Month 3, Day 29, Monday 9:00 a.m.
A mixture of euphoric eagerness and stomach-turning anxiety would have kept Sebastien awake, except for a careful dose of calming potion, taken once in the evening, and again in the middle of the night when she woke to refresh her dreamless sleep spell. It might not have been as effective as something like elixir of euphoria, but she liked to think she could learn lessons from her mistakes. No more addictive substances. Especially when it seemed like she needed them just to function.
During breakfast, a paper bird messenger fluttered down next to her plate. She unfolded it bemusedly to find a list of the classes available to second term students, as well as a reminder to make her choices and submit payment as soon as possible. Siobhan frowned. ‘Did they send these to all the students in Gilbratha? What a horrible waste of resources, just to show off. How much of my tuition payment goes toward things like this?’ They could have sent one of the student aides who was staying over the break out to deliver this message across the campus, and normal letters through the post office to those students who had gone home for a couple weeks of freedom.
In addition to the standard four core curriculum classes that everyone was required to take, there were an enticing number of electives, many of which had not been available to first term students. Modern sorcery had several broad branches of magic which one could focus on to receive a Mastery, such as artificery, divination, alchemy, and even witchcraft. Those branches could be narrowed down further into sub-specializations, like warding, which was technically a branch of artificery, but was very different from other sub-specializations, like enchantment or automation. From there, warding even had its own smaller branches of specific focus, including ward-breaking.
The class list reflected this, with several branching classes being offered from the introductory elective classes, which were either prerequisites or corequisites.
In addition to that, the University offered several other interesting electives, such as Introduction to Esoteric Magics, Kitchen Magic for Chefs, Advanced Spell Array Theory and Design, Introduction to Healing Theory, An Exploration of Animism, The Magic of Fate: Blessings, Charms, and Benedictions, and even Zoology and Horticulture.
They also offered several math-based options, which would be required for some of the more advanced classes people could start to take in their fourth term. She knew what Statistics was, but what about Advanced and Esoteric Spatial Calculations? ‘Perhaps you need that to learn space-bending magic,’ she postulated. But she had no idea what Physical Approximations in Mathematics could be, and Non-real Numbers and their Application didn’t even make any sense.
She selected Studies in Modern Magic, Natural Science, Sympathetic Science, and History of Magic, which she and every other student had to take for at least three terms, and which still had the same professors. Then, she added Elementary Practical Will-based Casting, which was only available to those who had passed the introductory class as well as received Professor Lacer’s permission to advance. Students who had shown the proper dedication and improvement may have passed, but not yet be considered ready for the next step. ‘Maybe that’s why Nunchkin had to repeat the first term class three times.’ Each term, Professor Lacer changed the spells taught in class, so repeat students wouldn’t be going over the exact same thing.
Sebastien hesitated over Defensive Magic. Professor Lacer only allowed her to take six classes, with her apprenticeship with him taking the place of the seventh. Which meant, if she wanted to explore something different, Defensive Magic was the only thing she could give up. But then, she considered the amount of times that she’d been in an altercation over the past term, and the sheer increase in survivability that came with being fit and familiar with what to do when the spells started flying. No matter how enticing some of the other class options looked, taking Defensive Magic was a matter of disaster preparedness.
And so, she handed in a class list that looked almost exactly like the one for her previous term, and with an aching heart wrote out a cheque from her new account at one of the local banks. Three hundred gold, gone just like that. ‘And…suddenly I don’t have that five hundred gold I promised Liza,’ she realized with a sinking heart. Adding up her account balance and the coin she had kept in readily accessible physical gold, she had a little over three hundred remaining. A small fortune, to be sure. Enough to support two people for a year, if they were more frugal than she had become. But not enough.
On the bright side, Oliver’s textile business would pay her again in a few months. If she couldn’t haggle Liza down, Sebastien could pay in installments, even if that meant doing more brewing for the Verdant Stag.
Perhaps whatever tribute Thaddeus Lacer had prepared for the Raven Queen would be valuable enough to cover the difference, but she wasn’t ready to meet him yet. Not until she had improved her current precarious situation and ensured his intentions were wholly friendly.
A woman at the administration center fed Sebastien’s class list into an artifact, which spat out a class schedule. She gave Sebastien a huge smile, said, “Exam and exhibition results for first term students are already up, Mr. Siverling. You might want to check them,” and then winked with exaggerated care.
Bemusedly, Sebastien walked to the announcement boards which were covered in fresh paper and tiny print. First, she searched out her name under the exhibition results. To her surprise, in addition to the seventy points from Practical Casting, she had received fifty contribution points for the Defense exhibition. A short explanation mentioned only “great leadership and a display of exceptional magical prowess.”
