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Chapter 84 – Blight

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SiobhanMonth 1, Day 20, Wednesday 11:20 p.m.Siobhan stood, staring at the sphere of web-like strings. She realized, with a distant horror, that the strings were red and pink and white....
All chapters of A Practical Guide to Sorcery will become available to everyone over time, with a standard release speed of one chapter every Thursday. If you would like to support me, get other bonus content like excerpts from Siobhan's Grimoire, and read this chapter right now, please support me on Patreon.
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Chapter 83 – Things Get Worse

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SiobhanMonth 1, Day 20, Wednesday 11:00 p.m.Siobhan held back a growl of aggravation when she realized she’d lost track of Tanya and Newton for the third time that night. ‘Curse...
All chapters of A Practical Guide to Sorcery will become available to everyone over time, with a standard release speed of one chapter every Thursday. If you would like to support me, get other bonus content like excerpts from Siobhan's Grimoire, and read this chapter right now, please support me on Patreon.
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Chapter 82 – Things Go Wrong

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Newton Month 1, Day 20, Wednesday 9:00 p.m. Newton had considered turning Tanya down when she asked him to accompany her to a secret meeting of criminal thaumaturges. He had...
All chapters of A Practical Guide to Sorcery will become available to everyone over time, with a standard release speed of one chapter every Thursday. If you would like to support me, get other bonus content like excerpts from Siobhan's Grimoire, and read this chapter right now, please support me on Patreon.
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Chapter 81 – The Siverling Line

Damien

Month 1, Day 20, Wednesday 6:30 p.m.

When Ana reported trouble with her little sister Natalia, Damien immediately volunteered to go with her. He had some idea what the Gervin Family was like, and what the young girl was facing without Ana around to shield her, just as Titus had shielded him. Already preparing to leave, Damien hesitated belatedly, looking to Sebastien. Without Damien, Sebastien would only have Newton as a backup to keep watch on Tanya.

Sebastien nodded easily.

As they strode determinedly away, Damien asked Ana, “What happened? Is Nat okay?”

Ana’s expression was carefully neutral, but a muscle pulsed in her jaw. “Natalia is unharmed. Physically, at least. She was frightened by the fighting last night. Cousin Robbie teased her that I had died, and then he locked her in a supply closet. She was stuck for several hours until one of the servants let her out, Mother scolded her for having cried so hard she made herself ugly and dirty, and of course Robbie denied any wrongdoing. So Nat got in trouble for lying.”

“I’ll give him a good thrashing,” Damien said, grinding his fist into his palm.

“She tried to,” Ana said, her voice growing rough. “Father saw. He was with uncle Randolph, so I’m assuming he was embarrassed, and she was punished. Nat was a little too hysterical to explain everything coherently by this point in her message. I could barely read her scribbles past the ink blots and tear stains.”

“Robbie’s a grown man now. It’s shameful to be picking on a small girl like that.”

“I’m sure his father encourages him. Anything that could undermine the female heirs’ ability to lead this Family in Father’s eyes.” Ana’s hand fisted in the delicate fabric of her suit vest above her heart as if to squeeze the beating organ, leaving enraged creases in the material.

They took the tubes down and hailed the best-looking carriage waiting by the side of the street. Even with the carriage bouncing along with enough urgency to stress its cushioning spells, it took a tense half an hour to arrive at the Lilies. The Gervin Family’s estate was cut out of the far east side of the white cliffs. The mansion sat close enough to the base, near the waters of the Charybdis Gulf that when it stormed, a spray of sea foam would hit the cliff’s edge.

They both remained silent, but Damien’s mind was active. Smoke had blown over the water from the city, making Damien’s eyes sting as he looked out the carriage’s small window slot. He had watched from the edge of the white cliffs as the fires that preluded that smoke broke out late Sunday night. Even though Damien had understood he couldn’t help, he hadn’t been able to let the worry go, so instead of pretending to sleep while Sebastien was out who-knows-where, he’d bundled himself up and snuck out, looking down on the city as the violence Sebastien had predicted broke out.

It had been more than a “little skirmish.” Even from so far away, Damien had seen the flashes of magic, and the wind carried faint sounds—explosions and the occasional scream.

