Month 10, Day 25, Sunday 9:00 a.m.
Over a week later, Siobhan found herself once again in her female form, doing something illegal. Having said that, she was doing it in broad daylight, accompanied by helpers and bodyguards, and none of the curious citizens who passed seemed to hold the slightest fear toward her, so it didn’t feel quite the same.
Katerin had taken her into one of the back rooms of the Verdant Stag and used the alchemy set-up there to turn a thick lock of Siobhan’s hair white. “The powerful female sorcerer everyone is looking for does not have a streak of grey in her hair,” the woman said, ignoring Siobhan’s disgruntled pout as she ran the bleaching solution through the strands. “When people see the grey, it’s what they will notice most about you, because it stands out. That, along with a change from those raggedy clothes you were wearing and a few other tweaks, and even if people recognize the resemblance, as long as you act confident and forthright, as if you’ve nothing to be afraid of, they will assume you truly do have nothing to be afraid of. People will convince themselves of the simplest solution to their confusion. Lead them in the right direction, and nine times out of ten you have won.”
Siobhan once again wore the black and red suit that Dryden had given her, this time without the dramatic cloak. Her now mostly black hair was bound up into a bun so high and tight it gave her a headache, she wore horn-rimmed glasses that looked like they had been taken from the desk of a school-teacher, and the Verdant Stag gang symbol—the same one on the signpost of the inn from where Katerin and Dryden based most of their operations—was proudly displayed on the bright green cloth tied around her bicep.
Theo, the copper-haired boy who had thought she was disguised as a homeless person when they first met, gave her transformation a serious once-over when she emerged into the inn’s common room, then gave her a big grin and two thumbs up.
She squinted at the boy, pushing the glasses up her nose. ‘Does he know who I am? Last time, I met him as Sebastien. Perhaps he heard something from Katerin or Dryden. Or perhaps he’s this friendly to everyone.’
Theo bounced up to her and immediately proved her wrong, sweeping into a comically deep bow with a flourish like a performer. “Hello, Sorceress. I heard all about your escape from the University. Everyone’s been talking about it, you know, even more than Big Bjornson getting drunk and running right through the wall of the inn and into the river.”
Katerin slapped her hand to her face and drug it downward. “Theo. How?” Her voice sounded as if she were in physical pain.
He looked up at her, eyes wide and innocent. “It was obvious.”
Siobhan looked down at herself. “I cannot go out in public, if that’s the case. Perhaps you should whiten the rest of my hair as well.”
Theo shrugged. “You’ll probably be fine like you are. Not everyone seems to think, you know? Plus they don’t know that Katerin and Mr. Oliver were looking for you after your amazing adventure. Plus, everyone is expecting you to look much more…” He trailed off, looking embarrassed. “Interesting,” he finished, his voice much lower.
Katerin sighed deeply. “Have you finished your chores, Theo?” she asked, her tone threatening to lose its patience.
The boy’s eyes widened comically, and he scampered off without answering.
“He is certainly…observant,” Siobhan said.
“I cannot keep anything from him, even when I dearly wish to do so. Some things that go on around here aren’t fit for a little boy to know about.” She shook her head after the child. “Even if someone does recognize you, we have even odds on them refusing to tell the coppers. The Crowns and their agents are not well-loved this far south, where both money and good-will are in short supply. If there is trouble, all you need do is run. We’ve more than a few escape routes planned through this city for our own people, and you’re one of us now, yes?” She looked at the bright green antlers painted on the band around Siobhan’s arm.
“Truly? The bounty on my capture is one hundred gold crowns. I’d think that would overcome any dislike for the coppers.”
Katerin smirked. “One hundred gold is not enough to purchase your life back from the Verdant Stag once they have placed a kill order on your head. It wouldn’t be worth it.”
Siobhan narrowed her eyes. “A kill order? You seem to be going to great lengths for a single untrained sorcerer.” ‘Perhaps you’re trying to get me caught, for some reason. But how would that actually benefit you, especially as it would connect me to you?’ This unspoken thought sparked another idea. “Perhaps that actually is the point. You wish to show off your connection to a seemingly powerful sorceress, to those clever enough to notice my true identity?”
