Month 12, Day 17, Thursday 5:30 p.m.
Oliver stalked into his office a couple seconds behind Sebastien. His dark hair was windswept, his cheeks and nose red from the cold, and he was breathing hard. His eyes swept across the room and latched onto her, the question in them obvious.
Once the door was closed behind them and they were assured of privacy, she opened her mouth to speak but choked on the words. While he waited impatiently, she rubbed her tongue on the back of her teeth and formulated a coherent explanation.
“The coppers almost found me today,” she said finally. “They moved to the University to use the divination room in Eagle Tower.”
“I wasn’t expecting it, wasn’t fully prepared,” she admitted. “I—I did a divination spell to find my blood, piggybacking on their own scrying spell, and managed to find them. I wanted to gather some information, so I went to peek a little—as Sebastien.”
Oliver stared at her her, nonplussed. “You went to peek. On the coppers actively scrying for you. You are aware that divination is more powerful at close range?” His tone was flat and incredulous.
“I thought the risk was worth it. The ward Liza made me has worked so well, I didn’t assume they’d be able to break past it easily. And they didn’t. They even had three prognos, and it took them a long while to ramp up to the level where it started getting dangerous for me. Still, I fully understand, it was a bad idea. I miscalculated. You don’t need to say it.”
He let out a puff of hair, rocking back on his heels. “You said almost caught. What happened?”
She straightened her shoulders, forcing stillness to settle in her bones. “My miscalculation brought about unexpected benefits. The female sorcerer who lead the attack on your warehouse is a third-term student at the University.”
His eyes narrowed, but she continued to the really shocking news. “She, or an accomplice of hers, more likely, set off the sirens earlier today while the coppers were in the middle of scrying for me. When everyone evacuated, she blew up the floor above the divination room. I assume to ensure they couldn’t continue their divination spell after the false alarm was revealed.”
“Her name is Tanya Canelo.” The name sparked no recognition, so she continued. “She’s one of my student liaisons. I’m not sure how long it will take them to fix Eagle Tower, but unless they can find or set up another ultra-powerful divination spell array, I’m safe for the near future. Which, somehow, was her goal.”
Oliver stared at Sebastien for a moment, then brushed past to the liquor table at the corner of the room, pouring himself a glass. He offered Sebastien one.
Despite her abhorrence for sedatives in general, and liquor in particular, she accepted. It was disgusting, as she’d anticipated, but she welcomed the burn.
“Do you know what this means?” he asked.
“A University student is working for the Morrows, and has enough of an information network to do what she did today. They have more access than we do,” she replied immediately. “Alternatively, the University itself is working with the Morrows, and the information was easy to get because they’re one of the involved parties. If that’s the case, the Morrows might have much more access than we do. Also, someone doesn’t want the coppers to find me. I suspect that someone may be part of the University itself. Some of the professors seemed reluctant for the coppers to be there. They were on edge and distrustful. However, I don’t understand why they wouldn’t want the coppers to succeed.”
“Because they want to find you themselves,” Oliver said simply. “The University and the Crowns have always struggled with each other. The Crowns don’t want the University to grow so strong that it could be a threat to their rule, and the University wants access to unlimited control and resources. It’s in the nature of powerful thaumaturges to be ever hungry for more, and to chafe at the restrictions of ‘lesser men.’” He gave his drink a bitter grimace. “Both want to find you, and it seems they’re not keen that the other should do so first. The Morrows are aware of this. Even if they’re not working with the University, if the Morrows could apprehend you and the book, they could trade you for money and favors to either of the two most powerful factions in Gilbratha—the two most powerful factions in the whole of Lenore.”
It made sense. Today, it had worked in her favor, because either the Morrows or the University cared more about catching her themselves than that she was caught in general. But one thing didn’t make sense. “What’s so important that they would go to such lengths to catch me? It can’t just be the humiliation they’ve all suffered from my elusion. The book.” She reached up to the amulet hidden under her dress. “What is it? Have you heard any rumors? Someone must have said something that could explain why they’re doing this.”
“I don’t know what’s in the book, other than that convenient little trinket you’re wearing. Maybe there were other amulets, and they know you have one. I suppose they could be worried about spies or assassination, if they know what it can do, but you’re right,” he said, shaking his head. “If it was just that, it shouldn’t so matter so much who found you. There are surely politics at play that the two of us are not privy to. The coppers alone have already put several thousand gold into finding you. I estimate they burned a thousand on today’s attempt alone.”
