Chapter 55 – A Pact of Stars


Month 12, Day 17, Thursday 8:30 p.m.

On Oliver’s instruction, Sebastien stopped by a small apothecary in the good part of town just before they closed and bought a single potion. He’d given her a purse of twenty gold for the new mission’s expenses, but she still found the price of nineteen silver exorbitant and painful. In a small town, the same amount could have fed her for two to three weeks. ‘Everything in Gilbratha is overpriced,’ she grumbled mentally.

Back at the University, a couple of hours after sundown, she stopped by Tanya’s dorm door. Light shone through the crack at the bottom, and the movement of shadows showed someone was awake within. Sebastien listened for a while, but heard nothing.

Satisfied that she wouldn’t gain anything from more snooping at the moment, she strode into the dorms and retrieved a few small items from the chest at the base of her bed.

Westbay’s cubicle was only a couple away from her own. His curtains were still open, and he sat in bed scribbling on a piece of paper—likely working on one of the essays they’d been assigned. He looked up, meeting her gaze with some surprise.

“Come with me,” she said. Without waiting for a response, she turned around and strode out of the room. She heard Westbay scrambling to put on his boots and coat behind her, but didn’t slow, heading out of the dorm building and toward the Citadel.

She went to the classroom that Westbay and his friends used for their morning study group. The building was mostly empty by now, with classes over and those who wanted to study likely gone to the library to do so. She took a seat at the table.

When Westbay entered, she said, “Close the door.” When he did so, she gestured to the seat across from her. It was an auspicious sign that he was obeying without complaint or hesitation.

He settled slowly into the chair, light grey eyes meeting her dark ones, full of questions.

She folded her hands on the table, staring at him until the silence became uncomfortable. Finally, she asked, “What did you see today?”

“What did I see?” he repeated, confused.

“I had the idea that you’re not completely oblivious to what’s going on around you. Was I wrong?”

Damien leaned forward, his shoulders loosening even as his chin rose and a small, satisfied smile stretched his lips. “You weren’t wrong. I did see things. I saw that Tanya Canelo got a letter that made her anxious. I saw that you followed her, or whatever clue you picked up from that divination spell you were casting—I noticed that, too—to Eagle Tower. I saw that she seemed to know when the rogue magic sirens would go off, almost as if it was planned.” He paused, searching for a reaction, but when she gave him none, he continued. “I saw that she hid while everyone was evacuating, and was in the perfect position to cause that alchemy explosion and stop the coppers from finding the Raven Queen. I saw she had a scar, and I saw that it meant something to you, but I don’t know what. And I saw that you disappeared after classes, which probably has something to do with all this.”

Her expression remained neutral. “Is that all?” It was more than she had hoped, definitely, but it could have been worse. Westbay wasn’t a complete idiot, after all.

He seemed taken aback. “Well…perhaps I missed some things because I don’t have all the connecting information to understand what’s mundane and what’s a clue. But I think I did fairly well for coming into your investigation cold. Don’t you?”

My investigation? Well, that’s about the best spin he could put on it. Except he has ties to real investigators, and none of them will have any clue who I am, or find it amusing that I’ve seemingly been withholding evidence on an ongoing operation.’ She remained silent for a few moments, trying to figure out the best approach. ‘I wish Oliver was here. He may have coached me, but an hour is not enough to gain real skill.’ Aloud, she asked, “Have you mentioned any of this to anyone?”

Westbay shook his head. “No. I can keep a secret, Sebastien. I told you that. And I’m not an idiot. You don’t go around talking about an open investigation where a possible enemy or criminal could hear you.”

“Not even to the coppers?” she asked.

His eyes narrowed. “You haven’t gone to them either,” he said, as if defending himself.

She raised an eyebrow.

He frowned. “Unless…they know about you?”

She kept her eyebrow raised.

His frown flattened and his eyes went wide. “Or they have moles among the ranks,” he breathed, “and you can’t go to them.”

He wasn’t wrong. Oliver did have informants among the coppers, though that had nothing to do with this. Westbay was also making up his own answers to unanswered questions, just like Oliver had said he would.

“What’s going on? With Canelo, and you…and the Raven Queen? Who set off those rogue magic alarms? Was it the Raven Queen? Tell me,” Westbay commanded.

Sebastien snorted.

Westbay’s eyes narrowed. “You owe me a favor, Siverling. Do I need to call it due?”

She bared her teeth at him. “That favor is the only reason you’re in this room with me right now. But it’s only a medium favor. Not nearly enough to get that kind of information. Besides, I’m not sure you’re being totally truthful about your ability to maintain confidentiality, Westbay. Because you did indeed talk about an ongoing investigation with me, who you didn’t know and had no idea that you could trust. All I had to do was show a little interest in the Raven Queen.”

