Month 12, Day 31, Thursday 2:30 p.m.
Over the next few days, no one reached out to Oliver or any of his people to request a meeting with the Raven Queen. Sebastien found this puzzling, but since she was unsure how to respond if they did request one, she was fine postponing the problem as long as possible.
If she met with Tanya as the Raven Queen, they’d have to set a system in place to make sure they avoided any traps by the University faction behind Tanya. It was dangerous, much more so than meeting with Lynwood had been. However, she might be able to get information from Tanya in return, maybe even figure out what was going on behind the scenes with the University, the Crowns, and the ancient book.
Oliver could even use the meeting to gain an upper hand against his enemies, like using Tanya to feed the Morrows false information.
Still, the danger and uncertainty left Sebastien’s muscles so tight that she had to use Newton’s esoteric humming spell to forcefully calm herself several times.
On the bright side, her gold problem was slightly alleviated, taking a portion of that pressure off her shoulders. Oliver had indeed sold the pixie eggs to Liza, and after appraising the star sapphire, Siobhan was owed a little over ninety gold. She took eighteen to pay for the ingredients for the regeneration potions she was soon to owe the man from the secret meeting, and let the rest of it go toward paying off some of the interest she owed the Verdant Stag.
After that, she had paid off all the interest accrued up to that point, and managed to shave down the principal to, oh, only about nine hundred fifty gold!
She wanted to pull her hair out. ‘Fifty percent interest is a nightmare. At least it isn’t compounding. Yet.’ If she couldn’t pay the balance off within a year, whatever interest she owed would be added to the principal balance, and she’d start paying fifty percent interest on that, too. It was decidedly ironic that the Verdant Stag did so much to help people, like selling life-saving potions well below the market value, and yet practiced lending with terms so predatory most people would owe them for life. ‘I wonder how much of Oliver’s apparent philanthropy is actually a cloak for his desire for power?’
She, Damien, and Newton continued to keep watch over Tanya, but other than a couple of paper bird messages that they had no way to intercept, she did nothing suspicious. Perhaps Tanya was waiting, too.
Sebastien spent her free time studying emergency first aid—the best way to keep people with traumatic wounds alive a little longer so someone with actual skill could save them—and still managed to slip in some time reading about the purpose of sleep.
On Thursday in Fekten’s Defensive Magic class, Sebastien was shown once again the distance between her and her goals.
As always, they started the class with a workout, while Fekten lectured in a voice that had no trouble traveling clearly to all the students.
“The biggest problem using magic in a dangerous situation is the difficulty of casting while moving. There are ways to get past this. Artifacts and battle alchemy, tomes full of spell pages, or even the wrought-metal, portable Circles the army provides. Each have their downsides, but these downsides are never more apparent than when attempting to shield,” Fekten yelled.
He walked among them, occasionally stopping to goad someone into more effort, or to do the exercises right alongside them, only better, while never stopping his monologue. “A shield must be large enough to cover the body, and most are power-intensive. Except those cast by complex artifacts, most shields will require a large Circle drawn on the ground around the caster and whatever they are trying to protect. This goes against everything I have taught you about how to survive in a dangerous situation! What are the rules of survival?”
Without pausing whatever exercise they were doing, the students shouted back, “To stay alive, use stealth to escape! Hide under stationary cover only when you cannot run! Dodge only when you cannot hide! Shield in place only when you cannot dodge!”
Sebastien’s voice was weak past her panting, but she repeated the words with as much force as she could. They were Fekten’s mantra, and he added more to them every couple of weeks. If Fekten suspected that one of the students hadn’t been listening, or wasn’t filled with enthusiasm, he assigned additional exercise to the entire group.
She assumed Fekten would begin to teach them something about fighting back when he thought they were competent enough to live through such an attempt. ‘Which means it might be years.’ She gave a mental whimper.
Satisfied, Fekten nodded and continued. “I have seen dozens of stupid thaumaturges die inside their shield Circle! No shield protects against everything, and even if you manage to stand against one enemy’s attacks, are you more powerful than two people, or ten, working together? Can you shield their fireball spell at the same time you block the rock they’ve thrown at you just behind it? Can you block a broadsword swung with enough force to split you in two at the waist, or an explosive potion launched from a hundred meters away? Half of you cannot even cast a shield!”
