Month 4 Day 17, Saturday 8:10 a.m.
Oliver was meeting with Anastasia Gervin in his home office when he caught a glimpse of movement out of the corner of his eye. It drew his gaze to the wrap-around window behind his desk.
Sebastien was outside.
She stood in front of the wrought-iron entrance gate, looking up at the manor. She firmed her jaw, squared her shoulders, and stepped through.
This last week had been one of the most unpleasant in recent memory. The Friday before, on the day of Ennis Naught’s sentencing, Oliver had planned to take advantage of the opportunity to show himself in a very public place while “Lord Stag” made appearances elsewhere, at a time when the coppers would be too distracted to spend all of their resources trying to catch him. And if he had also thought to take some vindictive pleasure in seeing Siobhan’s father get what he deserved, surely no one would judge Oliver for that?
He had been at ease, because Siobhan knew of the danger the day presented and would stay safe under Liza’s wards. The worst Oliver had imagined happening was that Ennis Naught might be sentenced to death, and Siobhan, despite her disdain and resentment for the man, would be distraught at the fate of her father.
But from the very beginning everything had gone wrong.
Katerin had broken the flimsy bracelet linked to its pair on Oliver’s forearm by mid-morning. He had rushed to her side, arriving to find her frantic at what seemed to be the pre-meditated and extremely determined kidnapping of her nephew. They both imagined horrible things and speculated desperately about who might want leverage over Katerin and Oliver. Or revenge.
A moment of hope had appeared when one of the Verdant Stag subjects who owed them a favor arrived at the Verdant Stag with news. They had recognized Theo during the boy’s desperate attempt to escape and had taken the initiative to follow the kidnappers’ wagon on foot. Unfortunately, they had lost it after following it north for a few blocks.
Even with a strand of Theo’s curly copper hair, the Verdant Stag’s thaumaturges were too weak to find the boy.
Katerin had snapped and tipped over her solid wood table with a heaving roar, and then collapsed sobbing in Oliver’s arms.
He had picked her up and bodily stuffed her into a carriage, which they rode with reckless speed through the clogged streets to Lynwood Manor.
Surely, Gera would be able to find Theo, Oliver had thought. No one could divine like a prognos. Especially not one that was forced to use magic constantly in everyday life.
But Gera had left earlier that morning without telling anyone where she was going. And then they discovered that her son was gone, too.
Oliver sent someone for Liza, but she didn’t answer her door.
It was only then that he had broken the bracelet that would call Siobhan to his aid. But she never came. Dread had filled Oliver’s belly to overflowing. This confluence of events had to be purposeful. Enemy action. And if Liza wasn’t opening the door, how could he be sure that Siobhan was safe behind her wards?
When the cloud of ravens began to coalesce in the Mires, Katerin had gotten it into her head that the coppers had caught everyone and were going to reveal them at Ennis Naught’s trial. Maybe to bait the Raven Queen into arriving. Maybe to execute them all as a reminder of their power.
Oliver thought it more likely that the Architects of Khronos had been behind it. They hadn’t found the book when they attacked and raided the Verdant Stag, but maybe they still weren’t convinced that he was uninvolved in its theft. Maybe they hoped to ransom off the people he cared for in exchange. That didn’t exactly explain Millennium Lynwood’s disappearance, unless perhaps the Architects suspected the Nightmare Pack of having the book, too, and were covering all their bases.
How the cloud of ravens played into it, Oliver wasn’t sure. But it was too unsubtle to be safe to approach personally. The best he could do was send a squad of enforcers dressed in plainclothes and hope that the ravens were only a decoy, and not Siobhan’s desperate cry for help.
Under Katerin’s urging, Oliver had gone to the Edictum Council while Katerin called on every favor and pulled every string the Verdant Stag had access to. Some of the higher-ranking coppers on the Verdant Stags’ payroll were assigned at the sentencing for the day, but despite the risks Oliver took to question them, they knew nothing. Oliver had barely been able to appear normal as he mingled among the nobles, trying to pick up any gossip or clues that could give them a chance. Any chance.
Something grew sick inside of Oliver when the raven delivered its letter to the center of the Edictum Council floor. Surely…someone was framing the Raven Queen? Taking advantage of her reputation, just as Oliver had speculated might be possible. Either that, or things had gone desperately wrong. Was Siobhan turning herself in? Wild ideas spiraled through Oliver’s head like debris carried within a tornado.
