Month 1, Day 7, Thursday 6:30 p.m.
As was the nature of time, it passed—all the way into the new year. Sebastien had to cast a deafening hex on herself to get to sleep on New Year’s Eve, and double-check her intrusion alarm wards so she could feel secure going to sleep in a room full of other people, many of whom were somehow intoxicated. ‘I hate wealthy, well-educated young adults,’ she lamented, pulling her blankets overhead. ‘I wish I were as frightening as Professor Lacer. He could just open the door and look around for three seconds and be guaranteed peace for the rest of the night.’
She confirmed that there would be no secret meeting that weekend, then spent most of it at Oliver’s house doing alchemy to prepare for the upcoming attack on the Morrows. Her Will had grown enough that she was able to prepare a few more doses of the less intensive items per batch, and accordingly, her payment for a weekend of work increased. She’d made almost twenty gold in only two days of work.
To be fair, it was exhausting work, and it pushed her to her limits by the end of the day, but it meant that she could make more in a week than the interest on her debt over that same time.
Early the next week, the secret organization’s paper ornaments, placed in windows throughout the city, changed. There would be another meeting that Thursday.
Oliver gave Sebastien a pouch of gold and a list of things he wanted her to see if she could buy.
She left before Tanya, changing her appearance at the Silk Door and then returning to the base of the white cliffs to lie in wait.
She had instructed Damien to stay behind when Tanya left that evening, and was relieved to see that he followed her instructions without grumbling.
Siobhan was Tanya’s only tail, as far as she could tell.
She followed the other woman from a distance, but Tanya didn’t stop to talk to anyone or enter any buildings. After Tanya had arrived at the secret meeting spot, Siobhan waited a few minutes before entering herself.
She wore her own mask this time, not trusting the one the organizers had provided. If it were her, she would have secretly cast tracking spells on all of them to give herself the upper hand over the members. Knowledge was power, after all.
This group of masked, dangerous thaumaturges still made her feel awkward and on edge, but she tried to keep this nervousness from her body language. ‘They don’t know who I am or what I’m here for. No one here has any reason to wish me ill. Tanya is completely oblivious.’ She was sure there were more guards in the room than there had been the last time, and she kept imagining she felt the eyes of the meeting facilitators on her, though they weren’t staring whenever she turned to look.
During the first part of the meeting, where people made offers of what they had to sell or trade, the chubby man she vaguely recognized from the last meeting raised his hand and said, “I brought the sempervivum apricus and mandrake for the person who wanted them last time.”
“And I have the regeneration potions,” Siobhan said with a slight raise of her hand.
The arbiter made a note on the paper before him. “We will handle the appraisal and exchange after the meeting.”
Siobhan paid close attention to what people offered, and managed to buy a few of the things on Oliver’s list. Liquid stone potions, for fortifications and stabilizing people with broken bones. A batch of philtres that, when breathed in, created a sealed bubble inside a punctured lung, keeping someone from drowning in their own blood. A couple of minor healing potions, which could be used when something like her regeneration potion wasn’t enough. And an artifact that stored large masses of water inside a folded space and then released it again in a powerful spray. It did not contain any weight-affecting spells, so would be almost impossible to carry when fully loaded with liquid, but with the help of a couple horses, it could be used to put out fires, or even to attack crowds. Additionally, with the right kind of damage to the artifact, it could probably cause a deadly explosion of water.
Tanya sent a few distrustful looks Siobhan’s way, probably because it was obvious she was gearing up for some sort of altercation. The other girl didn’t seem to suspect Siobhan of being the Raven Queen, however.
Tentatively, Siobhan pulled out a pouch from her pocket. She cleared her throat. “I have some celerium for sale. One small conduit, rated at one hundred thaums, for twenty gold. One conduit at two hundred twelve thaums with a spot of contamination, for sixty-two gold. And a shattered conduit that was originally rated at two hundred fifty thaums, for twenty-five gold.” She had calculated the sale price based off the current market price, deducting a little for the absence of magic tax, and a lot due to the shattered nature of the larger conduit. Celerium pieces couldn’t be merged back together, and only the weakest child would be able to channel through the remaining shards. Celerium grew exponentially more expensive with increasing size and clarity, so most of the worth of her old Conduit was gone. Still, celerium was used in a few powerful spells, and was a fantastic material for drawing robust, high-capacity spell arrays, so it could be used for something.
The arbiter looked around to meet the eye of the prognos woman, who was sitting in the corner.
“I’ll give you seventy-five gold for the two unbroken Conduits, contingent on appraisal,” a woman said.
