Chapter 29 – Kindred Spirits

Sebastien

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sebastien’s eye twitched.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And what does it mean to us?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He nodded slowly, still whistling quietly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dryden has triggered the ward on my bracelet.

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

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Chapter 28 – Admit You Don’t Understand

Sebastien

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

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

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

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

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

Sebastien leaned forward, intrigued.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beside Sebastien, Ana laughed aloud.

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

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

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

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

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

Damien preened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The bell rang, but no one moved to leave.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Titans went insane.”

“Magic broke.”

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

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

Sebastien shivered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chapter 27 – Study Group

Sebastien

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sebastien’s lips quirked up at the thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He scowled, the bags under his eyes standing out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ascott burst out laughing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neither Sebastien nor Westbay found her words soothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chapter 26 – Bargains Big and Small

Oliver

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oliver spun, throwing open a door.

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

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

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

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

He tried to shove the purse at Oliver again.

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

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

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

“If your daughter cannot be saved…”

The man gritted his teeth, blinking rapidly.

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

Pale-faced, he nodded, swallowing hard.

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

The man nodded rapidly. “Yes, yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He told her his idea for incentivizing Theo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You work even longer hours.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oliver welcomed them cordially.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eliezer didn’t seem particularly reassured by that.

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

Eliezer nodded slowly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oliver offered them another glass of liquor before they left.

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

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

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

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

Chapter 25 – Alchemy

Sebastien

Month 11, Day 14, Saturday 5:30 p.m.

Sebastien considered sending a message to Dryden through the University Administration center, whose mail department was behind the occasional paper bird she saw flying through the air, but decided against it, since she didn’t know what information Administration tracked when sending them. Or even if the spell worked at distances farther than the University grounds. She resolved to learn how to cast it, or another simple communication spell, herself.

Instead, she simply arrived at his house that evening, her nose and cheeks red from the cold.

Dryden offered her a cup of hot, spiced cocoa, which she would normally have savored and allowed to warm her, but she took just a sip, set it down on the edge of his desk, and promptly forgot about it as she explained why she’d come.

Dryden was much less concerned about the coppers’ knowledge of the raven messenger than she was. He was sleep-deprived, the symptoms of which she was quite familiar with. He rubbed bloodshot eyes. “So they know you spoke with him. He knew nothing relevant, so they couldn’t have learned much from him. And it’s not as if finding the dead raven can lead them back to you. You are a young man from a good background attending the very prestigious Thaumaturgic University of Lenore. Siobhan is a poor young woman who is in hiding or has left the city altogether after arguing with her father. No matter what other clues they gather—and trust me, what they have is not enough to be useful—there is a disconnect between those ideas. There is no precedence for such a thing. Even if they had real evidence, it’s unlikely they could understand the true implications of what they were seeing.”

She grimaced, pacing back and forth in front of him. “I understand what you’re saying, but there could be factors at work that we don’t understand, or pivotal pieces of information we’re missing. Is there any way to get better insight into what their investigation has uncovered? I would feel better if we knew they were nowhere near to discovering the truth, as opposed to merely hoping and speculating that I am safe. That we are safe.”

He sighed, running a hand over his jaw. “You’re right. I don’t have any direct contacts in Harrow Hill, but I can inquire around. Give me a few days.”

She stopped pacing and nodded, letting her shoulders hang with released tension.

“While you are here, why not stay for dinner?” he asked.

Almost giddy with the relief that Dryden would be using his considerable resources to make sure she was safe, she laughed. “Yes, please! I cannot wait to taste something other than the University slop!”

Dryden yawned a lot and ate slowly, but seemed pleased to have her drop by. He enquired about her progress in her studies, asked intelligent questions when she explained what she was learning, and looked at her with an expression that was not quite satisfaction and not quite pride, but which left her feeling quite gratified with his company.

After dinner, he went back to his study, and she took the time to check on the ancient book she’d hidden inside the mattress in her room. It was still there, seemingly undisturbed.

She took it out and placed it on the floor, staring at the incomprehensible glyph stamped into its leather cover. She needed a better hiding place for it. ‘Maybe I could cut up some of the floor, hollow out a hole in the marble the exact size of the book, and then seal it back up again?’ She eyed the matte marble dubiously. Each square was fit snugly against the others, with no visible grout or binding medium. ‘My mending spell might be able to handle that, but how am I supposed to cut one of those blocks free? Could I use a sympathetic movement spell to lift one directly out of the floor?

She leaned her ear to the floor and tapped on it, hoping for a hollow sound. There was none. ‘Not a facade, then. The marble must be at least two inches thick. Knowing the Gilbrathan tendency for excess, these floors are made of pure stone.’ She hurried back downstairs and looked at the ceiling from the ground floor. Sure enough, it was marble. ‘They could have put a facade on either side, but I’d bet they just made the whole structure from stone and used extreme precision and magic to keep everything together.

Some quick calculations disabused her of any hope of using a sympathetic connection to lift one of the blocks. ‘I’m at somewhere over two hundred thaums, but under two hundred and fifty. That’s enough to lift about fifty pounds, or twenty-three kilograms, one meter per second. But those blocks have to be many times that. I might be able to manage if I could lift very slowly, spreading that energy expenditure out over a longer time period, but there’s still the structural integrity of the floor to consider. Plus, if they bound the blocks together with anything, I’m back to needing some sort of cutting spell.

She set the idea aside as impractical and pulled out her grimoire.

She caressed the scuffed leather cover lovingly, then flicked through the pages filled with notes, questions, and sketches till she found the page where she’d copied decryption, nullifying, and revealing spells from the reference texts she’d found in the University library. Students weren’t allowed to take books off University grounds, so she’d painstakingly copied the relevant sections into her own grimoire.

These spells may be simple and meant for children, but that doesn’t mean they won’t work. We’ve made significant advancements since the time the amulet and the book were created. Maybe one of these will work based on a principle the creator didn’t think to ward against.

It took her over two hours to work through every spell she’d copied, drawing the arrays onto the floor in chalk, setting out the components closest to the suggested ones from the books, and then erasing the Word and trying again with the next one.

She kept hoping that the next one would work.

None did. That might have been because of the exceptional creativity of the creator, or her own relative weakness.

In the end, she was exhausted. She dragged herself back to the University, numb frustration hounding every step.

Back at the dorms, she skipped Professor Lacer’s exercises for once and simply went to sleep. She felt better in the morning, but she was becoming less enchanted with only having access to the first level of the library. Maybe what she needed was on one of the upper floors, or even the archives in the lower levels.

Over the next week, she tried not to let her worry over the investigation affect her studies. If anything, her fear of possible expulsion and arrest pushed her harder. It was an impulse to absorb all the magical knowledge she could in case this opportunity was ripped away.

Professor Lacer apparently got angry at some mishandling of magic by one of the second term students and had him expelled from the University in a scene that Sebastien hadn’t personally witnessed, but which grew more dramatic with every retelling she heard. She even heard a version that claimed Lacer turned the student into a sheep out of anger and sent the bleating young man back to his family with a note that said, “Your son was raised like an animal, so I have unified his outer appearance to match the inner.”

It wasn’t that she believed the rumors—well, not the more theatrical versions—but they did little to reassure her of the stability of her status as a student.

On Saturday, she left the University early in the morning and spent some time browsing Waterside Market for ingredients. As someone without even an Apprentice license, technically she shouldn’t have been allowed to buy magical items, even if she was a University student, because they provided their students with supplies. However, an attitude of arrogance, her expensive clothing, and a quick flash of the sky kraken burnt into the back of her student token allowed her to get what she needed, and no one insisted on needing to see her certification before selling to her. It probably helped that she didn’t require any restricted or particularly powerful components.

Waterside Market itself imbued her with a kind of giddiness, despite the pain she felt in her money purse when looking at the standard prices. They had spell components from all over the world, some of which she had never heard of and others which she couldn’t afford.

The people were just as varied and interesting.

She saw a sorcerer walking around with a big tome of magic, which would allow him to cast a variety of spells with less than half the normal amount of preparation. The price of such a tome was ridiculously exorbitant, however.

A woman wearing robes of silk woven with active, slightly glowing spells walked past with a pair of guards, her face so beautiful Sebastien was sure she must use glamours.

There were people of other species too. Not so many of them as to avoid the looks of curiosity, but not enough to cause a sensation with their unusual appearance.

A hag wearing a big hat to protect her cataract-covered eyes from the weak sun was selling poppet luck charms that Sebastien thought might have been made of human hair.

A pixie fluttered within a huge birdcage, throwing curses and lewd gestures at the crowd, the dandruff from its constantly peeling wings falling to the bottom of the cage. Small containers of pixie dust were advertised for sale on the table beside it.

A slew of witches were recognizable because of their contracted creatures. Many were accompanied by elementals from one of the other planes, but a couple by simple magical creatures, like a cockatrice or a drake.

Sebastien caught a glimpse of a coy kitsune slipping through the crowd with her fluffy tails wrapped around her body.

A prognos, with one large eye in the center of his forehead, read fortunes at a gaudy stall. Sebastien avoided the prognos’s gaze, just in case he could see through her transformation.

