Month 12, Day 17, Thursday 9:00 a.m.
Damien had noticed Sebastien growing more distant over the last week or so, refusing to join him and his friends in their morning study group even when Damien invited him personally. Sebastien was even missing from the dorms and his regular spot in a corner of the library at the times he would normally be studying or practicing Professor Lacer’s exercises.
In fact, Damien hardly saw Sebastien all week outside of class. It was like Sebastien was trying to distance himself from Damien, which left a pang of admittedly ridiculous hurt in Damien’s chest. He knew Sebastien didn’t particularly like him, which was understandable considering how they had met and their less-than-pleasant interactions since then, but he couldn’t help but be frustrated by how easily the other young man dismissed him. It reminded him a little of his father. Perhaps that was why Damien took notice when he saw Sebastien hurrying down the Citadel’s stairs before their first class period on Thursday morning.
None of the first term classes were held on the second floor. So why would Sebastien be up there? Was that where Sebastien had been hiding away?
Sebastien was walking quickly, heading back toward the dorms, seeming focused more on his own thoughts than the world around him, as he often was.
Damien looked to the door of his History of Magic class, then to Sebastien’s quickly retreating back. He checked the time on his pocket watch. There were only a few minutes left before the first class of the day. He knew Sebastien had a different teacher for this period, specifically requested by Professor Lacer instead of the rest of their student group’s rather lackluster professor…but Sebastien wasn’t heading toward a classroom.
Which meant he was doing something interesting enough to make him late for class.
Damien only hesitated for a few seconds. He settled his leather satchel on his shoulder and, without taking his eyes off Sebastien, told his friends, “I’ve got something to do. I’ll see you later.”
They questioned him, but he was already walking away, a rude maneuver that he’d seen Sebastien do more than once to anyone that didn’t meet his standards for intelligent conversation. In his own way, Sebastien was just as arrogant as any member of the Crowns, despite the way he seemed to look down on all of them.
Sebastien was in such a hurry that he knocked into Canelo, their female student liaison, but luckily she was too busy reading a spelled letter from someone else to punish him.
As she passed Damien a few seconds later, he heard her whisper viciously, “By all the greater hells! How am I supposed—” She clenched her teeth, glaring at the paper as she continued to read.
Damien continued on without stopping. Her problems were none of his business. Which wouldn’t normally have stopped him from being nosy in the name of chivalry, but he had something more interesting to focus on at the moment.
He walked lightly into the dorms, stopping in front of Sebastien’s cubicle. He watched as Sebastien stuffed what Damien recognized as components that could be used in divination into his wooden chest. But Sebastien wasn’t taking a divination class. Damien knew he was taking one, and he’d never seen Sebastien there.
Sebastien’s head suddenly whipped around to him.
Damien catalogued the micro-expressions on Sebastien’s face. Shock, fear, dismay, and anger.
Sebastien controlled his response with impressive speed, but Damien had been trained for social warfare his whole life, and had been honing his detective skills, on top of that. Being able to read what a suspect or witness wasn’t saying aloud was critical to solving a case.
Sebastien slammed his wooden chest closed. “What do you want, Westbay? Shouldn’t you be getting to class?” he asked irritably.
Damien considered admitting that he’d followed Sebastien out of curiosity, but that would make Sebastien even more wary of scrutiny. Damien’s eyes caught on the stack of magazine periodicals he’d lent Sebastien sitting atop his bedside table, so he made up some nonsense about skipping class out of laziness to chat about the latest installment featuring Aberford Thorndyke, consulting detective.
He was almost disappointed when Sebastien didn’t find that suspicious. Did he really believe Damien to be so vapid? Sure, he wasn’t a genius powerhouse who could cast healing spells without any components, or impress the notorious Thaddeus Lacer enough to become the man’s apprentice, but he was one of the best students in their class—and powerful and rich, moreover!
Sebastien was halfway through an equally inane response when something caught his attention. His words cut off and he stared into the air with what might have been surprise, or alarm. It was as if he’d suddenly remembered something of critical importance. Coming back to reality, he rushed to get rid of Damien, literally pulling his curtain closed in Damien’s face.
