Month 12, Day 26, Saturday 11:30 p.m.
Sebastien quickly reported what little she and Damien had found throughout the week and the events of that evening. “I missed Tanya’s meeting with the Morrows. Unless they have some other stealthy way to communicate with her, she must have met with one of them on the way. If you get me a map, I might be able to estimate the path she took based on her angle from my location, but I’m not even sure how long she was gone from the University before Damien warned me. In the worst case, it could have been almost an hour.”
“This is good,” Oliver said, moving to pull a rolled-up map from one of his cabinets. “Actually, very good.”
She stared at him.
“Not that you lost track of the girl. I’m talking about the secret meeting. I’ve wanted to get an eye into a place like that since I came to this city. You can vouch for a Verdant Stag member to join!”
She shook her head. “The rules state you must have been a member for at least six months and have brought a certain amount of value to the group before you can recommend new members.”
He was visibly disappointed, but said, “Well, next time, make note of what people offer and need, and let me know. There might be some good business opportunities for the Verdant Stag. I’ll give you a couple gold for each meeting.”
“Five gold,” she offered immediately.
“Ridiculous. Three gold.”
“For something that could get me caught and sent to jail in my female form? Your false identity papers aren’t enough to keep me safe from that. Four gold. You’ll be saving a lot more than that by avoiding the magic tax, even after the arbiter’s fees.”
“Fine. Four gold, but only for any meetings that provide valuable supplies or information.”
She glared at him, but conceded. It wasn’t a lot at the kind of scale she was now working with, but every little bit helped.
He laid out the map and turned to her expectantly.
Based on her memory of her own location and Tanya’s changing angle relative to her, Sebastien estimated a large swath of the city that the other girl could have accessed.
“You’ve just pointed out the majority of Morrow territory,” Oliver said. “Not exactly revelatory.”
Sebastien clenched her jaw until her teeth creaked, holding back her frustration. “I’ll do better next time.”
Oliver hesitated, staring at the map, then said, “There might not be a next time.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m planning a joint attack on the Morrows with the Nightmare Pack. We’re going to oust them and take over their territory.”
Sebastien took a sharp breath.
“The student liaison is a good source of information, but any of the Morrows’ leaders should be, too. If I can question them, spying on her outside the University might not be as critical. Once the Morrows are defeated, it’s even possible her whole operation will fall apart.”
“Eliminating the Morrows altogether… Hah!” Sebastien let out a single, breathy laugh. “It’s definitely the most direct way to deal with your problems, but I hadn’t thought it was an actual possibility. I’m assuming you’ve got a plan? And enough manpower? Are you just going to be going after the leadership, or the lower-ranking members as well?”
“Not only will we be neutralizing their leadership, but we also plan to take out lieutenants and capture the most critical resource points and trade stations. That way, even if someone slips through our grasp and wants to mount a counterattack, they won’t have the resources to do so.” he said, growing more excited the longer he spoke. He stood and returned to his desk, motioning for her to follow him. “The Nightmare Pack are dedicating a lot of their resources to this venture, which is how we’re able to do this. Not just manpower and weapons, but their authority and reputation also. Without them, even if we did manage to take out the Morrow leadership, it would be difficult to hold their territory against rebellion and other gangs. Our current plan is to initiate joint strikes on several different points of interest at once.”
“Look,” he said, pushing piles of paper and other clutter to the side to reveal a large map covered in different-colored notations and scribbled comments. “This is going to be the largest offensive the Morrows have ever dealt with. We’re hitting eleven different major assets at the same time, and six minor ones. No plan survives contact with the enemy, of course, but we’ve tried to make the strategy as shatter-proof as possible.”
Even the amount of surveillance work that must have gone into developing this plan was impressive. “You’re pouring a lot of resources into this.”
“I have to, or they’ll keep bleeding me dry. It’s either expand or die. You know that as well as anyone. I’m putting everything I can into this, because it has to work.”
