Chapter 27 – Study Group


Month 11, Day 25, Wednesday 5:30 a.m.

Mid-week, Sebastien was woken early by forcefully hissed whispers and a few grumbling mutters. It took her longer to become alert than normal, as if her thoughts were rising through molasses. When her eyes finally gained the ability to focus, she sat up and saw that Damien Westbay, already dressed and hair perfectly groomed, was leaned over a nearby bed, shaking Alec Gervin’s shoulder in an attempt to wake him. The rest of Westbay’s group of followers were also up, gathering their clothes and stumbling off to the bathrooms to get dressed.

Other nearby students, who had also been awakened, complained at Westbay’s noisemaking. One clamped a pillow around her head and flopped back down with a loud huff.

Sebastien rubbed the sleep from her eyes and checked her pocket watch. It was too late for her to bother going back to sleep, despite her fatigue. She stood up, swaying slightly, and made her way to the bathrooms to get dressed. ‘Imbecilic troglodyte. Poor excuse for a sorcerer,’ she thought with a scowl as she passed Westbay.

When she returned from the bathroom, his group was standing outside their dormitory doors and arguing. Someone had at least had the presence of mind to close the doors so they didn’t continue disturbing the other students. Both Ana and Westbay held some familiar equipment in their arms.

Sebastien’s gaze sharpened. They had the same devices Lacer had given her to practice with outside of class.

“Sebastien!” Ana said brightly, her hair still loose around her shoulders. Her eyes trailed over him, and she grimaced slightly. “I’m sorry if we woke you. Alec has always slept like a tranquilized rhinoceros.”

As if on cue, the other girl, who had dark hair and was wearing a dress rather than the trousers Ana seemed to favor, elbowed Alec in the side without looking.

While Ana’s cousin pouted and rubbed at his ribs, Sebastien straightened her clothing and ran a hand through her tangled hair, attempting to seem more awake. “It’s alright—”

“Siverling rises early every morning to practice anyway, right?” Westbay said, not quite softly enough to be under his breath.

Sebastien lifted her chin. “I do,” she said.

Ana smiled charmingly, seemingly oblivious to the undercurrent of tension. “Exactly. When Damien heard about it, he quite admired your work ethic. We have decided to start an early morning study session of our own.”

Westbay gave Ana a dubious look, and Sebastien doubted that boy had ever stated such a charitable word as “admire” about her.

Sebastien’s lips quirked up at the thought.

Ana’s smile grew more cheerful, as if pure, forceful obliviousness were its own type of magic. “So! We were thinking you should join us. You are working on Professor Lacer’s additional exercises, and the two of us are as well. Damien’s bullied the rest of the group into accompanying us. Why not practice together? Perhaps we could exchange some pointers.”

Westbay scowled. “I’m sure Siverling prefers to work without distraction.”

That was true. Additionally, Sebastien didn’t know half the group, and of the ones she did, the only one she liked was Anastasia. Her morning would likely become markedly less productive if she were to share it with them. She opened her mouth to refuse, but caught the faint hint of satisfaction in Westbay’s expression. She wasn’t sure if it was the idea of being contrary just for the sake of it, or the memory that Westbay’s Family lead the coppers, and he knew about her case, that changed her mind.

Perhaps I’ll be able to get him to talk about it.’ She smiled, keeping as much vindictiveness out of the expression as possible. “I would be delighted, thank you, Ana.” She went back into the dorms to grab her things and the practice equipment Professor Lacer had given her, then followed the group to an empty classroom not far from the outer doors of the Citadel.

Ana introduced the rest of the group as they settled in.

Alec Gervin she was familiar with already, having met him along with Westbay when they tried to cut in line that first day. He was the loud one with the bushy black eyebrows. ‘And he also apparently has some sort of sleep disorder,’ she thought uncharitably.

Waverly Ascott was the other girl. She was quiet, but her eyes were alert and quick to narrow in a threatening scowl when one of the others annoyed her. Her eyelids had a partial epicanthic fold that indicated one of her parents—probably her mother, was from one of the countries to the East. She nodded perfunctorily when introduced to Sebastien, then pulled a thick book about the Plane of Radiance out of her bag and began to read, ignoring the rest of them.

Ambrose Setterlund, a young man who was too tall to be so shy, waved his hand rapidly when introduced and mumbled, “Call me Brinn,” with a blush on his cheeks. He sat next to Ascott.

