Chapter 125 – Blackmail


Month 3, Day 6, Saturday 5:30 a.m.

A week after exposing Professor Lacer’s favoritism and, despite Damien’s best arguments to the contrary, being forbidden from attending Sebastien’s private tutoring session, Damien was still fuming. According to Professor Lacer, he “had neither the requisite experience nor control.” Apparently, whatever lesson he was going to teach would normally be restricted to students in their third term or higher. Damien had redoubled his efforts at the auxiliary exercises and even experimented with some variations to test his Will as Sebastien did, determined to have a firm grasp on all of them by the end of the term. He would prove to Professor Lacer that he could keep up!

For the moment, as Sebastien and he walked through the still-dark, early morning streets of Gilbratha, Damien set aside his ire. Not because he was too tired to care. To the contrary, Damien’s every cell was alive with excitement.

Everything was ready, and they were about to carry out the penultimate step in Operation Defenestration. If this went well, Ana’s uncles would be deposed, her power as the heir would be assured, and maybe Sebastien would even report Damien’s contribution to the higher-ups in the thirteen-pointed star—the placeholder name he had given their secret organization—and they would finally make him a full member!

Sebastien was leading, and he took them on a winding route through the city, eyes flicking around with constant watchfulness in a way that kept Damien on edge, until they finally arrived at the hotel. From there, Damien stepped forward, nodding haughtily at the night shift clerk as he set down the luggage case with all of their supplies. “I would like to purchase a room. Full bathing facilities are required.”

The clerk looked lazily between Damien and Sebastien, whose hood was still pulled down far enough to conceal his features, then smirked and said, “Of course. The honeymoon suite is available, if you would like?”

Sebastien froze, turning to stare at the clerk.

Damien felt his face flush horribly red. “No!” he snapped. He cleared his throat, amending in a more reasonable tone, “No. I misspoke. Two rooms. I wish to purchase two adjacent rooms, each with their own bathing facilities.”

As the clerk complied, moving so slowly that it had to be on purpose, Damien avoided peeking at Sebastien’s face, wishing for his own to cool down faster. He refused help carrying up their bags, and together they hurried up the stairs and to their rooms, only one of which was actually necessary.

Entering together, Sebastien immediately took off his cloak and jacket and moved to the dining table where Damien laid the luggage case.

After Ana had convinced them to go through with the costume, they had argued about who exactly was going to impersonate the Raven Queen. Sebastien won. He was taller, and thus more imposing. Damien had been miffed about this, but as he watched Sebastien emerge from the bathroom in the Raven Queen costume, he had to admit that he was impressed.

Sebastien wore a wig of long black hair that they had dyed themselves, and a long, lacy black dress under an oversized hooded cloak that concealed his lack of feminine curves. The clothes were tattered and wispy at the hems, artfully torn by Ana with her eye for fashionable dramatism, and they had sewn in black feathers here and there. The outfit was both authentic and intimidating. But what was most impressive was how Sebastien moved with a natural feminine grace—a hip sway that wasn’t overdone, an alluring tilt of the jaw, and simultaneously elegant and arrogant gestures with his arms and wrists.

Damien stepped closer, examining what little skin would be visible through the tattered clothes. They had used a generous amount of Ana’s bronzing lotion over Sebastien’s skin, which made the pale boy a little too orange, but still much closer to the Raven Queen’s supposed skin tone. “Not bad,” Damien allowed. “Sit down, and I’ll do your face.”

With a long-suffering sigh, Sebastien sat by the table and tilted his head up for Damien’s ministrations.

Wielding the makeup palette that Ana had bought and taught him how to use, Damien carefully dusted and painted until Sebastien’s eyes were dark gems staring out of smoky blackness and his lips were a deep wine color, even darker than blood. Damien did his best to keep his hands steady, too aware of the warmth of Sebastien’s breath for comfort. When he stepped back to admire his work, he had to admit that Sebastien made an undeniably striking woman. “Are you frightened?” he asked.

Sebastien raised an eyebrow. “No.”

“Your hands are shaking,” Damien pointed out.

