Chapter 157 – Shifting Topography

Sebastien

Month 3, Day 29, Monday 11:15 a.m.

Sebastien set The Daily Sun back on the bench where she’d found it, then stood in thought under the tree sheltering the area as small flakes of snow started to fall, melting soon after they hit the ground. Perhaps in the city below, they would turn to sleet or rain before they made it all the way down. It was always colder at the altitude atop the white cliffs.

The downside to Plan A was that it required a lot of planning, preparation, help, and what she suspected was a deadline she didn’t want to miss. The coppers hadn’t tried scrying for her since their sudden attempt drove her out of Gilbratha during the night. But it was clear they hadn’t given up, and she could think of no better time for whatever they were planning next than Ennis’s sentencing at the end of Sowing Break.

So, with some precautions to make sure it wasn’t traced back to her, Sebastien again slipped a note into Tanya Canelo’s cubicle, requesting a meeting at a discreet location in a couple of days’ time. Like Sebastien, the other woman was staying at the University over the break. The note had no signature, but Sebastien knew that Tanya would guess the sender correctly, and was equally sure that the woman would show up.

After that, Sebastien’s mind automatically searched for the next urgent task and found…nothing. She was strangely free, with no classes, no homework, and not even any exercises for Professor Lacer. Sure, there was always magic she could practice or study, but nothing with an urgently looming deadline that felt like a tidal wave about to crash down on her.

The most urgent problem is probably my shortage of coin. Liza is a black hole of greed. What could she even be spending it all on? And after that, some research and experimentation with the degradation of sympathetic links. And some curses.’ Plan A might not require her to do much personally, but she still needed to ensure that what she thought were clever ideas weren’t likely to backfire. Despite her issues with Oliver, the safest way for her to make a reasonable amount of coin in a short period was still selling alchemical concoctions to the Verdant Stag. And coincidentally, she now had time to work on the improvement to the philtre of darkness that she’d come up with before.

A cloud of darkness that only blinded the enemy could come in extremely useful for her own plans. And if she could figure it out, she was sure Oliver would pay a premium to get such an advantage over any potential enemies, including the coppers.

And that was how Sebastien found herself back in the library once more, this time surrounded by alchemical research.

Modifying alchemical concoctions wasn’t as straightforward as tweaking the spell arrays of modern sorcery. Alchemy was ritual magic, more like music than a mathematical equation. Each of the preparatory steps changed the whole in such a way that they couldn’t be switched out for something different without complex and possibly unforeseen consequences.

Sebastien knew there was some science to it all—whether to grind something into a powder, mince it, or tear off small chunks with your bare hands. It mattered how many times you stirred, in what direction, at what speed, and even the depth of your stirring implement within the cauldron. But she would be the first to admit that the principles were so opaque and seemingly inconsistent that it would probably take her years of study to understand well enough to create a theoretical concoction from scratch.

However, despite her lack of theoretical understanding, she had experience brewing dozens of simple concoctions, many of which used whatever components could be found within the area they were traveling, at whatever time of year they were passing through. She knew at least six different variations of a fever-reducing potion, a handful of pain relievers, and a dozen different concoctions to ward off different pests. Above all, she probably knew more tinctures, potions, sachets, salves, and teas meant to affect dreams and sleep than any alchemist in Lenore who didn’t have the privilege of access to the University’s entire library.

Sebastien might not understand the rules for creating concoctions from scratch, but she had a feel for how small changes required other adjustments to balance the results. Even if she couldn’t design the exact concoction she wanted on paper, she could experiment until she found one that worked. ‘Luckily, alchemy is less likely than a standard spell to fail horribly.

Sebastien frowned, remembering several times when, as a less experienced alchemist, her concoctions had failed. Sometimes simply by burning or turning into a questionable, foul sludge that no one with any sense of self-preservation would ingest. One memorable time, by erupting from her cauldron in a volcanic spew of foam.

Well, at least not the kind of failure that’s likely to kill the caster and everyone around them,’ she amended. But then she remembered several horror stories about the effects of incorrectly brewed concoctions. Her grandfather had tucked her into bed with one such tale about a childhood rival of his. The young man had been working his way through a complicated brew that took six months to complete when a simple mistake caused the concoction to form arms and legs and crawl out of the cauldron three months in. Somehow, Grandfather’s rival had accidentally added a branch taken from a dryad instead of mundane wood. The living potion had proceeded to eat his rival’s legs and maim three other people before someone managed to neutralize it.

