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Chapter 74 – The Glasshopper

Sebastien

Month 1, Day 15, Friday 6:00 p.m.

Ana’s choice of restaurant was indeed amazing.

Everything about the Glasshopper was subtly expensive, from the fine uniforms of the waiters to the spells woven into the floor around the tables to keep conversations from being overheard. Nothing gaudy, like gold filigree or eye-drawing enchantments, just dark woods and marble.

There was a small string and brass band on the stage, accompanying a woman with rounded, bright-colored feathers sprouting from the sides of her face and her scalp where her ears and hair would have been. The swayed on stage, crooning in a soft, chocolatey voice that somehow managed to reach the whole building equally. Her feather-lashed eyes were closed, and her voice shivered over Sebastien’s skin like a sensual, ephemeral touch.

“Is that a siren?” Sebastien whispered in awe. “They’re so rare, I’ve only ever heard of them, never seen one.”

Ana sighed in appreciation. “They always have the best music. This is the best restaurant outside of the Lilies.”

Alec Gervin’s mouth had dropped open, and there might have been a little bit of drool at the corner of his mouth. The waiter had to prompt him several times before he jerked back to awareness and followed them to their table.

Sebastien was in a good enough mood that she didn’t even take the opportunity to cut Gervin down to size.

Waverly Ascott was without a book for the first time Sebastien had seen her. “Bring the dessert sampler,” she told the waiter as soon as they’d been seated. “Enough for everyone.” She pulled her dark hair back from her face, tying it in a high ponytail as if preparing for battle.

Brinn Setterlund sat next to her, examining the miniature, living tree in the center of their table with interest. He reached forward to stroke it a branch, and Sebastien wasn’t sure if it was her imagination that it seemed to shift to caress his hand in return.

“No appetizers or entrees?” the waiter asked, entering Ascott’s order on a small journal-sized artifact that would send the information directly to the kitchen.

“If we’re not full after the dessert platter,” Ascott said.

“Good idea,” Ana agreed.

“Bring some champagne, too,” Rhett Moncrieffe said, lounging half sideways on his own chair, the smile on his face belying the boredom in his tone. “We just finished our University mid-terms. We’re celebrating.”

“Congratulations, young masters,” the waiter said.

When the desserts arrived, they drew a gasp from Sebastien.

Ana grinned at her. “I know. Exquisite.”

Each confection was a tiny sculpture. Miniature pixies made of toffee and flakes of phyllo dough so thin they were translucent. A dragon made of a dozen different types of chocolate. Sprites with shimmering wings of all different colors that melted at the first touch of a tongue.

The pièce de résistance were the grasshoppers in the center. They were made of crystallized nectar, and they moved as if they were alive. They glittered like crystal, bright and transparent.

Ascott snatched one out of the air as it tried to jump off the table and twisted off its head. She popped it into her mouth and closed her eyes in bliss as the spell-animated confection twitched and stilled in her hand.

“Glasshoppers,” Sebastien murmured, suddenly understanding where the restaurant got its name.

Alec Gervin’s mouth had fallen open in dismay. “Did that— Can it feel pain? I don’t want to eat something that’s still alive. Where are all its organs?”

Damien rolled his eyes. “It’s animated, not alive, Alec. No different than a dueling board piece. An edible toy.”

Sebastien looked at the other confections, which didn’t seem to be animated. “Are there other magical dishes on the menu?”

“A few other animated desserts,” Ana said, ripping open the stomach of a chocolate dragon to reveal miniature sweetmeat entrails. “There are also some dishes with magical ingredients, like the golden-apple pie or ice lion carpaccio. But you have to try the creme brûlée. They set it on fire!”

That was a little disappointing. “They could do so much more!” she said, ideas immediately popping to her mind. “It wouldn’t be so impossible, with a combination of alchemy and artificery. The dishes could impart cool little effects, like letting the customers blow bubbles out of their mouths, or create temporary glamours to give them rabbit ears, or jinxing them to talk backward for the next few minutes.”

Ana lifted one shoulder in a half-shrug. “Not a bad idea. The costs would be rather outrageous, but that only makes it more exclusive and desirable. Perhaps someone in the Rouse Family would be interested, even to sub-contract. It might fall under their ‘entertainment’ domain.”

Sebastien couldn’t help but think of what Oliver might say about the way the current system stifled industry and potential growth, but was distracted soon enough by the arrival of their champagne. She’d tried the drink before, when Ennis was schmoozing someone wealthy, but never anything like the offering from the Glasshopper. The bubbles burst in her nose and tickled until she, and all the others at her table, were laughing from the sensation. She was careful not to drink too much, though, ever-conscious that she was never truly safe.

They ate and drank and chatted about nothing in particular, and Sebastien found herself thinking that while they were rich, entitled, and sometimes snobbish, Damien’s group of friends, beyond Ana, wasn’t entirely horrible. Brinn Sutterland, with his quiet stillness and slow smile, was probably her favorite.

When the siren on stage ended her set and a new musical group arrived to take her place, Moncrieffe went over to flirt with her.

Sebastien did a double-take as the woman handed him a cloth napkin, and Moncrieffe swaggered back to their table a little unsteadily.

“That was a siren. Did she just give you her contact information?” Sebastien asked incredulously.

Moncrieffe smirked at her, patting the pocket with the napkin proudly. “Her address. I’m invited for a ‘private show.’” He wiggled his eyebrows dramatically.

The others groaned good-naturedly. “Please, spare us the details,” Ascott said acerbically, tossing a cream-covered berry at him.

Moncrieffe caught it with his mouth. Even he looked surprised by this act of dexterity, considering his current state of inebriation, which sent them all into a round of laughter.

After a while, with their bellies full and the champagne no longer bubbling, the mood grew somber.

“I heard another student in our term is in the infirmary for severe Will-strain,” Brinn said in a soft voice, playing with Ascott’s small fingers. “She was in one of the other groups. Her mind is gone, and the healers are not optimistic about her chances of recovery.”

Gervin nodded. “I heard about that,” he said, his tongue a little clumsy from the alcohol. “She can still feed herself and use the chamber pot when prompted, though. She’s stuck in her hallucinations and doesn’t respond to human stimulus.”

“How do you know this?” Damien asked.

“I asked,” Gervin said simply.

“There have been a dozen or so already this term, if you combine deaths and the permanent, debilitating injuries,” Moncrieffe said, his head in Damien’s lap as he tried to coax Damien into scratching his scalp for him. “You don’t hear about all of them. Not the kind of thing the University wants to advertise, you know. I imagine you would become rather numb to it all after a while, anyway. I know this because there are some lovely young ladies working in the infirmary.”

Brinn hummed. “Do you think they push us too hard?”

“Yes,” Alec said immediately.

Brinn continued, “It seems like if they were truly worried about our safety, they would not increase the pressure on new students with the ten percent mandatory failure rate. It’s dangerous to everyone, not just those at the bottom of the list.”

Ana was using a knife and some sticky dessert leftovers to turn her napkin into a tiny dress for the only remaining sculpted pixie. “Magic is dangerous, but there are wards everywhere. Both small and large. They do a lot to mitigate the danger that students might cause themselves and others.”

Why didn’t those wards stop the explosion in Eagle Tower?’ Sebastien wondered. ‘Did Tanya deliberately damage them first? And if so, would the evidence of that have been destroyed by the alchemical explosion? How likely is it that Tanya would be found out?’ Sebastien was entirely unsure, partially because she didn’t know enough about the power of the people who might be willing to cover up for Tanya. No one had questioned either Sebastien or Damien about that day.

Rhett, still resting on Damien’s lap, shook his head, his eyes closed. “There’s no reason to be so desperate over it. Students who fail can just retake that term. It would be even more unsafe if the University let them continue when they’re not fit to do so.”

Sebastien almost scoffed aloud. ‘Not everyone can afford to retake a term. Many of those students who would be most likely to be at the bottom ten percent are commoners who must get their Apprentice certification and a good job right away, or their families will be ruined. Even only taking the minimum four classes for all three terms, the absolute minimum it could cost is nine hundred gold, and that doesn’t take into account a Conduit, or the books and tutoring it takes to pass the test in the first place, or anything else.

Damien, to her surprise, shook his head. “If that policy was really to keep the incompetent students from having a chance to do too much damage, then why are there more deaths in the upper terms?”

“People get cocky,” Moncrieffe replied immediately. “They think they’re experts and they get a little too confident. It would be worse if the upper terms were also filled with people without a strong foundation in sorcery.”

Brinn sighed. “Maybe. It is sad, though.”

Ascott squeezed his fingers, and he smiled at her.

“Well, what’s the alternative?” Moncrieffe asked, shrugging. “Not learn magic?”

“That’s excessive, of course,” Ana said.

“Not accept those who are statistically more likely to hurt themselves with it, then?” he asked.

“Poor, less-educated people, you mean,” Sebastien said.

“Exactly. Everyone knows the risks, and they accept them. The University is doing what they can to mitigate the danger.”

Sebastien wasn’t sure that was true, but she wasn’t going to argue aloud.

“It is true that accidents as well as deaths have gone down significantly in modern times,” Damien conceded. “Some people, like my father, actually want to go back to the old, harsher ways. He thinks the softness is stunting the potential growth of our nation.”

“Having more of our future thaumaturges dying would stunt the growth of Lenore,” Ana snapped back, glaring at the doll-sized dress she was wrapping around the dessert pixie.

Damien shrugged. “Of course it would. But good luck using logic to win an argument with him, or people like him.”

“The man is a sadist,” Ana snapped, a little too loudly. She looked around, realizing her slip, then to Damien, who didn’t respond. She pressed her lips together.

“Enough of this depressing talk,” Moncrieffe said, sitting up from Damien’s lap. “What we need is drinks.” He raised an arm to wave down the ever-attentive waiter.

