“I suppose it would be too much to ask for you to wash up before you invite me in,” Archer said. He looked around the garret, trying to find something to focus on that wasn’t Sabbat’s face – or Sabbat’s shirt, or Sabbat’s hands, or, in fact, literally any part of Sabbat whatsoever. “And, while I’m on the topic, I distinctly remember the phrase ‘quietly and subtly’ being mentioned at several points in proceedings.”
The assassin grinned, the lopsided expression rendered utterly ghoulish by the mask of gore. “An’ who’s sayin’ it wasn’t quiet? Or subtle, fer that matter?”
“The amount of Caine’s blood you appear to be wearing, for a start.”
“I slit his fuckin’ throat, Archer. That ain’t exactly the kind of thing that y’do without gettin’ your hands dirty.”
Archer closed his eye, fighting back the sudden and unhelpful urge to bang his head against the nearest wall. “I’m aware of exactly how much gore a severed artery tends to produce, yes. Which is why I was assuming you’d use a method which didn’t involve you traipsing back across half the city looking as though you’d just butchered a sacrificial ox.”
“Din’t ‘traipse’ anywhere,” Sabbat retorted, sounding somewhat offended. “Used the thieves’ roads.” The floorboards creaked, and there was the sound of cracking ice, followed by a splash and a hiss of indrawn breath. “Besides,” he added, after a minute, “ain’t as though anyone in Steepside gives a shit.”
Which, Archer had to admit, was true. It also wasn’t what was worrying him. “That’s not the point and you know it. You’re getting careless.”
“-th’fuck’s that supposed t’mean?”
You know full well what it’s supposed to mean, Archer thought, irritably. Out loud, he said “Precisely what it sounded like. That was sloppy work.”
Sabbat laughed, though there was an edge to it that suggested he wasn’t exactly pleased with the comment. “You givin’ me critique, Archer?”
“If that’s what you want to call it, then yes. I suppose I am.” He drew in a breath, squared his shoulders, and looked the younger man dead in the face. “You were using Smoke before you went out on the job, weren’t you?”
The assassin shrugged, evenly meeting Archer’s gaze. “It any of your business if I was?”
“As your employer-” Archer began, and then winced as he realised exactly what he’d just said. “Oh Six dammit, that’s not what I meant. I-”
Sabbat stared at him, blinked, and then burst out laughing.
Well, I suppose I deserved that. He folded his arms, waited until the assassin had regained some semblance of composure, and then said, very quietly “As your friend, then.”
“Still ain’t any of your business what I’m smokin’, cigarettes or otherwise.”
“It is when it interferes with the Order’s plans.”
“An’ who says it’s interferin’?” Sabbat shot back, peeling his blood-stiff shirt away from his torso with a quiet growl of discomfort. “Job’s done. Ain’t the Order’s business how.”
Even when the ‘how’ involves you drugging yourself to the point you’re in danger of becoming a liability? But he needed Sabbat onside tonight, and insulting the assassin’s skills any more than he already had was hardly likely to make that happen. Arguably, starting this entire conversation was a mistake. I should have just let it go. Like I did the first time.
And the second. And the third. And… far too many times, because he’d decided that it wasn’t his business what the younger man got up to. Maybe if I’d said something sooner, we wouldn’t be in this predicament.
And maybe seals will grow wings and fly.
“Fine, then. Let’s say it’s not the Order’s business. It’s still mine.”
“No,” Sabbat said, eyes flat. “It ain’t.” He folded his arms across his bare chest, muscles taut under scarred skin. “You’re my friend, Will, an’ that buys you a lot. But it ain’t buyin’ you the right t’start pokin’ your nose where it doesn’t belong, ‘less you want me t’cut it off.”
“You’re going to kill yourself,” Archer said, keeping his voice very deliberately calm. “Or get yourself killed. And, difficult as it may be to believe, I would rather like you to keep living. Which makes this very much my business.”
