Chapter 102 – First Moves

Sebastien

Month 1, Day 31, Sunday 12:00 p.m.

As the first step in implementing solutions to her problems, Sebastien returned to the unused second floor classroom that she’d used to practice her divination. Even if she couldn’t trail Tanya personally, they still had a way to track her, using the bone disk in a different way.

While she set up the spell array and components for the mapping spell, Sebastien kept thinking. ‘If I could get the coppers off my back entirely, I might not even need to worry about them having my blood. If I could get them to stop considering me a criminal, or make it more costly to keep going after me than what they would gain from the attempt, or give them something they want even more than the Raven Queen…’ She sighed, shaking her head. Even if she could keep them from charging her with treason and blood magic, some of the other things she’d done in the meantime would probably still be considered a crime, and she wasn’t willing to go to jail for any amount of time.

This wasn’t the kind of problem she could fix through entirely legal means, not at this point, and not when she had so little power. Illegal mean, such as blackmail or bribery, might still be on the table. If she had some way to be sure she could trust the coppers not to arrest and execute her, she could make a deal to give back the book in exchange for her freedom. But making that kind of deal was the kind of thing that required some extra leverage to ensure they wouldn’t go back on their word when it suddenly became more convenient for them to do so.

Still, it was worth keeping in mind that there might be other solutions to her problems that could be seen if she came at them from a different angle.

If she could decrypt the book, perhaps that would give her a better idea of the best options, or the leverage she would need to keep the University and the coppers sufficiently wary of her retaliation.

All that being said, she wasn’t sure she was willing to give up the identity of Sebastien Siverling. Not unless the same opportunities she had as Sebastien could be afforded to Siobhan, which seemed…unlikely. At the very least, her Crown Family schoolmates would probably feel betrayed by her duplicity. ‘And would Professor Lacer be willing to take Siobhan Naught as an apprentice?’ These problems were useless to consider at the moment, too far removed from her current situation to be relevant. She set that line of thought aside for her subconscious to mull over as she moved into the actual casting of the divination spell.

Mixing a couple shavings of the bone disk with the mercury for the mapped divination spell—rather than her blood—didn’t increase the difficulty of casting, and Sebastien soon found Tanya’s location, tucked away in the library. With this, she didn’t need to follow Tanya to know where she was at any given time, though the downside was the increased difficulty of this spell in comparison to the compass spell.

That’s one small step of many complete. Now for the things that can be completed with a handful of coin.

The morning gloom had burned off by the time Sebastien arrived at Waterside Market, but despite the winter sun shining down with all the strength it could muster, the residue of the battle the weekend before lived on in more than the faint smell of smoke. The people moved a little faster, trying to finish their shopping and get home without lingering. Coppers patrolled around the market, or stood glaring near the more expensive shops.

Sebastien almost scoffed aloud. ‘Useless. Making a show of force here for the benefit of the people who can actually still afford to come to this market, when they should be where they’re needed. Where people have a reason to be afraid, and cold, and hungry. Where there might actually be danger. But the Crowns care more about keeping up appearances among the people who have enough money to make them care.

She paused, surprised at her vehemence, and realized that she was being foolish. It was better that the coppers be here, rather than making trouble for the people in Oliver’s territory. ‘Right?’ How much of the copper presence in the Mires was actually deterring crime, actually helping to keep the peace?

Sebastien might have her reasons to be personally biased against them, but surely law enforcement personnel provided some positives to the city…even if they didn’t have their priorities straight, and seemed to be somewhere between ineffective and actively detrimental to the areas that needed them most. Nevertheless, there was obviously a problem when poor citizens in danger preferred to call in enforcers from their local gang than the coppers.

Sebastien bought an eclectic variety of items, stocking up on extras of her most-used components and spell array drawing supplies as well as some stranger things, like a few dozen live mice, and a few dozen small vials and pouches for organization. She was able to get what she required without difficulty, needing nothing more than to flash her student token to buy the magical supplies despite the nearby law enforcement. She also replenished the supplies for casting her sleep-proxy spell, hoping it would be for the last time.

Carrying the flimsy wooden box that held her purchases, she went to the Silk Door, changed into Siobhan, and left again. The box, with distinctive holes bored in its lid, was the only thing that connected the person who walked in to the person who left later, and even that she tried to disguise under her jacket. ‘I should try to get a second transition location besides the Silk Door,’ she mused, mentally adding it to her extensive list of tasks.

She had considered going to Oliver’s house to pick up the two magical plants she’d stashed there, but decided against it. She couldn’t carry everything unless she hired a carriage, and if Liza turned her down, it would be a waste of effort and money.

She took a roundabout way to Liza’s house. The streets were emptier than normal, at first—further north—and then as she drew nearer to her destination, busier than normal, with people huddled by barrels of fire in the alleys and curled up in doorways to escape the cold wind.

Not as many people as she had feared. The fires caused by the fighting had been put out before they could ravage the whole of the Mires, and both the church of the Radiant Maiden and the Stewards of Intention had taken in refugees. If she knew Oliver at all, she was sure the Verdant Stag was doing the same.

Siobhan’s path took her past some of the damage. There must have been areas worse affected, but it actually wasn’t as bad as she’d been expecting. A few destroyed walls that let in the elements, places where the cobblestone street was shattered from excessive force, scorch marks from overpowered spells, and random barriers of poured stone that no one had gotten around to dissolving. She didn’t know much about construction, but it seemed like it wouldn’t take too long to repair, if only there was someone with both the coin and the willingness.

Siobhan quickly rapped on Liza’s door with the lion door-knocker, avoiding its teeth. After a few moments, it apparently decided she was safe and the lock opened with an audible “click.” Siobhan walked in and waited in the dining area attached to the kitchen.

Liza arrived a long few minutes later with a steaming mug of dark tea in her hands, sleep-grit in her bloodshot eyes, and a scowl on her face.

She’s tired. Perfect,’ Siobhan thought.

“What do you want? Be quick about it. I’ve barely gotten any sleep for the past two weeks dealing with all this shit your friend Oliver helped create, and I am running low on available fucks to give.” Liza didn’t even bother to glare at Siobhan, staring wearily into the mid-distance and gulping down her steaming tea.

Siobhan replied without preamble. “I have a newly developed spell in the testing stages that can allow you to give up sleep without side effects.”

Liza’s expression was blank for a whole second of continued bleariness, and then she turned to Siobhan with sudden hawklike focus, her Will tightening the air between them. “Continue.”

“The spell array and theory have been reviewed and approved by an extremely accomplished sorcerer, but I haven’t attempted to cast it yet. It works on sympathetic binding principles. Technically blood magic, but it only requires a raven. I assumed you would have no qualms with that.”

“No side effects? No sleep debt, no decrease in mental or physical function? How long does it last?” Liza asked, rapid-fire.

Siobhan held back her smile and answered confidently. “It’s still in the testing phase, but it’s based off some restricted experiments carried out during the Third Empire. No side-effects for the person giving up sleep. There will probably be some minor sleep-debt if you push the duration of the spell to its limits, but nothing like what you would normally experience. I’m not sure of the specifics when not using another human as part of the spell. I’d estimate you could go sleepless anywhere from an additional eight to twenty-four hours of waking time that would otherwise be spent on sleep. So you can spend one to three days awake, in a row. You’ll likely still experience some fatigue, and any serious injuries or extended stressors would require you to rest outside of the bounds of the spell…but the benefits are obvious, I think. These last two weeks could have left you feeling as tired as you might after a long day of work, rather than as if you’d been pushing yourself without a break for days straight.”

Liza stared at Siobhan like a dog staring at a juicy steak that was just out of reach. Liza tried to take a drink from her cup, realized it was empty, and stood. “Give me a moment.” She retreated to the kitchen, returning a few minutes later with two cups full of tea and seeming slightly less eager. She gave one cup to Siobhan.

Siobhan took it with thanks, but only blew on the steaming liquid, not taking a sip. It wasn’t that she thought Liza would drug her…but the other woman hadn’t hid her greed well enough. ‘There are spells that keep people from paying attention to what they’re signing, so why not a couple drops of a tincture that can make someone a little too agreeable while negotiating? I’ll wait until we’ve reached an agreement.

“You have my attention,” Liza said. “I’m a bit skeptical about these claims, especially since you say it’s merely in the theoretical stage right now, but I would be willing to test it for you. I’m assuming some of the components are expensive?”

Siobhan almost snorted at the blatant attempt to swindle her. “The details of the spell are proprietary information. I’m willing to give you the information, but it certainly won’t be for free. The components aren’t cheap, but I was able to get my hands on them, so I don’t need your help for that.”

“What do you want?”

Siobhan hadn’t actually expected Liza to be this interested. She’d simply hoped to avoid paying to cast the spell and also keep everything set up at Liza’s house. But she wasn’t one to let opportunity go to waste. ‘Liza was willing to knock sixty-five gold off her fee to study the warding medallion Grandfather made me. This isn’t as magically impressive as that…but obviously Liza could make great use of it. She might be able to develop a similar spell herself, but without access to the University library resources…maybe not.’ “One hundred fifty gold,” Siobhan tried.

Liza scoffed. “Ridiculous! I haven’t even seen this spell in action, and you admittedly haven’t cast it yourself. Everything you’re telling me is hearsay. Twenty gold, and I’ll help you test it. I have protective wards built into the casting room below that should help keep us safe against violent spell reactions, and my Will is almost certainly necessary for a spell that does what you say. Without me, you would be risking your sanity and your life. Hells, something like this could easily trigger a break event.”

That was an undeniably persuasive argument, especially considering Siobhan’s recent experience, but she wasn’t going to give in just like that. Liza had actually offered to pay her! For a spell that Siobhan developed herself! “It’s not quite as intensive as you think. I wouldn’t turn down your help, but with some effort I can cast it myself. I’m not worried about serious reactions. As I said, it’s already been reviewed by another sorcerer. One I trust. This is the kind of spell that could change your life. An extra eight hours a day? How much is your time worth, Liza?”

Liza narrowed her eyes. “Eighty gold.”

“One hundred twenty gold, and the ongoing use of your casting room downstairs.”

“One hundred gold, the use of my casting room, and I’ll assist in the development and testing of this spell. But if the spell is totally unviable, I’ll want my coin returned.”

Siobhan almost agreed, but hesitated. “You’ll sign a blood print spell of secrecy. And I want ten percent of the income if you ever use this spell or its principles for anyone else or otherwise earn coin off of the knowledge.” She didn’t want Liza able to pass on the information to others for money or favors, but casting the spell directly should be fine. With Liza’s prices, even a small percentage could actually fatten Siobhan’s purse significantly.

Liza smirked. “Not bad, girl. Five percent.”

“Agreed.”

Once they had worked out the details of the vow, which protected each of them in both word and intent, and completed it, Liza waved at Siobhan impatiently. “Well, let’s see it. You did bring the spell information, I hope? I won’t be able to devote any significant of time to the project for the next couple weeks while I finish up my current commitments, but I can take a look.”

“I didn’t bring the spell information. But I did bring some of the supplies,” Siobhan said with a too-bright smile. “Test subjects.” She picked up the hole-punched box she’d placed on the floor beside her chair, removing the lid to reveal the few dozen sleeping mice within, tucked into a corner away from a handful of other components. They’d been forced unconscious with a spell, but would wake up soon.

This surprise did nothing to mitigate Liza’s grumpiness, and they argued about keeping them at her house, but Siobhan pointed out that she already kept multiple different animals in the magical supply room. Adding a few dozen mice to one of her terrariums wouldn’t change much. It would barely even take her a couple more minutes a day to take care of them. Liza’s exhaustion worked against her, and Siobhan was able to both deposit the mice and a handful of random spell components they would need, and escape with the fat purse of gold and her copy of the blood print vow.

“I’ll be back in a couple days with the spell information and the rest of the supplies,” Siobhan said as she left. “Maybe try to get some sleep in the meantime.”

She was halfway through the door when she stopped abruptly, almost tripping over the doorjamb with the sudden idea that had halted her. “I need to get a simple battle wand, and some kind of remote-triggered artifact that can allow me to destroy evidence in a radius of a few feet without accidentally causing further destruction. Can you give me a referral to someone in the Night Market that does good, affordable work?”

Liza gave her a glare of loathing and nearly pushed her out the door, but not before giving Siobhan the location of a shop, as well as permission to say that Liza sent her. “I certainly don’t have time to dance to this girl’s crazy whims,” Liza muttered to herself before slamming the door behind Siobhan.

