Chapter 5 – Bad First Impressions


Month 9, Day 28, Monday 4:00 p.m.

Dryden spent most of the day coaching Siobhan on high-class etiquette and mannerisms, and how to act masculine without being obtrusive. He was a harsh taskmaster, and she grew increasingly impatient as the remaining time to apply for the University entrance exams was instead filled with instruction, lectures, and quizzes to measure her retention—which was stellar, of course. Siobhan wasn’t the type to forget information, even if she failed to be gracious in receiving it.

Finally, with only a couple of hours left before six, Dryden let her leave the house, urging her to “be inconspicuous—but noble. Act entitled, but not obnoxious. And remember your name.”

She left before he could continue, turning her back on his amused smirk and resisting the urge to grind her teeth in irritation. ‘How much of his nagging was an act to get a reaction out of me?’ she wondered. ‘He’s right, though. I should try to think of myself as Sebastien while I’m in this form. A thoughtless slip-up could ruin everything. I’m still myself, but when I look like this my name is Sebastien. Sebastien.’

She hurried through the gently rising streets, being very careful not to lose her way in the unfamiliar city. At least, in this part of town, she was in no danger of walking through human waste that had been dumped from the windows for lack of magic to dispose of it. No, she only had to worry about walking through animal feces. When she saw the first wanted poster with a somewhat reliable likeness of her on it, she almost tripped. The woman in the drawing wore a hood, dark hair spilling out of it, with a mean smile and something predatory in the black ink lines of her eyes.

‘Dangerous Sorceress, practitioner of Forbidden Magics. Report Any Sightings. Reward for Live Capture: One hundred gold crowns.’

Sebastien hurried on after a quick glance. ‘Only one hundred gold crowns? I would’ve been impressed by that, if I hadn’t already learned the price of the University and borrowed ten times that amount just last night. Well, it’s more than a commoner might make in four months’ wages.

Still, she didn’t believe she was in any danger from the average citizen. People on the street looked at her, but held no suspicion in their gazes, and most, especially those lacking obvious displays of wealth, didn’t even meet her eyes.

She didn’t see any posters with her father’s likeness, and this ominous realization caused a sharp ache in her stomach. ‘Perhaps no one remembered his face well enough to draw it,’ she thought, even though she knew sophistic dreams did nothing to change reality.

As she walked north, the subtly upward-sloping streets grew wider, the buildings more ornate, and the guards and occasional patrolling copper more alert. She was breathing hard by the time she reached the base of the white cliffs that surrounded Gilbratha. They rose high and strong in the north and petered out as they curved around to the south. It was said they had been heaved up from the ground by an Archmage, hundreds of years ago.

Buildings were set into the side of the cliffs wherever there was a butte, though there was a good distance between the highest building and the top of the cliffs, where the University grounds sprawled.

A broad, winding path cut across the side of the cliff in a zig-zag pattern. The path was for those without the money or prestige for a license to use the magical lift, which was really more of a terrifying slide through one of the several glass tubes that wove their own pattern over the cliff-side. Some stopped at the groups of buildings perched on the cliff face, while others reached all the way to the ground.

She and her father had escaped through one of those tubes, but without the counterbalance of a steel weight being lifted from the ground to the top of the cliffs through one of the other tubes, they had plummeted like birds with broken wings. She’d nearly burnt through the soles of her boots trying to slow her descent. If not for the winding nature of the tubes and the spelled pit at the bottom meant to save unlucky thaumaturges from any “malfunctions,” she would have surely broken her legs and likely her back as well. Instead, they had sunk down into the mudlike ground and then bounced back up, leaving her winded and bruised, but otherwise unhurt.

They’d reached the ground soon enough after her father’s theft that the attendants had not yet received the alarm, and so they rushed over to Siobhan and her father in horror, apologizing profusely and offering free medical services. It might actually have been easier to get away if the attendants were hostile, Sebastien mused, because then they could have been hostile in return. Instead, they had politely, if forcefully, insisted they were alright, but in too much of a hurry to stay and be seen by a healer or the magical lift’s operations manager.

