Month 2, Day 20, Saturday 8:00 p.m.
One week after her day of spellcasting with Liza, Sebastien huddled outside in the biting cold of the evening, shivering her ass off for Operation Defenestration. She was less “euphorically excited” and more “stomach-churningly anxious.” No matter how much preparation they had done, it didn’t feel like nearly enough. She would have pushed the operation off further if Ana wasn’t so insistent and Damien wasn’t so foolishly confident. Even if she felt sick about it, Sebastien had to admit that it really did seem like they would be able to pull this off.
Sebastien consciously avoided muttering anything like, “If nothing goes wrong…” or making any optimistic plans for what they would do when they succeeded. She didn’t want to tempt the gods of irony. She’d learned from her experiences with Ennis that as soon as someone made a comment about how things “couldn’t get any worse,” or how, “I told you, my plan would go perfectly,” inevitably it would start raining, or the only candle would blow out, or someone Ennis had stolen from three months before would suddenly spot him on the street and try to get him arrested.
Damien and she were hidden in a dark corner on the side of the Gervin branch-Family manor, where each uncle had a wing for their families. They didn’t reside at the branch manor all the time, but the whole Gervin Family was there tonight for Randolph’s wife’s birthday.
Sebastien and Damien had gotten past the warded manor gate with Anastasia and her cute little sister Natalia. It had been the only way they could figure out to bypass the wards embedded in the wall to keep out intruders. Damien had suggested they somehow ride underneath the carriage, which at first Sebastien had vetoed as completely unrealistic, but in the end she couldn’t figure out a better way to get inside without being noticed, either.
It was Ana who came up with the idea for them to simply ride inside the carriage with her and her younger sister. “They aren’t going to check inside my Family-crested carriage for intruders. My driver is extremely trustworthy. I’ll just have to come up with some reason for Nat and me to ride separately from my parents.”
The three of them had brought Ana’s younger sister in on the plan as soon as they realized they needed another agent on the inside—one who would attract less attention than Ana, and could get away with doing things that weren’t strictly acceptable for an adult. Ana had vouched for her, and so far it seemed she had been right to do so.
Past the gate but only halfway along the driveway to the mansion, Nat had started screaming for the carriage to stop. “We ran over a bunny!” she had howled, so high-pitched and piercing that Sebastien, sitting nervously across from Damien, had physically flinched.
As soon as the carriage stopped, Sebastien and Damien both took a couple of quick swigs from liter-sized bottles of Enkennad’s draught of shadowed concealment, brewed by Sebastien the Sunday before. It was her first time making the potion, but she was meticulous as always and had learned a lot from Natural Science that made the process easier.
The effect was powerful enough to let them slip out of the carriage’s other door unseen while Ana and Nat made a commotion, looking around on the path behind them with a bright light for a nonexistent rabbit corpse.
Sebastien and Damien had been waiting in the shadow of the mansion for over an hour, silent and shivering, hoping that no one noticed them and that nothing went wrong with Ana or Nat’s role on the inside.
As they waited, Sebastien’s thoughts wandered. The exploration of how light worked had also given her some ideas about her philtre of darkness, which she hoped not to use tonight, but remained one of the most useful items in her emergency stashes. The particles of that philtre, when expanded, were catching, and perhaps absorbing, all the visible light that entered their dark clouds. But an opponent might be able to circumvent that with a spell that allowed them to see a slightly broader spectrum. She had tried making a batch that could catch even non-visible radiation, to ward against someone with an otherwise clever counter-spell, and halfway through the process realized that rather than creating complete and indiscriminate blindness, selective clouds of darkness could be even more useful. ‘If I could find a spell, or better yet, a potion, that would allow me to see through the philtre of darkness while others remained blinded…’ She let out a devious chuckle at the thought, rubbing her gloved hands together.
Giving her a strange look, Damien held up the coin they had spelled to grow warm when Ana gave the signal, pulling Sebastien from her thoughts. “Right on time. We’re lucky Malcolm Gervin is so anal retentive,” he said. He tucked away the magically warmed coin, and they ran one last check of their supplies. Damien, despite being shorter than Sebastien, was stronger, so he was in charge of carrying the camera obscura artifact that would allow them to quickly record visual evidence. It even had a special shutter-muffling enchantment that Ana had ordered.