Siobhan stopped by the shop that she’d sold Ennis’s belongings to, where she picked up a handful of different outfits, for both women and men, each with a distinctly different look. She tried to stay in the middle ground between the clothes seeming nice enough not to draw suspicion, while not being so nice as to be either unaffordable or memorable. Really, that just meant clothes that didn’t have any visible patches or stains on them. Each emergency stash would need a pair of both male and female clothing. In addition to that, she picked up a couple canvas satchels and backpacks in various states of wear.

Siobhan felt the pain in her purse-strings as she paid, a good seventeen gold poorer. Clothing was so expensive. She hadn’t even bought shoes! It would have been even more expensive if not for her trading in her old Raven Queen outfit—which she’d cast a color-changing spell on to avoid recognition.

After that, she went to the Night Market. The sun was beginning to set by that time, but the Night Market had been aptly named, and the street and shops within maintained their inviting lights.

The shop Liza had recommended had an empty stunning wand on sale, and the artificer on staff absorbed her order for a remote-triggered destruction device with extended, dubious silence. Finally, he said, “I think I have a land mine from the Haze War that could be modified to do what you want. That would be cheaper than a booby trap meant for a safe, which would be your other immediate option. The purpose is destroying evidence, yes, not for use on your enemies?” he asked, giving her a hard stare.

“Yes.” Siobhan assured him, trying to look trustworthy. “And I need the triggering mechanism to be discreet, something I can hide.”

“How soon do you need it?”

“…As soon as possible?”

He gave her another judgmental look. “An extra gold for the rush job. I can have it ready in an hour.”

Siobhan reluctantly agreed.

While she was browsing, waiting for them to charge up the wand and modify this land mine in the workshop at the back of the store, she found the perfect artifact to solve another of her problems.

She almost missed it, because the artifact was on a corner shelf among a jumble of other, less dazzling items that most people would have little use for. She wouldn’t have even known what it was, if not for the little card attached to it with a string. It was made of two glass-and copper spheres. The large sphere contained a clear liquid, within which a tapered iron needle floated, suspended in the center. The second sphere, attached to the top, was much smaller and opened up to allow the user to place something inside it.

It was a dowsing artifact, meant for miners, spelunkers, or wild herb gatherers. One simply placed a sample of what they were hoping to find within the little sphere at the top, closed and twisted it to activate the divination, and then followed the compass needle, could rotate in the four cardinal directions and also adjust up and down.

Some of the glass between the embedded copper braces had obviously cracked and been repaired, and the card said the divination only reached out about ten meters from the artifact, but it was perfect for Siobhan. When the shop’s proprietor came back out, she bought it for only three gold, after haggling him down due to the obvious damage that had been repaired.

The stunning wand, which now had twenty-one fresh copies of the standard stunning spell, cost seventeen gold. The remote-triggered mine, which had been retooled to cast a single, powerful disintegration spell, cost another twelve gold, and could be triggered by pressing a discreet compressible button. Altogether, it was more expensive than she had been expecting, and she wondered if she was being charged a surfeit because her purchases were so obviously illegal.

On the whole, she had spent over fifty gold on her shopping excursion, almost every coin she’d had to her name before the agreement with Liza. To potentially buy herself safety, it was a bargain

Now she only needed to find the most optimal places to create her own safe houses, places where, if everything fell apart, she could escape to, pick up a stash of emergency supplies, and change her appearance.

The Silk Door could probably be one. ‘Other than that, I could do either Dryden Manor or the Verdant Stag, but I might actually want to have the emergency stashes somewhere completely unrelated to the Verdant Stag. If I can get to Oliver’s house or the Verdant Stag, I’m likely to be okay. I need contingencies for when I can’t go to them for some reason.

Siobhan returned to the Silk Door, looking around the little closet for a place to keep a secret stash. This room might supposedly be reserved for only her, but others might still enter while she wasn’t there, and she didn’t want to chance her valuable stash being stolen.

Eventually, she used an idea she’d originally come up with as a better hiding spot for the stolen book currently embedded in a mattress at Oliver’s house. At the time, she hadn’t had a way to properly cut into and control the marble floor, even if she had the strength to lift it. But now, she knew a very handy, simple spell that allowed her to create extremely precise incisions. Using the stone-disintegration and reformation spells she had been practicing for Practical Casting, she carved out a Circle of the floor, lifting it up from the rest. I need to practice a version of this spell for wood, something that will allow me to carve out a hollow in a tree, or take apart wooden floorboards without the damage being noticeable.’ There were plenty of places throughout the city where she could create a similar stash, with no one the wiser.

She divided up some of the basic component supplies she’d bought into the vials and pouches, then made copies of her most useful spells on some new seaweed paper, keeping the arrays small and portable. She took one spare outfit for both her male and female form, a basic set of spell-casting supplies—including a small, adjustable-flame oil lantern—and an assortment of coin totaling ten gold, and organized two emergency getaway bags out of the supplies. She only had enough clothes for two getaway bags at the moment, but there were enough of the other supplies for a few more stashes that she would create later.

She placed one of the prepared bags and all of the extra supplies in a hollow space between supporting floorboards, underneath the stone veneer. Before she sealed the stash up again, she drew a complete spell array for the stone-disintegration spell on the underside of the veneer. That way, if she arrived in a hurry, she wouldn’t need to take time writing it out again. She would be able to cast with the spell array whether or not she could see it, as long as she remembered where it was. ‘I should add some dried food rations and a canteen of water,’ she realized as she stood, rubbing her aching knees. Best to be prepared for anything, even fleeing into the wilderness. If she had the coin, another battle wand would also be optimal, but that wasn’t reasonable in her current straits.

Her new stunning wand and the disintegration mine both went into her bulky school bag, though she had to use her cutting and mending spells along with some scrap leather to create a discreet, additional secret pouch for the mine inside. With it, there would be no need for another scenario where she had to place herself in danger to retrieve the bag and items within it. She could simply destroy it all from a distance, leaving no evidence that could be traced back to her.

She hesitated over where to put the disintegration mine’s compressible button, which needed to be pressed three times in quick succession to activate the artifact, and was useless if she was over two kilometers away from the mine.

Eventually, she decided that she currently didn’t have any good space for the button, and decided to follow up on another idea she’d had, using some the last of her leather scraps to create a kind of holster that she could wear around her waist. It held her black sapphire Conduit flush against the skin of her side, and a much smaller pouch contained the button, surrounded by stiff enough leather that it would be difficult to trigger by accident.

When she was finished, she moved around while watching herself in the small mirror to test out the new set up, which was much more comfortable than keeping the sapphire tucked inside her boot where it always dug into the skin of her calf. The holster’s design required a few tweaks and a color-changing spell to look more like skin, but when she was finished, it was invisible from the outside. Even if someone pressed up against her, the leather was angled and tapered such that they might feel something strange, but wouldn’t immediately realize she was keeping something stone-shaped under her clothes. She even added some notches that would allow her to adjust it based on the current size of her torso when she switched between forms.

She took the second filled emergency getaway bag with her as she left, mulling over a good location for it as she walked through the darkening streets. Eventually, she found a nice alehouse in the northern part of the city, located between the University and the nearest exit point through Gilbratha’s white cliffs. It had a public bathroom for customers, which had a window large enough for her to crawl through. She locked the bathroom door, then worked quickly to cut out a portion of the floor in the back corner and dig out a hollow space below it, where she placed the second getaway bag. She cleared away the evidence, packing some of the stone and dirt into the side pocket of her school satchel to dump out later, and left the alehouse with no one the wiser.

She grinned to herself, feeling rather clever and, if she were to admit it, like a child playing at being a spy. She had always had a fondness for hidden pockets and compartments. It felt like she had made real progress with the day’s work. While she hoped these arrangements were never again necessary, knowing that they existed gave her some measure of comfort. It was a start.

On the way back to the University, Sebastien made sure to pass by a very specific shop window. She noted the folded paper decorations sitting in it. The next secret meeting of thaumaturges was twelve days away.

That was plenty of time to prepare, as long as she managed to stay on top of her schedule and manage her time. She needed to be more efficient, perhaps getting a few minutes of homework and study in during the breaks between classes, when other students were ambling through the halls and chatting with each other.

Above all, however, she needed to avoid adding anything more to her plate. She couldn’t afford another project, or another problem.

Sorry about the delay, I’m still working on getting the site fixed but I was able to figure out the problem blocking me from posting entirely. Sigh.

Edit 5/19/22: I’m now having some problems with the Patreon integration, so even if you’re a patron, you may have trouble accessing the locked chapters. I’m working on it with tech support. If you’re a patron and you’re getting stuck in an access loop, go read the chapter on Patreon instead.

 

Continue ReadingChapter 102 – First Moves

Chapter 101 – Game Plan

Sebastien

Month 1, Day 31, Sunday 9:00 a.m.

Sebastien took her first dose of the beamshell stimulant tincture immediately after her first meal of the day on Sunday. She had eaten every bit of her food even though she wasn’t hungry and had actually started gagging little toward the end. This ongoing lack of hunger was foreign to her, since, despite the cafeteria food’s low deliciousness factor, her normal appetite usually left her feeling vaguely unsatisfied with the amount.

Sebastien went into the bathroom, then, following the usage instructions very carefully, she measured out a single milligram and mixed the crumb-sized piece of paste into a cup of warm water, which she chugged. One milligram wasn’t even a full dose, but she was being cautious.

She clamped her mouth shut around the renewed desire to vomit. As her stomach settled, it began to tingle, as if the tincture inside her were crackling with lightning. This electric energy quickly spread outward, rushing up to her head and down to her toes, filling her with a flush of warmth and vibrancy.

Sebastien suppressed a giddy laugh.

With the new energy crackling along inside her, she headed to the library to fix her life.

She found an unoccupied table that caught some spillover light from the shimmering spelled glass that made up the library’s domed ceiling, basking in the brightness for a moment. The tincture had left her feeling a little buzzy and flighty, but she forced herself to stillness, considering her goal.

It’s time to take control and figure out my problem. I need a real plan, and a schedule to implement the plan.’ When she felt composed and calm, she opened her eyes and pulled out some note-taking supplies.

Okay, so like Tanya mentioned, list all the problems first before trying to come up with solutions to them,’ she thought. She scribbled a list of bullet points.

The coppers still have my blood, unless it was destroyed in the explosion.

I still owe the Verdant Stag almost eight hundred gold crowns of the original one thousand debt. Interest is a demon.

I’m feeling awake at the moment, but this isn’t going to do anything to stop the nightmares, which are the real problem.

I need to find something to give Damien a benign sense of purpose, focused on something that has less chance of getting me caught.’

I’ve got to maintain good academic standing in general, while also completing Professor Lacer’s auxiliary exercises, and also prepare something that will earn at least fifty contribution points in the end of term exhibitions.

She paused, staring at the list, then continued.

It’s also possible that there could be oncoming repercussions from Tanya’s University faction, or from the coppers, for my involvement in the Aberrant incident, even in my Sebastien Siverling identity.

She paused again, wondering if she’d covered everything. ‘If I fixed all these problems, would my life be alright?’ She considered Ennis for a moment, still imprisoned, but decided that she did not, in fact, care to do anything about that, and would be fine even if he was sentenced to work in the celerium mines for the rest of his life.

Finally, she added one last bullet point.

Do something about the Raven Queen’s reputation, and/or clear Siobhan Naught’s name?

That would definitely be ideal, but how she might go about doing that seemed extremely nebulous.

She waited a few minutes, letting her mind mull over the problems, trying to find issues she hadn’t dredged up, but finally decided that if she could deal with all the things on the list, it would be enough. Be that as it may, neither the size nor the severity of the list was trifling.

First, the danger of repercussions from the University or the coppers.’ She wasn’t entirely sure what she could do to mitigate such a nebulous threat. She would do her best to keep her eyes open and gather any relevant information, but her power in this instance was limited. Oliver had plenty of contacts in the coppers, and she had Damien, so there was a non-trivial chance that she would learn of danger to either identity before it became critical. But beyond that, realistically, she had to hope that the important people believed her about the reason for her involvement as Sebastien and thought her harmless. The coppers’ investigation was still ongoing, but if they found something to implicate her, she would have to deal with that when it happened.

Sebastien could, however, anticipate that the things that could go wrong, would go wrong, and attempt to be prepared for that eventuality. She might need to fight, or run. She might need to hide. She needed contingencies in place for the worst possible outcome. Options that she should have grasped before everything went to shit. If she had done this before, actually taking the safety of herself and those around her with deadly seriousness, and planned accordingly, maybe Newton would still be alive.

