Month 3, Day 17, Wednesday 6:00pm
Somehow, Siobhan was able to hold her tongue.
In a way, it was one of the hardest things she had ever done. She wanted to ask Oliver what he had that the University hadn’t found. She wanted to confirm her suspicions. She also wanted to flip over his desk, pin him to the wall with her forearm, and scream for him to tell her the truth.
In another way, however, the enormity of this suspicion, this revelation, went beyond any pain her tongue could inflict in return. Words felt too inadequate a response, and that helped her suppress them entirely.
So instead, Siobhan thanked Oliver and Katerin, made some flimsy excuse, and left with her gold, the papers proving that Sebastien Siverling was a four percent shareholder in Oliver’s textile company. She stayed only long enough to make sure both copies of the blood print vow she’d made with Katerin were ash.
She lost time to the swirling maelstrom of her thoughts, her focus returning first at the Silk Door, as she checked in the mirror to make sure she had returned to Sebastien’s form properly, and then again when she stepped from the clear transport tube onto the edge of the white cliffs.
The sight of the Citadel in the distance, partially concealed by the trees growing between her and the building, calmed something in her. ‘No matter what, I am a student here. I made it in, and I am learning to be a free-caster.’ But that only reminded her of what she had recently learned about Thaddeus Lacer. In the space of a single day, the foundation of trust and security she had slowly begun to rely on had been ripped out from under her. Feeling physically off-kilter, she paused for a moment, pressing her hand against a tree trunk for support. She focused on the sensation of rough bark against her skin, taking in the scent of wood and earth and the ozone of a coming storm, allowing the physical input to ground her mind.
Instead of returning to the dorms or the library, she walked east along the edge of the cliff. After a few minutes, she found a secluded spot beyond the transport tubes and out of sight of the buildings. Clustered behind her, stoic evergreens mingled with trees budding green from their skeletal branches. The cold wind rattled through the winter-bare branches and scraped against the cliffside, causing a disorienting echo all around her. The sensation was only made more uncomfortable by the wind’s grasping fingers in her clothes and hair as it shoved against her back, almost as if to drive her over the edge.
In the west, the sun was setting, spilling its red-orange rays like blood across the city that stretched out below, but above them both, the dark clouds of a storm were brewing.
Sebastien did not move. A fire in her chest warmed her from the inside, flushing her cheeks, lending strength to her legs and steel to her spine. She would not yield.
She turned her mind to the evidence. She’d made an intuitive leap, but she needed to sit down and rationally consider the information that her subconscious mind had collected. Perhaps she was simply jumping to conclusions because she was so unused to trusting people.
The first piece of evidence that she considered was the conversation Oliver had with Katerin after returning to the Verdant Stag, which he probably had not thought Siobhan awake to overhear. He had something valuable in a hidden vault inside a folded space. Something more valuable than the censer, estimated at a thousand gold.
He had deduced that the Architects of Khronos had attacked Knave Knoll partially as a distraction while they sent another group to the Verdant Stag in search of the book. Which made sense. But the real book was hidden at Dryden Manor. His house had wards, but nothing like this secret vault, and he had never seemed particularly interested in where she was keeping the book, nor suggested that she should move it to this extremely secure location.
‘Would I have agreed to let it out of my control like that, if he had offered?’ she wondered. But no, that wasn’t the point. He had never seemed interested in her book at all. Not even just to take a look at it. To her knowledge, the book had been safe and untouched by any other the entire time. Even if he didn’t want it or the knowledge it contained for himself, he could have turned it in to the University or the Crowns for a huge negotiated payment. He could have said that he tracked down and killed the thief for the reward, thus absolving her of any suspicion while keeping himself relatively clear of the fallout.
He had even discouraged her from turning it in herself, for reasons that might have been valid but could also just be an excuse.
She remembered the secretive, smug tone of Oliver’s voice when he had been discussing the Architects’ failure with Katerin. The two of them shared a secret. Sebastien knew Oliver wasn’t obligated to share all his secrets with her, but this felt important. He had said “all their efforts” were futile, not just that night’s attack.
What if Oliver had taken something else from the same archaeological haul? An artifact, or Myrddin’s famous Conduit, or a different book. What better decoy for a missing book than another book, after all? But all the evidence pointed to her book being Myrddin’s real journal, as well as the item everyone was searching for. She didn’t think someone else could have created the transformation amulet, and Damien had mentioned to her that as far as the coppers knew, even the History department was having trouble decrypting the other texts they had retrieved.
‘But how likely is it that two things could go missing, and they only notice one? If they were looking for something besides my book, wouldn’t someone have mentioned it at some point?’ But then, if the gossip was to be believed, most of the members of the original expedition had died, and the three who remained had all been admitted to an asylum or some such place.
Any theft other than her book had to have been completed before the items were delivered to the University, and if everyone who was there in the Black Wastes to see exactly what they retrieved was either dead or insane…
Sebastien shuddered. She had previously dismissed the idea that Ennis was compelled to steal the book, when the alternative explanation was so simple. But what if it wasn’t so outlandish a claim? Had someone sent Ennis to jail for a crime not entirely of his own choice?
She wanted to believe that Oliver had never meant to set her, or anyone else, up for a decoy theft. Even if he had stolen something from the expedition, perhaps he had meant for its absence to go unnoticed, or to remain a mysterious disappearance.
