Month 3, Day 13, Saturday 7:10pm
Ana screamed as the spell approached, jerking the decanter of water up in front of her head as if that would save her, but instead just splashing herself in the face.
Damien whipped his wand forward, but Sebastien was in front of him, between Damien and Malcolm. The stunning spell he almost released would have hit Sebastien in the back.
Sebastien stepped forward into the foggy spell, his own wand producing a shimmering shield about a meter in diameter, held at such an angle as to deflect the hostile spell just enough to send it blasting into the wall rather than himself or Damien behind him.
The force of the concussive blast pushed Sebastien’s arm aside and drove him back a step. Malcolm had actually attacked to kill! For some reason, Damien had expected the man to use a more acceptable stunning spell, or maybe a binding spell. Ana was his niece.
Without the slightest change in expression, Sebastien’s fingers twitched over his wand, switching its output, and then shot a bright red, crackling stunning spell.
Malcolm dodged the spell almost contemptuously, the dueling training that all respectable Crown Family members went through on full display in the way he held his cane—more suitable for a wand than such a large artifact—and his nimble footwork. He returned another concussive blast. But Damien had confiscated his normal cane during their meeting with the fake Raven Queen, and Malcolm’s temporary replacement was heavier and more unwieldy. His aim was imperfect, and the spell went wide.
Sebastien didn’t even bother to dodge it, walking forward calmly. “Ana, the fire!” he snapped, still expressionless.
She let out a small, dismayed chirp, and Damien hurried forward to escort Ana across the room so she could douse the fire, putting himself between her and the two fighting men.
Sebastien put up another shield against a concussive blast, this time bracing himself against the magical blow head-on, his platinum hair fluttering back in the wind caused by the magical impact. His free hand slipped into his pocket and whipped out a familiar, slim disk, which he pointed toward Malcolm. Another stunning spell from the wand followed, pointed toward Malcolm’s right foot. Half a second behind, the thirteen-pointed star went black, and then a bright blue spell shot out of it.
Malcolm dodged to his left to avoid the stunning spell, but his eyes widened as he saw he had moved into the path of the mysterious blue follow-up spell. But, alas, he twisted around with impressive alacrity, catching the spell on the metal side of his cane, which flared with its own magic and allowed him to deflect the blue light into the wall behind him, where it disappeared without a trace.
But Sebastien was already following that spell up with another from the disk. This one was purple, and the one that followed a bright, alarming green.
Damien hadn’t even seen him adjust the output, though it might be possible that the different spells were stored in a particular, static order, and Sebastien had no choice of which came next. He’d heard of such “dueling-chains” before.
Malcolm exerted himself to the limit to dodge the consecutive spells, but the next one, a cheery pink, managed to clip his leg as he was still recovering from an impressive spin move. Malcolm’s features contorted into a horrified grimace, but then his face slackened in surprise.
Sebastien had already fired a concussive blast spell from his wand, but whatever had been done to Malcolm’s leg wasn’t enough to stop him from meeting the blast with his own.
The air rumbled like distant thunder under the force of the colliding spells, and wind blasted out in every direction, so powerfully that Damien had to brace lest he be pushed backward into Ana.
Malcolm threw back his head and laughed. “Did you think I wouldn’t notice, boy? That is nothing but a bauble, shooting pretty lights.”
Sebastien grimaced but continued to attack, his hand snapping out to grab a decorative pillow off the back of an armchair and whip it toward Malcolm. Then, moving so quickly Damien could barely keep up, Sebastien shot another stunning spell in the pillow’s path, followed by almost simultaneous releases of a dark blue spell from the light crystal artifact and another stunning spell, with the stunning spell following so closely behind the dark blue spell that they almost overlapped. Then, lowering his wand back to his hip, he switched the output and shot a concussive blast to cap it all off.
Sebastien’s footwork was anything but polished, and he kept his wand held close to his torso and stable rather than outstretched and flashy, but there was something about him that was simply inexorable, each movement bringing him closer and closer to Malcolm.
The first stunning spell caught up with the pillow, exploding it into a cloud of smoking, electrocuted feathers and fine dust. Malcolm sneered at the blue spell, noticing the red crackle hiding at its rear almost too late. He lunged to one side, his knee twisting under him as a low table got in the way of his movement. The stunning spell didn’t hit him, but some of its expanding edges caught the arm that held his cane, sending it into twitching spasms and forcing him to switch the weapon into the other hand. “You’re a clod-heeled fool—” he began to snarl, but was shut up by the arrival of the slightly slower concussive blast, thrusting the smoking feathers toward Malcolm in a wave.