That got him a snort of derision, and a glare which told him he was getting dangerously close to truly setting off the assassin’s temper. “You ain’t nearly as fuckin’ smart as you think you are, mate. An’ I don’t need you fixin’ my fuckin’ life fer me.”
“Sabbat…” He closed his eye briefly, pinching the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger as he tried to push down his frustration. They didn’t have time for this – though when did they ever, and that was half the damn problem – and the last thing the Order needed right now was the two of them distracted over bickering with one another when they’d more important things to be doing. Time to let it lie, then. At least, for now. “Look, I…”
“Look. I’m not interested in arguing with you about this.”
The eyeroll Sabbat favoured him with was almost audible. “Oh aye? ‘Cause y’seem t’be doin’ a fuckin’ good job of it, fer all that.” He straightened up, scraping damp hair back off his forehead, and stalked across the room to the battered sea-chest at the foot of the bed, kicking it open with one bare brown foot. “You ever get tired of listenin’ t’yourself preachin’, mate?”
For crying out loud! “If you hadn’t noticed, I was trying to change the subject.”
“You were tryin’ t’come off all high an’ mighty by pretendin’ you ain’t fussin’ over me like some sort of fuckin’… whatever-it-is. Bird. Woman. Woman bird.”
“Mother hen,” Archer said, despite himself.
“I’m not fussing.”
“Course you ain’t,” Sabbat said, in a tone that implied precisely the opposite.He reached down into the chest, rummaging around for a few seconds before pulling out a set of folded clothes which looked a damn sight closer to Archer’s current get-up than his usual faded blacks. “Assumin’ you’re wantin’ me t’play at bein’ a toff tonight?”
“Ideally, yes.” Then, as the assassin extricated an embroidered shirt from the pile and began pulling it on, “Wait. Is that the outfit I acquired for you when you had that first high society contract?”
“That was eight years ago. I’m surprised it’s still in one piece.”
“Knew it’d come in useful some day,” Sabbat replied, voice somewhat muffled by the layers of linen. He finished pulling the shirt on over his head and grinned lopsidedly. “Ain’t a complete fuckin’ idiot, mate.”
“I know that. Admittedly, you do a good job of hiding it sometimes, but… ” He tailed off, a smile of his own tugging at the corners of his mouth as he noticed something his compatriot appeared to have missed. “That being said, you have just managed to put your left boot on your right foot. Somehow.”
“…Fuck you, Archer.”
Archer laughed, ducking just in time as the offending article of footwear sailed across the room and hit the wall behind him with a subdued clatter of metal-on-metal (which would have been unexpected if the boot in question had not been Sabbat’s, and thus presumably filled with enough knives, shivs and othersuch sharp and pointed objects to equip a reasonably sized mob). “You realise you’re almost certainly not going to need the entire armoury, don’t you? This is supposed to be a social visit.”
“An’ the Sinnlenst’ll respect that, will they?”
“Fair point. Though there is such a thing as over-preparation.”
“You tellin’ me how t’do my job now?” Sabbat griped, though without much heat. He crossed the room, scooped up the errant boot, and pulled it onto the correct foot with a grunt of effort. “I ain’t takin’ everythin’, anyhow.”
“Good. I somehow feel a noble in possession of a complete set of lockpicks, a burglar’s kit, a dozen throwing knives, and a garotte might be a little difficult to explain.”
“…Y’think that’s the full set?” Sabbat asked, somewhat incredulously. “How long’ve y’known me fer, mate?”
Archer once again heroically resisted the urge to bang his head against the wall (not least because, given the state of said wall, his skull might actually go through it). “I was joking, Sabbat. And, because I know you’re about to, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t take that as a challenge.”
“Think of it as a chance to show what you can do with the basics.”
That got him another almost audible eyeroll, though coupled with a grin which was a good deal more friendly than half of Sabbat’s expressions had been so far that evening. “Why? Y’need a reminder or somethin’?”
