Chapter 191 – Secrets Kept

Sebastien

Month 4 Day 17, Saturday 8:25 a.m.

Sebastien’s carriage driver offered her a newspaper—a way to increase his tips, no doubt. It was the Daily Sun, and of course it was filled with drivel, as usual. After her recent experiences Sebastien would never trust what this paper wrote about anything. There was nothing new within, merely more gossip and speculation about her. They had reached the point of trying to wring water from a dry rag.

They were digging into Ennis Naught’s past again, and under the journalist’s pen the man seemed awful enough that even Sebastien had to admit that, as lacking a father as he might have been, he was not that heinous.

She tossed the paper aside halfway through the article and leaned her head back against the padded seat. Her muscles were so tense that her skull ached with every beat of her heart. Her conversation with Oliver flashed into her mind, and she swallowed hard, then rapped on the ceiling of the carriage and called out a new destination.

Instead of back to the University, the driver took Sebastien to a costume and cosmetics shop. There, she used some of the actual coin left to her name to buy two nice wigs, a few more pairs of colored contact lenses, and a book on stage makeup for actors, complete with illustrations and a cosmetics kit. After some deliberation, she also picked up a costume that was touted as a female pirate’s outfit. Really it was just tight leather pants and a puffy linen shirt, a half-corset that would cinch in her waist while leaving her chest free, and a lot of cheap costume jewelry along with a stencil to draw on some fake tattoos. And a fake, stuffed parrot.

The secret compartment in her satchel was stuffed to the brim now that it had to hold two small chests—and Myrddin’s journal, which she had retrieved from its hiding spot for good—and so the main, visible section of her satchel bulged with her purchases.

From there, she took another carriage to a housing agency, gave them a list of requirements, and scheduled a tour day for the coming weekend. Finding long-term accommodations of her own would be more expensive through the agency because of their fee, but she wanted to separate this task from the people who might otherwise be able to help her. And on her own, she simply didn’t have the time or connections to handle it easily.

By then, it was already approaching noon, and Sebastien made a third venture, back to the novelty shop she’d gotten the light-crystal coasters at. She picked up two sets of the embarrassingly pink journals that Ana and Nat used to communicate with each other. They were stupidly expensive despite being relatively low-powered and having all the standard problems of sympathetic connections.

Damien had been right. She needed a way to communicate with others more easily, especially now that she wouldn’t be going to Dryden Manor and simply talking to Oliver when she needed anything. She would have preferred a distagram to the journals, but even though she could afford one, technically, she didn’t have the necessary connections to buy one.

On a whim, she looked for the light coasters, finding them in a half-empty box marked “sale.” After a moment of hesitation, she decided to buy them all, lest she find she needed more once the stock had already sold out. Even if she didn’t need a couple dozen thirteen-pointed-star disks, these would be good objects on which to practice her beacon-imprinting once she had completed the guiding light ritual.

When her fingers started to tremble and unbidden thoughts of the beamshell tincture prickled up, she forced herself to stop and eat the lunch Sharon had packed for her despite the sick feeling in her belly that was smothering any sensations of hunger. The meal helped settle her, and she even splurged for a cup of coffee that was fifty percent cream and zero percent magic.

A random woman came up and tried to start a conversation with Sebastien about some party that was she was organizing in a nearby park, but it quickly became awkward enough that the woman took the hint and left.

Sebastien finished off the last of her coffee and laid down a few coins on the table. As she rose to leave, her eyes caught on the coin. ‘Was that woman trying to get me to give her money?’ she realized suddenly.

She looked down at herself, remembering how much her clothes had cost. It did somewhat make sense why people would assume she was the kind of person who would toss a few gold to charity on a whim. ‘Even if these clothes are from last season,’ she thought with a wry smile.