Rude. Damien glared at the curtain for a couple seconds, then walked toward the dormitory doors, making sure to stride a little louder with anger. He heard the tell-tale sounds of Sebastien removing something from his chest and smirked to himself.
Damien would bet his entire monthly allowance that Sebastien was about to cast a divination spell. Likely the same spell he’d been casting in secret on one of the upper floors of the University’s Citadel.
Damien stopped just around the corner toward the bathrooms and waited as class started without him. His patience and foresight were rewarded only a couple minutes later as Sebastien hurried out of their dorm room and then out of the building. He didn’t notice Damien, and Damien almost didn’t notice him.
Sebastien was casting some kind of stealth spell. It didn’t make him invisible, simply unremarkable. Enough so that if Damien hadn’t been on full alert, filled with excitement, he might have disregarded Sebastien’s exit and kept waiting for him indefinitely.
Damien couldn’t hold back a giddy grin. “This is just like the Case of the Unwatched Watchman!” he muttered. Leaving almost a hundred meters between them so Sebastien wouldn’t notice the tail, he followed the other young man all the way to Eagle Tower, where Sebastien hesitated at the edge of the tree line for a few seconds before hiding his student token and striding through the front doors.
Damien dropped off his own token with rising excitement, then tried to seem as assured and confident in his right to be inside Eagle Tower as Sebastien had.
Sebastien had obviously never been in Eagle Tower before, because Damien found him stymied before the locked door of the stairwell. Damien hesitated, but decided it would be more entertaining—and less likely to make Sebastien angry—if he stopped sneaking around and honestly inserted himself into whatever Sebastien was doing.
Damien had taken a tour of the place with Professor Lacer when he was younger, so he knew that they had special tokens to access the stairwell and central tower rooms.
Serendipitously, he saw one such metal token lying abandoned on a desk in an empty side office. Security measures were often made useless due to human carelessness. He looked back and forth to make sure he wasn’t being watched, then slipped it into his pocket. Even if it was technically mischief, a Westbay was unlikely to get in serious trouble. His Family donated thousands of crowns to the University every year, after all.
Damien walked up behind Sebastien, who was still staring at the door, then reached past and opened it for him.
Sebastien stared down at him, nonplussed. “Westbay.”
A little awkwardly, Damien explained the door-pass. He wasn’t used to fumbling like this, not even with his father. Not anymore at least.
Sebastien stared at him until Damien felt like his skin was being metaphorically peeled away so the other boy could see his insides.
With continuing uncharacteristic gracelessness, Damien confessed to his curious snooping. “I thought maybe you could use some backup?” he finished hopefully, trying not to make it obvious how tight the obvious rejection in Sebastien’s gaze made his chest. Sebastien had kept whatever this was a secret so far, probably because he didn’t really trust Damien, and didn’t consider him a real friend. “Don’t worry. No one saw me, and I dropped my student token under the same tree you did,” Damien added.
If Damien had a chance, he was sure he could prove that he could be useful when he was included. He could be a good ally to Sebastien. He knew how to keep his mouth shut and keep them both out of trouble. He could be fun.
Sebastien just kept staring at him, and even though Damien knew this tactic, making the other person uncomfortable with silence until they started talking to fill it and gave up their conversational leverage while doing so…he still couldn’t help speaking, as if he felt it would create a barrier between him and that black-eyed gaze.
But he only ended up making Sebastien more upset by prying into proprietary family magic knowledge.
Damien was worried Sebastien was about to either send him away or call the whole thing—whatever it was—off entirely, when an upper term student walked down the stairwell, and suddenly Damien had the chance to save the day by diffusing any suspicion and sending the man on his way grateful to have bumped into them.
Sebastien eyed him with reluctant appreciation. “Useful,” he admitted.
Damien grinned, bursting with satisfaction, but tried to be humble about it. “Thank you. The name does come in handy sometimes. Now why are we here?”
“No questions. In fact, don’t talk at all,” Sebastien replied.
That only made Damien more curious, but at the same time felt somehow more satisfying. He was intelligent and observant enough to figure it out on his own.
Sebastien waved imperiously for Damien to open the door for him.
Without thinking, Damien started to ask where they were going, but cut himself off with a smile.
