Chapter 105 – Uncomfortable Scrutiny

Sebastien

Month 2, Day 6, Saturday 10:00 a.m.

Sebastien didn’t flinch from the needle-like stabs of the artifact disks in her back as they sucked up her blood. ‘I wonder if I will bruise if they keep activating again and again under these tests.

She stood in the middle of Professor Lacer’s office, where he had drawn a divination spell array on the floor in a hard wax that resisted melting even with the power he pushed through it. It had only been a week since she came up with her plan to fix everything, which included a more stringent schedule, but already she was off course, accommodating him instead of brewing for the Verdant Stag.

She had skipped dinner on Wednesday to bring Liza the sleep-proxy spell components, and while she was there, asked the ward’s creator about the danger of it coming under scrutiny, vaguely describing the situation.

Liza had stared at Siobhan for a good thirty seconds of silence, clearly exasperated by the way Siobhan always seemed to get into trouble. “I don’t understand how this situation came to be in the first place, but I gather that someone who doesn’t know you’re the Raven Queen somehow found out about the ward, and for some unfathomable reason you’re going to let them examine you. Either that, or you plan to encounter a hostile situation where someone rapidly tries successive, creative ideas to break the ward, rather than simply overpower it.”

Siobhan had clasped her hands together tightly, sighing with acknowledgement of how foolish and precarious the whole thing sounded. “The former is partially correct. I just want to make sure they won’t find some sort of loophole in the ward, or something besides its particular effects that links me to the Raven Queen. If it seems too risky, I can avoid the examination, but there’s a lot at stake, and that’s an option of last resort.”

“Do not undress and let whoever is casting scan you for heat fluctuations,” Liza had warned. “It’s possible the five disks could cool the skin of your back enough to stand out, and if someone found them and extracted them… Well, it wouldn’t lead back to me. And I expect you won’t do anything to lead them back to me, either,” she said firmly. “Remember that I still have my copy of our blood print vow, and I assure you, that ward will not protect you from me if I find I have been wronged.”

Liza took a slow sip of her tea, letting that threat sink in. “Other than that, I didn’t knowingly design a ward with loopholes, and I am an expert in the field. It will protect itself from examination just like it protects you, but it can be overpowered. Your examiner will find that the ward is extremely well-designed and has no obvious source. That is suspicious in and of itself.”

“I don’t think that will be a problem, exactly. Is there anything else I should worry about?”

“If you can, I would appreciate an update on the results of these tests,” Liza said, seeming rather unconcerned.

Oliver had been more apprehensive than Liza, perhaps because he knew the details of the situation and had more at stake. “They already think the Raven Queen created the ward. It makes sense if it’s suspicious and mysterious. Even if Thaddeus Lacer does find the disks, that doesn’t unquestioningly implicate Sebastien Siverling. She could still have done that to you without you realizing or remembering, though it stretches belief in a completely different way than her free-casting such a powerful, ongoing effect. However, if he finds them, it will surely lead to additional invasive tests. Everything gets a lot trickier to explain away if their original blood sample points right to Sebastien Siverling. Even if they didn’t believe you were her, I can’t see you avoiding the inside of a cell ‘for your own protection’ while they ran more tests.”

Oliver had rubbed his hands roughly down his face, taking a few moments to think. “I’m not sure the risk is worth it.”

Hesitantly, Sebastien revealed the conversation she’d had with Professor Lacer in the carriage, where he had thought she might be the Raven Queen in disguise. “Unexpectedly, if he did find out, he might not turn me in right away. It’s possible he would listen.”

“You can’t depend on that!”

“Of course not. I’m merely saying things might not be as bad as they seem. Even the worst-case scenario has a chance of working out.”

“You need to get out of it, Sebastien,” Oliver had insisted.

Sebastien tried. On Thursday, she’d gone to Professor Lacer and told him she remained uncomfortable with the idea of him casting spells on her and asked if it was absolutely necessary.

“I think you should rather I do it than someone from the infirmary or the Red Guard, Mr. Siverling,” he’d replied, unmoved. “I will only be casting some divination spells to examine the nuances of how the boon works. If it makes you feel more comfortable, I can explain each spell beforehand so that you know what’s being done.”