From there, Sebastien rented a room with a sink and a mirror, transformed into Siobhan, and spent the next three hours struggling with her disguise. She wore the shorter of the two wigs, a short, ragged bob. It was high quality and reminded her of an autumn forest, or perhaps an earthy sunset. Once she figured out how to get all of her own hair pinned flat to her head and out of the way, wearing the wig was the easy part.

After that, she flipped through the book on stage makeup and, with a half-dozen failed attempts that she washed off in the sink, she subtly changed the look of her face. She rounded the natural almond shape of her eyes, and with some foundation slightly lighter than her normal skin tone, she softened the definition in her cheekbones, rounded her jawline, and made her chin seem slightly more pointy. Very, very carefully, she gave herself freckles and then put in contact lenses that would subtly lighten the striking darkness of her eyes.

Finally, she put on the pirate’s outfit, which—without the costume jewelry, tattoos, or the stuffed parrot—didn’t look too ridiculous. The pants were a little tight and didn’t have nearly enough pockets, and in this body the half-corset pushed her chest up and out to moderate effect. She even went so far as to utilize a few spell components to give herself an earthy, musky smell, and put dirt under her fingernails.

Siobhan reviewed her work in the mirror. This disguise was not meant to go unnoticed. It was simply meant to be so far from the idea everyone had of Siobhan Naught—or the Raven Queen—that it would never cross their mind to suspect her. She tilted her head to the side and smiled brightly at her reflection.

This woman was more brash, carefree, and straightforward. A little alluring, with the form-revealing clothes, but the type to drink foamy beer and punch anyone who offended her in the face. Underneath the thin veneer of roughness, she was secretly soft and cute. She knew no magic but could tell a dozen raunchy jokes. Even Ennis probably wouldn’t recognize her if he passed her on the street.

Siobhan walked back and forth a few times, taking long, hip-swaying strides while she kept one side of her mouth in a subtle smile, her eager gaze taking everything in. She did not consider herself a skilled actress, but it was impossible not to have picked up anything from Ennis after having been pulled into so many of his schemes over the years.

When she felt ready, she sneaked out of the inn and swaggered off to the Nightmare Pack’s underground fighting arena. People noticed her, but they didn’t think about her. The only downside was that without her overblown reputation, it was a lot harder to talk to the underground arena’s manager alone, and when she finally managed, he assumed she was there to sign up for the fights. When she denied this, he grew quite irritated and told her to “stop wasting his time and show herself out” of his office with a sharp, dismissive wave.

Siobhan was forced to lift one hand to her mouth and whisper the chant for her shadow-familiar spell.

As her shadow stretched out beside her and rose over the edge of the manager’s desk to loom over him, the man froze. He looked up very slowly. His face paled as he met the illusory gaze of her shadow, which was really only darkness beneath the hood. His gaze trailed excruciatingly slowly from it to her.

She gave him a lopsided grin and lifted one hand to waist height to wave cheerily. “Hi again! It’s me.”

The manager’s eyelids fluttered, and he sagged back into his seat with a weak moan as his knees failed him.

Siobhan let her shadow collapse back into its natural state beneath her, staring at the swooning man with dismay. ‘What do I do?’ she wondered. She had taken two steps forward, mentally reviewing the basic medical knowledge she’d gained, when the manager jerked back from her, almost toppling his chair over.

She stilled, arm outstretched.

He scrambled out of the chair and bowed so deeply his head thumped into his desk. He reeled back, took another step away from her, and bowed again. He stayed that way for a few long seconds of silence.

Siobhan cleared her throat. Perhaps it would be best to simply pretend none of that had ever happened. “I require someone discreet to run a small errand.”

The manager straightened, staring at a spot somewhere over her left shoulder. His forehead was red where he’d smashed it, and would probably bruise.

“I need someone to request a meeting with Gera of the Nightmare Pack, or, if she is busy, to some other competent and trustworthy leader. Discretion is paramount. It is more important than speed.” She hesitated, but decided that, as frightened as the man still seemed to be, it was important to be clear, even to the point of repeating herself. “I am happy to wait.”