“What I need is for you to make it through the doors of the townhouse without being immediately spotted as an obvious criminal element. For all a fair number of the Luciels’ people are Order, there’s only so much they can do to cover for us when it comes to one of the biggest social events of the season, and, more than likely, they’re already going to have their hands full trying to keep the peace and stop the guests stealing the silverware.”
Sabbat, who was currently engaged in seeing exactly how many knives he could hide in various places in this particular outfit – and, from the amount of swearing, coming up decidedly short – apparently didn’t deign to reply to that particular comment.
Given he seemed likely to be distracted for the foreseeable future, Archer took the time to check his pocketwatch, indulge in a little swearing of his own, and then, on the basis of speeding both their exits from the room, snag the basin of bloody water from its perch atop the upturned crate which did duty as Sabbat’s wash-stand.
The Crossed Daggers Inn wasn’t fitted with drainage pipes for anything other than the kitchens and the ground floor, which meant any and all leavings from the upper stories were dealt with in the time-honoured tradition – namely, tipped out of an open window into the street (and onto any unfortunate passer-by who didn’t duck out of the way in time). In any any other neighbourhood of the city, this would have been a distinctly ill-advised way to dispose of a basin full of suspiciously red water, but the Daggers was right in the middle of Old Town, and stains of that nature were so common as to be almost unremarkable – not least because people knew what happened to those unfortunates who made the mistake of remarking on them.
Which is another point in favour of his living here, I suppose. Although my rooms do have the advantage of actually containing a bathroom. And, he added, taking a breath of fresh air as he pulled the window to again, a bath.
It wasn’t that the room smelt… bad, exactly – cigarette-smoke, sweat and leather certainly weren’t the worst scents Archer had ever encountered, and the cracks in the window let in enough air that it didn’t feel as close it otherwise might have done. But it said something for the nature of the place that he’d been able to stand to be that close to even halfway-fresh blood for that long without feeling a good deal worse than he currently was, and there was the edge of a sickly-sweet smell underlying everything which, if he’d not known better, he’d have almost taken for rot.
And if it was rot I’d be a damn sight happier. ‘Sweet smoke’ is an oddly benign name for that particular poison.
He ground his teeth, cutting off that particular thought before it had time to take root. I said I wasn’t interested in arguing with him about it. The least I can do is not make myself a liar.
“Right. I look like enough of a fuckin’ toff fer you?”
“Close enough for our purposes.” He had to admit, the assassin cleaned up well. He’d never look properly gentlemanly – even without the scars, his semi-permanent scowl had a good deal too much of the street tough in it – but with his hair tied back and his clothes swapped for more upper-city garb, he’d have surprisingly little trouble fooling the casual observer into believing he was as well-born as any of the lower-ranked nobles likely to be in attendance at the night’s festivities. Provided, of course, that he managed to stop looking quite so much like a cat which’d just been dropped in a bath. “Are you honestly that uncomfortable?”
“The fuck d’you think?” Sabbat retorted, somewhat heatedly. He reached up, yanking his neckcloth into a configuration which vaguely resembled the cravat it was replacing (Archer knew better than to insist on that particular change, however much it spoiled the overall look). “You owe me fer this, Archer.”
“For insisting you actually look the part?”
“Fer insistin’ on me wearin’ this.” He gestured irritably to his current getup. “How’re you expectin’ me t’fight in this shit?”
“I manage it.”
“An’ you’re a fuckin’ vampire, so it doesn’t count.”
“I don’t see how that follows. It’s not as though my species gives me proficiency in fighting in formalwear.”
“Means y’don’t need the edge.”
“You climbed a damn three-storey building in that particular outfit, Sabbat. I’m sure, if it comes to it, you can manage dealing with a couple of Sinnlenst thugs.”
“Oh I can manage just fuckin’ fine,” the assassin shot back, apparently perfectly content with contradicting himself (or, Archer suspected, stung enough by the suggestion that he wouldn’t be able to handle himself to have forgotten his initial gripe). “But y’still owe me.”
“I’ll make it up to you, then – there’s at least one contract the Order’ll likely want you on once we’ve discussed it in council. And I suspect two or three more, once we’ve put them to vote.”
