Month 11, Day 28, Saturday 11:00 p.m.
“You should stay the night here. I need rest before we cast the messenger spell, and you do as well, as I feel quite certain you will need to stave off more scrying attempts within short order once you leave this place,” Liza said.
Siobhan agreed readily, hoping to have a chance to peruse Liza’s small library now that her mind was working properly again.
Liza must have caught her gaze on the books, because she said, “They are warded against any hand but my own. Of course, I could loan one or two out to you, if you didn’t remove them from these walls. For a fee.”
Deflated, Siobhan ate the simple dinner Liza provided and returned to the cot downstairs for the night, begrudgingly admitting to herself that she really did need the mental reprieve. Casting even small spells with Will-strain was difficult and dangerous.
The next day, Siobhan worked on her homework that didn’t require spell-casting or access to the library. Liza didn’t make an appearance until the sun was already setting.
Scowling over a dark, steaming cup of tea, Liza tossed a reference book to Siobhan and had her help draw the Lino-Wharton messenger spell array, rolling her eyes at Siobhan’s look of gleeful avarice as she perused the spell instructions.
Siobhan didn’t push herself overly hard while creating the mnemonic link to the tracker part of the spell, and Liza had the entire thing finished within a little over an hour.
Siobhan put the raven back in its cage and only then realized that Oliver wasn’t there. He was dealing with the Verdant Stag’s people and maybe the coppers. For some reason, she had been thinking that he would accompany her to the prison again. She frowned at herself. ‘I do not need him. I am perfectly capable of doing things on my own. I only hope everything is alright on his end.’
She put on her cloak, made sure her dinky little child’s Conduit was easily accessible, and with a tired wave from Liza, walked out into the night. The moon was almost full again, and threw enough light down to see, even if there were no streetlamps. She made her way toward the prison, stopping before the same canal that bisected this particular stretch of Gilbratha, but in a spot a few hundred feet farther north, and thus closer to the wing Ennis’s cell lay in. She had left the luggage and school bag belonging to Sebastien in another alley for temporary safekeeping.
The raven flapped off eagerly under her mental command, the tracking spell leading it to the same windowsill as before. It seemed they had not moved him.
The raven croaked.
Ennis didn’t startle as violently as the time before, but his response to being woken from his sleep by a raven messenger was still not gentle. He cursed, holding a hand to his heart. The raven had trouble making out his expressions, but she thought he was glaring up at it. “So my daughter didna’ transform into the body of a raven and fall to her death after all,” he said. “More blood magic? That’s what they tell me this is. At least you finally decided to check in on your imprisoned father again, two months later. The Gervins tell me you ‘ave made no attempt to contact them, and they are growing distrustful that the marriage agreement I negotiated with them is even reliable!” His voice was full of accusation, and he had begun gesturing dramatically with his hands by the end.
“Keep your composure,” the raven said. “We don’t want to call the attention of the guards.”
“Maybe I should call them! You might be a little more eager to settle things with the Gervins if you were the one stuck in here shivering every night,” he said, crossing his arms over his chest. “You always were ungrateful, but I never expected this.”
Siobhan clenched her jaw and flexed her fingers. The raven couldn’t see a ring on his finger. “I am sorry, Father,” she had the raven say, trying to keep her anger and contempt out of its tone. “My Conduit broke halfway through our previous conversation, severing the link between myself and the raven. I suffered from the backlash and have been recovering from Will-strain, and then trying to find a replacement Conduit that would allow me to contact you again. I have been helpless without it. I was able to borrow one for tonight to allow me to cast this spell. Do you have the Naught ring? If I could use it, I should be able to make myself presentable enough to contact the Gervins and get you out of here.”
“I do not ‘ave it.”
“What? Did the coppers take it off you? Or did you stash it somewhere?”
“I’m not stupid, girl. I can recognize your attempt at manipulation for what it is. You only want the ring for yourself! If I were to give it to you, you’d be gone from Gilbratha by tonight. Well, it’s too late. I used the ring as the bond for my word in the marriage agreement with the Gervins. They ‘ave it.”
She paced back and forth beside the canal, clenching and unclenching her fingers. Her skin felt hot, as if her rage was actually pushing her toward incandescence. “You would give my birthright, Mother’s ring, to another family?”
“When you marry into their family and fulfill the contract, you can just ask your husband for it. If you don’t marry him, they’ll be authorized to keep the Conduit.” Ennis’s words were filled with triumph.
She realized then that he had planned this. ‘He didn’t really think marrying me off to them was in my best interest, or something I would be remotely amenable to. He had known he was selling his daughter, and that I would be resistant to the idea, so he decided to hold my birthright hostage, the last remnant of my mother and the Conduit that would allow me to perform higher levels of magic…’ She clenched her teeth to hold back a scream, unwilling to draw attention to herself because of him.
She wanted to attack him. She briefly considered having the raven go for his face with its claws, and realized only then that the creature’s neck feathers were puffed out and its wings were raised threateningly. She hadn’t meant to do that, and it brought her thoughts back in order enough for her to see the black-clad form walking her way from a couple blocks south. ‘Is that a copper?’ she wondered with alarm.
