Month 4, Day 9, Friday 9:40 a.m.
Siobhan suppressed her fear and all the instincts to flee or fight that it encouraged. If there was ever a time to use all the lessons she had ever learned from Ennis and act as if her life depended on it, that time was now. She let out a loud, breathy laugh and pressed a fluttering hand to her chest. “Oh, my! I apologize, sir! You startled me,” she said airily, smoothing out her voice to something more overtly feminine. “I get a little nervous in such large crowds, and some young ruffian tried to pickpocket me not an hour back, so I’m afraid I’ve been on edge and overreacted.”
She smiled brightly at the tall, dark-skinned man, her gaze dipping from his eyes, to his shoulder and hands, and then a quick glance at his lips before returning to his own eyes. She forced her smile to soften into something more genuine than polite, growing a little lopsided and allowing the fake wrinkles at the sides of her eyes to deepen just a little. It was almost an exact copy of something she had seen Ennis do several times, to a more generally positive effect than his attempts at blatant flirting or propositioning someone often returned.
As Silvia, she looked like the kind of woman that might be attracted to a man in uniform, and who could subtly flirt only seconds after being startled, because she definitely wasn’t so afraid she felt like she was going to pass out. She kept her eyes from darting around searching for his backup, but her knees almost buckled as she felt the subtlest tingle in her back, where the disks of the divination-diverting ward rested. ‘Please, let me be imagining that because I’m on the verge of passing out,’ she pleaded to the indifferent sky. Her scalp was also tingling, and her palms felt frozen, which gave her hope.
Unfortunately, the copper’s expression was inscrutable, so she couldn’t tell if it was working or not. “No apologies necessary. What brings you out today, Madam?”
‘Are my knees shaking?’ she wondered, trying to stiffen the muscles in her legs just in case. Shaking knees could create a tell-tale tremble in the fabric of a lightweight dress such as the one she was wearing. “Oh, Madam sounds so stuffy. You can call me Silvia,” she said, leaning toward him slightly. “What should I call you?”
“Copper Robards,” he replied expressionlessly.
She nodded, ignoring the rebuff. “And of course, I’m out for the same reason as everyone else! There’s a little stall up on Bett Street that I heard was selling the most delightful pastries. It’s too bad you have to work on a day like today, though I admit it is comforting to see your presence on the streets. Are you going to get any time off?”
He brushed by her question with a few vague words, and asked a few more basic suspicious questions. Though Silvia responded—for that was her name at this moment, as fully and truly as possible—with every conceivable trick to make herself seem less suspicious, some part of her was detaching from the conversation, watching her pilot her body as if from above.
‘If his wand has a basic scanning divination like that woman cast on me the very first time I transformed into Sebastien, when I was hiding in that empty building with Oliver, it’s over for me.’ She catalogued her various routes of escape and plotted a course through the city toward the south. There, the maze of streets, dead-ends, and random alleyways might make following her difficult. She might still be incredibly stiff from all her practice with light-refinement, but the concoctions she’d taken that morning were suppressing her pain, and adrenaline would push her onward. Fekten’s class had given her the cardiovascular stamina to run half the city. If she absolutely had to. Maybe a concussive blast to this Copper Robards, to slow him down and get a head start. Alternatively, she could even get to one of her supply stashes and transform into Sebastien. If that didn’t throw them off her trail, all was lost.
But as her thoughts were beginning to spiral out of control with barely leashed violence and drastic plans, the copper’s attention was diverted. He looked at someone over her shoulder and his eyes immediately narrowed. “Mr. Irving!” he called. He took an unconscious step past her, then paused and said, “stay here, please.”
Siobhan blinked twice, staring at the side of the building in front of her as her dissociating consciousness seemed to slip back into her body. There was so much adrenaline in her veins that she felt sick with it, like an overdose on beamshell tincture mixed with six cups of dark coffee, after pulling a thirty-six hour study session in preparation for an important test.
Slowly, she turned to follow Copper Robards with her eyes.
He was talking to a young man with large glasses and slightly lighter skin, who strangely looked somewhat familiar, despite the fact that he appeared too young to attend the University, and Siobhan had no idea where else she could have encountered him.
“Why are you here?” the copper asked, his tone much more accusing than the one he had used with Siobhan.
She shifted on her feet, partially because her muscles were tingling and trembling from being so tense, and partially because she wondered if she might just…slip into the crowd while the copper was distracted.
But the man noticed even that small movement, and raised one finger to her, a command for patience.
“I’m here as a journalist,” the young man said defensively, lifting as evidence a slightly scratched, high-end camera obscura from where it hung at his chest by a neck strap.
“I thought we discussed the need to avoid potentially dangerous situations,” Copper Robards said.
“It’s my job!” the young man retorted. “Someone has to get photos of the sentencing and conduct interviews with the populace. This isn’t the kind of event we can just neglect to report on.”
