Chapter 34 – Back Door Deals

Oliver

Month 11, Day 28, Saturday 5:00 p.m.

Oliver had been almost as anxious about returning to the Verdant Stag as he was eager. He needed to ensure all his people had escaped the night before. He had a few local coppers in his pocket, and at least one of them would give word when a Stag was arrested, along with relaying other relatively harmless information about the goings-on of the local law enforcement.

Both he and Liza were well known around these parts. Though most didn’t know him as the leader of the Verdant Stags without his mask, he was an obviously wealthy man that enjoyed “slumming it” with those poorer and more dangerous than himself. People surely suspected he was involved in some sort of crime or nefarious activity, but that was not so uncommon for the wealthy. As long as they didn’t discover his true efforts and goals until it was too late to stop him, that was fine.

Liza was recognized for what she was—a powerful and dangerous sorceress, one not bound by the restrictions of the law.

Together, they received nods and wary looks as they passed the citizens who were heading home as night fell.

He looked at the peoples’ coarse, patched clothing, the dirt lining the tired wrinkles of those who had grown old while still young, and the cobbles of the streets that had been washed clean by the river-swelling torrents of rain, but would soon be coated with filth again. Shops had picture signs instead of names, for those who could not read, which was most of them.

Men and boys without jobs skulked on the corners and in the alleys, smoking cat’s-cough and glaring out at the world, some of them with gang colors or symbols displayed with varying levels of subtlety.

A woman hacked up blood into her handkerchief, then tucked the cloth away in her pocket and continued to beg for alms.

He shoved his hands deeper into his pockets and let out a deep sigh, walking a little faster. This would all change when he ruled. The Stags might have control over only a tiny portion of the city at the moment, but he was already making things better. If he could just continue building—but that was the problem. The Morrows were not willing to let him continue.

He’d been pouring his personal funds into the Verdant Stag and its endeavors. The fortune he had amassed over many years was dwindling, and now the agricultural component of the plan, which had been almost ready to start production, would need another influx of funds as he rebuilt the warehouse and paid for greater security so that people were not afraid to take the jobs he offered.

He needed something that would bring in more money than cheap food for the masses, but could still be traded freely. Perhaps a product with a wealthier market, like the foodstuffs that would normally be imported from a more tropical climate. His own household budget for spices and honey was high enough that he might as well have been buying gold and silver by the ounce. Shipping was dangerous and expensive, and moving products over land had its own difficulties. In some instances, it simply wasn’t feasible. He planned to replace the roof of the warehouse with glass, which should allow him to grow at least some of those more exotic foodstuffs indoors, but this was yet another exorbitant expenditure. Nevertheless, it would avoid the need for magic to imitate the light of the sun. Over time, the cost would be less.

Liza broke him from his thoughts, murmuring, “The girl…she’s the one they’re looking for?” Her gaze was on a copper, who was questioning a store owner in the doorway of the man’s shop.

Oliver gave her a look, but didn’t respond aloud.

“That’s answer enough, I suppose,” she said. “Do not worry, I have no love for Gilbrathan law, and no need for reward money. Idiot coppers tried to question me about the whole commotion when it first happened, and I sent them packing. As if I would’ve been so sloppy with the getaway, even assuming I decided to steal from the University.”

Oliver sighed and shook his head, but he couldn’t help smiling slightly.

They made it to the Verdant Stag not long after, and Liza took a seat at the bar and ordered a drink while Oliver continued on to Katerin’s upstairs office.

Katerin froze for a moment when he walked into the room, her eyes sweeping over him for damage like a worried mother. After a second of silence, some of the strain around her eyes and in her shoulders receded. “Took you long enough,” she muttered.

“Is everyone alright? Any arrests? Did we manage to get Jameson to Healer Nidson’s?” While he spoke, he moved to the safe in the attached closet at the back of the room and began to go through the somewhat complicated process of unlocking it.

“No arrests, but a couple of injuries. I have already paid Nidson.” She hesitated. “Jameson…did not make it.”

Oliver straightened and turned to face her. “What?”

“We got him to Nidson, but…his heart stopped working. Nidson restarted it, but…it wouldn’t take. Jameson died.”

Oliver stared at her, taking in the bags under her eyes and the way she leaned a hand against the back of her chair for support. “Did Nidson give him blood?”

She frowned in confusion. “No?”

He ran a hand down his face, rubbing at the skin. “Jameson, and Cooper too. Have you told their families, yet?”

She shook her head. “But word spreads quickly. They might already know.”

“We will pay for the funerals. And…” He turned back to the safe, pulling out two full coin pouches, each with one hundred gold counted out within. He slipped one into his pocket and removed thirty gold crowns from the other. He divided the thirty gold into two smaller purses and set them on Katerin’s desk. “Give their families a stipend, for the next…three years. Fifteen gold a month.” Spreading it out made it less likely for the families to be the target of a theft, and kept anyone from spending recklessly if they were the type to do so. It also put just a little less pressure on the Verdant Stag’s finances.

Katerin looked as if she wanted to disagree, but slumped instead. “I suppose they were killed working for us, and at what was supposed to be a safe job. But you cannot start compensating the family of everyone who is killed or injured in Stag territory. And what about that second purse you took?”

“Payment for Siobhan’s help. She…had a mishap. The coppers have some of her blood, and they have attempted to scry her—and failed!” he added quickly, raising his hands placatingly. “Liza is helping her, but—”

“But Liza would expect you to sell your firstborn to pay her fees, or go home if you couldn’t,” Katerin grumbled. “Oliver…you realize what this means? If they recognized her, they’re going to be digging into the whole thing much deeper than they otherwise might for a fight between two gangs. They’ll be sniffing around the Verdant Stag.”

“I know.” He clenched his fists. “But it’s too late now. We’ll pretend innocence as best we can. If they bring any of our men in for questioning, remind them to stay silent until you can get them out. If they question you personally, deny any knowledge to the point of belligerence, if you have to.”

She looked torn between screaming in anger and crying, but in the end only shook her head with exhaustion. “I hope this girl is worth it, Oliver. You’re making quite a large investment in her.”

“We will see,” he said, knowing that no words from him would actually sway her opinion. “Do you have the addresses of Cooper’s and Jameson’s next of kin?” Notifying their families of their fate was a responsibility that couldn’t wait, for honor’s sake if nothing else. When she nodded, he said, “Send someone to tell them before the day is out. Go yourself if possible.” He would have preferred to do it himself, to handle this terrible duty with the respect it deserved, but he would have to go in his mask, and that would be worse than sending another in his place.

“Are we doing anything else about what happened last night?” she asked.

He rubbed his hand over his face again. “Of course. This cannot be allowed to continue. I am accompanying Liza to the Night Market.” He ignored Katerin’s grimace of distaste when he mentioned the sorcerer’s name. “I’ll see if I can pick up a few more battle or warding artifacts there. I’m quite sure Siobhan plans to brew us an extensive series of battle potions. We need to recruit more people to the enforcers and emergency crews. Our people were ineffective out there, even considering their disadvantage. Many of them haven’t been trained well enough for this. Talk to Huntley, maybe he’d be willing to run a more thorough training program.”

“I’ll get on it right away.”

“We can only hope the injuries the Morrows sustained last night cause them to be more hesitant, rather than lashing out in a show of force. Either way, no more shifts for the workers at night. I have some other ideas, but we need more money, time, and people,” he said.

Katerin gave him a grim smile. “Well, we are working on all three things already. In the meantime, we’ll have to make do.”

Before stepping away from the safe he hesitated, then grabbed another coin purse and put it in his pocket before leaving.

“Don’t forget to replace those!” Katerin called after him. “I have those funds earmarked for expenses already.”

He grabbed a spare battle wand from their tiny armory, changed his cloak, and slipped his mask back on, then commandeered an off-duty enforcer to guard him as he left.

Liza shot a look to the man, whose eyes scanned their surroundings for threats as they walked down the street.

“We’re carrying quite a lot of money and going to some questionably safe places,” Oliver explained in a low voice. “If nothing else, the appearance of protection might deter opportunists.”

She snorted. “You realize you are walking with me, right? Anyone stupid enough to try to steal my gold will find themselves with a smoking hole through their abdomen, and the coppers daren’t come after me without at least a full squad.”

Oliver opened his mouth, then closed it again. “Right.” Perhaps the bodyguard wasn’t needed, but it couldn’t hurt, and he’d already agreed to pay the man. It would be churlish to send him back now.

When they reached the Night Market, Liza took the lead, striding to the door of The Elementary, a shop whose display window held some common spell components. The listed prices were much higher than they should have been.

Oliver motioned for their guard to stay outside, and the man posted himself beside the doorway, tracking the other occupants of the street with a suspicious gaze.

Shelves lined the walls and filled most of the small, somewhat dingy shop. Liza ignored all of that, walking to the counter in the back where a tired-looking young man was labeling a bottle of beetles. “I’m here to see Harvester.”

The shopkeep looked her and Oliver up and down, then silently pulled out a stone disk from below the counter and placed it on the surface.

Liza palmed her Conduit and pressed her other hand flat to the disk. Pieces of it shifted and turned like a puzzle, and then the center rose up.

The shopkeep nodded and turned to motion to the wall behind him. Oliver only then noticed the outline of a hidden door, flush with the wall on either side and wallpapered over. Had that been there, visible but unnoticed, the whole time, or had whatever Liza done revealed it?

He followed her through the door into a huge storeroom filled with wide, towering shelves, each of which held various exotic materials and components within glass spheres covered in spell arrays. There were the more mundane but still valuable components like dragon scales, but he also saw rare, precious things like the tiny, sleeping dryad laying in a bowl of rich dirt, or the glowing feather the size of his leg that he was pretty sure was from a creature native to the Plane of Radiance.

Still, what caused his breath to catch in his chest was not any of the fantastical things on display, but the active planar portal in a clearing in the middle of the room.

He took off his mask to stare at the portal. It was a shimmering sphere, the bottom tip of which barely touched the center Circle of the spell array inlaid in gold and white marble on the floor. Five beast cores, glowing so bright a yellow they almost seemed white, powered the spell from component Circles positioned around the main one. The sixth component Circle held what looked to be a fish made entirely of water, wriggling weakly through the air of the glass containment sphere it was trapped within.

Past the heat wave-like surface of the sphere, he could make out what looked like a coral reef and some waving seaweed, and within it, a crouched form that he mistook for a boulder until its arms moved and he realized it was a person.

Oliver turned to Liza, eyes wide. He wanted to ask a question, but for once his tongue failed him.

She raised an unimpressed eyebrow, but he noticed that the edge of her mouth quirked up as she took in his expression. “Harvester should be out soon. Even he cannot remain alive underwater indefinitely.”

Oliver cleared his throat. “I admit, I didn’t know the Night Market had a place such as this. I’m in need of some battle and protection artifacts, preferably used and recharged. Where would you suggest I go?”

“Two doors down. Tell them I sent you and that you’re new to the market. If you hurry, you might even get back in time to meet Harvester.” Something about the way she said the last sentence sounded somewhat ominous.

“Right. Will I be able to get back here, though? The magic password disk…”

“Send the shopkeep back for me, if he won’t let you through.”

Oliver put his mask back on and left, somewhat reluctantly. He motioned for his guard to stay where he was and walked two shops down. A small symbol had been carved subtly into the doorjamb—the mark of the Nightmare Pack.

The space within was more open than the previous shop, with artifacts lining the shelves on the walls, leaving the center of the room clear. A quick glance showed no restricted artifacts, only things like light crystals, self-cleaning chamber pots, and ever-inking pens. He walked up to the woman at the counter and repeated Liza’s words.

The proprietor eyed his mask, then called up their shop boy from the room at the back to take her place. She waved for Oliver to follow her into the back. “What are you looking for?” she asked.

He took a quick glance around the room, noting the items on the shelves, the boxes stacked against the back wall, and the utter lack of anything overtly suspicious. “Do you have any protective artifacts? Things that would ward against the more common battle spells? Or basic battle artifacts?”

She nodded and moved over to one of the shelves. A quick movement of her hand on the wood, and the rung flipped upside down. The items that had been on it did not slide off, seemingly stuck to it, but the new side also had items. Different items.

Oliver surreptitiously looked at the other shelves to see if there were items stuck to the bottom of them all that he simply hadn’t noticed. There were not.

The shop owner smiled. “Liza’s work. Ingenious, I thought. The coppers can raid us all they like when we refuse to pay their bribes, but there’s never any evidence.”

So that was why Liza had told him to mention her name. “She is very talented,” he agreed. If only she were also affordable, the Verdant Stags would be unstoppable. He stepped forward to examine the artifacts on the shelf, and the shop owner began to explain them.

Underneath his mask, Oliver’s face broke into a wide, foxlike grin.

There were a couple of circular knuckle guards with basic shielding spells meant to ward against stunning and concussive blast spells, which were the coppers’ most common attacks. They could work together, for better defense, or individually. He took both.

She offered him a pair of gauntlets with a general-purpose energy-reflecting spell woven into their surface, but they were new, and much too expensive. He’d only brought a hundred gold to spend.

He took a bundle of spark-shooting wands, figuring they could be useful as a distraction, a signal, or even just a threat, if the user’s enemy did not know the wand held only a non-combat spell.

He turned down a ring that would open basic non-magical locks, as well as a wand that shot acid, but bought a ring that could cast a contact stunning spell. His largest purchase was a general-purpose injury protection ward that the shop owner assured him would make physical damage less likely over a radius of ninety-nine feet in every direction. Despite its price compared to the other things he had chosen, he knew such a nebulously defined spell couldn’t be very powerful, but it might still make a difference in a fight, and could be placed in the Verdant Stag or another important location, like the micro-farm he was creating.

By the end, his coin purse was completely empty. As he watched her place the artifacts in a plain bag she pulled off the wall, he said, “I noticed the mark of the Nightmare Pack by the door.”

Her movements slowed, but she nodded, peering up at him with slightly more suspicion.

“I hear the head of the Verdant Stag is interested in meeting with the Pack leader. How would I pass along that message?”

She didn’t answer immediately, instead counting out the gold he had given her and then handing him the bag. “I can send a runner,” she said finally. “Any particular message you want to pass on?”

Using the shop’s supplies, Oliver wrote a quick note, which he folded and sealed before handing to her. He flashed her one of his signature charming smiles and only belatedly remembered the mask. Perhaps he could have it spelled to mimic his expressions. Then again, a crescent smile of darkness stretching across its smooth surface might be more disturbing than humanizing…but that could be good, too.

“I hope the Stags aren’t looking to start any trouble?” she asked reluctantly.

He shrugged. “Not as far as I know, but I’m just the messenger.”

Her own mouth quirked up wryly as she took the letter. “Right.”

When he returned to The Elementary, Liza was just exiting the hidden back room, a wooden box in her arms. As the door shut behind her, Oliver caught a glimpse of the person on the other side. He’d had enough of being surprised for the day, and so managed to keep from reacting outwardly. The two of them exited the shop and began walking back toward Liza’s house, trailed by the completely superfluous guard.

Keeping his voice low, Oliver murmured, “Harvester is a troll?”

A somewhat cruel smile spread across her face. “Half-troll. How do you think he’s still alive, after so many dips into the Elemental Planes? Best supplier in the business.”

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Chapter 33 – Temporary Inversion of Income vs. Expense

Siobhan

Month 11, Day 28, Saturday 8:00 a.m.

Siobhan jerked her legs away from her chest, scrabbling to get her hand past her vest and shirt to whatever was causing the pain. She yanked out the straps around her neck, the warded medallion and the transmutation amulet dangling from her clenched fist.

The medallion was covered in frost.

It took her a few seconds to comprehend what that meant, her mind still fogged by stress and sleep. Once she did, she snapped the leather cord keeping the medallion attached to her and tossed the frosted disk into the embers of the fireplace. “Shit! Shit, shit, shit!” she cried unthinkingly, causing Oliver to jerk to wakefulness.

“What? What is it?” he said, snapping upright and looking around.

“We are being scried!” she hissed, lunging for the small box of wood beside the fireplace and tossing a couple of pieces onto the embers. She grabbed a lump of charcoal from the edge of the fire, heedless of the risk of burning her fingers, and drew a large Circle around the hearth and the chimney.

She stepped back to avoid the reach of the sphere and almost dropped her Conduit as she fumbled it out of a vest pocket. She had cast the spark-shooting spell plenty of times during her life, but without proper, easily ignited kindling, and in such a panic, her first attempt failed to reignite the flames.

Siobhan paused, took a deep breath, and released it slowly, forcing the full pressure of her Will to bend the world—specifically, to ignite the piece of wood at the center of the Circle. A large, bright spark settled at the point where her eyes were focused, and with an effort that sent a spike of pain through her head, the wood caught fire. Rather than simply sit back and let the flame spread naturally, she kept pushing with her Will, pulling at the edges of the heat, forcing the fire to flare up as quickly as possible.

Beside her, Oliver tossed something into the fireplace, and the flames roared up greedily.

The medallion sucked at the warmth of the now blazing fire.

“Whiskey,” Oliver explained, tucking the flask back into a pocket.

“Good idea.” She dug in her pack, pulling out a couple of jars, some cotton, a few pieces of paper, and a wrapped ball of beeswax. She tossed everything but the jars into the fire, then dug out the salves from the jars and flicked that in too. The flames consumed and burned brighter, a few licking up with strange colors, and she squinted into them to see the medallion.

“Talk to me,” Oliver said. “Do we need to run?”

“Not yet. The medallion contains a protective spell, a strong one. Anti-scrying is included. We’re safe as long as it has enough heat to stay charged. But it is bad. Very bad.” She could hear a faint sound from the metal, as if it was groaning in pain. Whoever was on the other end of the scrying spell was pouring an excessive amount of power into it. They had to be a Master at least, or maybe a group of Journeymen casters.

With a trembling breath, she drew the glyph for “heat” on the hearth in front of her, inside the Circle, then pressed her Conduit between both hands and began to cast, pulling tongues of flame off the fire and feeding them to the medallion in bright splashes. She began to shiver, not from cold, but from the waves of pain running from her head down her spine, sending involuntary spasms through her muscles.

The medallion continued to absorb the heat, and so she ignored the strain and continued to feed it. She heard Oliver calling her name in alarm, but couldn’t spare the concentration to respond in any way.

Finally, the medallion stopped absorbing the heat she channeled to it.

Very carefully, she released the energy and detached her Will from the spell. Just as she was releasing it, the magic under her control shuddered, and she was splashed with a small explosion of still-burning embers and ash from the fireplace.

Oliver cursed, using his damp quilt to pat her down and sweep away the embers.

She pulled her hands apart numbly, ignoring the deep indentations her Conduit had made in her skin.

The crystal crumbled apart, falling to her lap in pieces.

That happened when too much power was channeled through a sub-par Conduit.

None of the pieces were big enough to be useful for spellcasting anymore, but she still gathered them up with trembling fingers and put them in one of her pockets. ‘Thank the stars above it didn’t break until the last moment.

She’d heard more than one story about a Conduit shattering while someone was in the middle of channeling magic. The kindest outcome was Will-strain. Explosions were common, as the power contained within the Circle escaped. One woman had one of her legs switched with her donkey’s. A man had tried to keep casting to avoid that, and ended up channeling the magic through his body. The euphoria was too much for him, and though he lived, slowly progressing into dangerous madness that forced her grandfather to kill him, Siobhan had always thought it would have been a mercy if he’d died immediately.

“It’s over, I think. They didn’t find us,” she whispered, shivering. “But this means they have a piece of me. But how, how would they get—” She closed her mouth slowly, then looked down at her palm and the spiderweb of scars across its surface. “It started raining,” she murmured. “But they must have picked up the glass before that. They have my blood.” Feeling dizzy, she let herself fall back to sit on the floor.

Oliver’s face was pale. “They will keep trying, again and again.”

“The wards on the medallion won’t hold out.” She stood with a wobble and did not shake off Oliver’s concerned hand on her arm as she might have otherwise. She pulled her hair back from her face, combing it roughly with her fingers and then pulling on her cloak and tucking it under the hood. “Do you know where they might keep the evidence? Is it possible we could get it back, or…destroy it?”

He rubbed his hand down his face. “I assume they keep evidence at Harrow Hill, but I have no idea where specifically, and I don’t know how we would go about accessing it.”

She shook her head, biting down on her thumbnail.

Stirring from the bedroom announced that Mrs. Branwen or one of her children had woken, probably because of the ruckus the two of them were creating.

Siobhan crouched down uncomfortably close to the fire, reaching for the iron poker and digging out her medallion. It fell onto the stone of the hearth. She waved her hand over it, gauging the heat radiating off the metal for a few seconds. It stayed warm, indicating the scrying attempt had definitely ended, so she wrapped the edge of her cloak around her hand and picked it up. One of the tiny glyphs carved into its surface was smeared, probably from a combination of the spillover heat and channeling too much power, almost unrecognizable. Artifacts could be recharged, if you knew the right spell—which she didn’t—but it would be impossible to do so with damage to the spell array. At least the other protective spells woven into the metal disk were still functional. She pressed her lips together, then pocketed the medallion. “The next time they try that, the ward is going to fail, and they are going to find me.”