“Are you sure you can trust the Nightmare Pack not to turn on you once the Morrows are finished? They’re much bigger than the Stags, aren’t they?”
“Lord Lynwood and I made a vow of nonaggression for the next five years, so I trust them as much as that’s worth, as long as he remains their leader. Beyond that, though, they became especially accommodating after their visit with you. I don’t think they have any intention of suddenly turning on us.”
They cared for the boy Millennium quite a lot, apparently. They might need her help again if the current spell stopped working as he grew older.
“Besides, we’re both getting a good deal out of this,” Oliver added.
She noted small symbols marked in green. “Healing stations?”
“I’d like to minimize the death toll as much as possible. All the attacking teams will be supplied with basic emergency aid supplies, but it won’t be enough. Anyone who is seriously injured can retreat or be brought to one of the healing stations to receive more extensive care. Life is precious. Not just ours, but theirs too.”
She held back a small smile. She might not agree with all of his ideas, but there was something endearing about the kind of person who would think like that. Sebastien tilted her head to the side. “Did I understand that correctly? You want to minimize deaths on the Morrows’ side, too?”
“Their lives are valuable. And I don’t mean just because they’re sentient beings, though there’s that too. This isn’t an altruistic decision. We’re not going to be able to get every last member of the Morrows, or their families. Leaving them alive—hostages, in a way—both discourages hasty retaliation and long-term revenge. Some of them have to die either way, but others can be ransomed back to their families or any other Morrow who escaped our grasp, and for exorbitant prices. That will further drain them of resources they might otherwise use against us. Even if they realize this, if any high-ranking member of the Morrows wants to retain their legitimacy, they’ll have no choice but to ransom their men for honor’s sake—even if it hurts them financially.”
Sebastien frowned, thinking this idea over. “Like taking knights and lords as prisoners of war. They’re worth more alive than dead. But what if they don’t get ransomed? Trying to keep them secure and healthy would be a further drain on your resources, and, with the new territory, you’re going to be stretched pretty thin. What do you do with someone who has no one to ransom him?”
The edges of Oliver’s mouth turned down grimly. “The Morrows are well-known for their disregard of the citizens within their territory. They act like little lords, placing themselves above the law. And that territory will be my territory. Their people my people. And I’ve made a name for myself as being fair and just. I do not allow heinous crimes within my territory. There will be some ransoms, but also trials—and executions—to help legitimize Verdant Stag authority. If any are innocent, or mostly so, perhaps they’ll be offered a job in exchange for their freedom. We’re building the holding cells now. This plan relies on the prisoners not escaping or being broken out by their colleagues. A few more weeks and we’ll be ready to implement the plan. I will use all their lives to the greatest benefit.”
Sebastien didn’t know what to think about that. It made her uncomfortable, but she couldn’t point out any flaws in his logic. Oliver could appear benevolent at times, but he was no fool, and not as soft as he seemed, either. “The coppers won’t be a problem? You have no authority to hold trial, and an execution is no different than murder.”
He shrugged. “They don’t care so much about murder in places like this. Murders happen every day. Unless it becomes egregious, many of the coppers spare only nominal effort to bring the perpetrators to justice—unless someone important or wealthy is affected. We’ll bribe a few people to look the other way, and keep it from becoming a spectacle. We will use both magical and mundane means to ensure we do not execute the innocent, don’t worry.”
That hadn’t been what she was worried about. “You really do want to take over Gilbratha,” she murmured.
He looked up, meeting her eyes unflinchingly. “Of course.”
She stared into the bright fervor in their blue depths, a foreboding of danger shuddering through her.
“It will take some time—years—but I’ve always known the eventual purpose of all this. If we can take Gilbratha, with its people, resources, and defenses, we will hold the strongest position in Lenore. From there, with time and care, we can grasp even more. But first, the fledgling Verdant Stag must start by overthrowing the Morrows. Our first real enemy,” he said, turning back to the map.
Sebastien swallowed, her throat dry. People were going to die along the way for Oliver’s ideas. She resolved that she wouldn’t be one of them. “And the Morrows don’t know this is coming? It seems too big an operation to keep secret. If you’re spying on them, they could be spying on you.”
