Chapter 202 – Countergambit


Month 8 Day 14, Saturday 9:10 p.m.

Siobhan stared at the crumbling stone wall of the gate house. ‘What just happened?

She examined her shadow for several long minutes, experimenting with moving it around and shaping it as she liked to see if there was any hint of the feedback or resistance she’d gotten from the being when it was present. But there was nothing. The spell was still harder to use than normal, but when she adjusted the Circle over her mouth to include both her hands and said the full chant, repeating it three times as the spell was always meant to be cast, any difficulty disappeared.

With great trepidation, she released the shadow-familiar spell, expecting something horrible to happen in retaliation. But nothing did.

Siobhan let out a shuddering sigh and collapsed to the ground for a moment, curled up around her light-coaster in a fetal position with her back to the wall. She shivered. Though it was a warm night, she had been chilled by the agent’s magic and now the moisture in her clothes was beginning to evaporate. It felt like the core of whatever created heat within her was depleted.

Though eating was the last thing she wanted to do, she fumbled open her satchel until she found a pouch of dried nuts, meat, and fruit, along with her self-refilling canteen of water. The mundane act of eating made what had happened before seem almost surreal, but it also gave her strength.

She sat back up and used a spare bit of orb-weaver silk dipped in water to clean herself up, wiping away the smeared and running makeup and the traces of vomit. She took off her clothes, cast the water-falling spell in a pass from the top of the pile to the bottom, until the fabric was mostly dry and a puddle of water remained on the floor.

Then she changed into Sebastien’s form and clothes, just in case, small protection though it was. The Red Guard might have needed her to be out in the rain for the spell they used, but she had no guarantee that they might not have some other way to find her. At least Sebastien’s clothes were totally dry and warm. And somehow, it felt slightly safer in this body. She ran her tongue over her teeth, feeling the differences as she mentally settled into herself.

What do I do now? The seal in my mind… Is it broken?

Sebastien began to comb over the events of the last hour in excruciating detail.

The greatest upcoming danger is the next time I go to sleep. If nothing happens then, it doesn’t mean I’m safe, but as strange as it may seem, I’m actually not much worse off now than I was before. That thing has been in my head for about seven years, and I swallowed that beast core months ago.

Sebastien took out a jar of bruise balm and began to catalogue her minor injuries, rubbing the alchemical concoction into any she found. She’d bitten the inside of her cheek, and even though skin-knitter was not supposed to be swallowed, she awkwardly rubbed a trace amount inside her mouth and let it sit.

I don’t think that thing knew I was able to sense its emotions and true intentions. It could have been trying to trick me, if it’s much cleverer than I imagine, but I believe it was lying about being able to possess me at any time. Which means not feeding it any more power or detaching anything that could be considered part of myself for it to take control of.’ She snorted in dark amusement. ‘No trying to remember it. Anything it wants, I will deny it.’ She had to keep it weak while she worked on a solution.

Even with it inhabiting her shadow, she’d had some control. Just not enough. If her Will had been stronger, she might have been able to force her shadow to follow her commands anyway, reattaching it to herself and forcing that thing out. Or if she’d merely cast the shadow-familiar spell with the full, thrice-repeated chant, that alone might have been enough to keep the thing from slipping its bindings and overpowering her.

Sebastien closed her eyes and tried to search through her own mind. ‘Is the seal broken, then? Or just imperfect?’ Because Grandfather had missed one of her memories, the one he didn’t know she had. Sebastien shied away from touching it or thinking about it too directly. Surely, if the seal were broken, she would not be sitting here wondering and worrying about it. ‘But I can’t be sure that a failure like this didn’t weaken it. Isn’t that one of the ways to break a curse? Force it to fail in an edge case, or under some convoluted set of circumstances that don’t quite fall under its purview, over and over until the binding breaks?

So it was something to be cautious of, but at the moment she thought it was still in place and working as Grandfather had intended. Mostly.

The being had considered the Red Guard a threat, but, ironically, that had manifested in a seeming attempt to protect Siobhan from them. That could be simply because the Red Guard were capable of destroying it—and helping her. Or the Red Guard could just as easily be a threat to them both, and the being had been trying to avoid mutual destruction with its host.

What was the purpose of the Red Guard’s actions tonight? It seems very strange that they would just go about trapping dangerous thaumaturges in the streets and threatening them.’ But when she considered the pieces that didn’t fit together perfectly, another perspective suggested itself. ‘It all hinges around that secondary cold effect that was directly increasing every time I cast a spell—no, a better way to say it would be every time I used magic or channeled energy.

The cold backlash was separate from the space-bending, destiny-controlling spell. Which, in itself, probably helped not only to keep the citizens of Gilbratha unaware but also protected them against anything Siobhan might have unleashed. It might even work on Aberrants, in which case really only the agent inside with her and maybe the one casting the spell would have been in danger.

