Month 3, Day 16, Tuesday 5:00am
Sebastien hobbled out of the safe house, carefully locking the door behind herself and re-hiding the key. She walked slowly, allowing her stiff joints to ease as they warmed up. Despite her fatigue, she felt more comfortable out in the open than she had the night before. Most of those she passed now were laborers just starting their day, with the disquieting midnight crowd having slinked away at the earliest perceptible lightening of the sky. She didn’t make it far before she smelled food, and her focus was drawn to a stall down the street, which was selling meat pies. Her stomach gurgled, and she felt another wave of nausea. ‘I haven’t eaten since yesterday afternoon,’ she realized. ‘Perhaps some of my condition is simply due to requiring nourishment.’ She knew she could return to the University cafeteria and eat there, but the meat pies smelled so good.
‘I still have plenty,’ she remembered, taking a quick peek at the coins filling the bottom of the purse with a strange emotion. ‘And there is more to come from the Gervin textile sub-commission.’ It was somehow difficult to reconcile, hard to believe, that she need not scrabble to save every copper. But the evidence was clear.
So she bought herself two meat pies, then savored them as she took a carriage to the northern transport tubes, which accepted her student token and sent her shooting up to the edge of the white cliffs.
Damien had noticed her absence from the dorms and been worried, but she explained that she’d been asked to run a small errand for their secret organization and then got stuck without transportation.
“Are you sure that’s it?” he asked, tilting his head to the side. “You look…worn. Worried? It’s nothing to do with Malcolm Gervin, is it?”
“No, nothing like that. I…well, you know I have trouble sleeping. It was a rough night.” That was close enough to the truth that she didn’t feel so bad lying in the face of his genuine concern.
Damien placed his hand on her shoulder. “I won’t pry, but just know that if you ever want to talk about…anything, you can come to me.” Without waiting for her response, he returned to his own cubicle.
Against all odds and sense, Sebastien made her way through the day’s classes, then forced herself to catch up on sleep that evening. Her fatigue seemed to be a trigger for the beamshell cravings, and for the first time, she realized that sometimes Will alone might not be enough to persevere when everything inside you wanted to make a bad long-term choice for the benefit of temporary relief. Thankfully, she had thrown the beamshell tincture out, and trying to get more would require a complicated scheme involving forging a healer’s prescription. Perhaps sensing her mood, Damien and Ana left her to her own devices.
After classes, she stopped by Liza’s to tell her that she would continue to help with the sleep-proxy spell. Liza was…sympathetic, perhaps sensing how much Siobhan hated herself for this decision. But Siobhan didn’t allow herself to take any comfort in Liza’s affirmation that she was making the smart choice. Siobhan was willing to do whatever it took to achieve this goal, but that didn’t make it right.
When Siobhan belatedly mentioned her failed attempt to destroy the coppers’ blood sample, Liza snorted.
“Of course that didn’t work, girl. You’re slightly clever, not a trained expert. Did you expect that they would have no recourse against counter-divination methods developed during the Haze War?”
Siobhan flushed. ‘It does make sense that a method I got out of the first level University library would be deprecated. The coppers should be working with the most recent advancements and the best contracted casters.’ It had been hubris to assume she could best them after less than a single term at the University.
“As I’ve mentioned before, I could solve this problem for you, for a fee. Your idea to target them while they are scrying for you was a good one, and with the right implementation, could make things much easier. There would be some problems to solve, such as ensuring your safety under wards while I handled their blood sample, and the fact that I cannot guarantee the destruction of all samples, only the one they are using. If they left some under the protective wards of Harrow Hill’s evidence storage, your problem would remain unsolved.”
Siobhan narrowed her eyes. “You quoted me eight hundred gold before. If I could tell you when they are scrying me—and where they are doing it from—would that make it easier… Enough, perhaps, to reduce the price to something reasonable?”
Liza rolled her eyes, took a moment to reluctantly consider it, and finally said, “Perhaps. No less than five hundred gold.”