A crowd consisting mostly of children and their parents surrounded an illusionist who was putting on a shadow-play, colored lights and shadows taking the form of simplified scenery and people. A young pickpocket grazed through the edge of the crowd, nimble fingers darting out whenever an opportunity presented itself.

Sebastien didn’t call out the thief, simply made sure her own purse was secure and moved on.

She already had her own small cauldron, which was all she could handle at her Will’s capacity, but along with the ingredients, she bought a whole box of small jars and vials to hold single doses of the alchemical concoctions she was about to make.

She arrived at Dryden Manor well-prepared. When she had seen him the Saturday before, she had verified that brewing at his house would be safe, and he had promised to move the finished products to the Verdant Stag for her.

She walked in through the unobtrusive door to the side of the kitchen, grinning at the servants when they exclaimed in surprise. With a wink at Sharon, who tittered like a girl ten years younger, Sebastien struggled up the stairs and gave a perfunctory knock on the doorjamb of Dryden’s study with her foot—since both her arms were full—then poked her head into the room. Dryden’s head jerked up from whatever he was working on and he blinked in surprise, seeming to come out of a fugue of intense concentration. His expression and posture both relaxed when he recognized her, and he smiled.

“I’m here to brew. Where do you want me?” she said with a grin, panting under the weight of her supplies.

“Come in,” he said, rising from his desk. “You can set your supplies there,” he said, gesturing to the bare stone table set against the inner wall of his study, near the fireplace.

“You rearranged things,” she said, looking around.

“Yes. As I understand it, there should be a clear area around the brewing station in case of accidents or explosions. I didn’t want my belongings covered in acid.”

“Nothing I will brew today is in danger of exploding,” she said flatly, one eyebrow rising.

He snickered, but pointed to the table. “Slate, since it’s chemically resistant. The fireplace is connected to the one below, so the wards should vent any fumes from your brewing.” He pointed to a basin beside the table. “That basin is spelled to draw up fresh water from the well, and has a setting to banish its contents, so you can wash your tools.”

He lingered as Sebastien set down her supplies and unpacked everything. “What are you making today?” he asked, leaning against the fireplace.

She rubbed her tired arms and put her small cauldron on the table. “It’s early yet, so I should have enough time to make a few batches. I think it will be fever-reducing potion, a minor healing salve for cuts and scrapes, and maybe a small amount of the philtre of darkness you requested, if I have the time.”

“None of the other battle potions or philtres?” He sounded disappointed.

“I’ll attempt one or two, if I can. I’ve never brewed most of the ones on your list before, and I have to be careful not to push myself too hard.” Her choice of what to brew this first day had been based on what would be most useful for the average citizen who went to the Verdant Stag. Once she felt she had produced a reasonable amount of basic healing concoctions, she had ideas about what would make her the most gold for the least effort. For instance, an elixir of euphoria was one of the more expensive items on the list Katerin had given her, and though it could be used in small doses to combat low spirits, it was more often sold recreationally. A potion of moonlight sizzle and the philtre of darkness were both something fun she wanted to try for herself, though Dryden’s emergency response teams could use them as well.

“You’re right, of course. I’m sure the University is pushing you hard, and your health is more important than a few potions. It’s only that I was somewhat excited to see them in action,” he said with a chagrined smile. “You have enough vials and jars to store it all?”

She nodded.

“You kept your receipts for the ingredients? You can give them to Katerin and she’ll reimburse you, or take the cost off your debt.”

“I have them with me. Will you give them to her, when you see her?” she asked, pulling the small stack of receipt papers from one of her larger pockets, which also held the loose change from her purchases.

Dryden’s fingers brushed against hers as he took the receipts, and a visible spark of static leapt between their skin, causing both of them to jump. She chuckled nervously, but he only rubbed his fingers together with an absent look on his face. “I have an update on the investigation,” he said with no preamble.

Her head snapped toward him.

He waved his hand. “It’s nothing to be excited about, one way or the other. It seems your father spoke to the guards about your visit, and the coppers have the raven in an evidence box, so they have Siobhan Naught firmly connected to the crime of blood magic. They are no closer to catching you, and it seems the investigation has stalled since then. They’re trying to figure out if you have a source of information within the University that tipped you off about what, where, and when to steal, hoping they can trace your ‘source’ back to you. If nothing happens to warm the investigation up, I expect it will be set aside to free up resources soon. In a few years, you will likely have no trouble returning to Siobhan’s form, though you wouldn’t be able to use your real name, of course.”

She wasn’t surprised that her father—Ennis, she reminded herself—hadn’t kept his silence about their visit, but she would be lying to herself if she didn’t admit the small pang in her chest was from disappointment. “Any news on a trial or sentencing for him?”

Dryden shook his head. “Not yet. I suspect they’re waiting till they either catch you or give up hope of doing so.”

She began to arrange her supplies on the table. ‘I have no plans to be captured. So what will happen to him then?

“Are you alright?” Dryden asked, startling her from her thoughts.

She looked up and gave him a small smile. “Yes. Don’t worry about me, I won’t jeopardize your safety—or my own—with more sentiment.”

“That wasn’t—” He sighed and shook his head, rubbing at the stubble on his jaw. “I didn’t mean to imply that.”

“Thank you for looking into the investigation, Mr. Dryden,” she said, then turned her attention back to her preparations.

After a pause, he returned to the work at his desk.

Sebastien filled the cauldron with the appropriate amount of water, poured some oil into the brazier beneath it, and set it alight to start the water warming. Like all other magic, alchemy required the three elements of Word, Will, and Sacrifice, and used a Circle to constrain the domain of effect.

The Circle ran around the center of the cauldron’s round belly, and the sphere of containment spread from there. The mouth of the cauldron was open to the air, as if the sphere had part of the top sliced off. Alchemists knew to take care not to let their hands dip into the sphere, even if it was invisible. Unlike modern sorcery, alchemical spells were cast as a ritual. The components—also ingredients, in this case—were both a portion of the Sacrifice and the Conduit through which the magic would flow. Alchemical concoctions usually took at least an hour to complete, sometimes much longer, and required concentration for the majority of the process.

She poured out a Circle of white salt on the table and prepared the ingredients for the fever reducer within its boundaries. Alchemy required a steady flow of energy rather than large bursts, except on rare occasions, but she still wouldn’t be able to safely make more than twenty doses at once.

Sebastien had plenty of experience brewing this potion, as it was universally useful, and though most of the heat and inflammation-reduction was focused on the head, it also doubled as a mild pain reliever. Someone was always willing to purchase one, and some variation of the ingredients was always relatively easy to purchase or gather.

Careful not to disturb the salt with her movements, she sliced willow, crushed spearmint, swirled a vial of lake fog nine times counterclockwise, and powdered a few hens’ teeth, to start. As she worked, she bent her Will in a steady stream upon the ingredients, directing their magical properties to specific purposes.

When she finished the initial ingredient preparation, she turned to the now-boiling cauldron and sprinkled the first of the ingredients in, moving her hand in a circle as she did. In addition to the ingredients themselves, the heat of the boiling water acted as Sacrifice, slowly dissolving the components within, even sometimes things like pebbles or glass, which otherwise wouldn’t have melted under such moderate heat.

The Word was held in the brewer’s mind as a specific intent or series of intents while they completed each step of creation, and was sometimes aided by a few rhymes or chants spoken over the boiling cauldron.

Similar to artificery, alchemy was so useful because, although slow, it allowed one to bind the effects of a spell into something that could be used later, and could be used by a relatively weak thaumaturge to create a spell they otherwise might not be able to cast on demand. Of course, some of the magical energy was lost along the way—about thirty percent, in most cases. A potion could also spoil, so some people felt alchemy was inferior to artificery, which could capture and release a larger portion of the imbued energy due to the spells being set into stone, metal, or some other high-efficiency material.

She liked alchemy in part because it was much more accessible to a commoner such as herself. Artificery required not only the components to charge the spell, but also expensive materials for the artifact itself, which many people couldn’t afford, and access to the complex mathematical and logical strings used to create the Word. Alchemy was more common, and despite the complicated rituals, it was still simpler than the elaborate, tiny spell arrays that an artificer had to carve into their items. Thus, alchemy was easier to learn outside of a structured environment like the University.

But mainly, it was the ability to cast alchemical spells as a ritual rather than an immediate spell that gave alchemy its advantage. Over the course of ninety minutes, Sebastien could pack more magic into a single-use potion than she could ever hope to cast instantaneously while imbuing an artifact.

She added the ingredients with her hands, as her grandfather had taught her, thinking of their purpose as she did so. She took deep breaths and hummed on the exhale, deep in her throat, as he had often done when brewing, though she had no proof that it actually helped. When she stirred the brew, she did so with wood taken from a living tree, feeling it heat up as magic flowed through it. She imagined the relief the potion would give the drinker, the banishment of pain, the feeling of an aching head cooling as its owner fell into sleep, while the body remained warm enough to fight off sickness. She could feel the mental fatigue as time went on, the potion greedily drinking up all the magic she could channel into it.