Damien looked to Sebastien searchingly, but she kept from showing either sympathy or any particular interest in Damien’s home life. She knew she hated it when people pried, as if her life was a piece of juicy gossip meant to entertain them. She wanted pity even less. “You were in the top three hundred of the entrance examinations, right?” She didn’t really need to ask. She knew, because she’d heard him bragging about it enough times. “Do you think you managed to maintain that rank this time around?”

Gervin groaned and turned to the approaching waiter. “Whiskey!” he ordered. “And no talking about grades. I don’t wish to think about that. If my scores weren’t good enough… Well. Lord Westbay and my father are friends for a reason.” He turned, a little awkwardly, toward Sebastien. “That tutor you recommended, Newton Moore, he is rather good.”

She waited for Gervin to continue, but apparently that was all he meant to say. “He is,” she agreed.

When the waiter brought the alcohol, Sebastien even let herself be coerced into having a single shot of Whiskerton’s Whiskey of Well-being, which, as advertised, made her feel like she was being held on her grandfather’s lap, in front of the fire, about to fall asleep with the deep knowledge that he would never let anything bad happen to her.

Of course, something bad did happen to her. Had happened to her.

Now, it was up to her to protect herself.

She refused to have any more of the whiskey, even as the others did so, slipping away instead to check on Tanya’s location, which was just where it should have been.

Alec insisted loudly on paying the bill for all of them, and Sebastien didn’t protest too hard when she saw the prices. Her portion alone would have been about three gold.

When they left, most of the others were drunk, and she reminded them all, “Do not drink and cast. Alcohol and magic do not mix.”

Brinn’s face was flushed, his eyes glassy, and he tried to climb a tree on the side of the street as they were walking back to the University, forcing them to drag him down and away.

Ascott muttered something in a language Sebastien didn’t understand, then took out a sobering potion and forced a partial dose down Brinn’s throat. “It will make you have to pee,” she warned.

“I’ll drain my dragon,” Brinn slurred reassuringly. “Don’t worry, I know how to do it, do it all the time. ’S easy.” Which for some reason all the others thought was the most hilarious thing they’d ever heard.

Feeling like a mother with small children, or the shepherd of a flock of cats, Sebastien herded them back to the University.

They took the transport tubes that crawled up the white cliffs, and the others spilled out at the top, laughing and loopy.

Alec threw up inside one. “Oops. Umm. Call one of the servants, I seem to have made a mess.” He stumbled out, barely avoiding falling in the pool of his own vomit.

Sebastien glared at him hard enough that if she were a free-caster, she might have set him on fire. “Give him some of that sobering potion, Ascott,” she ordered. She stared at the disgusting puddle, wondering if she knew a spell to handle the situation, because she definitely wasn’t going to touch that with her hands. She knew a spell to draw water down towards a Circle drawn on the ground, but it was meant to quickly dry off after getting wet, not to mop a chunky liquid sideways along the floor.

In the end, she took out a piece of paper from her satchel and wrote a note apologizing and asking the workers who would find it and the vomit in the morning, to, “Please bill Alec Gervin for cleaning services and any inconvenience.”

Grumbling the whole while, Sebastien managed to get everyone back to the dorms and, relatively quiet, and into bed. She didn’t bother trying to get them to drink water or any more potions. ‘Let their hangovers punish them on my behalf,’ she thought vindictively.

Luckily, at least half of her other dorm-mates were still awake, exuberant with their freedom from the midterms, so her group didn’t cause too much trouble.

On Saturday morning, Moncrieffe was the only one besides Sebastien who wasn’t sick and exhausted, which was astounding as he’d imbibed the most out of all of them.

Leaving the others with a smug smile, Sebastien got an update on Tanya from Newton, made sure she had the bone disk to track the other girl if she slipped away again, and ordered a hangover-relief draught from the infirmary for Damien, so he could properly do his job keeping watch while Sebastien was gone.

She spent the whole day brewing Humphries’ adapting solution. It was a process, requiring her to distill her water to purify it before then using that distilled water to brew. The instructions assumed the brewer would be making at least seven liters at a time, but not only was Siobhan too weak for that, her cauldron wasn’t big enough, and she would have had to borrow a stock pot from the kitchen to brew in, which wasn’t ideal.

Instead, she brewed in two-liter batches. About one liter was a single dose when using it as a blood replacement for an adult human. Severe blood loss might require more. This alchemical solution was even more magically intensive than the regeneration-boosting potions, though to be fair the dose size was also much bigger.

She’d waited until as close to the attack to make it, both because she needed her Will as strong as possible to attempt it, and because its shelf life was short. This way it might still find use even if they didn’t need it immediately.

She finished off the day with a single batch of the regeneration-boosting potions and returned to the University. Thankfully, Tanya had done nothing suspicious while Sebastien was gone.

On Sunday, she did no brewing. She spent most of the day in the library reviewing her study on emergency healing. That evening, knowing she wouldn’t be able to slip away to follow if Tanya escaped Newton and Damien, Sebastien considered giving the bone disk to Damien.

Instead, she sat down with him in private in a quiet section of the library and said, “I’ve heard rumblings of violence in the city tonight. Some skirmish between criminals. If Tanya leaves, just let me handle it. It might not be safe for you.”

Damien wasn’t satisfied by this at all. “What? No, I can handle myself, Sebastien, I’ve had plenty dueling training. I do better than you in Fekten’s class.”

“When you can cast your own broad-spectrum ward spell, or dodge well enough to beat Rhett in a duel, you can place yourself in mortal danger.”

You’re going out!”

“I’m not going to be going near any of the conflict. If Tanya leaves, she might be. You’re no match for her, Damien. Trust me. A little extra information isn’t worth the danger. Still, let me know if she leaves. I’ll keep track of her from afar.”

Damien scowled mutinously.

This is a problem,’ she thought to herself. ‘I’m going to have to come up with better arguments and excuses if I want to keep working with him while still keeping him in the dark. He’s too curious, too nosy, to just be a good little soldier and follow instructions.’ She at least had the comfort of knowing that if he tried to follow her in any way except mundane tailing—if he tried to scry for her—she would know and be able to counteract it. Still, she needed to be careful with him and prepare in case his gullibility wore off. ‘I should deal with this as soon as possible, before it becomes even more hasslesome.

“Damien,” she said, trying to seem compassionate rather than irritated. “Do you remember your vow?”

The scowl slipped away from his face and he straightened. “Of course. I vowed my silence, to keep our secret, knowing when to speak and when to remain silent. I vowed my loyalty, to support us and our efforts faithfully and fully, with true heart and steady hand. I vowed my resolve, to persevere through hardships and the wear of time, exerting myself to fulfill the cause. Freedom, and enlightenment. I—” He swallowed. “I saw beyond the edge of the sky.”

He said the words seriously, almost reverently, but all Sebastien could think, hearing them recited with surprisingly perfect recall, was, ‘I can’t believe I came up with something so cheesy. It’s like something out of a cheap adventure novel.

“How long has it been since you stood before the stars and made that vow, and you’re already forgetting?”

“I—I’m not forgetting! I just—I want to help!”

“You’re not ready,” she said softly. “And you’re not needed, either. There are other people who are more prepared and able to deal with dangerous situations outside the University. You don’t need to know about those people. In fact, it’s best that you don’t. This world can be darker than you imagine, Damien.” She looked away, her fingers pressing a little too hard against the wooden arms of her chair.

“It takes time, and a lot of it, to prove your strength, your dedication, and your competence,” she continued. “I hope you don’t prove me wrong about you. I told you this would be boring. It’s not a story. There is no glory to be had. You and your job are important, but you are not entitled to more. If we feel that you are undermining the integrity of our mission because of greed, petulance, or impatience, you will be removed.”

He was staring at her with too-wide eyes.

She sighed. “That was not a threat. Trust me, Damien. If you are needed, you will be called upon. Until then, please be content to play your part. It may not be glamorous, but perhaps that’s because you don’t understand its importance.”

The agitation had gone from Damien’s shoulders and his cheeks were slightly pink. “I’m sorry,” he murmured. “I won’t jeopardize the mission. I’ve come to my senses.” He fiddled with his collar self-consciously. “I guess I was acting somewhat like a Petunia, right?”

Sebastien stared at him blankly for a couple seconds, then realized he was talking about the character of Aberford Thorndyke’s niece. In several stories, the headstrong girl jumped into dangerous situations beyond her ability to handle and only caused more trouble for the other characters who then had to rescue her—at danger to themselves or the greater goal. “Well, at least you’re not Investigator Amherst.”

Damien rolled his eyes so hard his head lolled back. “Give me a stunner to the head if I ever act like him.”

Having gotten her way and thus in a more accommodating mood than usual, Sebastien slouched to the side. She took an invisible pipe out of her mouth, affected an extra deep voice, and said, “Amherst, you do an absolutely fantastic impression of a gorilla whose mother dropped it from the tree as an infant one too many times.”

Damien’s mouth dropped open. “Radiant Maiden, was that a Thorndyke impression? Did you just make that line up on the spot? It was perfect! Do another. Another!” He leaned forward, so eager Sebastien thought he might grab and try to literally shake the words out of her.

She slipped her watch out of her vest pocket, making a fake expression of surprise. “Oh, is that the time? I really must be leaving. Sorry, ta ta, goodbye.” She got up and hurried from the room with a stride that was only just below a jog.

This is the second of two bonus chapters this week! The regularly scheduled chapter will be posted on Thursday.

 

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Chapter 73 – Mid-Terms & Tournament

Sebastien

Month 1, Day 11, Monday 4:00 p.m.

The healers passed around calming potions to all the students, leaving a bottle inside the cubicles of everyone who wasn’t there to take them directly.

Sebastien wasn’t stubborn about it. She took a dose—a single swallow—right away, then left the building for a long walk through the Menagerie, trying not to think past the magical haze of well-being the potion imparted.

She returned a few hours later, after the sun had set and the cold was starting to hurt enough that she noticed it through the waning power of the potion.