Sebastien tugged at the edges of the black balaclavas Damien had bought for them, making sure no stray skin or blonde hair was visible. When presenting the balaclavas, Damien had boasted proudly about being “concealed in comfort,” as the merino wool wouldn’t irritate their skin and would even keep them warm while they waited in the darkness and the cold.
He’d also bought their climbing equipment, which, after downing a second full swallow of the shadowed concealment potion, they used to begin scaling the side of the manor, making their slow way toward the upper window that looked out from Malcolm Gervin’s office.
Sebastien couldn’t help but think back to a much more precarious climb she’d made up the wall of an inn, back when she only had one identity, when all of this had just started. She was still a little traumatized from that fall from the window and the subsequent breathless sprint from the coppers, battle spells shooting after her. She had suggested that they hire someone else—a professional—for this part of the plan, but she had no way to safely offer that they source someone through her contacts at the Verdant Stag.
Ana vetoed the idea. Malcolm Gervin had let it be widely known that if someone were hired to act against him, he would pay double to anyone who defected to his side instead. “Anyone who can be hired to commit a crime like this isn’t someone I can trust with that kind of temptation. If word got out about what we’re planning, it would be disastrous. Whatever restraint Uncle Malcolm has been showing until now, in deference to the fact that Nat and I are family, would disappear.” Ana had shuddered at the thought. “If I thought I could trust hired thugs, I would not have pulled you two into this in the first place.”
Sebastien took comfort in knowing that, despite their precarious positions, she and Damien were as prepared as possible. Yesterday evening, they had practiced climbing a similar wall at Westbay manor, accidentally scaring one of the maids out of her wits. They had worked out the kinks and knew their limits.
When the two of them reached the window of Malcolm Gervin’s office, Sebastien’s heart sank. It was still closed. She pressed on it and suppressed a frustrated curse. ‘Did we get the wrong one? Maybe something happened to Nat before she could get up here. I could try one of my unlocking spells…’ She had drawn up a few on seaweed paper specifically for this mission, just in case, but there was a reason the plan had called for the window to be opened from the inside; there was a good chance that using an unlocking spell would trigger the security wards.
She pressed on the window again, harder.
It popped open with a reluctant shudder.
Sebastien sighed with relief. Natalia had done her job, slipping away from the rest of the family to open the way for them. The eleven-year-old girl seemed, if possible, even more motivated than Ana to depose her uncles, and had taken to the whole operation with almost comical seriousness.
Muscles burning, Sebastien clambered through the window as quietly as possible, then helped Damien through behind her before closing the window again. ‘Someone becoming suspicious due to a cold draft would be an amateur mistake.’
“There it is,” Damien whispered, nodding his head at what looked like a large metal coffin standing on its end against the wall near the door. He moved as if to walk toward it, but Sebastien stopped him, slowly examining the entire room for traps or other nasty surprises.
The office was meticulously clean, not a single pen out of place or book spine out of alignment. She suspected that one could eat off the floor without worry. “Be very careful not to disturb anything,” she breathed. “He will notice.”
“He’ll just think one of the servants did it.”
“And have them beaten for the error?”
Damien grimaced. “Point taken. We’ll be careful. Do you remember the lock combination?”
“You’ll need to move quickly once he comes up. Are your fingers warmed up properly?”
“Let’s hope so.” She moved to stand in front of the vault, examining its code-protected locking mechanism, which would require her to input a matching sequence of letters and glyphs.
Damien quickly pulled a folding strap of leather from his own pack and laid it out at the bottom of the door to block any light or moving shadows from being visible through the space between the door and the floor. For good measure, he locked the door as well. If things went poorly, the barrier might give them an extra minute or so to escape.
Then he took out the camera artifact from its case on his back, uncapped its lens, and unfolded its portable tripod stand in front of a clear area on the floor. When this was done, he checked over everything from the beginning with nervous energy. “If this doesn’t work…”
Neither of them needed to finish the thought.
