Month 1, Day 15, Friday 6:00 p.m.
Ana’s choice of restaurant was indeed amazing.
Everything about the Glasshopper was subtly expensive, from the fine uniforms of the waiters, to the spells woven into the floor around the tables to keep conversations from being overheard. Nothing gaudy like gold filigree or eye-catching enchantments, just dark woods and marble.
There was a small string and brass band on the stage, accompanying a woman with rounded, bright-colored feathers sprouting from the sides of her face and scalp where her ears and hair would have been, on a human. She swayed on stage, crooning in a soft, chocolatey voice that somehow managed to reach the whole building equally. Her feather-lashed eyes were closed, and her voice shivered over Sebastien’s skin like a sensual, ephemeral touch.
“Is that a siren?” Sebastien whispered in awe. “They’re so rare, I’ve only ever heard of them, never seen one.”
Ana sighed in appreciation. “They always have the best music. This is the best restaurant outside of the Lilies.”
Alec Gervin’s mouth had dropped open, and there might have been a little bit of drool at the corner of his lips. The waiter had to prompt him several times before he jerked back to awareness and followed them to their table.
Sebastien was in a good enough mood that she didn’t even take the opportunity to cut Gervin down to size.
Waverly Ascott was without a book for the first time Sebastien had seen her. “Bring the dessert sampler,” she told the waiter as soon as they’d been seated. “Enough for everyone.” She pulled her dark hair back from her face, tying it in a high ponytail as if preparing for battle.
Brinn Setterlund sat next to her, examining the miniature, living tree in the center of their table with interest. He reached forward to stroke a branch, and Sebastien wasn’t sure if it was her imagination, but it seemed to shift, caressing his hand in return.
“No appetizers or entrees?” the waiter asked, entering Ascott’s order on a small journal-sized artifact that would send the information directly to the kitchen.
“If we’re not full after the dessert platter,” Ascott said.
“Good idea,” Ana agreed.
“Bring some champagne too,” Rhett Moncrieffe said, lounging half sideways on his own chair, the smile on his face belying the boredom in his tone. “We just finished our University mid-terms. We’re celebrating.”
“Congratulations, young masters,” the waiter said.
When the desserts arrived, they drew a gasp from Sebastien.
Ana grinned at her. “I know. Exquisite.”
Each confection was a tiny sculpture. There were miniature pixies made of toffee and flakes of phyllo dough so thin they were translucent, a dragon made of a dozen different types of chocolate, and sprites with shimmering wings of all different colors that melted at the first touch of a tongue.
The pièce de résistance were the grasshoppers in the center. They were made of crystallized nectar that glittered like crystal, bright and transparent, and they moved as if they were alive.
Ascott snatched one out of the air as it tried to jump off the table and twisted off its head. She popped it into her mouth and closed her eyes in bliss as the spell-animated confection twitched and stilled in her hand.
“Glasshoppers,” Sebastien murmured, suddenly understanding where the restaurant got its name.
Alec Gervin’s mouth had fallen open in dismay. “Did that… Can it feel pain? I don’t want to eat something that’s still alive. Where are all its organs?”
Damien rolled his eyes. “It’s animated, not alive, Alec. No different than a dueling board piece. An edible toy.”
Sebastien looked at the other confections, which didn’t seem to be animated. “Are there other magical dishes on the menu?”
“A few other animated desserts,” Ana said, ripping open the chocolate dragon’s stomach to reveal miniature sweetmeat entrails. “There are also some dishes with magical ingredients, like the golden-apple pie or ice lion carpaccio. But you have to try the creme brûlée. They set it on fire!”
That was a little disappointing. “They could do so much more!” Sebastien said, ideas immediately popping to her mind. “It wouldn’t be so impossible, with a combination of alchemy and artificery. The dishes could impart flashy little effects, like letting the customers blow bubbles out of their mouths, or create temporary glamours to give them rabbit ears, or jinxing them to talk backward for the next few minutes.”