“How long do we have? Your medallion cannot be the only answer. We can get another one. Liza, she could cast the spell.”

Mrs. Branwen opened the door and stuck her head out. As soon as her eyes landed on the charcoal Circle around her fireplace, she slipped out, shutting the door to the bedroom behind her with a stern warning to her children to stay put.

Siobhan grimaced. “I’m not sure. Liza may be skilled, but this medallion was created by my grandfather. He was more powerful by far. Liza could protect me if she was with me to cast the spell, but if Seb—” She glanced at Mrs. Branwen. “If he simply disappears from school, that’s suspicious too, right?” Staying with Liza would destroy her ability to attend the University. There had to be another way. “Still, this medallion has multiple protections built into it, and each one is necessarily weaker for the versatility. Perhaps she could help with a spell specifically to protect against scrying. Her house is—”

She stopped and took a couple of shuddering breaths, focusing her mind as if she was casting a spell. Her body was still, her mind the opposite. Crises always seemed to make her smarter, quicker. “We should leave,” she said, already turning toward the door. “You will want to erase the spell array,” she said to the woman. “Just in case.”

Mrs. Branwen had already grabbed a straw broom from the corner and started sweeping away the charcoal marks on her hearth.

Oliver followed after Siobhan, but stopped to tell the woman, “I don’t expect anyone to come knocking, but if they do, you can count on the Stag.” He closed the door gently behind him.

Siobhan turned the corner into a small alley and pressed the dark stone of the transformation amulet against her skin beneath her clothes, sparking the change with a pulse of Will. Even that small amount of effort sent a spike of pain through her head. In a moment, she was Sebastien again. She took off the cloak Oliver had given her when he picked her up on his horse and tucked it into her bag. It wasn’t safe to walk the streets as her true self, and at this point she wasn’t technically doing anything illegal. “I have a plan.”

The sun had just begun to peek over the horizon, but most of the city had not yet stirred from their beds, so they passed through the streets unnoticed. “Liza’s house is warded,” Sebastien explained to Oliver as they walked, just barely slow enough not to seem strangely hurried. “I’m sure it will have protections against scrying. I should be safe there until we can come up with a real solution, which you were correct in saying that she might be able to help with.”

Sebastien felt too dizzy to properly tally up her remaining coin, but remembered it was barely over two hundred gold. ‘In addition to Liza’s help, I will need to obtain a replacement Conduit.’ Once, she would have considered two hundred gold enough money to do nearly anything, but since coming to Gilbratha she had become quite disillusioned.

When they neared Liza’s house, Sebastien ducked into another alley and returned to her form as Siobhan. Liza only knew the dark-haired woman, and she didn’t want to associate Sebastien with a criminal.

She let Oliver use the animated lion door-knocker, taking deep breaths to steady herself as they waited.

They hurried into the house when the door opened, and Siobhan took a sweeping glance of the street as she closed the door behind them. She saw nothing suspicious, and hoped that was because no one was watching them, and not because their possible enemy was skilled enough to evade notice.

Liza came out of the attached room already scowling, the dark bags under her eyes only seeming to deepen as her gaze swept over the two of them. “The planes-damned sun has barely risen, Oliver. What fresh hell have you brought to my doorstep today?”

Oliver looked to Siobhan, but she was slow to answer, so with a concerned frown, he spoke. “We were in an altercation last night. Part of this involved a mostly harmless skirmish with the coppers, and we believe they obtained a small amount of Siobhan’s blood. They tried to scry her.”

Liza’s face twisted angrily. “And you brought them straight to me?” Her arms fell to her sides and her fingers spread as if she meant to claw the air.

“No,” Siobhan said, shaking her head somewhat frantically as she felt the tightening of the air that signified the waking of a powerful Will. “I have—had—a warding medallion. The scrying failed, but my Conduit broke, and I need your help. The house is warded, right? I wouldn’t have come here otherwise. I just need your help to make another anti-scrying artifact, and th—” Her tongue seemed to stumble over itself, and she reached out to brace herself on the wall as the room tilted slowly.

Oliver grasped her arm. “Siobhan, are you alright?”

Liza “tched” loudly. “Will-strain. Her Conduit broke?”

Oliver nodded. “Yes. How bad is it, can you tell?”

Siobhan straightened. She’d come close to Will-strain a couple of times in her life, but this time she seemed to have tipped over the edge. “Not bad, I think. I have a headache and I feel dizzy and dis…disoriented.” She paused, then continued, enunciating carefully. “But I’m not seeing or hearing anything strange, and I can remember everything that has happened since my Conduit broke until now.”

Liza waved an impatient hand at them. “Well, hurry and follow me, then. We had best get inside the stronger wards below. The girl will need rest.”

Oliver kept a hand around Siobhan’s arm as they followed, which she acknowledged the need for as the room spun, this time more violently.

“How desperately do they want to find you?” Liza asked once they were down below.

“Quite desperately, I would imagine,” Oliver said quietly.

Liza grunted, leading them past the room they had cast the messenger spell in the last time and to a door made of iron bars, like a jail cell. A quick touch of her hand to the lock opened it, and she waved to the spartan cot within.

What type of guest does she normally keep in this room, to require a door made of bars that can only be opened from the outside?’ Siobhan sat down on the cot, closing her eyes to avoid seeing the vaguely shimmering lines and glyphs covering the walls at the edges of her vision. Leaning back against the wall, she allowed her muscles to relax slightly. “My medallion uses heat to power its defenses,” she said, pulling the metal disk out of her pocket and holding it out to Liza. “I tossed it into the fire and used an impromptu spell to force heat into it, but it was still barely enough.”

Liza examined the medallion, pulling a convex lens out of a pocket and peering through it at the artifact. She was silent for a long while, then said, “Wait here,” and walked out of the room.

Oliver shoved his hands in his pockets and rocked back and forth on his heels for a moment, then with a sharp sigh sat beside Siobhan on the cot.

Siobhan thought she might have dozed off, because she closed her eyes, and when she opened them, Liza was already walking back through the door. “This is very interesting work,” she said. “Some of the most efficient energy transformation I have ever seen, as well as a surprising number of protections woven into such a small area. Who created it?”

“My grandfather,” Siobhan said.

Liza peered at her, then back to the medallion. “Well. I cannot recreate this. Not without some intensive study and perhaps taking the medallion apart. It seems the spells are literally woven through the metal, layer upon layer. The anti-scrying spell was pushed too far to simply be recharged.”

Siobhan frowned. The medallion was one of the few things she had left of her grandfather. She didn’t want Liza to dissect it like a frog. Plus, it still had a half-dozen other protections in place, all of which should still be functional. “Can you make me an artifact just for the scrying? It doesn’t need to be like the medallion, as long as it works. Something a little more powerful would be good.”

“Something more powerful than this?” Without waiting for them to respond to her incredulous question, Liza said, “Wait here,” and left once again.

This time, she was gone for longer, and Siobhan definitely dozed off while waiting. Liza returned with her arms full of various arcane books, set them on the ground, and then left again to fetch a small wooden block covered in a complicated spell array. She placed it on the ground, flattened her palm to it, and muttered something Siobhan didn’t quite catch. The block unfolded, becoming a chair and desk made out of hundreds of smaller segments.

Siobhan blinked, hoping that her mind had not sunk into hallucinations.

Liza smirked at them as she set the books on the table. “I call it the portable office. Horribly complicated, of course, but extremely convenient when you need a place to sit and work while on the go. For ninety gold, I can make you or your friends one too.”

Siobhan and Oliver shared a look, but Liza had already turned her attention to the spell books, so they were saved from answering.

Liza flipped through the books seemingly at random, taking notes and leaving small bookmarks between the pages.

Siobhan would normally have attempted to read over the woman’s shoulder, but her head had begun to pound fiercely, and she found she didn’t have the wherewithal to do anything other than lie back and breathe carefully.

She hadn’t realized that Oliver left the room until he came back carrying a tray with a kettle of tea, a jar of minty salve, and a couple of slices of thick brown bread smeared with creamy butter. He poured Liza a cup of tea first, which she gave him a distracted nod of thanks for, then set the tray on the cot beside Siobhan.

She fumbled to open the jar of headache-relieving salve, then smeared it not only on her temples but across her hairline, the back of her neck, and even kneaded a bit into the muscles of her shoulders. It was powerful, and began to work almost immediately. It didn’t remove the mental fog or disorientation, but it helped to push the throbbing, nausea-inducing pain back enough that she could function past it.

When she set the jar down, Oliver pressed a cup of tea and a slice of bread into her hand. “You need to eat and get some liquid in your system, I think,” he said. When she hesitated at the thought of putting anything in her roiling stomach, he loomed over her threateningly. “If I need to, I will force it into your mouth and pinch your nose closed until you swallow.”

She scowled at him and took a sip of tea, then a nibble of the rich bread. “No need to be so dramatic,” she muttered.

Liza frowned at the sound of her voice, turning to her. “You should be asleep, girl. But since you are not…I have some ideas for a solution to your problem. What do you think about this? We could anchor the warding spell in your flesh. A tattoo or a brand would work, but I think a carving might be most effective. When active, the spell would use your blood as a component, which is doubly effective for its power and because they are using your blood to track you. I have some other ideas too, which should sharply increase the effectiveness of the ward.”

“A carving? Would this be visible?”

“Yes. Five of them, I think, one for each of the Elemental Planes…” She turned back to the books, which seemed to have multiplied atop the table.

“That won’t work,” Oliver stated. “She needs something that can be hidden, and that isn’t permanent like a scar.”

Liza raised her head and glared at him, then Siobhan. “Is this true?”

“Yes. Scars like that might raise unwanted interest.” She had no intention of removing her clothes in front of someone else at any time during her stay at the University, but allowing for such an easy method of distinguishing her identity was senseless. It could go wrong in so many ways.

Liza took a sip of tea and seemingly dismissed the two of them from her thoughts once again.

Siobhan finished two cups of tea and another slice of bread, and when she woke, she was covered by a thick, soft blanket and had a fluffy pillow under her head. She was alone in the room, and though the headache-relieving salve seemed to have used up its magic, the throbbing in her temples was bearable. Both Oliver and Liza were gone, along with the table, chair, and books.

She rose and went to the room with Liza’s magical chamber pot. She thought about exploring the lower level to see what else Liza kept in the most secure part of her secret abode, then decided it was probably too dangerous to do so without Liza’s knowledge or permission. There would likely be defenses woven into the very walls. Instead, she climbed the stairs to the upper level where Liza kept her own miniature Menagerie and the bookcases. The light coming through the windows had changed position. Siobhan judged it to be early evening.

Oliver looked up from the couch he was sprawled on, setting aside the book he had been reading. “How is your brain?”

“Better,” Siobhan said.

Liza scribbled a few more words on the huge roll of paper laid on the desk before her, then turned to Siobhan as well. “Come over here and look at this. I have designed the warding spell we will use. It is absolutely ingenious, if I do say so myself. If I cared about titles and thought I had a chance of being accepted through that bigoted, discriminatory council, I might apply for Grandmastery in the field with this.”

Siobhan walked to the table and saw that the paper was covered in spell designs and notes. It was complex and obviously powerful, and once again she rethought her opinion of this woman. ‘The next time she tries to charge more for the possibility of Will-strain, I’m not likely to believe her.’ She read the scribbled note that estimated this artifact would take over seven thousand thaums to charge with the warding spell. A Master might graduate from their ninth term at the University with a Will that could handle one to two thousand thaums, depending on their dedication, while most Apprentices, after three University terms, couldn’t do much better than three hundred. “What is it anchored to?” she asked, frowning as she read the glyph for “blood” as a multi-use Sacrifice.

“I will be creating five disks to hold the spell. We will insert them under your skin, Oliver said that would be fine. Aside from a small scar, they will be undetectable, and can be removed and replaced if you ever need the spell recharged.”

“It’s amazing,” Siobhan said honestly. She put her hand over the pocket where the shards of her Conduit rested. “Liza, there is something else I might hire you to do. That raven messenger spell, the Lino-Wharton? I was wondering if you could do that again.”

Oliver frowned. “You wish to speak to your father again?”

Siobhan shook her head. “No, but my main Conduit was shattered, and he has one that belongs to me. It was my mother’s. It should be strong enough to last me for a long time. I want it back.”

“It’s unlikely he has it on him,” Oliver said. “He would have been searched and relieved of any magical items before being put in the cell. Your Conduit is either in an evidence box, the item holding room, or one of the guards has taken it for themselves and conveniently forgotten to note that it was in his possession when he was brought in.”

Siobhan shook her head. “I don’t think so. This Conduit is the gem in an heirloom ring. The band of the ring is an artifact that creates a Loomis anti-awareness field along with a minor chameleon effect. I think he still has it, or he would have complained about them stealing from him.”

Oliver looked to Liza. “Would they not have some way to check for an active spell?”

Liza snorted. “The ability to do a general check for an active spell doesn’t exist. People detect spells by casting a specific counter-spell or detection spell and seeing if anything happens. If people could detect magic so easily, that would mean we had at least some true understanding of magic. That is not the case, unfortunately. Harrow Hill’s wards should be able to detect a fluctuation in certain types of energy that usually signify a spell being cast or ended, but that is as close as they get. However, depending on the quality of the Conduit your father holds, it may not be cost-effective to retrieve it. Without your ability to assist my spell casting, even a short-duration messenger will cost you fifty gold. Is the Conduit worth more than that, or do you simply want it for its sentimental value?”

Siobhan pushed a few loose strands of hair away from her face. “The firstborn in my family have used it as their primary Conduit for at least a few generations. It was my mother’s. It should be able to support a sorcerer of at least Master level.”

Liza nodded appreciatively. “Well, you will want to retrieve it, then, especially with the price of celerium lately. However, this brings me to the matter of payment. Two hundred fifty gold for the anti-scrying ward, and fifty for the messenger spell.”

Siobhan stared at her in shock. Two hundred fifty gold for the scrying ward? That was enough money for a family to live on for a year. It was more than she still had left. She might have been able to afford it, just barely, if she hadn’t bought any new clothes for Sebastien. But she had.

Why did I not get the Conduit from my father when I had the chance?’ she lamented.

Siobhan swallowed painfully. “If you let me borrow a Conduit, I can help you cast the messenger spell again. And if there are any parts of creating the ward artifact that I could aid you in, I’m more than willing to do so. Can we negotiate on the price? Perhaps you could use less potent materials, or…”

Liza sighed deeply, closing the book in front of her. “I have done all this work, only to find that you cannot afford my services?”

Siobhan cursed the fog still clouding her mind. “It’s not that I cannot afford them, it is just that I cannot afford them right now, or that I cannot afford them in gold.”

“You’re broke.”

“I’m not broke. I’m merely experiencing a temporary inversion in my ratio of income versus expenses,” Siobhan shot back.

Oliver barked out a surprised laugh.

Liza glared at her for a long few seconds. “Hmph. Well, perhaps you would like to do a trade? Your little medallion, for instance. I would pay one hundred fifty gold for that. Or, if you are able to retrieve this Conduit from your father and it is as unclouded as you say, it could pay for both spells itself, and a replacement Conduit of lesser value, beyond that.”

Siobhan was silent as she suppressed her instinctive denial. ‘The ring is my birthright, but what good is a birthright if I am dead or in prison?’ The medallion had been made by her grandfather, and still had half a dozen other warding spells that were active, but he would have scoffed at her sentimentality and told her that survival was paramount, and that was the purpose of the medallion in the first place, whether it protected her from an opponent’s spell or bought her enough gold to do the same. Still, both the medallion and the ring were hers, even if her father had taken the ring to wear himself, and she didn’t want to lose them.

Oliver cleared his throat. “If you wish, Siobhan, your payment for yesterday could be given to you in gold. One hundred gold, I think, if we include a bonus for being called on without notice?”

Her stare turned to him, and he looked away.

“I cannot offer such a large bonus in the future, but…just this once,” he said. “You likely saved me the bribes I would have had to pay to get my people out of Harrow Hill.”

Siobhan felt her lip tremble and carefully steeled her face so her expression didn’t crumple with tears. ‘The Will-strain is making me volatile.’ She knew the offered payment was likely several times more than the wand-wielding magicians Oliver employed would be compensated. Though the coppers, perhaps, wouldn’t have acquired her blood if he had not asked for her aid, this was really just a continuation of the trouble that had begun before she’d even met him, trouble that almost certainly would have caught up with her already if not for his involvement.

Clenching her jaw, Siobhan avoided thinking about his kindness or her overwhelming relief until she could speak without embarrassing herself. “Yes, I would like my payment in gold this time,” she said, nodding just deeply enough to show her gratitude without making a big deal of it. Thinking about it another way, Oliver was partially responsible for both the loss of her Conduit and for the coppers obtaining her blood. If she’d stayed at the University that night, they might have eventually given up looking for her entirely. ‘In that sense, he owes me. This is nothing more than what he should do, even if technically he’s not obligated to.’ She felt a bubbling rush of irritation and resisted the urge to scowl at him. ‘If I’d been smart, I would have required compensation for injury and loss to be a provision in the blood print vow.

She swallowed down her mercurial emotions and turned to Liza. “I cannot offer you my medallion for good, but if you would like to examine it, without damaging it, I would be happy to allow you to research it for one hundred gold.”

“Twenty,” the woman shot back without hesitation.

“Once you’ve researched it, the spells can be recreated. They aren’t unique anymore, which makes the medallion less valuable. Eighty.”

“Sixty-five.”

“Deal.” Siobhan reached out her arm to shake Liza’s hand. With this, she still had some gold left over.

“Deal.” Liza accepted the handshake. “I will go get the blood print vow sheets. After we complete the vow, Oliver and I are going shopping, and you are going back to sleep.”

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A Conjuring of Ravens Pre-Order

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Azalea

Chapter 32 – Sheltered from the Storm

Siobhan

Month 11, Day 28, Saturday 6:00 a.m.

Dryden and Siobhan sprinted through the dark alleys and poorly lit side streets as if their boots were winged.

The coppers who hadn’t been driven off by the shadow-familiar spell gave chase, but the philtre of stench had taken a toll, and attempting to sprint with streaming eyes, snotty noses, and roiling stomachs was enough to handicap anyone.

When the storm clouds broke, sending fat rain globules pelting out of the skies to be hurled by the wind like little stones, Siobhan grinned and only ran harder. No dogs would track them after this, not past the magically overwhelming philtre of stench and the flooding rain.

She realized soon enough that she recognized some of the streets they were on, and as they ducked into one alley, through a side door that led through an empty kitchen, and out into another alley, she realized they were taking one of the Stag’s pre-arranged escape routes. She had memorized it when setting up the alarm wards, just in case.

By the time they reached their destination, one shoddy house among a row of equally shoddy houses on the outskirts of Gilbratha and well into the Mires, she was too tired to run, well out of breath and completely soaked, but they seemed to have thoroughly lost their pursuers. It was still an hour or so before first light, and the streets were almost completely empty.

Dryden knocked on the back door of the house, and they waited, shivering as the pellets of rain slapped into them sideways, driven by the force of the wind.

Footsteps from inside heralded the opening of the door, just a crack.

When the woman inside peeked out to see who had knocked on her door at such a profane hour of the morning, Dryden took off his mask.

With a gasp, she undid the chain lock, waved them in, and shut the door as soon as they had made it past the threshold. “Are you bein’ followed?” she asked, tugging her patched wool robe closer around her body.

“I don’t believe so. Not any longer, at least,” Dryden said.

The woman’s house was small, little more than two rooms, as far as Siobhan could tell. The door in the corner was open, and she saw the little forms sprawled out on the floor stir.

A child, no more than seven or eight, rose and moved to the doorway of the bedroom, peering suspiciously through tired eyes at the two of them. His clothes were patched and rough-looking, and his limbs thin, edging on bony.

The woman noticed and said, “Go back to bed, Callum.” She pulled two painstakingly cut, padded, and sewn quilts from a chest in the corner by an old rocking chair.

The boy didn’t move, still staring at the two of them. “Are you comin’ too, Mama?”

The woman sighed, pushing a few loose strands of hair back from her forehead in a motion that seemed born from habitual stress. “Yes. Now do as I say.”

A couple of the other children stirred as Callum returned to the pile of bedding on the floor of the second room, but they didn’t wake.

The woman tossed them the quilts, her eyes resting a little longer on Siobhan. “Stop drippin’ on my floor, then. Come sit by the fire.” She motioned to the hearth, which, along with the fireplace and chimney, was the only part of the tiny house made of stone. The bricks were white, no doubt having been chiseled from what little remained of the southern white cliffs. “I’ll have it stoked up again in just a moment, my lord,” she said, half bowing to Dryden.

Dryden sat at the edge of the hearth, less hesitant than Siobhan.

“Any injuries? Someone you need me to fetch or pass a message to?” the woman asked, adding wood from the sparse supply in the box beside the fireplace.

Dryden looked to Siobhan, who was still clutching her shard-covered, bloody hand to her chest.

Siobhan shook her head. “It’s not that bad. I can handle it myself.”

The woman nodded and bustled about, putting a kettle atop the iron slab that shared space with the chimney, allowing the fire to heat it.