The fat man she’d done her other trade with said, “Eighty gold for the whole lot, and I will throw in a pound of etherwood leaves, too. Easy to resell, or they can be smoked yourself if you enjoy them.”
Her stated price would have been one hundred seven gold for everything, but she had acknowledged ahead of time that she would go down to one hundred gold if someone wanted it all. Eighty gold was too little, and the only person she knew who smoked etherwood was Katerin.
“These prices are ridiculous,” a woman muttered sourly. “Wait a few months till the shortage is over and you’ll be able to get that celerium for half the price.”
The fat man hesitated, but said, “My offer stands. I like to build up relationships with useful people.”
‘Why would he assume I’m useful? Does he need a source of regeneration potions, perhaps? I hope none of the facilitators let any hints about me slip.’
“One hundred fifteen gold for all the celerium,” the arbiter said suddenly.
Siobhan straightened, staring at him from behind her mask. Many of the other members were surprised as well. That was more than the combined individual price for all three Conduits.
A few people, including Tanya, looked between the arbiter and Siobhan with suspicion.
She tried not to show her surprise, in case the man changed his mind, and was grateful for the mask that had covered her facial expressions. “Any other offers?” she asked.
No one spoke up.
“Alright. One hundred fifteen gold,” she agreed.
Finally, the offerings portion of the meeting was over, and they moved on to requests.
Tanya spoke up immediately. “I previously requested help setting up a meeting with the Raven Queen. Was there any success?”
The man with the horns, who had offered to help her last time, gave a nervous cough. “I tried, but my contact refused to help. They were afraid to talk about the Raven Queen at all. Wouldn’t even say her name. Apparently, Lord Lynwood is cracking down. I suggest you go to the Verdant Stag and ask there. The red-haired proprietress has connections to Lord Stag, and he should be able to get you an audience.”
It seemed as if perhaps Lord Lynwood had heeded Siobhan’s relayed request for him to limit his people’s gossiping with a little more vehemence than she’d anticipated.
Tanya’s scowl was obvious in her voice. “I’m not paying for that kind of ‘help,’” she snapped. “If I wanted to go to the Verdant Stag, I could have done that already.”
The man shrugged.
“This transaction was unsuccessful,” the arbiter said, sounding a little tense, in contrast to his normal tone of boredom. “There will be no retaliation from either party. Please be aware that violence is prohibited. As the request was not met, no payment is due.”
Tanya sighed deeply and adjusted her mask. “The previous offer still stands. Anyone who can give me relevant information about the Raven Queen or set up a meeting between us will be rewarded. Gold. Beast cores. I also have access to various unusual or restricted components, if you have a very specific need. But I’m not interested in trading for anything except the Raven Queen.”
Siobhan again considered setting up the meeting between Tanya and her alternate persona herself, but decided against it. ‘I need to talk to Oliver before I make such a risky move. It might not be worth it.’
One member raised his hand tentatively. “I’ve overheard a couple o’ the coppers talkin’ over drinks at my pub. Might be just as filled with rumors as the rest o’ the stuff on the street, but I’m happy to tell you, and you can judge for yourself.”
Tanya agreed, and the arbiter noted down their meeting, sending a very subtle glance Siobhan’s way.
‘Oh. Of course he’s tense. He knows I’m the Raven Queen. The interviewers must have mentioned something. Everybody gossips,’ she thought with a sigh. She wasn’t sure if it was a good thing or a bad thing. The people in charge probably wouldn’t want to sell her out to the coppers to get the reward, not with their reputations on the line, and the pseudo-misunderstanding might even have been the reason he offered such a high price for her celerium.
During the general information exchange at the end of the meeting, a woman with an old-sounding voice said, “There are rumblings of blood and violence in Gilbratha’s future. It is like a violin string pulled too tight, on the verge of snapping and slicing through flesh. Take heed. Be wary.”
“That’s pretty obvious to anyone with eyes and ears,” someone else said.
A woman nodded. “I say stock up on the necessities and a good lock for your door. It’s always best to be prepared.”
“As a reminder, I have single-use stunning artifacts,” someone else interjected opportunistically. “It’s enough to escape in an emergency or incapacitate a burglar who’s broken into your house in the night.”
No one said anything more specific about this upcoming danger. ‘I wonder if it has anything to do with the attack on the Morrows,’ Siobhan thought, but was quickly distracted as one of the organizers waved her and the component-seller over to a side room, where the prognos woman from Siobhan’s admittance interview bowed deeply to her.
Tanya was walking to her own secure room with the man who’d overheard gossip about the Raven Queen in a pub, but Siobhan didn’t worry about missing anything, because she couldn’t have listened in without being caught anyway.