Some of the University staff came out to look not long after him. The beginnings of a fire lit up a portion of the Mires in orange, light diffusing through the smoke and setting everything glowing. He hadn’t bothered to try to hide from the staff, and they’d barely spared him a perfunctory admonishment to return inside, which he ignored.

“It won’t reach us here,” one of them said.

“Still, best to be prepared for the unexpected.”

Finally, a female guard insisted he return to bed. When Damien tried to protest, she said, “You’d best hurry up before I remember that it’s past curfew and give you a demerit.”

Damien had been almost ready to tell her he was the youngest Westbay and dare her to punish him, but instead he’d slumped in defeat. He was aware enough to know his anxiety was making him foolish.

Sebastien would give him a horrible tongue-lashing if he heard Damien was drawing that kind of negative attention to them. After all, someone might wonder why Sebastien was missing from the dorms after curfew, too.

The only upside to that night was that Tanya seemed to be oblivious. Her door hadn’t opened the entire night. Damien had wished desperately that he was advanced enough in the craft to do a general, exploratory divination on both Tanya and Sebastien. He wanted to check to see if Tanya was likely to do anything dangerous or suspicious, and make sure Sebastien was still okay. Unfortunately, his Divination class had barely progressed past basic deductive divinations like telling the suit of the next card in a deck.

Damien had dozed fitfully and woken when Sebastien finally arrived around five in the morning, before the sun had risen. He’d been agitated, ready to snap at Sebastien for any slight he could find, but he stopped when he got a good look at his recalcitrant friend.

Sebastien had seemed unharmed, but Damien noticed the clues he failed to hide. Sebastien’s eyes were bloodshot and his face even paler than normal. There was grime in the creases of his neck and what looked like traces of dried blood around his fingernails.

“What happened?” Damien asked, keeping his voice low to avoid waking any of their dorm-mates. “Are you injured?”

Sebastien dug into the trunk at the base of his bed for a change of clothes. “I’m not.”

“Then someone else was injured? Something happened. I can tell.”

Sebastien sighed. “Some civilians got caught up in the fighting. A young boy got his legs blown off.”

Damien had paled.

“I had to help him. He’ll live, but, for him, the worst is probably yet to come. I doubt his family can afford healing powerful enough to regrow his legs. I…don’t want to talk about it any more, Damien.”

Damien kept his mouth shut as Sebastien went to the bathrooms and took a long shower. He’d wanted to ask what Sebastien had gone out to do in the first place, and what the fighting had been about. But he couldn’t. Damien felt useless. All he had done was keep an eye on Tanya.

Sebastien was beginning to warm to Damien, but still didn’t seem to like him very much. First impressions were valuable, and he had botched theirs. Professor Lacer had been right to reprimand him. It was foolish to make enemies so blindly, even when they seemed inconsequential. Now all he could do was slowly try to change Sebastien’s mind.

Sebastien had drawn his curtains closed and plopped onto his narrow bed with a sigh of exhaustion.

The other students began to stir soon after, and Damien had been quick to throw his most dangerous glare around when anyone made too much noise and threatened to prematurely disturb Sebastien’s rest.

Sebastien had slept for only a couple hours.

Damien tried to convince him to go to the infirmary and get a pass to skip his classes, but Sebastien refused. In the end, all Sebastien would accept was an extra strong cup of coffee, which Damien imbued with a little magic to boost its effects. It was a trick his mother had taught Titus, and which Titus had passed down to him, despite the stigma of “kitchen magic.”

The carriage slowed to a stop at the manor gates, and Damien paid the driver as Ana strode ahead. He knew he was walking into a similar situation now. He would be moral support at best, unable to actually do much to solve the problem, but he knew from experience that sometimes it helped to have someone just…be there. Ana had done the same for him more than a few times over the years.

At the front doors, Ana blew past the servant that tried to take her coat and scarf.

Damien smiled apologetically to the servant and agreed to the offer of tea and refreshments. “Send them up to the library in twenty minutes or so.”

Ana’s house was quite different from his own, filled with bright colors and fresh flowers even in the middle of winter. It was just the right temperature, and the air inside held not even a hint of smoke. Her mother took pride in things like that, redecorating frequently and inviting people over for parties and balls whenever she wanted to be particularly extravagant.

