Month 3, Day 31, Wednesday 8:00 a.m.
At breakfast time two days later, Sebastien arrived at the Kaiseki Ryori, a fancy restaurant owned by the Nightmare Pack. A quick flash of one of the gold invitation card’s Gera had given her got her silently escorted to a private room in the back. Gera had suggested it as a discreet location to hold meetings, and set this room aside for Siobhan, or anyone that could produce one of an exclusive set of gold invitation cards.
The restaurant charged exorbitant prices to serve various dishes from the East, many of which apparently contained raw meat. These “delicacies” had grown popular recently, and though the idea of eating raw flesh made her shudder, Sebastien felt that such boldness—edging on savagery—matched the Raven Queen’s persona.
It was free, and worth it for the unpredictability alone. If someone were following Sebastien, they would have no chance to notice anything suspicious. None would speak of anything that happened in this room, which she had come into the room as Sebastien, and which she would leave as Sebastien.
While waiting for the food to be delivered, Sebastien ignored the fancy tea in small ceramic cups that probably cost their weight in gold, instead taking the opportunity to make doubly sure there were no artifacts or spell arrays that would allow someone to spy on those within. After the food arrived, Sebastien informed the waitress that she and her soon-to-arrive guest were not to be disturbed in the name of service, and then changed her form and apparel. Everything she needed to become the Raven Queen, except for her transformation amulet, was in a small briefcase.
When Tanya arrived, Siobhan was sitting on a cushioned mat in front of the low, heated table. Her divination ward was activated at a low strength courtesy of her dowsing artifact. Siobhan waved for Tanya to sit across from her, and the other woman complied, not even trying to meet Siobhan’s gaze after an initial glance.
While Siobhan sat with her legs tucked to the side, Tanya kneeled and sat atop her calves, the top of her feet pressed flat to the cushion below, her hands cupping her knees.
“Eat whatever you would like,” Siobhan said, waving to the beautiful spread of food, laid out in an artistic smorgasbord of small dishes and bowls, some heated or chilled to preserve the temperature of their contents. Siobhan had sampled a few of the offerings herself while waiting for Tanya—out of hunger more than optimism—but had been pleasantly surprised.
When she heard of the Kaiseki Ryori’s food, Siobhan had imagined biting into the flank of a raw, dead fish and ripping away the meat with her teeth. What raw fish they had here had been exquisitely sliced, then marinated or seasoned, and paired with rice and various fresh vegetables in colorful bite-sized servings sprinkled with small flower petals.
Tanya’s eyes swept over the various dishes, but she only took a couple bites of decoratively sliced vegetables for her own plate. She ate radish shaped like a flower, then forced herself to look at Siobhan across the table.
“I can tell you are apprehensive, so we might as well get down to business and relieve you of your suspense,” Siobhan said, sliding a wedge of raw, pink fish atop a bed of compressed rice into her mouth.
Tanya watched with horrified fascination, but nodded, letting out a slow, tense breath.
“I have a mission for you, if you are willing. It is moderately dangerous, and I want to stress that it is optional. You may refuse me, if you wish, and I will not be angry or take any sort of retribution.”
Tanya cleared her throat and shifted uncomfortably. Her legs were probably falling asleep from her kneeling stance. “Is this mission going to pit me against my employers? I don’t want to make an enemy of them.”
Siobhan took a sip of a savory, cloudy soup sprinkled with chive slices, savoring the rich warmth. “This mission has nothing to do with the Architects of Khronos,” she assured.
Tanya frowned, tilting her head to the side. “I…think there must be some misunderstanding? I don’t work for those terrorists. I’m employed as…well, basically an errand girl for some University faculty members who don’t want to be seen doing their dirty work themselves.”
Siobhan remained silent, but raised an eyebrow pointedly.
Tanya’s frown slipped away along with all the color in her face. “Are you sure?” she asked, grasping Siobhan’s implication with admirable speed.
“Quite sure,” Siobhan said. “In fact, the Architects of Khronos were part of the attack force on Knave Knoll that night, as well as the simultaneous attack on the Verdant Stag. They raided the Verdant Stag’s vaults while the Stag forces were spread thin and occupied elsewhere. I think you can imagine what they were hoping to find.”
