Month 1, Day 20, Wednesday 6:30 p.m.
When Ana reported trouble with her little sister Natalia, Damien immediately volunteered to go with her. He had some idea what the Gervin Family was like, and what the young girl was facing without Ana around to shield her, just as Titus had shielded him. Already preparing to leave, Damien hesitated belatedly, looking to Sebastien. Without Damien, Sebastien would only have Newton as a backup to keep watch on Tanya.
Sebastien nodded easily.
As they strode determinedly away, Damien asked Ana, “What happened? Is Nat okay?”
Ana’s expression was carefully neutral, but a muscle pulsed in her jaw. “Natalia is unharmed. Physically, at least. She was frightened by the fighting last night. Cousin Robbie teased her that I had died, and then he locked her in a supply closet. She was stuck for several hours until one of the servants let her out, Mother scolded her for having cried so hard she made herself ugly and dirty, and of course Robbie denied any wrongdoing. So Nat got in trouble for lying.”
“I’ll give him a good thrashing,” Damien said, grinding his fist into his palm.
“She tried to,” Ana said, her voice growing rough. “Father saw. He was with uncle Randolph, so I’m assuming he was embarrassed, and she was punished. Nat was a little too hysterical to explain everything coherently by this point in her message. I could barely read her scribbles past the ink blots and tear stains.”
“Robbie’s a grown man now. It’s shameful to be picking on a small girl like that.”
“I’m sure his father encourages him. Anything that could undermine the female heirs’ ability to lead this Family in Father’s eyes.” Ana’s hand fisted in the delicate fabric of her suit vest above her heart as if to squeeze the beating organ, leaving enraged creases in the material.
They took the tubes down and hailed the best-looking carriage waiting by the side of the street. Even with the carriage bouncing along with enough urgency to stress its cushioning spells, it took a tense half an hour to arrive at the Lilies. The Gervin Family’s estate was cut out of the far east side of the white cliffs. The mansion sat close enough to the base, near the waters of the Charybdis Gulf that when it stormed, a spray of sea foam would hit the cliff’s edge.
They both remained silent, but Damien’s mind was active. Smoke had blown over the water from the city, making Damien’s eyes sting as he looked out the carriage’s small window slot. He had watched from the edge of the white cliffs as the fires that preluded that smoke broke out late Sunday night. Even though Damien had understood he couldn’t help, he hadn’t been able to let the worry go, so instead of pretending to sleep while Sebastien was out who-knows-where, he’d bundled himself up and snuck out, looking down on the city as the violence Sebastien had predicted broke out.
It had been more than a “little skirmish.” Even from so far away, Damien had seen the flashes of magic, and the wind carried faint sounds—explosions and the occasional scream.
Some of the University staff came out to look not long after him. The beginnings of a fire lit up a portion of the Mires in orange, light diffusing through the smoke and setting everything glowing. He hadn’t bothered to try to hide from the staff, and they’d barely spared him a perfunctory admonishment to return inside, which he ignored.
“It won’t reach us here,” one of them said.
“Still, best to be prepared for the unexpected.”
Finally, a female guard insisted he return to bed. When Damien tried to protest, she said, “You’d best hurry up before I remember that it’s past curfew and give you a demerit.”
Damien had been almost ready to tell her he was the youngest Westbay and dare her to punish him, but instead he’d slumped in defeat. He was aware enough to know his anxiety was making him foolish.
Sebastien would give him a horrible tongue-lashing if he heard Damien was drawing that kind of negative attention to them. After all, someone might wonder why Sebastien was missing from the dorms after curfew, too.
The only upside to that night was that Tanya seemed to be oblivious. Her door hadn’t opened the entire night. Damien had wished desperately that he was advanced enough in the craft to do a general, exploratory divination on both Tanya and Sebastien. He wanted to check to see if Tanya was likely to do anything dangerous or suspicious, and make sure Sebastien was still okay. Unfortunately, his Divination class had barely progressed past basic deductive divinations like telling the suit of the next card in a deck.
Damien had dozed fitfully and woken when Sebastien finally arrived around five in the morning, before the sun had risen. He’d been agitated, ready to snap at Sebastien for any slight he could find, but he stopped when he got a good look at his recalcitrant friend.
Sebastien had seemed unharmed, but Damien noticed the clues he failed to hide. Sebastien’s eyes were bloodshot and his face even paler than normal. There was grime in the creases of his neck and what looked like traces of dried blood around his fingernails.
“What happened?” Damien asked, keeping his voice low to avoid waking any of their dorm-mates. “Are you injured?”
Sebastien dug into the trunk at the base of his bed for a change of clothes. “I’m not.”
“Then someone else was injured? Something happened. I can tell.”
