Month 8 Day 9, Monday 5:15 p.m.
Sebastien’s eyes eagerly focused on the first page of Myrddin’s journal. His handwriting was a little messy, somewhat overly looping and decorative, but she could read it with a little extra effort.
The first page held a single paragraph. Some of the words were spelled strangely, and some of them were archaic choices that she’d never heard anyone actually use. These, she mentally translated into what she guessed were their contemporary counterparts to more easily parse the meaning.
I considered writing this in my native language, but it has been so long the movements feel strange under the tip of my pen, and my hand is clumsy with it. To think what it would be like to attempt with a quill! I find before me the endeavor of a lifetime, a goal truly worthy of all my efforts, and I can only lament that I wasted so much time on foolishness and self-indulgence. I will make penance for the consequences of my actions by fixing the wrongs I have caused, if it is the last thing I do. Please wait, and though I do not deserve it, please forgive me, as I can never forgive myself.
That was all it said.
When Sebastien turned the page, the paper briefly flashed with another two glyphs. She almost fumbled the switch in her Will’s focus, but though her heart jumped in trepidation, the contents of the journal remained clear.
Sebastien let out a tremulous breath of relief. The contents of the next page seemed completely disconnected from what she quickly realized must have been a preface.
That jackass Tarquin has come up with a viable method for self-charging artifacts.
I cannot hate him too much, as it seems likely that this will be a critical component of The Work, and he has unknowingly made my job easier.
But the concept will need improvement. And testing. Lots of testing.
I cannot make any more mistakes where it counts.
After that, the rest of the page and the one after contained complex calculations, some diagrams, and what seemed to be various spell array elements that were never quite combined into a whole. Myrddin had added notes and questions to himself, sometimes answering them and sometimes seeming to skip to some other only tangentially related idea.
‘This is the method to create self-charging artifacts like my transformation amulet,’ Sebastien thought, her chest filling with wonder and delight. That delight soon sank away. ‘But I cannot understand it at all.’
She wasn’t sure if that was because Myrddin’s notes were nearly incomprehensible or if she simply didn’t know enough about artificery and whatever other underlying principles he was referencing. She had wanted to take that class and been forced to give up the idea, but even after two semesters of artificery, she doubted she would be able to figure out what Myrddin was talking about.
Reading while continuing to apply her Will in two different directions was difficult, and she couldn’t even begin to attempt to puzzle out anything confusing. She had only the barest shred of concentration left over. To be able to study anything from Myrddin’s journal, she would need to copy it out elsewhere by rote, then release her Will from the journal.
Every time Sebastien turned the page, two more glyphs flashed, and she had to quickly switch the focus of her Will. Even though she wasn’t channeling any power, keeping the book from descending into insensibility again was surprisingly straining in a different way than unlocking it in the first place had been. After a few minutes she could already feel her mind growing tired. It was like holding one’s arms straight out to either side. It seemed like it should have been effortless, but soon enough even strong muscles would start to burn, tremble, and falter.
Sebastien moved faster, skimming over the pages instead of trying to read them in detail with her faltering attention.
Myrddin finished the development of the self-charging artifact’s concept, and over four pages after that, wrote down some truncated spell instructions and a full set of spell arrays. It was all still far beyond her, but at least somewhat more comprehensible than his notes had been.
The pages after that dealt with a second method to achieve the same thing, and just as she was turning the page of what seemed to be yet a third method to create self-charging artifacts, her Will slipped.
Sebastien drew back her concentration with a flinch, but there was no pain, confusion, or frayed thoughts. She hadn’t actually been casting, after all. With no energy being channeled, there was nothing to cause backlash.
She stared at the incomprehensible pages, then laughed, giddiness bubbling up and out of her throat like a living thing. She stood and paced back and forth wildly, unable to contain all of her energy in stillness. ‘I did it. I did it!’ she crowed internally.
