Month 1, Day 21, Thursday 11:30 a.m.
Siobhan was struggling, desperate to escape but trapped in a body that wouldn’t listen to her commands.
A bracing sting on her cheek provided a way out. She woke with a gluttonous gasp of air, bolting upright in a bed she didn’t recognize—a room she didn’t recognize—with someone holding her arms to her sides, restraining her!
She panicked for a good few seconds. Fighting against the shackling grip, she let out a low, panicked moan as she grasped around for her Conduit, which wasn’t there—until Damien’s familiar, if tired, face resolved into coherence in front of her.
He was forcibly keeping her from flailing her way off of a University infirmary bed. “Help! We need help over here!” he yelled, turning his head. “Sebastien, you’re okay. You’re safe,” he said in a lower, soothing tone that did nothing to disguise the worry underneath.
The sound of her other name helped ground her, and she stopped struggling to escape, blinking rapidly at his reassuring grey eyes.
The healer bustled up. “Panic attack?”
“He was having a nightmare,” Damien said. “I tried to wake him, but he wouldn’t, so I tapped him—maybe a little too hard—on the cheek, and he woke up fighting and making these noises like he was hurt.”
“‘M fine,” Sebastien mumbled, still panting, the crashing thump of her heart against her sternum slowing. She looked around, unable to help her paranoia, or the niggling sensation that she was seeing things that shouldn’t exist out of the corner of her vision. In a way, the clear signs of panic were a relief. Her body was reliably responding to the stimuli sent by her mind, which had plenty of cause for hysteria.
“We gave him a strong calming potion along with the sedative—I’m surprised he still managed to have nightmares—but sedatives can make it harder to transition from sleeping to waking. Sometimes they cause sleepwalking and the like.” The woman turned to Sebastien, pulling a vial out of the pocket of her apron “Mr. Siverling, everything is alright. You are safe in the University’s infirmary. You’ve had a big shock, but nothing can harm you here. You need your rest to recover, so why don’t I give you another calming potion, and once you’re feeling better we can help you get back to sleep?”
“No!” Sebastien snapped. “No calming potions. No sedatives. Not now, not ever. Never again! I—I have a bad reaction.” Professor Lacer must have transferred her to the infirmary after free-casting that sleep spell on her. With the sedatives keeping her from waking herself up, she’d been trapped inside her own mind. With her nightmares.
The woman seemed taken aback. “Oh, I’m very sorry, Mr. Siverling. It wasn’t in your file. Are you allergic to any particular ingredient? The laughing poppy, perhaps? We do have alternate brews available—”
“No,” Sebastien said again, more insistently. “Calming potions only with my permission, but never sedatives. Nothing that will force me to sleep.”
There was an awkward pause before Damien spoke, his voice small, the tone almost childish in its hesitance. “Is that what the Aberrant did to you? Force you to sleep?”
The healer’s eyes opened wide, a hand flying up to cover her mouth. “Oh. Oh, I’m very sorry, Mr. Siverling. It was just standard procedure—”
Sebastien ignored the woman, climbing off the bed and searching for her things. Someone had stripped her to her underclothes and dressed her in worn cotton pajamas—the standard garb for everyone admitted to the infirmary overnight, apparently, as she saw others wearing the same on their own beds.
All the bruises she had accumulated the night before were gone, and someone had cleaned her with a spell. She had the dry, irritated skin to prove it, and her fingernails were clean of the blood that had been crusting their edges. Agent Vernor had noticed and taken a swab, but Sebastien had explained that she must have accidentally touched some of the blood on the floor. It wasn’t nearly enough evidence to suspect her of being the one who’d healed Chief, or whatever the maimed Morrow man’s name was.
Thaddeus Lacer being Sebastien’s Master probably had a lot to do with how accommodating the Red Guard had been. Perhaps, without him, she would have found herself locked in a windowless cell in Harrow Hill for the investigation process, and overall much less likely to fool them.
Sebastien’s belongings were tucked under the bed, and a quick perusal showed that nothing seemed to be missing. Her right boot still had the black star sapphire Conduit in it, though it had fallen into the toe. She didn’t mention it, and could only hope that no one had noticed it when they were undressing her. “Leave,” she ordered.
