Chapter 108 – Peace Talks

Sebastien

Month 2, Day 6, Saturday 4:15 p.m.

After a late lunch, Sebastien sent Brinn and Waverly off to the supervised casting rooms without her, while she stopped by the dorms to pick up some books that needed to be returned to the library. She also took the time to check on the Aberrant string she’d found, which hadn’t changed in any way and was as inert as ever within its sealed vial. She returned it to its hiding spot with care. After sitting down to make all her plans about being prepared for the worst, she had viewed her decision to keep a piece of an Aberrant more critically. It had been an impulsive decision, and though she wasn’t sure exactly how things might go wrong despite what precautions she’d taken, that didn’t mean that it was a safe choice.

Still, she couldn’t bear to destroy it or give it to the Red Guard. She was irrationally covetous of it. Having it within her possession, under her control, so obviously dead and helpless against her… She would not give it up. Even if she was being foolish, her mental and emotional health also had worth, and this was helping her.

When Sebastien drew open the curtains to her cubicle to leave, she froze.

Ana was sitting at the small desk in the cubicle across from her, leaning over an essay. It had been a short visit home, apparently.

Sebastien stared at the other girl’s turned back, then took a deep breath and strode forward. She stopped in front of the door to Ana’s cubicle. “Can we speak in private?”

Ana didn’t smile, but nodded. “Lead the way.”

Sebastien hesitated, trying to think of a place that they wouldn’t be overheard. There would be no open private rooms in the library on a weekend afternoon, and the grounds were scattered with students despite the cold. In the end, she settled on the classroom that Damien’s little study group, which she occasionally joined, used to practice in the morning. When they arrived, she closed the door gently, steeling herself to speak.

Before she could, Ana said, “I have another offer for you. Your guardian, Lord Dryden, recently attempted to get a textile industry sub-commission from my father. He was denied.”

Sebastien blinked, taken aback.

Ana continued, standing stiffly beside the large table at the center of the room. “If you’ll help with my uncles, I will use my influence to change that decision.”

Sebastien tilted her head to the side. “Is that something you can actually do?”

Ana lifted her chin, giving Sebastien a small smirk. “My father is not as shrewd and observant as he thinks, or my uncles wouldn’t get away with half of what they do. I will attempt to persuade him first, but even if he doesn’t agree, I will have little trouble slipping the paperwork right under his nose.”

Oliver had probably been hoping to break into the industry as part of his plans for strengthening the Verdant Stag and providing opportunities for the people in his territory. Sebastien imagined it could be quite a lucrative opportunity. ‘I might be able to get Oliver to pay me for that. It certainly counts as a favor to the Verdant Stag. But Ana doesn’t know that.’ She narrowed her eyes. “That’s certainly an interesting offer for Lord Dryden, but how does that benefit me?”

“That’s up to you to negotiate. He’s sponsoring you through the University, is he not?”

Sebastien’s eyes widened, but Ana shook her hand as if waving away a fly. “That’s not so hard to deduce, Sebastien. Who else would be doing it? The Siverlings certainly aren’t a wealthy, influential family any more, and you’ve been staying at Dryden Manor when you’re not at the University. Lord Dryden was interested enough in the Gervin Family’s acceptance that he gave up an Erythrean gelding from his breeding business to my father. Do you know how much those horses are worth?”

Sebastien didn’t, but she understood the general idea. “I’m interested. But I want to be involved in the planning, and I reserve the right to veto any proposals that are too dangerous to implement. You’ll cover any expenses.”

Ana’s face broke into a wide smile. “Agreed.”

Sebastien stepped away from the closed door. “Actually, I wanted to talk to you so that I could apologize.”

“I know.”

Sebastien pushed on. “I was rude when we previously spoke, and I ask your forgiveness.”

“And I was presumptuous, and didn’t tailor my offer to your personality. I’m sorry, too. I shouldn’t have been so…pushy.” Ana shrugged uncomfortably. “I can see that you’ve been under a lot of stress, and perhaps I didn’t choose the best time to talk. I wasn’t really paying attention to the signs you were putting off because I was so excited to have figured out the plan, and I was impatient to move forward. I thought you…would be excited, too. I wasn’t angry so much that you refused me, but the way you went about it. I realize that you’re under no obligation to take on this kind of campaign, whether we’re friends or not.”

