Month 3, Day 8, Monday 10:15 p.m.
Grumbling internally about inconvenient meeting times and locations, Siobhan walked out of the secret meeting of underground thaumaturges. Tanya had not been at the new, appropriately underground venue this time, and Siobhan suspected that she, along with some of the other missing members, were no longer welcome after the security crackdown.
It hadn’t subdued the trading, and Siobhan found herself leaving with more than she had planned. She had a box full of potions, a couple of scrolls containing the instructions for her new decryption spells, and a slightly heavier coin purse after selling a few pieces of her own information and fencing off the Gervins’ confiscated belongings.
In addition to these planned purchases and sales, she found herself carrying a new enchanted satchel, large enough—due to a minor space-bending spell—to fit Siobhan’s old, more feminine satchel inside. It even sat light on her shoulder due to a lightness spell. Also, there was a third scroll tucked away in her inner jacket pocket: the instructions for a spell to summon the Raven Queen.
The spell had been offered during the previous meeting but was, rightfully, met with general skepticism, both because of the high price and because summoning spells were so deeply unreliable, had potentially long payoff times, and even then the “results” were open to interpretation.
Summoning spells were supposed to create a weak attraction to something that met your defined requirements, subtly nudging the world so that the caster came into contact with the object of their search parameters over some vague upcoming period of time. The more undefined the parameters, or more distant the target in space or time, the weaker this force of attraction became. A few more scientifically minded thaumaturges had even posited that this whole subset of divination was a scam, with people succumbing to the placebo effect or seeing “signs” that matched their target. With a vague enough target and enough mental contortion, anything could meet the criteria. Even the fact that general summoning spells were still legal pointed toward their lack of efficacy.
In any case, this spell was supposed to allow someone to meet the Raven Queen. The seller even claimed to have tested it successfully, meeting and requesting a boon from her. An obvious lie. Even if the summoning spell had worked, forcing her to cross paths with the caster, they would have no way of knowing the innocuous person passing them in the street was really the Raven Queen. Only one person had been foolish enough to purchase it, and tonight they had come back, irate at the spell’s failure, demanding a refund. Apparently, rather than allowing them to meet the Raven Queen, the spell had summoned a flock of corvids. The caster dropped the spell, but by the time the effects had dissipated, they were covered in small wounds and bird shit.
The arbiter had settled the dispute, but Siobhan found the whole thing hilarious and bought the spell instructions for a pittance, since it seemed like the kind of thing that might come in handy at some point. It almost didn’t seem like the standard summoning spell at all, rather some sort of area-effect compulsion, much more direct in both execution and effect than the little she knew of such spells.
Stopping in a dark alley, Siobhan took off her feathers and turned her cloak inside-out to change the color, then flagged down a carriage that bore a small painted rendition of the Verdant Stag’s green antlers on its side. The box of supplies was too heavy to carry all the way, and though she had traveled to the meeting with Liza, she was on her own now and felt safer within the obscuring walls.
She had bought some potions that she’d never made before, and sold the recipe for the fever reducing potion, which she had brewed several times for the Verdant Stag. Now, someone else could do the same, or just supply the people who would have otherwise bought from the Verdant Stag, still indirectly putting her out of a job. This was why spell information was often so tightly held, as having a monopoly on anything useful had obvious benefits. But that restrictive and selfish mindset seemed silly to Siobhan. ‘Magic is better spread as far and wide as possible. If there’s no longer demand for this concoction, it won’t matter to me, because I’m always growing and learning and will be able to make something new that people want to buy. Additionally, the best thaumaturges will make the best potions, and their reputations can keep them selling even in a saturated market. And if that places a strain on the supply of magical components, then there should be more jobs in sustainably sourcing components, or research into viable alternatives.’
Her mental tangent ended as she arrived at the Verdant Stag, going around to one of the back entrances, where an enforcer let her in. He immediately returned to reading a flimsy pamphlet, ostentatiously labeled The People’s Voice, apparently one of the first editions of a newspaper run by the Verdant Stag. Oliver truly was the boy with a finger in every pie.