She brewed for a few hours, with breaks in between each session, and returned to the University after sharing another fine dinner with Dryden, where she stuffed herself to the point of bursting in an attempt to make up for the exhaustion of extended magical exertion.

She came again on Sunday, earlier this time without the need to visit the market, and returned to brewing. She pushed herself, wanting to get as much done as possible before returning to classes the next day. Plus, all magical exertion was useful to increase her Will capacity, the more difficult the better.

By sunset, vial racks filled with potions and cartons of salve jars were stacked beside the table.

She’d made two batches of the fever reducer and the minor healing salve, which went by the more common name of “skin-knitter,” as well as a single batch of the much more magic-intensive, but also better paying, revivifying potion. She’d also borrowed one of the big pots from the kitchen and used it in place of her cauldron to create a gigantic batch of the potion of moonlight sizzle, which she’d put in squat little jars that glowed ever-so-faintly blue.

When shaken, the potion roiled with contained bubbles and let off a soft but bright glow that mimicked the light of a full moon and was powerful enough to illuminate a small room on its own. It was best brewed under the actual light of a full moon, but she had substituted owl feathers and a couple handfuls of powdered moonstone, which seemed to work well enough. A jar of moonlight sizzle didn’t last as long as a spelled light crystal, only about five hundred hours, or three full weeks of light, and the output wasn’t steady, as you had to shake it every half hour or so to restart the bubbles, but it was cheaper than a light crystal, and significantly cheaper over time than an ordinary candle. Plus, she could use it to read under the covers in her dorm without worrying about setting the bed on fire with her little lantern flame.

For Dryden, she made a small batch of Speer’s philtre of stench, the fumes of which she had made sure to keep confined within the cauldron’s influence, and the philtre of darkness, which was magically intensive enough that she could only make a half-dozen per batch, like the revivifying potion.

She made sure everything was labeled properly with little slips of paper, but hesitated before signing them. It was standard for any magical creations to come with the mark of the creator, as not all thaumaturges were equal, and the consumer might prefer one alchemist, sorcerer, or warder over another. In the end, she simply initialed each of them “S.S.” and took one of each concoction for herself, with Dryden’s permission.

“No need to take it out of your commission. Think of it as a tip for your hard work,” he said, grinning at her.

Her fingers trembled faintly with exhaustion, and she had to force her eyes to focus properly. ‘I pushed myself too hard,’ she admitted, but, looking at the product of her labors, she felt no regret. ‘Still, that’s over twelve gold of pure profit, enough to cover almost nine days of accrued interest, and a handful of potions for my own use, too. If I do this every weekend till the end of term, I will at least have kept up with the interest on my debt. As my Will continues to strengthen, I’ll be able to make more expensive concoctions, and more doses per cauldron.

In a day, she had earned as much as a poorly compensated worker might make in three weeks. ‘If they have enough demand to purchase everything I can make during the ten weeks of break time the University has every year, I may even be able to pay off a good portion of the principal as well.’ Despite her fatigue, she felt satisfied with her productivity. That is, until she considered that the loan she’d been given was only for one term at the University, and she didn’t have enough left to cover the second term of the year, so would undoubtedly have to take another loan from Katerin.

Dryden looked over the table full of her work with satisfaction, rocking back and forth on his heels. “This is wonderful, Sebastien. It will make a real difference in the lives of dozens of people.”

“Well, that’s nice too, but I’m mainly interested in the money,” she admitted. “I wouldn’t work this hard for altruistic reasons.”

He gave her a slightly lopsided smile. “Well, people are selfish. That’s human nature. In a perfect world, society would incentivize individual action that was also good for the whole.”

She hesitated, but said, “There’s no such thing as a perfect world.”

The rocking on his heels stopped. “I know that,” he said softly. He picked up a potion of moonlight sizzle and shook it, watching the cold light spill past his fingers. “But it’s not unreasonable to think it can get a little better, wouldn’t you agree?”

She didn’t answer, partly because she wasn’t sure if she did agree, and partly because she was skeptical that he really believed it, either. ‘He seems too intelligent to be so…naive.’

She half dozed her way through dinner with Dryden, who seemed equally fatigued, and made it back to the dorms shortly before lights-out with barely enough energy for her nighttime routine.

Her third week at the University passed without comment, though she noticed the other students’ interest in her didn’t seem to have diminished. In fact, she found people she didn’t even recognize from her dorm—complete strangers—staring at her when they thought she wasn’t looking. A pair of girls even went so far as to follow her between classes, quickly ducking into doorways or behind other students and giggling to each other when she looked at them.

Ana, who had been walking with her at the time, laughed at Sebastien’s expression of confusion. When Sebastien scowled at her, the other girl explained. “They think you’re handsome, Sebastien. Take it as a compliment. Not all females can be as self-composed and unaffected as I.”

Sebastien felt particularly stupid for not considering that as a possibility, though she didn’t think it explained the entirety of the interest her schoolmates seemed to hold for her. ‘Perhaps my attempts to seem unassuming and forgettable have instead created an aura of mystery.’ While that would have at one point amused and even gratified her, now it was a depressing thought. ‘I hope not. People want to solve mysteries.

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Chapter 24 – The Menagerie

Sebastien

Month 11, Day 14, Saturday 4:00 p.m.

The smell of the sea was strong, even so far above Gilbratha proper. Sebastien meandered through the scattered trees, taking the time to let both her eyes and her brain wander. ‘Where shall I do the brewing? I could try to find an unused laboratory or classroom here, but that feels risky. If I were caught, I would likely not be punished, but it would be suspicious. If they caught me trying to remove large quantities of potions or salves from University grounds…

She shuddered. ‘It would make the most sense to brew in one of the Verdant Stag’s rooms, since I wouldn’t need to worry about transporting the finished alchemical concoctions. It would be best not to travel there as Sebastien, however, and I’ve already resolved to switch back and forth as little as possible until I know more about how the artifact works. I could anonymously rent a room at some random inn, but students below Apprentice level cannot legally practice magic outside the University or without the supervision of a Master. If I were caught, it would be disastrous. I might be able to brew at Dryden Manor. I lived with him for weeks already, so it’s not like intertwining our identities would create any new danger, and as long as no one knows what exactly I’m doing there, it should be safe. I assume his servants can be trusted, but perhaps I should discuss it with him.

She sighed, rubbing her forehead. ‘To sum up, I have no idea how to do this.’

She was mentally compiling a list of the ingredients she would need when the winding cobblestone path through the grounds brought her to a fence made of wrought iron bars. Its gate was bordered by two stone columns, which were buzzing ever-so-faintly in a way that signified powerful magic.

Curious, she stepped up to study the wards carved into the stone, only barely able to understand them after a few minutes of concentration. ‘This is the Menagerie,’ she realized. ‘The wards aren’t meant to keep anything out, but to keep the things on the other side in.’ With a couple seconds of hesitation, she opened the gate and stepped through, feeling the student token against her chest shudder subtly for a moment as she did so. Likely, she wouldn’t be able to pass those stone columns without it.

The gardens within were barely controlled chaos, seemingly on the edge of overgrowing into wildness, and yet giving the sense that they were meant to be so. Narrow cobblestone paths cut through it all, while a low iron fence kept the plants from spilling out over the footpaths.

She grinned. ‘It’s like the garden of wonders out of a child’s tale.

A group of purple-streaked flowers with long, tapered petals opened and turned to follow her as she passed, releasing a spray of sweet-smelling pollen into the air. Sebastien recognized them as deadly elcan irises, flesh-eating plants that lured their prey with their beauty and the soporific properties of their pollen. ‘Tanya meant it when she said this place was dangerous.’ Still, Sebastien couldn’t quite bring herself to be afraid or turn back. It was dangerous, but it was also magic.

One young sapling in the distance uprooted itself and hurried away when she came into view, hiding itself among the other plants.

A three-headed snake crossed the path ahead of her, stopping briefly to give her a dismissive glance, and a few plots over, a trio of tiny birds darted out of a tree, blinking in and out of visibility with every flap of their wings.

A small pond hosted minnow-sized fish that darted about, glinting as if they were made of precious metals polished to a high shine.

Sebastien wasn’t alone in the Menagerie. A couple of people tended the grounds, while others moved carefully through the dense flora, harvesting the plants. Those who were harvesting all had baskets made of stiff leather, which they placed their bounty into, and they would occasionally mist the plants within with water.

She stopped by a girl who was inside one of the garden plots, plucking dark green insects off a plant and placing them inside a small bottle. “Excuse me, Miss,” Sebastien said.

The girl startled, then flushed when she turned and saw Sebastien.

Sebastien smiled. “I’m new to the University. Can you tell me, do they allow students to harvest or take things from the Menagerie? I saw some snowdrops a few plots back but wasn’t sure if it would be alright to take a couple.”

The girl was looking her up and down, her cheeks bright pink, and seemed to take a moment to realize Sebastien had asked her a question. “Oh! Er, as long as you have a basket, you can harvest things and take them out. Of course, we aren’t allowed to over-harvest, but they don’t really regulate the alchemy students beyond that.”

