Month 1, Day 30, Saturday 4:30 p.m.
People were packed into the ground floor of the Verdant Stag like pickled cucumbers stuffed into a jar. It wasn’t until Siobhan got further into the room that some space cleared up and she was able to get away from the stifling crush. The heat from all the bodies made her warm clothing unnecessary, but she caught sight of a pair of uniformed coppers at one of the tables and decided not to take off her hooded cloak. Sure, she was Silvia, a civilian who, at most, helped at a healing station during the fighting, and had the identity papers to prove it, but if they took her to Harrow Hill, papers might not save her.
‘Why are they here?’ she wondered.
Everyone seemed to have come for the people on stage at the other end of the room, who she thought must be putting on some sort of play at first, but when she actually listened, it was a rather strange monologue.
“After the earlier testimony of both the accused and the accusers, which was verified through prognos divination and wards against untruth, Eric Hanna, Morrow member, has been found guilty by the Verdant Stag of the following crimes: public nudity, blackmail, three counts of mugging, twenty-two counts of extortion, and six counts of assault, one of which caused grievous and permanent injury. By order of Lord Stag, he has been relieved of the fruits of his crimes, and restitution is due to those he has harmed.”
The cheers were immediate and deafening as people clapped, slammed their tankards of ale and beer on the tabletops, and stomped their feet.
When the noise died down, the second person atop the stage stepped forward. “As the executor of a trust held at Citrus Bank, and in no way associated with the Verdant Stag, or other criminal activity,” he added, with a dark glare toward the two coppers, “I have been charged to publicly convey the beneficiaries of this trust and the amount they are receiving.”
Siobhan noticed then the banner above the stage that introduced the “charitable performance.”
The trust executor listed off names, accompanied by varying monetary amounts that ranged from a few silver to a few gold. It wasn’t even close to what the coppers would have fined for those same crimes, and was certainly less than what Oliver had extorted out of the accused Morrows, but the audience didn’t seem to care.
Siobhan sidled closer to a particularly enthusiastic woman. “What’s going on?” she asked, her voice almost drowned out by another wave of cheers as the executor announced the next person to receive restitution.
The woman gave her a huge, slightly drunken grin that revealed a couple of missing teeth. “Something’s actually being done about the injustices we all been subjec—subjd—” She stopped to hiccup, then finished, “the injustices we went through.”
“And they’re really paying? How do you get chosen for restitution?”
The woman nodded dramatically. “Yes, Lord Stag is really paying out. If your name is called, you go down to Citrus Bank with identification, and their people there take out the money from that trust account he was mentioning—coin straight into your hand! And it’s easy to get considered for restitution, just go note what the Morrows did to you, and which’ve ‘em did it. You’ve gotta give testimony under some kind of spell that keeps you from lying, and once the trial is over it’s too late to submit a claim. Not everyone gets the restitution, if there’s not enough proof of what was done, or who did it, or if who did it doesn’t have any coin for the Verdant Stag to take back for you. Still, a damn sight better than anyone else would do for us.” She looked over to the table that housed the coppers and yelled, “A damn sight better than the coppers ever did for us!”
Siobhan tugged at the corner of her hood to make sure her face was hidden, trying to do so as naturally as possible so she didn’t seem suspicious. “Have you gotten any restitution?”
The woman grinned toothily again, holding up her mug in a toasting motion. “Three silver!” she announced proudly. Judging by her level of drunkenness, as well as the crumbs on the empty plate in front of her, she’d already spent at least that much, the coin going right back to the Verdant Stag.
‘Maybe Oliver isn’t so crazy.’
Siobhan watched the proceedings for a few more minutes, until someone sidled through the crowd, reaching out to touch her shoulder.
Siobhan jerked away, whipping around with her hands held up defensively, which she immediately decided was rather foolish, because she had little skill as a hand-to-hand combatant.
A young man raised his own hands, empty palms facing outward to convey his harmlessness. With a glance at the coppers, he reached down to his jacket, pulling one side open far enough that she could see the bright green antlers of the Stags embossed on a badge tucked into his shirt pocket. “Apologies, ma’am. I didn’t mean to startle you. Your presence has been requested upstairs.”
