Month 12, Day 24, Thursday 11:55 p.m.
Sebastien retrieved the Comprehensive Compendium of Components from the shelf after Professor Lacer left.
There was an index at the back of the book that gave page numbers by keyword, which was immensely helpful as it meant she didn’t have to flip through a few thousand pages one-by-one. She spent the rest of the evening reading through the pages containing relevant keywords. Only when the library closed at ten o’clock did she reluctantly leave. She didn’t want to find out what would happen if she was still inside a restricted section after that.
At best, she would simply be trapped in the room all night and have to find a way to deal with an extremely full bladder without the proper facilities. At worst, it would set off an alarm and she would be found.
Thursday dawned gloomy, cold, and still. Great masses of cumulus clouds hung low and heavy in the sky. The air held the tension of a bent twig just about to snap, without the wind that was normally a constant at the University’s altitude.
Shortly after the third class of the day, which was most people’s last, the clouds broke and began to dump feather-like snowflakes. There had been several sprinkles of snow already that year, but none so perfectly suited to playing, and students of all ages spilled out onto the grounds, getting into snowball fights and creating things out of the malleable material.
Sebastien watched from a bench under a tree, working on homework for one of her less rigorous classes under the cover of the evergreen canopy. At other times, such ruckus and noise would have distracted and irritated her, but at the moment she only smiled slightly to herself. Things were going well for her.
Two witches competed along with their familiars to create the best-looking sculpture of a dragon, packing the snow even higher than their own heads while their familiars did the more detailed carving with tooth, claw, and magic.
A sorcerer furrowed a complicated design into a swath of clear snow, taking great care where he placed his feet and snappishly shooing away any students who threatened to get close. After about a half hour of work, he took out a little house made of sticks and what Sebastien thought must be a beast core, because there was no other obvious source of power, and placed them as components. Then, with a dramatic lifting of his arms and rumble in the air, the snow within the Circle rose and compacted into the shape of a small, simple house, complete with chimney and square openings for windows.
This drew cheers and applause from those who had been watching, and the sorcerer invited one of the girls from the crowd inside, which deepened the blush of her cheeks, already rosy with the cold. She accepted, even though the “house” was small enough that they both had to duck to get through the opening for the front door.
‘That looks useful,’ Sebastien thought longingly. ‘I wonder if it could be cast on dirt, too. I wouldn’t have to sleep in the open the next time Father and I are traveling between cities and there is nowhere to beg shelter, or no coin to pay for it.’
With a belated twinge, she remembered that she wouldn’t be traveling with Ennis ever again. ‘Still, that doesn’t mean I’ll never be somewhere without a proper roof over my head,’ she reasoned. The spell was likely energy-hungry, but if she was able to draw out the casting to match her Will’s capability and power it with, say, a campfire instead of a beast core, she could still cast it. It would just take much longer and be less dramatic. But with ingenuity, even an Apprentice-level sorcerer could cast interesting magic.
The snow house demonstration led to a general interest in fort-building, which led to people forming factions and attempting to bypass or destroy opponents’ forts while protecting their own, with some sort of freeze-tag and flag capturing mechanics mixed in.
When she finished her homework, Sebastien had a quick dinner and again made her way into the library, which was uncharacteristically empty, except for those huddling in the atrium to warm themselves after frolicking in the snow.
The books in the small restricted room below kept Sebastien company for the next handful of hours, and she finished a preliminary version of the sleep-proxy spell that incorporated Professor Lacer’s suggestions in an updated casting structure and spell array.
Of course, she would have him look it over again before she actually tried to use it. On top of all the studying into the Natural Sciences of the topic she still had to do, she also needed to practice binding and healing magic. Many more hours of practice would help grow her Will strong enough to channel a more powerful spell like this. She hoped she wouldn’t have too much trouble getting her hands on a few of the rarer components and a couple of ravens.
She would have preferred to avoid ravens because of the whole “Raven Queen” thing, but they were well-suited to the spell, relatively easy to feed and care for, and could be found cheaply in almost any magical market. It would be much harder to find—and then care for, say—a couple of raccoons, which were another viable option.
Her most immediate problem was that she doubted she could afford everything the spell required, even though she’d purposefully chosen weaker, cheaper options where possible. ‘I will have time to make a bit more gold before I’m able to cast it. I can gather the components slowly while I’m practicing and improving my Will. And I bet there are some useful potions I could make for the Verdant Stag that require healing and binding magic.’
That evening, Sebastien was woken up after only a couple of hours of sleep, about halfway through her first rest of the night. She checked the time and found it was only a few minutes before midnight, which was also the official curfew. She was confused until she realized that the ward they’d set on Tanya’s door had just alerted. It usually went off several times throughout the day, but at set times.
Tanya had a small toilet in the corner of her room, so there was no reason for her to need to leave when all the University buildings were closed and all the students were in bed.
