Month 1, Day 20, Wednesday 9:00 p.m.
Newton had considered turning Tanya down when she asked him to accompany her to a secret meeting of criminal thaumaturges. He had no desire to be involved in the dangerous game Sebastien and his Crown Family friend were playing with the University, and he dreaded anyone finding out his part in it. Accompanying Tanya with a battle wand seemed like the stupidest decision a normal person—someone who just wanted to get their Journeyman certification and move on—could make, a trap door that would dump him into this morass with no way to escape.
In the end, though, when Tanya knocked on his door shortly after curfew, the promise of a solution to his other problems was too tempting to pass up. He needed the coin. His family was depending on him.
Their entire household: his parents, his Grams, and even his sisters, had been saving since he was young to put him through the University. When they talked about their hopes and dreams, it always revolved around his future, and the knowledge that once he was established, he would help them as they once helped him. When he’d gone to check on them after the fighting and the fire, his Ma had broken down crying.
Not about the half-burnt house, or Pa’s failing lungs, or the loss of all the worldly belongings she hadn’t been able to carry in her arms, but because Newton would no longer be able to become a Journeyman. Two hundred gold a term—the minimum to take four classes—would be beyond their family’s means now. If he had to take more than one term off, he would have to pay the three hundred gold admission fee again, too.
Newton’s father had been fairly well-paid for a commoner, making about three hundred gold a year. That was much better than their neighbor Mr. Carlton, who worked unskilled labor wherever he could find it. With that, Mr. Carlton made about one hundred thirty gold a year, which was not enough to support a family on alone. This was why it was common for everyone from grandparents to children to live together, each contributing what they could to the family’s livelihood. Even doing that, some families still barely squeaked by when it came time to pay taxes.
An Apprentice-certified sorcerer could make four hundred eighty gold a year, if they found a good Master willing to let them work for their business. Legally, Apprentices weren’t able to sell magical items or services to others under their own banner.
Newton had the basic certification, but he hadn’t received any good work offers the term before. He hadn’t particularly been looking, because he had assumed he would be able to get his Journeyman certification at least, and maybe even the extra two terms for a specialized Journeyman. A good Apprentice-level position would be enough to support his family on, and maybe, in ten years or so, he could save enough to return to the University for further certifications. The best jobs in Gilbratha were almost always given to those who put on an impressive show in the end of term exhibitions. If he could just make it until then…
He sighed, shaking his head at his own foolishness. It wouldn’t do to be too greedy. Even if he needed to drop out right away, mid-term, he should still be able to find something that paid well enough to keep his family fed and housed. Sometimes a person needed to make sacrifices.
Newton had wanted to cry, too, when he saw the tears streaking his Ma’s soot-stained skin and the wrapped burns on her arms. He’d controlled himself because he knew that would only make her feel worse.
His family’s dreams for him weren’t rooted only in what they hoped to get back from him once he had power and riches. It might be easier if that were the case. No, they all wanted a better life for him than what they could hope for themselves. And they were willing to sacrifice for it.
The pressure to succeed became crushing at times.
So now he was walking through the dark streets with Tanya. The air had been clear up atop the white cliffs, but down in Gilbratha proper, thick fog had rolled in, giving the city an eerie, muffled quality.
Tanya had given him a battle wand charged with stunning spells—which was the most expensive item beside his Conduit that he’d ever held, and which was illegal for him to have. His hand stayed wrapped around it within his jacket pocket. His eyes felt gritty and sore with lack of sleep, and the muscles in his neck hurt because he kept clenching his jaw without realizing it. He’d been having to use the calming spell his Grams taught him to get even a semblance of rest over the last few days, but it wasn’t enough.
Tanya was wearing a mask, and they both wore hoods deep enough to keep their faces in shadow even when they passed the occasional streetlight, but he could tell from the way her head moved constantly that she was watching for danger, or perhaps pursuers.