He almost hadn’t been able to control his reaction when Damien Westbay, of all people, decided that they should team up to figure out what was going on and ensure Sebastien’s safety. Westbay hadn’t been entirely useless, but he was painfully naive. Someday, that would get him into trouble that he couldn’t get himself out of, and then it would break him.
When a divination team at Eagle Tower was attacked, Oliver finally grew suspicious. This might be someone trying to take advantage of the Raven Queen’s reputation…but it could also, maybe, be the Raven Queen herself. And not out of desperation and fear. This was too well coordinated for that. It had been planned in advance.
After one of the most torturously frantic days of Oliver’s life, spent in excessively high states of anxiety as he ran around uselessly, his thoughts spiraling into ever-darker realms as the hours passed without hope, Katerin sent him a message on his distagram, which he’d moved into his carriage for easy access.
Siobhan, Theo, Millennium Lynwood, and all the people that had gone missing along with them were fine. Oliver had rushed to the Nightmare Pack’s underground arena. But though everyone agreed that the Raven Queen had entered, and Katerin said Siobhan was sleeping in a room upstairs, Oliver was not allowed entrance.
When he had gotten the full story, and particularly Gera’s part in it, all the stomach-eroding worry that he had felt dropped away. It left behind anger, but beneath that, and more lasting, was a persistent dread. The anger burned hot, flaring up a few times over the week to come only to burn itself out again, but the dread never left. It grew worse every day that passed.
And now, Sebastien was here. Some of the anger flared up again as he was reminded of her thoughtlessness, her lack of care for him or the others under her protection that would lead her to create such a huge spectacle without even a warning. But underneath it, his dread crystallized into something hard and sharp.
Miss Gervin cleared her throat, dragging Oliver’s attention back to her.
Had she been talking? “I’m sorry, I grew momentarily distracted. What were you saying?”
Miss Gervin stood, slipping the sheaf of papers they had been working on into her purse, which hardly looked large enough to hold them. “That’s quite all right,” she said with a smile. “I think we’ve covered the most critical bits. Why don’t we schedule a follow-up in two weeks?”
Oliver tried to keep the relief and impatience from his face. Anastasia Gervin was an extremely useful connection and receptive to his ideas in a way that few in the Crown Families were. He didn’t need to risk offending her just because he wanted to rush from the room and find Sebastien.
But when Oliver opened his office door to see Miss Gervin out, Sebastien was standing outside the door, back as stiff as a wooden soldier.
Sebastien’s eyes widened as she saw Miss Gervin.
Miss Gervin’s eyes flicked between them in the silence that followed, and then she took a large step forward and slipped her arm through Sebastien’s, tucking her hand into the crook of Sebastien’s elbow.
Sebastien relaxed somewhat, giving the other girl a grateful smile.
Ana squeezed her arm, then gave Oliver a bright, toothy smile that was aggressively perfect. “Sebastien! I’m so surprised to see you here. My father is letting me handle some parts of the business now, remember? I am collaborating on a very optimistic endeavor with Mr. Dry—oh, I’m sorry. With Lord Dryden here.” She rolled her eyes. “Mother is thrilled.” Another squeeze of Sebastien’s arm as she sidled a little closer until their shoulders bumped. “Do you want to get breakfast together, the three of us?”
At first, Oliver thought that she was flirting, trying to assert some kind of romantic claim. But she hadn’t pressed the side of her breast into Sebastien’s arm. Her tone was more cold than playful. And something hard and protective had come into her eyes that reminded Oliver of a guard dog.
She thought she was offering comfort and protection. And based on the way Sebastien gave her a small smile and didn’t even flinch at the touch of her hand, despite the way Oliver had seen her recoil from an accidental shoulder brush with a stranger on the sidewalk, Miss Gervin was successful.
Oliver frowned. What had Sebastien been telling her friends about him?
“That’s okay,” Sebastien said, gently disentangling Miss Gervin’s grip from her arm. “I had breakfast already, at the cafeteria, and now I’m too full to eat again. I just need to discuss some things with Oliver.”