‘And it turns out Myrddin actually wasn’t the initial inventor of the self-charging artifact, though he seems to have improved and expanded upon the initial concept quite a lot. I’m pretty sure that last method was using a beast core for energy, which is definitely a lost art,’ Sebastien thought, remembering a small footnote in a book she’d read about artificery.
Myrddin was also rumored to have developed artifacts that could be triggered with Will alone. Maybe this journal would explain how that worked, if she could get far enough into it. Maybe it would explain how he had made her transformation amulet. ‘Truly, wondrous knowledge lies between these pages,’ she thought, hugging the book to her chest like it was a beloved child. ‘It might not have the answer to creating purified celerium, but to me, other lost knowledge is just as valuable. And I am the only one with access.’
It was easy to see how some thaumaturges grew so greedy with their spells and little inventions. There was something about being the only one to have a secret, to decide who might know and who would remain ignorant, that felt like being better than everyone else. It wasn’t true, of course, but she could see how one might get the two confused and be unable to give up on that perception out of pride or fear.
Once Sebastien had gotten over her fit of giddiness, she spent the rest of the evening trying to get back into the journal.
She had no success, and returned to the dorms barely in time to avoid missing curfew.
This repeated for the next three days, until on Friday, the newspapers reported on a confirmed sighting of the Raven Queen in Silva Erde.
The Architects of Khronos had used the raven-summoning spell in the middle of a large city, in the middle of the day. And that evening, they had cast a giant illusion on low hanging clouds. A woman cloaked in fluttering, tattered darkness walked through the firmament, appearing from the curve of one cloud and eventually disappearing behind another, returning to the darkness from whence she came.
‘I’m pretty sure they just cast a light spell up at the clouds and then used a moving silhouette to simulate the Raven Queen moving above,’ Sebastien deduced based on her own experience with how overblown the newspaper reports could be.
The papers were all speculating about why the Raven Queen had moved to Silva Erde, with many of them stating with confidence that she must have run from Lenore to escape the Thirteen Crowns’ power. Despite only a week having passed since Ennis’s escape from the labor camp, none of the reporters dared to jump to what must have been the obvious, enticing speculation about whether or not she had broken him free.
‘The coppers probably won’t let their guard down entirely, but I’m sure they’ll stop looking so hard. Maybe in a couple of months, I can get the Architects to fake another sighting and really solidify the idea that I’ve left.’
Sebastien stopped by the library after Practical Casting to finish her homework, planning to go to her apartment again right after dinner.
But Ana skipped up beside her and announced, “We’re going to the Glasshopper! Damien’s treat, in exchange for losing the bet with me on Monday. Set aside whatever ridiculous study project you’re working on and come with us! Consider it active recovery.”
Sebastien hesitated, but the offer of free, delectable food, when compared against another evening of disappointment and frustration, was simply too good to pass up. With a surge of defiance, she agreed.
Talk among her friends was mostly focused around the end of month exams and magical exhibitions. Sebastien listened without contributing her own opinion, allowing her mind to relax and ride the gentle waves of conversation.
Rhett was the only one not with them, as he had a previously scheduled date with some upper-term duelist woman that he’d been struggling to get to pay attention to him all term.
As they approached the transport tubes, one of the faculty members across the white stone entrance area watched their group with a bit too much interest for Sebastien’s comfort.
Waverly peeked at the man from under her fringe of black hair, then moved to the other side so that Brinn and Damien would keep her out of sight. As the smallest of their group, the others made easy cover. “Hurry,” she muttered.
The transport tube guard, there to facilitate and coordinate transportation and shipments for the commoners without University tokens, narrowed his eyes suspiciously.
But Sebastien’s group was already traveling down before a frustrated, “Wait!” came from the faculty member. By then it was too late to stop them.
Waverly sagged with a relieved sigh, then pushed up her glasses and lifted her head to stare up at the man expressionlessly.
Brinn glanced between them. “Waverly?” he asked, the question clear in his voice.
She huffed. “I’m not actually allowed to leave University grounds right now. Too many demerits this semester.”
