Month 9, Day 28, Monday 4:00 p.m.
Oliver watched the young man—really an intriguing young woman—walk away in one of his suits. It was too big for her, but she still wore that air of unselfconscious confidence that thaumaturges sometimes absorbed. He theorized it had something to do with knowing deep down that one could enforce their will on the world and the world would have to bow.
He wondered if any studies had been done on it. Was the confidence from experience, from knowing that one could lift their thumb and blot out the sun? Or, perhaps, was it inherent, and only those with the most forceful personalities managed to become powerful thaumaturges?
He looked up at the sun, which would sink beneath the western lip of the white cliffs in a couple hours, throwing a shadow over the entire city. It was still too early for the Night Market to open.
He turned and walked back to his study, turning his thoughts to work. His responsibilities never ended. The task he had set himself was gargantuan, and would be the labor of years, if not decades.
He sat at his desk, wondering if he should search out a sorcerer talented in decryption for the book. He decided against it. Better to give it some time before making any moves that someone could connect with the theft, so that nothing could lead back to him. Siobhan would turn her own energy toward deciphering the book, if what he’d walked in on that morning was any indication. Perhaps she would even succeed.
That would tie things up tidily. When he’d learned about the theft, he’d been under the impression that she was an accomplished sorcerer. The wary but confident way she held herself hadn’t disabused him of that notion, till she explained her circumstances. She cut an imposing figure for a woman, and her defined cheekbones, skin tone, and almost-black eyes revealed her as a descendant of the People, which only added to the impression of danger and competence.
His thoughts sidetracked for a while as he wondered if it wasn’t somewhat bigoted of a race to name themselves the people. What was everyone else, if not also people? Perhaps it was intentional. Diminutizing and mentally segregating “others” from “self” made certain unpleasant or morally reprehensible things easier, and the history of humanity was filled with just as much fighting against each other as fighting against non-humans. Perhaps this conflict-hungry nature was what had allowed such an originally magically weak species to gain the influence and dominion they now enjoyed.
Oliver settled into his paperwork, making notes, reading Katerin’s reports on their various ventures, both legal and illegal, and authorizing expenditures. Always, it seemed, there was too much to do and too few resources. The Verdant Stag, the inn he’d started as a front for other illegal ventures and a face for his organization, was doing well, but it wasn’t enough.
He was hemorrhaging money faster than he could replace it, and his personal fortune wouldn’t last forever. He may have been accused of charitable leanings, but he knew that one man couldn’t fund a revolution alone. His goal demanded he build an empire of business.
He and Katerin needed more competent, educated employees to handle the things they had no time for. In the areas of Gilbratha he was operating in—the poor areas—that was hard to find, though he had more applicants for unskilled labor than he could possibly hire. He made a note to look up people who had been denied admittance to the University. Those people would know how to read, write, and do at least basic math.
Next he accepted a party invitation from one of the local Crown families. Connections were important, and much of politics was done in the drawing room rather than offices or formal conference rooms. Even if progress toward his goals was too slow to use only the influence he could gain among the elite, they were still powerful, and he couldn’t afford to have them all turn against him.
He picked up the report Katerin had sent him on his latest venture, an old warehouse in the poor part of the city. He hoped to turn it into a miniature farm that could grow large amounts of food in a compact space, year-round. Small-scale food growth was a grey area in the city law, and thus far unregulated, allowing him to make real changes to the local economy.
He doubted his efforts would go unnoticed or unimpeded once those in power realized what he was doing, but he would fight that battle when the time came. If he could get some common magical plant varieties to grow, hidden among the other crops, it would solve part of his money problem as well. He signed off on Katerin’s request to hire workers for the warehouse and checked the time.
Oliver left his study, grabbed his cloak, and slipped a battle wand and the mask he used during his more dangerous or blatantly illegal ventures into a pocket. He left through the back entrance, walked quickly to the small stable at the end of his equally small bit of property, and saddled his erythrean horse, Elmira. Despite its magical heritage and ridiculous price, an erythrean didn’t look much different from a normal horse to the layman, and he’d chosen this one from his breeding business specifically for her unremarkable appearance. Finally, he kicked up into the saddle and rode out at a sedate pace.
