Chapter 96 – Bini Frogs & Existential Crises

Sebastien

Month 1, Day 28, Thursday 1:45 p.m.

After a quick lunch, Sebastien left to see the overall mid-term results that had just been openly posted on the library notifications board. She was accompanied by Damien, Ana, and the other Crown Family group members, who she didn’t exactly want to call friends, but seemed to be spending more and more time with.

Sebastien was closer to the front of the rankings than she had feared, having gotten about ninety percent of the available points across her six classes. She had done quite well in Practical Casting, Natural Science, History, and Modern Magics, modestly well in Sympathetic Science, and about average in Defense. Out of the three thousand students who had started the term, they had already lost a hundred or so. Sebastien was ranked in the low three hundreds, which Professor Lacer wouldn’t find particularly impressive, but should satisfy his minimum requirements.

Compared to the entrance exams, she had done much better, partly because these tests were about only what they’d learned over the first half of the term, not a comprehensive exam of anything and everything. Additionally, she’d been much better prepared for how they would be graded, which had paid off especially well in Pecanty’s class.

Sebastien threaded her way back out of the crowd that teemed like minnows around the board, and after a few minutes was joined by the others.

“I still beat your score, Sebastien!” Damien announced, preening like a little rooster. “I got rank one hundred twelve.”

“Congratulations,” she said, making sure not to seem frustrated. She didn’t always have to be the very best. And besides, she’d had many other projects taking up time she might have otherwise spent on studying. Sure, Damien was taking one more class than her and had still managed, but surely she was busier than him?

“We are all in the top five hundred,” Ana announced.

“Except for me,” Alec said, giving the girl a look of mixed anger and shame, his hands stuffed deep in his pockets. “But I still did pretty good, compared to normal. My father won’t have any reason to be angry. He doesn’t expect much at this point, as long as I don’t embarrass him. I guess all that tutoring with Newton actually did help.” He rocked back and forth on his feet during the couple awkward seconds that followed, looking at the floor.

“Sorry,” Ana said with a reconciliatory smile.

Alec shrugged. “No harm done.”

Ana slipped her arm through his, giving a little tug. “You worked hard. Cheer up, Alec. We’re now all one-eighteenth done with our higher schooling.”

Alec snorted. “So encouraging. One-eighteenth already?” He tightened his voice to give a high-pitched imitation of Ana. “Guys, that’s basically nearing the end already!” He gave his nonexistent, long hair a dramatic flip.

Ana punched him in the arm and he stumbled away from her, but he was grinning.

Sebastien was too aware of the people whispering about her to get drawn into the banter, though under the noise of the milling students she couldn’t tell what the gossipers might be saying. At first, she thought the whispers were because of the incident with Newton, but when she scowled at a group of particularly obvious girls, one of the women gave Sebastien a bold, flirtatious smile in return.

Thrown off, Sebastien looked away. ‘Either the attention has nothing to do with the rogue magic incident at all, or these girls are somehow attracted to men who’ve recently had a close brush with death. How foolish can you get, that something like this could make me seem like a more viable partner.’ She wasn’t sure if it was better than being a pariah, which would have been a more rational response from the other students, at least.

“They’re drawn to the idea of danger,” Rhett said, as if reading Sebastien’s mind. He clapped Sebastien on the shoulder, leaned in, and said, “Apparently there are some extra benefits of being associated with you.” With a wink, he turned toward the girls with a sad look on his face.

She heard him saying something about, “My friend Sebastien is so brave… Have you heard what happened?”

The women cooed and simpered, drawing Rhett into their midst.

A quick flash of irritation that he would take advantage of her situation to flirt with vapid women bloomed inside Sebastien, but instead of slicing him to ribbons with her tongue like she had the instinct to do, she turned to leave instead. ‘It’s not a big deal. I’m just on edge. I’ll simply consider this his repayment for organizing my notes.

