Month 3, Day 16, Tuesday 7:00pm
After receiving some more cutting commentary about her involvement with Ana’s dangerous scheme, Sebastien left Professor Lacer’s house, trying to offer as little indication as possible about just how shaken she was. She moved mindlessly, and found her feet had taken her back to the dorms without her conscious input.
In the cubicle across from her, Ana threw open the curtain and gave Sebastien a bright smile, holding up an extra-large envelope thick with paper. “Signed and sealed,” she said with a dramatic wink, handing the envelope to Sebastien. “I thought you could deliver it to Lord Dryden yourself.”
Sebastien took it numbly. “Thank you.”
Ana’s excitement fell away. “Is something wrong?”
Sebastien looked around, noting the surreptitious glances of the nearby students. She had no intention of speaking about what she’d learned of the Red Guard, and by association, Professor Lacer, lest she too be subjected to invasive fingers tampering with her thoughts and memories. Even the notion sent a cold shudder rippling up her spine until her scalp tingled. Her heartbeat was too loud, and her armpits and palms were damp with sweat.
The pause after Ana’s question had drawn on too long, and the other young woman took her by the arm and dragged her into the cubicle. Ana drew the curtain closed, ignoring the sudden explosion of scandalized murmuring around them.
Sebastien rolled her eyes. “You’ve taken me into your boudoir, Ana. We must be having a salacious affair.”
Normally this would have amused Ana, but she waved her hand in irritation as she activated a privacy artifact that ran around the length of the cubicle’s walls. “What happened?” she asked soberly.
Sebastien considered trying to lie, but she knew that Ana was much better at reading people than Sebastien was at lying. If Ana was already asking, it was too late to seem normal. Instead, after a moment of hesitation, Sebastien said, “Something disturbing happened. I…learned something I wish weren’t true. And I don’t want to talk about it.”
Ana stared at her for a moment, searching Sebastien’s eyes, and then simply nodded. “Alright then.” Pulling a box of expensive candies from her bedside drawer, she handed one to Sebastien. “So, did you hear about the feud going on between Mischner and Letty? Mischner got caught trying to spike Letty’s food, and it’s probably because Mischner’s worried about being in the bottom ten percent of the class. Mischner got a demerit, but Letty wasn’t satisfied because she felt that such a light punishment was blatant favoritism, so she wrote to Mischner’s father…”
‘I have good friends,’ Sebastien realized, swallowing down the lump in her throat. For once, she was grateful for Ana’s tendency to gossip, and tried to genuinely listen and remember who the people were, sinking into this alternate reality where the latest scandal was actually important.
Sebastien went through the next day feeling like she was being watched. Unfortunately, this was true, as the rumor mill had begun to churn with interest in her and her friends again. The whole Gervin Family debacle was blowing up. Even Ana, who said that this publicity was good for her future prospects and would allow her to more easily forge her own path once she took over the lordship, found it wearying, her smiles growing more and more perfect as their fellow students began to grate on her.
Damien and the rest of the group didn’t even bother to smile, circling up around their more vulnerable members like a group of wagoners defending against wolves.
During Practical Casting, Sebastien examined Professor Lacer for any hint of the outcome with the Moore family’s mind control, but he seemed the same as ever. She considered just asking him about it, but decided against it. She had been growing comfortable with him, but that was gone.
Finding herself antsy but at a loss as to what to actually do, she decided to take the textile sub-commission down to Oliver at the Verdant Stag. As the saying went, “Money doesn’t solve all problems, but it at least solves money problems.” And really, with the right attitude, quite a lot of things could be “money problems.”
On a sudden whim, she stopped by a licensed apothecary and bought herself a mild detoxifying potion that was safe to take even without healer supervision. She could have bought one at the Verdant Stag apothecary, but chose not to for two simple reasons. First, she didn’t know if the little shop was still up and running after the attack. But mostly, she didn’t want anyone to know that she needed it. The potion was unreasonably expensive, but it was worth it to help heal whatever subtle damage she’d done to herself, with the added benefit of smoothing over the cravings she was still having.