Sebastien was also pretty sure she had seen an illustration of an exploding cauldron leveling an entire building in the book Professor Lacer had given her.

At least the type of concoction I want to brew…shouldn’t be dangerous?’ She cringed and rubbed her temples. ‘I’ll test it on mice first.

Sebastien had been studying for a few hours, making cryptic notes in her spider-scrawl handwriting, when one of the younger library administrators informed her that a letter had been delivered to her by runner. The young woman smiled prettily and handed the letter over, then tried to make some conversation about whatever Sebastien was studying, but Sebastien cut her off as soon as she saw the signature over the sealed mouth of the envelope. Titus Westbay had scrawled his name so that it would be difficult to sneakily open and read the contents without alerting someone—a cheaper, more convenient alternative to the formal wax seal.

Within was a simple agreement to meet if she was available immediately, at a location surprisingly far south, where the normal city began morphing into the more extreme poverty of the Mires.

Acid-sharp anxiety rushed through Sebastien’s veins. She had discussed a reasonable backstory with Oliver, who assured her there would be some small amount of documentation in the records to corroborate her existence as Sebastien Siverling. It would be suspicious if someone without wealth, backing, or formal education like her were to have too many records, after all.

She had prepared as best she was able, but Oliver had warned her that Titus Westbay was a tricky conversationalist, and, perhaps because of his job, skilled at getting people to admit to things they wanted to keep hidden. And all evidence pointed to the fact that he had some kind of vendetta against her.

Deciding to meet with him, despite the short notice and her own reservations, she immediately packed up her things. As she rode the transport tubes and then a carriage, she couldn’t help but run possible scenarios of their conversation through her head in endless permutations. Somehow, this was almost as nerve-wracking as going into battle.

Sebastien stepped out of the carriage into an area surrounded by dilapidated warehouses. ‘Why does he want to meet here?’ she wondered. And then, more darkly, ‘Perhaps it would be easier for him to make me “disappear” in a place like this.

Sebastien shook her head at her own nonsense and walked forward, looking for the elder Westbay brother. Soon enough, she saw people walking around with the standard metallic footsteps of the copper uniform. Ropes cordoned off access to a half-destroyed building, and while some milled around inside, others questioned the locals in the street.

One of the coppers, a short woman, noticed Sebastien and seemed to recognize her, waving her closer and hurrying inside. Soon after, the woman came back out with Titus Westbay in tow. She smiled brightly at Sebastien with a knowing, conspiratorial look that made Sebastien uncomfortable and had Westbay sighing with weariness.

Titus Westbay was taller than Damien, and despite the heavy workload his position must entail, the bags under his eyes were less obvious. However, he seemed to take similar care of his hair, which was perfectly styled without a strand out of place. Sebastien had met him before, after Newton’s break event, but was understandably too distracted to take note of little details at the time.

The man looked Sebastien up and down, and then reached out to shake her hand with a firm grip that she matched. Neither of them smiled.

“Apologies for the location,” Westbay said. “Some vigilante caused an incident. You requested a meeting, but I am too busy to set aside much time. Shall we walk while we talk?” He waved a hand past the crime scene and moved away before she could respond.

To Sebastien’s surprise, instead of heading north, he walked further south. She followed, but neither spoke. She had been right that the snow would melt before reaching the ground here, but after mixing with the dirt and filth of the street, it had left a wet, unpleasantly sticky film over the ground.

The dead carcass of a dog lay in a corner, stripped down to the bones and tendons, but no flies buzzed around it, and no maggots crawled through what little wet flesh remained. A woman sat next to the carcass, idly squeezing at an inflamed abscess on her arm until it dribbled green pus.

This area was outside of Oliver’s territory. Those that lived in the Mires under him were poor, to be sure, but he hired workers to keep the streets clean and the wells clear. Because of his loans, predatory though they might be, no one walked around with festering wounds or died of illnesses that a few gold could treat. In the height of the summer, things would look even worse here as the heat allowed things to fester, but within the reach of the Verdant Stag, conditions would probably only get better.

“The smell doesn’t bother you?” Westbay asked, drawing Sebastien’s attention back to him. He wasn’t using a perfumed handkerchief to cover his mouth and nose or making an overt expression of disgust like she had expected.

