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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?
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He had to hide, Augustus decided. It would at least give him the chance to get some idea of what the intruder wanted.
Was there anything left out on his desk that the intruder might use against him? He remembered the mug he’d stolen from Soren and grabbed his own coffee cup quickly, then ducked under the desk with Yujin, pushing the chair out a little to shadow their hiding spot further. Yujin made eye contact with him, expression wild, but nodded without Augustus having to say anything to them. Clearly, they understood this part of the plan, at least.
It was impossible for his anxiety not to spike as he hid under the desk with Yujin, the two of them huddled together listening to the intruder trying what sounded like several different keys. It brought him back to his childhood, his mouth dry, knowing that something was out there hunting for him, still not knowing what had happened to the rest of his family, if they had lived or died. He reached out and squeezed Yujin’s shoulder reassuringly, and Yujin let out the faintest breath at that.
He had to focus up; he was a full-grown adult man, just this side of middle age, not a child afraid of monsters in the dark. And he needed a way to get some kind of view of what was happening.
Augustus released Yujin’s shoulder and hurriedly dug in one of his pockets, finding his grooming kit. Carefully, he flipped it open—no need to accidentally send a razor flying on top of everything going on here—and angled it, trying to use the gap between the bottom of the desk and the floor to get at least a small view of the room with his shaving glass. It wasn’t much, but it was better than nothing.
And he kept careful control on the paralyzing spell. He could wish he had more failsafes, but hindsight was perfect, after all. If it were his home or his workroom, it would be much easier to defend, but people avoided putting too many defenses on their offices on purpose. People, students included, were meant to be able to come and go safely here. And he wasn’t exactly a combat mage, especially without having prepared materials in advance. He simply had the paralysis spell stored, and he’d have to make it count.
The door opened finally—or so it felt, though he knew it had been a matter of seconds still—and then shut behind the intruder. A dim light was activated, and began to move from the doorway to his desk. Through the angle of his shaving mirror, he could see very little; women’s boots disappearing into the bottom of a professional tweed dress, moving toward his desk, stopping in front of it. The intruder was standing on the rug that he had the spell trained on, at least, though now those boots blocked his view entirely, directly in front of him as they were.
He found himself fantasizing that a beast wore them, rather than a person, looming over him and his assistant, his charge, unseen. He forced his breathing to slow again, and made eye contact with Yujin under the desk again, seeking … something. Yujin bit their lip, but held themself very still. Their hair was still floating ominously around their head as if they were underwater. The ghost riding them was clearly still fired up and ready to take action.
“Fuck,” he finally heard from nearly directly over him. A human voice. Fitzfleming’s voice, actually, which wasn’t a surprise, though she didn’t generally swear like that. “Where is that ambrotype of his?”
The picture he kept on his desk was now safe at home, though he wondered for a moment what she wanted with it. Certainly, an ambrotype could be used for all sorts of purposes, as it captured a moment in time of a person. And it could be used for that for anyone in it, so it could also reveal certain things about his husband if the magic were strong enough and probed deeply enough. It had been risky to have had Em pose for it, perhaps, but generally speaking there was really no need to go examining a man’s disgustingly sweet couples picture. He had never, he thought, made enemies who would particularly try to target him. He was a teacher, for crying out loud.
“Did he take it home? Damn. If I don’t get it … no, maybe it’s still here “
Home. He thought longingly about the plans he’d made for after this. He wanted to go home, invite his husband over properly, and then receive Soren and talk to him directly with Em’s help. He didn’t want to have to waste time here interrogating someone. Plus, Yujin’s situation still needed dealing with.
The feet began to move, and he was abruptly out of time to think about such inconsequentialities. Fitzfleming was going to come around the desk to investigate the drawers and see if he’d just put it away; it’s what he’d do. Besides, she was about to step off the rug.
So he triggered the paralysis spell. It launched with a loud crackling sound and a visible flash of light, and she went down.
She hit the desk on the way down, too, which he couldn’t feel dreadfully sorry about.
Augustus surged to his feet, pulling Yujin up at the same time. He had about five minutes now; five minutes in which she was totally insensate, stunned and unable to process the world around her. No more than that. The spell worked in fives: zero to five minutes, she’d be completely out of it. Five to ten minutes, aware of the world around her but incapable of any movement beyond breathing. Ten to fifteen minutes, able to speak but not move her body more. Fifteen to twenty, movement but lacking good coordination. Beyond that, she’d be back to normal.
