Month 12, Day 18, Friday 12:30 a.m.
Sebastien had trouble getting back to sleep after Professor Lacer’s impromptu nighttime visit, despite her exhaustion. She had left Professor Lacer’s house with Damien, who was just as wide-eyed and shocked-looking as she felt on the inside.
Sebastien grilled him on everything Professor Lacer had said to him, but really, there wasn’t much. However Lacer had figured out the Will-strain, Damien hadn’t helped him, and she couldn’t really fault Damien for mentioning her Conduit when it had gotten her a new one, one so much better it almost made her want to cry with relief.
Now that her problem had been solved, she realized it had been rather obvious. She had instinctively wanted to keep her new, sub-par Conduit a secret, and not only because she didn’t want anyone wondering what she’d been doing to break her old one on the same weekend the Raven Queen almost got caught. She’d unconsciously believed that if the University found out, they would expect her to immediately rectify the situation or be kicked out. Celerium was ridiculously expensive, exponentially so at higher capacities, and students without a proper Conduit were endangering not only themselves but others. There was no way they would value her as a student more than someone like Alec Gervin, even if she was more deserving.
But it was more than that. She hadn’t believed she could rely on or trust anyone but herself. It had been a long time since she learned that she was the only one in this world she could count on. ‘Maybe…maybe I can at least consider the option that someone else might actually be willing and able to help me when I need it,’ she thought, feeling uncomfortable with the idea. It didn’t feel safe, to think like that. But the proof was in her hand. Professor Lacer hadn’t even asked for anything in return.
The Conduit he had loaned her was still raw and unfaceted, but had been set in a metal ring with an attachment for her to hang it as the counterweight for her pocket watch. It was a little cloudier than the one set in her mother’s ring, now in the Gervin Family’s hands, but still large enough that she estimated it would support at least six or seven hundred thaums. She would need to have it tested.
Damien was rather smug about the whole thing, but she was actually too tired to snap at him. She felt like she’d lived weeks over the course of that single day, with enough stress and mental exertion to fill it all.
Sebastien used her new Conduit to cast her dreamless sleep spell. It worked like a crystallized silk, and she poured as much power into the spell as she wanted, without worry.
On Friday, she woke still exhausted, and was thankful to only have the two classes, Modern Magics in the morning, and Practical Casting in the late afternoon.
She spent the middle of her day in the library, on the ground floor in a spot where she could watch the staircase nearest Tanya Canelo, who was on the second floor where Sebastien couldn’t go.
She was reminded by the reduced number of bracelets hidden under her clothes on her forearm that she’d wanted to figure out how to cast that paper bird spell that was so common on the University grounds. It would be much more convenient to be able to send a secure message to Oliver, Katerin, or now even Damien, without needing to create a new pair of artifacts from scratch every time. Plus, just the ability to send a complete, nuanced message would make it worth it.
To her disappointment, while the spell’s details were easy enough to find, it wasn’t a viable option for her. Creating the paper alone was a long, complicated, and expensive process. It needed to be, for the paper to handle the magic and maintain the integrity of the animation and homing spells over even moderate distances.
Apparently the folded birds were a type of enchanted artifact. The University administration staff saved time on the folding by casting a continue-motion spell, which she actually knew. It was a complex spell array, and finicky, but you could essentially give yourself an extra set of arms or a dumb assistant as long as you could concentrate on keeping the magic active.
All you had to do was demonstrate the action as one of the inputs of the spell, and an invisible force would continue the action, exactly, for as long as you could power it. It was good for things like stirring a pot continuously if you wanted to leave your hands free for something else, and the woman she’d learned it from had used it for spinning thread and then weaving cloth.
It required extreme precision. If, for instance, while spinning thread the magic reached for a new bit of wool and found none in the exact spot that you had demonstrated it should pull from, it would continue all the actions of spinning thread with nothing. It had no problem-solving abilities. Longer and more complex action sequences were more draining, but also more likely to have an imperfection in the copied system that would lead to a total breakdown.
There was another, more advanced version that Sebastien didn’t know. The mimeo-motion spell would allow duplication of the continued motion in multiple places. People used it most commonly for producing multiple copies of books. A scribe could write one page while the magic copied their actions across a couple dozen other sheets of paper. The spell would then continue making dozens more copies without the scribe.