Ana lifted one shoulder in a half-shrug. “Not a bad idea. The costs would be rather outrageous, but that only makes it more exclusive and desirable. Perhaps someone in the Rouse Family would be interested, even to sub-contract. It might fall under their ‘entertainment’ domain.”
Sebastien couldn’t help but think of what Oliver might say about the way the current system stifled industry and potential growth, but was distracted soon enough by the arrival of their champagne. She’d tried the drink before, when Ennis was schmoozing someone wealthy, but never anything like the offering from the Glasshopper. The bubbles burst in her nose and tickled until she, and all the others at her table, were laughing from the sensation. She was careful not to drink too much, though, ever-conscious that she was never truly safe.
They ate and drank and chatted about nothing in particular, and Sebastien found herself thinking that, while they were rich, entitled, and sometimes snobbish, Damien’s friends weren’t entirely horrible. Brinn Setterlund, with his quiet stillness and slow smile, was probably her favorite.
When the siren on stage ended her set and a new musical group arrived to take her place, Moncrieffe went over to flirt with her.
Sebastien did a double-take as the woman handed him a cloth napkin, and Moncrieffe swaggered back to their table a little unsteadily.
“That was a siren. Did she just give you her contact information?” Sebastien asked incredulously.
Moncrieffe smirked at her, patting the pocket with the napkin proudly. “Her address. I’m invited for a ‘private show.’” He wiggled his eyebrows dramatically.
The others groaned good-naturedly. “Please, spare us the details,” Ascott said acerbically, tossing a cream-covered berry at him.
Moncrieffe caught it with his mouth. Even he looked surprised by this act of dexterity, considering his current state of inebriation, which sent them all into a round of laughter.
After a while, with their bellies full and the champagne no longer bubbling, the mood grew somber.
“I heard another student in our term ended up in the infirmary for severe Will-strain,” Brinn said in a soft voice, playing with Ascott’s small fingers. “She was in one of the other groups. Her mind is gone, and the healers are not optimistic about her chances of recovery.”
“I heard about that,” Gervin said, his tongue a little clumsy from the alcohol. “She can still feed herself and use the chamber pot when prompted, though. She’s stuck in her hallucinations and doesn’t respond to human stimulus.”
“How do you know this?” Damien wondered aloud.
“I asked,” Gervin said simply.
“There have been a dozen or so already this term, if you combine deaths and the permanent, debilitating injuries,” Moncrieffe said, his head in Damien’s lap as he tried to coax Damien into scratching his scalp for him. “You don’t hear about all of them. Not the kind of thing the University wants to advertise, you know. I imagine you would become rather numb to it all after a while, anyway. I know this because there are some lovely young ladies working in the infirmary.”
Brinn hummed. “Do you think they push us too hard?”
“Yes,” Alec said immediately.
“It seems like if they were truly worried about our safety,” Brinn continued, “they would not increase the pressure on new students with the ten percent mandatory failure rate. It’s dangerous to everyone, not just those at the bottom of the list.”
Ana was using a knife and some sticky dessert leftovers to turn her napkin into a tiny dress for the only remaining sculpted pixie. “Magic is dangerous, but there are wards everywhere. Both small and large. They do a lot to mitigate the danger that students might cause themselves and others.”
‘Why didn’t those wards stop the explosion in Eagle Tower?’ Sebastien wondered. ‘Did Tanya deliberately damage them first? And if so, would the evidence of that have been destroyed by the alchemical explosion? How likely is it that Tanya would be found out?’ Sebastien was entirely unsure, partially because she didn’t know enough about the power of the people who might be willing to cover up for Tanya. No one had questioned either Sebastien or Damien about that day.
Rhett, still resting on Damien’s lap with his eyes closed, said, “There’s no reason to be so desperate over it. Students who fail can just retake that term. It would be even more unsafe if the University let them continue when they’re not fit to do so.”
