Chapter 97 – Good Advice


Month 1, Day 29, Friday 10:30 a.m.

Sebastien recognized one of the girls gossiping about Newton from Practical Casting. Some time ago the young woman had tried to flirt with her, hinting that Sebastien should buy her a gift from the offerings in the Great Hall with her contribution points. Sebastien had forgotten her name.

“But Moore always seemed so nice!” one of the girls exclaimed in a scandalized tone, leaning further into the huddled group. They had apparently not realized Sebastien was standing nearby, or were perhaps just too oblivious to realize how rude they were being.

“Well, obviously he was involved in…questionable activities,” another girl tittered. “How else do you find yourself involved in a battle with gang members and the Raven Queen, and then turn into an Aberrant?”

Sebastien’s breath was coming fast. She curled her hands into white-knuckled fists, her short nails digging into her palm with a welcome sting.

“He must have corrupted his Will,” said a third girl. “What kind of things to you think he was dabbling in? And what about the other student liaison, that Canelo girl? I hear she’s refusing to talk.”

The girl Sebastien recognized from Practical Casting shook her head. “She was cursed not to be able to speak of it, from what I heard. As for Newton Moore, he probably did it because he needed the coin. People will degrade themselves in a lot of ways when they need coin.”

The first woman tittered. “He didn’t fit in here, did he? If he was going to end up so desperate to stay that he let his Will be corrupted, perhaps he shouldn’t have been admitted in the first place.”

Perhaps cued by some change in Sebastien’s bearing or expression, Ana reached out for Sebastien’s arm, but it was too late. Ana’s fingers slipped off as Sebastien strode toward the group. Her breath came hard, her wide-eyed gaze tracking over the womens’ amused, scandalized expressions, taking in every nuance as if preparing for battle.

Sebastien’s voice was deep with anger, and she could feel the rumble in her chest, but couldn’t quite hear it past the rush of blood in her ears. “Newton Moore was worth more than the entire lot of you.”

The women spun to face her in surprise, expressions ranging from surprise to dismay. The girl from Practical Casting blushed, then paled.

Sebastien’s slow, bitingly enunciated words began to come faster as she continued. “It is clear you have no idea what you are talking about, yet find some kind of sick, self-titillating pleasure in spewing vile opinions and allegations about others, who aren’t around to defend themselves. It speaks more about you than it does about Newton. I feel like I’m being made dirty just standing in your presence, but putting you in your place is a service to the entire world that everyone else in your lives has obviously neglected thus far.”

There was a short, stunned silence, and conversation began to die out around them as people turned to watch the altercation. “Excuse you? We were just talking!” one of the girls retorted.

Sebastien let out a sharp laugh. “I am also ‘just talking.’ The difference is that I do not pretend my words are harmless. My words are meant to slap you across the face in lieu of my hand.”

The girl flinched back, looking at the fists balled at his sides.

“I’m sorry, Sebastien, we shouldn’t have…” The girl from Practical Casting trailed off, biting her lip.

“Do not sully my name by letting it pass your lips,” Sebastien hissed. The crowd around was growing thicker with onlookers.

One of the women looked around as if for help, then burst into tears.

Ana stepped up behind Sebastien, laying a hand on her shoulder and murmuring into her ear. “That’s enough. I understand, but if this goes on you could be the one getting in trouble.” Louder, she called out, “I’m sorry, he’s been under a lot of stress with everything that happened, and I don’t think anyone would have appreciated hearing people speak ill of their dead friend.” There were sympathetic murmurs among the crowd. “Please let us pass, he needs some space.”

Sebastien clenched her fists even harder, gritting her teeth, but had enough sense not to protest or continue her tirade, letting Ana usher her through the crowd to freedom.

When they were clear, Ana gave her an exasperated look. “Was that really necessary?”

Sebastien remained silent, unrepentant, her jaw lifted and clenched.

Ana sighed. “You can get away with that sort of thing, under the circumstances and with your budding reputation, but one of these days your tongue is going to get you in trouble with the wrong person.”

Ana was right. “I know,” Sebastien admitted. “It’s almost surprising that it hasn’t happened already. But sometimes, I just— When I heard what they were saying—” She peeled back her lips in a silent, feral snarl and shook her head. “It’s not in my nature to be silent,” she finished in a softer voice.

Ana sighed, wrapping one arm around Sebastien’s shoulder as they walked and pulling her in to her side for a half-embrace. “Oh, Sebastien,” she murmured ruefully, shaking her head and then releasing her after only a couple moments, still looking ahead.

By lunchtime, the remnants of Sebastien’s rage had left her, like a glowing ember cooled to ash. After its passing, she was left so fatigued she could barely muster up the energy to eat. Normally, she was ravenous from the constant effort of working her brain and her Will to learn and channel magic. After forcing down food until she started to involuntarily gag with every bite, she left the others at their cafeteria table and went outside, hoping the fresh winter air would invigorate her.

