Month 11, Day 28, Saturday 6:00 a.m.
Dryden and Siobhan sprinted through the dark alleys and poorly lit side streets as if their boots were winged.
The coppers who hadn’t been driven off by the shadow-familiar spell gave chase, but the philtre of stench had taken a toll, and attempting to sprint with streaming eyes, snotty noses, and roiling stomachs was enough to handicap anyone.
When the storm clouds broke, sending fat rain globules pelting out of the skies to be hurled by the wind like little stones, Siobhan grinned and only ran harder. No dogs would track them after this, not past the magically overwhelming philtre of stench and the flooding rain.
She realized soon enough that she recognized some of the streets they were on, and as they ducked into one alley, through a side door that led through an empty kitchen, and out into another alley, she realized they were taking one of the Stag’s pre-arranged escape routes. She had memorized it when setting up the alarm wards, just in case.
By the time they reached their destination, one shoddy house among a row of equally shoddy houses on the outskirts of Gilbratha and well into the Mires, she was too tired to run, well out of breath and completely soaked, but they seemed to have thoroughly lost their pursuers. It was still an hour or so before first light, and the streets were almost completely empty.
Dryden knocked on the back door of the house, and they waited, shivering as the pellets of rain slapped into them sideways, driven by the force of the wind.
Footsteps from inside heralded the opening of the door, just a crack.
When the woman inside peeked out to see who had knocked on her door at such a profane hour of the morning, Dryden took off his mask.
With a gasp, she undid the chain lock, waved them in, and shut the door as soon as they had made it past the threshold. “Are you bein’ followed?” she asked, tugging her patched wool robe closer around her body.
“I don’t believe so. Not any longer, at least,” Dryden said.
The woman’s house was small, little more than two rooms, as far as Siobhan could tell. The door in the corner was open, and she saw the little forms sprawled out on the floor stir.
A child, no more than seven or eight, rose and moved to the doorway of the bedroom, peering suspiciously through tired eyes at the two of them. His clothes were patched and rough-looking, and his limbs thin, edging on bony.
The woman noticed and said, “Go back to bed, Callum.” She pulled two painstakingly cut, padded, and sewn quilts from a chest in the corner by an old rocking chair.
The boy didn’t move, still staring at the two of them. “Are you comin’ too, Mama?”
The woman sighed, pushing a few loose strands of hair back from her forehead in a motion that seemed born from habitual stress. “Yes. Now do as I say.”
A couple of the other children stirred as Callum returned to the pile of bedding on the floor of the second room, but they didn’t wake.
The woman tossed them the quilts, her eyes resting a little longer on Siobhan. “Stop drippin’ on my floor, then. Come sit by the fire.” She motioned to the hearth, which, along with the fireplace and chimney, was the only part of the tiny house made of stone. The bricks were white, no doubt having been chiseled from what little remained of the southern white cliffs. “I’ll have it stoked up again in just a moment, my lord,” she said, half bowing to Dryden.
Dryden sat at the edge of the hearth, less hesitant than Siobhan.
“Any injuries? Someone you need me to fetch or pass a message to?” the woman asked, adding wood from the sparse supply in the box beside the fireplace.
Dryden looked to Siobhan, who was still clutching her shard-covered, bloody hand to her chest.
Siobhan shook her head. “It’s not that bad. I can handle it myself.”
The woman nodded and bustled about, putting a kettle atop the iron slab that shared space with the chimney, allowing the fire to heat it.
Siobhan reached into the leather satchel at her waist, realizing only then that it was Sebastien’s school bag, and should never have gone with her as Siobhan. ‘Oh well, there’s nothing to be done about it now. I can only hope this isn’t the mistake that sends the edifice of my deceit crumbling to the ground.’ She trembled, and couldn’t tell if it was due to the cold and the wet, or the full realization of what she had done, in its aftermath.
Her fingers found one of the healing salves within the satchel, a half-empty jar of headache reliever. With the forefinger of her good hand, she dug some of the oily mixture out and began to apply it to the bloody shards stuck to her left palm. The oil helped to counteract the stickiness of the honey and adhel juice mixture, and the minty pain-relieving properties of the concoction managed to provide some relief, both burning and numbing the wounds. When her hand was free of glass, she dug out the nick-healing salve she had created the week before, which was perfect for this kind of small injury. A few minutes later, her palm was back to normal, except for the pinkish, vaguely spiderweb-shaped scars across its surface.
