Month 12, Day 17, Thursday 9:00 a.m.
Sebastien hesitated for a moment, staring up at Eagle Tower. ‘Should I just walk away? Avoid the risk and go to class along with everyone else, hide among the other students and hope no one notices me?’ Perhaps there was some future upside to walking away, but by the very nature of the future’s inscrutability, she couldn’t see what it might be. Besides, she knew she wasn’t about to stop.
Moving ahead was risky, but it was also an opportunity. As long as she held off the scrying attempt—which was becoming increasingly difficult with every passing minute—the downsides seemed minor. At most, she’d be seen as a curious student hanging about where she shouldn’t. Maybe she could learn something important.
So, after a pause to tuck her student token and restricted library pass into the pile of dirt and leaves at the base of the tree beside her, she kept walking. She didn’t want the University to be able to look up the logs of everyone who had entered Eagle Tower and find her name on them. If necessary, she would wait outside for someone to leave and slip in behind them.
Luckily, it turned out the entranceway wasn’t warded to require a student token like the Menagerie. She walked right in with no trouble.
The tower seemed even bigger on the inside, like a slightly smaller version of the Citadel. A hallway circled around between the single central room on each floor and the squat, wedge-shaped rooms on the outside. The walls of the inner room on each level were made of reinforced glass, so the researchers within were visible to those outside. Everything was brightly lit, giving off a feeling of clarity and cleanliness, and the researchers within would always be aware they were visible, which would help to keep their minds sharp and their experiments to the proper procedure.
It also let her see that she was on the wrong floor. As if designed to make navigating the tower more difficult, the entrance to the stairwell was all the way across the building from the main door, at the other end of the curving hallway. And when she got to it, the door was locked. ‘This is where they require the student token,’ she realized. ‘But it probably wouldn’t even matter if I went back and got mine. I’m not authorized to be here in the first place.’
Since the last time she’d been in a similar situation, two stories up on the outside of the crappy little inn her father had rented, she’d taken the time to study a few unlocking spells.
Unfortunately, the lock was visible to the rest of the floor, making it difficult to cast a spell without being seen, and she was a first term student at the University with a Conduit that could channel barely more than two hundred thaums. The mechanism was both physical and magical, and no doubt cast by someone much more experienced than her.
One of her paper utility arrays was an unlocking spell, and she could use the slate lap table she’d taken from the abandoned supply room to support the page and the necessary components at the level of the door handle, which would speed the process of casting. That was if she could manage to split her Will to cast that while still empowering the divination-diverting ward, which seemed both unlikely and foolish. Even if that weren’t a problem, she’d still be doing it right in the middle of everyone, and she couldn’t imagine that Eagle Tower didn’t have protections against such rudimentary magic. There was a high chance she would fail and end up setting off an alarm.
She’d paused for a second too long, staring at the obstacle between her and where she needed to be, when a hand reached out from beside her and opened the door, holding it open for her.
She turned, looking a couple inches down into mercurial grey eyes. “Westbay,” she said.
He waved her through.
She stepped into the stairwell, off-kilter. ‘He followed me.’
He waved a metal token at her. “You need one of these to get through the doors here. Maybe you didn’t know, if you’ve never been in here before.”
“And how do you have one?”
“I swiped it off some random person’s desk.”
On the other side of the doorway, within the silence of the stairwell, she stared at him. She didn’t make fumbled excuses about why she was in Eagle Tower. She didn’t ask him what he was doing—before at the dorms or now—right here with her when they both should have been in class. Instead, she stared silently, as if she could read his micro expressions like letters strung together on a page, as if her eyes could pierce past his skull and see into his soul.
He stared back for a few seconds, but then his eyelids fluttered and he looked away. “I…” He swallowed. “I don’t know what you’re doing,” he said, offering up answers to her unspoken questions under the pressure of her gaze. “I’ve just noticed some things lately. You’ve been…distracted. Or, focused, but just on something different. And I was curious. And…I thought maybe you could use some backup?” He grinned a little, slightly nervous but with a spark of real excitement. “Don’t worry. No one saw me, and I dropped my student token under the same tree you did.”
Sebastien had a sudden realization. ‘He thinks we’re in an Aberford Thorndyke story. This is just… He thinks we’re about to have an adventure.’ She was simultaneously relieved that he wasn’t a threat and irritated, almost offended, by his eager insouciance. ‘Nothing matters to him, because there have never been any real stakes for him—nothing he stands to lose. Maybe he cannot even comprehend that it’s not the same for everyone else.’
