Chapter 111 – Cunning and Craft

Damien

Month 2, Day 8, Monday 10:30 a.m.

Damien returned from a wonderful weekend visit to Westbay Manor—wonderful mostly because his father had been away, leaving just Titus and the servants—barely in time to make it to his Monday morning class. Damien brought back with him three things: news about the latest developments on the Raven Queen’s case, delicious treats, and a terrible secret.

As they went through their classes, Damien watched Sebastien with more care than normal, trying not to be obvious about his revived scrutiny. Despite the shock of the knowledge Damien now bore, he reassured himself that the secret was only new to him. Sebastien had been dealing with it all along, unable to talk about it, but seemed to be improving, if anything. His stint of working every spare moment to try and bury the pain of what had happened to Newton seemed to have passed, and he and Ana had worked out their argument while Damien was gone. Sebastien was still jittery, though—probably drinking too much wakefulness brew to combat his chronic sleep deprivation.

Damien had tried to tell Ana that she should give Sebastien some slack, because it was normal for someone to be a little emotionally unstable after a traumatic experience. But though Ana had seemed subdued by this reminder, she had remained too stubborn to reach out first.

Damien waved for his friends to linger as Introduction to Modern Magics let out, retrieving the parcel filled with desserts wrapped in wax paper and handing them out. He gave an extra one to Sebastien, hoping they would spark his appetite, and then was forced to give an extra to all his other friends as well when they complained at his unfair treatment. “I have news,” Damien told them in a hushed tone, his excitement somewhat exaggerated to cover up his anxiety.

Ana leaned in with interest, Sebastien’s gaze sharpened, and Alec grinned, but Waverly was more focused on her dessert, Brinn just gave Damien an indulgent smile, and Rhett was busy making googly eyes at some girl across the room.

“Do you remember the Raven Queen’s accomplice, Ennis Naught?” Damien asked.

Sebastien wasn’t fast enough to keep the flicker of expression from his face, but Damien couldn’t quite tell what emotion had caused it. Anger, or maybe fear?

“His sentencing has been scheduled, and it’s going to be public,” Damien continued.

This time, Sebastien didn’t let anything slip through his expression, seeming only mildly curious. “Is that normal?” he asked. “And don’t you have to hold a trial before sentencing?”

“It is somewhat uncommon, though not quite as rare as a public execution,” Ana said, taking a delicate bite of her pastry. “Usually they hold public sentencing for the more high-profile cases, to remind everyone that the hammer of Crown law is still as powerful as ever. I suppose it’s not so surprising that they would do that with this one. I would guess the trial is either ongoing or scheduled to complete before the sentencing. What did they charge him with exactly?” With a distracted, indulgent smile, she handed off her second dessert to Waverly, who had already finished both of hers.

“Eat, Sebastien,” Damien reminded. He waited for Sebastien to take a big, scowling bite before he continued. “They charged Mr. Naught with felony theft, conspiracy to commit treason, and being an accomplice to illegal magical practices. Plus some other things, like resisting arrest.” He waved a hand glibly. “Apparently there’s also a whole list of minor crimes he committed over the years and confessed to while in Harrow Hill. I didn’t memorize the whole list.”

“When is the sentencing?” Sebastien asked.

“A couple months from now.”

Ana brightened. “Oh? We’ll be free from the University for Sowing Break, then. Maybe we can attend! I would imagine quite a lot of people will be there.”

Alec shrugged. “That just means it will be uncomfortably crowded. Plus, I’m not really that interested in seeing some poor sod get told the rest of his life is ruined.”

Sebastien flinched, and Damien gave Alec a look of irritation. “Poor sod? He’s the Raven Queen’s accomplice and a career criminal. The whole of Lenore will be better off without him.”

“Ehh.” Alec didn’t bother to argue with him, probably because he didn’t actually have any good justifications for his opinion, but didn’t want to admit he was wrong, either.

As their little huddle dispersed and they walked toward the next class, Damien fell back from the group, tugging on Sebastien’s sleeve. “This is a ploy to try and trap the Raven Queen,” Damien murmured.

Obviously,” Sebastien said. “They’re not even being subtle about it.”

“Do you think she’ll show up?”

