Month 12, Day 2, Wednesday 6:00 p.m.
Sebastien had, in fact, strained her Will again healing that idiotic boy. It wasn’t so much the spell itself as it was trying to keep the Word almost entirely in her head while casting it. She wanted to leave no evidence of the Sacrifice for that particular spell. This way, even Westbay couldn’t truthfully say that he’d seen her use blood magic.
She had panicked when she realized what she’d done. Harming another student with careless magic use was a big deal. ‘Harming one of the Thirteen Crown Families, and a high-ranking member at that? One I’m known to dislike? Even if the University believed it was an accident, the slightest push from one of the Westbays would have a commoner like Sebastien Siverling expelled.’ It wouldn’t even have to be Damien Westbay himself who complained. If any member of his Family wanted the University to take greater responsibility for his safety, she would be the perfect scapegoat. Even Professor Lacer might not be on her side.
So she’d acted as quickly as possible to cover up the evidence, removing any need for him to report the incident. She owed him a favor now, but that was a trifle. After all, she’d been willing to owe far worse favors to borrow tuition money.
Sebastien begged some headache salve from Ana, since she’d used all of hers as fuel for the fire a few nights before, when her warding medallion had been the only thing that kept the coppers from scrying her and Oliver.
With the throbbing in her brain partially suppressed, she escaped to a dark, secluded corner of the library to do her homework. Very inefficiently.
Professor Lacer’s exercises had fallen to the wayside for the last few days. ‘I’m in no shape to do them now. I hope I don’t fall too far behind before I’m recovered again.’
That night, she took another dose of the anti-anxiety potion, but hesitated before trying to cast her dreamless sleep spell. She considered instead casting a very slow, careful, timed alarm spell on her pocket watch to wake her before she could slip too deeply into dreams, but reluctantly discarded the idea. Pushing too hard with Will-strain could make it worse, or even cause permanent damage. She had to rest as much as possible. ‘All the more reason I need access to the remainder of Keeswood’s research on the experiment that allowed one twin to bear the sleep of the other.’
Two more doses of anti-anxiety potion when she woke in the middle of the night got her through to the morning. As she dragged herself off to the bathrooms for her morning ablutions, she lamented the life choices that had led her to this moment.
Without the esoteric pain-muffling spell to get her through the workout, Defensive Magic was even more grueling. When she accidentally tripped another student and caused a near-pileup while they drilled evasive maneuvers, Fekten snapped at her. “Are you a new-born puppy dog!? Out there in the real world, carelessness like that will get people killed. Keep your head in the game and your limbs to yourself!”
After classes, she scrambled to the library, where the blushing, stammering student aide gave her a pass to the restricted section where the majority of the sleep researcher’s experiment journals were held.
‘Information should be available to everyone in the first place,’ Sebastien thought with irritation. Even once she had proven herself worthy of the University, she still had to fight for knowledge. They didn’t want people who would only be there to reach Apprentice certifications learning anything truly useful or dangerous. Those who stayed longer would have the chance to earn the contribution points needed to get into whatever sections of the library they desired.
The door to the restricted archives was thick metal, spelled with what she thought was the same ward on the gate to the Menagerie. The new wooden token that allowed her into a specific archive shivered as she passed through the doorway. A short staircase led down to hallways carved from the natural white stone of the white cliffs that the University had been built into and atop. The hallways were narrow, the ceilings low, and the air smelled of ancient dust with a faint hint of paper and glue. ‘The smell of undisturbed books.’
The student aide was needed elsewhere, so she gave Sebastien quick instructions to the single archive she could access, warning her not to get lost. “It’s said you can still hear the screams and shuffling footsteps of those who wandered until they starved to death, if you listen,” the girl murmured, her tail swishing with agitation. “It used to be a network of caves, and the only navigation aid is the archive code above each door. It’s easy to get turned around down here.”
“I’ll be careful,” Sebastien assured the student aide with a smile, repressing her impatience.
The girl blushed, said, “Good luck with your research project,” and hurried away, pausing only to remind Sebastien not to mention the pass to anyone who might get her in trouble.