“It will be done at once, my queen,” the man said with yet another bow. He tried to rush past her, but she stopped him.

“Take this,” she said, handing him a tiny jar of bruise balm. It was a travel size, which she’d thought perfect for adding to her caches of emergency supplies throughout the city.

He stared at her as if she’d tried to hand him an explosive stink bomb.

“For your forehead,” she explained.

Moving slowly, he held out his hand and accepted the tiny jar from her, eyes wide. “Thank you.”

Discretion,” she repeated to his back as he scurried through the doorway.

While Siobhan waited, thankfully without any signs that the manager had shouted her presence to all the arena’s employees, she pulled out one of the warded chests she’d purchased from Liza. She unlocked it and set it on the edge of the manager’s desk. Then she set up some dye and a color-changing spell to transform the four journals into a more appropriate black. When that was finished, she adjusted the light crystal in a few of the coasters into the same thirteen-pointed-star shape as before.

Finally, a soft knock sounded on the door.

“Come in!” Siobhan called cheerfully, maintaining her false persona just in case.

The manager opened the door and Gera entered, followed by Lord Lynwood. She moved to stand in front of Siobhan and bowed.

Lord Lynwood frowned in confusion. “I believed we were here to meet the Raven Queen. Are you her messenger?” he asked Siobhan, his voice smooth and deep.

Gera swept her leg out and kicked him in the ankle, then shaded one side of her face with her hand, as if trying to conceal her expression as she gave him an angry, urgent look and jerked her head at Siobhan. She pulled her hand away and smiled, close-mouthed. “Lady Raven Queen, thank you for calling us. I hope you have rested well?”

Lord Lynwood did a double-take at Siobhan, who was still sitting in one of the two guest chairs. His eyes widened.

“I have. Now it is time to move forward again. I have promises to keep.”

Very carefully, Lynwood pressed his hands to the sides of his legs and gave her a quarter-bow. “My apologies, my lady. Your skill at transformation is…remarkable. I hope you will not take offense at my lack of discernment.”

“Of course not,” Siobhan assured him. “Be at ease, both of you.”

The manager surreptitiously closed the door, as if he were afraid of what might happen if anyone noticed him escaping.

Siobhan looked at the closed door. “He was much more enthusiastic the first time we met.”

Gera’s mouth twisted wryly. “If I might speak plainly?”

Siobhan nodded.

“He was very concerned that you disliked the royalty suite so much that you…burnt all the bedding. He has called for an audience with myself and Lord Lynwood three times within the last week to enquire what might have been the cause of your ire and how he might mitigate any repercussions.”

Siobhan blinked. She almost wanted to laugh, but as the Raven Queen, that might undermine her image.

“He has delicate nerves,” Lord Lynwood added with subtle humor, his wolf-amber eyes creasing at the corners. They reminded her of a duller, darker version of the almost glowing eye she had seen from that thing while under the sensory deprivation spell.

She shook her head to rid herself of the memory. “I was not displeased. I burnt the bedding and towels for my own reasons. There will be no repercussions.”

Gera bowed her head. “Thank you. I will inform him.”

Siobhan realized that, despite there being two other chairs in the room, one was adjacent to her and the other was the manager’s. Gera and Lynwood were both standing awkwardly beside the desk, facing her, but showed no inclination to take either seat. Siobhan stood and moved to take the larger chair behind the desk, waving for them to take the guest seats. “I called you here to discuss the fates of those I managed to save from the High Crown, as well as the boons I have yet to fulfill. What is the current situation?”

Almost as if she had been planning this report, Gera spoke immediately. “Those affiliated with the Verdant Stag were returned to their care. I understand they are handling things competently, with secrecy, relocations, or in the case of their enforcers, safety among numbers. There was an attempt to arrest one Mr. Gerard, but this failed without casualties. I am not sure the plan for their people going forward. Mr. Gerard now has a bounty on his head.”

“How much?” Siobhan asked.