He breathed hard for a moment, from passion rather than exhaustion, stopping beside Sebastien’s group to do pushups with them, which he did with only one arm.
“The correct way to keep your heads attached to your bodies is to avoid the conflict.”
Sebastien almost rolled her eyes. ‘Wasn’t that the same argument I made in the entrance exam, when he asked me about my hypothetical response to the Blood Emperor? What kind of double standard is this, that the only one it’s not acceptable to run away from is the one most likely to kill me with the wave of a hand? Does he not realize the hypocrisy?’ It would have surprised her more, except she was seeing more and more how blood magic was so arbitrarily defined, hated on instinct and faith rather than rational consideration of the specific situation. Among those who had internalized these beliefs, it was a huge social faux-pas to even suggest that some blood magic could be used for good—on the same level as admitting that you thought sea kraken were sexually attractive, or that people should be able to marry their children.
Fekten continued. “The greatest weapon in the battle to live a long life is knowledge. Understanding yourself comes first. An incorrect assessment of your own abilities will leave you broken and dead like so many before you, as you make plans and take actions you cannot follow through on. Understanding your enemy comes second. For magical beasts, this means understanding their dispositions, abilities, and habitats. With superior knowledge of the dangers they are likely to face, someone weaker can prepare against a specific opponent—targeting their weaknesses—rather than hoping to crush them on a level playing field.
“For humans and other sapient beings, of course this also includes understanding their capabilities, the personal and external resources they have access to. But it also means understanding their flaws. You cannot deal with someone who is full of hubris and quick to anger the same way you would deal with a reasonable person. It is understanding their desires, not only their greed, which dictates what they are likely to do to take control of what is not theirs, but what they value, which often dictates what lengths they will go to when protecting the things that hold value to them. A mother protecting her children can be more vicious—and recklessly aggressive—than a soldier fighting for glory and coin.”
Fekten signaled a station change, which let each group of students move on to a new exercise, and kept lecturing. “Once you understand your enemy, you can avoid being seen as a viable target, either by passing beneath their notice, or seeming too much of a threat to risk attacking. You can turn their urges and desires against them, so they’re distracted, exerting their energy on fighting against a different opponent, or even ripping themselves apart with internal conflict.”
Fekten passed Sebastien, stopping to correct her form with a couple of nudges. This close, his presence was even more intimidating—not just from his large, muscled form and loud voice, but the intangible press of his Will, which was like a choking fog. “The second-best way to keep your heads attached to your bodies is to be prepared,” he continued. “Your body must be in the proper condition to react to danger and successfully carry you through it. Your mind must have the knowledge, and also the proper conditioning, to guide you through even when you’re so afraid you piss yourselves. It is not so easy to reason when under stress. It is best to do your reasoning beforehand, and then practice your response until it becomes ingrained in your flesh. And, if possible, you should be externally prepared, as well. Artifacts for when your Will reaches its limits. Potions for when your body gives out. Allies for when your strength alone is not enough.”
He signaled for another station change.
Sebastien’s group was on the jump-rope station next. She’d always thought the game childish, but now, as she threw herself into the complex footwork and rabbit-quick hops that Fekten was trying to drill into them, she knew that jump-rope had probably been introduced to children by some sadistic devil chuckling to itself at their naivety and eventual, inevitable, horrible disillusionment. She choked down the food she’d eaten at lunch, which seemed determined to escape her stomach.
Fekten shook his head sadly before finally calling a halt to the conditioning part of the class.
“No punishment exercises!” Damien gasped, his hands on his knees and sweat pouring down his face. “Yay.”
Another student, lying on the ground like a suffocating fish, aimed an ineffectual kick in Damien’s direction. “Don’t jinx it!”
Fekten had them clean up the equipment, then move from the open white flats to the building with the simulation room.
Inside, humanoid mannequins with “battle” wands were arrayed in several circular groups, facing inward.
Fekten led the students in a quick review of the basic footwork he’d been teaching them, then chose a handful of students to face off against the mannequins.
Rhett Moncrieffe, Damien’s Crown Family friend, was in the first group and performed stunningly. As the mannequins surrounding him shot colored balls of light that would burst open and dye whatever they hit in bright colors, Moncrieffe spun and twisted and dodged.
