Chapter 44 – Chastisment

Sebastien

Month 12, Day 4, Friday 3:45 p.m.

When class ended, Professor Lacer left immediately, not bothering to wait for the handful of students who wanted to linger and speak to him. “I have office hours,” he announced as he strode past them. “Use them.”

Damien and Sebastien shared a look of sick concern, and she took longer than necessary to gather up her belongings, trying to settle herself. Fearing that she would gather more ire by dawdling, she followed the gently curved hallway to Professor Lacer’s office. She felt sick, not only because of straining her Will beyond its limits, but because she didn’t know the extent of his anger toward her. ‘I will plead with him if I need to. But only if I need to.’ She briefly considered trying to tell some sort of half-truth that would mollify him, but her mind was too scrambled to think through the options and their ramifications.

It had been such a stupid mistake, and she regretted compounding it with an attempt to hide it. It would be horrible to be expelled, but as long as she could keep her magic and her life, she would always find a way to claw her way back up again.

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

“Enter,” Lacer said, his voice clipped. He’d sat at his desk and was scribbling a note. His scowl was harsh enough to toast bread. “Close the door behind you,” he said without looking up.

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

Sebastien suppressed a wince. “Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good. Now get out.”

She complied without hesitation. The relief was heady. A little scolding and a task to redeem herself. There had been no offensive spells, nothing to publicly shame her, and most importantly, no expulsion. It seemed that he hadn’t even noticed her Will-strain. ‘Could it be that the rumors surrounding Professor Lacer’s temper are somewhat exaggerated?’ She wanted to laugh.

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

The smile slipped from her face. She grabbed him by the arm and kept walking. “You will not talk to him.”

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

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

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

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

“He’s that angry? Sebastien…maybe we should just explain what happened?” he said reluctantly. “We could leave out the details of how I got hurt. There’s no way I’d be expelled, I’m a Westbay, and we might even be able to convince him not to inform my father—”

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

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

“No.” The anger she was feeling was perfectly legitimate, but a vivid desire to strangle the bullheaded, oblivious boy had her seriously considering slamming him into an empty classroom.

The urge was strong enough that she had to concede, at least to herself, that her decision-making faculties were impaired.

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

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

“Really?” He peered at her skeptically.

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

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

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

He jogged a little to catch up, but was thankfully silent all the way to the glass transportation tubes on the south side of the white cliffs. He waved as she used her student token to activate one. “Feel better soon! And don’t come back until you do!”

She didn’t wave back.

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

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

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

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

She took the mug gratefully, sipping slowly.

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

“The next time?” she groaned.

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

The servant poked their head back through the front door and said, “I’ve got one, sir.”

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

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

“That’s good.”

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

She opened one eye. “Who?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“About five in the morning. On Monday.”

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

“Yes. Of which there have been several. The coppers are more interested in you than I expected, child.”

Siobhan rubbed her forehead. “Unfortunately. Thank you for taking care of me.”

Liza waved a tired hand. “It is far from my first time caring for an invalid. At least you were still and silent. As long as this doesn’t happen again, you may be forgiven. I am more concerned that the solution we came to is already proving insufficient. Did the divination attempts push you so far as to cause Will-strain?”

“Oh, no, that was something else.”

Liza’s mouth tightened judgmentally. “Something else,” she repeated, supremely unimpressed. “Perhaps you should take a good look at your life choices.” She tucked the bird under one arm and put it in one of the cages scattered around the room. “Come,” she ordered, walking into the official part of her house through the attached closet door.

She made a second cup of coffee, eyed Siobhan, then added a moderate splash of liquor to it before handing it over. “Drink.”

Siobhan accepted it awkwardly. She wasn’t a fan of alcohol, but the caffeine was a lifesaver, and the minty burn of whatever Liza had added immediately provided a boost of vivacity, rather than the mellowing, depressive effect she remembered from her other attempts to drink.

Liza stared at her until Siobhan felt uncomfortable. She wondered if Oliver bringing her here was actually not okay. Or perhaps Liza was just trying to calculate how much coin she could extort from Siobhan in her weakened state. Finally, Liza spoke. “You need a more permanent solution to the scrying attempts if they are going to continue like this—and if your lifestyle continues to create moments when you cannot safely or consistently counteract them.”

“A more permanent solution, like retrieving my blood from Harrow Hill?”

“Harrow Hill has some of the best wards in Gilbratha. Theoretically, I might be able to bypass them, but in practice, with only nine thousand thaums under my command, such a course of action would be like a dragon attacking a sky kraken—an act of hubris bordering on stupidity. Any mistake would only end up giving them more opportunity to track you down. If our last transaction was any indication, it also seems that you could not afford to hire me for such a project. However, there are more creative solutions you might employ. The blood need not be retrieved, as long as they cannot realistically use it to find you.”

Siobhan’s eyes widened, her attention caught on the mention of Liza’s capacity. That was only a couple of thousand below the level when one could start thinking about getting certified as an Archmage, though a lot more went into being acknowledged as an Archmage than simple capacity. Siobhan’s eyes narrowed. “How old are you?”

Liza rolled her eyes. “Well, you just put your foot in your mouth without hesitation, don’t you?” she asked, but didn’t seem to be actually offended. “I’m sixty.” She was almost as old as Professor Lacer. Of course, neither of them looked like a commoner of the same age might, with all the magic they cast keeping them young. Liza looked closer to thirty. “Due to my advanced age, and my particular background, I have valuable experience and feel qualified to give advice on this. I participated in the Haze War, and I know first-hand that there is always a loophole that can be exploited in any ward or defensive system. If there’s no loophole, one can be created. Often this weakness lies in human error and laziness and not the external defenses. Do some research. Necessity is the mother of innovation, as they say. Alternatively, you can hire me to find a more permanent solution, for the small sum of eight hundred gold crowns.”

Siobhan sipped her minty coffee. “Do you have any particular ideas?”

Liza gave her a deadpan stare, apparently not tired enough to be tricked into giving up valuable information. “If you’re feeling better, you can leave.”

Siobhan hesitated, wondering if she should offer to pay Liza for the care and lodging while she’d been unconscious. Then she smacked herself mentally. If she could get away with something for free from the woman, she should run before Liza overcame her sleep-deprivation.

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

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

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

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

She raised an eyebrow at him, and he nodded and smiled as if she’d instead given him a reassuring, “Good morning, friend!” With a snort, she left him to comb his hair three hundred times, knowing he would keep at it until he’d beaten every single strand into submission.

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

She had been focused on peripherally important things, at the expense of neglecting the biggest problem in her life. This weekend could have been entirely disastrous if not for Oliver’s quick thinking. ‘What would have happened if I was unconscious and helpless outside of Liza’s wards, and the coppers scried for me?’ She shuddered at the thought. ‘What happens when they scry me while I’m in the middle of casting a difficult spell, and the distraction makes my concentration slip, and I lose control of the magic?

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

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

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

Sebastien hurried to complete her homework before the breakfast period ended, taking it as easy as possible through her first two classes. As was becoming her habit when she had a problem, she headed to the library during her afternoon free period before Practical Casting. Such a comprehensive repository of information would surely have a solution hidden among the shelves.

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

Everyone dropped whatever they were doing, some panicking, wanting to move but not knowing where to go, others moving with purpose, and a couple looking around with anxious confusion.

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

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

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

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

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Chapter 43 – Alliance with the Nightmare Pack

Oliver

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

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

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

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

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

The gang provided three main things: a safe place for non-humans to live, less open discrimination, and a sense of community. But then, it also pressured the more powerful and useful non-humans to join the gang, supported certain kinds of crime, and made law enforcement even more reluctant to help those who needed them most.

Oliver and his bodyguards stopped at the gate in front of the Nightmare Pack headquarters, a once-proud manor with a small yard in the heart of the slums. They dismounted and handed their reins to a young man who hurriedly led the horses around to the back. If he was truly wary, Oliver would have insisted the horses stay out front, ready to go, but that would have been an insult, and an inauspicious start to the alliance he hoped to form tonight.

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

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

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

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

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

His eyes were a light amber that seemed to shine in contrast to skin that was almost as dark as his hair, which hung in tiny braids to his shoulders. His cheekbones sat high and a thick, closely trimmed beard covered his chin. Despite the semi-casual suit vest he wore and the cultured way he held himself, the wildness behind his eyes was palpable. “Welcome, Lord Stag.”

Oliver was suddenly hit with the irony of holding that pseudonym before a man like this. The leader of the Nightmare Pack was well-known to be a lycanthrope, which was the common name for those skin-walkers who could take on and off the skin of a wolf, transforming into the animal at will. Still, even in front of a wolf, a stag was not defenseless.

Oliver bowed in return, removing his mask as he straightened. They were alone, and as the one who had requested this meeting, it would have been quite rude to keep his face concealed. “Thank you, Lord Lynwood.”

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

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

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

“You painted this?”

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

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

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

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

Lynwood raised his eyebrows, a silent encouragement to continue.

“You’ve likely heard of the harassment the Verdant Stag has been facing from them. When I first opened the inn and created the Stags, the Morrows resisted, but I was determined and they backed down. Due to the small size of my operation, the lack of critical territory under my domain, and my willingness to spend extravagantly to hold the area, it would have cost them more to get rid of me than the Morrows could earn by holding the territory. Or such was my theory, anyway.”

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

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

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

“And how is this relevant to me?”

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

“Oh?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lynwood nodded, the intensity of his amber-eyed gaze revealing an increased interest in this particular topic. “Indeed.”

“The Stags are merely more interested in supporting our own people and growing our interests than focusing unnecessary resources toward an extended skirmish. Additionally, even were we to take down the Morrows, we are still too small to hold the entire Morrow territory securely. It would be an invitation to others to try and take a piece of it, and the situation would spiral into endless conflict. That’s useless to us. I hope instead that we could both benefit from the destruction of the Morrows.”

Oliver paused, weighing his words. “Of course, our other option would be to take over only a portion of the Morrows’ operation and leave the rest open to the power struggles of the other gangs, which would only serve to destabilize and inconvenience the rest of the city.” The Nightmare Pack especially, since their territory was adjacent to the Morrows’, but Oliver left that part unsaid, sure that Lynwood knew what he meant.

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

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

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

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

Oliver considered that Siobhan, a poor, self-educated young girl, was disguised as a young man with a completely different appearance and background, and secretly attending the University. He had to amend his previous thought. The truth was quite outlandish indeed. It was simply outlandish in a completely different direction than Lynwood would assume.

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

“A series of coincidences,” Oliver said.

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

Oliver suppressed his expression of surprise, though a man such as Lynwood might be able to glean it from the responses he couldn’t control, like the change in his heartbeat or scent. “I could pass along your request, but I can make no guarantees.”

She would want to be paid, no doubt, and they would have to ensure that meeting in person didn’t disillusion Lynwood and endanger their alliance. All the rumors about her prowess were fabrications blown magnitudes out of proportion to reality, after all. It might be best to pretend to pass along the request and return with a denial. Or at least ensure the alliance was secure and the joint attack on the Morrows settled first, with the reward for meeting enough to make the risk worth it.

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

Lynwood pressed his fingertips together, settling back in satisfaction. “I understand.” His eyes gleamed with even more interest. “I agree to your proposal, Lord Stag, pending the appropriate particulars.”

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

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

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

They haggled over territory, and then went on to decide on the allocation of their respective combat forces, joint efforts to keep conflicts suppressed in the short term, and what businesses and enterprises each of them would swallow.

When they were both moderately satisfied, feeling that they hadn’t gotten a very good deal but not an exceedingly bad one either—which probably meant it was quite fair to both parties—Lynwood asked, “So, I assume you have planned further than dividing up the territory. How exactly do you propose we bring about the Morrows’ downfall?”

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

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Chapter 42 – The Mysteries of Sleep

Sebastien

Month 12, Day 2, Wednesday 6:00 p.m.

Sebastien had, in fact, strained her Will again healing that idiotic boy. It wasn’t so much the spell itself as it was trying to keep the Word almost entirely in her head while casting it. She wanted to leave no evidence of the Sacrifice for that particular spell. This way, even Westbay couldn’t truthfully say that he’d seen her use blood magic.

She had panicked when she realized what she’d done. Harming another student with careless magic use was a big deal. ‘Harming one of the Thirteen Crown Families, and a high-ranking member at that? One I’m known to dislike? Even if the University believed it was an accident, the slightest push from one of the Westbays would have a commoner like Sebastien Siverling expelled.’ It wouldn’t even have to be Damien Westbay himself who complained. If any member of his Family wanted the University to take greater responsibility for his safety, she would be the perfect scapegoat. Even Professor Lacer might not be on her side.

So she’d acted as quickly as possible to cover up the evidence, removing any need for him to report the incident. She owed him a favor now, but that was a trifle. After all, she’d been willing to owe far worse favors to borrow tuition money.

Sebastien begged some headache salve from Ana, since she’d used all of hers as fuel for the fire a few nights before, when her warding medallion had been the only thing that kept the coppers from scrying her and Oliver.

With the throbbing in her brain partially suppressed, she escaped to a dark, secluded corner of the library to do her homework. Very inefficiently.

Professor Lacer’s exercises had fallen to the wayside for the last few days. ‘I’m in no shape to do them now. I hope I don’t fall too far behind before I’m recovered again.’

That night, she took another dose of the anti-anxiety potion, but hesitated before trying to cast her dreamless sleep spell. She considered instead casting a very slow, careful, timed alarm spell on her pocket watch to wake her before she could slip too deeply into dreams, but reluctantly discarded the idea. Pushing too hard with Will-strain could make it worse, or even cause permanent damage. She had to rest as much as possible. ‘All the more reason I need access to the remainder of Keeswood’s research on the experiment that allowed one twin to bear the sleep of the other.

Two more doses of anti-anxiety potion when she woke in the middle of the night got her through to the morning. As she dragged herself off to the bathrooms for her morning ablutions, she lamented the life choices that had led her to this moment.

Without the esoteric pain-muffling spell to get her through the workout, Defensive Magic was even more grueling. When she accidentally tripped another student and caused a near-pileup while they drilled evasive maneuvers, Fekten snapped at her. “Are you a new-born puppy dog!? Out there in the real world, carelessness like that will get people killed. Keep your head in the game and your limbs to yourself!”

After classes, she scrambled to the library, where the blushing, stammering student aide gave her a pass to the restricted section where the majority of the sleep researcher’s experiment journals were held.

Information should be available to everyone in the first place,’ Sebastien thought with irritation. Even once she had proven herself worthy of the University, she still had to fight for knowledge. They didn’t want people who would only be there to reach Apprentice certifications learning anything truly useful or dangerous. Those who stayed longer would have the chance to earn the contribution points needed to get into whatever sections of the library they desired.

The door to the restricted archives was thick metal, spelled with what she thought was the same ward on the gate to the Menagerie. The new wooden token that allowed her into a specific archive shivered as she passed through the doorway. A short staircase led down to hallways carved from the natural white stone of the white cliffs that the University had been built into and atop. The hallways were narrow, the ceilings low, and the air smelled of ancient dust with a faint hint of paper and glue. ‘The smell of undisturbed books.

The student aide was needed elsewhere, so she gave Sebastien quick instructions to the single archive she could access, warning her not to get lost. “It’s said you can still hear the screams and shuffling footsteps of those who wandered until they starved to death, if you listen,” the girl murmured, her tail swishing with agitation. “It used to be a network of caves, and the only navigation aid is the archive code above each door. It’s easy to get turned around down here.”

“I’ll be careful,” Sebastien assured the student aide with a smile, repressing her impatience.

The girl blushed, said, “Good luck with your research project,” and hurried away, pausing only to remind Sebastien not to mention the pass to anyone who might get her in trouble.

Sebastien found her way easily enough, ignoring the other metal doors along the tunnel despite her curiosity. She didn’t want to set off any alarms by trying to get past a ward without the proper key. Finally, she pushed open the door to a dim room only a few meters on either side. It was quite different from the high ceilings and warm, bright light of the main library floors above. The air was still, the only movement in the room from her own entrance, but it smelled fresh, and there was no dust or spiderwebs on the rough ceiling or in the corners of the room.

