Month 4, Day 9, Friday 9:00 a.m.
It was the morning of the sentencing, and not all was well with Operation Palimpsest.
Siobhan waited in the private room at the back of the Kaiseki Ryori with a raven in a covered cage, inside a box meant to keep people from noticing any suspicious bird cages and drawing connections. She opened the window’s shutter just a smidge to look onto the street below. Siobhan was disguised as the sweetest possible version of Silvia, and had even gone so far as a corset to make her waist seem impossibly tiny, with her warding medallion and the transformation amulet tucked into her bodice, flush against her flesh. She had also rented several wards against common curses from Liza—those that her warding medallion might not cover—which she wore in the form of some chunky jewelry.
Siobhan had never realized how much of the gaudy ornamentation the rich wore might actually be concealed protection. Discretion was even more desirable in many circumstances than an obvious ward. People who wanted to be obvious carried weapons.
Tanya was late to pick up the spelled raven that was necessary for her part in the plan.
Siobhan hadn’t heard from the other young woman since the day she left on her mission for the Architects of Khronos, and as the sun rose higher and more people filtered into the streets, she was becoming increasingly antsy. Ideally, Siobhan would have already been within the warded room at Liza’s house, but someone needed to deliver the raven, Tanya hadn’t been available to pick it up previously, and Liza was busy elsewhere.
Tanya had a linked bracelet that she could use to set off an alarm if things went wrong, but hadn’t used it. That didn’t mean everything was okay, however. Siobhan even considered the possibility that if something had happened to Tanya, it could lead back to her. The meeting location at the Kaiseki Ryori might even be compromised.
No obvious coppers approached on the street below, and no one surreptitiously watched the building while pretending to be doing something else, as far as Siobhan could tell. ‘If she doesn’t show up soon, can I find a last-minute replacement for her?’ The only woman Siobhan could think of that might be amenable to this was Katerin, but there was a reason Siobhan hadn’t gone to Katerin in the first place. Siobhan didn’t believe she could trust the woman to keep secrets from Oliver, even just until Operation Palimpsest was complete.
‘Without Tanya, either I do the raven messenger delivery on my own, or call that part of the plan off.’ Doing it herself was out of the question. It would likely be playing right into the coppers’ hands. Calling off that part wouldn’t destroy the whole operation, but less general confusion and split copper resources meant a higher chance of danger for Gera and Liza.
But just as Siobhan was about to write Tanya off as a loss, hurried footsteps with an obvious limp came up to the sliding door and were followed by a knock. “It’s me,” Tanya voice came, low and slightly out of breath.
“Enter,” Siobhan replied, one hand on her Conduit and the other on her battle wand.
But Tanya was alone. She awkwardly lowered herself across the table from Siobhan, one leg held out stiff instead of bending, and her arms cradling her abdomen.
“You are injured,” Siobhan deduced easily. “Was our connection discovered? Were you followed?”
Tanya shook her head rapidly, though sweat beaded on her upper lip and her temples and her skin was pale. “No, nothing like that. I was injured on my mission.” She bowed forward over the table. “I sincerely apologize for my tardiness, my queen. Please, release your anger. I have news of your enemies.”
Siobhan didn’t think she was projecting enough anger to make Tanya so fearful, but she tried to relax her body language and tone of voice. “Be at ease. Show me your wounds. You may tell me your story while I examine them.”
Tanya only hesitated for a moment before standing and shakily stripping down into her underclothes. Bandages wrapped around most of her torso, but didn’t manage to cover the enormous purple and green bruise that bloomed along one side. They were likely holding broken ribs in place while the bones healed back together.
On Tanya’s opposite leg, a thick, angry red keloid scar ran in a jagged C-shaped line across her thigh. Obviously, Tanya had received some sort of healing, but it hadn’t fixed her injuries completely.
“You almost died,” Siobhan said.
Tanya didn’t bother to state the obvious agreement. “Our group was attacked by a special operations team from the military. At least I think they were. They were kitted out in specialized military gear and uniforms. No obvious affiliation, but they didn’t have any accents.”
Siobhan cleared the low wooden table of the cold tea pot and small ceramic cups, setting them gently to the side of the room. Some thick, hard wax lines created one of the largest mirrored healing spell arrays she had ever used, pentagram inside of pentagon, and the glyphs for “blood,” “mirror,” “flesh,” and “bone.” Siobhan’s Circles and numerological symbols had grown noticeably more precise from all the practice drawing spell arrays she had gained since coming to Gilbratha. Her glyphs, of course, had always been pristine, a noticeable contrast to her normal spider-scrawl handwriting. She didn’t bother with a more complex and fully descriptive written Word, because she didn’t need it. She motioned silently for Tanya to lie down atop the spell array.