He could use her lack of awareness afforded by those five minutes and just … leave. Or even search her and then leave, so long as he put her pockets back to rights after, and she’d be none the wiser. She wouldn’t even know he’d been here; he could let her think that she’d triggered an automatic defense. If he did this, he wouldn’t get to question her, but he’d know she was the culprit and she wouldn’t know that he knew.
Or, he could spend that time tying her up. He could wait, then interrogate her. It would mean he could ask questions, but he couldn’t guarantee answers, and it was possible she had some spells stored up as well somewhere on her. Those didn’t require movement to activate, so they were a real risk. He didn’t have any stored Mage Eye spells left to confirm what kind of magics she might have on hand, either. Ironically, he’d used the last one breaking into her office.
Which should he do? He stared down at her, still clutching Yujin’s hand. Whatever he decided to do, he was going to have to do it in front of Yujin, who was clutching the edge of the desk with their free hand and looking extremely alarmed by all this. So there had to be a moral limit to his actions here.
At least he had a witness if he wanted to take this to Ethics, Augustus thought. There was an edge of hysteria in the thought, but only just an edge.
[What should Augustus do?
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Augustus decided to hold the paralyzing attack a little longer. He could wait to see if there were a compelling explanation here. He was fairly sure it had to be a ruse—obviously, something shifty was going on here—but he would give them a chance to explain themselves and could always launch an attack later.
“You understand how that sounds like a very convenient change of subject here,” Augustus said severely. “It’s clear you want to distract me from what you have going on with you. What is happening to your hair? Your tie?”
Yujin’s eyes went even rounder, panicky. “Static?” they tried.
“Do you think I was literally born yesterday? Do you think I am a mayfly, with the lifespan of a day?”
They cringed a little at that, shoulders hunching up. Normally those shoulders would hide under their hair by then, but no, it was flying around them as if in a wild wind. “Listen, I’ll explain,” they said urgently. “I will. I promise. I just need you to see this first. I need to know you’ll listen. You’ll probably stop listening when you know my secret, and just kick me out, and then you’ll still be in trouble.”
Yujin did sound convincingly worried. Augustus steepled his fingers, drawing a slow breath, and watching them. He was starting to get the feeling that Yujin actually did have something to tell him, but it didn’t explain away the oddities. Why would Yujin have come here when it was dark in the office and he was apparently out—to wait for him? To do something in his office? To try to find some of his hair or spit, the way he had in Soren’s office?
“The thing is, I know about the stolen book,” Augustus said, very slowly. “I know you have one hidden in your study room. In your desk, behind the drawers.”
A sort of despair passed over their face before it seemed almost wiped away, as if from a force outside them. “I did borrow one,” they said, somewhat desperately. “I was going to sneak it back in when I was done with it. But then, when the others got stolen too, and we had to do inventory, I was worried that it could be used to frame me if you found it or if it turned up again unexpectedly, so I tried to hide it. I didn’t mean to steal it, I just … wanted to read it without you knowing I had. I’m sorry. I have a letter here and you need to read it, I’ll put it down and not do anything else, I promise. I just want to help.”
Slowly, Augustus let the paralysis stop targeting the bust—and moved it to instead target the rug in front of his desk. He did want to read whatever this note was, but he wasn’t a fool. “All right,” he said gently. “Come here, Yujin. Don’t be afraid of me. I’ve got some reasons to be cautious, but it’s not personal. Why do you think I’m in danger?”
They pulled the note out of their pocket and came over, stepping onto the rug—Augustus held the spell still, but could feel Yujin within its range easily—and put the folded note down on the desk.
Augustus picked it up, still watching Yujin, and slowly unfolded it. He lifted it a bit so he wouldn’t have to let Yujin out of line of sight as he read.
It was the same handwriting as the one he’d seen in Fitzfleming’s office—and remarkably similar content. This one read: I have information about you that you don’t want to come out. So, you’re going to help me. Meet me in the woods behind the school this Fourthsday evening. I know you know more about Pennywright than most, so I’m sure we can come to a beneficial agreement at his expense.
Once more, it was undated and unsigned. Fourthsday was tomorrow, though, and he had to assume that Yujin had only recently acquired it—if they had acquired it.
