Chapter 64 – Snowfall & Spilled Secrets

Sebastien

Month 12, Day 24, Thursday 11:55 p.m.

Sebastien retrieved the Comprehensive Compendium of Components from the shelf after Professor Lacer left.

There was an index at the back of the book that gave page numbers by keyword, which was immensely helpful as it meant she didn’t have to flip through a few thousand pages one-by-one. She spent the rest of the evening reading through the pages containing relevant keywords. Only when the library closed at ten o’clock did she reluctantly leave. She didn’t want to find out what would happen if she was still inside a restricted section after that.

At best, she would simply be trapped in the room all night and have to find a way to deal with an extremely full bladder without the proper facilities. At worst, it would set off an alarm and she would be found.

Thursday dawned gloomy, cold, and still. Great masses of cumulus clouds hung low and heavy in the sky. The air held the tension of a bent twig just about to snap, without the wind that was normally a constant at the University’s altitude.

Shortly after the third class of the day, which was most people’s last, the clouds broke and began to dump feather-like snowflakes. There had been several sprinkles of snow already that year, but none so perfectly suited to playing, and students of all ages spilled out onto the grounds, getting into snowball fights and creating things out of the malleable material.

Sebastien watched from a bench under a tree, working on homework for one of her less rigorous classes under the cover of the evergreen canopy. At other times, such ruckus and noise would have distracted and irritated her, but at the moment she only smiled slightly to herself. Things were going well for her.

Two witches competed along with their familiars to create the best-looking sculpture of a dragon, packing the snow even higher than their own heads while their familiars did the more detailed carving with tooth, claw, and magic.

A sorcerer furrowed a complicated design into a swath of clear snow, taking great care where he placed his feet and snappishly shooing away any students who threatened to get close. After about a half hour of work, he took out a little house made of sticks and what Sebastien thought must be a beast core, because there was no other obvious source of power, and placed them as components. Then, with a dramatic lifting of his arms and rumble in the air, the snow within the Circle rose and compacted into the shape of a small, simple house, complete with chimney and square openings for windows.

This drew cheers and applause from those who had been watching, and the sorcerer invited one of the girls from the crowd inside, which deepened the blush of her cheeks, already rosy with the cold. She accepted, even though the “house” was small enough that they both had to duck to get through the opening for the front door.

That looks useful,’ Sebastien thought longingly. ‘I wonder if it could be cast on dirt, too. I wouldn’t have to sleep in the open the next time Father and I are traveling between cities and there is nowhere to beg shelter, or no coin to pay for it.

With a belated twinge, she remembered that she wouldn’t be traveling with Ennis ever again. ‘Still, that doesn’t mean I’ll never be somewhere without a proper roof over my head,’ she reasoned. The spell was likely energy-hungry, but if she was able to draw out the casting to match her Will’s capability and power it with, say, a campfire instead of a beast core, she could still cast it. It would just take much longer and be less dramatic. But with ingenuity, even an Apprentice-level sorcerer could cast interesting magic.

The snow house demonstration led to a general interest in fort-building, which led to people forming factions and attempting to bypass or destroy opponents’ forts while protecting their own, with some sort of freeze-tag and flag capturing mechanics mixed in.

When she finished her homework, Sebastien had a quick dinner and again made her way into the library, which was uncharacteristically empty, except for those huddling in the atrium to warm themselves after frolicking in the snow.

The books in the small restricted room below kept Sebastien company for the next handful of hours, and she finished a preliminary version of the sleep-proxy spell that incorporated Professor Lacer’s suggestions in an updated casting structure and spell array.

Of course, she would have him look it over again before she actually tried to use it. On top of all the studying into the Natural Sciences of the topic she still had to do, she also needed to practice binding and healing magic. Many more hours of practice would help grow her Will strong enough to channel a more powerful spell like this. She hoped she wouldn’t have too much trouble getting her hands on a few of the rarer components and a couple of ravens.

She would have preferred to avoid ravens because of the whole “Raven Queen” thing, but they were well-suited to the spell, relatively easy to feed and care for, and could be found cheaply in almost any magical market. It would be much harder to find—and then care for, say—a couple of raccoons, which were another viable option.

Her most immediate problem was that she doubted she could afford everything the spell required, even though she’d purposefully chosen weaker, cheaper options where possible. ‘I will have time to make a bit more gold before I’m able to cast it. I can gather the components slowly while I’m practicing and improving my Will. And I bet there are some useful potions I could make for the Verdant Stag that require healing and binding magic.

That evening, Sebastien was woken up after only a couple of hours of sleep, about halfway through her first rest of the night. She checked the time and found it was only a few minutes before midnight, which was also the official curfew. She was confused until she realized that the ward they’d set on Tanya’s door had just alerted. It usually went off several times throughout the day, but at set times.

Tanya had a small toilet in the corner of her room, so there was no reason for her to need to leave when all the University buildings were closed and all the students were in bed.

Sebastien sat up and tossed aside her covers, threw back the curtain enclosing her half-walled section of the dorm, and rushed to Damien’s bed. She clapped a hand over his sleeping mouth.

He woke up with an arching, futile gasp, scrabbling at her forearms with wide eyes.

“Shh!” she hissed. “Myrddin’s balls, you’re so dramatic, Damien. Get up. Discreetly.” She took her hand away slowly, watching to make sure he didn’t start screaming or flailing.

“Dramatic? I’m dramatic?” he ground out past clenched teeth, one hand pressed over his heart. “You realize the actual discreet way to wake me would have been a shake or whispering my name? Why do people keep doing this to me?”

Sebastien ignored him. “She’s leaving,” she whispered, already hurrying back to her own cubicle. She’d only deigned to wake him because she had no spells that could enhance her hearing well enough to spy on Tanya from afar. Otherwise, she would have preferred not to involve him.

Damien immediately understood who she was referring to. Behind her, he scrambled out of bed and began to dress with more haste and less silence than she would have preferred.

She retrieved the bone disk that would let her sympathetically track Tanya’s shoe and set up the tracking spell on the portable slate table with folding legs that she’d taken from the abandoned classroom. Her little lantern was plenty of power for this simple spell, with Tanya not having had enough time to move very far from the dorms.

The tracking function itself consisted of nothing more than a stick in the center of the spell array, with one burnt end that would point toward the disk they’d put in Tanya’s shoe, like a compass. The stick spun to point northwest, vaguely in the direction of Eagle Tower.

Damien crouched down beside her, looking at the stick. “She’s returning to the scene of the crime,” he said in an ominous tone.

“Take over,” she said, moving to get dressed herself. By the time she finished, the stick was still pointing the same way. “We’re following.”

She led the way while Damien held the slate table, balancing it carefully so the spell components didn’t shift or fall out of the Circle. They paused in the dormitory building’s doorway, looking out.

Outside, it was still snowing, though more gently than earlier in the day. The clouds had thinned enough to let in the light of the moon, but were still thick and low-hanging enough to reflect the lights from the ground back down. The University kept light-crystal lamps glowing around the outside of their buildings and along their cobbled pathways, lighting up the snow, refracting off the white flakes in the air, and then bouncing back down from the sky.

The world was aglow.

It was the kind of fairy-tale scene one could only experience within the cradle of a big city. In the wilderness, a cloudy night was the darkest black you would ever see.

Sebastien peered at the snow with some worry. If too much snow got on the spell practice table, it could disrupt the chalk array symbol and glyphs. And, while they may not need the spell to find Tanya at all, because her footsteps were very apparent in the snow, their own footsteps would be equally noticeable if she came back the same way.

She turned around. “We can’t go out this door. We have to circle the building. Hurry!” She motioned for Damien to drop the spell, then grabbed the bone disk, slightly burnt stick, and the lantern off the folding table, tucking them away.

A couple of minutes of tromping through knee-deep snow later, they made it back around to the north side of the dorms, but stayed away from the lights of the building so that their trail wouldn’t be so obvious to the naked eye.

They made it to Eagle Tower following Tanya’s trail from fifty meters to the side, but, contrary to their expectation, the trail didn’t lead to the front door.

In fact, it bypassed Eagle Tower entirely, continuing on past it.

Sebastien stopped Damien behind a tree, then quickly touched up the chalk spell array on the table and recast the sympathetic locating spell. “Just to make sure she isn’t cleverer than we thought,” she murmured. The twig pointed further to the northwest, the same direction in which Tanya’s footsteps continued. “The Menagerie,” she murmured.

“What could she be doing there?” Damien asked.

“I don’t know, but it’s a problem. There’s only one gate accessible through the student tokens.” The gates were warded, and would block anyone without a University token from passing.

He pursed his lips. “It’ll set off alarms if we try to jump the fence, and one of the groundskeepers will come to investigate. There are too many valuable things inside the Menagerie for them to be lax about thieves. But if we go through the gate, they’ll have a record of us entering right after her. If she does something like last time, we could be under suspicion.”

“That too. But the more immediate problem is that I have to cover our tracks or she’ll see she was being trailed when she comes back through the gate and there are suddenly two more fresh pairs of footsteps in the snow. We’ll just have to hope she doesn’t give anyone a reason to look at the records. If she does, we can give a different excuse for our presence. You said students come here to harvest moonbeams and fairy wings, right?”

“Hallucinogens? My father would—” He grimaced and shook his head, shuddering.

She took the slate and chalk from him, and when they had made their way closer, turned around and set up a gust spell, which was a simple thing that did nothing more than shove air through the Circle as fast as she could power it. She’d used the same spell in her escape from the University on the day that had started everything, but the spell was common enough that she wasn’t worried about being recognized just for knowing it.

With sufficient force, she was able to blow up enough snow to cover their tracks, though the effort left her panting and sucked the little lantern flame completely cold with each burst. Luckily, the array on the bottom of the lantern allowed her to relight the wick with little effort. She was conscious of its light drawing attention to their position, and wished it had a way to darken or cover the glass. Damien was using his cloak to block the light, but it wasn’t perfect.

Once they reached the gateway and Tanya’s trail, they stepped exactly where she had, avoiding disturbing the snow until they found a good place to split away from her trail again. Sebastien thought the whole thing rather irritating. ‘Would it have been too much to ask for Tanya to conduct her nefarious business at a more convenient time and location?’ she seethed.

Any appreciation she had earlier felt for the outdoors was spoiled by the need to sneak through it. Her jacket was too thin, the knee-high snow fell into her boots and melted into her socks, and every accidental noise cut easily through the night air. With idle vindictiveness, Sebastien contemplated casting the only real curse she knew—a minor thing meant to make the victim attractive to flies and other biting bugs—on the threshold of Tanya’s door.

Finally, they found Tanya standing on a small arched bridge over a half iced-over stream. She stood with a man whose back was turned to them, but who still seemed strangely familiar.

Damien and Sebastien crouched behind a group of dingleberry bushes to watch, ignoring their offensive smell.

Sebastien ran through her memories like a bloodhound, tracking down the one that had caused her sense of deja-vu.

Munchworth.’ He had been the professor to meet her and her father when they first came to Gilbratha. He had laughed at even the idea of sponsoring Siobhan through the University, which had likely been the catalyst for her father stealing the encrypted book out of spite. Munchworth had again almost stopped her from entering the University during the verbal examination, and would have, if not for Professor Lacer.

The realization was almost enough to make her breathe his name out loud. She recognized the way he was constantly moving some part of his body like a nervous jitter. ‘I saw him here before. Weeks ago. And Tanya was here, too. I didn’t see them together at the time, but is it possible they were meeting? Is this a weekly thing? Did they meet here last Thursday, too, after she blew up Eagle Tower, and I just missed it because I wasn’t prepared?

It didn’t take Damien long to get his hearing spell ready, his hands cupped behind his ears and carefully angled toward their targets till he caught the sound.

“She’s saying something about discretion,” he murmured. “I think she didn’t want to meet tonight.” His eyes widened. “And he just said that if the worst should happen, he’ll just tell people she’s his mistress. Unless she gets caught, in which case she’s his mistress who’s blackmailing him.”

Tanya’s body language grew visibly agitated, the line of her mouth harsh as she responded.

Damien turned to Sebastien. “She didn’t like that.”

Sebastien nudged him. “Stay focused.”

It took a few seconds for Damien to regain the right angles for his “ears” to catch their conversation. “…paranoia and trying to find an excuse to overstep their boundaries on sovereign land,” he said, his voice taking on a caricature of Munchworth’s tone. “We’re sticking to the idea that the Crowns just don’t like that the University is independent and want to ‘investigate’ the accident so they can get their men in where they don’t belong. Again. No admission that any malfeasance occurred. We’ve got them blocked, and we’ll keep them that way. Enough of the staff are on our side, and if it ever came to it, I think you’d find more than a few influential people want to limit the Crowns’ power.”

Damien switched to the stereotypical, sweetly high-pitched tone that men seemed to use whenever they were imitating women. “What about Westbay?” Damien’s eyes widened, but he didn’t lose focus this time. “If he mentions something to his Family about me being there…”

Munchworth waved his hands impatiently. “Proximity does not equal criminality. Especially because, as far as our faction is concerned, there was no criminality. As long as you avoid being caught in a situation with no deniability, we can deny and deflect. You should be focusing on finding her. There’s a meeting soon, right?”

Tanya nodded silently.

“Here,” Munchworth said, shoving something into Tanya’s hands. “Go to the meeting. You might need coin to grease people’s tongues if they’re not interested in the goods.”

She tucked what looked to be a full coin pouch away. “Our ‘friends’ might be reticent to just give away some of the stock.”

Munchworth snorted. “Then remind them who they’re dealing with. I want that book, Canelo. Spend what you need.”

“We need to be discreet, too. I’ve heard…rumors. She already gave me a warning,” Tanya said, absently touching her covered forearm. “I don’t want to give her a reason to come after me in the middle of the night.”

“Surely you don’t believe that drivel? The lower city is made up of uneducated peasants with Wills so weak they’ll be frightened of their own shadow. They make up stories to relieve the boredom and hopelessness of their existences. Perhaps your pedigree is showing through,” he said with a sneer.

Tanya didn’t respond to the scathing insult, even though Sebastien felt insulted by proxy.

“Find out what her connection is to those upstarts. It is your job to bring me solutions, Canelo. If you cannot do that, I may start to regret our arrangement.”

“Don’t underestimate me,” she said.

He chuckled. “You’ll have your assignment change next term if you can provide results. And a recommendation from me to any Master who’s willing to hire you, when the time comes.”

Tanya snorted. “When the time comes, I’ll be the one hiring people.” Without waiting for him to respond, she trudged away.

Munchworth waited a couple of minutes and then left in a different direction, muttering ungraciously to himself.

Damien and Sebastien stayed hidden until they were sure they wouldn’t be discovered, then began to retrace their own steps. Just in case, Sebastien used the gust spell to erase large sections of their trail.

“That man was a professor, right? Who were they talking about? I mean, obviously the Raven Queen, but the rest?” Damien whispered as they walked between the trees, the dorms visible in the distance. “Their ‘friends,’ and the ‘upstarts?’ What meeting?”

Probably the Morrows and the Stags. I’ve no idea about the meeting, but hopefully we can find out by following her again.’ Sebastien shook her head and said, “I don’t know. But that wasn’t just any professor. That was Munchworth. He teaches Titanic History and Lore, and…”

“He was involved in the theft,” Damien finished for her. “The Raven Queen and her accomplice were here for a meeting with him when they stole the book.” He was silent again for a while, then said, “I’ve been thinking. There seems to be a conflict between the University and the Crowns. Both of them are trying to find the book, right?” He looked to Sebastien.

Sebastien nodded.

“And neither of them wants the other to have it. And Munchworth mentioned that their ‘faction’ is keeping the coppers from investigating University matters. So maybe there’s internal strife, too. Is it possible that the University, or some part of it at least, ‘lost’ the book on purpose to keep it out of someone else’s hands?”

Sebastien kept trudging, her breath escaping past her scarf and hanging heavy in the cold air. She’d never considered that, but it did seem awfully coincidental that her father had managed to steal it in the first place. “It’s possible,” she said softly, blinking away the snowflakes melting on her eyelashes. “Would that be a simpler explanation than the alternative?”

Damien frowned. “That a powerful, free-casting user of blood magic stole it?”

That a man with no magic at all managed to grab it in a moment of pique due to simple negligence on their part. That a young woman with only a few years of formal training managed to escape with it.’ “Yes,” she said aloud.

“I don’t know.”

I don’t know either,’ she agreed silently. ‘I don’t even know what’s inside the book, except for the amulet hanging around my neck right now. Could someone have sent Ennis to steal the book without him realizing it? Maybe they never planned on him giving the book to me and us splitting up.’ She huffed into her scarf, her breath billowing out around the edges. ‘Maybe I’m reading too much into it. This isn’t the first time he’s stolen something, after all, and with all their questioning and cursebreaking, the coppers don’t seem to have found evidence of any nefarious influence on him.

Damien was silent for a while. “We don’t have all the variables to solve the problem yet,” he finally said. “That’s what Aberford Thorndyke would say. Though he’d probably have noticed about fifteen different clues by now, and would just need to put them all together in the big revelation.”

“Well, this is the real world,” she said wryly. “Aberford Thorndyke has the advantage of a writer slipping in little hints, arranging ‘coincidences’ in his favor, and making sure he has all the opportunities he needs to tie everything up nicely. His whole life is full of contrived plot devices. In addition, there’s some hindsight bias at work. Once we know the answer, it seems like something a genius could have deduced, but in some of those stories, if you put down the book just before Thorndyke does his big revelation, and go back through from the beginning trying to figure it out yourself, you’ll find that there is either missing information or other options that the evidence hasn’t narrowed down yet. But once you know the correct answer, it’s impossible to be truly objective about what the evidence points to. In some of the stories, Thorndyke’s conclusion seems to be geared more toward shocking and awing the reader with his intelligence than pointing toward a realistic culprit. I think I could argue convincingly against him on several of the cases I’ve read.”

Damien stopped to stare at her. “Really?”

“Of course.” She started to go into greater detail, but he held up a hand to stop her.

“No. I mean, you…you’ve, in your head, come up with arguments about who’s the real culprit. Which you would argue with Aberford Thorndyke about.”

Sebastien stared back at him, one eyebrow raised. “Well, if he’s wrong, he could be ruining someone’s life while letting the real guilty party go free.”

Damien stared at her for another few seconds, then clamped his hands over his mouth to stifle hysterical laughter.

Sebastien had to half-drag him back into the dorms to keep him from collapsing in the snow. ‘Obviously the stress is getting to him.

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Chapter 63 – Theoretical Exercises

Sebastien

Month 12, Day 23, Wednesday 10:45 a.m.

The first half of Sebastien’s school week passed rather uneventfully. There had been no more scrying attempts, and she couldn’t help but hope that the coppers might be waiting for Eagle Tower to be repaired. If she were exceedingly lucky, and she barely dared to wish for it in case of disappointment, her blood could have been lost or destroyed in the explosions, leaving them completely without recourse—and her safe.

