Month 12, Day 9, Wednesday 3:45 p.m.
As Sebastien left the Practical Casting classroom, Anastasia and Westbay fell into step on either side of her.
“That was amazing!” Westbay crowed, his grey eyes bright and glinting. “I can’t believe Professor Lacer isn’t an Archmage already. Did you see that turtle? He turned clay into flesh.”
“Most impressive,” Ana agreed. “Do you think he was making some sort of allusion to the task given to Myrddin by the dragon?”
“Well, as you said, he’s not an Archmage yet. That classroom holds several members related to the council of Grandmasters that he would need to confirm him. Perhaps he hopes to subtly influence the council’s decision by pairing himself to Myrddin in the eyes of their beloved family members. At some point, they won’t be able to deny him without being seen as petty and foolish to the masses.”
“Well…I suppose that’s possible,” Westbay said doubtfully. “But do you think he even cares about the title?”
“Who knows? Titles can hold power. Freedom,” Ana said, her fingers absently stroking the spine of the ornate pink journal she carried with her everywhere and wrote in every evening.
“What I want to know is whether that turtle was edible,” Westbay said, turning to Sebastien. “If I were trapped in a dungeon cell, with only the stones in the wall around me and some turtle eggs, could I create an edible creature? Not a living one, but flesh that would provide calories and nutrition?”
Sebastien raised her eyebrows as they stepped into the Great Hall. “I doubt you could. Or any of us. Rather than flesh, stone to a simple sugar might be possible, and could keep you alive, if not healthy. Besides, if you’re trapped in a dungeon cell and somehow have enough power to transmogrify stone into an edible, dead turtle, I think there are better uses for your efforts. Like escaping.”
Westbay blinked a couple times, then launched into a response, but Sebastien’s attention was drawn to the far side of the Great Hall, where Newton was stepping down from the stage where the contribution point prizes were displayed. The older boy looked tired, but not much worse than he had a couple days before. ‘Is he looking for something to help his father? Or maybe something he could sell for gold?’
The thought was a reminder of her own situation. Everything in this city cost, and she was running low on coins. After the healer’s fee for treating her Will-strain, she was once again poor. Aside from the emergency gold hidden in the lining of her jacket and boots, she had a little less than five gold crowns to her name. At one point, she would have considered that a fortune. Now, she knew how little it could actually get her.
She had a few contribution points by now, earned from the professors in classes and on tests. ‘Perhaps there will be something I could afford.’ She interrupted whatever Westbay was saying. “I’m going to look at the prizes,” she announced, striding away immediately.
Westbay grumbled, “Were you even listening?” as he hurried to catch up.
“No, not at all,” Sebastien admitted. It was the truth, but just because she hadn’t been actively listening didn’t mean she didn’t hear. “You said that in this hypothetical situation, maybe the dungeon cell had some sort of protective warding that didn’t allow you to break out, and no one was coming to feed you because they were afraid you would attack them, and so they were hoping to kill you through simple starvation, and wouldn’t they be surprised when they came to check on you a month later and the cell was filled with turtle corpses, and you’d made turtle-shell armor and weapons and were ready and waiting?”
She shook her head with exasperation. “Honestly, Westbay. You’re like a child.”
“I thought you said you weren’t listening?”
Ana let out a long, low laugh. “Oh, Damien. You do have the most amusing outraged expression!”
Westbay had fallen behind in his confusion, and he ran a few steps to catch up with Sebastien as she climbed onto the stage. “You weren’t listening, but you retained the information anyway? But what about when we first met? You forgot my name. In fact, you heard it several times, but still didn’t remember it.”
Most of the prizes were in display cases or otherwise warded against theft. Sebastien skimmed the summary cards beneath a row of wands as she spoke. “It’s like my mind is a vast ocean. It can hold quite a lot, but all the useless information kind of settles to the bottom. Very hard to find anything down there in the dark, piled up with all the other clutter.”
“Useless information?” Westbay’s voice had grown decidedly shrill.
She rolled her eyes at him. “Don’t be so dramatic. I remember your name now, don’t I?”
He started muttering something about, “The most narcissistic, pig-headed, rude man…think you’re the second coming of Myrddin…oh no, don’t bother remembering useless information like my name,” but she tuned him out again, browsing further.
She knew he wasn’t actually upset, after all. His eyes were still light grey and he hadn’t started fidgeting with his hair or clothes. She wasn’t yet in danger of him using the power of his Family name to harm her. ‘If I irritate him enough, I wonder if I could get him to use that favor I owe him just to dull the razor of my tongue.’
