Chapter 102 – First Moves

Sebastien

Month 1, Day 31, Sunday 12:00 p.m.

As the first step in implementing solutions to her problems, Sebastien returned to the unused second floor classroom that she’d used to practice her divination. Even if she couldn’t trail Tanya personally, they still had a way to track her, using the bone disk in a different way.

While she set up the spell array and components for the mapping spell, Sebastien kept thinking. ‘If I could get the coppers off my back entirely, I might not even need to worry about them having my blood. If I could get them to stop considering me a criminal, or make it more costly to keep going after me than what they would gain from the attempt, or give them something they want even more than the Raven Queen…’ She sighed, shaking her head. Even if she could keep them from charging her with treason and blood magic, some of the other things she’d done in the meantime would probably still be considered a crime, and she wasn’t willing to go to jail for any amount of time.

This wasn’t the kind of problem she could fix through entirely legal means, not at this point, and not when she had so little power. Illegal means, such as blackmail or bribery, might still be on the table. If she had some way to be sure she could trust the coppers not to arrest and execute her, she could make a deal to give back the book in exchange for her freedom. But making that kind of deal was the kind of thing that required some extra leverage to ensure they wouldn’t go back on their word when it suddenly became more convenient for them to do so.

Still, it was worth keeping in mind that there might be other solutions to her problems that could be seen if she came at them from a different angle.

If she could decrypt the book, perhaps that would give her a better idea of the best options, or the leverage she would need to keep the University and the coppers sufficiently wary of her retaliation.

All that being said, she wasn’t sure she was willing to give up the identity of Sebastien Siverling. Not unless the same opportunities she had as Sebastien could be afforded to Siobhan, which seemed…unlikely. At the very least, her Crown Family schoolmates would probably feel betrayed by her duplicity. ‘And would Professor Lacer be willing to take Siobhan Naught as an apprentice?’ These problems were useless to consider at the moment, too far removed from her current situation to be relevant. She set that line of thought aside for her subconscious to mull over as she moved into the actual casting of the divination spell.

Mixing a couple shavings of the bone disk with the mercury for the mapped divination spell—rather than her blood—didn’t increase the difficulty of casting, and Sebastien soon found Tanya’s location, tucked away in the library. With this, she didn’t need to follow Tanya to know where she was at any given time, though the downside was the increased difficulty of this spell in comparison to the compass spell.

That’s one small step of many complete. Now for the things that can be completed with a handful of coin.

The morning gloom had burned off by the time Sebastien arrived at Waterside Market, but despite the winter sun shining down with all the strength it could muster, the residue of the battle the weekend before lived on in more than the faint smell of smoke. The people moved a little faster, trying to finish their shopping and get home without lingering. Coppers patrolled around the market, or stood glaring near the more expensive shops.

Sebastien almost scoffed aloud. ‘Useless. Making a show of force here for the benefit of the people who can actually still afford to come to this market, when they should be where they’re needed. Where people have a reason to be afraid, and cold, and hungry. Where there might actually be danger. But the Crowns care more about keeping up appearances among the people who have enough money to make them care.

She paused, surprised at her vehemence, and realized that she was being foolish. It was better that the coppers be here, rather than making trouble for the people in Oliver’s territory. ‘Right?’ How much of the copper presence in the Mires was actually deterring crime, actually helping to keep the peace?

Sebastien might have her reasons to be personally biased against them, but surely law enforcement personnel provided some positives to the city…even if they didn’t have their priorities straight, and seemed to be somewhere between ineffective and actively detrimental to the areas that needed them most. Nevertheless, there was obviously a problem when poor citizens in danger preferred to call in enforcers from their local gang than the coppers.

Sebastien bought an eclectic variety of items, stocking up on extras of her most-used components and spell array drawing supplies as well as some stranger things, like a few dozen live mice, and a few dozen small vials and pouches for organization. She was able to get what she required without difficulty, needing nothing more than to flash her student token to buy the magical supplies despite the nearby law enforcement. She also replenished the supplies for casting her sleep-proxy spell, hoping it would be for the last time.

Carrying the flimsy wooden box that held her purchases, she went to the Silk Door, changed into Siobhan, and left again. The box, with distinctive holes bored in its lid, was the only thing that connected the person who walked in to the person who left later, <what about her bag of supplies?> and even that she tried to disguise under her jacket. ‘I should try to get a second transition location besides the Silk Door,’ she mused, mentally adding it to her extensive list of tasks.