Sebastien looked down to them with surprise. “I’m not frightened. Not excessively so,” he amended. “I must not have eaten enough for breakfast. Or maybe I’ve had too much…coffee. But don’t worry, I can handle my part.” Sebastien stood and pulled up his hood. He posed with unnatural stillness, his head tilted as he stared at Damien from the darkness beneath the fabric, black hair and feathers obscuring most of his features while the makeup distorted the rest.

Damien shuddered, pretty sure he could feel Sebastien’s Will roiling out like the hungry waves of a dark ocean, sinister and prepared to consume whatever it could drag into its depths. “That’s perfect,” he whispered, then added more loudly, “You should definitely activate your Will when we meet them. Oh, this is going to be spectacular.”

“If everything goes well, that is,” Sebastien said.

Damien rolled his eyes. “We’ve planned for literally everything that could possibly go wrong.” He opened his jacket to display the rows of healing and battle potions within as evidence. “We have backup, and we’re going to search Malcolm and Randolph for any nasty surprises when they arrive. It’s going to go perfectly.”

“Don’t tempt the gods of irony,” Sebastien admonished. “No plan survives contact with the enemy.”

Damien just sighed, putting on his own disguise, which was much simpler. New clothes bought off the rack instead of tailored to him, a mask bought from a street stall—instead of a costume shop, on Sebastien’s recommendation—and a cloak with an equally deep hood. All black and appropriately dramatic.

The coolest part of his disguise was the collar he wore around his neck, hidden by the high neckline of his shirt, which pressed into his voice box and would magically alter the sound when he spoke. They were great for costume parties, and the artifact had come from a joke shop. Rather than a collar that would make him sound like a little girl, which Ana had suggested, Damien had chosen one that would make his voice artificially deep with a strange reverberation. He hoped it would set the uncles’ knees to trembling.

Still, he had been warned to speak as little as possible, just in case they somehow recognized the cadence of his voice, if not the sound.

Sebastien put on a second cloak, less tattered and more nondescript, to cover his Raven Queen costume, and together they left the hotel through a back entrance, still with plenty of time before sunrise. They wanted to travel while the streets were still empty, and hopefully arrive well before the two they were supposed to meet, in time to do one last safety check of the area.

Sebastien was still wary of tails, but he was impressively subtle in searching for them, and even their winding route would have seemed natural to anyone not specifically following them. He moved as if he belonged among the increasingly run-down buildings and streets lined by trash and frozen feces. Sebastien barely took note of these things; he didn’t even seem nervous. It was as if he went undercover for high-stakes meetings all the time.

And maybe he did.

Damien did his best to imitate him, acting as if he belonged with absolute confidence. As they entered the parts of the city that had been involved in the gang fights earlier that term, the cleanliness actually improved, but there were still damaged buildings. Their destination was one such building, an old stone construct covered with dead crawling vines, the roof of which had crumbled away some time ago, if the interior was any indication.

Snow had piled up and mostly melted away, leaving a lumpy sheen of compacted ice in the middle of the room, with dead and dormant plants sprouting out of the ground in several places where the planks of the old wooden floor had either rotted away or been forcefully removed, perhaps for firewood. Tattered bedding and barrels full of trash and ash made it obvious that homeless people had been sheltering there to escape the elements, but Sebastien and Damien were alone in the building at the moment, as Sebastien had sent some local contact to clear the transitory residents away the night before.

After a quick search of the area, an examination of the surrounding buildings, and confirmation of the signals that meant both their backup and the private investigator Ana had hired were in place and ready for the upcoming meeting, Sebastien and Damien stood in wait, covered by the deeper shadow of the remaining roof, up against a load-bearing wall. “They will come, right?” Damien murmured.

“They should,” Sebastien said, but his tone held a tension born from uncertainty. Ana had sent a blackmail note to her uncles the night before, threatening them with the information they had uncovered—the proverbial stick—and offering to trade the book for the Raven Queen’s ring—the carrot. She had enclosed a black feather with the letter as a signature.

Damien had wanted to cut and paste letters from many different newspapers to send an untraceable and intimidating message, but Ana thought that wasn’t “classy” enough for someone like the Raven Queen, and thus didn’t seem believable.