In any case, I cannot do a reverse scry to retrieve or destroy it unless they resume attempts. So other than Oliver’s tendrils looking into how one might steal or destroy warded evidence, I’d be best-served focusing my attention on something I can actually control.

Without any progress to be made regarding the scrying attacks, she’d returned to her previous mission: solving the problem that was her lack of time and energy.

In Natural Science on Monday, Professor Gnorrish had no experiment waiting for them. Instead, the blackboards at the front of the room were covered with chalk diagrams and charts.

“Some of you may question why we spend so much time and effort on the Natural Sciences, trying to increase our understanding of the world, when there is nothing transmutation can do that transmogrification cannot. Others have wondered the same, and I believe the results of their experiments speak for themselves. To those of you who mutter among yourselves that this class is useless, who wonder why you should learn these things when they have no real utility, who have no desire to discover all the irrelevant details about how things truly work…” He turned to the blackboards. “The Natural Sciences have value beyond themselves.”

Sebastien was already beginning to decipher the significance of the data behind him, extrapolating meaning from the labels.

“We will go through the studies that prove this today,” Professor Gnorrish said. “In our first example, researchers took a baseline sample of subjects casting the color change spell. As I understand, you all have recently practiced this same spell in your Introduction to Modern Magics class, so you should be familiar with it. Researchers quantified the efficiency of casting, the area affected, and the resistance of the new color to change.” He pointed to one set of data on the graph behind him.

“Then, they had the subjects cast an analogous color-changing spell using dye and their understanding of light. Transmutation instead of transmogrification. They measured the same metrics as before.” He pointed to a second set of data. The performance was noticeably poorer than the previous attempt.

“When they had a proper baseline for both transmutation and transmogrification, the researchers put the test subjects through an intensive course on color and light theory. They then had the subjects cast the transmutation spell again. As you might guess, they improved dramatically.”

Sebastien’s heartbeat was like slow thunder rolling through her body. Her sense of time slowed as she realized what was coming next and started to extrapolate what it meant for her.

“Then, they cast the spell a fourth time, this time using the principles of transmogrification. This was not an increase in sheer power. It was an increase in skill. As you can see, learning to understand what they were trying to achieve, even when casting a transmogrification spell, created a marked increase in every single metric.” He pointed to the final set of data on the board. “This ranged from a five percent overall improvement to, in the most strikingly affected subject, twenty-three percent.”

Professor Gnorrish was uncharacteristically somber, staring out at them. “If there are things which our greatest arts and all our power cannot achieve, we must study the underlying principles until we have revealed that which was once a black box of unknowable phenomena. Only then will we surpass the previous limits of our species.”

This is what I need,” Sebastien thought. ‘It’s what I’ve been missing.

Professor Gnorrish spent most of the class going over similar studies, and as excited as Sebastien was by the topic, she had trouble focusing on the lecture past her own racing thoughts. ‘I need to learn more about the human brain, and what exactly happens to it when we sleep.

As soon as the bell rang to announce the lunch period, she went straight to the library and pulled all the books she could find on the subject. A quick skim showed which ones would be useful and which were completely beyond her current standard of comprehension. She checked out a full dozen, and had to take most of them back to the dorms because it was too much to carry through the rest of her day.

Practical Casting ended the school day with another fascinating lecture from Professor Lacer about mental exercises they could perform before casting that would improve the clarity of their Will. She had already been doing much of it, but Lacer seemed to have a deeper and richer understanding of, well, everything than she did.

Afterward, Damien and Sebastien met Newton near the eastern edge of the Menagerie, surrounded by trees and plants that would shield them from curious eyes.

It was time to pay Newton for a week of work, something Sebastien was all too conscious of. It wasn’t that she begrudged him the payment. No, he had obviously taken the task seriously. He gave them an extensive written log of Tanya’s actions accompanied by a quick verbal report of the highlights, every other day. He deserved to be rewarded for his diligence. It was just that she wished the payment didn’t have to come from her own pocket, even if the funds had been provided by Oliver. Once the coins were in her hands, she felt pained parting with them.

“She went to her dueling club yesterday,” Newton reported, “and I couldn’t follow her there. I’ve listed some of the other students that are also in the club who she seems friendly with. And I learned that she’s looking to change her student aide department next term. Rather than working with incoming students, she’s interested in a move to the History department. Which is reasonable, because it’s less work, but it’s unusual to change departments between the winter and summer terms.”

“Good work,” Sebastien said, slipping Newton his payment.

Newton tucked the coins away with a satisfied smile. “I’m off to catch her at the library. I’ve got a student to tutor, but she’ll be around too.”

As Sebastien and Damien headed for the Citadel, Damien said, “You remember my friend, Rhett Moncrieffe? He’s a member of the dueling club. He’s practically obsessed. Perhaps I can sit in on one of the sessions, and if that bears any fruit, either we bring in another informant or one of us joins the club?”

Although Sebastien was frustrated by the idea of adding one more thing to her plate, she agreed. “Let’s keep an eye out for anything interesting in the History department too. What’s the specific post she’s angling for? Would she gain access to any otherwise restricted magic or sections of the University? Is there anyone helping her to get the job?”

“This would be easier if either of us was a little less conspicuous,” Damien said. “It’s too likely that otherwise unremarkable snooping or questioning will become the topic of gossip with one of us involved.”

He’s not wrong,’ Sebastien admitted.

Setting aside the frustration threatening to dampen her mood, she stopped by the dorms to pick up some of the reference books she’d dropped off earlier and made her way back to the library.

She waited till no one seemed to be looking, then used her illicit pass to the low-security restricted section to slip through the locked door. Her pass was only good for one of the many rooms in the underground levels below, and she had to be careful not to get lost finding it.

After Damien had noticed her coming out of the Citadel’s second floor, she’d wanted a more private place to do anything truly questionable. She couldn’t take any restricted texts out of the library, anyway, which made the restricted archive the perfect place to lurk out of sight.

The aroma of old paper, parchment, and leather counterbalanced the scent of dust, with the faintest hint of dampness kept carefully controlled for the sake of the books. She breathed it in deep, then exhaled into the solitude, smiling a little to herself.

Her shoulders, which she hadn’t even realized were tight with strain, slumped with relief even as she did the same into an old wooden chair at the corner of the room. After a few moments of stillness, she got up and retrieved a half-dozen more books from the shelves without even needing to read the titles.

The light crystal near the door wasn’t bright enough, so she took out her bottle of moonlight sizzle from her satchel, gave it a good shake, and set it on the table.

Her new sapphire Conduit was pressed into the lip of her boot, which was slightly uncomfortable due to its size, but the best place she currently had for it. ‘Perhaps some sort of leather holster that I could hide under my clothes,’ she considered. ‘That would keep it against the abdomen, or maybe the small of my back.’ All that was needed to use a Conduit was skin contact, but holding it in the hand always made channeling easier, so she didn’t want to make it entirely inaccessible.

Having a sufficiently potent Conduit and a suitable backup meant one less problem, but left her with a baker’s dozen remaining.

She was as exhausted as ever, and as much as she didn’t want to admit it, felt herself straining and fraying at the edges under the stress, the school workload, Professor Lacer’s extra exercises, and her lack of sleep.

Her identity as Siobhan Naught was still wanted by the coppers for theft and blood magic.

She was destitute when compared to the heightened expenses of living in Gilbratha, and on top of that, including the exorbitant interest, owed over a thousand gold crowns to a criminal organization—a criminal organization that required her to perform undetermined favors to pay them back. The same criminal organization that technically owned thirty percent of her beloved black star sapphire.

She had a priceless, stolen, encrypted book that she hadn’t made the first bit of progress decrypting.

Her father was in jail and, at some point, would likely be sent to work in the prison mines.

She still had nothing concrete on Tanya.

And Professor Lacer, probably the smartest, most sheerly capable thaumaturge in Gilbratha, seemed to think she was a reckless imbecile. And she couldn’t refute him, even in her own mind. Which was almost the worst of it.

If I could get rid of the need to sleep, or even reduce it to a few hours a night, I’d regain all those lost hours. The creature that takes over my need to sleep will need to take over the healing and processing for me too.’ She needed to learn as much as possible about how the brain worked and sleep’s effect on both it and the body. If she could amass a huge wealth of knowledge, even if it wouldn’t directly fix her problem, it might be enough to let her cast a spell to fix the problem with transmogrification. ‘I suspect I’ll still need some downtime every night, whether that’s true sleep or simply a forced rest to allow my mind to recover, and every few days I’ll need to let the spell drop entirely. It’ll have to be in artifact form, since having to hold an active spell twenty-four hours a day somewhat defeats the purpose…

She was engrossed in her thoughts, scribbling away under the slowly fading light of the potion bottle, when the door on the far side of the room—the other door into the room, the one that never opened—opened.

She didn’t jump or jerk. She froze.

She parsed the shape of Professor Lacer’s knee-length, dark jacket out of the corner of her eye. When she turned slowly to look at him, he was already staring at her.

She didn’t try to cover up what she was working on, hoping that a lack of guilt would keep him from feeling suspicious. She could have gotten a pass to a minor restricted section from any of the Professors. She might have every right to be there.

Lacer seemed to dismiss her, walking through the bookshelves until he found whatever it was that had brought him to the room. But instead of leaving with it, he stopped in front of the table she was sitting at. His presence was like an unstable tower blocking out the sun, impossible to ignore, giving the person below the faint sense that it might come crashing down atop them at any moment.

“Don’t be rude, Siverling,” he said, motioning to the tabletop, which was mostly covered in open reference texts and pieces of paper. “Clear some room.”

She raised her gaze to meet his, not sure whether to be terrified or relieved by the sardonic quirk of his eyebrow. She scrambled to clean up the area in front of him.

He sat, placing a book on the table. He picked up her blue potion bottle, shook it to make the light brighter again, and began to read.

Sebastien stared at him for a bit, but he ignored her, turning the pages of his book just barely too fast, enough to make her wonder if he was actually reading.

Feeling awkward, she returned her gaze to her own work, and after a couple minutes of discomfort that only she seemed to feel, she decided she was being ridiculous. ‘If he’s about to get me in trouble, sitting here like a scared rabbit won’t stop him.’ She picked up her pen and took a note about the different chemicals the brain replenished during sleep, copied from the book in front of her.

Almost half an hour had passed in silence like this, and while she still thought the whole thing was strange, she’d lost her anxiety and was engrossed in study.

That was when he finally chose to speak. “How are you enjoying your classes?”

She looked up at him, but he was still staring at his book, which he was already halfway through. “I love them,” she said.

“Really? All of them?” His tone was inscrutable, but if she had to guess, she would say he was skeptical.

“Well, Pecanty is a bit…”

Professor Lacer looked up to meet her gaze.

“Stodgy. Set in his ways. Damien called him ‘uncurious,’” she said.

“Uncurious,” he repeated. “Do you agree?”

“He discourages unorthodox questions and associative thinking,” she said, her lip curling up into a sneer. “He’s a pompous academic more concerned with looking like an intellectual than exploring the depths of the field in which he is—supposedly—an expert.”

“Are you sure?”

She didn’t look away. “Yes. I’ve tried to ask questions and start discussions several times, only to be condescended to as if I am some daydreaming child too immature to realize that original thought is so naive.”

Lacer nodded. “Pecanty is an idiot. He was hit by an experimental curse when he was younger. It turned his brains into taffy. He was saved, but he’s always been a bit off since then. It seems that having new thoughts is difficult for him.”

Sebastien couldn’t tell if Professor Lacer was joking.

His eyes were wryly amused, but his voice was serious. “But you are not incurious, it seems?” he asked, looking pointedly to the books and notes in front of her. “I hardly think this could be work for any first-term class. Independent project?”

She ran her tongue across the back of her teeth. “Theoretical exercise. I’m very curious.” She tried to give her tone the same ambiguity that his had, deadpan and yet not seeming as if she expected him to take her words at face value. Her heart was beating a little harder as she waited for him to react.

“I’ll take a look,” he said, holding out an expectant hand. “I am very good at theoretical exercises. Maybe I can help.”

Slowly, she gathered up the loose papers she’d accumulated over the last few days of study and handed the stack to him.

He read through it almost as quickly as he’d read the book, his eyes flicking over her notes, questions and sloppy spell diagrams. “It is a binding spell at heart,” he murmured. “Not a vow, but an ongoing exchange?” He read for a while longer, then set down the stack. “Getting rid of the need to sleep? A little clumsy, but an intriguing idea. At least it is not some continuous stimulant spell. That would have killed you. Hypothetically.”

“And this?”

“It will have an inherent loss of efficiency over time, but as long as you only run it sporadically, the idea has merit. I would tell the average first-term student off for being an insufferable dimwit if they told me they were preparing to cast this. You need more than power for this. It will require finesse. I see the spell is broken into multiple steps, and you’ve noted extended casting times for a stronger buildup of power, which is smart. I should almost think you have experience casting similar spells.”

She kept her face impassive. She’d modeled parts of this spell, including elements of the structure and the “connection” glyph, from what she could remember of the Lino-Wharton messenger spell.

Perhaps it wasn’t a subtle dig, because he continued with barely a pause. “Still, I would warn any student at your level against attempting this spell. The thaum requirement would be rather high.” He stared at her pointedly, a reminder that he thought her a reckless dimwit. “Especially if they had no practice casting spells of a similar nature, either by the whole, or by similar component factors. The magic would be wild with its newness, its lack of history. The study you are doing there”—he nodded to the biology book in her hand—“would be useful, but insufficient without power.”

I’ll need to practice binding and healing spells, then. And get my Will capacity tested again.’ “I understand,” she said aloud.

He seemed skeptical, but returned his attention to the papers, continuing his dissection. “However, it’s obvious you don’t have any true foundation in spell theory. Your base symbol is the pentagram, which might be the most common for more powerful transmogrification spells, but for applications like this it is not the perfect channel by itself. I would suggest incorporating a hexagram for its connection to wisdom, intelligence, and the transfer of aid.”

She leaned forward, grabbing her pen to make a note. “That makes sense. But why not an octagram? This is an exchange spell. Wouldn’t the octagram’s association with balance be more useful?”

“In truth, several of the symbols are associated with balance. The octagon and octagram, specifically, are more suited toward stable systems. The balance between creation and exchange. While the octagon might be useful in creating something like a miniature ecosystem spell with little loss, the octagram is associated with true balance between creation and destruction. Justice. What people from the East might call karma. This is not a true equivalent exchange.”

He gave her a pointed look, and she nodded in concession.

“And because you agree with that statement, something might go wrong if an inexperienced spellcaster like yourself tried to cast with an octagram. Doubly so if you felt any guilt about what you were doing to the other party.”

She felt the urge to shift in her seat, suddenly uncomfortable, but there was no accusation in his tone.

“However, the clumsiest part of this is your use of glyphs. The Word is crude, obviously cobbled-together by someone with a limited pool of experience. There are better choices to describe this spell, by far.” He pulled over one of her papers and motioned impatiently for the pen, then scribbled a quick series of glyphs and their connotative translations.

Sebastien stared greedily at the alternative piece of the Word he’d just provided. “Forceful-given-transfer-gift, sleep and dreams. Forceful-taken-transfer-gift of harmony, rest and healing.” A couple of the glyphs were foreign to her, and he’d arranged them in a different order. It was the core of the spell, really. She would write the entire process and instructions out longhand as well, for stability, but the glyphs channeled and molded magic in a way that letters and words didn’t. With a simple scribble, Professor Lacer had just greatly decreased her chances of losing control of the spell. “Thank you,” she said simply.

“Come to me again when you have made further progress with the spell design. I will check it over for you. And…I hope I do not need to make this statement aloud, but your common sense has not impressed me nearly as much as your Will. A spell like this, even if cast between two perfectly consenting parties for the purpose of research, could be classified as blood magic.” His eyes were lit from beneath by the bottle of moonlight sizzle, giving his gaze an eerie quality. “The world is not kind toward…curiosity in this direction.”

She stared back at him silently for the space of a few breaths. She realized that the electrical charge in the air was a silent compact between her and Thaddeus Lacer, youngest free-caster in a century, one of the most powerful casters in the country, and likely also the most interesting. The man about whom she’d searched out any stories or news articles she could find since she was a child…approved of her efforts. He was helping her, and warning her to keep it between the two of them—to keep it from those who might not understand.

She felt impossibly, entirely awake as she silently acknowledged his warning.

He stood abruptly. “Wait here.” He walked away, exiting through the door she’d come in. He returned a few minutes later with one of the thickest books she’d ever seen. He placed it with a thud on the table before her.

A Comprehensive Compendium of Components, the cover read in gold-embossed leather. She opened the book to a random spot, flipping carefully through a few pages. The illustrations were painstaking, with the occasional gleam of precious metals or powdered gem, the letters looping and ornate. Each page had concise but detailed information on a component: different stages of growth, best conditions to harvest them for varied effects, and the various spells they were commonly—and uncommonly—used in. Many of the components were familiar, but even more were not.

She stopped on a particularly gruesome page. Harpy intestines were definitely not on the list of approved spell components. Particularly not when used in a ritual while the harpy was still alive. While not considered human by the Crown-approved definition, they were close enough that many components from their body parts were illegal. ‘That’s why this book is restricted. It truly is comprehensive.

“You should be able to find the proper components and Sacrifice within,” Lacer said.

“My pass doesn’t allow me to check any restricted books out, and there’s no way for me to put this back wherever you took it from,” she admitted.

He picked up the book, and, unsmiling, turned to the nearest bookshelf. He leaned down and inserted it between two other books on the lowest rung. “The library has no wards or alarms against misshelved books. A dreadful oversight. Sometimes books even get…lost.”

“Yes,” she said, tilting her head to the side consideringly. “Quite dreadful. Dangerous, even, for the impressionable minds of young students.”

For the first time she’d seen, Professor Lacer actually smiled, a smirk stretching across his face. It disappeared almost as quickly as it had come. “Remember to submit your efforts to me for oversight when you are ready,” he said. Without waiting for a response, he took the book he’d originally come to the room for and walked out through the same door he’d entered through, disappearing somewhere into the network of underground rooms.

Sebastien sat staring at the closed door, with all the resources she needed to design the spell that would do away with her need to sleep now at her disposal. That was fantastic.

But she was almost more thrilled to have somehow gained Professor Lacer’s approval.

As promised, since the regular Thursday chapter was so short, this is the second chapter this week. Hope you enjoyed!

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Chapter 62 – Cold Sweat

Gera

Month 12, Day 20, Sunday 11:30 p.m.

Gera was the first to realize that the Raven Queen had gone. They had all been distracted for a moment, watching Miles sleep with relief, and sometime while they had all forgotten to think about the unsettling creature, she had disappeared. It was almost like the stories, the ones told in the small, remote villages, among creatures with long memories and uninterrupted oral tradition, and among those skinwalkers who hadn’t forgotten that their other form was as much a part of them as the human one.

