Month 3, Day 13, Saturday 7:00pm
Damien fidgeted impatiently, checking his pocket watch, and then looking out of Ana’s carriage window for the dozenth time in the last fifteen minutes, searching for signs of Sebastien. He was worried, both because Sebastien was late for the final phase of Operation Defenestration and because there had been more fighting in the city the night before, and Damien suspected that Sebastien had never returned to the dorm after leaving early Friday evening. Sebastien might have been involved in it somehow, and it was possible that he had not returned because he was injured or even dead.
But no, that couldn’t be. Sebastien was so terribly competent. He wouldn’t die. Especially not without any warning, leaving Damien so oblivious to his fate. It wouldn’t be like what happened with Newton. Damien ran his hand over the bracelets hidden under his sleeve surreptitiously. None of their pewter beads had grown cold with alarm. Surely, if something were wrong, Sebastien would have alerted him?
A hired carriage approached down the well-lit street, its single old horse and lack of livery or lacquered polish standing out in this neighborhood. Of course, Sebastien climbed out of it, carrying a heavy box. “I apologize for my tardiness. I was on a shopping excursion and lost track of time, and then security had to stop and check my carriage before they let me into the Lilies.” There was something darkly amused about his tone.
“You are forgiven, I suppose,” Ana said, smoothing out the pleats in her high-collared blouse. She’d been fidgeting from nervousness almost as much as Damien, but now seemed calm and collected, except for that small tell. “We will need to proceed quickly. I sent the runners with the messages to the coppers and my father already, so the timing is tight. If all goes well, both parties will arrive at approximately the same time, and it will be much too late to recover the situation.”
“You’re prepared to improvise if need be, though, right?” Sebastien asked. “We don’t know exactly how Malcolm might respond, and things could change wildly depending on whether your father or the coppers arrive first. We have to strike a killing blow tonight—metaphorically—or we face possible retaliation.”
Damien thought that if it were possible, and he weren’t worried for Ana’s safety, Sebastien might have avoided being present tonight at all. For someone so competent, who cared enough about proactively improving the world that he joined a secret organization to do so, Sebastien could be very averse to risk.
“I am extremely prepared,” Ana said. “And if need be, improvisation has never been a weakness of mine.”
They arrived at the front door shortly, and Ana took the lead, stepping forward to loudly tap the knocker while Sebastien and Damien stood silently a few feet behind her. This was her show. They were there only as backup.
As soon as the doorman opened the way, the three of them pushed past the confused, older servant. “Where is Uncle Malcolm?” Ana demanded, looking around imperiously.
“Err, Master Gervin is currently retired to his quarters, preparing for a visit to a friend this evening. May I take your coat, my lady? I will tell him you have arrived, though, if I may ask, what is the purpose of your visit? Did you and your friends wish to take dinner here? Or is there some emergency?”
Ana tugged off her gloves, but waved off the man’s attempt to take her jacket. “Tell Malcolm that I am here and that I need to speak with him urgently. If he does not arrive within sixty seconds, I will start expressing my displeasure on the surroundings.”
The servant paled, obviously remembering the last time Ana had visited. “Won’t you go into the drawing room? I will fetch Master Gervin immediately.”
“I will wait here while you fetch Mister Gervin. Tarry further and face my wrath.” Ana loosened her fingers one by one, allowing her gloves to drop dramatically to the floor.
The man paled further, if that was possible, and walked off with indecorous urgency, on the very edge of breaking into a run. He passed another servant on the way, snapping at them as he did so to watch over Lady Anastasia and her companions.
Damien’s heart was beating hard enough to flush his cheeks and leave his armpits and the palms of his hands damp.
While Ana’s expression was confident to the point of arrogance, her eyes roving around the entranceway with judgmental disdain, the signs of anxiety were clear in the way she held her hands still to keep them from fidgeting with her clothing.
Only Sebastien seemed unfazed, his eyes dark and intent, obviously aware of every movement of the servant and the details of their surroundings, his back to the wall and ready for danger. But not even a hint of fear showed in his expression or body language. If Damien didn’t know better, he would say Sebastien was bored. But that was impossible, right? Sebastien was such a worrywart that he demanded two dozen backup plans for anything that could possibly go wrong. He had more experience with dangerous situations than Damien, probably, but not so much that a situation like this was commonplace, surely? Maybe he just felt that with all their planning and his own prowess, the entire situation was within his grasp, under his control.
That…made sense. Suddenly, it felt a little surreal, to realize that Damien and two of his friends, barely into adulthood and with nothing but their own limited power and a bit of ingenuity, were going to take down a pair of unworthy Crown Family members. A ragtag trio of friends, acting in the shadows to control the politics of the most powerful country in the West… He shuddered, not with fear or disgust but with an embarrassingly visceral pleasure. Trying to control his expression, he surreptitiously wiped off his sweaty hands before checking his pocket watch. “Time’s up,” Damien announced.