The healer, who had still been babbling about something, quieted, staring at her.
“I want to get dressed,” Sebastien explained.
“You need to stay at least another twenty-four hours for observation,” the woman argued. “Professor Lacer indicated you might be in danger of Will-strain from your…ordeal.”
“I’m fine. Staying in this place certainly won’t improve my mental health. I just want to leave.”
The healer still hesitated, so Sebastien turned to Damien. “Please.” As manipulations went, it was clumsy at best, but it had the desired effect.
Damien turned toward the healer and crossed his arms. “I’ll handle any paperwork.”
“But Professor Lacer—”
“Can talk to me if he has any complaints. Feel free to tell him I said so, if he asks. As Mr. Siverling here is an adult, you cannot by Crown law keep him against his will even under the suggestion of a professor, unless he is deemed likely to be a danger to others. I will ensure Sebastien gets the rest he needs in a place where he will be more comfortable. Really, sleeping in the open with only a curtain for privacy? And can you even call this slab a bed? Unacceptable.”
As they left to handle the paperwork, Damien’s complaints continuing on, Sebastien drew the curtains around her, using the privacy to do a more thorough check of her belongings as she got dressed. Even the thin, broken bracelets she had taken off Newton were still in her pocket. ‘Thank the stars above no one decided to do a little snooping while I was insensate. I’ll need to have a conversation with Professor Lacer about respecting my boundaries, no matter what he holds over my head. This cannot happen again.’
Damien returned, standing outside the curtain while Sebastien struggled to fasten her many buttons with fingers that were slow and clumsy from the lingering sedative. “Professor Lacer got you a pass from class and homework that is good until this coming Wednesday, so you can take your time to recuperate.”
A surprising wave of relief ran through Sebastien. “Okay. Good. I’m leaving.” She stepped out, settling the strap of her satchel on her shoulder. Its weight made her want to give up and lie down again. The black sapphire Conduit was hidden again in her boot, and her borrowed celerium Conduit in an easily accessible pocket. Professor Lacer’s jacket was folded on the bedside table, and after a moment of hesitation, she left it there.
“Leaving? From the infirmary?”
“From the University.”
“For good?” Damien asked, aghast.
“No, of course not. Until Wednesday. You can give my pass to the professors, right?” A mere week seemed inadequate.
Damien’s fingers flexed, as if he were trying to hold onto control of the situation. “Um, I’m not sure if you’re allowed to just leave? Students are required to live in the dorms.”
“I’m leaving,” she repeated. “I will be back on Wednesday. The faculty will simply have to accept it, and if they feel like punishing me somehow upon my return, so be it.” She couldn’t stand the thought of being stuck in the dormitories, listening to the gossip, trying to rest in a tiny little room without a proper door or ceiling, surrounded by curious imbeciles.
Damien’s bloodshot eyes tracked over her face. “If you want, you can stay at my house. The Westbay estate has plenty of servants to look after you, and an impressive library. I’m sure my brother won’t mind, and my father is away, so you wouldn’t have to worry about him.”
Sebastien realized suddenly that Damien had either been up all night or had been crying sometime before she awoke. The puffy eyebags would indicate tears, but then again, he always looked like that, even after a full night’s sleep. His nose wasn’t red, and he wasn’t sniffling or hoarse, but that only meant he’d stopped long enough ago for the symptoms to clear, or that he’d used a spell to hasten the process. Either way, she forced herself to relax a bit, unclenching her jaw and nodding at him. He was worried and only wanted to help her. There was no need to be rude. “Thank you, but no. I have a place to go.”
Damien looked like he wanted to question her further, but he restrained himself. “If you’re sure… You really would be very comfortable at Westbay Manor. You could be alone as much as you want. No idiots to irritate you, and you can even order the servants around.”
One side of her mouth quirked up in a small smile, but she shook her head silently, striding toward the door.
As they exited the infirmary, the cold hit Sebastien like a blow, and she hunched into herself, holding in an exhausted moan.