Malcolm slammed his cane against the ground to give himself leverage, but his starting position was too awkward, and the blast took him in the side, throwing him through the air and into a chair near the wall, which tumbled over backward with him in it. He tumbled to his feet, disheveled and wild, his cane rising quite impressively with the momentum to point at Sebastien again. His mouth stretched in a feral grimace, his intent to kill clear and frightening.
But Sebastien was, somehow, only a couple of steps away already. He crouched out of the path of the cane and lunged forward. The light crystal artifact had returned to its place in his pocket, where its light peeked through.
Malcolm tried to drop the cane’s tip, but ended up only hitting Sebastien’s guarding forearm, shooting another concussive blast over Sebastien’s head and into the floor behind him.
Sebastien’s wrist twisted around, his fingers gripping the shaft of the cane and then continuing to twist, even as he head-butted Malcolm right in the abdomen.
The cane was ripped out of Malcolm’s grip just as his breath was driven from his lungs. Malcolm stumbled back, the knee he had twisted earlier almost giving out on him. Still maintaining his sneer, his hand reached into his suit’s inner pocket for a backup weapon.
But Sebastien swung the cane by its end, taking Malcolm across the jaw with the ornate handle hard enough to produce a sickening crack and snap the man’s head to the side.
Malcolm’s knees collapsed from under him.
Sebastien adjusted his grip on the end of the cane, and then struck Malcolm again, this time in the shoulder.
Malcolm screamed then, his jaw hanging strangely.
Sebastien stilled, finally, his wand pointed directly at Malcolm’s face from only a few inches away. He was panting as if he’d just finished one of Professor Fekten’s grueling classes.
Despite his injuries, Malcolm still glared up at him defiantly, his gaze moving from Sebastien’s own to the tip of the wand trained on him.
“I only have concussive blast spells left,” Sebastien said. “Try anything, and I’m sure I can press the trigger before you can get out of the way.”
Malcolm remained still, his eyes moving instead toward Damien and Ana.
Damien let out a shaky breath, realizing his hand was trembling around his outstretched wand.
Behind him, Ana had managed to douse most of the flames and pull the half-charred, partially soaked documents from the fireplace. She had remained crouched on the floor, watching the fight just like Damien. “The coppers will be able to reconstruct the information, surely,” she said, her voice cracking. Her hands were shaking, too, which was somehow a relief, since it meant Damien wasn’t alone. He had thought this would be exciting, but the rush of terror, both for himself and for his friends, was anything but exhilarating.
Damien lowered his wand but kept it clenched tightly in his sweaty palm, feeling slightly sick from the rush of anxiety.
“Damien, help me tie him up and search him,” Sebastien ordered, his eyes never leaving Malcolm. He stepped back a few feet, his wand steady.
Outside, the sound of multiple approaching carriages, some stopping at the front, while some horses clopped around the edge of the mansion toward the side and back entrances, signaled the arrival of the coppers. There was too much commotion for it to have been Lord Gervin alone.
Damien did as Sebastien had ordered, feeling a little safer with each artifact and piece of clothing he stripped off of Malcolm.
They left the man in his underclothes, tied up by his own torn up shirt. His jaw was broken, but Damien still wrapped a sleeve around his mouth to muzzle any attempts at speech.
“The journal?” Sebastien asked urgently.
Ana pulled it out of her pocket, unwrapped it from the wax paper protecting it, and, after a moment’s hesitation, held one end over the small flames toward the back of the fireplace that had survived her dousing. The edges blackened and smoked, and when the pages caught, she quickly snatched it back and used the wax paper to pat out the fire. Then, she stood and walked over to Malcolm, holding the little journal.
She reached out to the older man as he glared up at her spitefully, running her fingers through his hair like a mother might to her child. Then, her fingers clenched into a fist and she yanked.
