Chapter 46 – Useless Clutter

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SebastienMonth 12, Day 9, Wednesday 3:45 p.m.As Sebastien left the Practical Casting classroom, Anastasia and Westbay fell into step on either side of her.“That was amazing!” Westbay crowed, his grey...
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Chapter 45 – The Intersection of Transmutation and Transmogrification

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SebastienMonth 12, Day 9, Wednesday 2:15 p.m.Professor Lacer was back in the Practical Casting classroom on Wednesday. For once, he was there ahead of the students. He leaned against his...
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Chapter 44 – Sirens

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Sebastien Month 12, Day 7, Monday 1:30 p.m. It wasn’t the first time Sebastien had heard Aberrant sirens. However, this prior experience did nothing to calm her, as the sound...
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Chapter 43 – Chastisment


Month 12, Day 2, Friday 3:45 p.m.

When class ended, Sebastien followed Professor Lacer down the gently curved hallway to his office. She felt sick, not only because of straining her Will beyond its limits, but because she didn’t know the extent of his anger toward her. ‘I will plead with him if I need to. But only if I need to.’ She briefly considered trying to tell some sort of half-truth that would mollify him, but her mind was too scrambled to think through the options and their ramifications.

She paused outside the door for a few breaths, blinking in an attempt to clarify the vision in her right eye. She pressed her trembling fingers to her sides, straightened her back, and rapped softly on the open doorframe.

“Enter,” Lacer said, his voice clipped. He’d sat as at his desk and was scribbling a note. His scowl was harsh enough to toast bread. “Close the door behind you.”

She did so, stopping a few feet in front of his desk. She didn’t dare to take a seat without his permission. She resisted the urge to fidget or wince with every icepick spike of the headache impaling her brain.

“Are you aware that without me, you would not be studying here?” he asked.

Her heart clenched. “Y—” Her voice broke, and she had to swallow before replying. “Yes.”

“And you are aware that if you make me dissatisfied, I can have you expelled before the day is out?”


“Do you think there is anyone at this university who’s opinion is more important than mine?”

“No,” she said. ‘Which is precisely why you can never know what I’ve been up to,’ she thought.

“Are you also aware that because of the special circumstances of your admittance, your performance reflects back upon me? If you perform poorly, or act inappropriately, my judgment will be in question. Honestly, I am currently questioning my own judgment.”

Sebastien suppressed a wince. “Yes.”

He stared at her until she wondered if she was supposed to say something else, the judgment in his gaze almost a physical weight on her body.

She couldn’t tell the truth, and she was afraid to lie, and so silence was her only refuge.

Finally, he said, “Did Mr. Westbay ask you to lose to him?”

What?’ Sebastien blinked twice. “No,” she said, her tone as neutral as she could make it.

“So you chose to pander to him. I am unsure if that makes it better or worse. I had thought you would have more pride than that.”

She remained silent, sluggishly realizing that Professor Lacer thought she’d thrown the match with Damien because he was a Westbay, and that she was either afraid to openly best him, or was trying to get on his good side by making Damien look better than he was.

Professor Lacer hasn’t noticed the signs of Will-strain? Perhaps he simply never considered that I could be that stupid, and picked the most reasonable explanation.’ She was filled with relief. It was a plausible motive that had nothing to do with fleeing from the coppers, attacking another student, or using blood magic. She couldn’t overtly agree with his assumption, in case he really did have some divination running to reveal lies. She bowed her head, the shame of the movement all too real. “It will not happen again,” she promised, meaning every word.

“See that it does not. I will bestow my forgiveness this time. In future, if you are going to curry favor with others at the expense of your pride, do it better. I will not preach about honor and chivalry, but please, at least have the cunning not to embarrass me. You will comport yourself with my reputation in mind at all times. And in exchange for today, you will win at least fifty contribution points in the end of term exhibitions.” He paused, as if waiting for her to protest.

“I understand,” she said. Rather than worrying about drawing attention to the persona of Sebastien Siverling in the exhibitions, her immediate thought was to wonder how difficult it was to earn fifty points as a first term student. With what she knew of Professor Lacer’s standards, it was likely a hellishly difficult demand.

“Good. Now get out.”

She complied without hesitation.

Damien Westbay was pacing in the hallway outside the door, fidgeting with his already perfect hair and unwrinkled clothes. He stilled when he saw her. “What did he say? I can talk to—”

She grabbed him by the arm and kept walking. “You will not talk to him.”