Despite their initial worry, as the sun began to rise, their two victims arrived, scurrying nervously through the street with their heads on a paranoid swivel. It seemed they had done as the note demanded, coming alone.

Sebastien slipped his hand through an ingenious slit Ana had sewn in his skirts to the hidden pouch underneath, which held a small vial filled with a dark, roiling concoction. He uncorked it, allowing the contents to spew from the glass container. Smoke billowed out from beneath his dress, an ominous and translucent grey that sometimes flashed purple. Apparently, it was a modified philtre of smoke, meant more for theatrical effect than obscuration. The long-lasting cumulus clouds stayed low to the ground, roiling balefully as they spread.

Malcolm and Randolph arrived with perfect timing, just as the smoke reached the edge of the shadow that Sebastien and Damien had sequestered themselves within.

Both men stiffened and froze as the smoke attracted their gaze to Sebastien. Malcolm recovered first, tightening his grip around the ornate head of his cane and stepping fully into the room. Randolph—father of the infamous “cousin Robbie”—was less bold, though the tremor in his hands as he followed his older brother inside was just as likely the aftereffect of an overindulgence in alcohol, or some other less savory substance, as it was a physical symptom of his obvious fear.

Damien and Sebastien stepped forward in turn, with Sebastien leading and Damien trailing a few respectful feet behind. Damien shuddered as he felt Sebastien’s Will roil out into the slow-moving smoke, riding on it with malevolent intent.

Both Malcolm and Randolph Gervin seemed to feel it too, as Malcolm stiffened and swallowed heavily, while Randolph sidled a little more directly behind his brother, as if to use him as a shield.

At this angle, with the roof and part of the wall gone, the four of them were fully visible from a window on the upper floor of a nearby building, where the private investigator was waiting with a camera obscura. Damien believed this would be the perfect moment to take a couple shots, but he kept his eyes from straying in that direction and hoped the flash of light wouldn’t give their plan away too early.

Malcolm Gervin cleared his throat. “We came alone, as required, and have brought the ring. Did you bring the book?”

Sebastien turned his concealed face toward Damien in wordless command.

Damien stepped forward. “I need to search you for weapons or any other items that would constitute a betrayal,” he said, his voice coming out like a rock giant gargling pebbles.

Malcolm’s mouth tightened, but he nodded.

Damien came around behind them, searching Randolph first, and then Malcolm, being as thorough as possible as he ran through a mental list of all the ways people had ever hidden something on their person in an Aberford Thorndyke story. He found several pieces of contraband, including multiple battle wands, a philtre of liquid fire, a bracelet that Randolph insisted was just a valuable piece of jewelry, and an actual hidden breastplate underneath Malcolm’s shirt. He took them all, including both men’s coin purses and Malcolm’s cane, which Damien knew held a hidden knife, and placed them in a pile beside Sebastien’s feet. The man didn’t need the cane to walk, after all, though Malcolm tried to protest that he did. Damien found the Raven Queen’s ring, too, but Malcolm refused to let him take it until they had exchanged it for the book.

Through it all, Sebastien remained silent, communicating only by small twitches of his arms or head, which was more unnerving than being screamed at might have been.

Finally, Damien returned to his place at Sebastien’s side. “We have the book,” he confirmed. “And the proof of your other activities.”

“How do we know you have made no copies, and that you will not betray us after getting what you want?” Malcolm asked.

Sebastien laughed, a low, eerie sound that genuinely made Damien uncomfortable.

He recovered quickly, saying, “If the Raven Queen planned to harm you, there would be little you could do to stop her. But she is honorable. You came to have what is hers through honest means, and though you may be of reprehensible character, so long as you do not make an enemy of her, she will have no reason to retaliate.”

Sebastien nodded, reaching into the inner pocket of his cloak. First, he pulled out a folder stuffed with papers and photographs of evidence, and then a large volume, its leather binding tattered, its pages smelling of smoke and rancid, spiced sausage.

Damien allowed himself a smile of pride beneath his mask. He was the one who’d designed and put together the book, with a little help from Ana, and it was a perfect base for the skill with illusions that had cemented Sebastien’s role as the Raven Queen in this little play.

