Month 2, Day 7, Sunday 12:00 p.m.
When Sebastien returned from the kitchen with a second cup of coffee—properly filtered—she joined Oliver on the couch. “So, what is this other thing we need to discuss?”
Oliver took a deep drink from the steaming mug, then let out an exaggerated sigh of relief. “I met with Tanya Canelo yesterday. She was sent to negotiate on behalf of Munchworth and his associates.”
Sebastien paused halfway through a bite of her toast. “What happened?”
“We agreed that the Verdant Stag would continue supplying them in place of the Morrows, but the important part is that she asked about the stolen book, and about you.”
She swallowed heavily. “And what did you tell her?”
Oliver placed a hand on Sebastien’s shoulder, his skin warm through her shirt. “Don’t look so worried! I told her I wouldn’t even entertain the idea of betrayal. But then Miss Canelo suggested something that might be worth consideration. The University wants to set up a meeting with you—well, with the Raven Queen. They’re willing to pay for your presence with a tribute, just like Lord Lynwood did.”
A sour ball of anxiety formed in Sebastien’s stomach. “What for? Do you think they can be trusted?”
“I imagine they’re hoping to negotiate with her for the book. But no, I don’t think they can be trusted. Setting up the meeting was the secondary suggestion, after all. But if we could ensure your safety while still acquiring the tribute, it might be worth it for the chance that you can gain something while losing nothing. It would also make me seem more influential and amenable. Though I would caution you against giving up the book, no matter what they offer. Without it, you have very little leverage against more severe retaliation, and it’s possible they could use it against you, even in your identity as Sebastien Siverling. We don’t know what’s inside it, after all.”
“I’ve had similar thoughts,” she admitted. “I would be willing to give back the book if doing so could really clear my name, but I don’t see how that’s possible. Even if it was, the University couldn’t make me that promise. It would have to be the coppers. The High Crown, maybe.”
“It is possible, but I would be more cautious of him than the University.”
She hummed in idle agreement, wondering if the danger of a meeting was even worth it in exchange for the value of their tribute. If everything with the Gervin uncles went well, Sebastien wouldn’t be so destitute that the promise of coin could yank her around like a dog on a leash. Still, she’d never had a chance to talk to the University faction before. “I at least want to hear what they have to offer. Perhaps there are paths that I haven’t considered.”
“I can prepare a location, hire security that won’t be associated with the Verdant Stag, and set up an intermediary to meet with them. A raven, perhaps?” Oliver asked with a mischievous smile.
Sebastien laughed. “We’ll need wards. Protections. Plans to neutralize anything they might come up with.”
“I’ll hire Liza.”
“I’m not paying for that.”
“I will handle it out of my thirty percent cut of the tribute’s value.”
She narrowed her eyes, but that seemed reasonable with the level of expenses he would be incurring. He might actually lose money. “That’s acceptable. This time.”
“Oh, Sebastien. So jaded.” Oliver sighed dramatically, staring toward the ceiling.
They discussed the plan while finishing breakfast, and Sebastien couldn’t help but feel…optimistic. She tried to tell herself not to get too excited, but this meeting felt like the kind of thing that might make a real difference. Maybe it could be like the arrangement with Ana, and they would surprise her.
While she daydreamed about being free, no longer a wanted criminal, Oliver sprang up. “I almost forgot! I have something for you. A surprise.” He hurried out of the room with a boyish grin on his face, returning with a ribbon-tied box. “I had them specially made.”
He handed Sebastien the box, then sat down across from her, watching her unblinkingly, as if to absorb every movement and reaction.
“Is this for any particular occasion?” Ennis had given her gifts on her birthday, when he didn’t forget, but they were often last-minute, re-gifted items.
“No particular occasion. I thought these would be useful, and the kind of thing you might not think to buy for yourself.”
She tugged at the ribbon, feeling strange. She hoped she wasn’t blushing. “Umm, thank you.”
“You don’t even know what it is yet. Open it.”
She did, finding a pair of leather boots, a brown so dark they were almost black, lying beside a small, slim dagger in a holster with straps.
Oliver leaned forward with excitement. “You see how the dagger is so flat? That’s so it will be comfortable and easy to disguise. It’s got a fish-hooked edge, which I thought could be good for cutting through rope or other bindings, and is also a great way to do really severe damage if you manage to stab someone somewhere soft. It’s meant to be hidden against your shin, so the handle rests just at the edge of the boot collar. If you prefer, the holster can be adjusted for your forearm instead.”
She unsheathed the dagger, admiring the complete lack of sheen on the dark, matte metal. “No reflection to draw the eye and give away my position.” She didn’t dare to run her finger over the razor-sharp edge. The whole blade was about the length of her palm, with a flat metal hilt that had finger holes to both decrease the weight and give her a sturdy grip on the weapon.
