Month 1, Day 21, Thursday 1:15 p.m.
When Sebastien arrived at Dryden Manor, Sharon took one look at her and bustled out of the kitchen to grab her arm as if afraid she was about to fall over. “Mr. Siverling! Oh, you look absolutely wretched! Thomas!” Sharon called to the servant who had opened the door for Sebastien, her voice loud despite them all standing within a few feet of each other. “Take Mr. Siverling’s things up to his room,” she commanded. “And you come into the kitchen, dear,” she said to Sebastien more quietly. “I’ll get you fed with something warm.”
“No need. I was just going to have a nap. I’ve been granted leave from the University for a few days.”
“Nonsense! How long has it been since you ate? And something good, not that University cafeteria slop.” Before Sebastien could answer, Sharon was divesting her of her jacket and bags and dragging her into the kitchen by her arm.
Sebastien sat at the kitchen table, nursing the steaming cup of tea that had been thrust into her hands while Sharon bustled about, chattering. She set a loaded plate of food in front of Sebastien and sat across from her, suddenly silent. She sipped her own cup of tea and shot Sebastien subtle, inviting looks.
Sebastien ignored the encouragement toward conversation. She didn’t want to talk. However, despite being sure she wasn’t hungry, she ended up clearing the whole plate, and felt better afterward. The weight in her belly acted as a stabilizing anchor. Her fingers felt warm for the first time since…before.
With the feeling of weight and substance causing her to move even slower, Sebastien trudged up the stairs to her room, which was pleasantly toasty from the roaring fireplace. Her magical plants were in the window, a light crystal shining on the sempervivum apricus to give it more brightness, but neither looked healthy.
With a sigh drawn up from deep inside her like the last gasp of a dying man, Sebastien watered the wilting mandrake root, humming a half-remembered lullaby from her childhood to it while she tickled the leaves. Mandrakes appreciated music and being petted, according to the Comprehensive Compendium of Components. The sempervivum apricus, she took out of the window and set on a chair, settling light crystals pilfered from the various light fixtures in her room and the hallway atop the dirt. ‘That is a ridiculous amount of secondhand sunlight. Hopefully enough to rejuvenate it.’ The pot was too bright to look at without squinting, so she covered the whole chair with a thick winter blanket, draping it over and around the pot to contain the light.
Having done what she could to keep her magical components alive, Sebastien finally took off her shoes and outer clothing. She touched a finger to the skin of her chest, wincing. There was a distinctly medallion-shaped freeze burn there, from when her grandfather’s artifact had sucked up warmth to deflect the fireball the Morrow man had shot at her.
One of the infirmary healers had put a salve on it while she was unconscious, which made her frown with a renewed feeling of violation. It was their job, of course, and better they be too thorough than miss a dangerous wound for privacy’s sake, but she didn’t like the idea of someone manhandling and casting magic on her while she slept.
Sebastien dug through her school satchel for the basic supplies she always kept on hand, using some burn paste and a dab of thick juice squeezed from one of the sempervivum apricus’s leaves on the skin. She would like to avoid a medallion-shaped scar.
With the strongest dreamless sleep spell she could manage and an alarm on her pocket watch to wake her up in a few hours, she crawled into bed.
Huddling underneath the blankets, she clasped her Conduit between her hands, fingers laced together. “I’m in control,” she murmured to herself. “I’m in control.” She repeated it until her eyelids grew heavy and her tongue clumsy.
She slept, woke, and slept again.
When the fire had long died out and the faint rays of dawn were painting the rolling fog outside her window in pastel hues, the mattress shifted under her. She blinked crusty eyes open, her hand gripping the Conduit, which had slipped under her pillow, in confusion and alarm.
Oliver looked down at her from where he had perched on the edge of her mattress, a glass of liquid in his hands. He looked almost as tired as she felt. “Hey,” he said softly. “You’ve been sleeping for a while. I brought you something to stave off dehydration.”
She pushed herself up, taking the glass from him. Honeyed water. She downed the whole thing, gasping for air as she handed it back to him, and then wiped the back of her arm against her mouth. “Thank you,” she croaked.