A tall, broad-shouldered form stepped up beside her, and Sebastien recognized Professor Lacer just fast enough to keep herself from jumping when he spoke. “Professor Boldon insisted that he would keep your smoking tree sculpture for himself. The scented smoke was a thoughtful touch. It probably accounted for at least ten of those contribution points.” He turned to face her, his hands clasped behind his back. “Do you have plans for any particular purchase?”
Sebastien quickly calculated her total. “I wonder if two hundred eighty-seven points can be exchanged for anything interesting.” She hadn’t checked the items on display in the Great Hall lately, but she remembered, in addition to the physical items, they had a book listing many more rewards, like better meals in the cafeteria, private dorm rooms, and if she remembered correctly, temporary access to certain sections of the library’s upper floors.
Professor Lacer’s eyes flicked back to the board. “You received one hundred points from Grandmaster Kiernan, correct?” When she nodded, he said, “Then I must tell you that students who placed in the top ten percent of their term receive extra points. You should recalculate.”
Sebastien’s eyes widened, and she walked over to the adjacent rankings board. She had indeed scored in the top ten percent. Somehow she’d even received a good grade in Defense, despite not actually finishing the practical portion of the exam due to Fekten’s interference. Perhaps that had actually helped her—the proctors making up for Fekten’s misunderstanding. It had been the class pulling down her average the most, and without its weight, she’d performed surprisingly well. A slow smile spread across her face. ‘And to think, just five months ago I scored only green five-fifteen on the entrance exam’s spectrum. That was barely passing, and if not for Professor Lacer, I wouldn’t have made it through the oral exam.’
“Next term, I will expect you to place in the top five percent,” Professor Lacer said. “I am sure you are capable.”
Her smile grew. “Of course.” She turned to face him, mimicking his stance with her hands clasped behind her back. “Do you think three hundred eighty-seven points would be enough to purchase instructions to an esoteric spell?” Learning to distance the output of a simple spell had greatly increased her utility, but it would be even better if she had more options that didn’t require her to make preparations like drawing out a spell array or brewing a concoction beforehand. Her makeshift paper tome had been useful, but even it couldn’t compare to the ease of casting her shadow-familiar, or even Newton’s calming spell.
He hummed, and she could tell from his expression that it was unlikely. Actionable records of esoteric spells were rare, since they were often passed down through oral tradition in families or from Master to Apprentice. She knew already that most of the ones the University had were held in the subterranean archives.
“How much would I need, do you think?” she asked, considering the feasibility of getting illegal access to a different part of the archives by bribing or manipulating one of the administration workers again. If she did that, she might even be able to snatch more than one spell. The only downside was the punishments that would come if she were caught.
Someone at the secret thaumaturge meetings might have an interesting esoteric spell, but she had determined to avoid those until things were safer, and a few thaumaturges sneaking around the law surely wouldn’t have the selection of the world’s greatest repository of information.
Professor Lacer thoughtfully rubbed his wild beard, which was getting longer than the close crop he usually kept it at. “Three hundred points just happens to be enough to buy an hour of my time, in which I could do you a small favor,” he mused. “I would be willing to escort you to an area of the archives with safe esoteric spells, where you could peruse until you found one that met your interest. Of course, knowing your judgment skills, I will have to approve your final choice.”
There were faint signs of a smile at the edges of his lips, and Sebastien suspected he was at least bending, if not outright breaking the rules for her. Not that she would complain about such a thing. “Can we go now?” she asked, rocking back and forth on her feet eagerly.
He let out a single chuckle that immediately turned into a poker-faced cough, but spun on his heel so that his long coat flared out. As he walked away, he waved for her to follow without looking back.
She hurried behind him, mimicking his confident and aggressive stride and ignoring the curious looks of the administration workers as they passed. None would dare to question Thaddeus Lacer.
Rather than one of the staircases to the upper floors, Professor Lacer led Sebastien to the reinforced door leading to the underground archives, where the truly interesting material was entombed.
As she followed silently behind him into the silent hallways carved from the stone of the white cliffs, she wondered what he might think of her recent actions and the admitted danger of her plan. ‘But if I am going to be in danger either way, isn’t it best to take action to try to change my circumstances?’ she reasoned. She was doing her best not to be reckless, to consider the variables and take safety precautions. And she had even considered the possibility of resolving the situation through social and political means, despite how foreign the idea felt. That was why she had reached out to the High Crown, though she hadn’t forgotten all the reasons she had avoided doing so before. Even if it didn’t work out, she needed to at least attempt to open up more avenues to resolving her problems. Perhaps Lord Pendragon, first and greatest of the Thirteen Crowns, would surprise her.
Yes, if her plan worked, it would change a lot for her and leave her with the agency to make choices instead of respond to emergencies, but it wouldn’t completely resolve her situation with Oliver and the secrets he was keeping. Even the thought of him and his puppet strings caused anxiety and anger to rise up in her chest.