Sebastien sat up and tossed aside her covers, threw back the curtain enclosing her half-walled section of the dorm, and rushed to Damien’s bed. She clapped a hand over his sleeping mouth.
He woke up with an arching, futile gasp, scrabbling at her forearms with wide eyes.
“Shh!” she hissed. “Myrddin’s balls, you’re so dramatic, Damien. Get up. Discreetly.” She took her hand away slowly, watching to make sure he didn’t start screaming or flailing.
“Dramatic? I’m dramatic?” he ground out past clenched teeth, one hand pressed over his heart. “You realize the actual discreet way to wake me would have been a shake or whispering my name? Why do people keep doing this to me?”
Sebastien ignored him. “She’s leaving,” she whispered, already hurrying back to her own cubicle. She’d only deigned to wake him because she had no spells that could enhance her hearing well enough to spy on Tanya from afar. Otherwise, she would have preferred not to involve him.
Damien immediately understood who she was referring to. Behind her, he scrambled out of bed and began to dress with more haste and less silence than she would have preferred.
She retrieved the bone disk that would let her sympathetically track Tanya’s shoe and set up the tracking spell on the portable slate table with folding legs that she’d taken from the abandoned classroom. Her little lantern was plenty of power for this simple spell, with Tanya not having had enough time to move very far from the dorms.
The tracking function itself consisted of nothing more than a stick in the center of the spell array, with one burnt end that would point toward the disk they’d put in Tanya’s shoe, like a compass. The stick spun to point northwest, vaguely in the direction of Eagle Tower.
Damien crouched down beside her, looking at the stick. “She’s returning to the scene of the crime,” he said in an ominous tone.
“Take over,” she said, moving to get dressed herself. By the time she finished, the stick was still pointing the same way. “We’re following.”
She led the way while Damien held the slate table, balancing it carefully so the spell components didn’t shift or fall out of the Circle. They paused in the dormitory building’s doorway, looking out.
Outside, it was still snowing, though more gently than earlier in the day. The clouds had thinned enough to let in the light of the moon, but were still thick and low-hanging enough to reflect the lights from the ground back down. The University kept light-crystal lamps glowing around the outside of their buildings and along their cobbled pathways, lighting up the snow, refracting off the white flakes in the air, and then bouncing back down from the sky.
The world was aglow.
It was the kind of fairy-tale scene one could only experience within the cradle of a big city. In the wilderness, a cloudy night was the darkest black you would ever see.
Sebastien peered at the snow with some worry. If too much snow got on the spell practice table, it could disrupt the chalk array symbol and glyphs. And, while they may not need the spell to find Tanya at all, because her footsteps were very apparent in the snow, their own footsteps would be equally noticeable if she came back the same way.
She turned around. “We can’t go out this door. We have to circle the building. Hurry!” She motioned for Damien to drop the spell, then grabbed the bone disk, slightly burnt stick, and the lantern off the folding table, tucking them away.
A couple of minutes of tromping through knee-deep snow later, they made it back around to the north side of the dorms, but stayed away from the lights of the building so that their trail wouldn’t be so obvious to the naked eye.
They made it to Eagle Tower following Tanya’s trail from fifty meters to the side, but, contrary to their expectation, the trail didn’t lead to the front door.
In fact, it bypassed Eagle Tower entirely, continuing on past it.
Sebastien stopped Damien behind a tree, then quickly touched up the chalk spell array on the table and recast the sympathetic locating spell. “Just to make sure she isn’t cleverer than we thought,” she murmured. The twig pointed further to the northwest, the same direction in which Tanya’s footsteps continued. “The Menagerie,” she murmured.
“What could she be doing there?” Damien asked.
“I don’t know, but it’s a problem. There’s only one gate accessible through the student tokens.” The gates were warded, and would block anyone without a University token from passing.
He pursed his lips. “It’ll set off alarms if we try to jump the fence, and one of the groundskeepers will come to investigate. There are too many valuable things inside the Menagerie for them to be lax about thieves. But if we go through the gate, they’ll have a record of us entering right after her. If she does something like last time, we could be under suspicion.”
“That too. But the more immediate problem is that I have to cover our tracks or she’ll see she was being trailed when she comes back through the gate and there are suddenly two more fresh pairs of footsteps in the snow. We’ll just have to hope she doesn’t give anyone a reason to look at the records. If she does, we can give a different excuse for our presence. You said students come here to harvest moonbeams and fairy wings, right?”
“Hallucinogens? My father would—” He grimaced and shook his head, shuddering.
She took the slate and chalk from him, and when they had made their way closer, turned around and set up a gust spell, which was a simple thing that did nothing more than shove air through the Circle as fast as she could power it. She’d used the same spell in her escape from the University on the day that had started everything, but the spell was common enough that she wasn’t worried about being recognized just for knowing it.