Katerin shrugged. “Magic is useful, Siobhan. It’s also a coveted and limited resource, especially when you’re working outside the purview of the Crowns. Oliver judged the safety of his people more important than the slight chance of you being recognized and reported, with an even smaller chance that you would be captured, even then. We’re not being reckless. We’re…” She sighed.
‘Desperate,’ Siobhan finished silently. She reluctantly agreed to the plan, though she insisted on learning all the escape routes so she would be prepared.
Despite her misgivings, it seemed to work. She received her fair share of stares from the citizens in the Verdant Stag’s territory, but since she was accompanied by the red-haired woman and a few other members of what Dryden called an “organization” and Siobhan called a “gang,” no one seemed hostile or even overly suspicious. After the first uneventful day, she stopped expecting a group of coppers to come charging up the street to arrest her.
In fact, she was more disturbed by the filth of the city’s slums than the people. The Verdant Stag itself was a little more than halfway to the south of the city, where the informally named Mires began. The Stag territory stretched into the poorer areas, where people couldn’t afford things like the waste-removing toilets like Dryden had, and even the occasional street cleaner simply dumped the sewage into the closest canal. Human waste lined the streets of the Mires in a sticky, reeking sludge that sucked at the boots like swamp mud. Despite her best efforts, it was impossible to stay entirely clean, and it seemed like the miasma coated the air thick enough to taste it.
She had seen poverty and uncleanliness before, always worse in the cities, but never like this, where the people were packed so tightly together. She doubted many coppers would be patrolling the area unless forced to.
“We’re working on the waste removal,” Katerin said. “It’s a big project, and we’ve had more success in some areas than others.”
With the obvious poverty, Siobhan was surprised to see that some of the shoddy buildings had foundations of stone, and sometimes walls, too. It became a little more common the further south they went. Where it was clean, it was almost white. ‘They must have taken stone from the sunken, broken southern area of the wall to build with. That probably had a lot to do with why it’s so deteriorated now.’ The Mires spilled well beyond what would have once been the confines of the city, with no more than a few scattered sections of what had once been white cliffs still remaining in their midst.
Siobhan had gone through a couple of different iterations of the plan for the wards, and finally settled on something simple enough that she could actually implement it, which would hopefully still be effective.
Wards were really just another type of artificery, but because they were so complex a subject on their own, and often implemented differently than other artifacts, they were often categorized as their own sub-craft of magic.
She would have loved to give all of Dryden’s “subjects” a token they could carry on their person and break in an emergency, something that would relay where they were and what was wrong, but she didn’t have the skill to do that, especially not en masse.
Instead, she had counted every street corner within the Verdant Stag’s territory and requested twice that number of bright green banners. The area under Dryden’s control wasn’t as large as she had imagined, only a few dozen square blocks.
Each pair of banners was stamped with a specific location. One would go on the actual street corner, and its pair would hang on the wall of one of the inn’s back rooms, where someone would be on duty at all times.
The banners were attached by a metal ring to a sturdy, waterproof base, which she screwed into the side of buildings or attached to the streetlamps, where there were streetlamps. When the banner was ripped away from the base, the Circle and spell array she had drawn inside the base would activate, dropping the corresponding banner in the inn and setting off the attached bell.
This method easily relayed where the alarm had been set off, but not what the emergency was. She wasn’t sure what to do about that, but Dryden said he would have his emergency response team ready for as wide a range of scenarios as he could.
She’d considered having different-colored flags for different types of emergencies, but he’d vetoed that. “In the dark, panicked and possibly injured, you cannot expect people to be able to remember and accurately pull the right color. One single flag is better.”
She had spent days studying and designing the spell, and then almost a week creating the dozens and dozens of linked alarms, which had to be tested one by one. The most difficult thing was making sure they would continue to work with minimal maintenance, which was easiest when the Sacrifices were high quality, the Will of the caster was strong, and the Word of the Circle’s array was efficient. She was as confident in their quality as she could be.