“Thank the gods fer that.” Then, over his shoulder as he turned and headed for the door, “Might’ve been in danger of gettin’ bored.”
Coincidentally, though there were many words which could be used to describe Jonathan Fest’s feelings about his present predicament, ‘bored’ was certainly not one of them.
So far over the course of the evening, he’d managed to cycle through ‘confused’, ‘sceptical’, ‘anxious’, ‘nervous’, ‘terrified’, and something which was probably ‘hungry’ but might well have been ‘anxious’ again, before landing once again quite firmly (and, he felt, understandably) on ‘confused’.
He smoothed back his hair, fussed with the slightly-too-tight cuffs of his slightly-too-small-shirt (his mother had assured him he’d grow into everything she’d sent him off to university with. She’d neglected to mention the possibility he might grow out of it again), and took another long look at the invitation he was holding, hoping against hope that this time it might somehow transmute into something that made even the tiniest bit more sense.
The invitation, unfortunately for him, did not. It stayed resolutely inert – a gilt-edged piece of thick white card which proclaimed in bold black copperplate, as it had done since it’d arrived in his pigeonhole in university halls a week ago, that the Luciel family were pleased to request the presence of a certain Mr Jonathan Amaranth Fest at the Midwinter Ball and Reception, RSVP, no swords allowed beyond the entrance hall without express permission of the family. And, as it had done since a week ago, it continued to make absolutely no sense whatsoever.
It was genuine, he knew that much. Gods, the butler at the door (a tall blond werewolf who looked as though he’d be able to break any unwanted guests in half without raising a sweat) had even welcomed him by name – as far as Fest could tell, without checking a guest list – before he’d handed it over, and he was fairly bloody certain no-one would’ve gone to that much effort for some sort of prank or setup.
The Luciels are pretty much the most important and influential family in Sacaan outside of the royal house. My family, on the other hand, have spent so long in the backwoods that when I applied for the university the applications committee had to dig through three generations of records in the city archives to find out who on earth I actually was. There is absolutely no reason Lady Luciel – or any of her family, for that matter – should even know I exist.
And yet, here he was, standing just inside the entrance of the grandest townhouse he’d ever been in in his entire life, and wondering what in the world or out of it he was supposed to do with himself now.
A good guest finds their host and introduces themselves properly. His mother had drilled that much into him, even if she’d not managed to make most of the rest of the etiquette lessons stick. One slight problem with that, though – I have no idea where my host actually is.
The interior of the house seemed, to his dark-accustomed eyes at least, to go on forever: a riot of colour and sound spilling out into the main hall from various brightly-lit rooms filled with dancing, chattering, laughing people of every conceivable species and skin-colour. Though the majority of the guests seemed to be gathered in the ballroom or around its open double doors, the party had escaped the confines of one meagre location and seemed to have colonised the entire downstairs area, with a few guests even standing talking on the long sweeping staircase leading to the second and third stories.
The ballroom would be the place to start, I suppose. Though if her ladyship’s more inclined to talking than dancing… He was overthinking it, and he knew as much, but given he was also staring down the prospect of walking into a very large room filled to overflowing with some of the most important people in the city, a little overthinking was hardly something anyone could fault him for. Even if it was mostly an excuse not to have to start moving any time soon.
I wonder if- he began, and then lost his train of thought completely as something – or rather, someone – shoved him hard in the small of the back, sending him stumbling over the threshold and into the buzzing, whirling mass of a high society midwinter party in full swing.
So much for talking it slowly!
He turned, trying to catch a glimpse of the person who’d pushed him, but found himself pulled further into the crowd before he caught sight of more than a flicker of blond hair over the heads of the other guests.
The butler? But I don’t- no, that can’t be right. I’d-
Someone pushed a glass into his hand – he drank the contents down, almost on reflex, and then nearly coughed them straight back up as the burn of strong unfamiliar liquor hit the back of his throat. “Glgk!”