The inside of the front cover held a spell array that Sebastien used to create the illusion of a strange, shifting glyph on the front, half-disguised by a streaked, bloody handprint, as if someone had died as it was pried out of their grasp. The pages glowed so slightly it was only visible in contrast to the relative gloom of their surroundings, but the light was a dark, sinister color that wasn’t quite purple—blacklight, just on the edge of human perception. As the book’s faint light passed over Sebastien’s costume, the honey they had splattered and streaked over the fabric in violent patterns became briefly visible, like a dream clawing into the waking world.

Both of the Gervins’ attention locked onto the book like it was a glass of water and they were parched and dying men—as if it were the most important thing in the room. “A worthy trade,” Malcolm said, holding up the small jewelry box and opening it to reveal the ring within. “With this returned, and your silence about the rest, the bond made with your father—or at least the man who calls himself such—will be nullified, Queen of Ravens.”

Sebastien stepped forward, leaning in to examine the ring with false curiosity.

When Malcolm moved closer to make the exchange, a huge fireball shot out from the roof of that same building where the private investigator was hiding.

The spell headed straight for Sebastien, who ducked just in time. It splashed against the ground a few feet away, the edges of the flame licking at the smoke and the hem of his tattered costume.

Malcolm and Randolph both stumbled back, each reaching for an artifact only to find it missing, taken by Damien during his search.

Sebastien stood, looking from the scorch mark on the ground to the roof where the fireball had come from.

Yet another black-cloaked form stood there proudly, pointing a battle wand down at them. Before anyone could respond, they shot again.

Sebastien and Damien moved back to evade it, and the spell landed between them and the Gervins.

“Betrayal!” Sebastien snarled, his voice almost unrecognizable with authentic-sounding rage.

Again, Damien couldn’t help but flinch, a visceral reaction to the sound. Sebastien was, apparently, an amazing actor who could have made a name for himself in the University theatre club. The smoke beneath the Raven Queen costume began to billow more strongly as Sebastien activated the gust spell array they had scratched into the inner side of one of Sebastien’s boots.

Putting a spell array in such a place was both dangerous and absolutely ingenious, but the effect was spectacular, sending his costume fluttering with imagined power and pushing the smoke out in waves of grey and purple.

“No, no, we didn’t!” Randolph screamed.

“We are not allied with them, I swear it,” Malcolm called. “We came alone, and in good faith!”

But it was too late, because another wand-wielding attacker walked up the street, and a third appeared atop one of the other nearby roofs. Both shot spells toward Sebastien and Damien, ignoring the Gervins.

And that was Damien’s cue. In one smooth flourish, he pulled the wand from his own hidden wrist holder, throwing up the shield spell contained within. It blocked both the fireball spell—which was carefully calibrated to be more light than heat or force—as well as pieces of stone that a concussive blast spell had sent hurtling in their direction.

Then he switched to the second setting, which normally held a standard stunning spell. He had a license for the battle wand, but it was hard to get approved for anything more lethal on the grounds of “protection.” Still, Sebastien had somehow come through again, taking the wand and returning with a different variation on the stunning spell charged within. It acted in almost the same way, but instead of the standard bright red, the spell that shot out, crackling faintly with arcs of electricity and glowing dust, was a sickly green that reminded Damien of puke.

Malcolm literally threw himself to the ground to avoid it, expressions of outrage and terror fighting for dominance on his face. “Stop! We’re on your side!”

“You betrayed us!” Damien yelled. “You’re going to wish you were dead.” Adrenaline was coursing through his veins, and his voice cracked, but he was pretty sure, judging by the expressions on Malcolm’s and Randolph’s faces, that he was totally pulling off the charade.

Malcolm’s expression hardened, and as he crawled back to his feet, he reached into his mouth. With one finger, he popped something out from between his jaw and his cheek and clenched it in his hand hard enough that his knuckles turned white.

Immediately, a dome shimmered around him, and a second later the man had disappeared. Only the faint disturbance of the smoke floating along the ground revealed his position as, shielded and invisible, he ran out the door.

