Month 12, Day 4, Friday 3:45 p.m.
When class ended, Professor Lacer left immediately, not bothering to wait for the handful of students who wanted to linger and speak to him. “I have office hours,” he announced as he strode past them. “Use them.”
Damien and Sebastien shared a look of sick concern, and she took longer than necessary to gather up her belongings, trying to settle herself. Fearing that she would gather more ire by dawdling, she followed the gently curved hallway to Professor Lacer’s office. She felt sick, not only because of straining her Will beyond its limits, but because she didn’t know the extent of his anger toward her. ‘I will plead with him if I need to. But only if I need to.’ She briefly considered trying to tell some sort of half-truth that would mollify him, but her mind was too scrambled to think through the options and their ramifications.
It had been such a stupid mistake, and she regretted compounding it with an attempt to hide it. It would be horrible to be expelled, but as long as she could keep her magic and her life, she would always find a way to claw her way back up again.
She paused outside the door for a few breaths, blinking in an attempt to clarify the vision in her right eye. She pressed her trembling fingers to her sides, straightened her back, and rapped softly on the open doorframe.
“Enter,” Lacer said, his voice clipped. He’d sat at his desk and was scribbling a note. His scowl was harsh enough to toast bread. “Close the door behind you,” he said without looking up.
She did so, stopping a few feet in front of his desk. She didn’t dare to take a seat without his permission. She resisted the urge to fidget or wince with every ice-pick spike of the headache impaling her brain.
“Are you aware that without me, you would not be studying here?” he asked.
Her heart clenched. “Y—” Her voice broke, and she had to swallow before replying. “Yes.”
“And you are aware that if you make me dissatisfied, I can have you expelled before the day is out?”
“Do you think there is anyone at this university whose opinion is more important than mine?”
“No,” she said. ‘Which is precisely why you can never know what I’ve been up to,’ she thought.
“Are you also aware that because of the special circumstances of your admittance, your performance reflects back upon me? If you perform poorly, or act inappropriately, my judgment will be in question. Honestly, I am currently questioning my own judgment.”
Sebastien suppressed a wince. “Yes.”
He stared at her until she wondered if she was supposed to say something else, the judgment in his gaze almost a physical weight on her body.
She couldn’t tell the truth, but she was afraid to lie, and so silence was her only refuge.
Finally, he said, “Did Mr. Westbay ask you to lose to him?”
Sebastien blinked twice. “No,” she said, her tone as neutral as she could make it.
“So you chose to pander to him. I am unsure if that makes it better or worse. I had thought you would have more pride than that.”
She remained silent, sluggishly realizing that Professor Lacer thought she’d thrown the match with Damien because he was a Westbay, and that she was either afraid to openly best him, or was trying to get on his good side by making Damien look better than he was.
‘Professor Lacer hasn’t noticed the signs of Will-strain? Perhaps he simply never considered that I could be that stupid.’ She was filled with relief. It was a plausible motive that had nothing to do with fleeing from the coppers, attacking another student, or using blood magic. She couldn’t overtly agree with his assumption, though, in case he really did have some divination running to reveal lies. She bowed her head, the shame of the movement all too real. “It will not happen again,” she promised, meaning every word.
“See that it does not. I will bestow my forgiveness this time. In future, if you are going to curry favor with others at the expense of your pride, do it better. I will not preach about honor and chivalry, but please, at least have the cunning not to embarrass me. You will comport yourself with my reputation in mind at all times. And in exchange for today, you will win at least fifty contribution points in the end of term exhibitions.” He paused, as if waiting for her to protest.
“I understand,” she said. Rather than worrying about drawing attention to the persona of Sebastien Siverling in the exhibitions, her immediate thought was to wonder how difficult it was to earn fifty points as a first term student. With what she knew of Professor Lacer’s standards, it was likely a hellishly difficult demand.
“Good. Now get out.”
She complied without hesitation. The relief was heady. A little scolding and a task to redeem herself. There had been no offensive spells, nothing to publicly shame her, and most importantly, no expulsion. It seemed that he hadn’t even noticed her Will-strain. ‘Could it be that the rumors surrounding Professor Lacer’s temper are somewhat exaggerated?’ She wanted to laugh.
