Chapter 185 – Back to School

Sebastien

Month 4, Day 11, Sunday 2:30 p.m.

“Well, about the bracelets, it was a combination of all your hypotheses,” Sebastien said. “Mostly. And I need you to burn any you have left.”

Damien’s eyes widened. “What happened?” he breathed, taking a small step closer to her.

“They were all activated. Every single one I own.”

Damien sucked in a sharp breath.

“But no one was alerted because, to be honest, I’m not a very powerful thaumaturge yet,” Sebastien admitted. “There was resistance, and the bracelets’ magic wasn’t strong enough to dig past it. Also, I have realized that they’re much too recognizable. Just like you said, we need to come up with a better way to send each other signals at a distance. Something less bulky and expensive than a distagram, probably. Our organization does have access to an extremely competent artificer.” With the gold and celerium that Sebastien had taken from the Pendragon operatives’ vault, she could afford more custom work from Liza.

“What happened? Did the Raven Queen get to you? Are you in danger?” Damien’s eyes darted to the shadows in the corner of the room and under the table. “Did she…do something to you again?”

Sebastien hesitated. “The Raven Queen isn’t after me.”

“What is it, then? Tell me,” Damien demanded, reaching forward to touch Sebastien’s elbow as if he might need to yank Sebastien physically out of harm’s way at a moment’s notice.

“On Friday…the High Crown decided to kidnap several people who had some sort of connection to the Raven Queen. Including some children.” Sebastien paused, gratified to watch as Damien’s gaze grew vague. He was obviously spinning up his own ideas. Hopefully, ones that would be useful to her.

“Those supposed spies that the Raven Queen freed were actually civilians he was…” She decided not to imprecate the High Crown by saying anything more damning. Damien could come to his own conclusions.

Damien sucked in a few deep breaths, his fingers spasming on her elbow as he closed his eyes. “And you were one of them? The High Crown kidnapped you?”

Sebastien bit her lip. That might be a convenient conclusion, but she could only imagine the many ways such a claim might backfire. “I wasn’t,” she denied. “And none of the Pendragon operatives will remember finding me,” she added. “But there’s a problem. I got a concussion. And…Will-strain.”

Damien’s grey eyes snapped open, the whites obviously bloodshot with stress and sleeplessness. For the first time Sebastien could remember, she felt the hint of his Will in the air, as turbulent and ephemeral as storm winds.

She continued. “So I need the story to be that I got swept up in the crowd yesterday when people were panicking and hit my head. The concussion precludes casting for a few days, just to be on the safe side. There should be no hint of Will-strain.”

Damien spun around and, with his back to her, cursed more viciously than she had ever heard him. He then took two deep breaths and turned to face her. “How did you escape?”

“Trickery, innovative use of basic spells, and I had some help. Without the help…it would have gone very, very badly.” Anders and Parker were probably the only reason she or anyone else had made it out. Without them, it was even possible that she could be dead right now. She shuddered, remembering the harpoon cutting through Parker like a fork through a bit of melon. She had seen many deaths that day, and the corpses of her enemies. Those gruesome memories invited flinches and cold chills whenever she thought of them. But somehow, Parker’s sudden death was worse. He had been one of hers, and now he was gone. He had died in pain and horribly frightened.

“One of the other members?” Damien asked, his tone sure enough that it wasn’t really a question. “No one that’s going to talk? You can trust them? Because, Sebastien, it would be very bad if word got out that you fought one of the High Crown’s men.” He ran his fingers through the sides of his hair, fingers scraping against the scalp. “And you’re certain that they wiped the operative’s memory properly? There aren’t going to be any strange gaps or confusion leading back to you? It would be best if they thought they searched for you but just couldn’t find you. Anything else…” He trailed off with foreboding.

“They handled it properly,” Sebastien agreed.

Damien, surprisingly, relaxed at this. Apparently, it seemed reasonable to him that their secret ranks contained some amazing, elite thaumaturges who were skilled in arcane blood magic.

Sebastien tilted her head to the side. “That doesn’t…bother you? Memory wipes are blood magic, right?”

Damien waved a hand nonchalantly, as if that was an unimportant aside and a distraction from more important topics. “As long as they’re careful not to hurt anyone who doesn’t deserve it or corrupt their Wills. This was obviously necessary. But why would the High Crown want you? What was he doing with the others?”

Sebastien shrugged. Best to let Damien come to his own conclusions about that one.

Damien’s expression went through a series of transformations, growing increasingly unhappy with whatever he was thinking, until it settled into something surprisingly menacing. “I see,” he said. “I don’t know how I keep being surprised by things like this.”