He didn’t answer, instead giving her a significant look. “Mr. Huntley told me to pass the message along.”
She vaguely recognized the name as belonging to one of the Stags’ lead enforcers. Most likely, either Katerin or Oliver had called for her. Siobhan lowered her hands, nodding for the young man to lead the way. As they climbed the stairs at the edge of the room, the bottom of which was guarded by another enforcer, she asked, “I noticed the coppers are just sitting there. Have they been causing trouble?”
The young man laughed, as if the question was ironic. “Oh, plenty of it. But they can’t stop us. They don’t know where the Morrows are being held, and the two men on stage are a licensed actor and a lawyer who was hired to enforce the Citrus Bank trust independently. They’re not actually involved with the Verdant Stag or the trials or anything, they were just hired to talk on stage in a clearly labeled performance for charity. I’m not totally sure how that all works, but it’s not illegal. The coppers have still been arresting them, of course. This is the fourth or fifth set of performer and lawyer.” He grinned as if that was hilarious. “But they just stay down at Harrow Hill for a day or two for questioning while someone else takes their place on stage. None of them actually know anything, so Harrow Hill has to release them within three days. Those two coppers down below are just there for appearances. They haven’t tried anything.”
Siobhan hummed. “It still seems like they could arrest people on charges of collusion or something?”
“They’ll arrest people on charges of almost anything, but it’s not sticking. You go in, you take a few sleepless nights and shitty food and maybe a few bruises, but as long as you don’t talk, you come out again when either the laws or the bribes say so. Everyone got lessons on what to do, and we even got to practice against one of those lying wards.”
That seemed…dangerous. All it would take would be for someone higher up, like Titus Westbay, to notice and care that Oliver’s people were bribing their way out of charges, and suddenly an arrest might not be such a simple matter. And it would only take one person with the right information to give the coppers what they needed to make other charges stick. Oliver’s people might not be as bad as the Morrows, but they’d all committed crimes in the eyes of the Thirteen Crown Families.
If they arrested Oliver, Katerin, or someone else with actual knowledge and power, things would become much more dangerous. She wasn’t sure a bribe would be enough to cover them. And of course, the coppers would remember that the Raven Queen had been associated with the Verdant Stag, too.
The whole situation made her uncomfortable.
The enforcer led Siobhan to Oliver’s office, which she had never been in before. It was significantly more ostentatious than Katerin’s office, all dark woods and plush furniture, with a layout that suggested the chair behind Oliver’s desk was instead a throne, and all who entered must supplicate before him. It would have been more impressive if his desk wasn’t covered with a mess of ledgers, binders, and loose paper.
Oliver looked up from a small leather notebook, the kind with a lock, and gave her an excited smile as she entered. He quickly closed the book and set it aside, then, deciphering her expression, said, “Yes, this office is generally only used for meeting with people. I’m considering moving the administrative headquarters to another building. Somewhere more discreet. We’ve got quite a few former Morrow properties whose rights were signed over.” He stood from the desk, moving to one of the plush chairs nearer the fire and gesturing for her to join him. Someone had left a coffee tray, and he offered her a cup of dark liquid brewed so strongly the sugar spoon almost stood up straight.
“Is there a plan to deal with the coppers, other than antagonizing them with public shows meant to undermine their authority?” she asked.
Oliver sipped his own coffee, giving her a nettled look over the rim. “Feeling prickly, are we?”
Siobhan grimaced. “Sorry, that came out slightly harsher than I intended.”
“Only slightly?” Before she could respond, he said, “I do have a plan. And a rather good one. It includes a whole flock of solicitors who will make the coppers bleed for every unwarranted arrest, and a heaping dollop of blackmail on top. Those who are corrupt will soon see that my territory isn’t worth it, and those who genuinely care about their jobs will realize their efforts are better spent elsewhere, in the places that need them. This whole thing, believe it or not, is a lot more reserved than I originally intended. I wanted to do public executions for the worst of the Morrows, if you remember, but Katerin and some of the others talked me out of it. I’ll still make sure they get what they deserve, but it won’t be directly by our hand, and thus won’t make the Crowns look like they’ve lost control.”