Gera, at least, was more convinced than ever that they had called upon a creature of night.

The stories were ancient, and the names given to the mischievous, sometimes benevolent and sometimes horrifically vengeful, shapeshifting creatures of dream and shadow were inconsistent. The stories of their abilities and physical characteristics were also inconsistent, and to be truthful, Gera had long thought them only fanciful children’s tales, meant to amuse, thrill, and frighten.

It was Lynwood who had been hopeful when he heard the rumors, but Gera now saw that though the tales may have been twisted over time with the retelling, they had some basis in truth.

When she pointed out their missing guest to her brother-of-choice, they sent their people—those who were not busy with the casting—to search the mansion and grounds for signs of her, but all came back with nothing.

Gera found the Raven Queen’s disappearance almost as relieving as it was frightening. She had to tamp down the little fear at the back of her head that said the creature might simply have disappeared from their perception and be watching them even now, hidden in some shadow.

She sidled closer to the ring of spellcasters standing around her son, examining his face for signs of distress. She’d been frightened when the Raven Queen had enfolded Millennium within her darkness and began to produce that deep, harmonized hum. Even the thought of it raised the hair on her arms, and she rubbed them briskly to force away the feeling.

Her brother placed a cloak around her shoulders. “Miles is unharmed. Perhaps you have gone so long without seeing him peacefully asleep that you have forgotten what it looks like,” he said softly.

Gera pulled the cloak tighter around herself, the movement reminiscent of a child huddling under the covers for fear of the dark. “Requesting an audience with her was dangerous. It was more of a risk than we realized.”

“It was worth it,” he said, gesturing meaningfully to his nephew. “But, yes. I found her…unsettling. Her gaze was black. Empty, almost. I had to force myself to meet it, but for more reason than simple fear. All my instincts told me to look away, to ignore, to forget. That the Raven Queen was utterly inconsequential, which was even more frightening as I knew it to be untrue. You were startled when you sensed her, too. What did you see?”

Gera’s eye had been brutally wounded when she was younger. Though she no longer had her physical sight, that did not take away the talent of a prognos, and she had learned to make up for her disfigurement with a specialized divination spell. In some ways, the spell was more powerful than sight, as it did not rely on light or angles to gather information. Everything within her sphere of influence was known to her, from every angle, with an emphasis on even the smallest movement. Her new sight lacked only color.

She shuddered at the memory of the Raven Queen walking up to her that first time. “To my senses, she was an empty hole in the world.”

Her brother’s eyebrows rose.

“She could be felt by where she wasn’t and seen through her effect on the things around her. Not directly.”

“She was very much present to my senses. She smelled of the same herbs used in the spell for Millennium, but underneath that…it’s very hard to differentiate and explain.” He breathed deeply, as if her scent still lingered. “It was like darkness, and old blood, and the smell of the air just before a spring thunderstorm. It was my first reassurance that she was more than a powerful witch or sorcerer. Then there were the feathers growing out of her scalp, woven into her hair, which was no natural color. It shimmered blue, like the oil-spill iridescence of a raven’s feather. And the eyes—too dark, like she hadn’t realized humans have both iris and pupil.”

“Considering how she slipped away, I suspect she can choose whether to make herself manifest at all, and if so, in what form,” Gera murmured.

“She came to the front door. Most of the stories say they enter houses by the night wind blowing through a window or through the shadows stretching under the doorframe. She said it would be rude to do that.”

Gera snorted. “Well, she said that she was young. Whatever ‘young’ means for one of her kind. Perhaps she has a better understanding of our modern sensibilities.”

“Or she was being mischievous. She has displayed a penchant for the dramatic.” Lynwood smiled, sharp-toothed.

Gera’s frown deepened at his attempt at humor, still on edge. “She was pleased with the stone? I would not want that ‘mischievous’ nature pointed toward Millennium.”

“Yes, the stories are correct on that point, it seems. I was slightly worried when she refused our food.”

“It is good we took the time to contact a lore-master before requesting an audience,” she said.

“Indeed.” The smile slipped from Lynwood’s face. “I shudder to think what she might have done if she was displeased. I’ve heard rumors on the street about what she’s capable of. I wonder how Lord Stag managed to make her acquaintance.”

They were silent for a few moments, and then Gera said, “We should deepen that alliance with the Verdant Stag.”

Her brother looked at her searchingly for a few seconds, then nodded. “Yes. We should.”

This was a short chapter, shorter than I like any chapter to be because I like to feel I’m giving my readers value every week. Because of that, I’ll be posting a second chapter this Sunday, to go along with Gera’s Interlude.

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Chapter 61 – To Slumber but not Rest

Siobhan

Month 12, Day 20, Sunday 6:25 p.m.

“Not nightmares,” Gera, the prognos woman, said. “Visions. My son is part prognos, part sylphide, and, as you might have noticed, he carries a drop of fey, as well.”

The fey ancestry was the source of the shimmer in the boy’s skin. ‘A member of the fey hasn’t been seen for centuries. Some of the books even say they’re extinct. Add that to being a prognos-mix cambion from the Plane of Air, and he might be the only one of his kind in the world.

Siobhan could guess part of his problem just from common knowledge. The sylphides were powerful, humanoid elementals from the Plane of Air, given to song, laughter, and knowledge carried on the wind. Combined with the predisposition for divination that the prognos had, and the strangeness common in all the stories passed down about the fey, it was unsurprising that the cambion child had powers beyond his control. “Tell me more about the visions,” Siobhan requested.

“He has had them since he could first speak,” Gera answered. “Maybe before then, too. They come to him on the wind, incomprehensible pieces of the present and past. They are incoherent, but intense. When he is awake, he can mostly block them out. Only a few of the strongest slip through. His abilities are not like my own, and not like those of the sylphides we have invited to see him, either. They are a curse.” Her voice broke, and she pressed a hand against her face, taking deep breaths.

The boy looked to his mother, then slowly back to Siobhan, a tiny hint of a frown between his brows.

Lynwood took over while Gera worked to regain her composure. “Some of the supposed experts we have contacted have suggested that the visions may become more coherent when he has reached maturity in a few decades. He grows slowly—slower even than the prognos—and as time passes the strength of his visions is outpacing him. They plague him even when he is awake, and rouse his mind from sleep like a beast harrying his limbs.”

Gera raised her head. “The healers say that he will die if he cannot sleep, but they have no long-term solution to the problem.”

The healers were right, according to everything Siobhan had read on the subject. She peered at the boy assessingly, watching every slow blink and muffled flicker of emotion as he listened to his mother and uncle pronounce his fate. “What has been attempted to cure him?”

Gera took a deep preparatory breath. “He has seen half the healers in the city, it seems, and some experts in non-human physiology and divination as well. Most have been completely useless. They’ve cast spells and given potions to calm him, to put him into a deep sleep, to keep his mind active and in control while he sleeps, to suppress divination abilities, to ward off nightmares, and even prescribed such treatments as bloodletting at his energy points to release ‘bad humors.’ He’s had healing potions and revivifying potions. There were a few who said he was cursed or haunted and tried to release him from this.” Gera scowled, the expression twisted by her scar. “One suggested we place him in a large, completely sealed room to cut him off from the flow of the wind.”

“That did not go well. Did any of these treatments show promise?”

His mother smiled wryly. “You are correct. The sealed room caused severe panic attacks, and by the time we realized what was happening, he was hysterical with fear. It took him months to recover from that incident.”

“The man was punished for his incompetence,” Lynwood murmured, and Gera nodded.

“Some of what once worked has lost its efficacy as he grows older,” she continued. “When he was a toddler, the calming magic was enough. When that grew insufficient, the sleep magic took over. Keeping his mind active while sleeping was a particular disaster. Suppressing his divination abilities was…unpredictable. Sometimes it seemed to work, and sometimes it provoked crazed raving and had him flailing about enough to injure himself.”

“We were worried it might have other ill effects,” Lynwood said.

“The bloodletting left him weak, but did not do the same to his visions. The healing potions helped for a time, if not helping him to sleep then reducing the effects of his fatigue, but eventually his body developed a tolerance for them. When attempts to dispel a malicious influence had no effect, most concluded that he was not cursed or haunted, but a couple of those who came to help told us that the evil influence on him was simply too strong to dispel.”

“Nonsense, if you ask me,” Lynwood interjected.

“What of the attempts to block nightmares?” Siobhan asked.

“Only mildly effective when he was younger, and without benefit for years now. We were told that my son would die within the year if we could not find an effective treatment. There have been some more…radical suggestions, but I would not maim my son or curse him for life if there is any other option. Currently, we give him a powerful narcotic potion meant to cause the sleep of the living dead. We commissioned a master alchemist to modify it so that its effects are strong, but fast-fading. It does allow him to rest, but…” Gera gestured meaningfully to her son, who was swaying on his feet, his eyes trailing through the empty air as if watching something invisible to the rest of them.

Hallucinations? If he’s to that point, he does indeed need urgent help.

“But too deeply,” Lynwood finished. “He is insensate for twelve or more hours at a time, and often soils himself while he sleeps. And when he wakes, he is groggy and clumsy the rest of the day, almost as if he has not truly rested at all.” He nodded meaningfully to the boy, and Siobhan realized that perhaps some of his daze was not from lack of sleep, but a side effect of the potion.

Lynwood added, “His mind and emotions are muffled, except for sudden, wild flares. He fractured a rib in a sudden laughing attack last month, and his nursemaid swears she saw him about to stab a knife into his own abdomen the week before last. This sleep of the dead is a stopgap measure at best.” He reached out for Gera’s hand, squeezing it tightly while he turned to face Siobhan more fully. “This is my sister by choice, rather than by blood. The boy is my nephew. The Nightmare Pack would be grateful if you would grant us this boon and help him.”

Siobhan took a long while to think, staring at the boy. While she hadn’t the deep pockets or connections of the Nightmare Pack, she too had consulted healers and shamans and anyone Ennis had access to that they thought might be able to stop her nightmares. All had failed, and over time, through endless trial and error and sheer desperation, she had developed her own spell to deal with the problem. It was only partially effective, but better than anything others had offered, and cheap enough to cast that she could actually afford to do so. However, it sounded as if the boy’s condition was worse than her own, and she wasn’t even sure that her dreamless sleep spell would stop visions.

Nevertheless, her research had taught her a lot about sleep, and one of the things the prognos woman had said sparked an idea in Siobhan’s mind. Sleep was mysterious at best, even to the most learned of healers and researchers, but it seemed clear that the body used it both to heal and to process, cataloguing the experiences and thoughts of the day. It allowed long-term memories to settle, and without it, dreams would start to slip into the waking world in the form of hallucinations.

Siobhan had been restricting her own dreams for years now, and hadn’t had any problems with decreased brain function. Her mind was a steel trap. Of course, her dreams did manage to slip through after only a few hours of rest, so she was not suppressing them completely. That healing and revivifying potions had mitigated the boy’s problem, even for a time, showed that the most critical function of sleep was whatever it did to heal and effectively reset the brain, like recharging a battle wand.

She’d never been able to afford healing components for her own efforts. The closest she had come was coffee beans loaded with wakefulness magic, and that hardly counted. Siobhan’s fingers caressed her new black Conduit, fascination causing her thoughts to focus just on the edge of true Will engagement.

“Your son has no need of a sedative,” she said. “It is not that he cannot fall asleep, but that he cannot rest. He has fallen asleep over a dozen times since he came into the room,” she said.

She was sure he was falling into what the University’s library books had called “micro-sleeps” with almost every slow blink. “He’s already exhausted to the point of death. First, he needs something to calm the fear and desperation that are likely making his visions worse.”

“Will you help, then?” his mother asked.

Siobhan hesitated. “I cannot cure him,” she stated. “Because he is not sick.”

Gera’s knees buckled, but she caught herself on the edge of Lynwood’s chair with a whimper and straightened.

Siobhan lifted a hand in a calming gesture. “He must learn to master his own nature, either through age and experience, or through practice and discipline. But I have several ideas for another short-term solution, one that could give him a semblance of normalcy and the time to learn that discipline before the visions once again outgrow him.”

“Yes,” Lynwood and his sister both said, almost simultaneously.

“I will design something that your people should be able to handle without me,” she said, giving herself an excuse for why she wouldn’t just be free-casting some spell that would have the boy dreaming of frolicking in a meadow. “After all, I cannot attend to the boy every night. I assume you have access to resources like components from the Elemental Planes?”

They both nodded readily.

She wasn’t surprised. After all, Liza could access components like that, and if they were willing to go to such lengths as described for the boy, the cost of extra-planar components wouldn’t bother them. “Good. We will attempt the simplest of my ideas first, to judge if my theories are sound. Take down a list of items and bring them to me here. Gather a handful of thaumaturges, too. At least three, at most…however many you can call upon, as long as they are competent and can be trusted.”

Lynwood waved to one of his people who had been standing silently by the side, and the woman hurried to grab a scroll and a fountain pen.

Siobhan listed her requirements. “Crystal—preferably clear, uncut quartz. Also amethyst and polished moonstone. Eagle or gryphon feathers, from a creature too young to have mated.” She herself used eagle, but gryphon feathers would likely be more powerful, and they could afford them. “Strong, clear liquor. Some herbs—these should be fresh: Valerian root, preferably grown in a place where human footsteps do not often pass, night vanilla, chamomile picked at sunset, lavender grown in a place that has a frequent northern wind, and poppy flowers, as pale in color as you can find.”

The specific guidelines on the growing and harvesting conditions of the components might or might not make much difference—she couldn’t get a clear answer on that from Pecanty—but she needed all the help she could get, and hopefully the extra effort of gathering components that matched her specifications would make her seem more legitimate. People valued what cost them, after all.

Seeing that the woman was scribbling frantically, she continued. “You will want to create a permanent Circle and spell array, but for tonight bring me wax from the Plane of Earth and the powder of all the gems I mentioned, plus either gold or diamond dust. Finally, something from the Plane of Radiance, still-living. A small star-maple sapling would do. If you cannot find that, then any slow-growing plant from the Plane of Radiance might do as a substitute. A beast core or three will power it all.”

The woman scribbled a little longer, and then finally looked up.

“That is all,” Siobhan said.

With a nod from Lynwood, everyone but himself, his sister, and the boy rushed from the room.

Siobhan stood, moving forward and reaching out a hand to the boy’s shoulder, steadying him. “What is your name?”

“Millennium,” he said in a small voice. “But everyone just calls me Miles.”

“Miles. Go find a chair and rest. In a few hours, you will sleep without dreams,” she said.

He stared back at her as if to assess the truth of her words, and though his eyes had trouble focusing on her face, they didn’t slide away from her under the compulsion of her anti-divination ward. “I hope so,” he said, full of vibrant emotion for the first time.

She hoped she could keep her promise. She knew objectively that she might not be able to, but the energy and focus she felt at the prospect of a problem to solve, given all the resources Lord Lynwood could provide—including other thaumaturges to supplement her immature Will and a Conduit that would no longer hold her back—made her believe she could do it. She was hungry for the challenge.

“Get me paper and pen,” she ordered, walking over to one of the tables.

Lord Lynwood’s sister complied, and with only a bit of focus remaining on keeping her ward up, Siobhan turned the rest of her mind toward creation. ‘A modification of my own dreamless sleep spell. Better components, more power, and with a healing factor. It needs to be actively cast for the whole duration of sleep, rather than placed and released like I do with my own castings. If I can improve his rate of regeneration while he sleeps, simply boosting his own natural processes, perhaps he won’t need as many hours, and there will be less chance of him growing a tolerance to repeated healing spells or potions. Alas, if only I could get someone to cast this spell on me…

She looked up some time later, a finished spell array fresh under her pen, to find herself surrounded by scribble-covered papers, her hands smeared with ink, and her fingers cramped from writing.

Lynwood’s people had returned, and brought with them almost a dozen other people—likely the thaumaturges she had requested. One of the other tables was covered with spell components, and among them sat a small star-maple sapling in a pot. The sheer efficiency was astounding. She couldn’t have been working for more than a couple of hours.

Siobhan pried open her fingers to release the pen and stood.

The other members of the room quieted their low murmurs and turned to face her quickly, some squinting at her and some not even attempting to meet her gaze.

“We have gathered everything you ordered,” Lynwood said.

“We will be casting what I suspect is a newly created spell today,” she said to the newcomers. “If any of you are not comfortable with your ability to do so without endangering yourself or your fellows, leave now.”

A few feet shuffled, betraying their nervousness at her words, but no one walked out.

“These are the best thaumaturges among my people,” Lynwood said. “They will learn and obey, at your discretion, Queen of Ravens.”

Siobhan tried not to smirk at that. ‘Too bad I don’t have a group of sorcerers to boss around on a daily basis.’ She realized immediately after thinking it the folly of that wish. ‘No, wait, that might actually be horrible. Most people are imbeciles. I don’t want to be stuck leading a group of imbeciles who cannot do anything without constant instruction.

“Follow along, then,” she said. “Nothing we do tonight should be beyond your comprehension or abilities, and I do not enjoy repeating myself.”

First, she made the crayon stick to draw the spell array with, mixing the wax with the crystal and gem powder. They’d provided both diamond and gold dust, so with mixed feelings of heartache at her own inability to afford such things and pleasure at the chance to use such fine components, she added both to the wax crayon. The Circle and Word array drawn with it would handle more power than something simpler or cheaper, though not as much as a permanently engraved array made of solid precious metals. As she mixed the wax with the multi-colored dust, she channeled her Will in the same way she would when making a potion, every component touched with magic and intent.

Then, waving a hand for the others to clear a large spot on the floor and bring in a mattress, she drew the array, every glyph and angled line touched with her Will. There was no energy to channel into this, no active spell, but her grandfather had taught her that there was more to magic than the parts that were easiest to quantify.

Next were the herbal tinctures, drawing out the oils through crushing the plant matter and soaking it in bottles of alcohol.

“Process matters. Magic may be a science, but beyond our understanding it becomes an art,” she explained to those watching her work, not bothering to turn and see whether they understood what she meant, or if it was obvious that every competent sorcerer started applying their Will long before they actively cast the most powerful spells.

They placed the mattress in the center of the large spell array, and the components in the outer Circles. Siobhan walked along the whole thing, inspecting the lines and glyphs for damage or mistakes, and explained, in as much detail as she could, the purpose of all the interconnected pieces.

She stopped at the head of the mattress, motioning for Miles to climb onto it. “Most important in all of this is not the components or the power. It is your Will, tuned perfectly. Think on the spell till you feel it in your belly and the dark places of your mind. We will begin casting in a few minutes. I will join you, but merely as a guide. You will provide the impetus on your own. Discuss amongst yourselves,” she said with a wave of her hand.

She rolled her shoulders, the thrill of magic a delight that made her bones itch and her thoughts bloom. She turned to Millennium, climbed onto the mattress, and sat next to him.

