Month 3, Day 27, Saturday 7:30 a.m.
Oliver was in a hurry that morning, rushing off to a meeting with some new business contacts across the city, and so Sebastien joined him in his carriage.
She watched him carefully, trying to divine—metaphorically—his secrets, his thoughts, his feelings.
As soon as they began rolling, the carriage wheels and horse’s hooves clattering against the cobblestones, Oliver spoke. “Titus Westbay, commander of the coppers, came to visit me.”
Sebastien’s stomach churned sourly, empty for long enough that it was trying to devour itself. “He came to visit Damien, too,” she said dryly. “Apparently, he made some very interesting accusations.”
Oliver cringed and cursed. “By all the greater hells. I swear I did my best to dissuade him.”
“What did he say to you?” she asked, keeping her tongue from tripping over itself with hard-won restraint. “Is my identity as Sebastien Siverling compromised?”
Oliver’s foot bounced up and down. “No. I’ve thought a lot about this. My people did good work fabricating your information from the beginning, and from my conversation with Titus…if anything he’s a little too convinced that you really are a Siverling.”
“What does that mean?”
Oliver coughed with uncharacteristic awkwardness. “Well, it’s somewhat convoluted…”
Sebastien had absolutely no patience for prevarication. “Tell me what you spoke of, from the beginning.”
Oliver drew himself up, took an excessively deep breath, and spoke rapidly. “First, he accused me of paying your way through the University in exchange for sex. I denied it, but apparently one of his people saw us together on the first night we met, when I intimated that we had been so ‘occupied’ that we couldn’t answer the door for the coppers searching for you. So he accused you of being a prostitute. I was able to convince him that it wasn’t you, but ended up trapping myself and had to agree that I have an unfulfilled obsession with you, to the point that I’d hire a prostitute that looks similar.”
Sebastien choked on her own saliva and sputtered, wide-eyed, but he continued with the explanation at breakneck speed, reaching into a drawer beneath the seat and taking out a canteen of water which he handed to her as he spoke.
“He asked about how we met, and I said you were an orphan I stumbled across while traveling and then decided to sponsor. But then Westbay started making strange, insinuating comments, and giving me a history lesson. Apparently the Siverling name…isn’t as innocuous as we thought. Various small clues point to the possibility that King Krell, who ruled before the Blood Emperor, had a daughter who married a Siverling and gave birth to a child who survived the culling. Thus, the Siverling line would be the last surviving blood of the Krell line, and some might say the rightful heir to Lenore.”
Sebastien closed her eyes, her head reeling. “You’re obsessed with me, and I’m the secret heir of some king from hundreds of years ago?”
“Well, not really an heir. Just the closest equivalent.” Oliver raised his hands to stop her response, taking the opportunity for another deep breath. “This isn’t as bad as you think! Lord Westbay actually doesn’t care about any of that, and most other nobles wouldn’t, either. It’s not nearly enough of a plausible claim to threaten the Thirteen Crowns. In fact, the whole conversation was more of a ploy to try and get a response out of me by insinuating a threat toward you.”
Sebastien wondered how this blindsiding blow could get any heavier. “What threat, exactly?”
“Well, that you would be in danger for political reasons…and that you had contact with a Blight-type Aberrant as a child and could be a danger to those around you. I thought he was trying to blackmail you into being bait for the Raven Queen…but in the end it turns out he was spouting nonsense just to get a rise out of me, to gauge how far I was willing to go for our relationship. You see, for some reason I believe he’s under the impression that you’re trying to seduce his little brother.”
Sebastien had been trying to settle her scratchy throat with a drink of water, and choked again, this time unable to keep herself from spraying it out in a fine mist over her lap. She doubled over coughing until her eyes ran with tears.
Oliver crouched over her with worry, slapping her back.
‘If anything, he’s just knocking the water back down into my lungs. Just like always, acting like he’s helping but actually making it worse.’ She waved him off, refocusing her mind on the most important aspect, and when she could speak again, rasped. “He thinks I was infected by a Blight-type?”
Oliver opened his mouth, but didn’t speak, instead tilting his head to the side.
“When, where, what effects?” she asked, staring at him without blinking despite her watering eyes.
“When you were a baby, the town near Vale that got encapsulated in a sundered zone. Spalding, I think he said? I don’t know what the exact effects were, but you shouldn’t worry about that accusation. There is no evidence, and even he doesn’t actually believe it. He said as much himself.”