She pulled every book with Keeswood’s name on it off the shelves. Her fingertips burned with excitement as she scanned the pages. It was hard to concentrate on the words, but she was determined.

Two hours later, after flipping through the whole stack, she tossed the last journal onto the table and sat back with a scowl.

The series of handwritten journals had whole volumes missing, and sections of pages had been cut away in those that remained. ‘Well, at least I know why they were restricted.’ It had never been explicitly stated in the pieces of his journals that remained, but Sebastien gathered he’d been involved in some blood magic. She hadn’t found a detailed explanation for the spell he’d used to join the sleep requirements of the two twins with no serious side effects, but he’d recorded other spells of a similar nature, and she was able to piece together an idea of how it had worked. Perhaps the details had been in one of the missing sections.

If I want to use it, I will have to redevelop it myself.

Leaving the library, she stopped by the infirmary again. She looked around cautiously to make sure the healer she’d talked with before wasn’t on duty, then inquired about some headache-relieving salve. She didn’t want to have to keep borrowing from Ana, and she wouldn’t have time to make her own until the weekend. Plus, she was paying for the infirmary as part of her tuition anyway, so she might as well try and recoup some of her gold’s worth.

When she finally got back to the dorms, she found a stack of book-bound periodicals on her desk. She eyed them suspiciously. ‘Are they trapped?’ They looked innocent, and nothing happened when she nudged the pile. They were fiction, touting the latest adventures of someone called “Aberford Thorndyke, consulting detective.” ‘Or did someone put them there so they can pretend I stole them and get me into trouble? But why would they put them in plain sight? At the very least, you’d think they’d slip them under the bed…

She looked up and saw Westbay looking at her from over his dividing wall. He sent her a wink and a thumbs-up.

Bemusedly, she realized he’d left them for her. ‘Could it be, because of my questions about the case, he thinks I have an interest in detective stories?’ The friendly gesture was still surprising, and left her a little off-kilter, unsure if she should be suspicious of some deeper layer of motivation or simply amused at his obliviousness. Perhaps a little blood, a secret, and a favor owed him was all it took to befriend Westbay. ‘Without a blood print vow to guarantee that favor I promised, I barely feel any pressure. Once enough time passes, even if he wants to get me in trouble for hurting him, the scar will have faded, and anyone he tries to tell will be suspicious about why he didn’t report it when it happened. He’s a little too naive.

After riffling through the pages of the detective stories to make sure nothing was hidden between them, she decided to humor Westbay by reading one, as each was short enough to be finished rather quickly. Her concentration was still a little too shot for schoolwork or further research, anyway.

To her surprise, she found she enjoyed the story. The plot was a little unbelievable, but it was fun to follow along as the fictional Thorndyke used his superior intelligence and observational skills to assist the coppers in solving baffling crimes, and she enjoyed the dynamic between him and his Everyman assistant, Milton.

Her pass to the restricted archive didn’t allow her to check books out or even remove them from that room, so she had to return to the archive to continue her research. Over the next couple of days, she pieced together a better understanding of the author’s work, taking pages of notes and checking out a few dense reference texts referred to in passing within the journals. The ones she had access to, anyway.

She wanted to pull her pale blonde hair out by the roots.

Apparently, she needed a deeper understanding of the workings of the brain and the immune system. Looking at the references meant for upper-term healing students, with tight-packed text and illustrations she barely understood, she drooped. ‘No truly valuable accomplishment is easy, I know. But still…this had better turn out extremely useful,’ she grumbled mentally. Truthfully, though, she would be happy with almost any small measure of improvement.

In Practical Casting, Sebastien took the initiative to approach a young woman who she vaguely remembered was a commoner without much prior experience with magic, one term above her. “Would you like to partner with me today?” she asked.

The woman’s eyes went wide, then darted around quickly, as if to make sure Sebastien was really talking to her. “Umm, I won’t be very good practice for you. My Will’s maximum capacity is only at a hundred thaums on the Henrik-Thompson scale?” she said, biting her lip.

“I don’t mind,” Sebastien assured her, sitting down on the other side of her desk without further preamble. “I’ll work on improving my efficiency, and you can work on improving your capacity. Using just a single flame will be a good challenge for me.” She placed a single tea candle in her Sacrifice Circle.

The woman looked around again, uncomfortably meeting the curious gaze of some of the other students, but silently nodded.

Sebastien’s little plan worked well, as her opponent’s enduring capacity was a respectable two-thirds of her maximum, meaning Sebastien only needed to channel about seventy thaums to keep up. Even this was enough to give her a migraine, though, and she slipped away to the bathroom to reapply headache salve. “I’m getting very tired of this,” she muttered, staring at her bloodshot eyes in the mirror above the sink.

When she returned to the class, the students were rearranging themselves, and she realized with dismay that Lacer had instructed them to switch partners.

As she was looking around for a suitable partner, Anastasia Gervin caught sight of her and began to maneuver her way.

Sebastien pretended not to see her. She liked the other girl well enough, but Ana wasn’t a suitable partner to slack off against.

Just as Ana was about to reach her side, and Sebastien had almost resolved to just grab the closest random student, Westbay hurried up from behind Ana, clapping Sebastien on the shoulder.

“Partners, Siverling?” he asked.

Ana stopped abruptly, looking at Westbay with wide eyes that narrowed suspiciously. “Really, Damien? Can’t this rivalry wait until the actual tournament?”

Sebastien almost rolled her eyes, turning to Ana. “Westbay has convinced his friends of his illusion that the two of us are rivals, too?” she asked.

Westbay shooed away her words, smiling a little too casually to seem normal. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Ana. I lent Siverling some Aberford Thorndyke stories. He likes detectives, too, did you know? He always runs off to the library right after class, so this is our best chance to discuss them.” He didn’t allow Ana to respond, his grip on Sebastien’s arm steering them back to Westbay’s desk. “So what did you think of the twist at the end, with the serial disappearances?” he asked loudly.

“It was a tad obvious,” Sebastien said truthfully, wondering what Westbay was doing but deciding to play along.

Obvious?” Westbay’s head snapped around to Sebastien, and he scowled. “How could you possibly have seen—” He cut himself off, pressing his lips together with a sharp shake of his head. “Never mind. That’s not relevant right now.” He lowered his voice, leaning closer over the table. “Do you have a headache?”

Sebastien shrugged, drawing the numerological symbols into the carved Circle between them. A triangle, for the simple transmutation of heat to movement, and then a pentagram within that, because she thought it might help with actualizing the idea of opposition.

“I know you do. I noticed you go to the bathroom, and I can smell the mint of a headache salve.”

Sebastien set the chalk down, staring expressionlessly at Westbay.

The young man continued, undeterred. “You chose to partner with Jones because she doesn’t pose a challenge, and you still had to use headache salve. You shouldn’t be here. You definitely shouldn’t be here and casting magic. Did you think everything would be better after just a day? I know you’re some prodigy who might not ever have experienced Will-strain before, but it takes two to three days of complete rest to safely recover. We covered this on the first day of classes. I know you were there.”

“I’m fine,” she insisted, lighting their candles and putting the iron ball on the edge of the Circle. “Hurry up and pay attention. Casting against each other using the same array is dangerous, and I would prefer not to be subjected to the effects of your inability to focus.”

“Professor Lacer may be strict, but he isn’t unreasonable. He’s a bit snappish toward the students to keep us from messing around, but I know him outside the University a little, and I can assure you that he’d never force you to keep casting with Will-strain.”

She pushed energy into the spell and sent the ball rolling uncontested. “You want to renege on our deal?”

“What? No.” He lowered his voice further. “Is this about…my father?” He continued quickly, “I’m not suggesting we tell everyone what really happened. We can make something up.”

“Professor Lacer will want to know what happened. You want to try and lie to him about it?” Thaddeus Lacer was one of the more common topics of student gossip. She’d overheard someone say that he had a powerful divination for untruths running all the time, and could know as soon as you said it whether you really did the homework. She didn’t know if it was true, but if anyone had both the ability and the inclination to do such a thing, it was Thaddeus Lacer. He had little patience for fools and those who stood in his way. “I have absolutely no intention of taking such a risk.”

“Well, okay, that’s probably not a good idea. You could…tell the truth?” Westbay seemed to know it was a bad idea even as he said it, judging by the cringe on his face, but he bulled on regardless. “He might be angry, but—”

Sebastien cut him off. “Of course he would be angry. What I did—” She clenched her jaw. “If you heard the same story from someone else, what would your reaction be?” In the very best case scenario, Professor Lacer would simply be disappointed in her, and maybe he wouldn’t let her stay for the next term. In the worst case scenario, he would be enraged by her second overt display of stupidity, injuring someone Lacer was presumably closer to than he was to her—she had heard him call Westbay by his first name, after all—and he would throw her out immediately. The University took it seriously when their students were endangered. Surely even more so, for the nobles.

She’d be that student people gossiped about with some ridiculous story, in which Professor Lacer turned her into a fish and hurled her over the east edge of the white cliffs—right into the Charybdis Gulf. She couldn’t tell the truth, and she couldn’t risk lying to him, either. Just the thought of approaching the topic with Professor Lacer had her heart pounding faster in her chest. She was afraid. Her headache grew worse at the increase in her blood pressure.

Westbay smoothed his hair back, making sure every strand of its waxed-perfect sloping style was in place. “Well. I know what my father would say. To be honest, I don’t want him to hear about this any more than you want Professor Lacer to know. He’d be…disappointed.”

“Yes, well, if Professor Lacer gets ‘disappointed’ in me, that’s the end of my stay here at the University,” she said, grinding her teeth.

“Right, because you’re his app—”

She kept talking, uncaring of whatever weak argument he was trying to make. “So I will say nothing. You will pay attention and play along. Stop blabbering and start casting, Westbay.”

Westbay glared, but, after a few tense seconds, he picked up his Conduit and turned his attention to the ball, opposing its slow rolling. He didn’t put much effort into it, though from the disgruntled look on his face it seemed like he was struggling and failing. “At least you remember my name now,” he muttered.

They kept the ball rolling slowly for a while, neither pushing very hard but outwardly keeping their focus for the benefit of anyone watching. Sebastien felt a tug of gratitude toward Westbay, and suppressed a grimace. ‘If not for him, I wouldn’t be in this position in the first place. Don’t go soft just because he’s being friendly now,’ she told herself. ‘He is still an unbearable ass deep down. People don’t actually change.

They continued on like that until Professor Lacer, who had been strolling along the rows of desks, occasionally stopping to give praise or a sharp rebuke, stopped beside their desk.

She couldn’t help but tense up as he loomed over them, his presence bigger than his body could ever be. She kept her eye on the rolling ball.

Westbay seemed to feel the same, but he flicked a quick glance between the professor and Sebastien, and his candle flames flickered as his concentration wavered.

Sebastien tried to stay in sync with him, to keep the ball moving steadily, but she didn’t quite manage it, and it sped up sharply for a moment.

She felt her back tensing straighter, and slowly pushed a little more power into the spell.

Westbay frowned slightly, as if he was struggling to keep the ball from moving.

“Stop,” Lacer said, his voice cutting through the class despite its low volume.

Sebastien’s heart clenched sickeningly. She released the magic, and the ball rolled to a stop, the sound of it louder than it should have been against the backdrop of the rest of the classroom. People were abandoning their own practice to look at the three of them.

Lacer waited, allowing the silence to become unbearable.

Westbay started to shift uncomfortably in his seat.

She stared at him, urging him mentally not to do anything stupid.

Finally, Professor Lacer spoke, his words carefully enunciated, precise, and somehow all the more menacing for it. “Were either of you, perhaps, under the impression that I am a blind half-wit?”

Westbay paled.

Sebastien swallowed. “No, Professor.”

Westbay echoed her.

“In that case, do you think this kind of effort,” he nodded his head to the table in between them, “is acceptable?”

Westbay looked at Professor Lacer, then back to Sebastien, wide-eyed. He tilted his head to the side, just slightly, a query.

Sebastien glared back at the boy, stony-faced. Poor performance on a single exercise in class was nothing compared to carelessly injuring a fellow student and then causing herself Will-strain while using blood magic to heal him.

That thought sent a cold centipede of horror crawling down her spine. If she hadn’t healed Westbay, there might have been some chance to come clean. But if there was any chance at all that she would be accused of blood magic, it would be better for her to cut out her own tongue. Literally. Blood magic was high treason. She would be killed. “No, professor.” Her throat was dry, and she swallowed convulsively.

“Try again,” he ordered, his voice hard despite its low volume. He held his hand out to stop them when they turned their attention back to the spell. “This time, Westbay will attempt to move the ball clockwise and Siverling counterclockwise. Perhaps a more direct competition will stir your spirits.”

Westbay quickly rubbed out and replaced his two glyphs, and they complied.

The ball moved counterclockwise in small starts as Sebastien poured on more and more power, her grip on the magic like a vise, and Westbay countered her.

They steadied out at a consistent rotation in her favor.

“Is that all you have? Push harder!” Lacer ordered.

Westbay looked at her uncertainly, but she was already complying, the ball spinning faster till it began to blur.

It slowed again as Westbay pushed against her Will. His candles flickered under the drain, and she realized suddenly how Professor Lacer had known they weren’t truly trying. Their candles weren’t showing any signs of true strain—no flickering, loss of heat, or dimming—when Westbay’s Will was likely approaching two hundred thaums and she had already exceeded that amount. If she pushed to the normal limits of her ability, she could likely suck two candles completely cold.

She pushed harder, till her own two little flames looked like washed-out ghosts of themselves. The pain was like an ice pick through her brain, and her lashes fluttered as she realized she was losing sight in one of her eyes. Sun-spots bloomed over her vision.

She swallowed down nausea, and slowly, carefully released the magic. The ball decelerated, and then reversed direction entirely. She sat even straighter, her chin high and her gaze focused vaguely straight ahead. She could have pushed through the pain, but it wasn’t worth it. Severe Will-strain could cause permanent damage. ‘My ability to cast magic is more important than even the University. I won’t jeopardize that.’ Additionally, her Conduit was only rated to two hundred thaums, and opposing another’s magic put more stress on them. If she kept pushing, she risked her Conduit shattering. She had the weak backup inside the lip of her boot, so she might be able to avoid a total loss of control, but she had no gold to buy another replacement.

There was no way she could do what Lacer wanted. She accepted this, and kept her breathing even and her hands pressed to the table to keep her fingers from trembling as she waited for the punishment that would no doubt follow seemingly willful failure.

Professor Lacer didn’t say anything at first, but she could feel his Will in the air, turning his gaze into a sucking hole.

The hair on her arms and the back of her neck lifted, and she was reminded of what it felt like to walk alone and defenseless through a dark room, with the absolute certainty that something cold and hungry was watching from the shadows.

But he said only, “See me after class, Siverling. In my office.” He turned that horrible gaze on Westbay for a moment, who quailed under its force, then stalked back to the front of the room.

Westbay watched him walk away, then looked to her, and she could see the horror she felt reflected in his eyes. “Sebastien—” he whispered.

Slowly, minutely, she shook her head. “No,” she mouthed back. “You promised,” she said, slightly louder, but slowly. “Maintain your honor, and hold your tongue, Westbay.”

She could only hope that Professor Lacer wasn’t angry enough to expel her immediately. If she had till the end of term, at least, she was sure she could come up with a plan of some sort.

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Chapter 41 – Friendships Forged by Accident

Damien

Month 12, Day 2, Wednesday 5:30 p.m.

Damien looked down to the quickly reddening slice in his shirt. Sebastien Siverling’s spell had cut across the left half of his chest and his arm. For a moment, he wondered if he was going to die, carved right through but taking a moment to notice he was mortally wounded, like he’d read in one particularly violent detective story.

But, no, he judged with relief. The blood wasn’t shooting out in huge arterial sprays. As the pain began to register, he felt his cheeks flush with shame. If Titus knew how careless he had been, needling a sorcerer while they practiced battle spells, Damien would be in for a tongue lashing at the very least. Even little children should know better. Honestly, he didn’t even know why he’d done it.

