Chapter 153 – For the High Crown

Sebastien

Month 3, Day 27, Saturday 8:15 a.m.

When Oliver arrived at his destination, he offered to have the carriage drive Sebastien back, but she declined.

With the map of the city that she’d attempted to memorize, she was able to find the nearest post office, where they had letter-writing stations and would deliver one’s post to anywhere in the country—for a fee. It was the kind of thing she couldn’t have afforded before coming to Gilbratha. Not that she had anyone to write, anyway. She and Ennis had traveled so frequently, she had learned early on not to get too attached.

She could only rely on herself.

At the mail office, Sebastien wrote two letters on the nicest paper they had to offer. One to Titus Westbay, and one to the Retreat at Willowdale. To the treatment center, she introduced herself and tried to seem like a bleeding-heart type who cared deeply even for those she’d never met. She wanted to visit and spend time with the long-term patients, as she’d read in a recent study—which she cited—that normalizing their lifestyle and interactions with others could help to ease disturbed minds. She could read to them.

To Titus Westbay, she was more succinct.

Finally, she bought two of the most popular local papers and took them to a room at a cheap inn nearby. ‘It’s good to shake up my normal routine. Especially because now I know someone might be having me watched.

Within the privacy of the rented room, she put together a third message using letters cut from the newspapers, with the mending spell joining the letters to the page in a coherent, neat order, much better than trying to paste them on by hand. When she was finished, she folded the message inside a thick envelope and cast the shedding-disintegration spell on the whole thing so that it couldn’t possibly be used against her.

The envelope was addressed, in big block letters from the newspapers’ titles, “For the High Crown.”

She considered using a messenger to deliver it, or even just sending it from the local mail office, but either would find such an envelope strange, and both would want to see her face, which could lead an investigator back to her. Either method seemed likely to get her reported by some suspicious do-gooder, but spending fifty gold on a Lino-Wharton raven messenger was too much. She might have more monetary leeway now, but throwing gold around with no assurance of a return on her investment would lead her right back into poverty.

Then she thought of simply delivering the message to Harrow Hill herself, perhaps taking advantage of a late-night shift change and affixing the envelope conspicuously near the entrance. She had been halfway through an elaborate plan to avoid being tracked by dogs or prognos after the fact, which would have required more research into anti-divination spells, some battle philtres, and a winding, two-hour walk through the nighttime city, when she realized there was a simpler solution.

All she needed was a trustworthy messenger to send it on her behalf. One who knew not to ask questions.

Normally, Sebastien would go to Oliver about such a thing, or even Katerin, but she didn’t want him to know. He had been interested in facilitating her meeting with the Architects of Khronos, but that had been for his own gain. The High Crown was an enemy to Oliver in truth, and she doubted he would take kindly to any plans to negotiate with the man. Oliver had never wanted her to give up her copy of Myrddin’s journal.

So Sebastien kept the letter to the High Crown and sent a runner to someone else—with a very different note. After taking the time to eat lunch, she found an artisan who could create something specific for her, in lieu of her destroyed seaweed paper tome. Back at the winding, narrow street of the Night Market, she bought another dowsing artifact and a used but high-end battle wand, since her last two had been confiscated by the coppers. With the license from Professor Lacer, it was no longer illegal for her to carry. All that plus a dramatic dress made of velvet that was only wearing thin in a few places cost her almost one hundred gold, with the battle wand being the most expensive. Now, she could afford such an expense. As long as Oliver’s textile business continued, more would come at steady intervals. This was the kind of necessary purchase that could definitely save her life.

All the time, she watched for a tail, but couldn’t quite relax even when she found none. Many of the things she had used to transform into Silvia weren’t safe anymore, but the experience had taught her how useful some simple aids could be to disguise her identity—even in her original body—and so she picked up more makeup and a few cosmetic items.

Back in her cheap one-day room, she continued preparations. The new dress she dyed a deep scarlet that edged on black. When the sun had begun to slide over the horizon, she transformed into Siobhan and dressed herself as Silvia, with pastel-colored clothes and lips, a few carefully applied wrinkles around her eyes and mouth, and a sweet smile. She even lightened her hair to a softer brown. Examining herself in the mirror was like looking at yet another stranger. All her colors seemed to match each other in tone. ‘If I were photographed, I would blend into a nondescript middle grey.’ Only her eyes stood out, but those would be hidden by the evening darkness.

