Chapter 187 – Transmutation Exercises

Sebastien

Month 4, Day 12, Monday 3:50 p.m.

Silence followed Sebastien’s question.

“What?” Damien asked.

She continued to stare at Professor Lacer. “Magic, or reality, or whatever you want to call it, is either accessing or storing our ideas. Judging by the fact that old spells that aren’t practiced very often in the modern world are still viable and don’t go back to being ‘wild,’ I’d say it’s the latter.”

“What?” Damien said again.

“And I’m doing something wrong.”

“Stop,” Professor Lacer said.

“My transmogrification isn’t accessing the ideas properly,” Sebastien finished, the dread and relief of admitting it aloud warring with each other. In a rapid, low murmur, she added, “I’m worried there’s something wrong with my brain. Inherently, I mean. Not Will-strain. Or maybe it is from Will-strain? Accumulated damage? Is it going to get worse?”

Stop speaking,” Professor Lacer commanded.

Sebastien’s teeth clacked together as she cut off the deluge of anxious questions.

“I…don’t understand what’s going on,” Damien said. “Magic is sentient? Your transmogrification…” He trailed off under Professor Lacer’s black glare.

Professor Lacer looked between the two of them, then pressed a hand to his forehead and dragged it down his face with a deep sigh.

Sebastien could smell the coffee on his breath, sour but not rancid. He must drink it black, without sugar or honey.

“Of course something like this would happen,” Professor Lacer muttered. “Into my office, both of you, before you start somehow spilling instructions on how to summon a demon or something equally ridiculous to anyone else who might be listening.”

Suddenly, Sebastien worried that perhaps there was a reason the man had wanted her silence beyond simple exasperation. A reason like the Red Guard wanting to keep such knowledge a secret. Surely, they couldn’t know what she had said, though? But her paranoia was too strong to accept that. ‘The Red Guard knows magic lost to time. Spells of ridiculous power and amazing effect. Everyone knows that. Who’s to say they couldn’t have some sort of enormous divination spell set up to catch certain secrets being spoken aloud?

When they were safely behind the closed door of Professor Lacer’s office, and the man didn’t immediately start casting protective spells or anything else alarming, she whispered, “Am I in danger?”

“No, but he might be,” Professor Lacer said, gesturing to Damien with unconcealed frustration.

Damien and Sebastien shared a worried glance.

“Be silent while I consider how to deal with this,” Lacer said, pacing back and forth for a minute and then moving to one of the bookcases lining the walls to search through a few different texts.

Dread built in Sebastien’s gut the whole time.

“Sit down,” Professor Lacer added absently. “Neither of you are in any active, immediate danger. You have merely created a potential barrier to Damien’s future success. I will do my best to guide you both properly out of the metaphorical thorn bushes.”

Finally, Professor Lacer moved to his desk, where he began to write on a sheet of paper, using what was probably a variation of the mimeo-motion spell to copy everything he was writing to a second sheet. When both pens returned to their resting spots, he waved his hand to dry the ink, then handed the papers to both Damien and Sebastien.

Professor Lacer had listed a dozen keywords, leaving room for them to write between each.

“Is this…a quiz?” Damien asked.

“In essence,” Professor Lacer agreed. “Both of you, write the most accurate, profound sentence you can think of for each of the words I have provided. Do not peek at each other’s work. Your answers must be your own. You have five minutes.”

Damien and Sebastien both hurried to start, as this time limit left them half a minute or less for each answer.

Profound?’ Sebastien wondered. ‘So, intense statements based on deep knowledge and insight? And with barely a handful of seconds to scribble at full speed? Hopefully Professor Lacer won’t expect these to be very good.

It felt like even less than five minutes when Professor Lacer snapped his fingers, making the piece of paper fly out from underneath Sebastien’s fountain pen.

The man read over both pages quickly, his expression inscrutable. “As I thought,” he announced.

Neither Damien nor Sebastien asked for clarification, instead waiting with silent anxiety.

Professor Lacer was silent for another excruciatingly long moment. “I suppose I have no choice but to explain, but perhaps I can still guide you to your own epiphany,” he said quietly, looking at Damien. “Sebastien has been having increasing trouble with transmogrification. Let us see if some examples can help you to understand why.”

