Chapter 206 – Mutually Assured Destruction

Siobhan

Month 8, Day 15, Sunday 3:15 p.m.

It is amazing how even adults—thaumaturges!—can be so impressed by the simplest of magic, cast by the Raven Queen with a bit of added flair and mystery,’ Siobhan thought.

She had needed a momentary break from the edge of helpless pressure building into insanity inside her, and so had descended among the children to perform some party tricks for Theo’s birthday. And, well, she had turned on her divination-diverting ward to do it, because the attention of the party-goers—mostly surreptitious peeks and whispers, but a few blatant and almost avaricious stares—had made her uncomfortable. Siobhan had also taken careful control of her shadow to make sure there was no chance the thing inside her could use it to break free again. She didn’t want to risk any harm to the children, to the point that she maybe went a little overboard and didn’t allow it to touch them or their own shadows, even when the physics of light should have demanded it do so.

But still, the adults, who one might have reasonably thought would be more logical, composed, and knowledgeable about magic than the children, were the ones who seemed to be most affected by her presence and demonstration of some simple spells.

The children started off afraid and mildly awed, but quickly took their cue about how to feel and behave around her from Theo and Miles. One little brat of a girl even kept doing her absolute best to step into Siobhan’s shadow, and even ignored Siobhan when she admonished her. The girl’s mother looked like she was about three seconds away from urinating herself until Siobhan drew her entire shadow in underneath her feet and took away the little girl’s temptation.

“Wow, you’re an idiot,” Theo had told the girl, hands on his hips.

For once, Miles agreed with him immediately. “You know that shadow can turn into a monster and crawl inside you, right?”

Gera cleared her throat loudly, and Miles sighed like a middle-aged man. “I’m not allowed to talk about it with outsiders.”

“Yeah, outsider,” Theo echoed, and was quickly followed by several of the other children.

This sent the little girl crying off to her mom, who clamped a hand over her mouth, bodily lifted her under one arm, and backed away while bowing repeatedly and stammering apologies to Siobhan.

If not for the adults, maybe playing with the children would have helped to relax Siobhan. Instead, she found herself growing even more uncomfortable, and ended up escaping while the children fought over who could play a simple puzzle game with a the handful of ravens she had summoned.

Theo was glowing like he’d swallowed the sun, puffed up with enough pride that he might have been violently deflated with the prick of a needle, so Siobhan decided that she’d done enough. She turned up the power of her divination-diverting ward, ignored Gera’s wince and shudder, and escaped back up to an empty private box on the floor above.

The woman gave a blind, single-eyed glare to several people who moved as if they wanted to intercept or followSiobhan, disabusing them of that notion with surprising effectiveness.

Siobhan was grateful, and actually managed to get about a half-hour of peaceful solitude. She remembered the anti-anxiety potion she’d been prescribed by the University healers and took a small sip of it, and when she felt how nice it was to relax a bit, used Newton’s esoteric humming spell to unwind the tension in her body. She rearranged the box’s chairs, leaning one back against the wall and turning the other so that she could lift up her feet to rest on it.

She tilted her head back and closed her eyes. ‘I have too many problems, and not enough answers,’ she mused. ‘Seems to be the story of my life. Is that ironic, or just depressing?

She peeked open one eye to watch Oliver and Lynwood talking in another private box on the other side of the arena. When Oliver glanced at her, she made a subtle, lazy motion of invitation. An encouragement to come talk to her once more when he was free. ‘I’m not growing more powerful nearly fast enough to keep up with my problems, but Oliver once told me that people are power, too.’ She had seen the truth of that during Operation Palimpsest, even if everything had gone horribly wrong before the end. ‘If I can call on enough of my contacts, and their contacts, and pour enough gold on the situation, maybe I can squeak by somehow.

One of Siobhan’s biggest obstacles was that she knew she was in danger, but didn’t fully understand that danger or how it might manifest. That was true of a lot of her problems, but most notably, and most importantly, it was true of both the Red Guard and the thing trapped in her mind. ‘I just need information and time. If I can just get those two things, I’ll find a way to handle everything else.

She began to catalogue possible resources, things that could help her directly and ones that might give her a hint about where to look next. A few minutes passed in thought before Oliver’s soft steps joined her in the box once more.

He looked down at her, his dark blue eyes shadowed and a lock of hair falling forward across his forehead. He remained silent for a few long seconds, his gaze trailing across her face gently before returning to meet her own. “Have you already considered my offer, then?” he asked, his voice as soft as his nameless blend of an accent, and something inscrutable in his expression.