Siobhan reached into the leather satchel at her waist, realizing only then that it was Sebastien’s school bag, and should never have gone with her as Siobhan. ‘Oh well, there’s nothing to be done about it now. I can only hope this isn’t the mistake that sends the edifice of my deceit crumbling to the ground.’ She trembled, and couldn’t tell if it was due to the cold and the wet, or the full realization of what she had done, in its aftermath.

Her fingers found one of the healing salves within the satchel, a half-empty jar of headache reliever. With the forefinger of her good hand, she dug some of the oily mixture out and began to apply it to the bloody shards stuck to her left palm. The oil helped to counteract the stickiness of the honey and adhel juice mixture, and the minty pain-relieving properties of the concoction managed to provide some relief, both burning and numbing the wounds. When her hand was free of glass, she dug out the nick-healing salve she had created the week before, which was perfect for this kind of small injury. A few minutes later, her palm was back to normal, except for the pinkish, vaguely spiderweb-shaped scars across its surface.

“Be careful that those aren’t noticed,” Dryden said.

“Of course.” The scar was distinctive, and would remain on Sebastien’s hand when she reassumed that form. It was a small enough thing, but enough small mistakes would add up to her ruin.

The woman took the kettle off the fire and poured them two steaming mugs of tea. “I’ll make sure the boy understands to keep his mouth shut,” she said, once again looking at Siobhan. “Is there anythin’ else I ought to do?”

Dryden nodded his thanks, cupping the tea between both his hands and blowing on it. “You have done more than enough. Please, do not let us disturb your rest any longer.” He dug in his pocket and pulled out a small handful of gold coins. “Thank you, Mrs. Branwen. I apologize, but I don’t have the agreed upon amount on me. See Katerin at the Stag later, and she will give you the rest.”

The woman clutched at the coins and bowed to him again. “Thank you, Mr. Dryden.”

He gave her a charming half smile. “No, thank you, Mrs. Branwen, for the use of your home and your hospitality.”

The woman blushed, and Siobhan realized suddenly that Mrs. Branwen was likely not much older than her, though she had first taken their host for middle-aged. ‘Hard living kills you early,’ she thought with melancholy.

Mrs. Branwen retreated to the other room. Over her shoulder, she called, “Wake me if you need me.” Once the doorway had been cleared of bedding, she shut the creaky door, giving Siobhan and Dryden a measure of privacy.

They were silent for a few minutes, letting the fire in the hearth and the mugs in their hands ward off the cold and the thunder of the storm. Finally, Siobhan said, “Do you think they all got away?”

“I believe so. For now, at least. We’ll have to take measures to avoid being caught by the investigation this will trigger, however. The Crowns do not ignore such blatant displays of unapproved magic. Still, Cooper is the only one of us who has definitively lost his chance to walk away from this.”

Siobhan shuddered as she remembered the smell of his corpse. “Why did the Morrows attack? What were those people doing in that warehouse?”

“I had a plan, when I came to Gilbratha,” Dryden began, moving to rest his forehead on his knees. “I had been traveling for a while, and I saw all these problems with the world, things that seemed like fundamental errors in the way society was functioning, do you understand? I had seen things done differently elsewhere, one thing a little bit better here, another better there, and I had ideas about how one might hypothetically change things. Those ideas led to more speculation and ideas, and before I knew it I was making real plans. Once I realized what I was doing, it was too late to stop myself. I knew it was dangerous, but I couldn’t just go back to observing uselessly. Perhaps it was simply hubris.” He tilted his head back, staring into the fire with unfocused eyes.

Siobhan’s curiosity was an abnormally patient force at that moment, subdued by the fatigue lacing her bones. She waited for him to speak.

“This, the Verdant Stag, was not my first idea. Before I came here, I wrote letters to the Crown members whose lands I was traveling through, and spoke to those influential people who occasionally hosted me. My ideas were ignored or mocked. At best, those who wished to stay on my good side responded with polite nonsense. I thought maybe I wasn’t being persuasive enough. I hadn’t truly made them understand the benefits of my ideas, the ways we were failing, and my vision of what the future could be with some simple, gradual changes. It didn’t seem like anything so radical to me, simply common sense.”

Dryden let out a humorless laugh. “I pushed for more direct meetings, framed my arguments more persuasively, used greed or fear or pride, or anything I could think of that might push them to actually do something. That didn’t work, either. I got more lip service.

“Then I came to Gilbratha and lobbied with the Crowns directly. I developed contacts, made friends among the influential, and inserted myself into the power base of Gilbratha as best I could. I was labeled a naive, philanthropic optimist, whose ideas would never work in the real world.” He gave her a wry smile. “Well, it is true that my ideas don’t seem to be working.” He spread his arms to gesture pointedly to their current status and surroundings. “But I only decided to start changing things on my own when I realized there was no room for progress within the current system.”

Siobhan frowned. “You’re saying the Crowns actively want to avoid progress? Why? And how does this relate to what happened tonight?”

He gave a small snort. “Some of the Crowns are simply too short-sighted to understand how raising up the smallest of us is good for everyone. But those people are not the real problem. Others understood fully the ideas I had, the world we could create if only we were willing to sacrifice a little at first, and put in the work… They understood, and they were afraid of it. You see, there is a finite amount of the power, the control over the human population, that they enjoy so thoroughly. If we give some of it to the common people, even the littlest bits like easier access to high-quality goods, cheaper education, or programs to stimulate innovation, well then…”

His voice was bitterly scornful. “There wouldn’t be as much power left for the wealthy and influential individuals and their families. I eventually realized that without being one of the Thirteen Crowns myself”—his tone grew darker—“or spending a few decades finagling my way into a position as ‘advisor’ to a puppet High Crown—and somehow doing so without being assassinated—I would always be an outsider. I would never achieve real change within my lifetime.”

Siobhan could see what he meant. In fact, he sounded somewhat like her grandfather. Ennis had called that kind of thinking pessimism, but to Siobhan that had just seemed like an easy way to dismiss the ideas he did not want to accept. Despite the slightly sick feeling Dryden’s words put into her stomach, it was easy to imagine them to be the truth. Without Dryden, she herself would have been successfully prevented from attending the University. She was sitting within the evidence of the disparity between the powerful and the commoners, even now. The disparity wasn’t an individual thing, based on qualities possessed by the people themselves. It was not merit that led them to either riches or poverty, but something deeply systemic. ‘People are both selfish and lazy, and this leads to stupidity. If allowed, whether by others or themselves, they will ride these vices into the deepest chasms of evil.

“So what was your plan, when changing things the conventional way didn’t work?”

“Long-term, I plan to remove the Crowns from their position of power and take over Lenore.” His words were soft, but carried not a hint of hesitation.

Her exhausted muscles tightened slightly as a small surge of adrenaline made her heart beat faster. Dryden was planning outright treason.

He seemed to catch her discomfort and gave her a half smile. “Relax. I said long-term, and I meant it. Right now, I am focusing on simple, mostly-lawful businesses that create jobs while simultaneously producing necessary products—items like healing potions, food, and clothing, all of which can be made more efficiently and cheaply when the people themselves are given the means—or providing basic sanitation and protection to those who so desperately need it. One of the biggest tethers holding Gilbratha back is the need for magic to grow enough food for a large, concentrated population. Too much of the land surrounding Gilbratha has to be dedicated to farming, simply to feed this underperforming city. Food costs account for almost half of the average person’s income. When food, clothing, shelter, healthcare, and public safety are no longer an immediate concern, people can turn their energy to bigger things. I want to revolutionize industry in a sustainable way. The warehouse the Morrows destroyed tonight was meant to be a new type of more efficient, miniature farm—the prototype, and hopefully the first of many similar spaces. Of course…well, you saw what happened, tonight. I failed. And I am quickly running out of gold trying to do everything at once, even in such a small territory as the Verdant Stag covers.” He opened his mouth to continue, then closed it without speaking and sighed deeply, staring into the flames.

Siobhan rubbed her forehead and readjusted the blanket around her shoulders. “The warehouse farm was legal, though, correct? So the Morrows attacked it simply to harm you and your operation as a whole. I doubt they have any plans to set up something similar themselves.”

“You are correct. I don’t believe they planned to benefit from attacking the warehouse except as retaliation for my previous actions. They once ruled the territory the Stag holds, small and poor though it is, so I have taken a bite out of their haunch. Perhaps they hope to crush me before I can grow any larger. I am a threat, on both sides of the law. It’s just…what should I have done differently, Siobhan? I don’t know.”

She was silent for a while as her brain ran over the idea. She didn’t know nearly as much as he did about his plans, the Gilbrathan economy, or the way he ran the Verdant Stag. “Is food production going to be profitable?”

“Only marginally, and only after a few seasons of growth. But that’s just the start. Profit on foodstuffs was not my main concern. Gardening”—Dryden emphasized the word in a way that told her he wasn’t talking about carrots and potatoes anymore—“isn’t heavily regulated within Gilbratha, which means I don’t need to struggle with Crown members who feel I am cutting into their profits. At least not for a while, until I start to make enough progress to draw attention. Additionally, I had hoped to grow some of the more common magical plants in hidden areas, which would in turn cut supply costs for production of potions through the Verdant Stag’s alchemy business. Perhaps the Morrows learned of this, and it was the tipping point for tonight’s catastrophe.”

She still thought Dryden was naive to the point of recklessness, but…he wasn’t giving only lip-service, and there was something to respect in that. He had changed at least a few lives for the better. That woman whose son might have died without their little alchemy shop, for one. Siobhan herself was another. He was the reason she was attending the University right now, after all. As much as it was her instinct to do so, she could hardly condemn his ideas when she was the beneficiary of them. ‘And, maybe, if he somehow gets as much in return from everyone else he helps in his territory as what he will get from me, his investment could be sustainable. Except most of the people he’s helping aren’t thaumaturges, so how much use can they really be?

She set those thoughts aside. “I think you’re going to have to find a way to force quicker profitability, Mr. Dryden. Perhaps narrow your focus only to those things you have the resources to grasp firmly. Otherwise, you’ll lose everything. You’ll need money, for more extensive defensive wards and more enforcers. Alternatively, you could find a way to keep the Morrows from attacking you again. Would they be willing to accept a truce?”

“I…don’t know. I’ll think on it, though I don’t know that any terms they would accept would be tolerable to me. And please, Siobhan, call me Oliver. After a night such as ours, I think we’re past the silly formalities, don’t you?”

“I suppose.”

He gave her a real smile, then, tinged with fatigue but no despair. They fell into silence for a few minutes, shifting slightly to expose new sections of their bodies to the warmth of the fire, before he said, “Will you be able to get back into the University without them noticing anything untoward?”

Siobhan sighed. She hadn’t yet considered how exactly she was going to achieve that. “Tomorrow—today—is Saturday. I was planning to spend it doing alchemy, but I think I might take a nap instead. As long as no one notices that my things are missing before I get back—and they shouldn’t unless they look in my trunk—and as long as I’m able to retrieve everything from the alley I so haphazardly hid it in, I should be fine. I’m well known for strange sleep habits by now, so no one should find it suspicious when they wake and find me missing.” She rubbed her forehead again and wished she had more headache-relieving salve. Her jar had been used up on getting the glass off her hand. “I really am not suited to this.”

He quirked an eyebrow up. “Not suited to what?”

“All this…” She waved her hand vaguely. “Excitement. Adventure.”

He snorted. “I’m not sure that’s true. You seem to find yourself in these situations often enough, and you perform with surprising adroitness for someone who truly doesn’t desire anything more than to sit in a library and research all day.”

She straightened, turning a scowl onto him. Her mouth opened, and then it closed again. “There are so many things wrong with what you just said, I don’t even know where to start,” she said finally.

He snorted, and then, seemingly unable to hold it in, wadded a section of his blanket over his face to muffle the sound and devolved into outright laughter. When he was finished, he looked back up at her and grinned. “Your expression was amusing,” he explained, ignoring her continued scowl.

She let out a snort of her own, much less amused, and settled back down to stare at the fire. “Well, it’s not so much that I mind excitement, but that I mind being anything less than ridiculously and unreservedly over-prepared for any excitement. I…I have goals too, you know, and I’m sure getting where I need to will not be without struggle. It’s that I’m not ridiculously over-prepared for the things I’ve been getting into. I’m scrambling just to keep my head above water, and it seems I keep being bashed in the face with how stupid and thoughtless I am, and if I am so inept I don’t even realize how inept I am until I’m slapped with proof…” She took a deep breath and kept herself from rambling.

“You’re being too hard on yourself. We saved a life, maybe even more than one, tonight. Everyone makes mistakes. The important thing is to learn from them, right?”

She shook her head, sneering slightly. “Learn from your mistakes? That platitude is so obvious it’s useless. Of course you should learn from your mistakes. If you’re an average person with no ambition, maybe doing that can keep you alive and relatively content. For people with real goals, and real opposition to those goals, it’s not enough to keep making stupid mistakes and simply learning as you go along. Sooner or later, you make a stupid mistake you cannot recover from. Mistakes are inevitable, but stupid mistakes due to lack of planning, preparation, and basic foresight are not. I cannot be prepared for every eventuality, that is true, but I should have at least enough prudence to look at my past failures and extrapolate future failures from there. I failed to imagine everything that could go wrong. Sure, I took some convenient measures to ready myself for negative eventualities, but I didn’t make the effort to truly mitigate the dangers I knew I might be involved in.”

She took another deep breath and looked away from his solemn gaze. “Dryd—Oliver, I knew the coppers might come after me, if something went wrong. I knew the Morrows were attacking your people, and even injured one severely. I didn’t imagine that I would be called in to help fight against them, but…why did I not prepare myself for a fight at all? Some sort of barrier or protection spell could have been the difference between life and death tonight, or against the coppers if they had found me. Why did I not learn any? Why didn’t I have a blood-clotting potion? You gave me a list of useful battle potions and the like, and I experimented with a handful of them, but nothing more. If your emergency response team had been fully kitted out with a couple of each, maybe things wouldn’t have gotten so bad in the first place.”

Her voice grew strained. “Maybe the Morrows wouldn’t have been able to bring down half the building, and that man, Cooper would still be alive. Even when we arrived, I could have done things better. The philtre of stench is based more on physical particles in the air than magic. It might have incapacitated the Morrows as soon as we arrived, if I had thought of it. A man died tonight, and this still could have been so much worse. There are a hundred different ways tonight could have ended in complete disaster, and I was not prepared for any of them. Aren’t you the one who says the only way to avoid your subterfuge being caught out is to be truly meticulous with both planning and execution? This is the same.”

He was silent for a few moments. “Alright. But by that logic, this was really all my fault, not yours. It wasn’t your responsibility to be prepared for something like this. They aren’t your people, they’re mine. If not for my own lack of foresight and preparation, you would be asleep in your bed right now.”

She sighed deeply. “Something being the fault of one person does not make it less the fault of another. I could have changed today’s outcome for the better, and I didn’t. The fact that you might have done the same doesn’t make me less responsible. It only means that we both failed.”

He reached out and squeezed her shoulder. “Well, we will learn better. No more stupid mistakes.”

She felt her muscles relaxing subtly under the touch and gave the fireplace a small smile. “My grandfather used to say, ‘If you aren’t over-prepared, you are underprepared.’ I remember thinking as a child that he was just paranoid from living too long, that the world wasn’t actually out to make every possible thing go wrong.” She let out a small huff of wry amusement.

He squeezed her shoulder again, then withdrew his hand and lay down on the edge of the stone hearth. “I’m going to close my eyes for a bit. We should be able to leave once the storm passes, with a little grooming to make sure we don’t draw attention.”

Siobhan hugged her knees to her chest and kept staring into the fire, wrapping herself more fully in the borrowed blanket. She had known, when Oliver rode up on the horse and asked her to help protect his people, that she wasn’t prepared to do so. She had known she was underprepared as soon as the bracelet on her wrist grew cold, in fact.

She thought of what she had seen tonight. The frightened people, the blood, the death. If things had gone only a little differently, she could have been hit by one of the Morrows’ attacks, or captured by the grasping tentacles of the copper’s spell. She could be dead, or in jail, or expelled from the University. She shuddered at the thought, a visceral reaction of fear and rejection.

It wasn’t worth it,’ she admitted to herself. ‘If things had gone differently, I would have regretted my decision to help. I value my own life and safety more than that of a stranger’s. And yet…and yet, I cannot imagine myself saying no when Dryden asked for my aid, even without the threat of the blood vow hanging over me.’ She bent her head, combing her fingers through her hair to dry it in the warmth of the fire. She knew a spell to help repel water, but she was too tired to cast it.

The desire to help people who don’t deserve their misfortune and the desire to ensure my own personal safety are contradictory. But…they are both part of me. I must understand myself, because you must understand yourself before you can change yourself. And you must change yourself to change the world. So. Being honest, fulfilling my desire to help isn’t worth it if putting myself in danger means I lose my freedom and magic. I’m too selfish, and I’m not interested in becoming a hero or a martyr.

She tried to make herself believe it, because she knew it was true, but something inside her still rejected the idea of walking away while the Morrows attacked Jameson and Misha and the others. ‘Plus,’ she reasoned with a little too much cheer to totally trust the thought, ‘my blood print vow doesn’t allow me to refuse favors to the Verdant Stag unless I find them morally reprehensible. I don’t have entirely free will in the matter. So…what do I do? If nothing changes, something like today will happen again.

She reached into her vest pocket and pulled out her Conduit, staring into the crystalline depths lit up by the orange flames. ‘Well, the answer is always “seize power.” If you don’t know what you need, take power, for it can be converted into almost anything else.

Those were her grandfather’s words again, but they seemed right. ‘If I’m going to be getting myself into situations like these, I must grow powerful enough that I can actually handle them.’ She began to make a mental list of useful preparations, things to learn and items to carry. Excuses she might start setting up now that could help her explain her way out of scrutiny or blame. Her eyes began to droop and her forehead fell forward to rest on her knees. Slumber reached up around her like tendrils of a dark cloud from the abyss.

She slept for a time, restlessly, her mind dancing with flames, blood, and fear worn old.

A searing pain from her chest woke her.

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Chapter 31 – Arriving to Class Naked

Siobhan

Month 11, Day 28, Saturday 4:55 a.m.

Spells lit up the night, a barrage of force and magical effects traded between the Verdant Stags’ reinforcements and the Morrows in front of the half-destroyed warehouse.

“They’ll handle this,” Dryden screamed in her ear, clutching her shoulder. “We need to get into the building!”

With a nod, she turned and looked for a way to get down. Going back the way they had come would take a long time. They couldn’t jump down from the roof, either, unless they wanted to break a bone.

“I have a potion of feather-fall!” Dryden yelled, pointing down the broken staircase that led into the building below.

She understood his plan immediately. “Just the one?” When he nodded, she tucked her lantern and Conduit back into a pocket and held out her hand expectantly. “We can split it.”

Dryden didn’t hesitate. They each took a swallow from the small vial he pulled from his pocket, then moved to the stairwell.

With her mind on potions, Siobhan realized she might have a few useful ones of her own. She pulled the potion of moonlight sizzle out of her satchel, shaking it quickly and holding it above her head to light their way down the stairwell. They had to jump over sections of broken steps a few times, but the half dose of feather-fall was enough to partially mitigate the effects of gravity and allow them to descend safely.

When they reached the ground, Dryden led them through the obstacle course-like remains of furniture and rat carcasses littering the ground. They unlatched the front door from the inside, and Dryden poked his head out. He pulled back and turned to her, the eyeholes in his mask bleeding darkness. “The Morrows are running.”

“That’s good. Now we just need to get help to the injured workers.” She fingered the Conduit in her pocket, reassured by its familiar weight and feel. “But the warehouse doors must be locked, right?”

“I would assume so.”

“So we go in through the windows. The glass is broken out of them already. You first. I don’t want a brick to come flying at my head. They should recognize the mask, correct?” She waved vaguely to his face.

He let out a short, sharp laugh, as if surprised. “Yes.”

She nodded at him, then waved her hand impatiently. “Hurry up, then. We don’t have time to lose!”

With one last peek out the door, he dashed across the street.

She followed, her cloak whipping around and tugging at her with the force of the wind. She tucked the hand still attached to the glass pane to her side underneath her cloak to avoid it getting caught or accidentally smashing it against something. The mixture of honey and adhel juice was too strong an adhesive to remove the glass easily, and there was no time for her to work an oil mixture into it until it released the skin of her palm bit by bit.

As soon as Dryden began to climb through a broken window in the side alley, two workers rushed out from behind their makeshift barrier to help haul him through.

Of course, as soon as they caught sight of the mask, they recoiled.

“It’s okay,” Dryden assured them. “We’re here to help, I promise.”

She followed, though none of the workers helped her, even though her left hand was still out of commission.

“Wounded? Is anyone hurt?” Dryden asked, looking around urgently.

“Jameson, sir,” said one of the men who had stepped forward to help him through the window, darting little glances at Dryden’s mask. He was a large man, so much so that his shirt seams strained around his shoulders.

Siobhan mentally dubbed him Mr. Shoulders.

“Jameson was standing by the window when they first came up. They got him with a slicer, at the base of the neck.” Mr. Shoulders motioned behind the barrier, and Siobhan started moving.

