Month 12, Day 26, Saturday 7:55 p.m.
As she walked down the hall with Gerry, Siobhan reached up to adjust her new, nondescript mask. “So how do these meetings work? Give me an overview of the relevant information.”
He cleared his throat nervously. “Identities are private, obviously. Though some do more to protect theirs than others, we don’t allow unmasking or the use of any moniker besides a codename, which you can choose to provide to the other members or not. There is an arbiter who helps to control the flow of the meeting. He’s the one you’ll see sitting at the big table. We offer item appraisal, for a fee, and all exchanges of both material goods and information must be completed here. We mediate most exchanges to ensure that members are not cheated, stolen from, or attacked within these walls. There is…a small premium on all exchanges.” He looked to Siobhan as if worried that she would object to this.
‘And that appraisal fee and “small premium” is what makes it worth it for them to set this up in the first place.’ She didn’t respond aloud.
They both stopped walking as the hallway opened up onto a large room filled with a semicircle of chairs arranged in a vaguely horseshoe-shaped arc. The open end was occupied by the arbiter, sitting behind a large table.
“Umm, the first part of the meeting is for those who have something to sell,” her escort continued in a low voice. “After that, we open the floor to requests. Then there’s an opportunity for open exchange of information. That’s the end of the official meeting, and any parties who have a transaction to complete will stay afterward to do so under our surveillance. We send members out at staggered times, in different directions. And, umm, I’m sure you won’t have a problem with being followed, but generally we expect all members to take a different route to the meeting place every time.”
His voice had been low, but a few of the members had noticed the two of them, and their turned heads were drawing more attention. There were a few dozen people.
‘How many unlicensed thaumaturges are there in Gilbratha? Of course, some of these people could very well have licenses, or have gone to the University for a term or two to learn the basics.’ In many ways, it seemed foolish for the University and Crowns to make it so hard for people to learn magic the official way. Their exclusivity could be creating rogue elements. Kicking early-term students out for underperformance was the same—counterproductive, and maybe even dangerous.
If someone like Oliver was in charge, he would take all prospective students who proved themselves worthy, and for those who couldn’t afford it, there would be loans that kept them in debt for a good portion of the remainder of their lives—and working in jobs he needed—ensuring the return on his investment into their education. People who flunked out would be put into jobs that suited their limited abilities, keeping them useful and integrated into the system, too.
‘Do the coppers know about organizations like this? They must.’ It wouldn’t surprise Siobhan if someone in a position of power was benefiting from allowing it, either directly by secretly running the whole thing, or indirectly through the bribes they received to ignore it.
Siobhan drew her cloak down farther over her masked face. She walked toward the group with no further hesitation and took an empty seat at the end farthest from the arbiter.
People turned to look as she passed by and sat down. The meeting had already started. She was late.
There were a handful of other people standing at the corners of the room, and several doors opened up off the sides, leading into small adjoining rooms. ‘Guards, probably both to protect the members and protect against them. And I’d bet those small rooms are to handle the exchanges in a slightly more private way after the meeting is over.’
Liza was there, slouched nonchalantly on her chair, giving off a sense of irritated superiority even with her features covered. Siobhan recognized her mostly from the fact that she was the only one other than the arbiter seated at an individual table. It was the unfolding cube artifact that Liza had termed a “portable office.”
Some of the other members were obviously non-human, and for the more distinctive of them, the masks they wore might not have actually done much to protect their identities.
Siobhan found Tanya easily enough.
Tanya didn’t do anything in particular to give herself away, but Siobhan was intimately familiar with the other girl’s boots—the same ones she had sliced open to put the tracker in the heel. ‘Shoes are one of those things people don’t think about disguising. Luckily I don’t have that problem, because Sebastien’s shoes are too big for Siobhan’s feet.’
The man who’d helped interview her hurried over and whispered something into the arbiter’s ear, who then said, “A new member. Welcome. Let us continue, then.”
One of the members had been in the middle of his offering, and leaned forward immediately. “This design can keep minor and common spirits confined. It will resist attempts at dissipation, and my experiments showed that only the weakest spirits were able to escape in that manner. It’s particularly useful against spirits with more ordered natures, but none of the four wild spirits I tested escaped, despite one being unusually clever.”
A man so short his feet dangled from his chair asked, “How much?”
“Forty-five gold,” the first man responded, an obvious smile in his voice, “Or two hundred grams of shade dust.”
“How about fifty grams of shade dust and a natural adder stone?” a woman offered.
The short man slumped back in discontent, not deigning to counter-offer.
The seller looked around to see if anyone else was going to speak up, but no one did. He seemed more than pleased when he said, “Deal.”
The arbiter nodded and said, with a tone of boredom, “Noted.”