“How are you going to handle them instead?”
“They’ll be handling it—the coppers, that is. I’m just going to make sure everyone involved has extra incentive to follow the law, no matter how influential the accused men once were.” He grinned like a child with a stolen cookie. “In fact, I’ve got quite a few things in the works. I think you’ll be impressed.”
Siobhan hummed and raised one of her eyebrows, but couldn’t help the corners of her lips twitching up, his enthusiasm spreading infectious energy to her.
They were both silent for a moment, drinking their coffee at the perfect almost-scalding temperature. Finally, Oliver said, “You seem tired.”
“I’m sleeping more than I have been for the past five or six years,” she said wryly.
“And hating every second, no doubt.”
She let out a short, surprised laugh. “Well, yes.” That was the main reason she was here, but since she had Oliver at her disposal, she brought up another issue. “I don’t want to take up too much of your time since you’re so busy, but I wonder if I might get some of your particular brand of insight on a possible problem?”
He tensed a little but nodded. “Titan’s balls, let it be a problem I can actually fix.”
“Damien Westbay is going to become a problem, and perhaps even more so now that it’s not safe to spy on Tanya Canelo anymore. He’s too curious, too eager for action. I’ve been trying to shut him down, but he doesn’t stay down for long. You’re the one who’s good with the social things, getting people to do what you want.”
Oliver settled back in his chair with his booted feet closer to the fire. “Tell me more. And give details. I need to understand how his mind works.”
Siobhan spoke while Oliver asked probing questions, almost all of which she answered in detail. She knew Damien well, even better than she’d realized.
Finally, Oliver seemed satisfied, steepling his fingers together in front of his chest like some kind of stereotypical evil genius. “You need a little more carrot to go along with your stick. Don’t keep trying to shut him down. When Westbay wants more, give him more, but dangle that carrot in the direction that’s most convenient to have him run. Ideally, away from anything you’re hoping to keep secret. Once he’s busy enough, even he won’t have time to indulge his curiosity.”
“So I need to come up with some project for him to throw himself into? Ideally something that won’t require me to put in even more work.”
“Yes. You can take some time to consider what you might like him pointed toward, or you can even see if he has any ideas for a ‘mission’ that you wouldn’t mind allowing. That might be dangerous, if he’s the type to become fixated on ideas once he has them, but it would give you an idea where the danger lies.”
“I understand. I’ll think about it. Thanks.”
“When you get time, feel free to stop by the manor and do some more brewing for the Verdant Stag. With all the new territory, we’re running through concoctions faster than we can stock them. Particularly healing concoctions, and some little fireplace-in-a-bottle things that one of our other alchemists has been supplying.”
“You have a lot of homeless and injured people, then?” she guessed.
“Too many. But let’s not talk about that.”
“How about the people downstairs?” She laughed as another set of cheers and stomping rattled the entire building, only mostly muffled by the two floors between them. “They love the free coin, especially when it’s paired with ‘justice.’ How much are you earning off all this?”
Oliver’s grin looked more than a little evil. “Oh, a lot.”
They chatted for a while longer, until a check of her pocket watch revealed that it would get dark soon. She didn’t want to be trudging around the city in the frigid night, so took her leave.
Oliver sounded disappointed to have to get back to work, and his dramatic sigh followed her out the door as she left.
With her cloak back up, Siobhan’s peripheral vision was impaired, and she bumped into someone at the edge of the narrow back stairway that led to Oliver’s office.
She’d knocked a small cartridge out of his grip, and as he fumbled to catch it, he tilted precariously backward. Just as he regained control of the cartridge, his foot slipped off the top step, and if not for her grabbing him by the waistcoat and yanking with all her strength, he would have tumbled down the stairs.
He fell to one knee beside her, but seemed rather unscathed by the whole thing, laughing awkwardly. “Oh, thank you. Bit clumsy of me, are you alright?”
“I should be asking you that,” Siobhan said. “I apologize, I didn’t see you.”
“To be honest, it’s probably not your fault. My luck has been atrocious today!” the boy said, laughing as if at some inside joke as he rose to his feet. He was about her height, with skin much darker than hers, but the deep purple bruise around his swollen eye, shielded by the shattered lens of his glasses, was still conspicuous.
