Month 2, Day 3, Wednesday 2:00 p.m.
The excitement over the simulation chamber lasted through the lunch period, which Sebastien rushed through to focus on homework. However, as she settled into her usual spot near the front of the Practical Casting classroom and waited for Professor Lacer to appear, her thoughts turned back to the weight of her problems.
Specifically, that she was wanted by the coppers and would never have a chance to live and openly practice magic in her real identity.
When a copper crown appeared on her desk and slid forward under the force of Damien’s finger, her gaze trailed up his arm and met his own.
She raised an eyebrow.
“Copper for your thoughts?” he asked, his somewhat embarrassed grin revealing that he understood how banal the joke was.
She snatched up the coin and tucked it away. “My thoughts are worth at least twice that much, but I suppose I’ll give you a discount.” She leaned in to make sure they weren’t overheard. Eyes brightening with excitement, Damien did the same. “I’m wondering about what the Raven Queen stole,” she murmured.
Damien initially looked surprised, but he focused as she continued.
“That book was just one item out of the whole haul from an archaeological expedition, right? Why exactly is it, specifically, so valuable? All of this interest and effort seems a little much for a simple antique, right?”
Damien looked around to make sure no one was listening in. “I read an Aberford Thorndyke story where someone stole an old painting worth ten million gold crowns. If it was old and rare enough, maybe something pre-Cataclysm, some people would be willing to pay a ridiculous amount for it.”
She hadn’t considered that the book could be pre-Cataclysm. She suddenly remembered that she’d cut the leather apart to examine the inside more thoroughly, and then used a mending spell to put it all back together. ‘Surely I didn’t rip apart a prehistoric antique worth ten million gold crowns…right?’ She suppressed a shudder.
Sebastien hesitated, tapping her forefinger nervously against the desk. “What if that’s not it, though?” she asked, her voice even lower. “Because…why wouldn’t they just say so? The fact that it’s all so shrouded in mystery makes me suspicious.”
Damien frowned, humming thoughtfully. “What if she didn’t actually steal a book at all, but they don’t want to reveal what she really took? Maybe she kidnapped someone important and is holding them hostage, but they don’t want to tell the public because…” He trailed off, then shook his head. “Well, I can’t think of a reason why they wouldn’t want to tell anyone about a kidnapping. At least not that doesn’t sound too silly to be real.”
He didn’t notice Sebastien’s deadpan look, continuing with increasing enthusiasm. “Or what if they’re trying to capture her because she has some blackmail on someone important, and they can’t afford to give her what she wants? And they don’t want to kill her because she’s set a dead man’s switch to release the blackmail. Oh! Or maybe she’s cursed someone powerful and rich with a slow death, and they’re trying to find her so she can lift the curse, but don’t want anyone to know. Or—”
Damien stopped, his mouth still open but the excitement draining from his face. He turned to meet her unimpressed gaze. “Sebastien, what if she stole something really, I mean extremely dangerous? Something the University shouldn’t have had in the first place and doesn’t want to admit they lost? They wouldn’t want to tell anyone what it was because they wouldn’t want to panic the masses with the truth. And that would explain why the High Crown is putting so much pressure on Titus. It would even make sense why she’s so bold, because she knows they’re probably wary about pushing her to the point of desperation. But…” He shook his head, taking a relieved breath. “If that were the case, Titus would have definitely called in the Red Guard. That’s the kind of thing they exist to handle, after all. And, I forgot, but I’m pretty sure it really is a book, because I eavesdropped on—well, I overheard—Titus talking about it with one of his investigators some months ago, and he mentioned how the University hadn’t been able to decipher anything useful from the remaining books.”
Before Sebastien could reply, Professor Lacer arrived. After a few minutes showing them variations of fully fleshed-out light-molding spell arrays, he set them to continue their practice with the minimalist arrays allowed.