Sebastien sighed. “Some civilians got caught up in the fighting. A young boy got his legs blown off.”
Damien had paled.
“I had to help him. He’ll live, but, for him, the worst is probably yet to come. I doubt his family can afford healing powerful enough to regrow his legs. I…don’t want to talk about it any more, Damien.”
Damien kept his mouth shut as Sebastien went to the bathrooms and took a long shower. He’d wanted to ask what Sebastien had gone out to do in the first place, and what the fighting had been about. But he couldn’t. Damien felt useless. All he had done was keep an eye on Tanya.
Sebastien was beginning to warm to Damien, but still didn’t seem to like him very much. First impressions were valuable, and he had botched theirs. Professor Lacer had been right to reprimand him. It was foolish to make enemies so blindly, even when they seemed inconsequential. Now all he could do was slowly try to change Sebastien’s mind.
Sebastien had drawn his curtains closed and plopped onto his narrow bed with a sigh of exhaustion.
The other students began to stir soon after, and Damien had been quick to throw his most dangerous glare around when anyone made too much noise and threatened to prematurely disturb Sebastien’s rest.
Sebastien had slept for only a couple hours.
Damien tried to convince him to go to the infirmary and get a pass to skip his classes, but Sebastien refused. In the end, all Sebastien would accept was an extra strong cup of coffee, which Damien imbued with a little magic to boost its effects. It was a trick his mother had taught Titus, and which Titus had passed down to him, despite the stigma of “kitchen magic.”
The carriage slowed to a stop at the manor gates, and Damien paid the driver as Ana strode ahead. He knew he was walking into a similar situation now. He would be moral support at best, unable to actually do much to solve the problem, but he knew from experience that sometimes it helped to have someone just…be there. Ana had done the same for him more than a few times over the years.
At the front doors, Ana blew past the servant that tried to take her coat and scarf.
Damien smiled apologetically to the servant and agreed to the offer of tea and refreshments. “Send them up to the library in twenty minutes or so.”
Ana’s house was quite different from his own, filled with bright colors and fresh flowers even in the middle of winter. It was just the right temperature, and the air inside held not even a hint of smoke. Her mother took pride in things like that, redecorating frequently and inviting people over for parties and balls whenever she wanted to be particularly extravagant.
Damien didn’t want to thrust himself awkwardly between the two sisters, so he went to the library to wait for a few minutes. He browsed the books idly, his thoughts returning to the blood he’d seen caked around Sebastien’s fingernails. He couldn’t imagine exactly what it might be like to find a child missing their legs and on the edge of death, but he knew it must be horrible, and he knew that were it him in that situation, the child would have died.
But Sebastien was special. It was obvious, in his sheer skill with magic, but there was more to him than met the eye. Even beyond the secrets that Damien knew.
His fingers trailed over a book spine, his eyes idly reading without comprehending. He paused, reading the title again. A Genealogy of Notable Figures of the Thirty-Second Century, B.C.E. The book itself was completely useless to him, but it sparked an idea and renewed the flames of curiosity that had never quite died down.
He looked around, noting the recurring theme among other books. The Gervin library was full of records. A lot of genealogies, history, and plenty of not-so-subtle gossip about other people’s ancestors.
When the tea tray was brought up, he took it from the servant and made his way to Nat’s room. He knocked on the door, then opened it with a smile, keeping any anger or concern from his face. Nat needed to be cheered up, not reminded of what she already knew well enough. “I come bearing gifts for the lady Natalia, in the hopes that she might gift me a few minutes of her lovely company.”
Nat’s face was swollen and blotchy from tears, but she nodded happily enough.
They were both sitting on the canopied bed, so Damien sat the tea tray at the foot, kicked off his boots, and climbed in with them. There was plenty of space. He served the girls tea and scones with butter and jelly and made light conversation, telling stories from the University that had Natalia giggling until she fell over. She particularly loved stories about Sebastien, and Damien found he had more of them than he realized.
As she ate and drank, he foisted more snacks on her and embellished anecdotes of Sebastien’s obliviousness, grumpiness, and his secret soft-hearted core.
“What Family is he from?” Nat asked.
“He’s not one of the Crowns,” Ana said, running her fingers idly through her little sister’s hair.
“Really?” Ana looked down, frowning with disappointment.
“It’s not like that matters,” Damien said. “We might have the advantage of bloodlines and opportunity, but there’s plenty of skill among the lower class. And plenty of garbage among our own,” he added darkly.
Nat shrunk into herself a little, like a turtle tucking its head, and Damien quickly changed the subject.
After the ordeal of her day and finally being filled with food and liquid, she started drooping into sleep soon afterward.
When she was down, Damien and Ana slipped out of the bed and walked to the balcony, slipping through the door and closing it behind them.
