Chapter 135 – The Devil in the Details

Siobhan

Month 3, Day 13, Saturday 2:10 a.m.

The enforcers who had come back for her looked from the lingering effects of the magical explosion, to her, and back again silently. There was a long pause.

Then one of them cleared his throat and stepped forward. “Excuse me, my lady. It seems you have no need of our help, but we would be pleased to escort you to a calmer location.”

Siobhan nodded wordlessly, but as they moved to walk away, she remembered Tanya’s strange and unexpected appearance. “Grab her, too,” Siobhan ordered, motioning to the alley where Tanya had been thrown as she attempted to save Siobhan.

She moved to adjust her fake glasses, but discovered that she must have lost them during the night. Her hair was coming out of its bun, and her prosthetic nose felt like it might be a little lopsided.

While no one was looking, she quickly took it off, stuffing it in a pocket and rubbing at any remnants of glue on her skin. It was dark enough that no one would probably notice, but it was more conspicuous to be obviously wearing a disguise than for the nose of someone you barely knew to look slightly smaller than you remembered.

She carefully tightened her bun, making sure that no loose strands of hair escaped. Just in case.

Tanya had a dislocated shoulder and likely a few broken ribs, but she could walk, and so their smaller group shuffled through the streets. They caught up with the main group after a few minutes, and even though she couldn’t see Oliver’s face through his mask, she watched as some of the worry in his shoulders dropped away when he caught sight of her.

They shared a silent nod, and then his attention turned to Tanya. “I was…surprised by your actions this evening. Is this your way of declaring your allegiances?”

Tanya frowned in confusion, peeking for just a moment at Siobhan, then looking back at Oliver.

He waved her forward to come stand beside him.

She complied, but not without another look over her shoulder at Siobhan, uncertainty and fear mixing behind her eyes.

Siobhan wasn’t the best with people, but even she, in her exhausted state, could recognize the conclusion Tanya was coming to. The blue eyes and the grey streak in her bun, along with the lack of feathers, didn’t seem to be enough for someone who had interacted with her directly before. Perhaps Siobhan should have left her prosthetic nose on, after all. But, small mercies, at least Tanya had previously shown a marked lack of aggression toward the Raven Queen.

“I was sent to warn you of the attack,” Tanya murmured, just loudly enough that Siobhan could hear. “I arrived too late, but I did my best to help.”

Siobhan could imagine Oliver’s eyebrows rising underneath his mask. Tanya didn’t seem to be lying, but if that was the case, how had Kiernan known the location of Knave Knoll to send Tanya to them? And who had been behind the attack, if not the Architects of Khronos?

She tried to keep her own expression contained as the two continued to talk, in lower tones that she couldn’t make out. Silvia Nakai really shouldn’t have much of an opinion about these things. At that thought, she looked around for Healer Nidson and moved to walk beside him. “I’m sorry I wasn’t able to help more. I got caught up in everything happening, and then… Well, you know.”

Nidson gave her a long look. “Healing is not the only method of preserving lives. I would say you did quite a lot. Though I was rather miffed to suddenly be without an assistant. If you still have some life in you, I am sure there will be plenty more to do before the night is over.”

Siobhan’s heart clenched tightly at that reminder that the Verdant Stag had been under attack as well, and people there, like Katerin and Theo and even the patronizing shop attendant Alice, might be injured or dead.

When they finally arrived at the Verdant Stag, the signs of the battle were conspicuous, but the active violence seemed to have passed. The fighting had been fierce, and she even noticed a couple of bloodstains frozen on the street. The Verdant Stag itself was still standing, but barely. A section near the kitchen and bar was completely blown away, leaving a gaping wound in the side of the building. Part of the floor had collapsed into the cellar, and a charred wall and support beams showed where a fire had been put out in time to save the whole building from conflagration.

People swarmed over and around the building like ants, and the performance stage, which was in the still-intact part of the building, had been set up as an emergency healer’s station, with the injured lying on rows of cots. Healer Nidson made a beeline in that direction, and she followed.

Those who had been badly affected by the magical parasites took some time to recover, but there seemed to be no long term side effects, and the holes the parasites left in the skin were mitigated with some potions and salves. The cursemaster regained coherence after a few hours of care, and went into a shrill screaming fit, declaring that he held them all at fault for the ordeal he had experienced. He quieted quickly when Katerin marched over and dragged him off by the arm, grim-faced.

Most of the night was a blur, and it wasn’t until the sun began to rise that Siobhan had a moment to sit, which immediately led to her finding an intact room off to the side and collapsing backward against the wall like a puppet with cut strings. She blinked sleepily, watching the busy people outside through the open doorway.

Oliver had been supervising a team that seemed to be trying to excavate the cellar. She’d known the Verdant Stag was probably some rich person’s mansion before it went into disrepair and Oliver bought it, and the wine cellar was proof of that, because the water table was too high in Gilbratha for such a building feature to be common.

