Chapter 119 – A Gilded Cage

Siobhan

Month 2, Day 26, Friday 9:00 p.m.

Wearing all the accoutrements and the blue-black iridescent hair of the Raven Queen, Siobhan rode in a nondescript carriage through the night streets of Gilbratha, accompanied by Oliver and a couple of the Verdant Stag’s most trusted enforcers. They were on their way for a meeting with a handful of University representatives.

“We gave them the location at the last minute,” Oliver assured her, perhaps picking up on the anxiety that she had tried to keep hidden. Or perhaps he just knew her well enough by now to guess at it. “So they won’t have had a chance to lay any traps, and we already know they won’t be calling in the coppers. With the additional layer of removal that Liza is helping with, you’ll be even more secure. We’ve scouted out both locations ahead of time, and you have three different escape routes and plenty of backup if necessary.”

“I know,” she assured him. She wouldn’t even be in the same room, or the same city block, with the University representatives. She was more anxious about the possibility that, just maybe, this meeting could lead to a solution to her status as a wanted criminal, and not just be a way for her to scam something valuable out of Munchworth’s faction.

The carriage, which had taken a circuitous route to avoid any tails, soon stopped in front of a unremarkable building, which the four of them entered. The property had no direct connection to the Verdant Stags, and was being used as a high-class restaurant during the day, with an open floor plan and stairs on either side that led up to a loft area.

Liza was waiting on the ground floor, having cleared an area of tables and set up the Lino-Wharton messenger spell array on the floor. She was halfway through casting already, and waved Siobhan forward to complete the latter half of the binding.

She handed Siobhan a pouch of dead bird pieces, which Siobhan hung around her neck, then attached a string around Siobhan’s arm. She noted that the it was much longer than the ones Liza had used when Siobhan was paying her. This was all on Oliver’s bill, and would be taken out of his cut of whatever tribute the University member’s brought, so she didn’t care that it must have cost extra.

“Due to all of your shenanigans, I’ve had to order a whole new batch of raven chicks. I can’t keep up with the supply, and even if buying random ones from live component shops can make up the numbers, its best if they’re from the same brood for this kind of thing. Do you know how much hassle it is to raise a batch of raven chicks?” Liza grumbled. “I need an assistant, but of course it’s impossible to find someone who is competent, trustworthy enough to allow into my home, and also palatable enough to spend time with. Plus, they should be attractive. A nice, muscular man with good teeth to do my bidding around the house, that’s what I need…”

Siobhan had been sympathetic at first, but as Liza’s muttering went on, she let out a snort.

The woman’s glare snapped over to Siobhan. “You think I’m joking? You try running a black market business for damn fool clients, all by yourself, and see if you don’t long for a competent helper.”

“But does he need to be an attractive, muscular man with good teeth?”

“As a grown woman, having visually pleasant surroundings is an important factor in improving my workplace environment, and accordingly, improving my mood.” Liza cast the last step of the spell, and as the string burned up, fast enough to singe but not injure her, the connection was formed. Liza handed Siobhan the raven and shooed her away.

Siobhan realized that their little conversation had significantly calmed her anxiety, and wondered if perhaps Liza had done it on purpose. She carried the raven up to the loft, where an open window was waiting for her. Taking a moment to review the directions from this building to the meeting point, she tossed the raven out of the window, letting its flight instincts take over as she guided it using the mental tether between them.

The raven arrived in only a few minutes, flying into a warehouse that was in no way associated with the Verdant Stag through an open window. How convenient it was, to have wings.

The building was lit with a few lanterns set about the room, and another Verdant Stag enforcer jumped out of their skin when they heard the sound of her arrival and met her raven eyes. In the middle of the room, set upon a crate for height, rested a large bird cage decorated with metal filigree. With her human eyes Siobhan guided the raven down to it, pulling the door closed behind her. It latched automatically and she swore the raven could feel the magic wash over its feathers in an uncomfortable prickle.

The enforcer watched this, wide-eyed, then bowed deeply to her.

She had the raven bow to him in return, then asked, “Are they on their way?” with the squawky bird’s voice.