She had considered going to Oliver’s house to pick up the two magical plants she’d stashed there, but decided against it. She couldn’t carry everything unless she hired a carriage, and if Liza turned her down, it would be a waste of effort and money.

She took a roundabout way to Liza’s house. The streets were emptier than normal, at first—further north—and then as she drew nearer to her destination, busier than normal, with people huddled by barrels of fire in the alleys and curled up in doorways to escape the cold wind.

Not as many people as she had feared. The fires caused by the fighting had been put out before they could ravage the whole of the Mires, and both the church of the Radiant Maiden and the Stewards of Intention had taken in refugees. If she knew Oliver at all, she was sure the Verdant Stag was doing the same.

Siobhan’s path took her past some of the damage. There must have been areas worse affected, but it actually wasn’t as bad as she’d been expecting. A few destroyed walls that let in the elements, places where the cobblestone street was shattered from excessive force, scorch marks from overpowered spells, and random barriers of poured stone that no one had gotten around to dissolving. She didn’t know much about construction, but it seemed like it wouldn’t take too long to repair, if only there was someone with both the coin and the willingness.

Siobhan quickly rapped on Liza’s door with the lion door-knocker, avoiding its teeth. After a few moments, it apparently decided she was safe and the lock opened with an audible “click.” Siobhan walked in and waited in the dining area attached to the kitchen.

Liza arrived a long few minutes later with a steaming mug of dark tea in her hands, sleep-grit in her bloodshot eyes, and a scowl on her face.

She’s tired. Perfect,’ Siobhan thought.

“What do you want? Be quick about it. I’ve barely gotten any sleep for the past two weeks dealing with all this shit your friend Oliver helped create, and I am running low on available fucks to give.” Liza didn’t even bother to glare at Siobhan, staring wearily into the mid-distance and gulping down her steaming tea.

Siobhan replied without preamble. “I have a newly developed spell in the testing stages that can allow you to give up sleep without side effects.”

Liza’s expression was blank for a whole second of continued bleariness, and then she turned to Siobhan with sudden hawklike focus, her Will tightening the air between them. “Continue.”

“The spell array and theory have been reviewed and approved by an extremely accomplished sorcerer, but I haven’t attempted to cast it yet. It works on sympathetic binding principles. Technically blood magic, but it only requires a raven. I assumed you would have no qualms with that.”

“No side effects? No sleep debt, no decrease in mental or physical function? How long does it last?” Liza asked, rapid-fire.

Siobhan held back her smile and answered confidently. “It’s still in the testing phase, but it’s based off some restricted experiments carried out during the Third Empire. No side-effects for the person giving up sleep. There will probably be some minor sleep-debt if you push the duration of the spell to its limits, but nothing like what you would normally experience. I’m not sure of the specifics when not using another human as part of the spell. I’d estimate you could go sleepless anywhere from an additional eight to twenty-four hours of waking time that would otherwise be spent on sleep. So you can spend one to three days awake, in a row. You’ll likely still experience some fatigue, and any serious injuries or extended stressors would require you to rest outside of the bounds of the spell…but the benefits are obvious, I think. These last two weeks could have left you feeling as tired as you might after a long day of work, rather than as if you’d been pushing yourself without a break for days straight.”

Liza stared at Siobhan like a dog staring at a juicy steak that was just out of reach. Liza tried to take a drink from her cup, realized it was empty, and stood. “Give me a moment.” She retreated to the kitchen, returning a few minutes later with two cups full of tea and seeming slightly less eager. She gave one cup to Siobhan.

Siobhan took it with thanks, but only blew on the steaming liquid, not taking a sip. It wasn’t that she thought Liza would drug her…but the other woman hadn’t hid her greed well enough. ‘There are spells that keep people from paying attention to what they’re signing, so why not a couple drops of a tincture that can make someone a little too agreeable while negotiating? I’ll wait until we’ve reached an agreement.

“You have my attention,” Liza said. “I’m a bit skeptical about these claims, especially since you say it’s merely in the theoretical stage right now, but I would be willing to test it for you. I’m assuming some of the components are expensive?”

