Chapter 150 – Mysteries and Missions

Sebastien

Month 3, Day 26, Friday 8:00 p.m.

Sebastien flipped through 100 Clever Ways Thaumaturges Have Committed Suicide as she returned to the dorms, skimming the entries and the simultaneously fascinating and often horrifying illustrations that accompanied them. Some of those whose mistakes had been considered worthy entries into the book were turned into Aberrants. Others died in a more traditional manner. Just as Sebastien was beginning to get sucked into a gruesome account of an alchemist who had tried to Sacrifice a potion to empower another potion with its effects, she arrived at her group’s dorm room and was distracted by the ant nest hubbub of the remaining students preparing to leave.

She found Ana at the far side of the room instructing some of her Family’s servants, who had come to help her pack up and move her things. Unlike Sebastien, who didn’t own more than would fit into the large trunk at the foot of her bed and the drawers of her bedside table, Ana’s belongings had filled the empty space under her bed as well as some shelving that she’d set up along the wall of her cubicle.

Sebastien had packed up none of her own things, as she was one of the handful of students in their group who planned to stay at the University over the break. If they were assigned new quarters for the upcoming terms, she would simply move her things directly—while of course making sure to erase the traces of what modifications she’d made to her cubicle.

When Ana’s things were all packed up and her servants were busy hauling them off, Sebastien sidled up to her, doing her best to act nonchalant.

Ana raised her eyebrows inquisitively, most likely seeing through to Sebastien’s underlying tension.

“I’ll walk you out,” Sebastien offered.

Ana smiled with pleased surprise, linking their arms together and leading the way.

Since Sebastien could think of no natural way to segue into her question, she simply asked. “What happens to the students who’ve gone insane from Will-strain?”

Ana slowed, but did not stop. “They are treated in the infirmary by some of the best healers in the known lands. The University will do its best to fix them.”

“And for those who cannot be fixed? Or those whose treatment will take months?”

Ana squeezed Sebastien’s arm tighter. “They will be sent to the Retreat at Willowdale. It is a long-term treatment center where they will receive the care they need while being given time and every opportunity to heal. My Family makes a sizable contribution every year to cover the costs for those who have no family or estate to do so for them, and I know several of the other Crown Families do the same. Sometimes, if there is no one to pay and the damage is severe enough for one of the more secure wards, the University will cover the costs. I cannot say what’s happened to them will be alright, but they will suffer as little as possible in their remaining time. Did you…know any of the students who succumbed?”

“I was just wondering,” Sebastien said quietly. There had been several more incidents of Will-strain as the end of the term descended, some more severe than others, and even some during the exams and exhibitions. Students had died, too, though the faculty did their best not to make a production out of that fact.

It would place a bit of a damper on the exhibitions, to be talking about all those who accidentally killed themselves trying to do something impressive.’ Sebastien knew the University had wards, guards, and emergency response policies in place to deal with the issues that arose from such a thing. Perhaps they even had more subtle protections in place, but she couldn’t help but think how dangerous it was to pack thousands upon thousands of desperate thaumaturges together.

Remembering the book Professor Lacer had gifted her, she postulated that things must have gone wrong quite a lot over the few hundred years of the University’s existence, and it could only be luck that none of the mishaps had been so catastrophic as to wipe it off the map. Aberrants were rare, true, but over time even low probabilities meant only one thing. There was a chance that something irreparable could go wrong, and so, eventually, it must.

Hopefully I will be finished with my schooling and long gone by that point,’ Sebastien thought. She shuddered, immediately realizing that kind of thought for what it was: a glorious temptation for the forces of irony. At least she hadn’t said it out loud.

Ana squeezed her arm again as they came to a stop at the top of the transport tube station, which bustled with people. “I don’t know if it would make you feel better, but the Retreat at Willowdale does allow volunteers to come interact with and entertain the patients. When I was young, I went there with my caroling group.”

A slow smile stretched across Sebastien’s face. “That’s a wonderful idea. Thank you, Ana.” She leaned closer to bump their shoulders together.

A few meters away, two girls squealed, obviously watching them.

Ana and Sebastien turned a simultaneous wrathful glare at them, and Sebastien wasn’t ashamed of the petty vindication she felt as the other two girls paled and looked away, not even daring to continue whispering to each other.

After extending an open invitation to visit the main Gervin manor over the break, Ana left.

