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Well, he needed to question Fitzfleming. Augustus was sure of that. Just taking her to Ethics might stop the robberies, but if she was being blackmailed, it wouldn’t get to the root of the problem.
He turned and looked at Yujin. “Skylar?”
Yujin and Skylar both seemed surprised that the spirit was being addressed directly. “Yes?” Skylar asked cautiously, through Yujin.
“Can ghosts sense magic? I want to know if Fitzfleming has any stored spells on her person, since that rather helps determine the risks here.”
Yujin’s head shook, a short, jerky motion that wasn’t characteristic of them. “No, I can’t. Maybe a magician’s ghost could, I don’t know. But I’m just a spirit. I’m not magic at all.”
That was a matter of theory, but he didn’t want to get into it with her right now when he was on such a schedule. Drat. He was going to have to assume Fitzfleming was potentially armed, in that case.
Augustus made eye contact with Yujin and firmly grasped their shoulders, squeezing reassuringly. “Here’s what I need you to do, Yujin. I need you to get away from here and get safe. You weren’t seen here by Fitzfleming or anyone else, and you wouldn’t be expected to be here. So if anything happens to me, you can go to the top with what you know. The Dean or the board. And if nothing does, and I decide to take it to Ethics, I can have you as a witness.”
“But if she’s a thief and blackmailer, shouldn’t you bring her in right now?” Yujin asked.
Shaking his head, Augustus said, “I don’t believe she’s the blackmailer. I suspect she’s also being blackmailed. If she could just blackmail you into taking things from me, why would she break in herself? So I need to assume there’s information I need to get. I can decide what to do after that.”
“Okay,” Yujin said softly.
“So I can’t tip my hand to the blackmailer yet. You get it? That being the case, I need you to pretend you didn’t come to me with their attempts to blackmail you. I need you to pretend as if you were too afraid of the truth coming out to talk to me.” He squeezed again. “Go to your meeting tomorrow and see if you can find out what they want from you. Hopefully I’ll get information from Fitzfleming that will let me put things together with whatever you learn. I trust you, Yujin. The fact you came to me means so much to me. I know you won’t betray me, so know that I won’t betray you. When I leave this office, I’ll rap on your door once when I pass by if everything’s fine and you can go with this plan I just laid out. I’ll knock twice if there’s a change in plans and I need you to come with me. Okay?”
“Okay,” Yujin said again. Their eyes had welled up a little but they looked … better than Augustus had seen them in a while. Confident, calmer, relieved. “It’s a plan.”
Augustus squeezed their shoulders one last time, then released them. “Go.”
He locked up after Yujin when they left. The last thing he wanted was for anyone else to walk in on this.
The rest he did in a hurry. He tied Fitzfleming quickly, using the lengths of cord for tying his curtains back, though he was confident enough in his experiences with rope to be sure that she wouldn’t be able to get the knot undone herself. He rifled through her pockets quickly—he was neither boorish enough to search more thoroughly nor did he have the time even if he were comfortable crossing that line—and found nothing except another note. This one read, I have another job for you. Fetch me the ambrotype of Pennywright and his husband from his desk. Leave it in the usual spot Fourthsday morning. If you are unable to acquire it, leave an explanation as to why.
That was particularly telling, then. Fitzfleming was simply someone’s catspaw. Augustus turned her to face away from the desk to make it harder to target him with any stored spells she had, and then he ducked back behind the desk again. It made him feel a little silly, a little small, but a shield was a shield.
Then he waited.
When she began to make shocked, outraged sounds, he knew she could hear him. He spoke up. “Good afternoon, Fitzfleming. Shame to have to meet again this way. You can only listen for now, so please listen carefully.”
She fell silent, breathing hard. He nodded to himself. “You need to know I’ve already informed someone else that you were here, and I have told them not to tell anyone else—yet. But if anything happens to me, you will immediately be brought before the board. Make one sound to indicate you’ve heard and understood me.”