“Thousands? On what?” Even the exorbitant reward for information leading to her capture was only five hundred gold crowns.
He tilted his head to the side with bemusement. “They have a whole investigation team focused on finding you. They’ve called in specialists. All those people have spent hundreds of hours gathering testimony and picking apart any crime scene they think might be remotely linked to you. They’ve been giving out bribes for information. But mostly, it’s the scrying attempts. Their spell must immediately relay enough information to capture you, after all, not just a simple direction or a vague location. The base energy cost for a robust divination spell with a clear output is higher. The power required increases based on the area covered multiplied by that base power requirement.”
“It’s a multiple?” she asked. It was common knowledge that divination, and all spells that reached outside the core Circle, got harder the farther you were away from your target. But she’d never seen a formula for how it worked with an area-effect spell like scrying for a target that matched your parameters. It wasn’t like shooting a fireball in a straight line. Scrying sent out invisible feelers in all directions gathering information. Her books had been rather vague about the actual mechanics.
Reading the lack of comprehension in her expression, Oliver set down his drink and pushed some clutter to the side of his desk to reveal a large map of Gilbratha with different colored zones, arrows, and notes scribbled all over it. “The power requirement increases exponentially, according to Caidan’s Theorem. The simplest divination spells with the most rudimentary outputs, like pointing a compass needle to a sympathetically-linked object or dousing for water, take about thirty thaums to cast even if you’re standing only three feet away from your target.”
He pointed out Dryden Manor, then used an graphite pencil to draw a one kilometer circle around it. “You can use one hundred meters as the base unit to measure diameter. Assuming you are casting the most simple divination spell at a base cost of thirty thaums, and your target is one kilometer away”—he paused to scribble a simple exponential equation next to the penciled circle—“it will cost you slightly less than sixty thaums for the spell to reach it. That’s per-second capacity, of course. Now, say your base spell costs a moderate one hundred fifty thaums to cast, which is a very conservative estimate for the copper’s attempt to locate and capture the Raven Queen. To search an area one kilometer in diameter they must spend…”
Sebastien understood the concept of exponents, but she didn’t have a lot of practice calculating them, especially ones that weren’t whole numbers. She muttered to herself, scribbling on an invisible paper with her fingers for a while, then whispered the answer. “Forty-seven hundred thaums per second, approximately.”
He gave her a slightly impressed smile and a nod. “This is with an unwarded target. Most wards against divination will multiply the difficulty from one-point-five to two times the overall cost. From what I understood from Liza, yours could, with enough aid from you, make things up to ten times more difficult for them.”
“That much?” Sebastien reached back to touch the skin over the uppermost disk inserted under the skin of her back. “She really could have applied for a Grandmastery in artificery with it.”
“Why did you think Liza was so expensive?”
“…Because people who come to her are desperate, and have no other options?”
He huffed at her in exasperation. “There are plenty of thaumaturges selling illegal services in Gilbratha, Sebastien. Liza is trustworthy, competent, and her skills are well-rounded. That is a difficult combination to find. But back to the point at hand, the coppers don’t know where you are exactly or how strong your wards are, and yet are still pouring resources into finding you. They must at least be prepared for their spell to reach the whole of Gilbratha and its outskirts, as well as overwhelm your wards. Do you see?” He scribbled another exponential equation with the higher base cost increasing the exponent accordingly. “Having the high ground will make things easier”—he crossed out the exponent and replaced it with a slightly smaller one—“but not enough.”
“That’s an area with a diameter of eight to twelve kilometers, if they’re constricting the search to the south rather than directly outward in a true Circle?” she asked. That math was a little too much to do in her head, but she understood the point. “At minimum, they were prepared to power that spell with over a hundred thousand thaums per second. At most, over two hundred thousand. I’m not sure even Archmage Zard could cast that spell alone, and he’s over a hundred years old. In fact, it seems likely that no one alive could do so. They had nine people joint-casting, so all of them must have at least been Masters with decades of experience to grow their capacities. Maybe even Grandmasters.”
She shook her head. “I was in the same building as them. Even with my ward, how could they have failed to find me?”