He might not enjoy admitting it, but there was a reason Professor Lacer had taken Siverling as his apprentice. Siverling was obviously talented with magic, but also had a tongue sharp enough to match the professor’s, and an air of sophistication that even Damien couldn’t match, no matter how carefully he starched his collar or styled his hair. Siverling seemed not to even notice the rest of them unless interrupted from his constant study, and then the air of superiority—only partially covered by a facade of courtesy—was obvious to Damien at least, if not to all of their other classmates.

It was only when provoked that Siverling’s true temperament slipped through, and Damien could admit that he found it somewhat enjoyable to bicker with the other young man. It had become a habit over the last few weeks, even as Damien began to understand Professor Lacer’s choice. And, reluctantly, to admit that it had not been in error.

Siverling’s face had gone pale enough to match his hair, those dark eyes standing out starkly against his skin. His angry expression slid away in favor of unadulterated horror.

Damien swallowed and raised his right arm, the uninjured one, to push his hair back from his face. Should he apologize? Probably, but it seemed strange to do so when he had been injured at Siverling’s hand.

The other young man’s jaw clenched, his teeth grinding the words like a pepper mill as he said, “Lie down on the ground and take off your shirt.” Then Siverling was turning and running for the changing rooms.

Damien stared after his escaping form, blinking. “What?” Was Siverling seriously leaving him there to go get dressed? No, he’d already been wearing his normal clothes, so that couldn’t be it. Damien looked to the dirty floor, the white dust of the Flats and whatever other filth people had stepped in tracked everywhere. “Lie down on that?” He would have to change his clothes afterward. His eyes were drawn to the crimson soaking his shirt, all the way down to the waist now. “I suppose it is already quite ruined,” he muttered. Along with his sweat and the blood, a little dirt wouldn’t make much difference.

He swayed on his feet.

Siverling, returned already without Damien noticing, grabbed him by the shoulders with a grim expression and pushed him down to the floor.

Damien realized Siverling’s instruction had been meant to keep him from fainting due to shock or blood loss. “I should be fine if I get to the healers soon enough,” he said. “There’s an alarm ward trigger on the back wall, remember?” It would alert them to an emergency and summon someone skilled enough to keep students alive in even the most grievous states. Except, if the healers were called, they would notify his family.

“If my father finds out…” he muttered quietly. Realizing he had spoken aloud, he let the statement trail off. Even the thought was frightening.

Siverling must have caught the fear on Damien’s face, because after a short hesitation, he said, “There’s no need for a healer.” He dug into the satchel he had grabbed from the changing rooms with practiced hands. “It’s just a scratch, and we will have it healed in no time.”

Damien stared incredulously at the other young man. “Just a scratch?” The pain was making itself known now, and the blood had finished with his shirt and was beginning to soak his trousers. He kept his eyes on Siverling’s face so that he wouldn’t focus on the blood. He had been injured a few times sparring with his brother or his dueling tutor, but the sight of blood still made him lightheaded. “Do you have a healing artifact in there?” he questioned. In a low murmur, more to reassure himself than anything, he added, “If there are no healers involved, my father need not know…”

The young man nodded tightly as he pulled out a couple of potion vials and the supplies to draw a spell array.

Damien frowned, shaking his head woozily. “That’s not a healing artifact.”

Siverling reached forward and tore Damien’s shirt, widening the slices the spell had made to better expose the wounds.

“You are so forward.” The words had slipped out before Damien realized what his stupid brain was thinking, and he would have been embarrassed, but he imagined almost anything he said could be excused by the circumstances.

“Lie back,” the other boy ordered, accompanying the words with a firm push on Damien’s good shoulder.

Damien complied.

“The wound isn’t that deep. I’m not sure we need a blood clotter, but it’s better to be safe. I don’t want you bleeding out before I can handle this,” Siverling muttered. He uncorked the potions, dribbling the first, and then the second across the cut from right to left.

The first was a wound cleanser, Damien thought. There was just enough in the bottles to generously cover the entire wound, and Damien winced at the burning as the wound cleanser killed any infectious agents. The blood clotter did its job immediately after. The bleeding stopped, but the slice was far from healed.

Siverling eyed it critically. “I don’t think my skin-knitting salve is going to be able to deal with that.”

Damien groaned, reaching up to touch it, but his hand was rudely slapped away by Siverling.

“Keep your filthy fingers at your sides,” the young man snapped, picking up the spell supplies. “And stay still while I work.” He leaned over Damien, drawing a large Circle on the ground around his entire torso, and then a mirrored pair over Damien’s chest and arms. Siverling hesitated for a few moments when drawing the glyphs, glancing at the blood now forming a puddle on the floor.

Finally, he drew back and reached in one of his vest pockets for something he didn’t find. He looked around and snatched up a small, contaminated Conduit that he had apparently dropped when he hit Damien with the cutting spell. He clenched it in his fists, glared down at Damien’s wound, and took a deep breath.

Damien felt the weight in the air as Siverling gathered his Will. “Wait, wait!” he said.

Siverling met his wide-eyed gaze, raising his eyebrows impatiently. “What?”

Was he seriously about to attempt a healing spell? “You didn’t even place any components in the Circle, and that Conduit wouldn’t be fit for a goblin. It’s going to backfire and injure both of us.”

Siverling’s scowl returned full force. “Shut up and stay still.”

“If you could heal something like this with nothing from the Plane of Radiance and with that Conduit, I would acknowledge you as the second incarnation of Myrddin—”

Before Damien could protest any more, the other boy began to cast.

Damien didn’t move, though he wasn’t sure if it was for fear of distracting Siverling and causing the disaster he feared, or if it was because some small part of him was watching with anticipation and a growing sense of awe.

That second, smaller part of him was fully rewarded as the cut across his chest began to tighten and heal, as if time was being wound back, so slowly it was almost possible to miss it.

Siverling’s brow beaded with sweat and his fist clenched so hard around the Conduit that his knuckles turned white. It took a lot longer than a certified healer would have managed, and there was a certain hair-raising discomfort that Damien had to steel himself against as his flesh moved. When Siverling finally finished, he released the spell with an almost tangible burst of freed power and sagged forward, breathing raggedly. He used some skin-knitter to seal the patch job.

Gingerly, Damien sat up and touched his chest. The slice was more than half-healed, red and aching, but not bleeding any more. After the skin-knitter finished, there would be a scar, so the spell hadn’t been perfect, but it was still astounding. He turned to look at the spell array on the ground, his eyes marveling at the minimalist construction. There were no components except a little oil lamp to provide energy, and no instructions besides glyphs for mirroring, flesh, and healing. His heart was pounding when he turned back to Siverling.

He watched as the young man recovered from the overexertion. It had been snark when he said he would acknowledge Siverling as the second incarnation of Myrddin. But this…

Sebastien Siverling could end up the most powerful sorcerer of their generation.

At the realization, Damien let out a slow breath. How had he not heard of the Siverling family before? Were they simply that far from Lenore? Or perhaps fallen into such ruin that their name was no longer mentioned among the influential. It might explain why, despite Siverling’s mannerisms and attire, he used such a cheap Conduit. Perhaps his family had spent all they could to ensure he would fit in amongst his peers at the University, and hoped that he could make it through the first few terms without bringing attention to the Conduit. Obviously, a better one would be needed soon if he didn’t want to risk it shattering.

Siverling raised himself back up, his spine straight and his chin raised. “It’s healed,” he said. “There’s no need to sound the alarm, or to contact your family. We may both continue on and forget this incident.” He stared into Damien’s face as if searching for something, then grimaced slightly. “Of course, I’m willing to provide a small favor as well, if you wish. I did ruin your clothing, after all.”

It was only then that Damien realized Siverling had thought Damien was threatening him when he mentioned his father’s wrath. He opened his mouth to explain and reassure the other boy, then closed it abruptly.

“A favor,” Damien agreed. “And a ceasefire between us. I apologize for my previous actions, and I hope that we can be civil toward each other going forward.” He hadn’t been raised a simpleton, and even if he was still feeling a little lightheaded, he wasn’t stupid. Alliances formed now would influence the future, as would enemies. Plus, he found himself undeniably curious about the other young man.

Siverling’s eyes widened at the offer of reconciliation, then narrowed, but eventually he nodded. “Agreed.”

“Lend me your jacket,” Damien said. “Unless,” he added, seeing Siverling’s raised eyebrow, “you wish everyone to see the state of my attire and ask questions.”

With a huff, Siverling gave him the jacket. After clearing the spell array and remains of blood from the ground, they left the simulation room together, heading back toward the dorms.

“Why aren’t you participating in the exhibitions?” Damien asked.

Siverling shot him another inscrutable look before replying. “I have no need for points, and would rather spend my time learning something useful than preparing some spectacle purely to impress the judges and audience.”

“You wouldn’t need to do much extra preparation, I think. You could simply show them your skill at purely Will-based healing spells and gain full points. Healers command a sizable income, you know. Especially ones as talented as yourself. You might even be able to earn a little money while continuing on past the third term.”

Siverling’s face grew stony, and he stared straight ahead for long enough that Damien wondered if he had said something wrong. Perhaps he shouldn’t have mentioned the bit about earning money. If Siverling’s family wasn’t impoverished, it would be gauche. If they were, maybe he was sensitive about it.

“I have no desire to ingratiate myself to those who would hold themselves above me while weighing my worth—as if I were a fat hog—nor do I feel the desire to peacock around for insignificant points and empty praise. I will not participate,” Siverling said, his lip curled in a scornful sneer.

Yes, Damien had definitely offended him. “Well, to each their own. Personally, I would enjoy moving up from the dorms. Being stuffed in with the rabble makes it so difficult to properly relax, and I know someone stole my spare pair of boots.” He scowled for a moment, thinking of what he would do to that person should he ever find them. “But there are other ways to gain points, such as the tournament in Practical Casting. If you would like to gain extra practice with competent opponents before then, you might join our study group again.”

“Maybe.”

Well, at least it wasn’t outright refusal. With persistence and cunning, he could get Siverling’s amity. Damien could be likable when he wanted to be. Even to people as insufferably rude as Sebastien Siverling. Perhaps a more direct overture of friendship was required. “You were practicing a battle spell, though I’m not sure I’ve seen that particular one before. If you have interest in dueling, both Rhett and I have some skill. His interest leans more toward competition, but I’ve received some of the same training our coppers get. I could pass along some useful tips, or help you hone your aim and footwork.”

That seemed to catch Siverling’s interest. “Right, your family is in charge of the coppers. Have there been any updates on that case you were talking about before?”

Damien suppressed a small smile. Perhaps it wasn’t the dueling Siverling was interested in, but the detective work, like Damien. Well, that made sense, as the job was both worthwhile and fascinating.

“Yes, in fact. She made an appearance in a fight between two local gangs, though the circumstances behind the whole altercation are somewhat muddy. She injured several members of one group, but they were able to retreat when things became dire. Now, one would assume this meant she was allied with the second group in some way, but when the coppers arrived, they found her performing some sort of sacrificial blood ritual on one of them.”

He grinned as Siverling’s eyes widened, satisfied with the other young man’s rapt attention. Perhaps he could share some of his old detective periodicals with Siverling. He would be bound to enjoy them. Then, at least, Damien would have one friend with whom he could talk about the latest fictional exploits of Aberford Thorndyke, consulting detective.

“Do they have any leads on her?”

He nodded. “Oh, yes. Well, she fought back against the coppers when they arrived, leaving her victim to his fate, but though we almost caught her, she managed to escape. However, one of the coppers managed to injure her, and she left a little of her own blood behind on the scenes. They have it and are scrying for her now. Of course, she’s quite a powerful sorcerer, so she’s managed to hold off the attempts so far. A couple of witnesses even say she was managing to cast spells using the air as the surface for her spell array, though I’m a bit skeptical about the veracity of those claims. We are quite confident she’s still within the city, and they’ll be bringing in some stronger scryers soon, I’m sure. I know my brother has access to a prognos or two, so I imagine it is only a matter of time before she’s caught.”

Siverling was still enraptured, so Damien went into detail, relating what he knew from the reports he’d managed to wheedle out of his brother, along with his own speculation. He continued until Siverling rubbed his forehead, wincing as if he had a headache.

Damien’s eyes narrowed, and, as he paid closer attention, he noticed the trembling in Siverling’s fingers. “You didn’t strain your Will healing me, did you?”

“No,” Siverling replied in a clipped tone.

Damien eyed him dubiously. He didn’t need to be Aberford Thorndyke to make such an obvious deduction. “It’s no use pretending you didn’t, if you did. My brother always says, ‘If you’ve strained your Will, it’s a sign you chose the wrong strategy at least two moves ago. Do not just continue on bullheadedly, as that will lead to even more catastrophic failure.’” Damien felt even worse about the whole thing now.

“First, there was nothing to heal, because nothing happened, remember?” Siverling said pointedly.

Damien nodded slowly, pursing his lips.

“So there’s no reason to go to the infirmary just for them to ask a lot of questions and prescribe a couple days of rest. Secondly, even if I had healed you, I wouldn’t have hit Will-strain just from that.”

Siverling glared at Damien until he nodded again, though he didn’t believe Siverling’s assurances at all. Obviously, he’d strained his Will from that ridiculous display of skill, but he didn’t want anyone to know. “Well…you should take a break from casting spells for a completely unrelated reason, then.” He gave Siverling a pointed look of his own.

When they got back to the dorms, Damien changed into a fresh outfit—one not covered in blood—but found Siverling gone when he emerged from the bathrooms. “Oh, well,” he said, tossing his clothes into the fireplace, both to destroy the blood and to keep the events of that afternoon secret. All in all, it had been an exciting and fruitful day.

Almost an adventure, really.

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Chapter 40 – Sleep Research

Sebastien

Month 11, Day 30, Monday 10:30 p.m.

Sebastien felt sick with fatigue by the time her head finally hit the pillow, and it wasn’t much better by morning. For once, not even the promise of learning magic was enticing enough to motivate her out of bed. Only the thought of her absence being noted managed to haul her to her feet. The coppers made another attempt to scry her before she got very far, and after it had failed and the adrenaline left her system, she felt even weaker.

She dragged through her classes, having to rush to the bathroom quite suddenly when the coppers once again scried for her. At the end of the day, she went to the market to purchase better paper, as well as supplies for the most critical potions.

The owner of the small stationery shop she visited was exceedingly solicitous, and at first she felt uncomfortable with him hovering near her and asking questions, but he turned out to be quite helpful.

“If you are looking for a fire-resistant writing surface that isn’t parchment, I recommend this one-quarter seaweed blend,” the man said, herding her around to the other side of the shop. “Darker, rougher, and thicker than fine vellum, but strong and long-lasting for any project you would like to withstand the rigors of time.”

“Is it totally flame resistant?”

He shook his head. “Unfortunately not, but it has good performance for the price. Don’t be dissuaded by the appearance. Of course, if you are insistent upon a brighter, smoother sheet, we do have more flame-resistant paper made of special magical materials—the details are a trade secret—but that option is significantly pricier.”

“No, no, this is fine.”

“Wonderful!” The man was so excited that she wondered if he’d been struggling to offload the seaweed paper. “What size would you like? We can cut it for you here, free of charge.”

Sebastien paused. The idea that she could get larger paper had never crossed her mind. She’d been stuck thinking that she would have something like a mini-tome of magic, filled with journal-sized spell arrays. But if that wasn’t the case, it gave her even more options. “No need. I need a variety of sizes, so I’ll be cutting it myself,” she said, grinning almost as wide as the shopkeeper.

A couple of gold lighter, she made her way to Dryden Manor. Oliver himself wasn’t there, but she set up the brewing station in his study anyway.

As she stirred the steaming cauldron over the small batch of grainy blood-clotting potion within, she had trouble focusing the full strength of her Will. Her eyelids would droop and her mind’s grip on the magic would loosen without her even realizing it, only for her to jerk back to alertness.