“But I still don’t understand what you’re hoping to find. Do you think this boon will somehow lead back to her?”

“That would be a pleasant surprise, but I very much doubt it. No, I am looking to decipher more about how she thinks. Magic always carries the signature of the caster, and even more so of its creator. Perhaps I will discern something about her background based on the things she thought to ward against, and the ways she implemented those defenses. I could find hints about where she was trained as a sorcerer, or the culture she grew up in, or even just how her mind works. Does she prefer misdirection or complex traps? Does she lean toward punishing aggression directly or circling around to attack from behind? Did she leave any strange loopholes or responses in this boon that are meant to hint at her purpose more directly, to the right person?”

This was a significant relief, though Sebastien was disappointed that her mentor’s willingness to respect her boundaries only extended to this point. After all, he didn’t seem to believe that Sebastien was in danger from the ward, and yet he still insisted on something he knew she didn’t want.

She’d gone back to Oliver.

He reluctantly agreed that taking a risk to remain at the University was worth it, if they were prepared. If Professor Lacer tried to have her arrested, Oliver would have a team standing by to rescue her on the way to Harrow Hill. No one Oliver could hire was a match for Thaddeus Lacer, but they could probably overcome a team of coppers. If that failed, he would have someone impersonate the Raven Queen while Sebastien was confined to help keep her identities separate. She’d even practiced acting believably innocent in front of a mirror while trying to come up with some reasonable lies.

She wore even more alarm bracelets and a toe ring, each connected to Oliver and with a particular meaning. Her hidden stunning wand and disintegration artifact, as well as a range of paper spell arrays, were neatly filed in her bag and ready to go. She’d arranged useful potions and philtres in individual bands, their locations thoroughly memorized as she practiced retrieving the correct one using touch alone. She had Professor Lacer’s Conduit attached to her pocket watch and the black sapphire in her hidden holster. If Professor Lacer asked her to take off her clothes, she would refuse, and was even prepared to fake a panic attack. Surely that would be enough to stop him.

Even if Professor Lacer noticed anything incriminating while examining the divination diverting ward, he might not immediately realize the full implications or become hostile, which gave her the element of surprise. Even if all that failed, which was unfortunately likely when going up against a man as powerful, insightful, and starkly intelligent as Thaddeus Lacer, he might still be reasoned with.

Now, halfway through Professor Lacer’s examination, Sebastien felt that all their preparation and worrying had been mostly unnecessary. The whole process was quite anticlimactic. He had explained all the spells he was planning to use when she arrived that morning, and there were none she thought would be dangerous—just various forms of divination, some with a twist on the standard application.

“Do you feel anything?” the man asked her, frowning down at the crystal ball in front of him, which was as cloudy as ever.

“Uncomfortable,” she admitted. “It’s as if cold fingers are trailing down my back, or like when you think you see someone watching you through the window from the corner of your eye, but when you turn, there’s no one there. I…instinctively want to cringe away.”

He hummed, muttering to himself. “Fascinating. I wonder if the sensory connection somehow increases the spell’s ability to help you avoid notice. Magic feeding off emotion…” He trailed off, scribbling notes by hand because he couldn’t guide the pen to write on its own while also casting the divination spell. He turned his gaze back to the crystal ball, frowning slightly.

Sebastien cried out at a sudden spike of power. Whatever was allowing her to metaphorically slip to the side, deflecting the tendrils of magical attention, simply broke, and suddenly she was bare, naked before Professor Lacer’s divination magic. She shuddered with the sense of vulnerability, but resisted further empowering her ward to fight back, if that was still possible now that he’d succeeded. Thaddeus Lacer was a Grandmaster. This close, he could overpower even her best efforts, and with him already knowing where she was, there was no point in resisting.

He didn’t seem to notice her discomfort, dropping the spell after a couple more scribbled notes, and then moving onto the next. “How does this one feel?”

Her eyebrows rose. “Slightly different. Like I’m being painted into a corner, the safe space getting smaller and smaller, until it will be too small for me to fit,” she said, her surprise almost overpowering her discomfort.