She huddled into her jacket, sitting on a bench below a crisp pine tree to watch her breath fog up in little clouds.

Though Sebastien hadn’t been keeping tabs on Tanya or waiting for her, she caught a glimpse from afar as the other woman hurried toward the Menagerie gate.

Tanya’s shoulders were hunched, and she looked around constantly, as if her head were on a paranoid swivel. She walked quickly, but for some reason seemed more as if she was running from something than hurrying toward something.

Sebastien stared after Tanya as she disappeared from sight. A small spark of curiosity flared to life within her. She couldn’t sneak after Tanya—she shuddered at the thought of what that had led to last time—but there was no reason she couldn’t follow more openly. If questioned, she could easily say she had seen Tanya by coincidence and followed because she was worried for the other woman. Especially since they had both undergone a similar ordeal, and lost the same friend.

With a deep sigh, Sebastien rocked to her feet, letting the momentum pull her forward.

Tanya’s rendezvous was almost over by the time Sebastien found her. She was meeting somewhere different than the little bridge, and also meeting someone different. Tanya and the new faculty member, who Sebastien vaguely recognized as being a professor, were already walking in different directions.

Tanya was so on edge she noticed Sebastien almost right away.

Sebastien waved at her halfheartedly, waiting for the other girl to reach her on the way back to the University.

Tanya stopped in front of her, cold-nipped fingers flexing in the air. “Siverling.” She nodded. “What do you want?”

Sebastien turned, motioning for Tanya to walk with her. “You seem…stressed.”

Tanya didn’t reply.

“I should know. I’ve been stressed myself. And now I’m just tired,” Sebastien admitted. Tanya had caused a lot of problems for her, but not out of any particular malice. Sebastien could recognize some of herself at some points in her life in the wild desperation that flashed behind Tanya’s eyes. Sebastien was too tired to play games, and Tanya was wound too tight. Strings wound too tight sometimes snapped. Like Newton. “Professor Ilma gave me some advice about handling your problems when they seem too many, or too overwhelming. I think it could be useful to you.”

Tanya laughed bitterly. “I’m not sure that any advice can solve my problems, Siverling.”

“Maybe. But all problems have solutions. If you can’t find them, maybe you’re just looking in the wrong place. And sometimes you need to hear trite advice that seems obvious, because it will spur you to think of your situation from a different vantage point.” Sebastien shrugged. “Ilma told me that if a problem seems too big, you should break it down into smaller bites. Each individual bite might have a possible solution, and if you can find enough of those, you might be able to weave it together into a solution to the larger problem. Breaking something overwhelming down into smaller sections can help to ensure you actually understand the entirety of the larger problem.”

Tanya eyed Sebastien with surprise. “That’s not bad advice, actually. Newton once told me about something he read.” She paused to swallow hard. “Supposedly, people on committees or company boards will instinctively start offering solutions to presented problems before they actually understands the entirety of the situation. When they instead stop to list all aspects of the problem beforehand, all the different ways it presents itself and the follow-on effects it has, not being allowed to put forth any suggested solutions until that’s done, they come up with solutions that are much more robust. Or something.”

“That’s interesting,” Sebastien agreed. “Ilma also told me that you have to make sure you’re replenishing yourself, because food, rest, and things like that are one of the fundamental resources that you actually do need to solve your problem.”

Tanya snorted. “What University student has time to rest?”

Sebastien herself was struggling with that. She shrugged. “Find ways to rest and recover more efficiently?”

Tanya bowed her head. “Now that I’m no longer a student liaison, since I’m only taking four classes, perhaps I will have more time for other endeavors.” She sounded bitter about it.

“And maybe not just food and rest,” Sebastien added as the idea came to her. “Maybe you need to replenish your motivation, too, by reminding yourself why fixing your situation is important to you. Doing that is probably different for everyone. Maybe you need to spend time with your friends and family, or go watch a play, or read through your childhood diary.”

“My motivation is still quite clear,” Tanya said wryly. “I’m unable to forget it.”

Considering the meeting with whoever that professor had been, perhaps that was the truth. Sebastien didn’t know how Tanya had gotten into all this in the first place, after all. “The final thing Ilma told me is that sometimes, if you can’t solve it, you just need to remove the problem altogether. So that you don’t need to solve it.”

Tanya blinked at her, then burst out laughing. “Was Professor Ilma intimating that you should hire a hitman?” She deepened her voice comically, probably quoting something that Sebastien didn’t recognize. “A permanent solution to a temporary problem.”

Sebastien’s mouth opened, then closed. She took her hands out of her pockets to wave them in a negating motion. “No! I think she meant that sometimes we should change our priorities, or realize that giving up on things isn’t the end of the world. If you accept that the thing you were trying to achieve, the way you were trying to achieve it, is impossible, it can free you up to still achieve the goal you actually care about.”