He gaped and stammered before recovering. “Well, that was… I didn’t give out any critical information, and probably nothing you couldn’t have found out by going to the right taverns after a shift of coppers were off work for the day. This is different.”

“You’ve proven your mouth can be loose when you don’t think it’s important, or when you’re around friends, or when you want to impress someone.”

“This is different,” he insisted, his nose flaring as he leaned forward. “I’d never talk about a case I’m involved in, whether the information was important or not.”

“Not even to your closest family members? To your brother?”

“My brother? You…think Titus can’t be trusted? Or someone around him?”

She waved her hand dismissively. “I think that if you’ll tell a secret to your closest family member…” She leaned forward. “If you’ll talk at all, that’s it. You’ll talk. And even if it’s only ever to that one person, even if it’s only when it seems reasonable, even necessary, then that one person can be used against you. In your case, Westbay, there’s one particular enemy that I’d like to avoid ever getting wind of what I—and possibly you—will be doing here.” She waited a beat. “Your father.”

He blinked, then shook his head. “My father? He’s not—”

“I believe you know that’s not true,” she said firmly, cutting him off. She resisted the urge to swallow nervously or let her gaze slide away.

He stared back at her, small expressions she couldn’t decipher flitting across his face. Finally, he said, “I’m not sure if you’re insinuating something deeper, but you’re right that he’d want to stop me, and you by extension. He doesn’t respect me.” His last sentence was simple, but even Sebastien could tell it held a wealth of emotion.

She leaned into it. “The man is a stain on the name of all nobility,” she said, her voice low. Oliver had told her a strong, even offensive stance against Lord Westbay would be one of the best ways to keep his son’s mouth shut.

Damien’s eyelids fluttered at the words.

She pushed one step further. “He has no honor.”

When Damien didn’t immediately respond, she knew she hadn’t misstepped. It was actually somewhat exhilarating.

“You’re different from him,” she continued. “And you don’t have to be constrained by your name or your blood. So let me ask you, Damien Westbay. What do you want?”

He considered for a moment, then said, “I want to know what’s going on. I’d like to help, as an ally.”

Sebastien almost released a bark of incredulous laughter. ‘Has he not even considered the danger, or that whatever I’m involved in might not be on the side of the “good guys” from those stories he likes to read?

“You might think I’m foolish, but there’s a lot I can offer, Sebastien. I’m a Westbay—”

She cut him off. “Your name holds no meaning to me. It’s your character I want to see.” Oliver had said to make it personal, to make Damien feel seen and accepted. “What do you want?”

“You already asked that. I told you—”

“What do you want out of life? What mark do you hope to make on the tapestry of fate? What is your true goal, your real ambition? What will give you worth, Damien? It is not your last name. Answer carefully.”

His nostrils flared as he took a deep breath. Despite the chill in the air that wasn’t fully dispersed by the Citadel’s climate spells, his temples were starting to bead with tiny dots of sweat.

It took him a while to answer, but she waited silently, her own heart rushing in her chest with the thrill of it. ‘This is power, too,’ she admitted silently. ‘I can see why Oliver likes it.

“I want to do something that people—” Damien broke off, and after another long pause he finally said, in a softer voice, “I want to feel like I matter.”

It was sincere, and raw enough that Sebastien had to look away for a moment, feeling uncomfortable and a little guilty. “I can give you that chance,” she said in an equally soft voice, returning her gaze to his. “If you would like to join my operation—and let me be clear that it is rarely as exciting as it was today, and is likely to be nothing more than a boring strain on your ability to complete your homework. If you’d like to join, I’d like to have you.”

“Yes,” he said, this time without an ounce of hesitation.

“You should have hesitated. So that I would know you really understood what you were promising. You’ll be a probationary member of this team, and will be giving up the favor I owe you in exchange. I’m in charge. You’ll be doing boring work, sometimes relegated to research. You won’t get to know all the details. This will be nothing like an Aberford Thorndyke story, and you will never get to talk about it to anyone.”

“I agree,” he said, again without hesitation. “The reason I’m not hesitating now is because I already decided I wanted in on this. I’m fine with everything you just said.”

“It could be dangerous. And you will have to prove your loyalty as well as your ability. You may occasionally have to do things that are unpleasant, that would embarrass you, or even go against the laws.”

“I agree,” he repeated for a third time, unable to keep the excitement from sparkling in his eyes.

She settled back, still somewhat unsatisfied. ‘I wish I could get him to sign a blood print vow of secrecy, but even suggesting such a thing would send most people running to the coppers. I’ll just have to risk it. If he hadn’t inserted himself into things today and ended up getting too much information for comfort, I’d never bring him into it. But at least this way, I can keep him close and hopefully under control.

