Chapter 56 – Forming a Team


Month 12, Day 17, Thursday 9:15 p.m.

Damien had to stop outside the library and adjust to the brightness of the lights illuminating the path and the doorway. He still winced when he entered, shielding his potion-dilated eyes even though the building’s shimmering walls and the ceiling were dimmed, not shining with daylight-brightness.

“Do you think he’ll agree?” Damien asked her as they made their way toward the private room Newton usually booked for tutoring.

“I’m not sure,” Sebastien admitted. “It might depend on his sense of honor, or his regard for the two of us compared to her.”

They slipped inside the private room as Newton was packing up, with less than an hour left until the library closed. His clothes were wrinkled, his eyes tired, and his fingers smudged with ink and chalk.

Damien closed the small room’s door, then locked it.

Newton’s eyes trailed this movement, and then went to Sebastien. “What’s going on?” His tone was too weary to seem alarmed, even if he had been inclined to anxiety.

“Do you remember the offer you made, concerning employment?” Sebastien asked.

Newton nodded slowly.

“I’m here to take you up on it, a bit sooner than perhaps either of us expected.”

“You want to hire me?” Newton asked her, looking to Damien questioningly.

“Why don’t you sit?” Damien said, gesturing to one of the newly vacated chairs around the table. “The job is contingent upon your performance in this impromptu interview.”

Still obviously confused, Newton obliged.

The two of them sat across from him. To Sebastien’s relief, Damien didn’t immediately try to take over the flow of conversation, deferring to her to start.

“What I require is of a delicate nature,” she said. “The kind of thing that might call for you to lie to a classmate or friend, but nothing that forces you to harm the innocent or do anything truly distasteful. Is that the kind of thing you can handle?”

Newton hesitated, but nodded. “Hypothetically, yes. But… Sebastien, what is this about?”

“Your silence is the prerequisite for saying any more, whether or not you decide to take the job. Can you agree to that as well?” she asked.

He hesitated, then leaned forward, lowering his voice. “Are you asking me to help you cheat on the mid-term exams? Because, to be honest, I really don’t have a way to make that happen, and I’m also not sure that either of you would benefit very much. Westbay already scored among the top three hundred incoming students, and you cannot be that worried about your own results, Sebastien. Besides, it’s the end of term exams you should really be worried—”

Sebastien stopped him with a hand gesture, unable to hide her smile. “No, Newton. It’s not that at all.” She looked to Damien, then back to Newton. “Can we trust that you’ll keep this conversation private? I want your oath, or we walk out this door right now.”

Newton straightened, looking more alarmed. “I swear on my name and honor, unless I judge that what you tell me will bring serious harm to yourselves or others, I will not divulge the contents of this conversation. Now please explain.”

“We want you to spy on Tanya Canelo!” Damien burst out before Sebastien could say anything, vibrating with poorly suppressed excitement.

Sebastien could have strangled him. Damien could be smooth and cunning just long enough for her to let down her guard, and then slip into this childish obliviousness and ruin it.

Newton’s face sped through a series of expressions, too quick for Sebastien to decipher them, and finally settled on wary interest. “I don’t understand.” He paused, losing focus for a moment as his gaze turned thoughtfully inward. “Or rather, I understand the actual words you’re saying, but…why? What would I be looking for?”

At least he didn’t immediately refuse. He’s considering it.

“Everything,” Sebastien said simply. “Even the things that don’t seem particularly memorable. We want to know every time she leaves your sight, anyone she speaks with, even the things she researches for homework projects.”

“Can I ask why?”

“No, you can’t,” Damien said.

“We have good reasons,” Sebastien said. “And no intention to place ourselves or other students in harm’s way.”

Newton rubbed one of the ink splotches on his fingers, staring at her. “Did Tanya do something? Offend you?”

She smiled. “She did something. It didn’t offend me personally. And before you ask, it’s the kind of delicate matter that we cannot take to the authorities. We could do this without you, but…” Sebastien reached into her pocket and pulled out the small purse Oliver had given her. It held the operating expenses he’d supplied for this mission; Tanya being associated with the Morrows and the Morrows possibly having a connection to the University—and its power—was relevant to him as well as her. After purchasing the astronomy potion, of which she now had several useless doses remaining, the purse contained eighteen gold and one silver. If she needed more funds, she would have to ask for them. She pulled out one gold crown and set it on the table, then pushed it with her finger toward Newton. “Two gold a week,” she said, leaving the coin in front of him. “That’s a signing bonus. Either you trust me or you don’t.”

Damien eyed the purse with some surprise, as if trying to gauge how much was hidden within.