The third time this happened, the magic almost slipped from her grip entirely. It frightened her enough that she stepped away from the cauldron and took a few minutes to cast some wakefulness magic on coffee pilfered from Oliver’s kitchen. When she knocked back the mixture in a single swallow, coffee grounds and all, she got enough of a rush to make it through the remainder of the potion.

Oliver still hadn’t returned by the time she’d brewed a small batch of blood-clotting potions. She took one for herself and left the rest for him with a scribbled note.

The servants persuaded her to stay for dinner in the kitchen, more than happy to add her to their table. As Sebastien stuffed herself to make up for all the energy she’d expended channeling magic, Sharon fussed over the circles under Sebastien’s eyes and tutted about the University’s poor food quality.

When Sebastien returned to the dorms that evening, she thought, ‘I need to practice my new spells just like I practice the exercises for Professor Lacer’s class if I want to be able to use them in a practical setting.’ The acknowledgment gave her no extra energy, however, so she went to sleep instead.

The nightmares came particularly strong, seeming to defy her attempts to suppress them with magic. After she woke with a pounding heart and a scream choked off in her throat, she gave up on sleep and used the time to study the theory behind the new utility spells she would be putting on paper.

She felt no better than the day before, and after lunch her body decided it was a perfect time to catch up on all her deferred sleep, so she went back to the dorms for a short nap.

Newton noticed her struggling to get out of bed in order to make it to Defensive Magic, and stubbornly hauled her off to the infirmary. “I understand the desire to perform to the best of your abilities, but you have to recognize when you are in need of rest, Sebastien,” he said. “It won’t go away just because you keep pushing. The pressure only grows worse. Trust me, I know from experience.” He had shadows under his own eyes, and his clothes were a little more rumpled than usual.

“I’ve just been having trouble sleeping,” she said. “I’m fine, really.”

“You’ll get sick if you keep pushing beyond your limits. If you’re lucky, it’ll only be physical, and not cause any damage to your Will.”

“I’m missing class right now,” she protested. “And Fekten just gives the lectures, not any reading or homework. If I’m not there, I’ll miss the entire topic for today, along with the participation points toward my grade.”

“The infirmary will give you a pass,” Newton replied, undeterred. He waved, ushering her in ahead of him, as if to make sure she couldn’t escape behind his back.

They cannot know I had Will-strain. They might ask questions.’ But she couldn’t say that aloud, couldn’t explain that she didn’t want to seem any different than the other students to avoid drawing suspicion to herself.

To her surprise and relief, the woman who came over to deal with them seemed completely unsurprised when Newton volunteered the symptoms he’d noticed. “You’re the third one today, and that’s only of the students I’ve dealt with personally. Sometimes I think they push you all too hard. Are you experiencing any signs of Will-strain?”

Sebastien started to shake her head, but stopped when Newton raised his eyebrows skeptically. “Well, I have had some headaches,” she admitted. “But I think it’s just from the lack of sleep. The dorms, you know… I’m not used to sleeping with so many people all around me.”

“He wakes up and practices casting in the middle of the night,” Newton corrected.

The healer and student liaison shared a knowing look. “Well, I’m going to prescribe two days of rest from any practical exercises, as well as a mild anti-anxiety potion. The potion should last you for a couple of weeks, at single-sip doses. You can take it twice a day: once in the morning before breakfast, and once before bed. Please come back for more at the end of that period, if you feel you need it.”

Newton gave her a thumbs-up. “I’ll make sure he does.”

Sebastien rolled her eyes, but neither of the other two seemed to find her exasperation worth noting.

They made her take the first anti-anxiety potion before leaving. While Sebastien disliked the artificial sense of serenity, she had to admit that she had also lost any desire to attend Fekten’s Defensive Magic class, as the idea of physical exercise sounded torturous when she could be resting in her little cubicle instead.

“I’ll have one of your friends write down notes from Fekten’s lecture,” Newton said once he’d returned her to the dorms. “Rest easy, you won’t miss anything important.”

She hummed gratefully and found herself casting her dreamless sleep spell without even worrying that Newton was watching.

He drew the curtains around her bed, and she slipped into sleep while the sound of his footsteps was still fading into the distance.

She was still tired when she woke, but the nightmares wouldn’t let her rest any longer. She briefly considered going back to the infirmary to see if they could do anything to make her sleep more restful, but discarded the idea. When she was a child and the dreams started, her father had taken her to more than a few healers out of desperation, but there had been nothing they could do. “Dreaming is natural,” one had said, “and if the girl is having nightmares, perhaps you shouldn’t tell her any scary stories before bed.” Even when Ennis hinted at what she’d gone through before he came back for her, they had never been able to provide a solution. The dreamless sleep spell she had modified over the years was the only thing that seemed to actually help.

Besides, she didn’t feel comfortable revealing such a weakness when she was surrounded by potential enemies. She would handle her problems herself, as she always had.

So she returned her attention to her research on sleep, going through the texts on the subject that she had borrowed from the library. ‘If I’m never able to properly recover, any efforts to learn or practice other topics are useless. My Will is bound to grow brittle and snap even more quickly from desperate training without balance.’ Most of the texts were useless to her, and were set aside after she skimmed through them thoroughly, but just as she was beginning to despair, she came upon a research journal written by Keeswood, a thaumaturge who had been attempting to learn what sleep actually did for the body.

Keeswood cautioned against attempts to avoid sleep altogether, citing an increased likelihood of becoming sick, decreased mental and magical functions, and, in extreme cases, hallucinations, paranoia, and even madness. Nothing she didn’t already know. She was about to toss the book aside in frustration when Keeswood mentioned one particular experiment he had done on a pair of twins.

Using a spell that he explained only in the vaguest of terms, he had caused one twin to sleep in place of the other, allowing the wakeful twin to go for over ten days without sleep. Even this was not sustainable long term, because signs of fatigue still built up in the wakeful twin, while the twin who had been sleeping for the both of them fell into perpetual unconsciousness, not even waking for the eight hours per day that should have been possible.

In fear of damaging either of them, Keeswood had stopped the experiment. The wakeful twin had slept for a slightly extended period after the spell was released, but both recovered fully and returned to functioning normally after only a day.

Sebastien was captivated by the idea that someone or something else could do her sleeping for her. She quickly flipped through the rest of the research journal, but could find no more detail about the spell used to allow this. Standing, she pulled on her boots, preparing to go to the library and search for any other writings by the man, but realized with a bleary examination of her pocket watch that the library had already closed. She only then looked around and realized that most of the other students had returned to the dorms and settled down for sleep already.

With a deep sigh, she knelt over her pillow and cast the dreamless sleep spell as strongly as she could, setting her alarm for only a few hours later. ‘Perhaps if I wake on my own, I can recast the spell before the nightmares have time to slip in. It might allow for more overall sleep, since I won’t have to recover from them before being able to relax again.’ She took another dose of the anti-anxiety potion, and was able to get almost a full night’s rest by the morning.

She felt almost normal, but she didn’t forget the research journal or the ideas it had sparked.

Despite Newton’s good intentions, she did not give the casting pass from the infirmary to any of her teachers that day, feeling awake enough to at least complete the in-class exercises.

Professor Lacer seemed to be keeping a closer eye on her than normal, and that, too, kept her from being complacent enough to droop off. If she did, it would be the end of her, just like that boy who had supposedly been turned into a sheep and then expelled.

She stopped by the library once again after class and looked up every other text the author of the sleep-surrogate experiment had contributed to. Most of them were held in one of the restricted sections in the underground archives. She sought out one of the library student aides and enquired about accessing it. Without the contribution points to afford a pass to that section, and lacking the rapport with any of the professors that might get them to sign a special exception slip for her, in the end, Sebastien had been forced to flirt brazenly with the student aide to get a pass. She was desperate.

The young woman, who sported a tail marking her as one of the non-human students, could barely look Sebastien in the eye past her blush. She stammered that it would take at least a day to get a new pass created, and Sebastien promised to return when it was ready.

When Sebastien found her legs bouncing irritably as she tried to write a homework essay, she went to the simulation room in the big building out on the Flats, where students were permitted to practice spells and dueling for Defense class.

One of the utility spells she had researched for casting through paper was a fabric cutting spell that sent a single slicing line outward in an arc, the shape of which could be controlled to some degree by the caster’s Will. Unlike many similar spells, it didn’t require the target to be within the Circle, as it used compressed air as the cutting edge.

And of course, she could use it to do more than cut fabric.

It wasn’t meant to work against humans, or any living thing. However, with extensive practice, and if she could channel enough power into it, it could still overcome the inherent barrier against invasive magics that most creatures maintained unconsciously, through molding the air rather than trying to attack directly with magical energy. It was meant as a close-range spell, and at longer distances the cutting edge would degrade severely, but it was one of the few potentially useful battle spells that someone of her level could cast.

She set to practicing it using one of the waist-high, slate-topped columns the simulation room had helpfully raised from the floor to use as a drawing surface, aiming at a dummy only a few feet away. Keeping the air compressed for long enough that the slicing edge could travel farther was still well beyond her. She experimented with varying the size of the slice, as well as how quickly she cast.

While she was practicing, she noticed Westbay enter the room and move past her to one of the more advanced stations. He proceeded to use a battle wand in a mock duel with a dummy, which moved back and forth and sent harmless bolts of light shooting at him. He was actually quite skilled, both in his footwork and ability to dodge, and his aim. If he had been one of the coppers chasing after her, she likely would have been hit with a stunning spell and captured.

She was still methodically sending arcs of slicing air toward her stationary dummy when he finished and walked her way again.

Westbay stopped beside her, mopping at sweaty hair with a fluffy towel while he watched her cast.

She did her best to ignore him, powering up another slice, this one with a wider arc.

“A slicing spell? Are you planning to murder someone? My Family’s coppers will catch you, you know,” he muttered.

Sebastien spun on him before even fully registering what he said, a hot rush of fear and anger rising up from her belly as if it had been waiting there to be triggered. She opened her mouth to let it out in the form of words, and only when the spell had already been released—the edge of the slicing arc heading directly for the left side of Westbay’s chest—did she realize her mistake.

She tried to call it back, to direct the spell away, but it was too late. The edge, visible as a faintly glowing shimmer in the air, cut into him, slicing through his shirt and the skin below even as his eyes widened in belated surprise.

A red line of blood welled up, a crimson stain blooming on the crisp white fabric of Westbay’s shirt.

Sebastien’s face paled. ‘What have I done? I’ll be expelled.

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Chapter 39 – Paper Spells

Sebastien

Month 11, Day 30, Monday 4:00 p.m.

Sebastien worried that the Morrows would rally after their failed attack and attempt to retaliate against the Verdant Stags with more violence. In fact, if the Morrows did not, it might be seen as a sign of weakness. Consequently, the Verdant Stag needed to recover and prepare faster than the Morrows could.

Even having acknowledged that, she didn’t have the mental energy to start brewing healing and battle potions for the Verdant Stag right away. Besides, Katerin could brew, and they had at least one other alchemist making concoctions for them. If they needed more, Oliver should have the funds to buy anything Sebastien could make from someone else. She was not the only supplier of the alchemical concoctions that the enforcer teams needed.

Trusting someone else to be competent enough to do what needed to be done was dangerous, but she believed Oliver would do his best to make preparations even if she wasn’t there. He had proven he was willing to take the weight of responsibility that many people shirked.

Gritting her teeth past the renewed headache from casting in Professor Lacer’s class, she went to the library. A private table hidden in a remote alcove sat thankfully empty. The natural light from the windows didn’t quite reach it, but her throbbing brain found that a boon rather than a detriment.

Sebastien pulled out some paper and her fountain pen, using cryptic notes—just in case someone were to somehow read them—to help organize her thoughts and rearrange her plans. Writing things down had often helped her settle her racing mind. ‘I need to study emergency procedure and triage—to make up for the knowledge I was clearly missing during the attack. Hopefully I’ll never need to use it, but…if I ever do, and I haven’t tried to correct the mistakes I made with Jameson, I couldn’t forgive myself.’

The University had healers’ courses, but only for those above Apprentice level. They started in the fourth term, once students had a stronger foundation. It was a complicated subject that required a lot of knowledge and power. She wouldn’t be able to learn everything on her own, but basics about how to triage and stabilize traumatic wounds should be accessible.

I need a variety of spells ready to go. Having a spell array memorized isn’t enough. It would be best if I had them primed to cast without the need to stop and draw the array before adding the components. Such a delay could be fatal in the wrong situation.’

With her lack of skill with artificery and her lack of funds to buy artifacts or potions, alchemy was the best way to accomplish her goal. As soon as she had the time and mental fortitude, she would go to Dryden Manor and brew a variety of the most useful potions she could think of. Starting with the blood clotter. ‘That’s good, but I should have other contingencies in place, too.

The glass pane that had made her spell arrays portable was quite useful, if unwieldy and dangerous…and ultimately disastrous when she cut herself. She could see many scenarios where something like that could be invaluable. Actively cast spells weren’t quite as conveniently ready-to-use as alchemical concoctions, but alchemy didn’t have an equivalent recipe already developed for every spell. Pre-brewed items also couldn’t have their effects changed on the fly, and the cost of component ingredients was often higher.

The glass pane would have been even better if she weren’t forced to erase and redraw the Circle and Word every time she switched spells.

That’s what the giant tomes of magic that some sorcerers carried around were for. Some laypeople mistook them for grimoires, whose pages held instructions and notes on the spells. Magic tomes instead held useable spell arrays. The pages and arrays were made of special materials and cost more than a normal artifact to make, but provided access to more castable spells than would fit in most artifacts, up to two or three dozen.

The military offered its soldiers a few portable arrays made of precious metals wrought into the desired shapes, but those would be even less accessible to someone like her, and certainly were not something she could lug around in an emergency.

Sebastien paused her cryptic scribbles, staring down at the cheap paper as the ink from her pen tip began to feather out and form a blot.

Even if she couldn’t create a tome of magic from materials meant to handle spells, that didn’t mean she couldn’t set up the Circle and Word for a few useful spells ahead of time. Normal paper was a particularly poor surface for spell casting, but as long as it worked, some inefficiency could be excused. Even if the paper burnt up from the force of the magic flowing through it, it would just destroy the evidence. In fact, it would likely be a good idea to create a small spark-shooting spell array at the corner of each page, just in case she ever needed to quickly turn one or all of them to ash to keep them from being used against her.

The library, like the jail, had wards to notify them of sudden fluctuations of energy within a small area. Such fluctuations usually corresponded to magic being cast, which was prohibited due to possible damage to the books. Thus, she couldn’t immediately test her theory, but that didn’t stop her from bouncing up to feverishly grab research and reference texts.

She found a handful of low-powered but versatile spells that seemed like they would be useful to have on hand. Research on emergency healing measures was less successful.

Even with the help of the crystal ball search artifacts placed around the edge of the atrium, she found no information about blood transfusions except to mention that the Third Empire—also known as the Blood Empire—had performed them. Like all blood magic, they were illegal, and their use was considered high treason. Anything useful, like how to do them safely and properly, was restricted in one of the many underground archives.

Humphries’ adapting solution remained the only viable alternative. The solution could be spelled directly into the veins in a blood-loss emergency. Its original purpose had been to keep creatures from the Plane of Water alive on the mundane plane, but it could also act as a filler and keep blood oxygenated. It was expensive and difficult to make, and didn’t have a very long shelf-life, so it wasn’t feasible for most people except dedicated healers to stock. She had heard of it, but never brewed it herself.

And…the recipe was only available on the second floor of the library. Which she did not have access to. She almost kicked the base of her crystal ball’s marble stand in frustration. Despite this setback, she peered into the clear crystal and dutifully wrote down the locations of the books that contained a copy of the recipe. ‘Just because I cannot go there myself doesn’t mean I cannot get information from the upper floors. This is innocuous enough, not like the restricted archives. I just need to get an upper-term student to check the book out for me.

Her research continued through dinner, which she was much too focused to pause for, until ten, when the library closed and she was unceremoniously kicked out. Instead of going to the bed, she went to the dorm bathrooms. She would have preferred an empty classroom, but the Citadel closed at this hour, too. She checked to make sure all the stalls were empty, then sat down on the tile floor in one of the shower stalls and pulled out her notes and materials.