Now conscious enough to notice it, she felt faint pinpricks from the disks in her back, and an ephemeral pressure around the wrist that Liza had tied the string connecting Siobhan and the raven. It was as if someone was tugging on the other end of the string.
Without another word to her father, she commanded the raven to fly back toward her. Instead of returning to her shoulder or its cage, she directed it to dive into the dark waters of the canal, overriding its instinctive resistance to the idea.
Already hurrying away from the canal, she flinched as she felt the creature drown. ‘It was going to die soon anyway, when the spell ran out. This way, at least they won’t be able to retrieve its body like the last one.’
The anti-divination ward in her back continued to hold off the prying magic even after the bird was dead.
The sound of copper-nailed boots striking the ground as the person that had been walking her direction broke into a sprint only confirmed her suspicion. Harrow Hill Penitentiary either had a new ward that had detected the raven, or her father had alerted the guards himself.
‘The bond between us should snap once I get far enough away. That string was only a kilometer long.’
As she’d hoped, once she’d been running for a few minutes, the sense of pressure on her wrist snapped, and the disks in her back were soothed. She stopped running, but took a winding, circuitous path after that for fear that she would be tracked by more mundane means. After all, that copper had probably been able to track where she was fleeing.
She lost her pursuer more easily than she had feared, then transformed into Sebastien when she was sure she was no longer being followed or watched. She kept her face stoic as she gathered her things, made sure she looked presentable, and walked to the Verdant Stag. She paid for a meal, and then a room for the night, showing no outward recognition of Katerin or any of the others she knew from her time working with them.
She rose early on Monday and headed to the Waterside Market with the purse of a hundred coins that Oliver had given her.
The sun was just rising, and the stalls were only beginning to be set up, but the merchants were happy enough to sell to her even so, taking her orders of alchemical ingredients even if the items were not yet on display. Once again, none of them asked for her license. ‘I wonder if that’s simply due to the appearance of wealth and confidence, as I had first suspected, or if perhaps this type of rule is only loosely enforced in Gilbratha, the type of thing the coppers can use to arrest you if they decide they don’t like you, but would otherwise ignore. Well, at least for the cheap, unrestricted magical components.’ When she had gathered everything for the alchemy she intended to perform, she looked for a Conduit.
A handful of the stalls selling magical items also had Conduits, but they were of poor quality, barely better than the backup she kept from her childhood. They were good enough for a child, but not for a burgeoning sorcerer. In addition to that, the prices were preposterously high, by a multiple of three or more than what they should have been. Only someone too stupid to know better would buy any of them. Trying to suppress her frustration at the quality of yet another tiny display of cloudy celerium chunks, she turned to the shopkeep. “Is there anywhere where I can get a more powerful Conduit?”
“Orbs and Amulets. It’s a boutique at the north end of the market, a few streets up. With the way the supply is right now, that’s your best bet of finding anything clearer.” The man shrugged apologetically and gave her simple directions.
Sebastien wasn’t quite sure what a boutique was, or how it differed from a normal shop, but found the place easily enough on a well-maintained street where all the shop signs were painted with words rather than pictures, so she deduced it was accustomed to dealing with the more affluent. Which made sense. Most commoners would have no reason to buy a Conduit, especially one of any worth.
The inside of the shop was well lit, with polished marble floors and glass display cases. A pretty woman stepped forward from where she had been waiting with her hands clasped in front of her and offered to take Sebastien’s luggage, then offered her a choice of various refreshments when she refused.
“No, thank you. I just want to see your Conduits,” Sebastien said, clutching perhaps a little too suspiciously at her luggage handles, if the suppressed expression of offense on the woman’s face was any indication.
“This way, sir,” the woman said, waving elegantly at the display cases, which were lit by their own internal light crystals.
Sebastien had an increasingly bad feeling about the shop, but complied. There were no prices listed. Her feeling of apprehension grew worse.
“What level of Conduit are you looking for, sir? We have celerium from the Surior Mountains, the Charmed Highlands, and the Black Wastes, ranging from Apprentice to Grandmaster level. Do you prefer your Conduit raw, or in a gem-cut? We’ve all the most fashionable settings, if you’d like your purchase made into a wearable accessory.”
“Let me see your Apprentice Conduits, raw, and…no setting, I think.” Unless you were removing an impurity, faceting celerium did not make it any more efficient, only more sparkly. And the idea of putting it in a ring or other piece of jewelry only made her want to punch something.
The assistant brought her to one of the cases with cloudier, smaller Conduits. Still, they were almost all better than the one she had been using before, not to mention the dinky, opaque little crystal in her vest pocket at the moment.
Sebastien pointed to one in the middle of the display that was a little less cloudy than the ones on the left, but not as large or clear as the ones to the right. “How many thaums is that one rated at?”
The woman smiled brightly, already moving behind the case to unlock it and remove the Conduit. “This one is two hundred seventy thaums, from the Surior Mountains. It has some clouding in addition to the veins, but—”
“How much?” Sebastien asked, cutting off her prattling. The sun was well risen and her classes would start soon.
