Month 9, Day 28, Monday 6:00 p.m.
She filled out the forms the woman handed her with Sebastien Siverling’s information. She still had trouble thinking of it as her own. When Sebastien finished writing, the woman handed her a few scrolls and a wooden token engraved with a date and time a couple of weeks in the future.
With the paperwork out of the way, the attendant took a deep breath and began what seemed like a well-rehearsed spiel. “Return with the token at the stated time. Do not lose it, as you will need it to take the examination.” She pointed to one of the scrolls. “These are the topics you will be tested on. The examinations start with an extensive written test. Those who pass will go on to the oral examination, which is administered by a panel of professors. Should you be accepted, tuition is to be paid immediately. If we do not receive your tuition at least ten days before classes start, your acceptance will be rescinded. The base cost of admission is three hundred gold crowns. Each class you take, minimum four and up to seven, is an additional fifty gold crowns. The price of admission includes mandatory room and board.”
When Sebastien continued to stare at her expectantly, the woman gave a dismissive hand wave and concluded, “All the information you need is written in the scrolls.”
Sebastien cleared her throat, trying to suppress her apprehension. “Is there a way for me to access the library or some other resource that will help me study?”
The woman blinked at her tiredly. “The library and other University resources are only available to students, faculty, and specific alumni. If you wish to study, you can purchase texts or hire University-certified tutors in the city.”
Conscious of the impatient people standing in line behind her and the guards keeping watch on the admissions center, Sebastien stepped aside. She opened the scroll with the list of topics she would be tested on, her eyes narrowing as they flicked down the list. Luckily, her grandfather had required her to gain a basic education, but there were still a handful of topics she didn’t feel comfortable in, such as “natural alchemical conversions” or “mathematic principles of array design.” And what was “practical solutions to abstractly depicted problems?”
She perfunctorily looked over the rest of the scrolls, then tucked everything securely into her pockets. ‘Am I very far behind, then? I know insisting on such a large loan wasn’t for my benefit, but to ensure I was more indebted to Katerin and Dryden. But I’m glad I have the extra gold. How does a common family afford to educate their child enough to pass in the first place, especially when they must also have saved enough to pay for tuition?’ She smiled wryly to herself. ‘Maybe I’m not the only one borrowing from loan-sharks for this. Of course, getting a sponsor to pay your way after already having proof of admittance might be easier.’
The University boasted about their inclusive, nondiscriminatory policy. They claimed a willingness to admit anyone who could pass the test and either pay the way or get a sponsor to do so for them, but she wondered how much of that was simply propaganda.
When she arrived back at Dryden Manor, she found he’d gone out. The servants invited her to eat in the kitchen with them rather than at the huge empty table in the dining hall. At first, the others were a little awkward around her, but she pulled out a technique she’d learned, ironically, from her father, and made a few bad jokes. They laughed at her, rather than with any amusement at the jokes, and once they saw that she’d meant them to do so, everyone relaxed.
Once they felt free, she had to dodge their friendly curiosity about her connection to their employer. “I’m here for the University admissions exam. Mr. Dryden graciously offered to let me stay the night rather than sleep in an inn when we met yesterday.”
She tried to help clean up afterward, but the cook and kitchen maid shooed her out with scandalized bows and a lot of hand-flapping. “What would Mr. Dryden think, if he knew we let his guest do our work for us? We’ll just finish up here and then head home, Mr. Siverling, please don’t worry. Go back to your room and study, and just ring the bell in the hall if you need anything before we go.”
Sebastien tried to do just that, reading more carefully through the admissions information, then reviewing the magic notes in her own grimoire, though she knew everything in it by heart already.
She slipped back into Dryden’s study for the theoretical books on magic she’d noticed before. While interesting, they were abstract and advanced, and she doubted how relevant they would be to any of the topics on the exam. Still, she enjoyed a couple of hours skimming through the more interesting ones.
She’d gone back to her room by the time Dryden finally returned. He was walking stiffly, like the cold outside had seeped into his bones. Trying and failing to hide his discomfort, Dryden distracted her by offering to let her stay in his house until the start of term, which she tacitly accepted despite the discomfort it brought her.