What would have happened if I’d been as strong as they thought I was?’ Even one ultra-powerful attack or escape attempt would have frozen her to the point of uselessness, and every attempt to negate that effect would have only made it worse. Eventually she would have been defeated by her own actions. All the agent needed to do was stay alive long enough to allow that to happen. ‘But why have the agent inside the barrier with me at all? Some kind of insurance? Or maybe…they were necessary.

“Oh,” Sebastien whispered. “It was binding magic.” In the beginning, they had explained the terms. Siobhan needed to “last” three minutes. If she lost, they would take her life, her autonomy, and her name. If she won, they would give her a chance to make a request and have it heard. And as a show of goodwill, the agent started out by giving her “an opportunity,” which, vague as it was, in the old stories would have clearly indicated that they were positioning themselves as at least a neutral party, if not an ally.

Without Siobhan fully understanding what was happening, the binding would have been weaker, but she hadn’t denied the gift of an opportunity. And the agent had never explicitly said they were going to fight. They had only implied it, in word and in tone. The wooden box had fallen out of the same pocket they had been reaching for when Siobhan attacked. What was that? “A…dueling board game?” It looked similar to the much larger one Rhett sometimes carried around in a briefcase.

If I’m right, that means that I was challenged to a contest by a “friendly” stranger. I accepted their gift but then broke faith by attacking. The agent even literally told me, “No matter what magic you use, you will find that every attack only brings you closer to defeat.” It seemed like a threat, but it was a warning. An explanation of the terms.

Sebastien let out a single, sharp laugh. “What a dirty trick. Definitely something out of a cautionary child’s tale.” She doubted such a thing would work without the extra power an Aberrant might bring to bear. The effect was probably strengthened by the agent remaining “friendly,” by not attempting to do any harm in return. They had only attacked her after she first succeeded in causing an injury, after all. ‘What would have happened if I sat down and played a three-minute round of the dueling game with them?

She would have had to be even more prescient than the agent had mistaken her to be to try something like that under the circumstances. ‘They weren’t trying to kill me. Maybe capture? Possibly even make some kind of bargain. But seeing as they were under binding magic, that agent was almost certainly telling the truth, even if everything they said was intentionally misleading. And I cannot see how there is any interpretation of an intent to take my life, my autonomy, and my name from me that I would welcome. It was horrific and entirely unacceptable. And what they offered in return, if I won, was mostly useless. There was no promise of safety or compliance with my request. Only “to be heard.”

But even if, by some strange stretch of the imagination, the Red Guard could have been friendly, she found them as deeply untrustworthy as the thing sealed in her mind. And maybe almost as dangerous.

They would not help her out of altruism, and the only thing of value that she could really offer, or bargain with, was her ability to open Myrddin’s journals. Everything else was a facade, and even if she attempted to deceive them, if she was ever called upon to prove herself, she would fail.

How likely is it that they’ll let things go—let me go—with this?’ Technically, she had won the encounter. The thing controlling her shadow had made her request in her stead, and they “heard” it, but she highly doubted that was going to matter.

Having experienced what they did, the Red Guard were probably more worried about her existence now than they had been at the beginning of the night. Depending on what they decided her shadow was—though the most obvious conclusion seemed hard to deny—they would only be even more intent on her destruction.

Or whatever it was they really did to Aberrants. Somehow, Sebastien suspected that it was possible there were some fates worse than death.

Well, I want to live. So what are my options?

She could give up on all of her goals and plans and leave Gilbratha, or even Lenore, entirely. The thought brought up immediate and deep feelings of rejection. She had an irreplaceable opportunity here in Gilbratha, working with Thaddeus Lacer and Kiernan’s faction of the History department. It wasn’t just access to Myrddin’s other journals, but also to the University archives, and, potentially, to the Architects of Khronos themselves.

Leaving the country would mean solving one problem by abandoning a possible solution to another. And there was no guarantee the Red Guard wouldn’t still find her. They were an international institution and served no country or ruler, after all.

Another possible option was to seek protection from them. She didn’t think Oliver and the Verdant Stags, or any of the other local gangs, had the power to stand against the Red Guard. For that, she would probably need the help of someone like the High Crown. ‘I do have a very powerful bargaining chip in my ability to open Myrddin’s journals.’ The High Crown might have been the one who sent the Red Guard after her, but that didn’t mean he had the power to call them off. But he wouldn’t kill her, and probably wouldn’t hand her over to anyone else, out of fear of losing a monopoly on Myrddin’s research if nothing else.

But that supposed protection would really be imprisonment. And as for the High Crown, she had tried to bargain with him once before. Her position was stronger now, what with Operation Palimpsest and the aftermath of his kidnapping attempt. But she almost certainly couldn’t trust the man.

He tried to kidnap Theo and Miles. He had them put under that sensory deprivation spell.’ She had only ever seen Lord Pendragon’s face in paintings and black and white photographs, but she imagined it now. A deep animosity filled her belly and twitched at her fingertips, urging her to curl them into fists. ‘No. He is not an option.