When Sebastien returned to the dorms, she found Damien pacing in front of her cubicle, continuously smoothing his hair back even though not a strand was out of place. As soon as he saw her, he stomped up, grabbed her by the elbow, and dragged her out of the room. To her surprise, he marched them to the nearest bathroom, shoved an angled rubber stopper under the door to keep it shut, and then dragged her into the farthest stall.

“What’s wrong?” she asked, alarm tightening her shoulders.

Damien’s eyes were bloodshot and a little wild despite his otherwise impeccable attire. “Sebastien, I’m going to ask you something, and I need you to tell me the truth. Please.”

“Okay…?”

“Promise me.”

Sebastien swallowed her foreboding. “I will tell you the truth, or keep my silence. I swear it.”

Damien grimaced, obviously not appreciating her caveat, but didn’t argue. “Has Oliver Dryden ever made you uncomfortable, flirted with you, or attempted to get you to repay his help with sexual favors? Is he trying to coerce you into some sort of relationship?”

“What? No. What?” Sebastien had spoken before even considering her response, reeling from the completely unexpected line of questioning.

Damien stared at her searchingly. “Are you sure?”

For a moment, Sebastien considered the gifts Oliver had given her, the meals they had eaten together, and the conversations they’d had. But Oliver treated everyone like they were important and special. She had seen it, with his servants, random waiters, and even occasionally strangers he met on the street, regardless of gender or species. It was one of the ways he slowly and subtly gathered power. “I’m sure,” she said firmly.

Damien turned to try and pace again, though the stall they were in constricted his movement to only a single stride. He muttered almost inaudibly under his breath, “…so oblivious, would he even notice?”

Sebastien reached out to stop Damien, grabbing him by the shoulder. “Yes, I think I would notice. Mr. Dryden and I do not have that kind of relationship.”

“What kind of relationship do you have, then?”

That was the obvious next question, but it still took Sebastien aback.

“He paid for you to come to the University, didn’t he? You have no family, you said as much. And you were poor.” When Sebastien blinked at him, he scoffed impatiently. “Your clothes may be of good quality, and fashionable, but you only have a few sets. You couldn’t even afford a proper Conduit! Who else here so meticulously cares for their things, to the point of casting a mending spell at the first sign of a loose thread, or keeps any leftover components when we are done casting in class? Of course I noticed, Sebastien.”

As she wondered what explanation she could give that would fit the verifiable facts without being incriminating, she almost wished she’d gone along with Damien’s suspicions. “Where is this coming from?” she asked quietly. “Something happened.”

“Titus came—to pick me up, I thought—but actually to make some ridiculous accusations and warn me to be careful of you. He thinks you’re using your charm to manipulate Dryden. But one of his coppers told me that she thought Dryden was trying to take advantage of you, maybe abuse you. Titus was investigating it.” Damien tugged at his hair, mussing up the perfect style he’d been smoothing it into obsessively. “It’s all so convoluted and absurd. Do you remember when you dressed up as a certain infamous woman so we could get photos of Ana’s uncles trying to trade with her? Titus thinks we’re in some sort of relationship because the hotel employee noticed that we only used one room and tried to blackmail him about announcing my secret relationship with you. And the copper told me she saw Dryden with a prostitute that looks like you—he has some sort of obsession, a fixation. Apparently Titus confronted him and he basically admitted it. You can be really oblivious, and maybe Dryden was trying to keep it a secret, but you shouldn’t trust him so blindly, Sebastien.”

Sebastien reeled from the deluge of information, trying to organize it all in her head. “Titus was investigating…” She left the ‘me’ unsaid, suddenly nauseated. “Is there any particular reason that I shouldn’t trust Mr. Dryden, except for this nonsensical belief that he has a…‘fixation’ on me?”

“Isn’t that enough!? Why else do you think he would give you the coin needed to attend the University? I’m not stupid, Sebastien. I know how expensive it is. Did he give you your clothes, too? And he lets you stay at his home when you’re not here. Don’t you see that it’s strange? Do you have some other explanation?”

She hesitated, trying to come up with something plausible that wouldn’t contradict whatever Titus might have found. Could she say that she had agreed to work for Oliver after graduation, maybe? Or maybe it would be better to just go along with Damien’s version of things. But he would still have questions about her backstory with Oliver.

She hesitated too long, and Damien was watching her face the whole time. His hands fell to his sides, some of the nervous energy leaving him. “What kind of favor did you have Ana do for Lord Dryden?”