He turned to one of the sliding blackboards set into the wall and clipped both of their papers to its upper rim. “Mr. Westbay, as an automatic response for the words ‘life’ and ‘death,’ you wrote ‘All life ends in death.’ While slightly clichéd, your response is not nearly as inane as I had feared. Mr. Siverling, you wrote, ‘Death is the single greatest tragedy of existence, the absolute, unfathomable horror that has accumulated since the beginning of life.’ While not what I would have said, I am not surprised by your answer.”

Damien did not share that indifference, blinking at Sebastien in bemusement.

“The most common responses to this question are some variation on, ‘Death is but the start of the next journey,’ ‘Death gives meaning to life,’ and maybe, ‘The dead are not truly gone until the last memory has forgotten them.’”

Sebastien narrowed her eyes. “Really? But you said to be profound. Doesn’t that require actual thoughtfulness? All of those statements are just…lies.”

Professor Lacer smiled darkly.

Damien blinked again, mouthing “lies” silently to himself.

“Let us look at your thoughts about the words ‘love is.’ Mr. Westbay, you said, ‘Love is the light of the soul reflected in understanding, loyalty, and confidence.’ A slight modification of a very old, obscure quote, I believe.”

Damien’s eyelids fluttered. “Oh. It was something I heard my mother say once, when I was young. It stuck with me.”

“Hmm. You, Mr. Siverling, said, ‘Love is a powerful motivation for action.’”

“I struggled with that one,” she admitted. “But there was no time, so I just tried to come up with something true.”

“Common offerings would be along the lines of, ‘Love conquers all,’ ‘Love is selfless,’ ‘Love is more precious than gold.’”

Sebastien was beginning to sense a theme.

“When given the words ‘gut-wrenching’ and told to respond with the shortest sentence possible, Mr. Westbay offered back, ‘Gut-wrenching fear,’ while Mr. Siverling has given us, ‘Gut-wrenching intestinal parasites.’”

A short, sputtering laugh burst from between Damien’s lips.

Professor Lacer waved a hand toward their papers. “Feel free to examine them further, if you wish. I think my point is made.”

Damien rushed up and began to read over Sebastien’s answers, but she remained seated.

Professor Lacer waited for Damien, who let out frequent sounds of surprise or amusement. Finally, he said, “Mr. Westbay. Please give me your best guess as to the significance of this ‘quiz’ and the answers that were provided, based on our current context.”

Damien turned back to look at Sebastien for a long moment. “Sebastien’s instinctual responses are…unusual. And it’s causing a problem with his transmogrification?” He lifted one hand to his chin and frowned down at the floor. “Because transmogrification is based on ideas. And Sebastien is trying to use the wrong ones. Which means the right ones are…the most common ones? And that’s why he asked if magic was sentient, because it’s somehow aware of our ideas. And that has…mind-blowing implications.”

Damien fell silent as he stared unblinkingly at the floor, and then very obviously shook himself back to the present. “But it’s dangerous to talk about, for some reason. I don’t want to speculate what the danger might be.” He smoothed his hair back compulsively, the bags under his eyes standing out against his cheeks, which were paler than normal.

Professor Lacer nodded with satisfaction and motioned Damien back to the armchair beside Sebastien. “Like glyphs, some words, phrases, and items can encapsulate a whole concept that was built by those that came before you…and often not by a rational thinker. These ideas, indeed, are what transmogrification pulls on.”

Sebastien let out a shuddering breath at the confirmation.

“Mr. Siverling is placing too much emphasis on individualism. He is prideful, and feels that his ideas must be the best ones, more accurate, more correct than the feelings and stories and concepts that the average person would connect to certain things.”

Sebastien shifted uncomfortably but didn’t argue. She did believe that, to some degree, because it was true. Maybe her understanding wasn’t the best, but it was certainly better than the average person’s, who didn’t even care to examine their own thoughts or learn how and why things worked.

“All sapient beings that I know of who live in societies or communities more advanced than those of animals naturally accept and utilize these prepackaged thoughts. We accept them even without realizing, from infancy. Language is one such creation. Mathematics another. All of our technologies, both magical and mundane. There is no shame in accepting the ideas of those who came before you. Can you imagine if you, and every new child born, were forced to invent language, mathematics, and a coherent magical method and structure on your own? We stand on the shoulders of the giants that came before us. There is no shame in this.”