“Doesn’t your paper have anyone else they could send?”
The young man’s expression grew more serious. “I’m a professional, just like you, sir. I—”
“Miss Silvia!” a boy’s voice called, and as all of their attentions were pulled, Millennium struggled his way through the legs of the crowd and ran to her side. He hugged her around the waist, grinning up at her. The combined shade of her umbrella and a cloud that had passed over the sun made the subtle golden sheen of his skin almost indistinguishable. “Mom is sitting over there. She says the baby is kicking her in the kidney and she wants you to help wrangle Bobby because he keeps trying to run off and maybe get kidnapped by human traffickers,” he said with the innocent candor of a much more foolish child. “Can you tell her to buy us pies?”
Siobhan had no idea how Millennium had known what name to call her, or how much she needed to be rescued with a totally mundane scenario that the Raven Queen would never be involved in, but she grinned back down at him with delight that was totally genuine. Both of them looked to Copper Robards expectantly.
He hesitated, but with a frustrated sigh, waved them off. “Mr. Irving, you must leave capturing the Raven Queen to the professionals.”
Siobhan almost flinched.
“I’m not here to try and capture the Raven Queen!” the young man protested.
Siobhan slipped Millennium’s hand into her own and kept her umbrella in position to shade him. His palm was as sweaty and clammy as her own, and as they passed into the crowd, a wary-eyed guard that she vaguely recognized from her visits to Lord Lynwood’s manor fell in behind them.
“I heard you introduce yourself as Silvia when I was trying to listen for you. Was it right for me to use that name?” Miles asked. “It seemed like you didn’t want to be talking to the copper.”
“You did well to corroborate my lie,” she said. Her divination-diverting ward was definitely active now, avoiding his natural magical tendencies toward divination, but much more subtly than it did when she was exposed to Gera or another prognos.
With subtle twitches of his fingers and the direction of his gaze, Miles led her around to the back courtyard of a nearby boarding stable, filled with horses inside and unhitched carriages parked in rows out in the back yard. They entered one of the stable’s back doors, and then turned a corner to an area tucked out of sight. A woman in an old-fashioned maid uniform waited there along with another Nightmare Pack man, keeping out of the way of the busy stable workers.
Both wore wary, frightened looks.
Siobhan did not need to be Aberford Thorndyke to realize that something was wrong. “What’s the issue?” she asked immediately, looking to the adults.
It was Miles who answered. “We are being chased by bad guys who want to hurt us,” he stated succinctly. “I knew about it in advance, because I heard whispers on the wind about the danger.” He tapped his ears meaningfully, which would have meant nothing to Siobhan if she didn’t know he was part prognos, part sylphide, and even had some amount of fey ancestry. If anyone could hear danger coming, it would be him, though it would mean an impressive improvement of his control over his abilities.
“Danger was circling in around our house, and it was targeted specifically at me,” Miles continued. “I knew things wouldn’t go well if I stayed, and other people could get hurt. Or even killed. Martha, Jackal, and Mr. Fring helped me get away,” he said, pointing in turn to the maid, a sharp-jawed Nightmare Pack member who did indeed have a somewhat predatory look, and the much broader-shouldered man who had escorted them through the crowd, and who held himself like a trained guard.
“I kept listening for danger, trying to find a way out. I wanted to go to one of our safe houses, but we wouldn’t have made it. And then I thought maybe we could go ask for backup at the Verdant Stag, but every route toward them made the whispers go even worse-sounding. So we were just running away as the safe routes kept closing up around us, and then I realized you might be able to help.”
Siobhan sent the two enforcers and maid a glance, aware that the value of her Silvia disguise was constantly lowering due to events like this.
Miles took a deep breath, leaning into her side for support, more emotional than physical. “It was really scary. It was hard to find you, and the bad guys almost caught us a few times. Mr. Fring almost died, if I hadn’t heard—” He broke off, rubbing at one ear. “But the whispers all agree that if I could find you, our chances of coming out of this okay get way better. You’ll protect us, right?”
Siobhan was sure that the “whispers” had led Miles to a completely ridiculous conclusion. She was no bastion of protection. If being with her made him safer, it would be by strange coincidence at best. ‘Maybe his whispers came to some strange conclusion, like, to protect him, I’ll be forced to reveal myself as the Raven Queen, and that will be enough to stall for backup, disastrous as it might be for me.’
“How far away are the bad guys?” she asked, her mind immediately turning toward the best method of escape. If the Verdant Stag wasn’t safe, where else could they go? Liza’s house, perhaps? Though if they led the enemy straight there, Siobhan wasn’t totally sure that the wards would be enough to keep them safe. Not in the long-term, at least. And Liza would absolutely kill her when she found out.
Miles tilted his head to the side, staring into the air, and paled. “Um, they’re actually close. Very close.”
Siobhan resisted the urge to curse, her hand reaching blindly into her satchel to grab the most useful potions within. “Miles, try to find what direction they’re coming from.” To the adults, she asked, “Do you have battle wands? Shield artifacts?”
