Month 2, Day 20, Saturday 8:40 p.m.
Sebastien’s muscles were shaking with exertion and adrenaline by the time she and Damien reached the ground again. They raced across the manicured property and scrambled over the stone wall that bordered the manor, their forms magically obscured by the darkness. Ana knew from the servants’ chatter that the wards didn’t detect people leaving, only coming, so their departure hadn’t required any elaborate plan.
Sebastien stopped to look back while hanging over the far side of the wall, just to make sure no one had seen them. While they might not get arrested, being spotted at this point could make things worse for Ana.
Assured of their success, they jogged into the night, following the road but staying well away from its light.
To Sebastien’s surprise, a familiar carriage stood at the side of the road a few blocks down, motionless.
“That’s Ana,” Damien said. “Do you think something went wrong?”
Sebastien ran her tongue over the back of her teeth in silent thought. “Take off your balaclava and go up to the carriage.”
“What? Why me?”
“Because you’re a Westbay. You live in the Lilies, and, even if it’s strange that you’re running around at night all in black, no one will report you to the coppers for it.”
Damien handed off his balaclava and the camera obscura to Sebastien and approached the carriage.
He only got three quarters of the way there, just stepping into the edge of the light, when the door swung open. Natalia poked her head out, waving for him to approach as she scanned the darkness beyond for Sebastien. She had been crying, leaving her eyes puffy and her skin blotchy and red.
Damien spoke to her for a few seconds, then turned and waved for Sebastien to follow.
Sebastien hesitated, but complied. When she got close enough to see Ana within the shadows of the carriage, her jaw clenched compulsively.
Ana’s left eye was purple and already swelling shut, and blood crusted the edges of her nostrils where she hadn’t completely cleaned it up. “My driver is trustworthy,” Ana assured Sebastien. “He won’t say anything about the two of you. I wanted to stop and let you catch up because I’m not sending Nat back home tonight. Father is too angry, Mother is too useless, and I don’t want to leave Nat alone. I’m going to a hotel in the city proper, and we wouldn’t mind some company if the two of you would be willing to join us.”
“Of course I’m not leaving you alone,” Damien said, puffing out his chest like a little rooster, though his grey eyes were stormy with a heavier emotion. “I would offer for everyone to stay at Westbay Manor for the evening, but my father is there.”
Ana smiled humorlessly. “I know. That’s why I suggested a hotel.”
Sebastien glanced up at the driver, who was looking studiously ahead as if he had no idea what was going on, then climbed into the carriage. ‘I suppose one night away from the University couldn’t hurt.’
Natalia kept her shoulders hunched and head down as Damien and Sebastien sat.
“Did your father do that to you?” Damien asked Ana, his tone dark and controlled.
“It was Uncle Malcolm. I insulted him and threw a boat of cranberry preserves on him. I’m not sure if Father was more angry at him or at me. Mother actually screamed at Uncle Malcolm, too. It wasn’t lady-like at all.” One side of Ana’s mouth lifted up in a tiny, wry smirk. “I’m fine. This is nothing that a healer won’t be able to fix before classes on Monday. Did everything go alright on your end?”
Damien hesitated, but after a glance at Nat, who had started to sniffle again, he launched into a dramatic retelling of their night. His version of events seemed much more theatrical than Sebastien remembered, with exciting highs, worrying lows, and even occasional comedic moments. In the retelling, Damien saved them from possible capture at least twice, while story-Sebastien rambled on about complex magical theory and used dramatic, powerful spells to bind the very forces of nature to his Will.
Natalia was captivated, her tears forgotten, and even Ana found it amusing, though she suppressed several snorts of disbelief.
When Damien had finished, Nat turned to Sebastien. “Is that really what happened, Sebastien?”
Sebastien shifted in her seat uncomfortably as both Damien and Ana gave her piercing looks of warning. “Well…it happened more or less like that.” Less rather than more, but the end result was the same, she supposed. “We left everything as close to the way we found it as possible. Hopefully Malcolm won’t even notice that anyone was there.”