Siobhan dropped off the box at the apothecary, then made her way to Katerin’s office. When she knocked on the door, a familiar, distinctly non-Katerin-like voice called, “Enter.”
Inside, Katerin’s chair was facing away from the door, seemingly empty. Then a small foot reached out for purchase on the side of the desk, and the chair swiveled slowly around. Theo was sitting there, his copper hair mussed and what looked to be homework sprawled out over the dark wooden desk. He had steepled his fingertips together and was glaring over them in a parody of a powerful businessman. When he saw Siobhan, he perked up, forgetting his little act. “It’s you! I haven’t seen you in so long! Why’re you in your Raven Queen body? Didja go after one of your enemies tonight? Didja do something super awesome and nightmarishly horrible to them? Do you have any other bodies you can change into? Can you really travel through the shadows, and if so, can you take someone small with you, maybe? ‘Cause I was thinking, that would be really awesome to try, and I promise I wouldn’t be any bother—” He cut off the rapid-fire questions suddenly, having inhaled and choked on some of his own saliva.
Siobhan waited patiently for him to recover.
After some dramatic hacking, bent over the desk, Theo looked up at her, red-faced, watery-eyed, and suspicious. “Did you just hex me to shut me up?”
Siobhan rolled her eyes. “No. And if I did, it would have been a jinx, not a hex. Making you choke on your own spit is more of a prank than anything malicious. Isn’t it a little late? I’m pretty sure Katerin wants you in bed by this hour. And are you still working on your homework?”
Theo quickly slammed shut his textbooks and shuffled all his papers into a haphazard stack, slipping the whole mess into one of Katerin’s desk drawers. “That’s not important, and Katerin isn’t here right now. Now that all the trials and stuff are over, she’s getting ready for transferring all the rest of those bad guys to the coppers for official sentencing and jail and stuff. Do you know how long it takes to earn enough money to buy a utility wand? I’ve been working on it for months now, and I’m still only maybe halfway there. Maybe you could talk to Katerin about increasing my wages?”
Siobhan raised an eyebrow at the non-sequitur, noting that he hadn’t answered her questions. “Your wages for what?”
“Homework and stuff.”
“The same homework that you haven’t completed and just shoved in a drawer?”
Theo gave her a hard stare, his expression asking if she was really pointing that out. “Et tu, Brute?” he muttered, hopping down from Katerin’s chair.
Siobhan wondered if he even knew what that meant or was just parroting something he’d heard others say.
“Well, to make up for it, you can take me with you when you go shadow-walking,” Theo offered magnanimously, coming around the desk to stand in front of Siobhan.
“That’s a rumor based on zero facts.”
Theo’s mouth dropped open in stunned dismay, but then his eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Zero? Really? Even if you can’t shadow walk, you’ve gotta have something interesting that you can show me. I mean, you always have something interesting. Last time, it was all those totally awesome stories about the Black Wastes. Mr. Mawson totally hated that, but I cited all those sources you told me about and he had to give me a good grade. Katerin kept saying I was going to have nightmares, but I didn’t have any at all, so you don’t have to worry about treating me like a little kid.” He reached out boldly to take her hand in both of his, staring up at her with big watery eyes.
Siobhan hesitated, but she was trying to be kinder to herself, as well as to others, and some childish play might be just the thing. As the end of term was approaching in just a few more weeks, the stress among her classmates had grown palpable. When she woke in the middle of the night now, several other students were likely to be awake as well, light coming from their curtained cubicles as they tried to cram a whole term’s knowledge into their skulls. It was like the stress was infectious.
She herself wasn’t worried about the general exams, because it was clear she wasn’t in the bottom ten percent of her student group and thus in no danger of being held back, but the end of term exhibitions were looming ominously, and she was struggling to get as much power from Professor Lacer’s transmogrification exercises as the spells should have provided at her capacity.
“Please?” Theo wheedled.
“Fine,” she acquiesced. She had a few more spell arrays drawn on paper now, and she easily found the simple illusion spell. She placed the paper near the light on Katerin’s desk, so that she would have more to draw from, and created an image of a cute little dog on the page, wriggling around with excitement as it looked at Theo.