“I’m sorry, Sebastien, but it’s not right that you’re the one to get in trouble for this. I—”

“It’s fine. He was angry, but only because I embarrassed him with my public weakness. I have to participate in the end of term exhibitions and earn at least fifty contribution points. That’s it.”

Westbay stumbled along beside her. “Oh. Well, that’s…good?”

“Yes. Except I doubt I’ll be coming back next term if I don’t succeed.”

“He’s that angry? Sebastien, we really should just explain what happened. We can say it was all my fault, play up my stupidity in distracting you while you were practicing. There’s no way I’d be expelled, I’m a Westbay—”

I could still be expelled,” she snapped. “Can’t you get that past your thick skull? I’m not worried about you, I’m worried about myself. The rest of us don’t get to take the paved road through life, Westbay. There are consequences for our actions.”

He was silent for a while, and kept walking beside her even when she released her grip on his arm. “Mood swings,” he said finally, his tone placating. “You need to go to the infirmary, Sebastien. They can help with the Will-strain.”

“No.” The anger she was feeling was perfectly legitimate, but a vivid desire to strangle the bullheaded, oblivious boy had her seriously considering slamming him into an empty classroom. The urge was strong enough that she had to concede, at least to herself, that her decision-making faculties were impaired.

“I’ll drag you there myself if I have to. This isn’t about your preferences or wanting to seem tough. It’s not even about getting in trouble. This is about your safety, your well-being. I won’t let you jeopardize everything just because you’re feeling stubborn. Your judgment is impaired, so if I have to, I’ll make this decision for you.”

“Where did you grow the stones to act like this is any of your business?” she muttered, gritting her teeth. Before he could reply, she held up a hand toward him. “Alright, alright, stop. I don’t need to go to the infirmary. I have a friend who can help me.”


She scowled. “Really. I’m going there now. You may not have noticed, but I do have a working brain, even if it feels like it’s being stomped on by a rabid cow right now. I know I need healing.”

The worry and doubt smoothed away from his face. “Good,” he said, nodding imperiously. “If you’re not feeling better by Monday, don’t come to class.”

She rolled her eyes and walked faster, hoping to outpace him.

He jogged a little to catch up, but was thankfully silent all the way to the glass transportation tubes on the south side of the white cliffs. He waved as she used her student token to activate one. “Feel better soon!”

She didn’t wave back.

By the time she got to Oliver’s house, the headache was making her nauseous.

Oliver took one look at her and said, “What happened?”

“Will-strain,” she replied simply, her voice soft, because she felt like speaking loudly or opening her mouth too wide might send the contents of her stomach spewing up over his polished shoes. “My professor asked me to cast in class. I don’t want to risk the healers at the University infirmary. Do you think I could see…whoever the Verdant Stag usually uses?”

“I’ll hail a carriage,” he said, though instead of doing it himself, he motioned to a servant, who hurried outside to the street. Oliver strode off into the kitchen, and came back a couple minutes later with a steaming mug of dark liquid. “I don’t keep a lot of potions in the house. They don’t work very well on me, so… The caffeine should help with your headache.”

She took the mug gratefully, sipping slowly.

“The next time something like this happens, perhaps you should consider refusing to cast magic,” he said.

“The next time?” she groaned.

Oliver gave her a wry smile, but it didn’t disguise his worry.

The servant poked their head back through the front door and said, “I’ve got one, sir. One with suspension, so it won’t bounce young Siverling around too much.”

Sebastien took the mug of coffee with her into the carriage, and after a few minutes of sitting and sipping, felt well enough to talk, as long as she kept her eyes closed. “Has anything happened since I’ve been back at the University? Anything new with the Morrows?” She kept her voice low enough that no one would overhear them.

“Nothing big. There’s been some harassment, especially on the edges of our territory, but we’ve been patrolling, and we’ve invested a lot into improving the equipment and number of our enforcers so we don’t seem like such an easy target.”

“That’s good.”

“We also made an alliance with the Nightmare Pack.”

She opened one eye. “Who?”

“Another gang with no love for the Morrows. The leader would like to meet with you. Or, to be more specific, he would like to meet with the Raven Queen,” Oliver said, lifting one side of his mouth in a half-smile that lacked real amusement.