“Be careful that those aren’t noticed,” Dryden said.
“Of course.” The scar was distinctive, and would remain on Sebastien’s hand when she reassumed that form. It was a small enough thing, but enough small mistakes would add up to her ruin.
The woman took the kettle off the fire and poured them two steaming mugs of tea. “I’ll make sure the boy understands to keep his mouth shut,” she said, once again looking at Siobhan. “Is there anythin’ else I ought to do?”
Dryden nodded his thanks, cupping the tea between both his hands and blowing on it. “You have done more than enough. Please, do not let us disturb your rest any longer.” He dug in his pocket and pulled out a small handful of gold coins. “Thank you, Mrs. Branwen. I apologize, but I don’t have the agreed upon amount on me. See Katerin at the Stag later, and she will give you the rest.”
The woman clutched at the coins and bowed to him again. “Thank you, Mr. Dryden.”
He gave her a charming half smile. “No, thank you, Mrs. Branwen, for the use of your home and your hospitality.”
The woman blushed, and Siobhan realized suddenly that Mrs. Branwen was likely not much older than her, though she had first taken their host for middle-aged. ‘Hard living kills you early,’ she thought with melancholy.
Mrs. Branwen retreated to the other room. Over her shoulder, she called, “Wake me if you need me.” Once the doorway had been cleared of bedding, she shut the creaky door, giving Siobhan and Dryden a measure of privacy.
They were silent for a few minutes, letting the fire in the hearth and the mugs in their hands ward off the cold and the thunder of the storm. Finally, Siobhan said, “Do you think they all got away?”
“I believe so. For now, at least. We’ll have to take measures to avoid being caught by the investigation this will trigger, however. The Crowns do not ignore such blatant displays of unapproved magic. Still, Cooper is the only one of us who has definitively lost his chance to walk away from this.”
Siobhan shuddered as she remembered the smell of his corpse. “Why did the Morrows attack? What were those people doing in that warehouse?”
“I had a plan, when I came to Gilbratha,” Dryden began, moving to rest his forehead on his knees. “I had been traveling for a while, and I saw all these problems with the world, things that seemed like fundamental errors in the way society was functioning, do you understand? I had seen things done differently elsewhere, one thing a little bit better here, another better there, and I had ideas about how one might hypothetically change things. Those ideas led to more speculation and ideas, and before I knew it I was making real plans. Once I realized what I was doing, it was too late to stop myself. I knew it was dangerous, but I couldn’t just go back to observing uselessly. Perhaps it was simply hubris.” He tilted his head back, staring into the fire with unfocused eyes.
Siobhan’s curiosity was an abnormally patient force at that moment, subdued by the fatigue lacing her bones. She waited for him to speak.
“This, the Verdant Stag, was not my first idea. Before I came here, I wrote letters to the Crown members whose lands I was traveling through, and spoke to those influential people who occasionally hosted me. My ideas were ignored or mocked. At best, those who wished to stay on my good side responded with polite nonsense. I thought maybe I wasn’t being persuasive enough. I hadn’t truly made them understand the benefits of my ideas, the ways we were failing, and my vision of what the future could be with some simple, gradual changes. It didn’t seem like anything so radical to me, simply common sense.”
Dryden let out a humorless laugh. “I pushed for more direct meetings, framed my arguments more persuasively, used greed or fear or pride, or anything I could think of that might push them to actually do something. That didn’t work, either. I got more lip service.
“Then I came to Gilbratha and lobbied with the Crowns directly. I developed contacts, made friends among the influential, and inserted myself into the power base of Gilbratha as best I could. I was labeled a naive, philanthropic optimist, whose ideas would never work in the real world.” He gave her a wry smile. “Well, it is true that my ideas don’t seem to be working.” He spread his arms to gesture pointedly to their current status and surroundings. “But I only decided to start changing things on my own when I realized there was no room for progress within the current system.”
Siobhan frowned. “You’re saying the Crowns actively want to avoid progress? Why? And how does this relate to what happened tonight?”