Sebastien’s lips were pressed together in a thin line. “Not if she’s smart. And if she did, I’d like to see their plan to keep the audience from panicking. Have you ever seen someone stomped to death by a crowd, Damien?”

Damien stared at Sebastien. “No.”

“It doesn’t even take that many people. Just a small enough space and enough panic.”

“Maybe…they’ll restrict the number of attendees? And increase the security, of course. Titus probably has some clever plan to catch her as soon as she gets near, before she has a chance to do any damage.”

“Either that or someone decided the danger was worth it,” Sebastien said darkly.

Damien fell silent, trying to figure out how to bring up the more important thing he had learned from Titus, but they arrived too quickly at the Natural Science classroom, and the discussion had to be postponed.

Professor Gnorrish had arrayed a strange assortment of things on their desks, from candles to ugly-looking mushrooms, and when all the students were seated, he dimmed the lights. Immediately, some of the items revealed a glow.

“There are many different sources of light energy,” Professor Gnorrish began, his loud voice cutting harshly through the wonder of the glow, “some of which are obtained directly, and some of which are converted from other forms of energy. The most obvious source of light is the sun, followed by flames. These are ‘incandescent’ sources of energy, and are rather inefficient, because most of the actual energy goes into producing heat, with very little left over for light. Less than one percent of incandescent energy is expressed as light, even for the hottest flames from the heaviest fuel.

“Light is also created through electric discharge, which you’ve all surely experienced through lightning. Gas particles will emit light when electricity is passed through them. This is also how sodium vapor lamps emit their yellow glow.

“After electric discharge come phosphorescence and fluorescence. Some materials can absorb energy from another source, often ultraviolet light, store it, and then emit visible light energy gradually, at a longer wavelength and reduced brightness. This is rare, and happens naturally in minerals like barite, as well as a few magical species such as fey-flowers and glow-slimes. If the light disappears immediately, it’s fluorescence. If it lingers, it’s phosphorescence.”

Gnorrish let his eyes rove discouragingly over the students, some of whom seemed a little too interested in their rocks and mushrooms. “If you come across something glowing eerily in the dark, do not eat it.”

Damien thought it was probably not a good idea to eat random things you’d never encountered before, in general.

“Finally, we have chemiluminescence and bioluminescence. Chemiluminescence is light emitted due to a chemical reaction, allowing chemical energy to be converted to light with little to no change in the temperature, unlike incandescence. This process occurs naturally, also called bioluminescence, in fireflies, jellyfish, and the moondew drosera, which is a magical carnivorous plant.”

Gnorrish went on for a while longer, but they spent the majority of the class period practicing casting with different sources of light as power.

Damien found the exercises difficult, though he performed better than most of their classmates.

Sebastien attacked the task with a single-minded ferociousness, outperforming everyone else as if his life were on the line, and when the bell rang, announced with satisfaction, “I think that helped a lot! I could feel my grasp getting a little stronger, by the end. Maybe in a few more weeks, with a lot of practice, I’ll at least be competent.”

Damien used a single finger to rub out the wrinkle that had formed between his eyebrows from his scowl. He consoled himself that while he might not be a prodigy like Sebastien, he was not incompetent. Sebastien just didn’t see the world from a realistic point of view. This made Damien feel no better, so he decided to try and get up a half hour earlier so that he could work on Professor Lacer’s light-based exercises during his study group, which Sebastien still only rarely attended.

Damien again tried to talk to Sebastien after classes ended, but Ana chose that moment to draw both of them aside, fidgeting with her clothes as she was prone to do when over excited. “We need somewhere we can speak privately,” she said. “Somewhere we definitely won’t be overheard.”

Sebastien nodded thoughtfully, as if he already knew what was going on. “Not the Menagerie. It’s too open. We would need wards or a spell to ensure privacy, and I don’t know any. But the best option is probably an empty classroom. Or a storage room with a lock. I should be able to open it as long as it’s not too complex.”

Damien stared back and forth between the two of them. “What’s going on?” Was Sebastien bringing Ana in on their secret order of the thirteen-pointed star? Damien wasn’t sure how he felt about that. It would be great to have his other best friend in on all of their secrets, but at the same time…the secret order had been something special, something that only Damien was worthy enough for.