“Fifty gold.”

It was practically nothing. Only the most desperate and incredibly foolish would go against the Verdant Stag for such an amount. Especially when everyone knew that they would give loans to the desperate, and then provide jobs for them to pay off their debts.

Gera continued. “The boy Theo, of course, is safe from accusations of treason. The High Crown could never admit the truth. But I doubt Ms. Russey will allow him to see the sun again without a blooded guard on either side.”

Theo would chafe at the restrictions, but Siobhan understood. “And your own people?” she asked.

“We have kept them safe within wards. There have been no attempts to scry for them, and they told me that you destroyed whatever samples the Pendragon Corps took?”

“All that I knew of,” Siobhan agreed. It was also possible that their enemies had simply given up on sympathetic magic. That had been the point of feeding a couple drops of her blood in time-release capsules to a few dozen ravens. She wanted to prove to them that their efforts were truly hopeless. There was no point in hiring more and more powerful diviners, because even if they “found” her, they would discover only what she wanted them to.

“We have offered relocation to another city, but to an individual, all have declined. They do not wish to run and hide when they have done nothing to deserve such punishment. Additionally, I believe your presence in the city provides some comfort. Deidre Johnson particularly seems emboldened by it.”

Siobhan frowned. “Who?”

Gera paused, her mouth slightly open. “Deidre Johnson… The woman with the burns?”

“Oh.” So that was the praying woman’s name. “I hope they understand that I am not all-powerful or omniscient. That I was able to help recently was largely due to Millennium’s quick thinking and particular abilities. The High Crown’s men had misjudged my talents and were taken by surprise. In addition to that, they were quite literally divided because of the events going on in the city, and so we only had to overcome a portion of their number. Luck was on our side.” While her reputation came in handy quite often, it wasn’t worth it if innocent people placed themselves in danger because they thought she could save them.

“I understand,” Gera said.

Siobhan narrowed her eyes. The other woman didn’t seem properly concerned. ‘Does she really understand?

“We also have reason to believe that for most of our people, the Pendragon Corps is not aware of their identities. They were taken by happenstance and were not carrying identification papers. Without their blood or hair samples, the Pendragon Corps would have to track them down based on the memories of their appearance alone. So we hope to provide them new identity papers and place them in more secure positions. All except Millennium and Deidre Johnson will likely be safe from notice.”

Gera hesitated, then added, “Miss Johnson is…enthusiastic.”

Lord Lynwood snorted with uncharacteristic crudeness.

“We’ve been allowing her to stay in the manor for her own safety. She has begun to hold gatherings in the dining hall, which…” Gera coughed awkwardly. “I hope it does not cause offense, but there really isn’t the space for it, and while all that come to the gatherings are surely trustworthy, I would feel more assured if there was less traffic in and out of the manor. Would it be alright to set her up with a separate community gathering space? They would have no trouble purchasing guards, I think, though if you wished we could provide the security as part of the repayment for the favor you have done us.”

It sounded like some sort of support group. Siobhan could understand why someone who had gone through something as traumatic as Deidre might want to be around others who could understand her experiences. “As long as all involved know the danger that meeting publicly could bring, I don’t see the harm in it. But, if possible, it would be best to keep these gatherings secretive as long as Deidre or anyone else with a connection to me is in attendance. Perhaps they could all contribute a small amount to security and afford wards and a guard or two. While I understand Deidre’s desire to be among people with similar experiences, I will not be funding her efforts.”

Gera nodded slowly. “She is also compiling a book of sorts about…well, about you. She’s been talking to various people who’ve interacted with you and writing their experiences. It seems harmless, but I know that you lean toward secrecy by nature. Should I tell her to stop?”

Siobhan leaned her head to the side, wondering the purpose of such work. Perhaps it was simply another way to deal with trauma. “I hope she’s aware of how the Crowns would react to such a book being published.”

Lord Lynwood shook his head. “Miss Johnson is perhaps a little zealous, but she is not oblivious. Simply bold…and angry.”