“If you’re ever in a position where magic isn’t feasible, either because you have no supplies or your Will is shot, a good knife has many different uses, including self-defense,” Oliver said. “It’s also a lot faster than setting up a spell.”
“Thank you,” she said again, more sincerely. This was the second thoughtful, personalized gift Oliver had given her, just because he wanted to.
Oliver’s grin widened, curling a little too far into his cheeks with excitement. He held up a hand to cover his face. “That isn’t even the best part. Take a moment to examine those boots.”
Sebastien did. They were nondescript, perhaps slightly androgynous in style, not fancy enough to wear to some noble party but sturdy enough for every day, and with a tread that would handle rough or slippery terrain well. “I won’t have any trouble running in these.”
“Anything else?” He was still covering the lower half of his face, but she could see the glee in his eyes.
“You’re too excited for these to be normal boots.” She looked them over again. “Are they an artifact?” Her eyes caught on an almost-invisible seam in the heel’s tread. “Wait…is there something hidden in there?”
“You gave me the idea, when I heard how you were tracking Miss Canelo.” Oliver leaned forward, taking one of the boots to show her how it worked. He grabbed a part of the tread and twisted it, then flipped up a section of the heel to reveal an even tinier blade nestled securely within. It was shaped like a teardrop with a hole for a single finger to slip through as the grip. “I had them custom made. This edge here”—he pointed to a black tab at the back of the slot where the finger-dagger would hide—“is flint. You can scrape it with the blade to start a fire in an emergency. For warmth, or cooking food, or casting magic.” He pried the blade out, then struck it quickly against the flint, creating a small spray of sparks.
“That’s not all. They’re size-adjusting.” He opened a small decorative flap of leather on the side of the ankle, then pushed a small switch. The boot unfolded at the seams. Oliver stretched it a little bit with his hand, and within a few seconds, the boot looked exactly the same, just slightly larger. “The cordwainer was very confused about why I wanted the boots to be able to shrink back down after expanding, but he managed to make it work.” Oliver flipped that same switch, and the edges folded back into themselves again, leaving the boots slightly thicker at places, but otherwise indistinguishable. “This way, you can use them no matter what body you’re wearing.”
“Oliver…this is…” She shook her head, speechless for once. ‘How much did this cost?’ she wondered. It was by no means a trivial gift.
“I’m glad you like them. I’ve noticed that thaumaturges can be somewhat single-minded in looking to magic to solve all their problems, so I wanted to make sure you had a more mundane, creative option for protection. Something no enemy would be expecting.” He put the finger dagger back into its hiding place, then closed the heel of the boot again. “Even if someone searches you, once they find the shin dagger, they’re unlikely to keep searching for blades.”
At his urging, Sebastien tried them on, switching them out for her other boots and settling the dagger on her shin. They fit well and gave her an additional sense of security. ‘One more option to deal with disaster when a metaphorical meteor strikes my life.’ Suddenly, she felt bad that she’d bargained so viciously with him earlier.
She shook off the feeling. The book on negotiation tactics had mentioned gift-giving as a way to disarm the other party and make them instinctively feel the need to repay you. It helped make someone more malleable to terms or favors they might have otherwise denied, and she wasn’t going to fall into that mental trap. But it would be nice to do something kind for Oliver in return, so she didn’t feel so awkwardly grateful and beholden. But what did one do or buy for the wealthy, powerful lord of an illegal organization, who could purchase anything he wanted for himself, and whose main goal was overthrowing the current regime and revolutionizing the country? She blinked, shaking her mind away from that potential rabbit-hole. She cleared her throat. “I’m very grateful. This is a wonderful gift. Thank you.”
“No need to thank me again and again. I’m happy that you’re happy. I hope you never need to use them. Will you be staying the rest of the day to brew, then?” he asked expectantly.
Sebastien looked at the alchemy tables set against the wall, but with food in her stomach, the difficult conversations out of the way, and her new boots on her feet, she was growing tired again. The idea of spending the remainder of the day toiling over the cauldron made her want to cry, just a little bit, wiping away most of the positive emotions she’d been feeling. The sudden mood swing surprised and worried her. She could remedy her fatigue with a dose of the beamshell tincture…but she didn’t want to. ‘I’ve just negotiated a huge payment. Probably more than one. Perhaps just one day to myself is warranted? If this works, the grueling work schedule part of my plan might become optional.’
Aloud she said, “No. I won’t be brewing today.” The relief that accompanied those words was almost tangible. She could visit Waterside Market and purchase the necessary components for upcoming concoctions. However, instead of spending the remainder of the day chopping, grinding, and channeling magic until her eyes crossed, she would stop by the Verdant Stag to get her new contract signed and vow completed. And then she would just…take a break.
The thought crossed her mind that it would be a good chance to visit Newton’s family, but she immediately shied away from the idea, the sudden surge of fear, guilt, and aversion so strong it made her physically cringe.