“I didn’t know you had that many. Is this because of that time you tried to sneak into the High Tower? I told you not to irritate Archmage Zard. You know no one but him and his apprentices are allowed in there.”
Waverly pursed her small, pink lips. “I heard he had a kelpie captured inside. Do you know how rare those are? If Archmage Zard would have just responded to my letter asking to visit, I wouldn’t have had to break in.”
“But you didn’t break in! You failed! You got caught, and it was enough to get you grounded. What happens if you get even more demerits from this?”
Sebastien had vaguely heard about this fracas earlier in the semester, but thankfully Waverly, unlike Ana, hadn’t tried to pull Sebastien into any of her schemes, and so had taken the punishment alone.
“That wasn’t what got her grounded,” Ana said softly, the smallest twitch of her lips hinting at amusement.
Waverly shot the taller girl a look of betrayal.
Brinn just stared down at his best friend silently, like some kind of sad, droopy tree.
“Fine!” Waverly cried, throwing her hands up. “I was also accused of colluding with the familiar of one of the professor’s aides in my witchcraft class. It slipped the terms of its bindings.”
Alec rubbed his chin gleefully. “Oh, yeah. His familiar torched all of his things, right? Including his Master’s thesis, all of his notes, and even some family heirlooms? That was you?”
“All well-deserved revenge,” Waverly huffed. “He was abusing her. And they didn’t even have any proof that I was involved.”
Brinn raised his eyebrows, then looked to Ana for the truth.
Waverly crossed her arms. “Just because she really liked me and came to visit me after she was free doesn’t mean I colluded with her!”
“That she came to visit during the disciplinary hearing, looking like a tiny fire version of you, and gave you some ashes from her former master’s belongings probably didn’t help,” Ana muttered dryly.
“Ashes born from revenge are a perfectly useful spell component,” Waverly snapped back.
“How did I not know about this?” Brinn asked. “We’re best friends, Waverly!”
“You were too busy playing with your trees and that herbology project! And I wouldn’t have to keep secrets if you weren’t such a nagging grandmother. You know that demerits don’t actually matter, right?”
Brinn opened and closed his mouth like a fish, his eyebrows falling from their hurt upward curve to a flat stare.
Waverly gulped. “I was just feeling lonely because you were ignoring me!” she tried. And before Brinn could respond, her childlike arm rose and pointed accusingly at Alec. “And Alec killed the tree you gave him! He drowned it.”
Damien gasped dramatically, then elbowed Sebastien in the side and flashed her a secretive grin. “Alec, how could you!?”
Alec looked around for sympathy. Finding none, he threw up his hands in exasperation. “I accidentally overwatered it! Don’t say I drowned it. That sounds like I murdered it or something. I was just trying to take good care of it, and then when it got sick, I tried giving it more water…and well, you know.”
“I gave you specific care instructions,” Brinn said flatly.
“It…looked thirsty?” Alec tried, cringing away. As soon as they reached the bottom of the tube, he rushed out into the open air and hurried to flag down a carriage. “Oh, it seems we have too many people to ride together. I’ll just take this one and go on ahead. See you guys at the Glasshopper!”
Sebastien and her four remaining friends squeezed into a second carriage.
Brinn looked at all of them. “The trees I gave you guys are still alive, right?”
“Of course,” Sebastien agreed immediately. Everyone else nodded with varying degrees of confidence.
“I should check up on them, just in case,” Brinn decided, totally distracted from Waverly’s indiscretions.
As they rode, Ana turned to Sebastien and spoke softly. “All the ventures I’ve taken on as the Gervin heir have been going well. Especially the one with Lord Dryden. I’m hoping to collaborate on a few more projects with him. But I thought you might be interested to know that I went ahead and invested in the research we talked about.”
Sebastien searched her memory for a conversation about research, but before she found it, Ana said, “The research that uses bini frogs and their hormonal sex changes.” She paused and added, “To allow two women to have a child together?”