Soon after, the first shouts from down below filtered up to them, too muffled to make out the details. Quickly, the screams grew louder, and were followed by the sound of shattering glass. The faint music from the string quartet that had been playing at the birthday dinner petered out as the sounds of an altercation grew louder.
“That sounds…way worse than I expected. I thought she was just going to dump some gravy on him, or throw a pie or something,” Damien whispered, staring at the floor as if he could see through it. He fumbled in his vest pocket for a wax pastel, quickly drawing out his enhanced hearing spell on one palm, which he held up to his ear and angled downward. “I can’t make it out. It’s too far, and too jumbled. Everyone’s yelling over each other.”
“The girls will be fine,” Sebastien assured him, though she wasn’t entirely sure it was true. “They’ve been dealing with the rest of their family their whole lives. And even in the worst-case scenario, they won’t be injured so badly that a healer can’t fix it in a couple of days.”
Damien gave Sebastien a long look that she couldn’t quite decipher past the shadows obscuring his face, but he didn’t reply.
Soon enough, quick footsteps sounded against the stairwell, and Damien hurried over to Sebastien’s side, pulling out a familiar coaster with a starburst-shaped light crystal embedded in its surface. With a twist of the artifact’s base, a gentle light shone on the locking mechanism.
As soon as the footsteps neared, Sebastien began to input the combination she had memorized, using both hands at once for speed. The footsteps had already passed by the time she finished, as Malcolm Gervin slammed into the washroom next to his office. If everything went to plan, Ana had insulted and dirtied him, and his obsessive-compulsive nature meant that he would be meticulously bathing himself for the next twenty to thirty minutes.
She wrapped her fingers around the vault door’s handle and slowly, carefully, twisted down while pulling outward. Both she and Damien held their breath.
The handle came to a stop with a dull clank halfway through the arc.
Heart sinking, she tugged. The door remained closed. “It’s still locked,” she whispered.
“How? Did you enter the combination correctly?”
“I did. His ring must not have gotten close enough as he passed by. Or maybe he was just walking too quickly to enter the whole thing while it was in range. Or maybe he changed the passkey since the time when Ana saw it. It has been years, after all.”
Damien reached out for the handle, trying to open the vault door himself, as if that would change something. “What do we do?” he asked, voice tight and cracking with tension.
Sebastien was silent for a moment as her mind raced. ‘We could abort the mission,’ she thought. She considered that option seriously for a moment, looking to the window they had just crawled through. They had failed the most critical step of the entire operation, and dawdling any longer than necessary could get them caught. They had plans in place to flee, and even plans for if they really did get caught, but Sebastien would be in far more danger than either Damien or the Gervin sisters, lacking the inherent protection against any punishment that their bloodline offered them.
‘But giving up here would mean whatever Ana and Nat just went through was for nothing. We would have to come up with an entirely new plan from scratch, and maybe I won’t end up getting the textile commission, which means none of my debt will be paid off.’ She tried to take a mental step backward, calculating the possible value of either option. Getting caught would be horrible, but not as bad as getting caught as Siobhan. The chances of being discovered if they stayed were…moderate. If they left now, they faced a lot less potential danger, and, while losing the textile commission was huge, they would still have a chance to try again, though it would be much harder. She was afraid, but it seemed like such a waste to abort things already. They still had a good window of time before the danger of discovery increased.
‘If we stay, how likely is it that we actually succeed? That’s an important consideration, too. There must be some way to make this work. Assuming the combination is correct, we just need to be in close proximity to the ring for long enough for me to enter it.’ She briefly considered trying to use her divination-diverting ward’s spillover effects to sneak into the adjoining washroom, where she could hear the sound of a bath running. If Malcolm Gervin had taken off the ring to bathe, she might be able to steal it without him noticing.
Sebastien quickly vetoed that idea as not only ridiculously dangerous, but almost impossible to pull off. Even if he’d taken off the ring, just entering the room would send a puff of cold air his way and draw his attention. Without somewhere she could hide, even her ward combined with yet another dose of Enkennad’s draught of shadowed concealment would still get her caught immediately.