“You’re an idiot,” Sebastien said.
Damien’s first reaction was immediate anger at the insult, but he quickly reminded himself who he was dealing with. Sebastien Siverling’s tongue was almost as caustic as Professor Lacer’s, and insults tripped from it seemingly without conscious thought or even intent to offend. Yet, Sebastien had accepted him as a partner on this little adventure, and Damien could see a spark of amusement in his eyes. Sebastien’s real friends would have to understand not to take his words to heart and instead recognize the intention beneath them. Still, Damien didn’t want to seem like a pandering pushover. “And you’re a porcupine,” he muttered.
Sebastien didn’t respond, and Damien had a small epiphany. Were the minor insults, perhaps, not meant to be offensive? Was bickering Sebastien’s version of friendly banter?
Damien nodded to himself when Sebastien wasn’t looking. Yes, Sebastien may have been a genius with somewhat poor social skills, but the young man also had an interest in detective stories, a grueling work ethic, and a hidden kind interior that led him to heal Damien at risk to himself, offer advice to Alec—who he hated—and let students whose names Damien was sure Sebastien couldn’t even remember listen in when Sebastien tutored him and Ana.
In fact, Sebastien was probably pretty lonely. Except for Ana and Damien, he ate alone, studied alone, and snuck around doing exciting things…alone. The only other person he’d seen Sebastien talking to of his own free will for longer than sixty seconds was their student liaison Newton Moore. It was sad, really.
Damien couldn’t get angry at Sebastien for not being properly socialized. It must be hard to get along with other people as the only genius growing up in a small rural city like Vale. It must have been stifling, and probably part of what had caused Sebastien to grow such a prickly exterior. If he was poor, jealousy at the good fortunes of everyone around him might have played a part too, petty as that would be. Even geniuses could be petty.
Damien’s contemplation ended when they finally stopped on the fourth floor of the tower. A team of coppers with three prognos were casting a divination spell on the University’s spell array. That only happened when their own array wasn’t powerful enough.
Sebastien was sneaking in to watch the coppers in an active investigation! It couldn’t have been more perfect if Damien had come up with the idea himself.
Sebastien quickly led him into an empty side office, completely unnoticed.
Damien was jealous of that stealth spell, his heart pounding as he scurried to follow, hoping none of the coppers or professors would see him and give them both away. Inside, they peeked out the window onto the spellcasters. Who, or what, was their target? Damien realized he’d murmured his thoughts aloud, but Sebastien remained silent. Damien smoothed his hair back, trying to regain his cool composure. “I have a spell that can enhance hearing. Maybe we could…listen in?”
Sebastien’s interest in the question was enough answer for Damien, and he quickly set up the spell his brother had taught him as a reward for scoring so high on the University entrance exams. “They’re chanting. For the spellcasting. It’s advanced. I haven’t heard anything like it.”
When he heard the words, “Raven Queen,” he understood why the normally rule-abiding boy would sneak out for this. “They’re scrying for her…right now?” It was the case of the decade, if not the century, and they had a chance to watch her be found in person! If only they could be there for the arrest as well…
Sebastien was looking at him speculatively, and just as his lips twitched as if he were about to tell Damien something, movement at the door to the room drew his attention away.
With disappointment, Damien followed his gaze to their student liaison, Canelo. Her short, dirty blonde hair was windswept and her cheeks flushed.
She’d obviously arrived in a hurry, but after checking the time, she returned to the stairs and kept going up.
Damien pitied her. She didn’t know what she was missing out on.
He focused on Sebastien, hoping he would continue with whatever he’d been about to say before her arrival, but instead sirens went off, so loud to Damien’s enhanced hearing that it felt like a blow. It was the alarm for danger of a magical nature, and a warning for everyone to take shelter.
It was the worst possible timing. The divination spell would have to be stopped and started again from scratch when it was safe again, and they might not have a chance to watch at that time. “Again? It hasn’t even been two weeks since the last one. This is terrible timing. They can’t keep casting during a citywide emergency. I’m sure they would have caught her otherwise. There’s a shelter in the first basement level. We’ll have to join them.” It could have been worse, though. “Hey, maybe they’ll talk about the investigation. We might learn something interesting.”