She eyed the back of Professor Lacer’s head, noting the few strands of grey peeking through his black hair. If anyone were to have useful advice that would cut to the heart of the matter, it would be Thaddeus Lacer, wouldn’t it? He wouldn’t spare her feelings.
Hesitantly, Sebastien spoke over the echo of their footsteps. “Professor Lacer,” she began, “I have recently found myself in a difficult situation, and I would value your counsel.”
He spared her a look over his shoulder. “Elaborate.”
She took a moment to mull over her words. “I believe I may have been betrayed. Or, perhaps more accurately, manipulated?” She shook her head. “But I’m not sure. Perhaps I’m just blowing things out of proportion, seeing clues where there are only mundane coincidences. I know I need more evidence, but I’m not confident I can gather absolute proof of anything. And to be honest, I’m apprehensive about confronting this person directly.”
He slowed, allowing her to walk by his side as he studied her face for a few seconds. “Without knowing the details of your conundrum, I cannot give you specific advice. But I can, perhaps, provide guidelines through which you can attack the issue yourself.”
Professor Lacer was silent for a long few moments, reaching the end of the hallway and turning to the left. Finally, he spoke. “Many would advise you, if you value your relationship with this person, to simply confront them and communicate openly. But I have found this to be ineffective, unless you are in a clear position of advantage. Knowledge is power, and can be that advantage in mundane and life-altering conflicts alike.”
Fekten had said something similar in one of his lectures. “The greatest weapon in the battle to live a long life is knowledge,” she quoted in a murmur.
Professor Lacer quirked one eyebrow. “Indeed. Perhaps this is why the pursuit of truth is at the core of the Way. We have spoken about curiosity, the ability to relinquish ideas and beliefs, and the technique of twisting the knife of inquiry where it hurts worst. Your current issue moves further into the topic. I could say much about it, warnings and techniques and concepts, but I do not wish to overwhelm your fledgling steps along the path. Tell me, you already have a theory, correct? There must be evidence of some sort, or you would not hold suspicions.”
“I have no need of the details.” He waved his hand, as if shooing away a fly. “However, if you suspect betrayal, you must require outside corroboration or contradiction. If your trust in this person was great enough—based on past evidence of their loyalty or honor—to believe their assurances, you would either not suspect them in the first place, or would have confronted them immediately. That you are asking me suggests you believe they might lie to you. Correct?”
“Yes,” she repeated, a little stronger.
“And yet, you have some doubt. You could be biased toward suspicion because of insecurities, misunderstanding of the evidence, or an incomplete understanding of the situation. You may not know all the ways in which our thought processes are geared toward failure and our minds can lead us astray, but you are at least aware of the fact that you are susceptible to error. This is good. In my opinion, the thing that separates sapience from sentience is the ability to think about thinking, to recognize that your brain is an artifact of sorts with built-in flaws that lead to incorrect perceptions and conceptions. But most importantly, having understood that we are flawed, and in which ways, we can consciously correct for errors.”
He paused to look her over a moment, searching her face for something mysterious.
She nodded eagerly at him, urging him with her expression both to continue walking and speaking.
He snorted, but began to stride onward again. “You have a theory already, and this is not incorrect, but it is also dangerous. It is common, and extremely easy, to come up with a theory and then work toward proving it.”
“Rather than disproving it?” she asked. Gnorrish had talked about this. It was the duty of a natural scientist to try to disprove their theories, rather than prove them. Only in this way could they consistently make progress past their ignorance.
But Professor Lacer’s response surprised her. “No, that is not what I mean.” He stopped in front of a door, motioning to it. “Provide all the evidence that texts on blood magic rest behind this door.”
Sebastien blinked at him a couple times, then turned to the door. “Do they?”
“That is not what I said. I asked you to provide all the evidence toward that conclusion.”
She remained silent for a few seconds, and then said, “It makes sense that the largest repository of written knowledge in Lenore, if not the entire known lands, would have information on blood magic.” He nodded, so she continued. “This is a restricted section, where either powerful or dangerous knowledge is stored. From my somewhat limited knowledge and experience, these rooms beneath the library hold even more sensitive information than what is held on the upper floors. I have previously found hints at spells considered blood magic in another of these subterranean rooms. Also, you retrieved the Comprehensive Compendium of Components from a room somewhere down here, which could technically be considered a text on blood magic, as many of its entries cover the uses of totally illegal and unethical components. All in all, it seems more likely than not that at least one text beyond that door could be considered to hold information on blood magic.”
“Now, provide all the evidence that no texts on blood magic rest behind the door.”