Back in the dorms, she learned from gossip she couldn’t help but overhear that the dead boy had been practicing magic with his friends, who were all cramming in what study they could before the tests. They had returned to the dorms together, and he’d complained of dizziness and lied down to take a nap.

His friend, the girl who’d been sedated and taken to the infirmary with him, had tried to wake him about half an hour later, when the smell of vomit and shit suddenly became noticeable.

It was too late. He was already dead.

The healers had declared it an aneurism caused by Will-strain.

That evening, before lights-out but after all the students had returned to the dorm, Tanya and Newton stood at the front of the room and gave another lecture about safety and ensuring the health of their minds and magic. “Go to sleep early tonight,” Tanya said, “and take a calming potion if you need one. Please be careful not to cast any strenuous magic under the effects of a calming potion, though, as it can impair your control. My advice is not to worry about the mid-terms or any other schoolwork. Your sanity and your life are more important than your homework, and this was a blow to all of us.”

“It will take time to recover,” Newton said in a rough voice. “We’re here for you if you need help, as are any of the healers, and your professors, too.”

Sebastien cast her dreamless sleep spell with as much power as she could pour into it, then used the esoteric humming spell that Newton had taught her to relax her body, and finally took another swallow of calming potion before sticking waxed cotton in her ears to block out the sounds of the other students. Finally, as prepared as she could be, she went to sleep.

Tuesday was subdued.

Damien seemed shocked by the death and kept wanting to talk about it, going in circles about how horrible and sad it was without really saying anything new.

Sebastien went through that conversation with him a couple times, then foisted him off on Ana and his other friends. It wasn’t the first time she’d seen death, of course, but she kept remembering the feel of the dead boy’s skin under her fingers, still warm. ‘One in fifteen of us will die or go insane before we become Masters,’ she reminded herself. ‘Tanya was right. He won’t be the last. But I won’t be one of them.

She forced herself to focus during her classes, and after them on the basic books about emergency healing she’d borrowed from the library.

The latter, at least, gave her some comfort.

On Wednesday, normal classes were cancelled.

Instead, they started the day with Professor Gnorrish’s mid-term examination for Natural Science. The exam was a more elaborate version of his normal tests, with a lot of extra questions and some interactive content with pictures, like Sebastien remembered from the entrance exam. She could answer questions about everything they had covered in class, but when it came to higher-level extrapolations based on a deeper understanding of those same concepts, she found herself stymied at least half the time.

At least this test wasn’t never-ending, like the written entrance examination. She was able to get through the whole thing with enough time to go back to some of the questions she’d been unsure about and think on them a little harder.

After that came Professor Ilma’s exam for History of Magic. That one only had twenty questions, but they all needed to be answered in short-essay format. Sebastien knew Professor Ilma well enough by now not to bother regurgitating anything from a book. Instead, she made her own arguments and even openly admitted on a couple of questions that she had no idea about the answer, yet still gave all the evidence that might support some kind of conclusion.

She was still scribbling frantically when the bell rang to signal the end of the test period, and groaned in dismay as she tried to finish her current thought in still-legible handwriting before someone stopped her.

After almost five hours of test-taking, she was exhausted, but after dinner she asked around in the dorms and managed to find some second term students who also had Professor Pecanty. She asked them about his tests. She and he thought nothing alike, and she was worried that his tests would be as subjective as the literary analyses they did in class.

“Oh, yeah,” one second term student she’d found said. “Pecanty’s the worst. Each test is going to have a randomly-assigned essay question at the end. He told my my analyses was ‘shallow and simplistic.’”

Another student snorted from the corner. “That’s because you’re writing to the topic, not the teacher. I have a system. Gets me a perfect score every time.”

“You’re a suck-up,” the first student said.

His friend shrugged. “Well, the contribution points he gave me are why we have this room, so don’t complain too much when you’re benefitting from my largesse.”

Sebastien turned to the man with eagle-eyed interest. “What’s your system?”

“Easy,” he said, not even looking up from the magazine she recognized as the latest Aberford Thorndyke story. They were more popular than she’d suspected. “I make as many connections as possible, always. If there’s a short answer or essay question, I try to make at least two allusions to another story or poem we’ve talked about in class. Bonus points if it’s a play or opera I saw outside of the University, or a story one of my many fake aunts, uncles, or grandparents told me when I was little, accompanied by some poignant memory. In addition to that, I try to use at least five vivid, poetic, ‘feeling’ or ‘sensory’ words. He really loves it when I mention a smell or a taste. For example, a strong, salty sausage might remind me of my mother’s bloody hands in the winter, pale with cold, and the iron and shit I smelt as the pig she’d slaughtered bled out into a steel bucket, its squeal of terror still ringing in my ears.” His tone had taken on an imitation of Pecanty’s rhythm as he spoke the last bit. He waved his hand leadingly. “Like that.”

Sebastien nodded with wonder. “Can you give me some more examples? Just so I can get the feel of it?”

The boy laughed. “Dream on, firstie. I’m busy reading, so go bother someone else. Unless you’re willing to trade contribution points for it? I’ve been wanting to upgrade my meal plan…” He looked up, eyebrows raised expectantly.

She pressed her lips together and shook her head. “Thank you for your help.”

He looked back down, losing interest in her immediately.

Sebastien asked for advice from a couple other students who had experience with Pecanty, but got nothing as good as that first offering.

The Sympathetic Science exam was first on Wednesday, and she was careful to make even more connections than reasonable, backing them up with sensory allusions that otherwise had no connection when necessary. She even tried to make her handwriting as beautiful as possible, because that seemed like the kind of thing that Pecanty might subconsciously favor. When she finished the test, she went back over every written answer, making sure that where possible, she’d made at least two allusions and used at least five evocative emotional or sensory words.

If this doesn’t work, there’s really nothing I can do. Except something like…blackmail?’ Sebastien shook her head at that fanciful thought and hurried quickly to lunch. She wanted to eat as soon as possible so that her stomach would be settled before the Defensive Magic exam.

She still arrived on the white flats slightly queasy, though that was more to do with apprehension about the grueling physical torture she was about to experience.

Using whatever magic allowed him to rearrange the stone of the white flats, Fekten had set up an almost comically difficult obstacle course. The students were to complete it as quickly as possible, with their grade depending on their speed for each section, and then take the written exam.

Looking at one section of the course where they were meant to leap across a scattered path of columns raised over a meter above the ground, Sebastien gulped. Another section required them to climb up a rope to cross a tall wall, then slide down the other side into a tunnel that was somehow filled with water. ‘I’ll be surprised if no one gets seriously injured.

As if that thought were some sort of prophecy, Fekten introduced the gathered students to the healers he’d called to supervise his mid-term.

Sebastien let out a deep breath and massaged her neck, trying to let go of her anxiety. She almost wanted to try Newton’s humming spell, but there wasn’t enough time for it to really settle into her body before the test started.

Instead, she cast her esoteric pain-muffling spell. All it really did was help her to ignore the discomfort, not lessen it, but that was enough to let her push through. The obstacle course included a one mile run as well as a sprint through a corridor lined by mannequins that shot the same colored light-projectiles Fekten’s class had been practicing their footwork and dodging against.

Sebastien finished the course with a time slightly better than the middle of the pack, but could take no time to recuperate. She followed the students who had finished before her to run to the desks set up in the biggest room of the sim building. Throwing herself into a desk with a blank tests already waiting for her, she pulled out her pen.

Only then did she release the pain-muffling spell.

Her handwriting was even worse than normal, with the occasional ink-smudge from sweat, but she felt confident in her answers on all the various dangers and tactics that Fekten had been lecturing about every class period. It was even easier to remember it all with her lungs aching for air and her muscles burning with fatigue, actually.

She stumbled away from the white flats to the dorm showers, ate at the cafeteria, and then took a nap in an attempt to recover from her listlessness. ‘I cannot wait until something else can do some of my sleeping for me.

Sebastien arrived at the Practical Casting classroom about ten minutes early, but there were already students gathered, and a couple of them were competing against each other in their tournament brackets while Professor Lacer supervised.

A girl approached Sebastien and said, “I’m your next opponent. Do you want to get a head start on the matches? Professor Lacer said we could.”

“Sure.” Starting ten minutes earlier could mean ten more minutes of recovery between it and the subsequent match.

They set up, waited for Professor Lacer’s requisitioned student aide to note their names, and then began to cast.

Sebastien’s opponent was familiar with her trick from the first match and was able to withstand the initial powerful push. “Did you really think the same trick would work twice in a row?” the girl asked.

Sebastien shrugged. “It’s not like I lose anything in the attempt. Besides, if I did not push hard, what if you took me by surprise instead?”

They settled into the struggle. The girl was strong, but after a few minutes it became apparent that she lacked practice. Her Will was neither as clear, sound, nor forceful as Sebastien’s.

As time went on, the girl’s candles began to flicker and flutter.

Sebastien sensed weakness and pushed even harder.

Her opponent squeezed her fists and glared at the ball that kept inching against her in little bursts, never quite for three seconds at a time, but growing ever-closer. Her face began to turn red from the effort, but she pulled too hard and one of her candles was quenched. The cold wick let out a small trail of smoke.

That was it. With three candles against two, Sebastien won immediately.

Damien and Ana arrived just as Sebastien was getting up from the table.

“No!” Damien cried dramatically. “I missed it? Sebastien, you should have stalled! I didn’t even get a chance to make any bets.”

Ana elbowed him in the side. “Damien. No one was going to bet against Sebastien again after what happened last time.”

Damien held his chin in his hand, frowning thoughtfully as he looked Sebastien up and down. “Not necessarily. He just needs to be up against an opponent no one thinks he can beat…”

“And then what if he loses? Why don’t you just stick with the winnings you already have and be content?”

“Sebastien definitely won’t lose,” Damien said.

“How can you know that? He’s in the most difficult bracket, against students from upper terms…”

They continued to dispute the issue, but Sebastien tuned them out.