Randolph fumbled to do the same, but dropped whatever artifact contained such an impressive spell. He went scrambling for it on the ground among the trash and rubble, his face turning puce with terror before he was able to retrieve and activate it.

The trio of attackers surrounding the decrepit building continued to attack Damien and Sebastien, though their spells were either seemingly mis-aimed, poorly timed, or just didn’t manage to do any damage past Damien’s shield.

Sebastien strode into full view in the middle of the room, head hanging low as he slowly raised his arms, hands peeking out from within his long, tattered sleeves. He turned his head toward their first attacker and reached out to them, pointing a finger and then making a crushing motion with his fist. Half a second later, something exploded with a rumble of thunder and the soundless eruption of a true philtre of darkness.

Sebastien did this twice more, once for each of the other two hired actors that his contacts among the secret organization had allowed him to procure, to the same sensational result.

With their “attackers” thus subdued, having each set off a philtre of darkness and a single-shot firecracker at their own feet at Sebastien’s motion, he and Damien were quick to leave, rushing along their designated escape route to the safe house Sebastien had insisted on.

The coppers would be drawn by the noise, and they wanted as few sightings of the Raven Queen as possible. This whole thing was supposed to be a big production, but Damien shuddered to think of what might happen if the real Raven Queen heard about their impersonation and took offense.

They sprinted through back alleys and run-down buildings, with so many twists and turns that, if not for Sebastien to lead him, Damien thought he might have gotten himself lost. Then they turned abruptly into a little cottage’s side door, where they changed their appearance. Sebastien took off the wig, carefully removed all of the makeup and skin toner, and stripped off the dress. With his white-blonde hair pulled back at the base of his neck in the same style Professor Lacer often wore and a different cloak over simple clothing, he looked completely different. Damien took off his mask and flipped over the reversible cloak he wore to display the inner forest green instead of the black.

They exited the cottage from a different door as nonchalantly as possible and found Ana’s carriage waiting nearby. After they hopped in, the driver clicked his tongue to the horses, sending them off toward the nice part of the city and the hotel rooms Damien had booked.

“So, do you think it worked?” Ana asked.

“Definitely,” Damien said, feeling like he was about to vibrate out of his seat. “Oh, Ana, it was amazing. You should have seen your uncles. So cowed. They fell for it completely. And Sebastien! Best impersonation of the Raven Queen I’ve ever imagined. He missed his calling as a stage actor.” As they rode through the streets, Damien recounted the whole sequence of events to Ana, ignoring Sebastien’s frequent snorts of disagreement and incredulous expressions.

“That’s really exactly how it all happened, Ana. Sebastien likes to downplay things, you know,” Damien insisted.

“And he’s so jaded,” Ana agreed, nodding wisely.

Sebastien ignored them both. “How do you think the coppers will take this?” he asked.

“I don’t know, but isn’t that irrelevant as long as they don’t find out who was really involved?” Damien asked.

Sebastien did not seem mollified by this argument.

They had to duck out of the way of early-rising inhabitants a couple of times as they attempted to sneak back into their rooms, and Damien was relieved when the door finally closed behind them. “What’s going to happen to all their things?” he asked, leaning against the inside of the door. “We just left them behind. Will the coppers be able to identify their owners, do you think?”

Sebastien gave him the first real grin of the night. “Our allies out there this morning should pick them up before the coppers arrive. Partial payment for their services, I suppose. There might even be some coin left over for us.”

Neither Damien nor Ana had the same gleeful response to the promise of loot, until Sebastien added, “I was thinking, maybe we could set up an education fund for Newton’s family. He has younger sisters, I think. If the family even wants more of their children learning the same magic that killed their son, that is.”

That immediately sobered the mood, but they all agreed it was a good idea. Damien and Sebastien both retreated to the bathrooms to wipe off any evidence of their adventure, and then they all made their way back to the carriage to return to the University.

No one would even realize they had left.

As they were riding up one of the transport tubes, watching the sun as it rose high enough in the sky to cut through the morning fog, Damien turned to Sebastien, smirk displayed in full force. “I told you the plan would work perfectly.”

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