Professor Lacer looked between them, gauging their expressions. “But there is a danger to this easy acceptance of the ideas of others, as well. If we never question, we cannot advance. And the average person is almost unbearably stupid and foolish. Many of these prepackaged ideas are idiotic, or even harmful. Love does not conquer all. People do not go to some better place after death. Magic is equally valuable regardless of what culture, species, or individual practices it. Some people may pay lip service, repeating these ideas without ever questioning them, but show through their actions that they do not believe. However, many allow these concepts to become part of their worldview, without ever consciously making a decision to do so. Part of the reason that I accepted Mr. Siverling as my apprentice is that I could see signs that he was not so hopelessly bound by the ideas of others as to never break free. But his critical nature and individualism has a downside.”

“So what about me?” Damien asked, his eyebrows scrunched together in a worried frown.

“Mr. Westbay, your mind is not composed solely of these prepackaged thoughts, but you are not a contrarian to the same degree as Mr. Siverling. You have had no trouble with transmogrification, because you do not attempt to force the magic to adhere to your own ideas rather than the ideas of what some call the ‘common consciousness.’ Mr. Siverling is, in essence, trying to force connotations into this common consciousness with his own strength alone. Compared to the thought-weight of a society, of history, he is doomed to fail.”

Obviously, that was true. Sebastien reviewed the times she had failed, the way some transmogrification spells—ironically, the simpler ones—had become so difficult. It was suddenly so clear that she shouldn’t have been trying to use her own understanding from the beginning. The connotations, the connections, shouldn’t have been coming from her at all. She had thought she understood how transmogrification worked. She’d learned such basic information as a child, before she could even fully recall. Even when she questioned her understanding, some part of her was still tethered to that old pillar of “reality.”

I knew that magic must follow the Will of the thaumaturge. Total control was the only way to ensure safety. So even though I wondered how the connotations worked, I never really opened up my own conception and rearranged it from the fundamentals. Even in the smallest spell, I wasn’t willing to let any part be outside of my control, certainly not to call upon something external.

But it was so simple. So, so, simple, all this time.

Sebastien just needed to allow her magic to rely on something larger than herself. Even the thought was somehow unpleasant. And she felt that, once again, Professor Gnorrish’s lesson of admitting that she did not understand was showing its worth. This was the difference between knowing something and understanding it. All this time she had only known, because she hadn’t allowed herself to understand.

Her transmogrifications up until now had succeeded in spite of her, not because of her. When she had known clearly that she didn’t understand, some subconscious part of her had been unable to exert control, and thus must have allowed the spells she cast to reach for outside understanding. But could she still have been restricting herself unknowingly? Would her spells have been better if she had been doing them properly?

Professor Lacer’s next words, directed to Damien, broke her out of her contemplation. “Now that Mr. Siverling has made this realization of the true mechanics of transmogrification unavoidable for you, you must overcome the same barriers as he if you hope to avoid difficulty with transmogrification.”

“This doesn’t make sense,” Sebastien said. “Why not just teach everyone how transmogrification really works from the beginning? Why the secrecy?”

“There is a very thin, but chasm-deep, distinction between believing that the majority of society are idiots that casually accept foolishness and lies as reality, and understanding that an idea has a very real weight, a significance, completely separate from its truthfulness. Some people, Mr. Siverling, are not able to overcome this distinction. There have been studies. When the results of those studies became clear, they were burned or redacted to keep the knowledge buried.”

Damien wiped his palms on his pants. “How bad is it?”

“For you, perhaps not so bad. Statistically, those that are taught about it, rather than come to this realization on their own, have a much more difficult time accepting the idea of the common consciousness. There is some disconnect between knowing about it and being able to call upon it while casting spells. For about twenty-five percent of test subjects, it stymied development in transmogrification-based spellcasting by a noticeable amount for up to two years. There was some evidence to suggest that even after two years, their transmogrification spells had decreased efficiency of about five percent. A handful of particularly rigid thinkers never recovered.”

“Like a baby bird breaking its way out of the shell,” Damien said to himself. “Do you know, the silver-billed woodpecker never develops its magic correctly if you break its shell for it?”