“First time here?” asked someone else, sounding at least somewhat sympathetic – he opened his mouth to answer, but stopped short, his attention suddenly distracted by a dark figure darting out of the doorway of one of the side rooms.
For a brief moment he thought something terrible had happened – why else would someone be running at a party? – but the girl who’d come tearing out of the room was laughing as she ran, her shimmering skirts hitched up around her knees and a tail of bright ribbons streaming out behind the black cloud of her hair.
Behind her came a tall muscular blonde girl wearing, to Fest’s surprise, a pair of smart cavalry-styled trousers and soft dancing boots, and behind her a whole rush of people, all seeming to be around Fest’s age or a little older, and all engaged in what looked like nothing so much as a very energetic game of tag, or possibly some kind of foot race.
I’d heard that parties in the city were different, but…
The girl with the ribbons (who looked oddly familiar, now he came to think of it, though he couldn’t for the life of him think who she might be) made it to the centre of the hallway and stopped for a brief second, looking around as though hunting for something. Her eyes met his and she grinned widely, changing course and heading straight for him with a disconcertingly purposeful air.
“Hello! You’re Jonathan, aren’t you? Jonathan Fest?”
“Er. Um. Yes.”
“Wonderful!” She reached out, grabbed hold of his hand and, before he could do much more than blink at her in stunned surprise, dragged him bodily towards the foot of the main staircase and into the fray. “Come on!”
“I don’t-” he began, but the girl had pulled him right into the head of the pack, and the press of excited (and distinctly non-sober) people behind him meant that there was very little he could do other than follow her lead. “I’m not- I haven’t introduced myself properly yet!”
The girl laughed. “You don’t need to! I already know who you are, after all.”
“That’s not what I-” And then, as they reached the first landing and set off helter-skelter towards the second flight of stairs, his brain caught up to his ears and he suddenly realised where he’d seen his interlocuter before. “Oh hellfire. You’re Lady Amelia!”
At first he thought she hadn’t heard – certainly she didn’t seem to react – but as the mob rounded the corner and piled into what was almost certainly in the usual course of things the family’s breakfast room, she pulled him aside, still grinning and flushed with exertion from the chase.
“Well done! Though I’d honestly prefer just plain Amelia, unless you really want me to start going round using everyone’s titles.”
That was pushing it a little, as far as Fest was concerned. Especially considering the fact that ‘just plain Amelia’ was otherwise known as Lady Amelia Luciel, student magician, only daughter of the most powerful non-royal family in the city and, if you cared about such things, just about the most eligible young woman in the whole of Sacaan.
But the lady’s expressed a preference, and I’ve already managed to swear in front of her. The least I can do is respect her wishes in how she wants to be addressed.
“Amelia, then. It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.” He bowed over her hand, touching his lips to the back of it as tradition dictated, and tried to pretend he hadn’t heard at least one stifled giggle from behind him. I know my manners aren’t entirely up to date, but it’s not as though there’s anything wrong with being respectful.
“Likewise,” Amelia said, and sounded like she meant it. “I’m sorry for dragging you into the middle of everything like that, but I thought it might help break the ice a little. And, after all, it is partially my fault you’re here, so I feel I ought to take some responsibility for ensuring you actually enjoy yourself.”
“Did you- I mean, was it-” oh just bloody spit it out and have done with it, will you? “Forgive my rudeness, but… were you the one who invited me?”
“I was.” She lowered her voice a little, though it was hardly necessary given the volume of noise generated by a couple of dozen happy, laughing people in various stages of inebriation. “Though I’ll admit that Mama was the one who had the idea in the first place, once I’d told her what you did in the observatory. She wants to meet you for herself, and I thought you’d be a little less anxious about the whole thing if I was the one who did the introducing.”
And suddenly everything started to make a horrible amount of sense.
“I… I didn’t mean to do it, you know. And I certainly don’t think I could replicate it, even if I tried.” Which I don’t intend to. Somehow shattering every window in a room by accident because someone threw a pen at your head isn’t normal, even for a student magician. And I’ve no desire to give any more ammunition to whoever it is who’s been graffitiing my papers, even if calling someone a witch isn’t much more than a schoolyard taunt nowadays.