Sebastien found her way easily enough, ignoring the other metal doors along the tunnel despite her curiosity. She didn’t want to set off any alarms by trying to get past a ward without the proper key. Finally, she pushed open the door to a dim room only a few meters on either side. It was quite different from the high ceilings and warm, bright light of the main library floors above. The air was still, the only movement in the room from her own entrance, but it smelled fresh, and there was no dust or spiderwebs on the rough ceiling or in the corners of the room.
She pulled every book with Keeswood’s name on it off the shelves. Her fingertips burned with excitement as she scanned the pages. It was hard to concentrate on the words, but she was determined.
Two hours later, after flipping through the whole stack, she tossed the last journal onto the table and sat back with a scowl.
The series of handwritten journals had whole volumes missing, and sections of pages had been cut away in those that remained. ‘Well, at least I know why they were restricted.’ It had never been explicitly stated in the pieces of his journals that remained, but Sebastien gathered he’d been involved in some blood magic. She hadn’t found a detailed explanation for the spell he’d used to join the sleep requirements of the two twins with no serious side-effects, but he’d recorded other spells of a similar nature, and she was able to piece together an idea of how it had worked. Perhaps the details had been in one of the missing sections.
‘If I want to use it, I will have to redevelop it myself.’
Leaving the library, she stopped by the infirmary again. She looked around cautiously to make sure the healer she’d talked with before wasn’t on duty, then inquired about some headache-relieving salve. She didn’t want to have to keep borrowing from Ana, and she wouldn’t have time to make her own until the weekend. Plus, she was paying for the infirmary as part of her tuition anyway, so she might as well try and recoup some of her gold’s worth.
When she finally got back to the dorms, she found a stack of book-bound periodicals on her desk. She eyed them suspiciously. ‘Are they trapped?’ They looked innocent, and nothing happened when she nudged the pile. They were fiction, touting the latest adventures of someone called “Aberford Thorndyke, consulting detective.” ‘Or did someone put them there so they can pretend I stole them and get me into trouble? But why would they put them in plain sight? At the very least, you’d think they’d slip them under the bed…’
She looked up and saw Westbay looking at her from over his dividing wall. He sent her a wink and a thumbs-up.
Bemusedly, she realized he’d left them for her. ‘Could it be, because of my questions about the case, he thinks I have an interest in detective stories?’ The friendly gesture was still surprising, and left her a little off-kilter, unsure if she should be suspicious of some deeper layer of motivation or simply amused at his obliviousness. Perhaps a little blood, a secret, and a favor owed him was all it took to befriend Westbay. ‘Without a blood print vow to guarantee that favor I promised, I barely feel any pressure. Once enough time passes, even if he wants to get me in trouble for hurting him, the scar will have faded, and anyone he tries to tell will be suspicious about why he didn’t report it when it happened. He’s a little too naive.’
After riffling through the pages of the detective stories to make sure nothing was hidden between them, she decided to humor Westbay by reading one, as each was short enough to be finished rather quickly. Her concentration was still a little too shot for schoolwork or further research, anyway.
To her surprise, she found she enjoyed the story. The plot was a little unbelievable, but it was fun to follow along as the fictional Thorndyke used his superior intelligence and observational skills to assist the coppers in solving baffling crimes, and she enjoyed the dynamic between him and his Everyman assistant, Milton.
Her pass to the restricted archive didn’t allow her to check books out or even remove them from that room, so she had to return to the archive to continue her research. Over the next couple of days, she pieced together a better understanding of the author’s work, taking pages of notes and checking out a few dense reference texts referred to in passing within the journals. The ones she had access to, anyway.
She wanted to pull her pale blonde hair out by the roots.
Apparently, she needed a deeper understanding of the workings of the brain and the immune system. Looking at the references meant for upper-term healing students, with tight-packed text and illustrations she barely understood, she drooped. ‘No truly valuable accomplishment is easy, I know. But still…this had better turn out extremely useful,’ she grumbled mentally. Truthfully, though, she would be happy with almost any small measure of improvement.