Brinn hurried to catch up with her. “Sorry about Rhett. He doesn’t mean anything bad by it, that’s just how he is. I can say something to him if it’s bothering you.”

Sebastien gave the taller boy a small, strained smile. “No, it’s okay. I’m just feeling a little…off.”

Brinn nodded easily. “Anyone would be. You can’t expect to go right back to normal after a traumatic event. Be kind to yourself.”

Sebastien’s smile relaxed and grew a little bigger. “Be kind to myself, huh?”

“Well, you can’t count on anyone else to be.”

She eyed Brinn for a moment, until he ducked his head shyly, a quick blush rising to his cheeks. ‘He’s the most likable of the entire group,’ she decided, ‘except maybe for Ana. But Ana is likable to everyone, like a bright light. Brinn is like the last cookie in the jar, a little stale but still sweet—a surprise.

The next day, Sebastien struggled to rise from her bed, feeling as if a great weight were pressing her down under the safety of her warm blankets, until Damien brought her some coffee back from his morning study group. The concern on his face was enough to get her out into the harsh reality of morning without delay. ‘The last thing I want is to answer more questions about if I’m okay.

In Modern Magics, Sebastien’s first of only two classes on Fridays, Professor Burberry was following up on their project of the week, a scouring bath alchemical concoction. Sebastien had missed most of the lessons on theory, as well as their preliminary introduction to brewing, but she would have a chance to practice making the actual concoction today.

While Modern Magics was not the most difficult class, it was meant to give students a good grounding in many of the basic thaumaturgic crafts, which was the point of a practical class. Still, Sebastien did wish it were a bit more challenging, at times.

This was not one of those times.

Sebastien stared blearily up at the board while Professor Burberry spoke.

“We have a special opportunity today,” Burberry said. “We are going to be brewing this scouring bath with a more potent component than you might normally have access to. The University’s Zoology section is providing us with a few dozen bini frogs in their male form, which has a corrosive skin. You will be killing them, dissecting them into their useful parts, and then using a couple strips of their skin in your concoction. If you feel queazy or lightheaded at the thought of killing and dissecting a frog, I have some anti-anxiety potion at my desk. See me for a dose.”

As the student aides for the class passed out jars with the large, bubble-skinned frogs inside, Burberry introduced them. “The bini frog are a magical creature commonly found in northern peat bogs. What makes them interesting is that they are both mother and father to their offspring, not through asexual reproduction, but through a hormone change that allows them to lay eggs as a female, and then fertilize them as a male. They’re a good example of how hormones can affect and regulate gene expression, as only their male forms have the caustic skin. The same frog not only looks different, but also behaves differently, and has different magical properties.”

Ana leaned over to Sebastien, murmuring, “Bini frogs are being used in some interesting research that’s attempting to allow same-sex couples to have children.” She sighed. “I would love to invest in the research, but it’s beyond the Gervin Family’s domain, and besides, Father isn’t interested.”

Sebastien replied somewhat absentmindedly, a little worm of a thought wriggling distractingly in the back of her mind. “Can’t you decide to invest on your own, separate from the Family? The law doesn’t state that you can’t, as long as the field isn’t controlled by another of the Crown Families that opposes your entrance, right? What you might consider small sums of pocket money could still be significant to the researchers.”

Ana replied, but Sebastien couldn’t really concentrate, because the worm of a thought had crawled up and made itself known to her consciousness. ‘Could the bini frog have been a component in whatever spell the amulet casts on me to create Sebastien?’ She had been researching how the brain worked for her developmental sleep-proxy spell, but for some reason, despite seeing how important hormones were over and over, she had never really applied that understanding to her own situation.

Hormones affected not just the body, but the brain.

Sebastien stood abruptly, cutting off Ana’s words with a muttered, “Bathroom,” before hurrying from the room.

A quick peek under the stalls showed that they were all empty of feet, so she had her existential crisis in front of the mirror over the sinks, which pumped in fresh water at will, just another example of the wonders of modern invention.