The woman who had poked her head up from the corner called out, “Elba’s broke ‘is arm, but ‘e’s alright. But Cooper…Cooper…”

Siobhan stepped around the barrier and saw what they meant.

One man, pale to the point of blueness, had a friend pressing what looked like a blood-soaked shirt to his neck.

That would be Jameson.

A couple of meters away, another man lay underneath the jagged end of a huge piece of wood.

Her stomach roiled as the smell swept past her, carried on the wind whistling through the windows.

The support beam had been holding up the roof. She remembered the sound it made when it broke, the way the people inside had screamed as the roof collapsed inward.

It seemed that the sharp end had punched down onto Cooper, before the rest of the beam fell on top of him.

Mr. Shoulders nodded. “Cooper got caught by the support beam. He…”

Siobhan moved forward to Jameson, trying to keep her eyes off the corpse.

Blood pooled out around Cooper’s body, but that wasn’t the worst of it. His abdomen had been torn open by the beam, or had burst from the weight, and his insides were spilling out.

She opened her bag and rushed to pull out the potions within. “Jameson, is it?” she asked, looking at the still-living man in front of her. He was pale from blood loss. ‘This one is alive,’ she forced herself to say in her mind. ‘It’s up to me to make sure he stays that way.

The man pressing the shirt to Jameson’s neck nodded, almost as white-faced himself from fear. “Yes, uh…yes, Mistress Sorceress. His neck, they got him.” His own forehead sported a goose-egg lump of a bruise, and one arm hung limp, supported on his legs at an awkward angle.

“How deep?” she asked, reading the labels she’d written on the bottles’ tags. ‘Why do I have no blood clotter?’ she lamented.

“About, err, this much?” Elba said, holding his finger and thumb up, about a centimeter apart.

Inside, Siobhan cursed, but outwardly, only nodded curtly. “How far away is your healer?”

“Healer Nidson’s. He’s fifteen minutes away, maybe, if we could take him on my horse. She runs like the wind,” Dryden said.

The others shared a look, half hope and half apprehension.

Siobhan grunted, her muscles tense with the need to move, to do something, her mind flitting from thought to thought with deceptively inefficient energy. ‘I’m not prepared for this! It’s worse than the nightmare where I arrive to class naked and without having studied for Professor Lacer’s test!

“Can you save him?” the other man who had helped Dryden through the window asked. This man wore no shirt, probably because that was the fabric pressed up against Jameson’s neck to keep him from bleeding to death.

She forced her thoughts to focus with a mental twist not so dissimilar to bending her Will to work magic on the world. “Maybe. Give him this while I prepare,” she said, placing a bottle of revivifier beside Jameson, and taking out a soft chalk, to better write with on the dirty, debris-covered floor.

“It should give him a temporary boost of energy and keep his organs working,” she said. ‘The potion is not meant for situations like this, it’s meant to give a boost to the elderly or those recovering from a serious illness. But I’ve heard soldiers on the battlefield also use it as a stopgap in medical emergencies, or when they’re too exhausted to keep marching, and yet have no choice but to do so anyway. I doubt it will harm him, at least. I don’t think he’ll make it another fifteen minutes, so I must do something now.

She drew the flesh-mirroring healing spell array on the ground. ‘Blood magic or not, I have no better option.’ There was plenty of Jameson’s blood to serve as Sacrifice. She looked up at his pale face, taking in his distant gaze and his shallow panting as he tried to get enough air. He had managed to swallow the revivifier with assistance, but it barely seemed to have helped. ‘He needs blood.’ At this point, even if she managed to seal his wound, he would likely still die.

She remembered her grandfather telling her about the necromantic healing done under the Blood Emperor’s reign, and the ability to take blood from one human and give it to another, either to temporarily increase performance or to keep the recipient alive after a wound. However, if the blood’s humors were incompatible with each other, mixing them would kill the recipient.

“Dry—” She cut off, realizing that she shouldn’t say his name. Instead, she waved at him impatiently.

He knelt beside her.

“I need blood. Blood from someone else, to give to him. If I don’t, he will die before we can get him to a healer.” The question was obvious, hanging in the air like a guillotine above them all.

“Blood magic?” Elba, the one with the broken arm, whispered.

The workers exchanged looks, and then the woman knelt beside Siobhan. “I will act as Sacrifice.”

Mr. Shoulders shook his head. “No! I will do it. You have a family, Misha. They need you alive.”

Siobhan huffed in exasperation. “One, I will only be taking a liter or two of blood. It will not kill you. Two, I need to test your compatibility with Jameson, so it’s not really up to you who will help him. The wrong person’s blood will kill him just as surely as none at all.”

Misha looked at Jameson, then to Siobhan. “How will you tell?”

Siobhan grimaced. She vaguely remembered her grandfather talking about the symptoms, but she didn’t remember how exactly the Blood Empire kept from killing their subjects. However, the symptoms were memorable enough. Hopefully, it wasn’t too complicated. “I will mix the blood. A poor reaction will be visible.” She rubbed the glass pane still stuck to her left hand on her clothes, cleaning its surface of the sphere-spinning spell array. “Grab a shard of glass from the windows, all of you. Cut your finger and place a drop on the glass here.”

They shared looks with each other, hesitating, and a couple turned to Dryden for assurance, though she didn’t know why they found a man wearing a featureless mask more reassuring than a perfectly normal young woman with skill in magic. Maybe they had some inkling that he was the leader of the Verdant Stags.

“Now!” she snapped. “Unless you’re willing to let Jameson die.”

“Do as she says,” Dryden ordered.

“It’s blood magic,” Elba muttered stubbornly.

“Your blood will replenish itself! A little weakness, for a month at most, and you save his life. Is that not a fair trade?!” Siobhan said, her voice growing increasingly loud.

The woman moved first, and the others followed after her.

Siobhan dipped her finger in Jameson’s blood and dabbed drops about the glass pane. When the others returned, she instructed them to add the drop of their own blood to his, and remember which was theirs. While she waited for a reaction to occur, she moved a few feet away and used her other hand to draw a new Circle on the ground, this one completely from her own imagination. ‘If only I had studied human anatomy in greater detail,’ she lamented. ‘How exactly am I supposed to get the blood from the donor into Jameson?

She looked up at the pale, panting man. ‘Well, he already has a line to his bloodstream open, though obviously it only nicked the artery there, or he would already be dead. Perhaps I can just use the opening provided.

When the spell array she hoped to use to siphon blood from the donor into Jameson was completed, she scowled down at the pane stuck to her left hand. None of the drops of blood was displaying any notable reaction. She ran a finger through one. ‘It’s coagulating. They’re all coagulating.’

She almost screamed in frustration. ‘Like this, any blood I put into him will be a gamble with his life. Perhaps…a divination?’ She almost laughed in despair. She had no skill in even simple divination like dousing for water. For something like this, which she understood so poorly, the chances of success were low. She was as likely to get a false answer as none at all.

It’s little better than tossing a coin, but it could increase my likelihood of choosing correctly by a few percentage points. Is it worth it to waste a couple of minutes for such meager results, with him in such a dire state? He could die while I’m hesitating. But beyond even the danger of giving him the wrong type, I don’t know how to stop coagulation. Any blood is going to react when it touches the air. Why didn’t I think of that in the first place? The Blood Empire must have had some way to handle that, but I…I don’t know how. Is it possible to remove the air from an area entirely? Or maybe I could press someone’s wrist against his neck and keep the blood from meeting air that way?

“Do you have wounded? We’re ready to transport them,” Katerin called from outside, her head still turned to watch for danger on the street.

Siobhan gasped in relief. ‘I’m not the only one who came to help.’ Standing, she yelled back, “Do you have any healing potions?”

One of the other Stag enforcers responded in Katerin’s place. “Aye! Revivifier, blood clotter, and wound cleanser. Liquid stone if any bones need stabilization for travel.” He hesitated, walking closer. “I also have an elixir of peace,” he said in a softer voice.

Sometimes, the elixir of peace was given to those who were going to die from their wounds, to take away pain and anxiety as they left the mortal world. Of course, it was also addictive, and often abused for the sense of total safety and security it gave.

Siobhan waved impatiently at the man. “Well, what are you waiting for? Bring them over here, quickly!” She turned to the other workers. “Perhaps giving blood will not be necessary after all.” She tried to keep the relief and profound uncertainty from her tone.

They poured the wound cleanser and blood clotter on Jameson’s neck, though the wound wasn’t bleeding as strongly as it had been at first, which she knew was a bad sign. The potion helped some, but didn’t stop the bleeding entirely. She nodded for him to be given a few drops of the elixir of peace as well. Addiction was the least of her worries.

After a small moment of hesitation, she also gave him the entire second dose of the revivifying potion, which she knew was too much, but something had to be done. The side effects were less severe than immediate death. “Alright. Lay him out here, in the middle,” she said, pointing to the healing spell array she’d drawn earlier. “Be careful not to smudge the chalk. The Circle must remain unbroken.”

The cut ran across the base of Jameson’s neck, crossing his collarbone on one side and ending at the top of his shoulder. It was deep enough to go past the skin, exposing bone, tendon, and muscle.

Once again using her lantern, in addition to any warmth that passed through the Circle on the wind, she cast the healing spell. Under her Will the wound began to knit back together, the damaged side of his neck mimicking the healthy one.

Someone gasped.

Jameson jerked, reaching up to scrabble at his neck. Apparently, they hadn’t given him quite enough elixir of peace to overwhelm his instinctive fear of feeling his flesh writhe on its own.

“Put your hands down!” Siobhan barked, the effort of speaking around her focus on the spell causing the Circle’s faint glow to pulse brighter as she lost some of her grip on the energy.

“It’s alright, Richie,” Misha said. “She’s healing you. Stay calm, just breathe, it’ll be over soon. We’re here with you. You’re safe.” The woman continued a constant stream of comforting words, calming Jameson, and Siobhan returned her attention fully to the spell.

She was almost finished, cold fingers of strain running up and down her spine and causing her body to tremble faintly, when shouting and flashes of light once again came from down the street.

“Coppers,” Dryden said, tension in his voice. “Wrap this up, if you can. We’ll take him to the healer for the rest.”

The wound wasn’t completely healed, but Jameson was no longer leaking blood. She dropped the spell, careful to avoid backlash from the energy she had been channeling. Her lantern flame had been sucked dead, and ice crystals formed in the air as it passed through the Circle from which she’d been drawing warmth, visibly outlining its barriers and deepening the chill around them.

“He’ll need to be carried,” she said. “We must hurry. He’s still much too low on blood. Is there a back way out?”

“The roof fell in. The back way is blocked,” Elba said, cradling his broken arm to his chest.

Siobhan lifted her head over the makeshift barrier of boxes and dirt bags to watch the coppers approach.

Katerin and the reinforcements she had gathered were still outside, though a couple of them had carried away the man with a leg injury. Now, they were gathering behind the liquid stone barrier and pressing themselves against the edges of the alley on either side of the street, wands drawn.

Dryden swore. “They’ll be arrested.”

Siobhan felt the urge to stand tall and straight in response to the stress, but ducked down behind the barrier again instead. “We need to get out of here as quickly as possible so they can run away too.”

He shook his head. “The coppers are well-outfitted, and won’t be as easy to deal with as the Morrows. Going out the front will just get us arrested with the others.”

Siobhan crouched with her hands against the floor, the glass pane stuck to her left palm creaking under the pressure. “Out the side windows, then, and we run out the back alleys?”

At the front of the building, spells had begun to fly back and forth, and even in the few seconds that had passed, one of the Verdant Stag members had already fallen, hit by a red spell Siobhan thought—hoped—was only a stunner.

“A distraction would be useful,” she said, even as the thought formed in her mind. “Another distraction, I mean. Something that could draw the coppers’ attention away from all of us entirely.”

“I am open to ideas,” Dryden said dryly, using a foot to break apart a large wooden crate. He turned to a couple of the others and explained that he had a horse tied up a couple of blocks to the north. If they could get to it, it would carry Jameson faster than they could themselves. “Her name is Elmira. Explain the situation to her, and tell her that I asked her to help,” he said. “She’ll do as you say if you ask nicely.”

Once again, Siobhan ran through her options. ‘What do I have, and how can I use it to get us out of here?’ She had gold hidden in her clothes, but she doubted it would be enough to bribe the whole team of coppers into ignoring something this large. She had Dryden’s emergency response team, but they were no match for the coppers, and would provide maybe a minute or two more of protection, at most.

She had a couple of the experimental alchemy products Dryden had requested. ‘Perhaps the philtre of darkness? It might serve as a shield, while I set up a more useful distraction. Or maybe the philtre of stench.’ She realized the Morrows’ spell barrier probably wouldn’t have blocked the physical particles of the philtre of stench, and the philtre of darkness could have surrounded their barrier and blocked their sight.

If I’d thought of it, it could have entirely tipped the balance of the fight,’ she realized with shame.

However, the coppers had an option for individual shields spelled into their wands. More useful, maneuverable, and expensive than the barrier artifact the Morrows had used. But individual shield spells had their downsides, too, especially when most of the coppers didn’t even have one raised in favor of shooting offensive spells.

‘If they were smart, they would be moving in teams, with one shielding and the other attacking,’ she thought.

She wiped the remnants of blood off the edge of the glass pane onto Jameson’s pants while the others worked to lift him onto the wooden square Dryden had created from the broken crate. “I’m going to release a philtre of darkness. As soon as I do that, start moving Jameson. Get out of the building and far away. Scatter, actually. That will make it harder for them to find you.”

“What about you?” Dryden said, kneeling beside her.

“Once the darkness spreads, I’m going to throw Speer’s philtre of stench at them.”

He nodded. “It should be enough to temporarily incapacitate them if they don’t have wards against it, and might even throw off the scent hounds, if they bring them to track us.”

Siobhan hadn’t even considered the possibility of being tracked by scent, and was doubly glad she had decided to experiment with the disgusting philtre. “Hopefully my distraction gives the response team time to get away. I’ll follow as soon as I can.”

Dryden squeezed her shoulder. “I’ll stay with you. You may need help to escape, if they notice you. My wand still has a charge left.”

You would be smarter to simply leave the wand with me,’ she thought, but didn’t argue with him. She was frightened. He had helped her escape the coppers before. Perhaps she would need his help again. Instead, she nodded silently, and brought the philtre of darkness, which looked like roiling ink in a bottle, out of her bag. “Everyone take a look around, make sure you’re ready to move and know where to go.” Following her own advice, she took the philtre of stench out and held it between her teeth, eyeing the distance to the front wall.

Dryden grabbed onto the back of her cloak.

She dashed the vial of Darkness against the ground, shattering the glass.

Black clouds exploded outward.

She stood up, stepped sideways away from the others and the barrier of dirt bags and crates they had set up, and walked toward the front of the building, feeling the faint tug on her cloak that meant Dryden was following behind her, equally blind.

The philtre of darkness had taken her ninety minutes to create merely a half-dozen vials, and the impenetrably black clouds would disappear within only a minute, but she could never have cast this as an active spell, not with enough volume to obscure the inside of the warehouse and spill out into the street.

The darkness was not simply black smoke, obscuring vision and allowing any bright lights within it to refract off tiny particles in the air. No, this bottled spell was a cloud of actual darkness, as if each cumulous undulation cast an infinite number of shadows from every direction. Trying to see within its effects required magic specifically created to counteract it.

She kept walking till she hit the wall, despite the instinctual desire to stop early for fear of running into something. The windows, now broken, had stretched in a single row of empty space across the walls, so she didn’t have to search one out. She simply drew back her arm and threw.

She didn’t hear the vial break, but she heard the response it brought as the coppers shouted, then began to cough and gag.

“Stags, retreat and escape!” Dryden called.

Siobhan heard cursing, and the wind brought a short burst of footsteps to her ears, but she couldn’t tell who they came from, or even where.

She crouched down low to the ground as she made her way toward the west side of the warehouse and away from the coppers, not wanting to make an easier target of herself than necessary. ‘It would be the height of irony to be hit by a stray spell at this point.’ She crawled through the window, keeping her hands and any uncovered skin away from the sill as much as possible to avoid being nicked by any shards of glass.

Her eyes, wide open, caught faint light as she reached the edge of the philtre’s effects. Her knees were shaking, and she felt faintly nauseated. ‘This is one of the stupidest things I have ever done.’ A couple more steps brought her mostly out of the alchemical cloud. She poked her head slowly around the edge of the building, looking up the street toward where she had last seen the coppers. She had to make sure Katerin and the others were able to get away alright.

It seemed a couple of the reinforcement team had already retreated with their unconscious or injured members, but the others remained, fighting against the coppers while backing down the street, probably planning to scatter and run once they reached the corner.

The coppers were still affected by Speer’s philtre of stench, but not as much as Siobhan had hoped. All of them were coughing and gagging, but only a couple were on their hands and knees, retching onto the cobblestone.

The remainder were well enough to follow the Verdant Stag’s people down the street, shooting spells as they went. ‘The wind probably blew a lot of the philtre away.’ Unlike the darkness, which was magical and not in danger of being dispersed by anything but counter-magic, stench was largely reliant on physical particles for its effect.

She quickly rubbed out the glyphs on her portable glass spell array, leaving the actual Circle itself intact, and lifted it in front of her face, both hands pressed together in a praying position at its center, one on either side of the glass. Her Conduit dug into her right palm, scratching against the pane. “Life’s breath, shadow mine. In darkness we were born. In darkness do we feast. Devour, and arise.”

As it had done in Katerin’s office, on that first night in Gilbratha, her shadow darkened and writhed, moving without regard to the normal laws of light and darkness.

She continued to cycle deep breaths through the Circle, concentrating with all her might as her shadow stretched into the street till most of it stood between Dryden’s response team and the coppers.

Then, it broke from the ground and stood.

It was tall, a tattered cloak of darkness fluttering slowly, completely ignoring the whipping of the storm winds in favor of calm, liquid movement, like smoke off a pinched candle wick.

Its head was dominated almost entirely by a large beak, its other features obscured in the shadows that formed it.

The shadow-familiar spell was entirely harmless, but she hoped that they wouldn’t recognize such an esoteric spell in the confusion of battle. All she needed to do was make them hesitate enough that the Stag members could escape.

Spindly, clawed arms broke away from its sides, and it grew, towering over the coppers.

The response team recognized their opening, or were perhaps simply frightened by Siobhan’s shadow, and broke, running away under the cover of its form.

The coppers shot a few spells at it, but Siobhan clamped down on her Will, and it didn’t disperse or lighten in color. Instead, night-black ravens burst out of its sides as the spells passed through it, flying into the shadows of the alley as if to circle around to attack the coppers from behind.

Truly creating multiple different shadows with this spell was impossible. The ravens were connected to the main form by thread-thin strings of shadow, hopefully unnoticeable, and simply dispersed once they stretched too far from the main form. If she’d done it correctly, it would look like they melted into the shadows.

The coppers screamed, some firing again at the illusionary form and some firing spells erratically into the mundane shadows around them. One twisted, tripped on a cobblestone, and fell to the ground. Instead of standing he began to crawl away, his face a rictus of horror and tears. Two others broke and ran, still firing uselessly into the shadows of the alleys and doorways they passed.

Siobhan lasted only a handful of seconds more before losing control of the spell. She stumbled, half falling into the street, and her shadow snapped back into place beneath her body.

Dryden cursed, reaching down and wrapping one of her arms around his shoulders. He pulled her back away from the street, but not before one of the coppers caught sight of her, shouting “Sorceress!

The copper shot a spell toward the alley, and it barely missed her, splashing against the ground behind them.

Regaining her footing, Siobhan turned to run deeper into the alley.

Something moved on the ground beside her, but by the time she turned to look, it was already too late. There were tentacles growing from the stone where the spell had impacted, and they snapped out and grabbed her.

Her arrested momentum tore her free of Dryden’s grip and sent her tumbling straight into the ground. She instinctively caught herself with her hands, but had forgotten the pane of glass still stuck to her left palm. It shattered against the cobblestone, sharp shards of glass biting into the flesh of her palm.

Dryden stumbled, turned, and reached for her again, grabbing her by her arms and heaving.

Her back popped in staccato as the bubbles between her spine were released, and she felt like her ankles might break, but she slipped free from the grasping tentacles and scrambled to her feet again without issue. Cradling her sliced palm to her chest and her Conduit in her other fist, she followed Dryden as they raced into the night.

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Chapter 30 – (A Rather Poor) Rescue

Siobhan

Month 11, Day 28, Saturday 4:30 a.m.

Sebastien bolted upright before she could stop herself, but then froze, opening her mouth to breathe so that her panicked gasps would be less audible.

She slid off her bed, pressing her feet to the cold stone floor with careful, deliberate movements. Turning to the bed, she cast the spell to disintegrate fallen hairs or other remnants from her body. Now would be the worst possible time to neglect that safety measure.

How did they find me?’ she wondered frantically. Still, that answer wasn’t the most important thing at the moment. ‘I have to escape.

She moved to the chest at the foot of her bed and pulled out her things, most of which she kept organized within her luggage bags, and so required very little preparation to simply pick up and leave.

She dressed as quickly as possible, slung her school satchel over her shoulder, and slipped from the room, carrying both her boots and her luggage. She put her boots on when she reached the hall, then picked up one bag in either arm and hurried out of the dorm building. Outside, the wind had picked up, clearing away the night fog and whipping hair into her face.