Katerin was milling about, but Theo was nowhere to be seen. Siobhan assumed that he was safe, because, while weary, frustrated, and covered in streaks of dirt and blood, Katerin did not appear devastated.

Siobhan was positioned so that the light of the slow sunrise washed over her through the doorway as the sun began to peek over the white cliffs, painting her in shades that felt slightly less exhausted. One of Healer Nidson’s other commandeered assistants bustled over and handed her a mug with the distinct smell of a nourishing draught. She downed the entire pint in a single breath.

The workers had cleared the stairway into the cellar, and Oliver hurried down into the pit. ‘Perhaps he had supplies down there,’ she thought. ‘Though the storehouses must have held most of the goods, it would have been smart to keep the highest-priced items in a more secure location. The vaults in his and Katerin’s office are clear for the world to see. The University must have wanted to retrieve those confessions and vows Oliver made all the Morrows give. It’s probably where he kept the censer. If they got that, they might have taken a lot of other important things, too.’ Perhaps her own blood-print vows with Katerin had even been housed down in the secret cellar vault. The thought sent a jolt of alarm through her, because despite the tamper-proofing on the spell, it wouldn’t be safe in the hands of an expert with a delicate touch. If more than one enemy group had a piece of her, her problems grew even more complicated. And others might not be so lawful in how they used it.

She let her eyes fall almost closed as she waited for the nourishing draught to be absorbed, but she couldn’t entirely relax, half out in the open like this. Before she returned to the University, she would need some bruise paste, and maybe a skin-knitter to get rid of the obvious signs of being in an altercation.

All of her supplies, all the components and artifacts that she’d kept in her bag, her seaweed paper spells—all of it—was gone. She only had the things she’d put in stashes around the city, and the supplies left at the University itself. She would need to rebuild her thaumaturge bag from scratch. ‘How much coin will that take?’ she wondered, tears pricking at the back of her closed eyelids even though she didn’t particularly want to start crying. She didn’t even feel sad, really, just…overwhelmed.

Even though Siobhan’s eyes were almost closed, Katerin’s blood-red hair caught her attention as the other woman came down the stairs from above. Katerin’s gaze swept the room, sliding over Siobhan and then catching and returning to her. She started making her way over, but was stopped several times by Verdant Stag members giving reports or asking for instructions.

What should have taken thirty seconds ended up taking several minutes, and before Katerin could make it to Siobhan, Oliver had completed his inspection of the cellar and whatever else was down there, and climbed back up. Pale dust had created a film over his dark hair, but his shoulders had lost their tightness, and she suspected that, under the mask, he was smiling.

He hurried toward Katerin, too, stopping her a few meters from the room Siobhan had collapsed in. He looked Siobhan over, perhaps not catching the fact that she was still awake because her eyes were so narrowly slitted. He spoke in a soft voice, leaning in to Katerin. “They got the decoy vault,” he reported. “It’s entirely gone, ripped up by the roots and carried away, but they didn’t manage to find the folded space. None of the contracts, or—or the other thing. You cannot crack or steal a safe that you do not know is there. That particular investment has proven its worth ten times over.”

Katerin hugged herself, her hands gripping her elbows with a kind of half-suppressed vulnerability that seemed out of place on the normally confident woman. “Good, that’s good. They got the gold vault in my office, but not the one hidden behind the wall. I don’t think that’s what they were going for, anyway.”

“No. They knew exactly what they wanted. Unfortunately for them, the true treasure remains safe,” he said, venomous glee clear in his voice. “If only they knew how futile all their efforts have been.”

They both turned to Siobhan then, and she opened her eyes fully as Oliver closed the door behind himself and Katerin and took off his mask, then sat down gently beside her.

“I’m fine,” she reported before either of them could ask. “I’ll need some rest, but I’ve got the weekend to recover. What of my blood print vow? Did they get that?”

“No, it is safe,” Katerin answered. “I take the security of the vows I make seriously. After all, my blood is on them, too. They found naught but some gold and other valuables, along with some decoy documents that have little importance, or are entirely fabricated.”

“You were prepared,” Siobhan said.

“Not as well as we should have been, obviously,” Oliver said, taking her hand and holding it between both of his own. “I do have some bad news to report.” His expression had sobered completely. “I have to apologize, because at least part of tonight’s fracas was my fault. That censer that the Architects of Khronos offered as tribute, I had it checked for tracking spells, and they found one in the packaging. Which was discarded, of course. But I didn’t consider the fact that the piece itself might be inherently trackable. One of a matched pair, made from the same batch of metal. They must have traced it back to the Verdant Stag, and were probably hoping the Raven Queen was keeping it in the same place she kept the stolen book. They never intended to deal fairly with either of us. Tonight’s attack on Knave Knoll served dual purposes, as they used it as a distraction to try to find the book. Of course, it wasn’t there, but they did manage to retrieve their censer. I will still compensate you for seventy percent of its approximate value. And hazard pay, for your actions tonight.”