The final boy was probably the most handsome of the group, with curly hair, dark creamy skin, and a confident smile that even Sebastien could admit was attractive. Rhett Moncrieffe bowed easily to Sebastien, seeming neither particularly pleased nor displeased at her company, and set a briefcase on a side table.

Westbay groaned aloud. “Must you, Rhett? We are here to study, not play.”

The handsome boy tossed his hair and gave Westbay a snooty look. “This is study. My field of interest is simply more…diverting than yours. I need to practice, and it’s not as if there are dueling rings set up in here for me to actually train. Don’t be so sanctimonious.”

Alec Gervin stood, his chair making a scraping sound against the floor. “I will study with you, Rhett.”

The two of them set up on the side table with an unfolding wooden board and two small humanoid pieces. They set the pieces in their respective Circles on the board, and began to shoot “spells” that seemed to be just tiny beams of light at each other, while dodging the incoming attacks from their game-piece opponent.

The entire group perked up a bit when Westbay pulled a kettle down from the cabinet on the far wall and filled it with ground coffee. They set up around a large table while the water heated, and Westbay cast the spell to turn the coffee into wakefulness brew himself, with the kind of proud look a child might wear after “helping” their mother to bake bread. The coffee—probably some expensive luxury strain—had taken the magic even more smoothly than the beans in Dryden’s kitchen, and Sebastien had to admit it was delicious, too.

Brinn Setterlund, the tall young man, had hurried to pour Waverly her coffee, which he handed to her with a puppylike smile. She accepted the cup with a distracted nod, barely looking up from her book.

With the sand wheel on the table, Sebastien palmed her Conduit and began to cast, only part of her concentration on the metal ball within, which had been ground down to matte smoothness from the constant sanding. “So your Family is in charge of the coppers, right, Westbay? The ones doing the investigation into that sorceress who stole from the University a couple of months ago?”

“Yes. My brother Titus is in charge of the investigative task force.”

“Right. The task force that hasn’t caught her and whose lone clue is that she managed to speak to her accomplice even after they jailed him.”

He scowled, the bags under his eyes standing out.

Before he could speak, she continued, idly spinning her ball faster. “So what is it that she even stole? Rumor at the market is that it was some priceless artifact from an archaeological dig, but is that true?”

He sniffed. “She stole a book, apparently. Perhaps it had powerful or illegal spells in it, I don’t know. However, as to your insinuations about the investigators, let me set you straight. Her accomplice spilled his guts on the first day they brought him in, and freely revealed her attempts to contact him the second time, as well. The only reason we haven’t caught her yet is that she’s been quiet. No doubt she’s lying low for fear that we’ll have her soon. But we know she’s still in the city. That particular messenger spell must be used close by the recipient. It’s likely she is being hidden by some other criminals, perhaps ones who wanted the book, but eventually someone will slip up, and then we’ll have her and the whole ring of colluders!”

Sebastien spun her ball even faster, till the sand began to heat with its passing, and then slowed it abruptly. The minimalist spell array glowed with inefficiency as the ball slowed, and then dimmed as the ball began to spin the opposite direction and gain speed again. Undoing the momentum the ball had built up so quickly required a level of energy she couldn’t channel all at once. Perhaps one day, the ball would stop in an instant, with a cracking sound like a miniature bolt of lightning. She could dream, at least. “But is there any actual way for the coppers to catch her, if she or one of her accomplices doesn’t carelessly reveal themselves? Are there any leads?”

Westbay looked from her spell Circle back to his own with a frown, spinning his ball faster. He was good, better than most of their classmates, but it was obvious to Sebastien that he hadn’t practiced as much as her. “She is skilled, and has been careful,” he said. “But she’s cocky, too. She wants to be seen, to be noticed, that’s why she commits such outrageous crimes in broad daylight. She will act again, she cannot help it, and when she does, she will make a mistake, and we will catch her.”

Sebastien raised her eyebrows, indignation at that assessment rising up inside her. She clamped down on the emotion and sent her ball on a series of fast, jerking turns back and forth.

Gervin, who had grown bored with losing to Rhett, stood up and stepped closer, watching with interest. “How are you doing that?”

Without thinking, she replied, “I can explain it to you, but I cannot understand it for you.”

The cogs between his ears moved slowly as he processed her words. His eyes widened. “Did you just insult me?”

“I didn’t mean to offend you. My intention was to insult you without you noticing.” The words spilled from her in a bout of ire, and it was only after they were out, hanging in the air like little guillotines over her neck, that she realized it may have been slightly uncalled for. Perhaps even a little rude. ‘I must be more tired than I realized, to be acting so recklessly.’ Still, she wouldn’t take the words back. She waited for the response to come, the anger and outrage.