Her student token bounced against her chest beside her warded medallion and the transmutation amulet. ‘Should I get rid of the token? They might be able to track it.’ She decided to ditch it after she had escaped the grounds. It would be fastest to go down through the tubes, but she didn’t want to do so without anything to slow her descent, not again, and she needed the student token for the tube system’s magic to recognize her.

She was panting by the time she reached the glass tubes, but Fekten’s training in Defensive Magics had deepened the well of physical energy she had to draw on, and she didn’t slow. Her bags went in first, and then her legs, and she was off.

Only then did she have the horrible thought that her student token may have been compromised, and the tubes would trap her within till the authorities reached her—though she didn’t know if such a thing was actually possible. To her great relief, the tubes worked as normal, simply setting her and her luggage down on the bouncy surface below.

She grabbed both bags and was struggling off the absorbent landing pad toward the street when the sound of a horse’s hooves clopping to intercept her cut through the wind. She dropped the larger bag, the one with her clothes and more unimportant belongings, and turned to sprint away, when Dryden’s familiar voice called, “It’s me! Get on the horse, it’s an emergency.”

She stopped running and turned as he drew the panting beast up beside her.

His eyes flicked between the bag in her arms and the one she had dropped. “They haven’t discovered you, but I had no other way to get your attention. Stash your bags somewhere no one will find them and climb up behind me. There’s no time to wait, lives are at stake.”

His urgent, low voice cut through the fog of panic in her mind. She ran back, picked up the bag she had dropped, and then found a half-broken wooden crate in a nearby alley to stash her things underneath. She took off her student token, too, just to be safe, leaving only her school satchel and her clothes on her body. “What’s going on?” she asked, panting as she climbed up behind him on the horse. It was saddled for one, which made it less than comfortable.

“The Morrows attacked a building of mine, downhill. Workers were inside, on an early shift. My people called for one of the emergency response teams, but the Morrows were prepared for that,” he said, pushing the poor horse hard. He tossed a bundle of cloth back to her. “Wear your cloak and change forms. The Morrows are trying to take the building down around the workers’ ears. We have injured, maybe dead, and the emergency response team cannot get in to help. The other two teams are being roused from their homes, but it may be too late by the time they arrive. Katerin sent me a message, and I triggered your ward immediately. I hope you will forgive me for the fright.”

She tossed the red-trimmed cloak around her shoulders, pulled the hood down, and pressed a hand to her chest to settle the stolen artifact against her skin. With a tingle, her body shifted, and her skin darkened like the blush of a desert rose. “Why did you trigger my ward? What is it that you think I can do about this?” The sound of her old voice was almost startling, and she clutched at Dryden’s waist to keep herself steady as the horse’s muscles undulated under her. Its hoofbeats thundered off the stone around them, distorted by the wind, and the shadows were barely pushed back by increasingly sparse streetlamps.

“Katerin and the reinforcement teams are being deliberately delayed. I have no other options. They have magic-users, Siobhan. And you know how to heal.”

She gaped at the back of his head. “What? I told you, I don’t know any battle magic! And I can only heal small wounds! You would be better off transporting the injured to a healer!”

“I will do the fighting. I fear it may be too late to reach the healers, especially if we cannot break the Morrows’ siege quickly.” He turned his head slightly, to see her out of the corner of his eye. “The workers are innocent, Siobhan. They’re in desperate need of help. Will you not at least try? You will be paid.” His voice broke a little on those last words.

Tingles went up her spine as her back muscles clenched too hard for comfort. She considered refusing, demanding that he stop and let her return to the University, but the words wouldn’t leave her mouth. ‘I am already on my way there,’ she thought with a kind of dry resignedness. Her memory flashed to the moment she’d pressed her bloody thumb against the magical agreement with Katerin. ‘And I cannot refuse repayment in favors unless they are morally objectionable. Not unless I want to bear the consequences.’ The thought of releasing her blood for Katerin to use against her led to a shudder that wasn’t just because of the cold. Katerin was kind, but she was in no way soft. Siobhan belonged to the Verdant Stag.

“I just want to make sure you are aware, fully aware, that I am not a licensed healer, and I’m not just saying that. I don’t know what I’m doing. I shouldn’t be the first one you go to in an emergency. I should be the absolute last resort.”

“You are.” He paused. “I don’t know what you’re imagining, but I don’t have some sort of secret underground battlefield-healer on retainer. Any legal healer won’t come to a still-ongoing gang fight. I hope—I hope you aren’t needed. And I hope that if you are, you can be the stopgap, to buy just enough time till a real healer can be had. Emergency response, right?”

What does it say about me, that I’m rushing into this when a real healer would refuse?’ Still, she didn’t ask him to turn back or let her off.

By the time they arrived, the frigid winds, now carrying the scent of lightning mixed with a hint of feces, were strong enough to distort the sounds of fighting. Even so, Siobhan could see a glow that pulsed artificially from a couple of city blocks away, far enough for them to slow the horse.

Dryden pulled out a battle wand from inside his vest, and they dismounted. He led the horse over to the sidewalk, loosely tying it to a post in front of a building. Then he pressed himself close to the side of the buildings and approached the glow of magic and the screams.

Siobhan made sure her hood was pulled fully down over her face and followed after him. When they got to the corner, she crouched down, peering out into the cross street.

The warehouse under attack stood across the street to their left and about a block away. It had large, many-paned windows running along all three sides she could see, more than a few of which were broken, and the light crystals shining within showed a large barricade the workers must have set up to protect them from spell attacks.

The entire building was vibrating, whatever spell was causing the effect pulsing like an ocean wave. As she watched, a couple more windows broke, their glass falling away and shattering against the ground.

On the street before the warehouse, four people, whose shoulders bore the vibrant green antlers of the Verdant Stag, were crouched behind another makeshift barrier. It had the layered, poured-mud quality of a liquid stone potion, which expanded and hardened when it touched air, and could be used for emergency walls in situations like this. One of the team lay flat, moaning in pain and clutching at his leg, while the other three occasionally popped their heads out and shot up the street.

Their target, almost directly in front of the warehouse, was a group of seven people, each wearing a red bandanna around their neck or arm. They had their own barrier, a glowing half sphere that rose from seven brick-like objects laid on the ground around their group.

One edge of their glowing barrier spell touched the corner of the warehouse, and one of their number was crouched at that edge, casting the spell that was shaking the building on its foundation. The sound of buried thunder, rattling metal, and breaking glass grew louder as the spellcaster continued.

The Morrows’ barrier absorbed incoming spells, yet allowed spells shot from within to exit, meaning they had the clear advantage in both numbers and power. A couple of them had battle wands of their own, which they shot at the emergency response team whenever they saw an opportunity. Magicians, who were often not true spellcasters at all, but used artifacts and tools to do their magic, were often derided, but they could be as dangerous as any other thaumaturge.

Dryden withdrew his head from around the corner and turned to her. “The barrier. What do you know about it? Can you take it down?”

She shook her head. “I’m no expert, but spell-barrier wards always have a weakness. They have to be set up to block specific spells, so there’s always something that can get through them. Alternatively, you can overpower them with brute force, or use a counter-spell specifically to break the barrier. The problem is, I don’t know the counter-spell, and I really doubt I have enough power to brute force it, especially without getting close enough to touch it.”

“And a spell that can get through it? One it wasn’t created to block?”

Siobhan thought frantically, running through her repertoire of knowledge. She knew more than she had the last time she’d been in such a desperate situation, attempting to escape from the coppers chasing her, but she still wasn’t versed in battle magic, and her repository of spells wasn’t much larger than it had been, though it had a better foundation. All that was coming to mind were the spells she had been doing constantly for Professor Lacer.

The idea caught her. She poked her head out again, watching the wind push debris across the cobblestones. She pulled her head back and looked around. “Is there a way onto the roof from here?”

“I believe there’s one in the alley near here. I’ll check.” Dryden stood up and ran back the way they had come.

Meanwhile, Siobhan gouged her nails into the wooden paneling that divided the closest window into little panes. She broke a couple nails, but was able to break the wood, too, getting at the glass held within. She carefully wriggled the pane out of its bindings, then settled it on the ground and pulled an oil pastel out of a pocket. She drew a Circle and the glyphs for “line,” “movement,” and “circle” on the glass.

Then, she drew over a dozen more Circles on the other panes of glass in the window, with pentagons for each, along with the glyphs for “force,” “compression,” and “sphere.” From a case in her bag, she took a very small oil lantern, which she had found useful more than a few times over the years when the weather was not conducive to an open flame. The spell array to spark the wick was carved on the bottom of the lantern, and once she got her Conduit out of her vest pocket, only took a small push of Will.

Dryden returned, dropping down beside her. “There’s an old building about a block east with a ladder up the back. Will that work?”

“As long as it’s close enough for me to target the Morrows from. Now be quiet. I need to concentrate.” With the energy from the lantern, which she held up into the Circles she had drawn on the window glass, she crushed each pane into a vaguely ball-like shape of jagged, cutting edges. The crisp shattering and brittle crunching was loud enough to temporarily overpower the howling of the wind. A little dribble of honey helped the balls keep their shape.

She turned the first, still whole, pane of glass upside down, being careful not to smudge the Circle. She mixed more honey with adhel juice and smeared it on her left palm, creating a strong, sticky film. She pressed that hand to the pane of glass, and was pleased when it stuck without effort.

Now, with a portable spell array, she held her left hand over the balls of shattered glass and activated the spell array drawn on the glass pane. When she lifted her hand, both the pane and the glass spheres came with it. She held the pane up like a waitress carrying a tray full of food, stood, and tucked away the rest of her supplies with her free hand. “Alright. Lead the way.”

Climbing the ladder with only one hand was decidedly more difficult than she had anticipated, and she had to hold her Conduit in her mouth and hook the next rung up with her chin a couple of times while she released her grip with her free hand. Every gust of wind set her heart to pounding, and she remembered belatedly that she really had no love for heights, but by that time it was much too late to give up.

The ladder ended at the roof, which held a gazebo-like structure that had at one time likely housed a bell, but was now empty. The wind was even stronger up high, tugging at her like little grasping fingers as she tried to navigate the steep, shingled surface.

Dryden wrapped an arm around her waist to help stabilize her, but ended up fairly carrying her as they scrambled up and into the protection of the empty bell tower.

From inside, she saw that the stone stairs leading down into the building had half broken and crumbled away, which was probably the reason for the ladder in the first place. She carefully edged around the opening to the broken stairs and looked out over the street below from the far side.

Lightning flashed, so bright that the whole world looked as it did in daylight for a single instant. Thunder followed close behind it.

Dryden reached into his cloak and pulled out a mask. It was smooth and white, with two round holes for the eyes. When he put it on, something happened, a sort of gathering darkness that seeped out around the edges in tendrils and settled behind the empty eyeholes, obscuring the man beneath.

Siobhan couldn’t help her grin. “Impressive.”

He waved a hand at her, a slight flourish in the movement. “Please, sorceress. Upstage me.” He turned his head meaningfully toward the Morrows below.

Most of the glass had fallen from the warehouse windows by that point, and the walls were groaning under the pressure of the vibrations the Morrow caster was creating. A man screamed inside the building, and Siobhan knew there was no time to waste.

She palmed her Conduit, chose one of the balls stuck to the glass pane, and drew it to the center. She wished she had a beast core to pull energy from, but could only take her lantern from where she’d hastily stuffed it in a pocket and hold it within the sphere of influence created by the Circle.

Her hand was within the sphere of influence as well, and she reminded herself with some trepidation not to give herself frostbite.

She had practiced this spell for many hours, till she could do it half asleep and at a moment’s notice. It was only slightly harder to do it now, with adrenaline rushing through her body and the wind tearing at her so hard she had to crouch slightly to avoid being knocked over. It took a handful of seconds to get the glass ball rotating so fast its jagged edges were shrieking against the pane underneath. It was easy, with such a small ball, and no sand to slow it. The hardest part was actually keeping it from shooting off under the force of its speed.

The spell array glowed slightly as she poured on more power, not totally efficient even with all her practice. The Word was too simple.

When she released the ball, it shot forward faster than she could see, exploding against the ground below, just to the side of the Morrows’ barrier.

Small glass shards shot out in every direction, and the gang member nearest the impact screamed and stumbled back. Their barrier didn’t block solid objects, which Siobhan had noticed while watching the leaves and debris the wind sent down the street entering and exiting with no problem.

Siobhan frowned. ‘Aiming is harder than I anticipated.’

The emergency response team, which was to their right, now, took the opportunity to fire some spells of their own.

Siobhan spun up her next shot and managed to aim this one into the barrier sphere. Once again, the glass hit the street and exploded outward.

One of the Morrows turned in their direction, but didn’t look up until another flash of lightning illuminated the street. Then, he pointed up at Siobhan and Dryden with a shout to his fellows.

The Morrow sorcerer crouching at the edge of the group turned to look, then screamed at her teammates, “Keep her off me!”

Siobhan was already spinning up another glass ball. The sequence repeated. A brief glow from her spell array, enough speed to start a screeching that even the wind couldn’t cover, and release.

The man who had pointed them out went down, scrabbling at his abdomen dramatically.

She’d managed to hit him mostly from luck, as the wind had slightly changed the angle of her shot. By the time he started to scream, she’d already shot again. “How long till the backup teams get here?” she said, shouting to be heard over the wind.

“Katerin is on it,” Dryden screamed back. “They’ll be here soon!” He fiddled with the settings on the battle wand he still held, then leaned forward and fired off a concussive blast, aiming at the ground at the edge of the barrier rather than directly at it. It barely cracked the cobblestones, but it was enough to make a couple of their opponents flinch and stumble, so he repeated it.

“Soon?” Siobhan repeated unappreciatively, peering through the broken windows of the warehouse, trying to see the workers within from her better vantage point. Past the barrier of boxes and bags of what seemed to be dirt, she saw four people hiding. They had a couple of small wounds, but had bandaged up the more serious with torn strips of clothing.

Apart from them, from the right edge of the building nearest the street, another worker’s head popped up and then ducked back down again, but the woman was visible for long enough for Siobhan to catch her expression of fear and the blood smeared across her cheek.

There was a loud crack, the sound of an impact, and then part of the warehouse’s roof crumbled and fell in. The screams from within were almost drowned out by the sound of the building’s partial collapse.

Siobhan’s shoulders straightened in response. She realized she’d been holding her breath and took a dizzy gulp of air. “I guess I had better finish this myself, and quickly,” she murmured, knowing her words wouldn’t be audible.

She sent off another shot, hitting one of the Morrows who was attempting to shield the female sorcerer. “Two down,” she said.

One of the Morrows sent a bright orange bolt shooting from their wand straight toward her. She stumbled to the side to avoid the spell, and for a moment thought it was going to hit her, but instead it impacted the stone of the bell-tower ceiling behind her with a sizzle and whoosh of heat.

She paused a moment, her heart pounding so hard she could feel it pushing against her ribs. The warding medallion her grandfather had given her was slightly cold against her chest, indicating that one of the protective spells had activated, probably changing the trajectory of the attack just enough to save her. She resisted the urge to turn her head and look at the place where the spell had hit. Instead, she cast the sphere-spinning spell again and launched the next glass projectile.

Dryden and Siobhan continued to dodge the spells shot back at them, though not without close calls. She nearly cracked her spell array when she was forced to drop to her chest to avoid another orange bolt, but escaped merely with the breath knocked out of her. Her pounding heart had taken her past lightheadedness and into the kind of focus that expanded her sensory intake rather than narrowed it.

She was low on ammunition by the time she managed to hit the third Morrow directly, the glass ball ripping into his shin. It was enough to take the man off his feet, and at that point, the three magicians who hadn’t been hit directly grew less focused on recklessly returning fire. One of them brought out a light crystal contained in a lensed lantern and shined a bright beam of light toward the rooftop.

That is actually pretty clever.’ She squinted against the light. ‘With my vision impaired, I’m less likely to hit them.

Instead of using the opportunity to attack her, however, two of them dropped to the ground and began tending to their downed comrades.

She caught a glimpse of the puddles of blood spreading out on the cobblestones and swallowed hard. The glass shards were more effective than she had anticipated—or intended. She hesitated before launching the next one. Her aim was far from perfect, and when the glass smashed into the sidewalk close to the female sorcerer’s side, Siobhan wasn’t sure whether she was relieved or disappointed.

The woman screamed and fell over onto her left side, clutching at her right arm.

Siobhan spun up her last glass ball, waiting and watching. She didn’t want to waste her last shot.

The woman’s screams quieted, and she turned to face Siobhan, clumsily drawing a new Circle on the ground with her left hand. Presumably, it would be a ward to protect against Siobhan’s attacks.

Siobhan wasn’t sure if she should target the female sorcerer again to keep her from completing the new array, or shoot at one of the others. The woman would only be able to hold one spell at a time, so as long as she was warding against being shot, she couldn’t continue to attack the warehouse.

That was when a brick came flying out of one of the broken warehouse windows and clipped the gang member holding the lantern in the shoulder. The man stumbled and fell, dropping his wand. Another brick followed quickly after, and the magicians, including one of those she had shot directly earlier, turned their attention once again to the warehouse, while the sorcerer drew out her spell in blood-splattered chalk.

Dryden yelled a warning to the workers within that was lost in the howl of the oncoming storm.

Before the Morrows could retaliate for the bricks, a bolt of light cut through the darkness to her left, from further up the street, drawing their attention.

The shot had come from a third group of people who were running down the street toward them. In another bolt of lightning, Siobhan caught a glimpse of blood-red hair and the spring-green antlers of the Verdant Stag among the new arrivals, and felt her knees go weak in relief.

Katerin had arrived with the reinforcements.

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Chapter 29 – Kindred Spirits

Sebastien

Month 11, Day 27, Friday 5:30 p.m.

Sebastien’s free time over the next couple of days was spent engrossed in study and practice. She felt she was progressing well with school-related learning, but hadn’t made much progress finding a solution to her sleep problems. Or, to put it another way, her time and energy problems. Books talked about how the Will could be trained through practice, just like any other muscle, and thus become harder to exhaust. They showed spells that were supposed to help get a full night’s restful sleep, none of which actually worked to let her sleep through the night without nightmares, at least not at the strength she could cast them.

There were spells that could force someone to stay awake, but the only one that lasted longer than a few hours and didn’t require the sleep debt to be made up later was a curse. It kept the victim from sleeping, and for the first few days was seemingly without side effects. But as that wakefulness went on, it led to hallucinations, extreme paranoia, and, eventually, death. Even if she had been willing to try it, it was only talked about in general terms. Apparently the University didn’t want its early term students getting their hands on curses that could kill someone.

There were spells to promote wakefulness more gently, but they couldn’t avert Will-strain, and led to energy debts and fatigue after they wore off. She might as well keep pumping wakefulness magic into high-quality coffee.

With so much other work to get through and no progress on increasing the resources she had to devote to everything, she made little headway in learning about whatever spell might be encrypting the stolen text her amulet had come from. There were so many things she wanted to do outside her schoolwork, and she just couldn’t. Altogether, she felt herself begin to wear down both mentally and physically, and grew frustrated to the point of snapping at her fellow students when they interrupted her study.

When a particularly rowdy group of students stomped their way over to the section of the library where she was trying to finish an essay for one of her classes—fast enough that she would still have time for her Practical Casting exercises and to also read a book assigned in another class—she could feel little tingles of electrical anger tightening the muscles in her back and shoulders.

The library was meant to be a place of quiet and study. Just because she wasn’t locked away inside one of the reserved rooms didn’t mean she deserved to be subjected to their brain-grating distraction. ‘Don’t they have any work of their own to do?

They settled nearby and shortly afterward burst out into laughter. One of the boys took out a gaudily pink, fluffy feather that floated around under his direction and attacked a girl.

She squealed and tried to escape the ticklishness of what had to be a prank artifact by running in circles around the table, shrieking and giggling.

Sebastien’s eye twitched.

One of the other boys stepped up gallantly to protect her, but then ended up being “weak to tickle damage.” They only got louder, encouragement and jokes mixing with the laughter.

When the girl ran past Sebastien to hide behind her chair, using her like a human shield against the trailing feather, Sebastien snapped.

She stood up, slamming her hands down on the table hard enough to make its contents jump.

The group stilled and went quiet, turning toward her. The feather froze in mid-air, then sank to the ground like a dog trying to escape the notice of its master after doing something wrong.

The door to one of the nearby reserved rooms opened. Their student liaison, Newton, stood in the doorway and waved the boy he’d been tutoring out, one eye on Sebastien.

It was too late for Sebastien to stop herself, though, the anger already crackling out in clipped words. Once she was going, she never could rein herself in.

“Shut. Up,” she growled, then rounded on the group, blindly packing her things as she spoke, each movement sharply punctuating her words. “I don’t have the energy to pretend to tolerate you nostril-offending, dull-witted pulps of inanity today. Can’t you see that people are trying to have real thoughts around you? You may not be able to have any of your own, but I assure you the rest of us would appreciate it if you stopped lowering the average intelligence of the room with your deafening presence.” Shoving the last book into her satchel, she gave them a glare, slung the bag over her shoulder, and strode off amidst the suddenly resounding silence.

She blew out of the library and chose the direction with the least number of students clogging the way, which led her past the cafeteria, the dorms, and into the east side of the grounds, which she hadn’t explored since orientation.

She stomped over the cobblestone path winding through the trees, past the Archmage’s High Tower and the occasional professor’s house until the cultivated forest and grass petered out and then the white cliffs broke away.

Her footsteps slowed. She moved to looked out over the east edge of the cliffs. Below roiled the Charybdis Gulf, which ran through Gilbratha’s east edge from north to south, separating the Lilies and the Crown Families who lived there from the rest of the city.

Sebastien pressed her arms closer to her body to ward off the stiff wind as she gazed down at the choppy grey waves below. There were a few small boats braving the waters further south—fisherfolk risking the magical sea beasts and the more mundane, but still dangerous, carnivorous marine animals.

A few rays of light broke through the thick clouds above, refracting off the mist in the air and hitting the water, which glowed green like a cut emerald. The sight, so far removed from her own struggles, helped to calm her.

Sebastien had been standing there for only a couple of minutes when footsteps approached behind her.

Newton had his hands in his pockets and his chin tucked into a thick scarf. He moved to stand beside her with nothing more than a slight nod of greeting.

Am I going to be punished for what I said?’ she wondered. ‘Should I apologize first? It might help reduce my sentence.’ The thought was distasteful, and she let the silence stretch out between them instead.

“You’re not like a lot of the students here,” Newton eventually said.

It hadn’t been what she was expecting, and she raised her eyebrows, turning toward him.

He kept looking out over the water. “The others, those rich kids with Family backing…this place isn’t special to them. Learning at the University is their birthright, the magical is mundane. They don’t worry about learning everything they can, or about performing well enough to get and keep a good apprenticeship. They aren’t trying to stand out, hoping to stay on at the University as a student aide once the first three terms are up, just so they’ll have enough gold to pay for classes. Once they leave here, most of them will only need to use what they learned if they want to. If not, there’s always the Edictum Council, or an advisory position over one of the businesses their Family owns. They can even retire to their lands outside of Gilbratha. Being here doesn’t mean the same thing to them as it does to us,” Newton said.

“And what does it mean to us?”

“Opportunity. The type you only get once in a lifetime, and that’s worth enough you’d sacrifice almost anything for it.”

Sebastien felt herself pale, but tried to keep her expression neutral. ‘Is he hinting that he knows about how I got here?

Newton nodded. “I’ve noticed, Sebastien. After all, it takes one to know one.”

What?’ she thought. Aloud, she said, “What?”

“I noticed the wonder on your face when we toured the place during Orientation. You’re dressed just as finely as them, you carry yourself like you belong more than they do, and no one can deny you have the intelligence to be here.” Newton threw his hands up. “Hells, you even somehow managed to get Thaddeus Lacer to acknowledge you!” He shook his head, then. “But the truth is obvious to me. We’re the same. I doubt you ever had finery like you’re wearing now before you came to the University. You didn’t take trips to Paneth every autumn and get a miniature gryphon for your tenth birthday. You didn’t have magical artifacts in every room and servants to take care of everything the magic didn’t.”

Sebastien carefully kept her hand from creeping toward her Conduit as he spoke. She didn’t want to push the situation further into disaster by overreacting. ‘Being poor isn’t a crime. Even lying about your background isn’t. As long as he doesn’t know about Siobhan, everything is salvageable.

“I had that same look of wonder on my face when I came to the University. The one those rich kids don’t have because they’re blind to the wonder of it, jaded by the opulence and opportunity they’ve grown up in. That’s why I understand how frustrating it can be—pinching every copper, studying till you dream of writing essays and practice casting in your sleep, and watching the people around you who have it so much easier…”

He gritted his teeth, then shook his head, as if to dislodge the frustration. “Well, you just have to learn to let it go. I’ve got a little trick for it. My Grams taught me when I was a child. She was helping me calm myself down when I was panicking during a thunderstorm, but it’s good for anger too. It’s an esoteric spell, the first bit of magic I ever did, and one of the few real spells my family had.”

Slowly, making sure Sebastien was watching, he touched his middle fingers to his thumbs, creating a Circle from his hands. His Conduit was set into a simple metal ring, and with it turned to face his palm, he didn’t have to awkwardly secure his grip on it. He pressed the Circle up against his diaphragm and let out a deep humming, “Ohhhmm,” drawing the sound out till the vibrations seemed to ripple against each other, enriching the note.

Sebastien blinked, absorbing it even as she wondered what in the hells was going on. Teaching a family spell to an outsider was usually a pretty big deal.

The tension she hadn’t even realized was tugging at the muscles around Newton’s eyes and shoulders released, and after repeating the humming for a couple of deep breaths, he dropped his hands and explained the spell to her, then added, “Being a commoner is nothing to be ashamed of, Sebastien.”

Sebastien opened her mouth, not quite sure what she was going to say, but Newton waved her words away.

“Don’t worry, it’s not obvious. And maybe the Siverlings aren’t technically commoners, but what’s a name if you’re too poor to back it up? I’m not going to give away your secret. What I’m trying to say is, you deserve to be here just as much as any of them. More, even. Don’t let them push you till you cause trouble for yourself. Thaumaturges need their pride, but we also have to know when to stay coolheaded. I’ll try to have your back, but if you find it all becoming too much, calm yourself.”

“We’re the same. Commoners trying to fit in at the University,” she said slowly, making sure she understood.

He laughed sharply. “Well, it’s a little more obvious for me than you.” He gestured to his clothes. “I haven’t had a new set of clothes since first term, and I spend every spare hour with student liaison business or tutoring people too stupid or lazy to learn on their own, just trying to make enough gold to pay for my next term. I use my contribution points to pay for classes, and the only reason I’m not still in the dorms with the rest of you is because the student liaison job comes with a separate room.”

Sebastien pondered the correct response to this, still reeling a little from the rapid shift in emotions and the relief now filling her. “Thank you,” she said finally. “For the spell…and the advice.”

Newton clapped her on the shoulder. “Don’t mention it, friend. Well, maybe someday when you’ve made something of yourself, you’ll remember me. My Journeyman certification will be based on pure skill and determination, and I’m not picky about my field of work.”

“You want to…work for me after graduation?” She felt like Newton kept throwing conversational blows she hadn’t seen coming.

“As long as the job pays at least market wage for a Journeyman. It’d be better than working for one of the Crowns, or some rich Master who makes me do all the work while taking the credit for himself!” Newton said with a laugh. “Of course, if you’re going into the army, I have to give advance warning that I’m only interested in administrative jobs.”

Sebastien nodded stiffly. “I’ll keep that in mind.” She understood his reasoning in teaching her the spell, at least. ‘A bribe couched in overtures of friendship. He’s making “connections.” Too bad he doesn’t realize that Sebastien Siverling doesn’t actually exist.

Newton shoved his hands back into his pockets, whistling as they turned and walked back to the University.

“I do regret some of the things I said to them,” she offered.

He nodded slowly, still whistling quietly.

“I came up with better insults while I was walking away,” she explained.

His head jerked to a stop mid-nod and the simple, meandering tune died on his lips. After a moment of shock, he burst out laughing.

That night, Sebastien tried out the spell Newton had taught her. It forcefully calmed her heartbeat to match her breaths and smoothed muscles she hadn’t noticed were tense. The longer she drew the deep hums out, the farther into the calm state it stretched her body, like straightening a spring.

She started to snap back as soon as the sound stopped—the relaxation was unnatural, based on force rather than a cessation of the triggers that had caused the negative response—but as she kept the spell going with breath after breath, her body settled into the new state. She didn’t become relaxed, exactly, but she felt calm, in control. As if the state of her mind when casting magic had spread to the rest of her body. She didn’t dislike it, but she wondered how much use she would get out of it. ‘Would I remember to stop and cast it in the heat of the moment? And if I do, would control over my body be enough to override my anger?

If she was entirely honest with herself, she enjoyed giving the occasional verbal abuse to the deserving. If there weren’t sometimes consequences, she would never regret it at all. ‘Well, perhaps it could be useful to get back to sleep after I wake too early,’ she thought as she slipped into sleep.

Sometime in the middle of the night, she woke suddenly, and at first didn’t realize what had roused her. She hadn’t been dreaming.

Her wrist hurt, as if she’d dropped a dot of hot wax or a still-burning coal on it. With sleepy fingers, she probed at the pain, and immediately felt the too-cold bead of metal pressed against her skin.

Dryden has triggered the ward on my bracelet.

Her heart seemed to stop beating for an instant, and then it crashed against her chest with a surge of fiery adrenaline. ‘I’ve been caught.

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Chapter 28 – Admit You Don’t Understand

Sebastien

Month 11, Day 25, Wednesday 10:45 a.m.

In Sebastien’s Natural Science class later that day, she found the slate experiment tables covered with equipment when she arrived. Glass beakers, half full with liquid, sat with spiral tubes coming from their rubber-sealed mouths. For every two beakers there were three small jars, each containing a piece of raw meat. Finally, rolls of gauze and wax paper.

Sebastien sat at her desk and examined the supplies with curiosity while the other students filed in.

As soon as the bell rang, Professor Gnorrish stood up from his desk and said, “We’ve spent the last month on a blisteringly fast review of the basics. Some of you had a better foundation in natural science than others, but this review should have given you a good understanding of where you need more study. Which is everywhere. In my opinion, every single one of you knows close to nothing.”

He waited for the mutters, frowns, and uncomfortable shifting to subside. “But that’s okay. I myself know close to nothing. I’m not afraid to admit that. In the grand expanse of reality—cause and effect and the underpinnings of how things really work—I understand very little. It’s important to admit when you don’t understand. And in your lack of understanding, you should be skeptical.”

Sebastien leaned forward, intrigued.

“That is the foundation of scientific progress,” he continued. “Before the Blood Empire, for thousands of years it was common knowledge, accepted by the learned and unlearned alike, that life could come from somewhere besides a progenitor. People believed that mice were created from the mud and heat of a riverbank every year in the summer. They knew that scallops formed in sand. Their parents and teachers told them that insects could be created, spontaneously generated, from decaying animal or plant matter, and people saw what they believed to be evidence that corroborated this universal understanding.”

He waved his arms around to emphasize the absurdity. “But no one actually understood the theory of spontaneous generation. They only thought they did, because the truth of it was before everyone’s eyes to see. They knew life was created by ‘spontaneous generation.’” He crooked his fingers into quotation marks in the air. “They knew things fell because of ‘gravity.’ They knew the answer to one plus one is ‘two.’ They had memorized the answer key, if you will, and could even do limited extrapolation from it, but their answer didn’t actually tell them anything about how the world worked. If they were given chalk, a fire, and no further components—limited to transmutation—they couldn’t have designed a spell array that could replicate the process through every microsecond and down to the very cells, indistinguishable from the natural occurrence. They didn’t understand.”

Replicating the process exactly with only transmutation? Is that his criterion for true understanding?’ Sebastien thought. It seemed an impossibly rigorous standard. So much so that she questioned whether he actually expected anyone to really achieve it, or if he was just trying to knock them down a peg so they would be more willing to learn.

“Now, let’s do a couple of experiments on spontaneous generation,” he announced with a huge grin, turning to the chalkboard at the front of the room and touching the control to reveal the instructions written there. “Move as quickly as possible while still maintaining care,” he urged. “There’s a lot to cover, and we only have ninety minutes.”

The two beakers contained nutrient broth. They were to be brought to a boil, thus killing any bacteria or fungus currently living within. When the students had finished that and were quite sure the mixture was sterile, they could remove the spiral tube from one of the beakers, exposing its mouth directly to the air.

The three jars holding chunks of raw meat were to have their lids removed. One was left open to the air. They tied gauze over the mouth of the second. The third, they sealed with the wax paper.

Once this was done, they labeled everything with their name, then everyone placed the meat jars into a Circle drawn on the floor on one side of the experiment space, and put the sterilized nutrient-broth beakers into another.

As they worked, Professor Gnorrish lectured, walking among them. “When testing a hypothesis, such as ‘life does not need to come from seed, eggs, or parents, but can spontaneously generate,’ we must attempt to disprove it. Only when it stands up to rigorous trials can a hypothesis be tentatively considered ‘truth.’ Even then, new discoveries and understandings may disprove your prior ‘truth,’ or simply update the depth of your understanding of the model.”

He stopped to help a woman who was having trouble tying her gauze over the meat jar’s mouth. “Historical documents show that some of the more learned and curious did do experiments on spontaneous generation. One lord even listed a series of recipes for creating various types of life. By all accounts, he carried out these experiments himself and recorded the outcomes. To create mice, put a piece of soiled cloth in wheat, and wait twenty-one days. To create scorpions, place basil between two bricks and leave it in the sunlight. Just more proof of spontaneous generation, right?”

Beside Sebastien, Ana laughed aloud.

Professor Gnorrish spun and pointed at her. “Ah! It sounds absurd now, right? How could they have believed such silly things? But don’t make the mistake of thinking the human species has gotten any more intelligent in the last three hundred years. If you were born in those times, and I was standing here in class explaining to you how spontaneous generation worked, would you think to question me? Would you think to question such an obvious process?”

Ana gave him a crooked smile, but didn’t answer.

“Let me phrase it another way,” he said, turning to the other students. “Have you ever questioned how life is created from seed, egg, or parent? Do you understand it well enough to replicate the process if the entire world were destroyed, and it was up to you to recreate life out of primordial energy? How are you sure that I know what I’m talking about, or that anyone does? Do you think it possible that in another hundred years, students will be standing in this classroom laughing at the absurdity of the things you currently believe?”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Damien said from a few tables away. “You just said as much yourself.”

Professor Gnorrish applauded him. “Exactly. Your professors aren’t going to be able to teach you everything, or even most things, really.”

Damien preened.

“But back to experiments on spontaneous generation. Where these historical practitioners of natural science went wrong is that they didn’t try hard enough to disprove their belief. If they had, maybe they would have seen that their model of the world didn’t stand up to harsh scrutiny. So, today, we will scrutinize harshly.”

As the students finished setting up the experiments and placed them inside the pre-drawn spell arrays on the floor, he waved them away, then took out some components and began to place them in the spell array around the beakers with the nutrient broth. “Master Pasteur, a researcher working under the Blood Emperor, devised a test to disprove the theory of spontaneous generation of life. By boiling, we’ve killed any small organisms that were inside the beakers. You have removed the tube in the mouth of one beaker, while leaving the other. The liquid inside the beaker without a tube is directly exposed to any organisms within the air, while the spiral formation of the remaining tube will help to keep organisms from reaching the broth, while still allowing air to travel freely. Any dust, bacteria, or fungi will settle on the bottom of the successive spirals.”

He looked up from his preparation. “One of the theories was that air was necessary for spontaneous generation, you see, so we want to make sure that both have air, the only difference being that one broth will be exposed to everything, and the other will receive air with the impurities settled out.” He lit a brazier for power, reviewed everything, and nodded to himself. “Watch closely, now, to make sure I don’t pull any tricks.”

He stood, took out a small paper packet, and tossed its powdery contents into the air over the beakers. A fraction of a second later, an almost-invisible barrier dome sprang up from the spell array surrounding the beakers. “I have just thrown active yeast into the air, and the barrier is to keep any wind from blowing it around, as well as prevent other unexpected variables. It will settle and get into the beakers with the open mouths.” When the air inside the dome had cleared, he grinned. “I am also casting a modified healing spell to encourage rapid growth and reproduction of said yeast, which, if you remember, is a form of fungus.”

Sebastien’s mind latched on to a particular part of his statement. ‘He’s speeding up growth with a modified healing spell? It seems feasible. Magic can heal a wound or overcome a sickness much more quickly than the body would be able to on its own. Even whole limbs could be regrown with enough power and the right components. But how does that work? Could I do that to encourage an animal to mature more quickly? To have a fruit tree producing food within a couple of weeks, instead of years?

She looked at the components, one of which was a lumpy thing she didn’t recognize, but which had the telltale glow of being from the Plane of Radiance. ‘No, that’s much too expensive. It can’t be sustainable for any real-world application.

The students watched for the next few minutes with growing boredom as nothing particular seemed to be happening. Sebastien considered going back to her desk and trying to get some studying in, but remembered Professor Gnorrish’s admonition to be skeptical. ‘He might alter the results of the experiment if I’m not watching,’ she told herself playfully. She crossed her arms and glowered at him threateningly, looking over the spell array once again, this time to make sure he was really casting what he said he was.

When Gnorrish deemed enough time had passed, he turned the maintenance of the barrier spell over to one of his student aides and moved to the second experiment. “We’ll give that one a little time. Now, the recipe for maggots!” he announced dramatically. “Place meat in a warm place. Wait one to three days.”

He grabbed a small terrarium box full of live flies from the supply closet, activated another barrier spell, and released them inside. They found the uncovered meat quickly enough, and were also drawn to the gauze-covered jar. “Maggots take about twenty-four hours to hatch from their eggs, normally, but since you will be gone by then, we’ll just speed things up a little.”

When he was finished, he had another student aide take over that barrier, and resumed pacing around, the occasional wild gesture coming close to knocking against a table, piece of equipment, or a student who wasn’t prepared to dodge. “We’ve come a long way in the last few hundred years. New ideas and advancements have sparked a renaissance that has improved the lives of humans all the way from the Thirteen Crowns to the most humble pauper. But don’t mistake these advancements in our understanding of natural science as easy or simple. These new ideas, now accepted as common knowledge, were not obvious at the time, and were often simply one among multiple potentially plausible theories. Most of the time, new theories are disproved. Do not assume, without rigorous testing and extreme skepticism, that your shiny new idea about how things work is inherently superior just because it is new. All things must be judged for truth, and that which can be destroyed by the truth should be.”

Sebastien felt the rightness of those words. ‘That which can be destroyed by the truth should be,’ she repeated to herself. ‘Is there anything in me which might be destroyed by truth?

“There was a study done on University students a few decades back that judged how well they retained information after the class was over and they had no need to regurgitate what the teacher wanted to hear onto a test paper. The results were…abysmal. Shameful, for an institution of learning such as this one. More effort was poured into understanding why this was, and what we could do about it. We’re still doing our best, and still failing for a multitude of reasons, but there was one particularly interesting result of this research.

“Students who were willing to admit that they didn’t know, that they didn’t understand, rather than fumbling for an answer that used the keywords they’d been taught to associate with the topic, showed a marked increase in their ability to learn and retain information. They didn’t just fill in the blank with something, hoping to be right. They didn’t reach into their memory and pull out a phrase their teacher had written on the blackboard for emphasis. The biggest correlation with successful learning was how many times they continued to say that they didn’t understand.”

He continued to lecture, delving deeper into some historical discoveries that were controversial at the time, and the methods that were used in attempts to prove or disprove them. At the end of class, he used a spell to clean up the spilled yeast and the flies, then took away the barriers around both experiments.

Sebastien found her own quickly enough, her spider-scrawl handwriting distinct.

The nutrient broth in the beaker whose spiral tube she had extracted was cloudy with growing yeast. Little disks that looked like lily pads floated on top, and sediment settled to the bottom. It looked absolutely disgusting.

Maggots were crawling on the piece of meat with no lid, and interestingly, on top of the gauze-covered jar, as if trying to get down to the meat. The parchment-covered jar was free of the little squirming worms entirely.

“If you believed in spontaneous generation before you did these experiments,” Gnorrish said, “you should rethink your understanding of the world. Let me leave you with one last piece of information to chew on. Spontaneous generation among mundane living organisms has been widely disproved. If you told anyone you think a barnacle goose grows from a goose barnacle, they would laugh and think you an uneducated nincompoop.”

The bell rang, but no one moved to leave.

“But the current literature all agrees that under-bed dust bunnies spontaneously generate in dark, dusty areas that are frequently exposed to magic, likely from the dead skin cells of a magical being combined with other fluff and dirt.” He let that hang in the air for a moment, then waved his hands in a shooing motion. “That’s all for today. Go on then, get to lunch. But don’t forget to think. And don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t know, and don’t understand!”

His words lingered in her mind through the next day, which started with Professor Ilma’s History of Magic.

The blue-tinted woman jumped immediately into the meat of class, as always. “There is much of history that is lost to us. The oldest signs of human civilization have been dated to approximately seven hundred thousand years ago. Not the oldest sign of humans, but the oldest humans that were obviously acting as sentient, sapient creatures and working together as a community to build a life. And yet, we know almost nothing about history beyond ten thousand years ago. Why is this?” She pointed to a random student.

“Because of the Cataclysm,” the student replied immediately. “Approximately ten thousand years ago, there was a catastrophic event that destroyed the civilizations of the time. Humans were set back to nomadic hunting and gathering. Whatever records these pre-Cataclysm civilizations would have kept were destroyed.”

Ilma nodded and continued. “It took approximately five hundred years for the population to expand and for people to start rebuilding. Written language was preserved among some, which helped to kick-start civilization again, and gives us some idea about times before, or at least what people several generations later thought they knew about the pre-Cataclysm world. But by then, much was already lost, with only scattered and contradictory tales passed down orally. At this point, humans were still far from the dominant species on Earth, and we were scrabbling to survive among the more powerful sapients and beasts. We had only just begun to develop, or re-develop, the foundations of structured magic.