Professor Lacer continued. “It was decided that those who need most to understand the truth will be forced to grasp the concept as they grow in knowledge and analytical ability, and meet barriers in their casting. This includes both Mr. Siverling and my younger self.”

Sebastien’s eyes widened. “You?”

“Indeed. But returning to your original question, the difficulty that this knowledge may cause certain thaumaturges is not the only reason for secrecy, though that single reason is more important than you may realize upon first thought. Do either or you care to theorize why this may be?”

“A five percent decrease in efficiency, from twenty-five percent of thaumaturges, over the course of even one generation is actually very large,” Sebastien said immediately. “If less than five percent of thaumaturges meet problems during the course of advancing their path, the scales might weigh the status quo to be more advantageous. Especially if people like you and I can overcome this issue.”

“Transmogrification is more versatile than transmutation,” Damien added. “It’s very important to Lenore. There are a lot of spells that have no transmutation equivalent. We would potentially be weakening the military.”

“I could also see people attempting to abuse this knowledge,” Sebastien offered. “Trying to force certain ideas upon the masses for their own benefit.”

Professor Lacer crossed his arms and leaned against the blackboard. “Indeed, the Blood Emperor conducted widespread experimental campaigns in an attempt at exactly that. But there is another reason. Secrecy in this matter benefits some. I will not speak more on it, but you are not complete idiots, and I believe you should be able to understand what I mean.”

The thought came instantly to Sebastien. ‘They’re already doing this—trying to control what people believe to control how magic works.’ She considered the lies they told about break events and corrupted Wills. ‘It might be similar to that. Maybe there’s some concept beneficial to those in power, or more generously, to society as a whole, that they’re trying to subtly guide into the common consciousness. If people were to know how it all worked, they might invalidate the efforts of those in power.’ What, exactly, these “desirable” ideas might be, Sebastien wasn’t sure.

“I can’t believe I didn’t realize it before,” Sebastien said. “All of the clues were there. And it seems so obvious, but I just…” Her shoulders curled in with shame. “No one ever mentioned it, and I wasn’t thinking for myself.” She looked up at Professor Lacer. “But you never answered my question about magic. Do we have any idea how it actually accesses those ideas? How they imprint themselves upon its…fabric?”

Professor Lacer’s chest moved in what might have been a silent, aborted chuckle. “An incorrect explanation of magic could be that it is ‘alive’ in the way that the planet itself is ‘alive,’ but changing so slowly and with a lifespan so enormously great that there is no way for us ant-like mortals to interact with it. Surely, ambitious thaumaturges since the dawn of time have desired to uncover how, exactly, magic works. To my knowledge, none yet have met success. Magic does not seem to have opinions about good and evil, nor any way to directly communicate with it. It simply exists. Surely, there is some truth that we have yet to discover, but I cannot say what it is or how it works.”

“So how will I know if being told about this rather than discovering it on my own has harmed me?” Damien asked.

“Meditate on the lessons you have learned. Accept the shift in your paradigm. And then attempt to cast a transmogrification-based spell once more. Without specific measurements from before this unfortunate revelation, it will be difficult to be exact, but you should be able to judge if your efficacy has lowered. If it has…perhaps a regimen of guided meditation over the next few weeks or months may aid you. Even if that method were to fail, it would not be reason for despair. I imagine a mind healer, a shaman with the right focus, or someone adept in the arts of the mind may be able to train your conception as necessary.”

Damien swallowed hard. “But I could be part of the seventy-five percent that don’t have any trouble, right?”

“Yes,” Professor Lacer said.

“How did you handle it when you realized, Professor?” Sebastien asked, hoping to distract Damien from his worry. “You realized on your own, right?”

“My struggles were much more pronounced and extended than your own, Mr. Siverling. In fact, I had imagined that it might take you another term of failure and seemingly degrading skill to finally reach a breaking point and tear through your misconceptions.”

“Another semester!?”

“That is approximately how long it took me.”

Damien perked up. “Oh, you must tell us about this.”

Professor Lacer looked between the two of them. “Very well. In short, I began to have trouble with transmogrification when I was a few years younger than the two of you. I had a…magical teacher, of sorts. I was not his apprentice, but he was expected to spend some of his time each month training me. He was quite self-important and supercilious, always acting like some kind of wise sage and taking every opportunity to impart ‘life lessons’ on others.”