His baleful look slipped away as his eyes grew shiny, and he blinked rapidly. “What does this mean for us? Are we—as a group—doing anything about it? This is the kind of thing our organization was created to fight against, right?”

Sebastien shook her head. “I’ve been put on temporary leave. I have to lie low for a while. I might be running basic errands, but there won’t be any big missions. For me, at least. Your current assignment still stands.”

Damien’s head bowed with disappointment. “I see. Well, it really isn’t safe for you. It’s good that the higher-ups care for your wellbeing, what with the High Crown wanting to ‘use’ you.” He patted her arm comfortingly. “I’m sure they’ll put you back to work once the heat dies down.”

Sebastien agreed, trying to seem as if she were still disappointed.

“I can’t believe the Raven Queen was actually on the side of good this time. I mean, freeing the kidnapped civilians, at least. Who knows if she did that with good intentions, but isn’t it ironic how she’s saving people while the High Crown is committing atrocities?” he asked, but his tone made it clear he wasn’t really looking for an answer. “I don’t know why I keep being surprised by things like this,” he repeated. “It’s Ana’s uncles and the stuff with Newton all over again, isn’t it? I’ve been…so naive.”

Damien had more questions, but Sebastien refused to share the details of her ordeal and suggested that they return to the dorms so that she could recuperate. As they walked back, Damien asked, “Do you think Titus knew about this?”

Sebastien’s heart clenched. “I don’t know. But you can’t tell him. Not even a hint of it.”

Damien was already nodding before she could finish her sentence. “I know, don’t worry. I’m…I’m glad there’s someone out there trying to make a difference, to fix all this.” He waved his hand vaguely. “If not for us…” He took a tremulous breath and sighed dourly, his grey eyes oppressively dark.

Sebastien suppressed a pang of guilt, but it was quickly wiped away by astonishment as she saw that Damien’s cubicle was filled with trunks stacked to head-height, filling the entire free area except a narrow pathway that led to the bed and small table.

“Newspapers,” Damien said. He waved her inside his cubicle and then drew the curtain, leaving them standing side-by side between the stacked trunks. He spoke in a low voice. “I rented a little building in the bad part of town for storage, then went to all the local presses and requested their back issues for the last twenty years. “I know you said thirty years, but I couldn’t afford it all, and I could only get papers from one of the three presses that have gone out of business. I had to buy everything, you see, not just the issues that might have mentioned something relevant.” He gave her a pointed look.

Sebastien nodded back. “Confidentiality,” she mouthed, and then aloud, said, “I understand. But it must have been extremely expensive?”

Damien’s head rocked back as he looked up at the ceiling morosely. “Oh, it was. I burned through pretty much every copper I had to my name. And since I didn’t want to ask Titus for an increase in my allowance, I had to forgo buying any new clothes. That’s why I’m still in last season’s suits.”

Sebastien looked down at Damien’s suit. She couldn’t tell the difference. ‘Wait, am I supposed to be buying new clothes for every school term? But the ones I bought last term are still perfectly fine!’ Aloud she said, “If anyone asks, you can just say that this season’s style is rather gauche.” She had heard Ana say so to a few of her many friends. “I imagine these aren’t all of them?”

“I brought the ones that had relevant words on the front page headline. Maybe not even all of them. I haven’t had a chance to get through the whole backlog. Twenty years is a long time, and some of those presses put out an issue every single day. I plan to find a word-searching spell in the library that I can use to pinpoint any articles with relevant information without having to read through each newspaper manually. It’s just too much to get through for one person, especially with the need for secrecy.”

“That’s a good idea,” Sebastien agreed.

“I also learned something important.” Damien lowered his voice even further, leaning in toward Sebastien’s ear. “I got the information from Titus—surreptitiously, mind you. I know better than to alarm him. Apparently, there are occasional rogue magic incidents that aren’t openly reported, but which the Red Guard will share records of with the coppers. I’m hoping to get an internship at Harrow Hill during Harvest Break. I think I might be able to get Titus to put me in charge of redoing their totally archaic file system. It’s not even magically searchable! That will give me the chance to gain access to old incident reports.”

Harvest Break ran for two months, through the end of summer and into the beginning of fall. “That’s…brilliant. Well done, Damien. Let me know if you can’t find what you need in the library or need help developing search or categorization spells.”

“No, no, at most I’d need your help with grunt labor or an extra Will to cast while I’m tired. My divination professor talked about this kind of use case, so I’m sure I can find everything I need. I don’t want the higher-ups to think I can’t handle the missions they assign me.”