“Oh. Well, that’s great.” Sebastien nodded encouragingly.
Ana smiled softly. “Yeah. If not for our conversation that day, I daresay my life would be a lot different right now. Thank you.”
“Maybe it wouldn’t have been exactly like this, but I believe you would have done something about your uncles even without me.”
“Maybe hired an assassin!” Ana joked.
Their meal at the Glasshopper was as sublime as the only other time Sebastien had been there. This time, a group of air witches were playing a quartet of harps backed up by an oboe. The entrancing music shivered through the air and across her skin like a physical touch, while the meal exposed her to textures and flavors that would no doubt ruin her for ordinary food if she experienced such luxury too often.
As they all reached the limits of their stomach capacity and began to get sloppy on alcohol, Damien grew quiet and distracted, frowning into his bubbly, frothing drink, which had come in a tiny edible cauldron.
“Father is going to be sentenced soon,” Alec announced. “I really hope they put him in a labor camp. I heard sometimes people get out with just a huge fine and their Family name stripped from them. Can you imagine how he would be?” He shuddered.
“He killed a prostitute. They found some pretty good evidence. You always do time for murder,” Ana said. She paused to hiccup, then continued, “And more importantly, my father wouldn’t let him stay free to stab him in the back out of some misdirected revenge.”
Damien swirled his drink, letting false smoke spill over the side and down his hands. “My father has been away for months, and it’s been wonderful. I wish he oversaw army training exercises all the time.”
Ana swayed in her seat, frowning in confusion as she popped a glowing candy the size of a grape into her mouth. It exploded audibly, and she sneezed out gold and red sparks. “I thought Lord Westbay was training the private security for some new research facility. You know, after what happened with that terrorist attack. Maybe it was just a rumor.”
“Well, maybe it’s true. Not like Father would bother to tell me anything,” Damien said sardonically. “Even Titus has been too busy to have me home for the weekend for weeks now.”
Ana rounded on Damien, accidentally twisted too far, and Sebastien had to catch her to keep her from tipping her chair over backward.
“Thank you,” Ana said, patting Sebastien’s arm like someone would praise a dog. “Damien! Titus is putting too much responsibility on you. I know you’re excited about your Harrow Hill internship this fall, but it hasn’t even started and just the practice p-project is driving you to distraction. You shouldn’t have to develop new filing methods all by yourself, don’t you think? Hire an expert, I say. You’re not a clerk. And isn’t it so sad that you haven’t even seen your brother in weeks? Why is he too busy to make time for you?” She sniffed loudly, her lower lip pouting out.
Brinn gave everyone a pacifying smile. “I’m sure Titus has been very busy, what with the Raven Queen and those Architects of Khronos people on top of everything else.”
“Do you think Nat’s sad, too?” Ana asked softly. “She’s probably lonely and too thoughtful to say anything, don’t you think?”
As if he hadn’t heard her, Damien nodded at Brinn. “Oh, it’s not even just that. Well, maybe the Raven Queen or the Architects are behind it, but people have been disappearing from among the commoners. Investigating the disappearances is drawing the coppers thin, and the High Crown doesn’t want to approve any budget increases because he says their performance is too poor, but really, what are they supposed to do?”
Sebastien frowned. “I didn’t know about the disappearances. Let me guess. They’re happening among the poor people? Maybe the homeless?”
“Of course.” Damien glowered into his drink. “One of the new captains discovered what seem to be systematic and escalating numbers of disappearances.”
“Blood magic or serial killer?” Waverly asked.
“Hopefully the latter,” Ana said, enunciating carefully to keep from slurring. When Brinn frowned at her judgmentally, she added, “I mean, hopefully neither, obviously. But if I had to pick one, a serial killer, human trafficker, or anything like that is way less dangerous than a blood magic user doing something horrid with all of those lives. An Aberrant endangers everybody.”
Damien and Sebastien shared a look, but they didn’t argue.