“I know,” Amelia said. “And so does she. But talents like yours come along rarely enough that she wants to have a look at you even so.” She smiled, squeezing his hand briefly before she let go. “Honestly, she’s not as terrifying as all that. You’ll be fine.”
“I-” -am possibly going to throw up from nerves. This is fine. Everything is fine.
“You’ll be fine,” Amelia repeated, almost as though she was trying to convince the both of them. “Would a glass of water help? I can ask Viola to go get one for you, if you’d like.”
The tall blonde girl in the trousers turned away from the conversation she’d been in the middle of and bowed in Amelia’s direction, flashing a sharp-toothed grin as she did so. “As my lady commands.”
“And you can stop that, for a start. You know how much I hate it when you call me that.”
“My apologies,” the werewolf said, unapologetically. She straightened up, flicked her braid back over her shoulder, and turned to Fest, suddenly the picture of professionalism. “Shall I fetch you a glass of water, sir?”
“No, thank you, I’m quite- I- I think I just need to sit down for a moment. Thank you.” Is she a servant, then? She doesn’t act like one – though, come to think of it, I’m not entirely sure I know what servants in the city are supposed to act like. Maybe it’s different here.
“As you wish,” the girl – Viola – said. She turned back to Amelia. “Do you want me to tell your mother where you are, my lady?”
“Call me that again, Vi, and I’ll- I’ll- I’ll do something you’ll regret, I swear. And no, I’ll go and find her myself. You’ve got people to talk to, and I need to go and change into a pair of slippers which aren’t dropping beads every ten paces or so.” She smiled apologetically at Fest. “There’s a room across the hall which should be quieter, if you want somewhere to cool off for a while – would you like me to show you? It’s on my way, so it’s no imposition.”
“That would be wonderful,” Fest said, in somewhat more heartfelt tones than he intended. “Thank you.”
“You’re very welcome.”
The other room was quieter – not entirely empty, but the few people already there seemed to be content to either talk quietly together or sit in silence with their drinks – and, once Amelia had left, Fest settled into the corner of one of the window seats with a sigh of relief that he almost entirely failed to hide.
He had no idea how long his reprieve from social torment was going to last, but even a few minutes to catch his breath and put his thoughts in order would be something.
And, at the very least, it’ll give me the time to work out what on earth I’m supposed to say to one of the foremost research magicians in the whole northern half of the continent. Especially when what she’s apparently very interested in quizzing me about is something I honestly have no idea how I did.
He’d been angry, he remembered that much. Angry, and embarrassed, and desperately wanting everything and everyone to just leave him alone, and there’d been a red mist in front of his eyes, and a kind of pressure in his head, building and building, and he’d opened his mouth to just scream at them all to shut up and then…
And then every single pane of glass in every single one of the windows in the room shattered into a million pieces at exactly the same time. Which was either divine intervention, or…
Or something that he probably needed to talk to a very knowledgeable and experienced magician about, and preferably as soon as possible.
This is fine. Everything is fine. Everything is-
“Excuse me, is this seat taken?”
“Gah!” He jumped, very nearly falling off the seat in the process, and looked up into a pair of slit-pupilled scarlet eyes almost the mirror of his own. “I- I’m so sorry – I’m afraid I was miles away.”
“That much was obvious,” the owner of the eyes commented, with a smile that took any sting out of the comment. “Lucy Foreval. I don’t believe we’ve met?”
“Not to my knowledge,” Fest replied, scrambling to his feet and attempting to look a little less like someone who’d been in the middle of having a very small nervous breakdown. Unlike with humans, he was fairly certain he’d have remembered if they had encountered each other before – red-eyed vampires weren’t unheard of in the city, but they were a good deal less numerous than their yellow-eyed cousins, and he’d at least noted in passing pretty much every other scarlet at the university and environs. “Jonathan Fest. It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
“Likewise,” Miss Foreval said. She proffered her hand, and stifled a laugh that sounded almost delighted as he bent to kiss the back of it. “How charmingly old-fashioned of you! It’s a wonderful surprise to find a gentleman who understands how to properly greet a lady.”