She left openly, walking without haste with her senses tuned for any hint of pursuit. Halfway to her destination, she stopped at a different inn and changed into the Raven Queen’s outfit: no wrinkles, hair a blue-black that shimmered like a raven’s wing and sprouted feathers, the dark dress, and lips painted dark enough to match it, as if she had been feasting on the corpse of her prey. She tried a smile, and it looked sinister and savage. Her pitch-dark eyes fit so much better in this face. It all disappeared under the shadow of a cloak with a deep hood.

From there, she activated her new dowsing artifact to search for a piece of velvet from her dress and thus utilize the divination-diverting ward’s side effects. This dowser was nicer than her last and had a few different power settings. The strongest would empty its charge faster but also do a better job of hiding her, should it become necessary.

Finally, with a deep breath, Siobhan crawled out of the window, having unfortunate flashbacks to her first day in Gilbratha. She had fallen backward off the wall of that rundown inn after sneakily retrieving her items from the room Ennis had rented, landing on her pack and knocking the wind from her lungs.

This time, at least, she made it to the ground safely. The night was chilly, but her purpose warmed her.

As she had promised in the note sent earlier by runner, she walked up to the front gate of Lord Lynwood’s mansion, where a guard was stationed in front of the wrought iron metal.

The man didn’t notice her until she was directly in front of him, only the bars between them. When he did, he reeled back in shock, but recovered with impressive alacrity. He bowed deeply to her, one hand pressed to his chest, where his heart must have been pounding. “Welcome, Queen of Ravens. We are honored that you grace us with your presence.” Without even looking up, he fumbled with the gate’s latch and pulled it open for her with a grating creak of unoiled hinges.

As Siobhan entered, he waved her toward the front door, peeking at the darkness under her hood despite his obvious inclination to look away. “I am Wilbur Johnson, my queen. I cannot tell you how overjoyed I am to meet you in person. I burn incense to you every evening, and write down all I remember of my dreams every morning. Each Sunday, I feed the ravens in the park. Fresh white bread, fruit, and raw meat.”

They had reached the front door, so she stopped, turning to him with a raised brow that he couldn’t see past her cloak. ‘What in the greater hells is he talking about?

He opened the door for her, continuing to babble. “Yesterday, my efforts bore fruit. I was able to come awake while dreaming for the first time. I prayed for your guidance, but I woke too quickly.”

“Come awake while dreaming?” she asked, stepping inside.

“Yes. I have been training. There is a dream-shaman in the neighborhood that preaches the methods.”

Gera rounded the corner at a fast walk at that exact moment. Siobhan immediately felt the increased pressure on her ward, as she always did in the woman’s presence.

The prognos woman’s single large eye was tight with worry, despite its sightlessness, and she stopped a few feet from Siobhan and Wilbur, mimicking his earlier bow. “Mr. Johnson, did I not warn you about delaying our guest? Back to your station at once!”

The man hesitated, but Gera had already turned her attention to Siobhan, gesturing for her to lead the way down the hall. “Is the drawing room acceptable?”

Siobhan agreed wordlessly, somewhat reluctantly leaving this Wilbur and his talk of waking dreams behind to take the same path she remembered from her previous visit.

Unlike the last time, the drawing room was empty except for a couple of servants. Neither one would meet her eyes, both staring studiously at the floor.

“Lord Lynwood will not be joining us, I take it?” Siobhan asked.

Gera flinched. “My apologies. He is on a trip at the moment, and we were not able to retrieve him on such short notice. But your message did not specify that you required his attendance. I am happy to discuss whatever brings you here, my lady.”

Nodding idly, Siobhan took a seat in one of the ornate, plush armchairs furthest from the fire and pulled back her hood to reveal her face. Gera offered her food and drink from prepared platters, or anything else that the servants might be able to retrieve for her, but Siobhan refused with a wave of her hand.