When he’d passed into the poorer part of the city, but not yet reached the Mires, he guided Elmira into an alley. After assuring himself he wasn’t being watched, Oliver turned his cloak inside-out, changing its color from grey to black, and slipped the mask on.
He wasn’t trained to pick out a tail, but he had noticed nothing suspicious since he left his house, and if there was chatter about the coppers investigating the Verdant Stag or his public persona, one of the coppers he’d bribed should alert him. Still, it was best to be cautious about these things. It was too soon for Oliver Dryden to be a known criminal lord, and while visiting the Night Market wasn’t illegal, purchasing unlicensed magical services was, and either would cast suspicion on him.
He got a few more looks after exiting the alley on the other side, mostly for the unsettling mask, but he felt comfortable in his anonymity.
The Night Market was firmly in the Mires. A young lookout manned each entrance, suspiciously watching all who entered. Each child stood ready to blow their whistle and race away if the coppers or other obvious trouble walked through.
This generally wasn’t necessary, however. Oliver wasn’t the only one who had a couple coppers in his pocket, and usually a raid would be announced with enough advance warning for anyone important to escape or hide their illegal activities before being inspected.
The market encompassed a few narrow streets filled with small shops, which put up at least a front of legality. Lining the streets were a plethora of open-air stalls and booths, most of which had no license to operate, and would pack up and run or wheel away if the coppers came. Light crystals were mounted above the shop doors, as it was too poor an area for the city to provide streetlamps. The shops’ window displays were innocuous, even unappealing, and none of the doors stood open to welcome customers after twilight hit.
Oliver got off Elmira and walked beside her to the hitching post closest to the tavern where he was to meet his contact, The Bitter Phoenix. He tossed a coin to the attendant. The young man startled and bowed low when he tried to meet Oliver’s eyes through the holes of his mask. The boy would feed the creature and make sure she wasn’t stolen or bothered, but as a precaution Oliver still had some of Elmira’s hair in a locket at home, ready to be used in a scrying spell.
The tavern was already doing good business when he entered, and under the cover of his mask, Oliver felt free to grimace at the heavy smoke clogging the air. The Verdant Stag had an air-filtering artifact for that very purpose, as he couldn’t stand the headache-inducing stench.
Oliver went to the bar and ordered a simple ale. When the bartender set the tankard in front of him, he paid with a few silvers in place of copper, effectively giving a tip worth about ten times the price of the ale.
The bartender adroitly scooped up the coins, his eyes flicking over Oliver’s mask and fine clothing. “You’re lookin’ a bit morose, my friend. Care to tell your story to old Horace, here? Can’t promise I can help, but I find a listenin’ ear always eases the soul a bit.”
There was no way Horace could see Oliver’s expression, and he certainly wasn’t drooping sadly. It was an opening, a lead-in for Oliver to make a request in exchange for the pseudo-bribe.
Oliver gripped the tankard’s handle. “Well, Horace, I keep having this dream that I’m searching for a crystal ball, and everyone else but me seems to know where it is. I try to ask them, but they all give me nonsensical answers, and I wake up just wishing I could get someone to tell me the truth.”
Horace nodded, as if Oliver’s words made perfect sense. He gestured to a door beside the bar, which a thickly muscled man stood guarding, arms crossed. “We have a crystal ball. Through the den, at the other end of the hall. Password’s ‘blood moon.’”
With a nod, Oliver stood, leaving the ale untouched. The muscled doorman stepped aside to let him into the room beyond, which was bigger than the main area of the tavern.
Within, people were gathered around several small gaming tables, some gambling, others chattering manically, seeming hardly to notice the games. A couple people had tucked themselves away in darkened corners and were scribbling frantically on parchment. What they all had in common were the wide, glassy eyes and expressions of complete focus.
Oliver was disheartened, but not surprised, to see the occasional vial of shimmering silver powder lying around.
Quintessence of quicksilver, the powder of a potion boiled down into a solid and then crushed, temporarily frenzied the mind. It could make you smarter and grant a liquid creativity that many found enthralling. Some said it felt like approaching divinity.