She spoke in a low voice, soft enough not to be heard over the talking of the others. “Can you cast any magic, Miles?”

The boy, more awake than he’d been before, despite the late hour, shook his head. “Not yet. I’m only ten, and my mom says it’s not safe if the visions make me lose concentration. I could hurt myself or someone else.”

Siobhan herself had cast her first spell at the age of eleven, a simple levitation spell on an acorn, under the watchful eye of her grandfather. It had been a bit early, but he was insistent that only stupid, immature children needed to wait till the traditional age of thirteen to begin an apprenticeship. It was lucky, because if she had waited, she might never have had the chance to learn from him at all. “You’re not afraid of magic, though, right?”

Miles shook his head, but paused with his mouth open, suddenly hesitant. The silence drew on.

“You’re a little afraid?” she guessed. “Because of your visions and everything they’ve done to try and fix them?” She gestured to Lynwood and the boy’s mother, who were both watching them intently from across the room. “Which hasn’t been so pleasant, and sometimes, has been quite torturous.” She herself had taken a couple years off practicing magic after the…incident that led her father to taking over his duties as a parent again.

Miles nodded. “They’ve been talking about you…whether to call you here or not. They’re afraid of you. But they’re afraid of what I might do if they don’t fix me, too. And I’m dying,” he said matter-of-factly.

“Tonight will not hurt,” she said. “And it will not be frightening, either. At the very worst, nothing will change and you will wake up as soon as your visions slip through. But if things go well, you will wake up in the morning feeling better than you have in a long time. To make sure you can fall asleep, I want to try something.”

“Okay,” he said in a small voice.

She knew that sometimes when she was exhausted beyond all reason, it actually became harder to fall asleep. “I’ll need you to sit in my lap, with your back against my chest.”

Slowly, awkwardly, he moved to climb into the scoop of her crossed legs. His small body was cold and faintly trembling, either from the chill or sheer exhaustion.

She reached her arms around him, touching her middle fingers to her thumbs, with the large black Conduit gripped to her palm by her pinky and ring finger, a little awkwardly. She pressed her hands against his sternum.

Miles copied her.

She took a deep breath and let it out with a low hum, like Newton had showed her.

As soon as Miles caught on to her rhythm, she began to cast the esoteric calming spell on the both of them. The spell wasn’t meant to work on someone else, but with him being so small and close, and going along with all the prerequisites except for actually casting himself, it wasn’t that hard to bend the magic in this way.

A few minutes later, Miles was slouching against her limply, his eyes closed and on the brink of sleep, the only indication that he was still awake being the purring sounds coming out of his throat along with her own deep hum.

She released the magic, settling him back on the bed and drawing a thick blanket over him to hold in some warmth. She sent a servant to fetch a wrapped, hot brick, and then tucked it next to the boy’s feet so it could warm him up slowly.

Without further preamble, she announced, “It is time,” with what she hoped was sufficient gravitas.

The other thaumaturges quickly moved to stand at equal distances around the outer Circle.

She moved to the head of the bed and, with a finger dipped in herb-infused alcohol, drew a small Circle around the boy’s head, straight on the pillow. Aloud, she walked the others through the process as she cast her normal dreamless sleep spell, which would facilitate Miles falling asleep but probably wouldn’t keep him that way.

Then she stepped back to the head of the larger Circle drawn on the floor. They would be actively casting through the night for Miles, keeping him asleep, dreamless, and facilitating his body’s natural healing process.

She pulled her hood up to cover her face. Her ward remained active, but she reduced the attention and power she was channeling into it. Her mind couldn’t handle the split concentration when casting something new like this, even with all the others to provide power and stabilize the spell.

Siobhan was the first to start casting, drawing upon the trio of beast cores sitting within one of the component Circles for power. She channeled it with ease through her new Conduit, as smoothly as the one Lacer had lent her.

The other thaumaturges joined in, one by one.

Siobhan thought she could feel it when Miles fell asleep. Slowly, she increased the amount of energy flowing through her Conduit and the lines of the spell array, drawing on the star-maple for healing and the other components for dreamless sleep. Her companions did the same, till the air thrummed faintly against the hair on her arms and the array began to glow.

At this rate, the boy would have slept for the equivalent of two or three days by the time the sun rose, and without the accompanying problems with pent-up bodily processes that would have normally interrupted such a long rest.

After about half an hour, when she was sure the others had the hang of it and was starting to feel the crush of true fatigue herself, she released her grip on the spell and stepped back. The spell array flared for a moment with inefficiency, and she frowned. ‘I was channeling under three hundred thaums, at best. The spell shouldn’t have been so strained by my departure.’ She looked suspiciously at the others who were still casting.

Lord Lynwood and Gera were standing a few feet away, staring avidly at the sleeping boy. They both turned their attention to Siobhan as she moved toward them.

Gera’s scarred, blind eye was weeping, and she bowed deeply before Siobhan could say anything. “I thank you,” she choked out.

Siobhan was too tired to go through the long-winded standard niceties. She’d been brewing all day, and after this, she just wanted to collapse into her own bed. “You were lucky that this is my specialty.”

“Is it working, then?”

“It seems so. The spell does not force him to remain unconscious, so if his rest were being disturbed by visions, he would wake. You will need to have someone cast this on him every night for the time being. It need not be this large a group after this first time. Millennium will wake rested and will only need maintenance going forward. One or two moderately powerful thaumaturges should be enough. However, none of them are particularly good at this spell, and I doubt a lack of practice is the problem. I have a number of suggestions.”

“Speak them,” Lynwood said.

“The boy should be trained. Give him physical and mental exercise each day. Exercises that focus on clarity—some call it meditation—could be helpful, if he can master them deeply enough, and he need not actively channel magic to learn that. As for your casters…”

She sneered. “Keep them awake, like the boy has been kept awake. When they are truly desperate for sleep, only then will they understand how the spell is properly cast. When he has rested, they will be able to as well.”

Lynwood frowned at them. “I will do as you say, Queen of Ravens.” He hesitated, obviously wanting to speak.

She waved an impatient hand at him.

“Might depriving them of rest make them more likely to lose control of the magic? This spell you have designed…is it meant to be cast by someone without your particular advantages?”

She sighed. “If your people are so incompetent that a little fatigue has them miscasting, you should replace them. I hear first term students at your Thaumaturgic University deal with such conditions on a regular basis. This spell is not special. It is not even particularly difficult. It works as it does for me because I know what it is to be desperate for oblivion.”

Lynwood and Gera bowed again, said some more words of thanks and praise, and, in a moment when no one was looking at her, Siobhan strengthened the force of her anti-divination ward. Its effects seeped into the physical world so well that she was ignored, even by the prognos, as she left the building.

Outside, she smirked up at the University atop the towering white cliffs to the north of the city, visible by their light crystals twinkling in the dark night like so many stars. She broke one of her bracelets to let Katerin know she could finally stop scrying for her.

That should fortify the Raven Queen’s reputation. What a fruitful evening.

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Chapter 60 – Request a Boon

Siobhan

Month 12, Day 20, Sunday 6:10 p.m.

Oliver had been right. The Silk Door was safe in its sordidness, as long as Siobhan didn’t make a scene. It was a place where neither of her identities would seem strange, but which she could reasonably still want to avoid talking about or being trailed to or from, without seeming suspicious.

Shortly before the assigned meeting time with the Nightmare Pack leader, Siobhan walked up to the gate in front of the manor address Oliver had given her.

Katerin was already casting a weak divination spell with Siobhan as the focus. She enjoyed the way no one seemed to notice her as she moved through the darkening streets, even at the expense of the prickling coldness radiating from the disks under the skin of her back.

Siobhan had learned her lesson with the blood-mixed ink, and instead of giving Katerin something that someone else might also be able to scry for, like a piece of her hair, Katerin was attempting to locate Siobhan’s bracelet that was a match to her own. It was close enough to scrying for Siobhan directly that the ward still worked to block it, though not as efficiently.

There was a guard in front of the Nightmare Pack manor. He jumped suddenly when she stopped in front of him. White-faced, the Nightmare—as the Nightmare Pack members called themselves—took a single look under her hood and bowed deeply. “M-my apologies, Mistress. You startled me.”

Assured that the anti-divination ward was working as intended, she simply nodded silently.

The guard hurried to open the gate for her and usher her to the front door of the manor, where a few hissed words sent another servant scurrying to fetch Lord Lynwood at top speed.

Lynwood, a dark-skinned man with many small braids and bright amber eyes, appeared shortly afterward. He also took one look at her and bowed deeply.

It’s a sign of respect, that he’s come to fetch me himself.

“I am Lord Lynwood, the leader of this group. We call ourselves the Nightmare Pack. I place myself at your service.”

“Well met,” she murmured.

Lynwood straightened, and with a boyish, awkward hesitation she wouldn’t have expected from the wolf-in-tailored-suit Oliver had described, he held out an elbow for her to take. “You are the one they call the Raven Queen?”

“A name I did not choose for myself. But yes, that is what they call me.”

“Does the name displease you?” he asked.

She hummed noncommittally again, and said, “You may call me that, if you wish.” She pushed the hood of her cloak back, waved off the servant who stumbled forward with an offer to take it from her, and accepted Lynwood’s arm. She was as tall as him, and his eyes slid off her own when they met.

“I apologize for our lack of courtesy,” he said. “We had thought…” He cleared his throat. “Well, we thought you might appear out of the shadows or come through the window.”

She carefully kept her mouth from dropping in shock, and then suppressed an amused guffaw. ‘What does he think this is, some sort of fairy tale? The rumors circulating about the Raven Queen must be absolutely outrageous.’

Oliver had warned her to speak as little as possible, especially about topics she didn’t understand, and to adhere to formality when she did speak. ‘It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt,’ she quoted mentally. So she simply said, “That would have been rude,” with the barest hint of a smile.

“Right.” Lynwood nodded, then finally began to lead her down the hallway.

They had been walking for a few seconds when he said, “You smell of sweet dreams.”

She was prepared for his strangeness this time, and didn’t falter. ‘Is he being literal? Perhaps his heightened senses are picking up the herbal tinctures I use in my dreamless sleep spell?’ She simply hummed in response.

The house was big and beautiful, filled with art, greenery, and signs of life, and she felt some part of herself start to relax.

He led her into the drawing room, where about a half dozen people were waiting for them. The light crystals were very dim, with most of the illumination coming from a roaring fireplace. A couple of those within were servants, and the others were likely high-ranking members of Lynwood’s organization.

Two chairs were aligned against the wall near the fireplace, larger and more ornate than the rest of the furniture in the room, like thrones in comparison. A woman prognos stood closest to the chairs, while the others stayed a couple meters away. The single large eye above the bridge of her nose was in the path of a long-healed, jagged cut that ran from high on her forehead down to one cheek. The injury had ruined the eye and left her obviously blind.

Is it right to call her a “woman,” when she’s not human? But “female” just sounds like I’m talking about an animal, and she is a person. Do prognos, or other species, have their own terms for man and woman?’ Siobhan wondered.

Lynwood led Siobhan to the chairs, but as soon as they drew close, the eyeless prognos gasped and recoiled.

Siobhan felt the increased pressure on her anti-divination ward and fed more power into it through the Conduit she had hidden inside the lip of her boot. ‘She must be using a divination spell to sense the world around her in lieu of her lost vision. I can only hope she doesn’t notice anything strange about me.

Lynwood stared at the woman, who ducked her head and murmured an apology. He looked to Siobhan with a touch of renewed wariness, then took one seat, offering Siobhan the other. “This is my sister-by-choice, Gera. Would you like refreshments, Queen of Ravens?” he asked.

One of the servants immediately stepped forward, offering a plate laden with wine, cheese, and fruits.

Siobhan waved the servant away. She was too nervous to eat, and she thought it might damage her mystique. “My thanks, but no.”

Lynwood shared a meaningful look with one of the others standing to the side.

Siobhan hoped she hadn’t offended him.

“We would like to thank you for agreeing to meet with us.” Lynwood motioned to the other servant, who hurried forward and kneeled before the two of them, holding a tray with three wooden boxes on it. “We were not sure what tribute you might find preferable, so we prepared a selection. Please choose whichever pleases you best, Queen of Ravens.”

The servant opened all three boxes with the slow fanfare that signified treasure. His fingers were trembling faintly, and he didn’t dare to meet her eyes.

Siobhan had to hold back a gasp as she saw what the Nightmare Pack was offering her simply for her presence. It might be rude, but she could take one of these items and walk away without fulfilling whatever request they had.

“Phoenix ashes,” the servant said, introducing the vial in the first box.

Phoenix ashes were an incredibly rare spell component, used in powerful healing, fire, and supposedly even spells that could affect one’s destiny. Most famously, they were said to have been used by Myrddin to resurrect his recently deceased lover. There were only a few grams within the vial, but if the ashes were what they said, she could sell each gram for at least a hundred gold—maybe more—to the right buyer.

“The wolf-pelt of a skinwalker,” he said while opening the second box. This was less valuable, monetarily, but just as rare, and usually not something you could buy on the open market, or even the black market. The animal-form pelts of skinwalkers were usually burned with their users when the person died. Prepared properly, they could give someone a lesser version of the animal-transformation skill of the skinwalkers themselves. Used as a component in other spells, they could tame some of the rarer and more vicious beasts, or be used in binding the most powerful of familiars to a witch’s service.

The last box was a black stone polished into the shape of a flattened oval, about one-third the size of Siobhan’s palm. When the firelight hit it, a six-rayed star of light shone out of the depths of what she suddenly realized was a gem.

“A black star sapphire,” the servant said, darting a glance at her.

She’d never seem a gem of any kind that big, but she’d heard of star sapphires. They could be used as components in space-bending spells of various kinds. She’d heard the story of a king’s messenger who used a black star sapphire to step between the shadows, traveling faster than any mortal man could otherwise, bearing a message to an allied kingdom in the space of a single night, and then back again the next.

She couldn’t properly judge how much it would be worth, especially in Gilbratha, but estimated it would normally be less expensive than the phoenix ashes but more valuable than the skinwalker’s wolf-pelt. But what drew her to it wasn’t its properties when used in spells.

Sapphires were one of the gems that could be used as a passable replacement for celerium as a Conduit. And with the current price of celerium, it was likely that other gems were also rising in worth. If it was natural, and not thaumaturge-created, it might even be the most expensive of the three. Most thaumaturges had trouble duplicating the same level of quality that was found in nature. Like all other substitutions for celerium, a sapphire was less efficient, and would heat after extended, heavy spellcasting, and be more likely to shatter under the strain. Still, this one was large enough that it had to be better than her old Conduit. ‘Several times better, in fact, if I estimate correctly,’ she thought.

Siobhan hesitated between the phoenix ashes and the black star sapphire, trying to weigh which was worth more in the current marketplace conditions. If Conduits weren’t so expensive, it would have definitely been the phoenix ashes, but the lack of supply changed things. And more pressingly, she wanted a Conduit.

Professor Lacer had lent her one, but it wasn’t hers. If he ever took it back, or something else happened to divest her of it, she would be reduced to relying on her useless, dinky backup again. If she took the star sapphire, she would have security. It was even something that most people wouldn’t immediately associate with the word “Conduit,” since it wasn’t celerium.

She had been through enough in her life to know you couldn’t rely on anyone else or the things they gave you. One could only rely on themselves and what they had the strength to take.

If I take the ashes, seventy percent of the selling price should still be enough to get me a better backup Conduit than the one I have now, especially if I can sell my current one for anything close to what I paid for it. However, word of phoenix ashes being sold would definitely spread, and I’m not sure how the Nightmare Pack might feel about me immediately exchanging their gift for money.’ She looked to Lynwood and the others, but didn’t have the skill to read their expressions.

If I take the sapphire, what about Oliver’s cut? I could probably convince him to let me pay it off slowly, but if not, seventy percent of the sale price would still get me a backup Conduit, if not one quite as powerful as the sapphire itself. I also have to consider how distinctive the sapphire is. It cannot be used in both my identities.’

In the end, personal desire won out over considerations of greatest utility. The star sapphire called to her. It was as simple as that. She reached for the polished gem, feeling its cool, smooth weight on her palm. “This tribute pleases me,” she said.

Lynwood and Gera glanced at each other, despite her lack of working eye.

I hope they’re not upset that I chose what might be the most valuable among the three,’ Siobhan thought. There had been a lot of subtle looks between her hosts, and it was a little worrying that she couldn’t decipher the silent conversations they seemed to be having around her, about her.

Was it a test? I suppose we’ll see shortly if I failed. In any case, I’m not giving my new Conduit back.

Lynwood turned back to her. “There are rumors about you and your formidable abilities. I wonder if you could help me judge the accuracy of these rumors.”

‘So now we finally get down to it. Best not to brag too much, so I don’t have to live up to unreasonable expectations. Still, the Raven Queen has to be worth the tribute they just paid to have this meeting.’ Rather than volunteering information, she nodded, as close to regally as she could manage. “Ask.”

“I have heard you take another form, one composed of the wings of night herself.”

Siobhan was conscious of Gera standing right beside them. While the blinding of the eye would have made it more difficult for the woman to use her divination abilities, it was obvious by the continued pressure on Siobhan’s divination-diverting ward that the woman was not crippled by this. She might know if Siobhan lied.

So, Siobhan said, “I do take another form, one in which people see me as they wish, or as they fear.” She continued silently. ‘The rumors must be exaggerated by distorted retellings and the imagination of fanciful minds.

“Men say that those who earn your wrath have tortured dreams, and that those dreams only grow stronger with time until they start to seep into reality.”

That sounds like a dreamless sleep curse and the hallucinations that come with extreme fatigue.’ She shook her head. “If a weak-willed man crosses me and begins to have nightmares, is it a measure of my threat to him or of his own poor mental constitution?” She paused, considering her answer, but was wary of being too vague. The key was to be truthful, but in a way that did not undercut the mystery of the Raven Queen. “I have laid no curses. Well, not within Gilbratha,” she amended. Shortly after Ennis retook guardianship of her in her youth, she had placed a weak curse on the threshold of a particularly dislikable young man’s house.

“But your magic has no need of the glyphs and symbols that the humans use to ground their spells?” Lynwood asked insistently.

Is he trying to confirm that I can cast esoteric spells?’ She tilted her head to the side, confused. “I can channel magic through the modern spell arrays, but in truth no magic of any species requires glyphs and symbols. They are an aid, a powerful one, but they are oftentimes also a crutch. While I may not yet be able to freely cast whatever magic might come to mind without Circle and Word, I do have a few…tricks that need no such mundane tools.”

“You are young, still?”

She was growing even more confused. ‘That should be obvious. He’s looking right at my face. Maybe he’s wondering if I’ve used glamours or rejuvenating spells? He thinks maybe the Raven Queen is an older woman pretending to be young? It would explain the ridiculous rumors about me being so capable.’ She gave a single nod of agreement. “Young enough,” she said, trying for some sort of cryptic middle ground.