Siobhan sighed. “I understand that.”

“She is not a member of either the Nightmare Pack or the Verdant Stag, you know, just a civilian who saw a young boy in danger and tried to do something about it. I am grateful to her,” he added. “She would have made a good enforcer, if her calling didn’t lie elsewhere.”

The idea of someone writing some kind of eye-witness memoir about the Raven Queen made Siobhan feel quite ambivalent. She almost told them to stop Deidre, but a thought gave her pause. ‘Perhaps a well-researched exposé covering the truth of Siobhan Naught and the Raven Queen could help me some day, if things went to shit and I desperately need to sway public opinion, or the mind of a fair judge, or something.

“I will allow it, but only if she avoids taking the exaggerated rumors as truth. If she is going to write such a book, it should be as factual as possible. That is very important to me.”

She paused, then added,  “When she finishes a first draft, I will read it and give corrections or suggestions.”

Gera’s lips wobbled as if she couldn’t decide whether she was worried or delighted.

“We will help her on her search for truth,” Lord Lynwood said, his smile standing out sharply against the darkness of his skin. “I must say, I never expected this, but I am fascinated to see what comes of it. We certainly live in interesting times.”

Siobhan had the momentary feeling that she was missing something, but then realized that of course Gera had mixed feelings about all of this. She wanted revenge on the High Crown, which telling the truth might help, but she was probably worried about Millennium’s part in it being revealed, or the backlash that exposing the High Crown’s deplorable actions might trigger. Lynwood was more aggressive by nature and seemed ready to take on anyone for the sake of his adopted nephew.

“What about Mr. Parker’s family?” Siobhan asked.

“We retrieved his daughter and sister-in-law immediately,” Gera said. “They are both safe, though the daughter is understandably distraught at the loss of her father. His sister-in-law is…frustrated by the situation, which she feels she is not responsible for but must pay for nevertheless. We have paid off their house and retrieved the deed, which has been placed in his daughter’s name. However, for safety reasons they have decided to rent the residence out while they move to Paneth, where they will live under assumed names. The Nightmare Pack has agreed to manage the property for the next ten years. By then, Mr. Parker’s daughter will be grown and able to make her own decisions on how she wishes to proceed going forward.”

“You have done well. Thank you both.”

The woman’s blind eye widened, and she shifted uncomfortably in her seat, but Lord Lynwood merely nodded to Siobhan.

“What of the man who yet lives? Mr. Anders requested my boon go toward his dog.”

This time, Lynwood spoke. “The man remains in our manor. There were several scrying attempts the first day, but they have stopped now. He generally keeps to himself, with only his dog for company. He will not leave until you have seen to the creature and performed whatever rejuvenating magic you are capable of, but I believe it might be possible to recruit him on a long-term basis, if all goes well. He would be an asset in what is to come, even considering that they have a sample of his blood.”

Lynwood and Gera shared a look, and then the woman said, “I do not mean to doubt you, my lady, or to pressure you into action, but I have doubts about Bear’s—the dog’s—ability to cling to life much longer. Mr. Anders already has him on a complex and delicate regimen of healing potions, but…it is a miracle the creature has lived this long already.”

Siobhan’s stomach sank. “Tell me about this Bear’s condition. In detail.”

It took Gera three entire minutes to cover everything that was wrong with the dog, as well as what Anders was doing to keep him alive against all odds.

What did I agree to?’ Siobhan lamented internally. Aloud, she said, “This is a difficult task indeed, but I will do what I can.” It would require blood magic. But if Siobhan could help it, she didn’t want to go around killing a half-dozen dogs to boost Bear’s vitality, even if some people did consider the animals a nuisance to the city. Even if she could probably find some that were miserably starving and might die by next winter anyway.