Damien Westbay was pacing in the hallway outside the door, fidgeting with his already perfect hair and unwrinkled clothes. He stilled when he saw her. “What did he say? I can talk to—”
The smile slipped from her face. She grabbed him by the arm and kept walking. “You will not talk to him.”
“I’m sorry, Sebastien, it’s not right that you’re the one to get in trouble for this. I—”
“It’s fine. He was angry, but only because I embarrassed him with my public weakness. I have to participate in the end of term exhibitions and earn at least fifty contribution points. That’s it.”
Westbay stumbled along beside her. “Oh. Well, that’s…good?”
“Yes. Except I doubt I’ll be coming back next term if I don’t succeed.”
“He’s that angry? Sebastien…maybe we should just explain what happened?” he said reluctantly. “We could leave out the details of how I got hurt. There’s no way I’d be expelled, I’m a Westbay, and we might even be able to convince him not to inform my father—”
“I could still be expelled,” she snapped. “Can’t you get that past your thick skull? I’m not worried about you, I’m worried about myself. The rest of us don’t get to take the paved road through life, Westbay. There are consequences for our actions.”
He was silent for a while, and kept walking beside her even when she released her grip on his arm. “Mood swings,” he said finally, his tone placating. “You need to go to the infirmary, Sebastien. They can help with the Will-strain.”
“No.” The anger she was feeling was perfectly legitimate, but a vivid desire to strangle the bullheaded, oblivious boy had her seriously considering slamming him into an empty classroom.
The urge was strong enough that she had to concede, at least to herself, that her decision-making faculties were impaired.
“I’ll drag you there myself if I have to. This isn’t about your preferences or wanting to seem tough. It’s not even about getting in trouble. This is about your safety, your well-being. I won’t let you jeopardize everything just because you’re feeling stubborn. Your judgment is impaired, so if I have to, I’ll make this decision for you.”
“Where did you grow the stones to act like this is any of your business?” she muttered, gritting her teeth. Before he could reply, she held up a hand toward him. “Alright, alright, stop. I don’t need to go to the infirmary. I have a friend who can help me.”
“Really?” He peered at her skeptically.
She scowled. “Really. I’m going there now. You may not have noticed, but I do have a working brain, even if it feels like it’s being stomped on by a rabid cow right now. I know I need healing.”
The worry and doubt smoothed away from his face. “Good,” he said, nodding imperiously. “If you’re not feeling better by Monday, do not come to class.”
She rolled her eyes and walked faster, hoping to outpace him.
He jogged a little to catch up, but was thankfully silent all the way to the glass transportation tubes on the south side of the white cliffs. He waved as she used her student token to activate one. “Feel better soon! And don’t come back until you do!”
She didn’t wave back.
By the time she got to Oliver’s house, the headache was making her nauseated.
Oliver took one look at her and said, “What happened?”
“Will-strain,” she replied simply, her voice soft, because she felt like speaking loudly or opening her mouth too wide might send the contents of her stomach spilling out over his polished shoes. “My professor asked me to cast in class. I don’t want to risk the healers at the University infirmary. Do you think I could see…whoever the Verdant Stag usually uses?”
“I’ll hail a carriage,” he said, though instead of doing it himself, he motioned to a servant, who hurried outside to the street. Oliver strode off into the kitchen and came back with a steaming mug of dark liquid. “I don’t keep a lot of potions in the house. They don’t work very well on me, so… The caffeine should help with your headache.”
She took the mug gratefully, sipping slowly.
“The next time something like this happens, perhaps you should consider refusing to cast magic,” he said.
“The next time?” she groaned.
Oliver gave her a wry smile, but it didn’t disguise his worry.
The servant poked their head back through the front door and said, “I’ve got one, sir.”
Sebastien took the mug of coffee with her into the carriage, which thankfully had shock absorbers to mitigate the bumps and jolts. After a few minutes of sitting and sipping, she felt well enough to talk, as long as she kept her eyes closed. “Has anything happened since I’ve been back at the University? Anything new with the Morrows?” She kept her voice low enough that no one would overhear them.