With sufficient force, she was able to blow up enough snow to cover their tracks, though the effort left her panting and sucked the little lantern flame completely cold with each burst. Luckily, the array on the bottom of the lantern allowed her to relight the wick with little effort. She was conscious of its light drawing attention to their position, and wished it had a way to darken or cover the glass. Damien was using his cloak to block the light, but it wasn’t perfect.
Once they reached the gateway and Tanya’s trail, they stepped exactly where she had, avoiding disturbing the snow until they found a good place to split away from her trail again. Sebastien thought the whole thing rather irritating. ‘Would it have been too much to ask for Tanya to conduct her nefarious business at a more convenient time and location?’ she seethed.
Any appreciation she had earlier felt for the outdoors was spoiled by the need to sneak through it. Her jacket was too thin, the knee-high snow fell into her boots and melted into her socks, and every accidental noise cut easily through the night air. With idle vindictiveness, Sebastien contemplated casting the only real curse she knew—a minor thing meant to make the victim attractive to flies and other biting bugs—on the threshold of Tanya’s door.
Finally, they found Tanya standing on a small arched bridge over a half iced-over stream. She stood with a man whose back was turned to them, but who still seemed strangely familiar.
Damien and Sebastien crouched behind a group of dingleberry bushes to watch, ignoring their offensive smell.
Sebastien ran through her memories like a bloodhound, tracking down the one that had caused her sense of deja-vu.
‘Munchworth.’ He had been the professor to meet her and her father when they first came to Gilbratha. He had laughed at even the idea of sponsoring Siobhan through the University, which had likely been the catalyst for her father stealing the encrypted book out of spite. Munchworth had again almost stopped her from entering the University during the verbal examination, and would have, if not for Professor Lacer.
The realization was almost enough to make her breathe his name out loud. She recognized the way he was constantly moving some part of his body like a nervous jitter. ‘I saw him here before. Weeks ago. And Tanya was here, too. I didn’t see them together at the time, but is it possible they were meeting? Is this a weekly thing? Did they meet here last Thursday, too, after she blew up Eagle Tower, and I just missed it because I wasn’t prepared?’
It didn’t take Damien long to get his hearing spell ready, his hands cupped behind his ears and carefully angled toward their targets till he caught the sound.
“She’s saying something about discretion,” he murmured. “I think she didn’t want to meet tonight.” His eyes widened. “And he just said that if the worst should happen, he’ll just tell people she’s his mistress. Unless she gets caught, in which case she’s his mistress who’s blackmailing him.”
Tanya’s body language grew visibly agitated, the line of her mouth harsh as she responded.
Damien turned to Sebastien. “She didn’t like that.”
Sebastien nudged him. “Stay focused.”
It took a few seconds for Damien to regain the right angles for his “ears” to catch their conversation. “…paranoia and trying to find an excuse to overstep their boundaries on sovereign land,” he said, his voice taking on a caricature of Munchworth’s tone. “We’re sticking to the idea that the Crowns just don’t like that the University is independent and want to ‘investigate’ the accident so they can get their men in where they don’t belong. Again. No admission that any malfeasance occurred. We’ve got them blocked, and we’ll keep them that way. Enough of the staff are on our side, and if it ever came to it, I think you’d find more than a few influential people want to limit the Crowns’ power.”
Damien switched to the stereotypical, sweetly high-pitched tone that men seemed to use whenever they were imitating women. “What about Westbay?” Damien’s eyes widened, but he didn’t lose focus this time. “If he mentions something to his Family about me being there…”
Munchworth waved his hands impatiently. “Proximity does not equal criminality. Especially because, as far as our faction is concerned, there was no criminality. As long as you avoid being caught in a situation with no deniability, we can deny and deflect. You should be focusing on finding her. There’s a meeting soon, right?”
Tanya nodded silently.
“Here,” Munchworth said, shoving something into Tanya’s hands. “Go to the meeting. You might need coin to grease people’s tongues if they’re not interested in the goods.”
She tucked what looked to be a full coin pouch away. “Our ‘friends’ might be reticent to just give away some of the stock.”
Munchworth snorted. “Then remind them who they’re dealing with. I want that book, Canelo. Spend what you need.”
“We need to be discreet, too. I’ve heard…rumors. She already gave me a warning,” Tanya said, absently touching her covered forearm. “I don’t want to give her a reason to come after me in the middle of the night.”
“Surely you don’t believe that drivel? The lower city is made up of uneducated peasants with Wills so weak they’ll be frightened of their own shadow. They make up stories to relieve the boredom and hopelessness of their existences. Perhaps your pedigree is showing through,” he said with a sneer.
Tanya didn’t respond to the scathing insult, even though Sebastien felt insulted by proxy.
