Month 11, Day 27, Friday 5:30 p.m.
Sebastien’s free time over the next couple of days was spent engrossed in study and practice. She felt she was progressing well with school-related learning, but hadn’t made much progress finding a solution to her sleep problems. Or, to put it another way, her time and energy problems. Books talked about how the Will could be trained through practice, just like any other muscle, and thus become harder to exhaust. They showed spells that were supposed to help get a full night’s restful sleep, none of which actually worked to let her sleep through the night without nightmares, at least not at the strength she could cast them.
There were spells that could force someone to stay awake, but the only one that lasted longer than a few hours and didn’t require the sleep debt to be made up later was a curse. It kept the victim from sleeping, and for the first few days was seemingly without side effects. But as that wakefulness went on, it led to hallucinations, extreme paranoia, and, eventually, death. Even if she had been willing to try it, it was only talked about in general terms. Apparently the University didn’t want its early term students getting their hands on curses that could kill someone.
There were spells to promote wakefulness more gently, but they couldn’t avert Will-strain, and led to energy debts and fatigue after they wore off. She might as well keep pumping wakefulness magic into high-quality coffee.
With so much other work to get through and no progress on increasing the resources she had to devote to everything, she made little headway in learning about whatever spell might be encrypting the stolen text her amulet had come from. There were so many things she wanted to do outside her schoolwork, and she just couldn’t. Altogether, she felt herself begin to wear down both mentally and physically, and grew frustrated to the point of snapping at her fellow students when they interrupted her study.
When a particularly rowdy group of students stomped their way over to the section of the library where she was trying to finish an essay for one of her classes—fast enough that she would still have time for her Practical Casting exercises and to also read a book assigned in another class—she could feel little tingles of electrical anger tightening the muscles in her back and shoulders.
The library was meant to be a place of quiet and study. Just because she wasn’t locked away inside one of the reserved rooms didn’t mean she deserved to be subjected to their brain-grating distraction. ‘Don’t they have any work of their own to do?’
They settled nearby and shortly afterward burst out into laughter. One of the boys took out a gaudily pink, fluffy feather that floated around under his direction and attacked a girl.
She squealed and tried to escape the ticklishness of what had to be a prank artifact by running in circles around the table, shrieking and giggling.
Sebastien’s eye twitched.
One of the other boys stepped up gallantly to protect her, but then ended up being “weak to tickle damage.” They only got louder, encouragement and jokes mixing with the laughter.
When the girl ran past Sebastien to hide behind her chair, using her like a human shield against the trailing feather, Sebastien snapped.
She stood up, slamming her hands down on the table hard enough to make its contents jump.
The group stilled and went quiet, turning toward her. The feather froze in mid-air, then sank to the ground like a dog trying to escape the notice of its master after doing something wrong.
The door to one of the nearby reserved rooms opened. Their student liaison, Newton, stood in the doorway and waved the boy he’d been tutoring out, one eye on Sebastien.
It was too late for Sebastien to stop herself, though, the anger already crackling out in clipped words. Once she was going, she never could rein herself in.
“Shut. Up,” she growled, then rounded on the group, blindly packing her things as she spoke, each movement sharply punctuating her words. “I don’t have the energy to pretend to tolerate you nostril-offending, dull-witted pulps of inanity today. Can’t you see that people are trying to have real thoughts around you? You may not be able to have any of your own, but I assure you the rest of us would appreciate it if you stopped lowering the average intelligence of the room with your deafening presence.” Shoving the last book into her satchel, she gave them a glare, slung the bag over her shoulder, and strode off amidst the suddenly resounding silence.
She blew out of the library and chose the direction with the least number of students clogging the way, which led her past the cafeteria, the dorms, and into the east side of the grounds, which she hadn’t explored since orientation.
She stomped over the cobblestone path winding through the trees, past the Archmage’s High Tower and the occasional professor’s house until the cultivated forest and grass petered out and then the white cliffs broke away.
Her footsteps slowed. She moved to looked out over the east edge of the cliffs. Below roiled the Charybdis Gulf, which ran through Gilbratha’s east edge from north to south, separating the Lilies and the Crown Families who lived there from the rest of the city.