The enforcer gulped, looking as if he wanted to be anywhere else. “Yes, my lady. They should arrive in a few minutes at most. Can I…do anything for you in the meantime?”

She squawked out a laugh. “Are you offering me refreshments?”

“Umm…”

She felt a little bad about the way his wide eyes darted about frantically. “Do not worry, I was only humoring myself. I need nothing.”

It didn’t take long for the University cohort to arrive, three men and two women led by yet another Verdant Stag enforcer.

Siobhan recognized Grandmaster Kiernan immediately. Somehow, she wasn’t surprised by his involvement. There were a couple other professors she recognized as well, also from the History department. Munchworth wasn’t there. ‘Perhaps they are displeased with his performance, or maybe he just doesn’t rank high enough to be involved in a meeting like this.’ She did her best to memorize all five faces.

Kiernan looked around the warehouse, then narrowed in on the raven with a piercing stare. “Where is she?” he asked, eyeing the raven with some suspicion.

“I am here,” she said through the bird. In her real body, she opened her eyes and looked around with paranoia, despite knowing how unlikely it was that she could be discovered here.

“We were under the impression that you would meet with us in person,” Kiernan snapped. “I like to look my conversation partner in the eye.”

“And I like to maintain a healthy distance from people who wish me ill,” she replied, letting the raven nonchalantly groom a couple of feathers on its shoulder with its beak. “I agreed to this meeting when your request was most humbly brought to me by Lord Stag, but even he cannot convince me to do anything I do not wish to.” At Oliver’s request, Siobhan was trying to reinforce their idea that she and the Verdant Stag were separate, and that no amount of pressure on them would equate to pressure on her.

After a long moment where she was pretty sure she heard him grinding his teeth, he said, “I am Grandmaster Kiernan.”

“I believe there is no need to introduce myself in return. What tribute have you brought me?” If it was something worthless, she might actually just fly away and make them try again next time with something better. She couldn’t let them think that she could be bullied or pushed around.

Kiernan steps aside so the woman behind him can bring forward the wooden box she is carrying. The woman knelt, then pulls a somewhat smaller case out of the box, which she opened to reveal a bejeweled, gold bowl molded with intricate designs and a lid that is covered in holes. “This incense-burner was used by shaman-king Deon, who ruled in Qusnia, which is a country to the southeast that has long been lost to the sands of time. It was gifted to him by his wife upon their first meeting, and is valued at one thousand to fifteen hundred gold. All authentication documents are included.”

That was much more expensive than Siobhan had expected, and definitely made the danger of this meeting worth it for the tribute alone. But it was also quite inconvenient, since it wasn’t the kind of thing one could sell easily on the open market. They would have to find a wealthy collector, or perhaps give it to an auction house on consignment. ‘I’m sure they did that on purpose, just to be a nuisance.

“It is acceptable,” she said after a long moment of consideration. She turned to the enforcer beside her, giving him a nod.

The man picked up the case, putting it back in the box, and then moved to the front door of the warehouse, where a delivery runner was just arriving. The runner didn’t work for the Verdant Stag and had no idea what was going on, other than the need for a standard vow of discretion. He took the box, bowed quickly to the enforcer, and ran away with it. He would take it to another, secure location, where Oliver’s people would examine the tribute for tricks, repackage it to avoid any sabotage or tracking spells, and from there store it somewhere safe.

The University cohort watched the runner disappear with consternation. There were a few long moments of awkward silence as no one spoke. A couple of Kiernan’s companions shuffled uneasily, looking between her and the shadows at the edges of the warehouse.

When the silence continued past the point of awkwardness, Siobhan wondered. ‘Is this a negotiation tactic? Is Kiernan trying to make me uneasy and force me to speak first?’ If so, she was displeased to admit that it was working. The Lino-Wharton raven messenger spell would only last so long. If the meeting dragged out too long, the raven might just suddenly die in the middle of their conversation, and that wasn’t the message of confidence and authority she wanted to portray at all. So she guided the raven to talk. “Do not waste my time. You have come to ask a boon of me, so do so.”

Kiernan cleared his throat. “The book. Do you still have it?”

Siobhan paused, then asked carefully. “Myrddin’s book?”