The thing was, Augustus had to acknowledge the fact that it could be Yujin who wrote the initial note to Fitzfleming, and then may have written this one to throw him off the scent. He knew Yujin had stolen one of his books, after all. Perhaps they had found out that Augustus knew—he couldn’t guarantee it had gone back into exactly the same spot behind the drawer that it had been in originally. Perhaps they were trying to spin the situation in their favor.
But the most likely explanation was that a single blackmailer was targeting two people. Blackmailers did like to hold onto and use other people’s secrets; a blackmailer who targeted a single target generally did so because it was personal. Blackmailing for profit benefitted from a diverse portfolio.
There was still one way he could see to keep moving forward, one way that would allow him to trust Yujin. Augustus crumpled the note a little in one hand and looked up at where Yujin stood in front of his desk, still within range of the spell. “I want to believe you, Yujin,” he said honestly. “But I need the truth from you. Tell me what’s being held over you, that they can use to blackmail you with. Tell me what’s going on with you.”
For a moment, frustrated tears seemed to well up in their eyes, and then they sagged, head falling forward. “I know. I know I have to tell you. Please don’t do anything about it. Don’t tell anyone else. I know it’s not permitted, I know it’s not healthy, but I love her.”
Augustus blinked. This was … unexpected. “You’re going to have to be more specific,” he said.
And then he realized that Yujin was leaving the direct area of the spell—that they were floating up off the ground as if the air itself was lifting them up. Their jacket billowed around them in a strong wind that Augustus could not feel, shirtsleeves flapping, hair whipping around them.
Yujin opened their mouth, expression resigned, clearly about to explain.
And a different voice spoke through their mouth, husky, with flat vowels and a touch of drawl to it. “Good gods and evil saints, you terrible man, stop bullying Yujin! Do I need to fight you?! They’re always working so hard to please you, and for what? If you’re going to kick them out of the school, just do it! If you’re going to kick me out of Yujin, just do that! You don’t have to play these weird, incomprehensible mind games! You’re not five moves ahead of them in a chess game or whatever! You’re having a conversation and you have got to stop trying to win it!“
Augustus’s mouth dropped open. When he responded, he did so almost automatically. “In my defense, it’s not like I’ve actively set out to play mind games, but I’ve had a very strange few days in which the people around me getting blackmailed is honestly a very minor part. Yujin, are you possessed?“
Their eyes rolled, but it was less like a spirit wreaking havoc in their body and more like a spirit who was being particularly sarcastic and annoyed. Then they blinked, and it was Yujin’s unhappy expression and Yujin’s wobbling lower lip again. “Yes,” they said. “Her name is Skylar Finch, she died ten years ago in the apartment I moved into last year, and I love her.”
For some reason, Augustus found he had the most dreadful headache. He pinched the spot between his brows. “You’re in love with the ghost possessing you?”
Yujin’s expression firmed up a little, though it was still their own. “Oh, like you can judge me for this? I’ve got some pretty strong suspicions about some of the things you’re into …!”
What did Yujin know? No, it was just suspicions, that was probably fine. Augustus frowned at Yujin, still pinching his brow. Honestly, this explained a lot. They were eating more than usual to maintain their health with a ghost burning through their life energy. It also explained the choice of the book they had stolen, too, if they were trying to better understand what was happening to them and what to do about it without getting anyone else involved.
Yes, of course it was forbidden. A possession could slowly eat a person from the inside out, draining their resources. There were some ways to maintain it for a time, but not indefinitely. Yes, if it were known and they refused to be exorcized, the school would ask them to leave. But Augustus could, in fact, have sympathy for the unhealthy choices one made out of love, the choices that one made knowing it could destroy you—
Before he’d found what to say in response, there was the sound of someone else at the door, fiddling with the lock. Hurriedly, Augustus reached over, grabbing Yujin (and Skylar…?) by the necktie, hauling them across the desk like a balloon, and shoving them down. “Get down,” he hissed. “I’m here in the dark today because I’m trying to spring a trap on the actual thief.”
They didn’t float up again, which he was relieved for, but huddled behind the desk, radiating a sudden panic. It was a little infectious; as Augustus listened to the intruder struggling with the lock, he found himself unsure of what exactly he should be doing.
Should he get down there and hide too, and see what the thief tried to do when they thought they were alone in the room? Should he stay where he was, seated behind the desk, and confront them immediately upon entry? Or something else?
[What should Augustus do?
Comment with details.]
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“Yes, perfectly well,” Augustus replied, almost automatically. He put the article back. “Have you seen Professor Olivia Spiders recently?”