He frowned at her, a hint of irritation leaking through. “Are you still holding a grudge because of the way our acquaintance started? I’ve learned to look past your abrasive nature, Sebastien. You could do me the same courtesy.”

She sighed. “Fine. Pending your initiation, you’re a provisional part of the team, Westbay.”

“Damien. You should call me Damien. I already call you Sebastien, after all. Unless!” He paused dramatically, perking up. “Should we have codenames? I could be Nighthawk. Or Shadowbane. You could be…”

Sebastien raised a hand to forestall him. “Damien is as far as I’m willing to go. Take what you can get.” She had more than enough identities to keep track of already, she didn’t need another.

He seemed a bit disappointed, but perked up quickly. “What’s this initiation, then? Who are the other members of your team? Are you part of an organization? Or on a secret mission from the coppers?” When she didn’t answer, he inhaled sharply, his eyes going wide. “A secret mission from the Red Guard?”

“You are letting your imagination run away with you,” she said, standing. “Come with me.” She led him into the Menagerie, walking till she found a spot far enough away from the light-bordered cobblestone paths that their night vision wouldn’t be affected, where there was a wide, clear view of the sky.

Damien matched her silence as she picked up a stick and scratched a Circle into the leaf-strewn, dying ground, big enough for the both of them to stand inside.

It was windy, which it often was this high up, and the flurries carried dead leaves and the premonition of snow. The moon’s glow filtered sideways through the trees, but the sky was clear and cloudless. The stars were clearly visible. Sebastien looked up at them with satisfaction.

Damien cleared his throat. “What are we doing here?” he asked in a hushed voice.

She lowered her head to look at him. “Perhaps you didn’t really understand what you were getting into. Do you want to go back? We can forget everything that’s happened tonight. It’s not too late.” Of course, she didn’t really want him to be frightened off. She wanted to bind him with shackles formed entirely in his own mind. That was the purpose of most initiation rituals, after all. Oliver thought it would be more effective with a group of people to lend to the sense of ceremony, but she didn’t have that luxury.

“What does that mean?” he asked.

“You can be just Damien Westbay, University student who goes to classes and has fun with his friends. You won’t be a part of this, but nothing will be expected of you. Maybe you will find a way to matter on your own.”

He stared at her for a few seconds in the darkness. She couldn’t tell what he was thinking, but just when she was growing worried, he stepped forward, joining her within the Circle.

She smiled. “Stay here.” Turning around, she pulled the shallow bowl she’d retrieved from the dorms out of her pockets. There was a small stream nearby, and she dipped the bowl into it, filling it with a couple ounces of water. She returned, handing the bowl to Damien. “Hold this.”

He cupped it carefully, holding it in front of his chest with both hands.

She stepped back into the Circle with him, bringing her Will to bear. Like when she was brewing a potion, she used her Will to reinforce every movement. It lent a feeling of meaning, of ritual importance to the process, even for the parts that magic wasn’t technically required for, and during which she wasn’t channeling any actual thaums of energy.

Here, she simply fed her Will into the Circle, consuming slight amounts of heat from the dome around them and adding a tension to the air as she claimed authority over everything within. It took barely any effort, but Damien would be able to feel it in his hind-brain, and it would lend gravitas to the impromptu ceremony.

She reached into her pockets and pulled out three small vials. “State your name.”

He swallowed. “I am Damien Corolianus Westbay.”

She resisted the urge to make a comment about his ridiculous middle name. “Damien Corolianus Westbay, I exhort your silence.” She took a drop of the first vial’s herbal oil extract on her finger and touched it to his forehead, staring down into his eyes, which seemed almost as dark as hers with nothing but the light of the stars to illuminate them. “Will you keep our secrets, knowing when to speak and when to remain silent?”

“I will,” he whispered.

She increased the pressure of her Will, though still she was casting no magic.

She anointed him with the second vial’s drop of oil. “I exhort your loyalty. Will you support us and our efforts faithfully and fully, with true heart and steady hand?”

“I will.”

She increased the pressure once more, then touched him with the third oil, the sharp smell of peppermint only increasing that feel of unreleased tension. “I exhort your resolve. Will you persevere through hardships and the wear of time, exerting yourself to fulfill our cause?”

“I will,” Damien said for the third time.

Sebastien pushed harder with her Will, till she approached the limit of her ability to coil potential force without anything to apply it to. She pulled the astronomy potion out of her pocket and poured it into the shallow bowl of water, then supported his cupped hands with her own. “Our purpose,” she said, leaning forward slightly and trying to sound serious, “is freedom…and enlightenment. Drink, and look up. See beyond the edge of the sky.”

He hesitated, but she gave him a shallow nod of encouragement, and he lifted the shallow bowl and drank down its contents in a couple of quick gulps.

