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Qasim preferred any annoying version of Aristea over this version of Renatus, and would happily do a trade.

Unfortunately, they had what they had – half of their council locked inside Renatus’s family fortress, ironically trapped by the same border spells that kept them safe and the one gate guarded by Renatus’s supposedly dead sister. Sixteen of the fortyish students who’d turned up in March to be instructed in high level magic by the White Elm remained, most by choice, not that they had much of one at this point. Most were Healers or Seers, the two most common classes of sorcerer, with a handful of Crafters, two Telepaths and one Displacer. They had nine of Morrissey House’s usual staff of fifteen, several of them having been out on the day of the blockade. Qasim felt ashamed for never having paid them much mind before, and was disappointed to find, upon conducting a mental inventory of the resources at their disposal, that no one in Renatus’s employ had much by way of magical power. Skill, thankfully, yes; they’d all been raised very aware of magic, and knew markedly more than most of the powerhouse students, they just couldn’t do much more with it than little tricks that helped with domestic duties. At dinner the night before, Qasim had asked one young lady, who’d called herself Ulicia – how he had he been visiting here for months and not known the name of the person serving his meals? – how she was handling the lockdown, and she’d chirpily replied that she preferred to be locked in rather than out.

‘I feel like a real witch here,’ she’d admitted. ‘Out there, without all the Morrissey magic tied into the place, I’m just one of them normals. I can’t do so much magic,’ she’d clarified when he must have looked surprised or confused. ‘It all comes like natural here.’

The councillors on the outside were cut off only in physicality. The minds of Teresa, Oneida, Susannah, Jadon and the council’s high priestess, Lady Miranda, were as connected to their counterparts as ever, and Qasim heard from and communed with them frequently throughout each day, just as much as or more than anyone he came into contact with inside the house.

Be ready, Lady Miranda warned from far away, addressing Elijah, with whom most of the council’s attention was as he spoke reassuringly with the postman. They’ve had four days to prepare for us to open that gate.

I do not feel they are ready to attack today, Tian, a Seer within the house with them, commented warily. Even so, they will be watching for any sign of weakness, anything they might exploit later.

Qasim said nothing and watched as well while Elijah called out to Nastassja, forthrightly asking what her intentions were. She gestured for him to go ahead, and Elijah glanced back at the house, awaiting instructions.

It would be handy to have Aristea around for this, he admitted to the group, accent and nervousness ringing clear in Qasim’s mind. Aristea’s ability to determine feelings and motives had never been more useful than right now, when they didn’t have her, and an embargo of anarchists were camped outside their walls.

Lord Gawain, who usually made the final decisions despite a shared leadership, said something noncommittal and distracted, so after an awkward pause, Lady Miranda spoke up.

Go ahead, Elijah, she said, British accent sharp even in the metaphysical plane. Be on your guard. Everyone else, be prepared to back him up.

‘When has getting the post ever been such high stakes?’ Qasim muttered, feeling for the Fabric in case he needed to jump to the Displacer’s defence. He couldn’t Skip from the office itself, the space spelled too tightly, but from the hall he could teleport to the bottom floor of the house, and once he’d stepped out the front door, he’d be able to do the second leap to the gate. The house’s complex magic structures made more direct paths between spaces unsafe for non-Displacers, doubly so with these magic-suppressing pendants, even with Iseult’s clever alterations.

‘She says to tell Elijah he’s safe,’ Renatus spoke up flatly without breaking his eerie, unblinking eye contact with the wallpaper. Qasim shot him an angry look he probably didn’t catch.

‘Forgive us for not taking your dead sister’s word for it,’ he spat, getting the first flinch out of the younger scrier in days, making him blink. Good, he needed a decent jolt. ‘What are you, their message boy now?’

‘Of course not.’

Outside, Elijah had unlocked the gate. The keen collective eyes of Magnus Moira watched the process. Key, pocket, keyhole, turn… The iron gate opened enough that the post officer could pass the small bundle of envelopes through the gap. The crowd tensed, excited at the opportunity, but none of them overstepped Nastassja’s order to let this exchange go unchallenged. Elijah extended his hand back, away from the warping influence of the fence line, and another bunch of envelopes, tied with string, appeared in his palm, Displaced from somewhere inside the house. He handed this through to the bewildered postman – who doubtless had never understood why he couldn’t simply slip his goods through the generous but warded gaps between the fence’s posts, and was now further thrown by the presence of some oddball hippie encampment – and quickly closed and latched the gate as soon as the other’s arm was clear.

It was like the crowd let out a sigh of disappointment. Several who had stood tall to watch now dropped back down to slump in the grass, interest lost. Simultaneously the White Elm’s intense attention on Elijah dropped away, too, the discharged energy of readiness leaving Qasim feeling tired. And he was tired. Tired of this house, tired of worrying about those people outside, tired of wondering what was going to happen next and nothing ever eventuating.