“They wouldn’t have been searching in a perfect circle, to conserve energy. Likely most of their efforts were directed downward and toward the south. You may have just been catching the edges.”
“So perhaps it was a good thing I went to spy on them, after all.”
“If so, only by coincidence, not intention.”
Sebastien conceded the point. “The cost of the components and beast cores alone…”
“Do not forget the hazard pay for joint-casting. Divination is one of the most dangerous crafts for a reason. And remember, they have attempted this multiple times, if not always with today’s fervor.”
Sebastien stared at the map, then met Oliver’s dark blue eyes. “They should give up. It’s foolish to keep wasting this level of resources, no matter how much they want to find me. They have to realize that divination isn’t effective on such a large scope.”
He shrugged. “Or perhaps this false alarm will instead encourage them, as they believe they forced a response from the Raven Queen who was in fear of being caught. And at such close distance, you likely were in danger of them overwhelming your defenses. Divination has its uses, and they have no way to know what they’re really up against. If today’s attempt had worked, the coppers would have spent one to two thousand gold to capture you, retrieve the book, and at the same time keep the University from doing so. It could be worth it.”
“You’re right. They have resources to burn, and at this point I’ve embarrassed them, too. It could even be a matter of principle to find me, no matter the tangible return on investment.”
“Dryden Manor has wards against divination, right? Just in case there’s a piece of me left behind here…” She was thinking of the bloody thumbprint on her copies of the blood print vow made with Katerin and Liza.
“It does have basic wards, more than enough to shield against whatever small signals that random pieces of hair or whatever else might give to a scrying spell. Not strong enough to shield against them finding you yourself.”
She’d thought as much, but it was good to have reassurance.
Looking at the equation, she realized suddenly that her divination attempt, from the University, might never have worked to find her blood if it were actually at Harrow Hill Penitentiary, because it was too far. She’d read in one of the negligently vague divination books that having the high ground made scrying easier, but according to Oliver’s equation she would have needed to have a capacity of almost a thousand thaums to overcome the distance, even though her divination spell was much less costly than the coppers.’ Really, this only confirmed her earlier estimation that the whole craft was rather useless. If they were smart, perhaps they would try to break past her wards with a much simpler spell, and then immediately afterward cast something more robust to give them all the information they needed to actually catch her. “You’re quite knowledgeable about divination. Is that your area of expertise, then?” she asked.
He stared at her for a long few seconds.
She stared back and raised her eyebrows.
Oliver picked up his whiskey and moved to stand in front of his fireplace, gazing into it as if to avoid her. “No. My father was particularly interested in the craft. Not that it did him, or the rest of the family, any good.”
He sounded bitter, and she decided not to press the issue despite her sudden curiosity about his past. She hated when people tried to pry into her own childhood, after all. There were some things a person just wanted to forget about. “Do you have any idea why someone at the University might be working with the Morrows? Have there been any clues? Could it have anything to do with why they attacked your warehouse?” she asked instead.
“I don’t know, other than that if they’re working together, there must be something illegal involved. Maybe smuggling? The Morrows have contacts in that area, and territory in the docks. It would make sense if the University is feeling suppressed by the Crowns’ recent increase on restrictions for magical imports. Why the Morrows would attack my warehouse seems less to do with the Raven Queen and more likely to be because they don’t appreciate me encroaching on their business or territory. But I don’t know.” He sounded almost as frustrated as her, and with a sudden, violent motion, he dashed his glass of whiskey into the fireplace.
The glass shattered and the flames roared higher for a moment.
Sebastien jumped and tensed, but as Oliver stared darkly into the greedy flames, she felt herself perversely calming at the signs of his anxiety. “I think we’re safe,” she said, sitting down a chair closer to him. “Or at least not in immediate danger,” she amended as he turned to her with an incredulous look. “All we can do now is prepare for the future with the information we’ve been given.” She swallowed the remainder of the amber liquid in her own whisky glass. “Step one? We need more information.”
He nodded. “Knowledge is power.”
“As is magic.”
“Well, we don’t have enough of either at the moment.”
As much as it rankled her, he was right. “Should I start watching Tanya Canelo, then? Secretly, of course.”
