Month 1, Day 21, Thursday 12:20 a.m.
“What do you think?” Lord Westbay asked Professor Lacer.
“I need more information. The Canelo girl’s testimony is vital. Why was the Raven Queen here tonight? Why give my apprentice a blessing?” He said the last a little quieter, looking over Sebastien contemplatively. “How did she escape from the building?”
Despite the wondrous warmth he had created, Sebastien’s shivers were not subsiding. With an effort of will, she lifted her head from her knees. She just had to keep going a little longer.
“Also, did she somehow trigger the boy’s loss of control?” Kuchen muttered.
Thaddeus turned to Gera. “Tell me everything you know about the Raven Queen. At this point, being the only one in this room to have interacted with her directly, you seem to be our foremost expert on the woman.”
Everyone else seemed equally enraptured by the promise of details on the elusive Raven Queen.
Gera shook her head. “The things I say must remain confidential. She has warned us against spreading rumors attached to her name. My brother ordered that we not speak her name to outsiders. They say she can hear when you pray to her, and she may be able to listen in when she is spoken of.”
Professor Lacer scoffed. “That is nothing more than horror stories created to frighten children and adults so ignorant of the mechanics of magic they might as well be children. It is implausible in the extreme, and though I hesitate to use the word impossible, this approaches that hyperbole.”
Gera shook her head. “You have not met her. But in any case, I doubt she is a woman in the sense you mean. She may take the form of one, but that means little. She presents herself as a human female, but when I met her there were anomalies, if you knew enough to notice them, and I do not dare to guess at her true form.”
“Anomalies?” Professor Lacer asked impatiently.
“I believe she is a creature of night. Of dreams and shadows. My people have tales of them, passed down from many generations before. Her gaze is black and empty, a pupil without iris, and imparts an instinctive wariness when you meet it. She smelled of darkness, old blood, and the charge of a thunderstorm. Feathers grew from her scalp and wove through her hair, which shimmered with the iridescence of a raven’s feather. And despite all this, everything about her screamed that she was utterly inconsequential, nothing more than a shadow in the corner of your eye, best ignored.”
Sebastien was impressed with the hushed, theatrical tone of Gera’s voice and the inventiveness of the description. She was more confident than ever that Oliver had sent the woman, because surely Gera had guessed who she was, even in this form, and was doing her best to differentiate Sebastien, and even Siobhan, from the identity of the Raven Queen. With Gera’s help, the rumors would grow into such fantastical relief that an unassuming young sorcerer would be almost impossible to associate with the Raven Queen. ‘The ward against untruth is almost certainly accompanied by a divination to suss out lies. She doesn’t have my divination-diverting ward, but obviously she’s got some other way to bypass both.’
“She wields great power over the domain of dreams. I witnessed her grant a different blessing with this power, accomplishing what not even the greatest thaumaturges who I called upon for help before her could.” She raised her hand to stop Professor Lacer before his mouth could even fully open to question her. “I will give no details of this boon. You may believe me or not, but I will not speak more of it.” When he didn’t argue, only scowling, Gera continued. “Stories say her kind may travel on the night wind or through the shadows themselves, and I witnessed this myself.”
‘Yes, definitely lying to keep me out of trouble.’ Sebastien almost wanted to laugh aloud at the absurdity of it, and the shivers were subsiding as the amusement distracted her. The whole thing was ridiculous, totally unbelievable. Being in a tent with a group of powerful, influential people who were taking this seriously was almost surreal. But as long as they believed it, working from such a fallacious base premise would always lead them to the incorrect conclusion.
“She was there one moment and gone the next,” Gera continued. “We searched everywhere for her, but there was not even a hint of her passing. Some of the stories say her kind can disappear as soon as there is no mortal eye looking upon them. She likely disappeared in the same way tonight. As for her purpose here, who can say for sure? The Raven Queen is mischievous, vengeful to those who anger her, and benevolent to those who please her. The Morrows disrespected her and gained her ire. The boy…” She turned her head back to Sebastien, and for a moment the pressure on the anti-divination ward increased, though Gera had been avoiding placing too much scrutiny on her for most of the conversation. “Perhaps he amused her with his curiosity and bravery, to get so close to a deadly Aberrant. Or perhaps she was sending a message. Her blessing is great. So can her wrath be. I say with complete honesty that it is my great desire to never gain her ire.”
Sebastien gave the shallowest nod of thanks, which went unnoticed as everyone else was staring at Gera, who let out a breath in what was a convincing show of settling anxiety. “Shall we go to see the building? Perhaps I can provide insight into the events that transpired within, or I can help question some of the other witnesses. The Morrows, perhaps, if this Canelo is refusing to speak.”
Lord Westbay and Inspector Kuchen left with Gera to look over the other survivors and the crime scene.
Professor Lacer hesitated, obviously interested in going with them, but remained with Sebastien while Vernor insisted on going through her own list of questions from the top. He refused to leave Sebastien alone with her, using a free-cast spell to create himself an invisible chair in the air, upon which he lounged with ominous relaxation.
Vernor asked for details as if trying to catch Sebastien in a lie, but seemed self-conscious around Professor Lacer, whose thundercloud scowl grew darker with every question and passing minute.