Using a piece of thread as a makeshift compass tool to ensure her Circle was as uniform as possible, and thus increase the spell’s efficiency, Sebastien carefully inscribed a rudimentary barrier array onto the paper with her fountain pen. Grubb’s barrier spell had been the weakest she found in the library, and at under two hundred thaums to manifest, the only one she could hope to cast, if feebly. It only protected against physical projectiles, but she had already proven that could be critical against a certain kind of opponent.

She took the components from her school satchel and placed them atop the correct spots on the paper, lit her tiny lantern for energy, and cast the spell.

The paper caught fire along the lines of ink she had drawn, and within a few seconds was nothing but ashes and wisps of smoke. The energy she had been channeling blew the white-blonde hair away from her face and scattered the ashes around the room, but thankfully didn’t manage to do any damage to her mind or her surroundings as it escaped.

She sat back, rubbing at her forehead and letting out a disappointed puff of air. Still not completely deterred, she took out another sheet and redrew the spell. This time, she focused on being as efficient as possible, casting more slowly and bearing down harder with her Will. The paper began to smolder and smoke along the ink lines, and though the entire sheet didn’t catch fire this time, the spell lashed against her Will, and she had to release it as pieces of the spell array disintegrated from the rest of the paper.

That could be quite dangerous. What if an inner Circle containing important glyphs were to burn separately from the rest of the paper and blow away in the wind, leaving me with only part of a spell? Or if the entire paper caught fire midcast, and I got Will-strain from the backlash?’

She tried using a wax crayon instead of ink, but quickly found that the wax melted into the paper and only added fuel for any opportunistic spark.

Behold. I have created a very tiny candle.’ She shook her head ruefully. ‘No, ink is obviously better than wax. Perhaps the inked parts are burning because the channel through which all the energy travels is so thin? Too much heat in a small space can set almost anything alight.

Tiptoeing into the dorms, she retrieved a small ink brush from her chest of belongings. Using that, the third attempt was a bit sloppier, but the lines were definitely wider. It helped, but again, not enough. Pieces of the spell array smoldered and burned away, even with her only holding the small shield spell active for a few seconds. That wasn’t completely useless, true, but it was close to useless.

She groaned and rubbed at her aching eyes. ‘Perhaps it would be best to set this idea aside until I have access to materials better suited to channeling magic. If they aren’t too expensive, that is…’ Her eyes opened, and she stared down at the small glass inkwell beside her. She already had a material better suited to channeling magic. Her blood.

She hesitated only briefly, considering the illegality of using blood, even one’s own, to channel magic, and then cast the hesitation aside. ‘No one will find out, especially if I simply mix blood in with the ink. The blood will be unrecognizable. And if I find there is somehow danger of discovery, I can simply activate the self-destruct spark spell and burn away the evidence of “blood magic.”’ Of course, this meant that the spell papers could never leave her person, but to fulfill their purpose of emergency preparedness, they shouldn’t be out of immediate access, anyway.

The brief mental nod to legality out of the way, Sebastien quickly made a small cut in her forearm with her athame, letting her blood fill the inkwell to the top. A dab of skin-knitting salve left only a faint scar to mark the spot, which would fade soon enough. She mixed the ink and the blood thoroughly, then painted the barrier spell on yet another piece of paper.

This time, the small barrier burst to life like a bubble, shimmering faintly, and the paper endured.

Sebastien let out a small “whoop!” of excitement, then let the spell go. Touching the paper revealed the ink lines were quite warm, perhaps almost to the point of catching fire, but casting was still feasible. ‘If I get my hands on some thicker paper, a little warmth won’t be disastrous. Maybe a double-ply bound together with paste. It should last at least a minute or two per sheet.’ Parchment, even the relatively cheaper parchment from a goat or a cow, would be extremely fire resistant, but then it wouldn’t be so simple for her to destroy any evidence that could lead to suspicion. Also, she still might not be able to afford it.

Having returned the spell components to her bag and carefully tucked away the paper and inkwell, she finally made her way to bed.

Only then did she remember the actual classwork that she needed to complete for Sympathetic Science the next morning. Normally, she would have completed it as early as possible, simply to get it out of the way, but now she was forced to resort to taking out her potion of moonlight sizzle and using its light to scribble her way through the assignment.

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Chapter 38 – Competing for Points (Book 2 Start)

Sebastien

Month 11, Day 30, Monday 8:45 a.m.

When the scrying attack hit Sebastien, she immediately began empowering her new anti-divination ward. The five artifact disks that Liza had embedded under the skin of her back consumed her blood, making the skin around them prickle like it was being stabbed with needles. This provided magical energy, which Sebastien channeled through the small Conduit pressed between her ankle and the inside of her boot, right back into the spell.

Fortunately, there were only a few stragglers still lingering around the University dorm, and they were all hurrying to gather their things before class. No one paid any attention to Sebastien.

She cursed the coppers, dropped the luggage she had been repacking into the chest at the base of her bed, and hurried toward the bathrooms. Liza had warned her that, with the ward active, anyone paying enough attention might notice a strange difficulty focusing on her, which could have very unfortunate consequences.

If things had gone even a little differently when she and Oliver went to defend his warehouse and the people inside from the attack by the Morrows, she might be fully rested, clearheaded, and relatively safe. If that last attack by the coppers, when she was trying to distract them with her shadow-familiar, hadn’t hit her, she wouldn’t have fallen and cut herself, and they wouldn’t have her blood. She could have returned to the University without fear.

And maybe, if she had gone long enough without giving them any more leads, living as Sebastien Siverling instead of Siobhan Naught, they would have given up searching for her.

Instead, she was trembling in a bathroom stall as she brought her strained Will to bear. The coppers had her blood, and if she failed, they would find her through it. If she was arrested, she would likely be executed, since they had branded her a blood magic user. Even if she somehow escaped that fate, she would forever lose her chance to study at the Thaumaturgic University of Lenore. And without the University, she might never gain the knowledge and power to become an Archmage level sorcerer and a free-caster. The kind of power that meant she would never be vulnerable again.

The ward deflected searching tendrils of magic for the next few minutes despite the sheer power battering across the entire city through the coppers’ scrying spell. It was a stronger spell than Liza had used to test the ward’s strength, but the protective magic held.

Some part of Sebastien had hoped that the transformation into her male body might mitigate the coppers’ ability to find her through the sympathetic connection to her blood, but it seemed that was not the case. Siobhan’s blood was still her blood, even in Sebastien’s body. Which would have been interesting to know in less dire circumstances.

Panting, Sebastien rubbed the back of her neck as the stinging sensation subsided. Her head was pounding again. Not as bad as when she had first strained her Will, but bad enough that she had trouble concentrating. She wished she could neglect her classes and spend the day in bed.

Instead, she steeled herself, made sure she looked calm and alert, and hurried toward the Citadel and Professor Burberry’s classroom. She arrived a few minutes late to Introduction to Modern Magics.

Professor Burberry gave her a stern glance but said nothing as Sebastien slipped into the seat beside Anastasia.

“Are you alright?” the girl murmured to her, her eyes roving over Sebastien’s face with concern.

Sebastien realized sweat was beaded at her temples and quickly wiped it away. “Fine. A little nauseated. Lost track of time in the bathroom.”

Ana patted her hand sympathetically and pulled a potion out of her bag. “It’s for stomach cramps, but it should help slightly with nausea, too. The cafeteria food is atrocious. Really, I don’t understand why we cannot simply purchase a better meal. We have the gold for it, and you would think they’d be happy to take it. I’m going to start losing weight at this rate.”

Sebastien took the vial and stared at it bemusedly. ‘Great. There’s no reasonable way for me to decline this. I hope it doesn’t have side effects on someone who’s perfectly healthy.’ Aloud, she said, “Can it be taken on an empty stomach?” When Ana nodded cheerfully, Sebastien suppressed her misgivings and took a swallow.

Having satisfied the other girl, Sebastien settled into her ruse, hiding her fatigue as completely as she could. Though for once, her mind wasn’t on her classes. ‘It was well done to request Liza’s help with the ward against divination. If not for that, my time at the University would definitely be up.’ She shuddered at the thought. Finding information on the coppers’ scrying procedure and capability was a priority, as soon as she could slip away to do so.

If I had known how all this would turn out, would I have stayed in bed when Oliver activated my bracelet’s alarm? What would have happened to Jameson without me? He would probably still be dead.’ Setting that thought forcefully aside, she consoled herself. ‘It is possible that things could have gone worse if I wasn’t there.’ If she was honest with herself—and she tried to be—she would still go with Oliver knowing what she knew now. She would just perform better the second time around.

During the lunch period, she ate quickly, then went back to the dorms and made herself a strong cup of wakefulness brew from some tea leaves she had stashed in her trunk, as the basic meal options didn’t cover such “luxuries” as caffeine.

When she arrived at Practical Casting, she was finally more awake, though her heart was beating a little too fast and her chest held a sour tightness.

Sebastien did a double take after entering the classroom. Something was off. She frowned, looking around quickly, and then realized that the classroom seemed to have shrunk. She had noted on the first day that this was the biggest class, both in room size and number of students. Though that remained the case, with hundreds of students drawn by the allure of free-casting, over the first few weeks many people had stopped coming, leaving empty desks behind. Those desks were gone now, and the back wall seemed to have contracted toward the front.

Her muscles tensed with unease, and without quite realizing it, she had taken her Conduit from her pocket. Walking around the room and examining the doorway showed tracks, and she realized with awe that the dividing walls that broke up each floor of the Citadel into classrooms could be moved, shifted forward or back to change the size of the individual rooms. Constructing a building with such capabilities, at this scale, was a feat she doubted could have been accomplished without impressive magic.

She took her seat, close to the front of the room on the side farthest from the door, and waited.

A few more students arrived after her, but no one else seemed to notice the classroom’s modification. At least, if they did, they weren’t particularly surprised by it, instead chattering with their fellow students or hurrying to complete homework before the class started.

Professor Lacer strode in dramatically, his trench coat flapping helplessly behind him. He was a tall man with a hawkish gaze, and he kept his dark hair pulled into a knot at the nape of his neck. The hair of his short-trimmed beard was always a little wild, as if it was afraid of him and trying to escape his face. He stopped in the middle of the lecture stage, ran his eyes over the students, and nodded to himself. “Those of you remaining are those who will not be leaving my class because of unwillingness to put in the work. You may be lacking, but at least you have shown dedication, and you should have enough experience to avoid Will-strain with some more strenuous spell-casting. Now, it is time to make you stronger.” There were some murmurs of excitement, and he waved them to silence. “How does a sorcerer become stronger?”

He paused as if waiting for an answer, but continued when no one spoke. “Through adversity. You are going to learn how to fight with your Will, and once you do, you will compete to see which of you is strongest. The winner will receive fifty University contribution points. Before you lament the unfairness of competing against those with more capacity, let me add that this competition will be broken up into brackets. There will be thirty points for the winners of each of the weaker brackets, for those of you who started out with less experience but have still managed to prove your determination.”

He opened a cabinet behind his desk and pulled out a box of small tea candles, which he sat on his desk. “You have been practicing a spell to introduce movement to a small metal ball. In this augmented exercise, one of you will attempt to force the ball into motion while your opponent counters you, trying to keep it still.”

He placed one candle on his desk and touched the edge with the tip of his finger. The wick sprang into flame. “In the real world, when you are casting practically, you may find that you do not have a convenient beast core or bonfire readily available to cast your spell, and yet, you must still cast. If your Will is a pipe, and your goal is to channel enough water through it to wash away a hill of dirt, many people assume the best way to achieve the goal is to increase the amount of water that can be channeled through it at once. They attempt to make the pipe larger. In other words, to increase their Will’s capacity. To be truly powerful, however, the pipeline of your Will must be not only wide, but robust and efficient. A smaller pipe may spew water more quickly than a larger one, if its walls are durable enough to withstand the pressure. At risk of abusing the metaphor, pouring water through the large pipe may result in a deluge that slowly erodes the hill, but the same amount of water forced at speed through a small pipe can create an impact forceful enough to scour the entire hill away, or simply pierce right through it.

Efficiency will allow you to use minimal resources to achieve greater effects, and without wasted power spilling everywhere—everywhere except where you actually needed it to go, that is.” He examined their faces, his cynical expression stating quite clearly that he doubted they understood him.

Being close to the front, Sebastien heard him mutter, “Note: prepare visual aids next year,” to himself before continuing at full volume. “Most sorcerers waste much of the energy they attempt to channel. If you can be efficient, a mere three candles will be more than enough power for most spells you will be able to cast before earning your Apprenticeship.”

Some of the students looked skeptical.

The edges of his mouth drew down along with his eyebrows. “For those under one hundred thaums, one candle. Two candles under two hundred thaums. Everyone above that gets three candles. The restriction on power source should force you to focus on the quality of your Will, and not only the strength of it. Make it work. Two glyphs from now on, instead of three.”

He ignored the groans of the students. “The next few classes will provide time for you to practice against each other. This tournament is your mid-term examination. We’ll start a little early, since it will take more than a single class period, and winners will be decided on the day of this class’s mid-term. For your mid-term score, I will be grading you on all the facets of your Will, not just its capacity. The contribution points you earn can be redeemed immediately, or saved and added to your reserves. If you haven’t already, I suggest you take a stroll through the various rewards available in the Great Hall.”

That reminder of the prize boosted the students’ excitement, and with a slight loosening of his expression, Lacer waved them all down to his desk to retrieve their candles. “Partner up and start practicing.”

As soon as Sebastien made it back to her desk, a girl whose name she didn’t know pushed up beside her, holding a single tea candle in one hand and a chair in the other. “May I partner with you, Sebastien?”

Slightly taken aback by the informality, as well as the fact that she didn’t know the girl’s name, Sebastien nevertheless waved obligingly to her desk. The other girl only had one candle, so Sebastien set two of hers to the side to level the playing field. ‘How fortuitous. One standard-sized candle flame is only about eighty thaums. Hardly enough to strain me.

With a wide grin, the pink-cheeked girl pushed the chair she had brought up to the other side of Siobhan’s desk and sat down.

“Seb—” Ana called, cutting off when she saw the other girl sitting across from Sebastien already.

“Sebastien is already partnered with me,” the unnamed girl said, her smile growing stiffer. She tossed a look over her shoulder to where a group of young women seemed to be paying a little too much attention to the three of them.

Ana frowned.

“I’ll be your partner, Anastasia,” a loud man said. Alec Gervin, with his lack of manners and self-important attitude, threw his arm around her shoulder.

Ana shook her head, “Oh, thank you, Alec, but I—”

“It’s no trouble at all, cousin. Besides, you need someone who can serve as an actual challenge to you,” he said loudly, throwing Sebastien a combative look that lacked any subtlety at all.

“I doubt that person is you,” Sebastien muttered, but she waved her hand uncaringly when both girls looked as if they were about to argue with Alec. “Go ahead.”

Once Alec had pulled Ana away, Sebastien muttered, “His ass must get jealous of all the shit that comes out of his mouth.”

The girl across from her almost choked on a surprised laugh, then clapped her hand over her mouth to stifle her giggles. “Oh, you are so bad, Sebastien!”

Alec, not completely oblivious, shot them a suspicious look, but Sebastien was careful to keep her expression innocent.

At least the Westbay boy has some actual ability to back up his attitude. Gervin…well, I would be surprised if he got into the University without more than a little “help” from his Family.

“Do you want to attempt movement, and I’ll attempt to stop you?” Sebastien asked. They would both be competing for control of the same main Circle carved into her desk.

The girl agreed and drew the glyph for “movement” inside the Circle on her side, then connected it to a smaller component Circle where she drew the glyph for “fire” and placed her candle. “Oh, I wish we could still use three glyphs. Only two is going to make this so much harder, don’t you think, Sebastien? My name is Cynthia, by the way. I don’t know if you…” Cynthia trailed off, flushing again.