The other matches finished, too, and when the bell rang, Professor Lacer announced, “We finish the tournament today! Since this is the last test period of the week, the matches can continue on even after the test period technically ends. With the number of students still remaining, this seems likely. Anything after the test period ends is entirely optional, and will be for contribution points, not your grade.”

Despite how fatigued most of the students probably were at the end of the mid-terms, most seemed enthused to see this contest through to the end. Of course, at least half of them had nothing to do except spectate today, having already lost their own matches on Monday, which probably contributed to their high spirits.

This time, Sebastien actually watched the matches with Damien and Ana. They murmured observations to each other, and she took note of those in her bracket who she might have trouble with.

Sebastien’s second match was also against a woman. Her opponent was good. Neither of them had a marked advantage, not with only three candles to draw on. They struggled back and forth, slamming at each other with bursts of unsustainable power that they had to release lest they quench their flames.

Sebastien bore down with her Will, tuning out everything else but the flames, the movement of the sphere, and her pure denial that the other woman could best her. Five minutes passed, then ten, then fifteen.

If neither of them won soon, they would both be disqualified at the twenty-minute mark.

Eventually, though, Sebastien began to gain the edge. The longer and harder she pushed, the more eagerly the magic responded to her. The air of the Sacrifice Circle around her candles grew chilled, but their flames never sputtered. Each pulse of extra power she funneled into the spell flowed only more smoothly.

In contrast, Sebastien’s opponent couldn’t maintain the same level of focus and control she’d started the match with. Oh, she didn’t degrade drastically, but there had been no space for mistakes.

Sebastien moved the ball, not quickly, but inexorably, and her opponent couldn’t stop it in time.

“Winner, S. Siverling,” the student aide muttered, going to write her name on the blackboard next to her upcoming opponent.

Sebastien rolled her neck, which was a little stiff from staring down at the table for so long. She had Damien point out her next opponent, a man who was sitting away from the rest of the crowd with his eyes closed, a slight grimace on his face.

Sebastien felt a little apprehensive about competing with someone so calm, but reassured herself that she could win. ‘I’ll freeze the table if I have to. Everything within the Circle belongs to me, and it might be enough for one surprise shove of power that doesn’t rely on the candles.

However, when the two of them were called up to compete, the man pushed reluctantly through the crowd, met her gaze, and shook his head. “I don’t think I can. I’ve got a headache, and I think I might be approaching Will-strain.”

Professor Lacer nodded. “Understood. Be sure to go to the infirmary if you need to,” he said, the pen on his desk still scribbling away by itself. He looked at Sebastien, then added, “I commend your good sense.”

“Forfeit, win goes to Mr. Siverling,” a student aide said.

A couple students groaned.

Sebastien looked around for the perpetrators, but the boys she suspected refused to meet her gaze. ‘Are they rooting against me?

As if to make up for this, a group of young women standing to the side gave her exited smiles and gestures of encouragement. “You can do it, Sebastien!”

The next matches took more time, as the more powerful people were pitted against each other and put up a better fight. Damien lost his third match, but put up a strong resistance, and Professor Lacer even gave him a small nod when it was over.

Sebastien suppressed a spike of jealousy.

Ana, with a dogged determination that Sebastien found surprising, won her own match, but then excused herself from the tournament to avoid Will-strain, too.

By Sebastien’s fourth match of the day, there were only a handful of contestants left in her bracket. She sat across from a young man who was growing a thick winter beard, which was impressive for a student their age.

“Nunchkin,” he introduced himself with a nod.

“Siverling,” she said with a nod of her own.

In his Sacrifice Circle, Nunchkin wrote the glyph for “wax” instead of “fire,” or even the less-common “heat.”

Sebastien had a premonition of doom as soon as she saw that, but it was too late to respond to it even if she could think of some way to do so, because the student aide was already counting them down, and among the cheers of their classmates, the match began.

Sebastien slammed on the sphere immediately, and it moved under her Will, but not for long, as Nunchkin opposed her.

The sphere sat still for a long while, trembling minutely under the opposing forces. Then, slowly, it began to shift in Nunchkin’s direction, against her.

Sebastien stopped it, but she couldn’t do more than that. It sat trembling again, and then slowly rolled against her.

No.

The sphere stopped again, but Nunchkin just kept on pouring more and more power into the spell.

Her eyes flicked up to see that the wax of one of Nunchkin’s candles was visibly disappearing, as if a few large, invisible ants were nibbling at it.

Turning matter directly into movement was an incredibly advanced conversion. Using matter as a power source rather than a transmutable component was possible, but generally inefficient and gruelingly difficult. It was why most sorcerers used flames, beast cores, or even something like the power of the flowing water in a river to provide the energy for their spells.

Running out of the specified form of energy and having the spell resort to using matter instead was one of the most common ways to lose control of your magic and get Will-strain. Put plainly, it was beyond her.

The little spots of missing wax grew.

Sebastien’s eyes narrowed. As the spots grew larger, she could see their shiny, liquid edges, and faint shimmers in the air.

But maybe he’s not using the wax directly. Could he be using his Will to create a wick-like construct, and burning up the wax? If he’s using the light as well as the heat, that might be why I can’t see any visible flames.

Her epiphany had cost her in a moment of distraction. Nunchkin had pushed the ball against her for almost a full revolution of the glass wheel and was about to win.

In a sudden effort, Sebastien used the idea she’d come up with earlier and sucked all the heat from the table beneath her Sacrifice Circle. The frosted-over section of the slate table groaned from the sudden temperature change. It was enough to match Nunchkin and even push back for a moment, but the heat was gone soon enough, not quite enough to keep her going for the full three seconds as he increased his own spell’s power to oppose her.

Still, it had bought her a little time to think.

Wax did not need a wick to burn, technically. The wick was useful because it drew melted wax up into the heat of the flame and burnt it there. Most of what the flame was devouring was actually the wax, not the wick at all. The problem with trying to burn wax without the wick was that the substance would disperse the heat throughout its volume, making it difficult to maintain the combustion point. The wick kept a small amount of liquid wax at the right spot, without enough volume to disperse the heat before it caught fire and was converted into more heat, light, and various gasses.

With the incredibly rudimentary spell array that Professor Lacer insisted on, what she did with the magic could be any number of things that used “heat” for the purpose of creating “movement.”

A candle flame created around eighty thaums, give or take. Three candles left her stymied at a little under two hundred thaums, total. But there was much more energy than that within the entire candle.

Sebastien drew on the heat in the melted wax of one of her own candles, experimentally, pulling at the part around the base of the flame, drawing it up into the wick.

It worked.

The flame flared higher, the inefficiency of the burn clear in the dark tendril of smoke that began to curl up from the flame’s orange tip. Suddenly, she had more energy to work with, maybe an extra dozen thaums.

I have all the power I need. It is only a matter of Will. Always, always, only a matter of Will.

Nunchkin actually revealed a small smile, though he didn’t look at her, his eyes trained on the sphere with unwavering focus.

Splitting her concentration on creating movement in the wax, as little as it was, with controlling the iron sphere, made things more difficult. But it was more than worth it for the extra power.

She repeated her trick with the other two candles, sending their flames flaring angrily higher.

She had the upper hand again, for a moment.

But it was only a moment.

With the inexorability of the setting sun, Nunchkin kept pouring on more and more power.

Sebastien would never have been able to keep fighting back if she hasn’t spent so many hours practicing the sphere-spinning spell.

Nunchkin’s spell array was glowing with inefficiency despite his prowess.

Her’s didn’t, not even the barest flicker.

There was enough heat for her in the candle wax, and she flared her candles higher and higher until they were like small torches, ready to burn out before their time.

But her Will could only channel so much.

The sphere began to move against her, once more.

She slammed her Will against the it like she might throw her body against a barred door.

But Nunchkin was unfazed, and she felt the taut fist of her Will start to tremble with strain. ‘I have to let go,’ she realized. ‘I’ve lost.

She did so with careful control, watching the sphere spin the wrong direction, faster and faster until it became a blur.

She almost didn’t hear it when the match was called in Nunchkin’s favor.

As she stood up from the desk, Damien slammed into her, grabbing her arm and screaming in her ear to be heard past the cheers filling the room. “Planes-damned, I’ll kick an earth-aspected weta if that wasn’t one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen!”

Damien pulled her through the crowd, high-giving people as they passed, crowing unintelligibly amid the noise as if he himself had just won the entire tournament.

Luckily, Nunchkin drew most of the attention away from them as they got to the edge of the crowd.

Rubbing her forehead, Sebastien moved to an empty desk a distance away from the front of the classroom and slumped down into the chair.

Even Ana was grinning widely. “Good job, Sebastien. That was indeed very impressive. I’m sure Professor Lacer was pleased.”

Damien nodded, still vibrating with excitement. “What you did with the candles? Oh, I think I gasped out loud when I saw it! I never even thought of doing something like that, but the rules definitely don’t say you can’t, and Professor Lacer must not have a problem with it, or he would have said something.”

Sebastien sighed, letting her shoulders slump. “I don’t know what you think was so impressive about that display. I lost.”

Damien’s excitement dimmed, and he shared a look with Ana.

“You put up an impressive fight,” Ana said. “You proved that your Will isn’t only powerful, but sound, and forceful, and clear.”

“You’re only a first term student, Sebastien,” Damien said. His voice was gentle, as if explaining something worryingly simple to her, and he doubted her ability to grasp it. “Nunchkin is a fourth-term. And I heard someone saying he’s taken this class twice before.”

Sebastien’s eyes widened.

“So you see, no matter how much of a prodigy you are, you can’t expect to beat that kind of experience, and—” Damien cut off as Sebastien let her forehead thunk onto the table.

“Sebastien?” he asked.

She raised her head, unable to keep the disappointment from her face. “You’re telling me I lost to someone who failed this class the first two times?”

Ana raised her eyebrows and lifted a hand to her mouth to disguise sudden amusement. “I think you may be focusing on the wrong part of that statement, Sebastien.”