He looked up, giving her a smile. “Very interesting. The woman who cast this on you is quite skilled.” He dropped that spell, too, not bothering to channel power into it until he broke past her defenses. “Tell me about her again. Describe her in detail, everything you can remember. If your memory is fading, I have a small ritual that can boost recall of a specific event. It’s rather unpleasant, but quite safe.”

Sebastien swallowed hard. “No need for that. My memory is superb.”

“Stressful situations can often result in impaired recall, or even completely fabricated memories. There is no shame in that. It is simply how the human brain works.” When she didn’t reply, he looked up at her, but she just stared back, which seemed to satisfy his doubts. “Go ahead, then.”

“She was…tall, for a woman. Wearing a hood, so I couldn’t really see her features. Umm, it looked like she was growing feathers mixed in with her hair.” Sebastien hesitated, then added, “She did not look particularly evil, not like the wanted posters. And she was protecting those people. Why do you think she did that?” She watched him carefully, trying to gauge his response. ‘Is he hostile to the Raven Queen? As far as I can tell, he’s only displayed curiosity. If I could make him an ally…

He met her gaze, perhaps sensing the importance of the question from some clue in her voice. “I do not know. But I would like to.”

“Is there any news about the investigation? What are the coppers and the Red Guard doing?” Now that she was peripherally involved, it didn’t seem strange for her to be interested in things she was probably not supposed to know.

“The Red Guard have done their part, securing and clearing the site for continued habitation. Titus Westbay is considering calling them in to assist in the ongoing investigation to capture Siobhan Naught.”

“Is that…likely?”

“We will see. It is not the kind of thing the Red Guard usually involves themselves in. They are here to deal with existential threats, not every blood sorcerer that evades the coppers. Additionally, I happen to know that Lord Westbay the elder holds a particular dislike for the Red Guard, and while Titus is nominally in charge of the coppers and the investigation, his father still holds quite a bit of weight in this type of decision. There is no proof of the kind of threat the Red Guard is sworn to shield against. Miss Naught has not even killed anyone, unless you count Mr. Moore, which I do not, as one cannot predict a break event. Her major crime is stealing something very valuable and then being embarrassingly good at getting away with it. In the end, I suspect it will be up to the High Crown. The Red Guard might take the case if he feels the Raven Queen is making the coppers, and thus the Crowns, look too incompetent.”

“If they do take over, will they be able to capture her?”

Professor Lacer gave a small shrug, one side of his mouth drawing up in a subtle smirk. “Who knows? They are very competent, but she is obviously both powerful and cunning.”

Sebastien let out a deep breath as he dropped the latest divination attempt. “Are you trying to find her?”

“Yes.”

Her heart sank, but he continued.

“But not for any reward, or to turn her in.”

Shock and relief coursed through her in equal measure, despite the hints to that effect that he’d already dropped so freely. ‘That is a very dangerous thing to admit to anyone. Almost treasonous,’ she realized. “Why do you want to find her, and…why are you admitting this to me?” When he didn’t answer at first, she feared he might grow impatient and cut off the line of questioning.

Professor Lacer cast a different divination spell, this time standing up and walking around her with a contemplative expression. “The spillover effect is rather fascinating. Entirely in line with her ability to make mischief in plain sight, yet remain uncaptured—unnoticed—until she wishes it otherwise. I wonder if this part of the boon might be some sort of ‘tag,’ or signature, a way for Miss Naught to leave a special mark on her work.”

He stopped in front of Sebastien, just on the edge of the Circle, meeting her dark eyes unflinchingly, undeterred by the dissuading effects of her ward. Finally, he answered her question. “I am honest with you despite the danger, Mr. Siverling, because you are my apprentice. While you have shown a penchant for certain types of foolishness, you have displayed no insurmountable stupidity, and I chose you both for your display of Will and the signs that you were not yet trained into the mindsets that lead to hopeless mediocrity, unlike most of those who would call themselves your peers. If you prove yourself worthy, it will be my job to guide you in the Way of true power.”

She could hear the capitalization of “the Way” in his emphasis. She stared back at him, trying to catalogue the strange jumble of emotion in her chest.

