Month 12, Day 26, Saturday 7:15 p.m.
Siobhan only knew Tanya’s direction relative to her, not the other woman’s actual location.
After walking a few blocks away from Liza’s house, she hailed a shoddy, two-wheeled carriage—one where the driver didn’t sit underneath the fabric roof with her—and gave him directions.
She shoved her star sapphire Conduit into the lip of her boot, against her skin, to free up both her hands, ensuring the movement of the rickety carriage didn’t fatally disrupt her casting. The Conduit borrowed from Professor Lacer was at the bottom of her bag, since even though it technically could be connected to Sebastien, she didn’t feel comfortable leaving it in her little closet at the Silk Door.
When the stick spun around sharply, reversing direction just as they passed an intersecting street, she knew she was close. Siobhan got out, paying the driver with a silver crown from the purse Oliver had given her for investigating Tanya, and looked around.
The only people still outside were the homeless, huddled around bins of fire or bundled up in ramshackle shelters built of trash and scraps. Some of the houses leaked a bit of flickering candlelight through their poorly insulated cracks. Whatever streetlamps the city might have placed in this area had long been vandalized for the spelled light crystals within, which could be used personally, or more likely, sold for a few coin. Luckily, the moon was bright enough and high enough in the sky that she could still make her way, and her little lantern was ready if she needed it.
The scattered people still outside were mostly too miserable to bother paying attention, but those who did notice her eyed her with an assessing hunger that made it obvious she wasn’t safe.
Her alchemy athame was in her pocket, but, while the stamina to run away had been beaten into her by Professor Fekten’s Defense class, she had no skill with a blade, and the little athame would be unlikely to defend her if she was backed into a corner.
The problem with sorcery was that it didn’t lend itself to instantaneous casting, for those without the skill to free-cast. Still, she had a dozen-plus useful spells already drawn out on seaweed paper in her bag, a handful of emergency potions, and, if things got truly desperate, the low light was the perfect setting to cast her shadow-familiar spell for the most dramatic effect.
After quickly checking Tanya’s direction in the darkest corner she could find, Siobhan began to move. She kept her shoulders back and walked without hurry, turning her cloaked, shadowed face toward anyone who looked at her a little too long. Her confident, aggressive body language seemed to deter any inappropriate interest, but she wished she had some divination magic to push against so she could activate the ward in her back and go unnoticed. ‘Hells, I would even appreciate Damien’s company right now.’
This part of the Mires stunk worse than anywhere in Oliver’s territory, and in the dark, she even stepped into a few patches of what she thought might be frozen human feces. ‘The stench would be unbearable in the summer. And the threat of disease… No wonder the Verdant Stag needs so many healing concoctions.’
After a few minutes of searching, she came upon a bright jewel of a street amidst the squalor.
It wasn’t rich—or even clean—like the northern parts of the city, or the Lilies where all the Crown Families lived. It wasn’t even particularly bright. Its light came from open fires, lanterns, and a few spelled crystals mounted above the doors of the shops. But it was still awake and alive, even this far into the Mires after dark.
Siobhan looked around greedily, noting the riot of things for sale among the small, wheeled stalls and in the grubby windows of the shops: everything from questionable “meat” pies and alcohol to dried chameleon skins to a tiny, still-living squid in a glass jar. ‘Spell components. This is the Night Market,’ she thought with awe.
She gave her head a quick shake, reminding herself that she wasn’t here to sightsee or shop. She was following Tanya Canelo. ‘What reason could she have for coming here? Is she buying restricted components? Or perhaps it acts as a discreet meeting place with the Morrows? Munchworth did mention a meeting.’ Siobhan quickened her pace a little, scanning the hectic street for the other sorcerer.
Not long after, she caught the quick flash of Tanya’s short blonde hair as the woman turned a corner ahead of her.
Siobhan followed with the best combination of stealth and speed she could manage, keeping her hooded face just a little turned away, only watching Tanya out of the corner of her eye just in case her target looked back to see if anyone was watching her.
Tanya led Siobhan to the edge of the Night Market, where the lights and people grew sparser. When her pace began to slow, Siobhan ducked into the shadow of a doorway just before Tanya looked around apprehensively.
The woman pulled up her cloak, covering her head and short blonde hair, then withdrew something large and dark from her pocket and held it up to her face. After a few adjusting movements under her hood, Tanya stepped forward and knocked a pattern against a nondescript door.
Siobhan memorized the knocking pattern immediately.
After a few seconds, a little slot in the door that Siobhan hadn’t noticed slid open at eye-height. Someone inside said something, Tanya replied, and the slot closed.
The door opened, allowing Tanya to slip inside.