Damien blinked a few times, then shook his head as if to clear his thoughts. “Umm. Yes. What Ana said. Let me explain this—”

Sebastien waved away their counterproductive attempts to console her. “It’s okay. I’ve got time. I’ll catch up to him. I definitely won’t fail this class and have to retake it!” she announced, clenching her fists.

“Yes, well…good,” Damien said, seeming a little confused.

They returned to watch the last couple matches between semifinalists, and Sebastien kept an eye out for other tricks she could appropriate.

Nunchkin and a girl with a fierce glare were the two finalists.

Nunchkin’s opponent used the same technique as Sebastien to increase the amount of power she had to draw on, and came closer than Sebastien had to taking Nunchkin out in the beginning of the match, but still failed to beat the pressure of his slow, inexorable ramp-up.

Nunchkin was declared the winner of the largest bracket, as well as the overall tournament, and awarded the biggest contribution point prize. He smiled humbly and gave a bow to Professor Lacer.

Sebastien wanted to scowl, but realized that would be childish, and so tried to keep her expression bland, if not exactly pleasant.

“Well done!” Professor Lacer said in a loud voice that cut through the chatter. “Well, to most of you. It is time for the prizes. As promised, the winner of each bracket will receive fifty contribution points. However, those of you who put up a good fight or displayed some piece of exceptional control or ingenuity will also be rewarded for your efforts.”

The students cheered, laughing and yelling and generally making a ruckus as Professor Lacer called students out from the crowd and handed them a ticket noting their points, murmuring a few words of praise to each.

To her surprise, even though she hadn’t even gotten to the top three of her bracket, Professor Lacer called her name.

She pushed through the crowd, who were muttering something about her being at Apprentice-level capacity already, and took the ticket. Five contribution points.

Lacer nodded at her. He didn’t smile, but it was almost as good when he said, “Impressive problem-solving and control under pressure.”

Struggling to hold her own expression to merely professional satisfaction rather than profound relief and even a little bit of glee, she gave him a shallow bow. “Thank you.”

He nodded and called the next name.

Sebastien tucked the ticket into her pocket, patting it in satisfaction as she returned to Damien and Ana. “Well. I suppose I didn’t do too badly.”

Damien rolled his eyes hard enough they might have gotten stuck. “Right.”

“So. Restaurant? Live music? Teasing Alec?” Ana asked, grinning winningly.

Sebastien was in too good a mood to refuse.

Besides, her brain and Will both needed a break.

She needed to be fully rested for the attack on the Morrows, after all.

This is the first of 2 bonus chapters we’ll be seeing this week, with thanks to my patrons! I’m also running a poll for a bonus short story over on the Patreon. I need your feedback!

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Chapter 72 – First Fallen

Sebastien

Month 1, Day 11, Monday 2:15 p.m.

Sebastien had wanted to have the sleep-proxy spell ready before the mid-terms, to help her perform better on the test, but after realizing all the work that was left to be done, she dropped that idea.

Sebastien spent most of her weekend the same as the one before. Brewing, resting, and then brewing some more, till her brain was foggy and her stomach screamed for calories to fill the void inside her. She had wanted to try some of the other potions that the Verdant Stag enforcers might find useful in a fight, like the liquid stone potion, or the bark skin potion, but there was no time, and with her limited resources she was trying to prioritize what she knew would be the most useful.

The absolutely wonderful thing was that after putting most of what she’d gained from selling off her old Conduits toward her debt, she was accruing slightly less interest every day, and also putting any new repayment directly toward the principle balance.

Monday dawned with a tangible air of panic. It was the week of the mid-terms, which would be held Wednesday through Friday in lieu of the normal class schedule, and a good portion of the students seemed to be surprised to realize they only had two days left to prepare.

Sebastien reviewed the notes she’d taken since the beginning of the term and took the time to look up the things she felt vague on, but didn’t bother to panic. She’d been diligent throughout the term so far, and at this point there was little that a couple more days of frantic cramming could do.

Professor Lacer started the mini-tournament in his class that day. Normal classes would be canceled from Wednesday through the end of the week, so they were getting a head start since completing the tournament would take longer than the extended period they had been assigned for the mid-term on Friday.

The students arrived to see that the classroom had been rearranged from its normal setup. Six desks had been moved to the lecture stage at the front of the room, with a large area cleared around them. A chair sat on either side of each desk, and an empty glass wheel with an iron sphere inside sat atop it.

The tournament brackets were written on the blackboard at the front of the room. There were three sections, grouping people who had started the class under one hundred thaums, between one hundred and two hundred thaums, and then everything above that.

The students crowded closer to the blackboard to see who they would be paired up against for the initial match, chattering excitedly amongst themselves.

Professor Lacer had been sitting at his desk when they came in, reading through a bound sheaf of papers. When the bell rang, he stood up. That simple movement was enough to quiet the entire classroom. “Our class’s miniature tournament starts today. We’ll use this time to go through elimination rounds, narrowing down the number of matches we need to get through on Friday. A single loss will see you disqualified to move on. If any match lasts longer than twenty minutes, both sides will be disqualified. I’ve requisitioned a couple student aides to keep track of wins and losses and keep things going smoothly, but I’ll personally be giving each of you your mid-term score.” He gestured to the two student aides, who waved to the room.

“What are we being graded on?” a student asked.

“Your Will,” Lacer said simply. “To be clear…your performance today is a chance to either confirm the assessment I’ve made of each of you throughout the term so far…or surprise me. I have made a reasonable estimation of both your dedication and your skill. Your grade will depend on the effort you have put into improving during the entire term so far as well as your ability to demonstrate your grasp of the various aspects of a powerful Will. I will be noting your capacity, your efficiency, your force, and your soundness. If you do surprise me, hope for your own sake that it is positively—a show of extra capability under pressure, rather than a disappointment.”

He moved to the front of the room and walked slowly pas them, watching them critically in a way that reminded Sebastien of Fekten. “In case any of you have forgotten, this class is called Practical Will-based Casting. There will be no theoretical or written portion to this exam. What matters is your ability to perform in a real-life situation with real stakes. Remember, the winners in each bracket will get contribution points in addition to a grade. Let’s get started. Six matches at a time, from the top.” He waved his hand impatiently and the first twelve students scrambled to find their partners and arrange themselves under his impatient stare.

“The desks have been marked with a direction, clockwise or counter-clockwise. If the sphere moves in your direction for more than three consecutive seconds, you have won,” he said.

When the first twelve contestants were seated, the spell arrays were written, and the student aides had their pocket watches, clipboards, and pens ready, Professor Lacer nodded sharply. “Begin.” He watched intently as the students obeyed.

Damien, Ana, and Sebastien stood to the side watching. Sebastien was in the third bracket. She looked around, but even a perusal of the stronger students in the class didn’t lead to an epiphany about the identity of her partner. She leaned closer to Damien, murmuring, “Do you know who S. Vanderville is?”

“Simon Vanderville,” Damien murmured back, not taking his eyes off the contestants. Less than a minute in, half of the matches had already been decided, with one side being unable to keep their opponent from moving the sphere against them for three consecutive seconds.

“Okay. But who is that?” she asked. “Can you point him out?”

Damien’s eyebrows rose, but when he looked at her sincere expression, he sighed and rolled his eyes in amusement. “I forgot. You erase ‘unimportant things’ like peoples’ names from your memory.” He jerked his chin toward a familiar looking man. “That’s Simon. You’ve actually partnered with him several times, Sebastien.”

Vanderville noticed her looking and gave her a solemn nod.

“He doesn’t stand a chance against you,” Ana said, giving Vanderville a sweet smile that contrasted her words.

Vanderville blushed and looked away.

Damien snorted. “Of course he doesn’t. Sebastien couldn’t even remember his name. He’s going to crush Vanderville like an ant.”

From her vague memories of practicing against him, Sebastien thought that was probably true. “Well, I’ll try not to be too ruthless about it. I want to make sure Professor Lacer has enough time to judge both of us thoroughly. If I just win in the first three seconds, that wouldn’t be fair to Vanderville.”

Damien stared at her for a second, his eyes narrowed. “Do you think you could? Win in the first three seconds, that is?”

Sebastien ran her tongue across the back of her teeth for a few seconds of contemplation. “I think so. If for no other reason than that it would probably take him off guard.”

Damien nodded, rubbing his fingers together thoughtfully. He turned to Ana. “What would you say the odds on that are?”

“At least three to one,” Ana replied immediately.

Damien turned back to Sebastien. “Do it. Don’t go easy on him.” With his fingers digging through his pockets, Damien turned away and began to weave through the crowd, murmuring something to the people he passed, occasionally pointing out Sebastien and his upcoming opponent to them.

Sebastien frowned after hm, then turned to Ana expectantly. “Is he taking bets?”

Ana smiled serenely. “As children, we used to do it frequently to get extra coin for spending, until all our friends refused to wager with us any more. He’s always enjoyed that look of surprise and dismay on people’s faces when he’s proven right.”

“Smug little shit,” Sebastien muttered.

Ana elbowed her in the side, not hard enough to really hurt.

Sebastien laughed. When Damien looked her way, Sebastien mouthed “Fifty-fifty,” to him.

With an expression of reluctance, he nodded and continued working the crowd.

“Wait. Should I be looking worried right now?” she said. “If I look too confident, they might not want to bet against me.” Ennis had loved to gamble, often to their detriment, but he’d also been a schemer that did whatever possible to tip the odds in his favor. Sometimes that worked out, and sometimes it got them into even more trouble.

Ana sighed deeply and walked away to chat with another group of students. At first, Sebastien thought she’d irritated the other girl, until she heard her say, “I know Sebastien probably doesn’t have a chance against Vanderville, but he’s my friend, so I’m still going to bet on him. What do you think? I heard Vanderville’s a third term student, on track to be a student liaison next term. Sebastien’s been practicing, but… He was up studying all night. He must be exhausted. Am I going to lose my coin?”