The other woman had seen Siobhan use this spell before, and so with a small amount of dubiousness and a large amount of care not to jostle her injuries or smudge the lines, Tanya complied, placing herself perfectly at the junction of the two inner Circles. She barely fit.
“A special ops squad, sent by the Crowns?” Siobhan mused aloud, retrieving her silver athame and using it to create a small cut in the back of Tanya’s forearm. Siobhan would use a beast core to provide extra power, but blood was both an intrinsic component of this spell, and more efficient. Though Tanya looked quite pale and weak, losing a mouthful or two more would affect her performance less than her half-healed injuries.
Siobhan used the athame to slice away the bandages binding Tanya’s torso, ignoring the woman’s flinch as they parted to reveal even deeper bruising. Her skin looked like a plum’s tender skin, ready to burst and leak out all of her lifeblood. “Who healed you?”
“One of the others on my team had some emergency supplies. They kept me alive as we got away, and my new handler took me to their house and kept me there while they got me better treatment. I had some trouble getting away. I was supposed to stay hidden until my injuries were completely recovered so that there would be no hints that I was involved with anything strange.”
Siobhan didn’t want to openly palm her celerium Conduit, which might be recognized, so she took out only a beast core and used the black sapphire pressed against the skin of her side by her hidden holster to channel the necessary energy. She focused on Tanya’s thigh wound first, sending the magic deep into the muscle that she suspected—from the state of the half-healed scar—had been severed and only poorly patched back together. “Curious, that they healed you so halfheartedly.”
Tanya’s fists clenched as the muscle fibers inside her leg shifted and wove back together, but she didn’t flinch or try to wriggle away despite the discomfort. “Instant healing is very expensive. I was on a regeneration potion regimen that should have had me able to at least move normally by Monday or Tuesday. It’s not as if they care if I miss a few days of classes.”
Siobhan hummed noncommittally. “Why do you think the Crowns would have sent a military squad after you, and how did they know of your activities?” She smoothed and slightly molded the raised skin of Tanya’s angry scar, some of which had somehow attached to the muscle below with whatever shoddy healing had been done before.
“We had a traitor. One of the lower level employees, like me, just sent to fill out numbers. I don’t know who they were. We were all wearing masks, and I didn’t recognize their voice. Everything has been a lot more secretive after the stuff that happened at Knave Knoll. The coppers have been sniffing around a lot. I think the higher-ups in the, um, the Architects of Khronos, are trying to reduce risk that one of us says something that brings the others down. We’ve always been a bit segmented, but after the magical hoops they’ve been having to jump through every time someone in the History department is called in for an interrogation, they’ve seemed more paranoid.”
Siobhan made some final tweaks and poured a little more power into the wound on Tanya’s thigh, hoping that extra energy could make up for a lack of guidance or skill, and then released the magic to move her attention higher. “How have they been dealing with interrogations?”
“I’m not sure if it’s the same for everyone, but when I was called in, they knew about it ahead of time. I had to take some potions, get sprayed down with a philtre, and then they had one of the healers from the infirmary cast some kind of compulsion spell while telling me answers to all the questions the coppers were going to ask. When I actually did the interview, I was in a strange mental state, and it actually seemed as if the false answers were true, even though some part of me knew they weren’t. I don’t know the details about how any of it worked, but the coppers didn’t seem to think I was lying. I had no idea such a thing was possible.”
It was interesting, but not particularly surprising, to learn that the Architects of Khronos had an informant within the coppers. Siobhan smiled wryly as loose fragments of bone shifted underneath Tanya’s skin, rejoining the whole. “Well, the coppers would want to keep such possibilities silent, lest the enterprising know they exist to uncover.” She would certainly like to learn such things for herself.
“As for why they would have sent a military squad after us, I’m not totally sure, but whatever they were after, they got it. We lost the shipment we were sent to retrieve.”
The bone was taking a lot of time and energy to heal, and Siobhan took a few deep breaths and sank deeper into the spell, sparing a few motes of concentration to ask, “Do you know what you were transporting?”