“These questions are not the reason you requested my presence,” she said, keeping the uncertainty out of her voice and making it a statement instead.

Lynwood looked to Gera again, then back to Siobhan. “You are correct. I apologize for my circuitous interrogation. We have need of someone with power over the domain of sleep. When we heard about you, we thought perhaps you could help where many of our more traditional methods have failed.”

“I do have some knowledge in that area,” she admitted, “but not all things are within my power. Please be more specific.” If they wanted her to go dream-walking or some such, she would be of little use, but ironically, she did probably know more about sleep-related spells than most professionals, due to her personal interest over the past many years.

Lynwood motioned to the door, which had been closed behind them, and one of his people standing off to the side opened it, ushering in an old maid holding the hand of a young boy, who looked to be between eight and ten years old.

“My son cannot sleep,” Gera said softly.

Siobhan looked between the boy and Gera, but failed to see a resemblance. The boy looked almost like a normal human, having two eyes on either side of his nose instead of one in the middle of his forehead. Except for the abnormal paleness of his skin and the dark circles under his bloodshot eyes, he would have been unexceptional.

He must not be a full-blooded prognos,’ Siobhan assessed. “He is your biological son?” she asked.

“Yes.” Gera nodded, motioning to the maid to step back.

Siobhan’s eyes widened as the boy’s skin glimmered ever-so-faintly from the light of the fireplace shining directly on him. ‘Not only part prognos, then.

The boy blinked sleepily up at her, expressionless.

“The boy is dying,” Lynwood said. “All mortal beings need to rest. With every passing year, his dreams grow stronger, and without the ability to block them, he grows wearier and weaker.”

The boy didn’t seem to find this news surprising, still staring at her while blinking slowly.

“You want me to stop the boy’s nightmares?” Siobhan asked. The sides of her mouth twitched, and she clamped down on the bubble of amusement trying to rise up through her chest at the absurdity of the situation. She knew plenty of spells for that, sure, but she hadn’t even managed to stop her own nightmares.

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Chapter 59 – A Simple Solution

Sebastien

Month 12, Day 18, Friday 8:00 p.m.

Damien was true to his word. That evening, he brought her his plans to keep Tanya Canelo under surveillance, complete with spell array notes and designs. He had found a small ward they could carve onto the underside of Tanya’s door that would alert them when it was opened, and a couple of different designs for a tracker that they would somehow need to get onto her person.

The proposed tracker designs weren’t active, and so wouldn’t require constant spellcasting, nor were they artifacts that would keep working even without input from either Sebastien or Damien. Rather, they created sympathetic beacons that would point the way to Tanya like a compass when the linked item was used as a divination component.

“It will work,” Sebastien said, looking over Damien’s notes.

He smiled, but smoothed back his hair nervously. “Ana would be better at this. She’s taking Artificery. She’d probably have some design we could carve into the sole of Tanya’s shoe or some other ingenious idea.”

Sebastien looked up. “That’s a great idea, actually.”

Damien hesitated. “Err, well, yes, but none of the books I found had anything like that, and I don’t have any experience with spell design…” There was a reason why spell theorists and designers were paid so well. It was almost as dangerous as free-casting, if not quite so glamorous.

Sebastien pointed to one design, a disk that was carved and spelled on both sides. After it was split in two, one half could be used to find the other until repeated castings caused the material to disintegrate. “Let’s put it into the sole of her shoe. Her boots have a one-inch heel. We can cut it open, insert it inside, and then seal the boot heel back together seamlessly. I know a leather-mending spell.”

“How will we get hold of her boots?”

Sebastien smirked. “She doesn’t wear them into the shower.”

Damien’s face split with a grin of excitement.

They planned Operation Sentinel—as Damien insisted on calling it—that night, and found a cow leg bone to use as the material among the kitchen scraps from dinner. One of the cafeteria workers was happy to give it to Damien.

The two of them cast the linking spell together to give it as much power as possible. Technically, that part wasn’t a requirement, just as no linking spells had been done on Sebastien’s blood to allow the coppers to use it to search for her, but the extra step made sympathetic spells a lot easier. Sebastien cut the bone disk in two with repeated, careful castings of the same slicing spell that had gotten her involved with Damien in the first place.

They implemented Operation Sentinel early the next morning, before most of the other students were awake, while Tanya completed her daily ablutions.

It succeeded without any problems, which Sebastien found faintly unsettling. ‘I’m a little too used to things always going wrong. I’ve come to expect it,’ she mused. ‘Well, things still have time to go wrong,’ she assured herself wryly. The hardest part of the operation had actually been carving the tiny ward array on the underside of Tanya’s door without removing it from its hinges or being seen by the occasional person walking through the hallways, even at that early hour.

Based on a combination of anxiety and a lingering lack of confidence in Damien, Sebastien wanted to stay at the University over the weekend to keep an eye on Tanya, but the crushing weight of her ever-increasing debt and her empty purse drove her back to Oliver’s house to spend Saturday and most of Sunday brewing, taking a few minutes here and there to make a few more batches of linked bracelets.

While there, she mentioned that she had an extra Conduit she could sell to Oliver, but he wasn’t particularly optimistic about quickly finding a buyer who could afford the celerium at current market price. “Our thaumaturges already have their own Conduits, and most of our clientele is either too poor to afford one, too uneducated to need one, or both.” She was willing to sell it for less than a licensed shop, but she hoped to make as much off it as possible.

She gave a simple set of ward bracelets to Damien and Newton so either could immediately alert her if Tanya left the University grounds. She instructed Damien to follow and monitor Tanya from morning till night. “Be discreet,” she emphasized.

Damien scowled. “I know, you’ve told me several times already. I promise I’m not going to sit there staring at her and be following two steps behind when she goes to the bathroom! I grew up in the Westbay Family, Sebastien. I think I can handle it.”

“Don’t get snippy, it’s a valid concern. You tend to draw attention to yourself. I’m not sure you have much practice being discreet.”

“I could say the same of you,” he said, crossing his arms and giving her a challenging stare.

She opened her mouth to refute this, but he raised his eyebrows, and she hesitated. Despite not wanting to admit he had a point, she could see the evidence was stacked in his favor. ‘People of greatness rarely go unnoticed,’ she consoled herself. ‘Perhaps they need to exert extra effort and time in practice, learning to keep the weight of their sheer consequence from drawing curiosity and regard.’ She struggled for a minute between a perverse pleasure at that idea and the more basic truth that it simply meant she had failed in her true goal. “Alright,” she said finally. “Good luck.”

Damien watched her leave with some curiosity, but he hadn’t tried to pry her own plans out of her, which she reluctantly appreciated.

Hopefully someday soon I won’t have so many crises to solve and will be able to simply spend my days like any other student, giving no one any hint of secrets to pry into.

So, after another trip to the market, Sebastien spent another weekend at Dryden Manor brewing for the Stag enforcers. Her new Conduit made it a little easier, and she thought that, with a bit more time to improve her Will, she might be able to make more of the simpler potions in a single batch and thus increase her profits.

In two days, she earned about five gold more than the interest accrued for the whole week. It was a lot, but still not nearly enough, and thinking of the debt hanging over her head made her irritable. ‘If I hadn’t paid Liza to talk to my father, I’d have at least a hundred gold left right now,’ she grumbled mentally.

She stopped casting as the sun began to set, hours before her meeting with the Nightmare Pack gang leader, partially to reserve her strength in case it was needed, and partially to listen to Oliver’s lecture—which he called “advice”— on how to act and what to be mindful of around Lord Lynwood and his people.

“It would be best if you attend the meeting alone, for appearance’s sake. The Raven Queen needs no escort, neither for fear of enemies nor to listen to her negotiations,” he said.

“I expected that,” Sebastien agreed. “I was also thinking, maybe you could cast a weak divination spell targeting me? To activate the ward Liza made me, I mean. The effects on my physical body—difficulty focusing on or thinking about me—could be useful in maintaining the Raven Queen’s aura of mystique, and might keep them from looking too closely and noticing something wrong, too.”

Oliver stared bemusedly at her for a moment, then said, “I’ll send a message asking Katerin about it. She’s not a diviner, but she can probably handle something low-level, if that’s all you need. I doubt she’ll mind.”

Sebastien shrugged. “That works too.”

Oliver hesitated, then stood up and went to his desk, where he pulled out a small package and handed it to her. “I got you something for tonight. Open it.”

She did, and found two ornaments of black and crimson feathers attached to thin, splayed wires. She looked up at him. “They’re pretty, but what are they for?”

“They’re raven feathers. The red ones have been bleached and dyed. They go in your hair, behind your ears. It’s a kind of headdress. They’re common among the People…” He coughed a little awkwardly.

She nodded to show she wasn’t offended that he’d guessed her heritage, at least the part that showed through. Her grandfather had always been pleased that she looked nothing like her wastrel of a father. ‘The blood of the People runs strong,’ he had said.

“I thought they were fitting for the queen of ravens, a kind of crown for someone who has no need for gold or jewels,” he added. “Do you want me to help you put them in?”

Sebastien hesitated, but wasn’t sure why, so she handed them back. “Yes, please.”

His fingers were gentle, brushing the rim of her ear as he pushed the wires into her hair.

Her skin burned where he touched, and the wires were cool as they slid against her scalp, weaving into her hair as if alive. She startled.

Oliver chuckled. “It’s an artifact. The wires hold the feathers steady and then conceal themselves, so it looks like the feathers are growing out from your skin.” He stepped away, assessing her, then nodded. “Perfect.”

Her gaze slid away from his. “I’m going to look in the mirror.” She hurried down the hall to the bathroom, where she took a few deep breaths to suppress the frustrating blush in her cheeks. “Don’t be a brainless ninny,” she muttered to herself, scowling at her reflection. She rubbed her ears harshly to rid them of the lingering sensation, then judged the effect of the feathered ornaments.

They did indeed give her a faint air of otherworldliness, even as Sebastien. She could imagine the effect would only be enhanced against the ochre skin and high cheekbones of her face as Siobhan. If only her eyes glowed gold or she had facial tattoos or something similar, the effect would be complete.

After a couple more minutes to make sure she was entirely calm—and there was no way she’d get surprised into blushing again—she returned to Oliver’s study. “Thank you,” she said. “Now tell me more about this place that’s going to act as a safe house for my transformation.”

“It was the simplest solution, really. No one will think it strange if Sebastien Siverling occasionally visits a brothel, and Siobhan Naught would fit right in among a group of beautiful, exotic women. It’s the perfect place to hide in plain sight, using people’s unconscious biases and associations against them.” He slipped her a leather-bound booklet. “Identity papers for one Silvia Nakai, declaring you a citizen of Gilbratha. Silvia is legally employed at the Silk Door, and if she gets into any trouble with the law, she can call upon her wealthiest and most influential patron to help her. One Lord Oliver Dryden.” He coughed a little awkwardly.

“Lord?” Sebastien echoed, flicking through the proof of one more false identity.

He shrugged, leaning against his desk and crossing his legs at the ankle. “Technically. It’s foreign and basically a defunct title, with the destruction of my family as a boy, but it still affords me a measure of influence.”

“I hope it will never be useful, but thank you.” She wondered how much the false identity had cost him, but didn’t ask.

“My investigation into who set off the false rogue magic alarm has borne no fruit,” Oliver offered, changing the subject. “The coppers have no idea.”

“Perhaps Tanya will slip up, and we’ll be able to follow the trail to her accomplices. Everyone makes a mistake eventually.” ‘Myself included,’ she admitted silently.

“You’re right. We have people watching the Morrows as well. Eventually someone is going to slip up.”

With sunset approaching and little time to waste, Oliver hired a carriage to take her to her midpoint destination.

The carriage driver gave Sebastien a knowing look as she stepped down into the street. “Have fun, milord.”

She ignored the man, staring up at the large building made of creamy white bricks. The sign above had words rather than a picture like it might have in the slums, where stores couldn’t trust that their patrons could read. In unadorned lettering, it read, “The Silk Door.”

Sebastien entered through a side door. Within, soft music played. The lighting was mellow, the furniture dark smooth wood and soft plush cushions. A couple of girls lounged about in tasteful but impractically light dresses, kept comfortable by the fire raging at all hours and the warming stones laid under the floor.

It was a high-end brothel, discreet and comfortable.

Without pausing to speak to anyone, Sebastien followed Oliver’s directions, walking up the stairs and down two hallways to a private, locked room.

The workers weren’t stupid, and would probably notice her strange comings and goings given enough time, even if she didn’t interact with them and the little room she used was well away from the trafficked areas of the building. But they also wouldn’t talk to the coppers. Their clientele was strictly confidential, and they had all taken vows.

She pulled out a key and entered. The room held little more than a well-appointed bed, but it was clean, and connected to another hallway and staircase, these ones private. She moved to the closet, where a nondescript but still stylish dress and accessories were waiting for her.

She stripped out of Sebastien’s clothing, pressed the dark matte stone artifact against her chest, and changed back into Siobhan.

She shrank a bit, her hair grew dark and long, and her skin gained an ochre tint. Looking into the small mirror inside the closet door, she confirmed that her eyes were the same as always, dark and fathomless.

Siobhan stared into them for a while, taking comfort from the sudden vertigo of the change. She wiggled and flexed until her brain remembered how long her limbs were in proportion to each other and the floor. Then she put on the dress, smoothed her hair, and spread bright scarlet cream over her lips, very carefully making sure not to smear it.

It took a quarter hour to prepare and cast the color-changing spell to fix the section of hair that Katerin had bleached. Lynwood would be expecting the Raven Queen, not Siobhan the Verdant Stag contractor, or even Silvia the courtesan.

Since she’d previously had trouble with this spell in Professor Burberry’s class, she squeezed every last drop of clarity and intent into her Will that she could manage. The spell worked well, perhaps even a little too well, leaving her hair a black that was so dark it almost shimmered blue.

Finally, she put the feathered ornaments back on, watching as they settled, lending a regal mystique to her presentation.

She transferred her spell components, the paper spell arrays, and Silvia’s identification to her new clothing and more stylish leather satchel, which was not nearly as convenient or spacious as her school satchel. “Women’s fashion,” she muttered disapprovingly.

When she looked nothing like the young man who attended the University, she exited the brothel through a different door than she’d entered through.

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Chapter 58 – The Constitution of Cockroaches

Sebastien

Month 12, Day 18, Friday 12:30 a.m.

Despite her exhaustion, Sebastien had trouble getting back to sleep after Professor Lacer’s impromptu nighttime visit. She had left Professor Lacer’s house with Damien, who looked just as shocked as she felt, practically marching on her heels.

Sebastien grilled him on everything Professor Lacer had said, but there really wasn’t much to go over. However Lacer had figured out the Will-strain, Damien hadn’t helped him, and she couldn’t really fault Damien for mentioning her Conduit when it had gotten her a new one—one so much better it almost made her want to cry with relief.

Now that her Conduit problem had been solved, she realized it had been rather obvious. She had instinctively wanted to keep her new, sub-par Conduit a secret, and not only because she didn’t want anyone wondering what she’d been doing to break her old one on the same weekend the Raven Queen almost got caught. She’d unconsciously believed that if the University found out, they would expect her to immediately rectify the situation or be kicked out. Celerium was ridiculously expensive, exponentially so at higher capacities, and students without a proper Conduit were endangering not only themselves but others.

But it was more than that. She hadn’t believed she could rely on or trust anyone but herself. It had been a long time since she learned that she was the only one in this world she could count on. ‘Maybe…maybe I can at least consider the option that someone else might actually be willing and able to help me when I need it,’ she thought, feeling uncomfortable with the idea. It didn’t feel safe to think like that. But the proof was in her hand. Professor Lacer hadn’t even asked for anything in return.

The Conduit he had loaned her was still raw and unfaceted, but had been set in a metal ring with an attachment for her to hang it as the counterweight for her pocket watch. It was a little cloudier than the one set in her mother’s ring, now in the Gervin Family’s hands, but still large enough that she estimated it would support six or seven hundred thaums. She would need to have it tested.

Damien was rather smug about the whole thing, but she was actually too tired to snap at him. She felt like she’d lived weeks over the course of that single day, with enough stress and mental exertion to fill it all.

Sebastien used her new Conduit to cast her dreamless sleep spell. It channeled magic like silk, and she poured as much into the spell as she wanted without worry.

On Friday, she woke still exhausted, and was thankful to only have the two classes: Modern Magics in the morning and Practical Casting in the late afternoon.

She spent the middle of her day in the library, on the ground floor in a spot where she could watch the staircase nearest Tanya Canelo, who was on the second floor where Sebastien couldn’t go.

She was reminded by the reduced number of bracelets hidden under her clothes on her forearm that she’d wanted to figure out how to cast that paper bird spell that was so common on the University grounds. It would be much more convenient to be able to send a secure message to Oliver, Katerin, or now even Damien, without needing to create a new pair of artifacts from scratch every time. Plus, just the ability to send a complete, nuanced message would make it worthwhile.

To her disappointment, while the spell’s details were easy enough to find, it wasn’t a viable option for her. Creating the paper alone was a long, complicated, and expensive process. It needed to be, for the paper to handle the magic and maintain the integrity of the animation and homing spells over even moderate distances.

Apparently, the folded birds were a type of enchanted artifact. The University Administration center staff saved time on the folding by casting a continue-motion spell, which she actually knew. It was a complex spell array, and finicky, but you could essentially give yourself an extra set of arms or a dumb assistant as long as you could concentrate on keeping the magic active.

All you had to do was demonstrate the action as one of the inputs of the spell, and an invisible force would continue the action, exactly, for as long as you could power it. It was good for things like stirring a pot continuously if you wanted to leave your hands free for something else. The woman she’d learned it from had used it for spinning thread and then weaving cloth.

There was another, more advanced version that Sebastien didn’t know. The mimeo-motion spell would allow duplication of the continued motion in multiple places. People used it most commonly for producing multiple copies of books. A scribe could write one page while the magic copied their actions across a couple dozen other sheets of paper. The spell would then continue making dozens more copies without the scribe.

It was one of the great innovations of the Third Empire, under the Blood Emperor’s reign, and the biggest reason that books had become widespread and even marginally affordable. Unfortunately, it was largely useless for any magical application. It couldn’t be used to create a dozen potions at the same time, for example.

Returning her thoughts to the paper bird messenger spell, Sebastien considered trying to get her hands on some of the sheets that someone else had made.

More discouragement hit when she learned the homing spell did not work on some magical extra sense. The paper bird simply moved to preprogrammed points or followed the homing beacon of the staff and student University tokens that everyone carried. The homing spell also grew more difficult to cast over distances more than a kilometer or two.

She gave up the idea of having her own paper birds sending messages at that point. ‘The University must be spending more on that little trick than people pay to send the messages. It’s just another way for them to show off.’ There were other magical methods to send messages to people, but all those she knew of were beyond her reach, either in resources, magical power, or knowledge, and most of the time in all three areas.