He reached into his pocket and pulled out a folded piece of paper. It was another wanted poster with an evil version of her face drawn on it, glaring out underneath a hood. Only this time, the caption said, ‘Alias: The Raven Queen. Dangerous practitioner of Forbidden Magics. Flee on sight. Report any information to law enforcement. Reward for information leading to arrest: Five hundred gold crowns.’

“Flee on sight?” she muttered. Five hundred gold crowns was more than many poor families made in a year. It seemed they were taking her more seriously after her recent appearance. Even the most copper-hating or loyal people might be swayed.

Oliver folded the paper away and tucked it back into his pocket. “I’ll let you consider the meeting when you are more lucid. There will be incentives.”

“I’ll have to do something to pay for the healer,” she mumbled. “Pretending to be the Raven Queen shouldn’t be much harder than pretending to be a boy.”

There was a pause, and then he said, “It seems you’ve had it worse than us. Will everything be alright, once you return?”

“I hope so,” she sighed. “The pressure keeps rising, but once I’m better, I’ll be able to handle it. Is it okay for me to meet this healer as Sebastien?”

Oliver hesitated, then said, “Well, I’m taking you there as Oliver Dryden, not the leader of the Stags. Healer Nidson is discreet, and there’s an easy explanation for how a University student got Will-strain, even if it is strange that you wouldn’t stay to be treated there.”

“We need to find a more thorough way to keep Sebastien and Siobhan separate. I can’t be switching back and forth at will. Eventually, the wrong person will notice something.”

“I have some ideas about that. We’ll talk about it once you’re better.”

The healer retained by the Verdant Stag was quiet and competent, the type of person whose eyes wouldn’t widen in surprise even if Oliver brought Myrddin himself, resurrected, into his home. Nidson gave Sebastien a quick succession of potions which calmed the pain and slowed her thoughts till they felt like cold molasses within her skull. Then he made her guzzle down a large mug filled with what tasted like a modified nourishing draught, till her stomach sloshed with every movement. He laid her down on a slate table with a Circle carved into it, then drew a spell array around her prone form.

She dozed off, opening her eyes some time later to see Nidson casting a healing spell with various exotic components as the Sacrifice, some of which she recognized, and some of which she could only speculate about.

She woke again in a carriage with poor suspension, every bump of the cobbled road jostling through her. She was slumped against Oliver, her head on his shoulder, wrapped in a blanket. He pressed a hand against her hair, keeping her from sitting up. “I need you to turn into Siobhan. Can you do that?”

She pressed the amulet against her chest and pushed at it mentally with a small pulse of Will. The spike of pain this caused was dulled and distant.

“Sleep,” Oliver said. “You’ll feel better when you wake up.”

Siobhan did feel better when she woke up, except for the disorientation and the horrible pressure in her bladder. She was alone, but recognized the small, spartan room and the door made of iron bars.

She was at Liza’s place, in the warded, secret section of her home. After relieving herself using Liza’s enchanted chamber pot, Siobhan made her way upstairs.

Liza was sitting in the area above, sipping dark liquid that gave off a whiff of nostril-burning alcohol mixed with the earthy bitterness of coffee. She was petting a neon-bright bird that sat trilling musically on her lap. Her eyes were bloodshot, with dark, puffy circles below, and she’d tied her curly hair back into a low bun to counteract its unwashed frizziness. “You’re awake.”

“I feel much better,” Siobhan said. She had a faint headache, still, but it was nothing compared to the railroad spikes of pain that had been trying to chisel her skull apart, and she could see normally out of both eyes.

Liza grunted around a mouthful of alcohol-laced coffee. “You’re lucky there’s no permanent damage.”

Siobhan acknowledged that with a wince. “What time is it?”

“About five in the morning. On Monday.”

Siobhan’s eyes widened. Whatever that healer had given her must have been an extra-strength tranquilizer. It might have even slowed some of her bodily functions. ‘Or…Liza stayed up caring for me and casting spells to empty my bladder and bowels while I slept.’ The thought sent heat rush to her cheeks. She coughed and looked away. “Oliver brought me here so I could sleep through the scrying attempts?”

“Yes. Of which there have been several, which makes me uncomfortable. So if you’re feeling better, you can leave.”

Siobhan hesitated, wondering if she should offer to pay Liza. She smacked herself mentally. If she could get away with something for free from the woman for once, she should run before Liza overcame her sleep-deprivation and came to her senses.