The next member presented various rare components that Siobhan probably wouldn’t have been able to buy at Waterside Market. They had restricted components that the Crowns allowed, but tracked from seller to buyer, entirely illegal components, and components that were simply rare and valuable. Human fingernails, overgrown to the point of curling. Various parts of a mermaid, which included the human-mimicking tentacles and organs from the main body, which she doubted the being could have lived without. The fangs of a rare flying snake that lived much closer to the equator, and other, equally strange offerings.
After that, someone offered to teach how to cast the mind-muddling jinx, which caused the victim trouble reading and comprehending. They suggested this could be used on people signing contracts, receipts, or other binding documents that would benefit from lack of attention. Several people took them up on the offer, despite the requested price of fifty gold.
‘I’ll be careful to take note if I ever have trouble concentrating on something someone wants me to sign,’ Siobhan thought uneasily.
Next was something more innocuous. Lightweight cold box artifacts, meant to preserve food, potions, or ingredients, with a signature, secret upgrade that not only kept them cold, but also suppressed putrefaction and dehydration, like a counterfeit combination of a normal ice box and the evidence boxes the coppers used.
The prognos woman had come into the room and taken a seat against the far wall. The arbiter called her up to appraise the artifact. When she confirmed its quality, a handful of people put in orders for one of their own, including the arbiter himself, on behalf of the organization.
‘This is profitable,’ Siobhan thought. ‘The lack of the thirty percent magic tax alone is a huge draw. It’s the kind of thing the Verdant Stag might want to explore, once they’re big enough to ensure the whole thing wouldn’t spiral out of control and blow up in their faces like a poorly controlled fireball spell.’
People continued to offer and bid on things for sale for the next few minutes, but Tanya remained silent. Siobhan worried that whatever the other woman had come here for had already passed while she was stuck in the onboarding interview.
Finally, there was a longer pause than normal. The arbiter looked around. “Are there any more offers?”
When no one spoke up, the arbiter cleared his throat. “Then let us move on to the requests.”
Tanya immediately became tense, her foot tapping nervously for a couple of seconds before falling still.
This time, people asked for what they needed, whether that be components, magical creations, or information. Someone even requested a bodyguard. They offered a price, and sometimes people who could fulfill the need haggled or bid against each other. Sometimes no one accepted the request.
Tanya was one of the first to speak up. “I’m offering one hundred gold, as well as three green beast cores with a combined energy value of ten million thaums, for useful information about the Raven Queen. I can split up the reward between multiple people, if more than one person has relevant knowledge.”
Sebastien always found it hard to estimate the price of things in Gilbratha, but thought the beast cores, which were respectable in both color and energy value, were probably worth about half as much as the gold. Maybe less, because that energy value was split between three of them. Like celerium, prices dramatically increased with higher quality. These ones would allow someone with a twenty five hundred thaum capacity to cast for about an hour before the last beast core ran out of power and crumbled like an overworked Conduit.
She herself, with her much lower capacity, could use them for ten hours or so. The convenience made trying to purchase one from someone besides Tanya seem tempting, but even if she only wanted one with a total energy value of a million thaums, which would last her about an hour, she could do a lot of other things with the five gold that would cost. She could buy three non-magical reference books, a good dress with gloves and a hat, or food for two weeks with that same amount. And besides, her lantern, with its adjustable flame, still met her casting needs for the moment.
‘Perhaps once I pay off my debt I can indulge in such luxuries.’ Hiding a beast core in her boot, next to her sapphire Conduit, would mean she was never completely helpless.
In the silence after Tanya’s request, some of the other members looked around, while a couple shifted uncomfortably. Finally, a man said, “If you want concrete information, not just rumors, that’s going to be hard to come by. What little I know, at least, is common knowledge. She stole something from the University, she’s powerful, a free-caster, and practices blood magic. If we get into rumors…she’s a shape changer, and can travel through and command the shadows, which is why they’re having such trouble catching her.”
Siobhan nearly choked on her own saliva. ‘What.’
Someone else said, “I have an investigator-adjutant contact. I can ask them for more information, for the right price. They’re not directly on that case, though, so while I might get more details, they probably won’t have access to any truly classified material.”
Liza said nothing, her bored posture never changing. She didn’t even look toward Siobhan.
Tanya leaned forward. “Does anyone have information about her connection to the Verdant Stag?”
There was silence again, and then someone shrugged. “I heard she might come if you make a pleasing enough offering. Maybe Lord Stag knows what she likes, or has some sort of agreement with her.”
Someone else snorted. “Or maybe the Morrows just pissed her off somehow.”
The man who’d offered the design of a spirit-trapping spell array said, “I could do a summoning ritual to connect the two of you. It would slightly skew both of your fates to make a meeting more likely.”
A woman shook her head quickly. “I warn against that. Very iffy results. Even if that kind of compulsion would work on her, what kind of meeting? I certainly wouldn’t want to run into the Raven Queen in a dark alley.”
A man with horns curling out from under his mask said, “I agree. I have access to someone with relevant information about how to set up a meeting with her. Lord Lynwood did it. You’ll need to prepare an offering for her in addition to my payment, though. I can give you an answer at our next meeting.”