Malcolm let out a muffled grunt of pain, and she pulled back a dozen or so plucked hairs. Letting the journal, filled with achingly precise handwriting, fall open, she carefully placed a couple of the hairs between the pages. Then she shoved the journal into his face, rubbing its leather surface against his cheek, grinding against his skin and the saliva-soaked gag. She opened the book and rubbed some of the pages against his other cheek. Finally, she walked around behind him, forced his clenched fists open, and pressed his fingers into the surface. “This is overkill, in my opinion,” she said conversationally. “This journal isn’t going to the coppers, after all, and I doubt Father will be so thorough as to have a divination cast on a journal filled with what is obviously your handwriting and a ton of evidence that is independently corroborated elsewhere…but I promised I would follow all the safety measures.”
The coppers were inside now, some of them shouting. Ana stood back up, slipping the journal into her pocket and moving to stare down into her uncle’s face. “You will never belittle, undermine, or spew your cruelty to Natalia or me ever again. You will not make my mother feel somehow inadequate. You will not make my sister cry, or encourage others to do so. You will not scar Alec, physically or emotionally. You will not keep tearing at him until he becomes more and more like you. You will lose the respect and trust you have so meticulously cultivated in my father, and when this is over, I am sure even that idiot Randolph will not stand by your side.”
Multiple sets of loud footsteps spread into the rooms below and started pounding up the stairs.
Ana leaned down to whisper to Malcolm. “Everything that is about to happen to you, all that you will lose, all the indignities and pain you will face, know that it was because of me. And know that there is nothing you can do. If I have any reason to believe this punishment was not sufficient for you to learn your lesson, I will take care of the matter more…permanently.”
The meaning of that threat was obvious, like something an international villain or heinous gang lord would say, but somehow sounded so thrilling coming out of her mouth.
Ana stepped away, the confidence slipping from her shoulders even as huge tears welled up in her eyes and slipped down her cheeks. She reached for Damien and tucked her head into his shoulder, sobbing loudly just as the coppers pressed into the room, their own wands out and sweeping over the four of them.
Sebastien, who had tucked away his wand just in time, stepped back from Malcolm, raising his empty hands to the coppers. He looked to Ana, but she was too busy crying to talk.
“How could you take so long to arrive!?” Damien complained. “Is this the kind of response time the Crown Families can expect?”
The coppers shared several awkward, confused glances, and then a man Damien recognized as Investigator Kuchen, who had been working with Titus on the Raven Queen’s case, stepped forward. “Apologies, my lord. Can you tell us what’s happened here?”
“We’ve apprehended the criminal ourselves,” Damien said, patting Ana on the back as she continued to cry. “Heiress Gervin didn’t want to believe that her uncle could do something so heinous and insisted on confronting him to hear the truth from his own mouth. But when he learned he’d been discovered, he set about trying to destroy the evidence, and then attacked us when we tried to stop him. My friend Sebastien Siverling defeated him in a duel. So, as you can see, we have done your jobs for you, and the criminal is subdued and ready for arrest. Much of the evidence is on the floor in front of the fire, I imagine, half-burned and rather waterlogged. If you show any measure of the competence I know Gilbrathan coppers are capable of, I am sure you will be able to recover any relevant information from it.”
They had more questions, of course, and when Lord Gervin burst in only a few minutes later, pushing forcibly past a couple of the coppers who tried to stall him, the whole explanation had to start from the beginning.
Ana had stopped crying by then, making a show of composing herself again, smoothing down her blouse and tugging at the seams of her trousers.
Lord Gervin was quickly caught up on the situation, his expression darkening with anger and disgust as his younger brother was hauled out of the room.
“We’ll see that he gets the medical attention he requires,” Investigator Kuchen assured Lord Gervin. “The investigation will be thorough and unbiased.”
It was unclear whether this was meant to be a reassurance or a threat, but Lord Gervin nodded. “No less than I would expect.”
The night stretched on for quite a while longer as they were moved into another room and questioned while the coppers searched Malcolm’s office and the rest of the house for evidence. With the adrenaline wearing off, Damien realized how tired the whole thing had made him, but he didn’t deviate from the story they had set up ahead of time, and he was sure Sebastien and Ana were sticking to the story just as closely. They had even practiced this part, after all, with Ana giving them tips about how to seem most believable while Sebastien did his best to trip them up.
Finally, as the hour grew late, Ana’s father stepped in and put an end to the questioning. “My daughter needs rest, and her friends as well, after such a harrowing event. We will comply fully with the investigation into these deeply surprising and saddening crimes carried out by my brothers, but any further questions can be answered later. Please make an appointment beforehand.”