“It does,” she said. “But it won’t go away just because I don’t like it.”

He nodded slowly, but there was something mean in his eyes when he said, “I thought you might feel some nostalgia. You grew up similar to this, correct?” He waved toward a couple children racing past them on the street, their knobby, scarred knees visible through holes in their pants.

Her heartbeat sped up, but she kept her face and tone controlled. “Not exactly like this, but if you mean poor, then yes.” Did he think he would aggravate her into making a mistake? If this was one of the romance periodicals that some of the girls in her dorm liked to read, he would shortly be tossing a cheque for hundreds or even thousands of gold in her face and telling her to break off her friendship with Damien. Except the situation didn’t quite fit, because usually the one tossing the cheque would be the noble mother, and that would make Sebastien the commoner girlfriend.

Again, Westbay spoke without preamble. “I assume Damien told you about our conversation?”

“And Oliver Dryden, too,” Sebastien added dryly, a hint of a glare creeping into her expression as she stared at Westbay’s profile.

“Well, I will not apologize for that. Have you come to plead your innocence to me?”

Sebastien’s eyelids fluttered as rage flared up within her like a fire splashed with oil, but she did her best to press it back down into her stomach. “On the contrary. I wanted to meet you so I could impart some facts about myself and give you the castigation you are so clearly in need of.”

Westbay stopped, turning to face her with a slow, dramatic spin on his heel. “You are here…to castigate me?” His hands were in his pockets, making his autumn-colored uniform coat flare out slightly.

“And provide you with the critical information that your shoddy investigation failed to reveal,” she said, staring unblinkingly into his eyes. Her fingers were itching to grab her Conduit, but she restrained herself, keeping her hands still and clearly visible.

Westbay’s lips quirked up in the same condescending sneer that Damien sometimes wore. “Oh? This seems like it will be interesting. Go ahead.”

Oliver had explained that Titus Westbay was the type to keep pushing until he forced a response. Rather than trying to avoid digging into her weak points, it was better to give him that response from the beginning and steer their conversation in the direction most beneficial to her. If Westbay thought she was angry enough to lose control, it would seem more likely that she was being truthful. However, Oliver had also warned her not to overshare, as a story with unnecessary detail could hint at extra time spent coming up with the lie beforehand.

Truthfully, this kind of interaction was the area where Sebastien felt least skilled. But she had to get through it. Even if she couldn’t hope to make Titus Westbay like or trust her, he at least needed to believe her relatively harmless.

“It is true that I grew up poor, and sometimes desperate, and that I experienced things that linger in my nightmares to this day. I was an orphan, and my uncle took me in when I was too young to remember. He fed and clothed me, kept my hair dyed brown, and taught me, though I don’t know if we are biologically related or if he gave the title of “uncle” to himself out of kindness. I cannot ask him now because he is long dead.” The man she was talking about had existed and had been known to feed the local urchins of Vale. He had been a mediocre thaumaturge, and Oliver assured her that he had died in a gruesome way that left little evidence of his life behind.

“If my uncle knew the history behind my name, that, too, is lost to me. However, as far as I’m concerned, I have no claim or connection to any throne, historical or current. And if I did, I would try to get rid of it,” she added truthfully, grimacing at the thought. “Trying to rule must be ridiculously unpleasant and inconvenient. How is one supposed to wrangle all the idiots?”

She waved the thought aside and began to walk again, forcing Westbay to follow. “After the fire that killed my uncle, which I suspected was deliberately started by one of his rivals, I left Vale and spent a few years traveling from town to town, often under an assumed name. And at some point, I grew fed up with pretending to be someone else. I want my name and accomplishments to be remembered.”

Sebastien stopped, buying two slightly withered apples from the basket of a woman kneeling on the sidewalk. The fruits were small, wrinkled, and ugly, but not rotten—the last remnants of the previous year’s harvest. Sebastien bit into one and offered the other to Westbay, who declined with a dubious expression. With a shrug, she tucked the second apple into her pocket. “I’ve done a lot of research on you, too, you know.”

“Oh?”