Again, she had to walk up manually, and there was no time to stop for breaks. By the time she reached the top, her legs were burning and trembling, and she’d acquired a faint layer of sweat despite the cool breeze. The end of the path stopped cutting back and forth and turned directly inward, burrowing into the top of the cliffs at an angle, creating tall white stone walls that ran into the ground level. This path ended at a set of imposing steel gates that marked the beginning of the University grounds.

A wrought iron plaque stretching over the top of the gates labeled it, “The Thaumaturgic University of Lenore.” The University had no specific name of its own, like a lesser arcanum might. It had no need of a name, for it was the only one of its kind. Its crest was the sky kraken, sovereign of the heavens.

The admissions center was just through the gates of the University, a small building where employees were processing lines of hopeful students.

Sebastien did her best not to act suspiciously as she walked past the guards on either side of the steel gates, wiping away sweat that the cool air hadn’t been enough to prevent. She ensured her hips did not sway as she walked, overly aware of the eyes of the people around her. It actually wasn’t so hard, with hips shaped like a man’s. ‘I am a man to them,’ she reassured herself. ‘They won’t see anything past the surface, there is no need to worry. How often have I seen a man walking past and wondered if he was really a magically disguised woman? Never, so calm down.

She hurried to take her place at the end of the shortest line, hoping it would shrink quickly. The walk from Dryden Manor—which seemed a pretentious name for something that was little more than a huge house with a yard in the back big enough for a single horse—to the University had taken her over an hour. ‘If only Dryden had let me come sooner. Perhaps I should have paid for a carriage, or got a one-time license for the lifts.’ She had the gold to afford it now, after all, and if they turned her away because she was late, everything would be for naught.

While she waited in line, Sebastien greedily eyed the University buildings in the distance. The white cliffs were buttes, flat on top and quite expansive, bordering the north of Gilbratha and stretching around the Charybdis Gulf to the east. Freshwater from the north ran through the base of the cliff and was the source of all the manmade canals that passed through the city, which in turn powered many magic-driven factories and mills.

The University looked down on all of Gilbratha from atop those cliffs, matched in status only by Pendragon Palace—the home of the High Crown—and the mansions of the other twelve Crown families, which were cut from the cliffs stretching around to the east, beyond the Charybdis Gulf, which was a sea inlet from the south that divided the eastern Lilies from the rest of the city.

She could see the main University building—made of white stone and circular, like a coliseum, stretching up at least seven stories and covered in grand windows to let in the light. It could fit all the buildings of a small town inside itself and probably still have room for an orchard on the roof. The tops of a few towers poked up in the distance, but most of the grounds were obscured by the trees they somehow managed to grow. ‘Maybe they’ve cut out the stone and filled it with dirt,’ she thought, looking at the thick carpet of green grass that started just beyond the edge of the entrance path.

Below her, the city sloped away from this high point, growing less impressive the farther she looked. The normal citizens would always be towered over by the University and the Crowns. Sebastien doubted that was unintentional. ‘Shit runs downhill.

The line crawled along at a steady pace, and Sebastien grew more anxious as the minutes passed. ‘When the clock strikes six, will they turn away those who haven’t managed to sign up in time?’ When she was finally the second-to-next person in her line, a commotion at the gates drew her attention.

A group of wealthily dressed young people ran through, the one in the lead shouting, “Make way!” as they laughed and stumbled past the guards and into the people at the ends of the admission lines. The troublemakers comprised a couple of girls, one wearing trousers, and four young men. “Make way!” the boy in the lead said again, panting slightly, but not enough to have walked up the path for normal people. “We have an emergency admissions applicant here!” He looked to another boy, grinning like a puppy that had just performed a trick and now expected a treat.

The other boy frowned, examining the crowd with his distinctive pale grey, tired eyes. He flicked perfectly coifed hair that Sebastien suspected had been dyed to achieve its shiny chestnut color, and muttered something to his companion, who lost some of his boisterousness.

With only slightly more consideration for those waiting in line, the group moved toward the admissions building, bypassing everyone else.

Sebastien waited for someone to say something, or at least grumble pointedly, but though people frowned, they stepped aside and looked away when any of the group drew near.