“That’s an interesting stealth spell you’re casting,” he said, squinting at her. “An artifact, or is it something esoteric? I can feel that you’re here, but my eyes keep wanting to slip away, and I’m having trouble focusing mentally on you, like my thoughts want to slip around to the idea of you rather than the reality of you.”
‘If only that had kept you from following me, you thickheaded peacock.’ She barely kept herself from snapping the words at him aloud. ‘Or maybe he’s more cunning than that, only trying to seem harmless so I will not realize the danger he poses to me.’
“The spell is privileged information,” she replied. “Family secret.”
He seemed to recognize the hostility she couldn’t keep from her voice. He raised his hands. “I won’t pry. I was just curious. Everyone has their family secrets. But you are doing something?”
She was about to tell him to walk away and go read his detective magazines if he wanted a sense of excitement in his life when an upper-term student, a research assistant probably studying for Grandmastery, walked down the stairs.
He stopped and looked at the two of them. “Firsties? What are you doing here?”
Westbay stepped forward. “Bruner. I can’t believe you’re still here. What is it, your thirteenth term?”
Bruner narrowed his eyes. “Westbay? Oh. I—I didn’t recognize you at first. Should have known by the eyes.”
“No matter,” Westbay said, waving his hand with regal nonchalance. “We’re on an errand for one of our professors. No time to chat at the moment, but maybe I’ll see you at a Family gathering sometime.”
Bruner’s eyes widened, and then he bowed.
Westbay grabbed Sebastien by the arm and began to drag her up the stairs.
Bruner turned and bowed again as they climbed past him, stammering. “Oh, yes, definitely. I would be honored to attend a Westbay gathering. At your convenience. Thank you, Westbay, good to see you.”
They left Bruner behind, and Sebastien swallowed the scathing words she had been about to say. “Useful,” she admitted instead, grudgingly.
Westbay grinned. “Thank you. The Family name does come in handy from time to time. Now why are we here?”
Sebastien eyed him with consideration. ‘He’s irritating and spoiled, at best, but he hasn’t told anyone about the accident in the defense building or my subsequent Will-strain. I still owe him a favor. Perhaps he doesn’t want to get rid of an asset before it can bear fruit. And as he’s just shown, he can be useful, through no merit of his own.’
Aloud, she said, “No questions. In fact, don’t talk at all.” She looked around before motioning impatiently for Westbay to open the door for her.
“Where are we g—” He snapped his mouth shut halfway through the question, then lifted his hand to cover a smile that made him look like a child who’d just stolen a cookie from the jar and was reveling in the thrill of it. He tried to put on a serious face, but the excitement kept peeking through.
“You’re an idiot,” she muttered.
A spark of ire flared in his eyes, but slipped away just as quickly as it had come in favor of a rueful smirk. “And you’re a porcupine,” he muttered when her back was turned.
With saintlike self-control, Sebastien ignored him. She might even have found him harmlessly amusing if the situation wasn’t so critical. She wasn’t sure if it was her imagination, but as she climbed the stairs the pressure on her divination-diverting ward seemed to grow, until it felt like she was pressing up against some barrier to heaven with every step.
She discovered what she was looking for on the fourth floor of the tower.
It was busier than the floors below, filled with both coppers and a good handful of the faculty. The chair of the History department was there, along with some professors she was pretty sure were from the Divination department. Within the central, glass-walled room, a handful of coppers with sorcery experience were aiding a trio of prognos with the scrying spell. They stood around a huge Circle engraved into the marble tiles of the floor in precious metals and gems, with the type of components Sebastien had only ever read about in books powering the spell.
Her eyes flicked around, taking in the University staff and group of coppers watching this from the hallway. Both groups stood separately. Those from the University were tense, though some did a better job of hiding it than others, and although the coppers beside them weren’t hostile, they were far from relaxed.
The University staff didn’t want the coppers there.
‘But why not? That doesn’t make sense. One would think they’d be happy that the coppers have a better chance of finding me with the more powerful scrying array. Except there’s some sort of conflict of interest here, but I have no idea what it could be about. What exactly is written in that book?’
Her observation and contemplation were finished in the mere two seconds that had passed since she’d opened the stairwell door.
She moved toward the closed door of a room on the outside of the hallway. Someone’s office, currently empty, which she knew because no light came through under the door. She closed the door behind herself and Westbay and turned to the window that showed a view of the hallway and central room. Moving slowly, she peeked around the edge of the drawn curtain.
The pressure on her ward actually seemed to have ebbed slightly, but it hadn’t gone away.