Siobhan almost snorted at the blatant attempt to swindle her. “The details of the spell are proprietary information. I’m willing to give you the information, but it certainly won’t be for free. The components aren’t cheap, but I was able to get my hands on them, so I don’t need your help for that.”

“What do you want?”

Siobhan hadn’t actually expected Liza to be this interested. She’d simply hoped to avoid paying to cast the spell and also keep everything set up at Liza’s house. But she wasn’t one to let opportunity go to waste. ‘Liza was willing to knock sixty-five gold off her fee to study the warding medallion Grandfather made me. This isn’t as magically impressive as that…but obviously Liza could make great use of it. She might be able to develop a similar spell herself, but without access to the University library resources…maybe not.’ “One hundred fifty gold,” Siobhan tried.

Liza scoffed. “Ridiculous! I haven’t even seen this spell in action, and you admittedly haven’t cast it yourself. Everything you’re telling me is hearsay. Twenty gold, and I’ll help you test it. I have protective wards built into the casting room below that should help keep us safe against violent spell reactions, and my Will is almost certainly necessary for a spell that does what you say. Without me, you would be risking your sanity and your life. Hells, something like this could easily trigger a break event.”

That was an undeniably persuasive argument, especially considering Siobhan’s recent experience, but she wasn’t going to give in just like that. Liza had actually offered to pay her! For a spell that Siobhan developed herself! “It’s not quite as intensive as you think. I wouldn’t turn down your help, but with some effort I can cast it myself. I’m not worried about serious reactions. As I said, it’s already been reviewed by another sorcerer. One I trust. This is the kind of spell that could change your life. An extra eight hours a day? How much is your time worth, Liza?”

Liza narrowed her eyes. “Eighty gold.”

“One hundred twenty gold, and the ongoing use of your casting room downstairs.”

“One hundred gold, the use of my casting room, and I’ll assist in the development and testing of this spell. But if the spell is totally unviable, I’ll want my coin returned.”

Siobhan almost agreed, but hesitated. “You’ll sign a blood print spell of secrecy. And I want ten percent of the income if you ever use this spell or its principles for anyone else or otherwise earn coin off of the knowledge.” She didn’t want Liza able to pass on the information to others for money or favors, but casting the spell directly should be fine. With Liza’s prices, even a small percentage could actually fatten Siobhan’s purse significantly.

Liza smirked. “Not bad, girl. Five percent.”

“Agreed.”

Once they had worked out the details of the vow, which protected each of them in both word and intent, and completed it, Liza waved at Siobhan impatiently. “Well, let’s see it. You did bring the spell information, I hope? I won’t be able to devote any significant of time to the project for the next couple weeks while I finish up my current commitments, but I can take a look.”

“I didn’t bring the spell information. But I did bring some of the supplies,” Siobhan said with a too-bright smile. “Test subjects.” She picked up the hole-punched box she’d placed on the floor beside her chair, removing the lid to reveal the few dozen sleeping mice within, tucked into a corner away from a handful of other components. They’d been forced unconscious with a spell, but would wake up soon.

This surprise did nothing to mitigate Liza’s grumpiness, and they argued about keeping them at her house, but Siobhan pointed out that she already kept multiple different animals in the magical supply room. Adding a few dozen mice to one of her terrariums wouldn’t change much. It would barely even take her a couple more minutes a day to take care of them. Liza’s exhaustion worked against her, and Siobhan was able to both deposit the mice and a handful of random spell components they would need, and escape with the fat purse of gold and her copy of the blood print vow.

“I’ll be back in a couple days with the spell information and the rest of the supplies,” Siobhan said as she left. “Maybe try to get some sleep in the meantime.”

She was halfway through the door when she stopped abruptly, almost tripping over the doorjamb with the sudden idea that had halted her. “I need to get a simple battle wand, and some kind of remote-triggered artifact that can allow me to destroy evidence in a radius of a few feet without accidentally causing further destruction. Can you give me a referral to someone in the Night Market that does good, affordable work?”

Liza gave her a glare of loathing and nearly pushed her out the door, but not before giving Siobhan the location of a shop, as well as permission to say that Liza sent her. “I certainly don’t have time to dance to this girl’s crazy whims,” Liza muttered to herself before slamming the door behind Siobhan.