To Sebastien’s relief, Vernor seemed to find nothing unusual about the bracelets or Newton’s Conduit, and after recording all the data she could, including capturing their likeness from every conceivable angle with an artifact, she returned everything to Sebastien, except her battle wand, for which Sebastien did not have a license and couldn’t argue to keep. She doubted she would have ever been allowed even those concessions without Professor Lacer, and it was probably against their protocol. His influence was surprising, and lent more credence to the rumors that he had once been part of the Red Guard.
When the woman turned back to her notes, Sebastien tucked everything back into her pocket. ‘I’ll burn the bracelets. Just in case.’ She wished she was powerful enough to free-cast the spell that would destroy any bodily shedding or remains, as that would have solved the issue from the beginning.
Halfway through, Titus Westbay returned to the tent, informing Professor Lacer that they were taking the Morrows to Harrow Hill Penitentiary for further questioning, but that Tanya was being remanded to the University infirmary at the insistence of one of the healers.
‘Munchworth probably doesn’t want her being forced to talk.’ She wondered briefly if Tanya was safe. ‘Would they orchestrate some “accident” to keep her quiet?’ But there was nothing Sebastien could do about that. Tanya had chosen her own fate, so she put it out of her mind.
When they reached the end of the questions, Sebastien’s eyes burned with fatigue and her thoughts felt foggy.
Vernor began to ask the same questions again in different ways, and Sebastien resisted the urge to sag with defeat. “Newton was my friend,” she whispered, pressing hard on her burning eyes to keep tears from welling in them.
Professor Lacer stood abruptly. “That is enough, I think. Well past enough. My apprentice has answered all your questions, and is in need of rest. He will be returning to the care of the University healers immediately. If he remembers any other relevant information, I will contact you.”
Vernor tried to protest, but Lacer ignored her, effortlessly undoing the ward around Sebastien’s bed.
“Wait!” Vernor yelled. “The confidentiality vow!”
Lacer sighed, running a hand over his face. “Quickly.” His short beard and the hair of his eyebrows were both tousled, lifted from his skin as if they were afraid of his ire and trying to escape his face. Or perhaps it was static electricity. But it made him look wild, and even more dangerous.
Vernor hurried out, returning a minute later with a glyph-carved human skull, which she thrust toward Sebastien. “Place your hand on this and repeat after me,” she said.
Sebastien leaned back from the skull, eyeing it suspiciously. “I will not do any sort of blood vow.”
“No blood is necessary. With this artifact, your word is your bond,” Vernor said impatiently, pushing the skull toward Sebastien.
“How does it work, then?”
“Rare components, advanced artificery,” Professor Lacer said. “It will place a strong compulsion on you to adhere to what you promise.”
Sebastien wanted to question them further, but it was obvious she wouldn’t be leaving this tent without making the “confidentiality vow,” and she was too exhausted to continue putting up a fight. She placed her hand on the skull.
It was warm under her frozen fingers, and she felt a tingle in her chest next to her heart.
“Be sure to state your full name. The one you were given at birth,” Vernor said. She had obviously memorized the vow, and recited it quickly, pausing after every sentence for Sebastien to echo her. It was surprisingly simple and straightforward.
“I, Sebastien Siverling, will not divulge any details regarding the events of this night to those who do not have prior knowledge of them. This includes any information relating to the individuals involved, the events that took place, or the operations of the Red Guard. This restriction does not apply to members of law enforcement, including any members of the Red Guard.”
‘Will the vow truly restrict me, since Sebastien Siverling isn’t the name my parents gave me? Even now I only use it some of the time.’
With that, Professor Lacer allowed her to pack up her belongings in her bag and led her out of the tent. He kept a hand around her shoulders, as if to support her.
It was well past midnight by then, and after such a long, difficult day Sebastien was embarrassed to admit that, without him to lean on, she might have stumbled under the weight of her exhaustion.
Despite the late hour, the street was bustling with coppers and more than a few members of the Red Guard. She couldn’t see the building that had been the setting for Newton’s last moments, but could tell where it was from the bright light diffusing through the fog and up into the sky about a block away.
Professor Lacer led them past the edge of the cordon, flashing his University token at the nervous copper guarding it.
Apparently, he’d paid his carriage to wait for him all that time. He helped her inside, sat across from her, and they were off immediately, bouncing briskly along the cobbled street.
Her eyes wanted to drift closed, but his steady gaze on her kept her from relaxing.
Suddenly Sebastien felt the searching tendrils of a divination sliding off her ward.
There was no overt indication of the spell Professor Lacer had just cast, except for his piercing gaze. “When was our first meeting?” he asked suddenly.
She wanted to ask, “What?” but she knew from experience in his classroom that he hated “inane” responses that vaguely requested a repetition of the initial question without imparting any information about the source of confusion, and which were most often used to stall for time. Instead, she was silent for a few seconds, then said, “We met on the last day to apply for the entrance examination. I don’t know if you remember. We didn’t speak. I had been arguing with Damien. Our first official meeting was during the oral portion of my entrance exam.”
