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Chapter 61 – To Slumber but not Rest

Siobhan

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

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

The fey ancestry was the source of the shimmer of the boy’s skin. ‘A member of the fey hasn’t been seen for centuries. Some of the books even say they’re extinct.

Siobhan could guess part of his problem just from common knowledge. The sylphide were powerful, humanoid elementals from the Plane of Air, given to song, laughter, and knowledge carried on the wind. Combined with the predisposition for divination that the prognos had, and the strangeness common in all the stories passed down about the fey, it wasn’t surprising that the child had powers beyond his control. “Tell me more about the visions,” Siobhan said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taking a hint from the tone of Gera’s voice on the last sentence, Siobhan said, “That did not go well. Did any of these treatments show promise?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Only mildly effective, at best. None has been beneficial in years. We were told that my son would die within the year if we could not find an effective treatment. There have been some more…radical suggestions, but I would not maim my son or curse him for life if there is any other option. Currently, we give him a powerful narcotic potion meant to cause the sleep of the living dead. We commissioned a master alchemist to modify it so that its effects are strong, but fast-fading. It does allow him to rest, but…” Gera looked meaningfully to her son, who was swaying on his feet, his eyes trailing through the empty air as if watching something invisible to the rest of them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They both nodded readily.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That is all,” Siobhan said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were a few shuffled feet, but no one walked out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Process matters. Magic may be a science, but beyond our understanding it becomes an art.’ She explained this to those watching her work, not bothering to watch to see whether they understood what she meant, or if perhaps this was such obvious knowledge that every competent sorcerer started implementing their Will long before they actively cast a spell, at least when it was really important.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay,” he said in a small voice.

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

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

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

Miles copied her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The other thaumaturges joined in, one by one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is it working, then?”

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

“Speak them,” Lynwood said.

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

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

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

She waved an impatient hand at him.

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

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

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

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

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

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Chapter 60 – Request a Boon

Siobhan

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

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

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

Katerin was already casting a weak divination spell with Siobhan as the focus.

She could feel the prickling coldness of the disks under her back as her ward fought against it and the way no one seemed to notice her as she moved through the darkening streets.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well met,” she murmured.

Lynwood straightened, and with a boyish, awkward hesitation she wouldn’t have expected from the wolf-in-tailored-suit Oliver had described, he held out an elbow for her to take.

She pushed the hood of her cloak back, waved off the servant who stumbled forward with an offer to take it from her, and accepted his arm. She was as tall as him, and his eyes slid off her own when they met.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You are the one they call the Raven Queen?”

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

“Does the name displease you?” he asked.

She hummed noncommittally again, and said, “You can call me that, if you like.”

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

Two chairs were aligned against the wall near the fireplace, larger and more ornate than the rest of the furniture in the room, like thrones in comparison. A woman prognos with her eye scarred out stood closest to the chairs, while the others stayed a couple meters away.

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

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

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

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

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

Siobhan waved the servant away. She was too nervous to eat, and it didn’t seem like something people would tell stories about the Raven Queen doing, anyway. “My thanks, but no.”

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

Siobhan hoped she hadn’t offended him.

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

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

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

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

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

“The wolf-pelt of a skin walker,” he said when opening the second box.

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

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

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

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

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

It was the fact that sapphires were one of the gems that could be used as a passable replacement for celerium as a Conduit. And with the current prices of celerium, it was likely that other gems were also rising in worth. If it was natural, and not thaumaturge-created, it might even be the most expensive of the three. Gems increased in price exponentially with their size. Like all other substances besides celerium, a sapphire wouldn’t be as efficient, and would heat after extended, heavy spellcasting, and be more likely to shatter under the strain. Still, this one was large enough that it had to be better than her old Conduit. ‘Several times better, in fact, if I estimate correctly,’ she thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So Siobhan said, “I do take another form, but I fear the details of the rumors you’ve heard are…somewhat exaggerated by retellings and the imagination of fanciful minds.”

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

That sounds like a dreamless sleep curse and the hallucinations that come with extreme fatigue.’ She shook her head. “Perhaps some of the weaker-willed people who have made themselves my enemies have nightmares, but that is only a measure of their own poor mental constitution. I have laid no curses. Well, not within Gilbratha,” she amended. Shortly after Ennis retook guardianship of her in her youth, she had placed a weak curse on the threshold of a particularly dislikable young man’s house.