The mannequins shot faster as time passed, their rhythm more unpredictable.
Moncrieffe kept going beyond the point that seemed possible, until Sebastien had to wonder how he was even perceiving all the spells coming his way.
Finally, he was hit in the back of his hip by one bright blue shot, while avoiding three other simultaneous shots from the other mannequins. He fell to the ground, winded, and the students watching and idly practicing their own footwork in anticipation let out a cheer.
Apparently Moncrieffe was the star of the first-term dueling team, and had been training for this since he was three. He was expected to win trophies, and already had a growing fanbase among the other students.
Damien sidled over to Sebastien. “Do you want to bet on how long you can last?”
Sebastien shot him a dirty look, not even bothering to respond. Damien had made no secret that he found it hilarious the first time she fell on her face during dodging drills. He seemed to take particular pleasure in crowing about the few things she was bad at.
Fekten handed out contribution points based on their rankings in these practical exercises. Moncrieffe had earned dozens already that term, Damien had earned over twenty, and Sebastien was approaching one whole point from all the small fractions of points she’d gathered.
As Fekten pointed at her for the next round, Damien slapped her shoulder and yelled. “Go! Double ’s’! Slither like a snake!”
Some of the surrounding students laughed and repeated this mocking cheer.
Sebastien scowled as she took her place in the center of a ring of mannequins. ‘I’m not even that bad,’ she grumbled mentally. ‘Barely in the bottom half of the class.’
Under Fekten’s torture, she was strong enough and fast enough to throw herself around before the blasts of light could reach her. But she was just bad at dodging, especially while trying to remember to use the footwork Fekten was teaching them. Her mind moved quickly, and she could react quickly—if not as instantly as Rhett—but it was all conscious calculation. She had to think about every move her body made, and she couldn’t even get into a rhythm of movement like she could for something like jump-rope. It was never instinctive, and as the attacks became quicker and required her to move in more complex ways, she couldn’t keep up the mental calculations with enough time left to send instructions to her body.
Sebastien started out perfectly, but began to show the signs of strain after only a couple of minutes. Her movements grew jerky, clumsy, and a little too forceful as she scrambled to keep up with the increasing speed. She threw herself to the ground to avoid three shots that would otherwise have hit her in the legs, chest, and head, and then rolled quickly to the side as she saw a mannequin lower its arm to shoot her on the ground.
She tossed herself upright, the movement weaker than she would have liked after all the pushups, then had to backpedal to avoid a shot that almost brushed her nose. She retreated right into another two shots, one in the kidney, one in the back of the head.
She tried not to slump too obviously with defeat. The attacks were mostly light and a sprinkle of dye, with barely enough force to injure. Still, Fekten was quick to point at her. “Siverling! You just got your brains splashed over the ground, and if that didn’t kill you, the mutilated kidney would have you bleeding out in under two minutes. Out.”
She turned to rejoin the group of waiting students, but Fekten waved her over.
“You think too much,” he said, his voice still loud but not a projected yell meant for the entire room. “You need to learn to act on instinct. Practice until the movements are engraved into your body, so that you no longer need to think to respond, only do what you have done thousands of times before. You might never be great, but you could be passable, at least.”
Sebastien said, “Yes, Fekten,” as the man had told them all to address him, but didn’t feel particularly optimistic as she rejoined the group, where Damien was still trying to stifle his laughter. ‘When will I ever have time to practice all this thousands of times?’
It wasn’t that she scorned the man’s advice. She’d already tried practicing on her own, tuning the mannequins to an easier setting so she could have more time before getting overwhelmed. That was how she’d gotten to her current level of mediocrity. And she had gotten better, but not because her muscles somehow retained the memory of what to do. No, she had simply begun to memorize the best movement to make to avoid more complex attacks, and could immediately implement it rather than have to calculate it first.
Trying to do that until she reached even Damien’s level would have cost her almost as much practice every week as Professor Lacer’s class did. And if she had to choose between Defense and Practical Casting, it was no contest.
‘There’s another option to solve the dilemma between escaping and casting. Just become a free-caster. I’m sure Professor Lacer could shield while running away. If he ever needed to run away.’
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