“Oh, they know something’s coming. It’s impossible to keep our preparations entirely unnoticed. But only a few on our side know the details, and we’re going to keep it like that for as long as possible. In addition, we’ll be doing our best to sow panic and confusion amongst the Morrows during the attack. A complete surprise might be impossible, but that doesn’t mean they’ll mount an effective response.”
She nodded slowly, still frowning down at the map. There was at least one healing station within ten minutes of each major target. “If there had been something like this in place when the Morrows attacked the warehouse, Jameson might still be alive,” she murmured.
Oliver was silent for a few seconds, then said, “Yes. I’m trying to learn my lessons, Siobhan.”
Sebastien turned to look at him. Normally, he was better about using the name of her current body.
He didn’t seem to realize his slip. “We still don’t have enough competent healers to fill all the stations, though. They’ll be set back from the worst of the fighting, and not even the Morrows should have an incentive to attack them, but I’m having trouble getting healers to agree, especially when I can’t tell them the details ahead of time. It’s not just the fighters I’m worried about. We’re in the middle of the city. It’s unlikely all civilians will escape unscathed.”
Sebastien clenched her jaw. She knew the world wasn’t fair, but it grated at her bones when innocents were dragged into danger.
“That’s why I was hoping you would assist at one of the healing stations.”
She jerked her head up to look at him. “I’m not a healer.”
“I know. But you’re familiar with the basic use of alchemy to mitigate injury. I’ve seen you use blood magic to heal someone more than once, and you’re not the type to fall apart at the sight of a little gore. You’ll be placed with an actual healer, not on your own. They can instruct you if there are things you don’t know how to handle, and you can assist them.”
The muscles of Sebastien’s shoulders and back tightened with dread until she felt little electric tingles of protest running through her spine. She instinctively wanted to deny his request, but she remembered the blood print vow she’d done with Katerin. She couldn’t refuse any favors that acted as repayment of her debt, unless she found them morally reprehensible.
And how could acting as a healer to save not only the Stags, but civilians and even the enemy, be immoral? “I’ll have time to prepare?” she asked past a tight throat.
“Approximately three weeks,” he said.
‘I can do a lot of brewing in three weeks, and a lot of study on trauma care.’ She rubbed her neck, already anticipating the long hours of fatigue. ‘It feels like I’m a hamster in a wheel that never gets anywhere.’ She raised her head, her eyes narrowing as she reeled in a sudden idea. “Rather than in gold toward my debt, can I be paid for my help with a stake in one of the businesses the Verdant Stags control? Say…three percent of the ongoing net profits from the alchemy shop?”
Oliver’s eyebrows rose, and then he laughed. “You are a clever one. But I don’t think so.” He shook his head. “You have to pay off your debt first before you can negotiate things like that. You’ll be paid the same rate as any other healer’s assistant at Apprentice level on this mission. Forty gold. A month’s pay for a single night of heavy work.”
She couldn’t deny that was fair. The amount he’d given her last time was to partially make up for everything that went wrong after he called her out of bed to help in the middle of the night. “I agree. But of course, any brewing I do between now and then will be paid separately.”
They worked out a code for extreme emergencies using the linked bracelets they both wore on their forearms. If necessary, she would break one of the bracelets, and Oliver would use one of the other bracelets as a divination target.
Because of the way the divination-diverting ward worked, she would have to place the target bracelet somewhere away from her body, and if she was forced to move, it would be no use. But if that happened, she had multiple bracelets, and could leave a trail of metaphorical bread crumbs.
Oliver paid for her carriage back to the University. It was a nice one that even had a shielded brazier of coals within to keep the riders warm.
The dorms were dark and mostly silent. It was well past curfew, but Damien was still awake, sitting up on his bed and waiting for her to return. He hopped up as soon as he saw her and motioned for her to follow him from the room.