“Yes, her and anyone associated with her. Please avoid recklessness. If she finds out you are spying on her, things could go very badly for the both of us. You might need help. Unfortunately, I’m not sure how to provide you with it. I don’t have anyone else within the University. Not anyone we can trust, at least. Have you noticed anything suspicious surrounding your identity as Sebastien? Do you suspect she knows who you are?”
Sebastien admitted to herself that she was barely keeping up with her current tasks. She had no time to add any sort of meaningful surveillance on Tanya. She rubbed the edge of her empty glass, listening to the crystalline ring it gave off as she achieved just the right angle and amount of friction. “I haven’t noticed anything. She did seem abnormally interested in me when we first met, but I thought it was just because of the way I got admitted. Since then she’s acted…normal. And as for help on the inside…”
She grimaced, knowing Oliver wouldn’t react well to what came next. “Damien Westbay was with me when Canelo pulled her trick. We weren’t wearing our student tokens, but we were seen, and we sheltered with everyone else in Eagle Tower’s underground attachment. If they’re investigating, and there are records of everyone who was there, it might seem suspicious that we weren’t logged by the building’s wards. I don’t think that’ll be an issue, and it’s definitely not incriminating by itself, but Westbay… He may have connected some of the dots. About her, I mean, not about me. If he did, I’m not sure what he might do with the information. Might it be possible to use that, somehow? Perhaps we could further pit the coppers—and the Crowns—against the University, keeping them both distracted.”
Oliver sat down opposite her. “One of the Crown Family scions was with you during this reckless stunt? That’s the kind of relevant information I’d like to receive a little earlier in the conversation,” he said, his voice hard with strain.
She straightened her shoulders, tilting her chin up. “There was a lot of relevant information. The other stuff seemed more important. And then you distracted me with the divination equations.”
He gave her an irritated look, but said, “I’m not sure you want to draw the coppers in right away. Not until we have a better understanding of the situation. There could be a better play.”
“What if he wants to talk? To them, I mean?”
“You must find a way to dissuade him. Find out what he knows, and what he wants, not just in the short term but more intrinsically, and then guide his actions.” Oliver leaned back, idly rolling his sleeves up past his forearms while he thought. “Damien Westbay doesn’t have a particularly close relationship with his father, from what I’ve observed, but the opposite is true of his older brother, who is currently running the coppers. Use that to your advantage, if you can. Hint at things that might mislead him. Stall, if that’s all you can do. I’ll be working on gathering information on my end, too. I might be able to find out who set off the false alarm, and I’m going to be digging into any possible connection between the University and the Morrows. If it comes to it, perhaps he could be useful to set the coppers against them and relieve some of the pressure on us.”
Social maneuvering was not Sebastien’s strong suit, but surely she could figure it out if she put her mind to it. She nodded stiffly. “Westbay has seemed rather interested in ingratiating himself to me. Do you think it would be too dangerous to make it known that I prefer this all to be kept a secret for the moment?”
“Oh? Is he only interested in gaining your alliance, or is he trying to engender a friendship?”
She rubbed the back of her teeth with her tongue, running through her memories with Westbay and trying to catalogue his attitude. She hesitated, but decided not to mention that she’d done blood magic in Westbay’s presence, or rather, cast blood magic on him. Westbay hadn’t even realized, and she didn’t feel like admitting to any more stupidity. “He thinks I share his childish interest in detective stories because he likes to talk about the investigation into the Raven Queen, and he saw me do a rather impressive piece of magic. That’s when his attitude really changed. At first I thought he just wanted to use me, but he’s been inviting me to spend time with his friends, acting ingratiatingly, and overall pretending as if we’re best mates. Even when I snap at him, he might snap back but he just keeps trying to burrow closer like a worm. Honestly, this morning I think he thought it was all some sort of adventure from an Aberford Thorndyke story. I couldn’t get him to leave me be—he forced himself along. He doesn’t seem to have a sense of real-world consequences.”
Oliver stood, paced a little, and then stopped with his hands in his pockets, rocking forward and back on his heels while staring at the ground. Finally, he looked up grinned at her, “That’s perfect, actually. If you can play deeper into that part of his personality while also gaining his loyalty, you can make your friendship and all the feelings that come along with it indispensable to him. Over time, with careful handling, he might even become a valuable resource. He’s a high-ranking member of the Crown Families, after all, with both money and influence.”