When he moved to join the evacuation, Sebastien stopped him, but after a moment of hesitation, stepped back. “Nevermind. Go ahead, then,” Sebastien said.
Damien’s eyes narrowed. “Are you not coming?”
“I have something to do, first.”
“I’m staying too, then.”
“Whatever set those sirens off could be anywhere. It might not be safe. I would wager the University has a higher incidence of Aberrants than the rest of the city. So many thaumaturges in a relatively small area. You should know the numbers. Your Family runs the coppers, right?”
Sebastien was right, but the University buildings were all quite sturdy, and the professors were the best in their fields, skilled enough to quickly deal with the things that could have caused the alarm. “I’m not going to miss out on this. The curiosity would kill me. Unless you promise to tell me what you find?”
Damien wanted to hit him. “You’re lying. You’ll just pretend you didn’t find anything interesting if I don’t come along and see it with my own two eyes. Otherwise you would have brought me in on whatever this is from the beginning.” He sniffed, looking away.
Sebastien was too oblivious to apologize, and worse than that, acted like Damien was the one in the wrong. We’re not friends, Westbay, and I’ve yet to see you do anything useful except throw your Family’s name around. I had no reason to bring you in on this.”
The sudden pang of hurt caused by those words quickly morphed into anger. “Oh, so you knew about the door-pass tokens? You had a handy spell to eavesdrop on what they were saying? I may not be a once-in-a generation prodigy, but you shouldn’t underestimate me. I’m staying.” Damien crossed his arms over his chest, glaring at the other boy.
They snuck out into the empty hallway, peeking in the windows of the divination room. Damien wondered how long it would take him to be proficient enough to cast such a powerful spell, if he ever could. As a human, he had no natural talent in divination, and his father didn’t even approve of him taking the class, but he had the passion, at least. He hoped the University didn’t crush him to the point he had to drop electives in upcoming terms.
He was so focused on the tantalizing room within that when the door to the stairwell slammed open, he jumped. He might have let out a small squeak, too.
“What are you two doing here?” Canelo demanded.
“Didn’t you hear the sirens? Why haven’t you evacuated?” she asked.
Sebastien was not the person for this job, Damien knew. Damien was the smooth-talker, the one with influence. He had to take the lead here. He stepped forward, trying to emulate his brother’s easy authority. “We heard the sirens. We were in the Menagerie when they went off, and we ran, but it still took us a while to get back. Eagle Tower is the first building we came to, but everyone was already gone when we got here. We’re trying to find the shelter.”
Canelo walked toward them, moving slowly and silently, like a large cat. “It’s underground. Like all the shelters.” Her tone indicated that they were idiots.
Damien knew she wasn’t stupid. The reason they were up here was obvious, and probably the same reason she was there. He gave her a deadpan look, letting the side of his mouth twitch up in a tiny, tiny smirk, just enough to show that he knew she was in on the joke. “Really? I thought it would be on the top floor. That’s where they keep the weapons, right?”
She either didn’t notice his subtlety, or decided to shove right through it, rolling her eyes. “Are you qualified to fight against something powerful enough to warrant the sirens? If not, you should be sheltering underground with everyone else. You may be a Westbay, but you’re only a firstie. Getting greedy for glory will only get you killed.” She looked up at the ceiling. “Come on, we need to go.”
“I’m not greedy for glory,” Damien muttered. He didn’t know why people liked to accuse him of that, as if he were some sort of attention-hound. Compared to Alec and Rhett, he was positively unassuming. He enjoyed being liked, being noticed, but he didn’t need it.
Canelo grabbed Sebastien’s arm and tugged. “Come on. If you’re not both in the shelters within the next sixty seconds, I’m giving you both a demerit,” she said waspishly.
Then it started.
At first, Damien thought Sebastien was casting a spell.
He turned to the platinum-haired boy like a fish swimming through honey, the world slowed around him. Sebastien wasn’t casting anything, not even his stealth spell, but there was a blade-like intent in his expression that Damien had never seen before.
Sebastien slammed into him, forcing him to stumble forward into a doorway.
