Month 12, Day 26, Saturday 7:00 a.m.
Tanya did nothing suspicious on Friday, even in the dueling club meeting that Damien sat in on.
The weekend seemed the most likely time for the meeting Munchworth had mentioned, and while the three of them couldn’t keep watch on Tanya for literally all the hours of the day, they could try.
Sebastien, however, wasn’t willing to sacrifice her normal weekend activities just to spy on Tanya. She needed the gold that brewing for the Verdant Stag gave her, and she planned to search for the components she would need to cast the sleep-transferring spell. Even one week lost was a week that Eagle Tower was closer to being rebuilt, a week more of wasting time and energy scrabbling to keep up while struggling to get enough rest, a week closer to the kind of strain that would mean more than a few days recovery time. And a week more interest owed to the Verdant Stag.
Sebastien refused to let Tanya make things worse, not when she was so close to a solution.
Both Newton and Damien would remain behind, but she would take the linked bone disk with her when she left.
Damien argued against that, and while she agreed that it would have been better if they could both locate Tanya magically, he had the advantage of actually being able to follow Tanya physically. He also had Newton to help, and as big as the University grounds were, there were only so many places she could go. Out in the city, she could disappear easily.
Plus, Damien was in Divination class. If any of them could find her without the tracking disk, it should be him.
Sebastien didn’t necessarily expect Tanya to leave, but since Sebastien had to, this was the most logical way to handle it. She needed the disk more.
And she was honest with herself—if not with Damien—that she also felt uncomfortable giving up the control the linked disk provided. It was illogical, but she couldn’t shake the fear that he might learn something very bad in her absence if she wasn’t there to supervise.
‘If Tanya comes into the city, I’ll be able to track her to the Morrows’ hideout,’ she consoled herself, ignoring Damien’s frustration. ‘Damien doesn’t actually need to be there.’ She would search for Tanya every hour the other woman was out of her sight, and move to track her down immediately if the stick pointed in an unexpected direction. If something went wrong, Damien or Newton could alert her by breaking one of the bracelets she’d given them.
On Saturday, Sebastien went to the library to find healing and binding spells that she could practice, ideally ones that were alchemy-based so she could also get paid for them. The revivifying potions were close to healing magic, but they did not have the same purpose as the spell she was developing, and she wasn’t comfortable relying on them as her only form of practice. What she needed was closer to the skin-knitting salve, but stronger.
While the library was absolutely filled with scrolls, books, and other information-recording media, much of the most useful information was not available on the first floor. Of what was available, many of the spells required more energy than she could channel or components she couldn’t easily access.
‘Call it paranoia, but there must be a conspiracy to keep knowledge out of the hands of those the University doesn’t trust. If, even after graduating with an Apprentice certification, a thaumaturge has had no access to more powerful or dangerous magic, not only does it reduce their threat level if they ever turn against the powers that be, but it also keeps them from channeling the kind of difficult, powerful magic that would keep their Wills growing to the level of a Grandmaster or Archmage. Without challenge they will stagnate, remaining easy to control.’ Simply increasing the intensity of a spell’s output had diminishing returns, just as muscle growth would plateau if someone only did the same exercises over and over. To grow, the Will needed to be stressed in new, interesting ways, but many thaumaturges spent their lives casting the same few spells, or variations thereof.
Generalized healing potions were both difficult to make and very expensive, and in most cases, unnecessary. If Sebastien were stabbed somewhere that wasn’t immediately life-threatening, why use a forty-gold healing potion when she could use a six-gold blood clotter along with a five-gold revivifying potion and a six-gold muscle regenerator, then top it off with stitches and a bit of skin-knitting salve for less than another three gold? By using a solution specific to the problem, she could save about twenty gold, and even more at the Verdant Stag’s prices.
General healing potions were good for things that were difficult to diagnose, when you didn’t know what kind of ailment or injury you might encounter and wanted to be prepared for everything, or in the rare case that other treatments couldn’t cure your specific condition.
Or, if you were rich and just wanted to feel better right away.
A general healing potion could have saved Jameson, maybe even past the point that a blood clotter and flesh-fusing potion would have made no difference.