Sebastien pressed her arms closer to her body to ward off the stiff wind as she gazed down at the choppy grey waves below. There were a few small boats braving the waters further south—fisherfolk risking the magical sea beasts and the more mundane, but still dangerous, carnivorous marine animals.
A few rays of light broke through the thick clouds above, refracting off the mist in the air and hitting the water, which glowed green like a cut emerald. The sight, so far removed from her own struggles, helped to calm her.
Sebastien had been standing there for only a couple of minutes when footsteps approached behind her.
Newton had his hands in his pockets and his chin tucked into a thick scarf. He moved to stand beside her with nothing more than a slight nod of greeting.
‘Am I going to be punished for what I said?’ she wondered. ‘Should I apologize first? It might help reduce my sentence.’ The thought was distasteful, and she let the silence stretch out between them instead.
“You’re not like a lot of the students here,” Newton eventually said.
It hadn’t been what she was expecting, and she raised her eyebrows, turning toward him.
He kept looking out over the water. “The others, those rich kids with Family backing…this place isn’t special to them. Learning at the University is their birthright, the magical is mundane. They don’t worry about learning everything they can, or about performing well enough to get and keep a good apprenticeship. They aren’t trying to stand out, hoping to stay on at the University as a student aide once the first three terms are up, just so they’ll have enough gold to pay for classes. Once they leave here, most of them will only need to use what they learned if they want to. If not, there’s always the Edictum Council, or an advisory position over one of the businesses their Family owns. They can even retire to their lands outside of Gilbratha. Being here doesn’t mean the same thing to them as it does to us,” Newton said.
“And what does it mean to us?”
“Opportunity. The type you only get once in a lifetime, and that’s worth enough you’d sacrifice almost anything for it.”
Sebastien felt herself pale, but tried to keep her expression neutral. ‘Is he hinting that he knows about how I got here?’
Newton nodded. “I’ve noticed, Sebastien. After all, it takes one to know one.”
‘What?’ she thought. Aloud, she said, “What?”
“I noticed the wonder on your face when we toured the place during Orientation. You’re dressed just as finely as them, you carry yourself like you belong more than they do, and no one can deny you have the intelligence to be here.” Newton threw his hands up. “Hells, you even somehow managed to get Thaddeus Lacer to acknowledge you!” He shook his head, then. “But the truth is obvious to me. We’re the same. I doubt you ever had finery like you’re wearing now before you came to the University. You didn’t take trips to Paneth every autumn and get a miniature gryphon for your tenth birthday. You didn’t have magical artifacts in every room and servants to take care of everything the magic didn’t.”
Sebastien carefully kept her hand from creeping toward her Conduit as he spoke. She didn’t want to push the situation further into disaster by overreacting. ‘Being poor isn’t a crime. Even lying about your background isn’t. As long as he doesn’t know about Siobhan, everything is salvageable.’
“I had that same look of wonder on my face when I came to the University. The one those rich kids don’t have because they’re blind to the wonder of it, jaded by the opulence and opportunity they’ve grown up in. That’s why I understand how frustrating it can be—pinching every copper, studying till you dream of writing essays and practice casting in your sleep, and watching the people around you who have it so much easier…”
He gritted his teeth, then shook his head, as if to dislodge the frustration. “Well, you just have to learn to let it go. I’ve got a little trick for it. My Grams taught me when I was a child. She was helping me calm myself down when I was panicking during a thunderstorm, but it’s good for anger too. It’s an esoteric spell, the first bit of magic I ever did, and one of the few real spells my family had.”
Slowly, making sure Sebastien was watching, he touched his middle fingers to his thumbs, creating a Circle from his hands. His Conduit was set into a simple metal ring, and with it turned to face his palm, he didn’t have to awkwardly secure his grip on it. He pressed the Circle up against his diaphragm and let out a deep humming, “Ohhhmm,” drawing the sound out till the vibrations seemed to ripple against each other, enriching the note.
Sebastien blinked, absorbing it even as she wondered what in the hells was going on. Teaching a family spell to an outsider was usually a pretty big deal.