“A pleasure to meet you, Cynthia,” Sebastien said distractedly. “And I don’t mind the restrictions. After all, the point of this class is to teach us to cast without any spell array at all.” After a few seconds to think, she drew a somewhat obscure glyph she had learned recently, “adversity.” She, too, used “fire” in her component Circle, before palming her Conduit, which she noted with a hint of jealousy was of much poorer quality than Cynthia’s.

She would need to be careful. Spells that directly opposed the Will of another thaumaturge put strain on the Conduit that was greater than the simple measure of how many thaums were being channeled. Meaning the Conduit was more likely to shatter unexpectedly, even at lower levels of energy. She understood the need for the efficiency Professor Lacer had lauded.

Reaching the danger level on her Conduit might come sooner rather than later, for her, especially if she was pitting her Will against a series of opponents that grew increasingly stronger. Her new main Conduit, the one she’d just bought at an exorbitant price to replace the one that shattered, was rated at only two hundred and twelve thaums. She had another one, her backup Conduit—little more than a cloudy pebble—tucked into her boot, but the capacity of the two Conduits couldn’t be added together. The backup was only meant to keep her alive long enough to redirect the magical energy and safely release a spell if her new Conduit shattered. It was a pity celerium couldn’t be melded together like any other sort of rock and still work as a Conduit. But there was a reason it was special—and so expensive.

Sure, she could just throw the match to avoid the risk, once things got more difficult, but she didn’t want to. Professor Lacer would be watching and judging them. ‘I have to prove to him that I’m worthy to stay at the University.

So as she channeled Will and power into opposing Cynthia’s desire to make the ball move around the edge of the Circle, Sebastien kept an eye on her candle out of the corner of her eye. She had considered keeping a hand cupped around it so she could gauge its heat output, and thus, how strongly she was drawing on its power. This would require putting a piece of herself within the spell Circle, though, which was dangerous. Professor Lacer would surely throw her out of his class for displaying such stupidity in front of him twice. ‘I can learn from my mistakes. I can.

So, she gauged the stability of her candle flame visually, putting mental pressure on her Will like a fist squeezing water out of a wet cloth. Tighter, more compact, more directed. Like a housewife squeezing bread dough, she forced her Will into a tighter and tighter mass, till she was gently massaging it, whispering to it and cajoling it to receive her thoughts and desires and needs.

When the spell array glowed with overspill, it wasn’t because of Sebastien. After Cynthia made a few dozen stymied attempts to get the ball to move, Sebastien suggested they switch. She would move the ball while Cynthia stilled it.

Again, Cynthia was no match for her.

Sebastien abruptly and rapidly varied both the amount of power she was putting into creating movement, as well as which direction she was attempting to move the ball, jerking it around despite the pressure of the Will trying to stop her.

This time, Cynthia had used the glyph for “stillness,” but didn’t seem to have a firm enough grasp on the mental aspect of opposing Sebastien, and was easily overcome whenever the force on the ball was anything other than steady pressure in one direction.

The spell array glowed brighter as the other girl grew tired and frustrated, and her candle flame began to flicker and flutter. “How are you so good at this?” Cynthia whined.

Sebastien drew back some of her attention from the spell, allowing the ball to stop jerking around spasmodically. “You’re pushing harder, but not exercising enough control. Look at your candle flickering. The spell array’s glow is from inefficiency, too. This is what Professor Lacer was talking about. Even if your Will had a greater maximum energy capacity than mine, I might still be able to beat you if my Will was more powerful than yours in other ways. You may conceptualize it however works best for you, but without a more compressed idea of what exactly you’re attempting to accomplish, you’re wasting too much effort on things that do not directly oppose my Will. Here, I’ll put less energy into it,” she offered, giving herself the chance to take a break. “Rather than continuing to blindly push as much power into the spell as you can manage, put more effort into a clear conceptualization of what you want.”

“What I…want?” The girl’s attention had completely fallen away from the spell, and she was biting her lower lip as if nervous, looking back at Sebastien with big, limpid eyes.

Has no one ever explained how spellcasting works to this girl, or is she simply stupid? Either way, I refuse to spend the rest of class explaining the basic concepts. She should not be in this class with such a marked inability to focus,’ Sebastien thought with some distaste. “Yes,” she said aloud. “You want to keep the ball from moving. But specifically, you must want to keep the ball from moving more than I want to move it. You must want it more clearly and purely than I want it. You want me to fail at moving it, because there is no space within the conceptualization of your Will for me to succeed. Smarter, not just harder, as they say.”

Cynthia was blushing brightly. “You’re so smart, Sebastien. Thank you for helping me.”

Sebastien noted the bright red of the other girl’s face. ‘I hope she doesn’t believe such an attitude is attractive. Perhaps she has enough sense to be embarrassed to be so openly incompetent that she is seen to need advice from a classmate, especially a no-name like me. But flattery from someone so mediocre is unlikely to gain my favor. If she was going to be so shy and embarrassed, why ask to partner with me? Well, perhaps she was pressured into it by some kind of dare or bullying from her friend group.’ She settled back with a nod, and instead of the scathing, impatient remarks she wanted to make, said, “I’m sure you can do it, Cynthia. Just focus.” Sebastien gave herself a mental pat on the back for her restraint and patience.

It took Cynthia a few more tries, but she did manage to improve. It still wasn’t enough to best Sebastien.

Halfway through the class, Professor Lacer called for them to switch partners.

Ana looked to Sebastien and began to rise, but another girl from Cynthia’s group of friends had lunged forward and slammed her palm on Sebastien’s desk as if it was a race. The loud cracking sound echoed through the classroom, drawing attention. “Are you free?” the new girl asked with a sweet, almost shy voice that belied her earlier zeal.

“Sure…” she said warily, nodding her head in greeting. “My name is Sebastien Siverling.”

“Helen Marvin,” the girl replied, flipping shoulder-length hair back with a practiced head toss as she sat down. “Call me Helen.”

Helen was better than Cynthia had been, and shot the other girl a smug look when Sebastien complimented her control.

Is there some sort of feud going on between them?

However, she was still no match for Sebastien. “I think you might win the whole tournament. Professor Lacer is probably expecting it, and is only putting on this show so that no one can accuse him of favoritism for awarding you points directly,” Helen said.

Sebastien’s mind blanked out for a second as she tried to figure out which part of the girl’s statement was the most wrong and where to start with her rebuttal.

Helen didn’t seem to notice, and continued speaking. “What will you buy, if you win?”

Still trying to figure out how to respond to Helen’s previous statement, Sebastien answered this one. “Well, I haven’t perused what is on offer in the Great Hall, and I’m not sure what fifty points can buy.” Privately, she admitted that she would very much enjoy a more private room or some of the better meal options, which were only purchasable with contribution points.

“If you add Lacer’s points to whatever you earn at the end of term exhibitions, you’d be able to afford the hairpin carved from live star-maple wood. That hairpin would be the perfect gift for…a girl you wished would take notice of you.” Helen’s smile wasn’t over-wide, and she had looked away as she spoke, not with shyness, but as if to soften the impact of her words with nonchalance.

Still, Sebastien immediately understood her implication. She thought Sebastien was rich, and for some misguided reason also likely to gain the accolades that would get her contribution points before her fourth term. Helen wanted to attach herself to that success. Specifically, she wanted gifts like a magical hairpin from a wood known for its healing properties, likely meant to make her complexion dewy or her hair lush and shiny.

Sebastien shook her head decisively. “I’ll do my best in this tournament, but Professor Lacer will give the prize to whoever deserves it most. People seem to have wildly overestimated his regard for me. Also, I don’t plan to participate in the exhibitions.” She paused, debating whether to make a cutting statement about her lack of romantic interest to deter the girl more directly.

What? Why would you not enter the exhibitions? Don’t you want future employers to notice you? What about the points? There are a ton of things here that you can’t buy with gold.” Helen’s voice was loud, turning heads around them.

Sebastien straightened, tamping down her irritation. Her desire to avoid drawing unnecessary attention to herself wasn’t something she could say aloud, or that the other girl would even understand, apparently.

Professor Lacer coughed pointedly, stopping beside their desk.

Sebastien jerked, straightening impossibly further. She hadn’t noticed his approach. “Professor,” she said, greeting him with a half-bow from her seat.

His glare seemed to cast a pall over their immediate surroundings. “Why have you stopped practicing in favor of inane chatter? Is it because you feel you have learned all my class has to offer, or have you simply admitted your own incompetence and decided to give up on self-improvement in favor of flirting?” His words were precise, clipped, and cutting.

“I apologize, Professor,” Sebastien said. “I was negligent. We will return to practice immediately.”

Helen nodded quickly, pale and seemingly unable to speak.

Lacer waited a few agonizing seconds before replying, “See that you do.” He turned and walked away, his trench coat spinning out and slapping the side of Sebastien’s chair as he passed.

Sebastien spent the remainder of the class in focused spellcasting. None of her fellow students even attempted to speak to her about topics other than the task at hand.

By the end of class, she felt the boost of artificial energy from the wakefulness brew and adrenaline wearing thin.

As the students filtered out, she thought she saw Professor Lacer throw her a dark look, but when she turned to meet his gaze head-on, he was facing away.

Damien Westbay swaggered up beside her as they walked down the hallway. He clicked his tongue like an old matron. “Tch, tch, Siverling. Flirting? I hope you bring more focus to the tournament, or I might end up crushing you without a fight, and that would be disappointing.”

Sebastien threw him a glare, her mouth already opening to let some of the frustration and anxiety within her spill out on an appropriate target. The sight of his smug grin, less malicious than she had expected, gave her pause. ‘Could he be…joking with me?’ She wasn’t sure of that, but the thought dispersed some of her ire. “I’m sure Professor Lacer will give you the prize you deserve. In your case, that would be…a participation trophy.” She gave him a smirk of her own and turned the corner into another hallway without giving him a chance to reply.

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Chapter 37 – An Abridged Farewell

Siobhan

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

“You should stay the night here. I need rest before we cast the messenger spell, and you do as well, as I feel quite certain you will need to stave off more scrying attempts within short order once you leave this place,” Liza said.

Siobhan agreed readily, hoping to have a chance to peruse Liza’s small library now that her mind was working properly again.

Liza must have caught her gaze on the books, because she said, “They are warded against any hand but my own. Of course, I could loan one or two out to you, if you didn’t remove them from these walls. For a fee.”

Deflated, Siobhan ate the simple dinner Liza provided and returned to the cot downstairs for the night, begrudgingly admitting to herself that she really did need the mental reprieve. Casting even small spells with Will-strain was difficult and dangerous.

The next day, Siobhan worked on her homework that didn’t require spell-casting or access to the library. Liza didn’t make an appearance until the sun was already setting.

Scowling over a dark, steaming cup of tea, Liza tossed a reference book to Siobhan and had her help draw the Lino-Wharton messenger spell array, rolling her eyes at Siobhan’s look of gleeful avarice as she perused the spell instructions.

Siobhan didn’t push herself overly hard while creating the mnemonic link to the tracker part of the spell, and Liza had the entire thing finished within a little over an hour.

Siobhan put the raven back in its cage and only then realized that Oliver wasn’t there. He was dealing with the Verdant Stag’s people and maybe the coppers. For some reason, she had been thinking that he would accompany her to the prison again. She frowned at herself. ‘I do not need him. I am perfectly capable of doing things on my own. I only hope everything is alright on his end.

She put on her cloak, made sure her dinky little child’s Conduit was easily accessible, and with a tired wave from Liza, walked out into the night. The moon was almost full again, and threw enough light down to see, even if there were no streetlamps. She made her way toward the prison, stopping before the same canal that bisected this particular stretch of Gilbratha, but in a spot a few hundred feet farther north, and thus closer to the wing Ennis’s cell lay in. She had left the luggage and school bag belonging to Sebastien in another alley for temporary safekeeping.

The raven flapped off eagerly under her mental command, the tracking spell leading it to the same windowsill as before. It seemed they had not moved him.

The raven croaked.

Ennis didn’t startle as violently as the time before, but his response to being woken from his sleep by a raven messenger was still not gentle. He cursed, holding a hand to his heart. The raven had trouble making out his expressions, but she thought he was glaring up at it. “So my daughter didna’ transform into the body of a raven and fall to her death after all,” he said. “More blood magic? That’s what they tell me this is. At least you finally decided to check in on your imprisoned father again, two months later. The Gervins tell me you ‘ave made no attempt to contact them, and they are growing distrustful that the marriage agreement I negotiated with them is even reliable!” His voice was full of accusation, and he had begun gesturing dramatically with his hands by the end.

“Keep your composure,” the raven said. “We don’t want to call the attention of the guards.”

“Maybe I should call them! You might be a little more eager to settle things with the Gervins if you were the one stuck in here shivering every night,” he said, crossing his arms over his chest. “You always were ungrateful, but I never expected this.”

Siobhan clenched her jaw and flexed her fingers. The raven couldn’t see a ring on his finger. “I am sorry, Father,” she had the raven say, trying to keep her anger and contempt out of its tone. “My Conduit broke halfway through our previous conversation, severing the link between myself and the raven. I suffered from the backlash and have been recovering from Will-strain, and then trying to find a replacement Conduit that would allow me to contact you again. I have been helpless without it. I was able to borrow one for tonight to allow me to cast this spell. Do you have the Naught ring? If I could use it, I should be able to make myself presentable enough to contact the Gervins and get you out of here.”

“I do not ‘ave it.”

“What? Did the coppers take it off you? Or did you stash it somewhere?”

“I’m not stupid, girl. I can recognize your attempt at manipulation for what it is. You only want the ring for yourself! If I were to give it to you, you’d be gone from Gilbratha by tonight. Well, it’s too late. I used the ring as the bond for my word in the marriage agreement with the Gervins. They ‘ave it.”

She paced back and forth beside the canal, clenching and unclenching her fingers. Her skin felt hot, as if her rage was actually pushing her toward incandescence. “You would give my birthright, Mother’s ring, to another family?”

“When you marry into their family and fulfill the contract, you can just ask your husband for it. If you don’t marry him, they’ll be authorized to keep the Conduit.” Ennis’s words were filled with triumph.

She realized then that he had planned this. ‘He didn’t really think marrying me off to them was in my best interest, or something I would be remotely amenable to. He had known he was selling his daughter, and that I would be resistant to the idea, so he decided to hold my birthright hostage, the last remnant of my mother and the Conduit that would allow me to perform higher levels of magic…’ She clenched her teeth to hold back a scream, unwilling to draw attention to herself because of him.

She wanted to attack him. She briefly considered having the raven go for his face with its claws, and realized only then that the creature’s neck feathers were puffed out and its wings were raised threateningly. She hadn’t meant to do that, and it brought her thoughts back in order enough for her to see the black-clad form walking her way from a couple of blocks south. ‘Is that a copper?’ she wondered with alarm.

Now conscious enough to notice it, she felt faint pinpricks from the disks in her back, and an ephemeral pressure around the wrist that Liza had tied the string connecting Siobhan and the raven. It was as if someone was tugging on the other end of the string.

Without another word to her father, she commanded the raven to fly back toward her. Instead of returning to her shoulder or its cage, she directed it to dive into the dark waters of the canal, overriding its instinctive resistance to the idea.

Already hurrying away from the canal, she flinched as she felt the creature drown. ‘It was going to die soon anyway, when the spell ran out. This way, at least they won’t be able to retrieve its body like the last one.

The anti-divination ward in her back continued to hold off the prying magic even after the bird was dead.

The sound of copper-nailed boots striking the ground as the person that had been walking her direction broke into a sprint only confirmed her suspicion. Harrow Hill Penitentiary either had a new ward that had detected the raven, or her father had alerted the guards himself.

The bond between us should snap once I get far enough away. That string was only a kilometer long.

As she’d hoped, once she’d been running for a few minutes, the sense of pressure on her wrist snapped, and the disks in her back were soothed. She stopped running, but took a winding, circuitous path after that for fear that she would be tracked by more mundane means. After all, that copper had probably been able to track where she was fleeing.