Some of the group members immediately agreed, with some variation of amusement and excitement, that she was going to lose her bet, and briefly consoled her before going to place their own wager with Damien.

Sebastien concealed her smile, doing her best to look both exhausted and secretly apprehensive.

The first set of matches took less than five minutes, on average, with each desk being vacated and filled again under the direction of the student liaisons as soon as a winner was declared.

Professor Lacer, leaning against his desk and observing, never moved from his spot or dropped his concentration, though his lips moved frequently as if he were muttering, and his pen scribbled notes as if controlled by an invisible hand.

After a few rounds of matches in the first bracket, Sebastien realized she was wasting precious time and not gaining much from watching, so she took out a book and moved to the edge of the room to read.

She became engrossed, and was surprised when one of the student aides approached her with irritation. “Siverling? It’s your turn.”

Sebastien hurriedly tucked the book back in her satchel and walked through the crowd to take a seat across from Vanderville at the desk. She drew her own preferred glyphs onto the Circle and began bringing her Will to bear.

She didn’t start channeling any of the power from the three small tea candles prepared for her. She was just preparing, coiling up like a snake about to strike.

As soon as the student aide said the word, “Start,” Sebastien unleashed all the tension she’d been gathering. She sucked at the candles, riding the edge between extinguishing them and drawing as much power from their heat as possible. Her Will bore down like a clenching fist, squeezing as much utility out of the power as she could.

The sphere spun around the wheel so quickly it turned into a blur.

Three seconds later, the student aide said, “Winner, Siverling!”

Vanderville stared at the ball as it slowly lost momentum. He looked up to Sebastien, then down to the ball.

He looked like a puppy that had just been struck by lightning and didn’t understand what had just happened.

Sebastien felt a little bad for him. “Better luck next time.” She stood and met Professor Lacer’s gaze for a moment, but his expression didn’t give anything away.

Damien jumped up and down from excitement, shaking Ana’s arm. “Did you see that!?” he exclaimed.

There were quite a few looks of shock and dismay among the other students, likely those who had bet against Sebastien.

Sebastien gave Damien a small smirk as she passed, the crowd parting for her as she returned to the edge of the room and took out her book again.

Damien spent the remainder of the class period extracting coin from the people who owed him.

When the bell rang to signify the end of the period, the class had finished all the initial elimination rounds and a handful of the second-level matches, too.

As they made their way back to the dorms, Damien counted the money and handed Sebastien her cut.

She grinned, infected by his enthusiasm. She’d just made nine silver from a little bit of showing off. University students were much too rich. “That won’t keep working over and over,” she warned.

“Oh, don’t be such a downer, Sebastien,” Damien said. “What do you say we go down into the city tonight and get a real meal with our winnings? I can’t stand another night of the cafeteria slop while watching upper term students eat lobster and pheasant. It’ll be fun! And we need the energy for the upcoming tests. Come on! We can get the whole gang together.”

Sebastien frowned reluctantly. Any restaurant Damien picked was sure to be expensive, and as much as she wanted a good, filling meal, she also had the weight of her debt to the Verdant Stag hanging over her, and her need to prepare for not only the mid-terms, but her upcoming job as an assistant healer.

“Come on,” Damien wheedled. “You can make fun of Alec as much as you want. Doesn’t that sound refreshing?”

Ana let out a snort of amusement. “Damien’s right. You need to take breaks to perform at your maximum potential, Sebastien. I know a nice restaurant with great musicians, not too ostentatious. The Glasshopper has the most delightful desserts, and I really do mean delightful. There is even pudding that they set on fire when they serve it to you!” She reached out and tugged on Sebastien’s sleeve cajolingly, batting her lashes over those big blue eyes.

“I suppose,” she agreed reluctantly. ‘If I pretend money is not fungible, I can pay for it with the unexpected windfall I just made and not feel too pained.

There was a crowd in the dormitory hallway, blocking them from getting into their dorm room.

Sebastien frowned, taking in the expressions of the students milling about. “Something’s wrong.”

Damien reached out to grab another student’s elbow. “What happened?”

“Someone died,” they said.

The words knocked the exuberance out of Damien’s eyes. “Who? Was it in our dorm?”

The student responded, but Sebastien wasn’t listening. Two infirmary employees were carrying a stretcher with a cloth-covered body through the doors, and the crowd pressed back and parted to give them space.

They passed right by Sebastien. Her senses took in every detail as the sounds around her seemed to blur and soften, like she was hearing them from underwater.

White cloth, contouring around the body and features just enough to make what lay below obvious.

The smell of hastily cleaned vomit and feces. Bodies released, when the life left them. It was common.

No crimson, no smell of blood.

The person’s hand slipped from the side of the stretcher and flopped down. It was almost voyeuristic, that peek at what lay beneath, and it felt like a perverse glimpse into something that should have been shrouded.

Without thinking, Sebastien reached out, grasping the dead boy’s pale wrist between her fingers and slipping it back under the protective covering of the white cloth.

His skin was still warm.

It was only once the stretcher was out of sight that the sound of the world rushed back in.

Near the doors of their dormitory room, a girl wailed, collapsing to her knees as two of her friends held her. Tears streamed down all three of their faces.

That, too, seemed like something private that Sebastien wasn’t meant to see. She turned her head away as a couple more healers from the infirmary tipped a potion against the girl’s lips, urging her to swallow.

Her wails of anguish cut off as the potion sedated her, and they carried her off, too, leaving her two crying, but less hysterical friends behind.

A warm hand slipped over the top of Sebastien’s, and she looked down to see that at some point, she’d grabbed Damien’s wrist and was squeezing it in a bruising grip. She let him go immediately, looking away from his expression of sympathy.

She turned back, not quite sure where she was planning to go, just wanting to get away from the dorms, from the too-close crowd and the feeling of suffocation.

Tanya was standing right beside her, an inscrutable expression on her face, her arms crossed over her chest.

Sebastien met her eyes for a second.

Tanya sighed. “Will-strain,” she said. “He won’t be the last.”

The words reverberated in Sebastien’s mind with a rumble of premonition.

Sorry I missed last week’s chapter. I got covid and was out of commission. I’m fine and slowly recovering now, just tired. 

We’re about ready for the next Patreon Goal bonuses, which includes an omake chapter this time around. I’ve got a list of ideas, and patrons are going to be voting on them. If you have any ideas for something you’d particularly like to see added to the poll, let me know via commenting below.

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Chapter 71 – The Penultimate Piece

Sebastien

Month 1, Day 9, Saturday 9:00 a.m.

As Sebastien, she went to Oliver’s house, dropping off the purchased packages for the Verdant Stag in his office. Over a hundred gold went to pay down her debt, though she kept fifteen gold for herself, for miscellaneous expenses. ‘I’m making progress.

She put her two new potted plants in her room, turning on the light crystal lamp and placed it right beside the sempervivum apricus. They needed a lot of light to survive, and with it being winter this far north, the illumination from the gloomy sky through the window wouldn’t be enough.

On Friday, she decided to go back to Professor Lacer, but the thought of seeing him reminded her of the auxiliary exercises which she had been somewhat slacking off on. During the free period where her second class of the day would have been, she slipped into the classroom which Damien and his little study group used, which was empty. She secretly stole some of Damien’s coffee, then spent the whole period practicing a simple spell that compressed air into a ball. It seemed to augment the rock-creation and disintegration spell that Professor Lacer had introduced in class, but she found the extra control she gained from it was particularly useful for improving the range and size of her fabric-slicing spell, which used an edge of compressed air.

That evening, she took the time to review and clean up the sleep-proxy spell she’d been working on for the last few weeks. It was the most complex spell array for anything she’d ever considered casting, largely because she had tried to make the Word as comprehensive as humanly possible, including the equivalent of pages of detailed instructions in tiny script which spiraled around a long section of the edge.

On Saturday morning, she rolled up the extra-large sheet of paper she’d written the spell array on and put it into her satchel, anxiety turning her stomach sour.

Professor Lacer had told her to bring it to him, when she’d finished improving it. Showing what could easily be construed as evidence of intent to cast blood magic to a professor sounded like an absolutely idiotic idea. But since he already knew she was working on it, hadn’t expelled her, and instead actually helped her with it, it’s not like this second review would place her in any additional danger. From what she’d seen of him so far, it seemed more likely he would expel her for trying to cast it without a final review from an expert than for the spell itself.

His only office hours that didn’t immediately follow one of his teaching periods was early in the morning on Saturday. Sebastien suspected this was meant to deter those without a true reason to see him, since most students would be sleeping in, and those who weren’t might prefer eating breakfast to his oppressive demeanor and scathing tongue.

She knocked on his door.

The door opened seemingly on its own, though he was sitting behind the desk with a mug of steaming black coffee. He motioned her in, closing the door behind her with with a nonchalant wave of his hand, within which he held a small beast core for energy.

Without preamble, she took the rolled-up paper out of her bag and handed it to him.

He took it with a slightly raised eyebrow, and laid it flat across his desk. “This is quick work,” he murmured, his eyes flicking over the spell array as he sipped his coffee.

It’s easy to work on it when I can’t sleep,’ she thought.

He waved absently for her to sit down.

About ten silent minutes later, he looked up. “Passable, for a first term student. At least you’ve done your research. It won’t immediately blow up, with the right Will.”

Sebastien let out a soft breath, deflating slightly. She swallowed. “On an unrelated note, I’d like to use one of the school’s Henrik-Thompson artifacts to test my capacity. Would you be willing to facilitate that?”

His eyebrow raised again, and he stared at her for a moment.

She stared back, straight-backed and still.

He stood abruptly, and she almost startled. He rolled up her spell notes and handed them back to her. “Come,” he said, motioning with his wrist. “Do you know how to calculate thaumic requirements?” he asked as they walked.

“I understand the theory. We’ve done a little practice in Burberry’s Intro to Magic and in Natural Science, but the calculations are a little beyond me for this spell.”

