Chapter 59 – A Simple Solution

Sebastien

Month 12, Day 18, Friday 8:00 p.m.

Damien was true to his word. That evening, he brought her his plans to keep Tanya Canelo under surveillance, complete with spell array notes and designs. He had found a small ward they could carve onto the underside of Tanya’s door that would alert them when it was opened, and a couple of different designs for a tracker that they would somehow need to get onto her person.

The proposed tracker designs weren’t active, and so wouldn’t require constant spellcasting, nor were they artifacts that would keep working even without input from either Sebastien or Damien. Rather, they created sympathetic beacons that would point the way to Tanya like a compass when the linked item was used as a divination component.

“It will work,” Sebastien said, looking over Damien’s notes.

He smiled, but smoothed back his hair nervously. “Ana would be better at this. She’s taking Artificery. She’d probably have some design we could carve into the sole of Tanya’s shoe or some other ingenious idea.”

Sebastien looked up. “That’s a great idea, actually.”

Damien hesitated. “Err, well, yes, but none of the books I found had anything like that, and I don’t have any experience with spell design…” There was a reason why spell theorists and designers were paid so well. It was almost as dangerous as free-casting, if not quite so glamorous.

Sebastien pointed to one design, a disk that was carved and spelled on both sides. After it was split in two, one half could be used to find the other until repeated castings caused the material to disintegrate. “Let’s put it into the sole of her shoe. Her boots have a one-inch heel. We can cut it open, insert it inside, and then seal the boot heel back together seamlessly. I know a leather-mending spell.”

“How will we get hold of her boots?”

Sebastien smirked. “She doesn’t wear them into the shower.”

Damien’s face split with a grin of excitement.

They planned Operation Sentinel—as Damien insisted on calling it—that night, and found a cow leg bone to use as the material among the kitchen scraps from dinner. One of the cafeteria workers was happy to give it to Damien.

The two of them cast the linking spell together to give it as much power as possible. Technically, that part wasn’t a requirement, just as no linking spells had been done on Sebastien’s blood to allow the coppers to use it to search for her, but the extra step made sympathetic spells a lot easier. Sebastien cut the bone disk in two with repeated, careful castings of the same slicing spell that had gotten her involved with Damien in the first place.

They implemented Operation Sentinel early the next morning, before most of the other students were awake, while Tanya completed her daily ablutions.

It succeeded without any problems, which Sebastien found faintly unsettling. ‘I’m a little too used to things always going wrong. I’ve come to expect it,’ she mused. ‘Well, things still have time to go wrong,’ she assured herself wryly. The hardest part of the operation had actually been carving the tiny ward array on the underside of Tanya’s door without removing it from its hinges or being seen by the occasional person walking through the hallways, even at that early hour.

Based on a combination of anxiety and a lingering lack of confidence in Damien, Sebastien wanted to stay at the University over the weekend to keep an eye on Tanya, but the crushing weight of her ever-increasing debt and her empty purse drove her back to Oliver’s house to spend Saturday and most of Sunday brewing, taking a few minutes here and there to make a few more batches of linked bracelets.

While there, she mentioned that she had an extra Conduit she could sell to Oliver, but he wasn’t particularly optimistic about quickly finding a buyer who could afford the celerium at current market price. “Our thaumaturges already have their own Conduits, and most of our clientele is either too poor to afford one, too uneducated to need one, or both.” She was willing to sell it for less than a licensed shop, but she hoped to make as much off it as possible.

She gave a simple set of ward bracelets to Damien and Newton so either could immediately alert her if Tanya left the University grounds. She instructed Damien to follow and monitor Tanya from morning till night. “Be discreet,” she emphasized.

Damien scowled. “I know, you’ve told me several times already. I promise I’m not going to sit there staring at her and be following two steps behind when she goes to the bathroom! I grew up in the Westbay Family, Sebastien. I think I can handle it.”

“Don’t get snippy, it’s a valid concern. You tend to draw attention to yourself. I’m not sure you have much practice being discreet.”

“I could say the same of you,” he said, crossing his arms and giving her a challenging stare.

