Month 1, Day 28, Thursday 9:40 a.m.
Professor Ilma didn’t make a fuss when Sebastien slipped back into the room halfway through her lecture, despite the distraction she caused to the gossip-hungry students.
After the period was over, Sebastien hurried through the halls to Pecanty’s Sympathetic Science classroom, not because she was eager for his class, but because she wanted to speak with both Damien and Ana.
Sebastien had apparently hurried too quickly, because neither was there when she arrived.
Some of the other students began working up the gumption to approach her as soon as she entered the room. She was unguarded, like a baby lamb separated from the flock.
Waverly Ascott, quiet as ever, moved her bag out of the seat next to her and waved Sebastien over with barely a glance.
Sebastien placed the plate of cookies pillaged from Kiernan on her desk.
Ascott kept her eyes trained on a thick book about witchcraft, but took one of the cookies and started nibbling.
Brinn Setterlund came up on Sebastien’s other side, leaning against the desk and crossing his arms. He sent a weak glare out at nothing in particular, which Sebastien found supremely unthreatening, but was apparently enough to keep the other students from approaching.
‘They’re protecting me,’ she realized with an uncomfortable moment of inner warmth.
Rhett Moncrieffe took a seat behind her with a cool nod. “Welcome back.”
Alec Gervin also took a guard position, though he had to kick another student out of their place to do so, which reduced Sebastien’s warm feelings.
Damien and Ana arrived shortly after and took the seats in front of her before immediately turning to face her. “Stars above, Sebastien, I’m so glad you’re back. Things have been rather unpleasant here,” Damien said.
She leaned forward. “I wanted to ask you two about that. What’s happened while I was gone? What rumors have been circulating? Everyone seems to know I was involved.” Damien might have information from his brother, since they seemed to communicate frequently and the elder Westbay wasn’t particularly circumspect with what he revealed to his little brother. And Ana always seemed to know the latest gossip.
“It’s been all anyone’s talking about,” Ana said. “What actually happened is still rather vague, but, as always, there are rumors that range from plausible to outrageous.”
Damien nodded. “The coppers haven’t come out with a statement, but everyone knows Newton is dead, and there was an Aberrant that got the Red Guard called in.”
Ana, like Waverly, took one of the cookies from Sebastien’s desk without even bothering to ask. “Delicious. Where did you get these, Sebastien?”
“Grandmaster Kiernan from the History department gave them to me when he called me to his office this morning,” she said pointedly.
Damien’s eyes widened before he controlled his expression, but the tension leaked through in his voice. “He’s the department Chair, right? What could he want with you? Why did he give you cookies?”
Sebastien grimaced. “Kiernan gave me contribution points, but they were just an excuse to question me about what happened.”
Ana nodded sagely. “He’s probably worried about the University’s reputation and what rumors you might spread. Canelo has been stripped of her student liaison position, you know. She was absent for a few days, perhaps being questioned by the coppers, but she’s back now. It’s bad press to have two of your student aides implicated in an incident like this. Especially when one turns up an Aberrant.” Ana plucked at her clothes, smoothing imaginary wrinkles. “And on that note…what actually happened?”
Sebastien could feel the weight of attention from every remotely close-by student straining to hear her answer. She shook her head. “I had to make a vow with the Red Guard. I can’t talk about it.” She had a feeling she would be repeating that a lot in the near future.
Damien groaned in frustration, sending Ana a glare. “I told you guys not to bother him about that!”
Ana shrugged. “No harm in asking. I’m not ashamed to admit that I am quite curious. Perhaps I could relate some of the rumors to you, Sebastien, and you could simply tell me how close to the truth they are, on a scale of one to ten?”
Sebastien shrank down in her chair to get away from Ana’s gleaming eyes. “No, thank you.”
“Leave him alone, Ana,” Alec said, scowling down at his desk. “Someone died.”
Ana passed Alec a cookie and a sympathetic look, patting him on the hand. “Here. Eat something before you get any grumpier.” She turned to Sebastien. “Newton Moore was his tutor, you know. It’s a little frightening to think about.”
Alec scowled but, with a surreptitious look at Sebastien, shoved the entire cookie into his mouth with an angry grunt.
Damien tossed his hair back. “I sympathize, Sebastien. Everyone keeps asking me for details since my Family runs the coppers. But I couldn’t tell them anything even if I wanted to, because I don’t know much. I sent a letter to Titus, but he’s too busy with the investigation.” Damien coughed awkwardly. “Also, it is confidential since the investigation is still ongoing, even if Titus isn’t bound by the secrets of the Red Guard like someone in a lesser position might be.”
