Month 3, Day 29, Monday 4:00 p.m.
Sebastien took a half-step back, but reached out to steady the woman when she swayed and heaved again. The arm under her hand was distressingly thin, so little muscle or fat covering the bone that she could have easily wrapped her fingers all the way around with room to spare.
“Oh, no, no,” the woman moaned, then heaved again.
Sebastien’s first thought was that Titus Westbay had arranged this for some impenetrable reason.
The stench was nose-searing, but held none of the distinctive scent of alcohol. Other substances that might cause a backlash like this weren’t so distinctive, but as the woman rose, Sebastien quickly cataloged that her nailbeds were not flushed but blue with cold, and her eyes were slightly unfocused but not overly dilated. She wasn’t a user of either of the common, cheap substances that caused nausea, and the vomit itself contained none of the foam that would have accompanied legal sources of ipecac syrup.
The woman drew her arm away, clasping her hands together in front of her chest. “Oh, my lord, I’m so sorry. Please forgive me.” Her eyes struggled to focus, but as she looked at Sebastien she grew only more anxious. “Oh, your clothes, so fancy—are they ruined? Oh no, oh Myrddin no—I can’t—”
Sebastien reached out and gripped the woman’s cold hands within her own. They were so small. Sebastien adjusted her estimate of the woman’s age. She might even be younger than Sebastien. But the starvation drawing her skin tight around her skull, cracking her lips, and painting deep bruises beneath her eyes made her look older.
“Do not worry,” Sebastien said. “This little bit of mess is nothing, I swear. I can clean it with a few quick spells, quick as you snap your finger, and these clothes will be as good as new.”
The girl cringed, her voice hoarse as she whispered, “I’m so sorry, Master Sorcerer. I beg your forgiveness.” The fabric of her skirt trembled as her knees shook from weakness, fear, or a combination of both. If this situation had been set up, the girl was a wonderful actress. But in any case, the starvation was real.
Sebastien considered continuing to argue that she wasn’t angry, but changed her mind. “You shall have my forgiveness if you answer my questions truthfully and agree to a few demands.”
The girl tensed up, silent, and Sebastien took the opportunity to turn her head to Westbay, who was watching the whole thing with his mouth hanging slightly open. “I believe I’ve said everything I need to you. I know you’re busy, so feel free to return to your investigation.”
Then, she turned back to the girl, who nodded reluctantly, no doubt assuming Sebastien was going to enact some sort of revenge on her. “Where’s the nearest healer?” Sebastien asked the girl, who stammered out some vague directions and then offered to lead Sebastien there, as she didn’t know the address. Sebastien agreed, as she’d never gotten around to memorizing the layout of the entire city, and the Mires were convoluted.
She kept the girl’s arm tucked within the crook of her elbow for balance, and they walked slowly, because the girl was too weak for Sebastien’s usual long-legged stride, with occasional pauses for the girl to heave out a little bile.
Instead of returning to work, Titus Westbay followed along silently behind them. This was irritating, but Sebastien couldn’t be bothered to argue with him.
Sebastien continued asking questions of the girl, learning that her name was Betty and that she lived what Sebastien considered a pretty typical orphan waif life.
Betty had a residence, so technically wasn’t homeless, but it was only a spot in the corner of a wooden shack that she shared with several strangers. For coin, she did odd jobs where she could find them. Betty didn’t admit it, but it was likely that she stole or prostituted herself to make up the difference. But when winter hit, things got harder for everyone, and sometimes the weakest didn’t make it.
Betty had last eaten that morning, but when questioned about the meal, grew reticent and could only say, “It was a kind of…pie thing. All chopped up and mixed together.” Then, mournfully, “I can’t believe I threw it up.” Even the thought had the girl heaving again, the effort leaving her panting for breath and her face as pale as death.
Sebastien had fresh water for her to sip, and mint oil, which she dabbed on Betty’s temple and chin, but nothing to truly control the nausea. Even a pain potion would come up again before it could do much good. When they arrived at the healer’s, Sebastien turned back to Westbay. “Must you continue following me? If there is something further you wish to speak about, you may send me a letter, or even set up a meeting for a later date. As you can see, I am busy.”
Westbay grinned at her, his hands tucked in his jacket pockets. “Oh, no. There is no way I’m missing this. Whatever this is.”
Sebastien grimaced at him in disgust, turning away from him to push open the healer’s doorway. “None of the rumors mentioned that you are a sadist who enjoys watching the suffering of ill children.”
