Month 2, Day 21, Sunday 5:00 p.m.
It took some time for the trio to return to the University, as Nat had been afraid to return home, and Ana took some time getting her settled.
To Sebastien’s surprise, they found Alec sitting on a bench not far from the transport tubes, his head hanging while one knee bounced rapidly. As they drew close, he looked up, his face slackening with relief. He hopped up and hurried over, his eyes searching Ana’s face as he fumbled in his school satchel. He paused in front of them, only then seeming to realize Ana was not alone. “They know?” he asked.
She nodded silently.
He pulled out an awkward handful of small, half-full jars. “I was worried about you. I can’t tell if you’ve already seen a healer or if that’s just a really good glamour, but I wanted to give you some of the stuff I keep on hand.” He thrust the jars at her, which she had to cradle awkwardly in her arms when they were too much to hold in her smaller hands. “I took off the labels, sorry about that. This one helps a lot with bone fractures, but you’ll want to use it first because it irritates the skin and it’ll show if you use it last. This one is good for healing cuts without leaving any scars. Just leave it on until there’s no trace. This one is good for the really deep bruises, and this one for the surface level bruises, to remove the traces of blood from underneath the skin and heal up your burst capillaries. Oh, and this one is a burn salve. I don’t think you need that one so I’ll just take it back.”
‘He’s used those himself. Often.’ The words resounded hollowly in Sebastien’s head.
Ana remained silent for a few moments, staring down at the jars. “Thank you. I did already get healed, but I appreciate it.” She put them in her own bag as Alec shuffled awkwardly.
“How bad was it? I can’t believe you finally snapped. I almost had a heart attack when you insulted Father and threw cranberry sauce on him, Ana. You’re so slender and—I mean—your bones must be delicate. I had this horrible thought that your eye socket would shatter and your eyeball would fall out, just hanging by a string. I saw that once, on one of Father’s hunting dogs. He had to put it down.”
Ana reached out and grabbed Alec’s hand where it had been fiddling with the strap of his satchel. She held it between both of her own. “Thank you.”
Alec settled, closing his eyes as he took a single deep breath. “It’s best not to provoke him, Ana.”
“It’s too late to stop now,” she murmured. “Someone needs to stand up to him for once.”
Damien moved forward, clapping a hand on Alec’s shoulder. “You should stop visiting home for the next little while, Alec. He’s probably going to get worse.”
Alec’s shoulders started to hunch for just a moment before he straightened them again. “He wouldn’t like that. He likes me to make a report every other weekend, at the very least. Like I said, it’s best not to provoke him. He can hold a grudge.”
“So cut ties entirely,” Sebastien said, the words spilling out without her conscious control.
Alec’s caterpillar eyebrows drew together. “But that’s impossible. He’s my father.”
“That means nothing.” She swallowed hard. “You have options. Listen to me. You don’t have to go see him. You don’t have to follow his orders. If he comes after you, you have friends. You never have to be alone with him again. If you’re willing to go scorched-earth, threaten to give an expose on his treatment to one of the local newspapers. Or one of his rivals. Not a bluff. A threat.”
“But…” Alec shook his head.
“What do you really have to lose? Does he provide any benefits that you can’t afford to be without or find elsewhere? You are not obligated to obey him or to love—”
Sebastien cut herself off, looking away as she cleared the lump in her throat. She had kept going back to Ennis. She’d felt like she should, or that she had to, but why?
Damien was nodding along. “Sebastien’s right. You’re his only legitimate child. For various reasons, he’s unlikely to disinherit you.”
Alec pulled his hand back from Ana’s. “He might. Just to spite me. If he withdrew his donations, I could lose my place at the University,” he admitted, looking at the ground.
Sebastien shrugged. “Even if he did, as long as you place high enough by the end of term, you won’t be expelled. And after that, you don’t need him to pay your way. There are other options.”
He scowled at her. “I’m not interested in leeching off my friends. I don’t need charity.”
“You wouldn’t need to. You can get legitimate loans from quite a few different places and pay your own way.”
“And then what? Get a job working for one of the other Crown Families?” he scoffed. “Try and run a shop or something?”
“Perhaps. You have time. There is no reason you have to remain incompetent.”
Alec opened his mouth as if to retort angrily, but then slowly closed it again. “Is that what you did? Cut ties with your family?”
Sebastien’s lips tightened. “Does it matter?”