“But…they sent me to warn you. Why would they do that if they were the ones attacking?”
“You were insurance. The Architects wanted plausible deniability in case their plan failed. With your warning, they could pretend that they were still allies of the Stags. And if you failed, or were killed in the fighting, they got rid of a liability and only lost a…what was it you called yourself? An errand girl. You didn’t know the truth, because Grandmaster Kiernan didn’t trust you with it.”
Siobhan’s words left Tanya visibly reeling. “But that— This whole time?” she muttered to herself, staring at the table blankly. She looked up again, meeting Siobhan’s gaze despite the pressure to look away. “What are they planning? Why do they want your book so much?”
“I cannot be sure of their plans, but I believe they have grown tired of the restrictions the Crown places upon them. The Crowns cannot allow anyone else to gain too much power, and those at the University would be in the perfect position to do so, if not for the Crowns’ measures.” Oliver had said as much, and except for those involved, he was probably in the most informed.
“What do you want from me, then?” Tanya asked, her clenched fists resting on her thighs.
“If you accept it, your task would be very simple. I want you to impersonate me.” Siobhan allowed the edges of her lips to spread outward in a hungry smile. She took a bite of some meat that had been sliced into strips, doused in a dark red sauce, and then gathered in a ball that resembled yarn. Flavor exploded over her tongue, sweet and salty mixed together with the rich under taste of rare steak.
Tanya swallowed visibly, staring at Siobhan’s painted lips, then back to the meat dish, and then back to Siobhan’s lips. “I don’t understand,” she said finally. “I don’t think I have the skill to impersonate you properly. And for what purpose?”
“Do not worry, it will not be as difficult as you imagine. You will be provided with all of the necessary supplies to approximate my appearance. Your goal would be to send a message to a specific place at a specific time, using a raven messenger that I would prepare for you ahead of time. You would remain at a distance the entire time, and as long as you do not get yourself captured, no one would ever know of your involvement. Your job is simply to be the raven’s handler.”
Tanya hesitated for along while, but to her credit, didn’t ask why Siobhan needed someone to impersonate her, or why she couldn’t do this herself. “I would be willing to work for you…if you can keep me safe.”
It was an understandable request, considering Tanya’s position with the Architects. She was in danger from her employers’ callousness as well as the justice of the Thirteen Crowns, if she were to be caught. “I am not omniscient or all-powerful,” Siobhan admitted. “I cannot protect you when I am not present, or from everything that might endanger you. It is even possible that closer association with me will put you in further danger. I might be able to lower your risk, but I cannot promise to keep you safe.”
Tanya gave a single nod that was more a bow of the head. “I understand. That is enough for me. Please, tell me the details of my mission, my queen.”
“Eat while we speak,” Siobhan said, motioning to the food once again. “I abhor waste.” Tanya still hesitated, so Siobhan chose a piece of the thin-sliced fish over rice and placed it on the woman’s plate. “Try this.”
Tanya stared at it as if it were a piece of mud, but her lips wobbled in a tremulous smile, and she shoved the whole thing into her mouth. Her expression remained forcibly pleasant while she chewed, but she was unable to suppress a full-body shudder as she swallowed it all in a huge gulp. “Very…interesting, my queen. The chefs here are quite skilled.”
Siobhan let out a low, throaty laugh.
Tanya startled, but then relaxed, her smile smoothing into something more genuine.
“Quite the diplomatic answer,” Siobhan praised. “You do not have to eat the fish. Fill your belly with the dishes you find palatable, and I will explain your part in what is to come.”
Long title for a relatively short chapter. I wanted to add some more content, but what comes before and what comes after are both quite distinct, and wouldn’t feel right just cobbled together with this.
To make up for it, I suppose it’s the perfect time to give you something extra before next Thursday’s regular chapter.
Also, if you want a little Inner Circle update, you can read a copy of the latest newsletter I sent out here: https://preview.mailerlite.com/m5h3l1k1o8