“Like Pecanty?” Sebastien and Damien asked at the same time. They shared a surprised look and then a smile.

“Somewhat,” Professor Lacer said enigmatically, though his faint smile and the fact that he didn’t reprimand them for insulting his colleague reinforced his apparent distaste for the man. “At a certain point, as I gained skill, power, and knowledge, my progress with transmogrification began to slow. And then, I judged that it was not just slowing but in fact moving in reverse. This, admittedly, led to some panic. The more I attempted to understand where I was going wrong, the worse I performed. In desperation, I will admit that I even began to cheat a bit when in front of others, mimicking transmogrification’s effects with transmutation when possible. If anything, this only made my struggles even worse.”

Professor Lacer shook his head ruefully. “I considered giving up my efforts to understand my failing in the hope that placing less stress on myself would ease my struggles. But, as you might have done, Mr. Siverling, I instinctively rebelled against the idea that I should purposefully remain ignorant. I thought that surely, once I understood, I would improve. I knew that I was talented, and I had cast many transmogrification spells before without issue, after all.”

Damien squinted at him. “It’s hard to imagine you being younger than us. You were probably already halfway to being a free-caster, right?” Under his voice, he added, “What would you even look like without a beard?”

Professor Lacer gave Damien a subtly admonishing look, but otherwise ignored his interjection. “I went back through previous transmogrification-based spells that I had cast with success, trying to pinpoint the place where I began to have problems. I speculated over how spells worked, how the conceptual properties were transferred from non-magical items into a very magical output, and the like. I remember becoming quite hung up on the question of how I was transferring the idea of indestructibility from a dragon’s scale without transferring its structure. In fact, a couple of the auxiliary spells I will be assigning as extra work this semester were learned in my attempts to dissect and understand various materials.”

“Those auxiliary spells are for me, too, right?” Damien interjected. “You’re not going to discriminate against me just because I’m not your official apprentice? My mind is open to new ideas. It might take me a bit longer than Sebastien, but I can handle whatever you have to teach, too.” Damien had never quite gotten over his ire at being excluded from the output detachment lessons.

“They are for you, too,” Professor Lacer agreed with a half irritated, half weary sigh. “When casting transmogrification spells with said dragon’s scale, the indestructibility drops as soon as the Will no longer enforces its application. I had many theories about what the magic actually did to create this temporary indestructibility. Some sort of invisible shield or barrier, I thought, or maybe a latticework of stabilizing energy through the target substance? A temporary adjustment of the molecular structure? This kind of thinking, extrapolated outward, only caused me more problems.

“Soon it became clear that rational thinking, trying to understand, was the very thing that was deteriorating my abilities. I was able to quantify, to some degree, a loss in ability from the first attempt to cast a new transmogrification spell directly after reading its instructions, to the second attempt after I took some time to try and understand how it worked.

“And so, reluctantly, I went to my teacher and asked for his help. I requested that he watch me cast and give me feedback. He did so, and then asked me if I had been cheating and lying my way through all my assignments. I denied it. I studied incessantly, after all. But he wondered how that could be true when he’d just seen my travesty of a spell, and yet my verbal and written assignments were always so evocative? I did not understand how that was connected. I answered my assignments in the way that I knew he wanted me to, not because I truly understood his purpose.”

Sebastien blinked. That was exactly what she had been doing in Pecanty’s class.

“He threw me out, threatening to go to my guardian to reveal my misconduct,” Professor Lacer continued with a nostalgic smile. “Enraged, I stormed halfway across the city to confront my guardian personally before anyone else could do so, and started shouting. He calmed me down, asked me a few leading questions, and suddenly the whole thing clicked into place in my mind. Like you, I had everything I needed to understand, but my own stubborn beliefs about the way reality worked kept me from putting the puzzle together. I never had trouble of that sort again.”

Damien nodded slowly, then patted Sebastien on the shoulder. “I guess you can be proud of the fact that you’re not as slow as Thaddeus Lacer?”

Sebastien peeked at Professor Lacer, ensuring that he wasn’t outwardly offended, and then said, “Well, maybe I’m just not as arrogant and stubborn?”

Damien, too, glanced at Professor Lacer, letting out a giggle, his eyes sparkling.