The first boy reached Sebastien, and raised one caterpillar-like black eyebrow as she met his gaze defiantly. He didn’t stop for her, stepping forward once more and slapping a hand down on the shoulder of the boy ahead of her in line. “You don’t mind if we cut in, do you? My friend here hasn’t yet submitted his name for the examination, and we only just got back to the city in time.” He gestured to the other boy, who moved to the admissions center window as if the outcome was already a foregone conclusion.

The boy in front of her mumbled something unintelligible, and as Sebastien realized he wasn’t going to refuse, her anxiousness over the last day and astonishment at this entitled group’s actions turned to anger.

“No,” she said. She only realized how loudly she’d spoken when everyone in the courtyard turned to look at her.

“Pardon me,” the boy with the eyebrows said, giving her what he seemed to think was a charming smile. “I am afraid I don’t know your name. I am Alec Gervin and my friend”—he gestured to the boy with strange eyes—“is Damien Westbay.” Gervin’s tone obviously indicated that she should know who they were—and maybe lie down on the ground so they could walk on her to keep their shoes from getting dirty.

Behind them, the girl in the suit and trousers shifted uncomfortably and shot Sebastien what might have been an apologetic look.

It did nothing to ease Sebastien’s ire. She raised an eyebrow. “I don’t think names are the important thing here. Rather, I’m more interested in common decency. Most children are taught how to wait their turn. Are you unfamiliar with the concept?” Silently, she added, ‘Just how closely related were your parents?’ But she still had enough mindfulness to keep herself from saying it aloud. Her sharp tongue always seemed to get her in trouble with those who couldn’t handle having the truth pointed out to them.

What little noise there had been immediately died away. Only then did Sebastien recall that she was supposed to avoid drawing attention to herself.

Damien Westbay pulled his friend back before the other boy could finish sputtering, stepped closer, and looked Sebastien up and down slowly. “As you have come here in ill-fitting, clearly borrowed clothes and seem to be ignorant of even the most commonly understood societal mores, let me explain more clearly. I am a Westbay, of the second Crown Family, and you would do well to graciously accept this chance to do me a favor.”

Sebastien wanted to snort, but that was crude and would make her seem less than him. “Even more reason that you should act with more decorum than this. A Crown Family member neglects to submit their application until the final hour, and is then so desperate to do so that they must push aside and trample on the commoners? A Westbay could simply approach one of the professors or heads of administration and receive a place in the examination roster, could they not? Or, perhaps, they could comport themselves with the level of class supposedly inherent to their birth and wait their turn patiently.”

A flush had crawled up Westbay’s neck and settled high on his cheeks as she spoke. His nose flared in anger and he took another step closer to her.

Just as he opened his mouth, a sharply snapped, “Damien!” cut through the air.

Both of them turned toward the speaker—a tall, severe-looking man with dark hair tied simply at the nape of his neck. He scowled down his high-bridged nose at the boy. “Desist making a fool of yourself and come with me.” He had a lofty-sounding accent and spoke with biting precision.

Damien Westbay deflated immediately, the flush still bright on his cheeks as he looked around at their audience and then hurried away without a second look at Sebastien. “But, Professor Lacer, I was merely defending myself!” he said indignantly.

Sebastien’s eyes met the dark gaze of the professor for a moment, and she felt the breath go out of her.

The man gripped down on Westbay’s shoulder and marched him off, ignoring the boy’s continued attempts to exonerate himself.

Alec Gervin threw her a glare and hurried after them, followed by the rest of the high-class group.

The girl in the trousers, the one who had seemed embarrassed by her companions’ actions, shot Sebastien a crooked smile as she brushed past, her eyes bright with amusement.

Sebastien barely registered it, too caught up in her thoughts. ‘Professor Lacer? Thaddeus Lacer? Youngest Master of free-casting in a century?’ He was one of the biggest reasons she’d so desperately wanted to come to the Thaumaturgic University of Lenore, specifically. He was older than the last likeness she had seen of him in an old newspaper, but his features were still recognizable.

“Step forward, young man. Sir, you are holding up the line!” The woman calling for her at the counter abruptly brought Sebastien out of her thoughts.

As she stepped forward, Sebastien looked again at the spoiled brat being escorted away by Professor Lacer. Knowing someone like him could expect to get past the entrance examinations was just one more reason she couldn’t allow herself to fail.

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