“Spiders?” Fernandez raised a brow. She’d surely practiced how to do so, given how perfect it was. “Not recently, no.”
“That’s odd. They’re doing a paper.”
“Well, I don’t keep an eye on everyone who comes in and out, and I’m not always here,” Fernandez said neutrally, surely putting together the connection between that and the missing books and not wanting to jump to conclusions.
Augustus nodded absently. “Fair enough. It’s occurred to me I have something I really need to talk to her about, so sorry to show up and to run out again so quickly.”
“I also don’t keep track of the time anyone spends here.”
He laughed at that, soft. “No, you wouldn’t. Have a good rest of your morning, Fernandez.”
“Pennywright,” Fernandez said agreeably.
There was more he could look up here, surely, but he couldn’t think of any of it, and besides, his feet were already walking him out as his mind continued to whirl.
So, Vii—his old lover Vii, forgotten, lost to this world and to the memories of those who were there with him when the incident happened—was named Violin Spiders. All he knew about Vii’s family was that he had some, and that he’d left a letter for them in the event he died in the ritual. And all that he knew about Olivia’s family was that she apparently had a sister who ran a jewelry shop in town.
Did Olivia have a sister who ran a jewelry shop, or had that been a convenient excuse? If there really was a sister, that might also be a source of information, it occurred to him. He fiddled briefly with his wedding band, his pact-mark; it wasn’t the only piece of jewelry he owned, and some of the others, less-magical, had stopped fitting so well over the years. He could take a piece to see if they could expand it and—what? Ask about missing family members while he was there?
One way or another, what he knew for sure was that Olivia had abruptly become a great deal more suspicious. Someone had been researching into summon something from beyond, and if they thought that their brother (or cousin, or whoever) was out there … well, Augustus had no family any longer, nor had he been attached to the family he’d had, but he could imagine it might drive someone to great lengths.
One way or another, he needed to talk to them. What he was going to say, he didn’t know, but he could decide that when he got there.
Unfortunately, he reached Olivia’s office to find it locked and closed, with no Olivia around after he knocked. A quick use of his magical detection charm dissuaded him from breaking in immediately; she’d apparently taken whatever advice she’d gotten on theft for her own use, not simply her sister’s, and the place was heavily warded against what he was assumed was physical intrusion in additional to magical. He had to believe that anyone stepping in would quickly draw attention, and while he could potentially manage a quiet break of the spell if he had materials and time, it would be better to do that late at night, as it would take a while to set up, and casting while painting the air over the door wouldn’t exactly be subtle.
He could come back later. It wasn’t suspicious that Olivia wasn’t in, he reminded himself. He, for example, was also not in his office right now. Nevertheless, it made him nervous. One more variable out of his control.
“What are you up to?” Pérez asked, walking down the hall.
This was fine. He pivoted back to his original plan, turning with a smile. “Just seeing if Olivia was in. They told me they’d finished a draft and would talk about it later, so I was curious! No luck, though. Have you heard anything?”
“Why would I talk to Spiders about their writing?” Pérez asked blankly.
Oh, Pérez. “Well, we’re all in this together, aren’t we? What are you doing around here, anyway? You’re not in Conjurations. Not that I ever mind seeing your smiling face.”
“You have better coffee in your lounge,” Pérez said sourly. “Must be all the deals your sort makes with creatures of luxury.”
“I could use some myself. I’ll walk you there,” Augustus said, starting that way. Maybe Olivia would be there. “Do you have class later?”
“Yes, we’re clearing the room and setting things up for a major practical test. Summoning a ‘harmless’ sylph, but—”
“What! Conjuring in your class?”
“Only to show them what not to do,” Pérez said firmly. “We don’t shamelessly court danger, unlike your sort.”
They’d walked together into the lounge as Pérez said that; Olivia wasn’t there, but plenty of other professors were, eavesdropping shamelessly on Pérez’s insults. “Oh well, speaking of that, I’ve got a big class planned later today,” Augustus said cheerfully, at normal speaking volume. “For my two o’clock class.”
“Oh no,” Pérez said.
“You’d love it, I think. It’s an introduction to Planar Studies course, so … well, I don’t want to ruin the surprise, but let’s just say it’ll be an exciting day for the students!”
Pérez was shaking his head. “You shouldn’t. What if something gets out?”