It was one of the great innovations of the Third Empire, under the Blood Emperor’s reign, and the biggest reason that books had become widespread and even marginally affordable. Unfortunately, it was largely useless for any magical application. It couldn’t be used to create a dozen potions at the same time, for example.
Returning her thoughts to the paper bird messenger spell, Sebastien considered trying to get her hands on some of the sheets that someone else had made, until she learned that the enchantment process of giving the folded paper false life required flicker-feathers.
The University bred the sparrow-like birds in the Menagerie. She knew, because she’d seen them blinking in and out of visibility with every flap of their wings. They were notoriously hard to catch, and their feathers were coveted and expensive.
Even if she could get all the components, the third point of discouragement hit her when she discovered the homing spell did not work on some magical extra sense. The paper bird simply moved to pre-programmed points or followed the homing beacon of the staff and student University tokens that everyone carried. The homing spell also grew more difficult to cast over distances more than a kilometer or two.
She gave up the idea of having her own paper birds sending messages at that point. ‘The University must be spending more on that little trick than people pay to send the messages. It’s just another way for them to show off.’ There were other magical methods to send messages to people, but all those she knew of were beyond her reach, either in resources, magical power, or knowledge, and most of the time in all three areas.
‘It looks like I’m going to have to make a few more bracelets.’ Damien would need a set of his own, after all. She might as well make some for Newton, too, while she was at it, and have them be part of a network, like her other bracelets were part of a network with Oliver and Katerin.
After that disappointment, Sebastien tried to study, but kept getting distracted trying to wrap her head around her piling mountain of problems. She doubted Professor Lacer was the type to hold punishment in reserve. If he was going to expel her, he would have done it on the spot, dragging her out of the dorms rather than giving her a warning. Still, she also hadn’t expected him to somehow deduce what she’d thought was a well-hidden truth out of the ether.
Before she knew it, the morning had passed and Tanya walked down the stairs, accompanied by Newton, who shot Sebastien a surreptitious thumbs-up behind Tanya’s back.
Sebastien didn’t follow. She didn’t want to make her interest in the other girl obvious.
The library emptied as most students went to lunch, but Sebastien’s stomach felt too sour and knotted to eat. “My life is falling apart,” she muttered. With a dramatic groan, she let herself slump forward until her forehead bumped the table.
“As bad as all that?” an amused voice asked from behind her.
Sebastien jerked up, turning to the woman who’d spoken. “Professor Ilma!” She tried to keep from focusing on the embarrassment so that she didn’t make it worse by blushing.
The blue-tinted woman sat down across the table from Sebastien. “Siverling, correct?”
Professor Ilma’s eyes drooped with boredom, her expression of disinterest belying her words. “It must take a lot for the life of a bright, motivated young man such as yourself to fall apart.”
Sebastien didn’t respond, staring at the her History professor as she tried to figure out how to respond without seeming suspicious.
Professor Ilma stared back, content to wait.
“My problems all seem to compound upon each other,” Sebastien said finally. “That’s all.”
Ilma nodded, as if she’d expected that. “Real life problems are like that. Sometimes, one catalyst problem can create an avalanche as time passes, as it impacts a delicate balance of unstable components. We see this repeated over and over again in history. And yet, here we are, none of these—at the time catastrophic—events have stopped humankind in the long run.”
‘Is she trying to encourage me?’
“This is not coincidence. We can take personal lessons from the greater lessons of people and times passed.” Ilma raised her eyebrows, as if expecting Sebastien to agree, but when Sebastien only nodded bemusedly, she sighed and straightened.
Her voice took on the tone she used while lecturing in the classroom. “We’ve discussed how precarious it has been for the human race many times throughout history. Yet now, we are the dominant race of the most fertile lands of this continent. I don’t believe it’s some individual inherent superiority that has allowed this. There is a tendency to focus our attention on great men who did great deeds, as if they were important. And sometimes, they were, but generally they were only able to accomplish these great deeds because of an overall shift in the surrounding culture or established powers.”
Ilma pushed back from the desk, standing to pace like she did in her classroom. “Great men do great deeds with the force of a society behind them. Now, some would say that this ability to form groups of many individuals that help each other and work for mutual benefit is the proof that the human race has a moralistic advantage, duty, and right to power and prosperity. But communities are not the purview of humans alone. And I would question whether this ability to form them is truly altruistic and a sign of morality, or whether it’s simply a matter of humans being so weak that this large super-organism of a city, or a country, is they only way for the individual to survive. Cooperation is utilitarian.”
