Chapter 80 – Nerves Wracked


Month 1, Day 18, Monday 6:00 p.m.

Damien found Sebastien’s ignorance hilarious. He kept falling into random giggling fits whenever he thought of it, despite her increasingly ferocious scowl.

Tanya was similarly amused, leaving Newton the only one with a bit of sympathy for Sebastien.

Sebastien almost wanted to stop by Professor Lacer’s office and ask him about it, but the thought of his reaction was even more mortifying.

Besides, Damien admitted that when they spoke, Professor Lacer had called her his provisional apprentice. That barely meant anything, really. He may have made her his apprentice to get her past the entrance exams, but it seemed likely that he would negate that once it was no longer necessary, or if she disappointed him.

She did her best to put it out of her mind. Nothing had changed, only her understanding of the situation. There was nothing she needed to do with this information.

With both Newton and Damien around to watch Tanya, Sebastien didn’t really need to be there.

Most of Sebastien’s professors—those who had some measure of compassion for their students, unlike Professor Lacer—had temporarily reduced their students’ workload. She decided to take advantage of the extra free time to work on some of the things she’d been neglecting.

She went to the supply closet that held the Henrik-Thompson testing artifact, hoping that it would have other useful items, like the artifact-scanning device she’d just learned about, but was disappointed.

She hesitated to ask one of the Artificery professors, but when she firmed up her resolve and found the man from her entrance examination to make the request, he was happy enough to give access to the one in his classroom.

Looking around at all the complicated gadgets and tools for creating the miniature spell arrays, Sebastien regretted that Professor Lacer had restricted her to only taking six classes per term. ‘No, what are you thinking?’ she asked herself, looking at a spool of gold wire. ‘You cannot afford either the time or the funds to be a competent artificer. There will be time to learn more about this craft later, once you have made something of yourself.

The professor sat at his desk across the room, wearing a set of complicated, multi-lensed goggles and leaning over something delicate and shiny.

Sebastien arranged herself so her back was blocking his view, just in case. She was pretty sure owning a battle wand required a license. She examined the artifact before putting it into the larger metal dome, which was already wafting out cold air from its open mouth. The wand was bigger than the name implied. Only the most expensive wands with the most exquisite construction were the size of twigs. Most were more like batons, tapered cylinders that easily reached an inch thick at their base, and in an emergency might even be used to beat someone about the head.

This one wasn’t fancy, and gave off no hint of precious metal or multiple different types of spells within. You pointed and pulled the embedded node on the side, and it fired a stunning spell. Of which the scanning artifact told her it had three remaining, based on the three rings of miniature Circles within that were radiating minute amounts of heat.

Glancing surreptitiously over her shoulder to ensure the professor was still paying her no attention, she slipped off the amulet and scanned it, next.

According to the scan, it had no charges remaining. ‘Either I happen to have just run out, or whatever charges it holds are too efficient to be tracked.’ Not sure whether to be disappointed or relieved at the continued mystery, she hid the amulet away again, thanked the professor, and forced herself to return to the dorms for a nap. Then, she practiced Professor Lacer’s exercises, focusing on all the different aspects of her Will while creating a ball of compressed air, until she felt herself start to grow more at ease with the spell.

The next couple of days were uneventful. Other than the suspicious letter Tanya had sent via spelled paper bird, she was keeping to her normal routine as a student aide. But Sebastien knew the woman would slip up eventually. Probably soon, considering what had just happened.

Oliver sent Sebastien another coded note requesting she come by over the weekend to brew healing concoctions, as apparently the Stags were having trouble supplying their increased territory. She had already been planning on it, of course, but noted that she should buy any useful healing supplies at the next secret meeting, which she hoped would be soon. The Verdant Stag would need more than she could supply on her own, and Oliver would reimburse her, with her fee on top of that.

After classes on Wednesday, while Ana, Damien, and Sebastien were studying in the library, Ana sat scribbling furiously in the pink notebook she often wrote in, a harsh frown on her face.

Sebastien would have thought nothing of it, but Ana was the type to smile with almost creepy pleasantness even while enraged. She’d done so only that morning when one of the male students “accidentally” rubbed against her derriere. Right before shoving his food tray into him, splashing hot oatmeal over his chest and face with a sweet, “Oops!”

Meaning something that could cause Ana to frown so unpleasantly had to be serious.

“What’s wrong?” Damien asked.

“I need to go check on my little sister,” Ana replied, already preparing to leave.

“I’ll come with you,” Damien said immediately, already standing. He hesitated, looking to Sebastien as if realizing that he might have misspoken.

With Damien off campus, it would leave only Sebastien and Newton to watch over Tanya, but Sebastien nodded quickly anyway. Some things were more important. Damien had been Ana’s friend far longer than he’d been Sebastien’s ally.