Siobhan resolved to ask Lynwood and his people not to go around spreading rumors about her.
Tanya hesitated, but steeled herself and nodded to the horned man. “Okay. I’ll pay seventy gold and twenty beast cores to anyone who can confirm a meeting with her, along with details about this offering she requires.”
“She’ll choose the time and place of the meeting,” the man said. “Is that okay?”
Tanya seemed supremely uncomfortable, but again she nodded.
The meeting moved on, and someone else asked for a recipe for a strong dissolving tincture. They offered either twenty gold in payment, or the exchange of a recipe for an all-purpose antidote, or a potion of night vision.
‘A dissolving tincture? I have access to a recipe for a strong acid,’ Siobhan realized. ‘I could probably make money offering access to knowledge from the University library.’ She didn’t immediately jump to say she could fulfill the man’s request, though. ‘I have no idea who these people are. Someone might recognize the type of information I could sell and make connections. I need to wait until I have a better idea of what I’ve gotten into. As of right now, I still haven’t done anything illegal. Technically.’
Those thoughts almost made her hesitate to speak her own request, but she pushed through. “I am looking for sempervivum apricus and mandrake root. Both still living.”
A chubby man immediately raised his hand. “I have both. I’ll sell them to you for forty-five gold, or an appropriate item in trade.”
Some quick mental math told her that his prices were actually slightly higher than the component shop that had turned her away, if she took off the thirty percent tax the Crowns placed on all magical sales. “Do you have any need for regeneration potions?”
“Not healing?” he asked, hesitating. “Well, I suppose. I’ll want them appraised, of course, but if they serve, I’ll take six in exchange for the plants.”
“Agreed,” she said, smiling underneath her nondescript mask. Each potion took slightly over three gold to make, and she could make two in a couple of hours. She’d just saved herself twenty-six gold in exchange for a weekend of work.
As for her seller, a licensed shop would have sold each potion for about twenty gold. Even the Verdant Stag was going to sell them for over seven gold. So, unless he had an alchemist that was willing to sell to him at sub-market prices, he’d just agreed to a deal that left him anywhere from breaking even to making an extra seventy-five gold.
At the end of the meeting, the arbiter said, “We are also willing to purchase certain items. For the time being we are interested in communication or protective artifacts, elemental components, and celerium.”
A few people offered to sell things to the arbiter, and when their haggling was done, the man spoke again, sounding as if he was lazily reciting a memorized spiel. “This may be a reminder for our old members, but be sure to watch for the signs about our next meeting. You can find the locations on the list pinned to the wall, there.” He pointed to a piece of paper. “Memorize it, as well as the translations of meaning. This meeting is adjourned. Those who wish may exchange information freely amongst yourselves. If you have agreed to an exchange, please wait for one of us to mediate it.”
‘If people selling or buying information have an arbitrated trade, that means the meeting organizers get all that knowledge for free. Of course, people might decide not to allow the mediator, but without them they have no insurance that the information given is worth what was promised. That makes this whole arrangement doubly profitable for the people behind it.’
Keeping a surreptitious eye on Tanya and an ear open for any interesting conversations, Siobhan moved to the wall to read the paper pinned there. Apparently, the meeting’s organizers paid various households and shops to put sympathetically linked origami decorations in their windows. The organizers would change details of the decorations remotely, and all the members needed to do was pass by one to see when the next meeting was or get a warning that it had been cancelled and to be wary.
The organizers sent Siobhan and Tanya out in different directions and at different times, but it wasn’t hard for Siobhan to find Tanya again.
She followed her from a distance all the way back to the University. She watched the other girl walk back to the dorms, then waited a few minutes while holding the compass spell, but Tanya seemingly hadn’t moved from her room.
Siobhan was exhausted and wanted nothing more than to find a dark alley somewhere, change back into Sebastien, and flop into her own bed. Instead, she turned around and walked briskly back into the city. ‘I can’t get sloppy.’
She changed into Sebastien at the Silk Door, then walked to Oliver’s house. Despite her warm clothes, her fingers and feet were frozen through by the time she arrived. The servants were gone for the evening, so Oliver opened the door himself.
He was surprised to see her, but waved her in and up to his office, motioning for her to stand, shivering, in front of the fire while he stoked it higher. While she warmed, he went down to the kitchen and made coffee for both of them.
When he returned, Sebastien cast a bit of perfunctory wakefulness intent into the dark liquid. She offered to do the same for him, but he shook his head, already sipping from his cup. “There’s no need. Now tell me what happened. Did Liza help you?”
“She did. Just not in the way I was expecting. I followed Tanya Canelo—the girl who blew up Eagle Tower to keep me from being caught—to a secret meeting of thaumaturges. I’m now their newest member.”
He sipped his coffee, not seeming particularly shocked. “That is momentous,” he said calmly. “Tell me more.”
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/