Her grandfather had told her once that it was hard for people to imagine experiencing the kind of catastrophe that had never affected them before. People in flood or storm zones only wanted to pay for wards strong enough to protect them from the strongest disaster in their own memory, not the strongest disaster that could realistically affect them. People read about accidents and crimes in the news, but didn’t believe those things would affect them or those they cared for. If they did, every house that could afford it would have anti-fire wards, and people would carry defensive artifacts when they left their homes, and would go to the healer at the first worrying sign of illness. Children thought they were immortal, because they’d never experienced death first hand.

But she…she should have known better. Her life with Ennis might have been relatively safe and mundane compared to her current circumstances. And she might have gotten used to not being able to prepare for everything, for lack of knowledge and funds. But she knew how dangerous, how horrific, how absolutely devastating life could really be. She could have tried harder to be ready for it, and taken the danger of what they were doing more seriously, rather than assuming that somehow things would just work out.

Sebastien had known better, intellectually, but she could see now that she hadn’t believed things could really go so wrong, because she hadn’t acted with the caution someone who believed would have shown. And maybe, even now, there was something waiting to destroy this new, precarious life she had built. Even if she did everything right, there was not even an ounce of fairness in the world. Catastrophe could, and would fall on those that did not deserve it, and it could come with all the power and shock of a meteor fallen from the heavens. It had to be her job to decrease the chances of that as much as realistically possible, and that meant preparation of the kind that didn’t come naturally to a human brain. Preparation for the things that could go wrong, not just things that had already gone wrong.

She added more bullet points to the list.

Make preparations for if I am caught.

Imagine various doomsday events and ways that I might avoid or make it through them. Run drills?

Try to train myself to be less foolish. Perhaps some sort of mental trigger that I respond to by stopping and considering the potential consequences more seriously, and only move forward if I realistically believe I am prepared?

The thought spurred a horrible realization, one that might have been hiding in the back of her mind for some time now, waiting for her to acknowledge it. ‘I shouldn’t have gone back downstairs for my bag. There is nothing in it so valuable that I should have willingly faced the Aberrant.

Her grip on her pen tightened at the thought. ‘If I had left the bag, the worst possible thing that could have happened is them realizing that Siobhan Naught and Sebastien Siverling are the same person. Perhaps, if things escalated, I would have had to escape Gilbratha. But the worst case scenario leading from my decision to go back and retrieve it is that I could have died, or became a second Aberrant.

She let the pen drop to the table as a full-body shudder rolled through her. She understood the concept behind calculating worthwhile risks. It was based on a simple formula of desirability vs. likelihood.

Dying or becoming an Aberrant were the worst possible outcomes, with a value of negative one hundred. Getting caught and giving up her schooling would be horrible, but at least if she was alive she had a chance to overcome somehow, so that outcome had a value of negative seventy. At the time, getting kicked out of school had seemed totally unacceptable, but when compared to the threat of dying, it was immediately obvious that school wasn’t nearly as important as she’d been thinking.

Then, to pick which option she should have gone with, she only needed to multiply the likelihood of each event with its desirability value. If the coppers had found her bag, and the bracelets on Newton’s arms, she guessed that Sebastien Siverling had a seventy percent chance to get caught, making the overall utility value of that choice negative forty-nine. It would have been smartest to just give the whole ruse up as a lost cause and escape preemptively, but there was actually still a chance she could have continued on if she played everything right.

Going down there to confront the Aberrant face-to-face had almost killed her. If not for the flash of a waking nightmare, it would have. In truth, she was ridiculously lucky to be alive to have this realization right now. And the decision had still almost gotten her caught. If she’d been just a little slower, instead of finding Sebastien escaping, the Red Guard would have found the Raven Queen, insensate and basically captured for them.

With a ninety-five percent chance of a break event or death, with an additional chance of capture even if she avoided the first two, the value of that choice was negative ninety-five, at least.

Her calculated utility values could be off, because factors in the real world didn’t come in discrete, whole numbers, and there were so many variables and potential outcomes that she couldn’t anticipate. But there was almost no way that facing down the Aberrant could have been the correct choice.

“Why am I so stupid?” she whispered to herself as tears pooled in her eyes, burning like acid. Before they could fall, she tilted her head back, opening her eyes wide and staring at the ceiling until they subsided. Perhaps the Aberrant’s hums really had been affecting her judgement, as she had claimed to Professor Lacer and the Red Guard. She almost hoped that was the case, because the alternative was that something was deeply wrong with her judgement.

She took a few deep breaths and swallowed down her shame. “I just have to do better. I can do better,” she said to the ceiling.

When her fingers could hold the pen again, she made a list of sub-points with all the things she needed to do to prepare for the possibility of a fight or flight situation. The list was even longer than her original list of problems, but at least each point was something she could actually accomplish. Tentatively, she marked which ones were the most critical, knowing that there would be more to come and that no matter how much she might wish it, she couldn’t do everything at once.

Attached to this problem was the blood sample the coppers had. Eagle Tower was in the process of being repaired, and unless the coppers had lost her blood or it was damaged in the explosion—which she couldn’t count on—they would be trying again. The next time, Tanya’s little trick wouldn’t work.

She’d considered the problem before, and had a few different ideas about how she could get rid of the blood. Most of them weren’t feasible, requiring either a very powerful thaumaturge, or a group of them, to channel enough power. The coppers weren’t entirely incompetent. Evidence was well-protected. ‘Liza offered to solve the problem for eight hundred gold crowns. Is there any way I could afford to hire her?’ Looking at the next point on her list of problems, which was her overwhelming debt, Sebastien set that idea aside.

Her best bet was still working out how to combine the reverse-scry spell with a curse, which meant she would need to research and practice sympathetic curses.

This extracurricular project was one she wouldn’t be requesting Professor Lacer’s help on. He might be willing to overlook something like the sleep-proxy spell, and maybe even research into curses, but he was too sharp for Sebastien to give him any hints about her identity. That could end up going very badly for her.

However, maybe Liza would be willing to consult for a much-reduced price, with some wheedling or extra incentive. Liza knew more about divination than anyone else Sebastien knew, and maybe could even suggest some better ideas about how to handle the situation. If Sebastien could afford it.

Which brought Sebastien to her next issue. Funds.

Even beyond the amount she owed to the Verdant Stag, it seemed like all other types of problems were easiest to solve when one had coin to throw at them, either directly or indirectly. It reminded her of a joke she’d heard once. “If your fireball spell isn’t solving your problem, you need a bigger fireball.” With enough gold, Sebastien would have entirely new ways to solve her problems, including hiring competent help or simply bribing important people to do what she wanted. Of course, that level of wealth was well beyond her reach. Sebastien was now at the point that an entire weekend spent brewing for the Stags until she reached exhaustion would cover about two weeks of interest, plus a little left over. That was huge, compared to where she’d started.

She thought back to the concoctions she’d seen in the Verdant Stag’s little apothecary. She hadn’t taken any particular note of the prices, but her mind was a steel trap. She closed her eyes, trying to recreate her experience as she walked through the shelves. She frowned as the details refused to come to the clarity she was used to, even after a couple minutes of effort. ‘Perhaps my memory was impaired by how fatigued I was at the time.

Still, she had the initial list Katerin had given her of what concoctions they were willing to buy, and a good idea of what the shop’s new offerings cost. With more estimation than she would have liked, she was able to roughly calculate which items would get her the best return on investment for her time and effort.

Sebastien still wanted to brew the regeneration potion for the practice it would give her Will with that type of magic—which was convenient as it was also one of the most lucrative options. She also still needed more practice with binding magic like the group proprioception potion, or the fish-based water breathing potion, which Oliver had mentioned the day before that the Verdant Stag would now buy.

But other than that, she needed to be focusing on the most high-value items. Many of those she had no experience with. Impotence relief potions, for example, were very lucrative, but she discarded that option because they were best brewed by a man—a man in a full state of arousal. She technically might have been able to meet that requirement, but she wasn’t interested in doing so in Oliver’s office, not for any amount of coin.

With her current capacity, a huge batch of the potion of moonlight sizzle could be worth it. Other than that, elixir of euphoria, Enkennad’s draught of shadowed concealment, and wit-sharpening potion were likely to be the most lucrative. She added a potion of night vision, feather-fall, and fleetfoot to the list, because they would be useful all-purpose battle magic that would probably pay well, and she wanted at least one or two of each to keep for herself anyway. If she could conceal herself, see where the coppers couldn’t, and move where they could not follow, she would have a significant advantage of surprise.

The alchemy was actually quite lucrative, it only seemed like she didn’t make very much from it because most of those earnings went toward her debt. The difference in income between a thaumaturge and a commoner was absolutely cavernous. An unskilled commoner might earn about five silver per day, or one hundred thirty gold per year, skewing slightly higher for men and lower for women. Most common families had everyone contributing what they could, even the elderly and the children. A huge chunk of the family’s wages would go toward basic food and lodging, with the rest going toward clothing and healthcare. Taxes took what little might have been leftover. A simple emergency could leave them homeless, or a family member dead for lack of healthcare, because they were living constantly on the knife-edge of poverty.

In contrast, an Apprentice-certified thaumaturge, even though they were only legally allowed to practice magic under the supervision of a Master or for their own personal use, but couldn’t sell items or services directly to others by themselves, could make forty gold a month. If they were skilled and found a good Master to employ them, that is. That was four hundred eighty gold a year, almost four times as much as an unskilled commoner. It was enough to support a family, frugally, all on their own, and if they budgeted well they might even have enough left over to save for emergencies.

If she were to work as an alchemist for the Verdant Stag full time, working a reasonable amount every weekday instead of pushing herself to exhaustion, she could make about seventeen hundred gold a year, significantly more than the average Apprentice’s wages, and more than enough to pay off her debt. ‘Of course, that would require them to be able to actually move that kind of volume of the low-power concoctions I’m able to brew.

Sebastien stared at that number on the paper before her for a moment, reconsidering her conception of how generous the Verdant Stag was really being with her. They could have, fairly, offered her much less compensation. Of course, it helped that they didn’t pay the thirty percent magic tax, they had no Master thaumaturge trying to get rich off the backs of their lessers, and they didn’t spend extra money on a fancy storefront, fancy decoration, or any marketing besides word-of-mouth referrals. Even their potion vials were the cheapest versions.

But despite the generous sum she made from alchemy, she only had ten weeks total before the next term started, and she would need to pay for more classes. She had slightly over fifty gold to her name, if she didn’t count the dozen coins sewn into her clothing, which she wouldn’t, because that was hidden away for exactly the kind of emergency she was trying to be better prepared for.

If I spent all of my free time brewing, every weekend until next term, and then the whole of the Sowing Break, and didn’t put any of the earnings toward the loan at all, I could maybe eke out three hundred extra gold. Altogether, I could barely afford the fees for six classes next term. Realistically, with my other expenses, that’s five classes, not six.’ The thought pained her, but dropping a class wasn’t the worst thing that could happen to her. She could learn a lot through self-study in the library, after all. And at the moment, the extra free time sounded heavenly.

Still, unless she dropped a class she would have zero coin left over for any other endeavors, including her new preparations. It also left her no time for taking a break. Alchemy alone wouldn’t be enough.

Even if Sebastien had cared only about coin, dropping out of the University to spend all her time brewing wasn’t an option. The Verdant Stag had given her that loan as an investment, and they were expecting greater things from her than low-level alchemy. Beyond the knowledge and skill the University would impart to her, the access to higher-level magics would become invaluable.

A thaumaturge needed variety and new magics to grow. Simply increasing the power channeled through the spells they were already familiar with was insufficient. Even if she could brew a batch of twenty, or a hundred regeneration potions, eventually the homogeny in practice would lead to a stagnation in her Will’s growth. Thaumaturges who became Archmages moved on from simple spells to complex ones that bent the world in new and interesting ways, their skills constantly building upon the foundation they created until they reached heights of understanding and skill that the average working-class thaumaturge couldn’t even imagine. There were no Archmages who were only alchemists, or only diviners, or only skilled with any single particular craft of magic.

Sebastien was willing to take requests from the Stag for other favors, as long as they were lucrative and relatively safe, but she couldn’t control if or when they would have work for her, or what kind of work it would be. Unlike most of the other missions the Verdant Stag might give her, alchemy was low risk, and she could control her own schedule.

Tutoring was another option, and she was sure that plenty of the people who loved to titter and gossip about her would be interested in paying a few coin to get an hour of forced interaction with her—especially some of the more foolish young women with so little stuffing in their heads that she was sure they must be struggling in classes. But tutoring was high-effort, low pay, unless she could somehow fill up an entire classroom with people who were willing to pay multiple silvers each for a single lecture. Sebastien simply didn’t know anything people would pay that much to learn. Nothing legal, anyway.

Prostitution was also not an option she was willing to consider.

Beyond those ideas, she could make coin selling spell information at the secret meetings. She would need to be careful of that, since the University knew the Raven Queen either attended personally or had a contact who attended. Even so, the secret meetings were too useful a resource to give up.

Sebastien created a list of sub-points to make attending safer. Many of those tasks were duplicates from the fight-or-flight preparation, but some were new. The first step should be reporting the possible issue to the group’s administration, so they could increase security.

And maybe, now that she didn’t have to trail Tanya, Sebastien could convince Liza that they should travel to the meeting together, which would make at least half of the trip significantly safer. Anyone foolish enough to accost Liza would regret it the same way they would regret slipping their foot into a boot that a brown recluse spider had commandeered.

The final option to earn coin was accepting requests as the Raven Queen, as she had done with Lord Lynwood. Even if she couldn’t answer peoples’ questions or solve their problems, they would have to give something of value just for the chance to meet with her. It seemed likely to backfire, with as high of a downside as the potential upside, but she could consider it if she got desperate.

Contribution points could also be exchanged for items of value, or used to directly offset the cost of tuition. The fifty points she was required to earn in the exhibitions were worth only about five gold in actual coin, however, and the amount she’d accumulated so far, even with the ridiculous bonus Grandmaster Kiernan had given her, was barely enough to make a dent in the cost of classes.

However, that brought her to the problem of the end of term exhibitions. As Ana had suggested, Sebastien would go through the University’s internal newspaper, which she never read normally, pulling back issues from the library to look up what earned contribution points among the type of spells she could actually cast.

She kept noting down possibly useful preparations and solutions until her mind ran dry, then ranked them by priority. Many of her problems would require more thought, and perhaps some discussion with Oliver, and quite a few of her possible solutions were temporarily beyond her reach, either because she couldn’t afford them, or because she wasn’t strong enough to implement them.

Finally, when she was finished, she stared at the ink-heavy pages in front of her to memorize them, then took them into the nearest bathroom, which wasn’t warded to set off an alarm from simple magic use like the library was, and burnt all the evidence to ash. She poured the ash into one of the self-cleaning chamber pots, watching as it disappeared.

Then she found the back catalogue of newspapers and began her research on the exhibitions. Professor Lacer had been right. Flashy things that would impress an audience of non-experts seemed more likely to be rewarded, at least among students of the lower terms. Examples were: fire or water-molding spells that were visually impressive and seemed like the kind of thing a storybook sorcerer would cast; a pair of shoes that let the wearer walk about a foot above the ground; a witch with a phoenix familiar actually got points for some sort of fire dance that, as far as Sebastien could tell, didn’t require any magical skill, but showed “impressive control of her bound companion.”

Scowling, Sebastien returned to her table only to find it occupied, so was forced to search for another table to continue her planning.

I should do something with light,’ she mused. That alone would be moderately impressive for a first term student, because light was a more difficult energy source to use, and a delicate spell output to control. It was also rather flashy, by nature.

Sebastien scribbled down some ideas of things that were within her capabilities, but still might seem more impressive than they actually were to a layman. She modeled her ideas off the kind of thing that would be popular in a traveling circus. ‘Ideally, whatever I come up with will use the same principles from the Practical Casting exercises. I need over a hundred more hours of practice on those by the end of term, anyway.’ Combining the two was only efficient.

Hopefully, by the end of term her Will would have continued to grow at the recent explosive rate. With all the practice she was getting with new, difficult magic, it seemed an inevitability. It had been a big disappointment to learn that while her sleep-proxy spell might be viable, it wasn’t within her grasp as a thaumaturge, and she was looking forward to rectifying that.

Sebastien straightened. ‘I know someone who could easily cast that spell. Liza might be expensive to hire…but what if I could obtain her help…without pay?’ The idea felt shocking, almost subversive, but Liza had proved she was interested in new, useful magic. Enough to pay Sebastien for it, if it was fascinating enough.

Sebastien stood. She still had problems to solve and potential disasters that she didn’t know how to solve, but she would need more time to think them over. In the meantime, she’d realized an opportunity to work on the one project that would lighten the constant, bone-crushing weight of all her other obligations.

And we’re back to the regularly scheduled Thursday chapter, which should continue without interruptions, barring accidents or extreme circumstances.

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Continue ReadingChapter 101 – Game Plan

Chapter 100 – The Press

Oliver

Month 1, Day 30, Saturday 5:30 p.m.

Oliver froze, deliberately keeping himself from visibly reacting to Percival’s revelation. “You have a photograph of the Raven Queen,” he repeated.

Percival nodded, clutching at his left wrist as he stepped closer. “I got it that night a few months ago, when she fought against the Morrows from that old bell tower. That time was actually an accident, too. My camera confused the lightning for a flash and triggered on its own.”

“What exactly does the photograph show?”

Percival grimaced. “It’s the view from a building a few blocks away, looking up at the Raven Queen across the street. She’s free-casting, with the spell array glowing above her hand, her cloak whipping around in the wind, and the afterimage of a lightning bolt behind her. My camera has the latest cutting-edge technology. It only takes about a second to fully capture the image, so it’s actually feasible to take photos of people and not just still objects. She’s barely blurred!”

Oliver’s voice remained tightly controlled. “Is she identifiable?”

“Well…no. It’s from quite far away, the lighting conditions are sub-optimal, and the spell array is between her face and the camera. But it’s her!”

Some, but not all, of Oliver’s tension departed. “I will need to examine the image. Have you shown it to anyone else?”

Percival fiddled with his glasses, shaking his head. “I was too afraid to. I thought she, or you, might retaliate against me if I let anyone know. They say the Raven Queen holds a grudge, and the rumors about what she does to those she doesn’t like…” He shuddered visibly. “I do not want to anger her. Or you. This isn’t some insane threat that I’ll sell the photograph to the coppers or the newspaper. But since I do have it…I thought you might be interested in buying the negative as a package deal with the one I took today.”

Oliver leaned back in his chair despite his desire to get up and snatch the photo negative cartridge from the boy’s hand. “How is it that you find yourself in these situations, Percival Irving? Are you actively searching them out? Were you following the Raven Queen? Actively trying to make contact with me today?”

Some of Oliver’s emotion leaked into his tone, and at least Percival was smart enough to recognize the danger, flinching and waving his free hand frantically in denial. “No, no! It was all a coincidence,” he said adamantly, then hesitated. “Well, perhaps not totally a coincidence, because I have…peculiar luck. Things tend to go wrong for me, all at once, in cascading, interesting ways.” The word “interesting” had the tone of a particularly vile curse word, and Percival’s lip drew up in a grimace of loathing. “I periodically find myself in the middle of events I’m not prepared to handle, that I never intended to be involved in.”

Oliver was silent, staring at him through the shadow-black eye holes of his mask.

“I’m not just saying that!” Percival assured him. “I had a run-in with a hag, and there seems to be some luck magic involved.”

Luck magic?”

“Whatever you want to call it—luck, probability manipulation, or just some force influencing my decisions or the events around me in seemingly random ways that are actually calculated and deliberate—I don’t know. Call it what you will, strange things happen around me.”

Oliver steepled his fingers together, watching the defiant boy return his gaze. “And these strange things lead to you taking photographs of important people and events?”

“Among other things, but yes. I’ve witnessed or been involved in six events that could have gotten me severely injured or even killed in the last few months alone, and which made me witness to multiple serious crimes. Seven events if you count today, I suppose. When interesting things happen, it’s like a magnet draws me in against my will.”

Oliver might have brushed the claim off as ridiculous, but he’d experienced a few things during the years he spent traveling the settled areas of the world that made him hesitate. “Tell me more.”

The boy did, in a rambling, passionate account that lasted almost twenty minutes and was actually quite entertaining. Several times Oliver had to squeeze his stomach muscles and hold his breath to keep himself from bursting out into guffaws at the ridiculous situations Percival got himself into. The boy even rolled up his sleeve to show Oliver the mysterious tattoo that had started it all.

Finally, Oliver admitted, “If what you tell me is true, it does seem that you’ve experienced a strange number of coincidences.” Anecdotal evidence was useless, of course, and the boy could be either misguided or an excellent liar. But even if the truth wasn’t verifiable, Oliver was intrigued. He made a note to keep Percival as far away from Siobhan as possible. The last thing he needed was the boy dragging her into his orbit of misfortune. She got into enough “interesting” situations without extra help. “I will buy both photographs. Did you bring the other with you?”

Percival reached into his pants pocket, pulling out some lint, a couple coins, and what must be the negative disk, which was wrapped in a thick, dark paper instead of inside a cartridge.

After verifying that it was safe to do so, Oliver unwrapped and inspected it. It was from quite far away, and a little indistinct, but still dramatic. He could make out his own form beside Siobhan, his mask a white spot agains the darkness, battle wand outstretched, with the blurred streak of a glowing spell shooting toward the silhouetted forms on the street below. “Sixteen gold for both, then?” he asked, already putting the negative back in its protective wrapping and moving both it and the cartridge into one of his desk drawers.

“Umm, that works, but I actually need the cartridge from today back? It’s got two other negatives in it that I took earlier today. Nothing you’d be interested in, just portraits of people. I saved up for the camera for a long time, but I didn’t realize how expensive the negative disks would be. Getting the photographs developed onto paper isn’t cheap, either. I’ve been trying to cover the cost by doing portraits. That’s what I was originally doing in the market today, actually.”

Oliver pulled out the cartridge, taking out the other two disks to ensure they were really as innocuous as stated.

Percival babbled nervously as he accepted them from Oliver’s outstretched hand. “I guess this camera really is paying for itself! I sent a couple of my photographs—normal ones, nothing like this—to the newspaper, but they weren’t interested in purchasing them without an interesting story to go along with the photo. The only stories I have are the kind I can’t sell for fear of retaliation, or that the newspaper wouldn’t buy for fear of retaliation!” He laughed at his own joke.

The mention of the newspaper brought to mind the old printing press Oliver had found in the Lord Morrow’s basement, covered in junk, dust and cobwebs. He stilled, his mind making connections and sparking upon an idea that hadn’t fully formed until that moment.

With some soap, lubricating oil, and maybe a bit of magic, he was sure the press could be repaired and start working again—certainly for much less than it would cost to buy a similar artifact. In fact, such an old model might even be able to be driven with manpower alone, without the need for a thaumaturge on staff. “Are you a decent writer, Percival?”

“I can read and write as well as anyone! My mom taught all us kids,” the boy said proudly.

“I don’t mean just technically. Are you engaging? Can you tell a decent story in text form?”

“…I tell stories to my siblings all the time, and they seem interested enough. I haven’t written them down or tried to get them published though, if that’s what this is about?” he said, frowning and tilting his head to the side, looking somewhat like a one-eyed owl.

Oliver leaned forward. “You’ve just given me an idea. How would you like a job as the main investigative journalist of a brand new publication, dedicated to the needs of the people and telling the truth?”

The boy blinked. “The truth?”

“Like what happened today with the coppers. The things the other newspapers aren’t interested in talking about.”

Percival straightened his head and adjusted his glasses, looking surprisingly like a disapproving schoolmistress. “You want me to help you put out a counter-factual, subversive newspaper?”

Oliver waved his hand nonchalantly. “Not counterfactual. As for subversive, well, it won’t start out like that. Baby steps. For the moment, it will give the people in my territory information about what’s happening around Gilbratha, with an emphasis on the kind of stories and information that’s relevant to them instead of the people in the Lilies. Our first issue can discuss the new initiatives the Verdant Stag is committed to. There are some really exciting things that are going to truly benefit my people, and this is a great way to make sure the word spreads clearly and truthfully.” He couldn’t keep the sudden excitement out of his voice, and had to stop himself from babbling on. That was fine for a boy like Percival, but not the kind of image the leader of the Verdant Stag could portray—not to someone who wasn’t loyal and on board with his mission yet, at least.

Percival rubbed uncomfortably at his left wrist, fiddling with the cuff of his shirt. “Umm, there’s probably a reason why there aren’t any other newspapers based around here? I don’t think there’s enough of a market for a newspaper. You’ve probably noticed how some of the shop signs are only pictures, not words? That’s because half the people around here can’t read,” he informed Oliver, trying to break the news gently.

Oliver waved that away, too. “I’m not looking to make a profit. I want to provide a service. The literate can read the articles aloud for those who aren’t, and everyone can look at the photographs. Your photographs. As long as the project can at least break even, I will be more than satisfied. The first issue can even be more like a pamphlet than a newspaper.” Oliver stood up, moving to pace beside his desk.