Damien probably knew, or had extrapolated, more than he was letting on. Sebastien was grateful that he wasn’t sharing with the others, as he likely would have before being inducted into their fake secret organization.
“What else has been happening?” she asked.
The others shared looks. “The coppers and some of the Red Guard came around to interview some people, but they didn’t stay for long,” Damien offered.
Ascott piped up. “There have been a lot of lectures about spell safety. There are sign-up sheets for counseling in the dorms. I’m not sure why they’re making such a big deal of this, specifically. Didn’t they give that lecture at the beginning of term about how one in fifteen of us would die or go insane before reaching Master level?”
“A lot less than one in fifteen people break and become an Aberrant,” Alec muttered, accepting another cookie from Ana. The plate was rapidly emptying.
“Quite a few people are in the infirmary for Will-strain,” Brinn added.
Moncrieffe nodded. “And Fekten has been more brutal than usual. He keeps going on about how we’re all incompetent and will die at the first sign of danger. Tuesday we had to run five miles while he chased us and threw around stinging jinxes. I think he’s trying to train our Wills through hardship.”
“Oh!” Ana said. “All of us took turns making notes of what you missed during the lectures. I know how you obsess over being the best, Sebastien, so we thought you would want to avoid falling behind as much as possible.” She pulled out a three-ring binder with clearly marked, color-coded sections. “Rhett did the organization. He loves that stuff.”
Moncrieffe coughed awkwardly and looked away. “It was no big deal. I just copied what I do for my own notes.”
Sebastien took the binder, suppressing the urge to argue that she did not obsess over being the best. She simply expected herself to perform at a level that wouldn’t embarrass Professor Lacer. “Thank you,” she said instead. Some notes were much clearer and more complete than others. Damien had even drawn little explanatory doodles in the margins of the lectures he covered, like he must have seen Sebastien doing on several occasions.
The group finished off the rest of the cookies, leaving Sebastien with a crumb-covered plate that she didn’t know what to do with. They didn’t exhibit any strange reactions, which meant that Kiernan probably hadn’t been trying to drug her, just disarm her with gifts—and the unconscious desire to reciprocate his generosity. She didn’t truly suspect they would be laced with anything, since that was the kind of crime that could get him in huge trouble. But people did stupid things all the time. She was a perfect example of that.
Professor Pecanty arrived shortly before the bell rang. He walked with an elaborately carved cane that looked as if he had chosen it specifically for the way it—combined with his vintage tweed jacket with the elbow patches—made him look like a wise old intellectual. He certainly didn’t need it to help him walk.
Pecanty had their graded mid-term tests, but unlike Professor Ilma, he had apparently decided that their class time was best spent going over the test in detail. “We will start with some of the particularly bad answers and contrast them against much better examples,” he announced, pulling out a few tests that had sections marked with clips. “Perhaps you will find some examples from your peers edifying.”
Sebastien shrank down in her seat, holding back a groan. ‘He’s going to publicly shame me, I know it.’
However, Pecanty didn’t mention any of the students by name, only picking a question or two from each section to review while he wrote notes on the blackboard. “Here, you were asked to give synonyms and associated words for the keyword ‘rain,’ and then use them in a sentence. One student provided three links. ‘Storm,’ ‘cloud,’ and ‘water.’ Uninspired, to say the least, as each of those words can quite literally be combined with ‘rain’: rainstorm, raincloud, and rainwater. The sentence provided was, ‘The dark clouds broke with a rainstorm, filling the streets with water.’” He recited it quickly, with an unusual lack of lilting inflection, then looked up again, slapping the test down on his desk. “Boring and plain. I cannot imagine myself there, nor feel anything from that sentence.”
He picked up a different test, flipping to the same section and reading aloud, this time with his usual cadence, as if reciting a piece of poetry. “‘The dreary drizzle that had filled the morning turned, by evening, to a drenching squall, sheets of water crashing down from an oppressive, bruise-purple sky.’ Keywords were ‘drizzle,’ ‘squall,’ ‘crashing,’ and ‘oppressive.’ I hope the difference is obvious, but if not, let me point out that none of these words can be directly joined to ‘rain’ to form their own word. This example used both alliteration and metaphor, as well as evocative imagery.”
He moved to yet another test, flipping to a new section. “You were asked to list the connotations associated with a certain component, and then relate those associations in a memory or scene highlighting the component. In this particular case, the component was daisy petals. This test-taker correctly enumerated daisy petals’ connection to the ideas of new beginnings, hope, innocence, fun, affection, and purity. Most of you got that right, which shows that at least University students can memorize information from their textbooks.” Pecanty paused for a scathing moment that almost reminded Sebastien of Professor Lacer. “The problem is here: ‘The girl picks daisies in a field, plucking petals as she attempts to divine, “He loves me,” or “He loves me not.”’ I am forced to wonder if the point of this assignment was clear, seeing as many of the answers were like this. Let me read you a proper response.”