It was addictive, both physically and emotionally, from the desire for more of that feeling. People told stories about those who had accomplished amazing feats of precise, exhaustive planning or brilliant improvisation under the inspiration of the dust. However, with the accompanying lowered inhibitions, people also got themselves into ridiculous trouble by being too bold to realize they still weren’t smart enough to avoid consequences.
The effects of a single dose lasted for about six hours on those who hadn’t built up a tolerance. Of course, users crashed into a dazed stupor for the next day or two after those effects wore off, and long-term users lost their ability to focus and displayed various types of memory problems, becoming dependent on the quicksilver just to function normally.
Oliver walked past it all with barely a moment of hesitation, ignoring the shrewd gazes of those who noticed his passing. Addictions like this were a disease borne of despair and desperation. When there was no hope for a better future, no opportunity to leave the darkness of your life in the past, there was little argument for avoiding any momentary pleasure. Especially when it might genuinely help to solve your problems in the short term. He doubted he could eradicate the use of such substances completely, but perhaps he could fix the environment that led people to such choices.
At the door on the far side of the room, he gave the password, and again the door guard let him through, this time into a quiet, thankfully smokeless hallway.
He knocked on the door at the end of it, paused briefly, then entered a small room with a couple chairs sitting in front of an empty desk. A door to the side of this waiting area led to a large office, which was filled with cabinets and a shelf that held not only a crystal ball, but also a deck of cards and a few other items Oliver recognized as useful in divination.
But what he had come for was the man sitting behind the desk in the center of all that.
The man in the adjoining room lifted his balding head from the papers stacked on his desk, and pushed up his spectacles in order to look Oliver up and down. His expression didn’t change when he saw the mask, though if he was any good at his job he already knew who Oliver was. The man waved at him impatiently, motioning to one of the chairs in front of Oliver. “Sit, sit. My secretary is out at the moment.”
Oliver complied, leaning back comfortably as he waited.
After a couple minutes, Gilbratha’s premier information broker shuffled away the report he had been reading and came out into the waiting room, plopping down behind the smaller secretary’s desk. He leaned back and took off his spectacles. “What can I do for you today, Lord Stag?”
Without preamble, Oliver replied, “Someone is smuggling magical goods into the city.” He knew this because the Crowns heavily taxed certain magical components and restricted the sale of others, and some components were illegal altogether. Yet those things were being sold by the underground community, and not just the restricted items, but the illegal ones as well. He knew he could find proof at the Night Market that very moment, were he to go out and search.
The broker leaned back, resting folded hands on his potbelly with a slight smile. “And?”
“I’m looking for some supplies. I have an interest in herbology, you see. I need certain seeds and cuttings for my garden.”
The man let out a short chuckle. “Seeds and cuttings? You’re actually serious, aren’t you?”
Oliver nodded. “Quite serious. Can you connect me to someone who can help with that?”
The man stared at him for a few moments, then sat forward. “I believe I can. Is a meeting all you require?”
“Yes.” Oliver let a small smile creep into his voice. “I’m sorry I cannot allow you to showcase your impressive services in some more thorough way.”
The information broker chuckled. “I find repeat customers make up most of my clientele. I’m sure I’ll have the chance to show off at some other time. A runner will drop off the meeting information in a week. Send three hundred gold when you get it. Be aware, resources like this can be…coveted.”
Oliver was already dealing with the Morrows, who didn’t appreciate his incursion into a few dozen city blocks of their territory, poor as it was. He doubted the supplies to cultivate a few magical plants would make a difference. Of course, he would’ve liked to consume all incoming smuggling operations whole, but the Verdant Stag still lacked the resources for that.
He gave the information dealer a shallow nod. “I understand.”
“Good. Is that all you need from me today?” When Oliver nodded again, the man put his spectacles back on and shooed him away. “Alright. Off you go, then. I’m busy. This data won’t read and organize itself.”
Oliver held back a chuckle, but left without delay, striding quickly back down the hallway and through the den of quicksilver users.
As he passed through, a man looked up from the table where he had been scribbling in a leather-bound journal. His eyes flicked over Oliver from head to toe, and recognition sparked within them.