Gera hesitated, then sat across from her, her back straight and her hands primly cupping her knees. “I believe we are even,” she said.

Siobhan tilted her head to the side in a silent question.

“I know that you saved my subordinate, just as I saved Sebastien Siverling.”

Siobhan was careful to keep the confusion from showing on her face. She didn’t remember saving anyone, but thought it probably wasn’t a good idea to admit as much. Gera’s subordinate had probably been saved coincidentally while there was a raven around or something. If Gera knew, then maybe Siobhan would owe her. “I agree,” Siobhan said. “We are even.”

Gera deflated an inch or so with obvious relief.

“I came to see if you would like to enter into another agreement. Well, two, actually. Each optional, one simpler than the other,” Siobhan said.

Gera tensed again. “I am listening, my lady. Please, speak freely.”

“Send your servants away. This is a sensitive matter, and I have come to doubt their ability to keep their tongues still.” Gera grimaced and apologized but complied immediately, and Siobhan continued. “I have a letter that I need delivered, discreetly. To the High Crown.”

Gera hesitated. “Is that…all? Does it need to be left on his pillow, or in his pocket, or in his daughter’s crib or something?”

Siobhan forced down an incredulous laugh, responding in a serious tone. “No. I simply need him to read it.”

Gera seemed more surprised than relieved. Was the woman actually disappointed? “I…can manage that.”

“Good.” Siobhan ran a forefinger delicately over the shell of her ear, drawing attention to the feathers sprouting seamlessly from her hair. “Secondly, I need a thaumaturge who is both powerful and discreet. This could be you personally, or someone trustworthy under your command. This person would cast a certain spell at a certain time. It will draw extreme attention to their location, and they will need to escape without being caught. If they are caught, they will likely be arrested and questioned in connection with my own actions. It is a dangerous task, but should be easy enough if the person is competent.”

“What is the spell they would cast?”

Siobhan suspected Gera was coming up with some strange ideas. “It is a simple enough spell that I would teach them myself. It is not harmful to either the caster or those nearby. In fact, its purpose is specifically to draw a certain kind of attention.”

Gera’s blind gaze was strangely penetrating. “Drawing attention away from you?”

“Well, more or less. The caster would be placed at a remote location, with prepared escape routes, and if you wish, guards. It will draw the eyes of the entire city.”

Gera nodded to herself. “I could do this. Would you owe me a debt?”

“Not an unspecified one. I have a particular boon in mind. In return for these two favors, I have a new spell that could benefit Millennium. You mentioned that his visions continue to grow stronger as he matures, and spells that once worked to allow him sleep become less useful. There may be a time when the current solution ceases to work. I am developing a spell that allows one to trade their sleep to another, without harm or consequence. It should entirely, and safely, eliminate Millennium’s current problems, independent of the increasing strength of his visions. It could allow him to reach full maturity, no matter how many years that takes. By then, his mental and magical strength should have grown enough to handle the visions even during sleep.”

Gera’s eye had grown wider as Siobhan explained.

Siobhan paused, the flickering light of the fireplace warming one half of her face while the other sat in cool shadow. “Of course, if you do not want access to this spell, you need not accept.”

Gera hesitated. “I am interested. But is it necessary for me to decide on the boon right away? It is possible that what you have already done for him will be enough.”

Siobhan remained silent for a while too long, partially as a way to show her displeasure. Finally, when the air was as thick as honey and the fine hairs on Gera’s arms had risen, she said, “I do not agree to owe unspecified favors. If you choose no particular boon, you may still do me a favor, but I would be the one to decide how to repay it. You may not enjoy the results.”

“I will choose the sleep spell,” Gera said quickly.

Siobhan smiled and roughly outlined the details of her plan, including the date.

None of it helped Gera to relax, but the woman seemed determined. “I will take on this task myself. I do not wish there to be any ambiguity.”

Siobhan gave the barest of smiles. She stood, pulling out a piece of red wax from her pocket and using it to draw a spell array on the surface of the low table between them. “Are you familiar with summoning magic?”

“I dare not say I am.”