Miss Gervin, to her credit, didn’t hesitate or ask Sebastien if she was sure. She just nodded to them both and walked away with a nonchalant wave over her shoulder. They watched her descend the stairs, and then, with a wave of invitation from Oliver, Sebastien followed him into his office.
Sebastien stood behind the chair Miss Gervin had been sitting in, her slender-fingered hands resting upon the wood frame of its back. She didn’t even wait for Oliver to sit down behind his desk. “Did you steal one of Myrddin’s journals?”
Oliver’s heart jumped as if it were trying to tear itself free of his chest. He stared at her for three frantic beats and then said, “I did.”
Sebastien showed no signs of surprise. “I also have one of Myrddin’s journals,” she said, as nonchalantly as if they were talking about cravats from a favorite tailor. “Just not the one people think. One of the other four.”
“You’ve been busy,” Oliver mumbled past numb lips. How long had she been working on this? Had she suspected him for a while now, or had someone else discovered the truth and told her?
“The one you have contains a method to transmute pure celerium from beast cores,” she said. She paused a moment for him to speak, but when he remained silent, she continued. “Do you know what the one I have contains?”
Oliver had to clear his throat before he could speak. “I don’t. Do you?”
Sebastien didn’t answer his question. “You used me as a decoy,” she accused, still seemingly without feeling.
If Oliver’s dread were tangible, it would have been slicing into his internal organs with every breath. They were at the top of a precipice now, and he could see no way of stopping their descent. Not when she looked like that.
Sebastien’s face was emotionless, and for the first time her eyes reminded him of those of a shark: cold-blooded, predatory, and uncaring. Responses ran through Oliver’s mind, different ways to try and mitigate disaster, to hold up the crumbling brick of their relationship, built so gradually and now tearing apart.
Before he could land on some magical answer, she spoke again. “Did you somehow cause Ennis to steal the journal?”
She knew too much. He couldn’t lie. “I didn’t. But…it’s possible the thief I hired took it upon herself to place a compulsion. Something to sow confusion. She left the country upon completing the mission, and I haven’t heard from her since.”
Sebastien nodded to herself thoughtfully.
“I didn’t tell you because you didn’t need to know. And I didn’t actually use you as a decoy. Not really.” His words were coming faster even though he tried to slow them, to keep them measured and with the perfect intonation that would somehow make her believe him. “I tried to keep you safe, even though I could have just let you be. That placed me in more danger. If I had ignored you completely, even if you were caught, even if my thief made a mistake when altering the expedition’s logs and they somehow discovered that an additional book was missing, I wouldn’t have been implicated. The information within can be used for the greater good. A way to create celerium could be the great equalizer for our society, as well as an insanely lucrative source of income.”
Sebastien raised one eyebrow and said dryly, “And with the celerium mines running dry, the power you would hold would be enormous.”
Oliver already had another argument lined up, but his thoughts stuttered and tripped over each other. “What? The mines aren’t…”
She frowned darkly, accusingly.
“You really have been busy,” he said, the words slipping out without his conscious thought. It was a mistake.
Her frown disappeared, replaced by the faintest sneer of disgust.
“That would make a lot of sense,” he said carefully. “But I didn’t know that. I thought that those in power had just been restricting the flow of celerium into the market for the last couple decades as a way to artificially increase the price. Collusion to line their pockets by creating scarcity. But if that’s true, it…has major implications. If that’s true, I might need to accelerate my timeline on getting it decrypted.”
She scoffed. “You expect me to believe you didn’t already know?” Before he could respond, she snapped, “Or that our connection was solely for my benefit? That you gave me a loan with fifty percent interest and asked me to commit crimes to pay you back…just to keep me safe?”
“I didn’t know,” he said softly.
Sebastien sneered, one side of her upper lip drawing back to reveal the teeth beneath.
Something about that expression, not just angry but disgusted, sparked a bloom of anger. “I won’t apologize for acting in the best interest of all the people who we have helped, and all who we could still help, Sebastien. Every young child and aspiring free-caster could go to school. We could be an entire nation of thaumaturges. We could end poverty, scrub out the corruption and entitlement, and save lives. What you have now could be for everyone, without any of the struggle or the danger.”