Now, they were traveling slowly around Dryden’s section of Gilbratha, setting them up one by one and explaining to everyone they saw what they were doing.
They immediately had to deal with more than a few pranks and test triggers of the alarms, but Siobhan figured that wasn’t her problem.
It surprised her how well-liked Dryden’s people were. Many of the locals who passed by greeted them, and some even stopped to chat.
An older woman complained to Katerin about her grandson being accosted by the coppers, and Katerin sympathized with her grumbling. “Maybe one day, things will change,” she said, smiling gently.
The grandmother sniffed disdainfully. “If so, the Crowns got nothin’ to do with it. I’ve lived in this city since I was a girl, and I tell you, it’s only gettin’ worse. I keep tellin’ him not to go up in them rich districts, but there’s no work here, so what’s a lad to do?”
Katerin laid an arm on the woman’s shoulder. “Tell him to come by the Verdant Stag. The big boss has some plans, and it will mean jobs. Honest jobs. I cannot promise your grandson a spot, but if he’s hired for this, he wouldn’t need to put himself in danger.”
The grandmother gave her heartfelt thanks before shuffling on her way.
A group of men pulled Katerin into discussion about the latest play the inn had put on, sharing ribald jokes about the lead actress that made Katerin roll her eyes.
A mother in worn, sweat-stained clothes shuffled up to Katerin and pulled her aside, speaking in a low voice that Siobhan unashamedly struggled to overhear. The woman’s son had been sick with a fever for days, and that morning she had been unable to wake him.
Katerin said, “The Stag has fever-reducing balms and a revivifying potion. Go to the third floor, the first door on your left.”
“How much? I tried to go to the apothecary, but I couldn’t afford what they had. Two gold for the fever reducer! That was for the potion. The balm was even more expensive. My John has been struggling to find work, you know, and…”
Katerin waved her to silence. “Six silver for the fever balm, and a gold for the revivifying potion. If the balm doesn’t settle it with one jar, come back and the second will be half off. You can tell Alice I said so.”
The mother’s voice grew rough, and she blinked back tears. “Do you sell half doses of the revivifier?”
Siobhan spoke before Katerin could respond. “Landrum’s nourishing draught might see him through it, if he’s not too far gone. A sustaining potion for dysentery patients could also work, if you double the normal amount of water. He likely needs large doses of liquids, anyway. The nourishing draught would be better, if the Stag has it in Landrum’s recipe. Both should be cheaper than the revivifier. If your son doesn’t recover by the time you’ve gone through the whole nourishing draught, I would recommend a healer, as it’s likely a sign that something worse is wrong with him.”
Both women had turned to stare at her.
Siobhan turned away from the bright green flag she’d just finished affixing to the side of the building to meet their gazes. “Also, be sure to boil the water before diluting the potion.”
The mother looked to Katerin for confirmation.
Katerin’s eyebrows were raised, but she nodded. “That should work. We do have the malnutrition nourishing potion. Revivifier and the nourishing potion together would probably be best.” She gently touched the woman’s arm. “Small loans are also available, if you need one.”
The woman bowed to both of them in thanks and hurried off toward the Verdant Stag.
Siobhan frowned. “A fever potion’s ingredients should only cost three silver, even at Gilbratha’s prices. The licensed shops sell them for two gold?”
“Magic means a markup. If you need an item or a spell you cannot achieve yourself, you have no choice but to pay more for it. The licensed shops pay three-tenths in taxes for all magical goods and services. Plus, there has been a shortage on certain supplies within the city, so prices rise. For the poorest, necessary items like healing potions are simply unaffordable. That’s why we produce our own and sell them as needed to individuals, only slightly above cost. One of Oliver’s ideas, and I tell you, I thought it was foolish at first to let gold slip away like that, but when I saw how many people need what we provide and have no way to get it elsewhere, I changed my mind. The Crowns don’t care, so we have to.”