“Hmm.” They walked in silence back to the University. “You know, Siverling, you’re not half bad. I can see why Newton liked you.” Tanya spun on her heel and walked away without giving Sebastien a chance to respond.

Sebastien checked her pocket watch, then turned toward the Practical Casting classroom. Giving advice to Tanya had sparked those same problem-solving pathways in her own mind. Perhaps she should sit down with a pen and some paper and try to work through her own situation, piece by piece. She would need about a gallon of coffee first.

“I can’t believe you met with Tanya alone!” Damien hissed when he arrived at the classroom and learned where she had been through the remainder of the afternoon free period. “Without me, without backup!”

“It was fine,” Sebastien sighed.

“Sure, but it might not have been fine. She could have attacked you. She could have attacked you…” he looked around and leaned closer, lowering his voice to be barely audible, “with Munchworth. I’ve seen you in Defense, Sebastien. You wouldn’t have stood a chance.”

Sebastien rolled her eyes, but didn’t bother responding to that little jab. “She didn’t meet with Munchworth. It was someone new this time.”

Curiosity sidetracked Damien’s ire, and then Professor Lacer made his last-minute, dramatic entrance as he often did, immediately quieting all conversation.

The man looked tired, the lines at the sides of his eyes a little deeper.

Sebastien took a kind of perverse pleasure in the evidence that other people were struggling in the same way she was.

“We will have to contract the classroom again,” he muttered, looked out over the students.

Sebastien, who was sitting in the front row, turned to see that indeed, many of her classmates hadn’t shown up.

Professor Lacer glanced toward his desk, and his pen jumped to life, scribbling something in the folio laid there. “Some of you have recognized your inability to proceed in this class and decided to give up, either for this term or forever,” he announced at full volume, his deep voice easily carrying to all corners of the room. “If you are questioning your ability to handle the workload or the pressure, I urge you to follow in their footsteps. I have limited time and do not wish to waste it on doomed prospects.”

With that, he turned to the blackboard, waving at the chalk to start scratching across it’s surface. “We will continue to work on your grasp of light as a Sacrifice. For those of you who may be interested in healing, facility with channeling and controlling light energy can give you a significant boost with spells that use components or energy from the Plane of Radiance. Of course, healing is not the only option for Radiant energy. I once saw a woman use a pocket-sized planar portal to channel a focused beam of energy that burnt cleanly through an entire group of enemies, and a few hundred meters into the mountainside behind them.”

Sebastien was momentarily distracted wondering how that would be possible, since as far as she was aware, planar portals were specifically designed to contain and shield against uncontrolled spillover from the Elemental Plane they were accessing. People entered—wearing a specially designed protective suit—retrieved and secured components, and exited. Only wild, natural planar portals were unconstrained in a way that would allow immediate use of their energy. And she was pretty sure that direct planar warfare was against some treaty all the major and most of the minor countries had agreed to. The potential consequences were on par with loosing a high-level Aberrant.

Professor Lacer first lectured on the various glyphs that were either directly or tangentially associated with light-based spells, and then set them to practice.

Sebastien had made significant progress on her illusion spell, but still not caught up to Nunchkin’s level. Normally, that would have bothered her, but at this moment she simply wanted to make it through the class period without drawing Professor Lacer’s ire.

A few minutes before the end of class, Professor Lacer ended their practice. “The mid-terms are over. Now is the time that many students start considering the end of term exhibitions more seriously. In many classes, particularly in the upper terms, the practical portion of the final exam will be displayed as part of the exhibition. While this class is almost entirely practical, it is not included in the exhibitions at lower levels, since none of you are advanced enough to do anything impressive. If you wish to prepare an individual presentation for those classes that are not automatically entered, you are free to do so—at risk of great personal embarrassment. However, I urge you not to attempt to free-cast in the exhibitions. While success would certainly be an impressive feat and gain you points, I have a clear understanding of your capabilities, and let me assure you that you are more likely to cause yourself Will-strain, or worse.” He looked to Sebastien for a moment there, and she nodded back quickly, to assure him she had no plans for such foolishness.

It was a reminder that she was supposed to earn fifty points in the exhibitions. She hadn’t forgotten, exactly, but she’d put it out of her mind as something that she wouldn’t need to worry about until later.

Lacer continued. “If your goal is to earn points, especially in the first three terms where most students have no particularly impressive skills, I would suggest something more flamboyant or flashy.” He let slip a grimace of distaste, which Sebastien though was ironic considering his own penchant for the dramatic and flashy. “While nominally, the point of the exhibitions is to demonstrate skill in various areas, in practice, you are statistically more likely to be rewarded with points if you provide an entertaining demonstration versus showcasing your skills in a way that does not stimulate the audience. After all, the University wants to show off to all the guests who come specifically to watch. And spend coin.”