“This spell is simple. Even a child could cast it, at low power.” She explained it once and then had Gera repeat the instructions and intent to her, which the woman did with the same eager nervousness many students showed in front of Professor Lacer.

Siobhan, feeling that their business was settled, sat back. “How is Miles doing? I wondered if I might check up on him.”

Before Gera could reply, a thump sounded from one of the cabinets on the far side of the room.

Both women startled, and Siobhan stood with her Conduit gripped firmly in one hand, and the other ready to retrieve her new battle wand from her boot, where she had tucked it before coming. It was charged with an impressive thirteen charges of the standard three offensive spells—stunners, concussive blasts, and slicing spells.

A small boy spilled out of the cabinet.

“Miles!?” Gera said, clutching her chest. She looked fearfully at Siobhan and then back to her son.

Siobhan relaxed, her lips twitching with amusement.

Millennium’s skin shone faintly golden, subtle enough to be from the application of a shimmering lotion, but she knew it was a result of his fey heritage. His undertone was less sallow than the last time she’d seen him. His eyes were bright and alert, and even as she watched, a bright flush rose up from his neck and turned his whole face red.

He clasped his hands in front of him and looked down at the ground. “I apologize for my dishonorable actions.” With a quick peek up at Siobhan, his flush grew redder, and he bowed even more deeply.

Siobhan’s lips twitched harder, and she stopped trying to hold back her smile. “Rise. I am not angry over this little bit of mischief.”

Gera was visibly doubtful, but perhaps she could sense Siobhan’s amusement, because after a moment she released her grip on the cloth over her heart. She glared at her son, fear giving way to anger at his misbehavior. Still, she held herself back from scolding him.

Rising from his bow, Miles examined Siobhan’s face, and his own broke into a wide smile. “I’m very glad to meet you again. I have been hoping you would visit!”

“If you plan to secretly gather information in the future,” Siobhan said, “you might do better to use a stealth or reconnaissance spell than to hide in a cupboard.”

“Is that an offer? Will you teach me a stealth spell?” he asked shyly, as eager as Theo often was but with an entirely different manner.

Siobhan calculated his age. Based on appearance, he might be ten or so, but prognos and cambions both matured more slowly than humans. And chronic lack of sleep could have stunted his growth. “Are you already learning magic?” she asked.

“I have been meditating to strengthen my mind and prepare my Will for casting. I started out with a candle flame as a focus, but I like using a wind reed much better.” Struggling to meet her gaze from a combination of shyness and her ward, he held his arm out with a suave flourish that somehow reminded Siobhan of Lord Lynwood. “If I might invite you on a tour of my home? I would love to show you our interesting things and, um, get you caught up on what’s transpired since your last visit.”

Gera let out a strangled noise and gave a tiny shake of her head.

Miles glared at her, then immediately smiled at Siobhan, his expressions shifting like sand. “It’s only proper to give guests a tour.”

Siobhan wasn’t sure whether Gera simply didn’t want her spending time with her son or if the woman was hiding something she feared Miles might reveal. “It would be my pleasure,” she said.

The boy shuffled over to her, then gestured for her to walk with him. “We’ll go to my room first,” he said in a soft voice. His room was on the second floor, with a balcony overlooking the inner courtyard and gardens.

Gera followed behind them but didn’t enter or speak.

Miles introduced Siobhan to a few of his more interesting toys and belongings, including an hourglass of euphonic sand that made a pleasant tinkling as the grains fell against each other, and a vial of scent that smelt very pleasantly of ozone and sleep. He smiled proudly when she said so. “My uncle and I made it together. It took a long time to get just right.”

Under his mattress, a huge spell array was carved into the floor. “That’s what the Pack thaumaturges use to help me sleep. At first, it was a little creepy to have them standing over me every night, but I got used to it, and the scent helps me relax and feel safe. But it would be better if someone would sleep with me.”

At the doorway, Gera raised her fingers delicately to her lips, frowning.

“Ah, I know just the thing for that,” Siobhan said. “All you need is a leather flask filled with hot water and a pillow with the right shape.”

Millennium’s eyes widened with curiosity. “I only have rectangular pillows, though?”