“Find out what her connection is to those upstarts. It is your job to bring me solutions, Canelo. If you cannot do that, I may start to regret our arrangement.”
“Don’t underestimate me,” she said.
He chuckled. “You’ll have your assignment change next term if you can provide results. And a recommendation from me to any Master who’s willing to hire you, when the time comes.”
Tanya snorted. “When the time comes, I’ll be the one hiring people.” Without waiting for him to respond, she trudged away.
Munchworth waited a couple of minutes and then left in a different direction, muttering ungraciously to himself.
Damien and Sebastien stayed hidden until they were sure they wouldn’t be discovered, then began to retrace their own steps. Just in case, Sebastien used the gust spell to erase large sections of their trail.
“That man was a professor, right? Who were they talking about? I mean, obviously the Raven Queen, but the rest?” Damien whispered as they walked between the trees, the dorms visible in the distance. “Their ‘friends,’ and the ‘upstarts?’ What meeting?”
‘Probably the Morrows and the Stags. I’ve no idea about the meeting, but hopefully we can find out by following her again.’ Sebastien shook her head and said, “I don’t know. But that wasn’t just any professor. That was Munchworth. He teaches Titanic History and Lore, and…”
“He was involved in the theft,” Damien finished for her. “The Raven Queen and her accomplice were here for a meeting with him when they stole the book.” He was silent again for a while, then said, “I’ve been thinking. There seems to be a conflict between the University and the Crowns. Both of them are trying to find the book, right?” He looked to Sebastien.
“And neither of them wants the other to have it. And Munchworth mentioned that their ‘faction’ is keeping the coppers from investigating University matters. So maybe there’s internal strife, too. Is it possible that the University, or some part of it at least, ‘lost’ the book on purpose to keep it out of someone else’s hands?”
Sebastien kept trudging, her breath escaping past her scarf and hanging heavy in the cold air. She’d never considered that, but it did seem awfully coincidental that her father had managed to steal it in the first place. “It’s possible,” she said softly, blinking away the snowflakes melting on her eyelashes. “Would that be a simpler explanation than the alternative?”
Damien frowned. “That a powerful, free-casting user of blood magic stole it?”
‘That a man with no magic at all managed to grab it in a moment of pique due to simple negligence on their part. That a young woman with only a few years of formal training managed to escape with it.’ “Yes,” she said aloud.
“I don’t know.”
‘I don’t know either,’ she agreed silently. ‘I don’t even know what’s inside the book, except for the amulet hanging around my neck right now. Could someone have sent Ennis to steal the book without him realizing it? Maybe they never planned on him giving the book to me and us splitting up.’ She huffed into her scarf, her breath billowing out around the edges. ‘Maybe I’m reading too much into it. This isn’t the first time he’s stolen something, after all, and with all their questioning and curse-breaking, the coppers don’t seem to have found evidence of any nefarious influence on him.’
Damien was silent for a while. “We don’t have all the variables to solve the problem yet,” he finally said. “That’s what Aberford Thorndyke would say. Though he’d probably have noticed about fifteen different clues by now, and would just need to put them all together in the big revelation.”
“Well, this is the real world,” she said wryly. “Aberford Thorndyke has the advantage of a writer slipping in little hints, arranging ‘coincidences’ in his favor, and making sure he has all the opportunities he needs to tie everything up nicely. His whole life is full of contrived plot devices. In addition, there’s some hindsight bias at work. Once we know the answer, it seems like something a genius could have deduced, but in some of those stories, if you put down the book just before Thorndyke does his big revelation, and go back through from the beginning trying to figure it out yourself, you’ll find that there is either missing information or other options that the evidence hasn’t narrowed down yet. But once you know the correct answer, it’s impossible to be truly objective about what the evidence points to. In some of the stories, Thorndyke’s conclusion seems to be geared more toward shocking and awing the reader with his intelligence than pointing toward a realistic culprit. I think I could argue convincingly against him on several of the cases I’ve read.”
Damien stopped to stare at her. “Really?”
“Of course.” She started to go into greater detail, but he held up a hand to stop her.
“No. I mean, you…you’ve, in your head, come up with arguments about who’s the real culprit. Which you would argue with Aberford Thorndyke about.”
Sebastien stared back at him, one eyebrow raised. “Well, if he’s wrong, he could be ruining someone’s life while letting the real guilty party go free.”
Damien stared at her for another few seconds, then clamped his hands over his mouth to stifle hysterical laughter.
Sebastien had to half-drag him back into the dorms to keep him from collapsing in the snow. ‘Obviously the stress is getting to him.’
Want to get an email with links as soon as a new chapter comes out? Sign up here: https://landing.mailerlite.com/webforms/landing/q4b8d8
Trouble accessing a chapter? Troubleshooting tips: https://www.azaleaellis.com/trouble-accessing-chapters/