Professor Lacer sighed. “As a silver lining, there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that those who are able to genuinely absorb this understanding of transmogrification’s true workings have an advantage when casting particularly abstract and difficult spells. I certainly have never found myself at a disadvantage in this. Your mother, too, Mr. Westbay, was particularly accomplished with some spells that required a delicate and precise touch.”

“Really? Like what?” Damien asked, leaning forward with interest.

“Higher order connotations, for one. We will explore those if you manage to make it into the intermediate-level classes. She also had a handful of tricks she learned from a shaman and perfected her own little twists on.” Professor Lacer cleared his throat and abruptly moved to one of his cabinets, from which he took two small wooden boxes and some written instructions. “This semester, you will be focusing on a single transmutation exercise outside of class. I have also included two divination spells that you will not be tested on, but which should help improve your transmutation through understanding.”

He had changed the subject quite clearly, and neither Sebastien nor Damien tried to fight him.

Sebastien opened one of the wooden boxes. Within lay three items. The first was a twisted root whose red-brown skin was scaled and flaking, with little dots of white scattered over its surface. It looked like nothing so much as a gnarly scab scattered with white pustules. The second item was a diamond the size of her pinky tip, sharply faceted and sparkling. The third was a delicate ribbon made from a silk-like material that had been dyed—or painted—to display an elegant scene of a heron standing at the edge of a lake bordered by bamboo shoots.

“You are to practice transmuting these three objects until you can create variations, in any shape, out of dirt, water, or for bonus contribution points, air. You may use these reference objects for the divination spells or for duplicative transmogrification while you gain familiarity. But to succeed with this assignment, you must be able to create each of these substances without any references or information except what is contained within your own minds. Your creations must bear extreme fidelity to the original physical makeup of the natural objects.”

Sebastien looked over the divination spells. One focused on the whole of the object to break down overall percentages of different substances such as fat, water, and stone within a substance. The other bore some similarity to the microscope spells they had learned in Natural Science but could display the actual structure and extreme details of a subsection of material beneath the surface.

“Why these three things?” Damien asked.

“Research them and think on it,” Professor Lacer said instead of answering. “This exercise requires precision and stability rather than capacity. You may complete your transmutation as quickly or slowly as you like, as long as the composition and structure you create is accurate. It may not be flashy, but this is a valuable skill. Sebastien,” he said, calling her attention and waiting until she met his gaze. “You will not attempt to practice with any of these until your concussion is cleared.”

“I won’t,” she agreed easily.

He stared at her a moment longer as if to gauge her truthfulness. “Mr. Westbay, that is all I have for you today. If you would, I have some private matters to discuss with my apprentice.”

Damien frowned, either reluctant to leave Sebastien alone or, more likely, peeved to be excluded from something that seemed like interesting gossip. But he only gave Sebastien a significant, wide-eyed look as he left. “Meet me in the library.”

As soon as the door was closed behind him, Sebastien asked, “What’s happening with the High Crown and the Raven Queen? Are there any updates?”

Professor Lacer paused, then moved to sit behind his desk. “The reality of what happened is quite different from the sensational headlines in the papers.” He gave her a brief overview of the events from his perspective. She was surprised to learn that there had been two deaths she was unaware of. And apparently, Parker was still alive. Her insides twisted uncomfortably with a mix of conflicting emotions. She considered, for a moment, trying to free him, but she gave up on the idea almost as soon as it entered her head. It was terrible to admit, when the man’s situation was mostly because of her, but she wasn’t willing to risk her own safety to help him. Sebastien resolved once again to make sure that his family was taken care of.

“So what is the High Crown going to do now that his plans have failed?” Sebastien asked, pressing her toes harder against the floor to keep her knees from bouncing. “Do they have any recourse?”

“He has convinced the Red Guard to take the case.”

Sebastien’s cheeks paled, an involuntary response that she hoped didn’t give her away.

“Usually, the Red Guard wouldn’t involve themselves in something like this, but she was too flashy, and with how strange some of her appearances and abilities were, they want to investigate the truth behind the rumors that seem to circulate around her. If she is indeed the kind of existential threat they were formed to deal with, then they will remove her.”

Sebastien suppressed the urge to palm her Conduit. In fact, she remained very, very still as she stared at Professor Lacer.

“Of course, this will be more difficult now that the coppers no longer have a blood sample, but they have their ways.”