“When the rogue magic sirens went off, I asked for a carriage back to the University right away,” Damien said. “Then my bracelet, the one you made for Newton to warn us, it got so cold. I kept waiting for the one linked to you to get cold, too, but it didn’t. And I thought maybe that was a good sign, but when I got back, you were gone. I checked the dorms, the library, even the Menagerie. Tanya and Newton were both gone, too, so I knew something had happened. I didn’t tell anyone to send help, because I didn’t know if that would just make things worse. I went to the gates to watch for you, or for some sign of something wrong in the city, like the gang battle last time. They tried to send me back to bed, but I wouldn’t listen. I actually got a demerit!”
Damien laughed wryly, then continued, speaking even faster. “I overheard a professor say a student had been involved with the Aberrant’s break, and I tried to ask them for details, but they wouldn’t tell me anything. Then Professor Lacer arrived, and he was floating your unconscious body in the air beside himself. I thought maybe you were dead.”
Damien shuddered as he stared off into the distance. “You looked so pale. But he took you to the infirmary. You were just asleep, and he was worried about possible Will-strain…” Damien swallowed, looking at her. “He said you’d experienced a traumatizing event. But he still wouldn’t tell me any details, even though he knows we’re friends.”
The dorms were thankfully empty, all the students away in class. Sebastien had left her own wool jacket at the Silk Door, along with the male outfit she’d been wearing, but she would have to retrieve that later. She began to bundle up in the warmest clothes she had remaining.
Damien watched her for a while, then continued updating her on what had happened in her absence. “They brought Tanya Canelo back, but they didn’t keep her in the main infirmary room, so I didn’t get a chance to talk with her. She looked…horrible. Worse than you, even. The coppers came and escorted her away this morning. And Newton didn’t come back at all. Is he…”
Sebastien stilled, her scarf halfway wrapped around her neck. “Newton is dead,” she said softly.
Damien rocked back on his heels, his eyes fluttering closed as if she had struck him. “What happened? Did Canelo…”
Sebastien shook her head, her throat tightening. Her shadow-familiar had been meant to draw away attention, but it had instead drawn too much attention. Too much fear. Perhaps, if not for her, Newton wouldn’t have lost control and broken. There would have been no strings, no people dead…except for herself, fallen to the Morrows. Sebastien swallowed heavily past the lump in her throat, feeling dizzy. She lifted a hand to her forehead, closed her eyes, and took a deep breath.
When she opened her eyes, Damien had stepped closer, his hand raised halfway, ready to support her. “I am…restricted from speaking of the details.” She gave him a significant look, hoping he would get the hint.
“You had to make a magical vow. To the Red Guard?”
Hesitantly, she nodded. Nothing stopped her from doing so, though she felt some resistance.
“Did the Aberrant kill Newton?”
She rubbed her dry lips together. “Not…exactly.”
Damien let out a harsh, ragged breath. “Newton was the Aberrant?”
She nodded again, more shallowly because she could feel the magic of the vow restricting her. In the eyes of the spell, Damien must not know enough for her to communicate with him freely. And whatever that skull had done, this vow was based around compulsion, not the threat of punishment. ‘I wonder how strong the compulsion is, how far I can push it?’ She hesitated before attempting to tell Damien everything, however. Partially because she worried the Red Guard might somehow learn of her unfaithfulness—she had no idea how that artifact worked, after all—and partially because she was simply too fatigued to make the effort. “I’m sorry. I’m really unable to talk about it. If you want details, Professor Lacer knows most of it, though not about the order of no name or our longer-running surveillance of Tanya. You might be able to get more information if you pester him.”
“Are you…are we safe?”
“As far as I know, yes. But you’ll want to avoid acting suspiciously. And give me the bracelet—the one Newton triggered.” The one she had triggered while removing evidence from Newton’s metamorphosed body.
Damien did as she asked, and she tucked it into her pocket with the others, trying to remember if there was anything else waiting to cause problems. She could think of nothing, though in her current state she wasn’t entirely reassured by that.
“Did Newton die because of us?” Damien asked, visibly bracing himself for the answer. “Because we brought him in to watch Tanya?”