The woman’s volume rose with passion, seemingly lost in her own thoughts. “If we are truly governed by morality, how can you explain the aggression, the persecution, the genocide against not only other races but ourselves? It is almost as if we cannot stop our inherent proclivity for aggression even when it’s not good for us. So I posit that the real reason we have managed to survive is twofold. One, despite being so weak magically, we are extremely versatile. Like cockroaches. And like cockroaches, we breed quickly.”
Ilma stopped, seemingly realizing where she was, and turned back to Sebastien. Clearing her throat awkwardly, she retook her seat. “My point is, humans are versatile and incredibly resilient, not only as a species but as individuals. If you are searching for an answer to a complex problem…”
She shook her head. “Decisions, solutions, aren’t always as binary as we like to think of them. It’s not always a good deed or an evil one, greed or altruism, left or right. And it’s also not always some combination of the two. The middle path can be even worse than one extreme or the other. However, sometimes people realize this and jump to say that no right path exists. Or that all paths are equally valid. Both of these are usually just as incorrect as a simple binary answer—though they might seem wiser, they’re useless. Humans don’t need useless answers. We need utility.” She stared at Sebastien as if expecting her to understand, now.
Sebastien frowned, fascinated by the impromptu lecture despite her initial bemusement. “I understand what you’re saying, but…”
Ilma sighed again, speaking before Sebastien could continue. “Humans are versatile and hardy. Like cockroaches,” she repeated. “Whatever complex, intertwined problems you have, they are not insurmountable. It’s not that there are no answers to complex problems. There are usually many. It’s just that they’re hard to find, and even harder to implement. If you can’t find a solution, look at your problems from a different angle, pull in new resources, and don’t be afraid to be ruthlessly utilitarian. Sometimes the solution is to kill whatever problem is too resource-intensive to deal with. ”
Sebastien thought all of that seemed reasonable, but she still wasn’t sure how to apply it to her specific situation. “Thank you,” she said, nonetheless.
Professor Ilma’s bored expression was back again. “Go to lunch,” she said. “Food is one of those resources humans need to solve problems.”
As Sebastien gathered up her things and left, Professor Ilma called after her. “Don’t forget your essay due on Tuesday!”
Ilma’s advice swirled around Sebastien’s mind, and she found herself thinking of it suddenly at random moments for a while afterward.
“Kill whatever problem you can’t deal with,” she muttered to herself. Her Conduit problem had already been solved, and to be fair it was the most critical bottleneck in solving the remainder of her problems.
She had two free Conduits now, the one she’d bought recently, and the even smaller one she’d had since she was a child, which was her backup. Professor Lacer had intimated that she could keep the one he’d lent her as long as she needed it—at least as long as she stayed at the University. Perhaps she could recover some of the gold she’d spent.
She bundled up in her expensive wool jacket and a thick scarf and headed into the city for Orbs and Amulets, the Conduit “boutique.”
“I’d like to return a Conduit I bought here a few weeks ago,” Sebastien said to the attendant.
The woman’s face lost its welcoming smile. “All sales are final. However, we will purchase undamaged celerium for a marked-down price.”
Sebastien held up the small piece of crystal. “How much?”
The woman took it and used a spectacle device and a bright light to examine it, then said, “Forty-five gold.”
Sebastien’s jaw almost dropped. “I bought this Conduit, from this shop, less than three weeks ago for seventy-eight gold crowns.” Her voice grew hard. “Are you telling me celerium prices have dropped that much since then, or are you just trying to swindle me?”
The woman’s expression tightened, but she didn’t back down. “Prices haven’t fallen, sir. As you should know, there is a thirty percent tax on magical products, and that includes celerium. In addition to that, we have overhead.”
That was ridiculous. Sebastien said as much. “Especially because so little time has passed that I doubt you’ve reported or paid tax for the original sale yet. And there is no need to pay taxes on returned items, which by definition have not actually earned a profit. I still have my receipt, this isn’t some random Conduit off the street.”
The woman sniffed. “All sales are final,” she repeated. “I’m happy to purchase this Conduit, but according to our policies there are no returns, receipt or no. Forty-seven gold is a high as I can go.”
Sebastien’s finger’s twitched with the urge to strangle her. She grabbed up her sub-par Conduit, spun, and strode out of the shop without another word. After she’d muttered angrily to herself for a few minutes, she tried her luck at a few other shops. While some offered slightly higher prices than Orbs and Amulets, none came close to the original seventy-eight gold she’d spent on it.