“Hmm,” he said inscrutably. He led her down a couple curved hallways to a door near Burberry’s classroom. It was a storage closet. He pulled a Henrik-Thompsons testing artifact off one of the shelves, placing it on the floor in the middle of the room. He looked around and then pulled a small brazier off another shelf, lighting it with a snap of his fingers. “Well, go ahead. I’ll take the measurement reading,” he said.

Her star sapphire Conduit was still tucked uncomfortably inside the lip of of her boot, pressing against her calf, but the one he’d given her was tucked in an easily accessible pocket, secured from loss by the chain threaded through her vest and attached to her pocket watch.

He seemed to eye it with satisfaction, nodding slightly.

She sat down on the floor, cross-legged, focusing her Will to prepare for a hard push.

With a wave of his hand, Professor Lacer created a sucking motion in the air behind her, pulling the door closed on the two of them.

For a moment, she felt trapped, in a small dark room with a powerful, dangerous man standing over her. Then she reminded herself how ridiculous she was being and began to pull energy from the brazier, pushing it into the spell array attached to the crystal ball of the artifact.

She bore down with her Will, tightening her grip on the magic, commanding the power to flow, more and more until the storage closet filled with light.

She felt the strain as she reached the edge of her capacity. She breathed into the stretch, holding tighter and pushing farther, just a little farther.

Finally, she reached the point where she could reach no further without snapping. She held the magic for a second, then two, and then released it slowly, making sure it didn’t burn her like a rope slipping too fast from her grip.

She rolled her shoulders and her jaw. Something inside her mind felt stretched, but not strained, loose and relaxed.

“Three hundred fifteen thaums,” Professor Lacer announced, one eyebrow raised.

It was more than she’d hoped. It meant maybe she could try to cast the spell soon, rather than waiting weeks or months to become strong enough.

“How many hours a week do you spend casting?”

Sebastien stood, dusting her backside off. “I don’t keep track,” she said, shrugging. “I just practice till I’m too tired to go on.”

He stared at her for a moment, then quenched the flames in the brazier and returned the items to the shelves they’d come from. “Your Will is not as abysmal as I feared, but it will not be nearly enough to cast that spell. Even with the variable casting times you have built into the process, you would need at least five hundred thaums of enduring capacity to finish the process in less than four or five hours. Perhaps six or even seven hundred. The final step would take you perhaps three hours, at that strength. I did not calculate it precisely.”

Siobhan’s stomach dropped somewhere down around her feet. Or at least it felt like it. Enduring capacity wasn’t the same as maximum capacity. She could hold about two thirds of her maximum for long periods, and even then casting at the edge of her limit for three hours in a single stretch was quite a feat. She needed to gain another two or three hundred thaums before being able to cast the spell. If she had been practicing magic for a few thousand more hours, gaining a few hundred thaums would be much quicker. But for someone at her strength, it would take her another thousand hours of practice or so, on the low end.

She slumped.

Professor Lacer eyed her for a while longer, then spoke as if he didn’t notice her discouragement. “New spells must be tested before being cast on anything, or anyone, of importance. I’m sure you’ve heard the somewhat famous example of Master Susva, who accidentally killed himself while testing new healing spells on himself.”

“Yes,” she said. “He damaged his body’s ability to create more blood, and died several weeks later. He didn’t understand the theory of what he was doing well enough, which is a common danger for spell-creators. Running a diagnostic spell on a test subject like a mouse might have saved his life.”

“Come with me,” he said. He lead her back to his office, where he scribbled something on a card of paper.

She moved to the fire in the corner, took out the rolled-up paper with the evidence of her sleep-proxy spell, and fed it into the low flames, making sure no little bits escaped. She told herself it wasn’t out of spite, but caution. She’d already done the same to the rest of the notes she’d taken. The only parts that remained outside her mind were in her grimoire, and that was warded against intrusion.

Professor noted her actions with an inscrutable look, handing her the card. “This book should be in the library. It explains how to run a proper experiment and interpret the data. Professor Gnorrish is competent enough, but he won’t be running his first term students through this type of rigorous analyses.” He paused, then said, “Your improvement might be quicker than you think. If you look in the more advanced research texts on the subject, you will find that not everyone advances at exactly the same rate. You have talent, Mr. Siverling. That will only become more and more apparent over time, and with dedication.”

Is he trying to cheer me up?’ she wondered. Normally, hearing Thaddeus Lacer admit that she had talent would have made her ecstatic. Even now, if was…pretty awesome. “Thank you,” she said. “Is there any way to increase channeling capacity more quickly? Special exercises, or a spell…?”

“Many thaumaturges throughout history have asked that same question. If I were to give advice, I would tell you to continue doing whatever you have been doing.”

Somewhat disappointed, she turned the card over to the other side. It was a ticket for one contribution point. She looked up to him with wide eyes.

His lips twitched in a flicker-fast hint of amusement. “One point, for curiosity, and the good sense not to let it turn into foolishness. Learning how to thread the needle between greatness and recklessness is of the utmost importance. Complacency will lead you only to mediocrity. But recklessness in search of greatness can provoke horrors you never imagined.”

She tucked the card away in her vest pocket, trying not to grin. “I will not be reckless,” she promised. “I understand the danger.”

“Do you?” he seemed skeptical, but waved a hand at her before she could answer. “Off you go, now. I expect this little extracurricular project will not affect your performance in next week’s mid-terms.”

“Of course not,” she said, remembering her shameful performance on the entrance exam. “I won’t let people question your decision to have such a mediocre student admitted.”

His eyebrow quirked up again, and this time his smile was a bit slower. “See that you don’t,” he said without looking at her, focused on a half-read sheaf of papers on his desk.

Sebastien shut the door to his office behind her, her emotions a mix of buoyant light and sinking dark. ‘An extra two hundred thaums, minimum. That could take me until I’ve finished my third term and gotten my official Apprentice certification. It’s great that the spell is tenable, and it’s even better that Professor Lacer seems to have acknowledged me, but it doesn’t solve my problem. Is there any way to lower the spell’s power requirement without lowering its efficacy?’ Thinking of spending the next year or two in her current situation made her eyes burn with stymied rage.

I have to find a way. Not recklessly. It may not be worth my life, but it’s worth a lot. How can I cast a spell that I can’t cast?

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Chapter 70 – Old Wives’ Tales

Siobhan

Month 1, Day 7, Thursday 6:30 p.m.

As was the nature of time, it passed—all the way into the new year. Sebastien had to cast a deafening hex on herself to get to sleep on New Year’s Eve, setting up a string ward across the doorway to her cubicle so she could feel secure going to sleep in a room full of other people, many of whom were somehow intoxicated. ‘I hate wealthy, well-educated young adults,’ she lamented, pulling her blankets over head. ‘I wish I were as frightening as Professor Lacer. He could just open the door and look around for three seconds, and I would be guaranteed peace for the rest of the night.

She confirmed that there would be no secret meeting that weekend, then spent most of it at Oliver’s house, doing alchemy to prepare for the attack on the Morrows. Her Will had grown enough that she was able to prepare a few more doses of the less intensive items per batch, and accordingly, her payment for a weekend of work increased. She’d made almost twenty gold in only two days of work.

To be fair, it was exhausting work, and it pushed her to her limits by the end of the day, but it meant that she could make more in a week than the interest on her debt.

Early the next week, the secret organization’s paper ornaments placed in windows throughout the city changed, indicating there would be another meeting that Thursday.

Oliver gave Sebastien a pouch of gold and a list of things he wanted her to see if she could buy.

She left first, changing her appearance at the Silk Door and then returning to the base of the white cliffs to wait for Tanya to leave the University.

She had instructed Damien to stay behind when Tanya left that evening, and was relieved to see that he followed her instructions without grumbling.

Siobhan was Tanya’s only tail, as far as she could tell.

She followed the other woman from a distance, but Tanya didn’t stop to talk to anyone or enter any buildings. After Tanya had arrived at the secret meeting spot, Siobhan waited a few minutes before entering herself.

She wore her own mask this time, not trusting the one the organizers had provided. If it were her, she would have secretly cast tracking spells on all of them to give herself the upper hand over the members. Knowledge was power, after all.

Among this group of masked, dangerous thaumaturges, she was nervous, still feeling awkward and on edge, but she tried to keep that from her body language. ‘They don’t know who I am or what I’m here for. No one here has any reason to wish me ill. Tanya is completely oblivious.’ She kept imagining she felt the eyes of the meeting facilitators on her, though they weren’t staring whenever she turned to look, and she was sure there were more guards in the room than there had been the last time.

During the first part of the meeting, where people made offers of what they had to sell or trade, the chubby man she vaguely recognized from the last meeting raised his hand and said, “I brought the sempervivum apricot and mandrake for the person who wanted them last time.”

Siobhan nodded. “I have the regeneration potions.”

The arbiter made a note on the paper before him. “We will handle the appraisal and exchange after the meeting.”

Siobhan paid close attention to what people offered, and managed to buy a few of the things on Oliver’s list. Liquid stone potions, for fortifications and stabilizing people with broken bones. A batch of philtres that when breathed in, created a sealed bubble inside a punctured lung, keeping someone from drowning in their own blood. A couple minor healing potions, which could be used when something like her regeneration potion wasn’t enough. An artifact that stored large masses of water inside a folded space and then released it again in a powerful spray. It did not contain any weight-affecting spells, so would be almost impossible to carry when fully loaded with liquid, but with the help of a couple horses, it could be used to put out fires, or even to attack crowds. Additionally, with the right kind of damage to the artifact, it could probably cause a deadly explosion of water.

Tanya sent a few distrustful looks Siobhan’s way, because it was obvious she was gearing up for some sort of altercation, but she didn’t seem to suspect Siobhan of being the Raven Queen.