She took a second bite, and then a third, chewing for a long moment as she built up courage for what came next. “I learned about you from those you’re closest to, and of course your background and circumstances are common knowledge. Anyone you pass on the street knows at least a few things about Titus Westbay. Hells, you’ve even been in the papers a few times. I didn’t even need to meet you to know how contemptuous you are.” She took a deep breath and spoke quickly. “You care more for politics and maneuvering for the favor of your father and the other Crowns than you do for justice. How many people have you unjustly arrested and imprisoned? You’ve slept with several of your servants and then fired them. I also heard you like quintessence of quicksilver a little too much, and maybe that’s what’s been—”

Westbay raised one hand to his forehead, and the other toward her, palm out. “Stop!” He took a deep breath and then lowered his hands “That’s the most ridiculous drivel I’ve ever heard. Who are your sources?”

Taking another bite of apple, she crossed her arms and raised a stubborn eyebrow. “Do you deny it?”

“Yes!”

She scoffed, looking around. Almost everyone in the street was watching them surreptitiously. Her accusations hadn’t been quiet.

Westbay stepped closer, lowering his voice. “Wherever you heard those things from—those close to me would never say such things! None of what you just accused me of is true. You cannot act as if you know everything about me simply—” He closed his mouth with a sharp click of teeth and stared at her for a couple of seconds. “Ah. I see I am making your point for you.”

She smirked. “Haven’t you learned at your age that rumors cannot be trusted?”

His eyebrows rose nearly to his hairline, and he reared back. “At my age? How old do you think I am?”

“Old enough to be treated like an adult and held accountable for your actions,” she said softly.

He took a deep breath, smoothed his fingertips over his hair, and looked around for a moment while settling his emotions. “That’s…fair.”

Sebastien did her best to hide her relief, but braced for the counter-blow that must be coming.

“Those who know me would never believe such malicious gossip. I can admit, those who know you defend you with similar vehemence. Damien beseeched me to keep an open mind. But I hope you can see that you seem…quite suspicious?”

Her apple pit was down to some hard bits and a few seeds, which she tossed into the gutter along with the rest of the filth. “You may see my background as a disadvantage, but I view it differently. My past taught me to be who I am. It seems like you’re worried that I want to attach to Damien like some sort of leech, but I…” She held out her empty hands, palms up. “I don’t need anything that he can give me.”

Westbay tilted his head a few degrees to the side.

“I look at the University students around me and I see naive, weak children. If I had never gone through hardships, I wouldn’t be magically weak, but I might still be naive. I wouldn’t have gained depth and the certainty that I can survive anything.” Her words came slow and precise as she stared him in the eyes. “I might bend, but I will never break. All Damien has is money and influence.”

Westbay snorted, holding a hand over his mouth as he looked up at the sky. He mouthed something to himself, then looked down at her again, his eyes suddenly narrowing.

His expressions were so mercurial that they left her suspicious. Some of them might not be real. Surely his emotions weren’t shifting so quickly?

“Was the plan to go after the Gervin branch lines your idea?” he asked.

Sebastien blinked, thrown mentally off balance by the non-sequitur, but at least she could answer truthfully. “It wasn’t. I did my best to mitigate the danger in the original plan and make sure we were prepared with options in case things went wrong. Mostly, they didn’t, except for Malcolm Gervin becoming so violent. But I know they could have. Professor Lacer already gave me a dressing down for putting myself in danger, but…Ana was going to do something, with or without my help. She’s very protective of her little sister, you know. Perhaps you can relate.”

“What did they do to Nat?” Westbay asked, his fingers twitching at his side.

“Nothing punishable by the law, as far as I know. If you want details, you should ask those directly involved.” Sebastien turned and began to walk again, her eyes roving the streets in an instinctual search for danger. Two wealthy men delving into the Mires without obvious protection were a temptation. Even just stripping them of their clothes could buy someone a few weeks of food. If these people knew who she and Westbay were, they would think twice, but she couldn’t count on desperate people to be either knowledgeable or prudent. “I understand you don’t like it when Damien is in danger, but there’s no way he would have agreed not to be involved. And if you really wanted to do something about Ana’s uncles…you should have gotten there first.” She sneered, watching him from the corner of her eye. “I won’t believe you if you tell me you never heard any rumors, that you had no inkling of crimes committed.”

Westbay didn’t flinch, the next question coming immediately. “You’ve admitted to visiting the Silk Door. Are you a patron…or an employee?”