A familiar young voice came over the cubicle’s wall. “This is where Sebastien sleeps?” Nat asked. “But where is he?”

“I’m sure he’s around somewhere. Probably in the library,” Ana replied. “Don’t touch any of his things. He’s very private.”

“Can we go find him? I don’t want to leave without seeing him. I have to tell him about how I saw the Raven Queen fighting out in the Charybdis Gulf!”

Damien and Sebastien sidled out into the walkway that cut through the middle of the dormitory.

Nat brightened like a daisy lifting her head to the sun and skipped to Sebastien’s side. “I’m pleased to see you again. How have you been?” she asked, sounding like the host of some high-class soiree.

“I’ve been well. And you?” Sebastien replied with equal seriousness.

“I saw the Raven Queen!” Nat burst out, unable to hold in her excitement any longer. She launched into the story of how she had been reading in a window seat that had a good view over the Charybdis Gulf and saw a huge burst of light. She’d scrambled to retrieve her spyglass—a birthday gift from Damien—and used it to watch the rest of the Raven Queen’s escape.

Both Damien and Ana seemed disturbed to hear Nat describe how Parker had been speared with a harpoon. “I thought she had taken those men hostage, maybe, but then why did the other ones kill him?”

Sebastien shrugged. “Maybe they hit the man by accident? I bet it would be hard to aim such a big weapon.”

“Perhaps as a message that they could not shield her,” Ana suggested. “They must all be willing to give their lives for the High Crown. Or…perhaps they were not hostages, but allies pretending to be the High Crown’s men.”

“A disguise? Oh, that’s clever,” Damien said. “Maybe that’s how she got into the secret jail in the first place.”

Nat frowned. “Well, what about the children? I suppose they could have been some kind of dwarf or naturally small species, but they looked quite human. I guess children would make good spies, because people always think we’re oblivious and incompetent.”

Damien closed his eyes briefly, as if in pain.

“Well, some people act that way,” Nat corrected, smiling up at Sebastien.

“I found that to be exceptionally vexing when I was younger, too,” Sebastien agreed.

“Yes! People treat me like I’m some barely sentient creature. Or like I’m a dog! Damien, did you know that Lord Cyr actually patted me on the head and called me a ‘good girl’ at Mama’s garden party a couple weeks ago? And then he ordered me to smile and said he hoped Mama wasn’t going to allow me to start wearing makeup or using glamours, because he thought girls should remain fresh-faced and youthful for as long as possible.”

Ana let out the most unladylike “Ugh” Sebastien had ever heard, as if she wanted to vomit.

Sebastien’s upper lip twitched as she suppressed the urge to bare her teeth. “He needs to be taught a lesson about acceptable behavior.”

Nat smiled like a tiny hellcat. “I agree. So I taught him one.”

“Oh, do tell!” Rhett called out, lugging a trunk in each arm with ease.

Alec, Waverly, and Brinn followed behind him, and they all gathered around to listen to Nat’s story of revenge on Lord Cyr, head of the sixth Crown Family. It involved the help of several servants, a poisoned pastry, and a game of vicious rumors all based around Lord Cyr and the stuffed unicorn he kept in his trophy room. The unicorn was hollow, its insides famously filled with layers upon layers of spell arrays meant to make it seem alive, and Lord Cyr was, perhaps, a little too proud of it.

“So, now he suspects that it was me behind it all,” Nat concluded, “but I’m not sure he can wrap his tiny little brain around how someone so cute and ‘youthful’ could also be the devious mastermind who orchestrated his downfall.”

Waverly, only a foot or so taller than Nat, pushed up her glasses. The lenses glinted with sinister light. “I learned how to contract a bogle over the break. If you want, I can help you send one to make sure the lesson sticks. Lord Cyr once told my mother that he finds her “flavor” of woman to be very appealing. Because apparently women from the East all taste the same.”

Alec gagged dramatically. “He and Father used to go ‘out’ together sometimes, which probably tells you all you need to know about his character. If you’re sending a bogle, I want to help.”

“If we can bind it as a group, it will have less chance of being banished,” Waverly said.

“Are we…really doing this?” Brinn asked. “Bogles can be dangerous.”

“That’s why we’ll need to make sure its contract is clear and focused.”

Nat’s lips wavered between a pout and a grin, leaving her expression quite strange. “Oh, I really want to help. But I haven’t started learning any magic yet. I keep asking, but Mama and Father won’t budge. Not till I’m thirteen.”

“That’s okay,” Waverly said. “You have a valid grudge. You can still bear testimony to strengthen the bogle’s focus. Ana, if you know anyone trustworthy here who might have some good testimony, you can gather them, too.”