She lost her pursuer more easily than she had feared, then transformed into Sebastien when she was sure she was no longer being followed or watched. She kept her face stoic as she gathered her things, made sure she looked presentable, and walked to the Verdant Stag. She paid for a meal, and then a room for the night, showing no outward recognition of Katerin or any of the others she knew from her time working with them.

She rose early on Monday and headed to the Waterside Market with the purse of a hundred coins that Oliver had given her.

The sun was just rising, and the stalls were only beginning to be set up, but the merchants were happy enough to sell to her even so, taking her orders of alchemical ingredients even if the items were not yet on display. Once again, none of them asked for her license. ‘I wonder if that’s simply due to the appearance of wealth and confidence, as I had first suspected, or if perhaps this type of rule is only loosely enforced in Gilbratha, the type of thing the coppers can use to arrest you if they decide they don’t like you, but would otherwise ignore. Well, at least for the cheap, unrestricted magical components.’ When she had gathered everything for the alchemy she intended to perform, she looked for a Conduit.

A handful of the stalls selling magical items also had Conduits, but they were of poor quality, barely better than the backup she kept from her childhood. They were good enough for a child, but not for a burgeoning sorcerer. In addition to that, the prices were preposterously high, by a multiple of three or more than what they should have been. Only someone too stupid to know better would buy any of them. Trying to suppress her frustration at the quality of yet another tiny display of cloudy celerium chunks, she turned to the shopkeep. “Is there anywhere where I can get a more powerful Conduit?”

“Orbs and Amulets. It’s a boutique at the north end of the market, a few streets up. With the way the supply is right now, that’s your best bet of finding anything clearer.” The man shrugged apologetically and gave her simple directions.

Sebastien wasn’t quite sure what a boutique was, or how it differed from a normal shop, but found the place easily enough on a well-maintained street where all the shop signs were painted with words rather than pictures, so she deduced it was accustomed to dealing with the more affluent. Which made sense. Most commoners would have no reason to buy a Conduit, especially one of any worth.

The inside of the shop was well lit, with polished marble floors and glass display cases. A pretty woman stepped forward from where she had been waiting with her hands clasped in front of her and offered to take Sebastien’s luggage, then offered her a choice of various refreshments when she refused.

“No, thank you. I just want to see your Conduits,” Sebastien said, clutching perhaps a little too suspiciously at her luggage handles, if the suppressed expression of offense on the woman’s face was any indication.

“This way, sir,” the woman said, waving elegantly at the display cases, which were lit by their own internal light crystals.

Sebastien had an increasingly bad feeling about the shop, but complied. There were no prices listed. Her feeling of apprehension grew worse.

“What level of Conduit are you looking for, sir? We have celerium from the Surior Mountains, the Charmed Highlands, and the Black Wastes, ranging from Apprentice to Grandmaster level. Do you prefer your Conduit raw, or in a gem-cut? We’ve all the most fashionable settings, if you’d like your purchase made into a wearable accessory.”

“Let me see your Apprentice Conduits, raw, and…no setting, I think.” Unless you were removing an impurity, faceting celerium did not make it any more efficient, only more sparkly. And the idea of putting it in a ring or other piece of jewelry only made her want to punch something.

The assistant brought her to one of the cases with cloudier, smaller Conduits. Still, they were almost all better than the one she had been using before, not to mention the dinky, opaque little crystal in her vest pocket at the moment.

Sebastien pointed to one in the middle of the display that was a little less cloudy than the ones on the left, but not as large or clear as the ones to the right. “How many thaums is that one rated at?”

The woman smiled brightly, already moving behind the case to unlock it and remove the Conduit. “This one is two hundred seventy thaums, from the Surior Mountains. It has some clouding in addition to the veins, but—”

“How much?” Sebastien asked, cutting off her prattling. The sun was well risen and her classes would start soon.

The woman blinked at her, then said, “One hundred thirty gold, sir.”

Sebastien’s eyes widened incredulously. “One hundred thirty gold, for a Conduit that can only channel two hundred seventy thaums?” She was aware that Conduit prices would rise steeply with increased quality and thus, rarity, but this was outrageous. Her previous Conduit, rated to two hundred fifty thaums, had been worth less than forty gold.

The woman clenched her hands together in front of her, dipping forward a little in the suggestion of a bow. “Celerium yields have been very poor this last year. With supply so low, prices have risen. I assure you, you will not find a reputable, licensed supplier selling for any less than we do.”

Sebastien briefly wondered if Oliver or Katerin could find her a disreputable, unlicensed supplier that would have better prices. ‘There is no time for that,’ she thought, looking at the level of light outside. ‘I must be in classes and entirely unremarkable in less than an hour.’ Her headache was back in full force, and the muscles in her back felt so tight they might cramp.

Perhaps she could settle for a lesser-quality Conduit for the time being. She had her old, child-level Conduit as a backup. As long as both Conduits were always touching her skin whenever she cast a spell, if the one in active use broke, she could immediately switch to casting through the secondary Conduit, with only minor risk of any adverse effects. She swallowed hard. “What about the ones in the two hundred thaum range?” She could resell the Conduit and make back at least some of what she’d spent when she was ready to buy something more suitable. As long as she didn’t break it, too. And as long as the supply of celerium had not recovered and brought prices back down to normal by then.

“They range from approximately seventy-five to eighty-five gold.”

Sebastien swallowed again. It was still outrageous, but at least she could afford it. With reluctant fingers, she pointed out one of the smaller and cloudier Conduits, rated a little over two hundred thaums and slightly cheaper than the rest because of an ugly brown spot of contamination.

After she left the shop, she paused in the alley beside it to tuck her new Conduit into the vest pocket set aside for it, and the other inside the lip of her boot, where it pressed somewhat uncomfortably against her skin.

She took a deep breath and grabbed for her luggage, but found herself having to swallow down the lump in her throat again as the knot in her chest that she’d been trying to ignore pushed itself up.

With a shuddering breath, she bent over, arms hugging her own shoulders as if to press herself back together. The tears welled up, hot and fast, and she heaved silently, sobbing without the breath to make noise. She fumbled for her new Conduit, the one in her pocket, and clenched it in her hand so hard her knuckles went white.

She scrubbed the tears away angrily, but more welled up to take their place, barely doing anything to drain the hot well of grief in her chest. She didn’t want to cry over Ennis, or any of it, really, but she was tired, and her head hurt, and it was just too much.

When she’d first come to Gilbratha, Ennis had been, to some degree, in control of her life. She’d been jerked around by his whims for a long time, and him stealing the book from the University wasn’t the first time he’d made her life harder, just the most serious. Now, he was trying to do it again, to force her to marry a man she’d never met, and who, if he was anything like Alec Gervin, she would probably despise.

Since their arrival, it seemed that for everything that had improved, there was another part of her life that had worsened. She had gotten into the University, but now the coppers were closer to catching her than ever. And unlike before, she was beholden to a criminal organization that called her out of bed in the middle of the night to get involved in deadly altercations with other gangs.

But I brought that problem on myself.’ The thought was strangely comforting.

She’d found a way to get into the University, and sure, that had come with strings attached, but it was a choice she’d made on her own, and one she would make again.

The coppers had her blood, but she’d found a solution to that, so everything was not ruined.

Someone had died under her insufficient care, but only because of her lack of preparedness, which was something she could rectify.

Her father was a horrible person, and he didn’t care about her. But she didn’t have to care about him, either. She didn’t have to listen to him, or let his actions affect her life.

So, maybe it was true that the overall balance of problems in her life had barely tipped for the better. But she had changed. She had gotten her hands on magic, all the knowledge the University had to offer, and she was never letting go. She was in control now. She made choices, good and bad, and could bear the consequences of both. She was no longer beholden to the whims of another, and could choose never to be so again.

Her tears had stopped.

She brought her Will to bear, not on any spell, but for the mindset that accompanied magic. ‘I am in control. The world bends to me. I do not bend for it.’ She repeated the words a couple of times in her mind, then pressed her free hand to her face and cast a spell she had learned on the road from an old hedge-witch.

The mucus and slobber that had been clogging her sinuses moved, and she spat it out in a single big glob, then wiped away the tears from her face. She couldn’t be seen to be crying in the streets. ‘Thankfully, it is too early for most people to be up.’ She eyed the glob of saliva and mucus, then used the spell her grandfather had taught her to burn it and anything in it that could be used to track her into smokeless ash. It wouldn’t do to get careless.

She straightened, her Conduit still in her fist and her mind still bent toward command, grabbed her luggage, and strode off toward the University.

Sebastien did not have time to dawdle.

The story continues in A Practical Guide to Sorcery Book II: A Binding of Blood.

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Patreon Special Offer: 11th to 26th

I’m excited to announce a Special Offer I’m running along with the launch of the first book in A Practical Guide to Sorcery, A Conjuring of Ravens! This offer is available for only three weeks, through January 13.

All pledges at $7 or more will receive a faux-celerium Conduit keychain (in our world it’s known as raw quartz), plus a signed bookplate sticker I designed for this story. The bookplate sticker is meant to go inside the book, but you can do whatever you want with it. This level also includes early access to the next 3 chapters of the story, which will be getting into Book 3, A Sacrifice of Light, and all the illustrated excerpts from Siobhan’s grimoire. 

Pledges at $25 or more will also receive a personalized paperback copy of books 1 AND 2, with your name in it and a message from me on the first page, along with an Audible copy of A Conjuring of Ravens!

My goal here is to reach the 25 patrons milestone. When we reach that point, I will post an extra 2 chapters within the following week.

If we hit 35 total patrons, I will post a map of University grounds, big enough to have printed, and an omake chapter that you guys give suggestions for and vote on. It  can be from any side character’s POV, and explore their experience of  something that happened in A Conjuring of Ravens. Want to know what  happened with the coppers or the Morrows after their fight with Siobhan  at the end of Book 1? Want to know what a random side student feels like  going to class with Sebastien Siverling, who doesn’t remember their  name even after months in the same dorm and same classes? Want to see  what schemes the girl who has a crush on Sebastien comes up with to get  his attention? You guys decide what you want to see (though I will veto  anything that would disrupt the plot, like seeing into an important  character’s head on a topic that is supposed to remain hidden,) and I  will write it.

If we somehow hit 50 total patrons by February 26, I  will post 4 bonus chapters within a week, a map of University grounds,  and either 2 omake chapters or 1 omake and your choice of Siobhan’s next  illustrated grimoire excerpt.

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What if I pledge at less than $7?
I  won’t be able to send you any of the bonus physical gifts, but you will  still get access to whatever rewards are available at the tier you  choose, and you still get my sincere gratitude. Plus, if we get to the  goal milestones, while you may not get early access to  chapters, you’ll still get multiple releases in a week, and you’ll get  the map and the omake chapter(s) at even the lowest tier! Patrons can be  at any level–they do not need to be at $7 or above.

I’m already a Patron, what about me?
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Chapter 36 – Conception of the Raven Queen

Thaddeus

Month 11, Day 29, Sunday 3:00 p.m.

Thaddeus exited the hired carriage at the edge of the cordoned-off crime scene, handing the driver a few coins.

A copper stationed at the edge of the cordon stopped Thaddeus, but Titus Westbay, who’d been the one to call him away from the University in the first place, waved the copper down.

“It’s alright, he is here on my behalf,” Titus said, lifting the bright yellow barrier rope so Thaddeus could duck under it.

“What exactly is so important it necessitated I come in person with such urgency?” Thaddeus asked, looking at the coppers milling about the section of street in front of a half-collapsed building.

“I would have called in a whole Red Guard team, if I could get them,” Titus said.

“An Aberrant did this?” Thaddeus asked, though he didn’t see how that could have happened without his knowledge.

“No, a sorcerer. The same woman we’ve been looking for, we believe.”

Thaddeus raised his eyebrows with interest. “She escaped again?”

Titus clenched his jaw. “Yes. The pressure to arrest her is mounting, and this is the first new lead we’ve had in months. We managed to get some of her blood, but so far she has warded against our initial scrying attempts. Eventually I have no doubt we will break through, but…I cannot take any chances. The scrying may be enough for her to finally leave Gilbratha, and that will only make our job harder. I thought maybe you would notice something the rest of us don’t, because of your experience. She is a blood magic user, after all, even if the incident wasn’t enough to get the Red Guard called in. Even if you cannot help, an extra set of eyes will do us no harm.”

Thaddeus stood still a moment, letting his eyes rove over everything. Coppers milled about, collecting evidence in Shipp stasis cubes, flagging spots of interest, and combing through the rubble of the half-collapsed building. At the edge of the cordon, coppers shooed away curious onlookers.

Thaddeus had always had a greed for knowledge, and even better if that knowledge was not commonly disbursed. “I will consult only. I have neither the free time nor the inclination to be an unpaid Investigator as well as a University Professor.”

Titus smiled widely, looking suddenly younger, and waved over another man. “This is Investigator Kuchen, the man in charge of things on the ground for this case.”

Investigator Kuchen bowed slightly to Thaddeus, a handkerchief covering his mouth as he coughed wetly. “Professor Lacer. While I don’t know what a professor can bring to this investigation that our professional analysts cannot, I bow to Lord Westbay’s opinion in this matter. Please be aware of the confidential nature of all you see here.”

Apparently the inspector didn’t want him there, and was poorly informed about who he was talking to, to boot. Foolish. Thaddeus gave him a deadpan stare and replied only, “Investigator Kuchen,” with a nod. He turned to Titus, who was as arrogant as the rest of his kind, but at least recognized Thaddeus for what he was, in some small part, and would not be so reckless as to disrespect him to his face. “What is the situation? Walk me through it.”

Titus gestured down the street and moved to lead the way. “Very early Saturday morning, one of the local gangs, the Morrows, attacked this warehouse with a team of magicians and at least one sorcerer. This is currently Verdant Stag territory.”

Investigator Kuchen interjected, “It was Morrow territory until recently. There have been a few altercations between the two gangs, likely over territory disputes.”

“The Verdant Stags recently put up an alert system in their territory,” Titus continued, “so they quickly got word that something was happening and sent a team in to stop the Morrows. That team failed, in large part due to a warding artifact held by the attackers, allowing the Morrow sorcerer to cast a spell to destabilize and collapse the warehouse. The area where the damage originated was divined by one of our prognos, and it is likely the effect was greatly enhanced by an artifact of some sort, rather than achieved purely by the sorcerer’s power. However, the same cannot be said of our true target.”

“One Siobhan Naught?” Thaddeus asked.

Titus looked only mildly surprised. “Indeed. I see word is getting around.”

“Well, you’re not the only ones who have spoken to her accomplice. Many feel no need for the same investigative confidentiality as the coppers.”

Titus grimaced. “This kind of thing does bring out the greed in people.”

“That may not be her real name,” Kuchen said. “It’s possible she assumed that identity at some point before the theft. It’s my opinion that Ennis Naught may have been hypnotized in some way. Perhaps Siobhan Naught never existed, or passed away some time ago. Of course, there’s always the possibility that he’s simply unaware that his daughter was replaced.”

“You think she may be a skinjacker?” Thaddeus asked. “It seems unlikely. There is evidence that she’s a powerful sorcerer, no? Those two things do not often go together.”

Kuchen shrugged. “Not often doesn’t mean never. And even if she’s not a skinjacker, I think it’s quite clear that she is no nineteen-year-old girl without any formal training in the thaumaturgic arts. The codename Raven Queen is catching on. She seems to be partial to that symbology,” he said darkly.

Thaddeus resisted the urge to mock the man. “That moniker seems a little dramatic. It begs fear and respect, rather than encouraging hostility or the kind of resolve that will see her caught and defeated.”

Titus nodded. “I agree. It’s not official, but I’m afraid I’ve heard the name bandied about half a dozen times already today. And I may not like it, but I do understand. She’s mysterious, powerful, and more than a little frightening. The kind of person that makes you check under your bed before turning off the lights, just in case.”

That seemed extreme, even with what Thaddeus had heard about her. “I think you had better continue your explanation of what happened.”

