Month 4, Day 17, Saturday 12:55 a.m.
This time, Siobhan wasn’t able to hide her shock. ‘The celerium mines are running dry?’ The question echoed in her head, drowning out all other thought for a long moment.
“You…didn’t know,” Grandmaster Kiernan said, his eyes wide. He frowned. “Lord Stag didn’t even tell you what you were stealing? Perhaps it’s him you should be paying a visit in the middle of the night.”
“There’s another misconception at play here, but let’s set that aside for the moment. Tell me more about the celerium. No secrets, no lies.”
Grandmaster Kiernan swallowed hard but nodded readily. “A select few people have known for a while. That’s why prices have been rising so steeply. The Church of the Radiant Maiden, some of the Crowns, and a few among our number have been quietly buying up all the high-quality celerium on the market. Slowly, so as not to cause a panic. The Red Guard has probably been doing the same, but who knows with them.”
“Celerium isn’t the only thing that’s been rising in price,” Siobhan noted, her mind calling up the tags on various rare components in the market. She’d thought they were exorbitantly priced just because she was in Gilbratha, where they gouged you for everything.
Kiernan raised his hands, palms up in a half-shrug. “Well, yes. People aren’t oblivious. Components that are useful for particular battle and protective spells are being stockpiled, and the whole thing creates a ripple effect. Other people see prices on rare components rising, or can’t secure their usual supply, and they buy a little more than they need in case the situation continues. It becomes a vicious cycle and spills over into other areas.”
Siobhan tightened her hands into fists, then stretched out and flexed her fingers wide. “How long are Lenore’s celerium mines expected to last?”
Kiernan shook his head. “I only have estimates. Five years, maybe ten. But the mining is slowing down as we go. The Crowns have known about the issue for a while already. They’ve searched the entire country for any other celerium deposits and found nothing.”
“Five years,” Siobhan murmured. That was nothing. Five years until they ran out of the most valuable commodity on the planet.
“Without the book, our only hope will be to venture outside of the known lands in search of other deposits, or fight over the few remaining mines that still have supply. Silva Erde has a mine with a few decades remaining, according to our spies. Osham… Unless they’ve done a great job of keeping new sources confidential, they’re in a similar situation to us. They’re blustering as always about being the strongest, undefeatable and infallible, but it’s just propaganda.”
“What else is being done? Surely, with this much time to prepare…”
Kiernan’s lips twisted, sending his bushy mustache sweeping to the side like a broom. “Well, the Crowns’ most loyal thaumaturges and a select group here at the University have been working on creating ultra-pure artificial gemstones, blood gems from compressed magical beast blood, and any way that we might reconstitute shattered celerium into a whole once more. That, along with more arcane attempts to imbue objects with greater channeling capability. But just as in the thousands of years before this, none have come up with anything that can stand beside celerium. None except Myrddin,” he corrected quickly.
‘Thaumaturges have been using the celerium up for millennia now, shattering it into uselessness bit by bit, thinking that the deposits would never run dry,’ Siobhan thought. ‘I never even considered that celerium was a thing that could run out. It seems so obvious now, but I never questioned the status quo.’
Aloud, she said, “It will create a class divide between thaumaturges that can afford celerium and those who cannot.”
Kiernan let out a humorless, breathy laugh, sliding back to sit more fully in his chair. “Oh, yes. But it will also create a power divide. Do you know the surest way to break a Conduit, besides channeling more than it can handle? Well, of course you do.” He waved his hand sharply. “Opposing another thaumaturge’s Will. Even if people are willing to carry around huge gemstones as celerium alternatives, and take the increased risk of Conduit failure in everyday life, none of the other options can reliably stand against celerium in combat.”
The man gritted his teeth and added slowly, “Whoever can supply a competent force with celerium has a reasonable chance to control the nation. And whichever nation has access to celerium can hope to take over the known lands. The days of an empire loom on the horizon once more.”