“I have an idea,” she said. The notion wasn’t something she might have considered previously, but it wasn’t so different than what she and Liza were doing with the sleep-proxy spell. Siobhan had been musing about how transmogrification really worked, and if she was right, then there was no need to Sacrifice the life of another to boost Bear’s vitality.

She could Sacrifice something adjacent to a life.

“If you will hire Liza’s help as my assistant and gather a few dozen dogs, I will consider our debt paid.”

“A few dozen dogs?” Gera repeated.

“Males without homes, preferably. The more, the better. Feed them up and get them healthy enough over the next few weeks to survive a shock. When they are ready, you can inform me through this.” Siobhan handed over one of the sympathetically linked journals. “These are simple and fairly weak, but effective within the limits of Gilbratha. Their magic will not work in my presence, however. I am in the process of implementing a workaround for that issue, and I will inform you through the journal when you may begin to reply to me. Monitor it frequently. Inform me at once if Bear’s condition takes a turn for the worse before the other dogs are ready. And if you would be so kind, please deliver this one to Liza,” Siobhan added, sliding a journal from the second bound pair across the table.

“Should either of you be in danger of losing these journals, or allowing control to slip into another’s hands, you should destroy them instead.”

“I will be vigilant,” Gera promised.

Finally, Siobhan pointed to the warded chest on the edge of the desk. “I have an errand I would like to request, as well. Within, you will find several gold bars and some berserker potions. Please take them. I would appreciate it if you could sell the potions and exchange the gold bars for gold crowns through a discreet intermediary. The serial numbers may have been logged, and I cannot use them as they are.”

“You have need of coin?” Lynwood asked.

Is he trying to subtly ask about what I plan to spend it on?’ Siobhan speculated. “I believe everyone finds coin useful.”

“That is true. It is only that I never imagined you…purchasing anything.”

Siobhan suppressed the urge to roll her eyes. “I assure you, my reputation as a thief is much exaggerated.”

Gera elbowed her brother in the side, and whatever Lynwood was about to say turned into a nod of his head instead.

“You may keep ten percent of whatever coin is returned, as a fee for facilitating this,” Siobhan said. “The remainder I will pick up when I come to the manor to see to Bear.”

Gera refused. “My son’s life is worth much more than some gold, and more than the repayment you have requested of me thus far.”

Since Siobhan couldn’t very well argue that Millennium’s life wasn’t worth very much, she was forced to concede.

But there was one last thing they could do for her. The Nightmare Pack should have the same kind of resources that Oliver did, so she requested multiple sets of false identity papers, the details of which she’d written down while working on her disguise. This task, she insisted on paying for, as it couldn’t be considered in any way related to Millennium’s rescue.

When Siobhan finally left the arena, she checked the lock box for a letter from Professor Lacer but found nothing.

While meticulously removing all traces of her disguise and reassuming her other form, her thoughts rolled over recent events as if they were so many stones to be polished by repetitive handling. As she got into a carriage on the way back to the University, pieces of her conversation with Oliver kept rising to the surface.

Sebastien was not sure how she had expected her confrontation to go, but it seemed obvious, now, that he would try to turn the whole thing around on her. She almost wished he could be, clearly and cleanly, an enemy.

If he were telling the truth, Oliver may not have harmed her maliciously, or actively, apart from the dubious terms of the loan. ‘But did I really not deserve the truth? Did I not deserve his trust about an issue that indirectly—and in some ways directly—involved me? It’s so important, he can’t have thought that I would react well if I ever found out. Of course, he probably never expected that I would find out.

His comment about the lopsidedness of their relationship flashed through her mind, and some miserable emotion that was too complex to identify wriggled through her chest. Maybe that part was true, a little. But her imperfections and unintentional wrongs did not mitigate or sanction his own.

He didn’t even apologize,’ she thought. Instead, he had once again chosen to try to manipulate her into responding how he wanted.