Siobhan cursed internally. She’d been too far away to hear what they said, which could have been a simple greeting, but more likely was some sort of password.
After a few seconds of searching for any watchful eyes, she slipped closer, hiding in a nearby alcove that had been formed from a poorly planned addition to an existing building. It provided just enough space for her to tuck away in the darkness, not quite perfectly, but hopefully enough, if she was careful not to move.
Over the next twenty minutes, ten more people came to the door, answered one of three phrases from the doorman with one of three responses, and were let inside. Each of them were wearing hoods, making their features impossible to see. Siobhan strained to memorize their voices, but, with a sample only the length of a sentence, she was skeptical how well she could reproduce any of them.
When a few minutes had passed with no more arrivals, Siobhan considered her next move. ‘Tanya is inside. I need to see what she’s doing. But even if I can get through the door, is it safe for me to do so? What if someone within notices that they don’t recognize me? What if they attack? Should I call Oliver as backup? But even if I alert him through the ward bracelet, how would he know where to find me?’ Without more information about what was going on inside, what dangers she might face, she couldn’t make a plan. ‘But I can’t just wait out here when I know something is happening inside.’
She circled the building, searching for any other possible entry points, but the windows had all been bricked over, and the back door was locked with a heavy iron contraption, with bars inserted onto the wall on either side to withstand attempts at forceful entry. They had been careful.
She briefly stepped back far enough to see the roof, searching for a chimney. She had the wild idea that maybe she could climb onto the roof and listen in through the chimney if the fire below wasn’t lit. But the brick stack was smoking, and there were no good places to haul herself up onto the roof, which, on second inspection, was too steep to try and climb considering the snow and ice melted into the wooden shingles. She imagined herself slipping and falling to the street, cracking her skull open against the cobblestones, shuddered, and vetoed that plan.
Siobhan resisted the urge to pace, her fingers flexing and reaching for her Conduit unconsciously, only to remember she wasn’t keeping either of them in her pocket.
Finally, she stopped, pulled the feathered hair ornaments Oliver had bought her for her meeting with Lord Lynwood out of one of her pockets, and slipped them on under her hood. ‘Best to differentiate my criminal persona as much as possible,’ she thought.
Then she walked around to the front of the building, and with her heart pounding and her head held high, she knocked on the front door.
The slot resolved from the wood—some kind of magic—and then slid open, revealing a man’s eyes and bushy eyebrows on the other side. He squinted at her, shifting a little to let some of the light behind him spill onto her face, which she tried to keep as concealed as possible within the shadow of her hood.
“What kind of demon feasts on the corpse of a thought?” he asked.
“Speak not of such things lest they speak of you,” she replied.
His eyes narrowed at her and he stared for a few long seconds. Too long. “This is a private club,” he said finally, then shut the slot. Its edges melted back into the rest of the door, adding a certain finality to his statement.
Siobhan stared at the closed door for a few moments, the muscles in her shoulders and back straining with disbelief, dismay, and frustration. ‘I’m sure I got the password right. Does he know everyone who enters? Are people scheduled to come at very specific times, and I’m off? Or… What was it that Tanya slid underneath her hood? What if it was a signal of some sort? A…mask?’
She turned to find someone walking toward her only a couple of meters away and almost jumped in fright.
She managed to avoid such an obvious tell, but her muscles clenched so hard it sent a spike of pain shooting up her back and into her skull.
The other person was hooded like the rest, but held a lantern in their hand that gave off enough light for Siobhan to see the mask beneath.
Siobhan stepped away from the door warily.
The masked person stared at her for a moment.
Siobhan tugged her hood further down and was already spinning away when Liza’s familiar voice said, “Wait.”
Siobhan wasn’t so stupid as to blurt out Liza’s name, but she did stare at her for far too long, mentally resolving the image of the cloaked, masked person in front of her with the sharp-tongued, gold-greedy sorcerer with a hidden core of kindness whose house she’d just come from.
Liza walked to the door, knocked, and when it opened, exchanged a different password phrase with the man on the other side. “I have invited a prospective new member for consideration,” she added.
The man’s eyes looked sideways toward Siobhan, and he nodded. “Wait here.” He closed the slot again.
Liza pulled Siobhan to the side and walked to the edge of the block. She looked around suspiciously and then lowered her mask. “How did you learn about this meeting?”
“I overheard someone talking about it and followed them,” Siobhan said honestly, though leaving out the most critical details.
Liza rolled her eyes with tangible irritation. “Do not mention that to anyone within,” she said quickly.
“I thought this was a meeting for people aligned with the Morrows. I didn’t expect to see you here…” Siobhan stared at the older woman suspiciously. ‘Liza has no allegiance to Oliver. He was clear that her loyalty couldn’t be bought when he first told me about her. But I hadn’t thought she might be working with both sides.’
Liza snorted at her, the sound more angry than derisive. “I will work with whoever I choose, girl, and I will take no censure for it. But I have no particular truck with the Morrows. This is a meeting of thaumaturges that the official, legal factions might not approve of.”
“Oh.” Since Liza was exactly the kind of thaumaturge legal factions wouldn’t approve of, her presence was ironically appropriate. For that matter, Siobhan herself also fit the conditions.
“My recommendation can get you in the door, but if you want to become a member, you will need to pass the inspection. A prognos examines new members for duplicity, and there is a blood print vow not to reveal the important details of the meeting except to those you invite as prospective new members, and also not to talk about it in general with those you think might be a danger to it. Do not embarrass me. No acting awed, prying too much at the other members, or asking too many questions. In fact, if you can manage it, keep your mouth shut entirely.” Liza looked to either side of Siobhan’s face, at the red and black raven feathers growing out from behind her ears and around her temples. “Nice touch.”
Siobhan grazed them with her fingertips self-consciously. “Thank you.”
“I expect a fee for acting as the intermediary here,” Liza added, slipping her mask back on and turning to walk toward the door.
Siobhan’s eyes narrowed. She thought quickly, then caught up with Liza and said, “While I appreciate your help, it’s little effort on your part. Perhaps a favor, instead of the standard compensation?”
“You may have an interesting title, girl, but I don’t see how anything you can do would be valuable to me.” It was a hint that Liza knew Siobhan was the Raven Queen, but apparently didn’t find that impressive, which made sense seeing as she’d cast magic with Siobhan and knew better than most what she was actually capable of.
“I have a specific favor in mind, actually, and it has little to do with my hair ornaments,” Siobhan replied with a tiny smirk. “Oliver has recently come into some pixie eggs. Fresh.”
Liza’s eyes didn’t widen behind the holes in her mask, but something about her gaze grew more piercing. “Fertilized?” she blurted.
“Unfertilized.” Liza didn’t seem too disappointed, so Siobhan continued. “Two eggs. He’s planning to sell them to someone willing to pay a premium, but I can convince him to offer you the chance to make a deal, first.”
“You have that kind of influence?”
Siobhan shrugged with careful nonchalance. “It’s just a meeting. If the both of you can’t come to an agreement, that’s not my fault. I think he can do that much for me. I’m the reason he has the eggs in the first place, after all.”
Liza’s head turned toward Siobhan fully at that, but they were back in front of the guarded building, and the door opened slightly behind them, spilling light into the street. They both turned and moved quickly inside, the chance for further conversation gone.
The door guard was standing with two other people, one of them a prognos, as Liza had warned. All three wore masks—though the guard’s covered only the lower half of his face—and of course the mask of the prognos had a single large eye hole in the middle of their forehead.
The prognos’s round eye was rimmed with kohl, and judging by the shape of their body, Siobhan thought her a woman.
The third person was a nondescript man around Siobhan’s height. “Please, come with us,” he said with an understated sweep of his arm. The hallway was narrow, so Siobhan and the man walked in front, with the prognos following behind.
Liza turned the other direction, leaving Siobhan to her fate.
As they walked, Siobhan felt the barest niggle of prying eyes and searching tendrils against her planar divination-diverting ward. Her thoughts turned to the soothing, chill smoothness of the black Conduit against her leg, but she didn’t feed any extra power to the ward. ‘It must be the prognos. It’s subtle enough. Much less than the pressure of getting close to Gera. I wonder if what I feel could simply be this woman’s natural talent for divination? Prognos notice and correlate details in a way entirely beyond most humans, but it doesn’t mean she’s casting a spell. In any case, no need to overreact. The ward can deal with this much all on its own, and I don’t want to be seen as aggressive in the midst of a building full of suspicious, likely powerful thaumaturges. I just hope their questions aren’t too invasive and their oath not too restrictive.’
The man opened a door into a small room, and Siobhan entered ahead of them both at another wave of his hand, her eyes flicking about for danger, taking in every nondescript detail about the room and her escorts’ body language. There was a table in the center, a wooden chest in the corner, and a chalk spell array already drawn on the floor, covering most of the room.
Siobhan was pretty sure it was a ward against lies. Many of the stronger wards against untruth were illegal, because taking away the free will of a human was one of the definitions of blood magic. ‘But that’s not likely to deter these people.’
Her heart was beating too fast, and, despite the chill that had seeped into the building, she felt the prickle of sweat on her back. ‘Why do I keep getting myself into situations like this? I must have brain damage. If this goes horribly wrong, will Liza hear me if I scream? Would she help?’
The man motioned for Siobhan to sit at the table, which had a chair on either end, then moved to the chest, where he drew out a couple of components and placed them in the spell array on the floor.
The prognos woman sat across from Siobhan while the man began to cast the ward against untruth.
Siobhan felt the strange tension in the air trying to seep under her skin, into her ears, and past her eyes. Into her brain. She shuddered violently.
“It can be unsettling,” the man said quickly. “Just try to relax. It’s easier if you don’t try to fight it, and it’ll be over after a few questions.”
That was not reassuring in the least.
The prognos pulled out two pouches. She poured a Circle of pale, dull sand onto the table with one hand, skillfully adding a few simple glyphs that Siobhan vaguely recognized as directional focusers for spells that acted in some way outside of the bounds of the Circle.
In this case, based on the fact that obviously the woman was about to do a divination, it was focusing a direction for the suffused input of all the little details of sound, air pressure, and light that would be the clues it used to make deductions. Non-sympathetic divination—divination for extrapolating information based on data input rather than something like dowsing for a sympathetically connected item—was difficult, dangerous, and could give subtly or even blatantly incorrect results.
The woman unlaced the mouth of the second pouch and began to shake it with a certain slow rhythm, staring at Siobhan. Whatever was inside clacked around like dull stones.
Siobhan felt the draw on the magic of the disks in her back increase from a trickle into a growing stream. Together with the discomfort of the ward against untruth, she was profoundly on edge.
Her back had grown sweaty and was prickling, though her fingers were chilled and stiff. She curled them tight around the wooden arms of the chair, then very consciously released them and let her hands rest naturally. She stared back into the single, large eye of the prognos unblinkingly, letting her mind fall into that familiar focused state that prefaced casting magic.
“Try to answer with a simple yes or no. Are you a member of law enforcement, public or private, or employed by any member of law enforcement?” the woman asked.
“No,” Siobhan said.
The woman shook the pouch one last time and then upended it over the middle of the sand Circle on the table. Bones spilled out. The pull on Siobhan’s ward spiked sharply.
The bones could almost have been chicken leg bones, but they weren’t shaped quite right for that.
‘Finger bones,’ Siobhan realized. ‘Humanoid. Probably human. All a little different, and more than ten of them.’ On closer inspection, she saw that runes were carved into every inch of their surfaces.
The woman looked down at them, her eyes flicking over the patterns they’d made. The skin above her eye contracted in what was probably a frown underneath her mask. She looked up to Siobhan, and then quickly back down. “Let’s try that again. Maybe a little more simply this time.”
She gathered up all the bones, put them back in the bag, and began the slow rhythmic shaking again. She stared at Siobhan even more intently this time.
Siobhan stared back, feeling the ward kick in again. She instinctively renewed the supply of blood and as much of her Will as it needed to boost its function. The prying, peeping, invasive sensation made her want to lunge across the table and rake her fingers across that eye. She wouldn’t mind sending a slicing spell or two at the man powering the room-sized ward, either. ‘Reacting like that would be a mistake,’ she warned herself.
This time, the woman asked, “Are you a copper employed by Gilbratha?”
“No,” Siobhan responded again.
The woman threw the bones again.
Siobhan gritted her teeth at the pull on her ward as the bones fell, clattered together, and settled. She thought one of her eyes might have twitched involuntarily.
The woman stared at the bones once more. She looked to the man, then to Siobhan, then back to the bones.
“Something wrong?” he asked, a slight edge to his voice. “Do I need to call Peters?”
The woman shook her head quickly. “No. I’m just…not getting anything. It’s contradictory, or maybe like the bones are answering an entirely different question than the one I thought I asked.” She stared at them a while longer, looked up to Siobhan again, and then quickly gathered up the bones. “Let’s try something else. Something less reliant on interpretation.”
She took out another pouch, this one small, and shook three many-sided dice into one hand. She closed her fist around them and asked, “Are you a copper?”
“No,” Siobhan said. She was beginning to wonder if maybe she should let the divination attempts through, but the ward worked without her conscious input, and pouring more power into it was instant and instinctive, like how she might jerk away from a hot poker before even realizing she was being burned. Even if she wanted to let the divination through and allow herself to be bare, seen by the eye and touched in places that should have been dark and secret, the prognos would have to overpower the ward, still.
The woman blew on the dice, and, with an arching twist of her hand, let them tumble onto the table.
“What is it?” the man asked, his voice strained with agitation.
The woman swallowed, staring at the dice, all three of which had fallen on the same symbol. “I am prying into secrets beyond my ken. The dice give a warning to look away.”
Siobhan sincerely doubted the woman was correctly interpreting that. It seemed most likely to her that the spell was trying to explain that it had been diverted by her ward, turned away impotently.
“Whether or not she’s a copper is secret knowledge?” the man asked.
Siobhan could see his hand sneaking into his pocket, and feel the compulsion against untruth waver as his focus faltered. “Be careful,” she snapped, turning to him with a frown.
He drew out a wand, pointing it toward her, and the compulsion wavered even more violently.
“You’re about to lose control of your spell,” Siobhan said slowly and clearly. “Either focus, or let it drop. I will not be in the range of backlash if something goes wrong due to your gross incompetence.”
The man paled, but his focus on the spell solidified rather than releasing the magic. “What are you doing? Why isn’t the divination working?”
Siobhan turned back to the woman across the table from her, raising her empty hands a little to show that she wasn’t a threat. She couldn’t lie, but that didn’t mean she had to answer his questions exactly as they were asked, either. “It’s not the question that’s the problem. It’s me. I doubt you have access to any type of divination that will work against me. Is that going to be a problem?”
“Won’t work? She’s a prognos,” the man said incredulously, but neither of them responded to him with even a glance.
As if in answer, Siobhan slowly raised her hands even further, to the sides of her hood, and drew it back, revealing the feathers sprouting from her scalp. She could only hope that some rumor of the Raven Queen had reached these rogue thaumaturges, and that they were as inclined to believe them as Lynwood had been.
The woman stared at her, her eye focused on Siobhan’s darker ones, only flicking to the feathers. “Do you…” She swallowed. “Do they call you the Raven Queen, my lady?”
The man sucked in a breath.
Siobhan stared back for a few seconds too long, and the prognos looked away.
The man half-lowered the battle wand, then raised it again, as if he wasn’t sure where to point it. The ward spell was wavering again.
“Some may call me that,” Siobhan admitted. She turned to look at the man. “Please don’t be alarmed. I mean you no harm. That will not stop me if you attack first, though.”
The prognos turned back to meet Siobhan’s gaze. She swallowed. “Put the wand down, Gerry,” she said, her voice hard. “I apologize,” she said to Siobhan. “We did not know.”
‘My reputation must really be getting out of hand if this is how they react. I wonder if Lynwood or one of his people has been spreading tales about me.’ Siobhan realized only then that she’d stood at some point and was looming over the woman. She sat down again slowly. “I did not tell you,” she said, trying to sound agreeable. “So there is no way you could have known. Now, we are at an impasse. I cannot pass your test if you cannot ask these questions, and yet, I would like to join the meeting before it ends.” It was true. ‘Who knows what Tanya is doing or talking about with everyone else while I’m stuck here?’
“I—” The woman’s voice broke, and she swallowed hard. “I ask only for your promise of truthfulness, Queen of Ravens. That will be more than enough proof for us.”
“You have it,” Siobhan said after a moment of thought. ‘It’s not a lie, because I do plan to be truthful as long as they don’t ask anything too prying, and I can’t be sure yet that they will.’
To her surprise, at a sharp look from the prognos, the man released the spell to stop her from lying.
‘Are you serious right now?’ Siobhan thought incredulously. ‘They’re just going to take my word for it? Maybe they’re worried that the ward will insult me, since I’ve already given my word. If so, my reputation is far more honorable than I am.’
“Do you hold any animosity toward this group or its members?”
Siobhan gave her a small, ironic smile. “Not toward the group. I have somewhat…undecided affiliations toward the individual members. But I have no plans to cause trouble that would spill over to affect the whole.”
“Has one of us offended you?” the woman asked, her voice a half-whisper.
“One of you has caused me some trouble, but also saved me some trouble, and I’m positively disposed toward at least one other member. As I said, I am not here to bring trouble. I’m here for the meeting.”
The woman ran through a series of other, similar questions, and Siobhan answered vaguely but truthfully.
Less than two minutes later, the interview was finished, they’d given her a nondescript mask to conceal her identity, and the man was motioning for her to precede him back down the hallway toward the main meeting room.
Siobhan stopped in the doorway of the interview room. “I hope this doesn’t need to be said aloud, but I will do so anyway. I expect that neither of you will reveal my identity to anyone else. That includes gossip about my appearance or abilities, or even that I was here tonight. I value my privacy just as much as anyone else wearing a mask here.”
They both agreed readily, assuring her they wouldn’t leak any information about her.
‘Hopefully they keep their word. I don’t want Tanya getting spooked because the Raven Queen goes to her secret meetings. By all the greater hells, what a mess.’
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