“If you need a bruise salve, they sell them here,” she said, grimacing. “There’s a little apothecary on the other side of the building, to the left of the main staircase. They’re quite a bit cheaper than what you can find elsewhere, and good quality.”
“Can just anyone buy from them? I don’t work for—well, I’m trying to sell something to Lord Stag, but I don’t work for them, and I’m pretty sure I live outside the gang’s territory.”
Siobhan shrugged. “It shouldn’t be a problem, but I can’t be sure. Are you going up to see, er, Lord Stag? You could ask him.”
The boy’s grip tightened noticeably. “Oh, umm, do you really think I should? He’s so… Isn’t there someone else I could ask?”
Siobhan let out a quiet laugh. “I know the mask can be intimidating, but Lord Stag really isn’t that frightening. He’s quite friendly, and he actually enjoys helping people.”
“Is that so?” the boy asked, looking extremely skeptical.
“It is,” Siobhan asserted.
“Well…thank you.” The boy reached out to shake her hand. “Percival, but you can call me Percy. Do you work around here?”
“Well met, Percy.” She hesitated only a moment before introducing herself as Silvia. “I do some contract work when it’s necessary.”
“Do you have any advice for me? I’m trying to sell him something a little…sensitive. I’m pretty nervous about it.” Percy shuffled his feet, seeming not to notice how close to the edge of the stairs he still was.
Siobhan raised an eyebrow, reaching out to nudge him away from danger. “Well…don’t take his first offer, I suppose. And don’t be too nervous. The worst he can do is say no.”
Percy looked down at the cartridge, muttering, “I don’t think that’s the worst he can do,” but then gave her a bright smile, wincing as the expression squished the swollen flesh around his black eye. “I’d better get in there. Thanks, Silvia!” With a wave of his hand, he stepped past her, taking a fortifying breath before knocking on the door to Oliver’s office.
Siobhan shook her head, a little bemused, then made for the apothecary tucked away on the other side of the building, the hallway guarded by yet another Verdant Stag enforcer.
Within, she found the main purpose of her trip, and the reason she had risked coming to the Verdant Stag—a triangular vial of what looked rather like slug poop. The substance within was a grey-brown, porous sludge, nothing like some of the more interesting-looking potions that came in bright colors, glowed, or roiled within their containers. Still, Siobhan had to suppress a huge grin as she picked it up, despite the three-gold price tag.
Katerin’s assistant, Alice, was running the shop, and fixed Siobhan with a gimlet eye when she tried to buy it. “I need a prescription from a healer to sell this to you,” she said.
Siobhan suppressed a frustrated groan. “I don’t have a healer’s note, but I’m an alchemist, and well aware of the tincture’s usage and requirements.”
“Beamshell tincture is addictive, and leaves an energy debt. People who abuse it will keep pushing until they collapse, malnourished and dehydrated, and for thaumaturges, with a significantly increased chance of Will-strain. If you have narcolepsy, or insomnia, or some other legitimate reason to need this, I’m happy to sell it to you once you bring me proof.”
Briefly, Siobhan considered asking Oliver or Katerin to come down and vouch for her, or even coming back the next day with a forged healer’s prescription—but no, that was ridiculous. She leaned forward and said in a low voice, “I encountered an Aberrant that caused a severe sedative effect. You probably heard about the incident.” Aberrants were the kind of thing that was hard to argue against and likely to engender an emotional response. In this case, hopefully sympathy, and a hesitance to ask too many questions. “I don’t have narcolepsy, I just need a little help staying sharp when I’m awake. I assure you, I have no plans to abuse the concoction. I brew a good number of the potions you stock here,” she added.
What Siobhan said was more or less true, except for her fatigue being caused directly by lingering anomalous effects of the Aberrant. She just needed something a little stronger than coffee to give her energy while she was awake. She couldn’t continue to drag her way through her days, barely scraping by. She wasn’t stupid enough to abuse the beamshell tincture until she got herself addicted.
Alice still hesitated, drawing a weary sigh from Siobhan. “I can get Katerin to vouch for me, if she’s here.” Bringing in Oliver would be a little too much, probably.