“Nothing big. There’s been some harassment, especially on the edges of our territory, but we’ve been patrolling, and we’ve invested a lot into improving the equipment and number of our enforcers so we don’t seem like such an easy target.”
“We also made an alliance with the Nightmare Pack.”
She opened one eye. “Who?”
“Another gang with no love for the Morrows. The leader would like to meet with you. Or, to be more specific, he would like to meet with the Raven Queen,” Oliver said, lifting one side of his mouth in a half-smile that lacked real amusement.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a folded piece of paper. It was another wanted poster displaying an evil version of her face glaring out underneath a hood. Only this time, the caption said, ‘Alias: The Raven Queen. Dangerous practitioner of Forbidden Magics. Flee on sight. Report any information to law enforcement. Reward for information leading to arrest: Five hundred gold crowns.’
“Flee on sight?” she muttered. Five hundred gold crowns was more than many poor families made in a year. It seemed they were taking her more seriously after her recent appearance. Even the most copper-hating or loyal person might be swayed by such a large bounty.
Oliver folded the paper away and tucked it back into his pocket. “I’ll let you consider the meeting when you are more lucid. There will be incentives.”
“I’ll have to do something to pay for the healer,” she mumbled. “Pretending to be the Raven Queen shouldn’t be much harder than pretending to be a boy.”
There was a pause, and then he said, “It seems you’ve had it worse than us. Will everything be alright, once you return?”
“I hope so,” she sighed. “The pressure keeps rising, but once I’m better, I’ll be able to handle it. Is it okay for me to meet this healer as Sebastien?”
Oliver hesitated, then said, “Well, I’m taking you there as Oliver Dryden, not the leader of the Stags. Healer Nidson is discreet, and there’s an easy explanation for how a University student got Will-strain, even if it is strange that you wouldn’t stay to be treated there.”
“We need to find a more thorough way to keep Sebastien and Siobhan separate. I can’t be switching back and forth at will. Eventually, the wrong person will notice something.”
“I have some ideas about that. We’ll talk about it once you’re better.”
The healer retained by the Verdant Stag was brusque but competent, the type of person whose eyes wouldn’t widen in surprise even if Oliver brought Myrddin himself, resurrected, into his home. Nidson gave Sebastien a quick succession of potions which calmed the pain and slowed her thoughts till they felt like cold molasses within her skull. Then he made her guzzle down a large mug filled with what tasted like a modified nourishing draught, till her stomach sloshed with every movement. He laid her down on a slate table with a Circle carved into it, then drew a spell array around her prone form.
She dozed off, opening her eyes some time later to see Nidson casting a healing spell with various exotic components as the Sacrifice, some of which she recognized, and some of which she could only speculate about.
She woke again in a carriage with poor suspension, every bump of the cobbled road jostling through her. She was slumped against Oliver, her head on his shoulder, wrapped in a blanket. He pressed a hand against her hair, keeping her from sitting up. “I need you to turn into Siobhan. Can you do that?”
She pressed the amulet against her chest and pushed at it with a small pulse of Will. The spike of pain this caused was dull and distant.
“Sleep,” Oliver said. “You’ll feel better when you wake up.”
Siobhan did feel better when she woke up, except for the disorientation and the horrible pressure in her bladder. She was alone, but recognized the small, spartan room and the door made of iron bars.
She was at Liza’s place, in the warded, secret section of her home. After relieving herself using Liza’s enchanted chamber pot, Siobhan made her way upstairs.
Liza was sitting in the apartment above, among the magical reference books, animal cages, and growing plants, sipping dark liquid that gave off a whiff of nostril-burning alcohol mixed with the earthy bitterness of coffee. She was petting a neon-bright bird that sat trilling musically on her lap. Her eyes were bloodshot, with dark, puffy circles below, and she’d tied her curly hair back into a low bun to partially disguise its unwashed frizziness. “You’re awake.”
“I feel much better,” Siobhan said. She had a faint headache still, but it was nothing compared to the horseshoe nails of pain that had been trying to chisel her skull apart, and she could see normally out of both eyes.
Liza grunted around a mouthful of alcohol-laced coffee. “You’re lucky there’s no permanent damage.”