Fitzfleming said, clear and brief, “Hn.”
“Good,” Augustus said. He tried to fit more comfortably under his desk than his larger frame was really capable of. “I know what you were looking for, and I know you were being blackmailed to get it. So again, unless you want to get dragged right to Ethics and take the sole blame for what is happening here, I need you to tell me everything you know. I may let you go if you do. I can hardly blame you for being used by someone else.”
The next sound was odd, and it took him a moment to realize that Fitzfleming was crying very softly. It didn’t last long—only twenty seconds or so, he thought—and given the emotional strain she had recently been under, it was understandable. Especially since it was one of the few things she were capable of right now.
But it made him uncomfortable to listen to. He listened nevertheless, eyes closed.
She did get it under control quickly, though, and by the time she had control over her tongue back, her voice was calm and remote. Almost normal for her. “You’re right that I never wanted to do this. I would have normally thought myself above these things. Stealing ideas is already something I’ve frowned on. Actually stealing from a colleague even more so.”
“It did seem a little uncharacteristic, for all that we’ve never exactly been friends.” Augustus drummed his fingers on the floor beneath his desk. “Go on.”
“There is an … incident in my past,” she said. “Long enough ago that I didn’t think anyone would ever find out about it. But apparently someone did. I was told that my secret would be revealed unless I acquired certain research materials that you were hoarding. I presume so that this person could use them. It happened very recently; it’s been less than a week.”
“I see,” Augustus said. That fit the timeline as he understood it. “Why did this blackmailer want the ambrotype?”
“Their note didn’t say,” she said. Which he knew already, as he was holding onto it; he’d hoped she might have met her blackmailer in person. But that was seeming less likely. “I have theories, of course. I’d already been unsuccessful in acquiring biological material from your office when asked to try to find some along with the books. I presume that the blackmailer is a fellow magician, and wanted some kind of hook into you. Or into your husband, I suppose, since that would then also provide a reason for you to do whatever they want.”
Imagining someone trying to hold his husband hostage almost drew an actual laugh from his throat, but he swallowed it down. Better to give nothing away at all. “Have you met your blackmailer in person? Do you have any idea who they are?”
“I don’t know,” Fitzfleming said. She let out an aggravated sigh that was so typical of her that Augustus found himself torn between annoyance and sympathy. “They left notes and a drop-off location for the goods, which was accompanied by further notes. Whoever it was must be very good at digging up information on other people’s pasts, obviously. Someone with a mind for details and strong skills at spotting gaps or inconsistencies. I’ve been trying to figure out why I was targeted, and have a few thoughts on that as well. I’m not in the same department as you, so I’m more likely to avoid immediate scrutiny—or would at least be a good distraction. I also recently wrote a paper similar to the one you’re said to be working on, though obviously my goal was to discredit your ideas before you could even publish yours. You’ve been looking into redefining planar concepts; I wrote about forcing a strict distinction in definitions between natural and unnatural spirits.”
“Yes, you did,” he said flatly. He wasn’t exactly pleased to hear that she’d published at least partly to get ahead of his work, but interdepartmental rivalries could be like that.
“Finally, of course, I had a secret that was strong enough that I could be used. It’s possible that the blackmailer hadn’t found another person like that yet.”
Yet. But then they found out about Yujin, somehow. “And what is that secret?”
“You think I’d tell you?! I did all this specifically to avoid it getting out!”
“Yes,” Augustus said patiently. “And if you were really just being used, I need proof of it. If you have a life-destroying secret, then I am compelled to believe you’d act to protect it, and perhaps do not need to drag you in front of Ethics, the board, and your peers. If you do not have one, though, then I have no evidence that you’re not spinning another lie now. I want to be able to let you go, Fitzfleming. We’re colleagues, and I have no love for whoever’s using you to try to get to me. But if you don’t help me, I’ll ruin your life.”