Percival shuffled a few inches further away from him, but Oliver paid him no mind.

“There’ll be information about the new initiatives, some advice and resources for people struggling after the recent upheaval, and if you have time, maybe an interview with one of my citizens. There are plenty of them downstairs, shouldn’t be too hard to find someone who wants to see their face in the newspaper. Why don’t you take a seat? We can get the interview with me out of the way first, since you’re already here,” Oliver said, waving to one of the chairs in front of his desk. “I’ll get you something to take notes on.”

Percival opened his mouth, closed it again, and then finally said, “But I haven’t accepted the job?”

Oliver stopped pacing. “It pays fifty gold a month, you’ll be able to write your own articles and publish your own photographs, and if things go well you might even gain subordinate journalists working under you. This is a chance to earn much more than you could taking pictures in the market while also making a difference. You would only answer to myself and the other high-ranking members of the Verdant Stag.”

Percy’s eyes narrowed. “I’m not going to write lies for you, Lord Stag. If your enforcers are out beating girls and murdering people, or, or…acting like those coppers earlier, I won’t pretend they’re not. If I do this, I’d want complete creative control.”

Oliver sighed internally. “I can’t have you publishing whatever stories you want. Some things would have consequences that reach further than a shift in public opinion. For example, stories about the Raven Queen might not be safe to publish. And I’m not interested in a hiring a journalist who has a chip on his shoulder and wants to make the Verdant Stag look bad in every way possible. I won’t force you to print lies, however. That’s not what this is about.” He paused for a moment to think about his argument, seeing that he wasn’t getting through to the boy. “The Verdant Stag doesn’t need you to cover up our misdeeds and spray perfume on our shit. We’re better than the Morrows. We’re not like the other gangs. I am not here because I’m greedy for power. I’m here because I’m desperate to make things better. I’m determined to do so, and I’m taking real, immediate actions to that effect, and will continue to do so. And I just want you to help people understand that,” Oliver said, his voice filled with real passion and sincerity.

Percival shook his head. “That’s…not good enough. You say that now, but how can I be sure you’re not lying, or won’t change your mind?”

Oliver ran a hand through his hair and returned to pacing for a moment. “How about this? We can compromise. You’ll have veto power over stories I want to publish, and I’ll have veto power over ones you bring to the table. That way we both balance each other, though I hope that won’t be necessary. Sound good?” What Oliver didn’t say was that he could fire young Percival at any time, replacing him with someone who would do as they were told, if necessary. But he wanted Percival for the job, partially because the boy’s youthful enthusiasm seemed perfect for the kinds of messages Oliver wanted to convey, and also because of his supposed ability to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. If it was true…that was the kind of thing that made for a spectacular, if short-lived, journalist.

Percival fidgeted for a moment, but finally nodded. “Fifty gold a month, veto power, and…I’m going to need help with the distribution and things. I might need to hire other people.”

“You will certainly need to hire other people. See if you can poach someone from one of the other newspapers. I’ll provide a budget for that, and my people can help you with the details. You’ll be required to submit a certain number of articles per issue, and we’ll want coherent sections based around different topics. Let’s try to keep it entertaining.”

“Um, I really can’t guarantee anything here. I’m not going to be held responsible for sales numbers, am I?”

“Like I said, profit it secondary. If the newspaper earns more than it spends, you can get a bonus, but all I need is for it to break even while providing a real service to my people.”

Finally, reluctantly appeased, Percival sat down at one of the chairs in front of Oliver’s desk. But not before testing all of the legs for stability and running his hand over the seat as if feeling for hidden needles. “Okay, then. You said you wanted to do my first interview right now? Can I publish the contents openly as ‘an interview with Lord Stag?’” As if suddenly realizing the exceptional opportunity he was being offered, he perked up. “Oh, wow. Can you get me an interview with the Raven Queen?”

Oliver chuckled, shaking his head. “We’re not starting out with anything subversive, remember? I’m providing information, but you can’t give any direct quotes from me that might indicate we met face to face. You can give ‘hearsay quotes’ from unspecified citizens in my territory, but that’s it.” Oliver handed him a pen and a fresh journal taken from one of the bookcases along the wall, its pages lined and clean. “Here, for your notes. And you won’t be meeting the Raven Queen, Percival. Ever.”

The boy pursed his lips with disappointment. “Well, if we’re going to be working together, you might as well call me Percy. Otherwise I’ll feel like I’m being scolded constantly.” He paused, the end of the pen pressing against his lips. “Percival Irving, investigative journalist and editor-in-chief,” he muttered, trying out the sound of the words. “Oh, my mom is going to be so proud!”

Oliver returned to the throne-like chair behind his desk, took a sip of coffee that was now lukewarm, and began to speak, choosing the more palatable truths and leaving out the more sensitive information.

The territory the Verdant Stag had taken over was filled with more than people. Oliver had also gained either outright ownership of or a controlling interest in various legal and illegal shops, multiple warehouses, food and entertainment facilities, and even a handful of workshops. Attached to all that came the various contracts, employees, and supply chains that kept all of it running, which was as much a blessing as it was a curse.

On the bright side, the Morrows had been profitable. Very much aso. And a large portion of their resources were now in Oliver’s hands, ready for him to do with what he would.

He didn’t say that Lord Morrow’s widow had signed over almost everything she had legal control over, except for some properties well outside Gilbratha and enough money to provide a modest stipend for her and the younger children for the remainder of her life. Which could be years yet, as long as she didn’t try to go against the terms of the magical contract she had signed.

Oliver had questioned her extensively under illegal wards against untruth. The minor torture tactics he had okayed for the rest of the Morrows weren’t even necessary—though he didn’t mention that to Percy. Oliver had forced her, like her children and all the other captured Morrows that hadn’t deserved execution, to take rather restrictive vows against retaliation. Those vows, along with the signed-over assets, were exchanged for her life and freedom.

It wasn’t a perfect method, but legally, it was safer and less hasslesome than simply trying to steal the assets once owned by the various Morrows. Forcing people into contracts or vows under duress was illegal, and people could sue to regain what had been illegally taken from them. However, the vows they had made with Oliver also stated their admission of certain crimes.

Most of those who agreed outwardly but planned to betray him right away should have been caught by the prognos diviner he hired, and denied release. Those who might change their minds once they were free, despite the vow’s minor compulsion, should still think twice, both because betrayal would allow him to use their blood print to have someone place a curse them, and because he could turn their admissions of guilt over to the coppers he now had on his payroll.

Without the resources they once had access to, the damage they could do to him would be reduced, but he was aware that the contacts and networks they’d built up over the years still existed, and he couldn’t remove them entirely. By bankrupting rather than killing, he was hoping to avoid some of the retaliatory hatred. This way, even if they had powerful contacts, or could call for help from the few powerful Morrows or family members that hadn’t been captured for aid, instead of being martyrs they would be a drain on enemy resources.

If people still tried to sue or otherwise cause him problems, then some high-profile assassinations would be in order as a warning.

He wasn’t prepared to kill when it wasn’t necessary or warranted, so this was the best solution he could come up with.

Some of those who hadn’t committed any particularly serious crimes Oliver had taken a much more moderate fine from, and others, the best of them, he was hiring for the Verdant Stags.

He had been in a position where he needed to either expand or die, and he had expanded. Now he was consolidating and tightening his grip. He had dozens of good places for the new funds and resources to be put to work.

He made sure to point out that one particular alchemical workshop that had been creating addictive substances for the Morrows was going to be turned toward a new—legal—enterprise geared toward making emergency response kits, household concoctions, and even cosmetics available to the common budget.

The income that would continue to come in from illegal substances while they transitioned would go towards a rehabilitation center, complete with healers and incentives, that he hoped would help fight against the addiction endemic among some of the worst off among his people. Rather than making the substances illegal and trying to somehow enforce that, he hoped that this might actually be a cheaper way to solve the problem. And if nothing else, it would make him look good.

When Oliver finally finished speaking, having covered the purpose and trustworthiness of his enforcers, the illegal activities and businesses that he would be cracking down on, the charitable relief options, loans, and housing available to those in need, and even his waste-removal initiative to keep the streets clean, Percy’s hand had cramped up from scribbling without cease.

“I don’t think this is all going to fit within a single pamphlet,” Percy said, staring at the pages of the new journal that he’d already filled as he massaged his stiff fingers.

“Perhaps not. You don’t need to cover everything at once, of course. But I do want an article about the trials we’ve been holding to make the Morrows accountable for their crimes, and especially the restitution being offered to the victims. I think you should do an interview with someone down below, maybe let them get their face in the paper. Pick someone enthusiastic.”

The building had been full of people since they started judging and sentencing the Morrows for their crimes.

It was making him very popular, which had been the point.

In a way, he was buying his people’s loyalty. In another way, he was trying to stimulate the economy of his territory. A study done in Daclacia, a smaller northern country, showed that a one-time infusion of cash had a huge impact on bringing people out of poverty. In most cases, the restitution he offered wouldn’t be enough for that, but sometimes the best way to help people was to give them the resources to help themselves.

“Err, about that. I’m out of fresh negative disks,” Percy admitted, giving Oliver a sheepish smile.

Oliver wrote out a note and handed it to the boy. “Take this to Katerin. Her office is at the end of the main hallway on the second floor. She’ll get you your first months’ wages, up-front. The budget for the newspaper might take a little longer, but there’s no reason not to get started right away.”

Percy frowned down at the slip of paper. “These disks are being used for the newspaper. I don’t think I should have to pay for them out of my own wages?”

Oliver paused, then sighed, rolling his eyes. “So greedy. Keep your receipt and send us the bill.”

And with that, Percy was off, ready to start a propaganda campaign that Oliver hoped would be one more solid step forward in his plan to take over the city.

Next chapter coming the first Thursday of April, 4/7. From then on, regular weekly Thursday chapters will resume.

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Continue ReadingChapter 100 – The Press

Chapter 99 – Charitable Performance

Siobhan

Month 1, Day 30, Saturday 4:30 p.m.

People were packed into the ground floor of the Verdant Stag like pickled cucumbers stuffed into a jar, shoulder to shoulder.

Once Siobhan got further into the room, some space cleared up and she was able to get away from the stifling crush. The heat from all the bodies made her warm clothing unnecessary, but she caught sight of a pair of uniformed coppers at one of the tables, and decided not to take off her hooded cloak. Sure, she was Sylvia, a civilian who, at most, helped out at a healing station during the fighting, and had the identity papers to prove it, but if the coppers took her to Harrow Hill, identity papers might not save her.

Why are they here?’ she wondered.

Everyone seemed to have come for the people on stage at the other end of the room, who at first she thought were putting on some sort of play, but when she actually listened, it was a rather strange monologue.

“After the previous testimony of both the accused and the accusers, which was verified through prognos divination and wards against untruth, Eric Hanna, Morrow member, has been found guilty by the Verdant Stag of the following crimes: public nudity, blackmail, three counts of mugging, twenty-two counts of extortion, and six counts of assault, one of which caused grievous and permanent injury. By order of Lord Stag, he has been relieved of the fruits of his crimes, and restitution is due to some of those he has harmed.”

The cheers were immediate, and deafening, with people clapping, slamming their tankards of ale and beer on the tabletops, and stomping their feet.

When the noise died down, the second person atop the stage stepped forward. “As the executer of a trust held at Citrus Bank, and in no way associated with the Verdant Stag, or other criminal activity,” he added, with a dark glare toward the two coppers, “I have been charged to publicly convey the beneficiaries of this trust as well as the amount they are receiving.”

Siobhan noticed then the banner above the stage that introduced the “charitable performance.”

Charitable performance? What does that mean? Is Oliver actually judging the Morrows and paying people for crimes they committed?

The trust executer began to list off names, accompanied by varying monetary amounts that ranged from a few silver to a few gold. The amounts weren’t even close to what the coppers would have charged as a fine for those same crimes, and were almost certainly less than what Oliver had extorted out of the accused Morrows, but the audience didn’t seem to care.

Siobhan sidled closer to a particularly enthusiastic woman who was sitting at one of the tables. “What’s going on?” she asked the woman, her voice almost drowned out by another wave of cheers as the next person to receive restitution was announced.

The woman gave her a huge, slightly drunken grin that revealed a couple missing teeth. “Something’s actually being done about the injustices we all been subjec—subjd—” She stopped to hiccup, then finished, “the injustices we went through.”

“And they’re really paying? How do you get chosen for restitution?”