Sebastien almost scoffed. ‘Not everyone can afford to retake a term. Many of the students who are most likely to be at the bottom ten percent are commoners who must get their Apprentice certification and a good job right away, or their families will be ruined. Even only taking the minimum four classes for all three terms, the absolute minimum it could cost is nine hundred gold, and that doesn’t take into account a Conduit, or the books and tutoring it takes to pass the test in the first place, or anything else.’
Damien, to her surprise, shook his head. “If that policy was really to keep the incompetent students from having a chance to do too much damage, then why are there more deaths in the upper terms?”
“People get cocky,” Moncrieffe replied immediately. “They think they’re experts and they get a little too confident. It would be worse if the upper terms were also filled with people without a strong foundation in sorcery.”
Brinn sighed. “Maybe. It is sad, though.”
Ascott squeezed his fingers, and he smiled at her.
“Well, what’s the alternative?” Moncrieffe asked with a complacent shrug. “Not learn magic?”
“That’s excessive, of course,” Ana said.
“Not accept those who are statistically more likely to hurt themselves with it, then?” he asked.
“Poor, less-educated people, you mean,” Sebastien said.
“Exactly. Everyone knows the risks, and they accept them. The University is doing what they can to mitigate the danger.”
Sebastien wasn’t sure that was true, but she wasn’t going to argue with Moncrieffe, who was even more stubborn and self-assured than the rest of Damien’s friends.
“It is true that accidents as well as deaths have gone down significantly in modern times,” Damien conceded. “Some people, like my father, actually want to go back to the old, harsher ways. He thinks this ‘softness’ is stunting the potential growth of our nation.”
“Having more of our future thaumaturges dying would stunt the growth of Lenore,” Ana snapped back, glaring at the doll-sized dress she was wrapping around the dessert pixie.
“Of course it would,” Damien said with a helpless shrug. “But good luck using logic to win an argument with my father, or people like him.”
“The man is a sadist,” Ana snapped, a little too loudly. She looked around, realizing her error, then to Damien, who didn’t respond. She pressed her lips together as if to keep any more poorly considered words from slipping past them.
“Enough of this depressing talk,” Moncrieffe said, sitting up from Damien’s lap. “What we need are more drinks.” He raised an arm to wave down the ever-attentive waiter.
Damien looked to Sebastien searchingly, but she kept from showing either sympathy or any particular interest in Damien’s home life. She knew she hated it when people pried, as if her life were a piece of juicy gossip meant to entertain them. She wanted pity even less. “You were in the top three hundred of the entrance examinations, right?” She didn’t really need to ask. She knew, because she’d heard him bragging about it enough times. “Do you think you managed to maintain that rank this time around?”
Gervin groaned and turned to the approaching waiter. “Whiskey!” he ordered. “And no talking about grades. I don’t wish to think about that. If my scores weren’t good enough… Well. Lord Westbay and my father are friends for a reason.” He turned, a little awkwardly, toward Sebastien. “That tutor you recommended, Newton Moore, he is rather good.”
She waited for Gervin to continue, but apparently that was all he meant to say. “He is,” she agreed.
When the waiter brought the alcohol, Sebastien even let herself be coerced into having a single shot of Whiskerton’s Whiskey of Well-being, which—as advertised—made her feel like she was being held on her grandfather’s lap, in front of the fire, about to fall asleep with the deep knowledge that he would never let anything bad happen to her.
Of course, something bad did happen to her. Had happened to her.
Now it was up to her to protect herself.
She refused to have any more of the whiskey, even as the others did, slipping away instead to check on Tanya’s location, which was just where it should have been.
Alec insisted loudly on paying the bill for all of them, and Sebastien didn’t protest too hard when she saw the prices. Her portion alone would have been about three gold. She could have eaten simple meals for weeks on that price in a smaller village.
When they left, most of the others were drunk. “Do not drink and cast,” she reminded them. “Alcohol and magic do not mix.”