Siobhan hummed. “I’ll think about that. Maybe there’s a way to make it even easier. What if I lent you a sample to work with, too?” She wouldn’t have considered such a thing normally, but Liza had no need of extra tricks if she wanted to harm Siobhan. She hadn’t so far, after all, despite the bounty on the Raven Queen.
“We can talk about this again when you have the coin. Five hundred,” Liza repeated.
The possibility of purchasing help couldn’t dispel Siobhan’s dark mood, but the spark of an idea was growing.
As she left, she wondered, ‘What do I do now?’ The answer that came to her had little to do with her current dilemma, but was instead a task that had been lingering in the back of her mind for months now, actively avoided with almost the same fervor that she avoided her dreams. She pulled out a tattered envelope from her bag. It contained only a simple address, one she’d long ago memorized.
That was how, after returning once more to the Silk Door, Sebastien found herself looking up at a building in Oliver’s territory that had, only a couple of months before, been a brothel. It was nothing like the Silk Door. This building was a squat, run-down rectangle with only a few grungy windows.
The last couple of days had been warmer, and the stench of rot and waste was stronger in this area of the Mires. Oliver’s vaunted cleaning crews hadn’t made it here yet. When she opened her mouth to try and escape it, it coated the back of her mouth and throat instead, which was no better.
Steeling herself, Sebastien walked in the front door. The interior was packed with people, apparently gathering for dinner. Those without bowls of hearty seafood porridge stood in a haphazard line stretching toward the kitchen. The people were dirty, tired-looking, and distrustful, but at least not starving or freezing to death, and there was a single Stag enforcer to keep the peace between those both too desperate and packed too closely together for amity.
Sebastien managed to find someone who knew the Moore family after only a few attempts, which left her more disappointed than relieved. She had hoped they might have left for somewhere better, using the funds they got for allowing the investigation report to malign Newton to start a new life. Both for their own sake and so that she might have an excuse not to face them.
Newton’s mother, pointed out to Sebastien by her guide, was in the kitchen, ladling up soup for those in line. The woman looked haggard, and the rolled-back sleeves of her shirt openly displayed her burn-scarred forearms. She eyed Sebastien suspiciously. “How can I help you, my lord?”
Sebastien cleared her throat awkwardly. Her knees trembled a bit, and she stepped forward to disguise it. “Hello. Er, my name is Sebastien. I was a friend of Newton’s.”
The woman deflated immediately, though her expression didn’t change at first, as if she was too tired to emote. She seemed to shake herself awake, standing straighter and setting the ladle down for one of the other kitchen helpers to take over before turning to Sebastien, her brows furrowed and jaw clenched. “A little late for this kind of thing, isn’t it?” she asked.
Sebastien flushed bright red, her eyes fluttering closed in shame. “I know. I should have come earlier. I—I’m sorry. We did—a couple of my friends and I, we sent letters and a care package, when it first…when he first died. You did get it, didn’t you?”
Newton’s mother considered Sebastien for a moment, then softened. “I did. I suppose you’d better come on back, son. We can talk in my family’s rooms.”
The Moore family’s quarters weren’t as bad as Sebastien had feared, two rooms behind the kitchen that stayed a little warmer than the rest of the building, and with an actual lock on the hallway-facing door.
It seemed the whole family was packed together into those two rooms—a little cramped, but not worse than many of the rural farm homes she had seen in her time. Only here, there was no open space just outside the door, no fresh air or freedom. They were using a dying bottle of moonlight sizzle for light, because there was no window.
In the blue-tinted gloom within, an old woman huddled in the corner, staring at nothing—Newton’s “Grams.”
A man lay on the bottom bunk of two beds, asleep. The table beside him was filled with an array of potion vials, some empty. ‘Newton’s father. At least they have the means to afford healing for him.’
Two younger girls looked up from practicing sums with an abacus in the corner.
Newton’s mother stepped forward, snatching up the moonlight sizzle and shaking it harshly to try and eke out a bit more light from the bubbling bottle. “It’s no mansion, but we can afford it while our house is being rebuilt, and I’ve got a job in the kitchens that pays a little extra.”
“You did get enough…funds, then?” Sebastien asked hesitantly. “From the investigators.”
“Well, enough,” the woman agreed. “Both girls have been accepted into a school up on Lette Street, and the first year is already paid for, with enough left over for the house and the healer. My husband’s had a bit of flare-up with the continued cold weather. His lungs have some scarring that settled before we were able to get him treatment, but it’s nothing compared to the prognosis we were originally facing. It was actually your letter that did the most for us, though. Coal in the snowstorm, as they say, just enough to get by when we really needed it the most.”
Sebastien swallowed, her eyes prickling with humiliation. That had been Alec and Damien’s idea, really. She just contributed, and the letter she had written wasn’t even the truth.
“Sebastien, was it? Terrible business, really, I—” The woman’s voice broke, and she cleared her throat wetly. “Were you one of his classmates, then?”
“Yes. I—I just wanted to give my condolences,” Sebastien said, knowing even as the words came out of her mouth that banalities like that never really helped, especially from strangers. She wasn’t even quite sure they were true. ‘Is that why I’m here? To say that I’m sorry?’ Since the moment when she crawled up off the furniture shop’s floor and realized what had happened to Newton, she hadn’t let herself sink into really thinking about it. It was impossible to avoid, now, looking at the people he’d left behind. Apologizing was rather useless, just sentiment. What was really important was the resolution to do better.
She could console herself with the fact that she had never lied to Newton or tried to coerce him into doing anything dangerous. He had known going with Tanya would be a risk, and he had known there could be greater reward in it, too. Perhaps he hadn’t truly understood what he was getting himself into. Or perhaps he had just been too desperate to decline. If she hadn’t pulled him into this whole thing in the first place, he would undoubtedly be alive. Hells, if she hadn’t gotten caught and allowed that whole fiasco with the Morrows, if she hadn’t frightened him to death with her shadow-familiar spell…
Sebastien had known since she was young that anything she cared about, she had to take responsibility for. There was no use in blaming anyone else when things went wrong, just as she couldn’t depend on anyone else to make things go right. She was the only thing she controlled. Her, and her magic.
If she could have done something differently to change the outcome, and she didn’t, then it was her fault. Pretending the weight of responsibility didn’t land on her just because she was too tired to admit it, to accept it, was weakness. It was a deflection. Newton coming to harm wasn’t unforeseeable. She’d chosen to involve him anyway. Other people, even he himself, had chosen to go along with it. But no one else’s culpability lessened her own.
She swallowed hard past the lump in her throat. She had facilitated Newton’s break, his death. And maybe there were things she could have done to better prepare him. Ways she could have mitigated the danger. She would keep this failure in mind for the future. But she couldn’t pretend that she would never place someone else in harm’s way again. The world was dangerous. She wasn’t powerful enough to control everything. And sometimes things spiraled out of her control and people got hurt. She was responsible, but she wasn’t to blame. She wouldn’t put this, at least, on herself. Not all of it.
“I am sorry,” she said. “For your loss. Newton didn’t deserve what happened to him.” And it was true.
“Oh, thank you child.” His mother pulled over the room’s single small stool and waved for Sebastien to take it, perching herself on the edge of her husband’s bed instead. “It was a horrible shock. I mean, I noticed he was getting a little too interested in magics better left alone, but I never thought—” She pressed her fingers to her lips, shaking her head as her eyes grew glassy.
“He fell in with a bad crowd,” the grandmother said from the corner, still staring into the air.
“Yes,” his mother said, “but we never expected him to dabble in whatever corrupted magic transformed him into a creature of evil—one of those Aberrants.”
In the corner, one of the girls began crying softly. “It wasn’t his fault. I know it!” she said.
The mother shook her head sadly. “He did what he did, Beshi. Sometimes you don’t know people as well as you think. Maybe it was our situation that pushed him to it in desperation.”
Sebastien opened her mouth, closed it, then shook her head. “Umm…well, I don’t think that’s exactly true.”
The father had woken at some point and struggled to sit up. Newton’s mother hurried to help him. “What do you mean?” he asked.
“Newton did get caught up in things that were too much for him to handle,” Sebastien said, “but he wasn’t doing anything…depraved. It was the circumstances that caused his break, not a corrupted Will.”
The man shook his head, but started coughing. After that, he seemed too blearily exhausted to continue contributing to the conversation.
His mother frowned at Sebastien. “He was dabbling in magics better left alone.”
“No. He was casting a completely harmless self-calming spell when it happened. He taught it to me at school, and I’ve cast it myself several times. He said his grandmother taught it to him.” She looked to the woman in the corner, who seemed to focus for the first time, meeting Sebastien’s eyes. This was information that she shouldn’t have, perhaps, but she couldn’t let them go on believing a lie about their dead son.
“He wasn’t, and then suddenly he was,” the decrepit woman said. “He wasn’t, and then he was, like a sick wind.”
Sebastien’s hand had fallen to the pocket where she normally kept her Conduit, and she forced herself to settle both hands in her lap, not wanting to be rude. She felt uneasy, as if she were standing at the edge of the white cliffs above the sea, and the wind was a little too strong for safety.
“I don’t think that’s true at all. He got involved with something over his head, and it was too much for him and he broke, but he wasn’t doing anything nefarious. He was captured, along with some other University students, and threatened by the Morrows.” She swallowed hard to push past her tightening throat as the vow she’d given to the Red Guard tried to restrict her. “There was fighting. He wasn’t even involved. Just an innocent casualty,” she finished quickly, before it could stop her.
“I knew it!” the crying girl said. “I knew he wouldn’t!”
His father frowned severely. “Are you sure? But that can’t be—” He was cut off by another coughing fit, wet and painful-sounding.
“That—” His mother was shaking her head, over and over, touching her ear as if she’d gotten water trapped inside it. “That can’t be. Newton—my son, my son was dabbling in magics better left alone. He was dabbling.”
Sebastien’s back muscles were tightening almost painfully with how straight she was sitting. Looking around the windowless room, she suddenly felt claustrophobic.
The father’s coughing fit went on and on until he was red-faced and teary-eyed, struggling to draw breath.
His wife hurried to uncork one of the potions on his bedside table and help him drink it, calming his coughs but also drawing his eyelids down into heavy, sleepy blinks.
“The scarring is treatable, but it’s a painful, expensive process. We’re hoping things will get better once it warms up around here,” she explained, as if fearful of judgment.
Sebastien shifted uncomfortably. “Why do you think that Newton was dabbling in corrupted magics? Did he ever mention something like that to you?”
“No, of course not!” the woman snapped. “But he was. I know it.”
Sebastien swallowed. “How do you know it?”
The woman pressed her hand over her mouth again, shaking her head rapidly while looking toward the ground.
Sebastien looked between the father and the grandmother. “Is there any actual evidence that he was doing something nefarious? Did the coppers tell you that?”
The grandmother spoke up again. “He was innocent, and then, suddenly, he wasn’t. And we knew it.”
Sebastien went cold. “When did you know?” she asked, her lips numb as the words passed over them.
“Few weeks ago. Maybe a couple months.”
“And around the time when you suddenly knew, did someone visit you? Someone who asked questions about Newton? Any thaumaturges?” Sebastien’s voice grew unconsciously softer, as if she were afraid of someone overhearing her. She looked around to all the family members packed into the small room.
They looked confused, shaking their heads, except for the grandmother. “I definitely did not meet anyone who wanted to change my mind about little Newt. Definitely.”
That was a little too specific, and a little too sure.
Sebastien supposed if someone had put a geas or similar magic on her, forcing her to believe something, then forced her to forget about that, too, she might be able to suss out what had changed. She would need to be able to recognize that what she believed now was suddenly and inexplicably different than what she’d believed before, without any new evidence to create the shift.
She would ask herself who had done this to her, or when it had been done, and find an answer that she was strangely, absurdly sure wasn’t correct. This belief would have no corroborating evidence. And so, the one that felt least likely was, conversely, most likely to be the answer.
It’s what Newton’s Grams had been hinting at from the beginning. Sebastien supposed that, being a thaumaturge, even a weak one, her mind was more resistant to whatever had been done to them. At least whoever had tinkered with their brains had spared the two children, though she didn’t know if that was because they had a sense of ethics or if they just thought it didn’t matter because no one would believe a child, anyway.
“Has anyone suspicious been hanging around? Or anyone who definitely isn’t suspicious?”
None of the Moores remembered anything, though Sebastien was sure she couldn’t trust their judgment on the matter. Sebastien attempted to keep digging, asking increasingly specific questions in an attempt to reverse-engineer the answers, but within minutes Newton’s mother and both sisters had collapsed into frustrated, confused tears, and the grandmother had begun to bang the back of her head against the wall, staring at nothing as she repeated, “I know it, I know it,” over and over.
Knowing that her absence would likely do more to calm them than anything else she might attempt, Sebastien retreated, feeling like she was escaping as she stepped into the light outside. She couldn’t help looking around suspiciously, paranoid that whoever had done this to the Moores was watching. ‘Is there anything that’s suddenly changed about my own beliefs? Anything that I’m strangely sure of?’ She tried to rifle through her thoughts in search of concerning signs but found nothing. She didn’t know if that meant she was fine, or just really bad at noticing whatever geas had been placed on her.
‘Could this have anything to do with the investigation into the Raven Queen? But that doesn’t make sense. How would doing this help the investigation? And if they got to his family, who else?’
She hailed the first carriage and took it straight back to the University. Professor Lacer wasn’t in his office, but she remembered where his cottage was. She hurried east across the grounds, and, when she found it, pounded on the door.
Professor Lacer opened it with a thunderous scowl. “What is the meaning of this?” he snapped.
“I need to speak with you.”
He looked her over, his concern both obvious and somewhat surprising. “Is this about what happened over the weekend? Did the Raven Queen contact you?”
“What? No! I need to speak with you,” she repeated. “Privately.”
His gaze swept over the grounds behind her, but he stepped back and let her in. “What is the matter?”
“Do you remember the night that Newton Moore broke? All of it?”
He leaned forward, his gaze piercing. “I do. Have you remembered something relevant about the incident?”
“No. This is about… I went to visit his family.” She took a deep breath, watching him carefully as she said, “I believe Newton broke while casting a simple self-calming spell. Esoteric, vibration-based. Not corrupted in nature. It was an unfortunate accident. Do you agree?”
She sagged with relief. “Oh, thank the stars above.”
“What are you getting at?”
“Someone has tampered with the minds of Newton Moore’s family. Poorly. They now believe he was involved in some sort of blood magic, and that’s what caused his break. I worry the same might have been done to some of the students in his term. The ones who gave those statements about him.”
Professor Lacer leaned back. “Is that all?”
“Well…yes.” She rocked back on her heels. ‘Isn’t that enough?’
“I thought it would be something much more dramatic, with how anxious you were. Still, you did the right thing in making me aware. Sloppy work, to make it so obvious. I will send them back to do a better job.”
“Who?” she asked, her voice barely a whisper.
“The Red Guard, of course. Sometimes memetic spells, when cast incorrectly, will start to fray and show their holes over time as the brain picks at their edges.”
Sebastien had gone cold inside. She felt suddenly, starkly unsafe. “And why did the Red Guard do this?”
“To control public perception, of course.” He raised a hand to stop her, as if she had been going to protest. “I know that is not the answer you seek, but if you wish to dig deeper, you should do so on your own. Some answers are best discovered yourself, if you wish to ever truly understand them. But…be cautious. You do not want to draw so much negative attention that you receive a visit yourself.”
Sebastien hadn’t known it before, but there had been some sense of security granted by the structure of society, the supposed duties of the Crowns and the Red Guard toward the citizens. She had thought her own model of the way the world worked to be correct. And despite his caustic nature, she had believed in the bulwark of her professor, Thaddeus Lacer, against danger.
And in a handful of sentences, that naivety had been stripped from her.
Alright, this is a 6th bonus chapter, extending the exclusive chapters from 4 to 5!