“Don’t even worry about it! I’ll be there to watch over everything. I may not have your skill level, but I know how to deal with everything I teach,” Augustus said. “Even if we decide to go big.” Yes, everyone had definitely heard that. There’d be gossip about it, for sure, because professors loved to talk; he was sure that people would be saying to watch out for escaped elementals and demons. Everyone would know by noon.
So his trap was laid; people would know that he was definitely at class, and thus if he skipped and stayed in his office, he might see who showed up.
He poured himself coffee and toasted Pérez. “Well, good luck to you with your class, and good luck to me with mine,” he said, heading out and immediately beelining for Fitzfleming’s office.
She was out—she had class this morning, he knew—or at least, her room was dark, so unless he were falling into the same trap as he was about to set, he was good to go. A final burning of his mage eye charm—one that he’d have to restore before he could use it again—indicated only the standard spells against magical intrusion, so he quickly got to work with his tools.
Augustus was in quickly, shutting the door behind him and making sure the curtains were shut before he summoned a small light. She was actually out, and as long as she had no cause to leave class early, he should be able to toss her room fairly thoroughly. Classes were three hours long, after all.
Yet he took a fair amount of that time searching, because he wasn’t finding what he wanted, and kept trying to go deeper. None of the books seemed to be here. Her shelves were messy, and he spent far too long pulling books off and trying to return them to their exact place, but he was sure by the end that she didn’t have any of his missing materials.
This despite the implications she’d been the one stealing them.
His time was running quite short by the time he found the evidence that might explain their absence: a note, carefully placed at the very bottom of a stack of papers that had clearly been early drafts of her recent paper on Eidolic idolatry. He almost missed it, but it was a slightly different color than the rest of them, and had a torn edge.
It read: I have information you don’t want getting out. You’re going to help me, or everyone will know. Come to the woods behind the school this Choresday morning to learn what I need. It was undated and unsigned.
The note could, theoretically, be an unsent message from Fitzfleming herself, but Augustus doubted it. It looked like the sort of thing that someone had received and had simultaneously wanted to hide but keep close to hand. And while the mysterious author hadn’t said what they needed help with, he had most likely been robbed late on Choresday, from what Yujin had said.
Augustus carefully slipped the note back, and, after looking around to confirm that he’d put things back as similarly to how Fitzfleming had kept them, slipped out of her office with equal care, immediately beginning to move again once he’d got the door closed, using the inside lock again to lock it easily behind himself.
He barely had time to buy himself a sandwich before he needed to get back to his office, and he spent most of that time thinking as he walked. So. Someone was blackmailing Fitzfleming (or again, she was planning to blackmail someone else this week; unlikely but not impossible). But why would someone want to use her to steal his books instead of doing it themselves? Simply for the plausible deniability that they were not involved?
Augustus finished his sandwich in his office with the door locked and closed, blinds drawn, eating in the dark and hoping no mustard would drip out; he’d hate to confront a potential intruder with mustard on his shirt.
He’d only just finished it when he heard the sound of a key in the lock. He sat up straighter, staring at the door. He was a Conjurer, but he still had a trick or two, and he readied a small paralysis spell from another of his charms, aiming it for the bust next to the door so that a potential reflection ward wouldn’t send the spell right back to him. He held the spell; it’d be good if he didn’t need to use it.
Yujin stepped in, shutting the door behind themself and locking it, and then going for the lights.
“No, leave those off,” Augustus said, watching Yujin visibly startle. Disappointment flooded him. Even though he’d seen the stolen book in their office, he’d only seen the one. He’d hoped it hadn’t been Yujin, especially with all this other information. Hoped it had been a misunderstanding. He contemplated launching the paralysis spell. It’d be easy enough to get Yujin tied up after that and then force information from them …
“Sir?!” Yujin said, startled. There was something wrong with them; their hair was floating around them strangely, drifting up as if gravity had suddenly become a suggestion. Their necktie followed suit, as if in some invisible breeze. “What are you doing sitting here in the dark?”
“Waiting for you, I suppose,” Augustus said. He put as much avuncular disappointment as he could into the words, preparing to launch his spell the moment Yujin moved.
“Never mind. Thank goodness you’re here,” Yujin said. “I need your help. Someone wants to hurt you—I can’t let it happen!”
It could be a trap, luring him to let down his guard. Yet he hesitated.
[What should Augustus do?
Comment with details.]
I got a tattoo today and it’s awesome but my brain is gone! Break day today, so you’ve got another day to think about next steps with this new information — please turn your comments in on Day 22 by October 24, 4:00 pm PST!