Sebastien opened her mouth to retort, but Oliver held up a hand to stop her. “Listen. I will tell you once.” He paused, drew a deep breath, and repeated more softly. “Please listen. I didn’t intend things to work out the way they did. I never planned for Siobhan Naught to steal a book in my stead, or become the Raven Queen, or my friend. I may not have shared all of my secrets with you, but that has never been a requirement of our relationship, never a promise I made. And if you wish to speak of my manipulations, I admit it freely. As I said before, I have never bound anyone to me with a leash they cannot break, and that includes you. I may want to lift this country, this world, out of its own shit, but I am no saint. I do what is necessary, not what is right. But do not pretend that you have not acted similarly.”
He allowed the pause to linger, staring at her hard.
Sebastien returned his gaze defiantly.
“That little spectacle of yours, did you ever stop to think about the danger it might bring to the Verdant Stag? To the innocent people who you’ve never even met and apparently don’t care enough about to consider? Do you have any idea how many unwarranted arrests the coppers have been making in the last week to bring people in for questioning? I can’t even keep track of them. Did you consider the more direct harm that causing a widespread panic might do? That innocent people could be injured?”
Her expression had stilled again, but it wasn’t as dead as before. “Were people…injured?”
She blinked slowly but didn’t flinch.
“And more have been harmed during arrests or questioning. That part, you might argue, isn’t your fault, but if I had known about your plan, I could have made preparations that might have mitigated the severity of the situation. And this time, you might say, was out of desperation. But it’s not the first time you put aside morality or honor when it suits you. Did you really expect that I would think it a coincidence when the textile sub-commission that I had worked out and agreed upon with Lord Gervin suddenly fell through? And just before you came to me with such an advantageous solution to my newly created problem. You were saving yourself, to be sure, but risking harm to everyone that sub-commission would have helped. Thousands of people given work, tens of thousands given warm clothing through the winter months or dressed in something other than rags. If you hoped that I wouldn’t notice your sabotage, you should have been more subtle.”
Sebastien rocked back on her heels. She frowned in seeming confusion, looking away and muttering, “Ana,” to herself.
“Your friend did not tell me. She had no need. I am not so foolish. But I didn’t even hold that scheme against you, Sebastien. Because even though we’re on the same side, I have never expected altruism of you. I have considered us friends. I have given gifts of monetary value, knowledge, and protection. I have gone out of my way to keep you safe, even at danger to myself.” He laughed bitterly, and Sebastien flinched.
“But when it comes from you to me, it is always a transaction,” Oliver continued. “You will never act on my behalf unless receiving something in return. And perhaps you became used to my generosity, to the point that you expect it and become angry if I do not immediately, even preemptively, give to you. So, let us transact, now. If you want complete honesty from me, want to know all my plans and secrets and all the ways I move under the surface of this city…what will you give me in return?”
Sebastien’s pale skin first grew even more sallow, and then her cheeks flushed with rage, her black eyes glinting. For a moment, her shadow seemed to waver like a ripple over the surface of a pond. “So be it,” she whispered, her voice trembling. She swallowed and lifted her chin. “Should you wish to speak with me again, you will pay tribute, like the rest of those who treat with the Raven Queen.”
And with that, she spun on her heel and made for the door.
She stilled, then turned slowly to look at him again.
“Does anyone else know about the book? The one I have?” he asked.
When she smiled it was a small, mean thing. “No. And I will not tell them. We will keep each other’s secrets, hmm? A fair trade.”
Oliver watched her leave, and then listened to her walk away at a measured but fast pace. A few minutes later, she said a warm goodbye to Sharon, was forced to accept a picnic basket of food, and left.
The echo of the front door, though it had been closed gently, seemed to reverberate through Oliver’s bones. He forced himself not to watch her leave through the window. Instead, he pressed his trembling fingers to the cool wood of his desk. Then he let his head slump down onto his hands.
He had lost something precious, and it was more bitter than he ever imagined.
Edit 1/18: Azalea’s Arcane Alcove is opening up to everyone. If you want to discuss the books, theories, ships, and everything else under the sun with other readers who share similar interests, come hang out with us. I’ll be there for a few hours after dinner, too.
I did an AMA in The Library category/subforum a couple weeks ago, which you might find interesting to read through. https://alcove.azaleaellis.com/t/ama-ask-me-anything-600pm-mt/142/64
Original Author’s Note:
I’m just days away from sending this book off to my editor. It’s definitely the longest yet.
What do you think, should Oliver have apologized?
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