Damien crossed his arms smugly. “And we didn’t even have to use any of the twelve emergency plans that Sebastien made us come up with.”
Sebastien raised her eyebrow at him. “And yet the plan almost failed catastrophically at least three times, if not for your timely intervention, like you just explained so thoughtfully for Ana and Nat. Perhaps I should have insisted we plan more thoroughly, so that less improvisation and cleverness would have been required of you.”
Damien deflated, but Nat laughed with delight.
The four of them arrived at a nice hotel within half an hour, and Ana gave her driver some coin to board the horses and find a room for himself while Damien booked two adjacent suites for them. The hotel was clean, bright, and decorated with fresh flowers. When they found their rooms, Damien looked around and shrugged. “Not particularly luxurious, but I suppose it will do. It’s better than the spartan conditions at the University, at least. I swear that place treats us like prisoners to try and make us desperate for contribution points.”
Sebastien, who had slept in plenty of rural inns but never a high-class hotel, thought it was by far the nicest room she had ever slept in, comparable only to her room at Dryden Manor, where perhaps the sheets were a bit nicer and the floor was made of stone rather than wood.
Ana and Nat were in the adjacent suite, which was joined by a door in the wall that locked from both sides—probably meant for families whose parents wanted a separate space from their children.
Damien opened the attaching door, allowing Ana and Nat to join them in their suite. Ana had washed her face to remove the remaining blood, but the bruising and swelling was only becoming more prominent.
“I have some minor healing items in my satchel,” Sebastien offered. “It’s best to get the process started right away, before the damage has time to settle in.”
“Alright,” Ana agreed. She sat on the edge of one of the beds, with Natalia perching next to her, while Sebastien rifled through her satchel, pulling out the necessary supplies.
Sebastien handed Ana a regeneration-boosting potion first, and then used a bit of wound-cleansing potion on the part of Ana’s eyelid that had split, dabbing it gently onto the raw flesh.
“Did you stock all of these healing supplies for the mission?” Nat asked, leaning forward to watch curiously.
“I carry healing supplies everywhere. You never know when you might need them. But I did stock some special things for the mission, like this draught of shadowed concealment,” Sebastien replied, pointing to the half-empty bottle of dark liquid.
“That’s what Damien was talking about earlier! Oh, do you think I could try some?” Nat begged, her hands clasped under her chin and her eyes open wide. For good measure, the girl batted her lashes a couple of times.
Ana hesitated. “Is it dangerous, Sebastien?”
“I brewed it myself, and Damien and I can both vouch that there aren’t any side effects.”
Nat hopped down from the bed to pick up the bottle. “Are you an alchemist, then? I thought you were more of the free-casting type? Damien told me you were apprenticed to Thaddeus Lacer.”
“I wouldn’t call myself an alchemist. I can follow instructions and a recipe as well as anyone, and I do a little brewing on the side as a hobby, that’s all.”
Damien helped Nat open the lid. “Don’t listen to Sebastien, Nat. If he says he dabbles in something as a hobby, what he really means is that he’s on his way to mastering the craft. If he says he’s ‘almost competent,’ that means he’s in the top five percent of the population.”
Nat turned to Sebastien, eyes gleaming with respect. “Can you brew all sorts of amazing things, then? Like, potions to make someone fly, or a cream to make people beautiful, or a philtre that creates tornados?”
Sebastien snorted, pulling out her bruise cream and warming a good dollop of it in her palm before she began to apply it generously around Ana’s eye and nose. “Damien is the one you cannot believe. Being in the top five percent of the population is actually quite unimpressive, since the majority of the population will be totally unskilled at whatever random subject you choose. I mean, think about it. Less than five percent of the population can cast magic at all.”