The understanding she’d gained from Natural Science made the illusion spell easier. Though the placebo effect was a real thing—which Gnorrish had vehemently cautioned them about when trying to teach them how to do experiments—she didn’t think it was just her imagination. The detailed understanding had improved the clarity of her Will, and so she required less sheer force to achieve superior results. It was as if the light wanted to follow her instructions, rather than being forced to do so.
When class ended, Professor Lacer stopped her as she walked by his desk. “Mr. Siverling. Please come to my office Saturday morning. Free up a couple of hours.”
“Why?” she blurted. When he raised his eyebrows, as unimpressed as he had been when she was similarly rude earlier that morning, she cleared her throat and amended, “I mean, I will, but what is the purpose of the meeting? So I can be prepared.”
Lacer stepped slightly closer, palmed his Conduit with one hand, and made a grasping motion with his other.
The air was suddenly so still it almost seemed like a liquid, pressing against the small hairs on her skin with every minute movement. ‘It’s that sound-muffling spell. To anyone trying to eavesdrop, we must seem as if we’re under water.’ She recognized it from when he’d woken her up in the middle of the night to berate her for casting with Will-strain.
“I want to do some tests on that boon you received,” he said, privacy ensured.
Her heart gave a single desperate clench, then started pounding. “What kind of tests?”
“Do not worry. I have no reason to suspect that you or those around you are in danger from it, as I said previously,” he assured her, obviously noting her sudden anxiety and attributing a different reason to it. He paused, then added, “These tests will not invade your privacy or take away your autonomy. I simply wish to learn more about the magic in play and see what clues it might give about the mindset of the caster. I do not believe she acted on a whim, and if it was deliberate, I want to understand why.”
“Oh. Okay,” Sebastien croaked past numb lips before realizing that she should have protested. ‘But what reason could I give?’ she wondered desperately.
“Head along then,” Professor Lacer said, dropping the sound-muffling spell as easily as he’d cast it.
Sebastien tried to control her expression as she left, pressing her hands to her flushed cheeks, lamenting the pale skin that showed her physical responses so easily, but she stopped mid-step and turned back to Lacer. She had some questions that he seemed like the only person who might be able and willing to answer, and perhaps a limited amount of time in which to ask them. ‘He took me as an apprentice, gave me his old Conduit, and even came out in the middle of the night to save me from the Red Guard. Surely he won’t be upset if I just ask? If he doesn’t want to answer, he’s not the type that will be reluctant to say so.’
She walked back toward him, clearing her throat uncomfortably.
“What is wrong?” he asked immediately, throwing up the sound-muffling ward once more. “Do you need to go to the infirmary?”
“I’m fine. I just had some questions, and I don’t know who else to ask.”
He stared at her assessingly for a moment. “Proceed.”
“The Raven Queen… What did she actually steal?”
Professor Lacer adjusted his grip on his Conduit. “I understand your curiosity.” She thought for a moment that he would refuse to tell her more, but he continued. “It was a book, as you have probably heard. As to the exact contents, I am unaware. However, I do know something about the expedition that retrieved it.”
Sebastien’s grip tightened around the strap of her satchel, and she tried not to look too desperately interested.
“I applied to join the expedition but was denied. At the time I considered it to be petty infighting and politics, and thought little of it, but now…” He trailed off, leaving the rest to her imagination. “The expedition went into the Black Wastes.” He nodded at her raised eyebrows. “Yes. All who went were aware of the risks, and they were extremely well supplied. They judged the possible rewards to be worth it. Supposedly, some powerful diviners had found the location of Myrddin’s hermitage, where he spent much of his time in solitude toward the end of his life.”
Sebastien couldn’t help but suck in a sharp breath of air.