How much of someone’s personality comes from their brain, and how much from their hormones?

The question sent cold spider legs crawling down her back, and she stared into her eyes, trying to take comfort in the fact that those, at least, were the same in both of her bodies. ‘Are my hormones the same as Sebastien as they are as Siobhan?’ That seemed impossible, simply because of the distinction in gender. Her brain itself might not even be the same. After all, everything else was different. ‘But injuries transfer over. And my blood is traceable in either from. So what does that mean?

Unlike the frogs, she was not switching between genders—between different expressions of her own body. Which would have been mind-bending enough on its own. No, she was switching into a different body entirely. ‘How much needs to change before I’m someone else? Even my name is different in this body.

She realized she was panting, and leaned over to splash some cold water in her face. She tried to remember if she had felt different, thought differently. She hadn’t noticed, and wasn’t sure she could tell. After all, she was not an objective, outside observer.

For a moment, the stream of water sounded like a calm, insistent humming, and she jerked her head back, staring at in alarm. She turned the faucet off, snapping her fingers next to her ears to disrupt the phantom memory of sound and taking comfort in the agitated pounding of her heart.

To get any real answers about this, she would need to run a study with at least a hundred people using an artifact like hers, monitored through objective outside agents. For obvious reasons, this was impossible.

She had continually reassured herself that she was the same person, that a change of bodies didn’t mean anything about who she was on the inside, and in fact had felt bizarrely comfortable in either body, after getting over the initial shock. That comfort might actually be a sign to the negative, however, since it could easily have been some esoteric effect of the spell itself, meant to mitigate the chance of a mental breakdown.

She wiped her frigid, wet hands over the back of her neck, taking a perverse thrill in the shiver that wracked her body. Water dripped from her blonde lashes. ‘My consciousness is continuous between both forms. There’s no interruption. My memories are the same. It’s not as if I’m temporarily killing and later resurrecting either version of myself each time I switch. Even if the switch is affecting my personality, I still consider me to be “myself” under the effects of alcohol or other substances. Why can’t this be the same? My name might change, and my body, but there is something deeper than that, something that makes me me, which is constant.’ The words felt right, but still, she felt unsure.

There is no evidence of a soul,’ she admitted to herself. ‘And without that, what am I except for the consciousness created by my body? The consciousness which is dependent upon my body.’ When the Aberrant had taken control of her body, forcing her to calm, its effect had infected more than just her physical flesh. Her mind had begun to lose its grip, too. And what was she, if not her mind? ‘If I do not run my own mind, what runs it? If I don’t control my own thoughts, my own decisions, my own feelings, where is the barrier between “me” and “other?” Will I even notice if I cease to be myself?

Though she had been trying not to think of it, blood and fire flashed across her mind’s eye. Squeezing her eyes closed, she pressed a knuckle into her temple until it hurt—until it felt like she would leave a bruise—but the pain pushed the memory away.

Her panic had grown too large to entirely grasp and so, perversely, was settling into a dull dread instead. ‘That all may be true, but does it actually matter?’ She was at school, away from the string Aberrant-that-was-once-Newton. It couldn’t get her. And it was dead by now anyway, proper punishment for having devoured Newton and killed those people. It couldn’t control, or consume, anyone.

And as for her body, she couldn’t be sure that she was feeling exactly the same as she would have, entertaining the exact same thoughts she would be in her original form, but it felt authentic. If she had thought of these possibilities when she first discovered the effects of the amulet, she might have been more frightened at the implications, but she had been switching back and forth for months now and noticed no adverse effects.‘Perhaps now is not the time to have a mental breakdown. There is nothing I can do about it, after all. I won’t give up the opportunities that Sebastien allows me, and I won’t throw away my past as Siobhan. If some part of my mind is lost and replaced every time, which isn’t necessarily the case—I don’t know how the artifact works, after all—at least my magic seems to be constant.