Canelo tried to get through, too, and ended up blocking the way.
That’s when something slammed them off their feet, and then the ceiling exploded.
Damien fell under Sebastien and didn’t even try to move. Sebastien was still alive—Damien could feel his heartbeat and his breath over Damien’s head.
He tried to listen for other movement, in case whatever had just destroyed the floor above them was creeping around looking for survivors.
Sebastien climbed off of him, a knee pressing painfully into Damien’s kidney.
Beside him, Canelo climbed to her hands and knees, coughing and retching. She had a distinctive scar on her forearm, but covered it self-consciously when Sebastien looked at it
Damien looked to Sebastien curiously.
The other boy seemed more interested in the scar than the explosion and possible danger, and suddenly, Damien realized how strange it was that Canelo had been on the floor above right before the explosion. In fact, it seemed like she’d gone there purposefully, just before the sirens went off. Almost as if she knew when they were going to sound, forcing an evacuation and leaving her alone.
“Are you both alright?” Canelo asked.
Damien lifted a thumb, his mind too occupied trying to digest the huge boulder of suspicion to talk.
“No serious injuries. We need to move. Whatever caused that could still be around,” Sebastien said.
Damien accepted Sebastien’s hand and climbed to his feet. He covered his face with his scarf, suddenly less worried about the whatever had caused the explosion and more worried about Canelo. He moved to stand beside Sebastien, keeping his eyes on the woman.
Canelo shook her head, shouting past her sleeve, “The floor above was being used for some alchemy experiments. They must not have properly settled and stored whatever they were working on, and it exploded. But the fumes could be hazardous, and the ceiling might not be sound any more. It could still fall on us.”
“No breathing, no getting crushed by falling stones,” Damien muttered sardonically, choking on dust. Canelo seemed a little too sure about the cause of the explosion, in his opinion, which only enforced his growing suspicion. “Got it.” He waved for Canelo to lead the way down to the shelter. When her back was turned, he looked questioningly to Sebastien, but was ignored.
Down in the shelter below, Canelo deflection the suspicions of the others off of their heads and onto the people who’d been working on the fifth floor before the sirens.
Sebastien moved to the wall and sat against it, something dark and cold swimming behind those eyes, like a kraken in deep waters.
Damien slid down beside him, his own thoughts more than enough to occupy him. He ran through his memories, trying to piece together the clues that he must have missed at the time.
Tanya Canelo wasn’t, in general, suspicious. She was capable, trusted enough by the faculty to be a student aid, and the kind of person whose competence was assuring, rather than intimidating like it could be in someone like Sebastien. She was rather handsome for a woman, but not attractive enough to gain favors. She was from a better family than some who managed to get in, enough so that her University contribution points didn’t go into tuition or items that could be sold right back for gold crowns to keep their family from starving. Not a good enough family that she could be assured of a nice position after leaving the University, though. No, she still had to work for everything she got.
But Sebastien had known better.
Damien had thought Sebastien was sneaking into Eagle Tower for a bit of fun, but that hadn’t been it at all. No, Sebastien was doing something much more serious, more dangerous, and more ridiculously…wonderful. And it made sense why he’d been so frustrated and adamant about getting Damien to leave. Not because he didn’t trust Damien, or disliked him so much he couldn’t stand to spend a few minutes sneaking around with him, but because Damien had no idea what was going on and might have caused real problems. The kind that just the word of a Westbay couldn’t get them out of.
Damien knew this must be the kind of serious thing that he really shouldn’t be excited about—and people might think something was dangerously wrong with him if he started grinning like a loon while sheltering from rogue magic—so he suppressed the urge to display his suddenly roiling emotions. He returned to his deductions with a serious face.
Sebastien had been doing some kind of advanced divination, and that had led him to the Eagle Tower at the exact time the coppers were searching for the Raven Queen—when Canelo came in to sabotage the attempt.
The spelled letter Canelo had gotten? That had been a clue. One that Sebastien had noticed, even if Damien didn’t. That was what Sebastien’s sudden moment of realization in the dorms had been, when he rushed Damien to leave and went after Canelo.
Who had it been from? Someone who knew what the coppers were doing at the University? Someone who could set off false rogue magic alarms?