Soon after, they left the Glasshopper. It had rained while they were eating, and the warm light of the streetlamps reflected beautifully off the shallow puddles and rain-slicked cobblestones. Before they could hail a carriage, a boy on the street corner called out, “Extra, extra! Breaking news. Red Guard fight against a rogue magic user in the streets!”
Damien took a sharp breath and seemed to partially shake off his inebriation in the few seconds it took him to reach the paper boy and buy the single leaflet of breaking news. Sebastien moved over, both of them standing beneath the streetlamp as she read over his shoulder. The “extra” didn’t actually say much of substance.
A Red Guard team had fought a running battle with a man just a few blocks east of Waterside Market earlier that evening. Some impressive spells had been tossed back and forth, but nothing like what the old Red Guard defector had cast at Knave Knoll. Several people had been injured, a jentil had died, and one person’s house had collapsed when an entire wall got blown out.
“Maybe it was the kidnapper,” Ana said, still swaying on her feet. “Trying to do blood magic.”
“Or one of the Architects,” Brinn added.
“Or one of the Raven Queen’s acolytes?” Alec said. “Just because she’s in Silva Erde doesn’t mean all of her allies have left.”
Sebastien considered several possibilities. All of them were worrying at some level. In the end, instead of escorting her friends back to the dorms herself, she stuffed them all into a carriage and paid the driver extra to ensure that they arrived safely at their destination.
Damien tried to protest, any soberness that he’d felt from his adrenaline spike clearly wearing out as his last drink of the evening hit his bloodstream.
Fortunately, Sebastien had a ready-made excuse. “There isn’t enough room. Besides, I want to pick up a few things while I’m out. I’ll be there before curfew.” Technically, on weekend nights the curfew only precluded students from wandering University grounds and buildings, and didn’t require they actually stay in the dorms. Higher-term students had even fewer restrictions.
“You can’t pay for the carriage,” he tried to tell her, quite serious but slurring. “You don’t have any money. I know all about it. Wait, no, it’s me that doesn’t have any money.” He pressed a hand to his chest, smiling sloppily. “We’re poor together, now.”
“I’m rich,” she assured him, then shoved him firmly back into his seat and shut the carriage door. As soon as the carriage was out of sight, she hurried to the lock box to check for a response from Professor Lacer. ‘I’ll swing by the apartment just to make sure it wasn’t Liza or one of Gera’s people who got taken by the Red Guard, too,’ she planned.
To her delight, there was a letter waiting for her, but when she picked it up, the smile slid from her face. There were two letters. One envelope was blank and expensive looking, as she had been expecting. The other was of much cheaper paper and had been signed with a crude drawing of a raven feather.
Sebastien ran her finger over the drawing. ‘Something from Tanya?’ she guessed. Sebastien had used a similar drawing in place of a more traditional signature a couple of times when leaving notes for the young woman in her dorm. Her suspicion mounting, she hurried to find a dark alley where she would be shielded from the sight of anyone passing by, then used her thirteen-pointed star light coaster to illuminate the paper as she opened the letter.
The message within was quite simple.
My lady, I am leaving this message for you on Friday the 13th.
Sebastien looked around again suspiciously. Tanya must have dropped it off some time earlier that day. Reassured that no one was watching her, Sebastien continued reading.
I am not sure if you will find it important, but I have overheard some loose talk by the Architects of Khronos. I suspect they are planning to kidnap a group of people from Osham, and have in fact already sent a strike team. From what I overheard, and my own speculation, this seems…big. I do not know the purpose of this assault, nor where these people may be kept, but I find the timing suspicious. It seems unlikely that they would attempt to pin such an act on you, but you are known to be traveling, and I thought you might like to know, just in case.
I hope you get this letter soon.
I will attempt to find out more if you instruct me to do so.
Sebastien gave a deep sigh, tilting her head up to look at the night sky. ‘This…might be important. I think perhaps I should talk to Oliver. He’s from Osham, after all.’