Sebastien found a minor healing potion that worked by boosting the body’s natural response, lending some of its own power to the healing and taking the rest from the stored nutrients and energy of the injured person. The reference text said the potion would struggle to fix anything larger than a moderate wound, which it defined as a small dagger perforation in a non-critical place, a non-separated fracture in a single bone, or about six square inches of severe burn. Rather than a standard healing potion, it was better classified as a regeneration-boosting potion.
The potion took time to work, and it was apparently uncomfortable, but it could keep someone alive in an unexpected emergency, and she knew Oliver would be willing to stock the Verdant Stag and his enforcers with them. Fortunately, it was also rated at a low enough thaum requirement that she could actually brew it.
It was much harder to find a binding spell that she could practice. Binding magic, at its core, was simply an ongoing restriction or exchange that used a living creature.
The blood print vow was binding magic. It didn’t force, but compelled, both parties to keep the agreement they’d made, in exchange for the same compliance from the other party. If either party broke the agreement, they would be punished with the release of their blood print to the other, for whatever use the wronged person desired. It was about as mutual as these types of spells could get, and even so, still blood magic.
Which should have been a hint to Sebastien how difficult it would be to find low-level binding concoctions for alchemy.
The Lino-Wharton messenger spell was binding magic. She gained control of the raven’s movement and senses, for a nominal exchange of the vitality and intelligence of the Sacrificed raven. The exchange was unequal at heart, and the ravens were necessarily alive during the casting and could not choose to refuse, which was yet another reason why this type of magic was so likely to be restricted.
A witch’s contract with their familiar was binding magic too. While the University didn’t focus on teaching witchcraft, it did have quite a lot of information about the training a witch undertook before binding a familiar. A book titled Basic Contracts and Companions: Preparatory Exercises held a lot of short-term contract spells that could be used on summons, conjurations, and even mundane animals that Sebastien would have been strong enough to cast.
But she hesitated to take that route, because all of the resources for the training would have to come out of her own pocket, and she wasn’t planning to delve further into the craft of the witch after she was proficient enough for the sleep-proxy spell. It seemed a waste, as much as any knowledge of magic could be a waste. By which she meant that really, she avoided that alternative mostly because she couldn’t afford it.
There was a potion, the draught of borrowed gills, which allowed someone to breathe underwater by dropping a small, living fish into a mucusy concoction and then gulping the whole thing down whole. The fish was kept alive inside a bubble of potion within the stomach for a few minutes, during which time the fish’s ability to filter oxygen from water was transferred to the drinker’s lungs. The fish died quickly, both because of the incredible strain of its inherent property being sucked dry by a much larger being, and because the protective mucus around it eventually gave way to the stomach acid and dissolved the fish alive. To avoid drowning when this happened, the drinker needed to exhale as much water as possible and immediately return to breathing air.
She was surprised to find this openly available, because according to the supposed rules of what constituted blood magic, this should have been illegal. Blood magic included, among a host of other rules, spells that used a still-living being as a Sacrifice that would be harmed, or any magic that was unnecessarily cruel in execution or caused undue pain. Apparently, people didn’t care enough about the well-being of a common fish to ban the spell. Of course, that didn’t mean that she couldn’t still be accused of blood magic for casting it if someone powerful decided they wanted a reason to convict her.
It would probably have worked as a training spell, but she doubted she could get Oliver or Katerin to agree to buy it in large quantities. Still, she wrote it down in her grimoire. Gilbratha’s east side was sliced through by the Charybdis Gulf, after all. Perhaps there were uses for an inconvenient, dangerous water-breathing potion that someone would be willing to pay for.
Eventually, after spending half the day searching, she finally found a concoction she thought would work in Arcane Alchemy, Vol. III.
The group proprioception potion let everyone who drank from the same batch instinctively know where the others were for a period of time. It was a vague extra sense that worked even without being able to see the others of the group, like a person could tell where their elbow was, even in the dark. It was not blood magic, because it did this by dint of the main component—a magical sea lichen that connected and disconnected any singular part of itself at will, still somehow communicating with the greater whole to capture prey and then confine it until it starved to death. The lichen fed off the nutrients of its prey’s decaying body, filtering them out of the water. In this case, the exchange given to the lichen for its properties was a simple sugar solution.
No one would complain if a lichen were used as a still-living component.
The potion would be useful for any stealth operations, but also in chaotic emergencies where one person getting separated and lost could be dangerous. Additionally, an instinctive knowledge of where everyone else in a combat team was would allow a small group to work much more effectively together. After all the trouble with the Morrows, she was sure Oliver would be interested in anything that could give his lesser numbers an advantage.