She even offered, “Do you need any help?” but the pair was already hurrying away too quickly to hear her.

Checking to make sure Newton was still with Tanya, Sebastien moved to the supervised practice rooms, where she spent a couple of hours trying to catch up on Professor Lacer’s exercises.

Ana and Damien were still gone when she returned to the dorms, and Sebastien guessed they might be staying the night at the Gervin estate. ‘I hope everything is alright.’ Damien did have the bracelet she’d given him, so if anything went truly wrong, he could at least let her know, even if there was nothing she could do about it.

Sebastien cast her dreamless sleep spell and lay down. She was hoping to get a few hours of sleep, and then wake to work on some homework in the middle of the night while a little more refreshed. Just as she was falling asleep, however, the alarm ward they’d placed on Tanya’s door went off.

Sebastien pulled the rattling, cold stone from under her pillow and stared at it in frustrated disbelief. It was as if Tanya had somehow divined the worst possible moment to get up to something suspicious. ‘I’m tired. I don’t want to follow Tanya out into the freezing elements and hide in the dark listening to her from afar…

Sebastien considered letting Tanya go unsupervised in favor of sleep, trying to convince herself that the other woman wasn’t necessarily up to anything nefarious. Instead, Sebastien leapt to her feet in sudden anxiety.

Without Damien, she couldn’t actually listen to Tanya from afar. Sebastien had spent a little time researching sound-enhancing spells, but what she’d found worked by amplifying received sound through the casting surface. These spells all created a slight but obvious echo that could easily give her away to Tanya and Munchworth if they were paying attention, even if she managed to hide or suppress any light given off by the casting or Sacrifice flame.

Her mind raced as she tried to come up with a solution. She could attempt to recreate Damien’s spell by hashing something together, but there was very little chance she would get it just right, and new magic was wild. Dangerous. She was trying to learn from her mistakes, not recklessly undertake more of them. That would be a last resort.

Why didn’t I place more importance on finding a way to cast a divination spell focused on myself, at will? If I had the ward going at full strength, I might even be able to sneak up on them in the dark.’ Even if she could have cast a divination on herself while simultaneously avoiding its grasp, though, the spillover light from her lantern and the probable glow of the spell array would give her away. The divination-diverting ward didn’t make her invisible or impossible to notice, after all. If she could cast with light as a power source, she could have minimized her chance of being noticed, but she was nowhere near ready to do that. Now she wished she’d bought herself a beast core, despite the uneconomical prices.

You’re rambling. Focus. I need real solutions,’ she snapped at herself mentally, wrenching on her boots and jacket.

She checked her pocket watch. Less than half a minute had passed since Tanya left her room. ‘I can’t listen in from a distance, and I can’t sneak up on her. But I’m pretty sure I know who she’s meeting, and where. I don’t need to sneak up on them if I’m already there. Lying in wait. Hidden.

It was a gamble. Maybe Tanya wasn’t going to meet Munchworth at the Menagerie. She could be doing anything, going anywhere…

Moving as fast as she ever had in her life, Sebastien used her little slate table and the bone disk to track Tanya’s direction. She was headed north, which meant she probably wasn’t leaving University grounds. She would swing west soon, if the Menagerie was her goal.

Already moving to the dormitory doors, Sebastien snuffed her lamp, stuffed it into her pocket with the bone disk, and wrapped her dark scarf around her head to cover her pale face and hair. She didn’t want to stand out in the night like a beacon.

As soon as she was in the hallway, she ran. She burst through the opposite doors Tanya had exited through, sprinting around the Citadel to the east and onward to the Menagerie gates. She had to get there far enough ahead of Tanya that the other girl wouldn’t see her. Sebastien could only hope that Munchworth wasn’t already there and waiting.

At least this time there was no fresh snow to leave suspicious tracks in. It was trampled and dirty and the paths were covered in patches of invisible ice—which immediately sent Sebastien sprawling painfully.

Cursing silently, breathing too hard to spare any air for spouting obscenities, she climbed off her bruised knees and elbows and kept running.

The little bridge where Tanya and Munchworth met last time was empty. Sebastien slowed and glared around suspiciously, looking for any other forms hiding in the dark. Her breaths were seeping out through the gaps in her hastily wrapped scarf, clouding puffy and white in the moonlight. Her lungs protested the shock of suddenly filtering such a great quantity of frigid air, and she coughed as stealthily as she could while searching around for a hiding spot.

Eventually, she decided the best hiding spot was actually under the bridge itself. There were a couple of large boulders near the bank that would help to conceal her form if she huddled into them.

It was a precarious descent. The rocks were slippery, and the edge of the little stream was iced over and concealed with piled snow. Sebastien cracked through the ice with a splash, but managed not to face-plant into the freezing water. “Titan’s balls!” she hissed. She crouched down in the darkness underneath the stone bridge against the lumpy side of the boulder and remained still, muffling her breaths with her scarf.