Ice flowed through her veins and stiffened her muscles.

“Because you told me that—” He swallowed. “That our mutual secret, the leaders wanted us to do it for more than Ana’s sake. And Ana mentioned offhand doing something for you that was really more for him.” Damien lifted a hand to his mouth, fingers pressing delicately against his lips as he stared at the wall of the stall behind her, lost in realization. Then his gaze snapped back to hers. “Is he the leader?” he demanded. “Myrddin’s balls, has he been the one giving the orders the whole time?”

“No!” Sebastien protested, shaking her head violently. “No,” she repeated, putting her sincerity into her voice. Suddenly, she realized that Oliver, too, had one of the thirteen-pointed star coasters that she’d made for herself and Damien. ‘Did he plan that, too? A token that would give him influence over one of the powerful Crown Family members, conveniently associated with the law enforcement that could give him so much trouble?

She shook her head again, casting off the errant thoughts. Oliver was also Lord Stag, who was closely connected to the Raven Queen. She could not afford to entangle Sebastien with him so intimately if she wanted to remain free of suspicion. Especially now that she had realized she could not trust him—that he might have something to do with the stolen book.

Oliver being the leader of her fake secret organization hit a little too close to the truth, and when things inevitably went south, as she was trying to remind herself would always happen at some point, she did not want Damien to draw the—correct—conclusions. She doubted his loyalty would extend that far.

“He is not the leader,” she said. “He’s not even a member.”

Damien’s eyes narrowed. “Is he…a provisional member?” His voice rose in pitch with delight. “Just like me? He doesn’t even have access and just does what he’s told?” Damien didn’t wait for her confirmation, turning to pace again. He threw back his head and smothered a laugh with his hand. “Oh, that’s better than I could have ever imagined.”

Sebastien considered denying Damien’s ridiculous mental leap, but then she would have to find some other way to explain the loan, their relationship, and the Gervin textile commission. This fit…and it would keep Damien’s mouth shut. Ennis had mentioned once that people were more likely to believe an explanation that they had come up with themselves. She cleared her throat awkwardly, both relieved and strangely guilty. “Well, yes. But between you and me, Damien, I’m not sure he’s going to be accepted as a full member. He’s philanthropic, but not as reliable as he might seem. It might be better if he just continues to do his part separately from our own efforts.”

Damien’s eyes were wide and shiny, and he smothered another crowing laugh.

“Titus cannot know about this.”

Damien nodded readily. “No one can know. Don’t worry, none will hear a peep out of me. But why isn’t Dryden reliable? Did he fail a mission?”

Sebastien raised an eyebrow and remained silent.

“Of course you won’t tell me,” Damien huffed. “It’s confidential, yadda yadda.”

“Do I need to worry about Titus digging into things he shouldn’t?” she asked.

That sobered Damien somewhat. “I don’t…think so? Mostly, he just seemed concerned that you were trying to use and manipulate me. I mean, he thought you were being so rude to me in the beginning so that I would notice and think about you. That way I would care more once you schemed your way to flipping our dynamic on its head and making us friends.” He caught her incredulous expression and laughed. “I know, it’s ridiculous! But he didn’t mention any suspicious activity, not even the part of Operation Defenestration everyone knows about.”

“But he dug into my background?”

“Yes… He said you were an orphan who experienced a lot of hardship and learned how to make hard choices and see the world differently because of it.”

Well, that was at least partially false, but this whole situation was concerning. She needed to talk to Oliver. ‘Was this what the note he sent a couple days ago asking to meet with me was about?’ He had people in Harrow Hill who might be able to warn them if Titus was getting too close to the truth, and he was the one who’d actually spoken to the man. As much as she’d wanted to avoid him until she’d learned more about whatever he had secretly stolen, it looked like she wouldn’t be able to put it off any longer. She would have to bury her hurt and suspicion deep and hope he wasn’t able to see through her.

She had been silent too long, and Damien asked, “Is that a problem? I know you don’t like to talk about your past. He didn’t tell me any details, Sebastien.”

“It’s fine,” she said.

“I was going to invite you to spend the break with us, but I’m not so sure that’s a good idea anymore.”

She let out a humorless laugh. “I’ll be staying here over the break. I already planned to do that, even before all this.”

“I’m not sure how much use I can be, but if you need me to help throw him off the trail somehow, I’ll do my best. And while we’re speaking of it, are there any new missions from the higher-ups? What am I doing next?”