The healer ambled out from a back room, his eyes sliding over Betty to focus on Sebastien, and then on Westbay who entered behind her. “I’m honored by your presence at my humble establishment. What can I do for you, my lord?” he asked, bowing obsequiously deep, though his eyes were peeking at the vomit soaked into Sebastien’s clothes and chilling her legs.
Sebastien scowled, putting a hand on Betty’s arm to guide her to a seat. “She has food poisoning.”
The girl’s eyes widened, but she nodded, unable to speak past another dry heave that had green-tinted saliva pooling into the hand she cupped in front of her face.
Sebastien grimaced. Left unsaid was that Betty had probably taken a risk with that “pie thing” because she was literally starving to death, and couldn’t afford to be picky about what she ate. Without treatment, it could be enough to kill her, most likely through dehydration, but if not that, from the lingering weakness that would make it impossible to provide for herself without help.
Sebastien knew what it was like to be so incredibly hungry that normal reticence about what you would eat, or what you would do to be able to eat, fell away. For a time there, after Grandfather died and before Ennis found her, she, too, had eaten whatever she could. Food that was dirty, half-rotten, or meant for the animals. She’d gotten sick a few times until her stomach adapted. Eventually, she’d become wiser about how to get what she needed, but that got her caught and put in jail for beating a wealthy, fat little boy to steal from him.
“She’ll need a stomach soother, a pain reliever, a nourishing draught, and if you have one, a bed for the night. Check to see if she has a fever, as well.” Sebastien was already counting out the coin for the potions. Licensed magical supplies were too expensive, but it wasn’t as if Sebastien could bring the girl to a Verdant Stag apothecary with the Lord Commander of the coppers following her around.
She shot Westbay a peeved look as she almost emptied her coin purse. “Actually, since you are so starved for ‘entertainment,’ perhaps you should be the one paying for Betty’s treatment.”
Mouth opening and closing like a fish, Westbay pointed to himself, and then Betty, and then back to himself. “Wait, you think I— But you—”
The sick, half-starved girl was looking around with wide eyes, stammering questions about what was going on that Sebastien ignored. Somehow, Betty seemed to have missed the fact that they were going to the healer’s for her sake. She tried to get up, but a single sharp glance from Sebastien was enough to sit her back in the chair.
“And a thorough diagnostic, as well?” the healer asked obsequiously, his eyes on the gold in Sebastien’s hand. “There’s been obvious starvation, which could lead to damage in the digestive system that needs to be repaired.” He flinched back from Sebastien’s expression.
“How much?” she asked.
Before the man could answer, Westbay stepped forward. “Titus Westbay,” he introduced himself perfunctorily, but he was staring at Sebastien with a considering expression. “Send the bill to me at the manor.”
The healer basically tripped over himself to see to Betty, who tried to protest but was quickly silenced.
Sebastien remained for a few minutes after the first round of alchemical concoctions, sitting beside the thinly cushioned pallet that would be the patient’s bed for the night and watching the visible signs as Betty’s nausea and pain eased.
The girl took Sebastien’s hand in hers, pulling it into her lap. “Thank you so much, my lord. It’s the greatest fortune of my life to have met someone as kind as you. Is there…any way I can repay you? Any way at all?” She bit her lip, her eyes seeming a little too large in the gaunt frame of her face.
“Westbay’s the one who paid for you, so you owe me nothing. Don’t even bother to worry about the coin. He has plenty.” She looked to Westbay, still standing on the other side of the room, and narrowed her eyes speculatively. “So much so that he could easily afford to give you a few coin to get you through the next week or two. Right?”
Westbay’s eyebrows rose, pinching together in a strange, confused mix of surprise, frustration, and suspicion. “Really, Mr. Siverling?”
“Siverling?” the girl repeated, obviously recognizing the name.
“Really,” Sebastien repeated firmly. Again, it was Westbay’s fault that she couldn’t suggest the girl find temporary housing or even possibly a job in Verdant Stag territory.
Westbay’s eyes flashed with a hint of something, and his lips stretched into a faint smirk. “Alright. You may come by Westbay Manor tomorrow evening and pick up a few coin, Miss. I’d love to hear your story.” He stared challengingly at Sebastien, as if they were playing a game of chess and he had just trapped her king.