She wanted to cast the compass divination on Tanya again, or at least take out her pocket watch to estimate how long she would need to wait for the girl to arrive, but she resisted the urge. She was too likely to be noticed.

To her relief, though, she had been correct.

Tanya arrived first, clearly audible from the little bridge above as she stamped her feet and muttered vague threats toward “that pompous idiot.”

It took long enough for Munchworth to get there that even Sebastien was beginning to wonder if he’d stood Tanya up. Then when he did arrive, Sebastien worried suddenly that one of them would use a revealing spell of some sort to ensure their privacy, but he started speaking without hesitation. “What was so urgent that you could not send it in a message? I was under the impression that you do not have much time to dawdle about tonight. Do you have something for me?”

Tanya seemed to hesitate, but then blurted, “This is a bad idea. I…I don’t feel comfortable doing this. I can go to the meeting, but—”

Munchworth cut her off. “You called me away from my bed just to whine? What exactly do you think your job is? Do you think you are in a position to make demands, or even suggestions?” His voice grew louder as he berated her. “You do not decide. We decide. You either perform satisfactorily, or you fail and you are useless.”

“I’m not incompetent,” Tanya said in a tightly controlled tone, “but I object to being treated like a disposable pawn in a reckless strategy that’s just as likely to backfire as bring about positive results. Aligning ourselves against the Verdant Stag and the Nightmare Pack, both of which have dealings with the Raven Queen, is a bad idea. I have already been warned once. I doubt she will spare my life a second time. I have reason to believe that a member of the Stags or the Nightmare Pack is also a member of the meetings. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. It became obvious after the attack. Don’t you see the implications?”

“It is no surprise that there are criminals at these meetings. That is largely the point of them.”

“They know who I am!” she cried, barely keeping her voice low enough that it wouldn’t travel through the night. “They’ve heard my request for a meeting with the Raven Queen, and they probably passed it on to her, but she refused. They’ve been selling Conduits, I think from people they attacked or killed. They’re dangerous.”

She’s talking about me, but why would she assume I got the celerium through nefarious means?

Tanya continued, “When I start asking the questions you sent me, they’re going to make connections. The Raven Queen has already shown she can move directly against the University without repercussion. She’s warned me in person. Do you want to be assassinated? Wasn’t that book she stole on its way to your office at the time? She knows where you work. She probably knows where you sleep. You are making an enemy who is out of your league, and you’re tossing me into their jaws like some kind of disposable, unshielded pawn.”

Munchworth scoffed angrily. “I am a professor of the Thaumaturgic University of Lenore. We are the most powerful magical institution on the entire continent. Even the Thirteen Crowns fear us. This upstart who calls herself the Raven Queen is nothing more than a petty thief and a dramatist, feeding the fear and ignorance of the population to bolster her reputation. She makes threats and pulls stunts because she is not powerful enough to face us directly. We will anger her? She has angered us! We will stand for this no longer, and if she knows what is good for her, she will hide away in the shadows, for the fist of our wrath will spare none!” He breathed hard for a few seconds. “The cowardice of your common blood is showing true, Canelo. Rid your mind of petty superstitions and represent the University with the mettle of a real sorcerer.”

Tanya’s heavy breaths were audible, and Sebastien could imagine her anger, but the woman didn’t reply aloud.

“You’re increasingly becoming a hassle, Canelo. Remember, we wield both the carrot and the stick.” There was a pause, and Tanya must have responded nonverbally, because her harsh breaths remained while Munchworth’s heavier stride walked off the bridge and retreated toward the entrance.

Sebastien stayed still beneath the bridge, trying not to shiver or let her teeth chatter.

Tanya stood atop the bridge for a few minutes, then suddenly burst into cursing. She took a few deep breaths, muttering, “By all the greater hells,” in a desperately strained tone that sounded as if she might be about to burst into tears. After a few more minutes of hunkering in the cold, Sebastien heard her say, “Okay, okay,” in a calmer tone. “I do what I must. At least I won’t be entirely helpless, or alone.”

Tanya finally left, and after waiting a long while to be sure she wouldn’t be observed, Sebastien surreptitiously followed her.

Updated 11/25/21:

Do you have a sharp eye for errors and an interest in reading the entirety of Book 2 now (chapters 38-89), in exchange for a $25 bookstore gift card, your own paperback copy of the book, and a signed bookplate?

PGTS Book 2: A Binding of Blood is almost ready for publication. It’s been professionally edited, but it takes more than a couple sets of eyes to catch all the errors in a work. I’m looking for readers with a sharp eye to suss out any remaining typos and other small, insidious errors.

If you’re interested, check out the details here:

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