‘But perhaps there is another option.’ She looked to the far wall that adjoined the washroom, where Malcolm Gervin—and the ring that was keyed to the vault—were stationed. There was a clear spot against the wall, large enough for the vault to fit. “Damien, what’s your thaumic capacity right now? Best guess.”
“Umm, I think I should be somewhere north of two hundred fifty thaums. I’ve been practicing a lot all term,” he whispered with obvious pride. “Why do you ask?”
Sebastien herself should be somewhere around three hundred fifty thaums based on the amount of practice she’d been doing since she used the Henrik-Thompson capacity test with Professor Lacer. “Combined, we’re at about six hundred thaums. Maybe a little more.” Using her fingers, she did some quick calculation. “That’s enough to lift sixty thousand grams one meter per second. Or…one hundred thirty-two pounds.”
Damien caught on immediately. “That vault weighs much more than one hundred thirty-two pounds.”
“Sure. But we don’t need to lift it an entire meter, and it doesn’t need to happen rapidly. A couple of inches would be plenty, just enough space for us to move it. At only a couple inches per second instead of an entire meter, we should be able to lift over a ton. Twenty-five hundred pounds, give or take.”
“Move it where? We can’t steal the vault, Sebastien. For one thing, it wouldn’t fit through the window—” Damien cut off, looking toward the bathroom-adjoining wall as his brain caught up with his mouth. “Oh. Well, that might work. But even if we only need to lift it a couple inches, how do we get it to move? We’d have to re-draw the spell array over and over, all the way across the floor. And I’m not sure I can sustain that much weight once it’s in the air, either. In fact, I’m positive I can’t. I’m only an Apprentice thaumaturge, Sebastien! You can’t expect me to hold up half a ton with my Will alone!” Damien’s voice had grown tight and a little too loud, and his fingers fluttered over his balaclava in place of smoothing back his hair.
She shushed him with a motion, keeping her own voice calm and low. “I brought a large piece of flame-retardant paper. We’ll draw the spell array on that and just slide it across the floor, very carefully. I think it should be able to handle six hundred thaums if we make the lines of the array thick enough. As for holding the vault up, you’re thinking about it all wrong. Magic doesn’t work like a human body, Damien,” Sebastien whispered, already dropping to her knees as she rifled through her bag for the biggest piece of seaweed paper and began to unfold it onto the floor. The paper already had a different spell array on one side, but the back was clear.
She didn’t have any ink brushes with her, but she did have an inkwell. Removing her glove, she dipped her finger into the ink to paint out a simple, if somewhat sloppy, spell array. “The float spell was the first one I ever learned. Well, actually it’s not exactly a float spell. My gr—my master at the time explained to me that, if you can wrap your mind around it, magic can perform the same task in many different ways. You can lift something by expelling air from the bottom to create force, or by creating a magical buoy to make it float by increasing the surface area to mass ratio, or by creating an artificial hand that lifts it up and holds it in the air. All these different ways have varying efficiencies and drawbacks, but they are far from the only methods.”
She finished the spell array and paused to blow on it to try and dry the ink faster, making sure to keep her blackened forefinger from touching anything else as she slipped her glove back on. This spell had been one of her first introductions to real magic, and she’d had more than a bit of trouble wrapping her mind around the concept. Her grandfather had taken her through several lessons and various examples and experiments to get the concept across. “You don’t have to imagine that something floating is being held above the ground. Instead, it can rest there, like an apple resting above the ground by lying on a table.”
Damien crouched down beside her. “I don’t understand. Are you saying I need to compress the air into the shape of a table instead of trying to lift the vault directly?”
“Not exactly. Normally, when something stays aloft in nature, it uses air displacement or an artificially lowered density to do so. That’s how most spells of this nature work, too, but this one is different. Imagine this: a bee lying on a table isn’t going to fall through, right? The wood is solid enough to compress only negligibly under its weight.”
Damien nodded. “Okay?”