Damien didn’t want to thrust himself awkwardly between the two sisters, so he went to the library to wait for a few minutes. He browsed the books idly, his thoughts returning to the blood he’d seen caked around Sebastien’s fingernails. He couldn’t imagine exactly what it might be like to find a child missing their legs and on the edge of death, but he knew it must be horrible, and he knew that were it him in that situation, the child would have died.

But Sebastien was special. It was obvious, in his sheer skill with magic, but there was more to him than met the eye. Even beyond the secrets that Damien knew.

His fingers trailed over a book spine, his eyes idly reading without comprehending. He paused, reading the title again. A Genealogy of Notable Figures of the Thirty-Second Century, B.C.E. The book itself was completely useless to him, but it sparked an idea and renewed the flames of curiosity that had never quite died down.

He looked around, noting the recurring theme among other books. The Gervin library was full of records. A lot of genealogies, history, and plenty of not-so-subtle gossip about other people’s ancestors.

When the tea tray was brought up, he took it from the servant and made his way to Nat’s room. He knocked on the door, then opened it with a smile, keeping any anger or concern from his face. Nat needed to be cheered up, not reminded of what she already knew well enough. “I come bearing gifts for the lady Natalia, in the hopes that she might gift me a few minutes of her lovely company.”

Nat’s face was swollen and blotchy from tears, but she nodded happily enough.

They were both sitting on the canopied bed, so Damien sat the tea tray at the foot, kicked off his boots, and climbed in with them. There was plenty of space. He served the girls tea and scones with butter and jelly and made light conversation, telling stories from the University that had Natalia giggling until she fell over. She particularly loved stories about Sebastien, and Damien found he had more of them than he realized.

As she ate and drank, he foisted more snacks on her and embellished anecdotes of Sebastien’s obliviousness, grumpiness, and his secret soft-hearted core.

“What Family is he from?” Nat asked.

“He’s not one of the Crowns,” Ana said, running her fingers idly through her little sister’s hair.

“Really?” Ana looked down, frowning with disappointment.

“It’s not like that matters,” Damien said. “We might have the advantage of bloodlines and opportunity, but there’s plenty of skill among the lower class. And plenty of garbage among our own,” he added darkly.

Nat shrunk into herself a little, like a turtle tucking its head, and Damien quickly changed the subject.

After the ordeal of her day and finally being filled with food and liquid, she started drooping into sleep soon afterward.

When she was down, Damien and Ana slipped out of the bed and walked to the balcony, slipping through the door and closing it behind them.

“Is she okay?” he asked.

“It was an ordeal for her, but she’ll be fine. For now.” Ana clenched the balcony railing, staring out at the city. “This is why I didn’t want to leave her. She’s all by herself without me. She’s only eleven.”

“You managed when you were her age. She’s going to be okay. And she’s not alone. You’re not gone, you’re half an hour away, and you talk to her every day.”

Ana’s grip only tightened, and she rocked back and forth a bit.

Damien nudged her shoulder with his own. “Nat’s stronger than you think. Don’t underestimate her.”

Ana’s fingers tightened, but then she let out an almost inaudible sigh and released her grip. “You’re right. But I just worry about something like this happening again. She was trapped in that closet for hours with no way to call for help. I think Cousin Robbie paid off some of the servants to purposely ‘not notice’ her screams. Our manor isn’t that big.”

Damien ran his fingers over the simple wooden bracelet Sebastien had given him, which was hidden beneath his shirt. “You should get her an emergency alarm artifact. Something that will let you know when she’s in danger, even if she can’t write to you.”

Ana brightened immediately. “Yes, that’s a great idea! I don’t know why I never considered it before. I suppose…you don’t normally assume a child needs an emergency alarm within the safety of their own home.”

Damien only hoped Nat never needed to use it for anything worse than being trapped in a closet.

“You can go back,” Ana said. She’ll probably sleep for a couple hours. I want to be here when she wakes so she isn’t frightened.”

“Actually… I was wondering if I might use the Family library?”

“Oh? Whatever for? We don’t have many relevant study texts at a University level, and there aren’t any of your cheap detective periodicals.”

Damien refrained from commenting on her slight. “I was hoping to look up a list of notable families? I’m curious about the Siverlings.”

Ana raised a knowing eyebrow. “Interested in Sebastien’s history?”