When they reached their destination, a nondescript building with a slit in the door that slid open when she gave a special knock, he felt relieved for about half a second. She gave a strange, disturbing passphrase, and everything seemed to be going fine.
Then Tanya told the man behind the door that she’d brought a new prospective member.
He looked at Newton, then waved them in. He pointed them down the hallway, and they were met quickly by another masked man who looked at Tanya and said, “We prefer to be notified of new applicants at the prior meeting,” with censure in his tone.
Newton’s hand was sweaty around the battle wand. He carefully released his grip and removed his hand from his jacket pocket, wiping his palm on the side of his pant leg surreptitiously. Tanya had assured him that the meeting itself was regulated by the administrators, and thus safe enough, and Newton didn’t want to come off as a threat, especially if he wasn’t technically supposed to be here.
Tanya didn’t reply.
The man turned to Newton instead. “You will be interviewed by one of our prognos. If your answers are acceptable, you will be allowed to join the meeting.”
Newton nodded jerkily.
“At least you got here early,” the man muttered, opening a door to reveal a person sitting at a desk. A large spell array was drawn over the floor beneath them.
The person behind the desk turned their head toward Newton, and he almost jumped when he met the gaze of their single, bright eye. He shuddered, hoping the response wasn’t obvious.
The man tried to send Tanya off to the meeting room, but she refused to leave. “I’ll stay with him,” she insisted.
“You cannot,” the person at the desk said, her voice marking her as a woman. “The interview must be conducted without outside influence.”
Tanya hesitated like she wanted to argue, but finally stepped back and let the man close the door, shutting Newton in with the two masked strangers.
The man activated the spell, a ward against untruth, and Newton felt it take hold. It didn’t muffle his thoughts, exactly, but he still felt the urge to shake his head, like water was stuck in his ears.
The prognos woman jangled a pouch of bones while asking him a series of questions. She poured them onto the table after each question to read whatever truth she’d divined.
He answered truthfully, and was glad that Sebastien had the forethought to assure him that he wouldn’t be giving information to non-members, and that he wasn’t affiliated with anyone who wished the group harm. Newton was a little suspicious of Sebastien’s claim that he and Westbay, and thus Newton himself, weren’t affiliated with the coppers or law enforcement, but apparently not so suspicious that the prognos thought he was lying.
He exited the room about fifteen minutes later, now masked like everyone else, to find Tanya waiting in the hallway.
“Okay?” she asked.
“Okay,” he said, nodding.
She turned and walked back the way they’d come, and Newton followed, listening as she explained the meeting etiquette in a low voice. “Keep an ear open for any rumors about the Raven Queen,” she murmured to him as they entered the room where a large group was already waiting, many of the masked members talking amongst themselves.
Wearing a mask himself made Newton feel slightly better, but he remained on edge. How could he not, surrounded by potentially hostile strangers, in a group that would all get sent to Harrow Hill if the coppers found out about them?
Most of them were talking about the gang fighting that had swept through the city earlier that week.
“The shop my nephew works at had all the windows blown out,” one man said. “And then the looters made off with quite a bit of the inventory before the coppers got around to clearing the area.”
“Lost inventory and broken windows,” another replied with a sarcastic scoff. “Oh, the horror. The Stewards of Intention sanctuary near my house is full of the injured and newly homeless. Some of us thaumaturges might ride out this instability none the worse, but many who were struggling are going to slide into poverty with no way to recover. Crime is up because desperation is up, and that will not go away any time soon.”
A woman looked between the two men. “I heard the Stags offer jobs to people in their territory, and loans to get healing, and their enforcers handle crimes the coppers don’t care about. Perhaps recovery will be quicker than you think.”
The first man crossed his arms over his chest. “Who do you think started all this? It was the Stags that attacked the Morrows! They’re not interested in helping, they just want territory and power, just like all the other thugs!”