She peered at him with pity. Did he think she would be shocked just because he’d invited a commoner to his home? That didn’t make him any less of an arrogant snob.
Perhaps he saw this judgment on her face, because his triumph slipped away and was replaced with surprise and confusion.
The girl tossed around more effusive thanks and attempted offers of repayment, but when the healer returned with his diagnostic artifact and the first nourishing draught, Sebastien took her leave.
Outside, she shivered as her wet clothing made itself known again. She looked left and right, noted the lack of carriages for hire, and spent a couple seconds searching her memory for the best path back toward the University that was likely to pass by a reasonably priced restaurant or food stall. Some place where the smell of vomit wouldn’t inconvenience the other customers. Her stomach felt terribly, achingly empty, and she wanted to stuff herself until even the thought of more food made her ill.
“How did you know it was food poisoning?” Westbay asked, stepping up to the curb beside her.
“It was easy enough to rule out the other common causes of explosive vomit. I may not be an investigator, or Aberford Thorndyke, but I have eyes and a working brain.”
She shivered again, then retrieved the folding slate table from her bag and drew a quick spell array to suck the liquid out of her clothes. With her Conduit in her free hand, she carefully ran the slate table over her lower half, letting the water coalesce in a small puddle around her feet, while the air chilled even further by the spell’s use of heat energy dispersed in the breeze. The spell was meant to combat the misery of traveling in the rain, not to actually clean anything, and had left most of the vomit behind, only dried. This was a marked improvement, even if it had pulled some of the disgusting paste deeper into Sebastien boots and left her skin itchy.
Westbay had watched the whole thing as if she were some kind of fascinating anomaly, like a talking toad. Truly, he was beginning to irritate her more than Damien ever had. Sebastien walked forward, heading in the direction that would lead her into an area she knew better and could navigate more confidently.
Westbay walked beside her, matching her stride as if it was natural. “Betty was a very conveniently timed interruption. Don’t you need to find some way to bathe and wash your clothing? Or change into something else? A spare copper uniform, perhaps?”
“Are you offering me a spare copper uniform?” she asked. Being able to impersonate a copper might be useful at some point. But, no doubt, she’d be expected to return the clothing. And go to one of the copper’s substations to pick it up. “Never mind, I don’t want it. Some vomit is not the end of the world. I can make it back to the University without fainting from the horror of it all.”
“Are you truly trying to tell me this wasn’t all a ploy to gain my interest and sympathy?”
Sebastien stopped, turning to stare at him. Her left eye twitched as she tried to keep her anger and disgust contained in her belly, but some of it boiled up. “You think far too highly of yourself.” Before a full diatribe could slip out, she turned on her heel again and walked away more quickly this time.
Westbay hurried to catch up. “Is that a no? I’d ask if you’d be willing to state that under a ward against untruth, but that boon from the Raven Queen is very convenient.”
Sebastien drew in a sharp breath.
There was a pause, and then Westbay said, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have brought up such a traumatic event. That was too far.”
‘So he doesn’t actually suspect my connection with her?’ “You said that…just to get a rise out of me?” she asked aloud.
“I apologize. Somehow, I do actually believe that the whole thing was unplanned. Do you do things like that often? Helping the destitute, I mean.”
“Of course not. That was an exceptional incident.”
Sebastien examined his expression, trying to gauge if that was a serious question. “Because without help, that girl had a good chance of dying. And I just happened to have the thing she needed—gold. I may occasionally be accused of being a miser, but even I can admit that a person’s life is worth a little inconvenience on my part.” The cost for Betty’s treatment would have been covered in just one or two days of brewing potions for the Verdant Stags. “And in the end, I didn’t even have to pay.”
“Would you consider yourself a philanthropist, then? Like Mr. Dryden? Or, excuse me, Lord Dryden?”
Sebastien snorted. “To the contrary. But even I can’t just ignore someone right in front of me.” She shut her mouth and pressed her lips together. That had been a little too honest. The whole point of this meeting was to make herself seem less suspicious, after all.
But Westbay only said, “I think you might be surprised how easy many people would find it to practice deliberate blindness. May I ask, where is it that you are headed?”
“To a food stand.”
“To buy the girl a meal?”
Sebastien side-eyed him. “To buy myself a meal.”
“Would you be amenable to some company? My treat.”