The prognos gave only a perfunctory nod to the chubby man, who looked at Siobhan with more interest after experiencing the disparity in their treatment. Siobhan’s regeneration potions were pronounced acceptable, as were the two plants the man had brought, their pots concealed within a plain wooden box, and they traded.
The man left, and the woman called in the others that Siobhan had traded with on Oliver’s behalf. When it was all finished, and they had gone, she said, “I will take the celerium, if that is acceptable to you.”
“Sure.” Siobhan handed the small pouch over. She felt some regret at parting from her oldest Conduit. Her grandfather had given it to her as a child, and it had been with her until now. Second-hand Conduits sometimes held a weak sympathetic connection to their original owners, from being kept so close and used so intimately, but unlike a piece of her body, the connection would be weak, and fade quickly. Nothing powerful enough to harm her could be cast with it.
The woman handed over a full purse of gold before even looking into the pouch.
Siobhan was surprised. “Are you not interested in verifying my claims of quality? I could have just handed you a pouch full of pebbles.”
The woman swallowed heavily, her eye having trouble meeting Siobhan’s. “I trust in your honor,” she said weakly.
Siobhan tilted her head to the side. “Really?” That just seemed foolish. She had verified all the other transactions. It was part of her job, whether she trusted the members or not.
The woman’s hands were white-knuckled around the celerium pouch. “If you had given me a pouch of pebbles, would you have submitted to my protest about the matter? If you lied to me, what could I do about it?”
“That is ridiculous,” Siobhan said before she could think better of it.
The woman rocked back on her feet, her knuckles whitening further. “I will appraise them immediately. I apologize, I meant no insult.” She fumbled with the mouth of the pouch, peering inside.
Siobhan sighed, amazed at how gullible people could be. The woman hadn’t seemed this frightened of her the last time. “Not all rumors about me have any basis in truth,” she said, making her voice as soothing as possible in an attempt to calm the woman. “I am not dishonest, and if somehow I had given you pebbles instead of celerium, I would expect you to complain, and either refuse to pay me, or ask for equivalent recompense. I do not commit random acts of violence. I know you told the arbiter who I am, but I’m not so angry as to retaliate. However, I would appreciate it if you refrained from adding even more nonsense to the rumors.”
It was rather disheartening to feel like an axe murderer threatening a defenseless woman who was trapped in a small room with her. The Raven Queen’s reputation might have some benefits, but it could have downsides too, if people felt they were trapped or in danger and decided to resort to excessive force to “protect” themselves from her. A cornered rat would bite, and the real Siobhan Naught couldn’t match up to her shadowed reputation.
The woman barely seemed comforted, but she nodded and whispered, “I understand. Thank you.” She gave Siobhan a couple of tentative glances then said, “I suppose I am being a little ridiculous?”
It was more of a question than it should have been, but Siobhan nodded. “You are.”
The woman let out a breath, then laughed. “I’m sorry,” she said again. “It is policy to let the arbiter know when one of the members might be particularly dangerous, but I promise I haven’t been gossiping about you. I may have been listening to too many distorted rumors, though.” She hesitated. “Could I ask a question?”
“You may, but I do not promise to answer.” Siobhan’s divination-diverting ward was active at a low level, of course, but she didn’t want to risk trying to lie to a prognos.
“Why can’t I focus on you? I can think about you when you’re not in the room with me, but standing so close to you, I just have the urge to look away or think about something else.”
Siobhan considered that this might be a dangerous question to answer, but decided that she couldn’t be the only person in the city warded against divination. ‘Hopefully the effect isn’t distinguishably strange enough for it to be something a passing prognos might find suspicious about Sebastien Siverling.’
Aloud, she said, “For the same reason you could not divine if my answers were truthful. By your nature you cannot help but see deeper, and I am immune to divination.” That was an exaggeration, but of the kind Siobhan didn’t mind spreading. Maybe if people thought it was impossible, they wouldn’t even try. On a whim, Siobhan decided to push it one step further. “Those who try too hard may find that though they do not see me, I see them.”
“Oh,” the woman said softly.
“Goodnight,” Siobhan said. By the time she left, Tanya had a significant head start, but Siobhan was able to catch up with the other girl and follow her back to the University. Tanya walked hurriedly and turned a few corners rather abruptly, and Siobhan almost lost her a couple of times, but thankfully could rely on the compass divination spell to keep from needing to follow suspiciously closely.
She watched Tanya ride up to the University grounds in the clear tubes that wove over the cliffside, then turned back toward the Silk Door. Her breath fogged up in the cool air under the light of a streetlamp. ‘I made almost one hundred and twenty gold tonight! I wonder what I can sell next time?’ She held back a squeal of excitement.
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