The sun was still a couple hours from rising as she left, and the streets were empty, a layer of unbroken snow covering everything. She pulled her cloak tighter around herself and felt the angry grumble of her empty stomach. She ducked into an empty alley to change back into Sebastien’s form, even though she probably could have transformed in the middle of the street without being noticed. She was still wearing the same clothes she’d left the University in a few days before. Hopefully Liza hadn’t thought that was strange. Women did wear trousers, after all, and even if they didn’t fit her very well, no normal person would jump to the correct conclusion.

When she got back to the University, she grabbed a change of clothes and went straight to the showers, luxuriating in the warm water and solitude.

When the rest of her dorm finally woke, she was again asleep in her bed. As the sounds of early morning preparation woke her, she realized she hadn’t done any of her homework. Rubbing her temples, she took a deep breath and swallowed a half-dose of the anti-anxiety potion. ‘I needed the rest. Missing one weekend’s worth of homework won’t lower my grade so far that I fail. Probably.

Westbay, who was just getting dressed as she left, gave her a questioning look.

She raised an eyebrow at him, and he nodded and smiled as if she’d instead given him a reassuring “Good morning, friend!”

With a snort, she left him to comb his hair three hundred times until he’d beaten every single strand into submission.

She pondered her situation as she ate the bland breakfast slop. Now that her mind was clear again, she realized she’d been acting irrationally before. Maybe it was a byproduct of the original Will-strain, added to the ongoing stress that she hadn’t been able to escape even before then.

She had been focused on peripherally important things, at the expense of neglecting the biggest problem in her life. If not for Oliver’s quick thinking, this weekend could have been entirely disastrous. ‘What would have happened if I was unconscious and helpless outside of Liza’s wards, and the coppers scried for me?

She shuddered at the thought. ‘What happens when they scry me while I’m in the middle of casting a difficult spell, and the distraction makes my concentration slip, and I lose control of the magic?

She forced herself to keep eating despite her sudden lack of appetite. She needed all her energy, and the basic meal options barely provided enough to sate a working thaumaturge’s increased caloric needs.

Letting the coppers keep my blood is unacceptable. I have to figure out how to stop their scrying attempts for good, before all the different pressures add up and something critical finally snaps. Either I’ll get caught, or I’ll lose control and succumb to Will-strain when they try and scry me at a bad time, or someone will notice when the seemingly unrelated Sebastien Siverling is casting anti-divination spells at the same times the coppers are searching for Siobhan Naught. I want to help the Stags, and I need to repay my debt, and it would be wonderful not to worry about sleep any more, but I have to dig myself out of this hole before anything else. Getting rid of these scrying attempts will make my entire life easier. I need to completely re-prioritize. I can’t believe I’ve been so complacent even as I thought I was trying my best to become prepared.

Through her shirt, she rubbed the warding medallion her grandfather had given her, the fatigue and the shame mixing to form a prickle of tears behind her eyes. She blinked them back rapidly. ‘I still have a long way to go,’ she admitted to herself.

And so, as was becoming her habit when she had a problem, she headed to the library during her afternoon free period, before Practical Casting.

She was in the glass tunnel between the main building and the library when the sirens went off, loud and piercing and screaming of danger with their unnatural tone.

Everyone dropped whatever they were doing, some panicking, wanting to move but not knowing where to go, others moving with purpose, and a couple seeming alarmed but confused.

“It’s an Aberrant,” Sebastien heard someone say.

She realized then that she’d frozen as soon as she heard the sound, and forced herself to keep walking. Her head swiveled back and forth, her eyes wide as they absorbed everything, searching for a hint of the danger.

One of the librarians opened the door to the library, waving for the students to enter. “Come take shelter! The building has wards, and if necessary we can take refuge in the reinforced lower levels.”

Sebastien moved as quickly as she could, her face feeling like a bloodless mask. The wails of the sirens rang in her ears till the sounds overlapped and drowned everything else out, like the surface of a lake in a rainstorm.

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Chapter 42 – Alliance with the Nightmare Pack


Month 12, Day 2, Wednesday 6:30 p.m.

Two bodyguards accompanied Oliver as he rode through the dark streets atop his erythrean horse. Since the Morrows’ blatant attack on the warehouse holding his new miniature farm, even though his people successfully fought them off, he had been wary of their next move.

He knew he was unlikely to be ambushed in Nightmare Pack territory, but the Morrows were known for the occasional recklessness, and it wouldn’t be entirely unprecedented for the meeting between him and the Nightmare Pack leader to be a trap.