Siobhan looked at those who wore the green antlers of the gang slightly differently after that. ‘That woman’s son may have died of fever without what Katerin offered her. And yet, for selling magical items without a license to do so, Katerin and the others would all be arrested.’ Katerin still held Siobhan’s blood print and a debt of more gold than most families made in two years over her, but some of the wariness Siobhan had been holding toward her slipped away.
“Does ‘at cost,’ include paying for the alchemist’s time?”
“Yes, though sometimes I make a batch or two of something myself, and I don’t charge the Stag for my time. I find it relaxing.”
Siobhan nodded thoughtfully, affixing yet another bright green banner to the edge of a building. “I know how to create a variety of healing potions, salves, and tinctures, and I can follow a recipe for anything I don’t already know. Perhaps you need another brewer?”
Katerin smiled, but nodded without looking at her. “I just might be. I will give you a list of what we need most, along with the prices we pay. Of course, all payments will go towards your debt, so you’ll not see a single coin.”
Siobhan caught the amusement in the other woman’s voice and resisted the urge to send a sharp gust of wind into her back.
Some parts of Oliver’s territory were elevated enough to see out across the Charybdis Gulf, which divided Gilbratha main from the Lilies, the wealthiest part of the city. The Lilies occupied the deep stretch of beach below the arc of the white cliffs where the Crowns lived. A huge spell dome kept the waves and the storms from washing the community away.
As she attached yet another banner to a streetlamp missing its crystal, she thought of the poverty she saw around her, contrasted with the faint music she could hear carried over the water from the Lilies, and their gardens of color she could see even from this distance.
When the day’s work was done, their group returned to the Verdant Stag to eat. The food wasn’t as luxurious as what Sharon prepared at Dryden Manor, but it was honestly priced and filling enough.
She sat at a table with Katerin and Mr. Huntley, who hadn’t offered his first name when they met and whose eyes never quite stopped moving. She was pretty sure he was carrying more than one battle wand underneath his suit’s outer jacket.
In fact, she suspected that most of the group sent to help them set up the banners carried similar artifacts, making them a group of battle magicians, though they were likely not thaumaturges themselves. The fact that they wore no obvious token of graduation from the University didn’t bother her. Rather, the protection they signified helped reassure her. None of them had flaunted what they were or the spellpower they controlled, even when a brawl had erupted in a bar near where they worked and they had been forced to intervene. ‘Likely, that means they’re competent.’
Dryden spoke a few sentences to the barmaid as she took his order, and Siobhan noticed how he applied his charm despite the woman’s lack of power or influence. He focused his attention so fully on her she must have felt herself to be the most interesting person in the world. It was not quite flirting, yet the barmaid left with a small bounce in her step and a smile that remained on her face for a long while afterward. When she brought ale to the table, Dryden’s mug was free.
‘Perhaps his ideas about people aren’t so silly. Still, I would have a hard time acting like that all the time.’ Siobhan was well aware that she had trouble keeping her sharp tongue from cutting others.
Her thoughts returned to the downtrodden, desperate poverty of the people too far south of the white cliffs for the powerful to care about, and she shot an assessing glance at Katerin. “You offer goods and services to the people at a fair price,” she said. “And jobs, too.”
Katerin raised an eyebrow. “Yes?”
It was Dryden who answered. “Because we can. We may not be able to fix everything, but it’s a start.”
“It isn’t enough.” Siobhan’s frank words drew attention from those around them. Some of Dryden’s men frowned at her. “From what I’ve seen, you simply don’t have the resources to raise these people out of the shit.”
Huntley snorted at that, but continued to eat and scan the doors and windows.
“They lack more than what you can give them, and there’s a reason for that.”
“And what do you think that reason is?” Dryden asked, moving to sit at the empty seat across from Siobhan.
“There isn’t enough to go around. There never will be. The Crowns have it, the gang leaders and University have it, and that means these people don’t. They’re never going to be strong enough to fight for themselves. So while you’re scrabbling to provide for them, you’re leaving yourself vulnerable to other predators.”