He waited until all of the coppers had filed out of the room, then eyed the three of them silently. “What is this?” he asked, inadvertently repeating the words of his younger brother from earlier that night.
Ana stood up confidently, reaching into her pocket and pulling out the slightly burnt journal. “I pulled this from the fire,” she said, offering it to her father.
“You kept this from the coppers?” Lord Gervin asked, accepting it slowly.
“I flipped through it before they arrived. There are some…sensitive entries. Things I thought you might not want getting out. Specifically, some interesting ideas about the Gervin Family line of succession in the case of your unexpected and early demise.”
Lord Gervin stared at her for a few moments, then down at the journal in his hand.
Out of everything they had done for Operation Defenestration, the journal had taken the longest hours and some of the most meticulous work. It had been written in a hand indistinguishable from Malcolm Gervin’s own, using the sample photographs of the documents from the vault to ensure fidelity. Ana hadn’t touched it with her bare hands until just that night. She had used ink from Malcolm Gervin’s supplier, and the exact same model as his favorite pen. It had a couple of Malcolm’s hairs in it, his fingerprints, and even probably some of his saliva.
Much of the information would be corroborated by the other documents the man had tried to destroy, and from the work the private investigator had done. She had only needed to add a few pieces of false information, hidden among the rest.
“You kept this from the coppers, but not your young friends?” Lord Gervin asked, his eyes resting longer on Sebastien than Damien. “I do not recognize this young man.”
Ana gestured smoothly to Sebastien. “This is Sebastien Siverling, Professor Thaddeus Lacer’s apprentice.”
Sebastien bowed slightly, seeming rather bored, as if he met Crown Family heads all the time. “Well met.”
The man narrowed his eyes. “Hmm. You were the one who assisted the Red Guard in taking down an Aberrant earlier this year? I read about you in the paper,” he said with grudging acceptance. “Always playing the hero, I see,” he added sourly.
Ana ignored that comment. “Damien and Sebastien are both my allies, Father. I had no intention of confronting Uncle Malcolm by myself. I needed trustworthy backup.”
Her father’s eyes narrowed. “I could comment on your choice to confront him at all, daughter. It all seems rather…orchestrated, does it not? If you truly wanted to keep this within the Family, why alert the coppers?”
She returned his gaze unflinchingly. “The private investigator was becoming…unmanageable. He was frightened, both by the evidence of treason, which he was legally obligated to report, and by the involvement of the Raven Queen. He believes she saw his face. I tried to pay him off, enough to leave Gilbratha and live in another city for the rest of his life, but…fear makes people irrational. By the time I learned of what he’d done, alerting the coppers, all I could do was send the message to you and rush here. As for keeping this matter within the Family, as I mentioned, these are my allies, Father.” The emphasis gave the word a different, more political meaning, and Damien saw it when the understanding and suspicion crystallized within Lord Gervin’s eyes.
Ana noticed, too, her voice hardening and tone growing colder. “Besides, Malcolm and Randolph are only branch Family members, and surely soon to be denounced. I am the heir, and I don’t consider myself associated with them. Neither will those who really matter associate me with them. Especially not after tonight, when Malcolm tried to kill me as I confronted him. I’m sure the news will spread.”
Lord Gervin’s hand pressed against the pocket containing the journal. “Rather vicious of you, daughter,” he said, but his tone was approving, a contemplative smile growing on his face. “I see you do not wear those trousers just for show. You have taken down an opponent without leaving any leeway for feminine kindness. Perhaps you are not as weak as your mother.”
Ana gave him one of her sweetest smiles. “I may have a velvet exterior, but I assure you, it hides a core of steel.”
“You are my daughter indeed,” Lord Gervin said, the smile growing larger.
The man was very stupid and extremely blind, Damien thought, for it to have taken something like this for him to realize Ana’s worth. But even as Damien was somewhat disgusted, he couldn’t help but feel a pang in his chest. He doubted there was anything he could do to get his own father to approve of him like that.
He looked to Sebastien, and the other young man slipped him a secretive, wry smile, and the barest hint of a nod.
Damien smoothed back his hair, and then suppressed a smile as he slipped his hand into his pocket. He realized with giddiness that it was done. They had succeeded. He ran his fingers over the smooth crystal of the thirteen-pointed star symbol within. He was part of something larger than himself, doing something as meaningful as it was sometimes difficult. Here, his efforts actually mattered.