Newton looked down at the coin, then up at her, his bloodshot eyes inscrutable. “I trust you,” he said, palming the coin. “So tell me again, and in detail. What do you need me to track?”

Sebastien didn’t try to restrain her smile. “I’m happy to be working with you,” she said. She didn’t know if he actually trusted her, or if he was simply desperate for the chance to make extra coin, but it didn’t matter as long as he did what was asked of him.

She proceeded to detail exactly what that was. “We’ll want detailed written reports and a verbal review twice a week,” she finished. “Be discreet. Take the opportunity to get into her confidence, if possible. If you find something particularly important you can earn a bonus, but we don’t expect you to place yourself in any dangerous situations.”

When they were done with the instructions, Newton left to get started. As his solo dorm room was directly adjacent to Tanya’s, he would be able to keep tabs on her in the evening and early morning.

As Newton was leaving, he turned back to face Sebastien. “Thank you for thinking of me for this,” he said, adjusting the strap of his school bag nervously. “And, umm, for pointing Alec Gervin my way.” He gave her a mischievous grin. “I’m charging him three gold a week for one-on-one lessons, and it’s going to be even more for the exam prep sessions.”

She grinned back. “I heard from someone knowledgeable that it works best to treat him like a dog.”

Damien flopped his head back and groaned, not without amusement.

Newton grinned wider. “Treats, praise, and plenty of exercise. Got it.”

When Newton had gone, Sebastien locked the door again. She took a seat and crossed one leg over the other. “Your first assignment is researching and developing other ways we’ll be able to keep track of her. I’d like to put a ward on her door, so we know when she goes in and out, especially at odd times. A tracker would be even better. Use the library as a resource. It will have all the knowledge you need, as long as you’re skilled enough to compile it. If you get stuck, come to me. If you need assistance casting, I can also help with that. In fact, I would prefer to. Be circumspect about letting anyone else understand what you’re doing.”

Damien nodded without hesitation. “I already have some ideas. I’ll bring you a solution by tomorrow night. Perhaps it won’t be as elegant as some of the things my brother’s people come up with, but speed is of the essence, right?”

“We’ll have time to improve the system, if nothing happens. If something does happen, we need to be aware, even if it’s not exactly elegant,” she agreed. “As long as it’s subtle enough that she won’t become suspicious.”

Damien bounced on his feet, swinging his arms like a child who’d eaten too much sugar. “I can’t wait to get started. I’m going to start looking up references.” He hurried off into the stacks without waiting for a response, muttering, “I wish the library were open later. Only half an hour to check out everything I need…”

Sebastien watched him go with a bemused expression. She checked out a few books of her own and took them back to the dorms to finish her homework, then practiced Professor Lacer’s extra exercises. In some ways, it seemed a little foolish to be doing that with everything that had happened in the last day, but it wouldn’t do to be so afraid of what the future might bring that she ran around like a chicken with her head cut off and failed to prepare for said future. Improving her Will was something she could never neglect.

She had moved on to the third auxiliary exercise, which seemed to complement the new main exercise. It was very simple, only requiring her to create a ball of compressed air, and had similar principles to the air-cushion spell she’d learned years before to make bumpy wagon rides more comfortable.

With her small, contaminated Conduit, she could only compress a small volume. This exercise required a simpler thought process than the three-dimensional maze or the skewed sympathetic movement spell, but unlike the original ball-spinning exercise, at no point did inertia make the process easier. It seemed to actively fight against her with every second, pressing back against her Will with equal and opposite force, always vying to escape and disperse through any point of weakness.

Being forced to cast with a sub-par Conduit was starting to noticeably improve her efficiency, which was about the only upside. Out of the initial five bonus exercises, there were two left that she had yet to attempt. Though she had wanted to gain a basic measure of competency in all of them by the mid-terms, she knew that was probably impossible by now. All the extra things she had to worry about had hampered her progress.

There were no more attempts to scry her, which wasn’t necessarily a surprise but was a relief. She felt like someone teetering at the edge of weightlessness on a rope swing, not sure yet if she would fly off or drop back down. The coppers could just be biding their time, or maybe Tanya had really disrupted their ability to try again, at least for now. She tried not to be too anxious waiting for the moment when they would surprise her again.

The next morning, she got a letter from Oliver, brought by a runner and then delivered by the Administration office. She broke the wax seal and tore through the redundant paste seal below that. He’d been conscious of security, even though the only thing inside was a meeting time and a note to arrive a few hours early.

The Raven Queen would be meeting with the Nightmare Pack leader that Sunday, an hour after dark, approximately thirteen minutes after six, when the moon would be highest in the sky. It was an oddly specific time, but some people were prone to dramatics.

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