Siobhan stopped by the shop that she’d sold Ennis’s belongings to, where she picked up a handful of different outfits, for both women and men, each with a distinctly different look. She tried to stay in the middle ground between the clothes seeming nice enough not to draw suspicion, while not being so nice as to be either unaffordable or memorable. Really, that just meant clothes that didn’t have any visible patches or stains on them. Each emergency stash would need a pair of both male and female clothing. In addition to that, she picked up a couple canvas satchels and backpacks in various states of wear.

Siobhan felt the pain in her purse-strings as she paid, a good seventeen gold poorer. Clothing was so expensive. She hadn’t even bought shoes! It would have been even more expensive if not for her trading in her old Raven Queen outfit—which she’d cast a color-changing spell on to avoid recognition.

After that, she went to the Night Market. The sun was beginning to set by that time, but the Night Market had been aptly named, and the street and shops within maintained their inviting lights.

The shop Liza had recommended had an empty stunning wand on sale, and the artificer on staff absorbed her order for a remote-triggered destruction device with extended, dubious silence. Finally, he said, “I think I have a land mine from the Haze War that could be modified to do what you want. That would be cheaper than a booby trap meant for a safe, which would be your other immediate option. The purpose is destroying evidence, yes, not for use on your enemies?” he asked, giving her a hard stare.

“Yes.” Siobhan assured him, trying to look trustworthy. “And I need the triggering mechanism to be discreet, something I can hide.”

“How soon do you need it?”

“…As soon as possible?”

He gave her another judgmental look. “An extra gold for the rush job. I can have it ready in an hour.”

Siobhan reluctantly agreed.

While she was browsing, waiting for them to charge up the wand and modify this land mine in the workshop at the back of the store, she found the perfect artifact to solve another of her problems.

She almost missed it, because the artifact was on a corner shelf among a jumble of other, less dazzling items that most people would have little use for. She wouldn’t have even known what it was, if not for the little card attached to it with a string. It was made of two glass-and copper spheres. The large sphere contained a clear liquid, within which a tapered iron needle floated, suspended in the center. The second sphere, attached to the top, was much smaller and opened up to allow the user to place something inside it.

It was a dowsing artifact, meant for miners, spelunkers, or wild herb gatherers. One simply placed a sample of what they were hoping to find within the little sphere at the top, closed and twisted it to activate the divination, and then followed the compass needle, could rotate in the four cardinal directions and also adjust up and down.

Some of the glass between the embedded copper braces had obviously cracked and been repaired, and the card said the divination only reached out about ten meters from the artifact, but it was perfect for Siobhan. When the shop’s proprietor came back out, she bought it for only three gold, after haggling him down due to the obvious damage that had been repaired.

The stunning wand, which now had twenty-one fresh copies of the standard stunning spell, cost seventeen gold. The remote-triggered mine, which had been retooled to cast a single, powerful disintegration spell, cost another twelve gold, and could be triggered by pressing a discreet compressible button. Altogether, it was more expensive than she had been expecting, and she wondered if she was being charged a surfeit because her purchases were so obviously illegal.

On the whole, she had spent over fifty gold on her shopping excursion, almost every coin she’d had to her name before the agreement with Liza. To potentially buy herself safety, it was a bargain

Now she only needed to find the most optimal places to create her own safe houses, places where, if everything fell apart, she could escape to, pick up a stash of emergency supplies, and change her appearance.

The Silk Door could probably be one. ‘Other than that, I could do either Dryden Manor or the Verdant Stag, but I might actually want to have the emergency stashes somewhere completely unrelated to the Verdant Stag. If I can get to Oliver’s house or the Verdant Stag, I’m likely to be okay. I need contingencies for when I can’t go to them for some reason.

Siobhan returned to the Silk Door, looking around the little closet for a place to keep a secret stash. This room might supposedly be reserved for only her, but others might still enter while she wasn’t there, and she didn’t want to chance her valuable stash being stolen.

Eventually, she used an idea she’d originally come up with as a better hiding spot for the stolen book currently embedded in a mattress at Oliver’s house. At the time, she hadn’t had a way to properly cut into and control the marble floor, even if she had the strength to lift it. But now, she knew a very handy, simple spell that allowed her to create extremely precise incisions. Using the stone-disintegration and reformation spells she had been practicing for Practical Casting, she carved out a Circle of the floor, lifting it up from the rest. I need to practice a version of this spell for wood, something that will allow me to carve out a hollow in a tree, or take apart wooden floorboards without the damage being noticeable.’ There were plenty of places throughout the city where she could create a similar stash, with no one the wiser.