That night, she cast her dreamless sleep spell around the pillow, using a tincture of strong alcohol and distilled herb oils to draw the spell array, which was invisible once it evaporated and perfectly comfortable to sleep on. She’d reworked and refined this spell extensively to find something that actually worked to suppress her nightmares. She pushed as much power as she could into it, focusing on the sweet relief of real rest.
Her last waking thought was a vague question about her father. ‘Where is he, after all this?’
Sebastien ate breakfast with Dryden, who turned out to be somewhat amusing company when not trying to coerce her into indebting herself to a criminal organization or lecturing her about how to act like an entitled rich man. He was well-studied, and had traveled through other countries, seen other cultures and magics.
While outwardly she laughed at his retelling of a mishap involving a household brownie, a woman much too old to be interested in Dryden, and her ungelded stallion, internally she wondered again why he was helping her.
Even if he wasn’t from one of the Crown families and thus without their influence, he had money at least, and enough intelligence to practice magic. ‘Why does he need me? Why wait for me outside the inn and convince Katerin to loan me such a large amount? What dirty work does he require that he can’t handle with his current means?’ Her sole comfort came from her ability to refuse any morally objectionable favors, but that restriction still left many uncomfortable possibilities open.
After again ensuring her transformation into Sebastien showed no signs of wearing off, she left to the bookstore. It was attached to a University-certified tutoring center, and, as Dryden had warned her, didn’t have texts about actual magic, only more background information about the world and the sciences that a thaumaturge would find useful when practicing. Alone, however, the books offered her nothing more than trivial knowledge.
Still, she was a sorceress, and any knowledge that could improve her magic, either directly or indirectly, was valuable. She chose an armload of books and went to the counter to pay. Sebastien was just wondering if there was a market where she could pick up magical components—without needing a University certification—when a copy of her own wanted poster caught her eye again.
It was pinned up on a board with various other notifications, advertisements, and wanted posters. She put it out of her mind as she paid, inwardly cringing at the cost—thirty gold crowns would have been enough to buy grain for her father and her to eat for a year in any of the smaller villages they’d stayed in—but as she made to leave the store, the chatter of two young men next to the bulletin board caught her ear.
“You heard they caught the other one?”
“No! What happened?”
She shuffled the books around in her arms to make her eavesdropping less obvious.
“Found him in a brothel, apparently! The audacity!” The grin in the boy’s voice was obvious. “I wonder if the woman is holed up somewhere in the city, too.”
His companion chuckled. “I wouldn’t mind the girl coming to me for a night of ‘protection,’ if she looks anything like the poster. Of course, the coppers would be there to escort her away in the morning.”
“That’s just foolishness. You’ve no idea what forbidden magics she might need spell components for. I heard some spells use cow testicles and that sort of thing. Who knows, she might prefer to take those components from a human male instead?”
His companion burst into shocked guffaws, and when Sebastien realized they wouldn’t be revealing anything more about her father, she left the shop. She was breathing hard.
Sebastien stalked through the streets blindly, consumed by her thoughts. Her father had been captured, and must be in the jail now. ‘But what does that mean? They’ll be looking for me—with fervor—but he couldn’t lead them to me even if he wanted, since he doesn’t know where I am or even what I look like now.’
She stopped in her tracks as a horrible thought hit her. ‘What if they already know what I look like now? They had the book before me. Could they not have extracted the transmuting artifact and studied its effects before the expedition made it back to the University?’ She started walking again, faster this time, as the feeling of being hunted closed in on her. ‘Why didn’t I consider this possibility before?’ She caught sight of her wanted poster on another street corner, and, ironically, it calmed her.
‘If they knew what my other form looked like, wouldn’t they have created a poster for it as well? The spell array was drawn on the inside of the leather cover, and even I almost missed it. If they had removed the artifact, why would they have replaced it within the space-bending spell?’ Re-concealing the artifact may not have even been possible. She hadn’t been able to do so. ‘There is no need to create imaginary dangers when plenty of real ones hound me,’ she reassured herself.
She found Dryden in his study as soon as she returned. “They’ve caught my father,” she said succinctly.
He looked up from the papers on the desk in front of him, blinking a few times. “Is this a problem?”