The tension she hadn’t even realized was tugging at the muscles around Newton’s eyes and shoulders released, and after repeating the humming for a couple of deep breaths, he dropped his hands and explained the spell to her, then added, “Being a commoner is nothing to be ashamed of, Sebastien.”
Sebastien opened her mouth, not quite sure what she was going to say, but Newton waved her words away.
“Don’t worry, it’s not obvious. And maybe the Siverlings aren’t technically commoners, but what’s a name if you’re too poor to back it up? I’m not going to give away your secret. What I’m trying to say is, you deserve to be here just as much as any of them. More, even. Don’t let them push you till you cause trouble for yourself. Thaumaturges need their pride, but we also have to know when to stay coolheaded. I’ll try to have your back, but if you find it all becoming too much, calm yourself.”
“We’re the same. Commoners trying to fit in at the University,” she said slowly, making sure she understood.
He laughed sharply. “Well, it’s a little more obvious for me than you.” He gestured to his clothes. “I haven’t had a new set of clothes since first term, and I spend every spare hour with student liaison business or tutoring people too stupid or lazy to learn on their own, just trying to make enough gold to pay for my next term. I use my contribution points to pay for classes, and the only reason I’m not still in the dorms with the rest of you is because the student liaison job comes with a separate room.”
Sebastien pondered the correct response to this, still reeling a little from the rapid shift in emotions and the relief now filling her. “Thank you,” she said finally. “For the spell…and the advice.”
Newton clapped her on the shoulder. “Don’t mention it, friend. Well, maybe someday when you’ve made something of yourself, you’ll remember me. My Journeyman certification will be based on pure skill and determination, and I’m not picky about my field of work.”
“You want to…work for me after graduation?” She felt like Newton kept throwing conversational blows she hadn’t seen coming.
“As long as the job pays at least market wage for a Journeyman. It’d be better than working for one of the Crowns, or some rich Master who makes me do all the work while taking the credit for himself!” Newton said with a laugh. “Of course, if you’re going into the army, I have to give advance warning that I’m only interested in administrative jobs.”
Sebastien nodded stiffly. “I’ll keep that in mind.” She understood his reasoning in teaching her the spell, at least. ‘A bribe couched in overtures of friendship. He’s making “connections.” Too bad he doesn’t realize that Sebastien Siverling doesn’t actually exist.’
Newton shoved his hands back into his pockets, whistling as they turned and walked back to the University.
“I do regret some of the things I said to them,” she offered.
He nodded slowly, still whistling quietly.
“I came up with better insults while I was walking away,” she explained.
His head jerked to a stop mid-nod and the simple, meandering tune died on his lips. After a moment of shock, he burst out laughing.
That night, Sebastien tried out the spell Newton had taught her. It forcefully calmed her heartbeat to match her breaths and smoothed muscles she hadn’t noticed were tense. The longer she drew the deep hums out, the farther into the calm state it stretched her body, like straightening a spring.
She started to snap back as soon as the sound stopped—the relaxation was unnatural, based on force rather than a cessation of the triggers that had caused the negative response—but as she kept the spell going with breath after breath, her body settled into the new state. She didn’t become relaxed, exactly, but she felt calm, in control. As if the state of her mind when casting magic had spread to the rest of her body. She didn’t dislike it, but she wondered how much use she would get out of it. ‘Would I remember to stop and cast it in the heat of the moment? And if I do, would control over my body be enough to override my anger?’
If she was entirely honest with herself, she enjoyed giving the occasional verbal abuse to the deserving. If there weren’t sometimes consequences, she would never regret it at all. ‘Well, perhaps it could be useful to get back to sleep after I wake too early,’ she thought as she slipped into sleep.
Sometime in the middle of the night, she woke suddenly, and at first didn’t realize what had roused her. She hadn’t been dreaming.
Her wrist hurt, as if she’d dropped a dot of hot wax or a still-burning coal on it. With sleepy fingers, she probed at the pain, and immediately felt the too-cold bead of metal pressed against her skin.
‘Dryden has triggered the ward on my bracelet.’
Her heart seemed to stop beating for an instant, and then it crashed against her chest with a surge of fiery adrenaline. ‘I’ve been caught.’
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