“It matters if you’re giving me advice you have no idea about.”
“I have no more family,” she said, not exactly answering the question. “And no need of them. You don’t, either.”
Damien stepped forward, pulling on Alec’s shoulder to turn him around and walk onwards. “All of us can relate, I think.”
Ana reached out to give Sebastien’s hand a squeeze, and she looked over at the young woman in surprise.
Ana smiled softly, crookedly. “That was nice of you,” she murmured as the other two walked ahead.
“I literally did almost nothing, except insult him.”
“I think he needed that. I wasn’t being harsh enough. He doesn’t like to feel weak. Coming from you, it seemed more legitimate. A challenge rather than a defeat.”
Sebastien raised one dubious eyebrow. “Are you sure?”
Ana shrugged, smiling mysteriously. “We’ll see.” She wrapped her arm through Sebastien’s and they followed Damien and Alec.
After a lingering silence, Alec said, “I could join the army, maybe. They don’t require you to be a really great thaumaturge, as long as you’re competent. I’m not good enough for them to sponsor me, but they would probably pay enough to get by once I got my certification. And it’s respectable enough, serving the country.” He sounded doubtful, but his posture straightened.
The next few days passed uneventfully, and by Wednesday, Sebastien felt she was really beginning to get a grasp on working with light. She had been practicing with Professor Lacer’s exercises, both creating illusions as well as the auxiliary exercise that required her to change the color, brightness, and shape of a candle flame. She had even been playing with a lens-based fire starter and a couple of spells she had learned as a child, such as the glow and light-show spells.
She’d also been secretly practicing with her shadow-familiar, repeated castings easing the lingering trauma and trepidation she had felt toward it since the incident with Newton. She played around with shadow-puppet shows and made random objects sparkle with an intensity that she hadn’t shown since she was a child with the untiring obsession of learning a new trick.
Some of Sebastien’s deeply depleted well of internal energy was returning, though she had good days and bad days, and had already consumed half of the little vial of beamshell tincture. Soon, she hoped, she wouldn’t need it any longer.
As Ana and Damien joined her outside the Natural Science classroom, Sebastien lifted an inquiring eyebrow.
Ana looked around the mostly empty hallway, then murmured, “Nat wrote that everything is fine. Father has been grumpy, but mostly everyone is just leaving her alone. Uncle Malcolm visited him this morning and they seem to have gotten over their anger at each other. If Malcolm suspects anything, he’s not making it obvious.”
Ana had been called home to the Gervin manor for a visit on Monday evening, reamed out by her father, and stripped of her allowance and further visitation rights with her little sister for the remainder of the semester. Luckily, Lord Gervin didn’t know about the sympathetically connected journals the two girls shared, and he didn’t respect Ana enough to be truly wary of her.
“When can we move forward with the second phase of the plan?” Damien asked.
“I’m still compiling the blackmail note. Are you finished with the sketch of the ring, Sebastien?”
“I am, but I think we should give it some time before contacting Malcolm. Better to let the incident on Saturday evening fade from his memory a little. It will make him less likely to draw connections. Perhaps you can send the first contact next week. That would also give you a chance to find some corroborating evidence for the other crimes, like embezzlement, before he’s wary enough to try and clean up any crumbs that might still be lying around.” What Sebastien didn’t say was that she wanted to postpone the next phase of Operation Defenestration because Oliver had set up a meeting of sorts between the Raven Queen and the University that Friday, and she didn’t want to try and split her attention between the two high-stress undertakings.
She was trying not to be too hopeful about the outcome of their meeting, but she couldn’t help the anticipation building in her gut. She didn’t know what they might be able to offer her, but they were powerful and had political influence. And if they could be reasoned with, perhaps the coppers could be reasoned with, too. ‘Would the High Crown be willing to meet with the Raven Queen? He has the power to give me a blanket pardon. Working with the coppers might anger the University, since they want the book, but it could be more beneficial for me.’ She resolved to keep her eyes and her mind open. Perhaps they could even work out some kind of deal like she had with Ana, where Sebastien got what she needed not directly through the University, but tangentially, cooperation with them giving her another bargaining piece.
The bell to mark the start of class interrupted Sebastien’s thoughts, and the trio hurried in to take a seat.