Sebastien narrowed her eyes at Oliver. “Are you sincerely hoping I can turn him to your cause? Overthrowing the Crowns’ law and rule to create some kind of idealistic utopia for everyone else?”
Oliver’s smile sobered, but didn’t fall away entirely. “Unlikely, perhaps, but not impossible, with enough time and subtlety. He doesn’t need to know what he’s getting into right away. Perhaps by the time he realizes, it will long have been too late.”
“Subtlety is not my strong suit, Oliver. Nor is manipulation. I’m too…sharp and grating. Too impatient. I can control and take responsibility for myself. Tweaking someone’s strings until they dance to my tune like a puppet? I don’t have the dexterity for that.”
“All the better. It won’t be as suspicious coming from you. We’ll keep things simple enough. Mysterious. He can fill in the blanks himself. You don’t have to lie overmuch, just honestly and boldly keep secrets, and with the right original framework for the whole idea, he’ll be drawn in to the mystique, to the emotion, like a moth to flame.” Seeing her skeptical look, he said, “I’ll help you. We’ll walk through the whole thing together. It’s easier than you think, I promise. You’ve already laid most of the groundwork without even realizing it, I’d bet. Sebastien Siverling, a mysterious, aloof prodigy who has been withholding his friendship and confidence, suddenly offering someone desperate for belonging and meaning the inclusion he didn’t even realize he craved? It would work on a lot of people, but him in particular, I think.”
She sighed with reluctant acceptance, feeling that Oliver was much too confident. “I will attempt it, at least. Then, with Tanya Canelo, would it be acceptable to recruit other students to aid in the surveillance? Her counterpart, the other student liaison, he’s expressed a willingness to work with me, and I know he’s in need of gold.”
Oliver paused, but finally said, “I’ll leave that up to your judgment. Please be cautious. If we do this incorrectly, it could lead to unforeseen consequences. Things could suddenly get a lot worse than they already are.”
She nodded, subdued. “I will.” It was a promise to herself as much as him. “I’ll keep you informed. Please do the same for me.” Oliver agreed, but Sebastien still didn’t feel stillness, the internal settling, of a fully realized plan. “We’ve got a way forward, at least, but no matter what we find out, it’s not going to solve the original problem.” She leaned forward, clasping her hands together, but almost immediately found that posture to be too weak. She straightened, pushing back her shoulders and raising her chin, letting her elbows rest over the sides of the chair with a confidence and surety she didn’t feel. “Unless, and this would be wonderful for us, but it seems a little too optimistic to hope for— Unless the blood sample they were using was destroyed in the explosion, they still have my blood. And as soon as Eagle Tower is repaired, maybe sooner if there are any other powerful divination arrays available, they’ll be searching for me again.”
She flexed her shoulders, feeling the five disks under the skin of her back. “What we’ve done to mitigate the danger isn’t enough. Is there really no way for us to get my blood back from them, or destroy it?” She explained the ideas she’d come up with while waiting for him to return.
He rubbed his face. “I understand what you mean, and you make some good points. Develop your ideas on the sympathetic magic. You should do that ‘reverse-scry’ again the next chance you have. I’ll have my people put out feelers for more mundane opportunities. If it wasn’t destroyed, they’ll be taking it back to warded storage. Maybe if the blood was in transit and we knew the route and the time we could lay an ambush. That could be effective even without needing complex, powerful magic. Probably cheaper, too. As it is, I don’t believe destroying the blood impossible, because no defense is impenetrable, but I don’t have the ability to make it happen. Not without sending my people into a suicide mission. And I will not do that. Let us see how the next few weeks develop. However, if you want to take another loan to hire someone like Liza to help you with development or casting a spell to destroy it remotely, I might be able to convince Katerin.” He smiled encouragingly.
Sebastien suppressed the urge to scowl at him. Why should she borrow a huge sum to solve the problem that was as much his fault as hers, and which put him equally in danger? She resisted the urge to point that out, remembering her worries about being considered too steep a liability. Oliver might act like an altruist, but he had led her into an impossible position and was willing to take advantage of her vulnerability just like any other manipulative loan shark. He was a criminal. And sometimes criminals did drastic, immoral things to keep themselves safe. She needed to remember that. Even if he wasn’t planning to betray her as a liability, he could have easily decided to force another debt on her in the name of resolving the problem.