Sebastien relaxed marginally. Such an infection would be a death sentence, and rightfully so. Luckily, she had no involvement with that incident. “There’s no way the anomalous effect wouldn’t have spread by now if that were true,” she agreed. “Now let’s go back to how the last name you chose for me is practically designed to draw attention and trouble from the most powerful people in the country. What a strange coincidence,” she said flatly.
Oliver closed his eyes and grimaced. “It’s my fault. I didn’t pay enough attention when I was picking the name.” He opened his eyes, fixing her with a pleading expression. “I thought it was old, vaguely high class, and there would be no living members to protest your existence. It’s not like the Siverlings themselves ever had any noble claim, and even if they had, there’s nothing beyond rumors that would suggest anyone actually did escape the culling. And even then, even if some remnant did remain, not any longer, after the incident in Spalding.”
Sebastien stared at him, contemplating his earnest features. ‘What would Oliver gain from me being mistaken for someone with an extremely vague claim to rule Lenore? I suppose, if I was to make a name for myself, with connections like Thaddeus Lacer and the high class students at the University, I might be of use to the kind of revolution he’s planning. A “legitimate” icon to endorse his actions, for those who care about such things to rally around.’ Despite Oliver’s denials, this seemed more likely than the alternative—that he had made such a coincidental mistake.
The manipulation, just another secret meant to control her, made her dizzyingly angry. But at the same time, it was almost a relief. Because this was a long-term plan, and it meant he had use for her that didn’t require her current meager magical expertise or even the Raven Queen, both of which they had agreed would be best to distance her from.
Sebastien nodded slowly. “Okay.”
“Really?” Oliver exhaled, falling back against the seat across from her. “I thought you would definitely be irate.”
“Oh, I am,” she said with a small quirk of her lips. “I think you’ll agree that you owe me a rather large favor to make up for this?”
Oliver let out a breath in a soundless laugh. “Large? I don’t think it’s—” seeing her expression, he cut off and nodded rapidly. “Large. Yes, a large favor. That’s what I owe you.”
Some of her anger seeped into her tone, deepening her voice and sharpening the edges of her words. “Please don’t forget. I certainly won’t.” A large favor from a person like him could be useful, though she wasn’t sure she could trust him to actually deliver on his promise. Asking him to take a blood print vow would likely make him suspicious, and she couldn’t afford to do that until she knew the truth. Maybe not even then. She took a deep breath, rolling her shoulders back and letting her emotions settle deep inside with a tingle that raised the small hairs across her body.
Oliver shifted uncomfortably under her gaze.
“So Titus Westbay is suspicious of me and has been digging into my background and interrogating or threatening those close to me. Did he learn anything that we actually do need to be worried about? What if he goes searching for Sebastien Siverling’s nonexistent childhood?”
Oliver nodded. “That is the point that’s most concerning. When we spoke, there were no hints that he knew about either of our less-than-legal activities. Or at least not that our current identities had anything to do with those activities or the people behind them. I don’t think he has anything on either of us. But if he were to really go digging, he might find that no one remembers Sebastien Siverling, talented orphan with the white-blonde hair. There’s only so much faked records can do.”
“But there’s nothing magic cannot do. Perhaps you could send someone to plant a few memories.” It couldn’t be harder than erasing memories, and she had seen the effects of that spell first-hand.
Oliver raised his eyebrows. “Is that actually possible? I don’t think Liza can do that. It certainly would have come in handy a few times so far, if so. I have no contacts with such a skill. Perhaps more reasonably, we should come up with a believable story. We need to be proactive without being visibly re-active. Too much fuss could make us seem guilty, like ants scrambling around after their hill was kicked.”
“A reason that I have no memorable ties to this world,” she mused.
“Rather depressing, isn’t it?”
“Not at all. My Will, it will tie me firmly to this world long after even memories have turned to dust.”
Oliver was silent for a moment, then shook himself as if the chill air had seeped into his body. “That is quite bleak, even for you.” He turned around and pounded a fist against the ceiling area behind the driver to signal the carriage to stop. “There’s a meat pie stall that opens quite early,” he explained. “You’re beginning to look gaunt, Sebastien. Have you been eating enough?”
“Three meals a day at the University cafeteria,” she replied succinctly.
“And is that enough for you? How much time do you spend casting compared to the other first term students? And you’re quite tall. Maybe still growing, even.”