He wasn’t sure if Sebastien guessed what he was thinking, but Sebastien shook his head, irritatedly pushing back his blonde hair without regard to the neatness or way it looked. “Ana has something she needs our help with,” he explained. “Something sensitive.”

“Can you bypass a lock, then, Sebastien?” Ana asked, intrigued.

“I’ve been practicing.”

“Already? You’re more dedicated to this than I had expected. I’m impressed.”

Sebastien rolled his eyes.

“What is going on?” Damien asked again.

“You’ll find out soon enough,” Sebastien said, callous to Damien’s painful curiosity. “Can we just use the study group room? There’s no one in there right now, we have permission to be there, and a ready-made excuse for what we’re doing if anyone happens to pry. Maybe we can even get some practice in while we discuss.”

Ana and Damien shared a look of fond exasperation at Sebastien’s obsession with constant practice. Ana said, “I suppose that would work, and I doubt any of the others will feel sad to be left out of this extra study session.”

Damien hurried to lead the way, as the sooner they arrived, the sooner he could be brought in on the secret his two best friends shared without him. “If anyone asks, we can just tell them Sebastien thought we were embarrassing Professor Lacer with our incompetence.” He sent Sebastien a peevish glare, but received only a bewildered expression in return. Damien sighed. “Never mind, I suppose.”

“Practicing is how you strengthen your Will,” Sebastien mumbled stubbornly. “Don’t you want to be free-casters?”

Ana shook her hand from side to side in “so-so” motion. “I wouldn’t mind, but that is not my main goal in life.”

“I do want to,” Damien said. “I just do not understand how you can stand to practice a handful of basic spells over and over again for hours at a time. Don’t you get bored?”

“It’s not boring. I don’t just cast them by rote again and again. I’m always trying to improve some facet of my Will—my clarity, or explosiveness, or endurance—or I’m testing out different ways to think about how the spell effect is achieved, or competing against myself to stretch the limits by changing the parameters of the exercise in different ways. I don’t just do the exact same thing a million times in a row. That’s not how you grow.”

Ana’s eyes had glazed over, but Damien actually found this interesting, and would have pumped Sebastien for more ideas of things to try during his own practice, but they had arrived at the classroom, and Ana was having none of it.

She closed the door behind them, looked around with an unnecessary amount of caution to ensure the room was empty, then announced in a whisper, “I have a plan to overthrow my uncles and solidify my power and status as heir to the Gervin Family,” she declared dramatically. “Sebastien already agreed to help, but some of the details might be slightly…illegal. Are you interested in joining us, Damien?”

Damien blinked. He mentally repeated what she had just said, trying to absorb the shock. Slowly, a grin stretched across his face. “Are we going to make those bastards as miserable as possible while seating you on the throne?”

Ana crossed her arms, cocking one hip out. “Of course.”

“I’m in.”

Sebastien waved them over to the main table, where he was already setting up Professor Lacer’s illusion spell exercise. “I have yet to hear the details of this plan, and I warn you, I’ll be the one to decide if it’s viable.”

Ana and Damien sat across from him, and Ana pulled some notes out of her bag, setting them on the table. “The plan is actually quite simple,” she said. “I want to erode not only my lord father’s trust in them, but also his faith. To do that, we only need to break into Uncle Malcolm’s vault.”

Sebastien looked incredulous. “I can get past a simple lock, not crack a Crown Family vault, Ana.”

“That’s the beauty of it,” Ana said, her smile widening and taking on a malicious tilt. “We don’t need to crack it, because I know how his security system works. We only need him to be in the right place at the right time, and I’ve thought of a way to get him there. You and Damien only need to handle accessing the vault’s contents and planting the evidence.”

Damien’s heart gave an extra-hard thump, and a rush of thrill fizzled through his veins. “Planting the evidence?” he repeated. “Ana, what exactly is the plan?”

“I know my uncles have committed…indiscretions. They’ve been embezzling from some of the Gervin Family businesses they manage, my Uncle Randolph was racing his horse while drunk and crippled someone, and I’m pretty sure my Uncle Malcolm murdered a prostitute two years back.”

“I…I didn’t know all of that,” Damien said, leaning back so that could help support his suddenly watery spine. “Why didn’t you tell me, Ana?”

She waved a nonchalant hand, not meeting his eyes. “It wouldn’t have changed anything if you knew.”

“Titus runs the coppers! We could have done something!”

Ana gave him a wry smile. “Do you think no coppers have ever come sniffing around? My uncles paid off the coppers, Damien. Maybe not your brother specifically, but…” She shook her head, tugging at the wrist of her sleeves and adjusting her cufflinks. “How often do you think members of the Crown Families, especially high-ranking members, are arrested and convicted?” She didn’t wait for him to give the answer. “And please don’t tell me you think it doesn’t happen because they don’t commit crimes.”

Sebastien nodded as if this was obvious, common knowledge.

Damien smoothed back his hair, this idea settling into his mind like stones thrown into a pond, disturbing everything with ripples as they sank to the depths. Before he was really settled, he said, “I take your point.” He needed time to think, not to continue arguing.

Ana was gracious enough not to keep beating him over the head with it, but Damien’s mood was effectively dampened. “I’m sure that Uncle Malcom will have evidence of at least some of these misdeeds in the vault he keeps in his office. I want that evidence,” she said.

“What will you do with it?” Sebastien asked. “Blackmail? Or give it to your father?”

“Both.” Ana’s vicious grin was back. “And that’s not the whole of it. I want to plant evidence that they are planning to overthrow and kill my father once he has removed myself and Natalia from the line of direct inheritance.”

Damien let out a slow breath. “Do you think he’d buy it?”

“Maybe he wouldn’t normally, but I think we can make it more credible. I want to blackmail them with whatever real evidence of misdeeds we find inside, then document their response—proof that they feel the information is legitimate enough to respond to. Once I bring it all to my father’s attention in the most embarrassing way possible, they might deny what exactly they were being blackmailed about, but with the real evidence mixed with the false, they’ll have damned themselves. Proof of any of it acts as proof of all of it. Plans to overthrow Lord Gervin or even kill him won’t seem so unrealistic.” Ana’s cheeks were flushed pink, her eyes bright. “Their corruption and incompetence will erode his trust in them. Getting blackmailed for wrongdoing might actually be worse in his eyes than the original crime. And their planned betrayal will erode his faith. They won’t be able to continue undermining my authority and trying to tear my rightful birthright out from under me.”

Sebastien fiddled with the Conduit attached to his pocket-watch’s fob, frowning into the mid-distance. “That might actually work, if you play everything just right. There are some pivots points where everything could break apart. First, even if we can get into Malcolm Gervin’s vault, do we actually know that we’ll find reliable blackmail information within? Secondly, this plan hinges on them actually responding to the blackmail attempt the way we want, in a way we’re able to document. And finally, how are you going to ensure that all the evidence comes to light at the right time, in the right way? If we’re blackmailing your uncles, we can’t plant the false evidence at the same time we break into the vault. They’ll definitely check to make sure nothing’s missing. How do you plan to control the outcome? That’s not to mention all the details of how to pull this off that we’ve yet to discuss. There could be pivot points there, too. The more variables, the more chances there are for things to go wrong. Real life isn’t like a story—inevitably, things go awry, often most horribly at the worst possible moment. Rather than a complicated plan with a lot of excitement and moving pieces, an exceedingly simple plan that can be adjusted as needed on the fly is preferable.”

Ana was undeterred. “Okay, well that’s what we’re here for. We’ll work out all the kinks and come up with backup plans or less dangerous ways to do things.”

“Let’s work through it from beginning to end, solving problems as we go,” Sebastien said. “Do you have the something like the blueprints for your uncle’s house? I need to know the details of the layout, the security, and you can’t overlook the servants, even if they walk around acting like they’re invisible.”

Ana didn’t have the blueprints, but ran off to grab a sheet of paper large enough to sketch out the house and grounds from her memory.

When they were alone, Sebastien turned to Damien. “I need you to tell Ana that the Gervins have a betrothal contract with the Raven Queen. It’s with one of the branch line men, and I’m not sure of the details, but it was likely negotiated by one of her uncles. Ana didn’t mention it, and it seems like it would be perfect blackmail material. Hypothetically…we could gather evidence that makes it seem like they’re colluding with the Raven Queen.”

Damien’s mouth dropped before he could suppress the uncouth expression. “Wait, how do you know this? Titus never mentioned anything about this to me.”