Oliver didn’t walk any faster, didn’t turn his head toward the other man in acknowledgment. If the man had recognized him, it was as the leader of the Stags, as the mask itself. Not Oliver Dryden. He left the bar and retrieved Elmira, then rode to the Verdant Stag.
He traded paperwork and reports with Katerin, who worked even more than he did despite the burden of raising her young nephew, and left again.
He was just exiting Stag territory when a group of people waiting in an alley stepped out in front of him.
He slowed Elmira.
They spread out, and a couple more came up behind him.
“Somehow, I doubt this meeting is coincidental,” he said, one hand falling to the battle wand in his cloak pocket. The light from the streetlamps was enough for him to make out the telltale signs of the Morrow gang on his ambushers—strips of red cloth tied around their arms, red bandannas over a couple of their heads, and the blood-red M stained into some of their shirts, over the heart.
One of the men crossed his arms over his chest and threw back his shoulders to make himself seem more imposing. “No, just like how it weren’t a coincidence that this used to be Morrow territory, and now I’m seeing green antlers all over the place, and men patrolling around telling me where I can and can’t do business while I’m looking down the wrong end—”
Oliver didn’t wait for him to finish. This was never going to end with friendly negotiation, and waiting for them to be ready to attack only gave him worse odds of walking away. He threw himself off Elmira, his right hand pulling the wand out of his pocket and raising it high. In the same motion, he flipped around and slapped her on the rump as hard as he could with the left. As soon as the creature began to run, he closed his eyes and his thumb pressed down on the switch of the wand. Light exploded across his closed eyelids like a flower blooming red.
Screams came from all around as his attackers responded to the blinding flash of light. It wouldn’t stop them for long, but he only needed a few moments.
He lowered his hand, switched the wand’s output to an overpowered concussive blast, and was firing at one of the assailants to his right even as he ran forward to attack another. The spell from the wand slammed the man across the street and into the side of the building to their right.
He might not die, but he would likely need medical attention. A hit like that was similar to being slammed by a rampaging troll, and he wouldn’t be getting up anytime soon.
A punch to the throat sent the man in front of Oliver keeling over.
Elmira had knocked another man to the ground as she ran past, and he pivoted, slamming a foot down into the side of that man’s knee before he could stand up.
The joint popped sideways, and the man went down again.
Two of the thugs rushed him, one from the left and one from behind.
He took out the one to his left with the battle wand’s concussive blast, but the one behind managed to tackle him around the waist hard enough to knock his breath out, and when they fell to the ground the final ambusher grabbed Oliver’s arm and wrested the wand from it.
The man who had tackled Oliver punched him in the kidney, hard enough to send pain arcing all the way up his spine.
Oliver slammed his left elbow repeatedly into the junction between the man’s neck and shoulder, and the grip around his waist slackened, allowing him to flip his leg up, over, and around, using the leverage to reverse their positions.
The other man, the one who had grabbed his arm and ripped the wand from it, was trying to break Oliver’s arm by bending it backward at the elbow joint, so Oliver punched him in the back of the neck. The man collapsed, and Oliver yanked his arm free.
Ignoring the pain at his elbow, he scrambled away, kicking at the remaining assailant, who was scrabbling at Oliver’s clothes in an effort to pull him back into a grapple. Oliver grabbed for his wand. His fingers, clumsy with adrenaline, fumbled around the handle, and he must have moved the embedded controls, because when he swung the wand around toward the man grabbing at his legs, a red bolt shot out instead of the foggy concussive blast.
It didn’t matter. The stunning spell hit the final gang member, sizzling at the spot of impact, and the man collapsed.
Oliver kicked himself loose of the man’s limp arms, then stumbled to his feet and spun about wildly as he searched out more attackers. He shot the man whose knee he had kicked, who was now rocking on the ground and howling agonizingly, with another stunning spell, and for good measure did the same to the others as well.
The street was completely empty, and any lights that had shone from the windows around had been doused shortly after the fighting started.