Damien pulled his knees up to his chest, suppressing a gasp of realization. Canelo had looked at the clock, just before going upstairs, and then she hid until the tower was clear. She’d known.
His heart was pounding in his chest, and he controlled his breathing, patting back his filthy, dust-coated hair with a slightly shaky hand .
Sebastien had noticed Canelo’s scar. Why was that important? In the detective stories, a distinctive scar like that was often the clue to finding an otherwise unidentifiable suspect or lead. Sebastien had recognized the scar…but he had been surprised to see it on Canelo. So either Sebastien had previously come across her when she was disguised and remembered the distinctive mark, or he recognized the weapon that had implemented the injury. Damien withheld from guessing the details without a better foundation.
Except, he did know that Sebastien had been missing from the dorms the same weekend the Raven Queen had made her latest appearance. Where had Canelo been that night? Had Sebastien been following her?
There were likely other clues that Damien had no way of knowing. Without Sebastien being forthright with him, he couldn’t know the details, but some things were clear enough through the fog.
Canelo was either the Raven Queen, which seemed unlikely for multiple reasons, unless her entire identity was some sort of deep cover, a foreign agent infiltrating the University…or she was working with the Raven Queen in some capacity. She’d protected the Raven Queen from being caught. It could have been as innocuous as Canelo being blackmailed or threatened into it.
And Sebastien? He was investigating the Raven Queen, searching for her on his own. That was why he’d been so interested in the case. Damien supposed Sebastien could be interested in catching her simply for his interest in detective work, and in some ways that fit Sebastien’s personality—curiosity like a raging fire, never satisfied—but somehow it didn’t feel right.
Damien remembered Sebastien’s shitty Conduit. There was no way that thing could channel all of Sebastien’s Will. Sebastien may be from a rural city like Vale, but he was far from a commoner. Except, when Damien had first met him, hadn’t Damien insulted Sebastien for wearing a suit that was too big for him and in an outdated style, besides? He’d wondered about the Siverlings’ monetary situation before, but unlike Sebastien, Damien knew enough about tact not to pry. Damien smoothed down his collar, barely even bothered by the dirt crusting itself into his skin, settling under his nails and turning to tiny balls of mud in the corners of his eyes.
Either Sebastien’s family was punishing him, someone was purposely suppressing him and his growth opportunities, or they simply didn’t have the resources to provide better. Could it be, somehow, that Sebastien’s family had fallen on hard times? Perhaps they’d put all of their wealth into their genius scion, cultivating him with the last of their resources in the hopes that he could restore them to their former glory? Or perhaps an uncle or a step-parent was afraid that Sebastien would grow up and usurp them. He would need to look up the Siverlings.
If it were true—and there wasn’t some even more outrageous reason behind all this that Damien had missed, like Sebastien being an undercover agent for the Red Guard—then Sebastien was looking for the Raven Queen to get the reward. It was up to five hundred gold crowns by now. More than enough for a better Conduit.
The third option was that Sebastien was doing it for the glory, the recognition. To prove something, or get some sort of revenge. That, too, was something that fit Sebastien’s character.
Damien looked at his classmate, who was still obliviously consumed by his own dark thoughts. Normally, he would have taken information like this directly to his older brother Titus. But if Sebastien found out he’d done that, it might destroy any chance of them ever becoming real allies. Sebastien was either going to die young or make something of himself, something great, like Titus or Professor Lacer.
Like Damien wished he had the talent for. He might not be like them, but he didn’t need to be, exactly, if he could stand beside them and hold their respect. Power came in many forms.
The whole thing being terribly fascinating was merely an additional benefit.
Would Sebastien be terribly offended if Damien offered him a better Conduit? He could probably get one of the Family ones that Titus had outgrown. Of course, anyone who noticed the Westbay seal would think Sebastien was a vassal to the Westbays, which seemed like just the kind of thing Sebastien would hate, so perhaps that idea wouldn’t work.
Damien wasn’t sure whether concern or excitement were forefront in his pounding chest, but he knew one thing for certain. Sebastien would need help, and Damien was the perfect person to give it. He’d just have to convince Sebastien of that.
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