“What caused the Cataclysm?” She pointed at a man.

He was less quick to respond than the previous student. “Umm, we don’t know?”

She nodded. “True. But there are theories. Many of them. Anyone?”

“A falling star hit the planet,” someone offered.

“Good. Keep going,” Ilma said, waving her hands impatiently.

“The Beast King woke from his sleep,” someone else said.

“The strongest thaumaturges in existence went to war with each other, with no care for collateral damage.” The answers were coming faster now.

“We were attacked by one of the Elemental Planes.”

“The Titans went insane.”

“Magic broke.”

“We were attacked by some alien force, or an eldritch being from the outer darkness.”

“Good,” Ilma said. “There is another theory. It’s a bit broader, and could have triggered many of the events you just mentioned.” Her voice went slow and cold, her eyes roving over theirs. “We experimented with powers better left alone.”

Sebastien shivered.

“But speculation aside, we do have some hints at the lost knowledge. Not enough to piece together a coherent tapestry, but enough tattered threads to guess that something was there before. Can someone give me a hint, the end of a thread that we might pull?” She pointed to Sebastien.

Sebastien straightened. “Where did the Blood Emperor and his people come from?”

Ilma smiled. “Yes. Good. Simple calculations can tell us that the planet is much larger than the area that we have mapped. The seas are dangerous, and the wilderness filled with beasts. But we have proof that other humans developed a society somewhere beyond the northern ice oceans. Curious, that although the Blood Empire ruled for over a hundred years and was a huge influence on our society, we know almost nothing about the place they came from.”

“It was deliberate,” Sebastien said. “It had to have been.”

“Yes, that seems the only logical explanation,” Ilma agreed. “Let’s pull on another thread. Hints at our lost history. Mysteries. Anyone?”

“Who built Gilbratha’s wall? It’s obviously a Circle. Could it have been part of the largest spell array known to mankind?” another girl asked.

Ilma hummed. “Not bad. Several different accounts claim different things. Some say Myrddin raised these stones. Some say it was here long before that, during the war with the Brillig, meant to be a huge weapon to wipe out their race. Some say it was here even before that, meant to be a shield against the Titans themselves. I don’t know who raised it, but divination spells hint it is very old. Almost certainly it was here before Myrddin, though it’s curious that there aren’t signs of occupation within these walls before his time. Some speculate that he may not have built it, but lowered wards that were keeping it hidden.”

“Could the walls have been pre-Cataclysm?” a student asked.

“It’s difficult to determine,” she said. “Preservation and warding spells could have maintained the white cliffs in relatively good condition from that time period, if they weren’t catastrophically damaged during the Cataclysm. But how was such a structure created in the first place? We would find it difficult to do today, even if we had a hundred of Archmage Zard. So either humans didn’t create it, or we created it when we still knew how to do such things.”

She went through the same thread-pulling process with half a dozen other students. Some had better questions than others, but she took them all seriously. Near the end of class, she said, “We’ve had some good discussion. But there’s one last thread I was hoping one of you would pick out, one that feeds all the way through the Cataclysm into our side of history. Anyone?”

She looked around, her eyes finally settling on Sebastien’s face. “Siverling. Make a guess.”

Sebastien was silent for a few seconds, then said, “The Titans? They were long-lived, and by all accounts survived the Cataclysm. So they should have known what came before. Supposedly they were intelligent. Enough to go insane, anyway. And incredibly powerful. So…did they have anything to say about the time before, or what caused the Cataclysm? And, if I remember correctly, the Titans were all dead just a couple of thousand years later. How did that happen?”

“Indeed, that is the query I was looking for. The Titans were enormous, and enormously powerful. Accounts from the time say that they were omnivores in the truest sense of the word. They ate anything and everything, from people to smallish mountains.”

Ilma turned and drew two stick figures on the chalkboard. One came to a little below mid-shin on the other. “This is the scale of a Titan compared to a human. But even if you consider the extreme caloric requirements of a being that large, if accounts from those living during that time are to be trusted, their appetites were still outsized. While we should be skeptical of any who claimed to have come into contact with a Titan and escaped uneaten, their ravenous nature is agreed on universally. Scholars have suggested that a large part of what they ate went toward maintaining the structural integrity of their impractically large bodies, which should otherwise have been unable to function, and that everything they ate was in fact being used as a Sacrifice for their particular brand of magic. Some even believed them to be gods. They did not seem to age, and they had strange, terrible powers.”

Ilma stared at the stick figure on the board for a moment, then turned back to face the students. “But all their power didn’t keep them from insanity. Some were beyond communication from the beginning of our records, but there are claims of reasonable Titans living in the wilderness, nonaggressive unless threatened. They fought each other sometimes, if they happened to cross paths. Perhaps the Titans were simply too dangerous, too strange and volatile and hungry, for anyone to question or get coherent answers from. Perhaps they refused to speak of the time before. Or perhaps they’d been damaged somehow, their minds or their magic broken. In any case, the last of these strange and terrible beings died long ago, and we are left with many questions but few answers.”

As if she’d timed it perfectly, the bell rang to signal the end of the class period.

Sebastien stayed in her seat for a few minutes, waiting for Ilma to say something else, to give a hint at what she, an expert, believed.

But Ilma was silent as the rest of the students filtered out.

Sebastien lingered, approaching Professor Ilma instead of heading for the Sympathetic Science classroom and Professor Pecanty. “What happened to the Titans, Professor?” she asked.

“They died,” the blue-tinted woman said with a faint smile.

“But how? Did they kill each other? Did the mortal races band together and kill them? Did they starve, or was their magic unable to sustain them?”

“There are quite a few different accounts, many of them contradictory. I can suggest a reading list if you’re curious about the topic.” Ilma wiped away the stick figures drawn in chalk and scribbled a list on a piece of paper.

When Sebastien took the list, she saw that it was accompanied by a slip for one University contribution point. “Thank you,” she said, looking up at the older woman.

“You’ll be late if you don’t hurry,” Ilma said.

Sebastien left quickly. As she strode through the slightly-curved hallways of the Citadel, she folded and tucked the point slip and the reading list into one of her pockets. ‘I don’t understand,’ she said to herself. ‘I don’t understand at all. If Ilma had some point for that lesson beyond confirming how little historians have been able to verify, and how frustrating a job that must be, I don’t know what it was. The space of things I still have to learn is the size of a vast ocean, wide and deep enough that no light can reach the bottom.

Rather than press down on her, the sense of this ocean surrounding her on all sides made her feel weightless, buoyant. ‘It’s all at my fingertips, just waiting for me to grasp it.

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Chapter 27 – Study Group

Sebastien

Month 11, Day 25, Wednesday 5:30 a.m.

Mid-week, Sebastien was woken early by forcefully hissed whispers and a few grumbling mutters. It took her longer to become alert than normal, as if her thoughts were rising through molasses. When her eyes finally gained the ability to focus, she sat up and saw that Damien Westbay, already dressed and hair perfectly groomed, was leaned over a nearby bed, shaking Alec Gervin’s shoulder in an attempt to wake him. The rest of Westbay’s group of followers were also up, gathering their clothes and stumbling off to the bathrooms to get dressed.

Other nearby students, who had also been awakened, complained at Westbay’s noisemaking. One clamped a pillow around her head and flopped back down with a loud huff.

Sebastien rubbed the sleep from her eyes and checked her pocket watch. It was too late for her to bother going back to sleep, despite her fatigue. She stood up, swaying slightly, and made her way to the bathrooms to get dressed. ‘Imbecilic troglodyte. Poor excuse for a sorcerer,’ she thought with a scowl as she passed Westbay.

When she returned from the bathroom, his group was standing outside their dormitory doors and arguing. Someone had at least had the presence of mind to close the doors so they didn’t continue disturbing the other students. Both Ana and Westbay held some familiar equipment in their arms.

Sebastien’s gaze sharpened. They had the same devices Lacer had given her to practice with outside of class.

“Sebastien!” Ana said brightly, her hair still loose around her shoulders. Her eyes trailed over him, and she grimaced slightly. “I’m sorry if we woke you. Alec has always slept like a tranquilized rhinoceros.”

As if on cue, the other girl, who had dark hair and was wearing a dress rather than the trousers Ana seemed to favor, elbowed Alec in the side without looking.

While Ana’s cousin pouted and rubbed at his ribs, Sebastien straightened her clothing and ran a hand through her tangled hair, attempting to seem more awake. “It’s alright—”

“Siverling rises early every morning to practice anyway, right?” Westbay said, not quite softly enough to be under his breath.

Sebastien lifted her chin. “I do,” she said.

Ana smiled charmingly, seemingly oblivious to the undercurrent of tension. “Exactly. When Damien heard about it, he quite admired your work ethic. We have decided to start an early morning study session of our own.”

Westbay gave Ana a dubious look, and Sebastien doubted that boy had ever stated such a charitable word as “admire” about her.

Sebastien’s lips quirked up at the thought.

Ana’s smile grew more cheerful, as if pure, forceful obliviousness were its own type of magic. “So! We were thinking you should join us. You are working on Professor Lacer’s additional exercises, and the two of us are as well. Damien’s bullied the rest of the group into accompanying us. Why not practice together? Perhaps we could exchange some pointers.”

Westbay scowled. “I’m sure Siverling prefers to work without distraction.”

That was true. Additionally, Sebastien didn’t know half the group, and of the ones she did, the only one she liked was Anastasia. Her morning would likely become markedly less productive if she were to share it with them. She opened her mouth to refuse, but caught the faint hint of satisfaction in Westbay’s expression. She wasn’t sure if it was the idea of being contrary just for the sake of it, or the memory that Westbay’s Family lead the coppers, and he knew about her case, that changed her mind.

Perhaps I’ll be able to get him to talk about it.’ She smiled, keeping as much vindictiveness out of the expression as possible. “I would be delighted, thank you, Ana.” She went back into the dorms to grab her things and the practice equipment Professor Lacer had given her, then followed the group to an empty classroom not far from the outer doors of the Citadel.

Ana introduced the rest of the group as they settled in.

Alec Gervin she was familiar with already, having met him along with Westbay when they tried to cut in line that first day. He was the loud one with the bushy black eyebrows. ‘And he also apparently has some sort of sleep disorder,’ she thought uncharitably.

Waverly Ascott was the other girl. She was quiet, but her eyes were alert and quick to narrow in a threatening scowl when one of the others annoyed her. Her eyelids had a partial epicanthic fold that indicated one of her parents—probably her mother, was from one of the countries to the East. She nodded perfunctorily when introduced to Sebastien, then pulled a thick book about the Plane of Radiance out of her bag and began to read, ignoring the rest of them.

Ambrose Setterlund, a young man who was too tall to be so shy, waved his hand rapidly when introduced and mumbled, “Call me Brinn,” with a blush on his cheeks. He sat next to Ascott.

The final boy was probably the most handsome of the group, with curly hair, dark creamy skin, and a confident smile that even Sebastien could admit was attractive. Rhett Moncrieffe bowed easily to Sebastien, seeming neither particularly pleased nor displeased at her company, and set a briefcase on a side table.

Westbay groaned aloud. “Must you, Rhett? We are here to study, not play.”

The handsome boy tossed his hair and gave Westbay a snooty look. “This is study. My field of interest is simply more…diverting than yours. I need to practice, and it’s not as if there are dueling rings set up in here for me to actually train. Don’t be so sanctimonious.”

Alec Gervin stood, his chair making a scraping sound against the floor. “I will study with you, Rhett.”

The two of them set up on the side table with an unfolding wooden board and two small humanoid pieces. They set the pieces in their respective Circles on the board, and began to shoot “spells” that seemed to be just tiny beams of light at each other, while dodging the incoming attacks from their game-piece opponent.

The entire group perked up a bit when Westbay pulled a kettle down from the cabinet on the far wall and filled it with ground coffee. They set up around a large table while the water heated, and Westbay cast the spell to turn the coffee into wakefulness brew himself, with the kind of proud look a child might wear after “helping” their mother to bake bread. The coffee—probably some expensive luxury strain—had taken the magic even more smoothly than the beans in Dryden’s kitchen, and Sebastien had to admit it was delicious, too.

Brinn Setterlund, the tall young man, had hurried to pour Waverly her coffee, which he handed to her with a puppylike smile. She accepted the cup with a distracted nod, barely looking up from her book.

With the sand wheel on the table, Sebastien palmed her Conduit and began to cast, only part of her concentration on the metal ball within, which had been ground down to matte smoothness from the constant sanding. “So your Family is in charge of the coppers, right, Westbay? The ones doing the investigation into that sorceress who stole from the University a couple of months ago?”

“Yes. My brother Titus is in charge of the investigative task force.”

“Right. The task force that hasn’t caught her and whose lone clue is that she managed to speak to her accomplice even after they jailed him.”

He scowled, the bags under his eyes standing out.

Before he could speak, she continued, idly spinning her ball faster. “So what is it that she even stole? Rumor at the market is that it was some priceless artifact from an archaeological dig, but is that true?”

He sniffed. “She stole a book, apparently. Perhaps it had powerful or illegal spells in it, I don’t know. However, as to your insinuations about the investigators, let me set you straight. Her accomplice spilled his guts on the first day they brought him in, and freely revealed her attempts to contact him the second time, as well. The only reason we haven’t caught her yet is that she’s been quiet. No doubt she’s lying low for fear that we’ll have her soon. But we know she’s still in the city. That particular messenger spell must be used close by the recipient. It’s likely she is being hidden by some other criminals, perhaps ones who wanted the book, but eventually someone will slip up, and then we’ll have her and the whole ring of colluders!”

Sebastien spun her ball even faster, till the sand began to heat with its passing, and then slowed it abruptly. The minimalist spell array glowed with inefficiency as the ball slowed, and then dimmed as the ball began to spin the opposite direction and gain speed again. Undoing the momentum the ball had built up so quickly required a level of energy she couldn’t channel all at once. Perhaps one day, the ball would stop in an instant, with a cracking sound like a miniature bolt of lightning. She could dream, at least. “But is there any actual way for the coppers to catch her, if she or one of her accomplices doesn’t carelessly reveal themselves? Are there any leads?”

Westbay looked from her spell Circle back to his own with a frown, spinning his ball faster. He was good, better than most of their classmates, but it was obvious to Sebastien that he hadn’t practiced as much as her. “She is skilled, and has been careful,” he said. “But she’s cocky, too. She wants to be seen, to be noticed, that’s why she commits such outrageous crimes in broad daylight. She will act again, she cannot help it, and when she does, she will make a mistake, and we will catch her.”

Sebastien raised her eyebrows, indignation at that assessment rising up inside her. She clamped down on the emotion and sent her ball on a series of fast, jerking turns back and forth.

Gervin, who had grown bored with losing to Rhett, stood up and stepped closer, watching with interest. “How are you doing that?”

Without thinking, she replied, “I can explain it to you, but I cannot understand it for you.”

The cogs between his ears moved slowly as he processed her words. His eyes widened. “Did you just insult me?”

“I didn’t mean to offend you. My intention was to insult you without you noticing.” The words spilled from her in a bout of ire, and it was only after they were out, hanging in the air like little guillotines over her neck, that she realized it may have been slightly uncalled for. Perhaps even a little rude. ‘I must be more tired than I realized, to be acting so recklessly.’ Still, she wouldn’t take the words back. She waited for the response to come, the anger and outrage.

Ascott burst out laughing.

Once the dam of tension broke, the others followed suit. Even Gervin, a few belated seconds later, gave her a grudging chuckle. “Not bad, not bad.”

Moncrieffe nodded at her from his corner as if bestowing a boon. “You have a sharp tongue, Siverling. I can respect a man who is milquetoast in neither word nor action.”

Her surprise was a warm tingle running down her unclenching back. She had plenty of experience with people’s response to her sharp tongue. Most had their feelings too easily hurt, even if the things she said didn’t hold any particular intent to offend. The average person was shocked and offended by the obvious truth being spoken boldly to their face, and rather than change the thing about themselves they didn’t like hearing, or simply avoiding her, they started crying or got angry and decided she was an enemy to be revenged upon.

She should really be more careful. The people in this group were powerful, and could have made her life difficult indeed if they had chosen to take offense. In fact, even Westbay himself could have chosen to take out his dislike of her in more direct ways. As far as she knew, he hadn’t. Perhaps he was not entirely without honor.

She gave Ascott a small smile of gratitude, but the other girl didn’t acknowledge it, her attention back on her book.

Westbay had laughed so hard he had to wipe his eyes, and he, too, gave Sebastien a grudging nod of acknowledgement. “You may be an arrogant ass, but you have the skill to back it up, at least.”

Sebastien didn’t argue with his label for her, since one reckless insult per day was probably enough.

“I told you, Damien,” Ana said. “In twenty years, the Siverling name will be common knowledge.”

Something in Sebastien’s chest warmed at that thought. Fame might not be her goal, but excellence was, and true excellence would be noticed, if she were doing it right.

After she’d run through her paces on the main exercise, she replaced the sand wheel with a three-dimensional glass maze, one of the other practice aids Professor Lacer had given her. The glass cube had a smaller steel ball inside. She modified the spell array and began to guide the ball through the maze without touching any of its walls. It required a fine control the sand wheel didn’t, but was easier to hold clearly in her mind than the sympathetic movement one. It was a nice break from the monotony the other two exercises had become.

“You’ve already moved on to the second supplementary exercise? It hasn’t even been a month since this term started!” Westbay said, suddenly outraged.

Sebastien frowned, trying to maintain her focus. “It gets boring casting the same spells for hours every day. I’m just getting a head start on this one while I keep refining my control on the first.” Her ball bumped into a corner as she moved it too quickly, and she grimaced. Every time that happened, the maze’s walls shifted, rearranging the cube’s entire internal structure.

She resolved to see if she could create a pseudo-repelling force between the glass and the ball. They’d briefly reviewed the basics of magnetism the week before in her Natural Science class, and it seemed like the perfect workaround to remove her need for, and failure to provide, superhuman reaction speeds. Of course, doing that without any components except heat might still be beyond her, but it was theoretically possible.

Westbay grumbled and took out his own glass maze, studying Sebastien’s simplified spell array before setting up his own.

Ana moved on to the paired movement spell with an amused glance at Westbay’s efforts. “You’re taking seven classes, Damien. You can’t expect to keep up with Sebastien. He only takes six. And he barely sleeps, you know.”

Neither Sebastien nor Westbay found her words soothing.

Sebastien resisted the immediate urge to tell Westbay that she’d still be beating him even if she were taking eight classes. ‘I’m not a child. It’s okay if he’s taking more classes than me and still somehow has time to sleep. He’s had tutors preparing him for this his whole life. I don’t need to say anything. I just need to work harder.

Westbay glared at both Sebastien and Anastasia, then returned his focus to the new exercise. He was clumsy at first, but improved noticeably over the next hour.

Soon enough, the breakfast period began. “Don’t think you can slack off, Siverling,” Westbay said as they left the room. “Professor Lacer told me he thinks I might have a talent for free-casting, just like my mother.”

“It runs in my family, too,” she couldn’t help but snap back, her voice cold.

The study group dispersed, Moncrieffe slouching off with Gervin, and Ascott muttering something about getting black beans from the kitchen to make an offering to a spirit. Ana smiled and thanked Sebastien for joining them, while Westbay hurried ahead.

Brinn added his own shy smile and said, “You’ll come again next time, won’t you? Damien may be competitive, but he secretly loves having someone new and interesting around. It would be good for him to have someone to compare himself to who’s closer to our own level.”

Sebastien made no promises. The wakefulness brew was tempting, at least, even if she didn’t have the time to spare for inefficient socializing.

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Azalea

Chapter 26 – Bargains Big and Small

Oliver

Month 11, Day 24, Tuesday 8:30 p.m.

As Oliver stepped into the Verdant Stag well after dark, his mask concealing his features, a man lunged out of the shadows beside the door and grabbed onto him.

Oliver reached for his battle wand immediately, sinking down into a fighting stance. He stopped himself just before shooting the man with a concussive blast, registering the man’s plain clothing, lack of weapon, and the desperate look on his bruised face. “Release me,” he said instead.

The nearby patrons of the inn had turned to look at them, alarmed. The tense silence was already spreading out through the rest of the large room.

The man released Oliver’s arm and stepped back, bowing deeply. He straightened and then bowed again. “Forgive me, Lord Stag. I meant no harm, only I need your help. I’m desperate. Please, sir. The Morrows, a couple o’ their boys took my daughter as we were coming home from the temple o’ the Radiant Maiden. It was outside o’ Stag territory, there weren’t any of the green flags to pull for help. I tried to stop ‘em, but there were too many. They hit me down, but I was still and quiet, and when they left, I got up and followed ‘em and saw where they took ‘er. She’s in a house off the docks, and I don’t know what they might be doin’ to ‘er, but she were screamin’ as they dragged ‘er away—” The man choked on his words and bowed a couple more times.

Oliver laid his hand on the man’s shoulder, keeping him from bowing any more. “Breathe. Speak slowly. How long ago was this?”