She opened her mouth, then closed it again, her mind flipping uncomfortably. She believed her original argument more likely, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t argue in the other direction, even if it required some misdirection and even direct contradictions of what she’d just argued. “With the extreme aversion Lenore has shown to blood magic after the fall of the Third Empire, it’s likely that most texts detailing their methods were destroyed, either out of aversion or out of fear that someone might find them and use them. While these rooms are restricted, they are far from inaccessible, as I have proved. Any truly dangerous information would likely be held in a more secure location. As a professor, you would not lead me to a room filled with dangerous and unethical information.” She paused, eyes narrowed. “I think I see your point.”
He hummed. “Indeed. You need not attempt to disprove all of your theories, but to evenly prove or disprove them. This may seem obvious, but I state it because emotion can lead one to weight evidence unevenly. You have heard advice to attempt to disprove your theories because this is most likely to mitigate the failure of the average person’s natural tendencies. A researcher attempting to prove a new theory of magic or natural science is likely emotionally biased in favor of their theory, and thus the attempt to disprove it, as well as the requirement for peer review and experimental results to be duplicable, more often achieves unbiased truth. But you can also be biased toward disbelief. One who wishes to believe may ask, ‘Does the evidence permit me to believe?’ while one who wishes to disbelieve may ask, ‘Does the evidence force me to believe?’ If you know the destination you wish to reach, you have already arrived. Consciously remind yourself that above all, you wish to know the truth of the matter, whether it will surprise you or make you feel stupid, or even make you wrong.”
To her surprise, rather than opening the door, he turned and led her down the hallway again, to another stairwell leading down. ‘Just how big are these subterranean archives?’ she wondered. Each of the doors was labeled with a short string of letters and numbers, but they still didn’t seem to follow an exact order. To the uninitiated, it would be very easy to get lost.
“In addition to searching only for the evidence that supports one’s beliefs, a common error is to somehow find that all evidence proves your theory. For instance, it could be argued that a suspect acting guilty or secretive is evidence toward their crimes. But if they instead act unconcerned and unburdened, this could be evidence that they are attempting to manipulate opinion, and are in fact, guilty. Do you see the issue here?”
“Opposite evidence should lead to opposite conclusions. If the suspect acting innocent is evidence toward their guilt, then acting guilty should actually be evidence toward their innocence. If either option leads to the same conclusion, then the evidence doesn’t actually matter.”
He kept walking without turning to glance at her. “And if I suspect that my colleague has stolen my sandwich, but can find no evidence of food residue on their fingers or mouth, no witnesses of them near my food, no footprints that match theirs, and none of my divinations point toward them as the culprit… Is it reasonable to then assume that my colleague is simply extremely cunning and has cleverly avoided evidence of their deeds, having paid off all the eyewitnesses, destroyed all the crumbs, changed their shoes, and cast a preemptive anti-divination spell that I have never heard of before?”
“The lack of evidence…is evidence!” she said brightly. “Unless you have some other, really compelling reason to believe your colleague ate your sandwich, like the two of you are in a prank war of one-upmanship, then perhaps there is another explanation entirely. Maybe the simplest explanation is that you forgot your sandwich at home, or got distracted and misplaced it.”
“You continue to satisfy expectations, Mr. Siverling.” Professor Lacer stopped in front of a door that, to Sebastien, seemed no different than all the rest.
‘Is that…a compliment?’ It was such faint praise that, coming from anyone else, she would have labeled it an insult.
He waved his faculty token in front of a door and strode through as the wards lowered.
“Absence of evidence is evidence of absence. So, as you are investigating this betrayal, remember that your judgment is imperfect. Allow the evidence to change your mind in either direction, according to its weight, weak or strong. And it is best to be clear ahead of time about what direction any particular piece of evidence will sway your opinion.” He motioned for her to step past him, creating a bright light to hang in the air vaguely above her head and then crossing his arms.
This archive, like the other she had entered, was hewn roughly from the stone. The shelves that stood within were filled a scattering of books, but a disproportionately large number of scrolls, and even a few tablets and tapestries.
“As for how much proof one needs to be sure of something, that is a difficult question, because it is hard to properly quantify your own surety. However, it does do to be wary that we are prone to jumping to conclusion without sufficient evidence, or in the face of evidence to the contrary, our levels of surety remain much higher than they should. Do not be so complacent to believe that simply because you are more intelligent than the average person and also aware of this fallibility that you can easily escape it.”
‘If everyone followed these precepts, would the Raven Queen have gained her current notoriety?’ Sebastien wondered, her eyes tracking over what must be hundreds and hundreds of esoteric spells. ‘Would she even exist, or would she still be Siobhan Naught, desperate girl in over her head?’
Professor Lacer gestured to the shelves with his chin. “Well, go on. You only have an hour.”
Want to get an email with links as soon as a new chapter comes out on my website, or get monthly Inner Circle news about my writing? Sign up for your preference here: https://landing.mailerlite.com/webforms/landing/q4b8d8
Seeing a locked chapter that should be unlocked?: https://www.azaleaellis.com/trouble-accessing-chapters/