Rhett leaned against a cubicle wall. “Heroic action taken in the shadows against an enemy of women? I’m in. Brinn, your second cousin, Shelley, had a run-in with him last summer and cried on my shoulder for at least twenty minutes. I love the way she perfumes her hair. And there’s a seventh-term woman in my dueling club who hates him, with the best footwork and a pair of calves that look like they were sculpted by Myrddin himself.”

Brinn scowled at Rhett. “Guys, sending a bogle to torment someone might not be blood magic, but I’m pretty sure it is illegal. What if we get caught?” He looked at Damien pleadingly.

Damien crossed his arms. “We won’t get caught. Everyone involved will make an oath on their honor and sign an agreement of silence. And maybe we can get some kind of collateral to ensure secrecy.” He turned to Ana. “What do you think?”

Ana frowned gently. “That would be difficult. Maybe everyone could be required to submit a secret that we could spread upon betrayal. But who would be the keeper of secrets? I certainly wouldn’t trust mine with just anyone.”

“Brinn can do it, of course,” Waverly said. “He keeps secrets so well you’d never even suspect he has any. And Sebastien’s probably the strongest of us, correct? He can be the central caster. I’ll handle the binding, obviously.”

“Sebastien can’t,” Damien announced. “He has a concussion.”

This distracted everyone, even Waverly, from their nefarious plan.

“Sebastien’s skull was almost crushed between a man’s boot and the edge of the sidewalk,” Damien said darkly.

Nat gasped, both hands rising to cover her mouth.

Alec and Rhett both looked at Sebastien’s head, obviously searching for any lingering evidence of such a wound.

“What did you do to make someone try to kill you?” Alec asked.

“No one tried to kill me,” Sebastien said. “It was an accident, and I’m fine.”

“This is why you need better footwork, Sebastien,” Rhett said. “You need to be able to dodge when people become enraged by your personality.”

Alec chuckled at this and gave Rhett a congratulatory poke with his elbow.

Sebastien glared at them both, but they grinned back unabashedly. “Why is it okay for them to say mean things, but not for me?”

“You say mean things all the time, Sebastien,” Damien reminded her.

“Yes,” Alec agreed. “Like the time you told me that I’m not stupid, I just have bad luck when it comes to thinking.”

Rhett lifted his forefinger. “Or the time you told Amber Grisham that you wouldn’t go on a date with her because you are allergic to stupidity.”

Alec’s eyes brightened. “Oh, oh! Or the time you got in an argument with Mitch from Defense, and you were like”—Alec drew himself up as tall as he could go, lifted his chin, and stretched his shoulders back—“I may be arrogant, but you’re still wrong,” affecting Sebastien’s voice but somehow sounding more like Professor Lacer.

Rhett pushed off the wall, ran his fingers through his braids, and looked off into the distance. “I would agree with you, but then we would both be wrong,” he said in a similar tone.

Nat’s wide eyes bounced back and forth between them, shining with delight.

“What doesn’t kill you disappoints me,” Alec tried.

Sebastien held up her hand, palm outward. “Okay, I’m not sure about the rest, but I definitely never said that.”

The two young men ignored her. “I would slap you, but I like to keep my hands clean,” Rhett said, turning the page of an imaginary book and pretending to read while walking.

“If you were a vegetable, you would be a cabbage,” Alec added in precise tones, then gave a single nod as if pronouncing a verdict.

Nat burst into giggles and then, to Sebastien’s horror, drew herself up haughtily and said in an artificially deep voice, “Jealousy is a disease. Get well soon.”

Alec flashed her a thumbs-up and a wink. “You are offensively uninspired, you…malodorous half-wit.”

Rhett shook his head. “Trying a little too hard there, Alec. How about this one?” He sniffed judgmentally and sneered. “Don’t talk to me until your number of brain cells exceeds your age.”

Nat grinned, then raised an arrogant eyebrow as she waved one hand nonchalantly. “No need to thank me for insulting you. It was my pleasure.”

Sebastien groaned, dropping her forehead into her hands. And then, to her horror, Damien cleared his throat, loosened the tie at his throat, and drawled in deep tones, “I am a basically average thaumaturge, barely scraping by. Yet somehow, the rest of you make me look impressive with your astounding incompetence.”

It wasn’t until Ana turned to glare at the group of students that had somehow gathered up nearby, blocking the walkway and peeking over cubicle walls with avid fascination, that Sebastien’s friends were distracted from mimicking her.