“Oh.” Sebastien looked to the ground and put her hands in her pockets, wearing what she hoped was a convincingly innocent expression. “I have an interest in alchemy, but I didn’t have enough space to take that class this term. Is that the only way to get a basket?”

The girl shrugged apologetically. “I’ve seen students from the Zoology, Horticulture, and Herbology classes here, too. Perhaps you could speak to one of the professors and they would let you have one, if you explained your situation?”

Sebastien nodded noncommittally and murmured, “Perhaps,” before thanking the girl and continuing on.

This place is a treasure trove of ingredients and components, and I’m sure the University administrators are aware of that and have prepared against theft.’ It seemed safer to get any items she wouldn’t want them to know about from the market in town, or have someone from the Verdant Stag purchase them for her. Still, if I have a chance to safely and anonymously obtain a basket, or find another way to bypass those wards, the things within the Menagerie might give me an actual chance to repay Katerin. Magical components are expensive.’ She didn’t consider it theft. She’d paid the University hundreds of gold for only a few months within its walls, and would continue to do so. Repurposing a few of their magical components was her right as a student. It was only good sense to take full advantage of any and all opportunities presented to her.

By the time the sun began to set, she had strolled through the entire lower-security part of the Menagerie. The inner gate, beyond which lay the significant majority of the gigantic artificial habitat, did not open for her. She took that as a sign that it would be unsafe to enter and didn’t continue trying, though she wondered what could be in the thick forest beyond.

She turned back the way she’d come, meandering slowly toward the entrance. Along the way, she passed a few people strolling idly like her. She even saw Professor Munchworth in the distance, leaning over a small bridge above a stream and looking into the water. She wished for a moment that she could cast some spell that would send him tumbling in while she kept an innocent distance, but even the ire he brought up in her stomach couldn’t spoil her good mood.

She felt relaxed, and realized she even wore a rare smile of contentedness, despite her inability to possess any of the treasure all around her. ‘Should I try to take something from the Menagerie with me, just to see what would happen? I could easily feign ignorance of the rules if an authority figure came to investigate.’ Ultimately, she decided against it. She was tired.

Instead of going directly to the cafeteria once she exited the Menagerie, she once again examined the spellwork on the entrance gate’s stone columns and along the outer wrought iron fence. She had made little progress deciphering the wards when a familiar voice called out her name.

She rose to see Anastasia Gervin waving at her, the girl’s other arm tucked through the elbow of Damien Westbay as they strolled along the cobblestone path to the Menagerie.

Ignoring Westbay’s scowl, Ana dragged him toward Sebastien.

“Hello, Sebastien! What are you up to this evening?” Ana said, smiling with willful obliviousness to the tension between the two boys.

Sebastien nodded in return to her greeting. “I’ve just taken a stroll through the Menagerie. It’s quite remarkable.”

Westbay’s eyes narrowed, emphasizing the bags under his eyes which gave him a constant look of fatigue, though Sebastien had seen him sleeping soundly several times when she herself was up early or in the middle of the night, so she didn’t know what he had to be tired about. “You’re outside the Menagerie, and were crouched over the fence line.”

Sebastien felt a sudden spike of alarm, but kept that from her face, pausing to think of a response in a way that she hoped seemed natural. “Well, yes. I have an interest in wards. In all magic, really, but lately I’ve been doing some research to expand my understanding of that branch of magic. These are quite complex, though. I have to admit I don’t really understand them.” She put on a sheepish smile, rubbing the back of her head.

“You’re sure you weren’t examining the wards to figure out how to bypass them?” Westbay said, his lip curling up on one side in a sneer. “I’ve heard more than a few stories about the students from upper levels harvesting moonbeams and fairy wings from the Menagerie at night for the…mind-altering effects.”

Ana’s eyes grew wide, and she turned to Westbay in shock at his blatant rudeness.

Sebastien’s back straightened further, her chin lifting. ‘The best defense in a situation like this is a powerful offense.’ She scowled, but before she could shoot out a scathing counter-blow, someone spoke behind her.

“That really is the height of stupidity.”

The speaker was their student liaison, Tanya Canelo, who was walking out of the Menagerie gate. She stopped at Sebastien’s side, an eyebrow raised as she looked between the two boys. “Those students may think they’re getting away with something, but I can assure you the University is fully aware that they have removed certain items, and why they did so. Coming here at night does not stop the wards from alerting, whether or not the students have a harvest basket.”

Sebastien filed that information away in her mind, but said, “That information is interesting, but irrelevant to me, since I have no intention of stealing anything from the Menagerie. Though you may not be able to imagine doing any study outside of class,” she said to Westbay, “I am not incurious.” As Westbay had a few days prior, she said the word like the slur it was.

The boy’s cheeks flushed. “Perhaps some of us simply prefer to use our free time to ensure our success rather than run off on irrational tangents. I’m surprised you have any time at all to get away from study. Or have you given up on Professor Lacer’s training already?”

At that point, Ana elbowed Westbay in the side, not even attempting to hide the sharp jab into his ribs.

Tanya seemed to find all of this supremely amusing and made no effort to hide her interest in the byplay.

When she looked back at Sebastien, Ana’s smile was overly bright and forced. “So, what do you two think of that sorceress thief who hit the University a couple of months ago? Damien was just regaling me with speculation about the case. The Westbay family is in charge of the coppers, you know.”

Sebastien felt a faint sense of unreality. ‘This must be a dream. A nightmare.

Tanya shrugged, putting her hands in her pockets and rocking back on her heels lazily. “It would be wonderful if they had any real information, but if they did, they would have caught her already, I think.” She looked to Westbay, raising her eyebrow again as if daring him to refute her claim.

The boy seemed less inclined to rudeness with the upper level student than he was with Sebastien. “They know she’s a sorcerer, and she has had some contact with her accomplice in prison, using a blood magic spell. She’s bold. My brother says she’ll act again, and eventually make a mistake. When she does, we will catch her.”

Sebastien hoped she wasn’t pale, and very carefully maintained an expression of irritation to mask her dread. “That’s all?” When Westbay didn’t immediately pipe up with further evidence against her, she snorted. “Well then. I think I’ll be off to dinner. You might want to cut your little stroll short, Westbay. Not all of us are able to handle a full class load along with whatever else comes our way without trouble.” She didn’t want to push too far. She had apparently made an enemy of someone powerful, but restraint could keep his animosity from getting even worse. Still, she seemed unable to maintain a firm lock on her tongue, and as always, it tried to get her into trouble even if she understood the foolishness of her actions.

With a nod to both other females, she strolled off down the path. ‘I hope Westbay isn’t the type to fight dirty. Just in case, I should make sure the wards around my bed and belongings are as strong as possible. As for the rest, I need to talk to Dryden.’ The fact that the coppers knew she had contacted her father wasn’t a good sign, but hopefully it wasn’t so bad as to lead them to Sebastien.

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Chapter 23 – A Busy Schedule

Sebastien

Month 11, Day 3, Tuesday 6:00 a.m.

The pain-muffling spell didn’t stop Sebastien from having sore muscles, and it wasn’t feasible to keep it running all day long, not when she needed to concentrate on her classes and practice other casting exercises. Her body was stiff when she woke on Tuesday, and every movement made her want to whimper aloud. She stilled, cast the pain-muffling spell, and kept it going through a hot shower and rubbing a whole jar of bruise balm into her muscles. The bruise balm would only help a little for this type of pseudo-injury. It wasn’t created for sore and overworked muscles, but it was better than nothing.

Besides, the deep well of exuberance she felt every time she looked around and realized where she was, the knowledge she now had access to, just waiting for her to find the time to devour it all, was not about to be dried up from a little physical fatigue. ‘This will strengthen the force and soundness of my Will,’ she assured herself. ‘I can and will torture myself for that.

She spent the rest of the first week getting acclimated to life at the University. Every moment was filled, and the days passed quickly.

The supervised practice rooms were busy with other students in the evenings, but she found a place and spent a few hours there when she wasn’t in the library. She didn’t particularly like it. There were too many other people—talking and casting magic and generally being a distraction. ‘If only I could erase them all and learn in private, the University would be perfect.

She ran through every variation of the spark-shooting spell that Professor Burberry had given, using both the heat of the Sacrifice Circle as well as the transmogrification components. Then, mindful of the need to push her limits, she tried to do it all with some additional variations. She used a simpler spell array as a little practice toward being a free-caster, which was the hardest, and led to exhaustion that day.

When she came back the next, she got creative with the color and brightness of the sparks, how far and quickly they shot, and the shape of the spray. When she started pushing the thaums higher to stretch her capacity, the flaring jet of sparks splashing against inside of the invisible warded bubble she was in drew attention.

She glared at the students who’d grown distracted from their own practice to look at her, and tried to tone down the light of the sparks while increasing the heat so she didn’t draw so much attention. ‘Well-deserved attention, to be sure, but Sebastien is going to disappear someday anyway, so it doesn’t matter if I build his reputation as the next future Archmage of Lenore.’ Sometimes that was hard to remember.

By the end of the first week, she had firm control of the iron ball exercise, using as many different methods to create its movement as she could think of. Professor Lacer had given her five extra exercises, not including the one everyone else was also doing. She hoped to get through the other four as quickly as possible, and poured hours of her spare time into the second exercise, which was closest to the one they were doing in class. It was a sympathetic movement spell, using a similar pair of iron balls.

However, this exercise wasn’t like a standard sympathetic movement spell. Normally, you linked two objects, and then when you lifted one, it would take a little over twice as much energy as normal, but the second object would rise with the first. His version of the spell required the linked ball to move when its partner did, but in a skewed direction or vector. With the axis of movement reversed, tilted, or even curved.

She researched several different spell arrays and glyphs she might use to create these effects, similar to what Lacer had instructed for the first exercise. It helped, but the mental component was still entirely different from any other sympathetic spell she’d ever cast, and it took some time and practice to really clarify her Will.

In effect, she was linking only the kinetic energy, while the details of how that kinetic energy was expressed were entirely arbitrary. The eventual point of the multiple sub-exercises was probably to let her move one linked ball freely, while still moving the other back and forth on a simple line. By changing the third glyph of the spell array, she could move one ball at a specific vector that was different from its counterpart, but she wasn’t to the point of free reign over the movement, yet.

Still, it was more interesting than spinning a ball in a circle over and over again. She began to experiment with that exercise, too, trying to push herself to stop and start rapidly, change directions, and pull the ball into the center and out to the edge of the glass.

Casting for hours every day was exhausting, especially when added on to the rigors of the classes and the theoretical studying they required. But she wouldn’t want to waste even a moment of the five months she’d paid so exorbitantly for. ‘I have to make it worth it.’

Sebastien spent the next couple of weeks in a blur of classes and studying. As the other students made friends and formed solid groups, she found herself isolated, except for Ana and the occasional irritation from Westbay. This was not unintentional. A few others made overtures of friendliness, which she turned down as politely as she could. She hoped, as Sebastien, to make as small an impression on the world as possible—despite her natural inclination to stand out—but even if that hadn’t been the case, she had almost no time for socialization.

She made her way through the first couple of books assigned for each class, which was enough to give her some confidence in answering the professors’ questions. She was still barely dragging herself through Fekten’s Defensive Magic class, but at least the whole-body screaming pain from overworking her muscles had somewhat subsided.

Her other classes were more enjoyable.

Professor Gnorrish, who taught Natural Science, encouraged them to study the topics they were reviewing in class more deeply. He held a test at the end of the week and gave out fractions of contribution points to those who could answer bonus questions at the end. They were covering the basics at rapid speed, but it was nothing more than a review for most students. They’d been able to pass the entrance exam, after all. But some of them had been closer to failing than others, and not everyone took natural science and the things transmutation could do seriously.

Professor Ilma continued to be fascinating, but also sometimes confusing. She didn’t particularly care that they remember dates, lineages, and ranks unless those details were critical to understanding why something important had happened. Memorization was second to comprehension.

She presented opposing arguments for the catalysts behind certain events, and sometimes even more than one version of the events themselves. She only sometimes accompanied those with an explanation of which was more likely to be true. She assigned books where historians argued with each other and made the students try to provide winning arguments for each side. Sometimes, when asked, she would give her opinions on the truth, which was often nuanced and unpleasant, but sometimes she would just say, “I don’t know.”

Some of her classmates disliked this method of teaching.

Sebastien thought it was wonderful. Ilma didn’t give out contribution points for answering bonus questions at the end of her tests, but occasionally she would give one to a student who asked an astute question, and even to students who argued with her. When the latter happened, she would assign that student special reading and tell them to discuss the matter with her when they’d finished learning more about the topic.

In fact, Ilma assigned more reading than most of the class could keep up with.

Sebastien’s grasp on history was spotty at best, what with her lack of formal schooling. She tried to get through all the books Ilma kept suggesting, but even she couldn’t manage it without skimming a little.

Ilma didn’t care one way or another, didn’t ask if they’d finished before assigning the next bit of reading, but she graded harshly for anyone who showed ignorance of a topic they’d covered.

Sympathetic Science with Professor Pecanty turned out to be less awesome magic, and more media exploration and interpretation. He would perform simple transmogrification spells so they could see different components used to create various material and abstract effects. At first, this excited her, but she grew confused, and even a little frustrated, when he didn’t teach them how to cast any of the example spells.

Instead, he focused on familiarizing the students with poems, stories, alliterations, and rhyming words. Always with example components, but with few transmogrification practice spells assigned. Instead, they discussed theme, connected word choices to feelings, and theorized about different things a seemingly straightforward piece of text could mean. There was no talk of foreign components, or the way other species used familiar ones. When she asked, Pecanty told her that was material for a higher level of study, which she might get to eventually, but not in his class.

At the end of the second week, on Saturday, she went to the library to find recipes for some concoctions the Verdant Stag required that she didn’t know how to brew. Katerin had also given her a list of potions Dryden had requested for his new emergency response teams, so Sebastien had plenty of work available, if she could manage it.

She researched and copied down recipes and their various modifications into her grimoire until she heard the bell tolling the hour and realized half the day was gone. She slumped back in her seat and rubbed tired eyes. The mental fatigue was catching up with her. Not just from the last couple of weeks at the University, but the month before that as well, with all the studying, worrying, and scrambling to complete the alarm ward project for Dryden. ‘I must pace myself. The brewing can wait till next week, I think. Perhaps half a day without work would not be amiss.

She considered trying to take a nap, but that lead her to thinking about her dreamless sleep spell. Sleeping twice a day was the only way she was able to keep up with the demands on her mind and body, but she was used to just four or five hours of sleep per night, and it felt like her days had suddenly shortened at the same time her workload had increased.

Instead, she perused the shelves for sleeping spells that might be more effective than what she had. She found nothing encouraging. Over the last few years she’d already tried most of the things available on this first floor of the library, and had eventually to come up with her own amalgamation of concepts to create her current dreamless sleep spell.

She already knew it would help if she had thousands of thaums to put into the spell, or could somehow continue to cast the spell while sleeping. If she were more knowledgeable in artificery, perhaps she could find a way to further improve on the latest iteration, which did seem to be helping, but she wasn’t taking that class. She wasn’t even sure that her problems could be solved by putting the spell into an artifact, because of the basic restrictions of the craft.

She briefly considered trying to convert the spell into a potion. Alchemy was a ritual. With alchemy, you could store up power over the long brewing period, packing much more potency into the final effect than what you would be able to otherwise. Then, the magic packed into a concoction could be release slowly, over a longer period than the casting, or even all at once, for a powerful burst. You could portion off doses of a single brew to give to multiple users.

Artificery was active casting with a special type of spell array. With artificery, you cast a spell, and that same spell was released when the proper conditions were met. The materials needed to create an artifact were much more expensive, but could store the magical energy for a lot longer without depletion. You could release the magic a little slower, which was the principle that light crystals and her current version of the dreamless sleep spell were based on, but that was still a type of containment and restriction, which was the principle that allowed basic artifacts to hold a spell for later use. You couldn’t release the spell faster or stronger than when you’d cast it into the artifact. Perhaps much higher levels of the craft allowed more control and variation, but really her problem was a lack of power.

If she wanted to make the spell more powerful over a longer period, the artifact used to cast it on her while she slept would need to be charged for hours every day, and it would be even worse with a potion. The time required defeated the point.

If there was any way around this, the knowledge of the craft was far beyond her, at Master or even Grandmaster level. She was just too weak compared to the strength of her nightmares.

As Sebastien was standing with the intention to leave, she paused. ‘With the right resources and enough Will, magic can solve all problems. What if there was some way to increase my stamina, or to enhance the regenerative effects of sleep? That would solve the problem even better.’ She used one of the silver-etched crystal balls in the atrium to divine a list of books that matched keywords like “sleep,” “stamina,” and “enhanced regeneration.” The ball gave her an encouragingly long list of codes, strings of letters and numbers that would lead her to the right section, stack, and order of the books she was looking for. “Everyday” magic like this still brought a smile to her face, and she doubted that would ever completely go away.

It took her a couple of hours to get through the first half of the list, and though most of the books had been only peripherally related to the topic, she found a couple of semi-promising ones and checked them out for later perusal.

More tired than ever by that point, Sebastien packed her things and returned the alchemy books to the shelves, then strolled out into the faintly foggy afternoon. ‘I can do it all,’ she assured herself. ‘Maybe not right away, I do need rest, but if there’s not enough time or energy, maybe that just means I haven’t found the best way to approach the problem yet. There has to be a way for me to do it all.

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Chapter 22 – Sympathy & Defense

Sebastien

Month 11, Day 2, Monday 3:25 p.m.

Sebastien changed her mind halfway to the library and instead took the box of magical exercise supplies Lacer had given her to her room and locked them in the trunk at the base of her bed. ‘It wouldn’t do to have someone sabotage my ability to meet Professor Lacer’s expectations.’ Then, she went to the library and got to work.