“Of course,” Professor Lacer continued, “people have been claiming to have found Myrddin’s hermitage every couple of decades since he died, so I am rather skeptical. However, it is obvious they did find something of historical significance, and perhaps of great worth. The rumors of Myrddin’s lost inventions and discoveries are, frankly, overblown and ridiculous. The man, while impressive, lived over a thousand years ago. We have made many advancements in sorcery—in thaumaturgy as a whole—since then, and to think that he may have made breakthroughs we struggle to comprehend today is extremely unlikely. It is a particular failing of character to long constantly for the ‘better days’ of the imagined past when really, the best days are now, with even better to come tomorrow.”
He let out a deep breath, his dark blue eyes growing distant as he looked past her. “That being said, there are obviously mysteries in this world which we do not yet understand, and I suspect many of them come from the pre-Cataclysm eras, which I do not long for, but long to understand. Perhaps Myrddin made some discovery along that vein and spent his later years trying to decipher it.”
Lacer’s attention returned to Sebastien. “In that case, if they really did find his hermitage, the things they retrieved could be of value. The Raven Queen’s interest in the items points increasing weight toward that possibility, in my opinion. The University still retains possession of the remainder of the expedition’s haul, but a select number of people in the History department have exclusive access while they inspect the items. The theft has made their paranoia about security seem more reasonable, but they have reported no significant findings yet, and I believe people will eventually begin to grow impatient with the secrecy and apply pressure for open access. Knowledge, like any other resource, can only be kept for oneself so long as one has both the skill and the power to ward off others.”
Sebastien couldn’t help but feel that was a warning about her own secret, though she knew he hadn’t meant it that way.
“That is all I know,” he said, “and keep in mind that much of it is speculation.”
“I understand. Thank you,” she responded, giving him a shallow bow as she turned to leave, her mind already spinning with this partial confirmation of what she had speculated herself.
She’d passed halfway through the bubble of the sound-muffling spell when she paused yet again. “I’m not sure if you were aware, but Grandmaster Kiernan called me into his office last week, ostensibly to give me contribution points and make sure I was doing alright, but really to pump me for information about what happened. I told him to talk to you.”
Professor Lacer’s eyes narrowed. “I was not aware. I will discuss this with him.”
This time, Sebastien really did leave. Most of the students had already moved on by the time she exited the classroom, but she tried to keep herself from being visibly uneasy. She wanted to find the nearest bathroom stall and lock herself inside it until her fingers stopped trembling and the tension in the muscles of her neck and back stopped sending electric arcs of pain up into her skull.
‘Professor Lacer might be skeptical of Myrddin’s accomplishments, but I have proof that whoever made the transformation amulet did things I’ve never heard of before. So I stole Myrddin’s journal or something. Stars above, no wonder they’re all so desperate to catch me.’ She shuddered, wondering again if there were some way to get rid of it, to just give it back, without endangering herself.
‘But more immediately pressing, Professor Lacer wants to examine my ward, or at least how its magic works. It makes sense, since they are under the impression that the divination-diverting ward Liza created for me is actually some mysterious boon given by the Raven Queen. Is there a chance that he finds something dangerous? No matter my desire for control or privacy, the possible danger involved in a spell cast by the Raven Queen is arguably more important than my comfort. There’s no way I can just refuse a checkup. Should I contact Oliver, or maybe Liza, to warn them? How risky is this? Do I need to give up my identity as Sebastien and leave the University in advance?’
“Sebastien!” Ana’s voice called.
Sebastien’s head jerked up, the movement sending another spike of pain up through the back of her neck. One of her eyelids twitched.
Ana was leaning against the wall in the hallway outside Lacer’s classroom. She tucked away the pink leather notebook artifact that allowed her to communicate with her little sister, smiling. “Accompany me?” she asked.
Sebastien hesitated, her mind stumbling a little as she struggled to focus on anything but her pervasive anxiety, but nodded, hoping whatever Ana needed wouldn’t take too long.
Ana slipped her arm through the crook of Sebastien’s elbow and led her off.
“Where are we going?” Sebastien asked.
“I have something important to discuss with you. I’d rather not do it where random passersby can eavesdrop.”