Martha shook her head silently, wringing her hands together.
Mr. Fring spoke for the first time. “My wand has a shield spell, but the charge is depleted. They tried to stun us several times, and once sent a piercing spell at the back of my skull when I got too far away from the boy. They seem to want to take the Nightmare Pack heir alive, though the rest of us may be expendable. I have two concussive blast charges remaining, and a knife.” He opened one side of his jacket to reveal the blade there, long and heavy enough to go beyond dagger into the realm of machete.
Jackal’s eyes darted around, focusing on her for only a moment, his fingers twiddling nervously and his knee bouncing. “I’ve got knives, too. About six left. Managed to nick a couple of our pursuers when they got too close.” He retrieved a few small throwing knives from his pocket, and his hands seemed to feel more comfortable holding them, because the twiddling and twitching stopped. “Also, got a philtre of liquid fire.”
Martha sent him a scandalized glare. “Jackal! You know Lord Lynwood decreed you weren’t allowed to mess about with fire any more.”
Jackal grimaced at her. “Well, I haven’t messed around with it, have I? Just having some on hand isn’t a crime.” He looked back to Siobhan. “I couldn’t find a safe place to use it. So many people out and about, someone’s likely to go up in flames like a spitted pig. Someone innocent, I mean. Bad way to die, if you’ll pardon me saying, my queen.”
Miles pointed toward the east, where the front of the stable looked over the street. “They’re coming from that direction. And maybe circling around, too. Their whispers sound kind of sneaky.”
Martha’s eyes narrowed as she looked Siobhan over again. “My queen?” she mouthed to herself in obvious confusion.
Siobhan handed out three of her new philtres of darkness, fleetfoot potions, and a single bark-skin potion, which she handed to Mr. Fring. If someone were going to act as a human shield, it wouldn’t be her. “We don’t have much time. Can we escape out the back?” she asked Miles.
She poked her head around the corner, looking to the east for their pursuers.
A man passed in front of an open stall window, narrowed eyes searching the crowd. Probably searching for them. Siobhan’s blood froze even as her heart sank, because she recognized the crisp gold-and-midnight blue uniform, as well as the proudly displayed gold badge stamped with the same crest from every coin in her pocket.
She pulled her head back in, scowling. “Did you neglect to mention that the ‘bad men’ are Lord Pendragon’s personal forces?” Unlike coppers, they didn’t patrol the streets, only leaving Pendragon Palace when they had a particular mission. Such as, perhaps, catching the Raven Queen.
Martha paled, clenching her skirt in her fists. “That can’t be. Right? Maybe they’re after the same criminals that have been chasing us.”
“Didn’t see any Pendragon operatives,” Fring added.
Fighting back against Pendragon operatives was automatic treason, and sentenced by execution. But more importantly, those men would be well-outfitted, powerful, and practiced in battle.
“If you’re talking about the people in those fancy outfits that aren’t copper outfits, they are definitely bad guys,” Miles provided helpfully. “And we need to leave right away. There’s no time left.”
Everyone else shared looks of dismay, and Siobhan led the way in the opposite direction from the Pendragon operative. One hand held a beast core, the other her newest battle wand, and Millennium’s grip tugged on the skirt of her uselessly fluffy dress. ‘Should we split up? Send the other three away as a decoy, and I keep Miles? But would they agree to that? It might get them killed.’
The boy’s grip grew tighter as he looked around in panicked confusion, gaze once again distant. “Oh no, oh no. I was wrong.”
“About what?” Siobhan snapped, wondering if they could open the horse stalls and create a panicked stampede with a loud spell. The animals might cover their escape. But it might be better to just sneak out and avoid attention. ‘No, it would take too long to free the horses.’ Siobhan hurried instead toward the same back door that they had entered through. “Is there any way they could be tracking you?” she asked, the question for Miles as well as the other three.
They shared looks of fear and confusion, but before anyone could answer, Millennium murmured in a reedy voice, “It was bait.”
A branching explosion of red lightning and dust from underneath the door sill took away any chance to stop, ask for clarification, or try another way.
The magic sent Siobhan flying. She hit the ground and rolled painfully, catching glimpses of her companions in similar states as she tumbled.
She fell still, crumpled in the dirt and facing away from them all, the world spinning dizzily around her. The cold burn of her medallion against the skin of her chest told her it had protected her against some of whatever that spell was. As her dizziness settled, she watched from slitted eyes as a thin powder sprinkled to the ground.
Combined with the red light, it became obvious that someone had trapped the door with some sort of overpowered stunning spell. If she had to guess, it was a single-use mine artifact, not so different from the disintegration mine she’d used a few weeks ago, though thankfully not so deadly.
This is that point at the top of the metaphorical roller-coaster when you begin to fall over the edge and realize what a horrible mistake you’ve made.