She was unsure if any of the other Crown Families would have the power to protect her from the Red Guard. If there was one, she guessed it was most likely to be the Westbays. ‘Unless there was a civil war, I can’t imagine that being a viable option. Even if I could somehow convince Titus, what about the real lord of the family, his father?

The only other option would be to place herself at the mercy of the Architects of Khronos. She really didn’t trust them, either, but if she was driven to desperation, it might be an option. Kiernan was one of their leaders, and he feared her. But considering their own goals and past actions, it didn’t really seem like a stable organization or a safe place to entrust her wellbeing.

I wouldn’t even trust them to take care of a pet. But I suppose it’s an option to keep in mind if all else fails. Alright then. If I can’t depend on external protection, what alternatives do I have?’ Working through her problems like this always helped to settle Sebastien’s mind. There was something about the clarity that deliberate thought brought her that made her feel as if she had some small measure of control. Even now, some of the anxiety was receding from her chest and the muscles of her shoulders and back.

Liza’s divination-diverting ward hadn’t worked against whatever magical-law-breaking spell the Red Guard had utilized, obviously, but there was a small possibility that if Sebastien brought the problem to her, along with enough gold, she would be able to create something to protect Sebastien against similar attempts in the future. Maybe.

But there are also Red Guard defectors out there, right?’ she thought with building excitement. If she could find and hire one of them, she might be able to get that kind of ward. It would probably need Aberrant components, which she had no idea how to source and were probably catastrophically expensive.

But perhaps the Architects of Khronos had connections that she could use. Their number had included a Red Guard defector, after all.

And in the meantime, perhaps she could try to lower her perceived level of threat.

Ostensibly, the Red Guard would trust Thaddeus Lacer’s opinion, right?’ They were only oath-bound to deal with Aberrants and thaumaturges who were a threat to others on a large scale. The average person might think that the Red Guard dealt with any and all petty blood sorcerers, but that wasn’t the case.

It was also possible that, after tonight, Thaddeus Lacer would no longer consider the Raven Queen a possible ally, but if there was one person in the world she had a chance of convincing who could actually help her, it was probably him.

She ran through a dozen permutations of a conversation with him but soon realized that she didn’t know him well enough to predict how he might respond to the Raven Queen. To a peer.

She checked the sky for clouds, and then, with a combination of grim determination, excitement, and trepidation, she returned to Siobhan’s form. Or perhaps more accurately, the Raven Queen’s form. Not some perky or disarming disguise, but the full long black hair, the red and black feathers, and lips painted so dark a red it was almost black in harsh, precise lines across her mouth.

After the last time she had found herself in woeful need of an outfit change, she had tightly folded some basic clothing at the bottom of her satchel. She pulled it out now, smelling the absorbed fragrance of various herbs as she pulled on a simple black dress and wrapped a velvet-trimmed cloak around her shoulders.

She checked the sky for clouds before she left, then walked north. She used the hood of the cloak to shield her features from those who still walked the streets at this time, and activated her divination-diverting ward with the dowsing artifact to turn away their thoughts.

She had no other student’s token to activate the transport tubes, but according to the rumors, the Raven Queen wouldn’t need to travel in such a mundane manner, anyway. She would simply need to return to the dorms as Sebastien Siverling when this was done, just in case.

It was easy enough to find Professor Lacer’s little cottage.

Remembering some of the stories about what happened to students who tried to trespass, Siobhan stayed several meters back as she retrieved her spell rod. She used a detached-output version of the basic float spell to lift his door knocker and let it drop back to the metal several times. Then she closed her spell rod and tucked it back into her satchel. Hopefully he was not a heavy sleeper.

Almost a minute later, he opened the door with one of the dourest scowls she had ever seen him wear. His hair was loose around his face, and rather than his usual long jacket and suit combination, he was wearing a loose, soft shirt and pair of pants. His expression slipped away as he stared at her for several long seconds of silence.

She raised her left hand slightly. “Hello, Grandmaster Lacer.” Her voice was slightly scratchy with nerves.

A combination of wonder and pleasure crossed his face as he sucked in a deep breath.

Siobhan realized that even his positive expressions were almost always tinged with irony, weariness, or pessimism, because his face looked different—younger—now that, for a moment, they were absent.

“You’re here,” he breathed. His hands flexed and twitched as if he had been about to make some aborted movement. Then he tucked his hair behind his ears very deliberately, the opposite of the flustered preening that she’d seen Damien do so many times. “Would you like to come in?” Professor Lacer asked.

Only a couple of chapters left in this book!

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A Foreboding of Woe


Edit 4/30: My writing computer, an iMac, has been a trooper for many years with zero problems, but in the last few days has very suddenly slowed down to the point it takes minutes to load a web page. It will not even open Scrivener–which I need access to for all my lore and plotting notes. I am taking it into the repair shop directly after posting this message, but if they cannot fix it I’ll need to buy a replacement. I’m almost certain to miss this week’s Thursday chapter. It’s just one thing after another this month, huh?


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