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Chapter 15 – Dysphoria

Damien

Month 10, Day 29, Thursday 11:00 a.m.

“He’s not even listening, Ana!” a high-pitched voice declared.

“Damien,” Anastasia said, the slight twitch of one eyebrow belying the soft, ladylike smile on her face.

Damien only then realized that he had been in a daze, looking toward the University rankings board that would soon be updated with the scores of all incoming first-term students. “Oh, sorry, Natalia,” he said to the young girl scowling up at him.

Unlike her older sister, she wore a frilly dress, no doubt picked out by their mother. Also unlike her sister, she was a chatterbox, and at some point while listening to her talk about a play date at one of the Gervin Family’s branch houses—offshoots that didn’t stand to inherit—he had lost concentration. “I’m just really anxious to find out if I made the top three hundred or not,” he said.

The girl gave an unappeased “humph!” and crossed her arms over her chest.

Rhett, slouching beside him, turned from making eyes at a blushing young woman in the crowd. “Damien’s boring, Nat. Don’t bother with him anyway. I brought a dueling board, if you want to play.” Despite his friend’s playboy attitude, Rhett had a secret soft spot for children, and somehow never seemed to grow tired of genuine, fully engaged interaction with Natalia or his own younger siblings.

Natalia eyed the small, portable game set Rhett pulled out of a pocket. “Only if I can be Myrddin.”

Rhett nodded easily.

“You’re like a child yourself, playing that game all the time,” Alec sneered. He’d been chewed out by his father for scoring such a low green on the written exam that it required a bribe to get him admitted, and he hadn’t wanted to come for the rankings release at all. It was making him even more abrasive than normal.

If he kept making rude comments to the others, Damien would have to tell him to shut up.

Rhett ignored Alec and found a nearby bench to commandeer with Natalia. The two young women who were sitting at it cooed over Rhett and his young companion, readily giving up their seats.

Ana gave Damien another hard look.

“I’m sorry,” he repeated.

She had told him about finding the girl crying that morning after one of her uncles called her “breeding stock,” as if she were too young a child to understand the implications. She’d decided to bring Nat with them to get her out of their house and away from the rest of her Family. The whole group of friends had been asked to keep the younger girl’s mind occupied, so she wouldn’t be too depressed about the University taking away her older sister—the major bulwark between Nat and the rest of her Family.

“I just worry. With me gone, she will bear the brunt of it all.”

“You won’t be gone entirely, Ana. Your home is only an hour away. You’ll see her every weekend, and if there’s an emergency, you’ll be able to rush home to deal with it.” Seeing that she was unconsoled, he had an idea. “You’re going into artificery, right? Why not make something that will let the two of you communicate more easily? Like a gold and crystal messenger bird that will take letters back and forth between you. Then you wouldn’t have to worry about what’s happening when you’re not there. Natalia will tell you everything. Knowing that girl, she’ll write till her hand cramps up.”

Anastasia brightened. “That’s a great idea, Damien! Well, not the golden bird, but something to make sure she can always call on me if she needs help. It’ll make it seem like I’m not really gone. I think I saw a pair of notebooks in that fine artificery shop in the Lilies. What you write in one appears in the other. The shop was marketing them to lovers, but they’d work just fine for the two of us, and they were only a few hundred gold, I think. I’ve still got plenty of allowance left over.”

“This is taking forever,” Waverly said, tucking away her book and lifting a hand to ward off the lukewarm sun. “I’m going to go see if the Elemental Conjuration professor is in her office. I have some questions about the Selby-Forman binding variation used in the Northern Islands during the Second Empire.”

“I’ll go with you,” Brinn hurried to say, hunched over a little as if to pretend he was shorter.

“You’ll miss the rankings!” Damien said.

Waverly waved a careless hand at him, her eyes half-lidded as if she might fall asleep where she stood.

“You can tell us where we placed when we get back,” Brinn said with a crooked smile. “I’m sure the rest of our rankings won’t be so spectacular that we need to see the number personally.”

Excited murmurs drew Damien’s attention to the rankings board, which a professor was updating at that very moment. His friends were immediately forgotten.

He hurried to push his way through the crowd, throwing a couple of elbows and receiving a few in return from those who hadn’t turned to see who he was.

Damien was no idiot with an overly inflated sense of his own intelligence, so he didn’t start from the first ranking down, rather from the three-hundredth up. He found his name quickly, only a few spots above the minimum requirement Titus had set in order to teach him that spell. A grin burst across his face.