Damien rubbed the back of his head sheepishly, then realized he was mussing his hair and smoothed it again. He looked away. “I’m just curious. Gossip and genealogy and all that is your Family’s wheelhouse. I don’t want to pull up confidential information or anything, and that’s the only type of special information my Family would have access to. Sebastien never talks about his family, you notice?”

“I already looked into them.”

Damien’s head jerked around to look at her.

“Don’t be so surprised, Damien. Of course I would. I sleep next to Thaddeus Lacer’s mysterious new apprentice every night, and no one’s ever heard of him before.”

“What did you find?”

“It was difficult to find anything. At first I thought he was…” She played with the collar of her jacket. “Well, a commoner from a family just wealthy enough to afford his tutors and admission. No one particularly special.”

Damien knew that even if Sebastien was a commoner, he would still be exceptional. “At first? You changed your mind.”

“Recent records about anyone with the name Siverling are impossible to find. At least without hiring an investigator, and I didn’t think that was warranted. But I found a more distant mention of the name. The Siverlings were a maternal offshoot line of the ruling Family of Lenore from before the Third Empire. Supposedly everyone in the line was executed by the Blood Emperor.”

Damien’s eyes widened. “Do you think it’s the same Siverlings?”

She shrugged. “Who knows? But it’s definitely a curious coincidence. Especially since he seems to have popped out of nowhere.”

Inheritance via a maternal line was often contested, and allowed only if there were no more direct descendants through a paternal line, but if it wasn’t a coincidence, and Sebastien really was descended from the king of Lenore before the Blood Empire… “What would that mean?”

“Probably not much. Maybe it would make him a more desirable match for some Crown Family daughter. With the right backers, he could make a claim to power…and probably face either open execution or a deniable assassination, depending on how much support he had.”

Damien could imagine it, a family living in secrecy for generations for fear that the Blood Emperor or the Crowns would take offense to their very existence and finish them off. “How likely is it to be true?”

“The king’s third daughter married into the Siverling family. Her husband was the king’s Court Sorcerer. She was pregnant when she died, and all the records say the child died with her. I did a little digging… She would have been at least eight months pregnant. With the right spells and a good nursemaid, eight months is old enough to survive outside the womb, if the child was delivered early or cut out of his mother’s stomach immediately after her death. So, despite how dramatic and intriguing it sounds as a story…it’s extremely unlikely.”

“But possible. And if we think so…maybe someone else does, too. Could someone have found him living in Vale, in obscurity, and convinced him to take up his true family name again? Perhaps funded his way through the University, connected him to Professor Lacer?”

Possible, yes. It’s probably unconnected, though. He’s been staying with a man named Oliver Dryden, an exiled noble from Osham. The man seems to have very little personal ambition. He’s a philanthropist with a bleeding heart, according to my father, and wouldn’t have any reason to take advantage of Sebastien. I honestly wouldn’t consider the connection to those other Siverlings at all except… Well. Sebastien has something of a way about him. Blood runs true, you know.”

Damien remembered the first time he’d realized Sebastien was truly special. He’d made a joke about him being the second coming of Myrddin.

Damien wasn’t crazy. He didn’t think Sebastien was the literal incarnation of history’s most powerful thaumaturge. But if Sebastien held the bloodline of both the king and a man who would have been one of the most powerful sorcerers in the country, it made some sense how he could be naturally talented enough to draw Thaddeus Lacer’s eye.

“Well, there’s a simple solution to our curiosity,” Ana said.

“There is?”

“We could just ask Sebastien.”

Damien considered it for a second, but shook his head. “I don’t think we should. He can tell us if he wants to. That kind of thing…there are probably a lot of good reasons to keep it secret. He never talks about his family or his childhood, and I feel like maybe that’s deliberate.”

Ana hesitated, but nodded, “I agree.”

Damien’s eyes narrowed. “There’s something else. Do you know something?”

She rolled her eyes in exasperation. “Sebastien is our friend. I don’t want to gossip about him.”

“You love gossiping. Besides, it’s just me. I’m not going to tell anyone else, and you know he’s my friend, too. If there’s something relevant, isn’t it best that both of us know so we can have his back?”