“That’s not what I meant, obviously,” Damien rebutted. “You can’t just go around counting people who aren’t even part of the equation. I meant top five percent of thaumaturges.”
“But that’s not what you said. And I’m not even in the top five percent of students in our term, which you might remember from our mid-term results that came out recently. I’m closer to the top ten percent. That leaves me far below being in the top five percent of the entire thaumaturgic population.”
Damien threw up his hands in exasperation. “Test results aren’t everything, Sebastien! I’ve seen what you can do, remember? And suddenly going from your spot in the entrance exams all the way to the top ten percent of students in the term is actually pretty amazing. For Myrddin’s sake, you’re Thaddeus Lacer’s apprentice!”
“Provisional apprentice. Hopefully I’ll become an official apprentice next term, if I can prove myself. It’s nice of you to try and make me look more impressive in front of Nat, but you can just be honest, Damien. I do plan to be truly exceptional one day, but I’m still very far away from real skill at anything important. I am willing to put in the work where others will not, I have the determination and drive that others do not, and I am talented enough, but there is just so very much to learn. Compared to someone like Professor Lacer, I am but a child still.”
Nat’s head had been bouncing between them as she followed their conversation, but when Damien didn’t deign to reply to this final argument—instead tugging at the sides of his hair like he wanted to pull it out—Nat sneakily tipped back the bottle of Enkennad’s draught of shadowed concealment and took a swallow so large it made her cheeks bulge and her eyes water.
Damien took a few deep breaths, then let out a sigh so loud and deep he seemed to deflate as it left him.
Sebastien shot him a look, letting him know how overblown she thought he was acting. Perhaps he was still keyed up from all the adrenaline and didn’t know how to let the energy out appropriately.
Damien tossed his head and turned away from Sebastien with a vehement snort, stomping around to turn off some of the lights in the room.
Nat lifted the bottle to her mouth again, trying to sneak another swallow, but Ana gave her a gimlet stare, and the girl put the bottle back with a cute blush.
Damien took Nat into the attached washroom so that she could see herself and the effects of the alchemical draught, only to discover that there was no mirror affixed to the wall as he had expected.
The other suite’s bathroom was also without mirror.
Damien huffed. “This is outrageous! Paying for a room with no mirror? I’m going to go down to the desk and complain.”
Nat pouted as Damien left, but was quickly enchanted by the draught’s effects, even without a mirror to watch herself in. She blended into the shadows like an incompetent chameleon. Finding this absolutely fascinating, she ran around the room to different semi-shadowed spots to observe the effect, sporadically letting out a maniacal giggle.
When Sebastien was done administering aid to Ana’s face, Nat’s concealment was beginning to wear off, and Damien had not yet returned.
Nat pouted at Ana and Sebastien until Ana allowed her to take a second swig, but Sebastien had an idea.
“Wait,” she said, taking out a stick of soft chalk and moving over to the far wall. She took a minute to draw out a spell array with a huge central Circle, setting her beast core on the floor within the range of the only component Circle.
Nat took an even bigger swallow than before, emptying the bottle before Ana could stop her. “What spell are you going to cast?”
In lieu of answering, Sebastien bore down with her Will. When a surface was too dense for light to propagate within, instead of refracting, it reflected. Glass, water, and other semi-transparent substances only reflected a small percentage of the overall light that hit them, but because they could have such smooth surfaces, it allowed that mirror-like reflection. For a true mirror, one needed a smooth substance that reflected more light. Or, in this case, they needed to catch all light that hit a certain arbitrary plane and bounce it back.
Just a millimeter away from the wall, a wavering reflection appeared, and then solidified and settled, as perfect as the most expensive true mirror, except around the circular edge, which wavered, mirage-like.
Nat gasped in delight. The mirror was larger than any Sebastien had ever seen, and more than adequate to capture Nat’s antics as the girl stalked around the room with delight, pretending to be a spy, or maybe an assassin.