In Practical Casting, Sebastien took the initiative to approach a young woman who she vaguely remembered was a commoner without much prior experience with magic, one term above her. “Would you like to partner with me today?” she asked.
The woman’s eyes went wide, then darted around quickly, as if to make sure Sebastien was really talking to her. “Umm, I won’t be very good practice for you. My Will’s maximum capacity is only at a hundred thaums on the Henrik-Thompson scale?” she said, biting her lip.
“I don’t mind,” Sebastien assured her, sitting down on the other side of her desk without further preamble. “I’ll work on improving my efficiency, and you can work on improving your capacity. Using just a single flame will be a good challenge for me.” She placed a single tea candle in her Sacrifice Circle.
The woman looked around again, uncomfortably meeting the curious gaze of some of the other students, but silently nodded.
Sebastien’s little plan worked well, as her opponent’s enduring capacity was a respectable two-thirds of her maximum, meaning Sebastien only needed to channel about seventy thaums to keep up. Even this was enough to give her a migraine, though, and she slipped away to the bathroom to reapply headache salve. “I’m getting very tired of this,” she muttered, staring at her bloodshot eyes in the mirror above the sink.
When she returned to the class, the students were rearranging themselves, and she realized with dismay that Lacer had instructed them to switch partners.
As she was looking around for a suitable partner, Anastasia Gervin caught sight of her and began to maneuver her way.
Sebastien pretended not to see her. She liked the other girl well enough, but Ana wasn’t a suitable partner to slack off against.
Just as Ana was about to reach her side, and Sebastien had almost resolved to just grab the closest random student, Westbay hurried up from behind Ana, clapping Sebastien on the shoulder.
“Partners, Siverling?” he asked.
Ana stopped abruptly, looking at Westbay with wide eyes that narrowed suspiciously. “Really, Damien? Can’t this rivalry wait until the actual tournament?”
Sebastien almost rolled her eyes, turning to Ana. “Westbay has convinced his friends of his illusion that the two of us are rivals, too?” she asked.
Westbay shooed away her words, smiling a little too casually to seem normal. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Ana. I lent Siverling some Aberford Thorndyke stories. He likes detectives, too, did you know? He always runs off to the library right after class, so this is our best chance to discuss them.” He didn’t allow Ana to respond, his grip on Sebastien’s arm steering them back to Westbay’s desk. “So what did you think of the twist at the end, with the serial disappearances?” he asked loudly.
“It was a tad obvious,” Sebastien said truthfully, wondering what Westbay was doing but deciding to play along.
“Obvious?” Westbay’s head snapped around to Sebastien, and he scowled. “How could you possibly have seen—” He cut himself off, pressing his lips together with a sharp shake of his head. “Never mind. That’s not relevant right now.” He lowered his voice, leaning closer over the table. “Do you have a headache?”
Sebastien shrugged, drawing the numerological symbols into the carved Circle between them. A triangle, for the simple transmutation of heat to movement, and then a pentagram within that, because she thought it might help with actualizing the idea of opposition.
“I know you do. I noticed you go to the bathroom, and I can smell the mint of a headache salve.”
Sebastien set the chalk down, staring expressionlessly at Westbay.
The young man continued, undeterred. “You chose to partner with Jones because she doesn’t pose a challenge, and you still had to use headache salve. You shouldn’t be here. You definitely shouldn’t be here and casting magic. Did you think everything would be better after just a day? I know you’re some prodigy who might not ever have experienced Will-strain before, but it takes two to three days of complete rest to safely recover. We covered this on the first day of classes. I know you were there.”
“I’m fine,” she insisted, lighting their candles and putting the iron ball on the edge of the Circle. “Hurry up and pay attention. Casting against each other using the same array is dangerous, and I would prefer not to be subjected to the effects of your inability to focus.”
“Professor Lacer may be strict, but he isn’t unreasonable. He’s a bit snappish toward the students to keep us from messing around, but I know him outside the University a little, and I can assure you that he’d never force you to keep casting with Will-strain.”
She pushed energy into the spell and sent the ball rolling uncontested. “You want to renege on our deal?”