He gave a small snort. “Some of the Crowns are simply too short-sighted to understand how raising up the smallest of us is good for everyone. But those people are not the real problem. Others understood fully the ideas I had, the world we could create if only we were willing to sacrifice a little at first, and put in the work… They understood, and they were afraid of it. You see, there is a finite amount of the power, the control over the human population, that they enjoy so thoroughly. If we give some of it to the common people, even the littlest bits like easier access to high-quality goods, cheaper education, or programs to stimulate innovation, well then…”
His voice was bitterly scornful. “There wouldn’t be as much power left for the wealthy and influential individuals and their families. I eventually realized that without being one of the Thirteen Crowns myself”—his tone grew darker—“or spending a few decades finagling my way into a position as ‘advisor’ to a puppet High Crown—and somehow doing so without being assassinated—I would always be an outsider. I would never achieve real change within my lifetime.”
Siobhan could see what he meant. In fact, he sounded somewhat like her grandfather. Ennis had called that kind of thinking pessimism, but to Siobhan that had just seemed like an easy way to dismiss the ideas he did not want to accept. Despite the slightly sick feeling Dryden’s words put into her stomach, it was easy to imagine them to be the truth. Without Dryden, she herself would have been successfully prevented from attending the University. She was sitting within the evidence of the disparity between the powerful and the commoners, even now. The disparity wasn’t an individual thing, based on qualities possessed by the people themselves. It was not merit that led them to either riches or poverty, but something deeply systemic. ‘People are both selfish and lazy, and this leads to stupidity. If allowed, whether by others or themselves, they will ride these vices into the deepest chasms of evil.’
“So what was your plan, when changing things the conventional way didn’t work?”
“Long-term, I plan to remove the Crowns from their position of power and take over Lenore.” His words were soft, but carried not a hint of hesitation.
Her exhausted muscles tightened slightly as a small surge of adrenaline made her heart beat faster. Dryden was planning outright treason.
He seemed to catch her discomfort and gave her a half smile. “Relax. I said long-term, and I meant it. Right now, I am focusing on simple, mostly-lawful businesses that create jobs while simultaneously producing necessary products—items like healing potions, food, and clothing, all of which can be made more efficiently and cheaply when the people themselves are given the means—or providing basic sanitation and protection to those who so desperately need it. One of the biggest tethers holding Gilbratha back is the need for magic to grow enough food for a large, concentrated population. Too much of the land surrounding Gilbratha has to be dedicated to farming, simply to feed this underperforming city. Food costs account for almost half of the average person’s income. When food, clothing, shelter, healthcare, and public safety are no longer an immediate concern, people can turn their energy to bigger things. I want to revolutionize industry in a sustainable way. The warehouse the Morrows destroyed tonight was meant to be a new type of more efficient, miniature farm—the prototype, and hopefully the first of many similar spaces. Of course…well, you saw what happened, tonight. I failed. And I am quickly running out of gold trying to do everything at once, even in such a small territory as the Verdant Stag covers.” He opened his mouth to continue, then closed it without speaking and sighed deeply, staring into the flames.
Siobhan rubbed her forehead and readjusted the blanket around her shoulders. “The warehouse farm was legal, though, correct? So the Morrows attacked it simply to harm you and your operation as a whole. I doubt they have any plans to set up something similar themselves.”
“You are correct. I don’t believe they planned to benefit from attacking the warehouse except as retaliation for my previous actions. They once ruled the territory the Stag holds, small and poor though it is, so I have taken a bite out of their haunch. Perhaps they hope to crush me before I can grow any larger. I am a threat, on both sides of the law. It’s just…what should I have done differently, Siobhan? I don’t know.”
She was silent for a while as her brain ran over the idea. She didn’t know nearly as much as he did about his plans, the Gilbrathan economy, or the way he ran the Verdant Stag. “Is food production going to be profitable?”
“Only marginally, and only after a few seasons of growth. But that’s just the start. Profit on foodstuffs was not my main concern. Gardening”—Dryden emphasized the word in a way that told her he wasn’t talking about carrots and potatoes anymore—“isn’t heavily regulated within Gilbratha, which means I don’t need to struggle with Crown members who feel I am cutting into their profits. At least not for a while, until I start to make enough progress to draw attention. Additionally, I had hoped to grow some of the more common magical plants in hidden areas, which would in turn cut supply costs for production of potions through the Verdant Stag’s alchemy business. Perhaps the Morrows learned of this, and it was the tipping point for tonight’s catastrophe.”
She still thought Dryden was naive to the point of recklessness, but…he wasn’t giving only lip-service, and there was something to respect in that. He had changed at least a few lives for the better. That woman whose son might have died without their little alchemy shop, for one. Siobhan herself was another. He was the reason she was attending the University right now, after all. As much as it was her instinct to do so, she could hardly condemn his ideas when she was the beneficiary of them. ‘And, maybe, if he somehow gets as much in return from everyone else he helps in his territory as what he will get from me, his investment could be sustainable. Except most of the people he’s helping aren’t thaumaturges, so how much use can they really be?’
