Month 9, Day 30, Wednesday 1:00 a.m.
It was well into the night by the time they left Liza’s home, Siobhan carrying the messenger raven in a cage, which Liza had indeed given her for free.
When they reached the street she was surprised—and a little embarrassed—to realize she didn’t actually know where the Harrow Hill Penitentiary was located. ‘I’m navigating the city surprisingly well for someone who arrived just days ago,’ she consoled herself, motioning for Dryden to lead the way.
It was best that he do it anyway, because she was once again on the verge of serious Will-strain and needed to let her mind relax. It was only another reminder of her unacceptable weakness. Liza must have done ten times as much for the spell as Siobhan, and the older woman had still seemed clear-headed and only a little tired when they left. ‘Grandfather would’ve been ashamed,’ she admitted to herself. ‘Even more reason why I cannot lose this opportunity to enter the University, no matter the cost.’
She kept her hood pulled up, but the streets were empty, and the only copper they saw was blocks away with his back turned to them. Still, they hurried on before he could notice them.
Dryden led them on a winding path over bridges and through the narrower streets, but eventually they arrived at one of the stone-walled canals that cut through the city. “This should be close enough,” he said, gesturing to a sizeable stone building a few hundred meters past the river. It was a single structure built in the shape of a cross, likely for the magical authority that shape provided when used in spells. It was the same reason a lot of the more expensive buildings were round and domed, or had circular towers. Harrow Hill Penitentiary was more stout than tall, settled on a slight rise in the land, and seemed to have intimidated all the nearby buildings into cowering away from it. A stone wall surrounded the grounds in a circle, giving the final touch to the fortress.
Siobhan opened the door to the raven’s cage.
The spell-augmented bird hopped out, but seemed in no hurry to do anything but stand listlessly on the ground.
Dryden nudged it with a finger, frowning when it didn’t respond. “Is it supposed to act like this?”
Siobhan had no idea. She fished the pouch of bird parts—the ones harvested from the sacrificed raven—out of a pocket. As soon as it was in her hand again, she felt a little wiggle in her mind, like the end of a string that she could grab onto. She tugged on the mental impression of connection.
The raven on the ground fluttered its wings.
‘I definitely underestimated Liza. She’s a powerful sorcerer, perhaps even at the level of a Master or Grandmaster.’ Siobhan grasped the spell’s controls a bit more firmly, feeling out how to control the creature. Unlike using an artifact, there were no switches, dials, or conditions she had to meet before the magic would work. Liza had drawn a complex array, but even with such a thorough written Word, this spell hinged on Will and the raw power of the Sacrifices.
“Find him,” she murmured.
The raven took flight.
Siobhan experienced a disorienting double vision as the raven’s sight overlapped her own, forcing her to close her eyes while it moved.
The raven had a wider field of view than she did, and could focus in on small objects from a greater distance, but its night vision was poor. Still, it had the iron needle pointing the way to her father, and that was all it needed.
Urged to caution, it alighted in the branches of one of the few trees within the jail’s walls, watching for movement or other signs of the guards. It turned its beak toward a small, iron-barred, dark hole in the thick grey stone of an upper floor. There was no glass set in any of the windows looking out over the grounds, but she saw some windows were closed with wooden shutters. This window was open.
‘If I’m interpreting the feedback correctly, that is the window to my father’s cell.’ She sent the raven fluttering toward it.
The dark-feathered creature landed, its form, backed by moonlight, throwing a shadow onto the floor within. It cocked its head and looked at the blanket-covered lump lying on the stone floor. Siobhan sensed a hint of an uncomfortable sensation, like an itch, as the bird, more sensitive to magic than any human, picked up on the wards woven into the walls and floor. It squawked.
The prisoner stirred and turned toward the window, moving into the moonlight.
Siobhan breathed a sigh of relief at the sight of her father’s face.
He had a small bruise across one freckled cheekbone, and his jaw had grown scruffy with dark copper stubble, but his limbs moved normally, and he seemed otherwise unharmed.
He scowled at the raven and flapped his hands at it. “Shoo! Go away, you stupid bird.” His voice held a faint brogue from the northern islands, his homeland, and the origin of her name.
With a mental tug on the link between them, Siobhan spoke through both the raven’s mouth and her own. “Father, it’s me.” On the raven’s end, it came out as a slightly-mangled, surprisingly sonorous croak, but the words remained recognizable.
Her father scrambled back against the far wall with a speed and level of fright she found faintly—vindictively—comical. After a few seconds of heavy breathing, he leaned away from the shadowed corner. “Siobhan? Is that you, lovely?”
She scowled at the way his voice softened, the coercive way he said “lovely.” She’d heard him use that tone and pet name on a hundred women throughout her life, always when he wanted something from them and had nothing to offer in return but a bit of charm and a handsome—supposedly—smile. She’d inherited her mother’s looks, and growing up, she’d been careful to imitate Grandfather’s speech, thus keeping the brogue out of it altogether. “It’s me,” she said again. “Are you well? What have they told you?”
Instead of responding, Ennis moved closer, standing and reaching up to poke at the raven. He drew his fingers back quickly when it flapped its wings and pecked at him, perhaps of its own volition, or perhaps picking up on her agitation. “How did you turn into a bird? You never did this before. Did the old man teach you?”
Siobhan gritted her teeth, ignoring the curious look from Dryden back at her real body. “Never mind that. Tell me about the coppers. They haven’t hurt you, it seems. Have they given you any information about what lies in store for you, or their search for me?”
