Month 10, Day 16, Friday 1:00 p.m.
Instead of escorting her off University premises, the proctor the bearded professor had called helped her to her feet and out of the only other door in the room. No students waited on the other side, just another proctor standing behind a desk. She handed Sebastien a partial map of the University. “Go to the library. Administration is to the right once you walk in the main doors.”
Sebastien stumbled her way there, pausing to gasp in wonder as she realized the line connecting the main building—the Citadel—to the library was actually a walkway surrounded in glass, like a little tunnel. ‘This must have cost thousands of gold crowns.’ She looked up to the sun as it peeked out from behind clouds. Where the rays hit the glass, the light fragmented into rainbow bursts. It was bewitching, and she stood there and stared until the clouds covered the sun again.
When she reached the end of the tunnel, she stopped in awe once again.
She stood in the library. The entranceway opened up into a large circle of white marble flooring. The staircases reached up three levels, which were open in the center to let the shimmering, spelled glass of the domed ceiling shine down. Beyond the inner open area, which had a couple desks attended by employees, the bookcases stretched off for hundreds of feet. She even saw a couple staircases leading down below the ground.
She tried to do a quick calculation of how many books the library must contain, but quickly lost her place. She shook her head, still feeling woozy from pushing herself too hard. ‘More books than I can read in a year, that much I know. More books than I could read in a lifetime, perhaps.’ Her cheeks were hot, and she realized belatedly that she was grinning like a madman.
A young man about her age leaned over and waved his arm slowly in front of her, a consternated look on his face. “Hello?” he said.
She realized then that he’d been trying to get her attention. Perhaps for a while. She cleared her throat. “Yes?”
“New student?” he asked, some understanding tingeing the smile he gave her. “It is amazing, I know. You aren’t the first to have such a reaction. Perhaps, when you’re in your fourth term, you can get an assistant position here.”
She nodded, trying to contain the cold shivers that were still attacking in waves. She’d drawn warmth from more than her extremities.
“You’ll find the admissions office through there.” He pointed, eyeing her with a little more worry. “They handle contribution points, student tokens, the mail room, that kind of thing. You can choose your classes and set up payment arrangements there.”
She nodded gratefully to him and walked through the door he indicated, where a bored-looking man gave her a pen, which she struggled to hold with her frozen fingers. “Choose your classes,” the man said, sliding a piece of paper forward. “No more than seven, no less than the four mandatory classes. Fifty gold for each class.” He asked for her name, then burnt it into a rectangular wooden token on a leather strap. Her University student token. Proof that she was admitted here. She ran her thumb over the sky kraken burnt into the back of it, the soothing smell of charred wood making her smile.
When she stared blankly at the signup sheet, the man sighed softly. “No need to be frightened, boy. The professors may be intimidating, but you passed. You should have gone over the list of classes and made your choices already. Do you not know what you wish to take?”
She shook her head. “I know what I want to take.” The scroll the admissions attendant had given her before hadn’t had the names of the professors who taught each class. Now, she stared down at the words “Grandmaster Thaddeus Lacer” next to the class he had told her to take, “Introduction to Practical Will-based Casting.” He was the teacher.
She marked her selections shakily. A few of the others were mandatory for all first term students: Introduction to Modern Magic, Natural Science, Sympathetic Science, and History of Magic. She also chose Defensive Magic, even though she would have preferred Alchemy or Artificery, because Dryden had warned her that all the more “high-class” students took Defensive Magic, and she would seem strange if she didn’t. That brought her to the maximum number of classes Lacer had allowed.
Then she signed a paper that said she would bring payment to the University the next day; her family background wasn’t prestigious enough for them to finalize her acceptance without gold in hand.
Watching her shiver with a worried expression, the man fed her papers through a magic spell array, which fed out another piece of paper with her class schedule. When she stumbled off, he called out after her. “Classes start in two weeks! Orientation and dormitory assignments are the day before, at four o’clock. Don’t be late.”
Sebastien warmed up significantly on the long walk back to Dryden Manor, even with the damp chill of ocean in the air. Despite that, she felt worse than ever. ‘How could I have done something so outrageously, idiotically, asinine?’ In the heat of the moment, in front of the professors, desperation and shame had led to rage, and the rage had overwhelmed her. She wasn’t used to being ridiculed or dismissed, even by those thaumaturges she had met in her travels.
Now, thinking back to her actions caused her an almost physical pain. ‘What was I thinking?’ A few insults and some rudeness were nothing in the face of her ability to learn magic. She should have taken it all with a smile on her face, walked away, and tried the test again next year. ‘I was about to be banned from re-testing! I had a tantrum, like a spoiled child.’ Her grandfather had said more than once, “Pride is the life of a sorcerer, and oftentimes their death, too.”