“No one’s opinion of you matters more than my own, and you know this. Beyond that, I do not worry about your betrayal, because you do not have the power to harm me, even if I am mistaken and you are foolish enough to repeat my words to the wrong ears. But also, as your mentor, I know that you need to hear sources telling the truth rather than the things that are acceptable to say in polite society if you are ever to distinguish truth for yourself, which is the heart of the Way, and paramount for any thaumaturge that wishes to grasp true power.

Her heart beat harder, not out of fear, but from half-understood excitement. What did she wish for but true power? And the acknowledgment of Thaddeus Lacer was nice, too. She stood even straighter, unblinking.

“Burning curiosity is the first virtue of a thaumaturge, Sebastien.” It was the first time he’d ever used her given name, rather than her last. His voice was loud, the pressure in his dark gaze trying to force her to look away. “And the ability to distinguish truth is of paramount importance. It is not just curiosity for curiosity’s sake, but curiosity for usefulness’s sake. The curiosity may be general and widespread, because a wise thaumaturge knows that all knowledge is useful, and that with enough broad areas of learning, each topic meets the others and coalesces to form a picture of the greater whole…and the secrets hidden at the center.”

She could feel his Will in the air, not just pressing on her ward, but coiling around the room like a giant snake ready to squeeze, holding everything within its mercy. Tentatively, she brought her own Will to bear, focusing on remaining strong and upright, on maintaining her defiant gaze. ‘I am weaker than you, Thaddeus Lacer, but I am not lesser. I am not cowed.

He smiled as if he could read her mind. Perhaps he could read her expression, or he had just noticed her clenched fists. “Defiance is good. Sometimes it hurts to see the truth, but how else will you rise above your limits?” He spoke more softly, then. “Knowledge of the truth is power. And I am intensely curious about the Raven Queen.”

He stepped away, releasing his Will along with the divination spell as he returned to his desk to write more notes.

Sebastien was panting and small beads of sweat dotted her temples, even though she had done nothing but get into a staring contest with her mentor while he lectured. ‘My mentor, who says he will teach me the way of true power.’ It was a giddy thought. ‘As long as I don’t mess it up.’ She wasn’t so overwhelmed as to admit anything about her connection to the Raven Queen, however. Professor Lacer might not intend to turn her other identity in to the coppers, but she couldn’t assume it was safe, either. Would he be impressed if he knew, or would he find her multiple brushes with disaster proof that perhaps she wasn’t quite as worthy as he thought?

As Lacer tried more variations on divination spells against her ward, she fell into thought. ‘Sometimes it hurts to see the truth,’ she repeated silently to herself. It brought up another problem that she’d been avoiding the last few days, focused as she was on preparing for this examination. ‘Was Ana right about me? Am I a reverse-snob who treats the people around me like they don’t matter?’ She instinctively wanted to deny the accusation, but the little twinge of unease inside stopped her.

If I really thought her words had no merit, would I keep thinking about it so much?’ She considered Ana a friend, though not a close one that she could confide all her secrets to. It hurt that the other girl had been so angry with Sebastien and was now avoiding her. Others had noticed and asked about it, but Sebastien had refused to explain. Some of the other women in Sebastien’s classes had tried to take the opportunity to sit with her, but they had been blocked by Brinn Setterlund, who took Ana’s regular seat on whichever side Damien wasn’t stationed.

I did treat her poorly. She might have made assumptions about receiving my help, but isn’t that normal between friends? Would I have been so snappish if I were in my original body—in Siobhan’s form? Was it only bad timing and circumstance, or am I more irritable as Sebastien?’ Men had different hormones than women, after all, and were often more aggressive.

She was aware of the amulet against the skin of her chest, resting next to the warding medallion and the fading scar of the cold burn it had given her. She wondered if anyone who used it would turn into Sebastien Siverling, or if someone else would end up as a completely new person. ‘And what would happen if a man used it?

She could have answers if Katerin or Oliver were willing to try it, but even the idea made her frightened and uncomfortable and had her hunching her shoulders forward protectively. The amulet was hers. She needed it. If something went wrong, if it were to stop working, she would be trapped without it.

Besides,’ she comforted herself, ‘neither Katerin nor Oliver are likely to agree just to sate my curiosity.

Professor Lacer dropped his latest spell and tried a new one, snapping her out of her spiraling thoughts.