With a sigh, she trudged after him into the bathrooms, where he checked every stall before turning around to say, “I don’t know how she slipped away. We looked for her as soon as we realized, and I broke the bracelet as soon as I knew we weren’t going to find her immediately.”
Sebastien nodded tiredly. “You did fine. She’s slippery, but I found her.”
“What happened? She’s been back for a couple hours already. Was she meeting with whoever Professor Munchworth was talking about? What were you doing?”
Sebastien considered simply telling him he didn’t have the right to know before he’d proved himself, but was certain this would require more effort than making up a simple lie, as Damien was sure to argue. “She met with someone. I’m not sure who. I couldn’t see their face. She traded some of the gold for beast cores. If she did anything else, it was before I caught up to her.”
“Beast cores? Why would she want those?”
Sebastien shrugged. “To trade or to use. You can make guesses as easily as I can.”
Damien had more questions, but she brushed them off. “I don’t know, Damien, and even if I did, that doesn’t mean I would tell you. You’ve got a long way to go before your curiosity entitles you to information.” ‘And if I have my way, it never will,’ she added silently.
She slept well, for once, and in the morning went to the library, trailing behind Tanya and Newton.
Tanya headed up the stairs for the second floor, but Sebastien called Newton’s name as the young man moved to follow her.
Newton walked with her, putting a few meters between them and the stairs. “Is everything okay?” he asked, his voice lowered. “Is this about me losing track of T—”
She shook her head, cutting him off. “It’s fine. This isn’t about her. I was wondering if I could ask you a favor.”
Newton nodded, raising his eyebrows as he waited for her to continue.
“I need the recipe for Humphries’ adapting solution. But it’s on the second floor. I was wondering if you could bring me this book so I could copy it?” she asked, handing him a slip with the potion reference’s location.
“Umm, sure, I can do that. Why do you need it, if I can ask?”
She’d already thought what to say, just in case he asked. “I met a young girl whose mother is an Apprentice under a sorcerer. The girl has a blood disorder that requires constant visits to a healer, and…well, her mother is struggling to pay for treatment. I happened to hear her pleading with the healer while the girl waited outside.”
“Oh,” Newton murmured.
Sebastien nodded. “This won’t fix the problem, but it’s a lot cheaper than healing spells, and her mother should be strong enough to brew it. Maybe it’ll help them get back on their feet.”
Newton’s grip on the piece of paper tightened, and he hurried off to the second floor with a sharp nod.
When he returned, Sebastien copied the recipe onto a couple loose sheets of paper. The potion was difficult and power-intensive, and some of the components were relatively expensive, but she could brew it—if only in very small batches. Flipping a few pages, she also found the modified piercing spell that would let someone funnel the solution directly into a patient’s veins, overcoming the natural defensive barrier of their skin.
‘That would work for blood transfusions, too.’ It was just another example of how the delineations between acceptable and unacceptable magic were so arbitrary.
“Thank you,” she said, handing the book back to Newton.
“No need for thanks. I wish there were more people like you out there,” he said with a soft, knowing smile.
She shuffled awkwardly. “Err, how’s your father?”
“His lungs rattle with every breath,” Newton said, his smile turning strained. “But we found a healer who’s willing to take payments, and there are a couple of people who might be willing to lend us some gold.”
Sebastien wondered if this healer and lender were both from the Verdant Stag, but couldn’t just ask. “Let me know if I can help,” she said. “I know a couple people with enough coin that they probably wouldn’t mind lending some to you.”
“Thank you, Sebastien, but really, you’ve already done more than enough to help me.”
She shook her head. “Not really. I’ve pointed some opportunity your way, and that’s it. You’re the one who’s helping yourself.”
He rolled his eyes at her, but his smile had lost its strain as he left, returning to the second floor to keep a subtle watch over Tanya.
Sebastien folded up the recipe for Humphries’ adapting solution and put it in her pocket. She held her fingers over the pocket, a feverish rush of determination warming them. ‘I will not let anyone else die the same way as Jameson, at the least.’
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