The woman nodded dramatically. “Yes, Lord Stag is really paying out. If your name is called, you go down to Citrus Bank with identification, and their people there take out the money from that trust account he was mentioning—coin straight into your hand! And it’s easy to get considered for restitution, just go note what the Morrows did to you, and which’ve ‘em did it. You’ve gotta give testimony under some kind of spell that keeps you from lying, and once the trial is over it’s too late to submit a claim. Not everyone gets the restitution, if there’s not enough proof of what was done, or who did it, or if who did it doesn’t have any coin for the Verdant Stag to take back for you. Still, a damn sight better than anyone else would do for us.” She looked over to the table that housed the coppers and yelled, “A damn sight better than the coppers ever did for us!”

Siobhan tugged at the corner of her hood to make sure her face was hidden, trying to do so as naturally as possible so she didn’t seem suspicious. “Have you gotten any restitution?”

The woman grinned toothily again, holding up her mug in a toasting motion. “Three silver!” she announced proudly. Judging by her level of drunkenness, as well as the crumbs on the empty plate in front of her, she’d already spent more than that, the coin going right back to the Verdant Stag.

Maybe Oliver isn’t so crazy.

Siobhan watched the proceedings for a few more minutes, until someone sidled through the crowd, reaching out to touch her shoulder.

Siobhan jerked away, turning with her hands held up defensively, which was rather foolish because she had little skill as a hand-to-hand combatant.

The young man who had been reaching out for her raised his own hands, empty palms facing outward to convey his harmlessness. With a glance to the coppers, he reached down to his jacket, pulling one side open far enough that she could see the bright green antlers of the Stags embossed on a badge tucked into his shirt pocket. “Apologies, ma’am. I didn’t mean to startle you. Your presence has been requested upstairs.”

“By who?”

He didn’t answer, simply giving her a significant look. “Mr. Huntley told me to pass the message along.”

She vaguely recognized the name as belonging to one of the Stags’ lead enforcers. Most likely, either Katerin or Oliver had called for her. Siobhan lowered her hands, nodding for the young man to lead the way. As they began to climb the stairs at the edge of the room, the bottom of which were guarded by another enforcer, she asked, “I noticed the coppers are just sitting there. Have they been causing trouble?”

The young man laughed, as if the question was ironic. “Oh, plenty of it. But they can’t stop us. They don’t know where the Morrows are being held, and the people on stage are a licensed actor and a lawyer that was hired to enforce the Citrus Bank trust independently. They’re not actually involved with the Verdant Stag, or the trials or anything, they were just hired to talk on stage in a clearly labeled performance for charity. I’m not totally sure how that all works, but it’s not illegal. The copper have still been arresting them, of course. This is the fourth or fifth set of performer and lawyer.” He grinned as if that was particularly funny. “But they just stay down at Harrow Hill for a day or two for questioning while someone else takes their place on stage. None of them actually know anything, so the coppers have to release them within three days. Those two coppers down below are just there for appearances. They haven’t tried anything.”

Siobhan hummed. “It still seems like they could arrest people on charges of collusion, or something?”

“They’ll arrest people on charges of almost anything, but it’s not sticking. You go in, you take a few sleepless nights and shitty food and maybe a few bruises, and as long as you don’t talk, you come out again when either the laws or the bribes say so.”

That seemed…dangerous. All it would take would be for someone higher up, like Titus Westbay, to notice and care that Oliver’s people were bribing their way out of charges, and suddenly an arrest might not be such a simple matter. And it would only take the right person, with the right information, to give the coppers what they needed to make other charges stick. Oliver’s people might not be as bad as the Morrows, but they’d all committed crimes in the eyes of the Thirteen Crown Families.

If they arrested Oliver, Katerin, or someone else with real knowledge and power, things would suddenly become much more dangerous. She wasn’t sure a bribe would be enough to cover them. And, of course, the coppers would remember that the Raven Queen had been associated with the Verdant Stag, too.

The whole situation made her uncomfortable. She hoped Oliver actually had a plan to deal with it.

The young enforcer lead Siobhan to Oliver’s office, which she had never been in before. It was significantly more ostentatious than Katerin’s office, all dark woods and plush furniture, with the kind of layout that suggested the chair behind Oliver’s desk was actually a throne, and all who entered must supplicate before him. It would have been more impressive if his desk wasn’t covered with various ledgers, binders, and loose paper.

Oliver looked up from a small leather notebook with a lock, closing it and setting it aside with an excited smile as she entered. He deciphered her expression and said, “Yes, this office is generally only used for meeting with people. I prefer the home office, where I can’t be constantly interrupted by people who ‘desperately’ need my input.” He stood from the desk, moving to one of the plush chairs nearer the fire and gesturing for her to join him. Someone had left a coffee tray, and he offered her a cup of dark liquid brewed so strongly the sugar spoon almost stood up straight.

“Is there a plan to deal with the coppers, other than antagonizing them with public shows meant to undermine their authority?” she asked.

Oliver sipped his own coffee, giving her an irked look over the rim. “Feeling prickly, are we?” he asked.

Siobhan grimaced. “Sorry, that came out slightly harsher than I intended.”

“Only slightly?” Before she could respond, he said, “As the case may be, I do have a plan. And a rather good one. It includes a whole flock of solicitors who will make the coppers bleed for every unwarranted arrest, and a heaping dollop of blackmail on top. Those who are corrupt will soon see that my territory isn’t worth it, and those who actually care about their jobs will realize their efforts are better spent elsewhere, in the places that need them. This whole thing is actually a lot more reserved than I originally intended. I wanted to do public executions for the worst of them, if you remember, but Katerin and some of the others talked me out of it. I’ll still make sure they get what they deserve, but it won’t be directly by our hand, and thus won’t make the Crowns look like they’ve lost control.”

“How are you going to handle it instead?”

“They’ll be handling it—the coppers, that is. I’m just going to make sure everyone involved has extra incentive to actually follow the law, no matter how influential the men accused once were.” He grinned like a child with a stolen cookie. “In fact, I’ve got quite a few things in the works. They’re secret, for now, but I think you’ll be impressed.”

Siobhan hummed noncommittally, giving him a skeptical raise of her eyebrows, but couldn’t help the corners of her lips from twitching up, his enthusiasm spreading a little energy to her.

They were both silent for a moment, drinking their coffee at the perfect almost-scalding temperature. Finally, Oliver said, “You seem tired.”

One corner of her mouth lifted up wryly. “I’m sleeping more than I have been for the past five or six years.”

“And hating every second of it, no doubt.”

She let out a short, surprised laugh. “Well, yes.” That was the main reason why she was here, but since she had Oliver at her disposal, she decided to bring up another issue. “I don’t want to take up too much of your time since you’re so busy, but I wonder if I might get some of your particular brand of insight on a possible problem?”

He tensed a little, but sighed and nodded. “Titan’s balls, let it be a problem I can actually fix.”

“Damien Westbay is going to become a problem, and perhaps even more so now that it’s not safe to spy on Tanya Canelo any more. He’s too curious, to eager for action. I’ve been trying to shut him down, but he doesn’t stay down for long. You’re the one who’s good with the social things, getting people to do what you want.”

Oliver frowned, settling back in his chair with his booted feet closer to the fire. “Tell me more. And give details. I need to understand how his mind works.”

Siobhan spoke for a few minutes while Oliver asked probing questions.

Finally, he nodded, steepling his fingers together in front of his chest like some kind of stereotypical evil genius. “You need a little more carrot to go along with your stick. Don’t keep trying to shut him down. When Westbay wants more, give him more, but just dangle that carrot in the direction that’s most convenient to have him run. Ideally, away from anything you’re hoping to keep secret. Once he’s busy enough, even he won’t have time to indulge his curiosity.”

“So I need to come up with some project for him to throw himself into? Ideally something that won’t require me to put in even more work.”

“Yes. You can take some time to consider what you might like him pointed toward, or you can even see if he has any ideas for a ‘mission’ that you wouldn’t mind allowing. That might be dangerous, if he’s the type to become fixated on ideas once he has them, but it would give you an idea where the danger lies.”

“I understand. I’ll think about it. Thanks.”

“When you get time, feel free to stop by the manor and do some more brewing for the Verdant Stag. With all the new territory, we’re running through concoctions faster than we can stock them. Particularly healing concoctions, and some little fireplace-in-a-bottle things that one of our other alchemists has been supplying.”

“You have a lot lot of homeless and injured people, then?” she guessed.

“Too many. But let’s not talk about that.”

“How about the people downstairs?” She laughed as another set of cheers and stomping rattled the entire building, only mostly muffled by the two floors between them. “They love the free coin, especially when it’s paired with ‘justice.’ How much are you earning off all this?”

Oliver’s grin seemed more than a little evil. “Oh, a lot.”

They chatted for a while longer, until a check of her pocket watch revealed that it would be getting dark outside soon. She didn’t want to be trudging about the city in the frigid night, so took her leave.

Oliver seemed disappointed to have to get back to work, sighing dramatically as she left.

With her cloak back up, Siobhan’s peripheral vision was impaired, and she bumped into someone at the edge of the narrow back stairway that led to Oliver’s office.

She’d knocked a small cartridge out of his grip, and as he fumbled to catch it, he tilted precariously backward. Just as he regained control of the cartridge, his foot slipped off the top step, and if not for her grabbing him by the waistcoat and yanking with all her force, he would have tumbled down the stairs.

He fell to one knee beside her, but seemed rather unscathed by the whole thing, laughing awkwardly. “Oh, thank you. Bit clumsy of me, are you alright?”

“I should be asking you that,” Siobhan said. “I apologize, I didn’t see you.”

“To be honest, it’s probably not your fault. My luck has been atrocious today!” the boy said, laughing as if at some inside joke as he rose to his feet. He was about her height, with skin much darker than hers, but the deep purple bruise around his swollen eye, shielded by the shattered lens of his glasses, was still conspicuous.

Siobhan grimaced, but was pretty sure she’d had nothing to do with that particular injury. “If you need a bruise salve, they sell them here. There’s a little apothecary on the other side of the building, to the left of the main staircase. They’re quite a bit cheaper than what you can find elsewhere, and good quality.”

“Can just anyone buy from them? I don’t work for—well, I’m trying to sell something to Lord Stag, but I don’t actually work for them, and I’m pretty sure I live outside the gang’s territory.”

Siobhan shrugged. “It shouldn’t be a problem, but I can’t be sure. Are you going up to see, er, Lord Stag? You could ask him.”

The boy’s grip tightened noticeably. “Oh, umm, do you really think I should? He’s so… Isn’t there someone else I could ask?”

Siobhan let out a quiet laugh. “I know the mask can be intimidating, but Lord Stag really isn’t that frightening. He’s quite friendly, and he actually enjoys helping people.”

“Is that so?” the boy asked, looking extremely skeptical.

“It is,” Siobhan asserted.

“Well…thank you.” The boy reached out to shake her hand. “Percival, but you can call me Percy. Do you work around here?”

“Well met, Percy.” She hesitated only a moment before introducing herself as Silvia. “I do some contract work when it’s necessary.”

“Do you have any advice for me? I’m trying to sell him something a little…sensitive. I’m pretty nervous about it.” Percy shuffled his feet nervously, seemingly not noticing how close to the edge of the stairs he still was.

Siobhan raised an eyebrow, but didn’t pry, reaching out to nudge him away from danger. “Well…don’t take his first offer, I suppose. And don’t be too nervous. The worst he can do is say no.”

Percy looked down at the cartridge, muttering, “I don’t think that’s the worst he can do,” but then gave her a bright smile, wincing as the expression squished the swollen flesh around his black eye. “I’d better get in there. Thanks, Silvia!” With a wave of his hand, he stepped past her, taking a fortifying breath before knocking on the door to Oliver’s office.

Siobhan shook her head, a little bemused, but moved on, stopping at the little apothecary tucked away on the other side of the building, whose hallway was guarded by yet another Verdant Stag enforcer.

Within, she found what she’d really come for. An triangular vial of what looked like rather like slug poop. The substance within was a grey-brown, porous sludge, nothing like some of the more interesting-looking potions that came in bright colors, glowed, or roiled within their containers. Still, Siobhan had to suppress a huge grin as she picked up the vial, even despite the three gold price tag.

Katerin’s assistant Alice was running the shop, and fixed Siobhan with a gimlet eye when she tried to buy it. “I need a prescription from a healer to sell this to you,” she said.

Siobhan suppressed a frustrated groan. “I don’t have a healer’s note, but I’m an alchemist, and I’m well aware of the tincture’s usage and requirements.”