Siobhan acknowledged that with a wince. “What time is it?”
“About five in the morning. On Monday.”
Siobhan’s eyes widened. Whatever that healer had given her must have been an extra-strength tranquilizer. It might have even slowed some of her bodily functions. ‘Or…Liza stayed up caring for me and casting spells to empty my bladder and bowels while I slept.’ The thought sent heat rushing to her cheeks. She coughed and looked away. “Oliver brought me here so I could sleep through the scrying attempts?”
“Yes. Of which there have been several. The coppers are more interested in you than I expected, child.”
Siobhan rubbed her forehead. “Unfortunately. Thank you for taking care of me.”
Liza waved a tired hand. “It is far from my first time caring for an invalid. At least you were still and silent. As long as this doesn’t happen again, you may be forgiven. I am more concerned that the solution we came to is already proving insufficient. Did the divination attempts push you so far as to cause Will-strain?”
“Oh, no, that was something else.”
Liza’s mouth tightened judgmentally. “Something else,” she repeated, supremely unimpressed. “Perhaps you should take a good look at your life choices.” She tucked the bird under one arm and put it in one of the cages scattered around the room. “Come,” she ordered, walking into the official part of her house through the attached closet door.
She made a second cup of coffee, eyed Siobhan, then added a moderate splash of liquor to it before handing it over. “Drink.”
Siobhan accepted it awkwardly. She wasn’t a fan of alcohol, but the caffeine was a lifesaver, and the minty burn of whatever Liza had added immediately provided a boost of vivacity, rather than the mellowing, depressive effect she remembered from her other attempts to drink.
Liza stared at her until Siobhan felt uncomfortable. She wondered if Oliver bringing her here was actually not okay. Or perhaps Liza was just trying to calculate how much coin she could extort from Siobhan in her weakened state. Finally, Liza spoke. “You need a more permanent solution to the scrying attempts if they are going to continue like this—and if your lifestyle continues to create moments when you cannot safely or consistently counteract them.”
“A more permanent solution, like retrieving my blood from Harrow Hill?”
“Harrow Hill has some of the best wards in Gilbratha. Theoretically, I might be able to bypass them, but in practice, with only nine thousand thaums under my command, such a course of action would be like a dragon attacking a sky kraken—an act of hubris bordering on stupidity. Any mistake would only end up giving them more opportunity to track you down. If our last transaction was any indication, it also seems that you could not afford to hire me for such a project. However, there are more creative solutions you might employ. The blood need not be retrieved, as long as they cannot realistically use it to find you.”
Siobhan’s eyes widened, her attention caught on the mention of Liza’s capacity. That was only a couple of thousand below the level when one could start thinking about getting certified as an Archmage, though a lot more went into being acknowledged as an Archmage than simple capacity. Siobhan’s eyes narrowed. “How old are you?”
Liza rolled her eyes. “Well, you just put your foot in your mouth without hesitation, don’t you?” she asked, but didn’t seem to be actually offended. “I’m sixty.” She was almost as old as Professor Lacer. Of course, neither of them looked like a commoner of the same age might, with all the magic they cast keeping them young. Liza looked closer to thirty. “Due to my advanced age, and my particular background, I have valuable experience and feel qualified to give advice on this. I participated in the Haze War, and I know first-hand that there is always a loophole that can be exploited in any ward or defensive system. If there’s no loophole, one can be created. Often this weakness lies in human error and laziness and not the external defenses. Do some research. Necessity is the mother of innovation, as they say. Alternatively, you can hire me to find a more permanent solution, for the small sum of eight hundred gold crowns.”
Siobhan sipped her minty coffee. “Do you have any particular ideas?”
Liza gave her a deadpan stare, apparently not tired enough to be tricked into giving up valuable information. “If you’re feeling better, you can leave.”
Siobhan hesitated, wondering if she should offer to pay Liza for the care and lodging while she’d been unconscious. Then she smacked herself mentally. If she could get away with something for free from the woman, she should run before Liza overcame her sleep-deprivation.