Ana watched with an indulgent, slightly crooked smile that seemed more real, somehow, than her normal sweet expressions.
Damien returned just as the effects were wearing off for the second time. “Some thaumaturge cast a glass-breaking spell on the whole building after being offended by one of the employees. There aren’t any mirrors to be had, and there won’t be until—” He stared at the wall for a moment, his eyes then flicking to Nat before finally settling on Sebastien. “Oh. Brilliant.”
“Is there any more?” Nat asked, staring down at her arms, which were no longer blending into the shadows in the corner.
“You drank the last of it?” Damien asked with dismay. “I barely got to watch.”
Nat shifted awkwardly. “Um, sorry? Maybe Sebastien has other interesting potions?”
While that was technically true, Sebastien did not want to waste her emergency supplies on entertainment, and so quickly thought up a distraction.
She let the mirror spell drop, stepped forward to add some instructions to the spell array, and then brought the mirror up again. This time, though, she concentrated not only on reflecting the light, but adding extra brightness in a particular shape.
She had to step back a few more steps to get a better idea of what the others were seeing, trying to make the glowing shape of wings that she had attached to Nat’s image in the mirror seem realistically placed. It was difficult at first, but she quickly settled her grasp on the idea, a kind of opposite to how she used to do shadow-puppet plays on the wall with her shadow-familiar spell.
Sebastien found she had to anchor the wings to the light bouncing off Nat so that they appeared in the right place no matter where in the room they were viewed from. Adding a glow to the reflection of the girl herself helped them to seem less unnatural. Sebastien didn’t quite manage to make the wings look solid or three-dimensional, but Nat was not a particularly discerning audience.
“Oh, I look like an angel!” She tried to pet her wings, watching as her hands passed through them in the reflection, and then turning to peer behind herself as if suspicious that she might, indeed, have grown another pair of appendages.
Ana held a hand to her mouth to hold in her delighted laughter. “Oh, Damien, are there any more storage cartridges for the camera obscura? I must capture this moment.”
“Will it work on this?”
“If we can see it, the artifact can,” Ana explained. “It works on a similar principle to the retina, but instead of sending signals to the brain, the light affects the photo disk, changing its shade according to the level of energy in the capture light. It creates a black-and-white version that has exactly the opposite values of darkness and light from reality, which allows the correct-value image to be transferred to photo paper with the help of some alchemical solutions. I think there is a huge potential market for the device. I even invested some of my personal funds in a local camera shop.”
Damien hadn’t stopped to listen to the entire explanation, too busy getting the artifact out of its case, popping in a new cartridge, and setting it up on its tripod stand.
Nat turned to pose prettily, but Sebastien dropped the mirror spell before Damien could capture anything.
Everyone turned to Sebastien with varying expressions of surprise and irritation. She held up a hand to forestall their arguments. “It will be better to take a photo of a direct illusion, rather than a reflection. It would be rather gauche, to have the artifact and Damien both in the photograph as well, would it not?”
This was a mistake, as Sebastien quickly learned. It seemed fine, at first, as Nat posed artistically, seated on a cushion in the middle of the floor with bright wings stretching out to either side. Sebastien made them as realistic as possible with the full force of her concentration and a white feather added as a spell component to copy details from. It was good practice, and everyone seemed to enjoy it.
But then Damien insisted that Sebastien create varying illusions for him and Nat to pose with, nitpicking every detail while Ana adjusted the artifact’s location to get the perfect angle. He grew more demanding with each successful idea, even going so far as to force Sebastien to add false backgrounds.
First, he wanted a tiny dragon perched on his shoulder breathing fire. Then, Nat riding a unicorn, in a meadow. Then himself standing dramatically on the top edge of a volcano, with Nat as his small, half-bear companion, complete with round ears, fangs, and paw pads.
Sebastien pushed through the best she could, though with more things to focus on, the details began to suffer. The whole thing was only tenable because the camera would blur out some of the details that weren’t precisely in focus. She could never have done it with a three-dimensional or moving illusion.