“When you set off the alarm, Katerin and I happened to be in a meeting with Lynwood and his sister, Gera. It was very lucky. Gera used Katerin’s bracelet to track you. I couldn’t check for myself that you were okay without raising suspicion. I told Gera to let you know that if the coppers arrested you, as long as you could remain as Sebastien, I would find a way to get you free.”
Sebastien shook her head. “Gera didn’t get a chance to tell me. We weren’t alone. But she did help deflect suspicion off me—with the Raven Queen as a scapegoat.” She smiled wryly at the irony. “They now believe the Raven Queen can give blessings, one of which is some sort of anti-divination effect.”
Sebastien let out a sputtering laugh. “Gera pulled so much stuff out of her ass, I almost couldn’t believe what I was listening to. It was great. I mean, at this point even if someone met Siobhan Naught dancing naked in the street, they would think she’s a little too normal to possibly be the Raven Queen.”
Oliver didn’t return her mirth, his voice remaining careful and soft. “She told me your friend died. Newton Moore? I recognized the name—you’d mentioned him to me before.”
Sebastien’s throat stiffened, her smile disintegrating. “I am restricted from talking about the details.”
“I assumed. The Red Guard likes to keep their work out of the ears of the public. But I know what happened, broadly, and you can talk about how it affected you.”
She stared at him silently for a while. “I don’t know what you want me to say.”
“Whatever you want. There’s a reason you’ve been sleeping for the last sixteen hours, and as far as I know it’s not because of lingering anomalous effects.”
She closed her eyes. “I hate sleeping more than anything, Oliver. I’m just…too tired to do anything else. I have been trying so hard, for what feels like a really long time, and then this happened and… I just cannot keep going. I feel like I’ve been frantically juggling balls, and before I really got the hang of it another would drop out of the sky and I would have to add it to the rotation, throwing the balls higher and higher and moving faster and faster. But now I’ve dropped them all, and they’ve scattered everywhere. It seems like an impossible effort to find them and get them back up in the air again.”
She opened her eyes to see him nodding slowly in the pre-dawn light. “That makes sense. What else?” he asked.
She hesitated again, but finally said, “This isn’t the first time I’ve seen someone die, you know that. But this… When an Aberrant is created, it’s the loosed magic itself that turns against you, that kills you and uses your body as fuel to create something else in your place. Magic…it is not our friend. It is a rabid beast that we leash to our wills, and it uses every mistake as a chance to kill its master and break free again.”
“And you’re a sorcerer. It could happen to you,” he deduced.
“Or to one of my classmates, or to you, or to some random person walking down the street. And when it does, it could kill everyone around it in passing.” She needed magic, she even loved it, but this was a visceral reminder that she feared it, too, and for good reason.
She had gotten lucky with Newton. He wasn’t particularly strong before losing control, she had been intimately familiar with the spell he was casting, and the Aberrant happened to manifest in a way that didn’t kill them all immediately and that could be defended against. It had been a confluence of fortunate coincidences. That wasn’t always the case. “I just wonder how the world hasn’t already fallen into ruin. It seems like we as a society are perpetually on the brink of a cataclysmic event. And if something worse happened, it’s likely I wouldn’t be able to do anything about it, or even save myself.”
Oliver’s hand moved, like he wanted to take hers, but in the end he only said, “Magic is dangerous. You don’t have to worry about me losing control, but it is, in general, a valid fear. That’s why we have the Red Guard, and they are very good at their job. The world was around for a long time before you were born, and yet somehow we survived until now.” One side of his mouth twitched up in a tentative smile. “For the remainder of your concerns, I suppose you must do what you can to decrease your risk—like sleeping when you need it—and then ask yourself if the remaining danger of being a thaumaturge is worth it.”
“It is,” she said immediately. It had never been in question, really, but saying it aloud settled something inside her.
His smile grew larger. “Well then. Come down to breakfast.”
Sebastien still wasn’t hungry, but she didn’t protest. After eating, which sapped what little energy she had gathered, she slept again for a few hours.