She checked to make sure Tanya was still studying with Newton on the library’s second floor before she left, and then made her way down to Waterside Market.
She didn’t have enough gold to buy all the components she would need for the sleep-deferring spell, but Katerin would reimburse her for any alchemy components used for the Verdant Stag, and Sebastien could at least compile a price list for the rest. While she was shopping, each clink of coins paid from her shrinking purse causing another pang of regret, she wondered about the wards around the Menagerie.
‘If I could find a way to fundamentally change the nature of a harvested component, or disguise them within some sort of concealing ward, could I essentially have a free magical market at my fingertips? Surely I’m not the first to have come up with that idea, though. The University has likely already patched the kind of obvious security holes that an amateur like me can think of.’
She bought the more common ingredients first, most from the relatively cheaper market stalls that didn’t ensure the same kind of preservation and freshness as the more expensive permanent storefronts. She went to one of the cheaper shops for the remaining components she needed for the new potions she planned to brew that weekend. They also had a couple of the less expensive items needed for the sleep-deferring spell.
The person working the counter directed her to a more elite alchemy shop a few blocks north of the market for the rarer components.
When Sebastien found it, she knew immediately that everything inside would be expensive. The interior was all marble floors and dark wooden shelving, polished to gleam in the light of the many spelled light crystals illuminating the shop. Components sat in the shelves, some behind protective glass or under preservative spells.
Sebastien found a small jar of water imbued with energy from the Plane of Radiance, a vial of moonseeds, and a tiny little jar holding the soporific pollen of an elcan iris. Each cost a handful of gold, but the shelves still lacked the most important components.
Sebastien went to the counter and waited for the tall, thin woman behind it to finish with her current customer.
“Welcome to my humble establishment. How can I help you, sir?” the woman asked in carefully cultured tones.
“Thank you. I’m looking for a sempervivum apricus, and if you have it, a mandrake root. Both still living, if possible. I didn’t see them on the shelves. Do you stock those components?”
The woman nodded. “Yes, I believe we have both in the back. I’ll need to see your thaumaturge certification, Journeyman or higher.”
Sebastien stared at her. No one else, not even the shop she’d just come from, had done more than glance perfunctorily at her student token.
“If you’re still an Apprentice, proof that you work for a certified Master is also acceptable,” the woman said.
“This is the first time I’ve actually been asked for that,” Sebastien said, giving her a sheepish smile. “I didn’t bring any proof with me.”
The woman’s mouth tightened, but she nodded, and said with some pride, “This shop abides by the Crowns’ law.”
Sebastien didn’t hide her frown. “Well, I suppose I cannot purchase them at the moment, then, but can I at least inspect them? I need to report back to my Master. If he wants them, he’ll probably come back and buy them himself.”
The woman hesitated, but Sebastien stared at her expectantly until she gave in.
The sempervivum apricus was a low-growing succulent plant from the Plane of Radiance. The shop owner brought out a small specimen growing in a pot. Its juicy leaves grew in complex rosettes, and tiny motes of light traveled beneath the semi-transparent skin along with the water and nutrients, barely bright enough to shine through the membrane.
It was one of the “low-light” lifeforms from the Plane of Radiance, which meant that, with the proper conditions, it could survive on the mundane plane, though it still preferred the bright sunlight and long days found farther south.
The mandrake root was similarly small, but its pot was much bigger, dwarfing the dark green, wrinkled leaves sprouting from the middle. The main part of the plant, the root, was covered safely by well-packed soil. A faint, unpleasant sound filtered through the dirt and pot, making both Sebastien and the shop owner wince.
“How much?” Sebastien asked.
“Eighteen gold for the sempervivum, forty-three for the mandrake.”
Sebastien didn’t have to fake the surprised rise of her eyebrows. “Really? My master said he got a sempervivum with two offshoots for fifteen gold last month. And he expected thirty for the mandrake. How old is it?”
“The mandrake is at least three years old. I assure you, my prices are fair. Supply for many components has fallen slightly, while demand, if anything, has risen. If your master isn’t interested, I’m sure I’ll find another buyer.”
Sebastien shrugged. “Well, I’ll tell him. Thank you.”
With a slightly sour smile, the woman sent her off, returning the components to the back room.