“There’s no good explanation—not one I can give Ana—for why I know that,” Sebastien said, not exactly answering the question. “But you have a plausible source. The coppers know about this. But like Ana said, it must not have been a big enough issue for them to go after someone from a Crown Family, since the deal wasn’t made with the Raven Queen directly.”

“Wait, what?”

“The Gervins have a Conduit set in a ring that they took from Ennis Naught when they negotiated the deal. It seems like the kind of thing they would keep in a vault. I’m thinking, if possible, we could use that to blackmail them. We won’t steal it, but perhaps we could take a photo to help make a drawing of it, to prove what we know. This mission isn’t just for Ana, Damien. It’s been approved by our bosses.”

Suddenly, it made sense why Sebastien knew all this. He must have learned it from another member of their secret order, or from his investigations into the Raven Queen. Damien swallowed hard, trying to suppress the resurgence of giddiness. “Do they have any special mission for us?”

“You just need to pull this off, and keep two unworthy men from coming into greater power. If there were any secret missions, I would be the one tasked to complete them.”

Damien pursed his lips unhappily, but then realized it looked like he was pouting and straightened his expression. “I’ll tell Ana,” Damien agreed. “And we’ll frame them for treason. Oh, this is perfect!” He threw back his head and let out a cackle.

“It is…interesting,” Sebastien said. He didn’t seem nearly as enthused as Damien, but his frown of worry was matched by a small curve of his lips. “Dangerous, but interesting. This is the kind of thing where so many things could go horribly wrong. If we’re going to do this, we’ll need to be truly and properly prepared. I think the reward could be worth the risk, though, with the proper plans in place.”

Damien sobered abruptly as he remembered something less pleasant, feeling almost dizzy from his own mood swings. He checked his pocket watch. They still had plenty of time until Ana should return. “I heard something else from Titus, Sebastien. I didn’t want to mention it in front of the others.”

Sebastien’s frown returned in full force. “Tell me.”

Damien hesitated. “I suppose you couldn’t mention it to me…because of the vow to the Red Guard. But I heard the Raven Queen cast something on you when you went to try and save Newton from whatever Tanya dragged him into.” Damien swallowed past the growing lump in his throat, watching carefully as Sebastien shifted uncomfortably, looking away. “Sebastien…what did she do to you? Are you okay?”

“It’s nothing.”

“It’s not nothing!” Damien said, his voice rising. “It’s not nothing,” he repeated more quietly.

Sebastien’s scowl grew harsher. “The Red Guard and Professor Lacer examined me extensively. I’m safe, and no one around me is in danger, either.”

“But that doesn’t mean you’re okay.”

Sebastien sighed, rubbing away the wrinkles between his eyebrows, then smiled, finally meeting Damien’s gaze. “I’m okay, Damien. Really. The Raven Queen, she…wasn’t acting maliciously.”

That seemed implausible to Damien. “Can you tell me what she did?”

Sebastien hesitated, but said slowly, “It wards off divination, with some minor knock-on effects. I can’t really talk about it, but please believe me, I’m being honest when I say it’s fine. If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t be here talking with you right now.”

“Why would she do something like that to you?”

“Professor Lacer thinks it didn’t have much to do with me at all. She was just trying to get his attention, taking advantage of an unexpected opportunity. She…maybe wants to meet with him.” Sebastien’s lip quivered, but instead of the tears Damien half expected, Sebastien burst out laughing. He was obviously more stressed out about the whole thing than he admitted, if he was breaking into insane laughter.

Damien stared at him bemusedly, but somehow, even though he didn’t really think it was so funny, he couldn’t help but start laughing too, letting his jumbled up feelings pour out as mirth.

Ana returned to find both of them bent over in hilarity, wiping tears from their cheeks. When she asked what was so funny, both of them just shook their heads silently. “You had to be there,” Damien said smugly, tossing his head to flip back a lock of displaced hair.

“Fine!” She sniffed. “Keep your little jokes between boys. But I expect your full attention on the plan.”

Damien reached into his pocket, running his fingers over the thirteen-pointed star disk hidden within, which would shine a light onto the world when activated. “I remembered something important, Ana. It’s the perfect blackmail material.”

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