“I need to know what’s going on with my ‘believers,’ yes. I’ll want to meet with them. You were right that I can’t let the mythos of the Raven Queen continue to spread unchecked. But that’s not what I wanted to talk about right now.” Siobhan stood, took some supplies from her pockets, and pushed aside some draped curtains to draw a large sound-muffling spell array on the wall. The floor was carpeted in some sound-dampening material that would inevitably break the Circle if she tried to use it as a surface.

When the spell was up, she took out a bottle of moonlight sizzle, shook it until it glowed, and surrounded them in a bubble of her shadow, just to make doubly sure their conversation would be private.

Oliver’s mouth flattened into a grim line as he waited for her to speak.

“I’m able to read Myrddin’s journal. The one I have, anyway.” When Oliver stared at her blankly, she added, “And if you want, I can probably get past the defenses on yours, too.”

Oliver opened and closed his mouth in shock, which Siobhan found somewhat vindictively satisfying, then narrowed his eyes. “Did you already offer that deal to the Architects of Khronos?”

“I did,” she admitted, her satisfaction leaking away.

“That explains the weird preparations Kiernan has been making. He must realize the possibility of a leak, if he’s being so secretive,” Oliver mused, raking his fingers through his hair.

“The possibility of a leak, like from one of the spies you planted?” Siobhan asked.

“I wouldn’t call them spies. More like…informants of opportunity.” Her unamused look didn’t phase him. “That, or a double-crosser now loyal to the Crowns. Who knows if one of the many, many people the coppers brought in for interrogation agreed to be an informant? Hells, they might even be worrying about spies from some other country. I should have known something had changed when he started giving strange orders and buying rare warding components. But how did you manage to succeed where his entire team of people, including Thaddeus Lacer, did not? Does it have anything to do with your transformation amulet?” Oliver stepped closer, staring greedily down at the spot where it hung beneath her clothes. “Is it a key?”

Siobhan reached up to press the amulet against her skin protectively. “It’s part of the answer, but it’s not actually necessary. The University already found out how to spoof the part of the authentication that recognizes the identity of the reader. But the second part requires an ability that apparently…is specific to me.”

Oliver tilted his head to the side like a curious bird. “How is that possible?”

“It’s a surprise to me, too. I suspect that others would be able to develop the ability, with careful research and training from the start of their journey as a thaumaturge, but as of right nowI am the best option. That might not last, as I’m sure they’ll be searching for anyone else who can split their Will, but I plan to take advantage of the situation while I can.” She explained the deal she had made with Thaddeus and Kiernan, and through the latter to the Architects of Khronos.

Oliver let out a low whistle. “Wow. Okay, I can see how that would be valuable, especially to someone like you. It’s too bad the Red Guard didn’t buy the diversion the Architects tried to create in Silva Erde. Maybe if the rumors about you had developed differently…”

Siobhan shrugged helplessly. “I’m hoping to get Professor Lacer to act as my liaison to them, but…I’m worried. He said they would probably insist on a meeting so that they could do an assessment. A test, of sorts. And even if they decide I’m not the kind of existential threat they need to erase…the Red Guard wouldn’t have survived so long if their agents didn’t seize power and opportunities wherever they arose. I won’t let them enslave me.” Silently, she added, ‘I won’t let them kill me.’

Oliver winced, then rubbed the back of his neck, looking down at his shoes in the soft blue light. He thought for a moment, then said, “Your best bet…is to bribe them.”

Siobhan let out a short, sharp laugh. “That’s what Thaddeus said! Professor Lacer, I mean,” she corrected.

Oliver squinted at her. “Do you have any ideas?”

“Oh, several. I’m insisting that I will choose the time and location of the meeting, and I plan to use every single resource at my disposal to stack the odds in my favor. But I’ll be balancing on a thin string above a very deep chasm. And you are one of those resources.”

“Oh?” Oliver raised one eyebrow, his lips quirking up in a subtle smirk.

“What do you plan to do with your volume of Myrddin’s journals?” she asked without preamble. “What are you going to do with the knowledge to create celerium from beast cores, if that is indeed what it contains?”

His smile spread wide and then kept going, curling up at the edges in gleeful slyness. “I will become the known lands’ major supplier of celerium. Silva Erde will still have their working mine, and the Thirteen Crowns are organizing a half dozen expedition into the wilderness and unknown lands beyond to search for more celerium deposits, but even if they manage to find an untapped mine, just one won’t be enough to keep up with demand in Lenore alone, not to mention the other countries.”