She had an astounding amount to accomplish, and not very much time to do it in. Even a mind like hers couldn’t coast through what lay ahead. ‘Five days of classes per week. Six classes, four of which meet two times, and two which meet three times, for a total of twenty-one hours sitting in class per week. Say I study six hours per week for every class but Practical Casting, which I must spend more than two hours per day on if I wish to catch up. Another four hours per day for meals, hygiene, walking between classes, and other unavoidable transition time. It might be possible to keep working at a lower efficiency during those times, but I also need time for my mind to relax, or I might start having Will problems. Additionally, if I want to repay my debt before the interest drowns me, I need to get started with the alchemy Katerin and the Verdant Stag need. I can do that on the weekends.

She looked down at the number she had scribbled on the edge of her new leather notebook. ‘That’s almost as many hours as most people are awake every week. Speaking of, I will probably need to increase my total hours of sleep. Perhaps I can take naps in the late afternoon.’ She was thankful that Professor Lacer had warned her not to take on more than six classes. If she had taken Artificery as well, she would probably collapse under the workload.

She read from the list of books recommended by Professor Gnorrish for a couple of hours, then started Professor Lacer’s homework. It took her longer than she had expected, and the dinner hour was almost over by the time she finished creating ten different fully realized spell arrays that could move the ball around the Circle. She rushed off to eat, then returned to her dorm, where most of the other students were already gathered. Many of them were chatting or working on schoolwork, creating a dull murmur of undistinguishable sound.

Sebastien pulled the pillow off her bed and sat on it cross-legged on the floor, drawing a simple spell array in front of her. She lit her small oil lamp to act as the source of heat energy. By the time she had pushed the steel ball around for thirty minutes, her head was aching and she had trouble concentrating—early signs of Will-strain. If she continued, she wouldn’t be able to cast her dreamless sleep and alarm spells, so she pulled her curtains and went to bed early.

The familiar feel of her heart pounding brought her from sleep into wakefulness. She stood with carefully controlled movements and drew back the curtain to press herself against the cool glass of the window beside her bed. The condensation of her breath fogged up the glass, and she drew a little sad face on it.

The sad face faded away, and she found herself looking at her own faint reflection. Dark eyes, sharp jaw, and shockingly pale hair framing it all. The only things she recognized were the eyes. ‘Those are still mine. My eyes staring out of this mask.

As silently as possible, she returned to her locked chest and removed the sand wheel. This time, she used a different set of glyphs than the day before, and mentally redesigned the method of movement. While researching the different spell arrays the evening before, she had come up with some more innovative ways to accomplish the goal. Before, she had been directly controlling the ball as it moved around, guiding it with a mental hand. There were other ways to approach the problem, though, a couple of which she found particularly interesting.

She practiced for almost an hour by the light and power of the oil lamp, finding that the magic calmed her faster than she had expected. The steady, soothing whisper of disturbed sand was audible in the stillness.

Shifting from the bed across from her drew Sebastien’s attention, as the girl threw off her covers and stood up.

“Oh, I’m sorry, did I wake y—”

The girl waved her arm at Sebastien clumsily and stumbled off toward the bathrooms, her eyes still unfocused with sleep. When she returned a few minutes later, she seemed a little more awake. “Practicing for Professor Lacer?” she asked.

Sebastien nodded. “I apologize if I disturbed your rest, Miss…?”

“Anastasia Gervin,” the girl said, sitting at the foot of her own bed with her legs crossed, her long, loose hair catching the light of the lamp’s flame artlessly.

“Pleased to meet you, Miss Gervin.” Sebastien bowed slightly from her seated position.

“Please, call me Ana. There are a few too many Gervins enrolled here to be so formal. It causes confusion. And I know your name already. We met a while ago, when my cousin Alec was being such a braying ass.”

Sebastien couldn’t help the twitch of a smile at the description, though she didn’t allow it to disarm her. ‘She might commiserate with me in private and then do the same with others behind my back.’ Aloud, she said, “I remember. I wasn’t sure you would.”

The girl gave her that same crooked smile she had the day of the entrance application. “You may be more memorable than you think.” Before Sebastien could try to figure out what she meant by that, she continued. “You have quite the dedication, to wake up in the middle of the night just to practice. No wonder Professor Lacer picked you.”

Sebastien knew the girl was mistaken, but didn’t want to say so. “I find it best to be prepared.”

Ana gave a little smirk. “It is a good policy, but do you not need to sleep?”

“I have trouble sleeping,” Sebastien admitted. “I’ll lie down again in a while, when I’ve grown tired.”

Ana hummed noncommittally, returning to her bed and closing her eyes.

Drawing her curtains again to help shield the light of the lamp, Sebastien did the same. Thicker curtains would be useful to keep from disturbing the other dorm residents, if she wanted to continue practicing magic at her bed while they slept.

With two sessions of sleep, Sebastien again woke feeling more refreshed than she normally did, despite the strain she had been putting on her mind.

Sebastien’s first class of the day was History of Magic. For once, Damien Westbay did not seem to be there. Nor were any of the other people she recognized from her student group.

Professor Ilma, a woman with faintly blue skin evincing a partially inhuman heritage, got right into the meat of the class, wasting no time easing them into things.

She started at the beginning. “When was magic first discovered by humans? Historical research and archeology suggest the earliest thinking humans had rudimentary magic. Fires started without tools, animals charmed to do their bidding, structures molded beyond the capabilities of concurrent technology. It is not known whether humans discovered magic organically, or whether those who walked the earth before us had some hand in our uplifting. Theories in favor of both arguments are plentiful among historians. You’ll be writing an essay that considers the most valid arguments for both sides, due next week.”

She waited while the class hurried to scribble that down, then continued. “However, some say the ability to do magic is not the thing that led us to our current civilization. Magic is merely a tool, and it is our ability to cooperate and work together for the betterment of all that has led to our current greatness. And yet!” She raised one blue finger higher. “And yet, it has taken us thousands of years to reach this point. Part of this may simply be the nature of civilization—incremental growth based on our forefathers’ accomplishments. Part of this may be that the ancient world after the Cataclysm was too dangerous for real human society to thrive. It was hard to build a city at a time when a Titan might walk by and crush half of it, like a child kicking at an anthill…and then eat all the ants that lay scattered about for good measure. Let us speculate for a moment about the cause of the downfall of the Titans, the Fey, the Brillig. So powerful, with magics even our most distinguished cannot match, and yet, they are gone, and we are still here. Why? Is it simply the natural state of things that all powerful beings must one day fall, that all empires must crumble?”

Sebastien was enraptured.

Professor Ilma gave them a list of books she recommended reading and shooed them out of her classroom.

Her second class was Sympathetic Science. Sebastien almost jumped when Anastasia Gervin slammed her hand down on the desk beside her, but looked up to find the other girl glaring in the opposite direction.

Ana turned to Sebastien, assuming a bright smile. “Sebastien. You don’t mind if I sit here, do you?”

Who was she glaring at?’ Sebastien shook her head mutely, keeping the consternation from her expression. “Not at all. Please feel free.”

Anastasia’s cousin, the one with the bushy dark eyebrows, shot Sebastien a glare that she ignored, while Westbay plopped himself down on Sebastien’s other side.

She felt herself stiffening and hoped it wasn’t noticeable. ‘This feels remarkably like a pincer attack.’ However, other than a shrewd look from Westbay, no one did anything to justify her apprehension.

An old man wearing a jacket he had probably bought in his teenage years, when it would have been stylish, walked in and introduced himself as Professor Pecanty. He had a lilting cadence and a slow rhythm to his words that made everything he said sound like poetry. “Let us talk about metaphor. ‘Silken lies fell from her lips.’ ‘Her hair was spun gold.’ ‘I swam through an ocean of uncertainty.’ These are a few examples. Consider, that three strings of silk are used in Rimple’s minor truth-telling spell. A sprinkle of gold glitter is a component in Curoe’s fairness potion, to make the complexion and hair bright. Sea spray gathered on a moonless night is used in a couple of forgetfulness hexes.”

As Professor Pecanty delved deeper into the connection between ephemeral concepts and magic, part of Sebastien’s mind began to spin a thread of curiosity.

Dryden had told her various stories about his travels through the surrounding countries, and even a couple of forays into the lands held by other species. He’d had more than one amusing or embarrassing incident stemming from cultural difference.

Like the time everyone at the table except him had burped, and then his host had been offended that he didn’t, which was a vulgar indication that Dryden didn’t like the meal.

Or the story about how he’d almost been killed by the town guard when he offered his hand to help a limping woman wearing a red sash, which denoted her status as a revered giver of blessings, and thus untouchable.

Or the time he accidentally proposed to a woman old enough to be his grandmother by hauling water from the well for her. That one had been particularly hilarious, as everyone had been too embarrassed to tell him why they were acting so awkwardly, but no one thought to ask him if he knew what he’d done. The misunderstanding had lasted for several days of increasing confusion as everyone kept working at cross-purposes and misconstruing his later actions based on that first innocuous favor.

But we don’t hold those customs or belief here in Lenore. So what about the sympathetic connections he’s talking about? Here, red is associated with passion, blood, and death, not divine blessings, isolation, or being “set apart.” Could I use a red sash for those qualities? Does magic somehow choose which meanings an item can be used for? Or could I use any of them?