“Is she okay?” he asked.
“It was an ordeal for her, but she’ll be fine. For now.” Ana clenched the balcony railing, staring out at the city. “This is why I didn’t want to leave her. She’s all by herself without me. She’s only eleven.”
“You managed when you were her age. She’s going to be okay. And she’s not alone. You’re not gone, you’re half an hour away, and you talk to her every day.”
Ana’s grip only tightened, and she rocked back and forth a bit.
Damien nudged her shoulder with his own. “Nat’s stronger than you think. Don’t underestimate her.”
Ana’s fingers tightened, but then she let out an almost inaudible sigh and released her grip. “You’re right. But I just worry about something like this happening again. She was trapped in that closet for hours with no way to call for help. I think Cousin Robbie paid off some of the servants to purposely ‘not notice’ her screams. Our manor isn’t that big.”
Damien ran his fingers over the simple wooden bracelet Sebastien had given him, which was hidden beneath his shirt. “You should get her an emergency alarm artifact. Something that will let you know when she’s in danger, even if she can’t write to you.”
Ana brightened immediately. “Yes, that’s a great idea! I don’t know why I never considered it before. I suppose…you don’t normally assume a child needs an emergency alarm within the safety of their own home.”
Damien only hoped Nat never needed to use it for anything worse than being trapped in a closet.
“You can go back,” Ana said. She’ll probably sleep for a couple hours. I want to be here when she wakes so she isn’t frightened.”
“Actually… I was wondering if I might use the Family library?”
“Oh? Whatever for? We don’t have many relevant study texts at a University level, and there aren’t any of your cheap detective periodicals.”
Damien refrained from commenting on her slight. “I was hoping to look up a list of notable families? I’m curious about the Siverlings.”
Ana raised a knowing eyebrow. “Interested in Sebastien’s history?”
Damien rubbed the back of his head sheepishly, then realized he was mussing his hair and smoothed it again. He looked away. “I’m just curious. Gossip and genealogy and all that is your Family’s wheelhouse. I don’t want to pull up confidential information or anything, and that’s the only type of special information my Family would have access to. Sebastien never talks about his family, you notice?”
“I already looked into them.”
Damien’s head jerked around to look at her.
“Don’t be so surprised, Damien. Of course I would. I sleep next to Thaddeus Lacer’s mysterious new apprentice every night, and no one’s ever heard of him before.”
“What did you find?”
“It was difficult to find anything. At first I thought he was…” She played with the collar of her jacket. “Well, a commoner from a family just wealthy enough to afford his tutors and admission. No one particularly special.”
Damien knew that even if Sebastien was a commoner, he would still be exceptional. “At first? You changed your mind.”
“Recent records about anyone with the name Siverling are impossible to find. At least without hiring an investigator, and I didn’t think that was warranted. But I found a more distant mention of the name. The Siverlings were a maternal offshoot line of the ruling Family of Lenore from before the Third Empire. Supposedly everyone in the line was executed by the Blood Emperor.”
Damien’s eyes widened. “Do you think it’s the same Siverlings?”
She shrugged. “Who knows? But it’s definitely a curious coincidence. Especially since he seems to have popped out of nowhere.”
Inheritance via a maternal line was often contested, and allowed only if there were no more direct descendants through a paternal line, but if it wasn’t a coincidence, and Sebastien really was descended from the king of Lenore before the Blood Empire… “What would that mean?”
“Probably not much. Maybe it would make him a more desirable match for some Crown Family daughter. With the right backers, he could make a claim to power…and probably face either open execution or a deniable assassination, depending on how much support he had.”
Damien could imagine it, a family living in secrecy for generations for fear that the Blood Emperor or the Crowns would take offense to their very existence and finish them off. “How likely is it to be true?”
“The king’s third daughter married into the Siverling family. Her husband was the king’s Court Sorcerer. She was pregnant when she died, and all the records say the child died with her. I did a little digging… She would have been at least eight months pregnant. With the right spells and a good nursemaid, eight months is old enough to survive outside the womb, if the child was delivered early or cut out of his mother’s stomach immediately after her death. So, despite how dramatic and intriguing it sounds as a story…it’s extremely unlikely.”
“But possible. And if we think so…maybe someone else does, too. Could someone have found him living in Vale, in obscurity, and convinced him to take up his true family name again? Perhaps funded his way through the University, connected him to Professor Lacer?”
“Possible, yes. It’s probably unconnected, though. He’s been staying with a man named Oliver Dryden, an exiled noble from Osham. The man seems to have very little personal ambition. He’s a philanthropist with a bleeding heart, according to my father, and wouldn’t have any reason to take advantage of Sebastien. I honestly wouldn’t consider the connection to those other Siverlings at all except… Well. Sebastien has something of a way about him. Blood runs true, you know.”