The sun was still a couple of hours from rising as Siobhan hurried out, and the streets were empty, a layer of unbroken snow covering everything. She pulled her cloak tighter around herself and felt the angry grumble of her empty stomach. Returning to Sebastien’s form in an empty alley felt safest, even though she probably could have transformed in the middle of the street without being noticed. She was still wearing the same clothes she’d left the University in a few days before. Hopefully Liza hadn’t thought that was strange. Women did wear trousers, after all, and even if they didn’t fit her very well, no normal person would jump to the correct conclusion.
When Sebastien got back to the University, she grabbed a change of clothes and went straight to the showers, luxuriating in the warm water and solitude.
She was again asleep in her bed when the rest of her dorm finally woke. As the sounds of early morning preparation woke her, she realized she hadn’t done any of her homework over the weekend. Rubbing her temples, she took a deep breath, then fumbled with the vial containing the anti-anxiety potion and swallowed a half-dose. ‘I needed the rest. Missing one weekend’s worth of homework won’t lower my grade so far that I fail. Probably.’
Westbay, who was just getting dressed as she left, gave her a questioning look.
She raised an eyebrow at him, and he nodded and smiled as if she’d instead given him a reassuring, “Good morning, friend!” With a snort, she left him to comb his hair three hundred times, knowing he would keep at it until he’d beaten every single strand into submission.
She pondered her situation as she ate the bland breakfast slop. Now that her mind was clear again, she realized she’d been acting irrationally. Maybe it was a byproduct of the original Will-strain, added to the ongoing stress that she hadn’t been able to escape even before then.
She had been focused on peripherally important things, at the expense of neglecting the biggest problem in her life. This weekend could have been entirely disastrous if not for Oliver’s quick thinking. ‘What would have happened if I was unconscious and helpless outside of Liza’s wards, and the coppers scried for me?’ She shuddered at the thought. ‘What happens when they scry me while I’m in the middle of casting a difficult spell, and the distraction makes my concentration slip, and I lose control of the magic?’
She forced herself to keep eating despite her sudden lack of appetite. She needed all her energy, and the basic meal options barely provided enough to sate a working thaumaturge’s increased caloric needs.
‘Letting the coppers keep my blood is unacceptable. I have to figure out how to stop their scrying attempts for good, before all the different pressures add up and something critical finally snaps. Either I’ll get caught, or I’ll lose control and succumb to Will-strain when they try and scry me at a bad time, or someone will notice when the seemingly unrelated Sebastien Siverling is casting anti-divination spells at the same times the coppers are searching for Siobhan Naught. I want to help the Stags, and I need to repay my debt, and it would be wonderful not to worry about sleep any more, but I have to dig myself out of this hole before anything else. Getting rid of these scrying attempts will make my entire life easier. I need to completely reprioritize. I cannot believe I’ve been so complacent even as I thought I was trying my best to become prepared.’
Through her shirt, she rubbed the warding medallion her grandfather had given her, the fatigue and the shame mixing to form a prickle of tears behind her eyes. She blinked them back rapidly. ‘I still have a long way to go,’ she admitted to herself.
Sebastien hurried to complete her homework before the breakfast period ended, taking it as easy as possible through her first two classes. As was becoming her habit when she had a problem, she headed to the library during her afternoon free period before Practical Casting. Such a comprehensive repository of information would surely have a solution hidden among the shelves.
She was in the glass tunnel between the main building and the library when the sirens went off, loud and piercing and screaming of danger with their unnatural tone.
Everyone dropped whatever they were doing, some panicking, wanting to move but not knowing where to go, others moving with purpose, and a couple looking around with anxious confusion.
“It’s an Aberrant,” Sebastien heard someone say.
She realized then that she’d frozen as soon as she heard the sound, and forced herself to keep walking. Her head swiveled back and forth, her eyes wide as they absorbed everything, searching for a hint of the danger.
One of the librarians opened the door to the library, waving for the students to enter. “Come take shelter! The building has wards, and if necessary, we can take refuge in the reinforced lower levels.”
Sebastien moved as quickly as she could, her face feeling like a bloodless mask. The wails of the sirens rang in her ears till the sounds overlapped and drowned everything else out, like the surface of a lake in a rainstorm.
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