Frustrated, she began to trudge back to the University. ‘Maybe I could sell the Conduit through the Verdant Stag. At least that would allow me to avoid the magic tax.’
She was glaring down at her boots when a small flutter of brightness caught her eye. She stopped.
At the corner of a building, in the bottom mouth of a downspout gutter, a sprite with glittering dragonfly wings was struggling to haul a thick piece of what might have been scrap leather, or might have just been a piece of decayed animal founds on the streets into the gutter.
Sebastien grinned and stepped closer, squatting down to watch it.
The sprite bared its tiny, sharp little teeth at her, glaring with its lidless insect eyes, but when she didn’t move to attack, it continued struggling with the piece of scrap it had selected for its nest.
She caught a glimpse of the two half-larvae children within, who looked much less humanoid and had not yet sprouted wings. “This is a bad place to make a nest,” she said to them. “The rain is going to come and wash you all away.”
The adult sprite buzzed a little at her, but of course it didn’t understand.
Sebastien took off her scarf, wrapping it around her hand and reaching out for the sprite to see if it would let her pick it up.
It attacked viciously, but didn’t fly away as it might have done if not for its children. Its teeth cut through the yarn of her scarf rather easily, but didn’t injure her hand beneath.
Still, Sebastien drew away. She didn’t want to ruin her scarf—it had been expensive—and the sprite was too distressed to handle relocation. It might hurt itself out of panic.
It chittered and buzzed at her, and even flew at her face a few times to try and drive her away.
“Stop that! I’m trying to help you,” she said, ducking back. ‘Maybe a box, or a pot, something I could put them in to hold them safely and securely.’ She didn’t have anything like that on her person, but she might be able to borrow one from a nearby shop or home. ‘Or maybe I could cast a docility spell on them.’ She’d watched Liza cast one on her ravens a couple times, and was confident she could replicate it.
She stared at the angry, frightened creature for a while longer. The children within were wiggling, expressions of distress on their tiny, alien faces. They looked cold.
Tilting her head to the side consideringly, Sebastien slowly brought her Will to bear, not casting any magic, but letting it emanate from her like she did when preparing potion ingredients, before they went into the cauldron. There were other types of magic than those cast in modern sorcery. The animists of old had used no Circles, no spells, and no structured magic to create and control their domains. Yet, within them, they spoke to and seemingly controlled everything from the animals to the trees, having connected the life of the land to their own.
Animals were said to be sensitive to both magic and intent, though tests had been rather inconclusive. With her Will activated, Sebastien took a while to examine her own feelings of benevolence toward the sprites, and her surety that they were in danger. She tried to push all of that feeling into her Will, to let it carry her desire to communicate. “I don’t want to hurt you,” she whispered. “You are not safe. I want to take you to a new nest. It will be warm and dry there. You can trust me.”
The adult sprite glared and buzzed at her only harder at first, but Sebastien kept pushing her thoughts into her Will, simplifying them into pure emotion.
When she reached out a second time, the sprite struggled a bit in her scarf-covered hand, but not as viciously as before. Sebastien fumbled out her little vial of honey from her vest pocket, clumsily opened it with her free hand, and offered it to the sprite.
The creature was immediately entranced. It shoved both its arms into the vial as far as it could push them, coating its forearms and pulling back with both hands cupped full of the sticky amber liquid. It ate in big, messy gulps, oblivious to the world.
Sebastien picked up the children and the bedding, too, holding the nest within the shield of her scarf. Sprites could get confused if they were relocated without the pheromones soaked into their nest.
The sprite ate the entire way back to the University, demanding more honey for itself and its children several times, enough to use up half her vial and have its belly bulging full.
She dug out a space for them from the base of a tree that had some protective bushes around, adding a little trench so that any water could flow away rather than fill their new nest and drown them. She gave them their bedding, including the piece of ratty leather, and added some cotton from her own magic supplies, which she fluffed up, along with one of the lava peppers she’d taken from Modern Magics when they were practicing the spark-shooting spell. It wouldn’t provide much heat, but even a little could help get them through the winter.
The sprites seemed completely uninterested in her, and in no way grateful.
Still, she smiled down at them. She felt better. Her frustration and fear from earlier in the day had melted away. “I can handle this,” she whispered to them, then left to go do her homework assignments.
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