Professor Gnorrish’s assistant was handing out components to every desk, mainly consisting of a ring on a stand, a few petri dishes, and a small, clear glass bead. “Today marks the end of our study of light,” Gnorrish announced. “You will be using what you have grasped to create your own lens spell, which you will use to observe and sketch a likeness of some cells and microorganisms. I have provided various slides of plant and animal cells, as well as some relatively harmless bacteria. To pass this segment, you must be able to refract light well enough to observe the animal cells, but I have contribution points for anyone who is also able to clearly observe the bacteria, which will require much finer control. I expect developing and refining this spell will take many of you some time, so you had best get started. Also, as a reminder, spells to view microscopic organisms are not new magic, but if any of you develop something particularly innovative and feel that the magic is struggling against you, please err on the side of caution and call me over to review your attempt rather than risking your safety.”
The students immediately got to work, drawing out their spell arrays on their desks, which had a perfect Circle already carved into the surfaces.
Sebastien chose the triangle as her base symbol, because light was a form of energy without mass, and she would be using only transmutation to achieve the effect. She brought her Will to bear, lightly and idly pressing it into the chalk lines as she mused over the best way to get the desired results.
She took longer than many of the other students to complete the spell array, pausing to stare at it silently multiple times as she considered the best placement for glyphs and the best way to clearly explain what she wanted to happen. When it was complete, she moved one of the bacteria petri dishes to the center, below the metal ring she would be using as a viewing range, but she still didn’t start casting.
Instead, she mentally reviewed everything she knew about light that could be useful for this particular application, trying to grasp it all at once like her mind was a fist stuffed full of wriggling worms. A wave of dizziness overtook her, sending her swaying in her seat. Concentration broken, she shook her head and took a few deep breaths, squinting against her sudden headache. It was as if the weight of the knowledge had knocked her off balance. Perhaps she was just hungry. She’d had little appetite, and might not have eaten enough at breakfast. She rubbed on some minty headache-relieving salve and tried again. She remembered how they had played with light in the crystal tunnel illusion chamber, how it had reacted to their meddling. She imagined her eye and mentally tracked the path of how the human body processed visual input. When she felt that she had meticulously examined all of her relevant knowledge, she finally began to cast.
Her spell created an additional light source beneath the petri dish and used multiple concurrent lenses. The one nearest her, hanging within the metal ring, magnified things a little, perhaps thirty times. But below that she had a second lens effect that was smaller and stronger, and below that, another that hung just above the petri dish, even stronger.
It was a strain to hold all three lenses at once as part of a single spell, but not beyond her capabilities.
At first, the spell showed her only a vague blur when she looked into the ocular lens, but she was able to calibrate the output with a few adjustments of her Will. Soon enough, she was able to focus on the strange little organisms that she had seen before only in drawings. Even her best efforts left things a little blurry and hazy, as it seemed like the light was shining right through the bacteria, their edges and details undefined. Even the slightest jostle of the table or the petri dish sent the field of view wildly off course, and holding the spell was quickly worsening her headache. She had been feeling a little off-kilter lately. ‘Has something changed? I’m tired, but I’m always tired.’
She could spare little attention from the casting, though, and set her thoughts aside to sketch out what she saw as quickly as possible, trying to get through the most difficult part of the assignment before moving on to the cell slides, but before she could do so, a looming presence beside her table, wafting off heat, made her look up from the spell.
“May I?” Professor Gnorrish asked, gesturing to the ocular lens.
Holding the magic in a vice grip, Sebastien nodded, stepping back.
Gnorrish made some interested, excited humming noises as he looked through the lens, then to the sketches she had made, and finally examined her spell array in greater detail. Finally, he straightened, and Sebastien released the magic with a small wince of mental fatigue.
“Fantastic!” he said, his voice less booming than normal in consideration of the other students who were busy casting and who might make a mistake if they were suddenly startled. “You have a strong understanding, which has led to strong spellcasting, and Will that shows both force, stability, and clarity. This is one of the best attempts of this exercise by a first term student that I have seen in the last ten years. Come by my desk at the end of class to pick up your contribution points.” Gnorrish spun around and lumbered off on a slow round through the classroom, occasionally stopping to give praise or helpful tips to other students.