She set those thoughts aside. “I think you’re going to have to find a way to force quicker profitability, Mr. Dryden. Perhaps narrow your focus only to those things you have the resources to grasp firmly. Otherwise, you’ll lose everything. You’ll need money, for more extensive defensive wards and more enforcers. Alternatively, you could find a way to keep the Morrows from attacking you again. Would they be willing to accept a truce?”
“I…don’t know. I’ll think on it, though I don’t know that any terms they would accept would be tolerable to me. And please, Siobhan, call me Oliver. After a night such as ours, I think we’re past the silly formalities, don’t you?”
He gave her a real smile, then, tinged with fatigue but no despair. They fell into silence for a few minutes, shifting slightly to expose new sections of their bodies to the warmth of the fire, before he said, “Will you be able to get back into the University without them noticing anything untoward?”
Siobhan sighed. She hadn’t yet considered how exactly she was going to achieve that. “Tomorrow—today—is Saturday. I was planning to spend it doing alchemy, but I think I might take a nap instead. As long as no one notices that my things are missing before I get back—and they shouldn’t unless they look in my trunk—and as long as I’m able to retrieve everything from the alley I so haphazardly hid it in, I should be fine. I’m well known for strange sleep habits by now, so no one should find it suspicious when they wake and find me missing.” She rubbed her forehead again and wished she had more headache-relieving salve. Her jar had been used up on getting the glass off her hand. “I really am not suited to this.”
He quirked an eyebrow up. “Not suited to what?”
“All this…” She waved her hand vaguely. “Excitement. Adventure.”
He snorted. “I’m not sure that’s true. You seem to find yourself in these situations often enough, and you perform with surprising adroitness for someone who truly doesn’t desire anything more than to sit in a library and research all day.”
She straightened, turning a scowl onto him. Her mouth opened, and then it closed again. “There are so many things wrong with what you just said, I don’t even know where to start,” she said finally.
He snorted, and then, seemingly unable to hold it in, wadded a section of his blanket over his face to muffle the sound and devolved into outright laughter. When he was finished, he looked back up at her and grinned. “Your expression was amusing,” he explained, ignoring her continued scowl.
She let out a snort of her own, much less amused, and settled back down to stare at the fire. “Well, it’s not so much that I mind excitement, but that I mind being anything less than ridiculously and unreservedly over-prepared for any excitement. I…I have goals too, you know, and I’m sure getting where I need to will not be without struggle. It’s that I’m not ridiculously over-prepared for the things I’ve been getting into. I’m scrambling just to keep my head above water, and it seems I keep being bashed in the face with how stupid and thoughtless I am, and if I am so inept I don’t even realize how inept I am until I’m slapped with proof…” She took a deep breath and kept herself from rambling.
“You’re being too hard on yourself. We saved a life, maybe even more than one, tonight. Everyone makes mistakes. The important thing is to learn from them, right?”
She shook her head, sneering slightly. “Learn from your mistakes? That platitude is so obvious it’s useless. Of course you should learn from your mistakes. If you’re an average person with no ambition, maybe doing that can keep you alive and relatively content. For people with real goals, and real opposition to those goals, it’s not enough to keep making stupid mistakes and simply learning as you go along. Sooner or later, you make a stupid mistake you cannot recover from. Mistakes are inevitable, but stupid mistakes due to lack of planning, preparation, and basic foresight are not. I cannot be prepared for every eventuality, that is true, but I should have at least enough prudence to look at my past failures and extrapolate future failures from there. I failed to imagine everything that could go wrong. Sure, I took some convenient measures to ready myself for negative eventualities, but I didn’t make the effort to truly mitigate the dangers I knew I might be involved in.”
She took another deep breath and looked away from his solemn gaze. “Dryd—Oliver, I knew the coppers might come after me, if something went wrong. I knew the Morrows were attacking your people, and even injured one severely. I didn’t imagine that I would be called in to help fight against them, but…why did I not prepare myself for a fight at all? Some sort of barrier or protection spell could have been the difference between life and death tonight, or against the coppers if they had found me. Why did I not learn any? Why didn’t I have a blood-clotting potion? You gave me a list of useful battle potions and the like, and I experimented with a handful of them, but nothing more. If your emergency response team had been fully kitted out with a couple of each, maybe things wouldn’t have gotten so bad in the first place.”
