Month 9, Day 28, Monday 1:20 a.m.
Siobhan had always prided herself on her intelligence. Taking stock of the facts was easy. She reached down and gripped the flesh between her legs for confirmation. Yes, she had been transformed into a man.
Her rescuer’s eyebrows rose as he watched her grope herself.
She’d noticed no signs of a Circle or the necessary Word to implement such a complex and delicate transmutation. ‘Even if those were disguised, or I simply missed them, who would have been the one to trigger the spell?’ The man in front of her hadn’t done so, or he would have better hidden his surprise when he first saw the change. It hadn’t been the coppers, for obvious reasons, unless there was some grand conspiracy with convoluted goals…No, a much more likely answer was pressed against her now-flat chest, still slightly warm.
The amulet throbbed a little, like a heartbeat calming after a burst of exertion. She reached up and snatched it out from under her clothes, fumbling to untangle its chain from that of the warding medallion she wore, holding it away from her body in horror. The amulet, a dark, matte stone disk clasped in a simple setting and hanging from a leather cord, swung innocently under her fist. She laid it on the floor and took a step back.
The man obviously didn’t know what was going on, but mimicked her step backward with an expression of concern. “What’s wrong?” Perhaps subconsciously, his hands lowered, as if to shield his crotch.
The amulet didn’t react, but removing contact with her body also didn’t reverse whatever magic it had cast on her. “It’s an artifact. It may be dangerous,” she said, once again forcing herself not to cringe at the deepness of her voice. Even the feel of her teeth in her mouth was wrong. She felt an edge of panic pressing in on her strange, pale skin, the kind of fear stemming from complete disorientation that a babe must feel upon being born into the world. ‘My mind is my own,’ she reassured herself, reaching for her Conduit with her free hand simply for the reassuring feel of it. She focused her Will on remaining calm, not ceding control to the situation. If she fell apart now, all might be lost. ‘My magic is my own.’
The man looked from it to her. “May be?” he repeated. “Isn’t it your artifact? How do you not know?”
She didn’t respond, but he wasn’t stupid either.
“Is this what they are looking for? What you stole?” He spoke in a low voice, as if worried someone might overhear.
“I did not steal it!” she snapped at an equally low volume. At his unperturbed look of skepticism, she grimaced. “I was drawn into this unknowingly. By the time I realized what was happening, it was too late, and I’d already been made complicit. I was forced to flee.”
He stayed silent for a few moments, then said, “That is indeed unfortunate. However, I was under the impression the University was searching for a magical text of some sort? One they discovered on an archaeological expedition?”
The words reminded her of her distrust toward him. “You seem quite knowledgeable about this,” she said flatly.
He raised his hands again in a placating gesture. “Half the city knows about it by now. And yes, it is why I’m here. Similarly to the coppers, I thought you might return to your place of residence. An acquaintance of mine was able to get the location from the coppers, with just a little bit of bribery. I wasn’t sure that a powerful thaumaturge such as yourself would need help, but was prepared to offer it in the hopes you would find yourself favorably disposed to help me in return. I saw you run, and quite luckily you headed my way. I know a few shortcuts through this part of the city and managed to get ahead of you.”
That she was so predictable was worrying. “You want my help, in exchange for keeping me from being arrested?”
He nodded. “My acquaintances are in need of a powerful thaumaturge. A…sorcerer?” he asked leadingly.
She briefly contemplated pretending to be the powerful sorcerer he seemed to believe she was. Unfortunately, magical expertise was not something you could simply fake, unless you were a magician running a scam against a bunch of country yokels. He would expect her to actually be able to help, and when she couldn’t…‘Would he turn on me, then? No, better to leave the city now. Perhaps one of the magical arcanums of another country will take me in.’
Siobhan shook her head. “I cannot help you.”
She turned her attention back to the artifact on the floor. Gingerly, she picked it up, searching for any indication of controls, like a button or switch she had missed before, or even the symbols and glyphs of a spell’s Word etched into it, perhaps worn away by time. She found nothing.
Her thoughts turned back to the stolen book. Her father had thrust it into her hands and told her to run away. Considering that they were already being chased, it hadn’t occurred to her at the time to question him, but when she finally had a moment to stop and think—after escaping from the coppers for the first time that day—she knew she’d made a mistake. Looking furtively around for observers, she had hoped the book wasn’t too valuable, that perhaps she could simply go back to the University and return it, denouncing the impetuous crimes of her father.