She opened her mouth to refute this, but he raised his eyebrows, and she hesitated. Despite not wanting to admit he had a point, she could see the evidence was stacked in his favor. ‘People of greatness rarely go unnoticed,’ she consoled herself. ‘Perhaps they need to exert extra effort and time in practice, learning to keep the weight of their sheer consequence from drawing curiosity and regard.’ She struggled for a minute between a perverse pleasure at that idea and the more basic truth that it simply meant she had failed in her true goal. “Alright,” she said finally. “Good luck.”

Damien watched her leave with some curiosity, but he hadn’t tried to pry her own plans out of her, which she reluctantly appreciated.

Hopefully someday soon I won’t have so many crises to solve and will be able to simply spend my days like any other student, giving no one any hint of secrets to pry into.

So, after another trip to the market, Sebastien spent another weekend at Dryden Manor brewing for the Stag enforcers. Her new Conduit made it a little easier, and she thought that, with a bit more time to improve her Will, she might be able to make more of the simpler potions in a single batch and thus increase her profits.

In two days, she earned about five gold more than the interest accrued for the whole week. It was a lot, but still not nearly enough, and thinking of the debt hanging over her head made her irritable. ‘If I hadn’t paid Liza to talk to my father, I’d have at least a hundred gold left right now,’ she grumbled mentally.

She stopped casting as the sun began to set, hours before her meeting with the Nightmare Pack gang leader, partially to reserve her strength in case it was needed, and partially to listen to Oliver’s lecture—which he called “advice”— on how to act and what to be mindful of around Lord Lynwood and his people.

“It would be best if you attend the meeting alone, for appearance’s sake. The Raven Queen needs no escort, neither for fear of enemies nor to listen to her negotiations,” he said.

“I expected that,” Sebastien agreed. “I was also thinking, maybe you could cast a weak divination spell targeting me? To activate the ward Liza made me, I mean. The effects on my physical body—difficulty focusing on or thinking about me—could be useful in maintaining the Raven Queen’s aura of mystique, and might keep them from looking too closely and noticing something wrong, too.”

Oliver stared bemusedly at her for a moment, then said, “I’ll send a message asking Katerin about it. She’s not a diviner, but she can probably handle something low-level, if that’s all you need. I doubt she’ll mind.”

Sebastien shrugged. “That works too.”

Oliver hesitated, then stood up and went to his desk, where he pulled out a small package and handed it to her. “I got you something for tonight. Open it.”

She did, and found two ornaments of black and crimson feathers attached to thin, splayed wires. She looked up at him. “They’re pretty, but what are they for?”

“They’re raven feathers. The red ones have been bleached and dyed. They go in your hair, behind your ears. It’s a kind of headdress. They’re common among the People…” He coughed a little awkwardly.

She nodded to show she wasn’t offended that he’d guessed her heritage, at least the part that showed through. Her grandfather had always been pleased that she looked nothing like her wastrel of a father. ‘The blood of the People runs strong,’ he had said.

“I thought they were fitting for the queen of ravens, a kind of crown for someone who has no need for gold or jewels,” he added. “Do you want me to help you put them in?”

Sebastien hesitated, but wasn’t sure why, so she handed them back. “Yes, please.”

His fingers were gentle, brushing the rim of her ear as he pushed the wires into her hair.

Her skin burned where he touched, and the wires were cool as they slid against her scalp, weaving into her hair as if alive. She startled.

Oliver chuckled. “It’s an artifact. The wires hold the feathers steady and then conceal themselves, so it looks like the feathers are growing out from your skin.” He stepped away, assessing her, then nodded. “Perfect.”

Her gaze slid away from his. “I’m going to look in the mirror.” She hurried down the hall to the bathroom, where she took a few deep breaths to suppress the frustrating blush in her cheeks. “Don’t be a brainless ninny,” she muttered to herself, scowling at her reflection. She rubbed her ears harshly to rid them of the lingering sensation, then judged the effect of the feathered ornaments.

They did indeed give her a faint air of otherworldliness, even as Sebastien. She could imagine the effect would only be enhanced against the ochre skin and high cheekbones of her face as Siobhan. If only her eyes glowed gold or she had facial tattoos or something similar, the effect would be complete.

After a couple more minutes to make sure she was entirely calm—and there was no way she’d get surprised into blushing again—she returned to Oliver’s study. “Thank you,” she said. “Now tell me more about this place that’s going to act as a safe house for my transformation.”