It looks like I’m going to have to make a few more bracelets.’ Damien would need a set of his own, after all. She might as well make some for Newton, too, while she was at it, and have them be part of a network, like her other bracelets were part of a network with Oliver and Katerin.

After that disappointment, Sebastien tried to study, but kept getting distracted trying to wrap her head around her piling mountain of problems.

Before she knew it, the morning had passed, and Tanya walked down the stairs, accompanied by Newton, who shot Sebastien a surreptitious thumbs-up behind Tanya’s back.

Sebastien didn’t follow. She didn’t want to make her interest in the other woman obvious.

The library emptied as most students went to lunch, but Sebastien’s stomach felt too sour and knotted to eat. “My life is falling apart,” she muttered. With a dramatic groan, she let herself slump forward until her forehead bumped the table.

“As bad as all that?” an amused voice asked from behind her.

Sebastien jerked up, turning to the woman who’d spoken. “Professor Ilma!” She tried to keep from focusing on the embarrassment so that she didn’t make it worse by blushing.

The blue-tinted woman sat down across the table from Sebastien. “Siverling, correct?”

Sebastien nodded.

Professor Ilma’s eyes drooped with boredom, her expression of disinterest belying her words. “It must take a lot for the life of a bright, motivated young man such as yourself to fall apart.”

Sebastien didn’t respond, staring at her History professor as she tried to figure out how to respond without seeming suspicious.

Professor Ilma stared back, content to wait.

“My problems all seem to compound upon each other,” Sebastien said finally. “That’s all.”

Ilma nodded, as if she’d expected that. “Real life problems are like that. Sometimes, one catalyst problem can create an avalanche as time passes, as it impacts a delicate balance of unstable components. We see this repeated over and over again in history. And yet, here we are, none of these—at the time catastrophic—events have stopped humankind in the long run.”

Is she trying to encourage me?

“This is not coincidence. We can take personal lessons from the greater lessons of people and times past.” Ilma raised her eyebrows, as if expecting Sebastien to agree, but when Sebastien only nodded bemusedly, she sighed and straightened.

Her voice took on the tone she used while lecturing in the classroom. “We’ve discussed how precarious it has been for the human species many times throughout history. Yet now, we are the dominant species of the most fertile lands of this continent. I don’t believe it’s some individual inherent superiority that has allowed this. There is a tendency to focus our attention on great men who did great deeds, as if they were important. And sometimes, they were, but generally they were only able to accomplish these great deeds because of an overall shift in the surrounding culture or established powers.”

Ilma pushed back from the desk, standing to pace like she did in her classroom. “Great men do great deeds with the force of a society behind them. Now, some would say that this ability to form groups of many individuals that help each other and work for mutual benefit is proof that the human species has a moralistic advantage, duty, and right to power and prosperity. But communities are not the purview of humans alone. And I would question whether this ability to form them is truly altruistic and a sign of morality, or whether it’s simply a matter of humans being so weak that this large super-organism of a city, or a country, is the only way for the individual to survive. Cooperation is utilitarian.”

The woman’s volume rose with passion, seemingly lost in her own thoughts. “If we are truly governed by morality, how can you explain the aggression, the persecution, the genocide against not only other species but ourselves? It is almost as if we cannot stop our inherent proclivity for aggression even when it’s not good for us. So, I posit that the real reason we have managed to survive is twofold. One, despite being so weak magically, we are extremely versatile. Like cockroaches. And like cockroaches, we breed quickly.”

Ilma stopped, seemingly realizing her audience, and turned back to Sebastien. Clearing her throat awkwardly, she retook her seat. “My point is, humans are versatile and incredibly resilient, not only as a species but as individuals. If you are searching for an answer to a complex problem…”

She shook her head. “Decisions, solutions, aren’t always as binary as we like to think of them. It’s not always a good deed or an evil one, greed or altruism, left or right. And it’s also not always some combination of the two. The middle path can be even worse than one extreme or the other. However, sometimes people realize this and jump to say that no right path exists. Or that all paths are equally valid. Both of these are usually just as incorrect as a simple binary answer. Though they might seem wiser, they are, in truth, useless. Humans don’t need useless answers. We need utility.” She stared at Sebastien as if expecting her to understand now.

Sebastien frowned, fascinated by the impromptu lecture despite her initial bemusement. “I understand what you’re saying, but…”

Ilma sighed again, speaking before Sebastien could continue. “Humans are versatile and hardy. Like cockroaches,” she repeated. “Whatever complex, intertwined problems you have, they are not insurmountable. It’s not that there are no answers to complex problems. There are usually many. It’s just that they’re hard to find, and even harder to implement. If you cannot find a solution, look at your problems from a different angle, pull in new resources, and don’t be afraid to be ruthlessly utilitarian. Sometimes the solution is to kill whatever problem is too resource-intensive to deal with.”

Sebastien thought all of that seemed reasonable, but she still wasn’t sure how to apply it to her specific situation. “Thank you,” she said, nonetheless.

Professor Ilma’s bored expression was back again. “Go to lunch,” she said. “Food is one of those resources humans need to solve problems.”

As Sebastien gathered up her things and left, Professor Ilma called after her. “Don’t forget your essay due on Tuesday!”

Ilma’s advice swirled around Sebastien’s mind, and she found herself thinking of it suddenly at random moments for a while afterward.

“Kill whatever problem you can’t deal with,” she muttered to herself. Her Conduit problem had already been solved, and to be fair, it was the most critical bottleneck in solving the remainder of her problems.

She had two surplus Conduits now, the one she’d bought recently, and the even smaller one she’d had since she was a child. Professor Lacer had intimated that she could keep the one he’d lent her as long as she needed it—at least as long as she stayed at the University. Perhaps she could recover some of the gold she’d spent.

She bundled up in her expensive wool jacket and a thick scarf and headed into the city for Orbs and Amulets, the Conduit “boutique.”

“I’d like to return a Conduit I bought here a few weeks ago,” Sebastien informed the attendant.

The woman’s face lost its welcoming smile. “All sales are final. However, we will purchase undamaged celerium for a marked-down price.”

Sebastien held up the small piece of crystal. “How much?”

The woman took it and used a spectacle device and a bright light to examine it, then said, “Forty-five gold.”

Sebastien’s jaw almost dropped. “I bought this Conduit, from this shop, less than three weeks ago for seventy-eight gold crowns.” Her voice grew hard. “Are you telling me celerium prices have dropped that much since then, or are you just trying to swindle me?”

The woman’s expression tightened, but she didn’t back down. “Prices haven’t fallen, sir. As you should know, there is a thirty percent tax on magical products, and that includes celerium. In addition to that, we have overhead.”

That was ridiculous. Sebastien said as much. “Especially because so little time has passed that I doubt you’ve reported or paid tax for the original sale yet. And there is no need to pay taxes on returned items, which by definition have not actually earned a profit. I still have my proof of purchase, this isn’t some random Conduit off the street.”

The woman sniffed. “All sales are final,” she repeated. “I’m happy to purchase this Conduit, but according to our policies there are no returns, receipt or no. Forty-seven gold is as high as I can go.”

Sebastien’s finger’s twitched with the urge to strangle her. She grabbed up her sub-par Conduit, spun, and strode out of the shop without another word. After she’d muttered angrily to herself for a few minutes, she tried her luck at a few other shops. While some offered slightly higher prices than Orbs and Amulets, none came close to the original seventy-eight gold she’d spent on it.

Frustrated, she began to trudge back to the University. ‘Maybe I could sell the Conduit through the Verdant Stag. At least that would allow me to avoid the magic tax.

She was glaring down at her boots when a small flutter of brightness caught her eye. She stopped.

At the corner of a building, in the bottom mouth of a downspout gutter, a sprite with glittering dragonfly wings was struggling to haul a thick piece of what might have been scrap leather, or might have just been a piece of decayed animal found on the streets, into the gutter.

Sebastien grinned and stepped closer, squatting down to watch it.

The sprite bared its tiny, sharp little teeth at her, glaring with its lidless insect eyes, but when she didn’t move to attack, it continued struggling with the piece of scrap it had selected for its nest.

She caught a glimpse of the two half-larvae children within, who looked much less humanoid and had not yet sprouted wings. “This is a bad place to make a nest,” she said to them. “The rain is going to come and wash you all away.”

The adult sprite buzzed a little at her, but of course it didn’t understand.

Sebastien took off her scarf, wrapping it around her hand and reaching out for the sprite to see if it would let her pick it up.

It attacked viciously, but didn’t fly away as it might have done if not for its children. Its teeth cut through the yarn of her scarf rather easily, but didn’t injure her hand beneath.

Still, Sebastien drew away. She didn’t want to ruin her scarf—it had been expensive—and the sprite was too distressed to handle relocation. It might hurt itself out of panic.

It chittered and buzzed at her, and even flew at her face a few times to try and drive her away.

“Stop that! I’m trying to help you,” she said, ducking back. ‘Maybe a box, or a pot, something I could put them in to hold them safely and securely.’ She had nothing like that on her person, but she might be able to borrow one from a nearby shop or home. ‘Or maybe I could cast a docility spell on them.’ She’d watched Liza cast one on her ravens a couple of times, and was confident she could replicate it.

She stared at the angry, frightened creature for a while longer. The children within were wiggling, expressions of distress on their tiny, alien faces. They looked cold.

Tilting her head to the side in consideration, Sebastien slowly brought her Will to bear, not casting any magic, but letting it emanate from her like she did when preparing potion ingredients, before they went into the cauldron. There were other types of magic than those cast in modern sorcery. The animists of old had used no Circles, no spells, and no structured magic to create and control their domains. Yet, within them, they spoke to and seemingly controlled everything from the animals to the trees, having connected the life of the land to their own.

Animals were said to be sensitive to both magic and intent, though tests had been rather inconclusive. With her Will activated, Sebastien took a while to examine her own feelings of benevolence toward the sprites, and her surety that they were in danger. She tried to push all of that feeling into her Will, to let it carry her desire to communicate. “I don’t want to hurt you,” she whispered. “You are not safe. I want to take you to a new nest. It will be warm and dry there. You can trust me.”

The adult sprite glared and buzzed even harder at first, but Sebastien kept pushing her thoughts into her Will, simplifying them into pure emotion.

When she reached out a second time, the sprite struggled a bit in her scarf-covered hand, but not as viciously as before. Sebastien fumbled out her little vial of honey from her vest pocket, clumsily opened it with her free hand, and offered it to the sprite.

The creature was immediately entranced. It shoved both its arms into the vial as far as it could push them, coating its forearms and pulling back with both hands cupped full of the sticky amber liquid. It ate in big, messy gulps, oblivious to the world.

Sebastien picked up the children and the bedding, too, holding the nest within the shield of her scarf. Sprites could get confused if they were relocated without the pheromones soaked into their nest.

The sprite ate the entire way back to the University, demanding more honey for itself and its children several times, enough to use up half her vial and have its belly bulging full.

She dug out a space for them at the base of a tree that had some protective bushes around it, adding a little trench so that any water could flow away rather than fill their new nest and drown them. She gave them their bedding, including the piece of ratty leather, and added some cotton from her own magic supplies, which she fluffed up, along with one of the lava peppers she’d taken from Modern Magics when they were practicing the spark-shooting spell. It wouldn’t provide much heat, but even a little could help get them through the winter.

The sprites seemed completely uninterested in her, and in no way grateful.

Still, she smiled down at them. She felt better. Her frustration and fear from earlier in the day had melted away. “I can handle this,” she whispered to them, then left to go do her homework assignments.

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Chapter 57 – Noticing Confusion

Thaddeus

Month 12, Day 17, Thursday 11:55 p.m.

After returning from the site of the false rogue magic alarm, which was still cordoned off while the investigators scoured the area for evidence, Thaddeus had learned of the failed scrying attempt on the Raven Queen. Suddenly the timing and effort that had gone into disrupting the whole city’s lives for a couple of hours that morning had made sense.

Now, much later, he sat in one of the many rooms in the network of restricted archives beneath the library, looking through an ancient text written in a long-forgotten language. Despite the importance of his research, he found himself distracted.

Setting off the city’s rogue magic alarms was not simple. No ordinary citizen could do it. The effort that had gone into faking the scene was impressive, considering the limited time the culprit must have had between setting off the alarms and the arrival of the Red Guard. It had seemed senseless, at first, before he realized that it was quite the perfect distraction.

When the sirens had gone off, Thaddeus had requested all the details, as he always did, and had hurried to leave the University when he was told it was an Aberrant, Master-level, and an Eldritch type. He’d hoped to arrive in time to see it in action, and to study it before the Red Guard took it—or its remains—away to one of their black sites. The Aberrant earlier that month had been a particularly interesting specimen, an anomaly, and he’d been hoping for a repeat, though he knew the chances were exceedingly low.

The Red Guard had arrived before him and had already cordoned off an area around where the beacon had been sent from. They were sweeping the area thoroughly, but the citizens had evacuated to the nearest shelter already, leaving the street eerily still, silent except for the piercing sirens.

The signs of what seemed to be a violent Aberrant attack were obvious.

The doors lining each side of the street in about a two-block area were smashed in, some torn entirely off their hinges. Blood, guts, and organs were splashed haphazardly in and around each doorway. The blood was already half-curdled, sitting in stinking, oozing, jellylike lumps rather than spreading and pooling. The bodies were in pieces and entirely unrecognizable, missing head, limbs, and any other identifying features.

As he wasn’t an active member of a Red Guard emergency direct response squad, Thaddeus had to stay on the edge of the cordon with one of the communication and containment team members. But that didn’t stop him from casting diagnostic and warding spells.

He caught no signs of the Aberrant. As time passed and the communication team member beside him reporting a similar lack of success from the direct response team, Thaddeus grew increasingly alarmed.

“Could it be a Nightmare?” one of the containment team members muttered to his partner.

Even the words sent a cold centipede crawling up Thaddeus’s back. He crouched down to draw out the most comprehensive and obscure ward against mental interference that he knew.

No Aberrant was exactly the same as another, but they came in broad types.

A Nightmare, especially one at Master level, was the kind of thing that could warrant an entire village and all the people within being quarantined and then firebombed indiscriminately in a desperate attempt to deal with it. Nightmare-types were named such because they could control, in some way, the subjective experience of the people trying to take them down. They used stealth, subversion, or mind-control.

Thaddeus had seen Nightmares that could walk right past a prognos without them realizing they were in danger. Others could insert themselves into your memories as an innocuous friend that you believed was harmless and amicable, despite any and all evidence to the contrary. Others were barely mutated by the change, passing as the humans they had once been, while inside they were twisted and corrupted.

This ward wouldn’t help if the Aberrant was invisible, or could transform into an animal, or travel through the reflection of the shop windows, but all those were things he could handle. The sanctity of his mind was paramount.

It wasn’t until the direct response squad found the huge buckets filled with traces of blood and offal that they began to suspect the truth. The buckets were from a nearby butcher’s shop, and had been stashed in a back room of one of the smashed-up houses.

When they found the pair of coppers who had set off the rogue magic sirens, that suspicion became a near-certainty. The coppers were lying on the ground in another house, drunk to the point of unconsciousness and relieved of the artifact that allowed all law enforcement teams to trigger the alarms.

The direct response squad levitated them back, tossed them into a quarantine ward, and forcefully sobered them up with a couple of potions. The inebriated coppers could have been the product of an Aberrant with particularly strange abilities, but Thaddeus already suspected they had all been duped.

Fighting severe hangovers, both coppers denied triggering the alarms. They didn’t remember anything past stopping for lunch in one of the now-emptied pubs.

Whoever had done this was competent. The alarm-triggering artifact law enforcement teams carried was complicated, and required various inputs to send off the call for help and activate the alarms. Either the perpetrator had known the password string and the various codes to communicate danger levels to the Red Guard, or they had extracted that information from the coppers. They’d taken the artifact with them, too, and must have started falsifying the scene immediately after the area was evacuated, then escaped shortly before the arrival of the Red Guard.

Of course, all this evidence wasn’t enough to make them let down their guard. They had to verify that the blood and offal were all from animals, cast divinations to confirm that the broken-down doorways were damaged by a standard concussive blast spell, and search for signs of curses, erased memories, and replacement or subversion of the two coppers. No two Aberrants were exactly alike, after all.

Hours of tedium later, and with only a little bit of work as an expert consultant on Thaddeus’s part, they had determined with surety that there had never been an Aberrant at all.

The Raven Queen, possibly one Siobhan Naught, had foiled the attempt to find her flawlessly.

He wondered if she had some further use for the alarm-triggering artifact she, or her agent, had taken from the coppers. Unlike the last time she’d had an altercation with law enforcement, she hadn’t shown herself directly. Even the report of the Master level Eldritch-type hadn’t matched her description or that of her shadow-raven companion.

The Raven Queen seemed the type to make a show of it. She would poke fun at their inability to stop or catch her, or leave behind some gift that would perplex and frighten them. This had been skillful, but it lacked her bold, playful signature. He doubted she’d been directly involved in the operation.

Thaddeus stared sightlessly at the arcane glyphs on the ancient parchment laid carefully on the desk in front of him, simultaneously fatigued and filled with restless energy now that he was back at the University.

He wondered again what had been in the book she stole. Those higher up in the University and the Crowns surely knew, and thought it was important. Important enough that they were treating it like a national secret. Casual questions had lent no information, even to him, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to be seen being too interested.

If she were looking at the text before him—records of those who had lost themselves to magic thousands of years ago—would she be able to read them? Would she understand the significance of his research?

He dismissed the thought along with the desire behind it. She was too volatile, too inclined to risky undertakings to be a viable partner. And his work was too important to gamble.

Perhaps, though, that would make her the perfect test subject.

Again, he dismissed the idea. It was too reckless to even consider.

As much as he hated to admit it, sometimes he got lonely, being the only one with big ideas, the only one who really seemed to see and understand.

Maybe that was part of the reason he had finally decided to take an apprentice, provisional or not. He had seen potential in the Siverling boy, both in the perspective that leaked through in his test answers, and in his Will.

There was an intangible quality of the Will that had nothing to do with practice or even intelligence. It was that hidden part that was vaguely categorized as “force.”

Thaddeus had always likened it to an all-consuming hunger. A bloodlust. A lack of self-imposed limitations. That was what it really was. And he could see that quality in the boy’s dark eyes.

Maybe Thaddeus had taken an apprentice in the hopes that he could, through imparting his own knowledge and ideas to someone with a similar lack of self-imposed limitations, create a companion for himself.

He had found himself recently disappointed in that choice, with Siverling deliberately underperfoming in class for Damien Westbay’s benefit. Thinking about it again, Thaddeus grew irritated. The memory of the boy refusing to keep casting past Damien’s limit and then staring Thaddeus down in his office afterward niggled like an itch in the back of his brain.