Brinn’s face was flushed, his eyes glassy, and he tried to climb a tree on the side of the street as they were walking back to the University, forcing them to drag him down and away.
Ascott muttered something in a language Sebastien didn’t understand, then took out a sobering potion and forced a partial dose down Brinn’s throat. “It will make you have to pee,” she warned.
“I’ll drain my dragon,” Brinn slurred reassuringly. “Don’t worry, I know how to do it. Do it all the time. ’S easy.” Which all the others thought was the most hilarious thing they’d ever heard, for some reason.
Feeling like a mother with small children, or the shepherd of a flock of cats, Sebastien herded them back to the University.
They took the transport tubes that crawled up the white cliffs, and the others spilled out at the top, laughing and loopy.
Alec had thrown up inside one. “Oops. Umm. Call one of the servants, I seem to have made a mess.” He stumbled out, barely avoiding falling in the pool of his own vomit.
Sebastien glared at him hard enough that if she were a free-caster, she might have set him on fire. “Give him some of that sobering potion, Ascott,” she ordered. She stared at the disgusting puddle, wondering if she knew a spell to handle the situation, because she definitely wasn’t going to touch that with her hands. She knew a spell to draw water down towards a Circle marked on the ground, but it was meant to quickly dry oneself off after getting wet, not to mop a chunky liquid sideways along the floor.
In the end, she took out a piece of paper from her satchel and wrote a note apologizing and asking the workers who would find it—and the vomit—“Please bill Alec Gervin for cleaning services and any inconvenience.”
Grumbling the whole while, Sebastien managed to get everyone back to the dorms and, relatively quietly, into bed. She didn’t bother trying to get them to drink water or any more potions. ‘Let their hangovers punish them on my behalf,’ she thought vindictively.
Luckily, at least half of her other dorm-mates were still awake, exuberant with their freedom from the mid-terms, so her group didn’t cause too much trouble.
On Saturday morning, Moncrieffe was the only one besides Sebastien who wasn’t sick and exhausted, which was astounding considering that he’d imbibed the most out of all of them.
Leaving the others with a smug smile, Sebastien got an update on Tanya from Newton, made sure she had the bone disk to track the other girl if she slipped away again, and ordered a hangover-relief draught from the infirmary for Damien, so he could properly do his job keeping watch while Sebastien was gone.
She spent the whole day brewing Humphries’ adapting solution. It was a slow process, requiring her to distill her water to purify it, before using that distilled water to brew. The instructions assumed the brewer would be making at least seven liters at a time, but not only was Siobhan too weak for that, her cauldron wasn’t big enough, and she would have had to borrow a stock pot from the kitchen to brew in, which wasn’t ideal.
Instead, she brewed in two-liter batches. About one liter was a single dose when using it as a blood replacement for an adult human. Severe blood loss might require more. This alchemical solution was even more magically intensive than the regeneration-boosting potions, though, to be fair, the dose size was also much bigger.
She’d waited until close to the attack to make it, both because she needed her Will as strong as possible, and because its shelf life was short. This way it might still find use even if they didn’t need it immediately.
She finished off the day with a single batch of the regeneration-boosting potions and returned to the University. Thankfully, Tanya had done nothing suspicious while Sebastien was gone.
On Sunday, she did no brewing. She spent most of the day in the library reviewing her study on emergency healing. That evening, knowing she wouldn’t be able to slip away to follow if Tanya escaped the others, Sebastien considered giving the bone disk to Damien.
Instead, she sat down with him in a quiet section of the library and said, “I’ve heard rumblings of violence in the city tonight. Some skirmish between criminals. If Tanya leaves, just let me handle it. It might not be safe for you.”
Damien wasn’t satisfied by this at all. “What? No, I can handle myself, Sebastien. I’ve had plenty dueling training. I do better than you in Fekten’s class.”
“When you can cast your own broad-spectrum ward spell, or dodge well enough to beat Rhett in a duel, you can place yourself in mortal danger.”
“You’re going out!”