Ana turned to a vase standing on a pedestal against the wall. The delicate porcelain was as tall as her torso, painted with exquisite designs from the East, hundreds of years old, and probably worth at least a few hundred gold. She picked it up, and then, with a heave, hurled it across the room to shatter against the wall.
The servant who had been fluttering around nervously at the behest of the doorman, asking if they wanted tea or some such nonsense, gasped aloud, the sound long and drawn out, clear in the ensuing silence.
“Cease your tantrums immediately!” Malcolm Gervin roared from the hallway at the top of the double staircase, his cane tapping against the floor in rhythm with his footsteps as he strode angrily toward them.
Ana turned to watch the man come down the stairs, her chin raised with a defiant contempt that reminded Damien of Sebastien. “What right do you have to chastise me, Uncle, when your own hands are so terribly filthy?” she asked coldly, her voice carrying over the marble floors, loud enough to reach, loud enough for the servants to hear and do what servants did best—gossip.
Sebastien hadn’t moved, but was watching Malcolm Gervin with hawk-like focus, ready to react to a foolish move on the man’s part. One hand rested in his jacket pocket, casually threatening.
“What nonsense are you yapping about, girl?” Malcolm asked, his eyes roving over the three of them, and then settling angrily on the shards of porcelain scattered across the floor near the stairs.
“Collusion with the Raven Queen,” Ana announced, wasting no time at getting to the point. “Treason.”
Several quickly muted gasps came from the surrounding rooms.
The accusation drew Malcolm’s attention away from the shattered vase and back to Ana. “Are you daft? I would never do something so foolish.”
“I should be asking you that. Are you daft?” Ana sighed deeply, crossing her arms over her chest and turning her back to Malcolm. She took a few steps toward Sebastien, whose eyes never left the man, ready to protect Ana from any sudden movement. “I noticed that you were acting…strangely, Uncle. There were some rumors that you had gotten yourself in trouble with one of the businesses. I thought maybe gambling, unlikely though it might seem. So I had you followed. I hired a private investigator.” She spun on her heel, turning back to Malcolm and walking again in his direction.
He was no fool, and had realized something was wrong. “What is this?” he asked, but his voice was quieter—less bluster and more suspicion.
“Imagine my surprise when my private investigator found you meeting with the Raven Queen herself, attempting to make a trade with her. Did you know, Uncle, that the Raven Queen’s father agreed to a marriage between her and one of the sons of the Gervin branch line?”
Malcolm drew himself up imperiously. “You know not of what you speak, girl. That agreement was made merely in an attempt to capture her. If we had been successful in luring her, we would have obviously turned her in to the authorities at once.”
Ana crossed her arms, —dipping her head in acknowledgment. “Perhaps. But then, it seems strange that you went to meet with her in person to make a very valuable trade, without alerting the coppers or any other authorities. You were seen, Uncle. You were recognized.”
Malcolm swallowed, the grip around his cane tightening. “It is a misunderstanding. We were contacted and told to come alone, but we—we hired backup and attempted to catch her. We were not colluding with her, simply taking advantage of an opportunity to bring honor to our family and safety to the city. She offered the stolen book in exchange for her father’s ring. If we could successfully pull off the capture, we would get both. Even if we failed, if the trade went well, we would have the book. Through no fault of our own, we were unsuccessful, but it was not collusion, nor ‘treason.’” He tried to scoff, but he was too tense to seem believable.
Ana reached into the wide inner pocket of her long jacket, pulling out a folder. “That is an interesting rendition of events. Interesting, as well, that my private investigator was able to find information suggesting that the attackers were not, in fact, affiliated with you at all, but a third party who wished to capture the Raven Queen for themselves when they got word of your meeting due to your frankly incompetent security and lackluster secrecy measures.”
Damien glanced to Sebastien, whose expression didn’t waver at this. The private investigator had found no such thing, but Sebastien had assured them that such testimony could be provided from hearsay, second and third-hand statements from those who supposedly knew the attackers. Attackers who, Damien was almost entirely sure, were other members of their secret order.
Malcolm remained silent, perhaps wisely.
Ana opened the folder, revealing the photographs. Damien didn’t look, taking his cue from Sebastien and remaining alert for danger. He knew what they depicted. The photographs were taken from above, a little grainy, but from close enough to make out what was happening. A shot of Malcolm and Randolph being searched by a masked figure, their faces clear. A shot of them meeting in the middle of that condemned building, clearly reaching out to trade something with an imposing creature of dark clouds and black feathers that could only be the Raven Queen, and finally, the meeting breaking up under spell-fire, with the two brothers escaping most pitifully.