Unfortunately, she was the one who was irritated by the way he’d suddenly started hanging around her. She didn’t trust his sudden turn toward amiability. But he was determined, it seemed, undeterred by her snark.
Ana, silently aware of Sebastien’s frustration, gave her a crooked smile when Westbay wasn’t looking.
Atop the stage were potion ingredients, precious components of varying rarity, and even things like the powder of gemstones and precious metals, to be used as components or to draw a more conductive spell array. The professors, or perhaps higher-level student aids, had probably transmuted them from something much less expensive. Of course, none of the items on offer were legally restricted, but a few were probably hard to come by in the city market, regardless of coin on hand.
Then, magical items created by the professors. A multitude of artifacts, enchanted clothing, and strange alchemical concoctions. The artifacts ranged from the useful—a better lock for the storage chests in the dorms—to fanciful and strange—a pillow that sang lullabies out of its felt mouth.
There were even a couple small Conduits displayed in one of the glass cases. Sebastien eyed them with interest, but they were far beyond what she could afford, even the smallest costing over twelve hundred contribution points.
Ana seemed particularly interested in the enchanted clothing, eyeing the glyphs embroidered into the cloth with a magnifying glass that she pulled out of a pocket. “That’s a very elegant solution. I’ll have to write father about it,” she muttered.
Westbay was interested in the divination supplies, staring at an artistic deck of cards and a rune-inscribed basin for far-viewing. “This is what Aberford Thorndyke used to catch the hen-thief terrorizing that rural village!” he exclaimed, grinning at her, his earlier ire forgotten. Westbay was taking seven classes this term, the last of which was Divination.
Sebastien grimaced at the reminder of her own struggles with that field of magic. If only she could foist the work off onto someone like him. She sighed at the thought. ‘Even if I could find someone to do it, I couldn’t afford to hire them.’
A big book on a pedestal listed the other things she could buy, going into detail about what exactly she would be purchasing. In addition to access to better cafeteria food, a few other options were access to various upper sections of the library, private tutoring with University student aids of different levels and areas of expertise, and a list of the available—increasingly luxurious—dorm rooms. If she could afford it, she could live in a penthouse suit with a built in kitchen and bathroom, all in pale marble and dark granite, and eat purple lobster three times a week.
If she had five hundred points, she could exchange them for a the tuition on a single University class. A quick calculation told Sebastien that if that exchange rate held steady, each point was worth about one silver crown, which was actually a significant amount.
Sebastien could afford some of the less interesting components and alchemy products, but nothing she particularly needed, and nothing she could resell for a good sum.
But the possibility had reminded her that she did have some things she didn’t need.
Instead of accompanying Anastasia and Westbay to the library, she dropped off her new practice components from Practical Casting in her dorm cubicle and left for Oliver’s house.
He wasn’t home, but the servants greeted her happily, and Sharon forced her to sit down and have an afternoon snack that was really more like a full dinner, grinning and blushing behind her hands every time Sebastien showed appreciate for the non-University food.
When Sebastien was stuffed so full it was almost painful to walk, she went to the room Oliver was lending her and took the bags she’d brought with her that first night out of one of the closets.
Ennis’s things. The bags she’d retrieved for him from that room at the inn, when she still thought he was a real father to her.
She took out one set of clothes. They were a little too short and wide for Sebastien, but she could make some adjustments so that they would fit her better. She was not very handy with a needle and thread, but that was alright. It made sense to keep a simple set of male clothes with her, ones not as attention-drawing as all the items Sebastien Siverling’s wardrobe. Perhaps some day she would need to present herself as a more mundane blonde man.
She carried his luggage slung across her shoulders and started walking. She kept an eye out for anyone watching her or following her, but saw no eyes that were anything more than curious. Sebastien dressed like Oliver—like she could feed a family of four for a month with the price of her perfectly tailored suit made of silky, thick wool and the stylish jacket over it. She looked like she was actually warm. ‘… And I’m hauling three bags stuffed with the worldly possessions of a nomadic conman,’ she thought. ‘They’re probably wondering where my manservant is.’
Her shoulders hurt by the time she reached the Verdant Stag, but she didn’t want to waste coin on anything unnecessary, like the luxury of a carriage.
She’d only been to the inn-slash-entertainment-hall a few times in her male body, as Sebastien. There were a couple musicians on stage, and people were filtering in as the sun set and they got off work, filling up the seats and ordering food and ale from the bar. People were betting with a bookie in front of the large chalkboard against the other wall. She recognized one of the Stag enforcers leaning up against the doorway to a hallway.