When her fingers had stopped trembling, she wiped away the water, leaving her cheeks and nose red from the cold. She dug out a small jar of bruise balm from her bag and wiped it on her temple as a preemptive measure. She whispered, “I’m in control,” staring at her dark eyes in the mirror, and when she was sure they seemed confident in that statement, she returned to the classroom.

Burberry gave Sebastien a half-sympathetic, half-exasperated look, then offered her a dose of anti-anxiety potion. “I get a few dozen who don’t have the stomach for dissection every term. It’s nothing to be ashamed of,” the woman said kindly.

Sebastien accepted the potion and returned to her desk, though her anxiety had nothing to do with the killing and dissecting of a magical frog. Its magic took effect quickly, but not before she had the sudden thought that this, too, was a mind-altering substance. Under the effects of the potion, she felt that she really had overreacted. The question of identity was a serious one with important implications, but it was not as though she was trapped in this body. If it really was affecting her mind, she could first decide if that was actually unacceptable rather than simply horrifying at first glance, and if it was unacceptable, eventually return to her original form for good. When she was ready.

In an attempt to distract herself from her thoughts, Sebastien reached out for a topic of conversation. “Ana, you never mentioned what happened with your little sister when you had to leave in such a rush last week. With everything that’s happened, I forgot to ask you,” she realized. “Is everything okay?”

Ana didn’t reply for a few seconds, using a scalpel to remove the creature’s tiny lungs. Finally, she said, “She’s okay. I got her another artifact to wear that she can use to alert me if there are any more situations like that. It was Damien’s idea.”

I wonder where he got that one,’ Sebastien thought wryly, thinking of the bracelets both of them wore. “Does your Cousin Whoever do things like this often?”

“Cousin Robbie. His father encourages him. Both my uncles take every opportunity to discredit or make Nat and I seem weak—to make us seem unworthy as heirs to the Gervin Family. They encourage their children to do the same. Alec actually could have turned out much worse. He’s nothing like Cousin Robbie. Uncle Malcom and Randolph are hoping to convince my father to name one of them, or maybe their children, as heir.”

“But he wouldn’t actually do that, would he?” Sebastien asked.

Ana hesitated. “My father…well, all three of them have some antiquated views about the capabilities and ‘proper place’ of women.”

Sebastien almost snorted aloud. “Really? But you’re a thaumaturge, same as the rest of them. Women might be physically weaker than men, but our—your magic is in no way inferior, nor your capability as leaders.”

Ana shrugged. “The truth doesn’t actually matter to a certain kind of person. ‘Women—so emotional. Weak mind, weak Will,’ she said, obviously quoting someone unpleasant. She sighed. “Really, it’s a remnant of our grandfather, and my mother doesn’t help the situation. She married into the Family, and—” Ana cut off, shaking her head as she used small scissors to snip away the creature’s intestines. “Well. In any case, my father does have the option to choose his heir, and while he hasn’t made any actual declarations, I’ve seen the way things have been going over the last few years. I’ve tried to display my competence to him, but his brothers’ opinions carry too much weight.”

They were both silent for a few seconds, and then Sebastien asked, “Is that why you never wear skirts or dresses?”

“Hah!” Ana gave a short, sharp laugh. “I’ve been wearing pants at every opportunity since I first tried them as a child. Drove my mother spare, and eventually she gave up, except for special occasions. Perhaps it does have something to do with wanting to seem more capable, but really they’re just so much more comfortable and practical. Do you know how cold skirts are in winter? And have you ever tried to run without accidentally flashing your thighs?”

Sebastien coughed into her fist. “Well, I’ve never worn skirts. But I believe you.”

“Well, my uncles have been more aggressive with their campaign as I get older. I’m fine, I can handle it, but it’s Nat I’m worried about. Now that I’m gone she has no one to shield or comfort her. My mother tries, but she’s afraid of conflict and stepping outside of acceptable social boundaries, so sometimes she can be almost as bad as the rest of them. I think she’d prefer it if I could just marry a nice man who would take over running the Family while I indulge in hobbies and run a charity, or something.” Ana got a little too violent with her frog, and its slippery kidney went shooting off onto the floor.