A long, long silence. Long enough that he worried that he’d misjudged the situation. Then:
“About twenty years ago, my sister decided to leave her spouse due to how he was treating her. I came over to help her move. He tried to prevent her leaving, and had an accident. Officially. The blackmailer said that they had checked the grave and found lingering spell evidence on the corpse that matches what I know happened. They could have the authorities also check it for evidence of tampering.”
Oh, that was juicy. He whistled, low. Unpleasant, but fair, too. He had no family any more, but in a similar situation, he’d likely also have acted to do what was necessary. And murder accusations would certainly take away everything Fitzfleming had earned here as a tenured academic.
So what was he to do with it? It actually didn’t take much debate this time. “All right. I’m willing to believe you. And now that I know that, you especially don’t want to be reported to Ethics.”
“Yes, I thought you might blackmail me as well when you knew,” she said grimly. “But given that you already have evidence of a crime, things aren’t going to be going well for me either way.”
“Saying that it’s blackmail is awfully harsh,” Augustus protested. “I’m simply reminding you that there are stakes here, but once this is all over I’m happy to forget it. Ivory, I’m not actually your enemy. I’d like it if you were on my side as well. This blackmailer is hurting both of us.”
“… Yes,” she said. “They are.”
“So here’s my plan,” he said. His plan, too, was the same with Yujin. Take the people who were being blackmailed, and put them under his own wing. “I will let you go. You should act normal. Act as if we never talked about this. Write your explanation, as the note said. Say you couldn’t find the ambrotype, and I appear to have hidden it. This is the truth, after all. When the blackmailer contacts you again, tell me what they say and what they want. I intend to take this blackmailer down, and keep your secret safe. I’d like your help in this.”
“And you have, as you said, a witness I was here.”
“The witness will only act if I tell them to—or if something happens to me. I’m going to release you, Ivory. But if you attack me, I’ll fight back. And my witness and I will fight dirty.”
Augustus didn’t trust her, of course. But he was confident that what he’d said was compelling, and that she had more reason to side with him than with the person who was blackmailing them both. Still, he was tense, ready to run, ready to fight. He brought his desk scissors with him to defend himself with if she did anything as he untied her.
She didn’t fight, though. When freed, Fitzfleming stumbled unsteadily to her feet—the last of the paralysis was still wearing off—and stared at him, calm, even, cool. “Well,” she said.
“Well,” he agreed. “Partners for now, then?”
“Yes,” she said. “Don’t make me regret this.”
“Oh, I think we can both say that,” he said. “I’m going to keep an eye on you until the paralysis is fully off, and watch you leave. And then I’m going to go off and try to figure out next steps. Let’s bring the bastard down.”
That earned him a faint smile. “I don’t always love your work, Pennywright, but I have to admit you always have sound research.”
He smiled back, and waited. Soon enough, she turned and left, and he put everything in his office back as it should be, and then left as well.
It had been a bit of a bluff, but he hadn’t been able to see any other paths forward. Starting a formal investigation into her behavior now would definitely tip off whoever was doing this, and he couldn’t afford that, not when he was only just beginning to get an advantage due to Yujin having decided to come to him. And besides, he didn’t have enough time today to deal with all that. He had plans to bring his husband home, and he had plans to meet Soren.
Augustus hurried home to go prepare the ritual, taking the time to knock once on Yujin’s door as he passed it, not otherwise stopping. It was probably a good time to bring Em in—between Yujin and Fitzfleming, a lot was going to happen with the blackmailer tomorrow, so he assumed his timeline for whatever was happening was going to be over the next couple of days. And this way, he could have Em interact directly with Soren.
Though, he had to admit, he didn’t know what exactly he was going to tell Soren. What should he do when Soren got here this evening? What should he say or not say? Should he let Soren in on anything he’d learned, and what, if so? Or should he just try to dupe Soren entirely, and use him for more divination…?
[What should Augustus do?
Comment with details.]