Month 11, Day 14, Saturday 4:00 p.m.
The smell of the sea was strong, even so far above Gilbratha proper. Sebastien meandered through the scattered trees, taking the time to let both her eyes and her brain wander. ‘Where shall I do the brewing? I could try to find an unused laboratory or classroom here, but that feels risky. If I were caught, I would likely not be punished, but it would be suspicious. If they caught me trying to remove large quantities of potions or salves from University grounds…’
She shuddered. ‘It would make the most sense to brew in one of the Verdant Stag’s rooms, since I wouldn’t need to worry about transporting the finished alchemical concoctions. It would be best not to travel there as Sebastien, however, and I’ve already resolved to switch back and forth as little as possible until I know more about how the artifact works. I could anonymously rent a room at some random inn, but students below Apprentice level cannot legally practice magic outside the University or without the supervision of a Master. If I were caught, it would be disastrous. I might be able to brew at Dryden Manor. I lived with him for weeks already, so it’s not like intertwining our identities would create any new danger, and as long as no one knows what exactly I’m doing there, it should be safe. I assume his servants can be trusted, but perhaps I should discuss it with him.’
She sighed, rubbing her forehead. ‘To sum up, I have no idea how to do this.’
She was mentally compiling a list of the ingredients she would need when the winding cobblestone path through the grounds brought her to a fence made of wrought iron bars. Its gate was bordered by two stone columns, which were buzzing ever-so-faintly in a way that signified powerful magic.
Curious, she stepped up to study the wards carved into the stone, only barely able to understand them after a few minutes of concentration. ‘This is the Menagerie,’ she realized. ‘The wards aren’t meant to keep anything out, but to keep the things on the other side in.’ With a couple seconds of hesitation, she opened the gate and stepped through, feeling the student token against her chest shudder subtly for a moment as she did so. Likely, she wouldn’t be able to pass those stone columns without it.
The gardens within were barely controlled chaos, seemingly on the edge of overgrowing into wildness, and yet giving the sense that they were meant to be so. Narrow cobblestone paths cut through it all, while a low iron fence kept the plants from spilling out over the footpaths.
She grinned. ‘It’s like the garden of wonders out of a child’s tale.’
A group of purple-streaked flowers with long, tapered petals opened and turned to follow her as she passed, releasing a spray of sweet-smelling pollen into the air. Sebastien recognized them as deadly elcan irises, flesh-eating plants that lured their prey with their beauty and the soporific properties of their pollen. ‘Tanya meant it when she said this place was dangerous.’ Still, Sebastien couldn’t quite bring herself to be afraid or turn back. It was dangerous, but it was also magic.
One young sapling in the distance uprooted itself and hurried away when she came into view, hiding itself among the other plants.
A three-headed snake crossed the path ahead of her, stopping briefly to give her a dismissive glance, and a few plots over, a trio of tiny birds darted out of a tree, blinking in and out of visibility with every flap of their wings.
A small pond hosted minnow-sized fish that darted about, glinting as if they were made of precious metals polished to a high shine.
Sebastien wasn’t alone in the Menagerie. A couple people tended the grounds, while others moved carefully through the dense flora, harvesting the plants. Those who were harvesting all had baskets made of stiff leather, which they placed their bounty into, and they would occasionally mist the plants within with water.
She stopped by a girl who was inside one of the garden plots, plucking dark green insects off a plant and placing them inside a small bottle. “Excuse me, Miss,” Sebastien said.
The girl startled, then flushed when she turned and saw Sebastien.
Sebastien smiled. “I’m new to the University. Can you tell me, do they allow students to harvest or take things from the Menagerie? I saw some snowdrops a few plots back but wasn’t sure if it would be alright to take a couple.”
The girl was looking her up and down, her cheeks bright pink, and seemed to take a moment to realize Sebastien had asked her a question. “Oh! Er, as long as you have a basket, you can harvest things and take them out. Of course, we aren’t allowed to over-harvest, but they don’t really regulate the alchemy students beyond that.”
“Oh.” Sebastien looked to the ground and put her hands in her pockets, wearing what she hoped was a convincingly innocent expression. “I have an interest in alchemy, but I didn’t have enough space to take that class this term. Is that the only way to get a basket?”
The girl shrugged apologetically. “I’ve seen students from the Zoology, Horticulture, and Herbology classes here, too. Perhaps you could speak to one of the professors and they would let you have one, if you explained your situation?”
Sebastien nodded noncommittally and murmured, “Perhaps,” before thanking the girl and continuing on.
‘This place is a treasure trove of ingredients and components, and I’m sure the University administrators are aware of that and have prepared against theft.’ It seemed safer to get any items she wouldn’t want them to know about from the market in town, or have someone from the Verdant Stag purchase them for her. ‘Still, if I have a chance to safely and anonymously obtain a basket, or find another way to bypass those wards, the things within the Menagerie might give me an actual chance to repay Katerin. Magical components are expensive.’ She didn’t consider it theft. She’d paid the University hundreds of gold for only a few months within its walls, and would continue to do so. Repurposing a few of their magical components was her right as a student. It was only good sense to take full advantage of any and all opportunities presented to her.
By the time the sun began to set, she had strolled through the entire lower-security part of the Menagerie. The inner gate, beyond which lay the significant majority of the gigantic artificial habitat, did not open for her. She took that as a sign that it would be unsafe to enter and didn’t continue trying, though she wondered what could be in the thick forest beyond.