Tentatively, Siobhan pulled out a pouch from her pocket. She cleared her throat. “I have some celerium for sale. One small conduit, rated at one hundred thaums, for twenty gold. One conduit at two hundred twelve thaums with a spot of contamination, for sixty-two gold. And a shattered conduit that was originally rated at two hundred fifty thaums, for twenty-five gold.” She had calculated the sale price based off the current market price, deducting a little for the absence of magic tax, and a lot due to the shattered nature of the larger conduit. Celerium pieces couldn’t be merged back together, and only the weakest child would be able to channel through the remaining shards. Celerium grew exponentially more expensive with increasing size and clarity, so most of the worth of her old Conduit was gone. Still, celerium was used in a few powerful spells, and was a fantastic material for drawing robust, high-capacity spell arrays, so it could be used for something.

The arbiter looked around to meet the eyes of the prognos woman, who was sitting in the corner.

“I’ll give you seventy-five gold for the two unbroken Conduits, contingent on appraisal,” a woman said.

Siobhan frowned.

The fat man she’d done her other trade with said, “Eighty gold for the whole lot, and I will throw in a pound of etherwood leaves, too. Easy to resell, or smoke yourself if you enjoy them.”

Her stated price would have been one hundred seven gold for everything, but she had acknowledged ahead of time that she would go down to one hundred gold if someone wanted it all. Eighty gold was too little, and the only person she knew who smoked etherwood was Katerin.

“These prices are ridiculous,” a woman muttered sourly. “Wait a few months till the shortage is over and you’ll be able to get that celerium for half the price.”

The fat man hesitated, but said, “My offer stands. I like to build up relationships with useful people.”

“One hundred fifteen gold for all the celerium,” the arbiter said suddenly.

Siobhan straightened, staring at him from behind her mask. Many of the other members were surprised as well. That was more than the combined individual price for all three Conduits.

A few people, including Tanya, looked between the arbiter and Siobhan with suspicion.

She tried not to show her surprise, in case the man changed his mind, and was grateful for the mask that had covered her facial expressions. “Any other offers?” she asked.

No one spoke up.

“Alright. One hundred fifteen gold,” she agreed.

Finally, the offerings portion of the meeting was over, and they moved on to requests.

Tanya spoke up immediately. “Last time, I requested help setting up a meeting with the Raven Queen. Was there any success?”

The man with the horns, who had offered to help her last time, shook his head. “I tried, but my contact refused to help. They were afraid to talk about the Raven Queen at all. Wouldn’t even say her name. Apparently Lord Lynwood is cracking down. I suggest you to go to the Verdant Stag and ask there. The red-haired proprietress has connections to Lord Stag, and he should be able to get you an audience.”

It seemed as if perhaps Lord Lynwood had heeded Siobhan’s relayed request for him to limit the gossip his people were doing about her with a little more vehemence than she’d anticipated.

Tanya scowl was obvious in her voice. “I’m not paying for that kind of ‘help,’” she snapped. “If I wanted to go to the Verdant Stag, I could have done that already.”

The man shrugged.

“This transaction was unsuccessful,” the arbiter said, sounding a little tense, a contrast to his normal tone of boredom. “There will be no retaliation from either party. Please be aware that violence is prohibited. As the request was not met, no payment is due.”

Tanya sighed deeply, adjusting her mask, then said, “The previous offer still stands. Anyone who can give me relevant information about the Raven Queen or set up a meeting between us will be rewarded. Gold. Beast cores. I also have access to various unusual or restricted components, if you have a very specific need. But I’m not interested in trading for anything except the Raven Queen.”

Siobhan again considered setting up the meeting between Tanya and her alternate persona herself, but decided against it. ‘I need to talk to Oliver before I make such a risky move. It might not be worth it.

One member raised his hand tentatively. “I’ve overheard a couple o’ the coppers talkin’ over drinks at my pub. Might be just as filled with rumors as the rest o’ the stuff on the street, but I’m happy to tell you, and you can judge for yourself.”

Tanya agreed, and the arbiter noted their meeting, sending a very subtle glance Siobhan’s way.

Oh. Of course he’s tense. He knows I’m the Raven Queen. The interviewers must have mentioned something. Everybody gossips,’ she though with a sigh. She wasn’t sure if it was a good thing or a bad thing. The people in charge probably wouldn’t want to sell her out to the coppers to get the reward, not with their reputations on the line, and the pseudo-misunderstanding might even have been the reason he offered such a high price for her celerium.

During the general information exchange at the end of the meeting, a woman with an old-sounding voice said, “There are rumblings of blood and violence in Gilbratha’s future. It is like a violin string pulled too tight, on the verge of snapping and slicing through flesh. Take heed. Be wary.”

“That’s pretty obvious to anyone with eyes and ears,” someone else said.

A woman nodded. “I say, stock up on the necessities and a good lock for your door. It’s always best to be prepared.”

“As a reminder, I have single-use stunning artifacts,” someone else interjected opportunistically. “It’s enough to escape in an emergency or incapacitate a burglar who’s broken into your house in the night.”

No one said anything more specific about this upcoming danger. ‘I wonder if it has anything to do with the attack on the Morrows,’ Siobhan thought, but was quickly distracted as one of the organizers waved her and the component-seller over to a side room, where the prognos woman Siobhan recognized from her interview bowed deeply to her.

Tanya was walking to her own secure room with the man who’d overheard gossip about the Raven Queen in a pub, but Siobhan didn’t worry about missing anything, because she couldn’t have listened in without being caught, anyway.

The prognos gave only a perfunctory nod to the chubby man, who looked at Siobhan with more interest after experiencing the disparity in their treatment. Siobhan’s regeneration potions were pronounced acceptable, as were the two plants the man had brought, their pots concealed within a plain wooden box, and they traded.

The man left, and the woman called in the others that Siobhan had traded with on Oliver’s behalf. When it was all finished, and they had gone, she said, “I will take the celerium, if that is acceptable to you.”

“Sure.” Siobhan handed the small pouch over. She felt some regret at parting from her oldest Conduit. Her grandfather had given it to her as a child, and it had been with her until now. Second-hand Conduits sometimes held a weak sympathetic connection to their original owners, from being kept so close and used so intimately. But unlike a piece of her body, the connection would be weak, and fade quickly. Nothing powerful enough to harm her could be cast with it.

The woman exchanged a full purse of gold before even looking into the pouch.

Siobhan was surprised. “Are you not interested in verifying my claims of quality? I could have just handed you a pouch full of pebbles.”

The woman swallowed heavily, her eye having trouble meeting Siobhan’s. “I trust in your honor,” she said weakly.

Siobhan tilted her head to the side. “Really?” That just seemed foolish. She had verified all the other transactions. It was part of her job, whether she trusted the members or not.

The woman’s hands were white-knuckled around the celerium pouch. “If you had given me a pouch of pebbles, would you have submitted to my protest about the matter? If you lied to me, what could I do about it?”

“That is ridiculous,” Siobhan said before she could think better of it.

The woman rocked back on her feet, her knuckles whitening further. “I will appraise them immediately. I apologize, I meant no insult.” She fumbled with the mouth of the pouch.

Siobhan sighed, amazed at how gullible people could be. The woman hadn’t seemed this frightened of her the last time. “Not all rumors about me have any basis in truth,” she said, making her voice as soothing as possible in an attempt to calm the woman. “I am not dishonest, and if somehow I had given you pebbles instead of celerium, I would expect you to complain, and either refuse to pay me, or ask for equivalent recompense. I do not commit random acts of violence. I know you told the arbiter who I am, but I’m not so angry as to retaliate. However, I would appreciate it if you refrained from adding even more nonsense to the rumors.”

It was rather disheartening to feel like an axe murderer threatening a defenseless woman who was trapped in a small room with her. The Raven Queen’s reputation might have some benefits, but it could have downsides, too, if people felt they were trapped or in danger and decided to resort to excessive force to “protect” themselves from her. A cornered rat would bite, and the real Siobhan Naught couldn’t match up to her shadowed reputation.

The woman barely seemed comforted, but she nodded and whispered, “I understand. Thank you.” She gave Siobhan a couple tentative glances then said, “I suppose I am being a little ridiculous?”

It was more of a question than it should have been, but Siobhan nodded. “You are.”

The woman let out a breath, then laughed. “I’m sorry,” she said again. “It is policy to let the arbiter know when one of the members might be particularly dangerous, but I promise I haven’t been gossiping about you. I may have been listening to too many distorted rumors, though.” She hesitated. “Could I ask a question?”

“You may, but I do not promise to answer.” Siobhan’s divination-diverting ward was active at a low level, of course, but she didn’t want to risk trying to lie to a prognos.

“Why can’t I focus on you? I can think about you when you’re not in the room with me, but standing so close to you, I just have the urge to look away or think about something else.”

Siobhan considered that this might be a dangerous question to answer, but decided, ‘The Raven Queen can’t be the only person in the city warded against divination. Hopefully the effect isn’t distinguishably strange enough for it to be something a passing prognos could use to be suspicious of Sebastien Siverling.

Aloud, she said, “For the same reason you could not divine if my answers were truthful. By your nature you cannot help but see deeper, and I am immune to divination.” That was an exaggeration, but of the kind Siobhan didn’t mind spreading. Maybe if people thought it was impossible, they wouldn’t even try. On a whim, Siobhan decided to push it one step further. “Those who try too hard may find that though they do not see me, I see them.

“Oh,” the woman said softly.

“Goodnight,” Siobhan said. By the time she left, Tanya had a significant head start, but Siobhan was able to catch up with the other girl and follow her back to the University. Tanya walked hurriedly and turned a few corners rather abruptly, and Siobhan almost lost her a couple times, but thankfully could rely on the compass divination spell to keep from needing to follow suspiciously closely.

She watched Tanya ride up to the University grounds in the clear tubes that wove over the cliffside, then turned back toward the Silk Door. She watched her breath fog up in the cool air under the light of a streetlamp. ‘I made almost one hundred and twenty gold tonight! I wonder what I can sell next time?’ She held back a squeal of excitement.

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