She frowned, scribbling notes and questions in her grimoire. She felt like some larger understanding was revolving just out of reach, revealing only a part of itself to her through the darkness. ‘Different people will have languages with different structures, tell different stories, use different metaphors. To them, it’s us who would seem strange for connecting silk to a truth-telling spell, or sea spray gathered on a moonless night to a curse.

She shifted uncomfortably, Pecanty’s rhythmic voice fading from her focus as her fingers tightened around her fountain pen. ‘People all around the world use transmogrification. It’s the earliest form of magic. We were doing things with transmogrification long before we learned the principles behind how to replicate these effects with transmutation. Have there been historical uses of components that have fallen out of use in favor of new interpretations of their sympathetic connections? It seems impossible for anything else to be the case. Humanity’s perception of the world has changed greatly over the last few thousand years. So if transmogrification worked for ancient humans, and it works for foreigners, and even other species whose cultures are completely different, these sympathetic connections couldn’t be an inherent property of magic…right? It couldn’t be that we’ve somehow instinctively discovered completely contradictory sympathetic connections for the same colors, and numbers, and components. It has to be created by…us?

The idea was strange, and vaguely frightening. She set down her pen and tried to focus on the lecture. She needed to learn what Pecanty had to say, in case they would be tested. She couldn’t afford to perform poorly due to distraction.

After class, she stayed behind to ask Professor Pecanty about her revelation.

“Experimental evidence?” he echoed, as if the words were foreign, or perhaps egregiously unrelated to the topic. “Why, the proof is all around you. Transmogrification works on those intrinsic qualities, and attempting to cast a spell with a component that does not meet the qualifications is either difficult or impossible.”

She frowned. “But how does it work? Who decides what the intrinsic qualities are? If I began telling everyone that pigeons can read the evil in their heart, and they believed it, would I be able to use pigeon eyeballs in an intent-scrying spell? Or would I, who knows pigeons cannot, in fact, read the evil hidden in a heart, be unable to use them? Does magic warp to fit new understandings or beliefs? If so, how quickly? Are there transmogrification spells used historically that no longer work today? What if I were the one who truly believed pigeons could read the evil in my heart, and everyone else thought pigeons were simply stupid flying pests?”

Professor Pecanty blinked at her for a moment, rocking back on his feet. “Who decides the intrinsic qualities?” he repeated, as if the question was slightly humorous. “Why, it is the purview of the young to ask such questions. It seems one with such an…analytical mind as yourself might do very well in the Natural Sciences. Myself, I think such questions are perhaps unknowable, better left for the wisdom of those species closer to the heart of magic than us humans. Magic does not require my interrogation to exist, merely my acceptance and what small understanding my years have allowed me.” He gave her a small smile that she imagined he thought seemed wise and learned, gathered up his things, and left her standing alone in the empty classroom, seeming completely satisfied with himself and his answer.

“He basically just said I only have such questions because I’m not old enough or wise enough to know when to quietly accept what is served me and be grateful for it,” she muttered.

As she left the room, Damien Westbay fell into step beside her. Apparently he had been waiting outside the classroom for her to exit. “Pecanty is incurious,” the boy said without preamble, letting the statement sound like a devastating judgment. “Professor Lacer says failing to hold an opinion on a matter says one of two things. Either, ‘I do not wish to invest the resources to understand the matter,’ or, ‘I understand the matter and the evidence is weighted toward only one answer, and that answer is neutrality, at least until more evidence is presented.’” The boy spoke in the articulate, clipped tones of Thaddeus Lacer as he quoted.

“He says most people don’t understand that, however, and what they really mean is, ‘I am above all this,’ ‘I am wise,’ or ‘I am lazy.’ And they are likely deceiving themselves about which of the three it is.” He turned his head toward Sebastien, gauging her response to this.

“Professor Lacer is not incurious,” Sebastien said, forming the certainty even as she said the words. Westbay had pronounced the word as if it were a slur, and she found herself agreeing with him. ‘How dull, to never wonder. How unambitious. One does not become great by only accepting what is given to them and never reaching for more.

Westbay gave her a small smirk. “He is not. And neither am I. I hope you didn’t think you were the only one given extra exercises.” Before she could respond, he sped up and turned the corner into a classroom, his expression saying better than any words that she was dismissed from his attention.

Observe, a wild example of the contraceptive personality, in its natural habitat.’ She resisted the urge to glare. Glaring would mean that he had affected her, something she refused to allow to be true.

After a quick lunch and another visit to the library, she checked her map, confirming that she was meant to leave the building altogether for Defensive Magic. She made her way to the north side of the University grounds, walking fast so the fifteen minutes between classes would be enough to arrive on time.

Green grass and trees gave way to bare, white ground by the time she arrived. The Flats, contrary to their name, were not flat at all. In fact, some of the white stone buttes seemed to have been deliberately molded with large platforms, squat walls, and even a few hoops. She did a double-take as she passed what seemed to be a pit of spikes, a faint sense of alarm rising in her. There was a building in the distance, but their professor met them out on the grounds.

She recognized this professor from the entrance examination. He was the one with the muscles and the armor, who had asked her about fighting the Blood Emperor.

He had them line up, then paced before them while speaking in a loud voice that carried far and bounced off the surrounding stone. “My name is Elwood Fekten. I served in the army during the border skirmishes, and the Haze War before that. I have no need for titles. You will call me Fekten. The man who taught this subject before me did so in a classroom, with a textbook. He was very knowledgeable, and his students became knowledgeable. They understood that a banshee’s wail is deadly from five meters, and will burst your eardrums and knock you unconscious from ten. They had learned that the best way to avoid this is to cast a vibration-cancelling spell and send up distress sparks, since any call for help would not make it out of the bounds of the vibration-canceller. Can anyone tell me why following these instructions would lead to your death?”

Fekten stopped pacing, spinning to face the woman closest to him. “You. Speak.”

The woman’s eyes were wide. “Umm…because as long as you’re holding the vibration-cancelling spell, you cannot cast anything else? Well, unless you have an artifact.”

He shook his head and continued walking. “While that is technically correct, it misses the point.” He stopped in front of Sebastien. “What about you? Tell me why the accepted response will get you killed.”

Sebastien’s eyelids flared slightly wider before she got her face under control, hiding the burst of apprehension being singled out had caused her. “If you knew ahead of time that you were dealing with a banshee, you would go into the altercation with a vibration-cancelling spell already cast, preferably in artifact form so you’d be free to cast other magic personally. However, banshees rarely make straightforward attacks. What if you don’t know you are about to be targeted by one? Rather than scream, they are more likely to sing. Their song has a quality that encourages loss of focus, so by the time you realize something is wrong, they’re probably already close enough to slit your throat. Also, your banshee can scream on half a second’s notice, but most sorcerers cannot cast a spell that quickly. If you do manage to cast the vibration-canceller after she starts singing—say if you had an artifact able to cast it, perhaps—you still have to deal with the actual banshee—who is not in fact completely helpless—while you are inside a field that is either dampening vibration so well that your own movement is hindered, or which is allowing through some vibration, which means maybe the banshee can still affect you with her voice while she tries to stab you with a kitchen knife.” Her grandfather had told her just such a story when she was young.

Fekten didn’t immediately shake his head and walk away. “So what would you do, if you suspected you were being stalked by a banshee?”

“Ideally, if you were traveling through lands where such a thing seemed likely, or a town where people kept going missing, you would have prepared in advance for various types of danger, including a banshee. Wards, an artifact or two, that sort of thing.”

Fekten nodded slowly, then looked around at the other students to ensure they were paying attention. “And are you prepared thus, Siverling?”

“No,” she admitted, thinking even as she said it that, ‘Perhaps I should be so equipped.’ Aloud, she said, “So, when I suspected I was being stalked by a banshee, if possible I would cast a deafening hex on myself, then try to slip from her sight without noticeably panicking, and from there either run away altogether or wait in ambush to attack her from a distance.”

Fekten snorted and walked on. “Better. Still not perfect. Preparing you to think of the correct response as well as giving you the ability to carry it out is the purpose of this class. I am here to teach you how to avoid being killed by malicious parties. I cannot stop you from killing yourselves through stupidity or negligence, though some of you will undoubtedly meet your ends that way. This class is not about safe casting practices, it is about defeating or, more realistically for you lot, escaping an enemy. If you were hoping to get to attack something in this class, to let out some pent up aggression with destructive spells, you will be disappointed for quite a while. I do not have enough time to teach you both what you need to know to defend yourself and how to act on that information, so we will be doing our best to learn both at once, and it will be unpleasant.”

He stopped pacing and turned to the Flats. “A strong body is a strong mind. At your level of skill, if you cannot escape properly, you will just die, since I doubt that you can kill anything larger than a pixie. No, we will start with running, and then move to strength training. I will explain the dangers of the world as we do so, and you will pay attention and remember what I say, or there will be even more training.”

“Training” sounded more like he meant “torture,” and though there was some nervous shuffling and a few mutters of discontent, as soon as he turned around and glared at them, everyone shut their mouths.