Another man stepped up behind the woman. “Well, I heard the Stags and Nightmare Pack attacked with non-lethal measures. They weren’t even trying to kill any of the Morrows, just capture them. It was the Morrows who caused the real damage. They didn’t care about killing bystanders or starting fires, which shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who actually lived in their territory. I’ve lost count of the number of young women who come to my clinic to deal with the consequences when a Morrow boy thinks he can take what he wants because of a red M on his shirt.” His sneer of disgust was audible in his voice.
A squat woman who’d been standing a few feet away spun to face the arguing group. “And who told you this story about these saints taking over Morrow territory? Live capture? That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. Sounds to me more like someone is savvy to the benefit of a positive public opinion. A lot easier to hold a territory where everyone’s so naive they’re actually happy to have you initiate war in the streets so you can take over running the brothels and the drugs and the fighting rings. ‘Meet the new boss! Nothing like the old boss. No, really, we promise!’”
Yet another person joined in. “I’ve actually lived in Verdant Stag territory. Whatever you want to say about them attacking and causing all this, I can tell you first hand that they do what they say. I’m not claiming the leader is some bleeding-heart altruist, but they really do have enforcers to protect the people. There’s an alarm system set up on the edge of every street corner. If there’s a crime, or a fire, or you’ve been trampled by a horse, you can pull the Verdant Stag flag and a team will come to help you. And they have a little apothecary set up in the back of their headquarters with the cheapest prices I’ve ever seen. They can’t be making a profit off that.”
A woman shrugged languidly. “Some gang is always going to be in charge. New boss, old boss, who cares? Someone smart will make good use of the opportunities offered by this volatile situation and get themselves into an advantageous position with the Verdant Stag or the Nightmare Pack. And if the Verdant Stags are soft-hearted enough to make that easy? Even better.”
That sparked a new round of argument, but the arbiter banged his wooden gavel until the room quieted, then instructed everyone to sit down and get to business.
If not for the violence the Verdant Stag caused, Newton might have actually been favorably disposed toward them. His father had been to see one of their healers when they couldn’t afford one in Morrow territory, and he had no love for the Morrows. His family had only avoided paying “protection” to them due to his Grams and her not-so-secret skills as a hedge witch. That, and her stubborn recklessness in standing up to the gang.
One of them had tried to beat and mug his mother on her way home from the market once, and would have succeeded if not for a sharp-eyed, kind copper who ended up escorting her all the way home.
His father had taken one look at her black eye and flipped over the kitchen table in rage.
The Morrows went after anyone affluent enough to afford their predation, and plenty of those who couldn’t, too. Sometimes, they demanded worse than a bit of coin.
Newton had to dismiss these thoughts as the meeting began. Masked thaumaturges were offering items and information in exchange for coin or trade in other items and information. Newton pushed back his nervousness and spoke up, offering casting information on the handful of spells he had prepared.
Tanya didn’t do the same, perhaps because she wasn’t allowed by her secret employers.
Newton only took the four basic classes, so he had no specialized spellcasting formulas to provide, and only a couple of the members were interested in what he was offering. Newton had to look to Tanya for a small nod to be sure he was haggling for a fair price, and in the end got an agreement for twelve gold crowns in exchange for a specialized mending spell and an extremely simple heat-containing artifact.
He settled back into his chair with relief as others offered their own goods and services, mentally calculating his earnings. Adding what Sebastien and Tanya would both pay him for being here, he could make fifteen gold in a single night. His job as a student liaison for the University made him a little over forty gold every term, and the accompanying contribution points were worth another five or six. If he could do this just a few more times, along with the money he made from tutoring, he would be able to pay for his own tuition. If he brought spells the other members would be more interested in, it could be even sooner. He had earned enough money in a single night to keep his family fed for an entire month.
It was suddenly viscerally easy to understand why people fell into a life of crime.
Newton jerked himself from his dazed state, returning his attention to the meeting. The fatigue and frequent rushes of anxiety were getting to him. He pushed himself to be more attentive so that he could gauge what magic information would be most valuable. Eventually, the meeting transitioned from offers to requests.