Outside, Sebastien let out a slow breath, trying to force her shoulders to relax. ‘That was close. If she’d known a mere student, uncertified, was trying to buy those components, would she have reported me?’ She shuddered. ‘Well, I didn’t give her my name. But if that’s how strict people are with the rarer, more powerful components, how am I going to get my hands on them, even if I do manage to save up the funds?’
On the way to Oliver’s house, she considered where else she might acquire what she needed. ‘Maybe I could ask Liza where she gets hers. Or, if that still doesn’t work, maybe I could pay her a small fee to purchase them on my behalf.’ The thought of how much the spell might end up costing her was depressing.
She was still scowling when she reached Oliver’s house, and she slipped up the stairs to his study before the servants could notice and delay her.
She knocked, shuffling the packages in her arms. “It’s me.”
“Come in,” Oliver called. He was sitting behind his desk with the ever-present pile of paperwork, sipping a large, steaming mug of coffee. He looked tired, but less exhausted than he had been in the aftermath of the Morrows’ attack on his warehouse. He eyed her silently as she set up at the alchemy station against the wall. “What did you do with Lynwood?” he asked.
She paused in laying out the components of the minor healing potion. “Very fortuitously, Lynwood was interested in one of the only areas in which I have real expertise. His adopted nephew was having trouble sleeping. I acted mysterious, designed a spell to help the kid, and helped cast it for the first time to make sure it worked. Why, is he upset about something?”
“Very much the opposite,” Oliver said slowly. “So much so, in fact, that he sent you a gift to show his appreciation for your work.”
“Oh.” Suddenly remembering the other gift, she pulled the ovaloid black star sapphire from her pocket. “Er, this is the tribute. I was hoping that maybe I could keep it, and be in your debt for the thirty percent cut? I’m in need of a Conduit, and this will help me to brew more doses at a time for the Verdant Stag. And avoid scrambling my brains into puree by accident,” she added dryly. “When my other Conduits sell, they should make up for a good part of your cut.”
“I think I can do you one better than that,” Oliver said with a small smile. “The impact of your meeting on Lynwood was better than I expected. In fact, he’s been increasingly accommodating in general. He was very insistent that I pass along his message of gratitude and friendship toward you along with the gift.” He pulled a small box out of one of the lower drawers on his desk.
Sebastien approached the desk, both curious and bemused. “I tried to be mysterious, like I said, and I kept the anti-divination ward up to keep them from looking at or thinking too hard about me—I didn’t want them to be too observant and see through the facade—but I didn’t actually do anything very impressive.”
Oliver opened the box, revealing the two tiny mottled eggs sitting on velvet within. “Pixie eggs,” he said.
Sebastien’s eyes widened.
He nodded, a wide, predatory smile slowly stretching across his face. “Unfertilized, but still fresh. Few in this city but Lynwood could get their hands on such a thing. Your ‘unimpressive’ act earned an unasked-for bonus of approximately four hundred gold. It should cover my thirty percent cut of both this and the worth of your new gem and still leave, minimum, a few dozen gold for you.”
She took a deep breath. Her heart was pounding, sending a flush to her cheeks.
“We’ll need to appraise the gem, of course, but if I can find the right buyer for these, it could even be seventy or eighty gold coming your way. I’m thinking of approaching Liza first. She’s a valuable contact that I want to cultivate, but mostly it would feel good to pry some of my gold back out of her greedy fingers.”
Sebastien grinned back. “That would be a boon from the fates themselves. Perhaps I could get some of the payment directly, rather than toward my debt? I’m working on a…special project, and some of the components are quite expensive.”
“Does that project have anything to do with the new components on the alchemy table? I recognize a couple that are generally used in regeneration spells.”
“Well, yes. I need practice with healing magic, and I thought you could use a cheap, general-purpose wound healing potion. Your enforcers could carry it, and maybe some of the wealthier people in your territory could afford to buy it, too. I’ve also got the recipe and components for another potion I thought you might find useful.”
Oliver was curious, and after she explained the potions to him, they haggled a bit over how much the Verdant Stag would pay her to brew them.
As she returned to the alchemy station to get started, suppressing her smile of triumph, she asked, “I need a couple components that I can’t get without a University certification. Do you think Liza might know a place that doesn’t ask too many questions?”