If anything happened, he and his two guards could fight back, and if the situation called for it, his horse could flee like the wind. He wasn’t so puffed up on his own pride that he couldn’t admit that sometimes, running away was the smart decision. One could always get revenge later.

The Nightmare Pack territory was in the heart of the Mires, worse off even than his own territory, especially after the Verdant Stag’s various programs to improve the quality of life for his people. Here, though, the number of non-humans was noticeable. Already, he’d seen signs of a hag, a vampire, and what was either a gremlin or a pygmie.

The Nightmare Pack’s territory hosted a greater variety of species than the rest of Gilbratha, and had what was likely the greatest diversity in the whole of Lenore. The gang provided three main things. A safe place for non-humans to live, lowered discrimination, and a sense of community. In exchange, of course, it pressured the more powerful and useful to join the gang, supported certain kinds of crime, and made law enforcement even more reluctant to help those who needed them most.

Oliver and his bodyguards stopped at the gate in front of the Nightmare Pack headquarters, a once-proud manor with a small yard in the heart of the slums. They dismounted and handed their reins to a young man who hurried up to lead the horses around to the back. If he was truly wary, Oliver would have insisted the horses stay out front, ready to go, but that would have been an insult, and not an auspicious start to the alliance he hoped to form tonight.

A man with the look of a wolf in his eyes and the shape of his jaw opened the manor’s front door and bowed, motioning for them to step inside. “Welcome, Lord Stag. The pack leader is waiting for you inside.”

The manor was old, the dark wood of the interior scuffed and scratched from many years of heavy, reckless traffic and sharp-clawed footsteps. The hallways were wide, the walls covered in lifelike paintings of nature and the hunt, and mounted with the occasional taxidermied trophy.

The man gestured silently to a set of open double doors, and Oliver stepped through, alone.

The room beyond was expansive, with a burning fireplace at the far end. Simple rugs and a mismatched scattering of comfortable chairs and couches filled most of the rest of the room. The windowsills spilled over with potted plants and vines crawled up the glass. Stylistic sculptures of animals in different stages of transformation between man and beast were bolted onto stands or the walls, presumably to protect them from being accidentally knocked over and shattered.

Another man stood within, his back to the doorway and his hands clasped behind his back. He was gazing up at a large oil painting of wolves falling upon a deer in the forest. He turned when Oliver entered.

His cheekbones were high, his chin covered in a thick, closely trimmed beard, and his hair hung loose to his shoulders, about the same length as Sebastien’s. Despite the semi-casual suit vest he wore and the cultured way he held himself, there was a wildness clear behind his eyes. “Welcome, Lord Stag.”

Oliver was suddenly hit with the irony of holding that pseudonym before a man like this. The leader of the Nightmare Pack was well-known to be a lycanthrope, which was the common name for those skin-walkers who could take on and off the skin of a wolf, transforming into the animal at will.

Still, even in front of a wolf, a stag was not defenseless. Oliver bowed in return, removing his mask as he straightened. They were alone, and as the one who had requested this meeting, it would have been quite rude to keep his face concealed. “Thank you, Lord Lynwood.”

“No need for a title. I am no lord. I am the alpha, and I am not above my people. I lead them, I do not own them,” the other man said.

Oliver couldn’t tell if there was hostility in Lynwood’s tone, or if he was simply sensing the watchful vigilance of a natural predator whose magic was not just something he wielded, but a part of his body. So different from Oliver. “It is a beautiful painting,” he said, diverting the topic of conversation.

Lynwood didn’t give even the barest hint of a smile, though he turned to look up at the huge piece again. “Art, in its most pure form, is a melding of the unadulterated instinct and passion of a beast and the conscious control of a man. As I studied to gain control of the canvas, I found I also gained control of myself.”

“You painted this?”

Lynwood nodded. “To the outside world, many know me only as a somewhat eccentric artist. You might be surprised to learn that I fund a significant portion of our operations off sales of my work. Those with too much money in their coffers love to show off their deeper sense of artistic appreciation by paying exorbitant sums for grand paintings that hold a message they fear and yet pretend to understand.” He gestured around, to the other paintings and sculptures scattered about. “It’s not all my own work. I encourage all those in my pack to find joy in creation as well as destruction.”

“I admire your approach,” Oliver said. “That’s why I requested to meet with you today. I want to discuss a mutual endeavor that I believe could benefit both our people.”