Sebastien tripped over the edge of a tilted cobblestone and when she tried to catch her balance, instead slid across the wet film covering the road. If not for Westbay catching her by the arm, she would have fallen.

Her cheeks tingled with embarrassment. He peered at her suspiciously, and, more forcefully than she had intended, she spat out, “Neither! I have never sold my body for coin…or any other benefits!”

She looked around, again finding everyone watching them, and shook off his grip with a scowl. “Though would that be so horrible, if I had? Prostitution might be unpleasant and sometimes dangerous, but it’s honest work. It’s just another sign of the veil of nobility over your eyes that you think yourself fit to judge without the faintest hint of understanding.”

She drew herself up until, despite their equal height, she could look down on him. “I don’t have the free coin to patronize those who work at the Silk Door, either. I merely have friends who work there. If you find such associations distasteful…I don’t care.” She bit her tongue to keep herself from spewing even harsher words, reminding herself that her ire was meant to be at least partially an act. She couldn’t let his probing accusations unsettle her.

Again, the next question came without hesitation, almost as if he had come up with it beforehand. “You may not have sold him your body, but can you really say that you’re not aware of, and taking advantage of, Oliver’s feelings for you? Or that you aren’t attempting to seed an unhealthy attachment in Damien?”

“What?” She scowled with the darkness of an enraged thundercloud. “I’m not so alluring that anyone I interact with falls for my supposed charms. If anything, people find my personality abrasive and my honesty off-putting, and that’s if they don’t find my competence intimidating.”

He actually rolled his eyes at her, muttering something she couldn’t make out.

“I have little interest in a romantic relationship at all, and most especially not with Oliver Dryden. I don’t believe he feels for me the way you’re suggesting, and if he did…” She swallowed, her outrage dampened. “If he did, it would be in my own best interest to dissuade his interest with fervor.”

Westbay’s eyes narrowed and he leaned in as if magnetized by curiosity, but then his expression smoothed out again into perfectly mild interest.

“As for Damien, the fact that he didn’t immediately abandon me during the Defense exhibition isn’t an unhealthy attachment. It’s evidence of a modicum of observational skills and a good helping of actual friendship. He hasn’t had the kindness beaten out of him yet, though he does a good job of hiding it under his sneer.” Almost immediately, Sebastien realized that there were other things beyond the Defense exhibition that might count as seeding unhealthy attachments. Such as inducting Damien into a fake secret organization. But she certainly wasn’t going to bring that up.

“Why would it be best for you to avoid Oliver’s interest?” Westbay asked, his voice mild in a way she suspected was deceptive. In fact, she was beginning to wonder how much of the conversation had been guided by the man despite her resolution to outwit him.

“He is…manipulative. If he was really attracted to me in that way, I would probably find circumstances around me twisting to make me dependent on him, and only him. He’d try to make himself the center of my world and make me think it was my idea,” she said heavily.

“And he…hasn’t been doing that?”

Sebastien clenched her jaw. “I hope you’re not about to start jumping to conclusions that he’s a criminal or something, just because I admitted he’s not a perfect specimen of altruism.”

Westbay let out a single, barking laugh that seemed to have been surprised out of him. “Damien mentioned that he wanted you to come stay with us over the break. What are your current—”

Something knocked into Sebastien from the side, and her first instinct was to protect her pocket from sticky fingers reaching where they shouldn’t be, but as she flinched and turned, a spew of vomit arced from the mouth of the woman who had bumped into her.

The chunky brown and red liquid splashed against Sebastien’s legs and splattered down to her boots, some of it catching around the top of her boot, where it would no doubt seep inside.

Sebastien and Titus Westbay both stared in open-mouthed shock as she was doused with an amazing amount of stomach acid and rancid, half-digested food of indistinguishable origin.

 

Edit 5/25: Response to the Engagement Challenge: 100 Ways to Die has been stupendous and overwhelming. Thanks to everyone who’s participated so far, and if you haven’t, there’s still time. As apparently you have to be a patron to comment on the linked post, feel free to post any entries in the comments here.

I’m feeling a little better, not totally 100% but not enough to stop me from writing.

This chapter brought to you courtesy of The Honeymoon Suite side story. If you’ve read it, you have a feel for Titus’s personality and might be able to guess some of the things going through his head.

And secondly, 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. You can listen on the app, stream the chapters, or download them: https://www.patreon.com/posts/audiobook-free-70340810
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