She massaged her jaw muscles, which she had been unconsciously clenching until her molars ached. ‘It doesn’t really matter if I have a tendency to be more aggressive or self-centered as Sebastien. Which might not even be a factor, so it is doubly no excuse! I know right and wrong, and I still have a duty to take ownership of my actions. I make my own choices no matter what body I’m in, or what influences might make one path or another easier.

Sebastien cleared her throat awkwardly, then said, “How do you deal with a question that’s uncomfortable? One you don’t really want to ask, because it hurts?”

Again, Lacer didn’t answer her right away, dropping the latest divination and then writing out his notes first. Finally, he said, “There are a lot of facets to both finding and accepting truth. It is a mental discipline that is an ever-ongoing struggle. I cannot answer that question succinctly, but I do have an exercise, a small trick, if you will, that I have found useful in similar situations.”

He leaned back in his chair, steepling his fingers together. “Simply take your dreaded question, this possible state of reality that you do not believe is true, that you do not wish to be true, and imagine if it were. Take your time on this, and delve deep. Model an entire world, and yourself within that world, existing within the framework of that uncomfortable question. ‘Is my wife really cheating on me?’ ‘Am I as intelligent as I always thought I was?’ ‘Is there any meaning to life?’ That kind of thing. When you can model that imaginary world while still leaving yourself a line of retreat, in the idea that it is only “imagination,” you can trick yourself into accepting and coming to grips with these uncomfortable truths, and from there act on them in the most optimal way.”

He squinted at her for a few seconds, then said, “I am pleased you asked this question, Mr. Siverling. It is of special importance to lean into the uncomfortable truths, to twist the knife of inquiry in the places that hurt worst, because they hurt worst. You must keep going until you have released yourself from the prison of your own mind. Even if you are frightened.”

She wondered if he thought her question related to the Raven Queen instead of something so mundane as an argument between friends.

Professor Lacer stood and moved over to Sebastien, making the first adjustment to the rudimentary array drawn around her. All the previous variations of the spell had been based on its broad, sturdy foundation, with the nuances of the Word held in his own mind. “This anti-divination magic has proved impressively robust, even to what clever workarounds and tricks I have been able to devise.”

He stepped back, palming his Conduit again, and this time the pressure on her ward felt stranger than ever—vague, almost, as if the divination was one step removed from her.

She shook her head like a dog trying to get water out of its ears.

He dropped the spell, smiling down at the spell array. “I cannot even model what I know of you to find someone that matches my hypothetical construct. I thought for sure that one would work. I suppose it is best not to push it. Divination is dangerous, even for someone like myself. Secrets do not enjoy being cracked open,” he added with wry amusement. “They struggle.”

That kind of spellcasting was beyond her, both in power and in theory, but Sebastien wondered if perhaps that kind of trick couldn’t work because he didn’t actually understand her, and thus the parameters of his hypothetical construct were all wrong.

“What I am most curious about is how this boon even works,” he said. “It is not impossible to scry you, it simply takes enough effort and power to break the effect. Is she actively protecting you from a distance? Did she cast some kind of binding spell so that you would instinctively draw on that aspect of her power? I almost wonder that she did not do some powerful human transmogrification and adjust your very properties. That would be incredibly illegal, of course, and so, so, dangerous, but you seem to be fine, and the whole thing is rather a puzzle.” He looked up, seemingly realizing the alarming nature of his musing. “Whatever the truth is, it does no good to deny it. It is true whether you know it to be or not. And you do seem fine,” he reiterated encouragingly.

Sebastien nodded silently. ‘It’s actually kind of funny that he’s so bad at comforting others.

He made a few more notes, then leaned against the edge of his desk with his legs crossed, staring absently at his Conduit for a while.

“Is that everything you wanted from me?” Sebastien asked, finally.

“It is.” He hesitated, then said, “You may remain for a few minutes, if you like, if you have something non-disruptive to work on. Or if you have any questions or concerns…” He scratched the side of his short-cut beard with uncharacteristic discomfort. “I am available,” he concluded.

Sebastien blinked at him twice, then suppressed a giddy smile. The chance to pick Thaddeus Lacer’s brain was invaluable. Questions flitted through her mind faster than she could register them, about everything from her spellwork to stories about his past. Knowing him, however, he would grow impatient and cut her off after one or two answers, and even faster if she asked something boring or invasive.