She disguised herself fully once more, but still wore her hood up to conceal her features in case the coppers were tracking who came and went from the Verdant Stag. Siobhan had fake identification papers, but didn’t know how well they would hold up if the coppers wanted to question or arrest her. If they didn’t cast any divinations, she would probably get through it safely, but she couldn’t count on that.
The Verdant Stag’s repairs were already well under way. The newly constructed sections of the building looked even nicer—and much sturdier—than they originally had. Workers with supplies both magical and mundane scurried everywhere, and the noise required one to shout to be heard.
Katerin was there amongst the hubbub, looming over Theo with one arm pointed imperiously up the stairs to her office.
The boy crawled out from underneath the floorboards, which were being replaced with a thick stone tile, his head and shoulders drooping with comical dejection as he shuffled away. As soon as he caught sight of Siobhan, he perked up, totally rejuvenated.
Katerin followed his gaze to Siobhan, then sighed and waved her over, moving to follow Theo.
They met at the bottom of the stairs.
“I only have a couple weeks to go until I’ve earned enough for my utility wand!” Theo quickly announced, beaming.
Katerin eyed him dourly. “You forgot that you’ll be fined for escaping Mr. Mawson’s lessons both yesterday and today.”
Theo deflated again. “But how am I supposed to concentrate with everything going on? It’s so loud, and everything down here is so much more interesting than doing fractions and writing essays about the government. It’s not fair! If you really want me to learn, one would think you’d get me a more interesting tutor.” He looked to Siobhan expectantly. “You think so too, right?”
“It is important to make learning fun,” she agreed. “But most children need external motivation because they can’t maintain interest in the whole spectrum of required subjects.”
“External motivation, like being paid to save up for a battle wand,” Katerin said pointedly.
“Perhaps extra credit, for intellectual work that Theo finds interesting?” Siobhan offered.
This devolved into Theo throwing out ideas about essays he could write, ranging from “the Raven Queen’s true powers,” to “best practices for solo-hunting magical beasts.”
Katerin promised only that she would consider it, then sent Theo off to her office alone while the two women continued up the stairs. “It’s been a bit busy, but I think we should sit down and talk with Oliver. There have been some…interesting developments. As an aside, you might be interested to know that Enforcer Gerard survived, thanks to a powerful healing potion that cost about three months of his wages and which he has submitted a reimbursement request for. His legs will require rehabilitation, and he’s made some inquisitive comments about possibly owing a debt to the Raven Queen.” Seeing Siobhan’s face, Katerin laughed. “Do not worry so much, girl. He doesn’t buy into all the stories. He was around to watch you from the beginning, after all. I think he just wants to thank you for your help. As do I.”
Siobhan looked away awkwardly. “Um. You’re welcome.”
Katerin nodded solemnly. “I will pass that along.”
They had to wait outside Oliver’s office, as one of the higher-level enforcers was giving him a report, and two other people were already waiting for a moment of Oliver’s time. Katerin sat and immediately focused on a folder full of her own reports, ignoring the world. ‘If his Verdant Stag office is going to be this busy, Oliver should get a secretary and put in a little waiting area with chairs,’ Siobhan mused, trying to keep her thoughts from turning back to the Moore family.
When they finally entered, Katerin closed the door behind them, suddenly and obviously dampening the cacophony of shouting and hammering that filled the rest of the building. But the chaos had made its way inside anyway, in the scattered papers over Oliver’s desk and some of the chairs, the stubble on his jaw, and the dark circles under his bloodshot eyes. But despite all this, his shoulders were squared, his eyes quick and alert, and his mouth was set in a grim, determined line. No hint of defeat hung about him.
As they sat in the plush chairs before Oliver’s desk, he moved to the front and leaned against it, ankles crossed and hands in his pockets. He stared at the floor for a few moments before lifting his head. “First, let me say that I believe the Architects of Khronos were behind the attack on Knave Knoll.”