Siobhan’s black sapphire Conduit pressed against the back of her ribs once more now that she was healed. It had a capacity of around seven hundred fifty thaums, but to be safe she would need to keep any spells channeled through it at six hundred fifty thaums or less. When she had gotten it, that seemed such a large number, and so far off. Now…she was almost there already. And if she needed to go up against a thaumaturge in battle, fighting for control of a spell array or to oppose the output of some spell they cast, she would need to keep the capacity lower or risk a sudden shattering.
Kiernan’s gaze was sharp like an eagle’s. “You didn’t know, but you’re not as worried about this as I would have expected.”
Siobhan felt that she was extremely worried, and appropriately so, but she stared back at him silently.
“They say you can cast without a Conduit. Is that true?”
“It is not.”
He paused, his expression suggesting he didn’t quite believe her. “If the High Crown gets his hands on that book, the power of the Crown Families will only grow. And with their power, their abuse will grow, too.” Kiernan’s scarred, knobby-jointed hands tightened into fists in his lap as he stared out into the dark. “And obviously, we at the University are a threat to them. They’ve made it so by their very fear of that reality. We have a great, if subtle, power over Lenore. We are the only accredited institution to provide Masteries. We create inventors, soldiers, Grandmasters. We mold those who hold great and terrifying power. And we have retained the right to admit or deny who we want from these august grounds. So the Crowns want us bound tightly.”
Kiernan looked back to Siobhan. “Each shackle and lock they place on us chafes more than the last. There are restrictions on what components we are allowed to buy, and how much. Audits to ensure we aren’t hoarding components that are considered potentially dangerous or useful in battle. Restrictions on the number of direct Apprentices we are allowed to take, as well as how many sponsorships we are allowed to give. Vows we are each required to take if we want to teach, requiring loyalty to the Thirteen Families—and the High Crown—even above loyalty to the nation. They can commandeer our services to help with difficult missions without advance notice. More aptly put, University professors are subject to a random draft.”
His fists were white in his lap and his mustache trembled with rage. “People drafted to perform these dangerous missions tend to be those who the Thirteen Crowns feel are a threat. And somehow, somehow, they end up dying on the mission with surprising regularity.”
Siobhan had not known this, but she couldn’t say that she was particularly surprised to hear it. “So what is your plan?”
Kiernan hesitated, finally releasing his clenched fists. He rubbed at his swollen, rheumatic knuckles. “We only wish for freedom. Surely you can understand that? Freedom for everyone, not only ourselves. A life out of the shadow cast from the Crown Families’ boot. Free industry, so that merchants do not need to receive their favor to do business. Freedom to pursue knowledge and power. Freedom to know the truth of history and shine light into the dark shadows. The right to rule Lenore would come from worth, inconsiderate of bloodline or connections. New members of the ruling council would be brought in based on qualifications, and the old who were no longer worthy would be deposed. We would make things better, don’t you see? If only we had the book. Someone like you would be welcome in the kind of world we build.”
Somehow, Siobhan doubted it, but she didn’t say so aloud. During a long moment of silence, she considered the ramifications of several different responses. Finally, she said, “You have given me much to think on. Now I will do the same for you. People believe they know me and understand my actions. Have you ever considered that the book you are looking for never made it to Gilbratha?”
Kiernan leaned forward, frowning. “I…don’t understand. What do you mean?”
Siobhan knew there was some possibility that she really did have the book that could transmute beast cores into useable celerium, but after everything she’d learned, she strongly doubted it. The right kind of hint might lessen the pressure on her while still not directly betraying Oliver. The Architects of Khronos had already suspected and even raided the Verdant Stag, but they didn’t find what they were looking for. Kiernan should be susceptible to misdirection.
“Originally, the expedition into the Black Wastes retrieved five books from Myrddin’s hermitage.”
Kiernan’s sharp intake of breath revealed his ignorance.