Unlike Sebastien’s practice in class, these illusions did not suffer from seeming thin and ephemeral. Instead, they were solid, but let off a tell-tale glow that gave away their deceit. She deduced that it had something to do with using a beast core as a power source, thus having more power at her disposal. It was surprisingly hard to tamp down on the excess glow without making the illusion transparent.
When Damien dictated an elaborate crime scene, complete with a fake corpse and Aberford Thorndyke standing beside Damien as they both contemplated the mysterious murder, Sebastien reached the end of her patience, a headache beginning to pound in her right temple. “I am not adjusting Aberford Thorndyke’s cheekbones or nose any more, Damien. He is a fictional character and he looks fine. Capture the image or walk away.”
Damien then requested a shot of himself riding a sky kraken into battle, which Sebastien flat-out denied. There wasn’t even enough space the room for such a thing.
They had run out of empty storage cartridges at that point, anyway. Damien stored these new cartridges separately from the others, with Sebastien’s warning that he would need to use two different photograph development shops as a precaution.
Ana clapped her hands to put an end to the play and ordered up food to the room, since they had missed dinner due to the whole fracas. The four of them ate while sitting on one of the beds, eschewing good manners for comfort and camaraderie. Nat had entirely forgotten her earlier tears and began to nod off halfway through her meal.
Ana tucked her into one of the beds in the adjacent room, and then told them what had happened that night in more detail, speaking in a low voice. By the time they all went to sleep, the signs that Malcolm Gervin’s violence had left on Ana’s face had faded but not disappeared.
In the morning, the swelling was gone, but some green and yellow bruising remained around her eye, a little too prominent to cover up completely with makeup.
“I want to take Ana to a healer,” Damien said. “You can watch over Nat while we’re gone, right, Sebastien?”
Sebastien looked at the small girl. “Are you okay with that?”
Nat’s face had gone bright pink to match her dress, but she nodded emphatically.
And so, Nat and Sebastien ate breakfast down in the inn’s common room below, where Nat showed off impeccable table manners and had several people cooing over the “brother and sister” pair, though Nat muttered under her breath, “He’s not my brother. We’re friends,” the third time this happened.
After that, somewhat at a loss of what to do to keep a young girl entertained, and hoping not to get pulled back into creating illusions, Sebastien suggested they take a walk to Waterside Market, where there were usually some street shows on the weekend.
Nat slipped her hand into Sebastien’s as they walked, looking away shyly.
Waterside Market was quite busy, but they easily found the street shows, with scores of people crowded around the most interesting. As they tried to get close enough to actually see one of the street performers, Nat huddled closer to Sebastien, probably unused to mingling with the crowd like this.
Just as Sebastien was about to suggest they try somewhere else, an oblivious man knocked into Natalia and pushed her down.
Sebastien shoved her shoulder into the man, pushing him back to create space for the small girl to rise to her feet. She ignored the man’s curses as she pulled Nat back out of the crowd, where she kneeled down to examine the young girl’s knee on the side of the road. When Nat fell, she had landed on a raised cobblestone, ripping a small hole in her dress and scraping the skin raw. “Good thing I keep healing supplies on hand, huh?” Sebastien asked, smiling at Nat, who was doing her best to hold back tears. “This is going to burn a little. Take a deep breath, and then make a hissing sound when the pain hits.”
Nat hissed loudly as Sebastien rubbed a drop of wound cleanser over her bloodied knee, continuing until she ran out of air.
Sebastien followed that up with a smear of skin-knitting salve, which began to work right away. “Pain, pain, go away,” she said, blowing gently on the girl’s knee, something she vaguely remembered her own mother doing for her. “Good job. That wasn’t so bad, was it?”