Alice finally conceded. “If you need a second vial, I’ll require that healer’s note.” She rattled off a series of dosage and use instructions that Siobhan had already memorized, and Siobhan walked out three gold lighter, with a vial of bottled energy burning a hole in one of her inner jacket pockets.
The excitement of potential relief got her all the way to the Silk Door without feeling the nip of the cold.
Within her closet-sized backroom, she changed into her male form, then picked up Sebastien’s clothes, which she’d left there the night of the incident before everything went so wrong.
She’d also brought back the Raven Queen’s dress, which she would stash there until she had a chance to take it to a used clothing shop for sale. There was a small chance the outfit might be recognized or otherwise used to connect her to the scene of the crime.
She picked up the pile of red and black fabric, intending to cast the shedding-destroyer spell on it, but her finger brushed up against what felt like a metal wire.
She jerked back, tossing the clothes to the floor as if she’d been burned. Her skin rippled with goosebumps as her hindbrain seemed to realize what she’d touched before her conscious mind made the connection. “Oh…” she whispered.
Siobhan stepped forward cautiously, pinching one corner of the fabric and lifting until the wire revealed itself.
Only it wasn’t a wire. It was a piece of the flesh-and-bone string that Newton’s Aberrant had been formed from, and which had infected and subsumed anyone it touched, woven through the fabric. The sharp edge suggested that a slicing spell had severed it at some point.
It didn’t move, even when she clicked her tongue experimentally to see if it reacted to the noise.
There was also no smell or evidence of decay. ‘It might not actually be made out of flesh, come to think of it. Just because it’s the same color means nothing. This is a piece of an Aberrant. How did the Red Guard not notice this?’
That they hadn’t perversely reassured her. ‘If the string was dangerous, surely they would have found it with one of their scanning artifacts?’
Horrified and fascinated, Siobhan used the edge of her cloak to protect her skin as she pulled the string out from where it had woven itself into the hem, almost invisibly. It was a couple of inches long, as thin as a hair, and rigid. She stared at it for a long time, watching for any signs of life.
When she finally got back to the dorms, any excitement regarding the beamshell tincture was long forgotten.
She closed the curtains around her cubicle, then pulled a glass vial from her pocket, checking on the single Aberrant string she’d placed within. She assured herself that it was still unmoving, definitely dead, and safe. Even so, she melted some wax around the thread-screw top of the vial, put the whole thing in a leather pouch, and hid it safe at the bottom of her school trunk.
Sebastien rifled through her encrypted grimoire until she found the notes she’d made about the blood-print vow, then reviewed the information about the warding aspect that would incinerate the blood if someone tried to access it or use it for sympathetic magic. The principle could be repurposed to secure other things that she would rather destroy than lose or have used against her.
Using the paper spell array for stone disintegration—one of the spells she had learned in Practical Casting—Sebastien carved the lines of the warding spell deep into the stone floor where the trunk at the foot of her bed usually sat. She blew gently to clear out the lines and collected the dust in a small pile, then cast the ward spell, pouring power into what was technically a simple artifact with only two parameters. It would store the energy until it needed to be used against an attack, or when the trickle of natural loss ran it dry.
Then, she used another paper spell array to cast the stone-forming spell on the saved dust, but slightly modified the output to create a flat section of stone rather than a sphere. She formed a thin façade of stone over the warding spell, which was still active but now almost undetectable.
Finally, she moved the school trunk, with the Aberrant string at the bottom, back into its normal spot over the ward.
She lay down on the thin bed, a sheen of sweat on her forehead. Imagining the thread secretly growing in the dark, she shuddered, wondering if she’d just made a mistake. She could have given it to the Red Guard, or Professor Lacer, or even simply tried to burn it up with a fire.
But she wanted it. Perhaps it was irrational, but she wanted to keep it, this last piece of Newton. The Red Guard had taken the rest of him, along with the others who had died, and probably destroyed it all. Since she certainly wasn’t going to place the vial on her bedside table or the windowsill, like some kind of paperweight bauble, this was the compromise.
The string would stay hidden, and she would check on it periodically, to make sure it wasn’t growing.