“Your training clothes are in the sim room. Follow me, and do not dawdle. We have little enough time as it is.” He led them to the distant building at a quick jog, assigned them loose-fitting clothes, and shooed them into the changing rooms.

The next forty-five minutes were some of the most grueling of Sebastien’s life, as Fekten led them through exercises while lecturing on the dangers of pixies and how best to deal with them, without ever seeming to grow tired or out of breath.

Sebastien hated physical exertion, and despite a certain stamina gained from being forced to carry all her worldly belongings and walk for miles when they couldn’t find a wagon to ride in the back of, she wasn’t very good at it, either. Running, tossing, and pulling herself about required a very different kind of fitness. Luckily, she was not prone to holding excess weight, but she had never been one for physical labor, either, and her male form didn’t seem an improvement in that aspect. However, she consoled herself that if she ever had to sprint away from the coppers again, this would be good training.

A few minutes into the training, she gave up simply powering through on her own and surreptitiously cast an esoteric spell on herself. It muffled her pain slightly and allowed her thoughts to detach from it rather than focus constantly on the burning discomfort. It helped a little. Of course, it was difficult to keep the spell active while still paying attention to Fekten’s lecture and completing the exercises, but the effort was worth it, in her opinion.

The last thirty minutes of class were spent stretching and answering questions about the lecture Fekten had given.

Finally, he let them leave, with an admonition to arrive already dressed for class the day after next if they did not want to perform unspecified punishments.

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Grimoire Page: Spark Shooting Spell

Hey guys, Azalea here!

When I was little, I used to read fantasy books and try to quantify their magic system. I remember I had a whole notebook dedicated to the Eragon series, in which I wrote down all the magic words used. I wanted to memorize all of them, search for common base words, suffixes, and prefixes, and decipher any sentence syntax that might exist.

My little brother and I took to insulting each other in my made-up words that were meant to fit within that magical language. No one can get you in trouble for calling your little brother a “maggot baby” if they don’t understand what you’re saying, after all.

Anyway. I digress.

I’ve always loved hard magic systems, and I’ve tried to create one of my own in the Practical Guide to Sorcery series. So much so that I’ve compiled and illustrated some excerpts from Siobhan’s grimoire. I’ve only got a couple out right now, but more will be coming.

Most of the grimoire pages will only be available to those who support me on Patreon, but the first one is available to everyone, and I thought I’d share it with you as a fun little bonus, if you haven’t already seen it.

You may remember this spell from Sebastien’s first Introduction to Modern Magics class.

So, yeah. I’m a huge geek. But I thought it likely that a lot of my readers are huge geeks, too.

If you’d like to download a PDF version (I have both sepia/parchment color and black-and-white available), just head over to my Patreon and grab it.

https://www.patreon.com/posts/grimoire-page-37833259

Free of charge, open to everybody, not just patrons.

Enjoy! I will be back on Thursday with the regularly scheduled chapter.

Chapter 21 – No Greatness Without Adversity

Thaddeus

Month 11, Day 2, Monday 3:15 p.m.

Thaddeus watched as the Siverling boy left the room with a stride so supremely self-assured it bordered on arrogant. The contrast of such dark eyes against pale hair made Siverling seem both perceptive and secretive, as if perhaps he had already divined all your inner thoughts, and was only keeping them to himself because he wished to. That composure would serve him well, if he managed to keep from killing himself over the next few years before achieving a basic level of competence.

A knock on his door frame brought his head up to see Damien, his old friend’s son, standing in the doorway.

“Come in.”

“Who is he?” Damien said impatiently, dropping his satchel and sitting in the chair before Thaddeus’s desk.

“Hello to you too, Damien.”

The boy sighed and rolled his eyes. “Hello, Professor, how do you do, etcetera, etcetera. Do we really need to trade such mundane greetings every time we meet? Was it not you who said needless pleasantries were the conversational defense of the unimaginative and boring?”

Thaddeus allowed the boy a small smile. “Indeed. ‘He’ is Sebastien Siverling.”

“That’s not what I meant at all. I know his name,” Damien said bitterly, adding, “even if he can’t remember mine,” under his breath. Louder, he continued, “What’s so special about him? I’ve been hearing all kinds of rumors.”

“I have taken him as my provisional apprentice.”

“So it is true!” Damien crowed. “I knew it. But you’ve never taken an apprentice before! Not even the heir of the High Crown was able to sway you, I heard. Were you planning to make him your apprentice from the beginning? Is that why you got so angry that I argued with him?”

“Reprimanding you for your foolishness had nothing to do with this. But no, I had not planned to take an apprentice this year. There were…extenuating circumstances.”

“Is the Siverling family so influential, then? I’ve never heard of them.”

Thaddeus resisted the urge to rub his temples to ease the headache building there. “Let me remind you, he is only a provisional apprentice. The Siverling family’s influence, or lack thereof, has nothing to do with it.”

Damien nodded. “So it was his display in the examination. No components? A darkness sphere and a blue flame?” The boy had lost his air of immature curiosity and was staring at Thaddeus with total seriousness. “I admit it looked impressive, but was that really all it took?”

Thaddeus leaned back in his seat, almost impressed despite himself. “Snooping, were you?”

“I was waiting my own turn, and happened to see when the door was opened. I cannot help it if my eyes work.”

Thaddeus snorted. “Well, that was a part of it. Suffice it to say, I was intrigued.” The Siverling boy’s written test scores may have merely reached deep green, but Thaddeus had looked through the answers he felt were most relevant to determining mental acuity and intelligence.

Siverling was lacking in knowledge, and had obviously written his answers as if he expected a human to read and grade them, but he also knew how to think about an unconventional problem and try to solve it. Perhaps with guidance, he could learn how to think properly about more than test questions. Also, of course, there was the fact that Thaddeus did not believe for an instant the boy’s clumsy evasion when asked about his previous experience as a sorcerer.

He had been impressed by the boy’s use of light. Controlling light as a component or energy source required both clarity and force of Will. He knew there was no way the boy had encircled enough heat, or had the ability to channel enough even if it had existed, to create a flame so hot it turned blue. The boy had repurposed the light to create the flame, with only a moderate amount of heat radiating off it.

Thaddeus had also been impressed that Siverling was able to speak coherently after dropping the spell, rather than simply passing out.

But what most impressed him was that the boy was able to set the spell’s output—the flame—outside of the sphere bounded by the chalk Circle. Not just at a static distance, but freely. This ability was one of the main hallmarks of true free-casting. He didn’t teach it in his class until the later terms, and most students had a mental block that simply didn’t allow them to make the leap in control. After seeing that, none of the other professors should have been willing to let him slip through their fingers. If Thaddeus had had to, he would have sponsored the boy’s tuition fees himself.

No matter what Siverling said, he had definitely practiced sorcery for years already. Either that, or he was some kind of monstrous genius.

But Thaddeus was a monstrous genius, and even he would have struggled to channel that many thaums when he first began to cast.

Thaddeus imagined most of the other incoming students could not control that spell longer than a second or two without it slipping their control and causing serious backlash. When the boy had started casting it despite the half-finished, inefficient spell array, Thaddeus had thought they would have to scrape Siverling’s remains off the floor before calling in the next student. Instead, Siverling and the room both remained entirely intact.

Of course, the boy was a moron for even attempting it, but Thaddeus knew that if he required all his students to be thoughtful, intelligent, and talented, he would end up leaving the University in a rage after never teaching anyone that met his standards.

“What did you meet with him about? Are you giving him special training?” Damien didn’t wait for Thaddeus to respond. “I have been asking for special training since I was six!”

“I gave him a list of additional exercises to complete, on top of the normal work other students will be doing. He received no special instruction.”

“I want to do the extra exercises too,” Damien said immediately.

“Do you not think you will be busy enough with the regular assignments? I heard you’re taking Divination on top of my own class, and Fekten’s.”

“If Siverling can do it, I can do it, too. Also, it’s not as if this requires any extra work on your part. You’ve already compiled the assignments for him. What does it matter if I learn as well? As you said, you gave him no special instruction that would require you to actually make an effort.” The boy crossed his arms over his chest, tilting his head to the side provocatively.

“Watch your words, Mr. Westbay.” The warning was mild, and held no true offense. Thaddeus thought for a moment, then stood and began collecting another set of the same devices and supplies he had given to Siverling. They were all from future exercises his classes performed, so he had many duplicates. “If your grades drop in any of your other classes…” He did not even need to complete the threat.

“They won’t! I promise.”

Thaddeus wrote down the instructions for each exercise. “The goal is to master these by the end of term. I imagine this will take three to four hours of practice every day.”

Damien’s eyes widened, but he didn’t back down.

As Thaddeus shooed the boy out of his office and returned to his own work, he shook his head ruefully. He thought of the little altercation between the two boys at the application center the month before. Perhaps a little rivalry would push both of them to greater heights. It would be good for Damien to interact with someone who did not care about his status and would challenge him on the basis of merit alone. It might even give the two of them a boost for what he had planned once the chaff had been culled from his class in a few weeks.

Greatness did not come without adversity.

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