Palms facing up, he spread his hands to the side. “As a thaumaturge, you should have some idea of how desperate individuals, factions, and entire countries might become for more celerium once they really begin to feel the pinch. Even those who have been stockpiling in preparation for this day will eventually begin to run out. Can you imagine the leverage that will give me?”

His fingers curled slowly into grasping fists. “It’s enough power to make my plans a reality…” He dropped his hands and shrugged. “As long as I handle it carefully, don’t get assassinated, and can manage to keep the conversion method confidential. Even twenty years of exclusivity would probably be enough. Maybe thirty years, considering how long some thaumaturges live.”

“What are your plans, exactly? I mean, I know you want to take over Lenore and improve the lives of civilians. But how, exactly, does stealing the book and converting celerium come into it? Are you hoping to make the Crowns into a puppet leadership and blackmail or bribe them into enforcing the laws you want?” Siobhan watched Oliver’s expression as she asked, and knew that her suggestion was incorrect.

The tiniest hint of what might have been sadness passed over his face. He hesitated, probably considering the wisdom of sharing his secret plan that could be ruined if the wrong person found out with her, but finally spoke. “I don’t plan to share it with the Crowns.”

Siobhan had suspected as much, but the skin of her back grew cold, not because of his statement but because of what it actually meant. The Thirteen Crowns would not, could not, simply allow anyone else to have that kind of power. They ruled by the philosophy that there was a limited amount to go around. If Oliver gained more, then they would lose. And eventually, they would starve and die.

Oliver’s voice was low and intense, and his gaze had turned to look beyond her into the darkness of her shadow. “I don’t want a puppet rulership, though I wouldn’t object to having people of questionable morals in lower positions as long as they are willing to take extensive vows regarding the allowed ethics, and submit to external oversight. I want to tear out the current system by its rotten, putrid roots. Anything that resists that has to be destroyed.”

He refocused on her and gave her a lopsided, humorless smile. “Of course, I am not against handing out a bit of power to the right people in powerful places. Ones that will act toward my interests—whether they realize they are doing so or not.”

Siobhan frowned. “The Crowns and those that work for them could turn on each other, if given the right incentive,” she said slowly, trying to see if that was what he meant, or if his plans ran layers deeper than she could comprehend.

“The principle extends anywhere there are people who care more about their own interests than the greater good,” he replied.

She raised an eyebrow. “So, everywhere.”

His lopsided smile filled with some actual amusement. “Well, yes. I am going to use exclusive access to large amounts of celerium to make alliances, destroy certain people, and take control of Gilbratha and then, ideally, the whole of Lenore. In the future I envision, every single person in the country will have access to basic education, including magical training. Upon completing that training, and perhaps taking certain vows, every applicable citizen should have a way to obtain a Conduit suited for Apprentice-level magic. Can you imagine a country where every single person is able to produce as much value as you do, Siobhan?” he asked fervently. “We can eliminate illness and poverty. We could eradicate governmental corruption. We could extend the standard lifespan by decades and increase average happiness levels.”

He took a deep breath, his hands clenching until they trembled. “In a world like that, we would teach people to look back and be appropriately horrified of what will eventually be considered atrocities of indifference. We could achieve feats that you and I are both too ignorant to even dream of.” He hesitated, then added, “With enough minds turned toward the problem, we might even be able to find a way to stop Aberrants from forming.”

The cold feeling on Siobhan’s back increased as she considered his dream. It was wondrous, to be sure. But it would make an enemy out of those who did not share his vision. That kind of world would require their current one to be torn asunder and rebuilt from the foundation. And she could not even imagine the kind of power and resources it would take to achieve. Even an endless source of celerium might not be enough.

Siobhan didn’t consider herself a strategist or particularly knowledgeable about how politics—or even people—worked. But even she knew it wouldn’t be just the Thirteen Crowns who had a problem with it. If Oliver really did take over Lenore…what of Osham, Silva Erde, the northern islands, the people of the Tataroc Desert, or the countries of the East? Countries needed people, even commoners. What country could survive its people emigrating en-masse to join a promised wonderland of opportunity? He would have to defeat and unify at least those closest to Lenore.

It is possible,’ a thought whispered insidiously, even as her dread grew. ‘The Blood Emperor did it, after all.’ She swallowed. “There will be bloodshed. No matter how clever you are, no how many deals you make or schemes you put in place, I don’t think there’s any way to avoid that.”

“People are already dying. And not just that. Tell me, how much pain and despair must ten people feel to balance out to the equivalent of one person’s life? How much, from a hundred people? If a million people die young, of preventable causes, what is the worth of their unrealized years?” Oliver shook his head. “Most people don’t see how bad it is because they’re inured to reality. It’s how things have always been, as long as they’ve known. No. Better to let blood be shed quickly and decisively, and ideally in greater proportion by those who deserve it most.”