Sebastien’s eyes flicked away as she tried to think. It was a little too much at once, and she hadn’t considered what to do with Damien now that Operation Defenestration was over. She should have known he would be getting restless.

“There is something!” he stated triumphantly. “Just tell me. I might still be a provisional member, but I’ve proved I’m trustworthy, haven’t I? I can be quite useful. Otherwise, I’ll just spend the whole break practicing magic, studying, and dueling until I end up surpassing you. And then maybe Professor Lacer will decide to take a second apprentice…”

She was ignoring him by this point, because she’d had an epiphany. “There is a mission,” she said, interrupting him. “But I was going to take it myself. It’s a ton of work, and will take a very long time.”

Damien crossed his arms and thrust his chest out in umbrage. “I can handle a real project.”

“The mission is to compile all records of rogue magic incidents that have required the involvement of the Red Guard, within a twenty-kilometer radius of Gilbratha and the last thirty years. Include detailed information noting when the records of the situation before do not exactly match the follow-up report. Also, when someone who hasn’t shown signs of ‘corrupted Will’ is suddenly revealed to have been secretly experimenting with things they shouldn’t. And finally, take special note of when the details of any immoral experimentation are vague.”

Damien’s eyes widened. “Like Newton.” It wasn’t a question, and she didn’t answer it, continuing on with her instructions.

“I imagine you’ll be reading a lot of newspapers. Take note of when the explanations are worded the same or extremely similarly. Keep note of the authors of any relevant articles. Note how the Red Guard responded to each incident, and search for patterns.” She lifted a finger, the idea for this mission solidifying in her mind as she spoke through it. “Those are the generalities, but as I said, this is a large project. It must be approached in steps. First, and perhaps most tedious, you simply need to make a thorough compilation of all records you can get access to. If you find anything interesting, don’t start digging deeper. Just make a note of it for later perusal during the actual research and pattern-finding phases. I’m not sure how much of this kind of thing will be public record. If you can, you may need to use your connection to the coppers to get access to more complete records. Discreetly.”

Damien remained silent for a few moments, and then said solemnly, “I accept.”

But she was already worried, remembering what had happened to Newton. “This is dangerous, and not just as a hypothetical,” she warned. “It might lead to serious consequences for you if the wrong person becomes suspicious. It is not safe,” she reiterated.

“I understand.”

She didn’t think he did. How could he, when he didn’t know what she knew about the Moore family? “If you dig deep into this, you will almost certainly learn things that are dangerous simply to know. And when I say that, I am not exaggerating. Even worse if you were to somehow let slip any information. Deadly dangerous, horrifyingly dangerous,” Sebastien said, putting as much gravitas into her tone as possible as she reached out and squeezed his arm a little too tight. He needed to understand.

Damien had gone a little pale, but his jaw was firm. “I can guess at the kind of things I might uncover just from the mission parameters.” He spoke in a low murmur, as if they might be overheard despite his earlier precautions. “Newton is the one that triggered the higher-ups’ interest? Well, whatever there is to find out, I want to know, too. And if I complete this… It seems like a big enough mission to make me a full member.”

He nodded to himself, turning away just in time to miss the dismay that Sebastien knew she hadn’t been able to keep from her expression. “Be careful,” she said as he opened the stall door.

She hung around awkwardly as he left, wondering if she could take back the mission as she listened to him complain about how someone should really invent luggage with little legs that would follow its owner so one didn’t have to lug their belongings around personally. “Or at least wheels, damn it,” he whined, huffing and puffing until Sebastien had mercy on him and took two of his stuffed-full bags into her own hands.

She watched him ride down the transparent tubes, then turned back to the darkened grounds. There was another thing that she needed to investigate. The first step was finding the few people who had survived the archaeological expedition into the Black Wastes. “The Retreat at Willowdale, hmm?” she murmured aloud.

 

I can’t believe we’re to chapter 150 already.

Anyway, if you want to read the conversation between Damien and Titus that happened just prior to this chapter, that bonus content is coming soon. I’ve almost finished writing it and should have it posted in a couple days.

Edit 3/30: If you’re having trouble accessing chapters that should be available but seem to be locked, it’s likely because your browser has cached an old version of the page. Troubleshooting steps: https://www.azaleaellis.com/trouble-accessing-chapters/

Liked it? Take a second to support Azalea Ellis on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
3 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments