Month 9, Day 28, Monday 1:25 a.m.
“Siobhan Naught,” she said, introducing herself to her rescuer in return. She followed when Dryden led her out of the maze-like alleys to the main streets, where they both were careful to avoid any outward display of apprehension. They stopped at the smaller side door of a sprawling, multi-storied building that had once been made of stone, then added onto with wood. It stood out against its surroundings, both for size and because it had real glass windows, which wasn’t unheard of, even on the edge of the poorer section of Gilbratha, but it was a sign of prosperity that none were broken or patched up with oil paper. Some of the windows still shone with light despite the late hour.
Someone had painted a small symbol in bright green above the door. ‘Antlers,’ she thought.
Dryden rapped in a distinctive pattern, which Siobhan immediately memorized, and after half a minute of silence, the door opened.
A red-headed boy peered out from around the edge of the door, a bright grin growing on his face when he saw who it was. “Mr. Oliver!” he exclaimed, opening the door wider to let them in. “What’re you doing here so late? Didja hear about the powerful witch who attacked the University and then escaped capture by a whole squad of coppers? It was so awesome! She called on a greater demon from the Plane of Darkness.” The boy punctuated his words with exaggerated motions and scary sound effects. “And while the coppers were busy with it, she escaped by turning into a raven!”
Dryden gave Siobhan a wry look, but his tone was light and appeasing when he spoke to the boy. “Is that so, Theo? I heard she was a sorcerer, not a witch. And isn’t the Plane of Darkness something that only exists in fantasy stories?”
Theo frowned. “If she was a sorcerer, how’d she conjure the demon? Oh!” he said, brightening. “Maybe it wasn’t a demon at all! What if it was a spell-created construct? And maybe turning into a raven was actually a sneaky illusion, or a super-powerful body-switching spell that let her teleport to wherever the raven came from!”
Siobhan couldn’t resist a slight chuckle. The boy’s portrayal of her escape was much more dramatic than she remembered the actual encounter being. “Maybe this sorcerer was up against less than a full squad of coppers, and maybe she just did some simple magic that interacted well with her surroundings to prevent them from following her. Like an overpowered breeze that kicked sand into their eyes and made them stumble off the side of a ledge.”
Theo frowned at her, then shook his head emphatically. “No, that’s stup—I mean, that’s silly. You totally left out the greater demon. Why would a powerful sorcerer just blow sand in people’s faces? All the stories I’ve heard about her escape were much more…” He trailed off, waving his hands around as he searched for the right word.
“Dramatic?” Dryden offered.
Theo nodded. “Yes. That. Oh, I hope one day I’ll learn magic and be that powerful. I’m gonna go questing beyond the wards of the city and help battle the beasts of the wild lands. I’ll fight a dragon, one with a beast core as big around as my head!” He held his hands up to show them the size of this future prize.
‘Naive child. Traveling beyond the warded borders of civilization involves much less glory and many more sore muscles, sleepless nights on the ground, and the grating, constant tension of waiting for nature to turn on you.’ Siobhan knew this because living with her father meant they were never welcome in any one town for long, and even if he didn’t get them run out, he was soon ready to chase after the next “opportunity.” At least Lenore wasn’t particularly infested with magical beasts, as long as you avoided the country’s wilder borders.
“Is the manager here?” Dryden asked, smiling kindly. “Tell her I would like to speak with her, and I’ve brought a guest.”
“Katerin’s upstairs in her office. Just follow me,” Theo said, running off toward the stairs at the far side of the large room.
Dryden sighed and shook his head at the child’s oblivious back, but motioned for Siobhan to accompany him as he followed.
The large room inside was mostly filled with tables, except for the long bar backed by bottles and kegs at one end, and the curtained stage at the other. On the far wall, scribbles that looked like various bets and their odds covered a spacious chalkboard. A door led off to what she thought was a kitchen. Siobhan imagined it was a popular establishment, with so many attractions to draw the locals. It would be easy to camouflage any suspicious activity within the chaos of legitimate patronage. If the other rooms up above were for guests, making this an inn as well as an entertainment hall, even better.
The three of them went up the stairs and down to the end of the connected hallway. Theo knocked perfunctorily, then opened the door and poked his head in. “Katerin, Mr. Oliver’s here, and he brought a man disguised as a homeless person with him.”
Siobhan stared at the bright hair on the back of the child’s head. “What?” She didn’t realize she’d spoken aloud until both Dryden and Theo turned to look at her.
Theo gave her a little smirk that held no malice. “Well, I’m not gonna tell anyone. But your cloak seems to’ve been taken off a homeless man, and the jacket underneath doesn’t fit you properly. But you talk and walk like someone from a Crown Family, and when Mr. Oliver looks you in the eyes, you stare right back at him. So, I figure it’s a disguise.”
Siobhan struggled to keep the surprise from her face. She had indeed stolen the cloak from a man passed out on the side of a street in hopes it would help disguise her. The clothes beneath were meant for a female, of course, and too small for this new body, in addition to having been torn and dirtied in her escape. “Well, you may be right about the clothes and the mannerisms, but I can assure you, I am quite homeless.”
From within the room, Siobhan heard a loud sigh, followed by a woman’s voice with a throaty, biting accent. “Let them in, Theo, and go to bed. I do not wish to have to tell you again. If I find you haven’t gone to sleep…” The threat in her voice was obvious, and the boy blanched and ran off with one last wave to Dryden, leaving the door open behind him.
Siobhan’s stomach clenched with apprehension, but she didn’t wait for Dryden to lead her in. She stepped forward, pushing the door the rest of the way open.
Behind an imposing mahogany desk, which was covered in papers and lit with a warm yellow glow from a light crystal, sat a beautiful, crimson-haired woman with heavy-lidded eyes. ‘Vampire,’ came Siobhan’s immediate thought. However, further inspection revealed olive-toned skin, and when the woman smiled, the teeth behind her lips were square-tipped and distinctly humanoid. ‘Of course, that could be an illusion.’ If Siobhan had water imbued with energy from the Plane of Radiance, she could be sure, but even displaying a capped vial would be an overt act of aggression to a real vampire. Besides, if the woman were disguising her true nature, why would she not change the color of her hair, as well?
‘Relax,’ Siobhan thought to herself. ‘There is a difference between wariness and skittish paranoia.’ With a conscious exhalation, she nodded at the woman and stepped forward to make way for Dryden to enter behind her.
Katerin raised an eyebrow at him.
The amusement in Dryden’s voice was obvious. “What I found wasn’t exactly what I went looking for.”
“I can see that. What is it, exactly, that you have brought me, Oliver?” she said, not unkindly, as shrewd eyes looked Siobhan’s new body up and down.
Dryden moved to stand beside the fireplace in the corner, sighing with exaggerated relief at the warmth.
Katerin’s impatience grew palpable.
“I’m not sure how to explain this,” he finally said, one edge of his lips curling up.
Katerin’s mouth tightened. “I’m too tired to deal with this shit, Dryden. Just tell me.”
When Dryden still hesitated, Siobhan spoke. “I’m the one the coppers are looking for,” she said simply. She couldn’t stop her gaze from twitching nervously toward Dryden, uncomfortable with incriminating herself before another stranger. However, the woman had obviously been complicit in Dryden’s plan to aid and bargain with a fugitive sorcerer. Being coy wouldn’t help her here. Siobhan tried to reassure herself that things could hardly get worse, but she was, regrettably, too intelligent to believe her own lie. ‘It can always get worse.’
Dryden lost his smirk, along with his control of the conversation and Katerin’s attention, but he nodded reassuringly at Siobhan as she opened her mouth to continue explaining.
“I had no plans to steal anything, but when I found myself in possession of the book, it was already too late. Within the book was an artifact that causes a full-body transmutation.” She gestured to herself. “I meant to become a student of the University just this morning, before my life was torn apart by the imbecilic, egocentric and completely outrageous actions of a man who could not consider the needs of someone else before himself even if he were cursed with a blood-bound vow of philanthropy!” She ran out of breath and realized she was panting, her teeth bared. She swallowed deliberately, then closed her mouth and ran her tongue across the inside of her teeth for a couple of seconds to regain her composure. “Forgive me. I am…upset to have my wellbeing and future jeopardized so severely.”
Katerin let out the smallest huff of air. It might have been an indicator of amusement.
Dryden cleared his throat. “She has a clean identity. To attend the University, she now only needs money.”
Katerin leaned her elbows on the desk and dropped her head forward to rub at her temples. “Perhaps you could slow down and explain things to me in more detail. With some coherence, this time.”
Siobhan flushed and was discomfited to realize that, with such pale skin, the involuntary reaction was probably quite obvious.
This time, Dryden took the initiative to explain. “The reports of the nefarious sorcerer who stole an ancient text brought back from the University’s latest expedition were…somewhat exaggerated.” He continued, explaining everything he and Siobhan had discussed.
Katerin seemed to grow more tired as he spoke.
Siobhan, in contrast, drew herself up even straighter, as if impeccable posture would shield her against disappointment.
“A loan of that size is a significant investment,” the woman said. “It is not the first time one of the common people have requested it. Without a license to practice, it is unlikely he…she”—Katerin looked at Siobhan and waved a hand dismissively—“would ever be able to repay me. A license requires that she be able to gain admittance as well as complete at least the first three terms. I will need assurance that she can do so,” she said, turning to Siobhan.
Siobhan knew what Katerin meant. “You wish to see me perform a spell?”
“You told Oliver here that you were capable of such. If that is true, perhaps you’ll be useful. However, you must also demonstrate the capability of this artifact. If you cannot successfully disguise yourself in the long term, it’s pointless to continue this discussion.”
Siobhan pushed back her shoulders, the movement of this new body feeling less wrong already. Did it matter if the form were not her own—not quite right—if, by using it, she could learn magic? There was little she wouldn’t be willing to pay. She reached up to the amulet at her neck and pulled it out of her clothing once again. A quick glance showed interest from both Dryden and Katerin, but none of the greed that would signal danger. Even with the ability to inspect the amulet again in the light, she saw no obvious controls or switches, no signs of it being an artifact at all. If it only worked one way and the spell never wore off, she would never return to her former appearance.
The thought made her hand clench around it with apprehension, and her mind slipped into that particular kind of focus that spellcasting required. As she had done so many times before, she reached for a spark of power to feed into the spell. There was no Circle, but for only the barest hint of energy, she didn’t need one. The artifact warmed her palm, and then that same tingling warmth spread across her frame. Obviously, the artificer who created it had been a Master, at the least. Within a couple of seconds, the warm tingle receded.
When Siobhan opened her eyes, their viewpoint was just a little lower than what she had already grown used to. She let out a sigh of relief. Her shoes no longer pinched, and a quick look down at herself revealed long, pitch-black strands of hair and the creamy ochre skin that revealed her heritage. Her mother had been one of the People.
Katerin looked her up and down, then nodded. “Now turn back.”
Siobhan did, grimacing at the pinch of her boots and the sense of physical dysmorphia.
“What are the base ingredients of a fever-reducing potion?” Katerin asked.
Siobhan didn’t even need to think. “There are a few different variations of fever reducers. Common ingredients are white willow bark, boneset, yarrow, ice, or any body part from an albino frost toad—though the core is the best—lake fog harvested before the sun fully rises, spearmint, and a couple of feathers from a dove or a sparrow for a feeling of breezy comfort.”
Katerin didn’t seem impressed, but she didn’t seem disappointed, either. “You can brew all of these variations?”
Siobhan nodded. Simple healing potions and salves were always in demand, and it had been an easy way for her to trade for goods or a place to sleep in the towns her father and she had passed through. She rarely had access to any ingredient she wanted, so had often been forced to brew variations based on what she could forage from the nearby land. She had even used them herself a few times.
Dryden shared a quick look with Katerin, then said, “You mentioned simple spell creation. If I wanted you to find a way to continuously circulate water from the ground up to a higher location in a way that would require little maintenance, could you do that? A method that doesn’t require constant attention from a thaumaturge, to be specific.”
Siobhan frowned. “I would need a power source, of course, but that seems fairly simple. I’d need some time to design the most efficient array, and maybe a couple of reference texts, but if we could use a small fire as a Sacrifice, and ensure it continued to be fed, it should provide enough power for lift. Perhaps, if we could then catch the water falling down again, I might be able to design something that recycled the gravitational momentum to make the circulation more efficient. It would still need to be recharged, but as an artifact rather than an actively-cast spell, it’d probably last a while. To be honest, artificery isn’t my specialty, though,” she admitted reluctantly.
Dryden’s broad smile gave her some reassurance.
Katerin leaned forward. “And you’re able to recharge artifacts?”
“Basic ones, yes. I would need to know what was Sacrificed and what the artifact’s purpose is, but that’s often explained in the engraved Word array guiding input, conversion, and output.”
Siobhan knew she was exaggerating a little. She’d only recharged the simplest of artifacts before, things like light crystals or a spark shooter. Her grandfather hadn’t gotten around to teaching her more than the basics. Most of her knowledge was hard-won and scattered, gained however she could from whoever she found to teach her along the way. She wasn’t picky. Magic was magic. If she were admitted to the University and gained access to their resources, she was sure she could work out how to recharge more complicated artifacts.
“Show me something esoteric,” Katerin said.
Siobhan quickly ran through her somewhat limited repertoire, searching for something she still had the Will to guide and the proper components for the Sacrifice. Esoteric spells were often small tricks that had been passed down through a family, or from master to apprentice, and didn’t comply to the stricter structure of modern sorcery. Some didn’t even use a physical spell array.
The shifting shadows caused by the dancing flames in the fireplace drew her eye, and she turned toward the far wall, staring down at her own shadow. ‘Somehow, I don’t imagine this was how you saw me using this little trick, Grandfather.’ Tucking her Conduit between two fingers, she made a Circle with her hands, forefingers and thumbs touching each other. She exhaled through it. Her breath turned visible as it floated past her fingers, the heat sucked from it. She pressed her toes a little harder against the ground, and whispered, “Life’s breath, shadow mine. In darkness we were born. In darkness do we feast. Devour, and arise.”
She repeated this three times, and with each repetition her shadow darkened slightly, unnaturally. After the third time, the shadow writhed across the floor. It stretched long, crawled up the far wall, and then turned its head as if looking around, two spots of shadow missing to create two round, bright eyes, all while Siobhan remained still. The air between her hands shimmered faintly with the magic, like a heat mirage, but there was no spell array to let off a glow. As a child, she had used the shadow-familiar spell to play, like other children held mock tea parties with their dolls.
Dryden let out a small exclamation, and Siobhan released the magic, letting her shadow return to normal.
“Do you have any battle magic?” Katerin asked.
Siobhan hesitated. “Not as such. There are many ways magic can be used offensively, but I’m not well-versed in any specific combat spells. I do know a vexing tone hex, but it’s mostly useful against animals.”
Katerin waved that away with a flick of her wrist. “You are aware that practicing magic without a license is a crime in Lenore? That includes recharging artifacts and any alchemy which surpasses basic ingredient-combining.”
Siobhan narrowed her eyes, though she knew the words weren’t a threat. Those things were likely what they wanted from her. “You could simply wait three terms till I gain an Apprentice license.”
Katerin smiled, showing off her human teeth again. “Alternatively, you could simply perform any crimes in the identity which is already a criminal.” Her eyes carefully scanned Siobhan’s face for her reaction. Before Siobhan could respond, Katerin continued. “Because, you see, this is a very high-risk loan on my part. One thousand gold crowns per term? At half again that in yearly interest? Even if you manage to gain your license, an Apprentice still couldn’t afford to repay me the monthly interest. I just don’t see how that benefits me, when what I really need isn’t money, but a thaumaturge.”
Siobhan almost choked. “One thousand? Half again—fifty percent—in yearly interest? Per term?” With a single loan, she would owe fifteen hundred gold crowns by this same time next year, and with an additional thousand each term, she would owe over four thousand six hundred gold by the time she got her Apprentice license, which would come with over two thousand gold in yearly interest. Impossible. “I would be indebted to you for the rest of my life.”
Katerin waved her hand dismissively. “The University is quite expensive, and you’ll also need living expenses. One thousand isn’t outrageous, especially if you wish for this disguise of yours to fit in. As for the interest rate…” She smiled without mirth, and Siobhan wondered again if the woman was altogether human. “Well, what kind of business do you think we are? No, you’ll not be able to repay me in gold crowns. However, I’m quite willing to be repaid in services rendered. If you perform well, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to pay off the debt in a few years. Magic pays well.”
Dryden walked over to Siobhan and clapped her on the shoulder, squeezing gently. He ignored her instinctive flinch. “Don’t worry, Siobhan. We don’t wish for you to do anything morally reprehensible, I’m sure. Only for you to practice what skills you have for our benefit, and the benefit of those who need them and cannot receive help elsewhere.”
‘If he’s telling the truth, it’s no more than I’ve done before,’ she acknowledged. Except that in the outer villages and towns, no coppers would arrest and imprison someone for working a little magic. In fact, the local thaumaturges and law enforcement were often the most likely to be able to afford or trade for what she could offer. ‘I can simply give back whatever I do not spend once the term has started. Just because she gives loans in increments of one thousand gold doesn’t mean I truly need to borrow that much.’ Her hesitation came from the feeling that these people would ask more of her than she was willing to give, once they had bound her to them. Even so, she was not so naive as to lie to herself now. She would not be walking away from the deal. “I maintain the right to refuse any favors you may request of me, and each one must be attached to a monetary value for repayment.” She raised her chin in challenge.
Katerin shrugged. “You may refuse, if you wish, but only on the basis of our request being morally reprehensible—not simply distasteful, dangerous, or inconvenient. Keep in mind that repayment must be made one way or the other. I will not allow you to postpone till you graduate. Still, there are many things you might do, if some particular request is distasteful to you. We are not unreasonable.”
Siobhan’s mind spun. ‘Am I missing anything here?’ She stared Katerin down. “I assume this is obvious, but this agreement must remain confidential. I cannot have my new appearance compromised.”
Katerin and Dryden shared a look of amusement. “Of course,” Katerin said, and Dryden nodded in agreement.
“You will also need access to certain amenities, I believe,” Dryden said, gazing at her ragged clothes while fingering the breast of his own suit. “If you want to fit in, that is.”
Siobhan stiffened at the implied insult, a slurry of defensive words rising up in her throat. She swallowed them back down. ‘He’s right. Just because I don’t like the way it sounds doesn’t make it any less true.’ Her fingers trembled, and she forced them to relax. She hated people who got offended by the truth, people who felt the need to lash out at the one who spoke it. She wouldn’t be one of them. Instead of a verbal response, she nodded jerkily. ‘I want new clothes. I deserve them. This is good.’
After that, things went quickly. Katerin fetched a small chest filled with gold. Siobhan almost dropped it, surprised at the weight, even though she had known objectively that gold was one of the heaviest substances. It was a common spell component, though she had never had the opportunity to use any as a Sacrifice.
Powerful thaumaturges could transmute cheaper substances, like lead, into gold or other precious metals, but it still remained a difficult and expensive process which kept those products out of the hands of the poor. Despite this ability, the Crowns’ coinage remained valuable because it was created with some secret method to verify its authenticity. The penalty for attempting to create a counterfeit was death, and they controlled the amount minted, thus maintaining the value of their currency. Siobhan held the locked box tight against her chest, glaringly conscious of its worth. “Do you need me to sign some sort of contract?”
“Of course. You will be giving a blood print vow.”
The color drained from Siobhan’s face.
Katerin waved her hand as if shooing away Siobhan’s misgivings. “It’s not that I don’t trust you, but that”—she pointed to the chest—“is quite a large sum of money. I won’t use the blood print unless you force me to find you and make things…right.” She smiled widely. “The vow will cover the terms of the loan and repayment, with a restriction against malfeasance on both our parts. Besides, my blood is required too. Don’t be so distrustful.”
Siobhan’s arms tightened around the chest of gold. Each small piece might as well have been a little drop of knowledge, of magic. ‘Didn’t I already admit I wouldn’t be walking away?’ she asked herself. She wasn’t capable of such a thing. It would have been easier to ask her to cut off her own foot than to abandon this opportunity. ‘I will simply have to ensure I repay them, one way or another.’
Katerin unlocked a drawer in her desk and took out two pieces of parchment with the vow’s Circle and Word array already drawn on them.
‘How often does she use blood prints, that she has the spell so readily accessible?’ Siobhan examined the Circle, trying to decipher how the magic worked. It would compel them to keep the promise they made when pressing their blood into it, and allow use of the blood by the wronged party if either of them reneged on their agreement despite the compulsion. It seemed as though any attempt to use the blood without meeting those requirements, which could only be malicious, would result in the immediate incineration of that party’s copy of the agreement. She wished she knew more about this particular type of blood magic, other than the general warnings about how illegal and dangerous all blood magic was.
“We both have some magical training, so there’s no need to have a third party as a binder,” Katerin said. She took a fountain pen and wrote out a couple of paragraphs explaining the exact terms of their deal on both copies.
Siobhan read it carefully, relieved to know that the interest would only compound once yearly, and the daily rate would be recalculated every time she made a payment. She took the fountain pen from Katerin’s desk and added on a clause stating that the lender would act in good faith, allowing the borrower opportunity to repay the debt in a timely manner.
Katerin smiled wryly and nodded, then placed a piece of amber and a knotted leather cord in the component Circles, with a small candle as Sacrifice. She pricked the pad of her thumb with the letter opener on her desk, then gestured for Siobhan to do the same.
They both pressed their bloody thumbs into the middle of the Circle, and Siobhan followed Katerin in speaking.
“I, Katerin Russey, am the lender.”
“I, Siobhan Naught, am the borrower.”
With the starting phrase, “By my blood, I vow,” they read the agreement together, slowly and carefully enunciating each word. They finished the spell with, “So mote it be.”
The candle flame guttered out as if pinched by an invisible hand, and the lines on the parchment glowed as the spell bound them to their vow.
Both the knot and the piece of amber had been consumed, and Katerin took out another set for the second copy of the blood print spell, relit the candle, and they repeated the process. The magic felt even stronger with the repetition. When they finished, Katerin took one copy, and Siobhan the other.
Siobhan didn’t feel any different, but she knew the only way to escape from this vow would be to complete the terms or destroy both sets of spelled parchment.
Katerin carefully stowed her own copy of the parchment in the locked drawer. Her tone became businesslike as her attention seemed to drift away from Siobhan. “Your first payment will be due by the end of the month.”
Siobhan found herself out on the streets again almost before she realized what happened, the built-up fatigue of the day catching up with her in snippets of detachment and a skewed sense of time. It was over. Over. ‘But what now? Where am I to go?’ She looked around at the unfamiliar streets, wondering if perhaps she should return to Katerin and ask if she could rent a room for the night. She had slept on the ground before, but with the chest of gold sitting so heavy in one of the packs on her back, she didn’t feel secure sleeping in the streets.
Dryden stepped past her, then stopped and turned, one of the streetlamps illuminating him from the side and throwing a stark shadow into the street. “I suppose you’ll need a place to stay for the night? The inns will be closed by now, and you don’t want this appearance associated with the Verdant Stag.”
“You will come to my house,” he announced, as if there was no room for argument. “We’ll prepare you for what’s to come.”
“I don’t need your help.”
His mouth twisted into that vulpine smile again. “You misunderstand. I’m helping myself. Any benefit to you is incidental.”
Somehow, those words made it bearable. “Alright.”