When the class was released, Sebastien turned to Damien. “I thought the point of the exhibitions was to showcase our talents for potential sponsors or employers. Can they, or the judges, not discern between skill and flash?”

Damien looked incredulously to Ana, who laughed and shook her head. “Sebastien, you seem to have misunderstood the point of the exhibitions.”

Damien nodded. “I mean, they say the exhibitions are for the sake of the students, but they seem more like a multi-day magical street fair. I attended every year as a child, and they were one of the highlights of my spring.”

Ana continued, “It’s not optimal for students who are trying to focus during that critical time, but the University has some token policies in place that are supposed to be for student benefit and maintain our learning environment. But they’ll never restrict entrance to only potential employers or sponsors. It’s too big a revenue source, as well as a great way to build and spread their reputation.”

“So…I’m supposed to put on a show for who knows how many people, who might not even have any idea about how magics works, as part of a gigantic festival. And get fifty contribution points.” Sebastien said, dragging her hand down her face in the way that she’d seen Oliver do when he was overwhelmed.

“You’re not shy around crowds,” Damien said. “Or around anyone,” he added in a low mutter. “I’m sure you’ll be fine as long as you prepare.”

Ana smiled encouragingly. “I believe in you. But in case you’re interested, there are newspaper records, both from the internal University publication as well as official reports. They’ll mention what kinds of exhibitions received rewards, which should allow you to tailor your efforts to your audience.”

“Thank you.” Sebastien didn’t want to research prior exhibitions, or start planning and developing a magical performance. She was struggling to care. But she knew that trying to “wing” something at the last minute was a bad idea. If she failed to meet his demands, Professor Lacer might not allow her to remain at the University. Even if she was too tired to feel it at the moment, she knew that her lifelong dream of learning magic wasn’t something she could allow to slip through her grasp. When she had recovered from whatever this malaise was, she would regret her inaction.

Damien seemed to notice a little of what she was feeling on her face. “Are you okay, Sebastien?”

“Tired,” she replied simply.

“Really? I mean, is that it? I know you can’t talk about what happened with us, but maybe you should go to the infirmary? They have mind-healers who’ve taken confidentiality vows. You seem…”

Sebastien rubbed her eyes. “I don’t need a mind-healer, Damien. I just have a few too many things on my plate at once.”

Damien was silent for a moment. He looked to see that Ana was distracted with talking to someone else, and far enough away not to hear, then said quietly, “Maybe I could help take a few ‘things’ off your plate? I can handle more responsibility.”

Sebastien wanted to snap that his nosiness, his inclusion in her secrets, was one of her many problems. Instead, she gritted her teeth and announced abruptly, “Actually, I am going to go to the infirmary. Maybe they have something stronger than coffee to help keep me awake.”

She could practically feel Damien’s solicitous gaze on her back as she strode away.

She stopped and turned after a few moments, going instead to Professor Lacer’s office, where he generally retreated as soon as possible after his classes. She knocked sharply, then opened the door and strode to stand in front of desk when he called for her to “enter.”

He looked up slowly from the scattered papers and books across his desk, some complicated spell arrays and what might even have been a half-finished ward plan for a residence. “How can I help you, Mr. Siverling?”

Sebastien clenched and unclenched her fists, let out a slow breath, and said, “Professor Lacer, I respect and admire you.”

He raised an eyebrow.

“However, I have to insist that you respect my personal boundaries. It is unacceptable for you to cast magic on me against my will, without my consent. Especially magic that will force me to sleep. Or in any way affect my mental state. I would never have consented to such a thing, and will not consent to such a thing in the future.”

Thaddeus Lacer placed down his pen, leaning back in his seat. He met her gaze for a few long, agonizing seconds, then nodded shallowly. “I understand. I will not do such a thing again, and will try to remember to ask your consent before casting any other magics that affect your person, unless I judge that you are in immediate and severe danger without my interference.”

Sebastien’s shoulders loosened, but she lifted her chin, giving him a dignified nod. “Thank you. I’ll leave you to your work.” With a shallow bow, she turned and left the room without another word.

IMPORTANT NEWS: I recently received word that my father is in the hospital and not doing well. He has Covid, a serious pre-existing condition, and additional health issues. If things go poorly, I may need to take extra, unexpected time off.

However, if everything goes according to plan, the next chapter will come out Thursday, 2/24, according to the slow-down announcement posted here:

Additionally, a Patreon-exclusive excerpt from Siobhan’s Grimoire will be going up on Thursday, 2/10.

As an update for my progress on catching up with the writing: During this last week I got sick (not anything serious) and was out of commission for a few days, but still managed to content-revise three chapters and write two more from scratch. I’m fairly slow, so that’s good progress.

I hope to make even better progress over the next couple weeks.

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