Sebastien walked past all of them.
Theo was at the top of the curved staircase at the far side of the room, sitting with a book and what looked like a half-written essay. The boy leaned his copper-haired head back until it thunked against the wall behind him, his eyes closed and his mouth open in a soulless gape of boredom.
A laugh barked out of Sebastien’s throat without warning, and Theo jerked to awareness.
“Sorceress!” He yipped. His eyes widened and he looked around, covering his hand with his mouth, but there was too much other noise in the room below for anyone to have heard him. He took his hands away, examining her curiously. “You don’t look homeless any more.”
She grinned at him. “Having trouble with your homework?”
“Uggh!” He rolled his head back dramatically again. “It’s an assignment from Mr. Mawson, my tutor. I’m supposed to write an essay on the Black Wastes, but it’s so boring. I don’t even know what to talk about. They’re black. The Brillig caused them thousands of years ago when we were at war with them, when they knew we were gonna win and they didn’t want us to have anything good if they couldn’t. And stuff dies there. How’m I supposed to say any more than that? I’ve never even been there. I’ve never been more than a day’s walk away from Gilbratha.”
Sebastien shook her head. “Whoa. Well, if you think the Black Wastes are boring, I must say it sounds like your tutor may be a teeny bit incompetent. He left out all the interesting parts and wanted you to write an essay copied from a book?”
Theo’s eyes widened, then narrowed. “What do you mean? Interesting parts?”
“Well, like the stories of the adventurers who explored the BlackWastes to try and uncover the dragon corpses. They told crazy, and I do mean insane stories about the things they saw—and that’s only the third of the adventurers that made it back out alive.”
“Dragon corpses? What kind of things did they see?”
“Well, how long is your essay supposed to be?”
She waved her hand carelessly. “That’s nothing. Take notes. I will give you the information for the source material you can say you referenced if your tutor gives you problems, too.” She settled next to him on the top step of the stairs, speaking slowly. “This comes out of Edward Leeson’s third volume of ‘History of the Indomitable Race,’ which is actually kind of an ironic title, because…”
She told stories, repeating particularly interesting sections, answering questions, and helping him spell certain names while Theo scribbled as fast as he could to keep up with the information. Almost an hour later, he had three pages of notes and a cramping hand. “Okay. I think that’s enough material,” she said finally.
He sighed with relief as he stretched out his fingers, but still pouted reluctantly. “What about the other knight that went in with Briarson?”
She stood and began to walk down the hall to Katerin’s office, and Theo gathered up his things and scrambled to walk with her. “Briarson said that his partner went to check the perimeter around their camp, but didn’t come back until dawn, and when he did he was glowing, shooting off sparks of green light, ‘like a dandelion in the wind.’” She used her fingers to indicate the quotation, then knocked on the door to Katerin’s office. “So Briarson shot him with an arrow. Well, six arrows. Briarson said his partner kept getting up again, so he had to keep shooting. No one knows if that really happened, or if Briarson had gone insane by then.”
When Katerin called for them to come in, Theo bounced into the room. “What happened then? Did Briarson get out?”
Sebastien shook her head. “No, he never did. We know all this because a later expedition found his journal. It had been enchanted to ward off the elements. That expedition confirmed Briarson’s body was right there in camp, dead of unknown causes. And they found the arrows he’d shot on the other side of camp, broken and rotting. But they didn’t find the body of his companion.”
Theo’s eyes were round. “Could he have…got up again? Like Briarson said?”
Katerin raised her eyebrows.
Sebastien shrugged, suppressing her smile. “No one knows. Maybe he was a hallucination. Or maybe he was real, but he wasn’t Briarson’s friend at all. Maybe Briarson’s friend never came back from checking the perimeter.”
Theo shuddered in delighted horror. “Titan’s balls, I can’t wait to rub this in Mr. Mawson’s face. He never said anything about any of this stuff. Not the good stuff, I mean, just the death tolls and the loss of farmland and the boring recovery efforts.”
“Language, Theo,” Katerin reprimanded lazily, her accent throaty and biting. “And maybe he never said anything about that because he didn’t think it was appropriate to regale a young boy with horror stories.”
“They’re not horror stories! They’re real! The sorcer—I mean, he,” Theo jerked his head to Sebastien, bouncing over to Katerin’s side, “gave me all sorts of sources. This all comes out of real books that he read. It’s for my essay on the Black Wastes, which are actually super cool and not boring at all.” He waved the scribbled sheets of note paper at her.