“Yes. Less than half an hour after the initial Verdant Stag team failed to stop the attack, she arrived in the company of a masked man we suspect may be the leader of the Stags. We’ve not been able to get our hands on any of the Verdant Stag members who were here, but we did question the workers who were in the warehouse, as well as the members of the Morrow attackers who we were able to bring in. Their accounts line up, with a few allowances for personal reinterpretations and the chaos and fear of the fight, as well as the lowered visibility. Naught and her accomplice appeared in the empty bell-tower gazebo without warning. The Morrows insist she appeared in a flash of lightning.”

“More likely they simply did not notice her until the lightning illuminated her form,” Thaddeus said.

“Yes. However,” Kuchen said, pausing to cough wetly into his handkerchief, “we are not discounting the possibility that she has some sort of movement or instant travel ability.”

Thaddeus sneered. “Teleportation is a thing of myths.”

“Well, casting spells with your spell array written in the very air is also a thing of myths,” Titus said, his voice subdued.

“What?” Thaddeus blurted before he had a chance to think better of it. He brought a bit of his Will to bear, guiding his thoughts and reactions toward controlled, rational channels. It would not do to let his logic be pushed aside for hasty conclusions and the sway of poorly understood “facts.”

“All of the eyewitness accounts corroborate it,” Titus said. “She stood at the edge of the roof, a spell array glowing in the air above her palm as she shot the Morrows with exploding balls of glass, which bypassed their barrier artifact’s wards completely. Their wounds are consistent with the reports as well.”

“She is a free-caster,” Thaddeus murmured.

“Part of why I thought you might have some insight,” Titus agreed.

“Free-casters have no need to write the spell array in the air. The Word is held in our mind. To hold the Word on the air instead would have only increased the difficulty of her spell. Unless there was some unknown utility to doing so, I have to assume that she wanted people to know what she was capable of.” But who, exactly, was the message for? He looked up at the empty bell-tower, then down to the warehouse across from it. He noted the placement of the flags marking spots of interest, imagining the scene in his mind. “Did she kill any of the Morrows?”

“No,” Titus said. “Injuries only, though one came close to bleeding to death. You think she let them live on purpose?”

“Undoubtedly.” The question was why? Speculation was useless at this point. He didn’t know enough about her motivations or the situation that had led to her protecting the workers. “What was in the warehouse?”

Investigator Kuchen flipped through a sheaf of papers. “It was just an indoor garden, not yet fully set up. The most suspicious thing about it is that the real ownership is still unclear, run through a number of proxies. We’re looking deeper, but I expect we will simply find it is owned by one of the Stags. There’s no evidence that anything untoward was happening inside. The workers themselves weren’t even members of the gang.”

If nothing nefarious was planned for the site, why the secrecy? “I want to see.”

Carefully, the three of them walked into the warehouse, avoiding the evidence flags and broken glass scattered everywhere.

“Once she had driven off the Morrows, Naught and the masked man descended and entered the warehouse. The witnesses say the two of them claimed to be there to help, and acted to try to save an injured worker’s life,” Titus said.

Kuchen snorted, a deliberate sound of disbelief rather than a symptom of whatever respiratory illness had him hacking so disgustingly. “Their naivete astounds me.”

Titus grimaced again. “Yes, well…I cannot imagine they were in any position to refuse her help, ill-intentioned as it might have been.”

Thaddeus noted the chalk outline of a body and the gore-covered, splintered end of a support beam. “One of them died? Anyone of note?”

“One Bobby Cooper,” Kuchen said, again consulting his notes. “Our investigation has uncovered nothing of interest about the man or those closely related to him.”

“What about the one who was bleeding to death?” Thaddeus said, motioning to the half washed-away bloodstain on the ground. “This was the one they supposedly tried to save?”

Kuchen looked at him in surprise, even though it had been an exceedingly simple deduction, then said, “Harry Jameson. He had been hit by a slicing spell from one of the Morrows’ contraband battle wands, at the base of the neck, and was in the process of bleeding out when she arrived. The workers had been trapped inside. She claimed that he needed a blood donation, and took a drop from each of the other workers. To find matching blood, she said.”

Titus’s lips flattened grimly. “You can see remnants of the blood-transferring spell array, there,” he said, pointing to faint lines of chalk on the ground, almost completely washed away by the rain.

“Did your prognos reconstruct it?” Thaddeus asked.

Kuchen handed Thaddeus a piece of paper with a simple spell array, his reluctance to share information seeming to have melted away. “This is their best guess.”

Thaddeus frowned. “It is simplistic.” Not that she would have needed to write it down at all, as a free-caster, but there was nothing to keep the blood from clotting or gathering contaminants during the transfer process. It would kill the patient. Of course, she could have handled that part mentally, but if she was going to do that, why take the time to write the spell down at all? “I suspect there is more going on here than we understand.”

“She didn’t actually transfer any blood to him,” Kuchen said. “The Verdant Stag sent a backup team, and apparently she used some potions they had brought in lieu of the blood transfer, and then some other healing spell to fuse the wound back together. But she had none of the standard healing components. That spell array has been washed away beyond recovery, but we suspect she may have used blood magic to control his flesh. We don’t know what her goal was, since she aborted the spell when the coppers arrived. The workers escaped with Jameson and took him to a nearby healer’s on a horse left by Naught’s male companion. Jameson died there, before the sun rose.”

“So in the end, all we know for sure is that she collected a sample of the other workers’ blood,” Thaddeus added.

Kuchen paled. “Yes. They say she had picked up a shard of glass and mixed a drop of each of their blood with a drop of Jameson’s atop it. Do you think…some sort of linking curse, meant to be powered with his life?”

“Perhaps.” Thaddeus could think of a dozen nefarious purposes for a drop of willingly-given blood. It was one of the reasons all licensed healers were required to give a vow that they would never keep the bodily fluids or shedding of their patients, or allow others to do so. How could you trust yourself in their hands, if they could use a drop of blood or strand of hair to blackmail every patient they healed?

Kuchen swallowed heavily, then said, even more hoarsely than normal, “Do you think it was successful? She didn’t get to finish, we think. She attacked our first response team when they arrived, and was almost captured. She had to flee, and we might still have caught her, if not for the storm.”

“I don’t have enough evidence to form an opinion,” Thaddeus said. “Was there anything else of note?”

“She cast an unknown spell on the first response team,” Titus said heavily. “She used a couple of low-powered battle philtres to cover for the escape of the workers through one of the back windows, and then went into the alley and… We’re not sure if it was a conjuring, or maybe an illusion.”

“What were the spell’s effects?” he asked impatiently.

“She free-cast it. Without the glowing spell array hanging in the air this time. The first responders described it as a cloaked form of pure blackness, nine feet tall, and with a beaked face, as if it were wearing a plague doctor’s mask. Ravens burst out of it and disappeared into the shadows, moving as if to circle around and attack the coppers.”

“A—a couple of the men said they felt the ravens fly through them,” Kuchen stammered. “They felt the cold of it. And I heard Elmer talking about nightmares this morning. He said he saw the creature in his dreams, and his shadow…detached from him and grew feathers. Elmer has a drop of water elemental blood somewhere in his ancestry. He’s always had a touch of diviner’s sight.”

“Call him in for questioning,” Titus said. “I want all the coppers who interacted with her off the case, under isolated observation. Let’s get a healer to do a thorough exam, and I want our best prognos doing a full divination to try to figure out what she did to them. Maybe a shaman, too.”

Thaddeus frowned. It was the right call, to be cautious, of course, but he still felt like a piece of the puzzle—or several pieces—were missing. “Is there anything else? Something you may have forgotten to mention?”

“We are still questioning people who live or work in the area, and trying to uncover any small piece of evidence we could have missed on the scene. The combination of a philtre of stench and the rain made the scent hounds useless, but we have our best prognos trying to track her escape physically. There may have been more evidence, but with the rain…” Titus shook his head.

“You said you got her blood?”

Titus motioned to the edge of the alley running beside the warehouse.

With a last look around the interior of the warehouse, Thaddeus exited, moving to look around the mouth of the alley.

Kuchen looked to his notes again. “One of our men got her with a grasping-tentacles spell. She fell on some shards of glass that had broken off the windows, and bled. It was a stroke of fortune that one of the men even noticed it and managed to gather the blooded glass safely before the rain hit.” Kuchen’s eyes narrowed. “Now that I say it aloud, it seems awfully coincidental that the rain broke at such a convenient moment. If it had happened a minute or two earlier, she would have gotten away entirely.”

Titus turned to Thaddeus. “Do you think it is possible she could have used such large-scale weather magic?”

Thaddeus hummed absentmindedly, looking at the alley, then out at the street again, trying to reconstruct the scene in his mind. “It would have required powerful allies, as well as impeccable timing and foreknowledge. It is not impossible, but it seems like rather a lot of effort for what turned out to be a relatively minor altercation, all things considered.”

He strode into the street. “Take me up there,” he said, pointing to the bell-tower atop the roof opposite the warehouse.

They climbed carefully up the hastily-patched circular stairs, and Thaddeus crossed his arms as he looked down on the people milling around busily below, imagining standing against the clawing wind and lightning-cracked sky while raining down attack spells on them. “The man she was with. Tell me about him.”

“He wore a mask,” Kuchen said. “The workers described it as blank-featured, with a pit of shadows beneath it rather than flesh and blood. They believed him to be the leader of the Verdant Stags, and one did note that he commanded the Stag team, which leads credence to the assumption. We’ve had other reports of an individual matching his general description before, a couple of times in altercations with the Morrows.”

“I assume you have questioned the Verdant Stags about this?”

“Yes, of course. The manager—the one who handles the day-to-day operations—denies any knowledge of the Raven Q—of Naught, I mean.” Kuchen coughed, though Thaddeus wasn’t sure if it was because of his illness, or a self-conscious reaction to his verbal slip. “She accused us of obscuring the real issue of Morrow aggression on innocent civilians who just happen to live and work in the wrong place, and expressed doubt that Naught was actually there at all. Hogwash, of course, but there’s not much we can legally do to put pressure on her.”

“Do the Stags have a history suggesting they have a powerful sorcerer among their ranks?”

“On the contrary,” Kuchen said. “Magicians, at most. Small territory, relatively new organization, and to all accounts very little criminal activity, other than the enforcer teams carrying contraband artifacts and battle potions.”

“This is what I have gathered,” Thaddeus said. “Naught appeared to intercede between a small gang and a group of innocent civilians, accompanied by what observers believed to be a man wearing a mask.”

Believed to be?” Kuchen whispered, staring at Thaddeus in mounting horror.

Thaddeus gave a small shrug. “His face was not seen. Perhaps he was indeed a man. Perhaps he was able to call in a favor, and she came to his aid, and fully intended to heal Jameson but was simply interrupted before she could do so. Or, perhaps the darkness beneath the mask was not an illusion, and what walked beside her was a companion of another sort.”

Titus looked at him sharply, and Thaddeus nodded silently. Perhaps this was a job for the Red Guard after all.

Kuchen looked between them with confusion, seeing the silent exchange but not understanding it.

Thaddeus sighed impatiently. “I am saying we do not know. Please refrain from jumping to conclusions without supporting evidence, in any direction.”

Titus nodded, waving his hands impatiently. “Please continue, Professor Lacer.”

“She displayed her prowess as a free-caster conspicuously, unmistakably, and yet fired off only warning shots, leaving all of the enemy gang members to escape. She then descended with her companion, and claimed the intention to save them and heal their injured. She claimed this required blood from each of them, which she collected, but no donation of blood to Jameson was actually completed. Despite this, she cast what seemed to be a healing spell on the dying man.” He motioned to Kuchen. “I hope you requisitioned the body. You’ll want to inspect it thoroughly.”

The man nodded hurriedly, and Thaddeus continued. “This healing spell was cast without any of the standard components. If you can find a competent one, you might call in a shaman to help the workers recall the spell array and try to reconstruct it. However, I caution against depending on anything you might uncover through that. After all, as a free-caster, she has no need of physical spell arrays at all, which means any spell she took the time to lay down physically was either so magically intensive that she needed the help to stabilize it, or was something she placed deliberately, to be seen.”

“So she could have cast a completely different spell than the Word might have us believe,” Titus murmured.

“Then, when law enforcement arrived, she abandoned her seeming attempts to help, allowed Jameson to be taken away with the others, and attacked the coppers with an unknown spell, which may have ongoing effects on those exposed to it. Then, she was seemingly hit by return fire and injured herself, making a critical mistake by leaving her blood for one of the coppers to find. She and her companion both escaped into the night, and despite having her blood, you have been unable to successfully divine her location. If not for the rest of it, I might have thought she is still a young free-caster, and maybe she exhausted herself with that initial display and needed to resort to more traditional methods afterward. But the fact that she was then able to free-cast the spell that brought forth this raven-creature of darkness undoes that theory entirely.”

Kuchen shook his head. “The men said she raised her hands, and it rose from the shadows, black as pitch. She held her hands together to form the Circle. It was definitely free-cast, unless it was contained in some subtle artifact, which seems unlikely for that kind of spell.”

Thaddeus looked carefully at both men. “She is far from incompetent. So what did this night accomplish? We cannot assume that whatever it was she wanted, she failed to achieve.”

It was intriguing, really. He wondered what kind of mind was behind it all. Had she been amused, knowing how she would send those who believed themselves to be powerful and influential scattering like ants from a kicked mound? Did she feel the thrill of power at her fingertips when she cast spells others had never heard of before, recovered from the annals of time or the birth of her own experimentation? He looked forward to seeing what she would do next, and found himself suddenly quite curious about what had been in the ancient text she stole from the University. Surely it must have held more than historical importance, and he doubted someone of her power had any need to do jobs for others in exchange for something so mundane as gold.

No, he was suddenly quite sure she had stolen the text for herself, and had done so because it held precious knowledge that the University wanted to keep secret. Knowledge that the Crowns surely wanted as well, which was why Titus was being pressured so to find her. Thaddeus decided not to ask about it, not now, or from these two. Partially because he had no desire to let on that he’d realized the games being played by the Crowns and the University against each other, but also because what exactly she’d been motivated to steal might be an important clue to capturing this free-casting sorcerer, of which Kuchen, at least, was likely to be ignorant.

Thaddeus had been curious about whatever the decimated archaeological team had managed to retrieve from the Black Wastes. He had heard unsubstantiated rumors that they had discovered Myrddin’s hermitage, which he’d thought ridiculous, but he had still applied to be part of the expedition. The University had denied him.

He had been irritated, and thought with some vindictiveness that perhaps if he had gone, the expedition would not have been reduced to a tenth of its initial numbers, with two of those three needing access to a mind healer from the stress. But he had still requested clearance to examine their findings. He had been denied again, pending a review by the University’s History department, supposedly because some of the books and artifacts were likely to be cursed. As if he was too incompetent to recognize and disable a curse that had degraded over hundreds or thousands of years. At that point, he suspected he was being blocked by one of the professors who happened to hold a grudge against him. Munchworth, perhaps. The man had always been agitated by the evidence that Thaddeus might be more proficient in the field of Titanic history and lore than Munchworth, who taught the subject.

Thaddeus had known they uncovered something valuable, but he had still been skeptical that it was as personally valuable as his own research, which was more than enough to take up all his free time. Not everyone held his standards of a worthy goal, after all. He had put aside his curiosity for the time being, sure that he would learn any useful secrets eventually, but now his interest was revived.

Titus clenched his jaw. “We cannot trust anything. She could have planted every piece of evidence deliberately. It—it might not have even been her blood we gathered.”

“Or not,” Thaddeus reminded. “Perhaps she is only playing with you, wanting you to doubt even the truth in front of your eyes, to hesitate to act on real evidence.”

“She is arrogant, reckless,” Titus agreed.

“So far, it seems that she can afford to be.”

“Do you think…” Kuchen swallowed again. “Are we sure that any of the witness reports are reliable? That creature of darkness, and the man-seeming figure beside her… She had time to kill everyone there, but she let them walk away, except for Cooper and Jameson. Could she have had time to do…other things to them?”

“Well,” Thaddeus said, suppressing the small smile that kept trying to creep onto his face. “It seems to me that you cannot be sure of anything at all.”

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