The boy watched with wide eyes, smart enough to stop himself from reaching out to touch it, despite his obvious desire.
But soon enough, he frowned. “This is neat and all, but it’s not very ‘Raven Queen,’ is it?”
She morphed the dog into a tiny black, fire-breathing dragon, which drew Theo’s interest more strongly, but he still wasn’t satisfied. “But it’s just an illusion. There isn’t a cool story to go along with it, and it’s not even leaving the page. Don’t you have anything more…dangerous? Or at least more impressive?”
Siobhan let the spell drop, staring down at the top of Theo’s curly copper head with exasperation. “Fine. But we’ll need a place open to the air, though preferably not exposed to widespread observation.”
“Of course,” Theo agreed, already tugging at her hand. “We can use one of the rooms with a balcony hanging over the back courtyard!”
Siobhan took a few minutes to more thoroughly examine the spell instructions and imprint the process into her mind, then got to work out on the chilly balcony, setting up the spell array on her portable slate table rather than wrestling with getting an unbroken Circle across the wooden boards beneath her.
It was a bit cramped to fit the three raven feathers—which she had double checked to ensure they weren’t crow feathers after learning of Ana’s mistake with the Raven Queen costume—plus the shade dust, an offering of something shiny and valuable, and a lump of iron. The spell called for a raven eyeball as well, but Siobhan didn’t have one. Considering what the spell did and that she already had raven feathers, she was confident the eye wasn’t necessary. She also didn’t have a lodestone, which she had substituted with a normal piece of iron. Siobhan might have been able to forcibly magnetize her little lump of iron, but it seemed foolish to try without research and safety measures, especially for something so trivial. For the final component, she placed down a polished gold crown.
When she was ready, she set the slate table on the balcony deck, added her lantern for power, and stood over it with her hands raised dramatically as Theo watched avidly from the side. Siobhan was trying to take a lesson in spellcasting theatrics from Professor Lacer, who always looked so impressive. In a low, deep voice she said, “Oh raven of the night. With hunger I seek you, persevering. To the earth I draw you, a beacon. With luster I entice you, worthy.”
The chant seemed obviously cobbled together, and the magic wobbled unsteadily under the grip of her Will, new and wild, but she refused to let it slip from her grasp.
She imagined the effects of the spell spreading out just like the tendrils of a divination, seeking a matching target and enticing it to approach.
As with any summoning spell, Siobhan knew there was a chance of failure. Despite the spell’s previous “success” for the other caster, it might not be powerful enough to wake any birds from their sleep, for example, or reach far enough to draw a large flock. Still, for the next quarter hour, they sat on the corner of the balcony and waited, their legs dangling off the edge. Siobhan concentrated on the spell with one part of her mind while using the other to chat with an increasingly impatient little boy.
“Are you sure it’s working?” Theo asked.
As if on cue, the first raven arrived.
It landed not on the balcony or the center of the spell array, but on Siobhan’s shoulder.
Theo gasped, staring up at the creature in awe.
Unlike the account the previous purchaser of this spell had given, the raven seemed entirely docile, maybe even friendly—or at least curious. It watched them with its little black eyes, then pecked at Siobhan’s hair, pulling gently in a motion that felt like grooming.
Tentatively, Theo reached up to pet it, pausing for a moment before his fingers came into contact with its feathers, giving it time to react.
The raven remained still, and when Theo finally touched it, gently sliding his fingertips over its dark, shimmering feathers, the boy sighed dreamily. “You’re so pretty,” he told it. “And smart.”
The raven bobbed its head up and down, then nibbled gently on his fingers, making him giggle with delight.
“Oh, I should have brought some food for you,” he lamented, suddenly heartbroken by this oversight.
“I have some,” Siobhan offered, carefully moving to pull out the same pouch of dried fruits and nuts that she secretly took with her to breakfast.
Theo held up the bits of food in his palm, and the raven hopped over to his shoulder instead. He petted its feathers, murmuring constant and ever more hyperbolic praise as it nibbled away with its sharp beak, careful not to accidentally hurt him. “Oh, you’re the most genius bird in Gilbratha. And the most beautiful. Your feathers probably look like a black rainbow in the sunlight. You’re a mighty hunter. And a cunning thief. And all the other ravens are jealous of you…” He continued in this vein for a while.