His response deflated her momentarily, but she rallied. “Yes! This may be his own fault, but without the book to return to them, he might be in danger. They must know I have the book and that I’m his daughter. What if they torture him for information he doesn’t have? What if they decide to execute him as a message to me?” She found herself pacing before Dryden’s desk. “I’m angry at him, but I don’t wish him to come to harm. I must ensure he’s safe. Beyond any sentiment I feel, he may have information or insight into their investigation that would be useful, and thus be a danger to me.” It was a weak excuse, she knew.
Dryden knew it, too. “He doesn’t know where you are or have any way to track you, does he? He doesn’t even know what you look like. The safest thing is to leave him be and let them realize his worthlessness. And, say you do speak with him and find he is not well-treated. What, then? Will you allow him to jeopardize your future once again as you attempt to break him free?”
He gave her a stern look. “Calm yourself, Sebastien. It’s very unlikely they will sentence him to death. More likely, he’ll be held for a while and then condemned to servitude in the mines until his debt is repaid. If you wish, once you’re educated and have received your license to practice, you may even buy the debt and have him freed. This isn’t as serious as you believe. Does he not deserve some punishment for what he’s done? If he’d escaped instead of you, it would be you in Harrow Hill Penitentiary, your future thrown away on a greedy whim.”
The use of her new name lent credence to Dryden’s argument, despite the lack of respect he showed by using her first name so familiarly. ‘He’s right. About all of it. Even if Father were to be executed, it would be his own fault. Ironically, it’s only now, when he’s ruined my life, that I’m free of him. And yet…and yet, I still feel an obligation.’
“You’re right,” she said aloud. “Nevertheless, I still want to contact him. Is there any way for me to do so?”
Dryden stared at her silently for a while, then got up and moved to the corner table where he kept his alcohol in fancy crystal bottles. He poured himself a small glass of brown liquid, took a sip, and swirled it around in his mouth while gazing out the window—ignoring her. Finally, he turned back to her. “Do you have a spell that will allow you to sneak in, or perhaps one to communicate with him remotely?”
She grimaced, shaking her head in the negative.
“No matter. Such a spell likely wouldn’t work. The Harrow Hill Penitentiary is warded against many spells, and the high-security wing doubly so. I doubt they would place him in the lesser wings, with what’s at stake. You’d need a high-level security token to enter the wing, as well as some way to get past the guards. It’s not a simple thing.”
“Is it impossible, then? Perhaps I can bribe one of the guards? I have a thousand gold, after all.”
He snorted. “If you wished to see someone in the lowest wing’s debtor’s prison, perhaps. Attempt to bribe a guard of the high-security wing, and you will gain the attention of the second Crown Family and their coppers. Hardly what you want bearing down upon you right now.” He took another slow drink and then added, “However.”
She remained silent as she waited for him to continue, her fingers absently reaching for her Conduit within one of the borrowed suit’s many pockets.
Finally, he spoke. “There may be someone with the skills and knowledge to do what you require. A messenger spell might not be detected in the same way a communication spell would be, if done the right way. The problem is, this person isn’t officially certified to practice magics for either personal or commercial reasons, and they don’t sell their expertise lightly.”
‘So I’ll be complicit in yet another crime. It doesn’t change much. I simply have to avoid being caught.’ “Can this person be trusted to be discreet?”
“Yes, but let me be clear,” Dryden said, an edge to his voice. “They are not affiliated with me, or with the Verdant Stag’s people, in any way. If someone else were to go to this person asking for help to find out who breached Harrow Hill’s security, this person wouldn’t reveal your involvement outright, but they would sell their magical detection services to find you without hesitation. They have a code of honor, which is necessary when working with the people who need such services, but you are not buying loyalty.”
Sebastien frowned. “Well…why not? If I offered this person coin to refuse to help anyone acting against my interests, their honor would protect me, even if there is no true loyalty, correct?”
He snorted. “You couldn’t afford to purchase such a thing.”
She didn’t question him. He surely knew this thaumaturge’s prices better than she did. Besides, the majority of her money would be needed for the University’s fees. She could not, would not squander it. “Can you introduce me?”
He sighed deeply, but nodded. “We’ll leave when the sun begins to set. I hope you don’t regret this, Siobhan.”
She gave him a mirthless smile. “My name is Sebastien, remember.”
“Well, we will need to change that, too. Sebastien cannot be associated with such an unsavory character.”