By the time Gnorrish called a halt to the exercise, less than fifteen minutes remained to the class period, but he seemed more enthusiastic than ever. “While this has been a quick review of the topic, we’ve barely scratched the surface of understanding what light is, how it affects the world around us, and what we can learn from it. With light, as in all aspects of natural science, everything goes deeper. I don’t fully understand light, and I suspect even the researchers focused on the study of electromagnetic radiation don’t, either. Let’s take these last few minutes of class to discuss some topics on the cutting edge of natural science, currently being unraveled by the best and brightest of us. A group of my former students have recently submitted the results of their experiments for peer review. It seems they have disproved our current model of the atom, and they have reason to believe that the negatively charged electrons orbit a positively charged, much larger nucleus. Like moons orbiting a planet, rather than floating through a ‘soup.’ The new model shows an ‘electron cloud’ with specific orbit rings at different distances, upon which the electrons can step up or down as they gain or lose extremely specific amounts of energy.”
He lowered his head and took a deep breath. “I have reviewed their findings myself, and I believe them to be valid. Some may argue that because we have been wrong in the past, and have accordingly updated our models—or ‘changed our minds’—that our theories cannot be trusted. But I say, that is the point of our endeavor! Because we actively work to disprove our theories rather than defend them, our knowledge changes, always moving closer to the truth. We are not dogmatic. Our god is not being right. It is acknowledging how little we know, and freely admitting that there are a thousand—a million—more steps upon the path. We have lost nothing to acknowledge we were wrong about how atoms were built. We succeed every time we update our beliefs. That is why natural science is so special, and why it will eventually take us beyond even the farthest horizon we can now imagine.”
Sebastien hurriedly took out her new binder of notes and a fountain pen. More difficult topics that showed deeper understanding were the things Gnorrish loved to use for extra credit questions on his weekly tests.
“Let us combine this with another recent discovery. A ‘quantum’ is the term coined for the smallest measurement of energy. An indivisible, single tiny packet.’
Sebastien frowned, scribbling quickly to try and get the new definitions down.
“This is important because, by understanding that energy can only be absorbed or released in these tiny, differential, discrete packets, we can account for certain objects changing color when heated, as the electrons within their atoms gain or lose discrete amounts of energy in the form of light. Just as a blacksmith can judge the temperature of metal by the color of its glow, so can we judge the heat of a star.”
Sebastien knew what electrons were. Their existence had been confirmed and defined by one of Gnorrish’s contemporaries only a few years ago. But she didn’t know anything about electrons’ ability to absorb or lose energy within that structure.
For once, Gnorrish wasn’t waving his hands around or pacing, his voice loud but measured as he spoke from the front of the classroom. “All matter can absorb electromagnetic radiation, and all matter at a temperature above absolute zero will emit electromagnetic radiation, even if it’s too little for your eyes to pick up. With a light-sensing artifact thousands of times more sensitive than the human eye, we would be able to distinguish not only temperature, but the exact makeup of other celestial objects. The amount of energy given off by a hydrogen atom, when its electrons lose a very specific amount of discrete energy packets, is different than the amount of energy given off by a helium or calcium atom. These differences in energy correspond to minute differences in the color of light that escapes as they lose energy. We will soon be able to look at Ares, Nibiru, passing asteroids, and even planets from the next solar system, thousands of light-years away, and calculate what they are made of.”
Sebastien’s hand began to cramp as she wrote even faster. Gnorrish was blowing past words and ideas that she’d never encountered before. ‘What is this about electrons emitting light?’ She needed to stop and think about it to let her mind wrap around the ideas, but Gnorrish wasn’t pausing.
He turned back to the blackboard, where he used a quick spell array to create an illusion of a small sphere of white light floating within darkness. “I believe light can tell us more about the universe we live in than even that.”
When he launched into an explanation of how light sometimes acted as a wave, and sometimes like a particle, and the different experiments that gave confusing results, Sebastien gave up taking notes, staring at Professor Gnorrish with dismay as she flexed her aching fingers.
His eyes roved over the students slowly. “As one researcher said, ‘It seems as though we must use sometimes the one theory and sometimes the other, while at times we may use either. We are faced with a new kind of difficulty. We have two contradictory pictures of reality; separately neither of them fully explains the phenomena of light, but together they do.’” He paused dramatically. “Light is like nothing else that we are accustomed to dealing with. If we could understand this seeming duality, it might be the key to unraveling more of the inner workings of the universe.”
He pointed to the illusion of a sphere of light floating in darkness. “Perhaps, one or more layers of understanding deeper, we could begin to understand the fundamental principles of existence, and even how magic itself works.”