“Everyone believes that if they find Siobhan Naught, they can obtain the method to transmute celerium. You might have wondered why I didn’t know of it, if I have that book? A book which was in truth taken by coincidence, or perhaps a compulsion, though I cannot be sure because I was not there at the time. But I do not hold the book you are searching for. Inside my book was something else, contained in a space-bending array that might have grown weak with time. Something powerful, precious, and old, but certainly not the kind of thing that could do what you hope for. Either your information about what Myrddin was working on is very wrong, or Ennis Naught didn’t steal the book that everyone thought he did.”
Kiernan stared at her, wide-eyed and clearly thinking hard, but the question he asked next wasn’t what she expected. “What happened to Siobhan Naught?”
Siobhan tilted her head to the side. Obviously, she was sitting right in front of him. Why was he speaking as if she was someone else? Surely everyone knew that, even if she were sprouting feathers from her hair and acting theatrically, the Raven Queen and Siobhan Naught were the same person?
‘But maybe they don’t,’ she realized suddenly. ‘Could that be an opportunity to clear my name? If I could detach my original identity from the crimes of the Raven Queen… I’ll have to be vague about it. I’m not sure exactly where this misunderstanding stems from.’ She didn’t have time to consider all the ramifications. This opportunity faded with every moment that passed. “Siobhan Naught was innocent,” she said softly. “A promising young thaumaturge, but not powerful or skilled enough to evade capture. But now I am here, and I am none of those things.”
Siobhan could only hope that these words wouldn’t come back to bite her in an unforeseen way, as the things she did without proper consideration so often did.
Kiernan, though, just nodded slowly, staring hard as if trying to see her face underneath the shadows of the cloak. “So the book we need is…missing?”
She hummed noncommittally. That was the question she had expected him to ask from the beginning, or close to it. “It seems so. I have one, you have three, and so another party must have the last. Now, I cannot be sure which is missing, but if Myrddin did write about such feats, then it seems likely to be the book you are all so desperately searching for. And the person who could manage such a smooth deception, letting no hint slip of their involvement? If I were you, I would be very careful how I went about investigating the location of the fifth book.”
Kiernan let out a harsh breath, sagging as he brought his fingertips up to his forehead. “Give me discernment,” he muttered, almost too low to hear. He lifted his head and lowered his hands to look at her. “But you could decrypt it, if you did have it? Could you decrypt the others, the ones we have, too?” He didn’t pause for her to answer, speaking more to himself than to her. “Even if they don’t have the culmination of Myrddin’s research, they might have hints of what developmental path he took along the way. We might be able to devise our own solution independently, if we knew the right direction.”
“I…might be capable of reading them.” ‘Someday,’ she added silently. She smiled wide and allowed the expression to leak into her voice. “But you would have to offer me a tribute that would make it worth my time, and the danger. Do you have anything that could tempt me?”
Kiernan fell silent, his gaze moving down and to the side as he thought.
Siobhan stood. She had learned all she needed, and it was time to go before she made a mistake or the tides of irony brought on some horrible, unexpected danger. She moved to walk away, but behind her, Kiernan called, “Wait!”
She turned, glad that he had stopped her, because she remembered something important. “Tanya Canelo,” she said.
Kiernan frowned. “Yes?”
“She has asked for my protection, and done a favor in advance to pay for it. If you cause her harm, you will pay in kind. She is not yours anymore. You may continue to employ her, if you wish, as long as you remember that she is mine.” There. Hopefully it would act as some portion of protection for the other woman against being sent out on further suicide missions. ‘No matter what he says, it seems Kiernan and the High Crown are not so different in that way. He is a hypocrite.’
Stating an affiliation to Tanya might make it harder to use her for covert activity, but Tanya’s life had to be worth more than Siobhan’s convenience.
As Siobhan reached the edge of the tree line, she activated the dowsing artifact and allowed herself to disappear into the shadows between their towering trunks.
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