‘If I had been denied, but not banned, I might have been able to pay someone like Liza what I would have otherwise given the University in exchange for apprenticing with her till next year.’ She could only get down on her knees and thank the source of magic that Professor Lacer had stood up for her and used his single power of veto over the council. By the time she reached Dryden Manor, her fingers were shaking with shame rather than cold. ‘If I do not have the power to stand against a Titan, I must learn to bow my head before it.’
After the front door had closed behind her, she leaned against it, holding her head in her hands. As if the self-reflection had opened a dam, she shuddered as a new thought hit her. “I could have died,” she whispered aloud, wondering how she hadn’t considered that part of her foolishness until now.
How many times had Grandfather warned her about being too close to the Sacrifice Circle? Magic was dangerous. If her attention had slipped for even a moment while she was within it, more than just warmth might have been taken from her. If the glyphs for “heat” and “light” had not been written clearly within it, perhaps she would have been cored like an apple anyway. When you didn’t have enough of the specified power source, but kept pushing Will into the spell anyway, the magic often found something else to eat, at a much less efficient rate.
She lowered her hands and looked up to find Sharon, Dryden’s cook, staring at her awkwardly from the entrance to the house proper.
When Sebastien met her gaze, the woman bowed hastily. “Welcome back, Mr. Siverling. Is everything alright?”
“I’m fine,” Sebastien sighed. “No thanks to myself.”
Sharon cleared her throat, obviously unsure how to respond to that.
“Is Mr. Dryden here?” Sebastien asked.
“Mr. Dryden was called away. He left in a hurry about an hour ago. I don’t know when he’ll be returning.”
Sebastien nodded, shuffling toward the staircase. “Call me when dinner is ready, please. I’m going to take a nap.” She didn’t hear the woman’s response. She was too tired to think clearly. ‘Will-strain, again.’
She woke herself by flailing out of bed and onto the floor. The press of cool marble against her cheek contrasted sharply against the racing of her heart, and she relaxed. ‘This is what happens when I forget to cast my dreamless sleep spell. Not that I was in any shape to do so this afternoon.’ Still, she felt better than she had before sleeping, though her stomach grumbled with an empty ache.
Slowly and stiffly, as if she had aged fifty years since that morning, she stood and moved to look at herself in the small silver mirror on the wall. She was used to Sebastien’s face, and her own dark eyes looked out of it the same as always, but she had to force herself to meet her gaze past the shame.
From her pack, which she kept loaded and ready to go whenever she wasn’t using the items within, just in case, she pulled her grimoire.
She sat down with a fountain pen at the table by the window and stared at the blank page for a while, thinking of what to write. Mostly, the grimoire was for magic, or anything tangentially related to magic that Siobhan thought interesting or useful, but she wrote about other things as well. ‘If this isn’t a lesson I should remember, I have never had one.’ She set her pen to the page and began to write, thinking quickly. Her pen moved methodically, carefully carving the lesson into the paper, and hopefully, into her mind as well.
‘The world is cruel, and hard, and I cannot expect any help beyond what I seize for myself. If I am ever to meet my goals, I need to be better. If I am to keep my pride, I must pair it with deep, extensive preparation and a level of skill that matches it. I must look for and take advantage of any opportunity afforded me, and where one does not yet exist, make my own. I cannot be complacent. If I am to live long enough to become an Archmage, I cannot be suicidally stupid. Magic is to be respected. Grandfather would be ashamed to have seen me today.
‘Munchworth is a feeble-minded, narcissistic lout. The others who voted against me are lacking discernment, obviously. But there’s no future in telling your nominal superior they are being an ass. It may be true, but people, as a rule, do not cope well with unpleasant truths.’ It wasn’t the first time her sharp, impulsive tongue had gotten her into trouble, but this time had been particularly stupid, and paired with some magic that could have easily killed her.
She set down her pen and made her way downstairs to the kitchen, where Sharon turned with a surprised smile and said, “Oh, Mr. Siverling! I was just fixin’ to come get you. The food’s ready, but I haven’t heard from Mr. Dryden.”
Sebastien ate enough for both herself and Dryden combined while telling the servants about the awe-inspiring University, which none of them had ever visited personally.
By the time the servants went home, Dryden still hadn’t returned, and Sebastien grew a little worried. He was a grown man and could surely take care of himself, but Sharon had said he left in a hurry, which likely meant something was wrong. She hoped whatever it was had nothing to do with her or Ennis.