“What theoretical research am I helping you with?”
She was quicker this time. “Decreasing or even eliminating the need to sleep.”
“What caused you to experience Will-strain earlier this year?”
She opened her mouth, then closed it and narrowed her eyes. “Why the questions?”
He gave her a small smile. “Good. I needed to be sure it was you. They say the Raven Queen is a shapeshifter, after all. I will admit I am slightly disappointed. Since you are indeed Sebastien, that means my apprentice is an incurable reckless idiot, and I am not about to have the opportunity to speak discreetly with the Raven Queen.”
Sebastien’s eyes widened. “You…” She trailed off, so many questions in her mind that she didn’t know which one to choose. Perversely, she was reassured that he did indeed have a way to free-cast a divination that would suss out deception. It didn’t seem to work on her, but she would know when he was trying to cast it.
“Do you have any messages for me, now that we are alone? I assure you, it is safe to communicate freely.”
She shook her head silently, still in shock.
He pursed his lips in disappointment. “Any urges that seem illogical or out of character?”
‘He took Gera’s testimony much too seriously.’ She was quite sure that the Raven Queen hadn’t placed any strange geas or compulsions on her, since she was the Raven Queen. “I’m sure.”
He settled back, one finger tapping against his large Conduit absentmindedly. “Do you have any idea why she gave you her blessing tonight? Specifically, a protection against divination?”
Sebastien suppressed a shiver of unease. “The prognos woman suggested that the Raven Queen was just being impulsive, or sending a message about her power? The coppers haven’t been able to find her all this time. It could be a jab at them,” she deflected.
“She most likely was sending a message,” he agreed, “but not to the coppers, I think. What were Mr. Moore and Ms. Canelo really doing tonight?”
“You’ll have to ask Tanya.” Sebastien hesitated, wondering if Professor Lacer knew about Tanya’s connection to the University faculty.
He noticed the moment of indecision. “You know something. Speak.”
There was no magic spell behind the word to compel her, but the force of his command needed none. “She was sending paper bird messages to someone, after the gang battle. That spell is limited in range and needs a beacon of some sort to find its target, which I gather is usually the University token. So it seems likely that whoever she was communicating with was on campus.”
Professor Lacer didn’t react to the revelation, so she couldn’t tell if he was surprised or if he already knew about whatever Professor Munchworth was involved in. It was even possible that Professor Lacer was involved with that same faction, but she had no way to know. “Did anyone else know about what was going to happen tonight?”
She shook her head. “The decision to leave seemed very last-minute. I didn’t tell anyone, but I’m not sure if Newton or Tanya might have.”
Professor Lacer seemed to lose interest in interrogating her. She wriggled her toes, which were again growing numb with cold and the restrictive press of her secret Conduit digging into her calf. In a small voice, she asked, “What are they going to do with Newton—the Aberrant, I mean? And the building? The other people? How are they going to handle something like this?”
“Everyone involved will be questioned, arrested for any illegal activities, and made to take a similar vow as yourself, though likely rather more restrictive. If it is deemed that there are no ongoing harmful or infectious side-effects from exposure to the Aberrant, they will be allowed to resume their lives. The Aberrant will be dealt with by the Red Guard. If they deem the cleared building to be safe to occupy, it will be allowed to remain, and the family within it. With an Aberrant created from such a mediocre, low-level University student, I doubt there will be any issue with ongoing contamination. However, if I am wrong, the site will either be razed to cleanse the contamination or placed under a permanent quarantine barrier.”
“And if there are ongoing side effects? In the people, specifically? What happens to them? To me?” She wrapped her arms around herself, feeling that if she didn’t, she might crack apart, and her insides would spill out. Or burst into string.
She shuddered violently.
“The effects will be studied and neutralized if possible. The Red Guard has no lack of resources, Mr. Siverling, and I have no intention of allowing something like this to deprive me of my apprentice. You are only just becoming truly interesting.” He gave her another small smile, but she couldn’t tell if he was joking.
To her horror and shame, rather than shooting back a witty quip or even a more boring, ordinary response, her burning eyes filled with tears. They spilled almost instantly down her cheeks. She blinked, scrubbing frantically at her face. “I’m sorry. Everything that happened tonight…it just feels so wrong.”
Newton wouldn’t be there in the morning, wouldn’t be there ever again, and yet somehow it seemed like she would be continuing with her ruse, unsuspected.
Lacer’s smile slipped away. “You are overtired, and likely approaching Will-strain. I am taking you to the infirmary.”
‘No, I need to talk to Damien as soon as he arrives, to keep him from doing or saying anything foolish.’ She tried to protest, but instead of calming, her tears came only faster, and began to draw out great, heaving sobs. She pulled her knees to her chest again, trying to pull her emotions back together in the same way.
She longed for her home. A home that maybe had never existed, though she once thought it had.
Professor Lacer gave her a solemn, inscrutable look, then gestured toward her with his Conduit. There was a brief moment of utter silence, and then the fatigue rolled over her, too heavy to resist.
‘I don’t want to sleep,’ was her last thought, but it was too late.
The story continues in A Practical Guide to Sorcery Book III: A Sacrifice of Light.
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