In the end, she decided to ask something she had little chance of finding an answer to elsewhere. She bit her lip, considering how to word it. “If you want to…transplant a person, or replace their body, with their knowledge and personality intact, how would you go about doing that?” Once started, the words spilled out of her. “Does it require the exact same brain, or could you create a new one? Would the person experience personality changes due to the effects of the body transplant?”

Professor Lacer’s eyebrows rose. “I admit, that is not the sort of thing I expected you to ask. Your interest in subverting the limitations of the human body continues, I see.” He chuckled briefly, crossing his arms. “Across the eras, there have been many experiments that attempted to keep someone alive artificially, since even among thaumaturges no one has been able to halt the effects of aging entirely. None of these experiments or attempts have been successful. Those who lived—if you can use that term for a mind trapped in a barely functioning body—still experienced horrible side effects such as immune responses that attack the body and brain. Most attempts simply resulted in painful and unpleasant deaths. A better way to increase a creature’s lifespan is to Sacrifice a similar creature’s vitality. Of course, unless such a thing was classified as a powerful healing spell, that would fall into the category of blood magic, since it would certainly kill the Sacrificed creature. Those spells also produce rapidly diminishing effects. If you are worried about death, I would suggest investing in some robust warding artifacts and then channeling enough magic to extend your lifespan as long as possible, rather than experimenting with forbidden magics. You are much too young—and inexperienced—for such things.”

He thought she wanted to know how to extend her lifespan. She hesitated to correct his assumption with a more direct question, because it could be too easily connected to the transformation amulet if someone else discovered what it did. It would be a clue to her involvement. “I understand,” she said. “I was just curious, not planning to do anything reckless.”

He gave her a gimlet stare of suspicion for a few seconds, then seemed to accept her words.

Before he could grow tired of her presence, she blurted out another question she might not find answers for elsewhere. “What happens when a thaumaturge breaks? I mean, I experienced…something.” She couldn’t remember exactly what she’d felt, the same way people talked about incoherent dreams slipping away upon waking. “I was still a few blocks away at the time,” she hastened to add, realizing that she might give her lie away through discrepancies in her stated timeline if she wasn’t careful. “But I’m pretty sure I felt it when it happened. I don’t really have the words to explain it, but it was like reality fell apart, or my brain got temporarily scrambled like an egg. I fell to the ground. It…took me some time to regain my wits, and by the time I arrived, it was already much too late.”

“Another interesting question,” he said. “No one truly understands how Aberrants are created. The break event is named such because it seems to follow when the Will is strained to the point of breaking, for whatever reason, but also because of the phenomenon you experienced. Thaumaturges can sense when a break event happens, and those with developed Wills experience it more powerfully. Some theorize that what we feel is the soul of the caster shattering, destroyed utterly and never to pass on to the afterlife. Others think some kind of malevolent sentience reaches through, possibly from the spirit world, and takes over the weak-minded, citing as evidence the fact that chain break events are possible, where one causes another in a nearby caster. Some think that we somehow sense the fabric of magic itself experiencing localized damage, which mends back together incorrectly, thus creating the Aberrant.”

“What do you believe?” she whispered.

“I do not know the answer, but if I were to choose an option that seemed most likely, it would be the last.” The bell rang to mark the hour, and he turned back to his notes. “If that is all, run along to lunch.”

She gathered up her bag and jacket, still thinking about what she’d learned.

Just as she reached for the door handle, he said, “If you happen to encounter the Raven Queen once more, please tell her that I have noticed her interest and would be willing to meet with her.”

“Um.” Sebastien swallowed with a suddenly dry throat, her grip tight around the cold metal door handle. “Okay.” Without turning to look back, she stepped into the hallway, closed the door behind her, and leaned against it, her legs shaky from the sudden rush of adrenaline.

Pushing back her sleeve, she looked through the many wood and pewter bracelets that ran up her forearm, picked the correct one from the color and placement of the thread wrapped around it, and broke it to let Oliver know everything was okay.

Author Note:

It was a rather long chapter this week. Hope you enjoyed!

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