Sebastien hoped it wasn’t some juicy piece of gossip or the like. Ana was much more socially attentive than Sebastien, and tended to care about things that could create social leverage, whereas Sebastien just wanted to focus on the magic. Someday, she would leave all this behind, and knowing all the latest gossip would be useless.
Even though the hallways were mostly empty of students, Ana pulled Sebastien into an unoccupied classroom, closing the door behind them.
Normally, this level of intrigue would have raised Sebastien’s interest, but at that moment, it was all she could do to keep herself from vibrating apart. She suppressed another shudder at the unfortunate wording of her thoughts.
Ana ran her fingertips lightly over the smooth knit of her scarf, her face alight with some emotion Sebastien couldn’t place. “You mentioned that I needed to deal with my uncles in a more effective and permanent way, do you remember? Well, I’ve figured out how to do it. I’m going to discredit them and, hopefully, have them removed from the Gervin Family line of succession. My father has the ability to do that, if there’s just cause. I simply need to convince him it is necessary.”
“Great,” Sebastien said. She realized her fingers were tapping impatiently against the side of her thigh and stilled them. “Did you need feedback on your plan, then? I’m not particularly versed with social manipulation, and I don’t know your father at all, so I’m not sure I’ll be much help, but I’m happy to listen.”
“Actually, I was hoping you could help me implement the plan. I know my uncles have done things that could be used to blackmail them. There’s almost certainly proof in Uncle Malcolm’s office, probably in his vault. If I could access that, I could use it to knock them down and put myself in a position of power.”
Sebastien stared at Ana. “You want me to break into your uncle’s office and go through his vault?”
“Well, maybe,” Ana said, biting her lip anxiously. “I’m open to suggestions about the details of how we’d implement all this. It shouldn’t be that dangerous; I’ve a plan to make sure Uncle Malcolm is preoccupied at the ftime, and I know how his security system works.”
Sebastien let out a short, sharp laugh as a sudden surge of outrage rose up in her stomach and through her throat, spilling out into the world as cutting words. “I’m happy you’ve figured out a solution to your problems, but I really don’t have the time or the wherewithal to get involved in this kind of dangerous scheme. Why don’t you commandeer someone who has more time on their hands, like the rest of your Crown Family friends? Or hire someone to help you who would be willing to place their safety at risk for some coin. I’m sure you can afford it.”
Ana went pale, and in the silence that followed, Sebastien knew she’d made a mistake. She didn’t want to take on a new project—she could barely handle her current workload—and she was wound up like a coiled spring with stress. Even so, she hadn’t meant to snap at the other girl like that. She should have turned her down more gently.
Ana gave her a wide, bright smile that looked almost feral, her eyes glittering with the sheen of unspent tears. “Sebastien Siverling, do you think you’re the only real person in the world? You act like your goals and interests are the only important ones, like your ideas are the only ones that hold value.”
Sebastien tried to interject, but Ana’s voice only grew louder. “If someone disagrees with you, thinks differently than you, or just acts in some way that you don’t like, they must either be stupid, ignorant, or otherwise unworthy of your attention—perhaps because they’re a noble and thus somehow worthless? The Crown Families might be elitists, but you’re a reverse snob, which is really no different than a normal snob. You need to open your eyes and realize that in the real world, you don’t stand atop some pinnacle of worthiness alone. You’re just like the rest of us, down here mucking about in the shit, blind to the wider reality.” Ana growled the last sentence, spun on her heel, and stalked out of the room.
She slammed the door behind her, leaving Sebastien alone with the echo of Ana’s bitterness off the stone walls.
Author Note 4/28/22: I got the cover art for Book 3: A Sacrifice of Light in. I’ll be sending out a newsletter tomorrow morning for my inner circle peeps for an early look. If you like always being the first to get stuff like that, as well as little chats about what I’m up to with life and writing, and funny memes, the monthly newsletter is the place to be.
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