Nat walked back into Sebastien’s cubicle and perched herself at the foot of the bed. “I can’t imagine how any of you manage to sleep in such horrid conditions. Of course, I had heard stories about how the University forces everyone to start off living in squalor as a way to foster determination and tenacity, but this is almost unlivable.”

“Just wait until you have to eat cafeteria food,” Ana said, joining Nat on the edge of Sebastien’s mattress. “It’s almost impossible not to spend some of your contribution points on an edible meal. I had no idea it was possible to make cheese so tasteless, but the cafeteria cooks have managed it.”

“It’s not that bad,” Sebastien said as Alec took a seat at her bedside table. “You’re all just used to living with personal chefs and servants to shine your shoes and wipe your bottoms. Though it would be nice to have private rooms.” If she hadn’t spent her contribution points on Professor Lacer’s help, she, Damien, and Ana might have had enough to pool together for a four-person dorm room, which was only eight hundred points.

Scandalized, Nat flushed as pink as her dress. “A servant hasn’t wiped my bottom since I was a baby!”

“A servant wiped my bottom just yesterday,” Alec announced proudly, crossing his arms over his chest. “I must wonder, how does anyone get by without?”

“No!” Nat cried, then burst into giggles.

Brinn cleared his throat. “I made everyone gifts. Would you like them now?” Brinn went to his cubicle before returning with a carton filled with small potted plants, each distinct from the others. “They’re miniature trees,” he said.

“Special magical trees,” Waverly corrected. “Our families retired to the countryside together during the break. Brinn was working on them the whole time.”

Brinn flushed. “I sprouted them myself. I was inspired by Sebastien’s end of term exhibition. I’m attempting to crossbreed these specimens to have decorative features, like particular scents, variegated leaves that look like flowers, and even, possibly, tiny fruit with special properties. Though, that last one is a little ambitious.”

Sebastien turned her own tiny, potted tree around curiously as Brinn rattled off complex instructions for their care and Alec whined about being given a gift that required him to work. Hers had leaves that alternated between sea-blue and rusted orange. They shifted back and forth in waves, rippling quicker when she moved or tilted the tree. And it smelled, somehow, like the wind before a storm.

“It’s great at cleaning the air. It should help you sleep,” Brinn said.

The whole group lounged around Sebastien’s cubicle, bringing in a few extra chairs to sit more comfortably while they told stories of what they had done over the break.

Alec told Ana that, with his father in jail, he had taken a bubble bath. Ana squeezed him on the shoulder as she congratulated him. Sebastien was aware that she was missing some subtext, but she didn’t understand it and didn’t pry.

Rhett had gone to Paneth for the amateur dueling circuit there and gotten into a fight with another member of the audience. This had resulted in a slight scar across the bridge of his nose, which he thought made him look rakish.

And Ana had gotten to stick her fingers into the Family business a little. “Things have been different—better—recently,” she said, smiling at Sebastien.

Everyone demanded the story of Sebastien’s concussion, which she made sound as boring as possible.

They talked, including some gossip about the Raven Queen, until it grew dark and a very reluctant Nat had to go home.

The next morning, classes started again. Half of Burberry’s class was spent on a repetitive lecture about the importance of students keeping better track of their student tokens, as well as a new list of punishments that would be enforced for their loss.

Oh. That’s probably because of me. And Liza,’ Sebastien thought. ‘It must have been so embarrassing for the man whose faculty token we used.

Though it felt strange, she spent the in-class spell practice time reading and finishing her homework early, since her infirmary pass exempted her from casting.

That afternoon, Tanya was waiting in the Practical Casting classroom when they arrived, sitting in the seat closest to the door. She nodded to Sebastien, and Sebastien nodded back with some curiosity, taking her own seat at the front of the classroom on the other side. ‘Is Tanya joining this class?’ She knew, from following the other woman last term, that Tanya had only taken the mandatory four classes, so surely she couldn’t be qualified?

“Student aide,” Tanya mouthed, pointing to herself.

Oh…that’s actually kind of nice of Professor Lacer,’ Sebastien realized. ‘It would have been hard for Tanya to keep working in the History department.

Professor Lacer didn’t enter until after the bell had rung. He shut the sliding door behind himself with an idle wave of his hand over his shoulder and spun to face them all. He wasn’t smiling, but though his bloodshot eyes and pale lips indicated that he hadn’t slept, his dark hair was tied neatly back, and his beard had been closely trimmed into submission.

Most of all, he seemed so tangibly full of energy that Sebastien imagined she could feel it coiling off of him. She was very sure, in that moment, that not only did he receive her letter, but that if a reply wasn’t already waiting for pickup, one soon would be.

 

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