He leaned forward, the serious look on his face not quite disguising the youthful excitement in his eyes. “Your argument is that there isn’t enough wealth to go around, and by spreading some of mine to those who cannot repay it, I am weakening myself?”
Siobhan narrowed her eyes, sensing the trap in his words, but nodded.
“What do you think wealth is? Gold is useful in some spells, but beyond that, it’s not inherently valuable. Gold is not wealth. And wealth is not finite. If someone lives in a nice house, one that doesn’t leave them wet when it rains and keeps them warm in the winter, if they have no fear of going hungry, if they know they’ll have access to healing should an accident or illness befall them, then would that person not meet the criteria of wealth to you? Regardless of whether they’re paying for these things in gold coins or bird feathers?”
She wondered what he was getting at. “Perhaps. Go on.” She dipped her head.
“I posit that wealth is nothing more than a raised standard of living. From there, I propose that what people really need is more jobs—jobs that pay well enough to live on, not simply work themselves into the grave over—more affordable goods and services, and access to education. If you look around you, it’s obvious that my people have many jobs in need of doing, many things they would pay for, if they could afford it. I can attest that there are also plenty of people willing and eager to provide honest labor. The inability to pay for what they need leads to a lack of jobs that pay enough to get by, and so it becomes a vicious cycle.
“You’re very right that this isn’t by coincidence. Opportunities are provided for the few at the expense of the many. But you’re wrong if you think this is the inherent state of reality. You yourself are a good example of this. You deserve opportunity, and are willing to take it when it is presented, even if you weren’t born into it. How many others like you would set their minds to learning, to innovation, if they had the opportunity? The resources of the city—the true resources, the people—are simply being mismanaged. Or, some might say, purposefully restricted by people who are either shortsighted, or those who can see, but are afraid.”
He pressed his hands flat to the table. “And just like with you, I do not help these people with no expectation of receiving value in return. It is better to rule over a land of the wealthy than a land of the poor and desperate. And if one ruled over a land of thaumaturges… Imagine it. Every citizen who was once a pauper now able to read, write, and cast simple spells. No restrictions to learning based on income or connections. A Mastery for everyone who had the dedication and fortitude to achieve one. Advanced education in the natural sciences and other fields for those without an aptitude for magic. A country pushed forward by the innovation of hundreds of thousands of minds rather than a handful of elite with no real interest in change.” Oliver swallowed, glancing around quickly to the other patrons of the inn that had turned to look at him. He slid his hands off the table as he sat back in his chair. His expression loosened, but the intensity was still there in his eyes.
Siobhan’s own heart was beating a little harder, caught up in secondhand excitement, and she forced herself to look away from his gaze. “But that doesn’t address the other gangs, not to mention the Crowns themselves, all who would be happy to see you fail—and some of whom are actively working against you to make sure you do. What can helping these people do about that? Again, I have to say that it doesn’t seem like you have the wealth to make this sustainable. So what’s your answer to that, Mr. Oliver,” she said, avoiding his last name like everyone else associated with the Verdant Stag seemed to do.
“Perhaps, if we all do what we can, small improvements will add up over time into lasting change,” he said, quirking the side of his mouth up in a way that she could not help but see as mocking. Before she could respond, he turned to one of the barmaids and ordered another drink.
‘Did he avoid my question because he has no good answer, or because he simply doesn’t want to reveal that part of his plans?’
They didn’t return to the conversation, instead discussing Dryden’s struggle to find enough people to compose three fully competent emergency response teams, but Siobhan felt the new ideas settle in the back of her mind. ‘His ideas seem naive, and yet—and yet, from what I have learned of him, he isn’t the type to act without some forethought, some scheme. What would a world like he portrayed be like? Would it really be possible for everyone to learn magic as they wished?’ She shook her head with a combination of wistfulness and amusement. Still, the idea was appealing.
Want to get an email with links as soon as a new website chapter comes out, and/or get monthly Inner Circle news about my writing? Sign up here: https://landing.mailerlite.com/webforms/landing/q4b8d8