The woman blinked at her, then said, “One hundred thirty gold, sir.”
Sebastien’s eyes widened incredulously. “One hundred thirty gold, for a Conduit that can only channel two hundred seventy thaums?” She was aware that Conduit prices would rise steeply with increased quality and thus, rarity, but this was outrageous. Her previous Conduit, rated to two hundred fifty thaums, had been worth less than forty gold.
The woman clenched her hands together in front of her, dipping forward a little in the suggestion of a bow. “Celerium yields have been very poor this last year. With supply so low, prices have risen. I assure you, you will not find a reputable, licensed supplier selling for any less than we do.”
Sebastien briefly wondered if Oliver or Katerin could find her a disreputable, unlicensed supplier that would have better prices. ‘There is no time for that,’ she thought, looking at the level of light outside. ‘I must be in classes and entirely unremarkable in less than an hour.’ Her headache was back in full force, and the muscles in her back felt so tight they might cramp.
Perhaps she could settle for a lesser-quality Conduit for the time being. She had her old, child-level Conduit as a backup. As long as both Conduits were always touching her skin whenever she cast a spell, if the one in active use broke, she could immediately switch to casting through the secondary Conduit, with only minor risk of any adverse effects. She swallowed hard. “What about the ones in the two hundred thaum range?” She could resell the Conduit and make back at least some of what she’d spent when she was ready to buy something more suitable. As long as she didn’t break it, too. And as long as the supply of celerium had not recovered and brought prices back down to normal by then.
“They range from approximately seventy-five to eighty-five gold.”
Sebastien swallowed again. It was still outrageous, but at least she could afford it. With reluctant fingers, she pointed out one of the smaller and cloudier Conduits, rated a little over two hundred thaums and slightly cheaper than the rest because of an ugly brown spot of contamination.
After she left the shop, she paused in the alley beside it to tuck her new Conduit into the vest pocket set aside for it, and the other inside the lip of her boot, where it pressed somewhat uncomfortably against her skin.
She took a deep breath and grabbed for her luggage, but found herself having to swallow down the lump in her throat again as the knot in her chest that she’d been trying to ignore pushed itself up.
With a shuddering breath, she bent over, arms hugging her own shoulders as if to press herself back together. The tears welled up, hot and fast, and she heaved silently, sobbing without the breath to make noise. She fumbled for her new Conduit, the one in her pocket, and clenched it in her hand so hard her knuckles went white.
She scrubbed the tears away angrily, but more welled up to take their place, barely doing anything to drain the hot well of grief in her chest. She didn’t want to cry over Ennis, or any of it, really, but she was tired, and her head hurt, and it was just too much.
When she’d first come to Gilbratha, Ennis had been, to some degree, in control of her life. She’d been jerked around by his whims for a long time, and him stealing the book from the University wasn’t the first time he’d made her life harder, just the most serious. Now, he was trying to do it again, to force her to marry a man she’d never met, and who, if he was anything like Alec Gervin, she would probably despise.
Since their arrival, it seemed that for everything that had improved, there was another part of her life that had worsened. She had gotten into the University, but now the coppers were closer to catching her than ever. And unlike before, she was beholden to a criminal organization that called her out of bed in the middle of the night to get involved in deadly altercations with other gangs.
‘But I brought that problem on myself.’ The thought was strangely comforting.
She’d found a way to get into the University, and sure, that had come with strings attached, but it was a choice she’d made on her own, and one she would make again.
The coppers had her blood, but she’d found a solution to that, so everything was not ruined.
Someone had died under her insufficient care, but only because of her lack of preparedness, which was something she could rectify.
Her father was a horrible person, and he didn’t care about her. But she didn’t have to care about him, either. She didn’t have to listen to him, or let his actions affect her life.
So, maybe it was true that the overall balance of problems in her life had barely tipped for the better. But she had changed. She had gotten her hands on magic, all the knowledge the University had to offer, and she was never letting go. She was in control now. She made choices, good and bad, and could bear the consequences of both. She was no longer beholden to the whims of another, and could choose never to be so again.
Her tears had stopped.
She brought her Will to bear, not on any spell, but for the mindset that accompanied magic. ‘I am in control. The world bends to me. I do not bend for it.’ She repeated the words a couple times in her mind, then pressed her free hand to her face and cast a spell she had learned on the road from an old hedge-witch.
The mucus and slobber that had been clogging her sinuses moved, and she spat it out in a single big glob, then wiped away the tears from her face. She couldn’t be seen to be crying in the streets. ‘Thankfully, it is too early for most people to be up.’ She eyed the glob of saliva and mucus, then used the spell her grandfather had taught her to burn it and anything in it that could be used to track her into smokeless ash. It wouldn’t do to get careless.
She straightened, her Conduit still in her fist and her mind still bent toward command, grabbed her luggage, and strode off toward the University.
Sebastien did not have time to dawdle.
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The story continues in A Practical Guide to Sorcery Book II: A Binding of Blood, coming soon.