“It was the simplest solution, really. No one will think it strange if Sebastien Siverling occasionally visits a brothel, and Siobhan Naught would fit right in among a group of beautiful, exotic women. It’s the perfect place to hide in plain sight, using people’s unconscious biases and associations against them.” He slipped her a leather-bound booklet. “Identity papers for one Silvia Nakai, declaring you a citizen of Gilbratha. Silvia is legally employed at the Silk Door, and if she gets into any trouble with the law, she can call upon her wealthiest and most influential patron to help her. One Lord Oliver Dryden.” He coughed a little awkwardly.

“Lord?” Sebastien echoed, flicking through the proof of one more false identity.

He shrugged, leaning against his desk and crossing his legs at the ankle. “Technically. It’s foreign and basically a defunct title, with the destruction of my family as a boy, but it still affords me a measure of influence.”

“I hope it will never be useful, but thank you.” She wondered how much the false identity had cost him, but didn’t ask.

“My investigation into who set off the false rogue magic alarm has borne no fruit,” Oliver offered, changing the subject. “The coppers have no idea.”

“Perhaps Tanya will slip up, and we’ll be able to follow the trail to her accomplices. Everyone makes a mistake eventually.” ‘Myself included,’ she admitted silently.

“You’re right. We have people watching the Morrows as well. Eventually someone is going to slip up.”

With sunset approaching and little time to waste, Oliver hired a carriage to take her to her midpoint destination.

The carriage driver gave Sebastien a knowing look as she stepped down into the street. “Have fun, milord.”

She ignored the man, staring up at the large building made of creamy white bricks. The sign above had words rather than a picture like it might have in the slums, where stores couldn’t trust that their patrons could read. In unadorned lettering, it read, “The Silk Door.”

Sebastien entered through a side door. Within, soft music played. The lighting was mellow, the furniture dark smooth wood and soft plush cushions. A couple of girls lounged about in tasteful but impractically light dresses, kept comfortable by the fire raging at all hours and the warming stones laid under the floor.

It was a high-end brothel, discreet and comfortable.

Without pausing to speak to anyone, Sebastien followed Oliver’s directions, walking up the stairs and down two hallways to a private, locked room.

The workers weren’t stupid, and would probably notice her strange comings and goings given enough time, even if she didn’t interact with them and the little room she used was well away from the trafficked areas of the building. But they also wouldn’t talk to the coppers. Their clientele was strictly confidential, and they had all taken vows.

She pulled out a key and entered. The room held little more than a well-appointed bed, but it was clean, and connected to another hallway and staircase, these ones private. She moved to the closet, where a nondescript but still stylish dress and accessories were waiting for her.

She stripped out of Sebastien’s clothing, pressed the dark matte stone artifact against her chest, and changed back into Siobhan.

She shrank a bit, her hair grew dark and long, and her skin gained an ochre tint. Looking into the small mirror inside the closet door, she confirmed that her eyes were the same as always, dark and fathomless.

Siobhan stared into them for a while, taking comfort from the sudden vertigo of the change. She wiggled and flexed until her brain remembered how long her limbs were in proportion to each other and the floor. Then she put on the dress, smoothed her hair, and spread bright scarlet cream over her lips, very carefully making sure not to smear it.

It took a quarter hour to prepare and cast the color-changing spell to fix the section of hair that Katerin had bleached. Lynwood would be expecting the Raven Queen, not Siobhan the Verdant Stag contractor, or even Silvia the courtesan.

Since she’d previously had trouble with this spell in Professor Burberry’s class, she squeezed every last drop of clarity and intent into her Will that she could manage. The spell worked well, perhaps even a little too well, leaving her hair a black that was so dark it almost shimmered blue.

Finally, she put the feathered ornaments back on, watching as they settled, lending a regal mystique to her presentation.

She transferred her spell components, the paper spell arrays, and Silvia’s identification to her new clothing and more stylish leather satchel, which was not nearly as convenient or spacious as her school satchel. “Women’s fashion,” she muttered disapprovingly.

When she looked nothing like the young man who attended the University, she exited the brothel through a different door than she’d entered through.

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