She wanted to believe that he had been genuinely acting to help her all along. Because, really, she had needed him, provider of coin and connections, so much more than he needed her, an inexperienced and weak sorcerer with a huge target on her back. He had genuinely seemed to care for her wellbeing.
‘The first night I met Oliver, when he came to rescue me from the coppers, why did he do that?’ He had gone out of his way to offer his help, and on rather short notice, at that. She closed her eyes and searched her memory for detail. ‘He asked about the book, and specifically my ability to decrypt it. He was looking for a powerful sorcerer who would have had reason to steal it—exactly what everyone thought I was. And when I later asked him why he was doing so much to help me… He seemed irritated. He turned the question around on me, telling me not to be so self-absorbed. And he specifically mentioned that I was not special to him for some nefarious hidden reason. That he was helping me simply because he felt like doing so.’
Sebastien rubbed at her breastbone, as if pressure could take away some of the ache beneath it. ‘Why would he word it like that? What if the real reason isn’t so innocent?’ She had previously speculated that the book held some important knowledge lost to time, such as advanced self-charging artifacts. If Oliver had something similar, perhaps he had been looking for her, or a potential employer behind her, because he hoped to collaborate on reverse-engineering some artifact, or decrypting some text of his own. Otherwise, why would that have been his first question? And why would he have kept her around when she couldn’t satisfy his hopes? Perhaps been secretly trying to decrypt Myrddin’s journal when she wasn’t around.
‘On the other hand, if he did steal something, and I am just a decoy, wouldn’t it make sense to distance himself from me rather than associate so closely, and with both my identities? All three, if you count Silvia.’ After all, association with her was what got the Verdant Stag raided and how he almost lost whatever was kept in the ultra-secure folded-space vault.
But maybe he felt guilty when he learned her situation, and that was why he decided to involve himself. Maybe he never planned on things working out as they had. ‘After all, it’s only now, when his interests and his secrets have been threatened, with his enemies drawing a little too close for comfort, that he suggested a way to create a third degree of separation.’
Sebastien tried to calm herself down. There wasn’t enough evidence to be sure of anything. This could all be coincidence and her jumping to conclusions. But she had been confused. She was still confused, and the sick weight of loss in her stomach suggested that something irreparable was broken.
All these little suspicious events didn’t prove anything. But she could not easily dismiss them, either. She didn’t consider herself an intuitive person, but something about the look in his eyes and the set of his mouth as he talked about creating decoys had created an undeniable shift in her understanding of him. ‘So where does that leave me?’ she wondered. ‘I suspect that Oliver got his hands on something sensitive and valuable that people would go after him for. Where he got it from, or what it is, I do not know. Perhaps it could be something entirely unrelated to my book, or to Myrddin. Maybe there have been rumors about some other powerful item being found or going missing that I haven’t heard. Secondly, I suspect that my circumstance was at least taken advantage of, if not engineered directly. At the moment, that is all I have. Suspicions and strange coincidences.’
Oliver was good with people. With manipulation. She was afraid that if she simply asked him, he would lie to her.
And she wasn’t sure if it would be worse if she believed whatever explanation he gave or if she didn’t.
Even if he did have something that her own book had become a decoy for, knowing the truth wouldn’t have changed much for her. The knowledge would only have made her even more of a liability to him. And though she didn’t want to think that idealistic, philanthropic Oliver would act to harm her, Sebastien also remembered the way Oliver had bound her to him with a huge debt. How he had forced the Morrow prisoners to accept a curse seal, and then, when it seemed like they might be rescued, had killed them. If he had something as valuable as her book, she could use that for leverage, either against him or to buy her own freedom. What if he decided she was a liability?
She needed another, external, way to confirm or deny her suspicions.
‘I am going to find out,’ she resolved. Whatever had snapped inside her, causing the sudden and overwhelming suspicion she felt toward Oliver, now buoyed her up with strength, a cold-burning source of power that would never run out until her goal was achieved. She took a deep breath of the oncoming storm, tasting the ozone in the air. She felt anything but defeated, or weak, or tired.
‘And while I am at it, I might as well solve my other problems, too. I am going to take control of my life, and become the master of my own fate in truth.’ She bared her teeth to the city, letting out a laugh that was all humor and no joy. She spoke, enunciating every word clearly and calmly. “The world will bend to my Will in this, just as it does in magic.”
Short Story Poll WINNERS:
With 23.92 weighted vote points, “The Honeymoon Suite” wins!
Runner-up with 19.62 vote points: “Thaddeus in the Haze War”
Third Place with 16.79 vote points: “Obliviously Heroic Sebastien”
Fourth Place with 10.92 vote points: “Liza’s Special Ops”
Voting is over but you can still comment and leave ideas for the next bonus short story.
I am swamped with getting everything for SOL’s launch ready, so I’ll be taking the rest of the month to pull slowly together all my ideas for this short story and plot out the progression.
I will start writing it at the beginning of January, and should have it posted on January 17th, barring unforeseen delays.
Also, I want to mention officially that I have some deleted chapters/scenes that will be coming to the Patreon soon. They aren’t as cool as the bonus short story, but you guys might enjoy them still.