Sebastien’s eyes widened. ‘Is it really that significant?’
Professor Gnorrish continued trying to explain “wave-particle duality,” “quantums,” and how it all interacted with electrons and stuff, but Sebastien was rather…lost.
She looked around. Some of the other students were also showing expressions of confusion, a few were staring blankly, having obviously given up, but some were diligently taking notes without concern. ‘I’m lacking some sort of fundamental understanding. I’m not grasping these definitions, the underlying mechanics and properties of discrete quanta, or what electrons really are, or maybe even what radiation really is. Without that, I certainly can’t understand how these things fit together into a greater explanation of the mechanics of the universe. I know keywords and I’ve memorized where to insert those keywords into patterns and sentences, like “light is neither a particle nor a wave, but some combination of both,” but I actually don’t understand what that means.’
She was surprised by the sudden surge of keening distress that rose up in her chest like sour wine, and she tried to tamp it down. ‘I don’t understand,’ she admitted to herself. She was normally quite confident in her own intelligence, but she felt so out of her depth she might as well have been a floundering child who had never before even seen the ocean.
‘Are some of my classmates actually understanding this? Perhaps they have a much better educational background than me.’
At the desk to her right, Damien was frowning, and a quick peek at his notes showed that he’d written several question marks in the margins. Surely, Damien Westbay, second in line to become the Family head, would have had the best possible education.
‘Or perhaps those who seem unconcerned have fallen into the trap of memorizing keywords and answer-patterns, and don’t realize that they, too, don’t understand.’
But Ana was one of those taking nonchalant notes, her chin resting on her hand and her elbow on her desk as she listened to Gnorrish.
When the bell clanged to signify the end of class, Sebastien packed her things in a daze. “Did you understand what Professor Gnorrish was talking about, at the end? About the waves and particles and quantum?”
Ana shrugged. “I understood well enough.”
Damien and Sebastien shared a look of dismay.
“Not in the way that Gnorrish talks about understanding!” Ana added quickly. “I don’t grasp it so completely I could recreate it from nothing, but is that really necessary? He said it was on the cutting edge of natural science, and, what, a primordial particle?”
“Elementary particle,” Sebastien corrected automatically.
Ana rolled her eyes, ignoring Sebastien’s interjection. “If I actually understood that, I’d be an Archmage already. I have no ambition to start casting spells that unravel the universe or whatever. Grasping the general concept is enough for me.”
Damien nodded, his shoulders falling. “I suppose we are only first term students.”
Sebastien couldn’t relate to Ana’s sentiment at all. The idea that someone could know something was wrong, deficient, in their understanding, and know that there was a way to at least somewhat fix that deficiency, but deliberately decide not to… It was alien to her. Especially—specifically—when that knowledge would affect her facility with casting an entire branch of spells.
As the other students filtered out, Sebastien stayed behind to pick up her contribution points. Ten of them, which was a rather large amount for someone like Gnorrish, who often gave out fractions of points so as to be able to give them more often. “Thank you. Are there any references that could explain what light is and how it works on a fundamental level more…simply?” she asked. “Maybe with illustrations to help me imagine how it works? I couldn’t really grasp much from the last bit of class, and I feel like I’m missing something foundational.”
Gnorrish laughed. “I commend your curiosity, Mr. Siverling. The true secrets of light are a bit beyond the purview of this class. If you wish deeper understanding, self-study is indeed your best option.” He gave her a small list of books, as well as a larger list of specific research articles that would help with the more recent theoretical advancements. “The articles can be quite dry and…impenetrable. And generally, there are no illustrations, except for a few graphs and tables, perhaps. I hope you don’t get too discouraged, nevertheless. Even I wouldn’t confidently state that I fully understand how light works, and I’ve been at this for far longer than you. Light is only energy, after all, and energy is one of, if not the elementary building block of the universe.”
Thanking him again, Sebastien took Professor Gnorrish’s list to the library. The articles were indeed “impenetrable,” written using long, convoluted sentences filled with jargon. She couldn’t even check them out because many did not have duplicate copies yet, and thus the research and knowledge contained in them was rather valuable.
‘Perhaps I won’t come to understand the mechanics underpinning the universe, but this should at least help me make my end of term exhibition more likely to impress…and maybe give me the edge I need to beat Nunchkin in Practical Casting.’
The next chapter will be the regularly scheduled Thursday chapter on 9/1, no more delays.
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