“What? No.” He lowered his voice further. “Is this about…my father?” He continued quickly, “I’m not suggesting we tell everyone what really happened. We can make something up.”
“Professor Lacer will want to know what happened. You want to try and lie to him about it?” Thaddeus Lacer was one of the more common topics of student gossip. She’d overheard someone say that he had a powerful divination for untruths running all the time, and could know as soon as you said it whether you really did the homework. She didn’t know if it was true, but if anyone had both the ability and the inclination to do such a thing, it was Thaddeus Lacer. He had little patience for fools and those who stood in his way. “I have absolutely no intention of taking such a risk.”
“Well, okay, that’s probably not a good idea. You could…tell the truth?” Westbay seemed to know it was a bad idea even as he said it, judging by the cringe on his face, but he bulled on regardless. “He might be angry, but—”
Sebastien cut him off. “Of course he would be angry. What I did—” She clenched her jaw. “If you heard the same story from someone else, what would your reaction be?” In the very best case scenario, Professor Lacer would simply be disappointed in her, and maybe he wouldn’t let her stay for the next term. In the worst case scenario, he would be enraged by her second overt display of stupidity, injuring someone Lacer was presumably closer to than he was to her—she had heard him call Westbay by his first name, after all—and he would throw her out immediately. The University took it seriously when their students were endangered. Surely even more so, for the nobles.
She’d be that student people gossiped about with some ridiculous story, in which Professor Lacer turned her into a fish and hurled her over the east edge of the white cliffs—right into the Charybdis Gulf. She couldn’t tell the truth, and she couldn’t risk lying to him, either. Just the thought of approaching the topic with Professor Lacer had her heart pounding faster in her chest. She was afraid. Her headache grew worse at the increase in her blood pressure.
Westbay smoothed his hair back, making sure every strand of its waxed-perfect sloping style was in place. “Well. I know what my father would say. To be honest, I don’t want him to hear about this any more than you want Professor Lacer to know. He’d be…disappointed.”
“Yes, well, if Professor Lacer gets ‘disappointed’ in me, that’s the end of my stay here at the University,” she said, grinding her teeth.
“Right, because you’re his app—”
She kept talking, uncaring of whatever weak argument he was trying to make. “So I will say nothing. You will pay attention and play along. Stop blabbering and start casting, Westbay.”
Westbay glared, but, after a few tense seconds, he picked up his Conduit and turned his attention to the ball, opposing its slow rolling. He didn’t put much effort into it, though from the disgruntled look on his face it seemed like he was struggling and failing. “At least you remember my name now,” he muttered.
They kept the ball rolling slowly for a while, neither pushing very hard but outwardly keeping their focus for the benefit of anyone watching. Sebastien felt a tug of gratitude toward Westbay, and suppressed a grimace. ‘If not for him, I wouldn’t be in this position in the first place. Don’t go soft just because he’s being friendly now,’ she told herself. ‘He is still an unbearable ass deep down. People don’t actually change.’
They continued on like that until Professor Lacer, who had been strolling along the rows of desks, occasionally stopping to give praise or a sharp rebuke, stopped beside their desk.
She couldn’t help but tense up as he loomed over them, his presence bigger than his body could ever be. She kept her eye on the rolling ball.
Westbay seemed to feel the same, but he flicked a quick glance between the professor and Sebastien, and his candle flames flickered as his concentration wavered.
Sebastien tried to stay in sync with him, to keep the ball moving steadily, but she didn’t quite manage it, and it sped up sharply for a moment.
She felt her back tensing straighter, and slowly pushed a little more power into the spell.
Westbay frowned slightly, as if he was struggling to keep the ball from moving.
“Stop,” Lacer said, his voice cutting through the class despite its low volume.
Sebastien’s heart clenched sickeningly. She released the magic, and the ball rolled to a stop, the sound of it louder than it should have been against the backdrop of the rest of the classroom. People were abandoning their own practice to look at the three of them.
Lacer waited, allowing the silence to become unbearable.
Westbay started to shift uncomfortably in his seat.