“How will they determine if she’s a threat that needs to be removed?”

He placed his elbows on the desk and laced his fingers together. “The Red Guard take very specific vows. If she is not a threat to the continued existence of mortality—by which I mean the sapient mortal races—they are not beholden to deal with her. Of course, they might still choose to, to mollify the High Crown. Having said that, she is powerful and cunning, and surely understands the consequences of her actions. I doubt she has gotten herself into deeper water than what she can navigate.”

Sebastien wanted to laugh. ‘If only that were true.

Professor Lacer interrupted her horrified imagination about what the Red Guard might do if they caught her. “Are you sure your concussion is not bothering you?”

“I’m fine,” she replied automatically.

“Then I believe I should bring up another matter.” He reached into his desk drawer and pulled out a sheet of paper, which he slid across the desk toward her.

She picked it up, her eyes flicking over the days of the month listed out, along with a space to check off…meals? “What is this?” It also had a place to note the amount of time spent exercising, as well as casting spells.

“It is a tracking system to ensure you are taking in enough sustenance. As you have proven unable to manage this on your own, you will fill this out daily and return it to me at the end of the month. If I do not see marked improvement in your condition by that time, I will take further action to ensure you remain healthy.”

Sebastien stared at the sheet for a few heartbeats before looking up at him. “No.” The word surprised even her, but as soon as it passed her lips, she knew she had meant to say it.

“No?” Professor Lacer echoed, as if he had never heard the word before.

“I know that I need to make sure I don’t miss meals. But…I’m not a child.”

“You are my apprentice. Your wellbeing is my responsibility.”

Sebastien’s voice was hard. “I am an adult.” She waved the paper. “This is an insult. I will take it, and I will fill it out as an aid to myself. But I will not return it to you for your perusal, nor will I allow you to dictate the minutiae of my life. You may suggest things to me, and if you are reasonable, I will listen. You may give me orders and tasks, and I will accept them because I am your apprentice and I respect you. I want to learn from you. But you may not control me.” Her heart was pounding, her cheeks flushed and her voice deep. Even she was not sure why she was having such a strong reaction to what was, considered charitably, a show of care and good intentions.

As if in answer, a memory of her reflection, pale and dark eyed, whispering desperately to herself that she was in control, flashed through her mind. She tightened her grip around the arms of her chair until her fingers were bloodless white.

Professor Lacer stared at her for a long moment, then leaned forward to press his lips against his folded fingers. “Very well. But with this freedom comes the expectation that you will act to improve the situation. I hope you can understand that while I attempt to respect your boundaries, your wellbeing must come first?”

Sebastien did not want to agree that this was reasonable but realized how it would sound if she protested. She nodded stiffly.

“Very well,” Professor Lacer repeated wearily. “You may go then. If your injury is recovered by this weekend, you may return for supervised spell practice.”

Sebastien had already risen halfway from her chair. She paused. “I…I actually think I might have made a conceptual breakthrough with the output detachment. I haven’t tested it yet, of course.”

“Thank magic for small mercies,” Professor Lacer muttered, then waved her out.

Sebastien shoved the meal-tracking paper in her satchel and made her way to the library. By the time she arrived, she had calmed somewhat. ‘I simply have to ensure that Professor Lacer has no reason to think I cannot handle my own affairs. If I appear healthy, he won’t worry any longer. I just need to eat more, and maybe smuggle in some food from outside so that I can snack when I wake at night. As for the rest of it, surely I will seem more healthy once the sleep-proxy spell is completed?’

She was drawn from her musings as she opened the door to the private study room Damien had no doubt bullied his way into and found him grinning and bouncing up and down in front of a spell array.

“My ability to cast is intact,” he announced proudly.

Sebastien suddenly had a great desire to test the autumn leaf transmogrification that she had so struggled to cast, but her Will-strain didn’t allow for even that.

And, away from the surprise of what had felt like an ambush, that thought forced Sebastien to admit that, based merely on the evidence and not knowing the truth of what had led to her circumstances, Professor Lacer’s worry might be reasonable.

If Miles, Theo, or Nat had gotten into as many worrisome situations as Sebastien Siverling, she, too, might think that concern was warranted. ‘Professor Lacer might look young-ish, but he’s actually very old. I probably seem like a child to him.

 

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