When a hooded woman spoke, requesting healing components, artifacts, or concoctions, Tanya stiffened beside him, her head swiveling to stare at the speaker.
Newton followed her gaze, wondering what was so interesting about the other woman. She was tall, and she sat with supremely confident posture, but her request seemed fairly innocuous. When she turned her head, Newton caught a glimpse of what might have been a red feather woven into her hair, which seemed a rather over-the-top fashion accessory, but she was masked like all the others. Perhaps Tanya had recognized her voice, or there was some important clue in the supplies she was requesting that Newton hadn’t picked up on.
Tanya settled back into her seat, shaking her head silently when Newton sent her a questioning look, but she seemed even more on edge than she had been, and he found his hand creeping back to the pocket with the borrowed battle wand tucked inside. Not that he wanted to use it. The thought made him shudder. No, it just felt reassuring to know there was an incapacitating spell within his grasp.
Tanya only grew tenser, until, with an exhalation that sounded as if she’d been holding it in since the meeting had started, she loudly requested any information on where the Morrows were being held and what was being done to them.
Newton’s gaze slid toward her with an inexorable sinking feeling. It shouldn’t have surprised him, really. Obviously, he’d known she was involved in illegal doings, and Sebastien had warned him that those doings included the deaths of innocents. But he hadn’t known she was working with the Morrows. And she must be, for what other reason would she be asking about this? Did that mean someone higher up at the University was also working with the Morrows? But for what?
“I assume they have been executed,” one member offered.
“No,” a man said, shaking his head. “They’re imprisoned. I know a little about the conditions the Stags are offering for their release. Three gold for a private conversation about it,” he offered.
A woman scoffed. “Please. That is not proprietary information. The Stags have been more than open about it with anyone who asks. The Morrows are being held somewhere secret, and they say Lord Stag is going to hold court and put them on trial for their crimes against the citizens. And I heard a rumor that they’ll be either ransomed or executed, depending on the severity of their crimes and their status within the gang.”
The man crossed his arms and sent the woman a glare that was obvious even through his mask.
Tanya looked around, her fists clenched at her sides, mostly hidden under the folds of her cloak. “Does anyone have information on where they are being held? Or what”—she cleared her throat—“what the security measures are?”
A few members shared glances.
Newton’s palms were sweaty again. What reason could anyone have for asking that unless they were interested in breaking the Morrows free? That just seemed like it would cause even more mayhem, destruction, and bloodshed.
After a few seconds of hesitation, a man raised his hand. “I’ve an idea where they are. No proof, but I’m not sure what else they could be doing in that location. I’ve noted a few interesting comings and goings, and someone was hired to ward the place beforehand. The information’ll cost you.”
“Gold? Beast cores?” Tanya offered.
The man rubbed his hands together in his lap with as much awkwardness as avarice. “Umm, gold. Two hundred crowns. It’s fine if you supplement with beast cores if you don’t have enough.”
Tanya’s scowl was audible in her voice, but, to Newton’s surprise, she didn’t haggle. “Fine.”
It was no wonder that she’d wanted backup, carrying that much wealth on her person. Bank cheques could be used for large transactions if you were wealthy enough to afford an account. His family had opened one to save the funds for his tuition in a place that couldn’t be stolen by one of their neighbors, but obviously you wouldn’t want to pay for anything illegal with a cheque, in case the paper trail led the coppers right to you.
The meeting moved on, but the hooded woman who’d asked for healing supplies earlier stared at Tanya a little longer than the others.
When the meeting ended, Tanya mingled with the crowd, her back never turning to the woman, while Newton went into a small side room to exchange spell information for gold under the watchful eye of an administrator. When he was finished, Tanya completed her own transaction with the man, and then whispered in the ear of an administrator, who nodded at her.
She and Newton were sent off soon afterward. Tanya walked quickly, turning corners at random for a few minutes before she calmed. “Keep an eye out for tails,” she murmured to him.