“I need you to cover the cost of restocking my supplies, too,” she urged, tensing up a little. “I had to blow up my bag and everything in it to kill that old sorcerer. It should be considered an operational expense.”

“Okay.”

She relaxed. That had been easier than she expected. “What does this mean, for all of us? I warn you, I am done accepting missions like this for you. Never again, Oliver.”

“I understand. Things are going to become…contentious, I imagine. Even after all their attempts to stymie our delivery of the prisoners, I believe they will all have been arrested by now, though it is possible that some managed to avoid being poisoned by those glowing bugs and slipped away from the remains of Knave Knoll before the coppers were able to round them all up. Luckily, we got the simulacrums anchoring the curse seals out safely. I will still be stretched thin doing damage control over the next few days. I am not sure it’s possible, but it would be ideal if we could avoid local law enforcement deciding that the Stags were at fault for making the city seem so unsafe. Luckily, I have a few more connections than I did the last time we faced something like this, and very few civilians have been impacted. On the other hand, the kind of destruction that was caused tonight is very visibly…frightening.”

Oliver rubbed his bloodshot eyes, pressing a little too hard. “Unless you wish to get more directly involved in our efforts to rebuild and maintain the right kind of influence, you should keep your head down for the moment. Don’t give Kiernan or his people any reason to look twice at Sebastien Siverling. I will give you an update when I have a more complete understanding of our situation going forward, or if there are any emergencies that could affect you.” He fell silent, sagging with discouragement for a moment, and then one side of his mouth quirked up. “Also, that textile sub-commission would be a really nice break right about now, if you could swing it.” He gave her a pointed wink.

“Soon,” she promised, though at that very moment she was too drained to be excited about the prospect. “Is it safe for you to be hanging around like this? As Lord Stag, I mean. The coppers might drop by at any time.”

Katerin crossed her arms. “Hah! I’d like to see any of those fools actually manage to reach this building without our knowledge.”

“We have already sent the coppers a few Stags to make a statement about what happened from our point of view. I imagine they’re quite busy elsewhere, but when they do make their way here, anyone who lives or works nearby knows there’s a small reward for advance notice of such things, and we have a couple of reliable informants placed around the area, too. If the coppers still managed to surprise us, I would just change clothes and slip out of the secret tunnel exit I had built last month.” Oliver winked. “Oliver Dryden has made several public appearances around members of the Crowns and prominent businessmen at the same time that Lord Stag has been sighted elsewhere. They might suspect me of something, but not of being Lord Stag. The ruse probably won’t hold forever, but it is hard to overcome the assumptions that such ‘knowledge’ creates.”

“A body double?” Siobhan mused. “That’s pretty clever.”

When Siobhan felt well enough to move, she left, but not before borrowing a self-defense artifact from the Verdant Stag’s dwindling stores, just in case. The battle wand she got was quite nice, containing a set of stunning, shielding, and concussive blast spells.

Instead of going to the Silk Door from there, she borrowed some ill-fitting clothes and went to another nearby inn, where she changed back into Sebastien’s form and did some basic washing up to make herself look presentable. Then, hidden inside a cloak with a deep hood, she hired a carriage to take her to Dryden Manor, where she kept a better-fitting set of clothes. She had been coming and going from the Silk Door quite a lot lately, and wanted to avoid drawing attention to it, just in case someone from the University was watching everyone who came to or from the Verdant Stag.

As she arrived back at Dryden Manor, where the servants rushed around to get her fed, watered, and into bed under Sharon’s command, Sebastien thought back over the events of that night, specifically the Architects’ attack on the Stags’ home base.

The vault in the cellar, or perhaps connected to the cellar through some hidden passage, had captured Sebastien’s imagination. She’d always loved hidden compartments and secret rooms. The hidden dagger in her boot had even come in handy earlier that day, not to mention the effects of the concealed disintegration mine during the battle.

But something was niggling at the back of her mind. The Architects of Khronos had taken an entire vault—and apparently her censer—but didn’t get what they were looking for. Which made sense, if they thought the censer would be with the stolen book. But the way Oliver had told Katerin, so confidently, so vindictively…

I’m confused,’ she realized. ‘I notice that I am confused,’ she repeated, grasping onto the notion like Professor Lacer had been so adamant was necessary for any great thaumaturge. But despite realizing that, and mulling the matter over in her mind for a few minutes as she rubbed in bruise balm and skin-knitting salve and set up her dreamless sleep spell, she came to no further conclusions. ‘I’ll ask Oliver about it when I see him again,’ she resolved, letting her exhausted and much-abused brain slip into unconsciousness.

This is the regularly scheduled Thursday chapter. You guys still have 4 more bonus chapters coming!

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