“Can I take a look at a map of the city, actually?” she blurted, turning her body physically toward Oliver, just as she wrenched her mind from the painful thoughts. “And do you have a comprehensive list of safe-houses around that would be okay for me to use in an emergency?”
He tilted his head slightly, scrutinizing her reaction. “Sure. I don’t have the safe houses written down anywhere here, but we can go over their locations and access protocols together.”
While Oliver cleared his desk and brought out a detailed map, Sebastien tried to settle her mind, pushing a bit of Will into the effort when deep breaths didn’t seem effective enough. ‘It’s time to learn. This is important and requires your total focus. This knowledge will be power,’ she told herself. She joined Oliver, standing by his desk and looking at the impressively detailed map filled with streets, canals, and tiny circles and rectangles for the buildings, so dense they looked like mold growing upon a petri dish. Unlike most maps she’d seen, it even stretched into the slums, though with less detail. The paper took up almost his whole desk, and Sebastien was struck again by the size of Gilbratha, and the number of people that lived there.
“This is Mrs. Branwen’s house,” Oliver said, pointing to an area of the slums. “You hid there with me before.” He moved his finger. “We also have a safe house here, just off Waterside Market, with a second exit in case you need to throw off someone following you. The password is…” Over the course of the next half hour, Oliver took her through almost a dozen emergency options. She was pleased and impressed by the extent of the preparations. As he spoke, she focused like she was trying to cast magic, letting the rest of the world fall away. She repeated each bit of information mentally, tying it into her memory with different connective threads and doing her best to imagine the streets and buildings around her as if she were walking them, instead of looking down from above.
When he finished speaking, he asked, “Do you want to go over any of that again? I know it was a lot of information all at once.”
She shook her head. “No, I memorized it all.”
“All of it? From only hearing it once?”
“Yes.” She pulled the map a little closer to herself, pointing to location after location and repeating the key information in truncated form. She was a lot more familiar with the city than she’d been when they first met, but she still sometimes had trouble navigating areas she wasn’t familiar with. “I really need to memorize the whole city and come up with some optimal routes to various destinations. That will be the hard part.”
“The hard part,” he repeated, sounding a little odd.
She nodded absently, picking up the map and making her way back to one of the plush chairs near the fire. “I’m going to spend a little time looking this over, if you don’t mind. I’ll let you get back to your work. I know you’re busy.”
He said something, but she was already too immersed in absorbing the information in front of her to listen.
She covered the map section by section, memorizing street names and landmarks while trying to simulate the experience of walking through the city in her mind. She took note of several buildings and businesses that the Verdant Stag now owned, including a couple of interesting shops and a rather nice hotel in the business district. This method, merely absorbing a map, wasn’t error-proof. Theoretical information was too likely to fail her in the dead of night, or with panic muddling her senses and her recall. She would be best served by traveling the streets herself, on foot. But that was too large a project to complete quickly, and would have to wait.
She studied until her brain started to protest against the strain of absorbing new information, well before she’d actually finished memorizing the whole map. She sat back with a sigh of disappointment to rub her temples. “I think that’s all I can do today.”
She tidied up the dirty breakfast dishes that had been left out, stacking them on a tray to take back down to the kitchen. “If this whole thing with the Gervin side branches does work, isn’t it actually rather dangerous for you to get the commission?” she asked, looking at Oliver. “If it’s known that the Stags are running the textile industry that you agreed on, can’t that lead the coppers back to Oliver Dryden’s identity?”
Oliver shrugged, standing to help her stack the dishes. “Sure, but that was always going to happen eventually. I’ll put buffers between my two identities, just like I have been. Even if someone becomes suspicious, I have some readily available counterarguments and excuses. There’s no reason to believe I didn’t hire people in the Mires simply because they’re cheap labor and also the potential main source of my clientele. I’m well known to be a philanthropist, and the higher wages I plan to pay might be seen as naive, or bad business, but certainly not out of character. And if the Stags were attracted by those benefits and money and have somehow gotten their tentacles into my business, charging the workshops and stores for protection and getting a lot of people from their own territory hired? Well, there’s not much I can do about that. The Stags do the same to a lot of other businesses that Oliver Dryden has nothing to do with, after all. It’s very sad, but they’re insidious,” he said, shaking his head with an overdone morose expression. “I suppose, if criminal organizations can’t be eradicated, I would rather be plagued by the Verdant Stag than some of the other options.”
Sebastien was still chuckling as she left, tucking a stuffed meat bun that Sharon had pressed on her into a pocket, the box that now held her old boots under her free arm.
Author Note 6/16/22:
I’m pushing really hard to get the first draft of this book finished! On a related note, if I am or have been late responding to your emails or comments, that’s why. Oh, plus I had to help my mom move this last week,
and she’s a bit of a hoarder…
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