Her father grinned. “Well, lovely, it’s actually not so bad ‘ere. I tell you, when they first captured me, I did my fair share of screaming and fighting back. Clocked a couple of them good, too. But it turns out, once they learned I didna’ have that old professor’s book, they only wanted to know about you.”
Her heart sank at the bright expression on his face. Though she didn’t know exactly what thoughts were running through his head, they obviously contained no concern for her.
“The Gervins, they’re one of the Crown Families, you know? So wealthy you’d never need to work a day in your life, and as your father I’d be taken care of as well, o’ course—” He seemed to realize he was rambling and coughed to cut himself off. “What I mean is, a couple representatives from the Gervins came to visit me while the coppers were doing their interrogation—and with the coppers being entirely too aggressive, by the way—and when I told them that you are Siobhan Naught and about your bloodline on your mother’s side, and that you’d bring the book along with you, they were more than interested in coming to an agreement. You do still ‘ave the book, right?”
Back near the canal, Dryden touched her shoulder to warn her of people passing by, a small group of stumbling men with their arms thrown around women whose necklines plunged so low their chests almost spilled out of their ruffled dresses. The group passed around both a bottle and a pipe trailing distinctive blue smoke as they meandered by, completely oblivious to Siobhan and Dryden.
Siobhan used the enforced pause in the conversation with her father to calm the agitated beat of her heart. Something about his words had her spine straightening and her shoulders thrown back, as if perfect, confident posture would shield her from his selfish, shortsighted intentions. “He’s made some kind of deal with the Gervin Family,” she murmured to Dryden, ignoring her father, who was waving his hand in front of the silent raven’s face and asking if she was listening.
Once the group of drunkards and their prostitutes had passed out of easy listening range, she returned her attention to her father. “What agreement?”
“To take you into the Family, Siobhan! It’s wonderful, right? The bride price for you will be enough to cover my fines and live comfortably for a good few years besides—no execution or working in the mines to pay off my ‘debt’ to the Crowns—and you’ll be a real lady. O’ course, you’d only be bound to one of the lesser sons, but still, our status would be leagues above what it is now. Once you bear an heir, there’ll be no chance of them throwing you out and simply keeping the book.”
Siobhan almost gagged.
He tapped his temple with a smug smile. “So my thought is, hold the book ransom until then. We can put a clause in the marriage contract.” He leaned in conspiratorially. “In fact, once you’ve born an heir, they ’ave no recourse at all, even if the book were to mysteriously go missing. Perhaps sold to someone else? From what I can tell, many people’d be willing to pay quite a price for it, even though none can say quite why they want it so badly. I imagine it may be a relic from the time o’ the Titans.”
He spoke for a while longer, but she was no longer listening.
Siobhan blinked at the dark waters of the wide canal in front of her, twinkles of streetlamps and moonlight reflecting off its surface. ‘Marriage? He is bargaining for his release and enough money to live comfortably on as my…bride price?’ She found herself trembling. Delayed, a shuddering rush of hot and cold rose up through her body, a physical reaction to the onslaught of emotion.
She was lightheaded with rage. “And if I refuse?” The raven’s voice had trouble mimicking her tone, but some of that cold, deep timbre must have come across.
Her father blinked at the raven in cowlike confusion. “But lovely, why would you refuse? This’ll solve all my problems. Not only the imprisonment, but returning to a proper station in life. No more running around struggling to raise ourselves back up again, you studying magic so frantically and selling your services to anyone who will pay in money or food. You’ll not have to scramble and beg to put yourself through the University. The Gervins only care about the book, your bloodline, and your childbearing hips, not your prowess. We’ll be able to travel the world while enjoying the high life!” He had been speaking more and more quickly, his arms waving around with excitement, but he stopped suddenly, peering into the raven’s black eyes. “You do still ‘ave the book, right? Please tell me you’ve not lost it or gotten rid of it. It’s worth more gold than either you or I ‘ave encountered in our entire lives.”
“It will solve all your problems?” she whispered aloud, almost deaf from the rush of blood in her ears. The raven, by contrast, was silent.
Dryden put a hand on her shoulder. He was saying something she couldn’t process, a concerned look on his face.
She ignored him, all her attention focused on the man who she had somehow, even after everything, still expected to care for her beyond his own interest in what she could do for him. The man she had expected to protect her. To respect her. ‘I have been living a fantasy,’ she realized. ‘He has never been that man. I called him “Father” and expected him to fit the role. He showed me who he was many times, and I grew disillusioned, and yet I still hadn’t reconciled his actions with the idea of him I had in my head.’
The raven shuffled, squawking and flapping its wings in distress.
“Siobhan? Lovely?” Ennis called, his still-handsome face pulling into an expression of fatherly concern. “It’ll be alright. I promise.”
The raven screeched, beating its wings against the iron bars covering the window. Its vision swirled, and that magnetic pull that drew it to Ennis swung wildly as vertigo overtook it.
The raven fell from the window. Its brain hemorrhaged violently as the spell ran out of power. It was dead before it hit the ground.
Siobhan drew a shuddering breath and lifted her chin, staring into the darkness with a regal, forcefully blank look on her face. “That man knows nothing that might harm us. We can leave.”
Dryden gave her a concerned look, but kept his thoughts to himself.
Siobhan strode away, and very deliberately did not look back.
Want to get an email with links as soon as a new website chapter comes out, and/or get monthly Inner Circle news about my writing? Sign up here: https://landing.mailerlite.com/webforms/landing/q4b8d8