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

Is he trying to confirm that I can cast esoteric spells?’ She tilted her head to the side, confused. “I can channel magic through the modern spell arrays, but in truth no magic of any species requires glyphs and symbols. They are an aid, a powerful one, and as my…well, let’s call him my grandfather—would have said, oftentimes a crutch. I am not powerful enough yet to freely cast whatever magic might come to mind, though I do have a few tricks that need no written Word.”

“You are young, still?”

She was growing even more confused. ‘That should be obvious. He’s looking right at my face. Maybe he’s wondering if I’ve used glamours or rejuvenating spells? He thinks maybe the Raven Queen is an older woman pretending to be young? It would explain the ridiculous rumors about me being so capable.’ She gave a single nod of agreement. “Young enough,” she said, trying for some sort of cryptic middle ground. “These questions are not the reason you requested my presence,” she said, keeping the uncertainty out of her voice and making it a statement instead.

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

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

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

“My son cannot sleep,” Gera said softly.

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

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

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

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

The boy blinked sleepily up at her, expressionless.

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

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

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

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Chapter 59 – A Simple Solution

Sebastien

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

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

The couple proposed tracker designs weren’t active, not artifacts that would keep working even without input from either of them, rather they created sympathetic beacons that would point the way to Tanya like a compass when they used the linked item as a divination component.

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

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

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

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

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

“How will we get ahold of her boots?”

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

Damien’s face split with a grin of excitement.

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

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

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

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

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

She mentioned that she had an extra Conduit she could sell to Oliver, and while he was open to the idea, he wasn’t particularly optimistic about finding quickly finding a buyer who could afford the current price of celerium. “Our thaumaturges already have their own Conduits, and most of our clientele is either too poor to afford it, too uneducated to need it, or both.”

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

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

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

“I could say the same of you,” he said, crossing his arms and staring at her challengingly.

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

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

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

So, after another trip to the market Sebastien went to Dryden Manor to brew. The remainder of her Saturday, as well as most of her Sunday, was spent brewing for the Stag enforcers. Her new Conduit made it a little easier, and she thought with a bit more time to improve her Will she might be able to make more of the simpler potions in a single batch and thus increase her profits.

In two days she earned about five gold more than the interest accrued for the whole week. It was a lot, but still not nearly enough, and thinking of the debt hanging over her head made her irritable. ‘If I’d never paid Liza to talk to my father, I’d have at least a hundred gold left right now,” she grumbled mentally.

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

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

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

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

Sebastien shrugged. “That works, too.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It was the simplest solution, really. No one will think it strange if Sebastien Siverling occasionally visits a brothel, and Siobhan Naught would fit right in among a group of beautiful, exotic women. There’s no reason for someone to associate either identity with the Raven Queen.” He slipped her a leather bound booklet. “Identity papers, declaring you a citizen of Gilbratha. Silvia is legally employed at the Silk Door, and if she gets into any trouble with the law, she can call upon her wealthiest and most influential patron to help her. One Lord Oliver Dryden.” He coughed a little awkwardly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Without pausing to speak to anyone, Sebastien followed Oliver’s directions, walking up the stairs and down two hallways to a private, locked room. She pulled out a key and entered. The room was more the size of a closet, but it was clean, and connected to another hallway and staircase, these ones private. She moved to the closet, where a nondescript but still stylish dress and accessories were waiting for her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chapter 58 – The Constitution of Cockroaches

Sebastien

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

Sebastien had trouble getting back to sleep after Professor Lacer’s impromptu nighttime visit, despite her exhaustion. She had left Professor Lacer’s house with Damien, who was just as wide-eyed and shocked-looking as she felt on the inside.

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

Now that her problem had been solved, she realized it had been rather obvious. She had instinctively wanted to keep her new, sub-par Conduit a secret, and not only because she didn’t want anyone wondering what she’d been doing to break her old one on the same weekend the Raven Queen almost got caught. She’d unconsciously believed that if the University found out, they would expect her to immediately rectify the situation or be kicked out. Celerium was ridiculously expensive, exponentially so at higher capacities, and students without a proper Conduit were endangering not only themselves but others. There was no way they would value her as a student more than someone like Alec Gervin, even if she was more deserving.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It required extreme precision. If, for instance, while spinning thread the magic reached for a new bit of wool and found none in the exact spot that you had demonstrated it should pull from, it would continue all the actions of spinning thread with nothing. It had no problem-solving abilities. Longer and more complex action sequences were more draining, but also more likely to have an imperfection in the copied system that would lead to a total breakdown.

