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 where she’d practiced her divination.

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. Perhaps I could make it more costly to keep pursuing me than what they would gain by catching me, 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 was unwilling to go to jail for any length of time.

This wasn’t a 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 would require some extra leverage to ensure they wouldn’t go back on their word whenever it became convenient for them.

Still, it was worth keeping in mind that there might be other solutions to her problems, visible 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.

And yet, 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?’ But these problems were pointless to consider at the moment, and so she set that line of thought aside as she moved on to 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, though the downside was the increased difficulty compared 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 inter-gang battle lived on in more than the faint smell of smoke. The crowds were sparse, and people moved 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 bought an eclectic variety of items, stocking up on extras of her most-used components and supplies as well as a few dozen small vials, jars, and pouches for organization. Despite the nearby law enforcement, she was able to get what she required with nothing more than a flash of her student token.

After becoming Siobhan at the Silk Door, she took a roundabout way to Liza’s house. The streets grew busier the farther south she went, with people huddled by braziers of fire in the alleys and curled up in doorways to escape the icy wind.

But 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 wasn’t as bad as she’d been expecting. A few destroyed walls let in the elements. The cobblestone street had shattered in places from excessive force. Scorch marks from overpowered spells lingered, accompanied by barriers of poured stone that no one had gotten around to dissolving.

Siobhan 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, and I am running low on 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 on restricted experiments carried out during the Third Empire. No side effects for the person giving up sleep. There would 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 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. She tried to take a drink from her cup but realized it was empty. “Give me a moment.” She retreated to the kitchen, returning a few minutes later with two cups full of tea. She seemed slightly less eager as she handed 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 hidden 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 compliant while negotiating?

“You have my attention,” Liza said. “I’m 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 assume 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 with that.”

“What do you want?”

Siobhan hadn’t expected Liza to be this interested. She’d simply hoped to avoid paying to cast the spell while also keeping 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 would not give in just like that. Liza had actually offered to pay her! For a spell that Siobhan developed herself! “It’s not quite as demanding 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, another sorcerer has already reviewed it. 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 vow 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 from 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 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 brought the spell information, I hope? I won’t be able to devote any significant time to the project for the next couple of weeks while I finish up my current commitments, but I can take a look.”

Siobhan pulled the wrinkled sheaf of papers from the bottom of her bag. Women’s fashion made carrying all the necessary items so difficult. “While I’m here, I was wondering if you could take a quick look at my warding medallion. It experienced some strain,” she said, pulling it from underneath her shirt while remaining careful to leave the transformation amulet hidden.

Liza waved her over to a desk covered in bits of metal and tools, turned on an extremely bright lamp, and settled a multi-lensed monocle device on her head. She set the medallion under the light and peered down at it. “Which spell saw use?”

“Umm, energy-deflecting?”

“Hmm. It seems fine. No melting like the anti-scrying function. That one is probably on the edge of breaking, but my divination-diverting ward should protect it as long as it remains on your person.” She flipped the medallion over, inspecting it with an absent smile for a while longer. “Still one of the most impressive artifacts I’ve ever seen. It protects against most dangers someone might face, both magical and mundane.”

Siobhan took it back, rubbing her thumb over the cooling metal. “What are all the functions, exactly? I’ve looked up all the glyphs on the surface, so I know the gist of it, but I’ve never had the chance to examine what’s woven through the inside layers.”

Liza pulled off the monocle and considered her for a few seconds in silence. “It wards against scrying, of course. In addition to that, it tries to divert or counteract specific energy, temperature, and force parameters. Those will help to protect you against the worst of the most common battle spells. It’s got a list of common minor curses, too. It acts to discourage its own theft, or being noticed unless attention is specifically drawn to it. It will protect you, once, against a fall greater than ten meters, and can filter out an air bubble from the water around itself if you start to drown. And it should stop a small projectile like an arrow—anything moving faster than thirty meters per second.”

That was…more thorough than Siobhan had realized. Grandfather had thought of almost anything, even if he hadn’t gotten to finish the medallion before she took it. ‘Thank you,’ she thought, though she knew nothing of him was left to hear her.

“I’ll be back in a couple of days with the most important supplies,” Siobhan said as she stood to leave. “I was thinking we could start testing with mice. Try to get some sleep in the meantime.”

She was halfway through the door when she paused, 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 would allow me to destroy evidence—a bag, for example, or footlocker—in a radius of a few feet without causing additional destruction. Can you give me a referral to someone in the Night Market that does good, affordable work?”

Liza glared as if Siobhan were a flesh-eating slug that had crawled up her boot, nearly pushing her out the door, but not before giving Siobhan the location of a shop, as well as permission to say that Liza had 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 grinned. Liza loved her.

She 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, just nice enough to be unmemorable. She purchased those plus a few 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 setting by that time, but the Night Market had been aptly named, and the street and shops within maintained their inviting lights. She was surprised at first to see scattered shoppers, and even a couple of shopkeepers, wearing masks, but realized it made sense that some people would not want to be seen doing business there.

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 the 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 it sat on a corner shelf among a jumble of 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 by a string. The artifact was composed 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, which 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 artificer came back out, she bought it for only three gold after haggling him down due to the obvious damage.

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 extra 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 set up her own safe houses, places she could escape to, pick up a stash of emergency supplies, and change her appearance.

The Silk Door could probably operate as one. ‘Other than that, I could do either Dryden Manor or the Verdant Stag, but it would be prudent 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. Although the room was reserved only for her, 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 clean way to cut into and control the manor’s marble floor. But now, she knew a very handy, simple spell that allowed her to create extremely precise incisions. Using the stone-disintegration spell she had been practicing for Practical Casting, she carved out a circle of the floor and lifted it up from the rest. ‘I need to practice a version of this spell for wood, something that will allow me to hollow out part of 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.

She divided up some of the basic components 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. Into a single emergency getaway bag went 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. She only had enough clothes for two full kits, but enough of the other supplies remained for a few more stashes.

She placed one of the prepared bags and all 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 and reformation 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 could 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 be an optimal addition.

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 leading 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 spaces for the button and decided to follow up on another idea she’d had, using the last of her leather mending scraps to create a kind of holster that she could wear around her waist. It held her black sapphire Conduit and the beast core Tanya had given her flush against the skin of her left side, over her ribs and in a position where her arm would shield it. A much smaller pouch contained the mine’s activation button, surrounded by stiff enough leather that it would be difficult to trigger by accident.

She moved around while watching herself in the small mirror to test the holster out. It 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.

Lastly, she copied the hidden pockets for the mine and wand into the bag she used as Siobhan.

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 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 stayed on top of her schedule and managed 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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