When she awoke, the streets below were busy, and the sun had burned off the fog of the early morning. For the first time in a while, she took out her grimoire, lightly running her fingers over its leather cover and slightly ragged pages. Her grandfather had helped her create it when she turned thirteen. It held a deceptive number of pages, was encrypted to allow access to only her, and held her accumulated knowledge of magic and sketches of the interesting places she’d been and things she’d seen.
She flipped through the pages from the beginning, chuckling at her younger self’s awkward handwriting, occasional misspelling, and excitement at the basic fundamentals of sorcery. She had been so cute and innocent. She’d actually learned quite a lot over the years, despite lacking a formal teacher after her grandfather, but much of it was the type of thing that would be useful to small rural villages or while traveling. She knew many minor healing concoctions, spells to keep a chicken laying eggs, and how to ward off erlkings and bogles.
Sebastien had stopped updating her grimoire frequently just a few days into her stay at the University, as she got too busy to keep up with the rest of her work. Now, she took out her fountain pen, filled the internal cartridge with ink, and began to write. Her thoughts and many, many questions spilled out onto the page, along with some of the more interesting lessons she’d learned at the University. She didn’t push this process, allowing herself breaks whenever her hand hurt or she grew bored.
It took days.
Her appetite returned, and as she sat at the window, watching the rhythms of the city in between bouts of writing in her grimoire, she slowly lost the overwhelming desire to sleep. The occasional spark of irrepressible excitement filled her as she explained the magic she’d learned to the grimoire, and she realized just how much she’d improved in the last few months.
Oliver was so busy she only saw him in passing a few times, but she didn’t try to ask if he needed help. She hadn’t replenished enough to spare even a fraction of herself.
She woke early Thursday morning, for the first time in the last week not feeling like she wanted to go directly back to sleep, and slipped down to the kitchen as the sun rose. When breakfast was ready, she imbued two cups of Oliver’s expensive coffee with wakefulness intent and took a tray filled with food up to his office, where he was already working.
Oliver cleared a spot on his overflowing desk before grasping the cup of coffee from her like a man stranded in the desert might take a canteen of water. His clothes were rumpled, his hair slightly greasy, and his eyes ringed by dark circles. He still smiled in greeting, and it seemed genuine, though that might have been more for the coffee than for her.
“I’m going back to the University today. I wanted to talk with you a little before I left,” Sebastien said.
Oliver nodded silently, his mouth busy with gulping down dark, steaming liquid.
“Did the…incident cause problems?”
He let out a deep sigh as he set down the empty mug. “The Aberrant was in Nightmare Pack territory, so despite the appearance of the Raven Queen, the coppers haven’t had much to go on when questioning my people. There is increased scrutiny, however, and there have been attempts to insert an undercover agent into our operations. Nothing we cannot handle. I did have to make some concessions to Lynwood, both for the Pack’s help obfuscating the issue and for causing such a significant disturbance in their territory.”
Sebastien cringed. “What concessions?”
Oliver waved a hand indifferently, speaking around a bite of the omelet Sharon had cooked him. “Nothing critical. I don’t hold you responsible. Sometimes things just go wrong… And sometimes things blow up and cause a shit tornado. It could have been worse. You kept some of the residents from dying, at least, and this whole incident has done more than a little to reduce resistance among those who weren’t so pleased with our presence in the new territory. No one wants an angry visit from the Raven Queen.”
Sebastien grimaced, then let out a resigned sigh. “That’s something, I suppose. I’m not going to be able to keep track of Tanya like I did before. I screwed up. She knows the Raven Queen was following her. She and anyone she might meet with will be wary, and without Newton…” She stared unhappily into the steam rising from her coffee, unable to stop the faint trembles that sent ripples across its surface.
Oliver scratched at the stubble on his jaw, stuffing another bite into his mouth. “I wouldn’t say it’s the best outcome, since this is sure to put the University on their guard against us, but Tanya Canelo is no longer our only source of information on what’s been happening. We have many captured former Morrows who know quite a lot. Long-term, we’ll simply need to work with what we have. It’s not worth putting you in further danger.”