She hurried to retrieve the bean-sized organ before Burberry noticed, and when she returned she gave Sebastien a demure smile. “Everything’s fine overall, I’m just…frustrated. I feel helpless.”

Sebastien knew that smile was fake. She’d seen its over-sweet rays pointed at too many other people to believe it. Ana’s real smile was slightly lopsided, edging on a smirk. “Since I’m assuming you don’t want to be usurped by your uncles or one of your cousins, or to marry a man who will let you be his arm candy, just letting them go on like this isn’t the best idea. You’re being passive, reactive. You need to be the aggressor if you want things to change.”

Ana set down her dissection tools, turning to look at Sebastien more fully.

Sebastien continued, peeling the frog’s skin off with careful slices of her scalpel. “You need a more permanent solution to your problem.” It was something she might not normally have said, if she wasn’t still shaken up—something honest.

“…What kind of permanent solution?”

“Nothing that could backlash and harm you severely if it goes wrong. Nothing…illegal. Something that would cut off their source of power and influence at its roots. You know more about the situation and the people involved than me—you’re the one who would know what might work best.” Ana was silent after this, but Sebastien quickly became distracted with brewing the scouring concoction. She found a couple ingredients in the supply cupboard that weren’t on the component list but that she remembered seeing in a book for a similar concoction.

When Burberry tested their potions at the end of class, she stopped at Sebastien’s cauldron, which contained a bubbling liquid with an extra, distinct shimmer. “Step back. Did you follow the instructions carefully, Mr. Siverling?” she asked, activating the shielding spell built into the floor under Sebastien’s desk.

Sebastien explained that she had brewed a variant of the concoction, just as she practiced with more advanced variations of the other basic spells Burberry took the class through each week. “This version has a minor mending effect, and leaves a protective coating that’s effective against rust and decay.”

Burberry eyed her. “Are you taking Alchemy?”

“No, but I have an interest in the subject.”

“You’re Professor Lacer’s apprentice, right?

“Technically, I’m a provisional apprentice, I think.” Sebastien rubbed the back of her neck awkwardly.

Burberry snorted. “I should give you a demerit for ignoring instructions. Experimenting with magic can be dangerous. As you well know, Mr. Siverling. This wasn’t on the approved list of advanced modifications. But…this concoction is properly brewed. I hope you are aware that the addition of the dragon-beetle wings might cause it to react badly to artifacts that still contain a charge?”

Sebastien nodded. “In the process of polishing and mending the material, it could disrupt an already damaged or poorly inscribed spell array.”

Burberry stared at her for a few more seconds. “Go ahead and turn in a vial for grading. I’m awarding three contribution points. Pick them up at my desk on the way out.”

Sebastien carefully packaged and kept the leftover components, since no one seemed to keep track of those things, or care. Some of the students actually threw away the remainder, not caring that they were basically throwing away coin. Sebastien had actually accumulated a handful of random components this way over the course of the term. As they were filing out of the classroom, Sebastien wondered if she might be able to secretly replenish her other most-used supplies from the University’s stores.

She was trying to calculate how much theft she could get away with when she heard someone say Newton’s name in a scandalized tone. Her head pivoted toward the source as if pulled by a string.

1/21/22: This is the last of 6 bonus chapters brought to you by my lovely patrons!

Whew! Guys, I am tired. I often work 7 days a week but I might just take tomorrow off. Then again, it’s hard to take time off when all the work that hasn’t been done is just sitting there staring at me. And all the stories I want to write. I recently calculated that if I continue at my current pace, I’ll finish all the books/series that I’ve got in the queue by the time I’m 50. I am 28. 😐

So just 22 more years! As long as I don’t have any new ideas in the meantime! Yay! This little screenshot I saw recently is accurate.

Next chapter coming Thursday, 2/3.

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