‘I made a mistake,’ she admitted to herself. ‘There’s nothing I can do here. But I’ll watch and wait. Maybe…there will be an opportunity if I’m clever enough to notice it. If I can wait them out, maybe I could see where they keep the blood, if they take it back with them or perhaps even leave it here. Though it would be considerably easier if Westbay weren’t looking over my shoulder.’
“That’s a divination spell,” Westbay murmured. “Who are they looking for?”
She didn’t respond.
He smoothed a nonexistent hair back from his face. “I have a spell that can enhance hearing. Maybe we could…listen in?”
That was enough to gain her attention, despite the increasing strain of empowering her ward against scrying.
His eyes slid off her. Without waiting for further response, he dug into the couple dozen pockets built into his suit vest and jacket for his Conduit and a writing implement.
Two minutes later, he’d used a thin black stick to draw a spell array on both palms. He didn’t use any components, shaking his head at her offer of the small lantern she carried in her bag. “It barely uses any power. The warmth of my hand will be more than enough. This spell is all about…control.” Somewhat comically, he placed his hands behind his ears, cupping and swiveling them like he was pretending to be a dog.
She caught the faint smell of honey. ‘Are the components part of the array itself? Maybe honey for capturing sound and charcoal for filtering?’ She was curious, but it would be rude to inquire or study the spell array too closely. Some magic was a closely guarded secret passed down within families or from master to apprentice, and Westbay had just refrained from questioning her about the spell he thought she was casting to avoid notice.
“It enlarges the surface area that can capture incoming sounds, filters them, and lets me artificially focus my hearing,” he murmured, wincing when he turned back to the hallway. “Loud.” After a few seconds, his expression settled into fascination. “They’re chanting. For the spellcasting. It’s advanced. I haven’t heard anything like it.”
Sebastien straightened her shoulders and settled her mind. The Conduit in her off hand was flush with energy, the five Circles in the flesh of her back were cold and filled with the sensation of needles, and she imagined that within half an hour she would start feeling faint from blood loss. ‘How long can this go on?’ It was becoming increasingly obvious that she was the metaphorical frog being slowly boiled alive, too stupid to realize the water was heating.
“Someone in the hallway just said something about the Raven Queen,” Westbay said. He stared blankly for a moment, and then his head turned slowly toward Sebastien. “They’re scrying for her…right now?”
She had a sudden vision of herself in jail, trying to convince the coppers as Sebastien Siverling that she had no idea why Siobhan Naught’s blood kept leading back to her. ‘Would they believe me, if I pretended to have met the Raven Queen and had my blood stolen by the “evil sorceress” to use as a red herring and lead the investigation in the wrong direction?’
She shook her head. ‘No, I’m sure they have wards against untruth, and obviously they have access to more than one prognos. They’d know right away if I tried to lie. And with enough reason to look into me, they’d tear my entire backstory apart.’
She tried to estimate how many thaums of heat and blood she was channeling. ‘Close to two hundred already. According to what Liza told me, they must be channeling many times that. There are so many of them, they can probably keep going well beyond what I can handle. Sticking around is no longer feasible, leaving me two viable options. I can ask Westbay to borrow his Conduit, which is surely rated much higher than mine, or I can run now and hope that I’m far enough away by the time their scrying spell breaks through my ward that they cannot catch me.’
She felt flushed beneath her jacket and scarf, but resisted the urge to pace back and forth between walls that felt like they were closing in. ‘If I borrow Westbay’s Conduit, he’ll wonder why I need it. He might connect the dots. If I run, at least I have the gold I sewed into the lining of my clothing and boots.’ There might still be time to get her things from the dorms. If she hired a carriage, she could be halfway out of Gilbratha before they found her. If it turned out she could, somehow, hold out longer than they could, she could simply return as if all was well. ‘Or…should I attack Westbay and take his Conduit? If I could keep him from sounding the alarm until I’d escaped, I’d at least have a Conduit powerful enough to handle my Will. It would buy me a few more minutes, maybe half an hour.’ The thought made her feel a small prick of guilt. He was often irritating, but he hadn’t done anything to truly deserve that. ‘His family could afford to buy him twenty more Conduits without even cutting into the budget for their next high society ball. It wouldn’t hurt him at all for me to take it, except for a blow to his pride,’ she reasoned.
She was considering it, thinking about how she might have him follow her back to the dorms, steal his Conduit, and then tie him up in one of the bathroom stalls before escaping, when someone she hadn’t expected to see opened the door to the fourth floor.
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