“Air is much less dense than the ground, and it doesn’t push back hard enough. It just slips away with a touch, which is why a bee has to keep flapping its wings to stay aloft—it needs to access more air to reach the same equivalent density as what it would find on the ground to be able to keep that much compressive force between itself and the ground. If the air were as solid as the earth, a bee would float without issue, kind of like how you can float by lying on your back in a still pond. The water is dense enough that it pushes back against you and keeps you from slipping through to the bottom.”
“I don’t understand what you’re getting at.”
“Just listen. I’m covering the normal applications so you can understand how not to think. Trying to do this the wrong way could scramble your brain like an egg.”
Damien nodded solemnly. “I prefer my brain unscrambled.”
“When you lift an apple off the ground and hold it still, you know that it takes continued energy to keep that apple up, so it seems like a spell would require continued effort, too. But really, all the necessary work was done during the initial lifting. Gravity isn’t continuing to leech more energy out of you for every moment you hold the apple. All the energy you’re losing is because of the chemical reactions within your own body, and your muscle fibers rubbing against each other and converting that energy into heat. If you were able to become completely, absolutely motionless—to turn into a statue—you wouldn’t get any more tired at all by holding up that apple, because you wouldn’t be doing any more work. Just like a table isn’t doing any extra work to hold up an apple, because the table is solid enough that it compresses only negligibly under the apple’s weight.”
Damien still seemed confused, so she tried again. “Okay, how about this? Imagine lying on your back on the ground. You lift up that apple from beside you. That takes energy. Then, you put the apple on your forehead. Does it take any more energy to keep the apple ‘floating’ above the ground at the height of your forehead?”
He frowned. “It doesn’t.”
“If the apple doesn’t float, but instead rests, then you only need to pay the price against gravity once. Here is the key point, Damien—our magic isn’t holding anything aloft, or making it float, it’s creating a repulsive force against the floor that matches the same compressive strength of the floor. If you can wrap your head around that, you only need to lift the vault once, and the repulsive force handles the rest for very little extra power.” Her thoughts sparked with the light of a previously unmade connection. “Kind of like a strong magnet with a really exact edge to its repulsive field!”
The last bit seemed to unlock Damien’s confusion. “Oh. Why didn’t you just say it like that from the beginning? Magnetism is a force, but it exerts no energy. That’s why thaumaturges can’t use a single magnet as an energy-source Sacrifice. Everybody knows that.” He huffed irritably. “You always make everything so much more complicated than it needs to be.”
Sebastien rolled her eyes before shuffling over to the vault to slide the paper spell array under the space where its peg legs met the floor, thanking the unknown designer. If the vault had been flat-bottomed, resting flush against the floor, her idea might not have been viable, unless they could tunnel in underneath the vault somehow, or cast the float spell through the ceiling of the floor below.
While she placed the components, Damien pulled a clear blue beast core about three centimeters across that must have cost about fifty gold from one of his vest pockets and slipped it onto the spot for the Sacrifice. “I can do this,” he whispered, seemingly trying to reassure himself as much as Sebastien.
The two of them knelt on either side of the vault, Conduits in hand. “Lift by one centimeter on three,” Sebastien instructed. “One, two, three.” She brought her Will to bear, and the glow of the spell array beneath the vault spilled out as she and Damien combined their efforts, clumsily at first, but well enough to lift the huge metal vault.
“We did it!” Damien whispered. The glow brightened.
“Stabilize your mind,” she said. “Efficiency is key. We don’t want to burn a hole in the spell array.” She knew from experience that it was possible, and it would be disastrous. Joint-casting was considered hazardous for a reason, and she didn’t want to deal with the magic under both of their control lashing out like an angry, maddened snake if it managed to get free of the spell array. Keeping the spell up wasn’t entirely without further energy expenditure, despite their little trick with the implementation. As with all magic, there was loss somewhere along the conversion process from Sacrifice to effect, some of it being lost to heat, some to the glow, and some disappearing into the ether in a manner no one could explain. While their capacities weren’t being strained to maintain the repulsion between the vault and the spell array, both the force and stability of their Wills was constantly tested.
When the glow had subsided a bit, she warned Damien, then reached down and began to slide the spell array with her free hand. The paper resisted movement, almost as if the weight of the vault were pressing directly on it, but with a small adjustment of her Will—which she again warned Damien of first—she managed to get it to slide.