Lynwood turned, eyed Oliver assessingly, then motioned to a couple of chairs in front of the fire. “Please, let us sit, and you can elucidate.”

Once they were both seated, Oliver said simply, “The Morrows.”

Lynwood raised his eyebrows, a silent encouragement to continue.

“You’ve likely heard of the harassment the Verdant Stag has been facing from them. When I first opened the inn and created the Stags, the Morrows resisted, but I was determined, and they likely felt that with the small size of my operation, the lack of critical territory under my domain, and my willingness to spend extravagantly to hold the area, it wasn’t worth it to spend more resources to get rid of me than they would earn by holding the territory.”

“I remember this time,” Lynwood said, nodding.

“However, they continued to abuse the people in my territory, perhaps even more than before. In addition to the kidnappings for their whorehouses and their fighting arena, selling the worst of their addictive alchemy products, and threatening my people for money and favors, they harassed people that wore my symbol or simply lived in the wrong place. So I created enforcers to protect my people.”

Oliver gave a humorless grin, the show of teeth meant to speak to the wolf in the other man. Lynwood wasn’t the first lycanthrope Oliver had met, and thank the stars above for that experience. “The Morrows respected my boundaries once they had no other choice, at first, but recently they’ve begun their harassment again. This time, their attacks are pointed and brutal. It’s obvious they hope to collapse my organization entirely through harrying us until we cannot keep up with the damage and those within the territory lose faith in us. They plan to then take back the entirety of what was once theirs.”

“And how is this relevant to me?”

Oliver smiled again. “The Morrows overstep their boundaries. Just as they overestimate their infallibility.”


“I know they’ve made themselves a thorn in your side, too. They take your people for their brothels, and they have a particular interest in non-humans for their underground arena fights. I would assume they also feed addictive substances into your territory. They don’t do all this overtly, perhaps. They don’t want to drive you to retaliate in force. But they don’t respect your authority, and they are harming your people.”

Lynwood steepled his fingers together in his lap. “It’s natural that we bicker and snap at each other. If one organization falls, another will rise to take its place, and who is to say the new order will be better than the old? Balance is important. Or, at least, the right kind of instability.” Lynwood was hinting that if the Nightmare Pack helped the Stags take out the Morrows, his gang might not actually benefit in the end. Perhaps there was some fear that the Stags would grow greedy and turn on them next.

“That’s where you’re wrong. Balance is important, I agree, but instability is only preferable if you believed that order would not bring prosperity to you and yours. By all accounts, you are a reasonable man, Lynwood. I’m a reasonable man, too, when not pushed to extremes. War is costly. I wouldn’t choose it, if I had other practical options.”

Oliver was telling the truth. The Morrows had attacked him and killed two of his people. It wasn’t possible to back down now. They would crush him if he showed weakness. Even if they decided, by some miracle, to let him keep operating, and stopped harassing his people and eroding their trust in him, the Verdant Stag operation as a whole would still not be sustainable.

He was slowly being bled dry, and needed to increase the size and profitability of his operations to change the tide. If he could take out the Morrows, and obtain even half their territory and operations, along with the more palatable streams of income, almost all of his problems would be solved in one fell swoop.

Oliver added, “In the interest of allowing as little instability as possible, I would suggest our two people agree to a nonaggression treaty, to be renegotiated in five years time.” This would give both of them time to consolidate their hold on what they gained from defeating their common enemy without worry that either side would grow greedy and attempt to take more than their fair share.

“You’re suggesting that we would benefit from allying with you against the Morrows?”

“Yes. In addition to stopping their current persecution of your people, I have no doubt some of their operations would be better managed in your hands. The fighting arena, for one. I’m sure you could provide voluntary participants, and I hear the income from the betting is quite high. They have control of Avery Park, which would seem a welcome addition to your territory. Perhaps a portion of their shops in the Night Market could do with a different owner?”

Lynwood stared at the fire for a long moment, but when he turned back to Oliver, his expression was still firmly unimpressed. “Be that as it may, it would require this operation to be successful. We might be larger than the Morrows if you count only the size of our territory and the number of people it contains, but we do not share their monetary resources, and I am loathe to conscript my people to fight and throw away their lives for an ally that cannot even manage to protect themselves without our help.”

“You’d be mistaken to think the Verdant Stag cannot protect itself. Surely you’ve heard of the consequences of the Morrows’ last attack on us?”