Damien remembered the first time he’d realized Sebastien was truly special. He’d made a joke about him being the second coming of Myrddin.
Damien wasn’t crazy. He didn’t think Sebastien was the literal incarnation of history’s most powerful thaumaturge. But if Sebastien held the bloodline of both the king and a man who would have been one of the most powerful sorcerers in the country, it made some sense how he could be naturally talented enough to draw Thaddeus Lacer’s eye.
“Well, there’s a simple solution to our curiosity,” Ana said.
“We could just ask Sebastien.”
Damien considered it for a second, but shook his head. “I don’t think we should. He can tell us if he wants to. That kind of thing…there are probably a lot of good reasons to keep it secret. He never talks about his family or his childhood, and I feel like maybe that’s deliberate.”
Ana hesitated, but nodded, “I agree.”
Damien’s eyes narrowed. “There’s something else. Do you know something?”
She rolled her eyes in exasperation. “Sebastien is our friend. I don’t want to gossip about him.”
“You love gossiping. Besides, it’s just me. I’m not going to tell anyone else, and you know he’s my friend, too. If there’s something relevant, isn’t it best that both of us know so we can have his back?”
“It’s nothing you shouldn’t have noticed yourself. And I don’t want to speculate about what it means. Just—” She cleared her throat. “Okay. Sebastien is incredibly self-assured. To the point of arrogance. But that arrogance is universal. He doesn’t treat even the most obvious sponsored commoner any different than he treats you or me. And the way he studies, it’s obsessive. I thought at first he was just trying to live up to expectations or something, but sometimes it seems like he’s worried all this is going to be taken away from him, and he’s trying to cram as much knowledge as possible into his mind before the spell ends. And you’re right, he never tells stories about himself. It’s not just that he avoids talking about his family or his childhood. He’s never mentioned a pet, or his favorite food, or even what he wants to do after graduating. And mostly… He has nightmares, Damien.”
Damien nodded slowly, realizing everything she said was true. In fact, the only thing he knew about Sebastien’s family was from an offhand comment about how free-casting ran in his family, too. He, of course, knew that Sebastien’s dreams had something to do with the secrets he kept. Sebastien would have taken the same oath as Damien, while looking at the stars. He, too, wanted freedom and enlightenment, whatever that meant exactly. Sebastien had spoken about that boy with the missing legs a little too matter-of-factly.
But Damien had never given much thought to the fact that Sebastien had trouble sleeping. He knew Sebastien had nightmares, and probably insomnia, too. It was just one of those things about Sebastien, like him being grumpy in the mornings, and how much he loved good coffee but never bought any of his own, and how he ignored the increasingly frequent flirtatious looks from the female students like he didn’t even notice them. “Yes, he does…” Damien said encouragingly, waiting for Ana to continue.
“He has nightmares every night. That’s why he’s always practicing in the wee hours and seems exhausted in the morning. I think something bad happened to him. Something he doesn’t want to talk about. So even if he is one of those Siverlings, it doesn’t mean his life before this is anything he wants to remember. And maybe that’s why he studies like he does. Being here is a way out for him. And if it is…I don’t want to take that away from him by making him talk about it.”
The thought that something or someone had actually caused Sebastien’s nightmares had Damien’s heart beating a little too hard, his cheeks flushing even brighter against the cold. When Sebastien had said, “The world can be darker than you imagine,” there had been a shadow in his eyes, hidden thoughts swimming behind their placid surface. It seemed wrong that someone like Sebastien, who was strong and smart and who cared so much could, in other circumstances, be the victim of something that scarred him internally so much that he couldn’t escape the memories even in sleep. Sebastien wasn’t a victim.
Damien only realized he’d said the last part aloud when Ana nodded.
“Exactly. It’s not how he thinks of himself, and not how he would want anyone else to think of him. So let’s not make him tell stories he would rather leave behind just for the pleasure of a being in on a secret. Whether his last name has any significance…well, it doesn’t really change who Sebastien is, right?”
She was right. Damien told her so.
She laughed. “Damien, haven’t you learned by now? I’m always right.”
Damien smirked. “Except when you disagree with Sebastien.”
They laughed, and didn’t talk of it again.
Author Note: I’m working on reviewing all the line edits back from my editor, and I need some time to get through them all before posting the next chapter. Therefore, there will be no chapter on 11/11. I hope to post a double chapter during Book 2’s release week to make up for it.
Want to get an email with links as soon as a new website chapter comes out? Sign up here: https://landing.mailerlite.com/webforms/landing/q4b8d8
Trouble accessing a chapter? Troubleshooting tips: https://www.azaleaellis.com/trouble-accessing-chapters/