the library’s domed ceiling. She sat down and paused, basking in the brightness for a moment. The tincture had left her feeling 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.

I will list all of the problems first before trying to come up with solutions to them.’ She scribbled a list of bullet points.

The coppers can still use my blood to scry for me, 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 devil.

I’m feeling awake at the moment, but this will do nothing to stop the nightmares, which are the real problem.

Damien needs a 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 to 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 incoming repercussions from Tanya’s University faction, or from the coppers, for my involvement in the Aberrant incident, even in my Sebastien Siverling identity.

She hesitated, wondering if she’d covered everything. ‘If I solved these problems, would my life be fixed?’ She considered Ennis for a moment, but decided that she did not, in fact, care to do anything about his imprisonment, 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 be ideal, but how she might go about doing that remained nebulous.

She mulled over the problems, trying to find issues she hadn’t dredged up, but finally decided that if she could deal with the whole list, it would be enough. Be that as it may, neither the list’s size nor severity were trifling.

First, the danger of repercussions from the University or the coppers.’ She wasn’t sure what she could do to mitigate such an indefinite threat. She would keep her eyes open and gather any relevant information, but her power here was limited. Oliver had plenty of contacts in law enforcement, and she had Damien, so there was a non-trivial chance that she would learn of danger to either identity before it became critical. Beyond that, she had to hope that the important people believed what she had told them about her—Sebastien’s—involvement 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 prepare for that eventuality. She might need to run, hide, or even fight. She needed contingencies in place for the worst possible outcome. 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 that could realistically affect them. People read about accidents, illnesses, and crimes in the newspapers, but didn’t believe those things would touch 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 firsthand.

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

Sebastien had known better, intellectually, but she could see now that she hadn’t believed things could really go so wrong. If she had, she would have been much more cautious. And maybe, even now, even if she did everything right, there was something she couldn’t see waiting to destroy this new, precarious life she had built. There was not even an ounce of fairness in the world, she knew that well enough. 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 was up to her to decrease the chances of such an event as much as 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 navigate them. Run drills?

Train myself to be less foolish.

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 was 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 become 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 ninety-nine and negative one hundred, respectively. Getting caught and giving up her schooling would be horrible, but if she were alive, she at least 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 her life.

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 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 many variables and potential outcomes that she couldn’t anticipate. But there was almost no way that facing down the Aberrant had 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 judgment, 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 judgment. Though she didn’t believe she was suicidal, her actions suggested differently.

Sebastien took a few deep breaths and swallowed 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. This list was even longer than her original list of problems, but at least each point was something she could accomplish. Tentatively, she marked which items were the most critical, knowing there would be more to come and that no matter how much she might wish it, she couldn’t do everything at once.

Next, she considered 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 were unfeasible, 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. Of Sebastien’s contacts, Liza was the most knowledgeable about divination, and maybe could suggest some better ideas about how to handle the situation. If Sebastien could afford it.

Which brought Sebastien to her next issue. Funds.

Beyond her debt to the Verdant Stag, it seemed like all other types of problems were easiest to solve when one had coin to throw at them. It reminded her of a joke she’d heard once: “If a fireball spell can’t solve your problem, you need a bigger fireball.” With enough gold, Sebastien could make other problems into money problems. She could hire competent help or bribe 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 had taken no 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. Even after a couple of minutes of effort, however, the details wouldn’t come to the clarity she was used to. ‘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. Many of those she had no experience with. She chose a couple for their usefulness to her, some for the practice they would give with a particular type of magic, and some for their effect. All-purpose battle magic, like potions of night vision, feather-fall, and fleetfoot, would 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.

With more estimation than she would have liked, she calculated what other items would get her the best return on investment for her time and effort. Impotence relief potions, for instance, 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.

If she were to work as an alchemist for the Verdant Stag full time, producing a reasonable amount every weekday instead of pushing herself to exhaustion, she could earn about one thousand seven hundred gold a year, significantly more than the average Apprentice’s wages, and more than enough to pay off her debt. With their expanded client base, they could probably move sufficient product to make it possible.

Sebastien stared at that number on the paper before her, reconsidering her conception of the Stags’ generosity. They could have, fairly, offered her much less. 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, decoration, or any marketing besides word-of-mouth referrals. Even their potion vials were the cheapest versions.

Still. A low-wage laborer might earn about five silver per day, or one hundred thirty gold per year, skewing slightly higher for men and lower for women. In many common families, everyone contributed what they could, even the elderly and children. A huge chunk of a low-income family’s wages would go toward basic food and lodging, with the rest going toward clothing and healthcare. Taxes took what little might be leftover. One emergency could leave the poorest families homeless, or someone dead for lack of healthcare, because so many lived forever on the knife-edge of poverty.

In contrast, an Apprentice-certified thaumaturge, even though they could only legally practice magic under the supervision of a Master or for their own personal use, not sell items or services directly to others, could make up to forty gold a month. Almost four times as much as a low-wage laborer. It was enough to support a family, frugally, and if they budgeted well, they might even have enough left over to save for emergencies.

But despite the generous sum Sebastien made from alchemy, she only had ten weeks before the next term started, when 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 every weekend until next term brewing, and then the whole of Sowing Break, and didn’t put any of the earnings toward the loan, I could maybe eke out three hundred extra gold. Altogether, I could barely afford the fee for six classes. 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 could impart to her, the access to higher-level magic would become invaluable.

A thaumaturge needed variety and new magic 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, fifty, or even a hundred regeneration potions, eventually the homogeny would lead to stagnation of 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 professional thaumaturge couldn’t even imagine. There were no Archmages who were only alchemists, or only diviners, or only skilled with any single 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.

Tutoring was another option, but it was high-effort and low-reward, unless she could somehow fill up an entire classroom with people 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. And imagining a gaggle of gossiping, intrusive classmates showing up with the idea that they could ask personal questions of her made her shudder.

Prostitution, while it could be lucrative, was also not an option she was willing to consider.

With great caution, she could make coin from the underground thaumaturge meetings. The University knew the Raven Queen either attended personally or had a contact who did so, but despite that, the meetings were too useful a resource to give up.

Sebastien created a list of sub-points to make attending safer. Many of these tasks were duplicates from the fight-or-flight preparation, but some were new. The first step would be reporting the 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. Siobhan could just hide behind Liza while the woman dealt with any threats.

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 people’s 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 offset tuition directly, but at about one silver each, even a couple hundred would barely make a dent.

Sebastien continued noting down 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 wasn’t strong enough to implement them.

When she 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 and watched as it disappeared.

Then she found the back catalogue of newspapers and began her research on the exhibitions. Professor Lacer had been right. Lower term students had earned the most contribution points for things like a water molding spell that took the shape of a magical creature; a pair of shoes that let the wearer walk about a foot above the ground; and there had even been a witch with a phoenix familiar that did 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.”

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 flashy by nature.

Sebastien scribbled down ideas of things that might seem more impressive than they actually were to a layman, modeled off of what 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 clearly prudent.

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 evade, but she would need more time to think them over. In the meantime, she’d recognized 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.

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