Instead, she’d made her next mistake when she decided to examine the stolen book more closely. It was old and leather-bound, with no title except for a glyph stamped into the front cover. She didn’t know its meaning, and the shape seemed to shift continually. A quick flip through the parchment pages had shown the contents were encrypted.
The leather binding on the inside edge had come slightly loose, subtle enough that she’d almost missed it. Curiosity had always been one of her vices. Unable to restrain herself, she had pulled the leather cover back farther, revealing a spell array burnt into the leather. The Word was complex, well beyond her, but she recognized the main symbol within, a nonagon, which her grandfather used when doing space-bending spells. She had touched the edge with her finger and pushed a spark of Will into the Circle, her free hand clasped around her Conduit.
She knew her Will was too weak to power such a spell, so she wasn’t sure what she had been expecting. Perhaps she’d just wanted the feel of being so close to complex magic that would be beyond her skill for many years still. What she hadn’t expected was for the book to forcefully jump out of her hand, and she’d almost screamed and drawn attention to herself.
It had landed on the ground a few feet away, its leather re-bound so tightly that no clue to what lay underneath remained. Beside the book, lying on the hard cobbles, was the amulet she held now. Regretting her actions, she’d tried to peel back the inside of the book’s cover to put the amulet back, but, unable to do so, she’d resorted to hiding both the book and the amulet on her person, berating herself for reckless stupidity.
She realized now that both the leather cover of the book and the amulet that had come out of it were artifacts—objects with pre-cast spells embedded into them for later release. Except she had never heard of an artifact triggered only by Will and the barest spark of energy rather than some external activation method.
‘The text might have a clue about how the amulet works—how I can regain my correct form—if I could just decrypt its protective enchantments to read it. For the moment, however, it might be best to remain a blonde man for the sake of obscurity, and hope whatever spell it has subjected me to doesn’t wear off at an inopportune moment.’ She hung the amulet around her neck again and tucked it under her clothes along with her warding medallion, despite how uncomfortable its touch now made her. It was safest there, and she was safest with it hidden and close. If she lost it, she might never turn back. There was no pain, no strangeness to her thoughts. She guessed that the amulet wasn’t a cursed artifact, unless the curse was very subtle. Strange and frightening, but perhaps—hopefully—not dangerous.
The man stepped forward, but stopped when she retreated again to maintain the distance between them. “Don’t dismiss my offer so quickly. What we require is nothing dangerous,” he said. “My acquaintances mean you no harm, and you can trust that if I meant to betray you, I could have done so already. Perhaps you don’t need help to evade arrest, but surely there’s something else I could offer? At this point, I seem to be the only ally you have.”
Siobhan gritted her teeth. ‘I hate this,’ she thought, ‘even more so because he’s not wrong, but that doesn’t mean I can trust him.’ As a wanted criminal, she wasn’t safe anywhere within Gilbratha, and maybe not anywhere within the country of Lenore, if the book was valuable enough. If she left the city without clearing her name, she never would be. Not in her normal body, anyway, if it was even possible to return to it. Her father was somewhere here, evading the coppers just like her. He may have started all this in the first place, but she doubted he had comprehended the full consequences of his actions, and she was very aware that, unlike her, he had no magic to help him.
However, the real motivation for her hesitation was the University itself, and the knowledge of magic it offered. She was greedy for it, and had been for so long. To get so close, only to have all her aspirations ripped from her, caused an almost physical pain in her chest. If the slightest chance remained, she couldn’t give it up. The Naught bloodline was about the lone incentive someone might have to sponsor her. “I want my name cleared and to be granted admission to the University,” she said. “Can you do that?”
The man frowned. “I don’t understand why you would need help to accomplish that, with your capabilities.”
“Can you do it or not? If not, there’s no reason for us to continue talking.”
He blinked, his gaze assessing. “It seems very possible. They’re holding entrance examinations in a couple of weeks.”
A tingling rush of hope swept through her, but she did her best to tamp it down. “I can provide minor healing and create some useful salves and potions. I have some background in sorcery, and I can develop rudimentary spells according to necessity. I know a few protective wards, and some minor esoteric magics from a few different disciplines. I am fully literate and good with numbers, and my Will is strong enough to channel at least one hundred seventy-five thaums continuously on the Henrik-Thompson scale. I can recharge artifacts, and…” She flexed her fingers, and her eyes flicked around as she searched her mind. ‘What else can I offer?’