She turned back the way she’d come, meandering slowly toward the entrance. Along the way, she passed a few people strolling idly like her. She even saw Professor Munchworth in the distance, leaning over a small bridge above a stream and looking into the water. She wished for a moment that she could cast some spell that would send him tumbling in while she kept an innocent distance, but even the ire he brought up in her stomach couldn’t spoil her good mood.
She felt relaxed, and realized she even wore a rare smile of contentedness, despite her inability to possess any of the treasure all around her. ‘Should I try to take something from the Menagerie with me, just to see what would happen? I could easily feign ignorance of the rules if an authority figure came to investigate.’ Ultimately, she decided against it. She was tired.
Instead of going directly to the cafeteria once she exited the Menagerie, she once again examined the spellwork on the entrance gate’s stone columns and along the outer wrought iron fence. She had made little progress deciphering the wards when a familiar voice called out her name.
She rose to see Anastasia Gervin waving at her, the girl’s other arm tucked through the elbow of Damien Westbay as they strolled along the cobblestone path to the Menagerie.
Ignoring Westbay’s scowl, Ana dragged him toward Sebastien.
“Hello, Sebastien! What are you up to this evening?” Ana said, smiling with willful obliviousness to the tension between the two boys.
Sebastien nodded in return to her greeting. “I’ve just taken a stroll through the Menagerie. It’s quite remarkable.”
Westbay’s eyes narrowed, emphasizing the bags under his eyes which gave him a constant look of fatigue, though Sebastien had seen him sleeping soundly several times when she herself was up early or in the middle of the night, so she didn’t know what he had to be tired about. “You’re outside the Menagerie, and were crouched over the fence line.”
Sebastien felt a sudden spike of alarm, but kept that from her face, pausing to think of a response in a way that she hoped seemed natural. “Well, yes. I have an interest in wards. In all magic, really, but lately I’ve been doing some research to expand my understanding of that branch of magic. These are quite complex, though. I have to admit I don’t really understand them.” She put on a sheepish smile, rubbing the back of her head.
“You’re sure you weren’t examining the wards to figure out how to bypass them?” Westbay said, his lip curling up on one side in a sneer. “I’ve heard more than a few stories about the students from upper levels harvesting moonbeams and fairy wings from the Menagerie at night for the…mind-altering effects.”
Ana’s eyes grew wide, and she turned to Westbay in shock at his blatant rudeness.
Sebastien’s back straightened further, her chin lifting. ‘The best defense in a situation like this is a powerful offense.’ She scowled, but before she could shoot out a scathing counter-blow, someone spoke behind her.
“That really is the height of stupidity.”
The speaker was their student liaison, Tanya Canelo, who was walking out of the Menagerie gate. She stopped at Sebastien’s side, an eyebrow raised as she looked between the two boys. “Those students may think they’re getting away with something, but I can assure you the University is fully aware that they have removed certain items, and why they did so. Coming here at night does not stop the wards from alerting, whether or not the students have a harvest basket.”
Sebastien filed that information away in her mind, but said, “That information is interesting, but irrelevant to me, since I have no intention of stealing anything from the Menagerie. Though you may not be able to imagine doing any study outside of class,” she said to Westbay, “I am not incurious.” As Westbay had a few days prior, she said the word like the slur it was.
The boy’s cheeks flushed. “Perhaps some of us simply prefer to use our free time to ensure our success rather than run off on irrational tangents. I’m surprised you have any time at all to get away from study. Or have you given up on Professor Lacer’s training already?”
At that point, Ana elbowed Westbay in the side, not even attempting to hide the sharp jab into his ribs.
Tanya seemed to find all of this supremely amusing and made no effort to hide her interest in the byplay.
When she looked back at Sebastien, Ana’s smile was overly bright and forced. “So, what do you two think of that sorceress thief who hit the University a couple months ago? Damien was just regaling me with speculation about the case. The Westbay family is in charge of the coppers, you know.”
Sebastien felt a faint sense of unreality. ‘This must be a dream. A nightmare.’
Tanya shrugged, putting her hands in her pockets and rocking back on her heels lazily. “It would be wonderful if they had any real information, but if they did, they would have caught her already, I think.” She looked to Westbay, raising her eyebrow again as if daring him to refute her claim.
The boy seemed less inclined to rudeness with the upper level student than he was with Sebastien. “They know she’s a sorcerer, and she has had some contact with her accomplice in prison, using a blood magic spell. She’s bold. My brother says she’ll act again, and eventually make a mistake. When she does, we will catch her.”
Sebastien hoped she wasn’t pale, and very carefully maintained an expression of irritation to mask her dread. “That’s all?” When Westbay didn’t immediately pipe up with further evidence against her, she snorted. “Well then. I think I’ll be off to dinner. You might want to cut your little stroll short, Westbay. Not all of us are able to handle a full class load along with whatever else comes our way without trouble.” She didn’t want to push too far. She had apparently made an enemy of someone powerful, but restraint could keep his animosity from getting even worse. Still, she seemed unable to maintain a firm lock on her tongue, and as always, it tried to get her into trouble even if she understood the foolishness of her actions.
With a nod to both other females, she strolled off down the path. ‘I hope Westbay isn’t the type to fight dirty. Just in case, I should make sure the wards around my bed and belongings are as strong as possible. As for the rest, I need to talk to Dryden.’ The fact that the coppers knew she had contacted her father wasn’t a good sign, but hopefully it wasn’t so bad as to lead them to Sebastien.