He cleared his throat. “‘The daisy pushes through the earth, all green, wet with spring’s morning dew. It reaches for the sun, drinking in the light and warmth, and unfurling a flower that opens itself to the embrace of the sky, allowing the buzzing honey-makers to drink from its cup. My mother plucks the daisy and tucks it behind my ear. I am not much taller than the swaying grasses, which smell of sweet earth and buckwheat, and the hem of my cloak is wet and itchy against my legs, but I laugh and pluck one for her in return. She kneels to allow me to tuck it clumsily into her hair.’”
Sebastien had frozen as soon as he began to speak. That was her answer. She had been following the advice of the upper-term student, going over the top with poetic description, mention of the senses, and had even made up a connection to her own past. In addition to writing with unnecessarily pretty handwriting.
“Notice the expression of new beginnings, innocence, and affection symbolized by the anthropomorphization of the daisy itself, and then the innocent exuberance of the child, who is fully grounded in the sensations of that moment,” Pecanty said. “It’s practically bursting with connections to all the meanings a daisy petal might hold. If time allowed, we could examine this answer alone for most of the class period.”
‘That is…utter bullshit.’ Sebastien had to wonder if all the themes, subtext, and meaning Pecanty found in the books, poems, and plays they studied in class were as similarly nonexistent as this, unintentional on the author’s part and attributed with layers of significance that the work did not, in fact, possess.
After a few more examples, Pecanty moved on to the theoretical spell section of the test. “You were asked to create a spell array and casting method for a spell that would help someone process their sorrow or grief, explaining your choices along the way. Some of you chose to use a pentagram, a safe but uninspired choice.” He turned to copy out two spell arrays on the board. “This one, using a hexagram for the main symbol, for its connection to spiritual balance, guidance, and mental or emotional aid, is ideal. Especially with the inclusion of the tetragram, or four-pointed star, which in this case was added to turn the focus toward stability and the past. This will help anchor someone who might be more emotionally fragile.”
He turned back to the tests. “Now, one student included mermaid tears as one of their primary components. I can only imagine this was because tears usually stem from sadness, and mermaids are known for their beautiful, mournful singing. However, this student seems to have been under a misconception.” He spoke loudly, emphasizing his point. “Mermaids are a magical cephalopod. They lure prey by sticking tentacles above water and making them look like a human woman, and this false form lets out a haunting song and asks for help. When the victim gets too close, the ‘mermaid’ suddenly comes apart into a mass of tentacles that grab them and drag them into the water to be eaten. Mermaid tears do not exist, as mermaids do not have tear ducts and cannot cry.”
A student gave themself away by groaning aloud.
Pecanty nodded at them. “Painful indeed. Blue poppy for its melancholy and sedative properties makes sense, but as this spell array is created, it seems like it might actually induce grief. That is, if it produced any effect at all, since the glyph used for ‘feel’ is one for physical touch rather than emotion.”
He gestured next to the hexagram spell array on the board, ignoring the students’ snickers. “This student had a much better idea. Golden apples sprinkled with cinnamon for nostalgia, balanced against shade dust for a connection to the past, and condensed granules of etherwood smoke for calm contemplation. That last choice might be a bit too potent for certain types of trauma, and shade dust assumes that the grief cannot have a present-day, ongoing cause, but the addition of lotus bulbs for their connection to self-regeneration, cleansing, and enlightenment was a genius combination. In conjunction with the tetragram, it would add a fortifying element to support the target of the spell through their grief, to be reborn afresh on the other side.”
Pecanty went on in this vein for most of the class period, finally stopping to give their graded papers back to them. “Sympathetic Science is all about connections,” he said as walked among the desks, placing each test paper in the students’ hands personally. “Those connections must be rich and varied, a spiderweb filled with points that cause dozens of lightning-fast responses to bloom when there is a tug on any single node.”
When he placed Sebastien’s paper on her desk, he stopped to murmur, “Exemplary work, an admirable improvement over your past efforts. I knew you would come around, once you gave up your stubborn way of thinking.”
Sebastien flipped over her test to see that Pecanty had attached a slip with five contribution points. She wasn’t sure whether to be happy or outraged that the nonsense she had written was rewarded like this.
After class, Alec stopped Sebastien in the hallway with a hand on her arm.