She divided up some of the basic component supplies she’d bought into the vials and pouches, then made copies of her most useful spells on some new seaweed paper, keeping the arrays small and portable. She took one spare outfit for both her male and female form, a basic set of spell-casting supplies—including a small, adjustable-flame oil lantern—and an assortment of coin totaling ten gold, and organized two emergency getaway bags out of the supplies. She only had enough clothes for two getaway bags at the moment, but there were enough of the other supplies for a few more stashes that she would create later.

She placed one of the prepared bags and all of the extra supplies in a hollow space between supporting floorboards, underneath the stone veneer. Before she sealed the stash up again, she drew a complete spell array for the stone-disintegration spell on the underside of the veneer. That way, if she arrived in a hurry, she wouldn’t need to take time writing it out again. She would be able to cast with the spell array whether or not she could see it, as long as she remembered where it was. ‘I should add some dried food rations and a canteen of water,’ she realized as she stood, rubbing her aching knees. Best to be prepared for anything, even fleeing into the wilderness. If she had the coin, another battle wand would also be optimal, but that wasn’t reasonable in her current straits.

Her new stunning wand and the disintegration mine both went into her bulky school bag, though she had to use her cutting and mending spells along with some scrap leather to create a discreet, additional secret pouch for the mine inside. With it, there would be no need for another scenario where she had to place herself in danger to retrieve the bag and items within it. She could simply destroy it all from a distance, leaving no evidence that could be traced back to her.

She hesitated over where to put the disintegration mine’s compressible button, which needed to be pressed three times in quick succession to activate the artifact, and was useless if she was over two kilometers away from the mine.

Eventually, she decided that she currently didn’t have any good space for the button, and decided to follow up on another idea she’d had, using some the last of her leather scraps to create a kind of holster that she could wear around her waist. It held her black sapphire Conduit flush against the skin of her side, and a much smaller pouch contained the button, surrounded by stiff enough leather that it would be difficult to trigger by accident.

When she was finished, she moved around while watching herself in the small mirror to test out the new set up, which was much more comfortable than keeping the sapphire tucked inside her boot where it always dug into the skin of her calf. The holster’s design required a few tweaks and a color-changing spell to look more like skin, but when she was finished, it was invisible from the outside. Even if someone pressed up against her, the leather was angled and tapered such that they might feel something strange, but wouldn’t immediately realize she was keeping something stone-shaped under her clothes. She even added some notches that would allow her to adjust it based on the current size of her torso when she switched between forms.

She took the second filled emergency getaway bag with her as she left, mulling over a good location for it as she walked through the darkening streets. Eventually, she found a nice alehouse in the northern part of the city, located between the University and the nearest exit point through Gilbratha’s white cliffs. It had a public bathroom for customers, which had a window large enough for her to crawl through. She locked the bathroom door, then worked quickly to cut out a portion of the floor in the back corner and dig out a hollow space below it, where she placed the second getaway bag. She cleared away the evidence, packing some of the stone and dirt into the side pocket of her school satchel to dump out later, and left the alehouse with no one the wiser.

She grinned to herself, feeling rather clever and, if she were to admit it, like a child playing at being a spy. She had always had a fondness for hidden pockets and compartments. It felt like she had made real progress with the day’s work. While she hoped these arrangements were never again necessary, knowing that they existed gave her some measure of comfort. It was a start.

On the way back to the University, Sebastien made sure to pass by a very specific shop window. She noted the folded paper decorations sitting in it. The next secret meeting of thaumaturges was twelve days away.

That was plenty of time to prepare, as long as she managed to stay on top of her schedule and manage her time. She needed to be more efficient, perhaps getting a few minutes of homework and study in during the breaks between classes, when other students were ambling through the halls and chatting with each other.

Above all, however, she needed to avoid adding anything more to her plate. She couldn’t afford another project, or another problem.

Sorry about the delay, I’m still working on getting the site fixed but I was able to figure out the problem blocking me from posting entirely. Sigh.

Edit 5/19/22: I’m now having some problems with the Patreon integration, so even if you’re a patron, you may have trouble accessing the locked chapters. I’m working on it with tech support. If you’re a patron and you’re getting stuck in an access loop, go read the chapter on Patreon instead.

 

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