“Beamshell tincture is addictive, and leaves an energy debt. People who abuse it will keep pushing until they collapse, malnourished and dehydrated, and for thaumaturges, with a significantly increased chance of Will-strain. If you have narcolepsy, or insomnia, or some other legitimate reason to need this, I’m happy to sell it to you once you bring me proof.”

Briefly, Siobhan considered asking Oliver or Katerin to come down and vouch for her, or even coming back the next day with a forged healer’s prescription—but no, that was ridiculous. She leaned forward and said in a low voice, “I encountered an Aberrant that caused a severe sedative effect. You probably heard about the incident.” Aberrants were the kind of thing that was hard to argue against, and likely to engender some kind of emotional response. In this case, hopefully sympathy, and a hesitance to ask too many questions. “I don’t have narcolepsy, I just need a little help staying sharp when I’m awake. I assure you, I have no plans to abuse the concoction. I brew a good number of the potions you stock here,” she added for good measure.

More or less, what Siobhan said was true, expect for her fatigue being caused directly by lingering anomalous effects from an Aberrant. She just needed something a little stronger than coffee to give her energy while she was awake. She couldn’t continue to drag her way through her days, barely scraping by. She wasn’t stupid enough to abuse the beamshell tincture until she got herself addicted.

Alice still hesitated, until Siobhan sighed. “I can get Katerin to vouch for me, if she’s here.” Bringing in Oliver would be a little too much, probably.

Alice finally conceded. “If you need a second vial, I’ll require that healer’s note.” She rattled off a series of dosage and use instructions that Siobhan had already memorized, and Siobhan walked out three gold lighter, with a vial of bottled energy almost burning a hole in one of her inner jacket pockets. Metaphorically.

The excitement of potential relief got her all the way to the Silk Door without feeling the nip of the cold.

Within her little backroom closet, she changed back into her male form, then picked up Sebastien’s clothes that she’d left there the night of the last secret meeting, before everything went so wrong.

She’d also brought back the dress she’d been wearing the night of the incident, hoping to stash it at the Silk Door until she had a chance to take it to a used clothing shop for sale. She didn’t want to wear it any more, on the very small chance that the outfit would be recognized or otherwise used to connect her to the scene of the crime.

She picked up the pile of red and black fabric, thinking to cast the shedding-destroyer spell on it all so the outfit would be safe to leave, but her finger brushed up against what felt like a metal wire.

She jerked back, tossing the clothes to the floor as if she’d been burned. Her skin rippled with goosebumps as her hindbrain seeming to realize what she’d touched before her conscious mind made the connection. “Oh…” she whispered.

Siobhan stepped forward cautiously, pinching one corner of the fabric and lifting until the wire revealed itself.

Only it wasn’t a wire. It was a piece of the flesh-and-bone string that Newton’s Aberrant had been formed from, woven through the fabric and stiff like wire. It must have crawled through at some point, though the sharp edge seemed to indicate that a slicing spell had severed it.

It didn’t move, even when she clicked her tongue experimentally to see if it reacted to the noise.

It didn’t smell, or seem to have decayed. ‘It might not actually be made out of flesh, come to think of it. Just because it’s the same color means nothing. This is a piece of an Aberrant. It could be metal, or have some preserving anomalous effect that’s lingering. How did the Red Guard not notice this?

The fact that they hadn’t actually reassured her. ‘If the string was dangerous, surely they would have noticed them with one of their scanning artifacts?

Horrified and fascinated, Siobhan used the edge of her cloak to protect her skin as she pulled the string out from where it had woven itself into the hem, almost invisibly. It was a couple inches long, as thin as a hair, and quite rigid. She stared at it for a long time, watching for any signs of life, or vibration.

By the time she got back to the dorms, any excitement from the beamshell tincture was long forgotten.

She pulled the curtains around her cubicle, then pulled a glass vial from her pocket, checking on the single Aberrant string she’d placed within. She assured herself that it was still unmoving, definitely dead and safe. Even so, she melted some wax around the thread-screw top of the vial, put the whole thing in a leather pouch, and hid it safe at the bottom of her school trunk.

Then she did something she should have done before, rifling through her encrypted grimoire until she found the notes she’d made about the blood-print vow. The ward aspect that kept the blood from being used was simple enough as a concept. Using one of her paper spell arrays, she disintegrated the lines for a new spell array into the stone floor beneath the chest at the foot of her bed.

She was creating a simple artifact. It would store the magic she poured into it for a long while until it needed to be used against an attack, or when the trickle of loss simply ran it dry. She cast the ward section of the blood-print vow—the part that would keep anything within the Circle from being accessed or used for sympathetic magic—with enough power that it left her panting and trembling. Then she used the stone-forming spell, slightly modified to create a flat rather than a spherical shape, to create a thin facade of stone over the spell array, leaving it invisible beneath the surface of the floor.

She lay down on the thin bed, a sheen of sweat on her forehead. She imagined the thread secretly growing in the dark and shuddered, wondering if she’d just made a mistake. She could have given it to the Red Guard, or Professor Lacer, or even simply tried to burn it up with a fire.

But she wanted it. Perhaps it was irrational, but she wanted to keep it, this last piece of Newton. The Red Guard had taken the rest of him, along with the others who had died, and probably destroyed it all. Since she certainly wasn’t going to place the vial on her bedside table or the windowsill, like some kind of paperweight bauble, this was the compromise.

The string would stay hidden, and she would check on it periodically, to make sure it wasn’t growing.

Author Note 3/11/22:
Sorry about the late update. I forgot it was Thursday yesterday! Sometimes it’s hard to keep up with time when you work from home seven days a week.
ETA: Next chapter coming Thursday, 3/24. We’ll be back to regular weekly chapters in April.
Continue ReadingChapter 99 – Charitable Performance

Chapter 98 – Excessive Force

Oliver

Month 1, Day 30, Saturday 3:30 p.m.

Oliver leaned against the inside of the door of discreet carriage he had appropriated from Lord Morrow. Through the carriage’s curtained window, which allowed him to see out but did not allow others to see in, Oliver noted an unusually large amount of coppers patrolling his territory, both the new and the old. He watched as a duo of coppers who had stopped a man on the side of the street, shaking him by his elbow and drawing angry looks from all around.

“It’s ironic that we break less laws than the Morrows ever have, and yet the coppers find us so much more offensive,” Oliver said.

Huntley didn’t take his ever-flickering eyes off the window. “It’s because we make it so much more obvious that the coppers aren’t doing their jobs. It will die down.”

Oliver wasn’t sure it would. The coppers had been harassing Katerin and anyone else who worked for the Verdant Stag, trying to bring Oliver and the Raven Queen in for questioning and arrest.

Everyone from both the Verdant Stag and the Nightmare Pack who had been involved in the assault on the Morrows had been prepared with at least one session of training to resist a ward against untruth, had been coached on what to do if arrested, and were assured that their families would be taken care of. So, Oliver doubted the coppers were getting much from the people they were arresting or forcing to come in for questioning. Still, it was a problem.

Oliver had managed to get most of his people released, but the fines and bribes were becoming prohibitive, and the coppers weren’t showing any signs of slowing down. They had been arresting people more frequently, and setting the punishments and fines higher than normal, focusing on those that wore the green antlers or that the coppers believed had been involved in the battle. Others, they forced to come in for questioning. In a way, it was similar to what he was doing with the Morrows—holding the Verdant Stag ransom. The coppers needed to be seen doing something after the widespread fighting and collateral damage had made them seem so ineffectual, and they were getting their arrest numbers up.

Of course, not all the coppers were corrupt. Some of them actually wanted to help the community, and others were at least willing to do the right thing if it didn’t significantly inconvenience them. Many of them started the job with high ideals. But it was hard to stay clean when so many around you are corrupt, and the system itself seemed to subtly encourage that.

Oliver needed to find more coppers who still held their principles, or would at least prefer to be bribed or look the other way for an organization like the Verdant Stag over one like the Morrows.

Failing that, he needed to make harassing him or his people distinctly unappealing. He pressed his hand over the black leather notebook tucked away in the inside pocket of his jacket. Before he had found it, and its key, hidden away in Lord Morrow’s house, his best idea had been to hire a team of solicitors specifically to make arrests more hassle than they were worth.

Lord Morrow had kept a team specifically for that type of thing. Instead of just paying the fines and the bribes to get his people out, Oliver could set solicitors to argue every case. It would be as much of a hassle to him as it was the coppers, and it would drag out the whole process and probably cost him even more, but it would make his people seem like a less appealing target.

He would still do that, but the unlocked notebook offered another type of solution. Inside the little leather book, with one to two pages for every entry, some entries with only a few lines and others packed with neat, tiny writing…was blackmail material. Blackmail material on anyone remotely important, some who the Morrows had worked with, and some who Lord Morrow simply wanted to be prepared for in case of need.

There was even a page for Oliver, though there was nothing truly incriminating listed, just tidbits of knowledge about illegal activities he’d been involved with, as well as speculation and notes about failed attempts to find his civilian identity.

But there was plenty of information on the coppers, on people who worked on every level, in all the different departments. When he’d found the book and its key—having meticulously rifled through Lord Morrow’s properties and belongings from top to bottom and broken all the wards and safeguards the man had put in place—he’d had to close the book for a bit and take a couple deep breaths. He’d been grateful for the featureless mask of Lord Stag, because the wild grin splitting his face from side to side was probably disturbing.

Lord Morrow had several properties that were all filled with belongings, everything from overpriced furniture embroidered with actual gold thread, to a library of books he’d probably never read and only filled for the aesthetic of it, to an old, abandoned printing press down in the basement surrounded by other knickknacks, non-working artifacts, and even some actual junk. The man may have been a bit of a hoarder.

Oliver watched as another copper team shouldered roughly out of the doorway of a shop that bore the bright green antlers of the Verdant Stag above their doorframe, the younger of the team smirking as he dropped a handful of coins into his pocket. Too much coin to be change for a purchase. They’d just extorted the shop owner.

They were losing all sense of moderation. They thought he was an easy victim.

“Stop the carriage,” Oliver ordered, rapping on the roof to alert the driver, because he realized immediately that the man wouldn’t be able to hear him past the carriage’s privacy wards, and he didn’t want to lower them with a pair of coppers right there. The carriage was spelled to be both unremarkable and difficult to track, but all the wards were on the same system.

Huntley’s gaze flicked around, through the windows in both doors, then searching Oliver for signs of illness or injury. “You’re scheduled to go straight from the alchemy workshop to the Verdant Stag. What’s wrong?”

“The coppers are harassing a shop owner under our protection.” Oliver’s instinct was to do something about it personally, but that would have been the worst possible decision, and instead given the coppers exactly what they really wanted on a silver platter. “You should get out and dissuade them.”

“Absolutely not,” Huntley replied.

Oliver scowled at him. “It shouldn’t be that difficult. It is our job to provide some measure of security for the people in our territory, Huntley. Otherwise they will lose faith in us, and that leads to attempted coups.”

Huntley crossed his arms over his chest. “No. My job is to keep you safe. Worst case scenario, I go out there and end up getting arrested, and then something happens to you.”

“I’m not completely helpless without you, you know. I’ve handled myself against worse threats, and I’ll stay hidden in the carriage the whole time.”

Outside, the coppers had stopped beside a stall selling thin bowls of steaming soup run by a scowling middle-aged woman. The younger one who’d tucked the coin away swaggered up, saying something to the woman. Perhaps a threat, or perhaps just a request for a bowl of soup.

She sneered, crossing her arms over her chest as she retorted.

Oliver noted the subtle antlers painted clumsily on the corner of the wooden sign that hung from the stall.

The crowd outside was growing thicker as people stopped to watch the commotion, scowling and muttering.

The older copper said something to his younger partner, gesturing for them to leave, but the young man ignored him, stepping around the stall to drag the woman out into the street by her arm.

“Just go out and act vaguely threatening, Huntley. They’re going after a woman now. I’m worried things could get bad.” The mid-day crowd was growing thicker, passersby stopping to scowl at the coppers and whisper to themselves.

A thickly-muscled man in a leather apron yelled out an angry remark that Oliver couldn’t quite make out through the carriage’s, but which caused an upsurge of muttering and drew scowls from both the coppers. People were beginning to mill around the carriage, blocking the horses, anyway.

Huntley settled back, crossing his arms. “This isn’t a negotiation. Even if I was inclined to abandon my duties, which I’m not, Katerin would kill me. The shopkeep will be fine. At most, the coppers will mess the stall up a little and make her come in for questioning. That’s half a day’s earnings gone. If I go out there, all it gives us is a minor show of force against two beat coppers who don’t even matter. Either I threaten them and they come back more angry, with a legitimate reason to arrest me, or I bribe them to go away and we still look weak.”