The man trembled as he looked up into the dark eye-holes of Oliver’s mask. “An hour at most. I came straight here once I seen where they took ‘er.”

Oliver nodded sharply. “Alright. Follow me.” He strode toward a hallway leading to the back, past the bar and the stage.

The man continued to stammer as he hurried to keep up. “My neighbor Stuart said he came to you when his wife were attacked, and you got ‘er all healed up and got the people who did it arrested, neat as you please. And he told me the price weren’t too high.” He reached into a pocket, pulling out a half-full coin purse. “I’ve got twelve gold, sixty-seven copper saved up. I was hopin’ to send my daughter to get the readin’ and writin’ certification in a few years, but—” He held the money out to Oliver. “If you can save ‘er, it’s yours. I don’t know if it’s enough, but I’m willin’ to owe you, and I promise I’m good for it. I’ll pay you back if it’s the last thing I do, I swear, if you can just save ‘er—”

Oliver spun, throwing open a door.

The one-handed man behind the desk looked up from the report he’d been writing with painstaking slowness, unperturbed. “Mr. Oliver,” he greeted.

Oliver dragged the man with the kidnapped daughter into the room with him. “Mr. Gerard, some Morrows have taken this man’s daughter. He can lead you to the place they’re holding her. It’s been an hour. Assemble a team and head out immediately.”

The man stood, fountain pen forgotten on the desk. He strode off through the door at the back of the room, shouting names and orders, and the men in the room beyond scurried to jump up and equip their supplies.

Oliver turned to the man beside him, who now had tears in his eyes.

He tried to shove the purse at Oliver again.

Oliver pushed it back to him, speaking perfunctorily, any compassion in his tone well hidden. “You can pay afterward. It’ll be fifty gold, due to the danger of the mission. The Verdant Stag will be loaning you the full amount. This includes the cost for any healing your daughter may need.”

The man tried to bow again, and Oliver stopped him by gripping his shoulder, forcing him to look into the eye-holes of his mask. “This loan will have interest,” he continued. “If you cannot afford the payments on your own, we will find a way for you to repay what you owe. Additionally, you will owe the Verdant Stag a favor,” he said forebodingly. “At some point, the Stags may have need of you. If—when—this happens, you will set aside your hesitation, eschew your own comfort, and disregard the risk to come to our aid. This is the price for our help today.”

The man didn’t hesitate for a moment. “Yes. I agree.”

“If your daughter cannot be saved…”

The man gritted his teeth, blinking rapidly.

“The culprits will be brought to justice. The debt will still be in effect. Do you still agree?”

Pale-faced, he nodded, swallowing hard.

“Good.” Oliver released his shoulder. “You may accompany the rescue team. You will stay back. Do not impede their work, or you might place your daughter in danger. Mr. Gerard is in charge. You will listen to him unconditionally.”

The man nodded rapidly. “Yes, yes.”

The rescue team, now fully kitted out, stomped back through the door.

“Perfect timing,” Oliver muttered. He nodded to them. “Go.”

The man hurried to keep up with Oliver’s team of enforcers as they ran down the hall and left through one of the Verdant Stag’s side entrances.

Oliver sighed, lifting his mask with one hand to rub his forehead with the other. He’d forgotten to tell the man that there was no need to wait for him, specifically. Any of the citizens within his territory could come to the Stag to ask for help at any time, reporting directly to the person currently in charge of the area they needed assistance in. He turned, going back through the entertainment hall—where once again people took their attention from the performance on stage and their alcohol to stare as he passed by—and up the stairs towards Katerin’s office.

He almost stumbled on Theo, who was crouched at the top of the stairs, gripping the railing as he looked down on the room below. Theo was watching the amateur play being performed on stage. A slate board and nub of chalk lay forgotten by his side, the simple math problems on them only half finished.

The boy pulled his head back through the railing. He grinned up at Oliver and jumped to his feet, unperturbed by the mask. “Mr. Oliver! Did that man need help? I saw you take him back toward the enforcers’ station. Did they go on a mission?”

“Some bad people kidnapped his daughter. They’re going to get her back now.”

“Awesome! Well, I mean, not that they kidnapped her, but it’s a rescue mission! That’s not the most awesome type of quest, but a lot of the epic stories have at least a little bit about needing to save a damsel in distress. I wonder if she’s pretty,” the child mused, looking into the middle distance as his imagination took over.

“People deserve help whether they’re pretty or not, you know,” Oliver said, stepping past the boy.

Theo turned to follow immediately, his schoolwork forgotten at the edge of the stairwell. “Well, of course,” he said in a tone that questioned Oliver’s intelligence. “But it’s a little more interesting when they’re pretty, don’t you think?”

Familiar dark eyes flashed in Oliver’s mind, but he hummed noncommittally.

“Say, do you think I could get a utility wand?” the boy asked, slyly watching Oliver out of the corner of his eye. “It’s dangerous on the streets,” he continued quickly. “I mean, just this week we’ve had a ton of people come in for help. A man got his leg crushed down on the docks. He went to a sham healer who just made it worse, and his friends brought him in to use one of our contacts, but by that time it was too late and his leg still had to be cut off. Wouldn’t it be better if I don’t have to have any limbs amputated?”

Oliver almost stumbled, but the boy didn’t seem to notice his stupefaction, and continued on as if his reasoning was entirely logical.

“Yesterday, a woman came in asking for help to scare off the men coming around her house asking for ‘taxes’ and threatening her. What if someone tries to mug me? I need to be able to defend myself, or at least get away.”

“Do you think it’s likely you will be mugged?” Oliver asked, keeping his voice even.

“Well, who knows? It’s better to be prepared, right? It would be too late to regret it once it actually happened. Plus, I heard Katerin talking about you getting mugged a while back, so obviously these things happen. And it’s not like I’m definitely safe just because I live in Stag territory. There’s a fight club on Dorset Lane that pulls people in off the street sometimes when they’re low on volunteers for the matches. Katerin sent Mr. Gerard out to deal with it, since they’re doing crime in our territory without permission.”

Oliver was half amused, half serious as he said, “That does sound serious.” He doubted the Morrows would be so bold or depraved as to go after a child, but that didn’t mean Theo wouldn’t run into a situation where he needed a little extra help. It was a dangerous world, and he was surrounded by people in a dangerous line of work.

The boy nodded gravely. “A woman was knocked into the canal by one of the Crowns who was galloping his horse in the street. She breathed in some water and got pneu-mo-nia.” He enunciated the unfamiliar word carefully, looking to Oliver to make sure he understood. “She had to spend all the money she was saving for her wedding on potions, and her fiance even started crying because he’d thought they wouldn’t be able to afford it. Wouldn’t it be much cheaper to pay for my utility wand now than pay for the healing fees when I get pneumonia?” Theo nodded seriously, dropping a fist into his other palm with satisfaction at his argument, then stared at Oliver with big eyes, as if he could make him agree through sheer force of will.

“Do you have an idea what spells you’d want in this utility wand?” Oliver asked, trying to keep the amusement from his voice.

Theo grinned so wide his eyes turned into slits, nodding rapidly. “Oh, yes! I’ve got a list in my room. Do you want to see it?”

Oliver waved him down before he could run off. “Not just yet. I’ll talk to your aunt Katerin about it and see what she thinks. If she approves, I’m sure it won’t be for free. You’ll have to be prepared to earn it.”

Theo was completely undeflated. “Yes! I can do anything. I’m already good with my sums. I could do the accounting for the Verdant Stag, or I could do deliveries, or I could even scrub the floors.”

Oliver doubted he would be doing any real work. And Theo’s math skills certainly weren’t advanced enough to do accounting, if the chalk scribbles he’d seen on the forgotten slate were to be trusted. If Katerin agreed, perhaps they could work out something with the boy’s tutor. A copper per extra completed assignment, put into a jar of savings for the wand, might give the boy a little more incentive to focus on his studies.

Katerin opened the door to her office just as they arrived in front of it. “So that’s where you ran off to,” she said, reaching out and smoothing the boy’s copper hair.

Theo ducked away from her hand. “Me and Mr. Oliver were talking about how good an idea it is for me to get a utility wand! He thinks so, too!”

She scowled. “Have you been bothering Mr. Oliver about that? Didn’t I tell you to finish your homework and then report back to me? Your tutor told me you haven’t fully completed the last three assignments he gave you, and you’ve been distracted during lessons…”

“I’m almost finished!” Theo hurried to assure her, his hands held up placatingly. “I was just accompanying Mr. Oliver so he wouldn’t be lonely! I’m going back now.” The boy turned and scurried off down the hall before Katerin could respond, picking up his chalk and slate and escaping.

Katerin shook her head ruefully, waving Oliver into her office.

He told her his idea for incentivizing Theo.

She pressed her red-painted lips together and sighed. “I suppose it might work. I swear, if it’s not about magic or adventure, that boy isn’t interested.”

Oliver smiled. “Children his age are all like that. You can’t tell me you actually appreciated the value of your studies when you were his age.”

“I suppose that’s true. It took real hardship for me to understand. I wouldn’t wish that for him. It’s not like I’m overflowing with money, but I could afford a few copper a day if it would change his attitude toward learning.” She crossed her arms and nodded. “I’ll talk to his tutor about this idea. The room for your meeting is already prepared. Your contacts haven’t arrived yet. I sent Harper to escort them from the docks. We should have a half hour yet.”

“Good. I wanted to get here early, and it’s a good thing I did. There was a bit of an incident on the way up, but I’ve sent Gerard out with an emergency response team to deal with it.” He explained the circumstances and the deal he’d made with the kidnapped girl’s father.

Katerin wrote out two copies of the agreement on a parchment with the blood print vow spell array already painted on it. “I’ll have him sign when they return. If he can’t afford payments, I’ll give him a couple of hours on one of our street cleaner shifts,” she muttered, looking tired.

Oliver took a seat in front of her desk, noting the piles of paper covering its surface and the way the paleness of her skin let the shadows under her eyes stand out even more. “It’s late. You shouldn’t still be working.”

“You work even longer hours.”

“I don’t also have a child to take care of.”

She waved his words away, then reached for a folder and flipped briefly through its contents. “I need more funds for the sanitation facility. One of the biological waste processors broke down, and we need to bring in a Master artificer to fix it. Ideally, we would expand the facility to handle greater capacity, so this doesn’t happen again. Especially if we plan to expand Stag territory further. The human waste within our area already exceeds the recommended amounts for the sanitation facility’s current setup.”

Oliver nodded. “Alright. Are any of the other Stag interests bringing in enough income to cover it, or should I make another monetary infusion?”

“The short answer is: No.” She picked up another folder. “The Verdant Stag itself is profitable. The rented rooms, the bar, and the kitchen are in the black, considering the cost of the building and its repairs amortized over a fifteen-year period. The gambling is bringing in a modest profit, enough to cover the salary of the basic staff as well as myself, while still paying off the magical renovations you requested.”

“Good. At least the foundation is steady. And the rest?”

“Word about the miniature alchemy shop is spreading. Profits per item are low, as you requested, but with the increased volume, it is also in the black. Alice’s wages are well covered, and there are enough extra funds to consider expanding the inventory further. Siobhan’s contributions have been well-received, especially those potions of moonlight sizzle. Her work doesn’t have the quality of alchemy done by someone who’s made a career out of it; it’s obvious she hasn’t had hundreds of hours of practice with any of those potions, but it’s good enough to sell, and most people within Stag territory won’t be able to tell the difference. I thought it was just your bleeding heart making questionable decisions again when you brought her in, but it seems she might actually be a good investment.”

“I have an eye for people,” Oliver said, smiling. “Though I will admit, a sense of responsibility did play a role in my decision.”

“Well, in a couple of years, perhaps she will be able to take over some of the more difficult magical projects. Bringing those in-house would save us a significant amount of gold. I had to spend eighty gold last week just on the liquid stone potions for the enforcers.”

She took a deep breath. “On that topic, the protection and emergency response project is still hemorrhaging money. Extracting promises of payment from individuals who’ve been aided is stemming some of the flow, but without extorting general protection money from those who live and do business in the area, it’s simply not enough.”

Oliver rubbed a finger over the edge of his mask, then took it off, the magic releasing his skin with an inaudible pop of suction. “I don’t want to charge general protection fees. That’s extortion. The people already pay taxes.”

“Taxes that are supposed to fund the coppers. Coppers who can’t be bothered to do their job, and who we are replacing with our own system, without being compensated. Have you considered that some people might be reluctant to ask for help when they know they’ll be put into debt for it? If there was a standard, low fee for all citizens within our territory, those who needed to use our services could feel unburdened doing so.”

“We’re building a network. It’s not just about the money. We want the debt, the favors, people looking to help us because they are singled out when we give aid, rather than it being a general public service. The loans we’re giving to cover our services aren’t debilitating. We allow long-term repayment plans so the payments are low, and we give them jobs to do if they don’t have the gold. It shouldn’t be that much of a burden.”

“That’s part of the problem. For instance, the man you just told me about. He has a debt of fifty gold. Perhaps, with interest, he ends up paying us six silver a month for the next ten years, and we get seventy gold out of it. But our response team may cost the Stag sixty to seventy gold for this operation, especially if they need to use magic or any of them get injured. We spend the money now, and perhaps make it back over the long term. And that’s not taking into account the things we’ve been handling where there’s no one to call in a debt, which means we eat the expense. This project is losing money, and it’s getting worse.

“The sanitation project already has no hope of being profitable. The micro-farming warehouse is going to take some time yet before it starts bringing in money, and with the other properties you want to buy, the bribes for the coppers, and the surveys you’re paying for…” She shook her head helplessly. “You know as well as I do that altruism has to be met with realism, Oliver. I don’t know why I’m telling you this.”

Oliver rubbed his forehead. “I’m prepared to lose money on some necessary things for the time being. I cannot have my people afraid to walk the streets. The Stags must become a symbol of trust and good governance. The more people contrast us against the other gangs and the Crowns, the better. However, perhaps there is some middle ground. It’s not the sole project I want to implement, after all, and everything costs money.”

“Well, I will say that I was skeptical about the surveys, but I’m beginning to see why you wanted them. Since we implemented the sanitation project, illness in our territory has decreased by approximately fifteen percent.”

Oliver allowed himself a genuine smile. “That’s wonderful. If we could get some basic sanitation artifacts into every home, we could probably get it down even further. I’ve been lobbying for the tax on soap to be abolished, but…” He didn’t bother finishing the familiar complaint. The Crowns weren’t interested in anything he had to say, not if it had a chance to lower their income or increase the power of the commoners. “As for the warehouse, perhaps my meeting today will bear fruit.”

Katerin brightened. “If you will, ask them if they have access to any battle artifacts. I’ve been stocking up as they become available here, but I’ve found no reliable source within the city.”

A few minutes before his new smuggling contacts were scheduled to arrive, Oliver and three of his enforcers went to the room Katerin had set up for the meeting. After speaking to the information broker, he’d received contact information for an intermediary, who’d passed along his request to speak to the person really in charge of the operation, the captain of a small fleet who smuggled magical items into the city, hidden among legitimate imports. The captain’s ships had just docked a couple of days before, and only now could Oliver finally meet him.

Oliver looked around the room approvingly, motioning for two of the enforcers to stand against the back wall unobtrusively, while the third stood outside the door.

The room had been immaculately cleaned, the windows and floorboards polished, subtle wealth and power in every detail. A large, thronelike chair sat behind an imposing desk that looked like it might have been carved whole from a single giant tree. In front of the desk were a few shorter chairs, subtly forcing his guests to look up at him. The lighting was soft, the main source a light crystal that hung from the ceiling behind his desk, to better blend the shadows with the artificial darkness behind his mask.

He settled in the large chair behind the desk and took out the single folder Katerin had placed in a drawer. It was simply there for him to pretend to look over while they entered.

The captain arrived shortly afterward, and when the enforcer in front of the door knocked and announced this, Oliver said, “Send them in,” immediately. There was no point making them wait as a power play, since he’d been the one to invite them to use the Stag’s discreet, neutral meeting rooms. Oliver trusted the setting and his own charisma to make any necessary statement about wealth and power.

A sun-weathered man with the slightly wide gait of someone used to the pitch and roll of a ship’s deck introduced himself as Captain Eliezer. He was accompanied by a couple of his men, who followed slightly behind and stayed mostly silent.

Oliver welcomed them cordially.

Eliezer’s men eyed Oliver’s mask and then the enforcers at the back of the room with obvious discomfort, but neither side made any threatening overtures, and Captain Eliezer himself seemed unfazed.

After a couple minutes of small talk, during which Oliver offered them each a glass of ridiculously expensive alcohol, let them grow comfortable in the opulently plush seats, and bragged about the security wards surrounding the room, they finally got down to business.

“I’ve been told you have access to certain luxury items that can be difficult to obtain in Gilbratha. I have need of a variety of such items. Do you think you can provide?” He handed Captain Eliezer a sheet of paper with a list of magical plants he wanted seeds, shoots, or graftable clippings from, along with the various special materials that would be necessary to successfully cultivate them.

The man read carefully down the list without any change of expression, then looked back up at Oliver. “I can get most of the seeds, and maybe some of the smaller shoots or clippings, if you’re willing to pay for stasis spells so they don’t die in transit, but some of these are too large or otherwise noticeable to get through the customs inspections at the docks.”

Oliver had expected that might be the case. “If you’re still able to obtain those things, perhaps another port might be slightly more lax? I have a contact that could pick them up elsewhere.” From there, he could either figure out how to get them into the city himself, or perhaps cultivate them outside it, only bringing in the more subtle final products of those plants. There were problems with that plan, too, but anything was possible, with time, money, and a bit of cleverness.

Eliezer hesitated. “There is another issue. You are requesting the capability to produce the end products, which we otherwise provide to other interested parties within Gilbratha. If you become a supplier, this could decrease our trade volume. I’m not willing to put my long-term livelihood, and that of my crew, at risk for a single paycheck.”

Oliver dipped his head in acknowledgment, wrapping his fingers around the polished wood of his chair and leaning back. “I completely understand. I’m willing to pay a premium on those items which won’t be part of an ongoing order. However, let me reassure you, the components produced from these plants are not going to be sold on the open market. They’ll be used for various things in-house, and shouldn’t affect your trade with any other interested parties, within or outside of Gilbratha.”

Eliezer didn’t seem particularly reassured by that.

“This isn’t all that I need. I’m hoping to establish an ongoing relationship with you in other areas as well. Particularly, I need battle artifacts and a variety of alchemical concoctions. For the artifacts, it matters not if their spells are charged, though the price I will pay would adjust accordingly.”

Eliezer nodded slowly.

“For the potions and philtres, I’m interested in some more magically intensive varieties, useful for both offense and defense. I would require they be fresh and brewed at standard efficacy, if not greater. I would expect you to test them upon receipt, as I won’t pay for any of sub-par quality.”

“We already have buyers for battle artifacts and a variety of potions,” Eliezer said leadingly.

“You cannot increase your volume?” Oliver questioned. “This would seem to be only a good thing for you. I am willing to pay a slight premium for the highest quality of your stock, and you are free to continue trading with whoever else you like. Three percent.”

Eliezer thought for a moment, then said, “What kind of volume are you looking for with the artifacts and alchemy? I have one main ship and two smaller ones, and some items are only worth the time and space in my cargo at higher volumes, or if I pick them up with another order.”

“For this first shipment, I’m willing to purchase as many as you can provide. After that, we can discuss our ongoing relationship again.”

Eliezer scanned the room again, his eyes lingering on the signs of wealth all around him. “Agreed. Seeds will be hidden within larger bags of grain. Shoots and clippings will be held in stasis within seemingly decorative containers. Kegs and bottles of alcohol will hold the alchemical items. For the battle artifacts, it can be a little more tricky depending on their size and shape. The price for whatever we use to disguise the transfer will be included in the payment.”

They took a few minutes to draw up a full list of the other items Oliver was interested in, then haggled over the price for each.

At the end, Eliezer nodded, tucking the paper into his pocket. “Alright, we will bring the things you need. It will take a few months, at this time of year. Any bribes to the dock officials or the coppers will be borne by you as well.”

Oliver shook his head, his tone firm. “No. Bribes will come out of your own pockets. After all, what incentive do you have to be frugal, otherwise? I’m already paying a premium for the plants, as well as the choicest artifacts and potions. If you cannot afford your own bribes, your business is not run as smoothly as I hoped.”

Eliezer glared at him for a moment, leathery wrinkles deepening around his squinting eyes, but finally gave a sharp nod. “Fine.”

Oliver offered them another glass of liquor before they left.

Eliezer, a little more at ease now that the negotiations were finished, accepted with a yellow-toothed smile that was duplicated by his men. “Never known a sailor to refuse a good drink,” he said.

They left soon after, refusing Oliver’s offer of an escort back to their inn, and Oliver settled back in his miniature throne, the exhilaration of success pushing away his fatigue. It might take a few months to see the effects, but this new relationship would make a difference.

Artifacts and potions for his enforcers, to protect them and make them more effective in their jobs, and plants to bring the micro-farm warehouse into quick profitability while subsidizing the ingredients for the alchemy shop. Maybe there would even be something suitable for Theo among the artifacts.

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What are your thoughts on Oliver’s plans and his methods of execution?