Sebastien crossed her arms. “That’s why you came back with a sweeter deal.”

Ana’s smile dimmed, but she nodded. She stepped forward, clapping Sebastien on the shoulder and leading her back toward the doorway. “Indeed. But, Sebastien, I must tell you. For someone who is so inclined to see the world and relationships as transaction-based, you really should learn to negotiate better. I would have been willing to concede or offer other things to obtain your help.”

“What other things?”

“Well, you’ll never know, now. You already agreed.” Ana gave her a crooked grin.

Sebastien chuckled, adjusting the strap of her satchel over her shoulder with one arm and offering the other elbow to Ana. “I’ll keep that in mind,” she said. And she would. “Are you pulling the rest of your friends into this, too?”

“Damien, but not the others.”

“Why not?”

“It’s illegal, underhanded, and they’re not suited for it like you and Damien. Brinn is too kind and anxious. He’s not meant for scheming and espionage. He would do it, if I asked him and explained why it was necessary, but he’s terrible at lying, and the whole thing would leave him a nervous wreck. Waverly wouldn’t be interested. She doesn’t get excited about anything but witchcraft. Alec…well, Uncle Malcom is his father. He probably hates the man enough to go against him, but…” Ana trailed off, grimacing.

“He’s too volatile and loud-mouthed to trust with something delicate like this.”

Ana shrugged one shoulder, sighing. “Maybe. He’s grown up some over the last couple years, but this is about Nat’s safety. I’m not sure if it’s worth the risk. Alec might know some of his father’s secrets, which could be invaluable. And we might be able to use another pair of hands.” Ana hesitated, but shook her head. “But even so, if this succeeds, Alec could be left off even worse than where he started, with his father further from power and more angry. If I were him, I wouldn’t agree to help depose my own father, no matter how much I hated the man. Not unless I could be sure of severing our relationship and securing my own standing and safety.”

Sebastien hummed. “And Rhett?”

“He could probably be persuaded, if we found a particular task that played to his strengths. If we need an attractive woman distracted and seduced, or someone defeated in a duel, we could call on him. But he’s not interested in these kind of political games or intrigue. He might think less of me, if he knew.”

Sebastien thought that was rather silly, and perhaps Ana was just being paranoid, but the other girl knew Rhett better than she, and had a better sense for how people worked, with all their foibles and inconsistencies. “So just us three. Do you know when Damien will be back? Has he already agreed to help?”

“He should return tomorrow evening, or perhaps early Monday morning, if he cajoles Titus enough to let him stay another night. I haven’t spoken to him yet. I wanted your agreement, first. Damien is reliable in his way—he’d jump to help me with anything I really needed—but sometimes he doesn’t fully grasp the gravity of the situation. I don’t want the plan to be jeopardized because he’s having a little too much fun with the whole thing.”

Sebastien completely understood, though she didn’t say so aloud. “We can start planning on Monday, then, after classes.”

That gave Sebastien plenty of time to talk to Oliver, first. She had brewing to do, according to her tightly-scheduled plan, but this new opportunity might make her finance problems less pressing. ‘Perhaps it would be best to prepare a little before seeing Oliver. Just like with Liza, a little haggling could make a huge difference. And I don’t like the idea that I allow myself to be taken advantage of in negotiations. If I make ten extra gold due to preparing, I’ve exceeded what I could accomplish laboring over a cauldron for the rest of the day.

She and Ana split up when they reached the library, Ana going to study with a group of random female friends and Sebastien searching through the stacks alone. She wasn’t sure that everything with Ana was truly settled, but since they had both apologized, perhaps all that was needed now was time. Sebastien felt like she didn’t really understand Ana—like she had seen only a couple facets of something larger and darker. In a way, it made her more comfortable. Or, if not more comfortable, exactly, it felt more familiar.

I’m wondering if that worked out how people anticipated. And also what exactly you think just happened.

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