Cold sweat trickled down Siobhan’s back as she had a realization about something even more important than Oliver’s plans.

The Raven Queen would be a major point of interest for…possibly every single major player in the city. Maybe even powers outside of Lenore, if they had reason to believe she knew how to create celerium. And several of those players were about to become increasingly desperate, which might encourage them to take risks or extreme actions they would have otherwise hesitated to commit to.

It was quite likely that Siobhan would not manage to play them against each other in the delicate dance of balance that would be required to remain safe.

She swallowed, noting how dry her throat had grown. “And if the blood of your allies is also shed to enact your plans?”

“Sacrifice is inevitable. As a thaumaturge, you should know, you cannot gain something for nothing. I won’t give up even a drop of innocent blood without making my enemies pay for it a thousand-fold.” Oliver’s conviction shone bright in his eyes. He looked at her, but she thought that he was actually seeing a vision of his dreams for the future.

Siobhan suppressed a shudder. His ideas were nice, but she found his answer horrific. ‘That is the difference between us. I, too, have grand dreams of power, but I would not willingly Sacrifice even a drop of the things that truly matter to me to reach them. Is he an altruist, or am I simply greedy?

She set that thought to the side to focus on a more immediate problem. “So, Myrddin’s journal? Would you like me to unlock it for you or not? I assume you haven’t already found a way to do so on your own.”

“I am certainly interested in your services. But what would you wish in return?”

“I understand that you wouldn’t give the knowledge within to any political power. But would you be opposed to sharing it with the Red Guard?”

Oliver’s eyes narrowed. “You need a bargaining chip. That kind of knowledge certainly seems like the kind of thing they would be interested in. Though who knows for sure with the Red Guard?” he added. But he shook his head. “My original plan was to wait until someone decrypted any of the other four journals, and then come to an agreement with the thaumaturge in question. I had thought it might be Thaddeus Lacer. I would be willing to allow you to unlock the book in exchange for sharing the information within with you. But if you want to pass that on to the Red Guard, you would have to offer me something additional, and significant.”

Siobhan smirked. “Oliver, the person who unlocks it having access to literally every page is almost a requirement of accessing the contents. It is not like some chest, where the key can be passed around, and the contents remain available while it is unlocked. Myrddin’s journals require constant effort to maintain their clarity, with an additional test at literally every turn of a page. You cannot offer that as repayment. And in this situation, I think you need my services quite a bit more than I need the additional danger of having that knowledge in my head. I have no need of extra celerium, after all. What I need is something that can make me safer. And forgive me my lack of faith, but I don’t believe you have much to offer in that vein.”

Oliver turned his back on her as if to pace, but found himself restricted by the borders of her shadow. After a few moments of fidgeting, he turned back around. “What if I could offer you something else that the Red Guard would definitely be interested in?”

He paused for a dramatic silence and she waved at him impatiently.

“The Red Guard places a very high value on chasing down their very rare defectors,” he said. “What if I could get you information about one of those defectors? That would be a way to show your goodwill while also making it very hard for them to refuse you.”

“Can you do that?”

“I believe I can. Give me three days, and I’ll know for sure.”

Siobhan’s eyes narrowed. “Unless your information is so amazing that the Red Guard are willing to literally turn around and offer me their ongoing protection, I’m not sure it really balances the scales between us.”

Oliver scoffed. “Access to the knowledge within should be enough.”

“Knowledge that people have been trying to capture or kill me for since I got this this city. If you start producing celerium…those same people are going to make the obvious connection. And they are going to be desperate.”

After a long moment, Oliver said, “I would be willing to negotiate with the Red Guard if they would agree to maintain an apolitical stance to my satisfaction. I have no grudge against them using celerium to keep us all safe from Aberrants, and I am sure they could offer me many things of value in return. Perhaps an assignment as my exclusive and sole representative in our dealings would be enough to keep you safe long term? They would have a personal, vested interest in maintaining their access to celerium, and thus in your safety. Then all you have to do is convince them you’re not so big of a threat that they need to deal with you anyway.”

“That might work,” she said dubiously.

Oliver laughed. “You’re such a pessimist.”

Siobhan scowled. “It’s not pessimism if the world really is out to destroy you.” After a few more minutes of discussion, she let her shadow-familiar and the sound-muffling spell drop.