She didn’t want to make an enemy of the Verdant Stag. It was best for both of them to work together to ensure neither was caught. And at the very least, she thought she could probably trust Oliver not to have her assassinated, as long as she didn’t blatantly move against him. But she would no longer consider him a friend, and one day, when the identity of the Raven Queen was no longer needed, perhaps their relationship would fray away to nothing.

And did Ana actually sabotage his textile contract?

By the time Sebastien got to the dorms, the buzzing in her mind and the heavy stone in her stomach had become unbearable. She sat cross-legged on her narrow bed, her back against the cold stone divider and her face to the window, and cast Newton’s vibrational calming spell. If she could not calm her mind directly, she would forcefully adjust her mood via her body.

Damien arrived a few minutes later and knocked on the stone beside her cubicle curtain.

Sebastien let the spell fall away and called for him to enter.

“Sebastien, can you help me with duplicating this stupid ribbon? I’ve tried sixteen times in the last hour and I cannot get the texture—“ Damien cut off as his gaze catalogued her expression.

She cleared her throat. “I might be able to help. Have you tried the divination spells to examine the fabric yet?”

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

She lifted a hand to touch her face, wondering how he had known. She hadn’t started crying without realizing it, and she thought her expression was rather bland. If she were as good a liar as Oliver, Damien would never have suspected.

Damien hurried to sit on the bed beside her. “No one suspects anything about your escape from the kidnapping attempt, do they?”

She shook her head silently.

“Are you in danger? Is anyone…hurt?”

Sebastien realized suddenly that she was doing to Damien something very similar to what Oliver did to her.

Damien deserved better.

She cleared her throat again, her face feeling oddly numb, as if she existed at a great distance and was merely puppeteering her body. “No, it’s not about that. I need to tell you something. Or more like…” She trailed off, confused about what exactly she was trying to do and how to make it work. “Let’s go to the study room.”

Damien remained gravely silent as they traveled, until they were safe within the confines of the same inefficient sound-muffling spell that he’d come up with last time.

“I am upset about something I’m not going to reveal to you,” Sebastien announced before Damien could speak.

He blinked at her.

“I’m not going to lie to you, but I’m not going to tell you. I have a secret. Multiple secrets. And I don’t think you can guess them, but I hope you won’t try, just in case. I don’t want to deceive you, but I cannot ever tell you the truth. And the secrets…well, they do affect you a little bit. They’re big. They’re important. And…I’m sorry.” Her voice broke, and she lifted a hand to her mouth to keep any more words from spilling out. Her eyes burned, and she looked toward the ceiling to keep the unexpected tears from falling.

Before Sebastien could anticipate his movements, Damien stepped forward and wrapped his arms around her. He ignored her full-body flinch and just…stayed like that until her muscles relaxed. He was shorter than her, so his hair pressed into her chin, and her arms were pinned awkwardly at her sides. He seemed almost as awkward at giving hugs as she was at receiving them. His voice was slightly muffled as he spoke into the fabric of her shirt. “It’s okay.”

Sebastien sniffed. “What?”

“I mean, I’m not so nosy that I must know all your secrets. Not that I’m not curious. I totally am. Especially now that you’ve done this dramatic confession and everything. I really want to know. But I don’t have to know. If you ever feel that you can talk about it, I will listen and I will keep your secret.”

“You don’t know what you’re saying,” Sebastien murmured. “You can’t know.”

“Well…that’s true. But I think I know enough. I know you.” Damien released his awkward hold on her and stepped back. His cheeks were flushed, and he couldn’t quite meet her gaze. He tugged at the neck of his shirt. “I’m on your side, okay? That’s what I’m trying to say. Myrddin’s balls, why are you making me say such embarrassing things out loud, Sebastien?” He threw a halfhearted punch at her shoulder.

She sidestepped it, to both of their surprise, and then let out a watery chuckle.

Before Damien let the spell fall, he added, “If you need help with whatever this huge, horrible secret is, you can come to me. I might be more useful than you think.”

“Umm. Thanks.” Sebastien knew that would probably never happen, but it was the sentiment that counted.

 

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