Siobhan watched with satisfaction, feeling a warmth at his childish enthusiasm and instant adoration. But after another quarter hour, the second raven arrived, and there was an immediate tussle over who had rights to the food.
Theo struggled to mediate. “Be nice. There’s enough for both of you. I’ve got a whole pouch, see?” he said, shaking the food Siobhan had bought for herself without a care to leave any for her. “No, Blacky,” he said to the smaller one, “be nice to Empress Regal. She was here first. Why don’t you ask her if you can have some of the raisins, too?” He turned a hard stare on the first raven. It hesitated, but then grudgingly nudged one single raisin toward Blacky.
The ravens seemed to start some sort of argument, hopping on Theo’s lap and tugging at his hair and clothes while squawking belligerently and batting each other with angry wings.
Theo had to resort to threats to get them to stop. And then the third and fourth raven arrived, each taking one of Siobhan’s shoulders. They cawed loudly right in her ears and eyed each other with distrust, and then all four started hopping and flapping around in some kind of territorial dance that she was worried might accidentally disrupt the spell array.
Siobhan dropped the spell, because she wasn’t a complete fool, and drawing a flock of ravens, even in a discreet place at night, seemed like a great way to attract unnecessary attention.
Three more ravens arrived after that, flying around the balcony in confusion. After a minute or so they left, followed by the others.
Theo’s raven was the last to depart, but not before finishing the last of the snacks. It gave Theo’s bright copper hair a friendly tug, then swooped down and picked up the gold piece Siobhan had laid out as a component before flying off into the night.
“Hey!” she called after it angrily. “Bring that back!”
Its mocking caw soon faded into the distance.
Suddenly, the whole thing didn’t seem worth it after all. A whole gold piece was a steep price to pay for less than an hour of fun for a little boy. With a sigh, she packed up the spell components and her lantern, shooing Theo off to bed before Katerin could return and get angry with the both of them.
After returning to the Silk Door and Sebastien’s form, she checked her pocket watch, noting the late hour and vacillating for a moment over what to do next. Responsibly, she should return to the University and go to sleep. But the decryption spells she had been waiting for so long were calling to her from the inside pocket of her jacket, whispering of the mysteries they could uncover and the power of knowledge.
So instead, knowing she would likely regret it in the morning, Sebastien headed to Dryden Manor. She had the beamshell tincture if she really needed it, after all.
Oliver was there when she arrived, but seeing that she was busy and distracted, he said only, “Have breakfast with me in the morning before you head back. There’s some upcoming work I want to talk to you about.”
With a murmured agreement, Sebastien headed up to her room and took out the spell instructions, as well as the books on more complex math that she had borrowed from the University library in anticipation of this moment.
Spreading out her books and papers over the floor and plopping down cross-legged on a cushion, she delved into the theoretical information. As she had worried, the spell was complex, the math slightly beyond her, and the power requirements entirely beyond her. But those were only roadblocks, and with enough tenacity, they could all be overcome.
She worked well into the night, deciphering the math and turning the formulas into graphs and charts that took up a lot more space but were easier for her to grasp. She wrote notes that explained how the spell worked in more detail so she could stabilize the Word, and calculated out how to modify the spell to stretch out its casting time such that she could handle it on her own.
She got lost within the work, so focused on wrenching apart the puzzle pieces and forcing them back together that she didn’t retire to bed until the early hours of the morning. Thinking of the raven stealing her coin, a giggle burst out of her. It probably had a whole cache of stolen loot. She drifted off to sleep imagining other people being victim to similar thefts, but superstitiously believing that the ravens were demanding tribute on behalf of their queen, tittering woozily to herself all the while.
I almost forgot to post the chapter today, because, when you work 7 days a week, sometimes you forget what day it is.
IMPORTANT: I’m revamping my website, and will be moving over to a new host on Monday. There may be some site downtime from Monday-Tuesday because of this. Hopefully, it will fix some of the sporadic access problems people have experienced.
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