“It’s nothing you shouldn’t have noticed yourself. And I don’t want to speculate about what it means. Just—” She cleared her throat. “Okay. Sebastien is incredibly self-assured. To the point of arrogance. But that arrogance is universal. He doesn’t treat even the most obvious sponsored commoner any different than he treats you or me. And the way he studies, it’s obsessive. I thought at first he was just trying to live up to expectations or something, but sometimes it seems like he’s worried all this is going to be taken away from him, and he’s trying to cram as much knowledge as possible into his mind before the spell ends. And you’re right, he never tells stories about himself. It’s not just that he avoids talking about his family or his childhood. He’s never mentioned a pet, or his favorite food, or even what he wants to do after graduating. And mostly… He has nightmares, Damien.”

Damien nodded slowly, realizing everything she said was true. In fact, the only thing he knew about Sebastien’s family was from an offhand comment about how free-casting ran in his family, too. He, of course, knew that Sebastien’s dreams had something to do with the secrets he kept. Sebastien would have taken the same oath as Damien, while looking at the stars. He, too, wanted freedom and enlightenment, whatever that meant exactly. Sebastien had spoken about that boy with the missing legs a little too matter-of-factly.

But Damien had never given much thought to the fact that Sebastien had trouble sleeping. He knew Sebastien had nightmares, and probably insomnia, too. It was just one of those things about Sebastien, like him being grumpy in the mornings, and how much he loved good coffee but never bought any of his own, and how he ignored the increasingly frequent flirtatious looks from the female students like he didn’t even notice them. “Yes, he does…” Damien said encouragingly, waiting for Ana to continue.

“He has nightmares every night. That’s why he’s always practicing in the wee hours and seems exhausted in the morning. I think something bad happened to him. Something he doesn’t want to talk about. So even if he is one of those Siverlings, it doesn’t mean his life before this is anything he wants to remember. And maybe that’s why he studies like he does. Being here is a way out for him. And if it is…I don’t want to take that away from him by making him talk about it.”

The thought that something or someone had actually caused Sebastien’s nightmares had Damien’s heart beating a little too hard, his cheeks flushing even brighter against the cold. When Sebastien had said, “The world can be darker than you imagine,” there had been a shadow in his eyes, hidden thoughts swimming behind their placid surface. It seemed wrong that someone like Sebastien, who was strong and smart and who cared so much could, in other circumstances, be the victim of something that scarred him internally so much that he couldn’t escape the memories even in sleep. Sebastien wasn’t a victim.

Damien only realized he’d said the last part aloud when Ana nodded.

“Exactly. It’s not how he thinks of himself, and not how he would want anyone else to think of him. So let’s not make him tell stories he would rather leave behind just for the pleasure of a being in on a secret. Whether his last name has any significance…well, it doesn’t really change who Sebastien is, right?”

She was right. Damien told her so.

She laughed. “Damien, haven’t you learned by now? I’m always right.”

Damien smirked. “Except when you disagree with Sebastien.”

They laughed, and didn’t talk of it again.

Author Note: I’m working on reviewing all the line edits back from my editor, and I need some time to get through them all before posting the next chapter. Therefore, there will be no chapter on 11/11. I hope to post a double chapter during Book 2’s release week to make up for it.

 

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Chapter 80 – Nerves Wracked

Sebastien

Month 1, Day 18, Monday 6:00 p.m

Damien found Sebastien’s ignorance hilarious. He kept falling into random giggling fits whenever he thought of it, despite her increasingly ferocious scowl.

Tanya was similarly amused, leaving Newton the only one with a bit of sympathy for Sebastien.

Sebastien almost wanted to stop by Professor Lacer’s office and ask him about it, but the thought of his reaction was even more mortifying.

Besides, Damien admitted that when they spoke, Professor Lacer had called her his provisional apprentice. That barely meant anything, really. He may have made her his apprentice to get her past the entrance exams, but it seemed likely that he would negate that once its was no longer necessary, or if she disappointed him.

She did her best to put it out of her mind. Nothing had changed, only her understanding of the situation. There was nothing she needed to do with this information.

With both Newton and Damien around to watch Tanya, Sebastien didn’t really need to be there.

She decided to take advantage of the temporarily lowered workload from her classes besides Practical Casting—whose professors had some measure of compassion for their students, unlike Professor Lacer—and work on some of the things she’d been neglecting.

She went to the supply closet that held the Henrik-Thompson testing artifact, hoping that it would have other useful items, like the artifact-scanning artifact she’d just learned about, but was disappointed.