“The captured Morrows are actually part of what I wanted to discuss. Have there been any attempts to break those prisoners free?”
“Tanya was asking about their location and the Verdant Stag’s security measures during the secret meeting. They must have been planning something, and this little incident probably won’t deter them indefinitely.”
“We’ll increase our precautions. Thank you for the warning.” It was Oliver’s turn to sigh, and he hunched over his desk as if an invisible weight were trying to crush him into the mounds of paperwork. “Perhaps we can upgrade the alarm wards. All our enforcers have already been pulling double shifts for the last week, and it will take some time to increase our numbers with trustworthy people.”
“The battle didn’t go as smoothly as planned,” she stated.
“That’s true, unfortunately.”
“Has the takeover of the new territory encountered much difficulty?”
“The Morrows may have managed their territory in a way I wouldn’t, but they weren’t completely foolish. They were more heavily armed and prepared than we had hoped or expected. It is difficult to conceal all signs of an operation with so many people and moving pieces. Nevertheless, it did not go as horribly as it could have. A few of our people died, more were severely injured. We managed to capture a large percentage of the Morrows. We mitigated the collateral damage as well as we could and are making basic aid available to those who need it—food, minor healing, and a place to sleep.
“It will take us some time to consolidate all our gains, but we immediately secured a large sum of coin, consumable resources like artifacts and components, and income producing businesses, both legal and illegal. Some of those businesses might not be as profitable under our control—I am unwilling to force anyone into prostitution or a fighting arena, for instance—but it should still help with our liquidity. I expect there to be a fairly long period of upheaval as we bring the new territory in line with the standards of the Verdant Stag. I’m hoping to turn several of the buildings into textile factories, but I’m waiting on Lord Gervin to officially accept my request for a textile sub-commission, since their Family legally has domain over the industry. Once I have that, I will be able to very quickly create jobs. And we already have a few new thaumaturges to help, including a whole alchemical workshop and the brewers, so there should be less pressure on you and the handful of others we were relying on.”
“But I can still brew for the Verdant Stag, right?”
“Of course. We will always have some sort of work for a thaumaturge. There aren’t nearly enough of you. Also…” he said, raising a finger and leaning to rummage in one of his desk drawers. “Here is a small bonus for your performance during the battle. The report I received stated that you fought and captured a handful of Morrows who were threatening the healing station, which was not part of your job description. It’s a bounty, plus your fee for doing the Verdant Stag’s purchasing at the previous underground meeting. I would have given it to you before, but…” He shrugged pointedly.
“Oh. Thank you.” The small purse held fourteen gold. Four for the meeting, ten for the bounty.
Sebastien decided not to put the extra coin toward her debt. It would instead help her maintain a reasonable emergency fund. Taking a bracing breath, she said, “I’d like to give you my report on what happened that night now.”
“Are you sure? You don’t need to talk about it if you’re not ready.”
“I’m sure.” She’d done her best to remember the glyphs carved into the skull artifact the Red Guard had used to bind her vow. She’d noted nothing that seemed like it would alert them if she broke her word, and she’d given them nothing of herself. Even so, she pressed her hand against her chest, where the black stone amulet hung under her shirt, and focused the barest wisp of Will on it.
That was all it took to return her to her original form. She shrank down a bit in her seat, her clothes growing suddenly baggy on her.
Oliver watched with interest. “That is as fascinating as ever.”
“Speaking as Siobhan might help push past the Red Guard’s compulsion,” she explained. She took a moment to shift about, moving her face and limbs to settle into her transformed body. After reminding herself of her name in this form, the one that she had not given the vow under, she began to speak.
The vow still guided her away from sharing too many details, causing a growing tightness in her throat the longer she spoke. Still, she found that she didn’t mind this terribly, as she had no desire to dredge up the irrelevant minutiae.
When she was finished, she returned to Sebastien’s body and left Oliver to his huge pile of work. In the cheek-tingling cold outside, she turned north, to the University settled atop the white cliffs, as bright and proud as ever. She was out of time.
1/18/22: This is the third of 6 bonus chapters brought to you by my lovely patrons!
Next chapter coming tomorrow, 1/19.