“Something dangerous. The chests were made of lead, and everything inside them was in smaller boxes of iron, with spell arrays engraved into every side. If I had to guess, it would be an extremely volatile potion. Maybe some sort of explosive.”
“Will your handler notice your escape? What will you tell them?”
“I’ll tell them I went and used some of my own savings to get proper healing.” Her breath hitched with a moment of pain. “Two birds, one stone.”
Both women fell silent for a while, but Siobhan could only spare a small bit of concentration to wonder what Tanya might have been transporting, and consider the broader consequences if someone decided to use something so dangerous. After all, why obtain a weapon you weren’t planning to use? Or, if not exactly planning, then at least receptive to the idea of using.
When Siobhan finished patching Tanya’s ribs together and pouring in enough power that they wouldn’t break again without a moderate application of force, she used a final pinch of energy from the blood to make sure the cut in Tanya’s arm was sealed, then pulled back and motioned for Tanya to rise.
The woman stood awkwardly beside her, tested her injuries, and then bowed at a ninety degree angle. “Queen of Ravens, I beseech you. Please save me from the Architects of Khronos.”
Siobhan stared bemusedly down at the back of Tanya’s dirty blonde head.
The woman remained bent as she continued, “I have been attempting to make other connections that might give me security, but I’m not sure that will pan out quickly enough to keep them from sending me on a mission that will end up killing me. I don’t have any other options beside you, my queen.”
Siobhan remained silent, and Tanya remained awkwardly bowed, as Siobhan used a wax-specific solvent to get rid of the spell array. As she prepared to cast the shedding-disintegration spell to get rid of the traces of Tanya’s blood, Siobhan finally spoke. “What exactly do you hope that I might do for you?”
Hesitantly, Tanya straightened. “Munchworth was paying my way through the University. As long as I keep working for them, I get to stay. But…if they’re not actively trying to kill me, they certainly aren’t working very hard to keep me safe. I’m worried that I’m a liability they wouldn’t mind being free of. But I’m also known to be in your good graces. Perhaps you could make it known that I’m to be your liaison?” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “If I just try to leave without protection, the worst they can do is a lot more than simply dropping my sponsorship.” She sniffed, then continued more loudly. “But I truly believe that a few words from you could change that. And I don’t need to be your liaison, specifically. That was just an idea. I could do any sort of job you wanted.” She clenched her fists, swallowed hard, and added, “Preferably, a job that wouldn’t get me killed or jailed, and that would allow me to continue attending the University.”
Siobhan arched one eyebrow. “But if you are their connection to me, they continue to have use for you, and a reason to pay your way, yes?” She certainly couldn’t pay to sponsor another student, no matter how much she earned from Oliver. “I will consider your request. Now is not the time for such discussions.”
Despite the lack of promises, Tanya relaxed. “Thank you, Queen of Ravens. I am ready.”
Siobhan pointed her to the box that held the raven’s cage. The creature within was slightly sedated to keep it from making too much noise trying to escape. It had already been spelled with the homing location that would see it delivering its message to the right place, but until then its every instinct was to escape and reach that location. “Repeat your task to me once more,” she ordered.
Tanya didn’t grumble or complain, checking on the raven before picking up the box without obvious pain. “I am to approach a popular bar a few blocks from the Edictum Council building where the sentencing will be held without attracting notice. I will enter the bar and use the key you gave me to don a disguise in the bathroom on the top floor, which will be locked, with an out of order sign. Without being observed, I will then access the rooftop. I will see a cloud of ravens in the distance, to the south. Unless the bracelet you gave me alerts me to do so earlier, at precisely five o’clock I will release the raven from its cage, and it will deliver the letter attached to its leg to the center of the theatre where they are holding the sentencing. From there, I will escape back down into the building, where my disguise will come off as soon as I can safely do so unobserved. I will walk into the crowded street, where I will blend in as any other citizen, looking nothing like you.” She hesitated, and added, “If, for some reason, I am caught, I will not speak. You can be assured of my loyalty.”
“Do not get caught,” Siobhan said simply.
Tanya shuddered visibly, but nodded her silent agreement.
As satisfied as she could be despite the anxiety that had returned to sour her veins and tightened her muscles, Siobhan left, slipping into the increasingly packed streets. Rather than the deep shadows of a suspiciously cavernous hood, her main protection from sight was a laced umbrella to protect against the sun, held a little too low and thus covering her face. It seemed like almost every person who lived in the city year-round, and all those who were visiting for the Sowing Break, were out and about.