She hesitated to ask one of the Artificery professors, but when she firmed up her resolve and found the man from her entrance examination to make the request, he was happy enough to give access to the one in his classroom.

Looking around at all the complicated gadgets and tools for creating the miniature spell arrays, Sebastien regretted that Professor Lacer had restricted her to only taking six classes per term. ‘No, what are you thinking?’ she asked herself, looking at a spool of gold wire. ‘You cannot afford either the time or the funds to be a competent artificer. There were be time to learn more about this craft later, once you have made something of yourself.

The professor sat at his desk across the room, wearing a set of complicated, multi-lensed goggles and leaning over something delicate and shiny.

Sebastien made sure her back was blocking his view, just in case. She was pretty sure owning a battle wand required a license. She examined the artifact before putting it into the larger metal dome, which was already wafting out cold air from its open mouth. The wand was bigger than the name implied. Only the most expensive wands with the most delicate construction were the size of twigs. Most wands were more like batons, cylinders that easily reached an inch to an inch and a half at their base.

This one wasn’t fancy, and had no hints of precious metal or multiple different types of spells within. You pointed and pulled the embedded node on the side, and it fired a stunning spell. Of which the scanning artifact told her it had <three> remaining, based on the <three> rungs of miniature Circles within that were radiating minute amounts of heat.

Glancing surreptitiously over her shoulder to ensure the professor was still paying her no attention, she slipped off the amulet and scanned it, next.

According to the scan, it had no charges remaining. ‘Either I just happen to have run out, or whatever charges it holds are too efficient to be tracked.’ Not sure whether to be disappointed or relieved at the continued mystery, she hid the amulet away again, thanked the professor, and forced herself to take a nap. Then, she practiced Professor Lacer’s exercises, focusing on all the different aspects of her Will while creating a ball of compressed air, until she felt herself start to grow more at ease with the spell.

The next couple days were uneventful. Other than the suspicious letter Tanya had sent via spelled paper bird, she was keeping to her normal routine as a student aide. But Sebastien knew the girl would slip up eventually. Probably soon, with what had just happened. Neither Munchworth nor the Morrows seemed the type to lay low for any length of time.

Oliver sent Sebastien another coded note requesting she come by over the weekend to brew healing concoctions, as apparently the Stags were having trouble supplying their increased territory. She had already been planning on it, of course, but noted that she should buy any useful healing supplies at the next secret meeting, which she hoped would be soon. The Verdant Stag would need more than she could supply on her own, and Oliver would reimburse her, with her fee on top of that.

After classes on Wednesday, while Ana, Damien, and Sebastien were studying in the library, Ana started to scribble faster in the pink notebook she often wrote in, a harsh frown on her face.

Sebastien would have thought nothing of it, but Ana was the type to smile with almost creepy pleasantness even while enraged. She’d done so only that morning when one of the male students “accidentally” rubbed against her derriere. Right before shoving his food tray into his chest, splashing hot oatmeal over his chest and face with a sweet, “Oops!”

Meaning something that could cause Ana to frown so unpleasantly had to be serious.

“What’s wrong?” Damien asked.

“I need to go check on my little sister,” Ana replied, already preparing to leave.

“I’ll come with you,” Damien said immediately, already standing. He hesitated, looking to Sebastien as if realizing that he might have misspoken.

If Damien left, it would be only Sebastien and Newton to watch over Tanya, but Sebastien nodded quickly anyway. Some things were more important. Damien had been Ana’s friend far longer than he’d been Sebastien’s ally.

She even offered, “Do you need any help?” but neither of them responded to her, already hurrying away perhaps too quickly to have heard her.

Checking to make sure Newton was still with Tanya, Sebastien moved to the supervised practice rooms, where she spent a couple hours trying to catch up on Professor Lacer’s exercises.

Ana and Damien were still gone when she returned to the dorms, and Sebastien guessed they might be staying the night at the Gervin estate. ‘I hope everything is alright.’ Damien did have the bracelet she’d given him, so if anything went truly wrong he could at least let her know, though she didn’t know what she might do about it.

Sebastien cast her dreamless sleep spell and laid down. She was hoping to get a few hours of sleep in, and then wake to work on some homework in the middle of the night while a little more refreshed. Just as she was falling asleep, the alarm ward they’d placed on Tanya’s door went off.