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

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

Returning her thoughts to the paper bird messenger spell, Sebastien considered trying to get her hands on some of the sheets that someone else had made, until she learned that the enchantment process of giving the folded paper false life required flicker-feathers.

The University bred the sparrow-like birds in the Menagerie. She knew, because she’d seen them blinking in and out of visibility with every flap of their wings. They were notoriously hard to catch, and their feathers were coveted and expensive.

Even if she could get all the components, the third point of discouragement hit her when she discovered the homing spell did not work on some magical extra sense. The paper bird simply moved to pre-programmed points or followed the homing beacon of the staff and student University tokens that everyone carried. The homing spell also grew more difficult to cast over distances more than a kilometer or two.

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

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

After that disappointment, Sebastien tried to study, but kept getting distracted trying to wrap her head around her piling mountain of problems. She doubted Professor Lacer was the type to hold punishment in reserve. If he was going to expel her, he would have done it on the spot, dragging her out of the dorms rather than giving her a warning. Still, she also hadn’t expected him to somehow deduce what she’d thought was a well-hidden truth out of the ether.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sebastien nodded.

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

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

Professor Ilma stared back, content to wait.

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

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

Is she trying to encourage me?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Stop that! I’m trying to help you,” she said, ducking back. ‘Maybe a box, or a pot, something I could put them in to hold them safely and securely.’ She didn’t have anything like that on her person, but she might be able to borrow one from a nearby shop or home. ‘Or maybe I could cast a docility spell on them.’ She’d watched Liza cast one on her ravens a couple times, and was confident she could replicate it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chapter 57 – Noticing Confusion

Thaddeus

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

After returning from the site of the false rogue magic alarm, which was still cordoned off so the investigators could look for evidence on the perpetrator who had gone to such lengths to deceive them, Thaddeus had learned of the failed scrying attempt on the Raven Queen. Suddenly, the timing and the effort that had gone into disrupting the whole city’s lives for a couple hours that morning had made sense.

Now, much later, he sat in one of the many rooms in the network of restricted archives beneath the library. He was looking through an ancient text that he was one of the few people in the world with the knowledge to decipher. Despite the importance of his research, he found himself distracted.

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

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

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

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

The doors lining each side of the street in about a two-block area were smashed in, some torn entirely off their hinges.

Blood, guts, and organs were splashed haphazardly in and around each doorway. The blood was already half-curdled, sitting in stinking, oozing, jelly-like lumps rather than spreading and pooling.

The bodies were in pieces and entirely unrecognizable, missing head, limbs, and any other identifying features.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thaddeus grabbed onto his confusion, tearing it open.

He delved into his memory of that day.

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

Damien had been worried for him.

“Will strain,” Thaddeus whispered.

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

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

No. Damien was the weak link here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thaddeus raised an eyebrow at that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Siverling watched him approach, saying nothing.

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

Thaddeus let his voice grow softer, as with a certain type of person that was more intimidating than growling or shouting. “You will not place yourself or the other students in such grave danger ever again. I do not care if you have stretched your Will to the end of its limits by torturing small animals or performing depraved sexual acts with some of the more questionable members of the student body. As long as you do not bring shame to my name. I do care that you do not afterward continue to cast without regard for the danger of doing so, not just to yourself, but to everyone around you. You could have killed yourself and half the students in that classroom with your stubbornness. Never again.” He whispered the last part, then stared into Siverling’s eyes in silence.

Siverling nodded, jerkily.

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

Siverling nodded again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As soon as Siverling had thrown on his jacket and boots, Thaddeus straightened his jacket and strode out of the room. They were joined by Damien, who said stubbornly, “I’m coming too,” when both Thaddeus and Siverling gave him surprisingly similar expressions of refusal.

Thaddeus didn’t have the inclination to argue at the moment. When the boys both flinched at the night air outside, he said, “Did the University’s loaner program not have anything better than that? Or did you shatter theirs and are trying to put off having to pay?”

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

“Never heard of it,” Damien said.

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

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

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

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

The two boys shared a look of surprised excitement.

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

The boy looked up at him, his expressions vacillating between multiple different emotions. “I won’t. Thank you, Professor Lacer.”

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

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

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

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

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

At least Siverling wasn’t boring.

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