Siobhan blinked. “Okay…? Was that ever in question?” She looked to Katerin to share her confusion.
The woman snorted, playing with the tip of her single, blood-red braid. “Exactly.”
Siobhan looked back at Oliver. “Does this have anything to do with what Tanya was talking about?”
“It does,” Oliver said. “Shortly after the attack and its…spectacular failure, costing numerous enemy lives while freeing none of the Morrows, Grandmaster Kiernan reached out to me to affirm that the whole thing was a surprise to him as well.”
“But you don’t actually believe that,” Siobhan blurted.
Oliver just smiled. “Supposedly, Kiernan had recently been contacted by a powerful man with some sort of allegiance to the Morrows. He tried to blackmail Kiernan into helping free them, under threat of releasing information about the activities of the Architects of Khronos to concerned parties in the Thirteen Crown Families. Kiernan maintains that he denied him, but when the man somehow found out about the prisoner transport, he went to Kiernan with an ultimatum. Work together on the attack, or all the information would be released. Instead, Kiernan killed him and sent Miss Canelo to warn us, but everything was already in motion, and she was too late to help.
“And Miss Canelo corroborates this story. As far as I know, she even put herself in danger multiple times during the battle in attempts to help our side. Personally, she expressed relief to me that Kiernan and his people had finally seen reason after their previous stubborn antagonism.”
Siobhan’s eyes narrowed. “It’s very convenient that the supposed blackmailer both cannot blackmail any more, and also cannot speak about Kiernan’s involvement.”
Katerin snapped her fingers and pointed at Siobhan. “Again, exactly. Even more convenient that this Kiernan supposedly knew where Knave Knoll was all along, but didn’t do anything with that information until it was necessary to ‘help us.’ He would have done better to claim that his blackmailer told him the location at the last minute.”
Oliver shrugged. “Well, Kiernan was acting under pressure. To clarify, I believe this Morrow ally was real, because upon his death, he had multiple failsafes in place that really did attempt to release damning information about the Architects of Khronos. Those attempts were quickly quashed by the Architects, of course. However, contrary to what Kiernan claims, I believe he went along with this man’s demands from the beginning, and was likely even the driving force behind the decision to attack the Verdant Stag. Freeing the prisoners wasn’t his main goal; that was simply a convenient distraction for his attempt on the book. Tanya was sent to warn us, but he never expected her to succeed. More likely, he was sending her to die while creating some insurance for himself in case things went wrong. Which they did. And so, when he got word of how disastrously the entire plan failed—”
Katerin snickered, interjecting, “Particularly, the rumors that a woman who looks suspiciously like the Raven Queen appeared out of the darkness behind our fleeing people and called down a magical attack from the heavens that was so powerful and twisted that it left remnants behind for hours, like the Black Wastes themselves had manifested in the middle of Gilbratha…” Her bright white smile stood out sharply against her red lips, and there was a dark rage there that Siobhan had never seen in it before. Katerin did not take kindly to being attacked, it seemed.
Siobhan groaned. “So, I really was recognized?”
Oliver rocked one hand side to side. “I wouldn’t say that, exactly. Maybe some of our people have suspicions, but no one has been throwing around any civilian names. You have to realize how big this little folk legend of the Raven Queen has grown. When spectacular things happen, her name is easily attached. Especially because she has been known to protect the Stags before, in equally fantastical ways. In any case, when he heard the news, Kiernan quickly pivoted to try to avoid blame and retaliation.”
Siobhan leaned back in her chair, toying with her Conduit. “Does he really think we’re so stupid?”
Katerin barked out a laugh.
“Kiernan isn’t so foolish. But at this point, when antagonism has failed so spectacularly and danger comes from multiple directions, he has little other choice. It’s a gamble without downsides. But in a way, this works out best for us. As I mentioned, Kiernan’s blackmailer had a deadman’s switch to send out damning information on their activities, which was very useful in drawing the coppers’ attention toward them, and off of us.”
“What were their activities?” Siobhan asked.