Sebastien pulled the rattling, cold stone from under her pillow and stared at it for a moment of frustrated disbelief. It was as if Tanya had somehow divined the worst possible moment to get up to something suspicious. ‘I’m tired. I don’t want to follow Tanya out into the freezing elements and hide in the dark listening to her from afar…

Sebastien considered letting Tanya go unsupervised in favor of sleep, trying to convince herself that the other woman wasn’t necessarily up to anything nefarious. Instead, Sebastien leapt to her feet in sudden anxiety.

Without Damien, she couldn’t actually listen to Tanya from afar. Sebastien had spent a little time researching sound-enhancing spells, but what she’d found in the library and tested worked by amplifying received sound through the casting surface. They all created a slight but obvious echo that could easily give her away to Tanya and Munchworth if they were paying attention, even if she managed to hide or suppress any light given off by the casting or Sacrifice flame.

Her mind raced as she tried to come up with a solution. She could try to recreate Damien’s spell by hashing something together, but there was very little chance she would get it just right, and new magic was wild. Dangerous. She was trying to learn from her mistakes, not recklessly undertake more of them. That would be a last resort.

Why didn’t I place more importance on finding a way to cast a divination spell focused on myself, at will? If I had the ward going at full strength, I might even be able to sneak up on them in the dark.’ Even if she could have cast a divination on herself while simultaneously avoiding its grasp, though, the spillover light from her lantern and the probable glow of the spell array would give her away. The divination-diverting ward didn’t make her invisible or impossible to notice, after all. If she could cast with light as a power source, she could have minimized her chance of being noticed, but she was nowhere near ready to do that.

You’re rambling. Focus. I need real solutions,’ she snapped at herself mentally, wrenching on her boots and jacket.

She checked her pocket watch. Less than half a minute had passed since Tanya left her room. ‘I can’t listen in from a distance, and I can’t sneak up on her. But I’m pretty sure I know who she’s meeting, and where. I don’t need to sneak up on them if I’m already there. Laying in wait. Hidden.

It was a gamble. Maybe Tanya wasn’t going to meet Munchworth at the Menagerie.

Moving as fast as she ever had in her life, Sebastien used her little slate table and the bone disk to track Tanya’s direction. She was headed north, which meant she probably wasn’t leaving University grounds. She would swing west soon, if the Menagerie was her goal.

Already moving to the dormitory doors, Sebastien snuffed her lamp, stuffed it into her pocket with the bone disk, and wrapped her dark scarf around her head to cover her pale face and hair. She didn’t want to stand out in the night like a beacon.

As soon as she was in the hallway, she ran. She burst through the opposite doors Tanya had exited through, sprinting around the Citadel to the east and onward to the Menagerie gates. She had to get there far enough ahead of Tanya that the other girl wouldn’t see her. Sebastien could only hope that Munchworth wasn’t already there and waiting.

At least this time, there was no fresh snow to leave suspicious tracks in. It was trampled and dirty and the paths were covered in patches of invisible ice that at one point sent Sebastien sprawling painfully.

Cursing silently, breathing too hard to spare any air for spouting obscenities aloud, she climbed off her bruised knees and elbows and kept running.

The little bridge Tanya and Munchworth had met at last time was empty. Sebastien slowed and looked around suspiciously, looking for any other forms hiding in the dark. Her breaths were seeping out through the gaps in her hastily-wrapped scarf, clouding puffy and white in the moonlight. Her lungs protested the shock of suddenly filtering such a great quantity of frigid air, and she coughed as stealthily as she could, looking around for a hiding spot.

Eventually, she decided the best hiding spot was actually under the bridge itself. There were a couple large boulders near the bank that would help to conceal her form if she huddled into them.

It was a precarious descent. The rocks were slippery, and the edge of the little stream was iced over and concealed with piled snow. Sebastien cracked through the ice with a splash, but managed not to face-plant into the freezing water. “Titan’s balls!” she hissed. She crouched down in the darkness underneath the stone bridge against the lumpy side of the boulder and remained still, muffling her breaths with her scarf.

She wanted to cast the compass divination on Tanya again, or at least take out her pocket watch to estimate how long she would need to wait for the girl to arrive, but she resisted the urge. She was too likely to be noticed.

To her relief, though, she had planned correctly.

Tanya arrived first, clearly audible from the little bridge above as she stamped her feet and muttered vague threats toward “that pompous idiot.”