Her voice grew strained. “Maybe the Morrows wouldn’t have been able to bring down half the building, and that man, Cooper would still be alive. Even when we arrived, I could have done things better. The philtre of stench is based more on physical particles in the air than magic. It might have incapacitated the Morrows as soon as we arrived, if I had thought of it. A man died tonight, and this still could have been so much worse. There are a hundred different ways tonight could have ended in complete disaster, and I was not prepared for any of them. Aren’t you the one who says the only way to avoid your subterfuge being caught out is to be truly meticulous with both planning and execution? This is the same.”
He was silent for a few moments. “Alright. But by that logic, this was really all my fault, not yours. It wasn’t your responsibility to be prepared for something like this. They aren’t your people, they’re mine. If not for my own lack of foresight and preparation, you would be asleep in your bed right now.”
She sighed deeply. “Something being the fault of one person does not make it less the fault of another. I could have changed today’s outcome for the better, and I didn’t. The fact that you might have done the same doesn’t make me less responsible. It only means that we both failed.”
He reached out and squeezed her shoulder. “Well, we will learn better. No more stupid mistakes.”
She felt her muscles relaxing subtly under the touch and gave the fireplace a small smile. “My grandfather used to say, ‘If you aren’t over-prepared, you are underprepared.’ I remember thinking as a child that he was just paranoid from living too long, that the world wasn’t actually out to make every possible thing go wrong.” She let out a small huff of wry amusement.
He squeezed her shoulder again, then withdrew his hand and lay down on the edge of the stone hearth. “I’m going to close my eyes for a bit. We should be able to leave once the storm passes, with a little grooming to make sure we don’t draw attention.”
Siobhan hugged her knees to her chest and kept staring into the fire, wrapping herself more fully in the borrowed blanket. She had known, when Oliver rode up on the horse and asked her to help protect his people, that she wasn’t prepared to do so. She had known she was underprepared as soon as the bracelet on her wrist grew cold, in fact.
She thought of what she had seen tonight. The frightened people, the blood, the death. If things had gone only a little differently, she could have been hit by one of the Morrows’ attacks, or captured by the grasping tentacles of the copper’s spell. She could be dead, or in jail, or expelled from the University. She shuddered at the thought, a visceral reaction of fear and rejection.
‘It wasn’t worth it,’ she admitted to herself. ‘If things had gone differently, I would have regretted my decision to help. I value my own life and safety more than that of a stranger’s. And yet…and yet, I cannot imagine myself saying no when Dryden asked for my aid, even without the threat of the blood vow hanging over me.’ She bent her head, combing her fingers through her hair to dry it in the warmth of the fire. She knew a spell to help repel water, but she was too tired to cast it.
‘The desire to help people who don’t deserve their misfortune and the desire to ensure my own personal safety are contradictory. But…they are both part of me. I must understand myself, because you must understand yourself before you can change yourself. And you must change yourself to change the world. So. Being honest, fulfilling my desire to help isn’t worth it if putting myself in danger means I lose my freedom and magic. I’m too selfish, and I’m not interested in becoming a hero or a martyr.’
She tried to make herself believe it, because she knew it was true, but something inside her still rejected the idea of walking away while the Morrows attacked Jameson and Misha and the others. ‘Plus,’ she reasoned with a little too much cheer to totally trust the thought, ‘my blood print vow doesn’t allow me to refuse favors to the Verdant Stag unless I find them morally reprehensible. I don’t have entirely free will in the matter. So…what do I do? If nothing changes, something like today will happen again.’
She reached into her vest pocket and pulled out her Conduit, staring into the crystalline depths lit up by the orange flames. ‘Well, the answer is always “seize power.” If you don’t know what you need, take power, for it can be converted into almost anything else.’
Those were her grandfather’s words again, but they seemed right. ‘If I’m going to be getting myself into situations like these, I must grow powerful enough that I can actually handle them.’ She began to make a mental list of useful preparations, things to learn and items to carry. Excuses she might start setting up now that could help her explain her way out of scrutiny or blame. Her eyes began to droop and her forehead fell forward to rest on her knees. Slumber reached up around her like tendrils of a dark cloud from the abyss.
She slept for a time, restlessly, her mind dancing with flames, blood, and fear worn old.
A searing pain from her chest woke her.
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