It took a few seconds of panting and looking around for Oliver to trust that it was over. His fingers shaking slightly, he checked to make sure his mask was still on, and then he made sure he wasn’t bleeding anywhere. The coppers likely wouldn’t bother to investigate violence between rival gangs, but he couldn’t take the chance of leaving some piece of himself to be used or traced.
He searched the downed Morrow gang members, rifling through their pockets. What he was looking for, he didn’t know, but it would have felt a little strange to just leave them there after they’d ambushed him like that. He didn’t find much. A few silver, and one mostly empty vial of metallic dust. The man who’d carried it was the same one who had recognized him back in the quicksilver den, he realized belatedly.
Disgusted, he poured the substance out onto the ground, dropping the vial and leaving his attackers behind as he limped after Elmira, who was waiting for him a few blocks away. He very much doubted the ambush had been intentionally prearranged, and likely was not even sanctioned by the Morrows’ leader.
The man at the information broker’s bar had recognized him, and, with an overabundance of confidence from the euphoria of the quintessence of quicksilver, had gathered a few fellows to wait in ambush, hoping to take back something they felt like he had stolen from them.
Carefully, already beginning to hurt as the adrenaline from the fight wore off, he remounted the erythrean and turned back toward the Verdant Stag. He had to check in with Katerin and make sure everything was okay—that this wasn’t a multi-pronged attack he was underestimating.
It surprised her to see him again, and her lips drew into a snarl as he recounted his little surprise. “This will not end here,” she said. “It can’t. These things escalate, it’s how it works. It was harassment before, trying to drain our funds and tarnish our name, but now?”
“I know. Even so, that’s out of our control. I’m approving your request to recharge those old battle wands you managed to get. Arm our patrol and security team. Hire a few more reliable people, too, if you can. Quality over quantity, of course. I have no desire for thugs running around my territory, as dangerous to the citizens as they are to our enemies. Stock up on healing potions, too, and put a healer on retainer.”
When they’d finished talking, Oliver left again, his body protesting with his horse’s every jarring step. He didn’t bother to take any potions or use salves for his injuries. They barely worked on him anyway.
It was late into the night by the time he’d returned home and got the horse settled. The servants had left long ago.
The girl—Sebastien in this form, he reminded himself—was the only one there. She opened her door when he reached the top of the stairs, watching him with those dark, unsettling eyes. He had noticed already that sometimes, when she withdrew into the company of her own thoughts, her expression relaxed, yet failed to give any hint of actual peace, and there was the sense of something swimming in the depths of her gaze, dark and aware. Then she would turn that gaze back to reality, and whatever hint of what lay beneath would be hidden under fragile pride and the blaze of a mind that devoured knowledge like a wildfire.
He did his best not to limp, though only the threat of violence could have made him move quickly. “How did it go?”
“I have two weeks until the exams, and another two weeks after that until classes start.”
“You may stay here until then,” he said. “I don’t have any books on magic in this house, so if you require study aids, you will have to seek them elsewhere. There is a bookstore, not far. You can go tomorrow.”
Sebastien frowned. “What I don’t understand is, how are people supposed to study for the exams if you must already be certified by the University to learn, teach, or practice magic?”
Oliver gave her a sardonic smile. “Sebastien, those texts contain little magical instruction, and the tutors you can hire may be an even worse investment of your gold. They’ll teach you how to read, write, and do basic mathematics, as well as help you memorize rudimentary principles of natural or sympathetic science. I believe the tutoring center has some useless classes on decorum and dancing as well. You will find deeper learning elusive without delving into the less legitimate side of this city. However, the examination doesn’t expect you to be competent in magic. It simply requires you to have a wide range of basic understanding and an able, agile mind. Money, background, and connections don’t hurt, either.”
She made a small grimace of disgust.
He noted it with pleasure. Perhaps Siobhan would truly help with his plans, if he hadn’t been mistaken in his judgment of her. Magic always had a cost, but it also allowed the resourceful to accomplish feats that the natural sciences and the common man could only dream of matching, especially with the current state of the world. Once Oliver had succeeded, that would change, of course.
He would have Katerin call in the first repayment of the girl’s debt soon—a favor. Something charitable, to help disarm her. He could tell she was suspicious. But he always played the long game.