Oliver returned to mingling with the other partygoers, and Siobhan fell into contemplation. Despite the agreement she had just made, her anxiety was far from settled. In fact, their conversation had left her even less sure of her safety than before. She might be able to call on the Red Guard for protection, if she trusted them, because as an organization they were magically stronger than either the University or the Crowns. And international, so they could stash her almost anywhere. But she didn’t trust them. Even Thaddeus didn’t fully trust them, if she considered the advice he’d given her.

And, of course, Siobhan had what she was ninety-five percent sure was an Aberrant, or a piece of one, locked inside her head.

Is this the calm before the storm, the last moment where I could make a different decision before everything goes horribly, horribly wrong?’ she wondered. After what had happened to Newton, she had looked back on her decisions and decided that she was a fool.

What are the possible outcomes, and what is the likelihood of each of them?’ She pulled out a piece of paper from her satchel and began to do the math, estimating the weight of both positive and negative outcomes. Staying alive, but not getting to stay at the University or otherwise continue making progress on any of her goals had a weight of zero. Getting to stay at the University, read all of Myrddin’s journals, and peruse the restricted archives at her leisure had a weight of positive eight. All that, plus having the thing in her head magically dealt with by someone more powerful and competent than her had a weight of positive ten. The Red Guard catching her and taking away her life, her autonomy, and her name, while discovering the thing in her head, had a weight of negative nine, because it was foolish to imagine there literally couldn’t be anything worse. There was always something worse that could happen.

She came up with a dozen or so other possible outcomes, and then multiplied each each by its likelihood—as best she could guess it—to come up with what she called the utility value.

She was horrified by the results of the math. Even if, technically, she couldn’t accurately predict the likelihood of any future, common sense, in black and white ink, showed her that things were looking grim. Taken together, the negative utility values far outweighed the positive.

Siobhan burned the paper. ‘Should I just run? If I went to Silva Erde and set up a new identity there, what’s the chance I could survive long enough to successfully fix my other problem? I have the gold, and I’ve learned so much useful magic already, I could make it by. But the problem with that is the thing in my head. I cannot cast the sleep-proxy by myself. I need Liza, or someone equally powerful and ethically questionable.

Rubbing at her burning eyes, Siobhan tilted her head back. She was not tired, even after all the exertion of the day before. It was still wonderful, but the gratification of her success there could not stand up to the weight of everything else. ‘I can go a few more days without sleep until the raven bound to me needs to be released or risk death. But maybe Liza and I could cast the spell with two ravens at once, and allow them to stagger being the sleeper and recovery. That might allow me to eliminate the need for sleep indefinitely. Or, even better, why not create a whole network of interconnected ravens? Enough that they barely feel the extra weight of my fatigue.

Professor Lacer’s voice resounded in her head, her subconscious calling up an appropriate response to her idea. ‘Hare-brained twit. Would that idea get you added to the pages of 100 Clever Ways Thaumaturges Have Committed Suicide?’ her imaginary version of him asked acidly.

Siobhan pinched her chin between forefinger and thumb as she considered it. ‘It’s based on the principles of binding magic, not sympathy. There’s an agreement and exchange between myself and the ravens, but none of them are conceptually “me.” Which means that they shouldn’t be able to be used to find or affect me. Right? The most someone who wanted to hurt me could do is break the binding. It’s the same reason you can’t just use a person who’s cursed as a component to track down the person or object cursing them.’

Her frown deepened. ‘Is that right? It seems like that idea is too easy a solution to be workable. Nothing ever works out so easily for me.’ She tried to find the flaw, but any problems she came up with seemed to have rather simple solutions. This left her even more suspicious. If there was a danger there, it was something she didn’t have the knowledge or experience to anticipate. Which meant it would be a surprise. And that was the worst kind of danger.

But a network like that would be self-sustaining. She would no longer need to rely on Liza once it was set up. It wouldn’t solve her real problem, but it might give her time. Time to grow stronger and more knowledgeable. Both of those things would be significantly harder away from Gilbratha, and especially considering the new resources Thaddeus and Grandmaster Kiernan had offered her.

However, being free to grow and learn at all was more important.

 

Wow, this week has been rough for me. I’ve been ill (*flips table from frustration*) but I also ended up axing what I had originally written for this chapter and starting from scratch. Now I have a few thousand words I’m not sure what to do with. Maybe at some point I will clean the original chapter up and make it bonus content for you guys! It heavily features Theo and Miles.

The discussion about what to name the Cult of the Raven Queen is still open/ongoing, over at Azalea’s Arcane Alcove. People have some really good ideas. Feel free to add your own thoughts, or, like me, just have fun reading the discussion.

 

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