Lynwood nodded, his gaze locking on Oliver with interest. “Indeed.”

“The Stags are merely more interested in supporting our own people and growing our interests than focusing all our resources toward outside skirmishes. Additionally, even were we to take down the Morrows, we are still too small to hold the entire Morrow territory securely. It would be an invitation to others to try and take some of it, and the conflict would simply continue endlessly. That’s useless to us, and so I hope that we could both benefit from the destruction of the Morrows. Our other option would be to take over only a portion and leave the rest open to the power struggles of the other gangs, which would only destabilize and inconvenience the rest of the city.” The Nightmare Pack especially, since their territory was adjacent to the Morrows,’ but Oliver left that part unsaid, sure that Lynwood knew what he meant.

“I have my doubts that the Verdant Stag could take out the Morrows as easily as you insinuate, without outside help. If not us, then perhaps the one who came to your aid recently. I hear she is called the Raven Queen. If we were to agree to this alliance, would she be included in this nonaggression treaty?” Lynwood was fishing, obviously, hoping to learn Oliver’s connection to the mysterious Siobhan.

“I do not control her, but we are acquainted and she allows me some minor influence over her actions. The rumors about her are somewhat exaggerated. She is actually rather restrained, when not being harassed. She wouldn’t attack the Nightmare Pack without reason, and doubly so if I asked her politely not to.”

“The rumors may be exaggerated, but it is clear she is both bold and powerful,” Lynwood said, seeming more interested in the Raven Queen than he had been throughout the entire previous conversation. “Would she be adding her efforts to our own against the Morrows?”

“Perhaps, though I doubt she would take a front-line position. Her aid a few nights ago was impromptu. She is quite busy, and doesn’t take requests unless she finds them sufficiently valuable or…interesting.” He was playing into Siobhan’s reputation a bit, knowing that the less he said clearly, the more Lynwood would speculate, with his conclusions undoubtedly being more outlandish than the truth.

Oliver considered that Siobhan, a poor, self-educated young girl, was disguised as a young man with a completely different appearance and background, and secretly attending the University. All the rumors about her prowess were fabrications blown magnitudes out of proportion to reality. He had to amend his previous thought. The truth was quite outlandish, indeed. It was simply outlandish in a completely different direction than Lynwood would assume.

“How did you come to be associated with her?”

“A series of coincidences,” Oliver said.

Lynwood eyed him with some dissatisfaction for a few seconds. “Would it be possible for me to meet her?” he asked finally.

Oliver suppressed his expression of surprise, though a man such as Lynwood might be able to glean it from the responses he couldn’t control, like the change in his heartbeat or scent. “I could pass along your request, but I can make no guarantees.” She would want to be paid, no doubt, and they would have to ensure that meeting in person didn’t disillusion Lynwood and endanger their alliance. It might be best to pretend to pass along the request and return with a denial. Or at least ensure the alliance was secure and the joint attack on the Morrows settled first, with the reward for meeting enough to make the risk worth it.

He spoke before he had time to fully think through the idea, because he didn’t want his hesitation to be too obvious. “She enjoys tributes. She might be more likely to give an audience to someone who…gently incentivizes her.” He raised his eyebrows pointedly.

Lynwood nodded, settling back with satisfaction. “I understand.” His eyes gleamed with even more interest. “I agree to your proposal, Lord Stag, pending the appropriate particulars of our agreement.”

“Wonderful.” Oliver reached into his pocket and brought out a rolled up map of the city. “Let us work out the generalities, at least. Details can be solidified over time.” He laid the map over a short table. The area of their respective territories was painted with a translucent ink, with the parts of the city currently belonging to the Morrows divided between them.

Lynwood peered at it with interest, then pointed. “We’ll want a bit more of this area, all the way out to the canal.”

Oliver frowned. “That could be acceptable, if you’re willing to give up a little more of this residential district.”

They haggled over territory, and then went on to decide on the allocation of their respective combat forces, joint operations, and what businesses and enterprises each of them would swallow.

When they were both moderately satisfied, feeling that they hadn’t gotten a very good deal but not an exceedingly bad one either—which probably meant it was quite fair to both parties—Lynwood asked, “So what are your plans to bring about their downfall?”

The edges of Oliver’s mouth curled up a little too far, in a way he knew made him look vulpine, but Lynwood didn’t seem disturbed, his own lips pulling back to reveal angled teeth.

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