He took the time to look for his friends’ names, too, and was moving to retreat back through the press of the crowd when he heard a sentence that snapped his head around.

“Professor Lacer took an apprentice?” a student said loudly.

Thaddeus Lacer? Are you sure? He’s never taken an apprentice before. I heard even the High Crown recommended a relative to him and he refused,” someone else said.

“It says so right here,” the first student said, jabbing a finger toward the much smaller list to the side of the rankings. It was a list of those with special accomplishments, such as being accepted as apprentices to the University’s various faculty. Professors could take one new apprentice per year, and were encouraged to do so at least every few years. The chance to be personally mentored by some of the most prestigious Masters and Grandmasters in their respective fields was just another reason a spot at the Thaumaturgic University of Lenore was so coveted throughout the country, and even by foreigners as well.

Damien shoved through the crowd toward the other list.

“I saw him, in his oral examination,” a girl said loudly, eyes gleaming as those around her turned to listen with interest. “He was performing some sort of spell for the professors. He looked…dreamy.”

Damien almost snorted aloud.

The girl drew out the pause, and those around her filled it with impatient questions.

“What does he look like?”

“What spell was he casting?”

“He must have experience as a sorcerer, then, to be casting before his first class? Maybe he was apprenticed to Lacer already?”

“Sebastien is tall, trim, and with hair like star metal, so fair it looks more silver than yellow. But his eyes are dark, and he doesn’t seem like the type to smile. A little brooding. Very handsome. And rich, too, since I’m pretty sure his suit was bespoke from Fortner’s. Definitely from an aristocratic family. I’ve never seen the spell he was casting before. There was a big ball of darkness and a floating fire, but the flame was blue, and I’m pretty sure it was detached from the Circle because it was moving around over his head. It was ever so impressive.”

Damien’s stomach did a funny flip as he listened to the description. Past all the purple embellishments, this Sebastien sounded awfully familiar.

He, too, had been in the waiting room when the door was opened onto the young man casting a spell during what should have definitely been just an oral examination, not a practical demonstration. He had recognized the platinum hair and the scowl from a few weeks prior, when the sharp-tongued commoner had gotten him chewed out by Professor Lacer. Surely it couldn’t be the same person, though?

“I haven’t heard of the Siverling family before. Are they local?” one of the gossiping girl’s listeners asked.

“Probably not,” she said. “I’m sure we would have heard of him before. He’s the type to stand out.”

Damien scowled, pushing past the gossipers to see the list with his own eyes. True enough, Sebastien Siverling’s name had been posted right there next to Thaddeus Lacer.

“That’s Damien Westbay,” someone whispered, and the group drew back, giving him a couple feet of space, perhaps wary of the stormy glower on his face.

The day he’d returned to Gilbratha to sign up for the exams, Professor Lacer had pulled him away from the other young man, and, away from the ears of the crowd, berated him. “Arguing with a commoner in public? And losing? You may be a member of the Crowns, but that does not afford you the ability to be so idiotically bullish, lacking any machination or cunning. You played into the worst stereotypes about the upper class. Have you never heard of noblesse oblige?”

“I wasn’t the one who started it. It was Alec, but I couldn’t just back down once that fellow started being so rude. Everyone would have seen that part of it, too,” Damien had argued.

“Are those the only two options you can see? Be publicly ill-mannered, or lie down like a meek earthworm and let a commoner walk on you? That was a perfect opportunity to be gracious and gain goodwill. Be glad I stopped you before you could make even more of a spectacle out of yourself. Your mother never would have been so foolish.”

There had been nothing Damien could say to refute that, as he couldn’t even remember his mother’s face, and he knew if Professor Lacer said it, it was surely true. They had been friends when they were younger.

So, shamefaced, he’d apologized.

“Apologies at this juncture are useless,” Lacer had snapped.

Damien glared at the name he could now match with those arrogant, dark eyes and the chin held so condescendingly high. He searched for Siverling among the rankings list, growing increasingly frustrated until he found him near the end.

Siverling had scored poorly on the written exam, a middling green that was barely acceptable. This seemed almost impossible, considering the display he’d seen and the fact that Professor Lacer would deign to take him as an apprentice.

Damien wanted to scoff, but if he was honest with himself, this revelation made his stomach burn. Suddenly his own accomplishment didn’t seem so amazing.

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