Kiernan nodded, confirming her suspicions. In her real body, Siobhan turned from the window, pacing back and forth for a few steps as the reality of her situation settled in her mind. She turned her attention back to the ephemeral tether controlling the raven. A little too much time had passed, and everyone was staring at the creature with expressions that ranged from fear to suspicion.

“I do have it.”

Almost as one, the entire University group relaxed, making relieved expressions or blowing out deep sighs. Kiernan smiled, but his expression quickly grew cautious again. “Have you decrypted it?”

Siobhan considered lying, but that was too dangerous. After all, the University had everything else from Myrddin’s hermitage—enough to recognize if she had no idea what she was talking about. “I have not.” She hesitated, but added, “My purpose for it was different. While I am sure whatever lies within is fascinating and of great historical significance, I have no immediate need for it.”

“Then why did you steal it in the first place?” one of Kiernan’s companions demanded.

Kiernan gave him a glare for the interruption, but still turned back to the raven in expectation of an answer.

“The theft was…incidental. It was never my goal, in truth. You could consider it a coincidence.” She doubted even a skilled diviner would be able to discern whether a raven was lying without actively casting a divination spell on it, but she was trying to show sincerity. Lying about this would just make everything more complicated.

The man who had interrupted gave an angry huff. “You don’t expect us to actually believe that?”

Siobhan wished the raven had eyebrows that she could raise individually. “I find it amusing, that you believe your security so unbreakable, so competent, that there must be some grand conspiracy behind my acquisition of the book. I assure you, that is not the case. This line of conversation is becoming tedious. Let us get to the point. You would like the book returned.”

“Yes,” Kiernan said.

“I am amenable to that, but I will require something in exchange. Something that cannot so easily be bought with coin.”

Kiernan frowned, tilting his head to the side. “The incense burner…was it not sufficient?”

The raven let out a sharp, squawking laugh that made the enforcer standing next to it jump. “That was a tribute, given for the honor of my presence alone. It was not payment.”

Kiernan scowled, but said, “Fine. What is it that you wish?”

“I wish to stop being hunted for the theft. And for any other crimes I may or may not have committed in the meantime,” she said simply. “I would like a legal pardon.”

Everyone in the room stared at her as if she had just grown a second head, or as if she had suggested that she and Kiernan go into a back room and do something lewd. “A legal pardon.” Kiernan repeated.

“I find it tedious to be so harassed.” And terrifying. “Having returned the book, and done no real harm to those who do not deserve it, it seems reasonable that I should be free of reprisal as well, does it not?” She was aware that wasn’t really how the law worked at all, but she was also aware that the law was not enforced equally and impartially. “This is what I want. However, I have doubts whether you can realistically promise me this. Do you have the authority, or the influence, to grant me a pardon? Or perhaps some other way to ensure I can walk the streets in peace? I am open to…creative solutions.”

There was a long silence, and she had the raven open its beak again to say, “You are not the only ones who want this book. Perhaps someone else would even count it as a positive that I kept it out of your grip. Someone like the High—”

Siobhan reeled backward, cringing as she tried to protect her head with her arms. She stumbled into the railing at the edge of the loft, and if not for its protection, she might have fallen right off and dashed herself onto the floor below like a too-ripe peach fallen from the tree. She crouched down, and only when she felt large hands on her shoulders, gripping her roughly, did she realize she was keening aloud.

She quieted herself, taking quick, deep, breaths, her eyes wide and staring out over her knees.

“What happened? What did they do? Siobhan, talk to me!” Oliver demanded above her, giving her a little shake as he examined her for damage.

She raised her gaze to his, noting the tight lines of strain around his eyes. “The raven died,” she whispered hoarsely. Saying it aloud helped somehow. It was the raven that had died, not Siobhan. “The cage activated and killed the raven with a superheated fireball. Very…” She swallowed. It had been different from times before, when she ended the spell on purpose. She had been fully immersed in its senses, and some of the raven’s own emotions might have rippled back to her through their connection before it was immediately and forcibly severed. “It was very melodramatic.” She rolled her shoulders back to release some tension, straightening her clothes in a way she suddenly realized she’d picked up from Ana.