“I think it could be worse for her—”

The woman spat in the copper’s face.

Oliver’s heart sank.

The copper went white-faced, then shoved the woman to the ground, his hand going for the battle wand at his waist.

Oliver lunged for the door handle, but Huntley blocked him. “He’ll kill her!” Oliver snapped.

Huntley hesitated, following Oliver’s gaze out of the window.

While he was distracted, Oliver slipped on his Lord Stag mask, letting its suction settle onto the skin go his face, and opened the carriage door. The angry roil of noise from the crowd flowed over him. He paused, because the copper hadn’t used the battle wand to shoot a spell, but had instead cracked the woman across the cheekbone with it.

The man raised his hand to repeat the action just as a skinny, dark-skinned young man stumbled his way out of the surrounding crowd, tripped, and went sprawling onto the cobblestones.

The bulky device in his hands fell across a box of soup ingredients sat next to the stall, and the sharp flash of blinding-white light from it was evidence enough of what had happened, even with the sound of the shutter being drowned out by the screams.

The copper stopped his second swing mid-way, turning toward the fallen young man with an expression of alarm that quickly morphed into rage.

His older partner was obviously uneasy, and he stepped forward to put a restraining hand on the younger copper’s arm.

Many of the crowd probably didn’t know exactly what the artifact was, but they knew magic when they saw it, and the response of the coppers was enough to spread a hush through the crowd.

Oliver heard it clearly when the young copper asked, “Did you just take a photograph of me?”

The dark-skinned young man scrambled clumsily upright, almost tripping over his own feet again as he did so and fumbling to get his wire-rimmed glasses to sit straight on his face again. “No—I—It was an accident. I just need—” He cut off with a twisted, horrified expression.

A shockingly loud, stuttering grumble of flatulence tore through the crowd. The young man jerked, his hands twitching toward his backside as if he could hold the sound in—to no avail, as it ripped through him, the occasional squeak interrupting the rumble until it finally died out with a reluctant wheeze.

The silence in its absence was deafening. The boy’s face was noticeably pale despite the dark tint of his skin, giving him a greenish pallor. “I’m sorry, that was an accident. I ate something bad, and I thought I was going to—at least it was only gas. Better out than in, my dad always says!” he added with a high-pitched, anxious laugh, his eyes darting around as if for an escape route.

The coppers were not amused.

“That’s right, you tell ‘em!” Someone in the back of the crowd called, vibrating their tongue and lips together to create an exaggerated farting noise of their own. The sound was soon repeated by someone else.

The boy paled even further, shaking his head desperately as the young copper stepped forward, swinging the baton once more.

The boy lifted a forearm to block the blow, and the copper punched him with his other hand, sending his glasses flying.

The boy cringed away, falling to his knees as he felt about frantically for the glasses.

The copper stepped forward as if to kick him in the side, but before he could do so, someone in the crowd threw a small stone, hitting the man in the back of the head.

The older partner spun around, lifting his wand and throwing up a shield spell. That only set off the crowd, and soon more projectiles were flying. Mud, stones, and even chunks of trash and old food.

“Don’t you dare shoot at the crowd!” the older copper screamed over his shoulder at his young, foolish partner who had gotten them into this precarious situation.

Oliver’s carriage driver had apparently had enough enough, and he tried to get them away, but the crowd was blocking the way and the horses quickly growing spooked. Oliver was worried that they might panic and trample someone.

When someone tipped a whole barrel full of coal out of the wagon a few meters in front of them, blocking the way with too little room for them to maneuver, even Huntley knew there would be no easy escape.

Both coppers were shielding now, standing back to back and preparing to try to ram their way through a thin section of the crowd before things escalated further. The older copper tossed out a couple philtres of stench, the nausea-inducing clouds sending people coughing and retching to the ground and distracting attention from them.

Both the woman stall owner and the young camera-toting man seemed to have scrambled away in the confusion.

“Well I suppose you’ve gotten your wish,” Huntley said bitingly. “We have to get out and retreat on foot. We are not wading into the fray, sir. Keep your hood up and follow me.” Without waiting for a response, he jumped down to the ground, his wand out with its own protective barrier springing from the tip. The man winced at the impact, lifting one hand to his side, where the broken ribs and punctured lung he’d gotten in the fight against the Morrows was not completely healed.

Huntley yelled for the carriage driver to take care of the horses, cutting them free from the carriage if necessary.

Oliver kept a firm grasp on his own wand, his cloak obscuring his face as they wove through and among the crowd. Oliver was less worried about someone seeing Lord Stag out and about than recognizing Oliver Dryden and making an unfortunate connection. Perhaps one day he would be able to go around his territory as “Mr. Oliver” again, but at the moment the situation was too fraught, tensions too high.

Oliver and Huntley weren’t the only ones escaping the fray, and other than a few jostles against elbows and shoulders, they managed without incident. As they were turning the corner a block away, Huntley turned to shield Oliver’s back and side, someone turning the corner in the other direction slammed directly into Oliver with an audible “oof!”

The camera-toting boy from earlier bounced off Oliver, so focused on protecting his camera artifact that he fell directly onto his bottom hard enough to force out a little whimper of pain. He pushed up his glasses, which had one shattered lens over a quickly-swelling black eye from where the copper had punched him. He blinked up at Oliver, then immediately went wide-eyed and green with horror. Obviously, he had seen under Oliver’s hood.

Oliver sighed regretfully, rubbing at the chin of his mask where the boy’s forehead had clipped him, grateful for the unexpected protection it had afforded. His eyes narrowed as they caught on the camera.

The boy stood up, scrambling backward and bowing deeply to Oliver. “Sorry, so sorry!”

Huntley stepped forward, switching off the shield spell coming from his wand and pointing it threateningly at the boy, who looked to be a year or two younger than Siobhan.

“Oh, Merlin’s balls!” the boy exclaimed, babbling unconsciously. “I’m really on a roll, first the coppers and now Lord Stag.” He swallowed, smiling ingratiatingly at Oliver, his eyes flicking nervously to Huntley. “I don’t suppose you’d let me go if I promise not to mention I saw you? I don’t have any particular love for the coppers!” He gestured to his purpling eye.

Oliver shook his head slowly, and the boy quailed. “I mean you no harm,” Oliver assured him. “However, I believe we have business to discuss.” He gestured to the camera. “I’m interested in purchasing that photograph you took earlier.” He might not have normally considered it, but with the little black journal, he had blackmail in the forefront of his mind, and had realized the potential uses of such a photograph. He thought back to the moment of the flash. He believed the angle of the camera lens was correct to have captured something interesting…if the photograph wasn’t too blurred.

The boy’s mouth opened and closed like a fish, and he looked down at the camera, dumbfounded. “But it might not even be anything. The camera went off by accident. It probably wasn’t pointed at anything except a couple potatoes, and even if it was, surely everything’s too blurred to make out…?”

“You will come with us,” Oliver ordered. “You can find an appropriate spot at the Verdant Stag to check the photograph. Under supervision.”

The boy shook his head. “That won’t work. I can’t just expose the photo negative to light to check it without first developing and ‘fixing’ the disk. It would ruin the captured image. And I don’t have that processing artifact on me.”

“Where is it?”

“Well, it’s at home…”

Huntley nodded to Oliver. “I’ll have someone escort him to fetch it.”

“Good.”

After a painful moment where the boy looked constipated with the desire to argue, but didn’t seem to know how to do so, he acquiesced, deflating.

They made their way through the city on foot for a few blocks, Huntley’s eyes on a constant paranoid search for danger, though he put away his wand after a while so as not to draw extra attention to them.

The boy chattered nervously as they walked. “It’s not a photograph inside, you know. This model has a magic crystal disk that captures a reverse image. It can take three whole photographs before I need to replace the cartridge! Though it’s not really a reverse image, it’s just got the bright parts dark and the dark parts light. They call it a ‘negative,’ and it means that I can make as many photographs from the original disk as I want…”

Oliver tuned him out as they walked, vulnerable, in the direction of the Verdant Stag. He knew this situation would never have happened if he were riding Elmira instead of inside a supposedly much safer carriage. An Erythrean wouldn’t have been so spooked by the crowd or commotion, and she was sure-footed enough to have maneuvered through, over, or around almost any kind of blockage in her way. Of course, he’d also been ambushed before while riding her, since a man riding a horse—even a completely common-looking one like her—stood out in some of the poorer parts of town.

Oliver mused on getting her a saddle with the same kind of wards the carriage had. Huntley might not agree to let him ride her even then, however, since it was a lot harder to protect a man riding a horse than one inside the shielding walls of a carriage.

A few blocks away from the incident, Huntley flagged down a hackney carriage that had the Verdant Stag antlers painted discreetly on its side. The man took a bright green badge from an inside pocket and flashed it at the driver, who gave a deep bow of the head and motioned for them to hop on.

Oliver watched on in surprise. Katerin had been using the Stag funds to kit out the enforcers in more ways than just their equipment, it seemed.

The young man, sitting squeezed between Oliver and Huntley, hugged his camera to his chest.

“What is your name?” Oliver said, breaking the tense silence.

“Percival Irving. Well met, Lord—um—Mr…” he threw an awkward glance toward the driver, who was studiously not paying them any attention.

Oliver’s wry smile was hidden under his mask, but he nodded graciously. “Well met.”

As the carriage passed by the Verdant Stag, he saw Siobhan—as Silvia Nakai in her gray-streaked bun and eyeglasses—walking toward the front door. She stood out from the crowd, more from the way she carried herself like a queen than any particular physical attribute. The Mires were filled with different races and species, of every shape and color, so one tall, ochre-colored girl shouldn’t have drawn his eye as easily as she did. Especially because she was wearing a cloak with a hood that disguised most of her features. Yet, he was sure it was her.

He hummed to himself, feeling rather ambiguous as he turned his head to watch her enter the inn-cum-entertainment hall. He had grown closer to her than he planned. He was one to take on “projects,” obviously, and though he’d hoped she would grow to be truly useful—which had happened even sooner than he hoped, though not in the way he expected—he hadn’t thought it would be more than that. Yet, now he was worried for her, pleased to see her, disappointed that he couldn’t stop the carriage on the street and call for her to jump in so that they would talk.

The driver took them around to the Verdant Stag’s back yard where there was a locked entrance with a route to the upper floor where Oliver kept his office, but not before Oliver instructed Huntley to have Siobhan come up to meet him before she left. The driver didn’t try to peek under Oliver’s hood as he got out, and Huntley gave him a large tip as they exited.

Huntley took Percival to the enforcer office to get one of them to escort him while he processed and examined the “negative,” then bring him back. Oliver would call for Percival when he was ready.

Siobhan came up to visit him, and they had a pleasant chat that erased most of the tension from his morning, sharing troubles and ideas for solutions. She seemed haggard, and a little too thin, but her company was as compelling as ever. When she left, Oliver put his mask back on regretfully.

Percival entered shortly after, holding a sealed cartridge that Oliver supposed contained the camera’s negatives.

The boy cleared his throat. “The camera did actually capture a pretty good photograph of that copper. Very…impactful.”

Oliver smiled. “I’m pleased. I will purchase it from you. Seven gold. If you’re interested, I can also hire you to develop an actual photograph from the negative.”

Percival’s fingers tightened around the cartridge. “Seven gold?” He swallowed. “That sounds good. Wait, no, I want at least nine gold.”

Oliver raised an amused eyebrow, though it wasn’t visible beneath the mask, waving the boy forward. He opened the cartridge, pulling out the first disk and examining it. It contained a miniature black and white image, with the dark and light reversed, of the copper beating the woman shop owner in the street. The copper’s arm was blurred with motion, and both of their faces were clear enough, vibrant with emotion. Oliver gave a satisfied smile. “Eight gold, then. That’s my final offer.”

“And… I also have another negative I think you might want to purchase. One of the Raven Queen. It’s impactful, too.”

The next chapter will come out Thursday, 3/10, according to the slow-down announcement posted here: https://www.azaleaellis.com/pgts/new-grimoire-page-schedule-announcement/

While being able to focus more time on the writing, I’m averaging about 2.5 chapters drafted per week, and making good headway into the story. I’ve had to move some things around, add stuff, and cut other stuff. Still on track to get back to the regular weekly posting schedule in April.

I’ve also continued to put out more Illustrated Grimoire Excerpts, and will continue to do so throughout the rest of the slowdown.

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Continue ReadingChapter 98 – Excessive Force

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