“I’m fine,” she assured him with irritation. Could she be still growing? She had no idea the biological age of Sebastien Siverling’s body, but she knew that some men could have a final growth spurt as late as twenty or twenty-one.
Oliver looked pointedly down at her hands. “Your fingers are trembling, Sebastien. When was the last time you had a proper meal? And if I had to guess, you got at most a few hours sleep last night. At worst, none at all. You realize that this, too, increases your need for sustenance?”
Her fingers were indeed trembling—faint tremors that she hadn’t even noticed. ‘Hunger, or withdrawal?’ she wondered. ‘Surely, enough time has passed that it shouldn’t be withdrawal? I even took that detoxifying potion to deal with lingering side effects.’ But even as she thought that, she acknowledged how wonderful even a tiny speck of the beamshell tincture would feel at that particular moment. It would make everything so much easier, if she just had it’s lightning-bright energy crackling through her. ‘But I don’t need it,’ she told herself firmly. ‘My Will is enough.’
Still, as soon as she got the meat pie in her hands, the scent summoned cramps through her stomach and flooded her mouth with so much saliva she felt nauseated for a moment.
Oliver tossed a few extra coins to the stall owner as payment for the tins the pies were cooked in, so that they didn’t need to stay and eat.
Sebastien ate quickly, stuffing herself until her cheeks bulged out as Oliver spoke, mannerly enough not to speak with his own mouth full.
He explained his conversation with Titus in more detail, then moved on to solutions. Surprisingly, he had already come up with a feasible backstory for her. He’d had several days to worry and think about this already, after all. His version wasn’t too different from her real history—sans Ennis—and had just enough detail to seem realistic while being vague enough to stay hard to verify. It only needed to be adjusted slightly for anything she might have mentioned about her life as Sebastien.
She shook her head quickly and swallowed. “I don’t talk about my past, or my childhood. Anything that I’ve mentioned would be vague at best, and nothing should contradict.” If someone was truly determined to find fault, even the best backstory wouldn’t stop them. She finished her second pie and washed it down with more water from the canteen.
With a small smile, Oliver handed her his own second meat pie. “I already ate some toast before leaving,” he said.
Sebastien was halfway through it before realizing that Oliver had lied. Sharon hadn’t yet arrived to work when they had left, and Sebastien’s room was close to the kitchen’s ceiling. She thought she would have heard if Oliver were puttering around below her. Sebastien took another vicious bite, uncaring. This was the least he could do for her. “I think I should go on the offensive, rather than let Titus continue whatever digging he’s doing behind the curtains.”
“What do you propose?”
“I’m going to request a meeting. It’s a reasonable response from someone that finds out a person has been digging into their backstory and trying to malign their character with those close to them. It would probably be stranger if I just ignored it.”
Oliver nodded thoughtfully. “It wouldn’t fit your persona.”
Sebastien snorted around the last bite of meat and crispy crust.
“What about Thaddeus Lacer’s request for an audience?” Oliver murmured. “Do you want me to turn him down, since the Raven Queen will be lying low?”
Sebastien stilled, swallowed, and slowly shook her head. “No. I’ll handle it.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m…not sure yet,” she admitted. It was risky, but his request felt like an opportunity she couldn’t afford to let go. At the worst, Lacer probably wouldn’t turn her in. And if, somehow, things went well, he could be the kind of ally that even Oliver Dryden couldn’t match. Really, the risk lay in her uncertainty about what he wanted from her.
But she had decided to stop allowing things to happen to her. In the same way she could preemptively prepare for disaster, Sebastien would aggressively confront both secrets and threats. For what felt like the first time in a long time, she would take control.
And once she had it, she would never let go.
This was a difficult chapter, because I didn’t want to end up rehashing the content of The Honeymoon Suite side novelette, but needed to ensure those who haven’t read it can still understand what’s going on. I’ve done my best for the moment.
Edit 4/20: I just got the almost-final audio files for A Sacrifice of Light (Book 3). If you’re a patron at the Grandmaster of Divination level ($25), you can listen 1-3 weeks early, while I review the book, minor final edits are made, and before it’s gone through the upload process to go live in stores. After it’s live in stores, that patronage tier will instead give you a free Audible download code for Book 3, just like 1 & 2.
If you are an audio lover, it’s a very good deal. The files are processing at BookFunnel right now and should be ready soon. When they are, the link will be added to this page: https://www.patreon.com/posts/audiobook-free-70340810