Katerin answered. “They seem to be preparing for a power struggle against the Crowns. Whether that should come from direct warfare or through political and commercial pressure, we’re not sure. But the Crowns hold certain powers over the University that restrict their freedom, and it seems these restrictions have chafed some beyond their tolerance. The Architects of Khronos pull members from more than just a disgruntled faculty, I am sure, but we are still trying to uncover more.”
Oliver pushed himself off the desk, moving to one of the shelves along the wall, where a small box sat. He opened it and removed a small vial of clear liquid from within, using the attached pipette to place a single drop in each of his bloodshot eyes. He let out a breath of relief. “I have spent the majority of my time these last few days mobilizing every resource at my disposal to turn the massive beast that is Gilbrathan law enforcement toward the Architects of Khronos. What happened at Knave Knoll was far beyond gang action. People are going to look at the gigantic hole in the warehouse district where a building used to be, and hear about the lingering magical effects on the canal, and they’re going to see a terrorist attack.”
The words chilled Siobhan. Some time ago, a group of thaumaturges deliberately turned an Aberrant loose in the heart of a city, earning the wrath of both the public and the authorities. They’d been convicted of terrorism and publicly executed—by being dragged through the streets while people lobbed balls of burning pitch at them. Such attacks were not treated lightly. “It’s going to have serious repercussions.” She had known that, but this put things in a different perspective.
Even Katerin’s vindictive amusement had sobered. “That is why it doesn’t matter how friendly this Kiernan tries to be, after his betrayal. Even if he were to work with us in good faith from now on, it is too late. The Verdant Stag cannot bear the weight of responsibility for this.”
Oliver took out a pouch of dried berries and meat and shoved a handful into his mouth. He chewed for a moment, then swallowed and continued talking. “I wanted to work together with the Architects. If not directly against the Thirteen Crowns, then at least supporting each other’s defiance out of convenience. But instead, it is going to be each beast fighting alone. I hope to put enough emphasis on the Architects and their potential threat that we seem like a small catch in comparison. And while they fight with the Thirteen Crowns, the Verdant Stag can dig itself in and continue to grow.”
“How likely do you think that is to work?” Siobhan asked.
“Very. The coppers will have released their report about the forces behind the attack a few hours ago. You should see emergency extras coming from the newspapers by this evening. While the upheaval and conflict this will cause is not ideal, I felt there was little other option. However, this method also comes with risks. Attempting to influence the coppers necessarily allows them some influence on me in turn. They’ve already begun trying to pressure me to help them retrieve the stolen book through my obvious connection with the Raven Queen.”
He noticed, waving his hand to stop her from jumping to any conclusions. “So, I would suggest the Raven Queen stay out of the public eye, indefinitely. Perhaps even Silvia Nakai should cease her activities, as things seem to go so easily wrong around you.”
‘Things go wrong when I work with you!’ she protested mentally, but, though she was sure it was clear on her face, she didn’t say anything out loud.
He took another bite of the dried food. “The Verdant Stag’s resources are expanding to the point that we have many options to deal with various difficulties without you, so settling down as Sebastien Siverling shouldn’t be a problem.”
Siobhan peered into the depths of her Conduit while she thought about this, unable to quell a sense of foreboding at being cast aside, even though this was what she’d wanted. ‘I’ll be safe,’ she reassured herself. ‘I have no need of the coin, and I’m not so altruistic as to sacrifice my well-being or my life for Oliver’s ideals.’ And to make this thought a reality, she reached into her bag, which had undergone a quick color-change along with the rest of her transformation as a stopgap until she could buy a replacement.
She pulled out the envelope that contained Oliver’s sub-commission to produce textiles in the name of the Gervin Family, Fourth Crown of Lenore. “That seems reasonable, especially since I have some good news, which will bring me the funds I need to focus solely on learning.”
Oliver stared intently at the envelope, then broke the seal and took out the contract from within, skimming over it until his eyes rested on Lord Gervin’s signature and stamp at the end, right above Oliver’s own. “The terms are even better than what I initially negotiated with him,” he murmured. He threw back his head and laughed, loud and joyful, then reached out and yanked Siobhan to her feet, pulling her into his embrace as he half-leaned, half-danced from side to side.
Siobhan was horribly startled and embarrassed, peeking around to look at Katerin, but the older woman was smiling indulgently, and Siobhan couldn’t help but smile, too.
Oliver drew back, holding her shoulders, his smile so wide his eyes crinkled almost all the way closed. “You’ve done it! Oh, Siobhan, you have no idea the difference this is going to make. Our cloth is going to spread across the entire continent. We will employ thousands and clothe hundreds of thousands. And that is just the first step. In a few years, the Verdant Stag will have grown larger than any Crown Family, with the power of the common people behind us, feeding us even as we feed them in an endless cycle. I am going to take over Gilbratha, and then Lenore.” He threw back his head to crow at the sky. “I am going to take over the world!”
She laughed. “The entire world?”
Oliver waved a hand nonchalantly, releasing her and moving back around his desk to place the contract carefully in the center, like a babe in its cradle. “Well, that may be a bit of an exaggeration. At the very least, Lenore will become the hub of power for the entire continent, and a refuge of freedom and opportunity for those who feel persecuted in their homelands.” He smiled at her once more, softer this time. “I made a good move saving you from the coppers all those months ago. In some ways, it feels like so long has passed since then, and so much has happened. But in other ways, I feel as if I met you just yesterday. Do you know how startled I was when you suddenly turned into a strange young man? I was actually quite worried about the extremely powerful sorcerer I seemed to have gotten myself involved with, though I tried to put on a confident front.”
Siobhan smirked wryly. “I assure you, no matter how worried you were, I was much more terrified and in over my head.” She fidgeted then, her smirk falling away as she remembered that Oliver didn’t know about the latest scrying attempt on her.
She was loath to dampen the wonderful mood, but this wasn’t something she could put off mentioning.
Oliver sat back down, sobering slowly as she spoke.
Katerin groaned and rubbed her temples, glaring at Siobhan with exasperation, as if this was somehow her fault.
Siobhan glared back, suddenly remembering that this was the woman who had fooled her into accepting a loan with fifty percent interest. Repaying said loan was what had led to this escalation in the first place. If not for that, she could have disappeared into Sebastien Siverling almost completely.
Oliver tapped an agitated finger against the side of his desk. “You couldn’t have left some other piece of yourself behind during the fighting, could you?”
“It’s possible, of course, but I was cautious about that possibility. And there were so many people losing blood, it seems unlikely they would have collected all the samples and then performed a scrying spell of such overwhelming power on each.”
He steepled his fingers together, pressing them against his mouth for a few long moments. “I think you need to approach this problem from a different angle,” he finally said, seeming self-satisfied about whatever idea he’d had and basking in her undivided attention. “Rather than simply defend against attacks in the hope that someday you might be able to take away their leverage, why not create a scapegoat? You could make them believe they’ve succeeded in finding the Raven Queen in a way that separates you from their investigation. Or, and this is my preferred method, you send them off after a decoy. One they also can’t catch, but that will keep them occupied and distract them from realizing they should look in your direction.”
He kept talking, offering some vague ideas for how she might go about this, but Siobhan could no longer parse his words into anything coherent.
She looked from his bright eyes, to his expressive mouth, to his long fingers, and back again, searching for meaning. There was something, some hint of his body language or smugness in his tone, that tugged on the memory of him talking with Katerin after the attack, so pleased that the Architects of Khronos hadn’t found what they were looking for.
Perhaps it was just intuition, or inspiration, but she realized with a sickening shift as the world ripped itself out from underneath her feet, that maybe Oliver had carried out this exact idea already. With Myrddin’s book. The same book she had accidentally assisted in stealing, and which the coppers and the University had been coming after her for all along.
They couldn’t catch her, but they were occupied, and looking in the wrong direction.
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