Month 3, Day 2, Tuesday 6:45 a.m.
Sebastien woke groggily early on Tuesday morning, the lingering acid of anxiety making it impossible to sleep more than fitfully. She sat up in her bed for a few moments, staring out the window. The shards of the Conduit she’d broken the night before sat in a small pouch in her bedside drawer. She took it out, shaking them into her palm. They glittered with a kind of inner luminescences, light scattering off the sharp edges and new facets.
She clenched her fist around them until they dug into her skin, just on the edge of slicing into her. With a sigh, she unclenched her fist. Injuring herself—drawing blood—would be foolish and do nothing to change the situation for the better.
Shaking the shards back into the pouch, she stood and got dressed, walking through the crisp gloom toward the eastern edge of the white cliffs. Once there, she looked out over Gilbratha and the Charybdis Gulf. Fog stretched over the land below like a blanket, heavy and thick.
When her mother’s ring had shattered, she had almost lost control of the spell and suffered backlash. If not for her paranoid preparations with the holster and its backup Conduit, she would have.
She had been horrified by its failure, thinking that she’d carelessly destroyed this last remnant of her mother. But subsequent examination had revealed something she never would have suspected. Like the ring she had put into Malcolm Gervin’s vault, the one she had stolen was a forgery.
It was well-done, to be sure, even better than her own. But the celerium had been replaced by a thaumaturge-created diamond—one with a fault that made it unusable as a Conduit. The diamond had fallen apart along clear-cut lines, as if someone had purposefully created it to shatter as soon as any attempt was made to channel magic. When she knew what to look for, she found proof. The celerium of the real ring had contained a small blemish, while the diamond did not.
‘Did Malcom Gervin have the foresight to keep a fake in his vault?’ Perhaps they were antagonizing someone much more dangerous than even Ana assumed. Sebastien might be able to tell for sure, when they completed the second stage of Operation Defenestration that weekend, but the possibility made her nervous.
At first, having just stabilized the spell and staring down at the broken ring, her thoughts had whirled like debris in a hurricane, the shock quickly giving way to panic. But then she’d had a single thought that calmed them all.
‘Celerium is worth a lot. Perhaps it was for more than sentiment and vanity that Ennis insisted he would wear the ring, and not me. Me, who was the thaumaturge, and rightful owner of the Naught family’s heirloom.’ She suspected that Ennis had sold the real ring, or at least the celerium within its silver setting, some time ago. He would have known how absolutely enraged this would leave her, so it made sense that he would have hidden the truth.
When she had realized this, she actually cried a little bit at the loss of this last link to her mother. Despite how much she denied it, how foolish she knew it was to care, there had been some lingering affection for her father, too. He had made life difficult, but he’d also given her sporadic affection that occasionally shone genuine, and kept her fed. He had taken her to healers when she needed it, and never hit her. He had been a precarious anchor when things were at their worst and she lost everything else. Now, though, the thought of him only filled her with rage. She screamed out over the silent city below until her voice cracked, and then descended into a violent coughing fit.
When she finally regained her breath, streams of tears cutting down her cheeks, she snarled out at the squat building of Harrow Hill Penitentiary, barely visible toward the west edge of the city. “May you receive exactly what you deserve, Ennis No-Name,” she growled, her voice hoarse. “Once of my blood, but no more. I commend your blood and body to the earth, and your soul to the Plane of Darkness.”
Sebastien stood there panting, and after a moment, felt rather foolish for the dramatics. At least no one had been around to see her. The horizon was quite bright already, and feeling in no mood to watch a cleansing sunrise, she turned back.
As she was trudging back to the dorms to pick up her things, feeling sorry for herself, she noticed Tanya’s familiar form standing to the side of the cobblestone path near the door, looking down at something.
As Sebastien drew nearer, she realized the other woman was looking at a carcass. It was a raven, its neck broken and one side of its head bashed in. It was still too cold for ants or flies to be active, so the carcass was relatively unmolested otherwise.
Tanya’s face was pale, verging on green, her lips chapped and cracked, and she wasn’t blinking or moving as she stared down at the dead bird.
Sebastien slowed to a stop beside her. “Someone was playing with a slingshot and using this poor guy as target practice, it looks like,” she murmured.
Tanya jumped, as if she hadn’t noticed Sebastien’s approach, but then relaxed when she saw who it was. “It’s a girl,” she said. She swallowed. “A female raven.”
“Yes. She’s a little smaller than the males, and her throat feathers are shorter and neater.”
Sebastien examined the creature dubiously. “They all look the same to me.”
“It’s a female. I know it. Of course it would be a female. Just lying here, dead and waiting for me to stumble upon as soon as I left the building. It’s still warm, you know?”