As soon as he lowered the bowl, she released her Will at once with a mental outward thrust, just to be safe. It barely did anything, causing a small flurry of leaves and sending a couple of animals that had been hiding nearby scurrying away in alarm. But the sudden lack of tension was palpable.

Damien gasped as he looked up at the night sky.

This particular potion had been Oliver’s suggestion. It wasn’t mind-altering, addictive, or harmful in any way, except if the user took it and then looked into a bright light. It improved long-distance night vision, making the stars seem brighter, clearer, and more colorful. It also supposedly emphasized the dark emptiness of the rest of space. In essence, the potion created a poor version of the effects of a telescope while allowing a much wider field of view.

Many of those who had taken this particular potion for the first time reported an overwhelming wave of emotions bordering on awe, with the awareness of how small and insignificant they were—and the Earth was—compared to the vast, terrible beauty of space. Intense emotions would make Damien feel more bound to the promises he’d made and to their shared secret.

Damien’s eyes filled with tears, and he blinked to send them spilling down his cheeks, breathing hard as he gazed up in wonder. “It’s—I don’t—”

“Shh. I know. Just see. Just let yourself be conscious.” She waited a few minutes, until the tears had stopped flowing and his breath was beginning to slow, then said, “Repeat after me. I am small, as are we all.”

He did as she said, still staring up at the sky.

“But I am not without purpose. We are not without meaning.” She pulled the novelty drink coaster she’d gotten from Oliver out of her pocket. It was black marble embedded with a light crystal.

Using the stone disintegration and reformation exercise Professor Lacer had assigned them, she’d managed to mold the original circular light crystal into a thirteen-pointed star, working to pull out its edges in tiny sections. She didn’t want to give Damien something he’d recognize from some high-class artifact shop, after all.

“There are stars in this world, too,” she finished. When he’d echoed her, she said, “Look at me.”

Slowly, he drew his gaze back down to the earth.

She twisted the black marble disk, slotting the inner section into the outer, and the light crystal activated, a star among darkness. She handed it to him in her cupped hands. “You may be one of them, if you prove yourself worthy.”

He squinted against the mild glow of the light crystal, but took it reverently.

“This is the sign of our people,” she said. “If ever anyone comes to you with one, you will know you can trust them, and should help them if they need it.”

Letting out a shaky breath that fogged in the air and refracted the light of the crystal, he nodded. “Does it…this group, or order, does it have a name?”

She rolled her eyes. “What’s with you and wanting a dramatic name for everything?”

He looked up from the light, the mystique of the moment lessened. His lips quirked up in amusement, and he scrubbed the tear tracks from his cheeks, sniffing hard.

“No,” she said, deciding not to make something up on the spot. “We have no name. Things that have names get talked about. Besides, we need no label to constrain us.”

“Freedom and enlightenment?” he echoed from her earlier words. “How exactly does that work? What do we actually do?”

“We do what is needed to fulfill our purpose, especially where others do not. Think on these principles. On what it means to be a light in the dark. I cannot give you the answer. It must be understood on your own.” It was vague nonsense, but the best she could do with no real answer prepared.

He frowned over this for a moment, then asked, “How many of us are there?”

“You’re only a provisional member, remember? You don’t get to know everything.” She picked up the bowl, which had dropped on the ground at some point, and jerked her head in the direction of the University. “Come on, let’s get back.”

“What do I need to do to become a full member?” he asked, following her back onto the lit path.

She shrugged. “There’s no specific assignment. You’ll prove yourself or you won’t. There’s no penalty if you don’t, but your involvement—including the ability to ask questions—is limited as a provisional member.”

He mulled this over for a few moments before carefully tucking the drink coaster into a pocket on the inside of his jacket. “What’s my first assignment, then?”

“We’ll be gathering information on Tanya Canelo and her associates. I want to bring on an informant to help us keep track of her,” she said. “Not another member, just a contractor. You won’t have enough time to do it by yourself.”

He nodded slowly. “Okay. Who?”

“Newton Moore,” she said simply.

A smirk grew on Damien’s face. “Oh, that is perfect. He has a flawless excuse to spend time with her. They’re both student liaisons, and they have at least half their classes together. But can he be trusted?”

“You’ll help me judge that. He won’t know anything about what’s really going on, but we still need him to be both thorough and discreet. From what I know of him, he has both qualities.”

“We should conduct the interview right away. I don’t want Canelo getting out of our sight for a moment,” he said gravely.

“I agree. And we will be doing more than personal observation, if we can manage it. But for the moment,” she said, checking the time on her pocket watch with the approaching lights of the University buildings, “I’m pretty sure Newton is tutoring someone in the library. What do you say we catch him as soon as he’s alone?”

Damien smoothed back his hair, straightened his clothes, and took the lead, striding straight toward the circular building.

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