Oliver gave her a wry look. “Most certainly. From my limited experience, you can buy almost anything in the Night Market. You might pay a premium for the lack of questions, but as long as you have the gold and you aren’t silly enough to get yourself stabbed and stripped of your valuables in a dark alley, that will be the place to go. Many of the shops require passwords or recommendations from a trusted customer, though. Ask Liza about it, but don’t pay her for the information.”
Satisfied that her problems were being shot down one by one, she searched for Tanya’s direction—the magical compass pointed north to the University—and then fell into the process of brewing. The healing potion came first, because it was the most difficult, and she wanted to be fresh while casting to avoid mistakes. It was a bastard cousin to the types of healing potions that could regrow a chopped-off finger or refresh burnt and blistered skin, but it still took more power than her old Conduit could have channeled, and she felt her Will stretching to its limits.
An hour and a half later, she carefully portioned the regeneration-boosting potion into two small vials, feeling that foggy fatigue that came from concentrating hard for long periods of time. Two doses were so little that she had to be careful not to let the brazier beneath her cauldron burn too high in case she evaporated all the water and burnt the potion to the bottom of the cauldron, but it was almost more than she could handle.
It also made her more money in the same amount of time than any of the other concoctions she’d made.
Next, after repeating her search for Tanya, she moved on to the group proprioception potion. Sebastien took her time reviewing the steps and the proper thoughts that would focus her Will for this type of magic, since it was well outside of her prior experience. After taking some time to rest, she started brewing, again a smaller batch than normal, only three doses, but this time because she was uncertain how efficient her Will would be at channeling the magic.
‘I don’t really understand proprioception, and it’s hard to imagine gaining an entirely new sense. Maybe if I could test out a batch for myself, I’d understand well enough to make it better the next time.’
This potion had a short shelf-life, so she couldn’t make it in bulk and just let the Stags stock up on it. But that was okay, because she didn’t have the time or Will capacity to make it in bulk anyway.
She was starting to tire by the time she finished with that, so she made a batch of skin-knitting salve to be sold in the Verdant Stag’s alchemy shop. By then, the sun had gone down and the chill from outside was overwhelming even the roaring fireplace and the warmth from the brewing.
She ate dinner with Oliver, where he made her laugh so hard she almost choked on her food telling her a story about a childhood mission carried out with his older sister. They had banded together to get rid of a new governess whose ideas about the “proper behavior” for a young lady didn’t agree with their own. He smiled fondly when he spoke of his sister, but didn’t say where she was now, and never told stories about her as an adult.
Sebastien knew better than to ask.
After that, she went to the Silk Door, going through the transformation process from Sebastien to Siobhan in a way that still felt anything but routine and left her disoriented within her body for a few long minutes.
Siobhan’s clothes still smelled faintly like the herbs and wax from the spell she’d cast on Millennium the week before, which she found soothing. ‘No matter what body I wear, my mind and my magic are my own. My Will doesn’t change.’
Siobhan hailed a cheap hackney and rode it to a corner a few blocks from Liza’s house. She exited reluctantly into the cold, dirty streets to walk the rest of the way. ‘Being cautious is more important than being comfortable,’ she told herself, but it didn’t make the trek any more pleasant.
She climbed the rickety metal staircase and used the lion-shaped door knocker, but no one answered.
Somewhat gingerly, eyeing the animated metal lion with distrust, she knocked again, but still no one answered. She was turning to leave, realizing with disappointment that Liza was either sleeping, ignoring her, or had gone out, when one of the bracelets on her wrist grew suddenly, uncomfortably cold.
She ripped it off hurriedly, worried that it would cold-burn her skin, then stared at the colored string wrapped around it.
This particular bracelet was linked to Damien.
Siobhan realized she hadn’t divined Tanya’s direction in the last couple of hours.
Fumbling with the need for haste, she crouched down at Liza’s doorway and set up the spell, which was already drawn in thick brush lines on a piece of seaweed paper. The spell pulled harder on her Will than it ever had before, probably because of her distance from the target.
For the first time that day, the burnt stick pointed in a different direction than north toward the University.
Siobhan stared at it for a few seconds before letting out a huge, disappointed sigh. Once the spell components had been safely stowed in her satchel, she headed out on a path to intercept her prey. ‘Curling up in my warm bed with a book is not in my cards tonight, apparently. This had better be good, Tanya.’
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