“They tried to bypass the wards, then?” Oliver asked.

“A free-cast divination spell, I’m guessing. It couldn’t have been an artifact, unless one slipped past the search. I think I felt my ward start to activate for a moment,” she said, rising back to her feet with Oliver’s steadying hand on her elbow. “I’m fine,” she assured him. “But they were probably trying to find me.”

He ignored her, looking around suspiciously, his hand on her shoulder guiding her down the stairs as if he was afraid she would trip and fall. “We’re leaving. Mr. Huntley, any signs of hostile activity or observation?”

The enforcer shook his head. “Negative, Lord Stag. We are safe for extraction.”

As they rode away in the carriage, on their way to another of Oliver’s warehouses where she could change back into Sebastien, Siobhan tried not to let the disappointment settle in her bones. It wasn’t so surprising that they would betray her, really. She hadn’t been expecting it at that particular moment simply because she hadn’t considered that one of them might be a free-caster, allowing them to move against her without any outward sign. She knew free-casters existed, obviously. She was trying to become one, after all. But they were rare. Rare enough that she’d made assumptions, at least subconsciously.

The warded cage had detected that something that was trying to access the raven under similar principles to what the blood-print vow used to protect the blood thumbprints. Such wards weren’t infallible, but they could detect divination tendrils—or rays, or waves, whatever divination actually used to gather information—as well as sudden transfers of various types of energy. False positives were possible, of course, but that was why one should keep their copies of the blood print vow in a safe, warded location.

This hadn’t been a false positive. They had been trying to find her. That was why Kiernan was upset that she hadn’t met with them in person. “They never planned to negotiate with me in good faith from the beginning,” she said dully.

Oliver grimaced. “Maybe. Or maybe one of them just got a little too bold. In any case, you won’t be taking such a risk again.” His hand was still on her elbow, and he took his gaze away from the carriage window to look her over again for damage. “I’m sorry. I never should have agreed to set up a meeting with the Raven Queen.”

She let out a low sigh. “It’s alright. It’s not like we’re any worse off than we were beforehand. If their words can be believed, we now have an incense burner worth at least a thousand gold. I…overreacted. To the raven getting disintegrated, I mean. It just took me by surprise.”

Oliver was silent for a moment, and then his hand slid down from her elbow, gripping her smaller hand in his and squeezing. “I’m going to have quite a lot to say to them as Lord Stag. If the Raven Queen really was a wild creature of vengeance, that little stunt they pulled could have put me and the whole of the Verdant Stag in danger. The University has a lot of power and resources. I thought it would be truly advantageous if we could be allies.”

“To avoid being beset by enemies on all sides,” Siobhan deduced. “Since they’re already somewhat rivals with the Thirteen Crowns.”

“Yes. But…tonight has made me warier.”

“What are you going to do?”

He turned back to look out the window, and a few seconds passed before he answered. “I don’t know. In the short term, at least, I have to bide my time and consolidate the Verdant Stag’s power. We’re not strong enough to afford direct confrontation.”

She let the conversation die, taking some comfort in the anchor of Oliver’s hand against hers. When the carriage finally slowed to a stop in front of a small house, she asked, “What do you think happened to the enforcers who were in the warehouse with the raven?”

“I don’t know,” Oliver said grimly, but it went unspoken between them that there was a good chance fighting had broken out, and against University professors with at least one free-caster, the Verdant Stag enforcers, competent and well-equipped as they were, might not have come out ahead.

Some news:

News #1: Remember when I had to skip a couple releases last month? Well, it’s time to make up for that. There will be an extra chapter on Monday, 9/5, in addition to the regularly scheduled Thursday chapter. This is make-up chapter 1 of 2.

News #2: A Binding of Blood (Book 2 in this series) is out in audiobook and live in bookstores. If you’d like to pick up a copy for yourself, you can do so on Audible or Amazon.  (Apple Books pending, they’re just very slow.)

News? #3: Also, I’m going through and doing a mass typo-update this evening. That doesn’t apply to Patreon chapters, as I’ve always maintained I wouldn’t add one more place I needed to update typos, but website chapters will be updated in a few hours.

 

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