“Well, you will need a few, then. Three at least. You can attach them together like this,” she said, demonstrating the shape with the pillows on his bed. “Two for your back and legs, and one to wrap around you like an arm. You put the hot water flask inside the one at your back or feet, and go to sleep like you’re being hugged.”

“Whooah,” Miles exclaimed, his eyes even wider. He turned to Gera. “Mother, I need you to get someone to make a hugging pillow for me as soon as possible.”

She sighed. “I will set your nanny to the task.”

Miles took Siobhan to the garden after that, where small paths were lined with soft-glowing lamps and servants watched them furtively from the back porch and through the mansion’s windows. Gera trailed further behind, in sight but at the edge of hearing. Siobhan recognized several of the garden’s plants as useful spell components, most mundane but a few magical, which required a permit. “This is my favorite place,” Miles explained solemnly. “Especially at night, when the city gets quieter. I can almost hear the heartbeat of Gilbratha itself, underneath all the clamor.”

They sat on an ornately carved stone bench, both listening silently for minutes on end. The moon was almost exactly half full, and hung above the edge of the white cliffs, mostly obscured by clouds.

Finally, Miles murmured, “I can hear them gossiping about you, you know.”

She hummed. “And what do they say?”

“Everyone has all these crazy ideas about you. Some of our people have been lighting incense to you on little altars. My nanny is one of them, even though I told her you can’t hear her even if she calls your name three times in the dark. You can’t, right?”

“I cannot,” Siobhan agreed.

“And you can’t curse people with nightmares of their greatest fear? They say you enter the dreams of those who offend you, and when you kill them there, their hearts stop in real life from fear. That’s not true, right?”

“I have never killed someone like that,” she agreed.

“But could you?”

Siobhan hesitated. She knew quite a lot about sleep and dream magic. She was sure she could put together a curse that caused someone to have nightmares if she really wanted. “I don’t think they would die from fear unless their heart was already quite weak.”

“My mother thinks you’re dangerous. But I told her you’re way nicer than people think. They’re just scared because you like the dark and you look a little strange.” He gestured to his ears, indicating the feathers. “My mother says you’re a black hole of nothingness, like a scar walking through the world. She says I’m never to make any promises to you, or ask for any favors. I think she’s worried if you like me too much, you’ll steal me away to go live with you. Or maybe eat me.”

Siobhan raised a wry eyebrow. “That does seem excessive.”

“She’s irrational. But she won’t listen to me when I tell her you’re not dangerous.”

“I would not agree that I am harmless, but neither am I the hazard many people seem to think. And I do not eat little boys,” she said with a small smile, poking him in the side.

He smiled brightly for a moment but quickly grew serious. “But being associated with you can still be dangerous, right?”

Siobhan was surprised. After a moment of hesitation, she said, “Yes, I suppose so.”

“They may be lies, but ideas have power,” Miles murmured.

She nodded slowly, standing from the bench to look up at the stars, visible through a gap in the clouds. “They do. And if you tell a lie enough times, it becomes the truth.” She turned to wave at him, then reached into the expensive, enchanted replacement satchel she’d bought after losing her last one. She increased the power output of her dowsing artifact until the force was enough that she needed to actively empower her divination-diverting ward.

Miles’s eyes tried to track her but quickly wandered away and did not return.

Siobhan walked further into the garden, reaching the shadows of the surrounding stone wall. When she was sure that she was unobserved, she walked back to the wrought-iron gate at the front. Wilbur the guard was still there, watching the street. She considered speaking up and startling him, but eyeing the space between the gate’s bars, she had an idea.

Moving slowly, she put her head through first, and then angled the rest of her body sideways. It was a bit of a squeeze, but she slipped through easily enough, and her bag of supplies followed. She pressed a hand to her waist, feeling for her ribs. They didn’t exactly stand out, ridge by ridge, but there was little padding over them. Perhaps Oliver had been right, and she had lost a little weight.

Still unobserved by the gate guard, she slunk away.

 

Author Note: I thought I had something to say, but if so I’m too tired to remember it. This week has been a battle against fatigue. I really need the sunlight to come back.

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