Nat didn’t reply aloud, and when Sebastien looked up to check that she wasn’t crying, she saw that the girl’s face was a red as a cherry tomato. Nat quickly lowered the fabric of her dress back over her knees, clearing her throat. “It was bearable, I suppose.”
“Do you want me to carry you on my shoulders? You’ll be able to see over the crowd and won’t have to worry about anyone knocking you over.”
“On your shoulders?” Nat asked, eyeing them dubiously.
“I won’t drop you, I promise.”
Nat acquiesced, so Sebastien knelt by the sidewalk and allowed the smaller girl to climb aboard. She straightened slowly, keeping a firm grip on Nat’s calves.
Nat let out a squeal. “Oh, I’m so high up! This is wonderful. Get closer, Sebastien.”
They watched the show and then wandered around the market for a while longer like that, until Sebastien’s back grew tired and they returned to the inn.
Ana and Damien were already there waiting for them. Ana’s face was back to normal, with only an almost-invisible scar where her eyelid had split to prove what had happened. “How was your outing with Sebastien, Nat?” Ana asked.
“Oh, it was wonderful! We had breakfast together in the common room, and everyone kept commenting on how fine we looked together. And then we went to Waterside Market, where there are sooo many people just milling about, so close they actually touch each other when they all squeeze in together, and some commoner accosted me! But Sebastien defended me, and used some of his amazing alchemical concoctions to heal me right up.” She lifted her dress delicately to show Ana her knee as proof, not pausing the tumbling stream of words. “And then I actually rode upon Sebastien’s shoulders, but I wasn’t embarrassed at all, it was actually wonderful. I could see everything, as tall as a giant, and I was totally safe.” She patted Ana’s hand reassuringly. “Don’t worry, my reputation wasn’t tarnished. It was only commoners around to see me, anyway. And I saw a street performer…”
Sebastien tuned the girl out as her rambling continued, musing that, while Nat was much shyer than Theo to start out, her excited dramatics once she felt comfortable were much the same.
Damien sidled over to Sebastien and murmured, “I think you have an admirer.”
“I’m not the best role model for a child, so I hope she doesn’t pick up my bad decision-making. But maybe it’s already too late? We’ve already drawn her into a coup at the age of eleven.”
“That’s not the kind of admirer I—” Damien cut off with a sigh. “Never mind.”
Update 8/16: So I’ve got some bad news. The evening after posting the last chapter, I got food poisoning, and have been knocked off my metaphorical feet getting very little done until now. It sucked, but I’m feeling almost back to normal except for abdominal cramps every time I eat something. The problem? I needed those productive days that were lost to illness, because now I’ve got family in town, and next week I’ve got an out of town family reunion, and there’s just no way to fit in my normal productivity around all that. (I’ve literally just done the math, haha!)
I have to postpone this Thursday’s (8/18) chapter. I already owe you guys one bonus chapter to make up for a couple weeks ago, and now I will owe two. It’s just bad timing, because if I wasn’t in the middle of revising this particular section of the story it wouldn’t matter, as I try to stay well ahead. I’m sorry guys! I will work hard to plough through all this revision, and make up for the delay with two extra chapters soon, no later than the end of September.
If you see some repeated content from “Illusion Chamber,” that’s because I’m taking some of that sciency-dump and moving it around to places where it’s more actively relevant, as part of the revision.
When I first finish a book, I seem to go through a phase where I’m super down about what a crap story I wrote and how I suck at this despite it being such a monumental amount of work, etc. 😛
Then I get to the point where I have figured out most of what’s wrong and made a plan to fix things, and I get excited again. I’m about halfway through the “plan to fix things” step right now, and feeling excited again.
Trouble accessing a chapter? Troubleshooting tips: https://www.azaleaellis.com/trouble-accessing-chapters/
Want to get an email with links as soon as a new chapter comes out on my website, or get monthly Inner Circle news about my writing? Sign up for your preference here: https://landing.mailerlite.com/webforms/landing/q4b8d8