Sebastien hesitated. “We never lied to him,” she said instead of answering. “If a copper dies on the job, is it the fault of the person who hired him? Even if he took the more dangerous mission voluntarily, when he didn’t have to?”
Damien didn’t look away from her gaze. “Maybe. If that person should never have been hired. If they weren’t cut out for the job, and then didn’t get proper training.”
She nodded. “Then maybe.” She turned to leave, but Damien stopped her with a hand on her arm.
“What do we do now?” he asked.
She hesitated. “You can get out—of the pact we made, of the secret group—if you want. Your oath of secrecy for anything that’s passed would remain, but you wouldn’t be involved in anything further.” This could be a dangerous tipping point for him. If he withdrew, it might solve some of her problems, but she felt ambivalent about the idea. Without him, she would be even more alone in all this. She hadn’t realized it, but his alliance—his friendship—had become a pillar of support, despite the potential trouble he represented.
Damien frowned at her. “No, I—that’s not what I meant.” He shook his head. “I’m not quitting the thirteen-pointed star. This is…horrible, but I’m not giving up or running away. I just want to know what our next step is, now that something like this has happened. Are we going to be sanctioned by the higher-ups? Do we keep watching Tanya? Do we get transferred to another mission? What is happening?”
“I don’t know,” she admitted. “I don’t think we’ll be disciplined.” After all, aside perhaps from Oliver, their little organization didn’t actually have any higher-ups to reprimand them. “I don’t know if we’ll keep watching Tanya or not. Whatever we do, it will be with more precautions now that everything’s gone to shit. As for the rest, the generalities? We keep going.” She pressed her fingers to her mouth, resisting the sudden and irrational urge to claw at her lips. She didn’t want to be saying any of this, not the lies, and especially not any plans to keep going down the path that got Newton killed. “We get stronger, and smarter. More powerful. If you don’t know what you need to solve your problems, Damien, seize power. True power can be converted into almost anything else.” Her grandfather had told her that, long ago. She occasionally remembered the advice, usually when everything was going wrong. As always, it seemed truer than ever. If she’d been more powerful, perhaps she would’ve had other options last night.
“That’s it? Just…” Damien trailed off, shaking his head. He looked like a lost child.
Sebastien softened. Gracelessly, she leaned over and wrapped her arms around him in what was probably the most awkward hug either of them had ever experienced. She didn’t normally like to touch people, and he obviously hadn’t been expecting it. “Sometimes we fail. That doesn’t mean we were wrong to try.” She fumbled for words, but pressed on. “Do you remember observing the night sky during the acceptance ritual? Sometimes it’s too clouded to see the stars, but the sun is also a star, and its light reaches us through even the heaviest storm. We take responsibility for the things within our grasp, and we keep going. Otherwise what was it worth? What was it all for?”
She didn’t know if what she was saying made any sense. She didn’t even know if she believed it. But she pulled back and kept her gaze locked on Damien’s, trying to imbue it with the sense of stability that she felt so little of.
He was trembling slightly, but he steeled himself, straightening. “Okay.”
She hesitated, then said, “We can do something for Newton even if he’s not here. He had a family. He cared about them a lot.”
Damien pressed his lips together, his eyes growing glassy as he nodded quickly. “Yes.”
She felt awkward about leaving Damien when he was so obviously emotionally compromised, but she wanted to stay in the dorms even less. She had to get away. “Maybe you should go home to Westbay Manor for a couple of days,” she said.
Damien gave her a one-shouldered shrug.
With another uncomfortable squeeze of his shoulder, Sebastien walked away, leaving Damien standing alone in the dorms behind her. Her words of comfort to Damien rang hollow in her ears, and she hugged herself, pressing her fingers into her arms until her joints ached and the dull pain of a future bruise bloomed beneath her skin.
She took the tubes down the side of the white cliffs and hailed a carriage, heedless of the cost. “Take me to Dryden Manor,” she told the driver.
1/16/22: This is the first of 6 bonus chapters brought to you by my lovely patrons!
I tripped over my ethernet cord and broke it this weekend, taking down my internet. I was worried I wouldn’t have it up in time to post the bonus chapters, but I managed. 🙂
Next chapter coming tomorrow, 1/17.