Ascott burst out laughing.

Once the dam of tension broke, the others followed suit. Even Gervin, a few belated seconds later, gave her a grudging chuckle. “Not bad, not bad.”

Moncrieffe nodded at her from his corner as if bestowing a boon. “You have a sharp tongue, Siverling. I can respect a man who is milquetoast in neither word nor action.”

Her surprise was a warm tingle running down her unclenching back. She had plenty of experience with people’s response to her sharp tongue. Most had their feelings too easily hurt, even if the things she said didn’t hold any particular intent to offend. The average person was shocked and offended by the obvious truth being spoken boldly to their face, and rather than change the thing about themselves they didn’t like hearing, or simply avoiding her, they started crying or got angry and decided she was an enemy to be revenged upon.

She should really be more careful. The people in this group were powerful, and could have made her life difficult indeed if they had chosen to take offense. In fact, even Westbay himself could have chosen to take out his dislike of her in more direct ways. As far as she knew, he hadn’t. Perhaps he was not entirely without honor.

She gave Ascott a small smile of gratitude, but the other girl didn’t acknowledge it, her attention back on her book.

Westbay had laughed so hard he had to wipe his eyes, and he, too, gave Sebastien a grudging nod of acknowledgement. “You may be an arrogant ass, but you have the skill to back it up, at least.”

Sebastien didn’t argue with his label for her, since one reckless insult per day was probably enough.

“I told you, Damien,” Ana said. “In twenty years, the Siverling name will be common knowledge.”

Something in Sebastien’s chest warmed at that thought. Fame might not be her goal, but excellence was, and true excellence would be noticed, if she were doing it right.

After she’d run through her paces on the main exercise, she replaced the sand wheel with a three-dimensional glass maze, one of the other practice aids Professor Lacer had given her. The glass cube had a smaller steel ball inside. She modified the spell array and began to guide the ball through the maze without touching any of its walls. It required a fine control the sand wheel didn’t, but was easier to hold clearly in her mind than the sympathetic movement one. It was a nice break from the monotony the other two exercises had become.

“You’ve already moved on to the second supplementary exercise? It hasn’t even been a month since this term started!” Westbay said, suddenly outraged.

Sebastien frowned, trying to maintain her focus. “It gets boring casting the same spells for hours every day. I’m just getting a head start on this one while I keep refining my control on the first.” Her ball bumped into a corner as she moved it too quickly, and she grimaced. Every time that happened, the maze’s walls shifted, rearranging the cube’s entire internal structure.

She resolved to see if she could create a pseudo-repelling force between the glass and the ball. They’d briefly reviewed the basics of magnetism the week before in her Natural Science class, and it seemed like the perfect workaround to remove her need for, and failure to provide, superhuman reaction speeds. Of course, doing that without any components except heat might still be beyond her, but it was theoretically possible.

Westbay grumbled and took out his own glass maze, studying Sebastien’s simplified spell array before setting up his own.

Ana moved on to the paired movement spell with an amused glance at Westbay’s efforts. “You’re taking seven classes, Damien. You can’t expect to keep up with Sebastien. He only takes six. And he barely sleeps, you know.”

Neither Sebastien nor Westbay found her words soothing.

Sebastien resisted the immediate urge to tell Westbay that she’d still be beating him even if she were taking eight classes. ‘I’m not a child. It’s okay if he’s taking more classes than me and still somehow has time to sleep. He’s had tutors preparing him for this his whole life. I don’t need to say anything. I just need to work harder.

Westbay glared at both Sebastien and Anastasia, then returned his focus to the new exercise. He was clumsy at first, but improved noticeably over the next hour.

Soon enough, the breakfast period began. “Don’t think you can slack off, Siverling,” Westbay said as they left the room. “Professor Lacer told me he thinks I might have a talent for free-casting, just like my mother.”

“It runs in my family, too,” she couldn’t help but snap back, her voice cold.

The study group dispersed, Moncrieffe slouching off with Gervin, and Ascott muttering something about getting black beans from the kitchen to make an offering to a spirit. Ana smiled and thanked Sebastien for joining them, while Westbay hurried ahead.

Brinn added his own shy smile and said, “You’ll come again next time, won’t you? Damien may be competitive, but he secretly loves having someone new and interesting around. It would be good for him to have someone to compare himself to who’s closer to our own level.”

Sebastien made no promises. The wakefulness brew was tempting, at least, even if she didn’t have the time to spare for inefficient socializing.

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