Sebastien stared at him suspiciously for a few long, silent seconds as they waited for a carriage to pass so they could cross the street. Something about this interaction was giving her deja vu. Finally, she realized where the feeling was coming from. “You’re just like Damien!” She narrowed her eyes. “Are you a masochist? The ruder someone is to you, the more you like them?”
Westbay choked and started coughing. “What? No! What do you mean?” He blinked. “Is Damien—” He closed his eyes, pressing a closed fist against his mouth as he cleared his throat. When he opened his eyes again, he seemed resolved to forget the short exchange had ever happened. “You may escape my company, if you answer one more question.”
Sebastien suspected this would be the question that counted. She steeled herself to not respond involuntarily.
“You once told Damien that free-casting runs in your family. How could that be, if you have no knowledge of them?”
“I…did?” Sebastien’s eyes moved away from Westbay’s as her thoughts raced. ‘Is that true? How could I have let something like that slip?’ But she was quick enough to come up with a solution. She could only hope her acting was good enough to make it seem believable. “I don’t remember saying that,” she admitted. “But I can guess the context, and, um, the reason.”
She blushed, a natural enough reaction because this kind of slip up really was terribly embarrassing. “I wasn’t being entirely truthful with Damien. That free-caster wasn’t my actual family.” She cleared her throat, examining the cobblestones near the edge of the sidewalk. “So. When I was young, I collected newspaper clippings about Thaddeus Lacer. Orphaned children often like to make up stories about their parents. Pretend that they have family still alive out there, and come up with reasons why they were abandoned or lost and will some day be reunited.” This was all true enough, though didn’t exactly apply to her.
Westbay lifted a hand to his mouth, probably concealing a smile. “Go on.”
She closed her eyes, and then forced herself to meet Westbay’s gaze. “I used to pretend that Thaddeus Lacer was my father. So, maybe when Damien was bragging about his own family, I got irritated and said that.”
Westbay’s hand fell away, revealing that he was indeed sporting an enormous smile, as if he’d just discovered his biggest rival had a bout of diarrhea in front of the High Crown during court. “And is he? That would explain why he took you as his apprentice…” His voice turned into a mutter as he gripped his chin between thumb and forefinger, looking her over. “He would have had to mate with an albino to produce you. Or some magical accident during childhood? Perhaps his sperm are all damaged from repeated Aberrant exposure.”
Sebastien held out both hands toward Westbay’s face as if to thrust his ideas away with her palms. Surely he couldn’t actually be considering that? “No! No. We are not biologically related in any way.”
Westbay’s sadistic grin suggested that he was only teasing her.
She balled her fists at her side. “Professor Lacer is my mentor only, and I would sincerely appreciate it if you never mentioned this to anyone else. I really do not need any more strange rumors circulating about me.”
Westbay clasped his hands together. “Of course, I will keep this incredibly embarrassing secret for you. Did you know I am quite good friends with Thaddeus? It hurts me to keep things from him, but as long as I’m assured that Damien is safe in your company… Of course, if that ever changes…”
Sebastien rolled her eyes. “And I will take care not to mention this meeting of ours and the way you dredged up my traumatic memories to Damien, hmm?”
Westbay’s smile fell away. “Touché.” He returned his hands to his pockets and, somewhat somberly, said, “Unless you are fearsomely good, I can see that you’re not the person I thought. Thaddeus often warns about jumping to conclusions, and has rebuked me for my tendency to conflate the most interesting theory with the most likely. I thought I had grown out of that, but it seems the rather unfortunate confluence of adventure and mystery around you skewed my thought processes. I…apologize.”
Sebastien drew a deep breath and let it out, her skin cooling as the flush faded from her cheeks. “You did me no true harm, so I will forgive you. But if you find yourself in a position to keep others from digging into my past or personal life while looking for gossip and drama, I would appreciate it if you take action to stop it. I do not want to be defined by my past or my circumstances. If possible, I would wipe those things from my mind entirely. I do not want to deal with them being dredged up over and over.” She blinked rapidly against the wind.
Westbay placed a hand on her shoulder, squeezing gently. “Would you like to come to the manor for dinner? I’m sure Damien would be overjoyed.”
Sebastien sidestepped away from his grip. “Thank you, but no. I have studying to do.”
Instead of becoming irritated or offended, Westbay seemed amused. “Ah, yes. Damien has told me how you are ‘struggling’ to catch up to the rest of the students. Well, perhaps some other time.”
Sebastien nodded, but resolved that she would avoid further interaction with Titus Westbay if at all possible.
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