Thaddeus lifted his head, latching on to that itch. It wasn’t just irritation. It was confusion—something didn’t make sense. Why would someone like Sebastien Siverling, proud and angry, bend his neck to a Westbay? Were he the type to do that, he never would have gotten into an argument or rivalry with the other boy. He wouldn’t have had the gall to look Thaddeus in the eye.

Thaddeus grabbed onto his confusion, tearing it open. He delved into his memory of that day.

Siverling had been prone to wincing, some better hidden than others. He had been sure to face away from the light. He had kept his hands under the table, pressed against it, or in his pockets. He’d spoken as little as possible, moved as little as possible, maintaining impeccable posture. And despite Thaddeus’s watchful gaze, he had refused to keep casting over approximately two hundred thaums.

Damien had been worried for him.

“Will-strain,” Thaddeus whispered.

He straightened, leaning away from the table. How had he not seen it? He was more than familiar with the signs. He knew Siverling was the type to push his limits like he didn’t quite believe they existed. The boy was a reckless fool, and eager to prove himself.

Thaddeus stood, moving as quickly as he could while still taking care to put the ancient parchment back into its spot gently. Siverling had already proved himself too stubborn to come clean. Otherwise, he would have done it immediately and saved himself Thaddeus’s ire.

No. Damien was the weak link here.

Thaddeus strode through the winding archives up into the library proper, which was closed to students and dark at this hour. He created a floating light above his head with a thought. It followed him all the way to the student dorms, which were also dark, and as silent as a building that housed thousands of young adults could be at midnight.

It took him a couple of tries to find the ground floor room with his apprentice’s student group.

When he did, he snuffed the light, then cast a spell that would muffle sound in a large bubble around himself. He was just tall enough to see over the edges of the cubicles, so there was no need to pull back the curtains on every random student. He walked through the aisle separating the young women and men, noting the occasional sloppy wards placed by the barely competent “firsties.”

Damien’s bed was only two removed from the end, where Siverling had pressed his small bed and himself into the corner of the walls, like a cornered animal.

Thaddeus flicked back the thin curtain in front of Damien’s stone cubicle, strode inside, and clasped his hand over the boy’s sleeping face.

Damien woke with a gasp, scrabbling frantically at Thaddeus’s hand.

Thaddeus stayed still until the boy realized it was him and stopped fighting. Then he took his hands away, wiping the saliva off his palm with a grimace of distaste.

“Professor Lacer,” Damien croaked. “What are you doing here?” He looked around, wild-eyed and panting.

“That day in my class, when Siverling couldn’t beat you—he had Will-strain. For some reason, he was keeping this a secret.” He raised one eyebrow in a menacing, silent query.

Damien pushed himself into a sitting position, shaking his head. “It’s not what you think.”

“Oh? Then what is it?” he asked darkly.

Damien looked toward Sebastien’s cubicle, though he wouldn’t be able to see anything with the cubicle between them. Still, the thought of the other boy, so close, seemed to calm him. His breathing slowed, and he sat up more fully. “Well, obviously you think it’s something that warrants waking me up in the middle of the night like some assassin. I don’t know exactly what conclusions you’ve drawn, but I assure you, Sebastien is…he’s a good person. He deserves to be here. He’s smart, and driven, and maybe someday he’ll beat your record for the youngest Master of free-casting.”

Thaddeus raised an eyebrow at that.

Damien swallowed, but continued. “Coming here, to me, in the middle of the night was an act of…alarm.”

“Or insatiable curiosity and a disregard for social norms,” Thaddeus said.

Damien blinked at him. “Umm. Well. I’m not going to sate your curiosity.” He drew himself up a little straighter, lifting his chin defiantly. “But I can tell you that if you were alarmed, you don’t need to be. Sebastien is responsible.”

“Or you are gullible.” Thaddeus considered him for a moment. “Do you think being a Westbay will protect you from the consequences of defying me?” He stared into the boy’s eyes, imagining himself boring into those wide pupils like a maggot searching for answers.

Damien shuddered. His eyes seemed to darken, and for a minute he reminded Thaddeus of the older Westbay brother, Titus, uncowed and defiant. “I’m more than a Family name, Professor Lacer. I respect you, but I will not be cowed by you.”

Thaddeus smiled and stepped back. “I see he has a loyal friend in you. That’s good, I suppose. He’s foolish enough to need someone around to help him get out of trouble. As long as you don’t help him get into it, too.”

“It wasn’t his fault,” Damien admitted, his cheeks reddening. “I’m not going to say anything more about it. I promised my silence.”

Thaddeus was slightly irritated, but he couldn’t deny some equal measure of satisfaction. Whatever he had done, Siverling had created a loyal and powerful ally. Those were useful.

Damien poked a finger upward, as if remembering something. He spoke slowly, as if sounding out the idea even as he spoke it. “However, I will say that you should provide better for your apprentice—provisional or not. How can he prove himself to you without the proper tools? If he’s going to win contribution points at the end of term exhibitions, he’s going to need a better Conduit.”

Thaddeus stared at him a moment, then spun around, leaving Damien and stalking to the end of the room. He pulled back Sebastien’s curtains more gently than he had Damien’s.

The boy woke as soon as Thaddeus took the first step into the little cubicle.

Siverling tensed, but he wasn’t disoriented, his black eyes immediately locking on to Thaddeus while his hand slipped under his pillow. Likely palming his Conduit. His sub-par Conduit.

Siverling watched him approach, saying nothing.

Thaddeus leaned over him, speaking softly. “Do not speak. Listen, and hear me. I know that earlier this month in my class, when you refused to perform to the best of your abilities, you were hiding Will-strain.” He watched the boy for a response, but there was none, not even a hitch in his breath or a flutter of an eyelash. “I don’t care about whatever foolishness caused you to reach that point. Mr. Westbay has assured me of his silence on the matter, even in the face of threats. However, my tolerance requires that you understand one salient point.”

Thaddeus let his voice grow softer, as with a certain type of person that was more intimidating than growling or shouting. “You will not place yourself or other students in such grave danger ever again. I do not care if you have stretched your Will to the end of its limits by torturing small animals or performing depraved sexual acts with some of the more questionable members of the student body. As long as you do not bring shame to my name. I do care that you do not afterward disregard the safety of yourself and everyone around you by continuing to cast. You could have killed yourself and half the students in that classroom with your stubbornness. Never again.” He whispered the last part, then stared into Siverling’s eyes in silence.

Siverling nodded jerkily.

“The correct thing to do would have been to refuse to cast at all. Ideally, with a pass from the infirmary.”

Siverling nodded again.

“Good. You will regret it if we are forced to have this conversation again.”

Another nod from the boy, who was still following Thaddeus’s original order not to speak.

“Now, onto the second matter. Show me your Conduit.”

Slowly, suspiciously, Siverling pulled his fist from beneath his pillow, unclenching it to show the pitiful chunk of raw, uncut celerium within.

Thaddeus plucked it up, weighing it in his hand and then creating a light behind it to see its clarity. He sneered with disgust, tossing the disgraceful shard back at his apprentice. “That thing could barely be expected to support the Will of a child of thirteen.”

Siverling just stared back up at him, blinking against the brightness of Thaddeus’s light.

His silence, rather than being gratifying, was beginning to irritate. “Speak, boy. Did your family not provide you anything better?”

Siverling’s eyes narrowed at that. “I’m on my own. I know it’s not very good, but I’ve been being careful with it. It’s a good lesson in efficiency,” he said challengingly.

Thaddeus snorted. “It is a lesson in impoverishment, and leaves you no room to grow. Come with me. No dawdling.”

Siverling’s jaw lifted. “Am I being expelled?”

“No, you imbecile. I am rectifying this problem, which you should have come to me with as soon as you knew.”

As soon as Siverling had thrown on his jacket and boots, Thaddeus straightened his own jacket and strode out of the room. They were joined by Damien, who said stubbornly, “I’m coming too,” when both Thaddeus and Siverling gave him surprisingly similar expressions of refusal. Thaddeus didn’t have the inclination to argue at the moment.

When they stepped out into the night air, both boys flinched at the chill. Thaddeus took a deep breath, somewhat enjoying the bite against his lungs, and let his muffling bubble fall away. “Did the University’s loaner program not have anything better than that? Or did you shatter theirs and are trying to put off having to pay?”

Both of them looked at him blankly. He exhaled heavily, his breath fogging in the air. “The University offers low-level Conduits to first-term students who need them. All students should have been made aware of this when they signed up for their classes.”

“Never heard of it,” Damien said.

“Perhaps they thought I didn’t look poor enough,” his apprentice muttered darkly.

“Indeed,” Thaddeus said. “In any case, you are beyond needing a low-level Conduit, so the point is moot.”

When he led them toward the east instead of one of the other University buildings, Damien asked, “Where are we going?”

“To my lodgings. As a professor, I have been afforded a small cottage on the grounds. I keep my old Conduits there.”

The two boys shared a look of surprised excitement.

He had them stay in the entryway while he retrieved the Conduit from his warded safe in the back room. He tossed it to his apprentice, who caught it, wide-eyed. “I won that one off a particularly foolish noble in a rural tavern. He tried to have me killed for the offense, but I disabused him of that notion. This Conduit was better than my own at the time, and I used it until I outgrew it. Do not make me solve this problem for you again, Siverling.”

The boy looked up at him, his expressions vacillating rapidly between several different emotions. “I will not. Thank you, Professor Lacer.”

Beside him, Damien was smiling rather smugly. No doubt the boy felt pleased to have orchestrated this.

“You will return that to me when you have outgrown it. Now go! Back to the dorms with you,” Thaddeus ordered, scowling. “It is well after curfew, and you’ve rudely kept me awake too long already.”

With his fist clenched around the Conduit, Siverling gave him a stiff bow, then turned and left without another word, copied quickly by young Damien.

As Thaddeus had noted before, a disregard for even the idea of limits was necessary for all truly great thaumaturges. Siverling’s disregard was a little too broad, though. Will-strain was a sign that you had already lost control, and continuing past it was the kind of madness that turned promising young men into corpses, or worse.

As Thaddeus prepared for sleep, one of his few true indulgences in life, he found the edge of his lip curling up in a slight smirk. By rights, he should be furious, but instead he found himself ruefully amused. “Children,” he muttered aloud.

At least Siverling wasn’t boring.

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Chapter 56 – Forming a Team

Sebastien

Month 12, Day 17, Thursday 9:15 p.m.

Damien had to stop outside the library and adjust to the brightness of the lights illuminating the path and the doorway. He still winced when he entered, shielding his potion-dilated eyes even though the building’s shimmering walls and the ceiling were dimmed, not shining with daylight-brightness.

“Do you think he’ll agree?” Damien asked her as they made their way toward the private room Newton usually booked for tutoring.

“I’m not sure,” Sebastien admitted. “It might depend on his sense of honor, or his regard for the two of us compared to her.”

They slipped inside the private room as Newton was packing up, with less than an hour left until the library closed. His clothes were wrinkled, his eyes tired, and his fingers smudged with ink and chalk.

Damien closed the small room’s door, then locked it.

Newton’s eyes trailed this movement, and then went to Sebastien. “What’s going on?” His tone was too weary to seem alarmed, even if he had been inclined to anxiety.

“Do you remember the offer you made, concerning employment?” Sebastien asked.

Newton nodded slowly.

“I’m here to take you up on it, a bit sooner than perhaps either of us expected.”

“You want to hire me?” Newton asked her, looking to Damien questioningly.

“Why don’t you sit?” Damien said, gesturing to one of the newly vacated chairs around the table. “The job is contingent upon your performance in this impromptu interview.”

Still obviously confused, Newton obliged.

The two of them sat across from him. To Sebastien’s relief, Damien didn’t immediately try to take over the flow of conversation, deferring to her to start.

“What I require is of a delicate nature,” she said. “The kind of thing that might call for you to lie to a classmate or friend, but nothing that forces you to harm the innocent or do anything truly distasteful. Is that the kind of thing you can handle?”

Newton hesitated, but nodded. “Hypothetically, yes. But… Sebastien, what is this about?”

“Your silence is the prerequisite for saying any more, whether or not you decide to take the job. Can you agree to that as well?” she asked.

He hesitated, then leaned forward, lowering his voice. “Are you asking me to help you cheat on the mid-term exams? Because, to be honest, I really don’t have a way to make that happen, and I’m also not sure that either of you would benefit very much. Westbay already scored among the top three hundred incoming students, and you cannot be that worried about your own results, Sebastien. Besides, it’s the end of term exams you should really be worried—”

Sebastien stopped him with a hand gesture, unable to hide her smile. “No, Newton. It’s not that at all.” She looked to Damien, then back to Newton. “Can we trust that you’ll keep this conversation private? I want your oath, or we walk out this door right now.”

Newton straightened, looking more alarmed. “I swear on my name and honor, unless I judge that what you tell me will bring serious harm to yourselves or others, I will not divulge the contents of this conversation. Now please explain.”

“We want you to spy on Tanya Canelo!” Damien burst out before Sebastien could say anything, vibrating with poorly suppressed excitement.

Sebastien could have strangled him. Damien could be smooth and cunning just long enough for her to let down her guard, and then slip into this childish obliviousness and ruin it.

Newton’s face sped through a series of expressions, too quick for Sebastien to decipher them, and finally settled on wary interest. “I don’t understand.” He paused, losing focus for a moment as his gaze turned thoughtfully inward. “Or rather, I understand the actual words you’re saying, but…why? What would I be looking for?”

At least he didn’t immediately refuse. He’s considering it.

“Everything,” Sebastien said simply. “Even the things that don’t seem particularly memorable. We want to know every time she leaves your sight, anyone she speaks with, even the things she researches for homework projects.”

“Can I ask why?”

“No, you can’t,” Damien said.

“We have good reasons,” Sebastien said. “And no intention to place ourselves or other students in harm’s way.”

Newton rubbed one of the ink splotches on his fingers, staring at her. “Did Tanya do something? Offend you?”

She smiled. “She did something. It didn’t offend me personally. And before you ask, it’s the kind of delicate matter that we cannot take to the authorities. We could do this without you, but…” Sebastien reached into her pocket and pulled out the small purse Oliver had given her. It held the operating expenses he’d supplied for this mission; Tanya being associated with the Morrows and the Morrows possibly having a connection to the University—and its power—was relevant to him as well as her. After purchasing the astronomy potion, of which she now had several useless doses remaining, the purse contained eighteen gold and one silver. If she needed more funds, she would have to ask for them. She pulled out one gold crown and set it on the table, then pushed it with her finger toward Newton. “Two gold a week,” she said, leaving the coin in front of him. “That’s a signing bonus. Either you trust me or you don’t.”

Damien eyed the purse with some surprise, as if trying to gauge how much was hidden within.

Newton looked down at the coin, then up at her, his bloodshot eyes inscrutable. “I trust you,” he said, palming the coin. “So tell me again, and in detail. What do you need me to track?”

Sebastien didn’t try to restrain her smile. “I’m happy to be working with you,” she said. She didn’t know if he actually trusted her, or if he was simply desperate for the chance to make extra coin, but it didn’t matter as long as he did what was asked of him.

She proceeded to detail exactly what that was. “We’ll want detailed written reports and a verbal review twice a week,” she finished. “Be discreet. Take the opportunity to get into her confidence, if possible. If you find something particularly important you can earn a bonus, but we don’t expect you to place yourself in any dangerous situations.”

When they were done with the instructions, Newton left to get started. As his solo dorm room was directly adjacent to Tanya’s, he would be able to keep tabs on her in the evening and early morning.

As Newton was leaving, he turned back to face Sebastien. “Thank you for thinking of me for this,” he said, adjusting the strap of his school bag nervously. “And, umm, for pointing Alec Gervin my way.” He gave her a mischievous grin. “I’m charging him three gold a week for one-on-one lessons, and it’s going to be even more for the exam prep sessions.”

She grinned back. “I heard from someone knowledgeable that it works best to treat him like a dog.”

Damien flopped his head back and groaned, not without amusement.

Newton grinned wider. “Treats, praise, and plenty of exercise. Got it.”

When Newton had gone, Sebastien locked the door again. She took a seat and crossed one leg over the other. “Your first assignment is researching and developing other ways we’ll be able to keep track of her. I’d like to put a ward on her door, so we know when she goes in and out, especially at odd times. A tracker would be even better. Use the library as a resource. It will have all the knowledge you need, as long as you’re skilled enough to compile it. If you get stuck, come to me. If you need assistance casting, I can also help with that. In fact, I would prefer to. Be circumspect about letting anyone else understand what you’re doing.”

Damien nodded without hesitation. “I already have some ideas. I’ll bring you a solution by tomorrow night. Perhaps it won’t be as elegant as some of the things my brother’s people come up with, but speed is of the essence, right?”

“We’ll have time to improve the system, if nothing happens. If something does happen, we need to be aware, even if it’s not exactly elegant,” she agreed. “As long as it’s subtle enough that she won’t become suspicious.”

Damien bounced on his feet, swinging his arms like a child who’d eaten too much sugar. “I can’t wait to get started. I’m going to start looking up references.” He hurried off into the stacks without waiting for a response, muttering, “I wish the library were open later. Only half an hour to check out everything I need…”

Sebastien watched him go with a bemused expression. She checked out a few books of her own and took them back to the dorms to finish her homework, then practiced Professor Lacer’s extra exercises. In some ways, it seemed a little foolish to be doing that with everything that had happened in the last day, but it wouldn’t do to be so afraid of what the future might bring that she ran around like a chicken with her head cut off and failed to prepare for said future. Improving her Will was something she could never neglect.

She had moved on to the third auxiliary exercise, which seemed to complement the new main exercise. It was very simple, only requiring her to create a ball of compressed air, and had similar principles to the air-cushion spell she’d learned years before to make bumpy wagon rides more comfortable.

With her small, contaminated Conduit, she could only compress a small volume. This exercise required a simpler thought process than the three-dimensional maze or the skewed sympathetic movement spell, but unlike the original ball-spinning exercise, at no point did inertia make the process easier. It seemed to actively fight against her with every second, pressing back against her Will with equal and opposite force, always vying to escape and disperse through any point of weakness.

Being forced to cast with a sub-par Conduit was starting to noticeably improve her efficiency, which was about the only upside. Out of the initial five bonus exercises, there were two left that she had yet to attempt. Though she had wanted to gain a basic measure of competency in all of them by the mid-terms, she knew that was probably impossible by now. All the extra things she had to worry about had hampered her progress.

There were no more attempts to scry her, which wasn’t necessarily a surprise but was a relief. She felt like someone teetering at the edge of weightlessness on a rope swing, not sure yet if she would fly off or drop back down. The coppers could just be biding their time, or maybe Tanya had really disrupted their ability to try again, at least for now. She tried not to be too anxious waiting for the moment when they would surprise her again.