She resisted a strangely powerful urge to look toward the huge dome of the Edictum Council building in the distance, where many of those on the street were heading. Ennis’s sentencing wouldn’t be until the late afternoon, but until then, street vendors and shows would be plying their wares, and announcers were shouting out the crimes of Ennis Naught and the Raven Queen, in case anyone in town for the spectacle was not aware of the backstory.
She turned toward Liza’s house and the safety of its warded room, and hurried on, only to stop in her tracks as a horrifying thought hit her. ‘Why am I here right now?’ The question echoed in her mind, and she chased the incongruence it caused, ripples of weak rationalizations conflicting against her better sense. ‘No matter what extra protections I have in place, this is probably the worst day of the year for me to make an appearance in this body. Tanya’s part was important, yes, but not critical. Not enough to take the risk of being out. At the very most, I should have dropped off the raven last night and simply left it there for Tanya to find, or not.’
Through every step of this plan, she had been trying to focus on her own safety, to avoid the idiotic recklessness she was prone to when she didn’t have enough time to fully consider a situation and her response to it before acting.
But here she was, out in the street in the body of Siobhan Naught. That, at least, might have been her stupidity acting up again. But could the same be said about her urge to attend the sentencing, to see Ennis one last time?
Her shoulders straightened with fear, her eyes locked on the bottom edge of the lace umbrella. ‘If I were the one trying to trap someone like the Raven Queen, and I knew this chance was critical, perhaps my last hope, I wouldn’t just leave it to her hubris and hope that she would show up. I would have taken other precautions.’
Siobhan realized she had stopped breathing, and as a wave of dizzy dread swept over her, she forced her lungs to work again. ‘A compulsion spell?’ the very thought urged her to go sprinting back toward safety. She had the key to Liza’s apartment. All she needed to do was get there and lock herself inside the specially warded room.
‘But how would they have caught me?’ she wondered. ‘I haven’t entered into any agreements, and even with the loosest definitions, I don’t think I’ve done anything that could allow binding magic to take hold.’ Wild speculation ran through her head, each possibility more outlandish and paranoid than the last. Liza, Gera, or even Tanya could have betrayed her. But as someone knocked into her shoulder and mumbled an absent apology, she looked out at the streets, so full of people that carriages would have trouble passing through. There were people of all different colors, in different types of clothing, and those with fur, feathers, or extra body parts. A jentil towered above the crowd, and someone who looked to be a half-troll had a small stretch of emptiness around him as people gave him space. One scowling old man was in his wheeled chair, pausing every few feet to recover from the exertion of rolling himself about.
‘Everyone is out today. They coppers must have realized they cannot find me. But they had no need to find and target the Raven if they were willing to affect the rest of the city in the hopes that she would be one of the many fish caught within a widely spread net. If I were them, I would have started casting the compulsion yesterday and slowly ramped up the intensity. And from there, I would have some other method to pluck the Raven Queen from among the rest. If they care about their citizens, they hope to catch me without endangering the innocent.’
She forcefully relaxed her fingers from around the handle of her umbrella, and released the Conduit and beast core back into her pocket. So many people could be out today because they genuinely wanted to experience the entertainment. And perhaps what she was feeling wasn’t a compulsion, but some deep, subconscious connection to her father that she hadn’t given up, even after everything.
But that didn’t explain the rippling sense of wrongness in her mind, as if she had walked into a familiar room and found everything displaced two inches to the left.
‘If it is a compulsion, now that I’ve recognized it, it must have less control over me. And the same could be said about my tendency toward recklessness. I can stick with the original plan. If I have to, I’ll knock myself out so that it’s impossible for me to leave until the day is over.’
She took a single step forward, but was halted by an authoritative “Excuse me, Madam,” and the touch of strong fingers on her elbow.
She spun around with the umbrella in her off hand wielded like a weapon, her heart giving a thump so hard she thought it might literally stop from the shock.
A tall, dark-skinned copper stood beside her, his hands raised as he took a step back to avoid her. Perhaps he had been drawn by her still form acting like a rock for the river of other citizens to pass around, or perhaps by the color of her skin. Or, perhaps he had somehow picked her out more directly.
This is the bonus chapter I promised for everyone’s participation in the 100 Ways to Die Engagement Challenge. Sorry it’s late; I have been working 7 days a week for many weeks now and the days have been blending together. It slipped my mind that I was supposed to do something extra yesterday.