The glow brightened alarmingly, and she felt heat coming off the paper.
Damien pushed on the back of the vault as she moved the spell array, and ever so slowly, having to pause and stabilize their control quite often, they moved the vault over to the wall.
There, she entered in the passkey combination once more, sweat beading on her forehead.
This time, the vault opened.
With no time to waste, they pulled out the folders of documents, ignoring the pile of “high crown” bars—each worth a hundred normal gold crowns—as well as the other jewels and artifacts. They weren’t there to steal, no matter how much such a fortune could do for Sebastien.
Her mother’s ring sat on a velvet display bed right at the front, in a place of honor. Damien lifted the display out of the vault. “Is this the Raven Queen’s ring?” he whispered, his voice almost inaudible with awe. He reached out as if to touch it with his finger, then thought better of it. “It might be cursed,” he warned.
“That’s it,” she said. ‘My mother’s ring.’
Keeping his fingers at the base of the velvet box, Damien set it on the floor and worked the camera, and though the sound of the shutter was muffled, they both jumped like scared rabbits at the brightness of the flash. They hadn’t thought of everything, apparently.
Sebastien hurried over to the window and pulled the curtains, just in case. When she returned, she picked up the ring box and put it back in the vault while Damien scanned through the first folder of documents. With his back turned to her, she quickly switched out the ring for the forgery she’d spent the last couple of weeks getting as close to perfect as possible. It wouldn’t hold up to scrutiny, but hopefully by the time anyone noticed, that wouldn’t matter. She tucked the real ring carefully away, then turned back to their task.
Sebastien scanned through the documents with the light of Damien’s coaster. Those that covered the topics or keywords that Ana had thought might be suspicious were laid out on the floor for photographing. The big find, apart from the ring itself and the binding agreement that said Siobhan Naught was supposed to marry either Alec or Randolph’s son Robbie, were two books—ledgers filled with financial information. They covered the revenue from the Gervin Family businesses that Malcolm and Randolph handled together, and were outwardly identical. Except one showed different numbers than the other. One official ledger, and one for Malcolm Gervin to keep track of what they were embezzling, not only from their older brother, but from the High Crown in the form of avoided taxes.
Damien and Sebastien finished their job in a few minutes, with well over a dozen photos—enough that Damien needed to switch out the artifact’s storage cartridge multiple times. They hurried to pack everything up, trying to maintain the same level of neatness and perfection that Malcolm Gervin had kept everything in before their intrusion. Ana would go over their haul, gleaning what relevant information she could from their photos. They didn’t have to perfectly compile irrefutable evidence of the Gervin uncles’ crimes. That was what the blackmail was for.
The sounds in the washroom seemed to indicate that Malcolm Gervin was done cleaning himself and would soon be leaving, so they hurried to place the vault back in its original location, moving quickly enough that the paper holding their spell array let out a few thin trickles of smoke near the end. ‘Hopefully not enough to be noticeable.’ Unused to such effort, Damien panted and winced, putting a hand to his temple.
They took away the strip blocking light from the doorway, unlocked it, and hurried back to the window.
Damien crawled out first, while Sebastien stopped to make sure nothing was out of place. They had retrieved the spell paper from under the safe, everything had been returned just as they’d found it, and the smoke had already dissipated. Satisfied, she climbed out the window and used one of her other paper spell arrays to cast a locking spell from outside the window, erasing the last evidence of their presence.
Update 8/2/22: No chapter this Thursday, 8/4, because I’m in the middle of some revisions that directly affect the upcoming chapters, and if I post before I’m finished some significant things are likely to change. I’ll have a week with a double chapter post to make up for it, within the next 2 months max.
7/28/22: I should be finished with A Binding of Blood’s audio review by tomorrow. I had meant to do it faster, but a car crash near my house caused an extraordinarily long power outage, followed by an additional 3 days without internet. Needless to say, my plans this last week were disrupted. As a reminder, you can listen early to the pre-release audio (with only a handful of errors) here: https://www.patreon.com/posts/early-access-of-69209702
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