He spoke before she could continue, his eyebrows raised high. “You’re not a fully trained sorcerer? How did…ah.” He reached an uncallused, manicured hand up to his face and rubbed the dark stubble on his jaw.
Siobhan swallowed back the bitter taste of disappointment. It was obvious she wasn’t useful enough for him to agree.
“The person who dragged you into this. The man? He’s the sorcerer?”
Siobhan almost snorted at the absurd statement. Her father, a sorcerer? Her father didn’t have the discipline. “No. He’s not a thaumaturge,” she said. Her disappointment rose back up, hot and rancid. “He merely saw something that piqued his kleptomaniacal urges and decided to take it. Of course, when the hue and cry was raised, he ran. The man is my father,” she spat, “so I ran with him, not yet understanding what he had done. And when he pressed a book to my chest and told me we needed to split up, I was frightened and listened. I should have abandoned him to his own fate, but now it’s too late.”
The man took two deep breaths, his body shifting slightly as if he were restraining himself from pacing. “And the artifact? This…?” He waved his hand at her body.
She shuddered, and the visceral reaction only made the wrongness of her transfigured body more blatant. She resisted the urge to scratch at her newly-pale skin, instead pushing the blonde hair back from her face and shuffling to relieve the pinching in her toes. “It came with the book,” she said, reluctant to divulge the details. “When the coppers pounded at the door, I panicked, and must have activated it somehow.”
His gaze grew piercing. “You have the book still?”
She nodded. “It’s encrypted, so I haven’t read it, but it’s obviously valuable. If you aren’t interested in my services, perhaps I can trade the book for my earlier request? I must attend the University,” she said, trying to sound assertive but unable to keep the edge of desperation from her voice.
He tilted his head to the side, and when he spoke, his words were slow and deliberate. “Why must you?”
“To learn magic,” she said, as if the answer was obvious. “The Thaumaturgic University of Lenore is the premier arcanum in the world, and if not that, then definitely the best in all Lenore. I will learn sorcery. You can take the artifact as well, of course. A full-body human transmutation should be worth the price of whatever bribes you have to make to get the charges on me dropped. It might even be useful in your…line of work.”
He let out a small snort of laughter and put his hands in the pockets of his suit pants, rocking forward and back a few times as he stared at her. “No, I don’t think my acquaintances will buy the book and artifact from you.” He held up a hand to forestall her immediate objection. “You will need the artifact to attend the University, after all.” He paused as if to wait for her to request clarification, but when she only stared at him silently, he cleared his throat and continued. “The book is most likely connected to the artifact, and is no use to me as I cannot decrypt it. Due to its source, I cannot resell it, either. As for clearing your name, you may be slightly underestimating how seriously the University and the Crowns are taking this offense. The young woman who I helped out of the alley, the one with the dark hair, those cheekbones, and those eyes? She will never attend the University.” He looked her up and down. “This blonde young man with the aristocratic features, though? He is a different matter.”
Siobhan narrowed her eyes. “And you can secure a sponsorship for this…young man?”
He shook his head again. “I believe my acquaintances can provide you something to make a sponsorship unnecessary, if your intelligence can earn you a spot deservedly. They can provide you the money to pay your own way.”
She nodded thoughtfully, acknowledging and then ignoring the alarm bells in the back of her mind. Even if this transmutation was not permanent, if it held up for a reasonable amount of time and could be repeated, the man’s idea could work. The realization made her feel as if the world had shifted around her, bringing with it a ray of light, shining through a new opening into the cage that had been confining her. Knowledge, magic, was at her fingertips, almost within reach. Suddenly the artifact didn’t feel so frightening against her chest, and when she spoke, the idea that this voice, this body, might allow her to learn magic gave it a certain charm. “A loan, I assume? What do the attached strings look like, Mr….” She trailed off pointedly. ‘I know there will be strings attached. I only hope the strings aren’t barbed.’
He grinned like a fox, the edges of his lips curling up a little too far in a way that made her think of skinjackers and the cautionary tales mothers recited for children before bed. “You can call me Mr. Dryden. Let me take you to my associates. We can speak more there, out of the dark and the damp.”