Sebastien grabbed one of the study books she had bought and worked through it in the kitchen. Before classes started, she planned to read through all of them again, and hopefully a few more besides. She had to catch up to the other students, or Professor Lacer might change his mind.
Dryden stumbled through the door well after dark, exhausted and smeared with what seemed to be ash and blood.
She stood in the door to the kitchen, and he stopped when he saw her. “Mr. Dryden. What happened?” she asked.
“My people are being harassed by a rival organization.” His tone was plain and tired.
He sighed deeply. “You are intelligent, Sebastien. I doubt I need to tell you that Katerin reports to me, as do the people under her. I run an organization, some of whose operations are outside the constraints of the law.”
“I suspected as much.”
He nodded, rubbing his hands over his jaw. Dryden grimaced as he scratched away a spot of blood. “The Morrow gang controlled the majority of southern Gilbratha before I moved here and began my own operation.” He spun around and paced back and forth, waving his hands through the air as he spoke. “My policies are different, more humane, more sustainable. I am trying to create something good here. The people prefer my name, my protection. The Morrows are losing subjects and money, and along with that comes loss of face. They’re trying to drive me away and make the people fear to join me. For the last several months, they’ve been harassing my organization and those under its protection, but tonight…tonight they went too far. They attacked a stall that bore our symbol, injured the worker and his family, and burned his livelihood to the ground. His wife almost died.” He stopped walking, staring down at the blood that had dried in the creases of his hands. He looked up to Sebastien. “Tell me, what would you do in my position? How would you stop this?”
Her first instinct was to tell him to retaliate, to attack the Morrows in retribution. She remembered what she had done earlier, though, and didn’t say the words aloud. Overwhelming power only acted as a deterrent if it was truly overwhelming, and if that was the case, the Morrows likely wouldn’t have attacked Dryden’s people in the first place. Escalation would merely lead to more innocents bearing the cost. Still, he couldn’t simply stand for this, or it would continue till he was crushed. “What about the coppers? Is it not their job to protect the citizens, no matter the symbol on their stalls?”
Dryden snorted. “The coppers find themselves uninterested in arriving in time to help. I got there sooner than they did, from halfway across the city. If my people had relied on the coppers, the woman would be dead.”
She nodded, frowning and staring into the distance as she ran through ideas in her mind.
He waited for her to speak.
Finally, she said, “You must be able to provide the protection you’ve promised. If the coppers won’t do it, you’ll need a force of your own that can act in their stead. I imagine this is illegal. However…if these people had a way to call for your aid directly, and knew that you would arrive both promptly and well-prepared, the coppers might never be summoned at all. It would be best if people in your territory could contact you immediately, as soon as they have a need. Without magic of their own to do so…”
Sebastien absently pulled her Conduit from one of her many pockets and rolled it around her slender fingers. “Perhaps an alarm ward of some sort, one set up in such a way as to alert you immediately to the danger. It would have to provide you their location as well…” She returned her attention to Dryden. “Of course, you would need people trained, supplied, and able to respond immediately.”
He nodded slowly, seeming a little less exhausted than he had before. “I agree. You’re hired. Talk to Katerin about the gold and resources you’ll need to set up the ward, as well as the price for your work. It will be the first piece of your debt, repaid.”
Her eyes widened, and she shook her head rapidly. “Oh, no. I wasn’t… You’ll need someone more skilled than I am to set this up. The ward would need to be expansive and complicated. It needs to be easily accessible to any citizen, easily triggered, link immediately to the alarm that will alert your response force, and contain information about the emergency… I don’t know enough about ward triggers or communication spells to do this properly.”
He hummed thoughtfully. “Speak to Katerin about acquiring books on both subjects. She’s no Master, but she has a few magical connections and some small talent herself, though mostly in alchemy.”
Sebastien remained unconvinced.
He gave her a small smile that was irritatingly smug. “The payment for a project of this size should be thirty to forty gold, and we will give you time to complete it.”
She remembered the blood print vow she’d given, and the chest of borrowed gold, already much depleted. Really, she couldn’t say no. “Alright. I’ll do my best. Forty-five gold.”
Dryden grinned, then stumbled past her and up the stairs. Halfway up, he stopped and turned to her. “Oh! Did you manage to pass the entrance exam?”
She nodded silently. She had nothing to brag about, there.
“Good. I’ll send an escort with you tomorrow when you go to pay the fee. It never hurts to be cautious when large amounts of gold are involved.” He continued on up the stairs without looking back.
Sebastien was left in the foyer, alone. ‘At least I have a chance to learn real magic while working on this project. I wonder how many books on the subject I can convince Katerin to buy me?’