Sebastien realized suddenly why Tanya was so petrified. ‘She thinks this is some kind of message from the Raven Queen—maybe in response to that disastrous meeting with Kiernan and Munchworth’s faction. She’s terrified of retaliation.’ There was little Sebastien could do to reassure Tanya, especially without incriminating herself for having too much information. She tentatively patted Tanya’s shoulder. “Why don’t we bury it,” she suggested, “and then go to the library and get some studying done? If you want, we can steal some of Damien’s coffee, too. I know where he keeps it.”
“Yes, a respectful, honorable burial,” Tanya muttered, nodding to herself. “Right away, let’s do that right away.”
While Tanya rushed to go get a “burial shroud,” Sebastien used a stick to dig a hole at the base of one of the many trees, which was somewhat difficult with the ground as cold and hard as it was.
Tanya returned with full pockets and a large silk handkerchief, fine enough to be worth a good handful of silver, which she wrapped the dead raven in. They buried it under the tree, and then Tanya pulled out incense, a few pieces of quartz, a polished silver coin, and a few vials of herbal oils from her pockets. She pressed the quartz and silver into the dirt, muttering something that could have been a chant for esoteric magic, or a prayer. After sprinkling the herbal oils around the whole area, she lit the incense stick, which she pushed into the soil so that it would stay upright as it burned down. “May I be forgiven in my ignorance,” she murmured fervently, clenching her eyes shut. “And may the soul of this creature find peace.”
Finally, Tanya let out a deep sigh of relief and turned to Sebastien, who had watched most of this process in tolerant bemusement. “Thank you. This was a great idea. Man, you’re really useful, huh?” she added with a sharp chuckle.
Sebastien grimaced. The bell rang the hour, and students began to make their way from the dorms to the cafeteria.
Tanya rose, giving Sebastien a hesitant look. “Do you…want to eat together?”
“Go ahead without me,” Sebastien said. “I need to get some things from the dorm first.” She lingered, making sure that Tanya was going to the cafeteria, then hurried back to the dorms. She put on a pair of gloves, then stole a pen left on the desk of a random dorm mate. Thus protected, she wrote a quick note, hesitated before signing it, and eventually just drew a little doodle down at the bottom. Then she found Tanya’s upper floor cubicle—now that Tanya was no longer a student liaison with a room of her own. It was bigger than the first term dorm cubicles, with a nicer bed and more furniture, but still only guarded by a curtain. She placed the note atop Tanya’s pillow.
No one saw Sebastien enter or exit, but as she was walking to the cafeteria, Tanya came hurrying up the path in the opposite direction, her face tense and her eyes wary and darting. She definitely wouldn’t have had time to finish eating already, which meant that something had happened.
“What’s wrong?” Sebastien asked, turning to follow when Tanya didn’t stop for her.
“Someone broke the ward line around my bed,” Tanya said.
Sebastien went cold. ‘Of course she would have a ward placed.’ Sebastien herself had one, after all. “Do you know who it was?” she asked.
“Hopefully just one of my snooping dorm mates. Hopefully…” Tanya repeated, walking even faster.
Sebastien followed her into the building and up the stairs, keeping a couple meters back as Tanya ripped open the curtain of her cubicle with wild eyes. She froze, then stepped toward her bed trepidatiously.
Sebastien moved closer so that she could watch Tanya’s face. She knew what was written within, after all. What Tanya did next would hint at her true loyalties.
Tanya stared at the note for a few long moments, then placed it on the ground and activated the spark-shooting spell array Sebastien had drawn around the message, watching as the note burned to ash, taking any evidence.
“What was that?” Sebastien asked.
Tanya lifted her head toward the ceiling, took a huge breath, and exhaled long enough that it seemed like she might collapse in on herself like an emptied rubber balloon. “It was a reprieve,” she replied cryptically, her voice soft and mellifluous. Then, with an awkward smile, perhaps realizing how strange this would seem to an outside, she continued. “Nothing bad or dangerous. It was…a nice note. I burned it because some people might not like it that I’m not being completely ostracized, after what happened with Newton.”
Sebastien didn’t inquire further, though Tanya’s explanation was sloppy at best. She had left the note, despite the danger, because Tanya had been so incredibly anxious and exhausted, wound taut like a string about to snap. It had contained a simple message. “I do not blame you, but for your own safety, I advise you find other wings to shelter under.”
Sebastien remembered what had happened to Newton when he was that stressed. This simple act might mitigate a similar future for the other woman. She wanted to be proactive enough to stop having such huge regrets. As an additional bonus, this was proof that Tanya was not completely loyal to Munchworth, or to Kiernan’s faction, as she had immediately used the spark-shooting array for its implied function.