She stared at him, urging him mentally not to do anything stupid.
Finally, Professor Lacer spoke, his words carefully enunciated, precise, and somehow all the more menacing for it. “Were either of you, perhaps, under the impression that I am a blind half-wit?”
Sebastien swallowed. “No, Professor.”
Westbay echoed her.
“In that case, do you think this kind of effort,” he nodded his head to the table in between them, “is acceptable?”
Westbay looked at Professor Lacer, then back to Sebastien, wide-eyed. He tilted his head to the side, just slightly, a query.
Sebastien glared back at the boy, stony-faced. Poor performance on a single exercise in class was nothing compared to carelessly injuring a fellow student and then causing herself Will-strain while using blood magic to heal him.
That thought sent a cold centipede of horror crawling down her spine. If she hadn’t healed Westbay, there might have been some chance to come clean. But if there was any chance at all that she would be accused of blood magic, it would be better for her to cut out her own tongue. Literally. Blood magic was high treason. She would be killed. “No, professor.” Her throat was dry, and she swallowed convulsively.
“Try again,” he ordered, his voice hard despite its low volume. He held his hand out to stop them when they turned their attention back to the spell. “This time, Westbay will attempt to move the ball clockwise and Siverling counterclockwise. Perhaps a more direct competition will stir your spirits.”
Westbay quickly rubbed out and replaced his two glyphs, and they complied.
The ball moved counterclockwise in small starts as Sebastien poured on more and more power, her grip on the magic like a vise, and Westbay countered her.
They steadied out at a consistent rotation in her favor.
“Is that all you have? Push harder!” Lacer ordered.
Westbay looked at her uncertainly, but she was already complying, the ball spinning faster till it began to blur.
It slowed again as Westbay pushed against her Will. His candles flickered under the drain, and she realized suddenly how Professor Lacer had known they weren’t truly trying. Their candles weren’t showing any signs of true strain—no flickering, loss of heat, or dimming—when Westbay’s Will was likely approaching two hundred thaums and she had already exceeded that amount. If she pushed to the normal limits of her ability, she could likely suck two candles completely cold.
She pushed harder, till her own two little flames looked like washed-out ghosts of themselves. The pain was like an ice pick through her brain, and her lashes fluttered as she realized she was losing sight in one of her eyes. Sun-spots bloomed over her vision.
She swallowed down nausea, and slowly, carefully released the magic. The ball decelerated, and then reversed direction entirely. She sat even straighter, her chin high and her gaze focused vaguely straight ahead. She could have pushed through the pain, but it wasn’t worth it. Severe Will-strain could cause permanent damage. ‘My ability to cast magic is more important than even the University. I won’t jeopardize that.’ Additionally, her Conduit was only rated to two hundred thaums, and opposing another’s magic put more stress on them. If she kept pushing, she risked her Conduit shattering. She had the weak backup inside the lip of her boot, so she might be able to avoid a total loss of control, but she had no gold to buy another replacement.
There was no way she could do what Lacer wanted. She accepted this, and kept her breathing even and her hands pressed to the table to keep her fingers from trembling as she waited for the punishment that would no doubt follow seemingly willful failure.
Professor Lacer didn’t say anything at first, but she could feel his Will in the air, turning his gaze into a sucking hole.
The hair on her arms and the back of her neck lifted, and she was reminded of what it felt like to walk alone and defenseless through a dark room, with the absolute certainty that something cold and hungry was watching from the shadows.
But he said only, “See me after class, Siverling. In my office.” He turned that horrible gaze on Westbay for a moment, who quailed under its force, then stalked back to the front of the room.
Westbay watched him walk away, then looked to her, and she could see the horror she felt reflected in his eyes. “Sebastien—” he whispered.
Slowly, minutely, she shook her head. “No,” she mouthed back. “You promised,” she said, slightly louder, but slowly. “Maintain your honor, and hold your tongue, Westbay.”
She could only hope that Professor Lacer wasn’t angry enough to expel her immediately. If she had till the end of term, at least, she was sure she could come up with a plan of some sort.