Katerin sighed, but ruffled his hair with a smile. “Okay. Real horror stories, then. Make sure you thank Sebastien here. And that essay better be good enough that I can rub it in Mr. Mawson’s face, too, when he comes complaining to me.” She winked at him. “Now go to your room and finish your homework.”
Grinning wide and gleefully as only a child could, he ran out. “Thanks, Mr. Sebastien!” he called over his shoulder.
“Err, I’m sorry if—” Sebastien started, but Katerin cut her off with a wave of her hand.
“No, no, it’s fine. Great, actually.” She stood, walking to the window and shutting the curtains against the night. “Oliver suggested a reward system to get Theo more focused on his learning, and it’s been working to some degree, but Theo’s only been dragging himself through it for the end prize. I overheard him giving himself a pep talk in the bathroom yesterday.” The woman chuckled fondly. “It’s nice to see him actually excited about learning for once.”
Katerin’s crimson hair and white teeth, especially after night had fallen, still made Sebastien think of a vampire. Or maybe it was something about the way the muscles around her eyes and mouth were tight with what was probably tension and fatigue, but looked a little like hunger, too. Her eyes roved over the leather and canvas luggage bags Sebastien had let drop to the floor. “What have you brought me?”
“The belongings of one Ennis Naught,” Sebastien replied softly. “I was hoping to get your advice on the best way to sell them.”
Katerin raised an eyebrow, but replied smoothly. “Nothing that would lead back to him, and through him to you, I hope?”
“Of course not. Good clothes, a warm, waterproof jacket, and fancy knickknacks he accumulated to make himself seem cultured or richer than he actually was.” Ennis had accumulated a lot for someone with such a nomadic lifestyle. Sebastien had taken only the bags that were light enough to carry, which meant she mostly had his clothes, and the rest had been left at the inn for the coppers. “It should be worth at least a few gold, even used.”
“There’s a shop about half a kilometer north of here. They’ll pay for things like that, mostly from people who’ve died, or who are upper class enough that they want new clothes before their old ones are useless, but are still poor enough to hope to make some coin back. Tell them I sent you, and don’t accept the first number they offer.” Katerin scribbled their name and location on a scrap of paper and handed it to Sebastien.
“Thank you,” Sebastien said. She turned to the door, then hesitated. “Are there any updates?”
Katerin eyed her thoughtfully, then took out a pipe from the drawer in her desk and began to fill it with a dark blue crumble that Sebastien recognized as dried etherwood leaves. The smoke was smooth and calming, and great for blowing smoke rings, but nonaddictive. Either it was laced with something else, or Katerin smoked purely recreationally. “He’s still in jail. They brought in a curse-breaker and a shaman to see him, with no luck. He’s still telling the same story.”
Sebastien frowned. “You mean…the truth?” ‘A shaman might help him to clarify his dreams or memories to give better testimony, but why a curse-breaker?’
Katerin placed the pipe onto a round glass coaster with a spell array molded into its surface. She paused to concentrate, growing until a spark burst to life in the bowl of the pipe, smoldering orange into the dried leaves. “Well, yes. But I’m not sure they believe the truth, with the sudden notoriety of the Raven Queen. Our contact says most of them think he’s just a pawn in the Raven Queen’s scheme and doesn’t know anything useful. But the coppers are unwilling to give up on Ennis just yet because they hope he might lead them to her involuntarily.” She looked up, sucking on the mouth of the pipe and then tilting her head back to release a thick ring of light blue smoke. “She’s contact him twice already, after all.”
“Ah.” Sebastien ran her tongue across the back of her teeth. “But they’re not torturing him, or threatening execution?”
“You’re sure you want to get rid of those bags?” Katerin’s gaze was piercing, but her expression showed no actual curiosity.
“Yes.” Sebastien gripped the straps of the packs tighter.
“It’s just that someone who really does not care wouldn’t be asking me these things, right?”
Sebastien shifted, her shoulders tightening. “Well, if I find myself slipping into feeling of worry or guilt, I only need to remind myself that if Ennis Naught somehow gets out of jail for the crime he actually committed… If he hadn’t given my birthright heirloom ring with a Master level Conduit to the Gervin Family, it would be worth more than enough to buy him new clothes and support him even after his ungrateful daughter sold all his things.” Her voice petered out on a low snarl.
Katerin just stared back silently.
Sebastien straightened her shoulders, lifted her chin, and left for the address of the shop Katerin had given her.
She made five gold off the lot.
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