As they walked back to the cafeteria together, Tanya seemed to be thinking deeply. “Other wings…” she murmured. Suddenly, her eyes lit up, and she turned to Sebastien. “What are your plans for the future, Sebastien?” she asked suddenly.
Sebastien blinked. “Um, I’m going to become a free-caster.”
Tanya nodded. “And what will you do then? Work for one of the Crown Families? Do research? Get a position at the University?”
“I’ll…” Sebastien suddenly realized that she had no concrete goals for a profession. She perhaps normally wouldn’t have said it, but her feeling about the ring, and Ennis, were still simmering in the back of her mind, making her reckless and truthful. “I will be powerful. And with that power, I will seize control of all that dares threaten me. I will bend this world to my Will and strip away all its secrets.” As soon as she said it, she regretted it.
To Sebastien’s surprise, Tanya laughed aloud, throwing her head back and looking at Sebastien with sparkling eyes. “Somehow…I’m not surprised. Such a goal suits you.”
Sebastien shifted the strap of her bag on her shoulder, looking away. ‘Maybe I would enjoy a job as a researcher, as long as I got to pick the direction.’
“Perhaps you will need allies to achieve such a future,” Tanya said, her tone weighty. She gave Sebastien a small, innocuous smile that belied the meaning of her words. “I would be useful. I may have hit rough waters at the moment, but I am resourceful, and one might find that I have surprisingly few qualms. This all assumes, of course, that you are just as vehement in protecting your allies and subordinates as you are yourself.”
Sebastien stared at her for a long moment. “Are you looking to secure a job, post-graduation?” she asked, offering the most mundane interpretation she could think of.
“A job? Perhaps. If my employer were powerful enough. You do seem to have a lot of connections.”
There was no way that could be misconstrued. Tanya was trying to make herself useful to Sebastien in exchange for some sort of favor. She ran her tongue over the back of her teeth, considering, and then said slowly. “What do you need, and what can you offer me?”
Tanya quickly hid her smile, shrugging. “I’m not offering anything specific. If you need something that other people can’t help with, or that you would rather be kept discreet, as I said, I’m resourceful. As for what I need… You have an aura around you, Sebastien. It draws attention. I just want to stay close enough that I’m illuminated by that light, so that I can’t be dismissed as insignificant or disposable.”
Sebastien narrowed her eyes, trying to parse Tanya’s meaning. While it could have been simple social maneuvering, trying to get closer to the Crown Family members that Sebastien found herself spending time with, Sebastien thought Tanya really meant that she wanted to give Kiernan and Munchworth a reason to hesitate before sending her on any more suicide missions, or simply killing her off as insurance.
But Sebastien wasn’t sure that she trusted Tanya, and she definitely didn’t want to get this identity further embroiled in the whole intrigue surrounding the Raven Queen. It would have been easier if Tanya made this offer to someone like Oliver, who could actually use her. “I’ll think about it, but I don’t really need anything, and I think you’ve overestimated my influence.”
“Do think about it,” Tanya agreed, unperturbed.
Sebastien tried to figure out if Tanya had any suspicions about her real identity, but didn’t think that was the case. She suddenly realized that the whole thing might have been caused by the message she’d left. ‘Did Tanya think that her proximity to me at the time of receiving the message was some sort of sign? It’s obvious from the whole thing with the raven burial that she’s superstitious. Well, I can’t see the harm in it, as long as I don’t encourage her. Myrddin knows, I don’t need another Damien. Can’t I just have a single week where nothing goes wrong?’ The thought registered in Sebastien’s mind with an ominous echo, and she stopped in her tracks. “Go on without me,” she said to Tanya. “I just realized I forgot something in the dorms. My—my scarf.”
Before the other woman could reply, Sebastien spun back around and hurried off. ‘I’m not paranoid,’ she thought. ‘Well, maybe I am. But that kind of irony-tempting thought is often a sign that something horrible is about to happen. Just in case, just in case…’ She scurried into her empty dorm room and rushed through the steps to uncover the sealed vial with the string of an Aberrant within.
She held it up to the light and peered at it intently, turning the vial around to look at the wire-like, blood and bone colored string from every angle. Finally, she let out a sigh of relief. It had not changed. Tentatively, she let out a deep hum, just to make sure. It didn’t react.
Chuckling ruefully at herself, she put it away again. But she still made a quick check of all her other preparations and supplies, and did a mental review of all her pre-planned escape routes and responses to various disastrous scenarios. ‘As Master Heller said so famously, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.” After all, a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that are real and immediate is the process of a rational mind.’
This is the 2nd of 2 make-up chapters. Next is the regularly-scheduled Thursday chapter.
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