She turned to him, already brewing a scowl, but his expression was uncomfortably earnest, throwing her off.
“So, I put together a care package for the Moore family. Damien and I wrote letters to them about what it was like being friends with Newton, and gathered up some of his stuff that was left in his room, plus some coin to help them get by. I heard their house was burnt down. Anyway, um, do you want to write a letter for them, too? I can put it in with the rest of the package.”
Sebastien was taken aback, and remained silent for a long few seconds. She had not expected this, and especially not from Alec.
Alec shuffled, his eyebrows drawing down. “I know I’m not good with people like Ana, but care packages are something you do when a family goes through a traumatic event. It’s too simple to mess up. Do you want to write a letter or not?” he asked, growing belligerent.
“I have Newton’s Conduit. I’ll send that along with a letter of my own.”
He harrumphed. “Well, finish it by Monday. I’m not waiting on you if you don’t.”
They walked on to the cafeteria, where she stopped and scanned the large room from the entrance. Stopping Alec, she handed him the empty cookie plate. “Give this to the kitchen workers.”
“Why can’t you do it?” he asked.
She didn’t reply, already leaving. To her surprise, Damien caught up with her a few moments later. “Where are you going?” he asked.
“To find Tanya Canelo. We were both there. I want to see what she has to say.” Really, she wanted to know what Tanya had told the coppers and the Red Guard, to see if she could glean any clues about what their next move might be.
“I’ll come, too,” Damien offered immediately, adding in a murmur, “It might be dangerous to meet with her alone.”
Tanya’s personal room had been taken away and she now roomed in the fourth-term student dorms, but she wasn’t there. Sebastien finally found her in a less-trafficked corner of the library. The blonde, square-jawed girl looked almost as exhausted as Sebastien felt.
Her mouth tightened when she saw Sebastien, but she nodded a sharp greeting. “Siverling. If you’re here to talk about the rogue magic incident, I’m unable to speak of it.”
Sebastien sat down across from her. “The Red Guard made me take a vow too, but I can talk with those who already know the details. I was there shortly before the Red Guard arrived. I saw you going upstairs with the others, from outside the window.”
Tanya looked between the two of them, not relaxing. “So?”
“So… Does anyone know why the Raven Queen was there?”
Damien sucked in a breath.
“I cannot speak of it,” Tanya repeated.
“Do you need Damien to leave?” Sebastien asked.
Damien scowled immediately. “I’m not leaving you alone with her, Sebastien.” He glared at Tanya, making no secret of his distrust.
Tanya glared back at Damien, looking as if she might snap and attack him, but instead, her eyes welled up with tears.
They rolled down her cheeks like big fat diamonds, one after the other.
Damien stepped back, alarmed.
“I cannot speak of it!” Tanya squeezed out in a choked voice.
It was so far out of character, so different from what Sebastien had been expecting, that she stared at the crying young woman for a long few moments. ‘Was this what that skull was supposed to do to me? If so, vowing under the incorrect name made a huge difference. Or maybe she gave a different vow, and I got preferential treatment.’
When Tanya hunched over, sobbing, Sebastien regained her wits, laying an awkward hand across Tanya’s shaking shoulder. “I know you didn’t mean for this to happen. What happened to Newton…wasn’t your fault.”
Tanya let out a watery snort. “If only that were true.” With an obvious effort of will, she got herself under control, straightening and looking at Sebastien with a gaze that reminded her of a suffocating fish, wide-eyed and desperate. “But I would take it back, if I could. Newton was my friend, too.”
Damien shuffled awkwardly, but Sebastien said, “I know. I didn’t realize the restrictions they placed on you were so harsh. We don’t have to talk about it.”
Tanya nodded, looking as if her head might fall and never rise again. “Could you leave me be? I have a lot of studying to do. My mid-term results weren’t as good as someone in my position needs.”
They complied, though Damien seemed unsatisfied as they walked away. “Why aren’t you angry with her? Did she really have nothing to do with how Newton ended up?”
Sebastien sighed. ‘If I were going to be angry with her, what would I need to feel for myself?’ Aloud, she said, “I sympathize, I suppose. Who knows how she got into this, but at this point, she’s trapped. She’s in too deep to escape, even if she wants to.”
The feeling was familiar.
1/20/22: This is the fifth of 6 bonus chapters brought to you by my lovely patrons!
So I’ve been watching The Haunting of Hill House recently, and last night I was alone and my light turned off all on its own. I turned the switch and it came back on, so I knew the light wasn’t burnt out. I’m not superstitious, but I had nightmares about the house trying to take over my brain all night, and today I’m exhausted.
Next chapter coming tomorrow, 1/21.