Malcolm’s pallor began to redden with anger.
“What do you think, Uncle? Quite incriminating, is it not? Especially because you didn’t come forward when the coppers were investigating this incident. And because, I believe, you have the ring that the Raven Queen so desires up in your vault. I did some more digging after that, to figure out why you would be so desperate as to make such a risky trade.” She flipped the pages, displaying a short list of business names next to monetary figures. “This is what you and Randolph have been embezzling from the Family coffers, funds that rightfully belong to my Lord Father. And I have several reports of other crimes, including eyewitness accounts. So I must ask, Uncle. Did the Raven Queen bribe you into that meeting, or blackmail you?”
Malcolm’s face grew even redder, a vein throbbing visibly at his temple. “What do you think you are doing, you child? Why did you and your little friends come here tonight? Do you think you will blackmail me with this? Do you think that I would ever let myself be crushed under your heel?”
Ana closed the folder and took a step back, ignoring the way Malcolm’s hand twitched toward it as it was drawn away. “No, Malcolm,” she said with false kindness. “I have no intention of blackmailing you. It is much too late for that.”
And for the first time, Malcolm realized the gravity of what he was dealing with. How he had taken so long to guess it, Damien did not know. “What have you done, Anastasia?” Malcolm whispered.
“I have sent a copy of all the information my private investigator collected to the coppers…and to Father. They will be here shortly, and I’m sure they will find all the further evidence they need within your vault. I’ve heard that you made some security upgrades recently? But don’t worry, I doubt that will stymie the coppers for long. Not with this case being linked to the Raven Queen. If you’re lucky, and pay a lot of people off, you might be able to keep the scandal out of the papers. But probably not.”
A heavy second of silence passed, and then another, and another.
Ana was the one to break it, wearing her gentle, ladylike, fake smile. “Even if you could weather the scandal, Father does so hate incompetence. Better to have committed a crime and gotten away with it, than to have been caught.”
Malcolm raised his hand to hit Ana, and both Damien and Sebastien surged forward, wands out and pointed threateningly at the man.
Malcolm’s hand stopped in mid-air, glaring at all three of them with such bile that they might have been burned by it if he were a free-caster. “Get out,” he said bitingly. Turning to one of the doors, through which the doorman had disappeared, he yelled, “Remove these traitorous cretins from my house at once! Feel free to use force, if necessary.” With that, he backed up a few steps, his cane held up as if to ward them off, then turned and hurried back up the stairs toward his office.
A few of the servants approached to try and get Damien and his companions to leave.
“I would advise you all to think twice,” Ana said, eyeing each of the approaching servants. “By this time tomorrow night, Malcolm Gervin may no longer have a place in the fourth Crown Family. Of which, might I remind you, I am the heir. To make it exceedingly clear, your jobs are on the line.”
A couple of the servants hesitated, which caused a cascading effect of further hesitation.
“The coppers and my father will be here within minutes,” Ana said. “Please gather all household staff in the ballroom and prepare for questioning. If you are open and honest, it may improve your chances of retaining your position.” She didn’t give them the opportunity to consider further, pushing through and past them to follow Malcolm up the stairs. Every movement of her body and nuance of her expression indicated she had no doubt she would be obeyed.
That, more than anything, caused them to part for her, though Sebastien eyed them all grimly as they passed in Ana’s wake, ready to strike.
Malcolm had locked the door to his office and no doubt activated the emergency wards, but the room wasn’t designed to be protected from enemies already inside the house. He had made the oversight of believing the wards around the manor wall would protect against such things. Within, he was making quite a bit of frantic noise, tossing things about.
“Can you unlock it?” Ana asked.
“Step back,” Sebastien ordered. “Quicker just to take the whole thing down.” The first concussive blast cracked the door and ripped some of the reinforcements from the walls on either side.
It also blew Damien’s hair back and peppered him with chunks of wood and plaster. He stepped away, smoothing his hair and shaking debris from his clothing as Sebastien loosed the second blast.
The door fell inward in a cloud of dust, hitting the floor with a heavy thud.
Sebastien walked into the room, stepping atop the fallen door with his wand out. “Stop.”
Malcolm froze, one hand holding a folder of papers outstretched toward the fireplace, where other folders and a ledger were already burning.
Ana hurried past Sebastien toward the drink table against the wall, which held not only an assortment of alcohol, but water and fresh ice.
Malcolm unfroze, tossing the folder into the fire even as his other hand lifted his cane at them, which shot out a foggy, quickly-expanding spell.
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