“Tails? You mean, someone following us?” He at least had the foresight not to look around wildly. Even if he had, the fog was becoming so thick that he doubted he’d be able to see anyone more than a hundred meters away. He was a little nearsighted, and glasses were expensive.
She nodded. “I know what they’re doing, and they know I know. That woman at the meeting, the one that asked for the healing supplies? She works for the Verdant Stag, I think. Her purchases are a little too coincidental.”
“And you work for the Morrows,” Newton muttered.
“Not exactly.” Tanya hesitated, but shook her head. “Affiliated, at best. But the Verdant Stag isn’t going to care about technicalities. The Raven Queen definitely won’t.”
“The Raven Queen?” Newton asked through numb lips. “Is that why you wanted me to listen for people talking about her?”
“I don’t know what her agenda is, but I think maybe the Morrows offended her. I mean, why else would the Nightmare Pack suddenly team up with the Stags to go after the Morrows? I’ve heard rumors about her kind. Relentlessly vengeful.”
Something about the way Tanya was walking, the lines of stress around her eyes, and how her fingers clenched around her own wand suddenly gave Newton a sense of foreboding. Tanya was frightened, maybe even terrified, and it was quickly rubbing off on him. “Her kind? Do you mean a blood sorcerer, or is the Raven Queen some other species?” He couldn’t help but look around for something hiding in the shadows.
“Both, maybe. Who knows which of the rumors are true. If the Morrows were smart, they would have found a way to mollify…” She trailed off, and just when Newton was about to ask, “What?” she grabbed his hand and yanked him down a narrow side street.
She slipped into a bouncing half-run, and he followed, looking behind them. “A tail?” he asked.
“Maybe. Someone in a hood, might have been from the meeting. Following a couple blocks back.”
They slowed to a walk again once they reached the next street, but doubled back the way they’d come rather than continuing toward the University. Tanya was still on edge by the time they’d made a loop, but as far as Newton could tell, no one was following them.
Tanya stopped them in the shadow of a spacious four-way intersection where one of the streetlamps had gone out, either having run out of power or had its light crystal stolen. They waited for a few minutes, suspiciously watching every hint of movement within the thick blanket of fog choking the streets.
Newton hoped Tanya was being excessively paranoid, but the thought that maybe she wasn’t left him a little light-headed. He slid a hand under his mask to rub his dry, tired eyes. If they were being tailed, wouldn’t it be better to keep moving? He removed his hand and adjusted his mask so he could see out of the eye holes again, and almost screamed when Tanya darted a hand out and grabbed his arm in a bruising grip.
With one finger held up over her mask where her lips would be, she leaned out from the corner and pointed to a hooded figure one block to the west of them. Tanya pulled back, shielding them behind the corner of the building they stood next to. “They realized we noticed them,” she said, her voice almost inaudible. “They’re following along beside us, one street over.”
“Are you sure it’s the same person?”
“Only one way to find out. Get your wand ready.”
“We’ll close in like a pincer. You from the north, me from the south. I can question them, find out what they know, what they want from me. I’m not going to let myself end up like the others.”
“No, Tanya,” Newton said, his horror a distant thing that made his lips slow. “Shouldn’t we run?”
“That will never work. We have to flip the tables. Don’t worry, it’s two against one.” She raised her hand to forestall further argument. “And I’ll call for reinforcements. Not all the Morrows were captured, and at least some of them will still be active and responsive to a flare beacon. This is what I hired you for, Newton. You’re already here, and you can’t back out now. We’ll take that person by surprise.”
And so, pulling the battle wand out of his pocket for the first time since she’d given it to him, Newton made sure the handle was twisted into the active position and would send out a stunning spell with a simple tug of his forefinger on the embedded lever.
Trying to keep himself from hyperventilating, he jogged north and prepared to cut around and block their possible pursuer. He wondered where exactly his life had gone wrong to lead him to this.
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