It took long enough for Munchworth to arrive that even Sebastien was beginning to wonder if he’d stood Tanya up. When he arrived, Sebastien worried suddenly that one of them would use a revealing spell of some sort to ensure their privacy, but he started speaking without hesitation. “What was so urgent that you could not send it in a message? I was under the impression that you do not have much time to dawdle about tonight. Do you have something for me?”

Tanya seemed to hesitate, but then blurted, “This is a bad idea. I…I don’t feel comfortable doing this. I can go to the meeting, but—”

Munchworth cut her off. “You called me away from my bed just to whine? What exactly do you think your job is? Do you think you are in a position to make demands, or even suggestions?” His voice grew louder as he berated her. “You do not decide. We decide. You either perform satisfactorily, or you fail and you are useless.”

“I’m not incompetent,” Tanya said in a tightly controlled tone, “but I have objections to being treated like a disposable pawn in a reckless strategy that’s just as likely to backfire as bring about positive results. Aligning ourselves against the Verdant Stag and the Nightmare Pack, both of which have dealings with the Raven Queen, is a bad idea. I have already been warned once. I doubt she will spare my life a second time. I have reason to believe that a member of the Stags or the Nightmare Pack is also a member of the meetings. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. It became obvious after the attack. Don’t you see the implications?”

“It is no surprise that there are criminals at these meetings. That is largely the point of them.”

“They know who I am!” she cried, barely keeping her voice low enough that it wouldn’t travel through the night. “They’ve heard my request for a meeting with the Raven Queen, and they probably passed it on to her, but she refused. They’ve been selling Conduits, I think from people they attacked or killed. They’re dangerous.”

She’s talking about me, but why would she assume I got the celerium through nefarious means?

Tanya continued, “When I start asking the questions you sent me, they’re going to make connections. The Raven Queen has already shown she can move directly against the University without repercussion. She’s warned me in person. Do you want to be assassinated? Wasn’t that book she stole on its way to your office at the time? She knows where you work. She probably knows where you sleep. You are making an enemy who is beyond your league, and you’re tossing me into their jaws like some kind of disposable, unshielded pawn.”

Munchworth scoffed angrily. “I am a professor of the Thaumaturgic University of Lenore. We are the most powerful magical institution on the continent. Even the Thirteen Crowns fear us. This upstart who calls herself the Raven Queen is nothing more than a petty thief and a dramatist, feeding the fear and ignorance of the population to bolster her reputation. She makes threats and pulls stunts because she is not powerful enough to face us directly. We will anger her? She has angered us! We will stand for this no longer, and if she knows what is good for her, she will hide away in the shadows, for the fist of our wrath will spare none!” He breathed hard for a few seconds. “The cowardice of your common blood is showing true, Canelo. Rid your mind of petty superstitions and represent the University with the mettle of a real sorcerer.”

Tanya’s heavy breaths were audible, and Sebastien could imagine her anger, but the woman didn’t reply aloud.

“You’re becoming an increasing hassle, Canelo. Remember, we wield both the carrot and the stick.” There was a pause, and Tanya must have responded nonverbally, because her harsh breaths remained while Munchworth’s heavier stride walked off the bridge and retreated toward the entrance.

Sebastien remained still beneath the bridge, trying not to shiver or let her teeth chatter.

Tanya remained for a few minutes, then suddenly burst into cursing. She took a few deep breaths, muttered, “By all the greater hells,” in a desperately strained tone that sounded as if she might be about to burst into tears. It took a few more minutes after that, but she said, “Okay, okay,” in a calmer tone. “I do what I must. At least I won’t be entirely helpless, or alone.”

Tanya finally left, and after waiting to be sure she wouldn’t be observed, Sebastien followed her.

Updated 11/25/21:

Do you have a sharp eye for errors and an interest in reading the entirety of Book 2 now (chapters 38-89), in exchange for a $25 bookstore gift card, your own paperback copy of the book, and a signed bookplate?

PGTS Book 2: A Binding of Blood is almost ready for publication. It’s been professionally edited, but it takes more than a couple sets of eyes to catch all the errors in a work. I’m looking for readers with a sharp eye to suss out any remaining typos and other small, insidious errors.

If you’re interested, check out the details here: https://www.azaleaellis.com/join-the-typo-hunting-team/

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