She sighed, considering mentioning her other big problem, that she needed a better Conduit, but the thought of begging for help made her muscles clench and her throat close up. Oliver had given her eleven hundred gold already. Even if he wasn’t exasperated by the way she’d blown through such a large sum—she still couldn’t quite believe or comprehend how easy it had been to spend—he would just offer her an additional loan, binding her with more attached strings the same way he wanted to do to Damien Westbay. And just maybe, it would be the breaking point that made him decide she was too much of a risk to maintain. She kept the distrust from her face. ‘I’ll find a way to handle the Conduit on my own. Once I do that, I’ll eventually find a way to turn their divination attempts against them. There are options. I just need the resources to access those options.’
Sebastien and Oliver talked for a while longer, discussing the details of their plans and the best reactions to possible permutations of events. He came up with ideas that she never would have, the one for Westbay involving a drink coaster, an astronomy potion, and the kind of pageantry that Sebastien found ridiculous, but which Westbay would love.
Sebastien was feeling a little more settled by the time the sun began to set. She stood. “I’d stay to do some brewing—I could certainly use the gold—but I’ve homework and spell practice left undone. Perhaps I could pilfer the kitchen for some bread and cheese to take back with me?”
He waved his hand carelessly. “I’ll have them pack you a proper dinner. But wait a moment. There is one more thing I’d like to discuss with you.”
She raised her chin, staring at him.
“Do you remember I mentioned that the leader of the Nightmare Pack, who the Stags are recently aligned with, wanted to meet you?”
“I remember something about him being a fan of the Raven Queen.”
“Yes, well, your faculties were somewhat impaired at the time I mentioned it. Lord Lynwood asked to meet you quite insistently the last time we spoke. I made it clear to him that I don’t control you, but I would pass along the request. I also made it clear that you expect a sort of…tribute, for doing favors like this. He says he’s prepared something.”
She raised an eyebrow. “A bribe, just to meet me?”
“More like payment, to make it worth your time, and in the hopes that you’ll look favorably on him. Your reputation precedes you. I don’t know what the payment is, or what exactly he wants from you, but if he gives you something of value, I’d be willing to split its worth with you. It could solve some of your gold problem, at least, and if he has a request you can’t fulfill, you could simply turn him down. It only requires that you act powerful and mysterious enough that he feels the meeting was worthwhile.”
She crossed her arms. “Half of any tribute he gives me? Why should I agree to that?”
“I’m brokering the meeting.”
Her chin rose. “Ninety-ten. That’s an actually appropriate number.”
“I also legitimize your claim to power and infamy. Sixty-forty.”
“You had little to do with my supposed power and infamy. Simply refraining from telling him the truth serves you as much as it does me. I’m sure he took into account your powerful contacts when making this deal between your two gangs, and that legitimizes you. Seventy-thirty. And please remember, you’re not the only one who could set up a meeting between the two of us. A meeting which I’m only willing to take because of the chance of payment. This is a risk for me. Things could go wrong. Things we can’t anticipate because we don’t know why he wants to meet in the first place. It could be a trap.”
“Lord Lynwood has honor. I doubt it would be a trap, but your point is taken. Seventy-thirty, agreed.”
They shook hands.
As she was leaving, she stopped and looked back. “Oh. One more thing. Newton Moore is the student liaison I was mentioning. The one that might help with Tanya. His father is sick, and his family is in need of money. I don’t know if they’re within Verdant Stag territory, but…”
Oliver nodded. “It’s good leverage.”
She shrugged. “Well, that too, but he could use the help. He could be useful to you. Maybe even more so than I am,” she admitted reluctantly. “Maybe someone could reach out to the Moores and see if there’s a way to help his father, or if Newton’s the kind of investment you’d like to sponsor through the University.”
Oliver stared at her with consideration for a few moments, but then smiled. “Okay. I’ll talk to Katerin about it.”
Sebastien nodded and turned back to leave with her own small smile. Seeking help for Newton was a little thing, considering, but it had been a shitty day, and she really needed a win right now, even if it wasn’t for herself.
More than one person has mentioned that they have a hard time keeping track of everything that’s happened in the story so far, as well as all the little bits of worldbuilding. (Especially as the pacing is slow, and this story only advances 1 chapter a week.) I also have that problem, and I keep a huge Lore document to help me with that.
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