“I’m not going to be in that part of the city. If Tanya leaves, she might be. You’re no match for her, Damien. Trust me. A little extra information isn’t worth the danger. Still, let me know if she leaves. I’ll keep track of her from afar.”
Damien scowled mutinously.
‘This is a problem,’ she thought to herself. ‘I’m going to have to come up with better arguments and excuses if I want to keep working with him while still keeping him in the dark. He’s too curious—too nosy—to just be a good little soldier and follow instructions.’ She at least had the comfort of knowing that if he tried to follow her in any way except mundane tailing—if he tried to scry for her—she would know and be able to counteract it. Still, she needed to be careful with him and prepare in case his gullibility wore off. ‘I should deal with this as soon as possible, before it becomes even more hasslesome.’
“Damien,” she said, trying to seem compassionate rather than irritated. “Do you remember your vow?”
The scowl slipped away and he straightened. “Of course. I vowed my silence, to keep our secret, knowing when to speak and when to remain quiet. I vowed my loyalty, to support us and our efforts faithfully and fully, with true heart and steady hand. I vowed my resolve, to persevere through hardships and the wear of time, exerting myself to fulfill the cause. Freedom, and enlightenment. I—” He swallowed. “I saw beyond the edge of the sky.”
He said the words seriously, almost reverently, but all Sebastien could think, hearing them recited with surprisingly perfect recall, was, ‘I can’t believe I came up with something so cheesy. It’s like something out of a cheap adventure novel.’
“How long has it been since you stood before the stars and made that vow, and you’re already forgetting?”
“I—I’m not forgetting! I just—I want to help!”
“You’re not ready,” she said softly. “And you’re not needed, either. There are other people who are more prepared and able to deal with dangerous situations outside the University. You don’t need to know about those people. In fact, it’s best that you don’t. This world can be darker than you imagine, Damien.” She looked away, her fingers pressing a little too hard against the wooden arms of her chair.
“It takes time, and a lot of it, to prove your strength, your dedication, and your competence,” she continued. “I hope you don’t prove me wrong about you. I told you this would be boring. It’s not a story. There is no glory to be had. You and your job are important, but you are not entitled to more. If we feel that you are undermining the integrity of our mission because of greed, petulance, or impatience, you will be removed.”
He was staring at her with too-wide eyes.
She sighed. “That was not a threat. Trust me, Damien. If you are needed, you will be called upon. Until then, please be content to play your part. It may not be glamorous, but perhaps that’s because you don’t understand its importance.”
The agitation had gone from Damien’s shoulders and his cheeks were slightly pink. “I’m sorry,” he murmured. “I won’t jeopardize the mission. I’ve come to my senses.” He fiddled with his collar self-consciously. “I guess I was acting somewhat like a Petunia, right?”
Sebastien stared at him blankly for a couple of seconds, then realized he was talking about the character of Aberford Thorndyke’s niece. In several stories, the headstrong girl jumped into dangerous situations beyond her ability to handle and only caused more trouble for the other characters who then had to rescue her—at danger to themselves or the greater goal. “Well, at least you’re not Investigator Amherst.”
Damien rolled his eyes so hard his head lolled back. “Give me a stunner to the skull if I ever act like him.”
Having gotten her way, and thus in a more accommodating mood than usual, Sebastien slouched to the side. She took an invisible pipe out of her mouth, affected an extra-deep voice, and said, “Amherst, you do an absolutely fantastic impression of a gorilla whose mother dropped it from the tree as an infant one too many times.”
Damien’s mouth dropped open. “Radiant Maiden, was that a Thorndyke impression? Did you just make that line up on the spot? It was perfect! Do another. Another!” He leaned forward, so eager Sebastien thought he might grab and try to literally shake the words out of her.
She slipped her watch out of her vest pocket, making a fake expression of surprise. “Oh, is that the time? I really must be leaving. Sorry, ta ta, goodbye.” She got up and hurried from the room with a stride that was only just below a jog.
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