The next morning, she got a letter from Oliver, brought by a runner and then delivered by the Administration office. She broke the wax seal and tore through the redundant paste seal below that. He’d been conscious of security, even though the only thing inside was a meeting time and a note to arrive a few hours early.

The Raven Queen would be meeting with the Nightmare Pack leader that Sunday, an hour after dark, approximately thirteen minutes after six, when the moon would be highest in the sky. It was an oddly specific time, but some people were prone to dramatics.

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Chapter 55 – A Pact of Stars

Sebastien

Month 12, Day 17, Thursday 8:30 p.m.

On Oliver’s instruction, Sebastien stopped by a small apothecary in the good part of town just before they closed and bought a single potion. He’d given her a purse of twenty gold for the new mission’s expenses, but she still found the price of nineteen silver exorbitant and painful. In a small town, the same amount could have fed her for two to three weeks. ‘Everything in Gilbratha is overpriced,’ she grumbled mentally.

Back at the University, a couple of hours after sundown, she stopped by Tanya’s dorm door. Light shone through the crack at the bottom, and the movement of shadows showed someone was awake within. Sebastien listened for a while, but heard nothing.

Satisfied that she wouldn’t gain anything from more snooping at the moment, she strode into the dorms and retrieved a few small items from the chest at the base of her bed.

Westbay’s cubicle was only a couple away from her own. His curtains were still open, and he sat in bed scribbling on a piece of paper—likely working on one of the essays they’d been assigned. He looked up, meeting her gaze with some surprise.

“Come with me,” she said. Without waiting for a response, she turned around and strode out of the room. She heard Westbay scrambling to put on his boots and coat behind her, but didn’t slow, heading out of the dorm building and toward the Citadel.

She went to the classroom that Westbay and his friends used for their morning study group. The building was mostly empty by now, with classes over and those who wanted to study likely gone to the library to do so. She took a seat at the table.

When Westbay entered, she said, “Close the door.” When he did so, she gestured to the seat across from her. It was an auspicious sign that he was obeying without complaint or hesitation.

He settled slowly into the chair, light grey eyes meeting her dark ones, full of questions.

She folded her hands on the table, staring at him until the silence became uncomfortable. Finally, she asked, “What did you see today?”

“What did I see?” he repeated, confused.

“I had the idea that you’re not completely oblivious to what’s going on around you. Was I wrong?”

Damien leaned forward, his shoulders loosening even as his chin rose and a small, satisfied smile stretched his lips. “You weren’t wrong. I did see things. I saw that Tanya Canelo got a letter that made her anxious. I saw that you followed her, or whatever clue you picked up from that divination spell you were casting—I noticed that, too—to Eagle Tower. I saw that she seemed to know when the rogue magic sirens would go off, almost as if it was planned.” He paused, searching for a reaction, but when she gave him none, he continued. “I saw that she hid while everyone was evacuating, and was in the perfect position to cause that alchemy explosion and stop the coppers from finding the Raven Queen. I saw she had a scar, and I saw that it meant something to you, but I don’t know what. And I saw that you disappeared after classes, which probably has something to do with all this.”

Her expression remained neutral. “Is that all?” It was more than she had hoped, definitely, but it could have been worse. Westbay wasn’t a complete idiot, after all.

He seemed taken aback. “Well…perhaps I missed some things because I don’t have all the connecting information to understand what’s mundane and what’s a clue. But I think I did fairly well for coming into your investigation cold. Don’t you?”

My investigation? Well, that’s about the best spin he could put on it. Except he has ties to real investigators, and none of them will have any clue who I am, or find it amusing that I’ve seemingly been withholding evidence on an ongoing operation.’ She remained silent for a few moments, trying to figure out the best approach. ‘I wish Oliver was here. He may have coached me, but an hour is not enough to gain real skill.’ Aloud, she asked, “Have you mentioned any of this to anyone?”

Westbay shook his head. “No. I can keep a secret, Sebastien. I told you that. And I’m not an idiot. You don’t go around talking about an open investigation where a possible enemy or criminal could hear you.”

“Not even to the coppers?” she asked.

His eyes narrowed. “You haven’t gone to them either,” he said, as if defending himself.

She raised an eyebrow.

He frowned. “Unless…they know about you?”

She kept her eyebrow raised.

His frown flattened and his eyes went wide. “Or they have moles among the ranks,” he breathed, “and you can’t go to them.”

He wasn’t wrong. Oliver did have informants among the coppers, though that had nothing to do with this. Westbay was also making up his own answers to unanswered questions, just like Oliver had said he would.

“What’s going on? With Canelo, and you…and the Raven Queen? Who set off those rogue magic alarms? Was it the Raven Queen? Tell me,” Westbay commanded.

Sebastien snorted.

Westbay’s eyes narrowed. “You owe me a favor, Siverling. Do I need to call it due?”

She bared her teeth at him. “That favor is the only reason you’re in this room with me right now. But it’s only a medium favor. Not nearly enough to get that kind of information. Besides, I’m not sure you’re being totally truthful about your ability to maintain confidentiality, Westbay. Because you did indeed talk about an ongoing investigation with me, who you didn’t know and had no idea that you could trust. All I had to do was show a little interest in the Raven Queen.”

He gaped and stammered before recovering. “Well, that was… I didn’t give out any critical information, and probably nothing you couldn’t have found out by going to the right taverns after a shift of coppers were off work for the day. This is different.”

“You’ve proven your mouth can be loose when you don’t think it’s important, or when you’re around friends, or when you want to impress someone.”

“This is different,” he insisted, his nose flaring as he leaned forward. “I’d never talk about a case I’m involved in, whether the information was important or not.”

“Not even to your closest family members? To your brother?”

“My brother? You…think Titus can’t be trusted? Or someone around him?”

She waved her hand dismissively. “I think that if you’ll tell a secret to your closest family member…” She leaned forward. “If you’ll talk at all, that’s it. You’ll talk. And even if it’s only ever to that one person, even if it’s only when it seems reasonable, even necessary, then that one person can be used against you. In your case, Westbay, there’s one particular enemy that I’d like to avoid ever getting wind of what I—and possibly you—will be doing here.” She waited a beat. “Your father.”

He blinked, then shook his head. “My father? He’s not—”

“I believe you know that’s not true,” she said firmly, cutting him off. She resisted the urge to swallow nervously or let her gaze slide away.

He stared back at her, small expressions she couldn’t decipher flitting across his face. Finally, he said, “I’m not sure if you’re insinuating something deeper, but you’re right that he’d want to stop me, and you by extension. He doesn’t respect me.” His last sentence was simple, but even Sebastien could tell it held a wealth of emotion.

She leaned into it. “The man is a stain on the name of all nobility,” she said, her voice low. Oliver had told her a strong, even offensive stance against Lord Westbay would be one of the best ways to keep his son’s mouth shut.

Damien’s eyelids fluttered at the words.

She pushed one step further. “He has no honor.”

When Damien didn’t immediately respond, she knew she hadn’t misstepped. It was actually somewhat exhilarating.

“You’re different from him,” she continued. “And you don’t have to be constrained by your name or your blood. So let me ask you, Damien Westbay. What do you want?”

He considered for a moment, then said, “I want to know what’s going on. I’d like to help, as an ally.”

Sebastien almost released a bark of incredulous laughter. ‘Has he not even considered the danger, or that whatever I’m involved in might not be on the side of the “good guys” from those stories he likes to read?

“You might think I’m foolish, but there’s a lot I can offer, Sebastien. I’m a Westbay—”

She cut him off. “Your name holds no meaning to me. It’s your character I want to see.” Oliver had said to make it personal, to make Damien feel seen and accepted. “What do you want?”

“You already asked that. I told you—”

“What do you want out of life? What mark do you hope to make on the tapestry of fate? What is your true goal, your real ambition? What will give you worth, Damien? It is not your last name. Answer carefully.”

His nostrils flared as he took a deep breath. Despite the chill in the air that wasn’t fully dispersed by the Citadel’s climate spells, his temples were starting to bead with tiny dots of sweat.

It took him a while to answer, but she waited silently, her own heart rushing in her chest with the thrill of it. ‘This is power, too,’ she admitted silently. ‘I can see why Oliver likes it.

“I want to do something that people—” Damien broke off, and after another long pause he finally said, in a softer voice, “I want to feel like I matter.”

It was sincere, and raw enough that Sebastien had to look away for a moment, feeling uncomfortable and a little guilty. “I can give you that chance,” she said in an equally soft voice, returning her gaze to his. “If you would like to join my operation—and let me be clear that it is rarely as exciting as it was today, and is likely to be nothing more than a boring strain on your ability to complete your homework. If you’d like to join, I’d like to have you.”

“Yes,” he said, this time without an ounce of hesitation.

“You should have hesitated. So that I would know you really understood what you were promising. You’ll be a probationary member of this team, and will be giving up the favor I owe you in exchange. I’m in charge. You’ll be doing boring work, sometimes relegated to research. You won’t get to know all the details. This will be nothing like an Aberford Thorndyke story, and you will never get to talk about it to anyone.”

“I agree,” he said, again without hesitation. “The reason I’m not hesitating now is because I already decided I wanted in on this. I’m fine with everything you just said.”

“It could be dangerous. And you will have to prove your loyalty as well as your ability. You may occasionally have to do things that are unpleasant, that would embarrass you, or even go against the laws.”

“I agree,” he repeated for a third time, unable to keep the excitement from sparkling in his eyes.

She settled back, still somewhat unsatisfied. ‘I wish I could get him to sign a blood print vow of secrecy, but even suggesting such a thing would send most people running to the coppers. I’ll just have to risk it. If he hadn’t inserted himself into things today and ended up getting too much information for comfort, I’d never bring him into it. But at least this way, I can keep him close and hopefully under control.

He frowned at her, a hint of irritation leaking through. “Are you still holding a grudge because of the way our acquaintance started? I’ve learned to look past your abrasive nature, Sebastien. You could do me the same courtesy.”

She sighed. “Fine. Pending your initiation, you’re a provisional part of the team, Westbay.”

“Damien. You should call me Damien. I already call you Sebastien, after all. Unless!” He paused dramatically, perking up. “Should we have codenames? I could be Nighthawk. Or Shadowbane. You could be…”

Sebastien raised a hand to forestall him. “Damien is as far as I’m willing to go. Take what you can get.” She had more than enough identities to keep track of already, she didn’t need another.

He seemed a bit disappointed, but perked up quickly. “What’s this initiation, then? Who are the other members of your team? Are you part of an organization? Or on a secret mission from the coppers?” When she didn’t answer, he inhaled sharply, his eyes going wide. “A secret mission from the Red Guard?”

“You are letting your imagination run away with you,” she said, standing. “Come with me.” She led him into the Menagerie, walking till she found a spot far enough away from the light-bordered cobblestone paths that their night vision wouldn’t be affected, where there was a wide, clear view of the sky.

Damien matched her silence as she picked up a stick and scratched a Circle into the leaf-strewn, dying ground, big enough for the both of them to stand inside.

It was windy, which it often was this high up, and the flurries carried dead leaves and the premonition of snow. The moon’s glow filtered sideways through the trees, but the sky was clear and cloudless. The stars were clearly visible. Sebastien looked up at them with satisfaction.

Damien cleared his throat. “What are we doing here?” he asked in a hushed voice.

She lowered her head to look at him. “Perhaps you didn’t really understand what you were getting into. Do you want to go back? We can forget everything that’s happened tonight. It’s not too late.” Of course, she didn’t really want him to be frightened off. She wanted to bind him with shackles formed entirely in his own mind. That was the purpose of most initiation rituals, after all. Oliver thought it would be more effective with a group of people to lend to the sense of ceremony, but she didn’t have that luxury.

“What does that mean?” he asked.

“You can be just Damien Westbay, University student who goes to classes and has fun with his friends. You won’t be a part of this, but nothing will be expected of you. Maybe you will find a way to matter on your own.”

He stared at her for a few seconds in the darkness. She couldn’t tell what he was thinking, but just when she was growing worried, he stepped forward, joining her within the Circle.

She smiled. “Stay here.” Turning around, she pulled the shallow bowl she’d retrieved from the dorms out of her pockets. There was a small stream nearby, and she dipped the bowl into it, filling it with a couple ounces of water. She returned, handing the bowl to Damien. “Hold this.”

He cupped it carefully, holding it in front of his chest with both hands.

She stepped back into the Circle with him, bringing her Will to bear. Like when she was brewing a potion, she used her Will to reinforce every movement. It lent a feeling of meaning, of ritual importance to the process, even for the parts that magic wasn’t technically required for, and during which she wasn’t channeling any actual thaums of energy.

Here, she simply fed her Will into the Circle, consuming slight amounts of heat from the dome around them and adding a tension to the air as she claimed authority over everything within. It took barely any effort, but Damien would be able to feel it in his hind-brain, and it would lend gravitas to the impromptu ceremony.

She reached into her pockets and pulled out three small vials. “State your name.”

He swallowed. “I am Damien Corolianus Westbay.”

She resisted the urge to make a comment about his ridiculous middle name. “Damien Corolianus Westbay, I exhort your silence.” She took a drop of the first vial’s herbal oil extract on her finger and touched it to his forehead, staring down into his eyes, which seemed almost as dark as hers with nothing but the light of the stars to illuminate them. “Will you keep our secrets, knowing when to speak and when to remain silent?”

“I will,” he whispered.

She increased the pressure of her Will, though still she was casting no magic.

She anointed him with the second vial’s drop of oil. “I exhort your loyalty. Will you support us and our efforts faithfully and fully, with true heart and steady hand?”

“I will.”

She increased the pressure once more, then touched him with the third oil, the sharp smell of peppermint only increasing that feel of unreleased tension. “I exhort your resolve. Will you persevere through hardships and the wear of time, exerting yourself to fulfill our cause?”

“I will,” Damien said for the third time.

Sebastien pushed harder with her Will, till she approached the limit of her ability to coil potential force without anything to apply it to. She pulled the astronomy potion out of her pocket and poured it into the shallow bowl of water, then supported his cupped hands with her own. “Our purpose,” she said, leaning forward slightly and trying to sound serious, “is freedom…and enlightenment. Drink, and look up. See beyond the edge of the sky.”

He hesitated, but she gave him a shallow nod of encouragement, and he lifted the shallow bowl and drank down its contents in a couple of quick gulps.

As soon as he lowered the bowl, she released her Will at once with a mental outward thrust, just to be safe. It barely did anything, causing a small flurry of leaves and sending a couple of animals that had been hiding nearby scurrying away in alarm. But the sudden lack of tension was palpable.

Damien gasped as he looked up at the night sky.

This particular potion had been Oliver’s suggestion. It wasn’t mind-altering, addictive, or harmful in any way, except if the user took it and then looked into a bright light. It improved long-distance night vision, making the stars seem brighter, clearer, and more colorful. It also supposedly emphasized the dark emptiness of the rest of space. In essence, the potion created a poor version of the effects of a telescope while allowing a much wider field of view.

Many of those who had taken this particular potion for the first time reported an overwhelming wave of emotions bordering on awe, with the awareness of how small and insignificant they were—and the Earth was—compared to the vast, terrible beauty of space. Intense emotions would make Damien feel more bound to the promises he’d made and to their shared secret.

Damien’s eyes filled with tears, and he blinked to send them spilling down his cheeks, breathing hard as he gazed up in wonder. “It’s—I don’t—”

“Shh. I know. Just see. Just let yourself be conscious.” She waited a few minutes, until the tears had stopped flowing and his breath was beginning to slow, then said, “Repeat after me. I am small, as are we all.”

He did as she said, still staring up at the sky.

“But I am not without purpose. We are not without meaning.” She pulled the novelty drink coaster she’d gotten from Oliver out of her pocket. It was black marble embedded with a light crystal.

Using the stone disintegration and reformation exercise Professor Lacer had assigned them, she’d managed to mold the original circular light crystal into a thirteen-pointed star, working to pull out its edges in tiny sections. She didn’t want to give Damien something he’d recognize from some high-class artifact shop, after all.

“There are stars in this world, too,” she finished. When he’d echoed her, she said, “Look at me.”

Slowly, he drew his gaze back down to the earth.

She twisted the black marble disk, slotting the inner section into the outer, and the light crystal activated, a star among darkness. She handed it to him in her cupped hands. “You may be one of them, if you prove yourself worthy.”

He squinted against the mild glow of the light crystal, but took it reverently.

“This is the sign of our people,” she said. “If ever anyone comes to you with one, you will know you can trust them, and should help them if they need it.”

Letting out a shaky breath that fogged in the air and refracted the light of the crystal, he nodded. “Does it…this group, or order, does it have a name?”

She rolled her eyes. “What’s with you and wanting a dramatic name for everything?”

He looked up from the light, the mystique of the moment lessened. His lips quirked up in amusement, and he scrubbed the tear tracks from his cheeks, sniffing hard.

“No,” she said, deciding not to make something up on the spot. “We have no name. Things that have names get talked about. Besides, we need no label to constrain us.”

“Freedom and enlightenment?” he echoed from her earlier words. “How exactly does that work? What do we actually do?”

“We do what is needed to fulfill our purpose, especially where others do not. Think on these principles. On what it means to be a light in the dark. I cannot give you the answer. It must be understood on your own.” It was vague nonsense, but the best she could do with no real answer prepared.

He frowned over this for a moment, then asked, “How many of us are there?”

“You’re only a provisional member, remember? You don’t get to know everything.” She picked up the bowl, which had dropped on the ground at some point, and jerked her head in the direction of the University. “Come on, let’s get back.”

“What do I need to do to become a full member?” he asked, following her back onto the lit path.

She shrugged. “There’s no specific assignment. You’ll prove yourself or you won’t. There’s no penalty if you don’t, but your involvement—including the ability to ask questions—is limited as a provisional member.”

He mulled this over for a few moments before carefully tucking the drink coaster into a pocket on the inside of his jacket. “What’s my first assignment, then?”

“We’ll be gathering information on Tanya Canelo and her associates. I want to bring on an informant to help us keep track of her,” she said. “Not another member, just a contractor. You won’t have enough time to do it by yourself.”

He nodded slowly. “Okay. Who?”

“Newton Moore,” she said simply.

A smirk grew on Damien’s face. “Oh, that is perfect. He has a flawless excuse to spend time with her. They’re both student liaisons, and they have at least half their classes together. But can he be trusted?”

“You’ll help me judge that. He won’t know anything about what’s really going on, but we still need him to be both thorough and discreet. From what I know of him, he has both qualities.”

“We should conduct the interview right away. I don’t want Canelo getting out of our sight for a moment,” he said gravely.

“I agree. And we will be doing more than personal observation, if we can manage it. But for the moment,” she said, checking the time on her pocket watch with the approaching lights of the University buildings, “I’m pretty sure Newton is tutoring someone in the library. What do you say we catch him as soon as he’s alone?”

Damien smoothed back his hair, straightened his clothes, and took the lead, striding straight toward the circular building.

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