Well, it was certainly a better reaction than the giggles from Amelia’s friends. “Where I’m from, no gentleman would dream of doing anything less.”
“Of course!” And this time the smile she favoured him with seemed as radiant as a moonrise. “Your people are from the Tivana foothills, aren’t they? My family’s from the same area, though they moved to the city before I was born – I’ve never had the chance to return there, but from everything I hear it’s utterly beautiful.”
“It is,” Fest agreed, a small pang of homesickness twisting in his gut. “Especially in the spring. I was hoping to go back this year for Wintersend, but with the timing of the apprenticeships…” He gestured helplessly, unable to finish the sentence.
The girl nodded sympathetically, gathering her skirts and perching herself demurely on the corner of the window seat. “I know how it is. Especially when what’s stopping you going back is nothing you can control.” She sighed, looking off into the distance for a moment, and then brought herself back to the present with an obvious effort of will. “But that’s as may be, and, alas, there’s nothing either of us can do about it. So, Mr Fest- Jonathan- I may call you Jonathan, mayn’t I?”
“Thank you. I know it’s rude of me, but it always feels far too formal to use titles at times like these. Especially with someone from the Tivana – why, if my people had stayed where they were, we might have grown up together!”
“I’d have liked that,” Fest said, almost without thinking, and then winced. Stupid! Just because she’s pretty, and friendly, and the closest thing to someone from home you’ve met in the last three months, that doesn’t give you the license to assume… well, anything. For the sake of all the gods, man, you’ve only just met her!
If she was insulted by the comment, though, she wasn’t showing it. In fact, she seemed entirely charmed by it – the corners of her eyes crinkled in genuine pleasure, and she patted the seat beside her companionably, tucking her legs to one side to make space for him to sit. “I’d have liked it as well. I had very few friends when I was growing up – you’ve seen how few of us there are in the city – and I’m sure I would have loved a companion as charming and attentive as you.”
Which was… about the nicest thing anyone had ever said to him, and certainly the nicest compliment he’d ever been paid by an exceptionally pretty girl in an exceptionally flattering dress.
“So, Jonathan,” she went on, after a brief moment of silence, “what brings you to this particular gathering? I’ve not seen you at any of the Luciels’ parties before.”
He told her. He left out the bit about the observatory, of course – admitting to a girl who seemed to be very well-disposed towards him that he couldn’t control his magic seemed like a very very poor idea – but he gave her as many of the other details as he could, especially when she began asking about his progress at the university and his opinions on several of the more interesting conundrums facing modern magicians in the current era.
He got the impression that she was a student herself – almost certainly from the university, given how well-versed she seemed to be in most of the current scholarship in the field – and he found himself wondering how on earth he’d managed to miss seeing her around the place, in the library if not in any of his classes. Certainly she wouldn’t have been hard to miss, given how gorgeous she was, and if he’d heard her talk at any point, he was sure he would have focused in on that voice of hers – gods, it sounded like nothing so much as honey and hot wine and that beautiful blissful warmth of a hearthfire after a long walk in the snow…
“I have something I need to tell you, Jonathan.”
He blinked, coming back to the present to find that, while he’d been talking, she’d moved close enough to rest a hand gently on his knee (which, if he was honest, he had less than no problems with at the current time). “I- Of course. What is it?”
“Not here.” She looked around, lowering her voice and leaning in close to whisper in his ear. “Too many people. It’s… a delicate matter. Something I could only trust to a fellow scarlet.”
“Of course.” And, because it seemed like the right thing to say, “Would you like to go somewhere private to discuss it?”
The smile she gave him could have melted an iceberg. “Thank you, Jonathan. You truly are a most obliging friend.”
“So remind me again what the fuck we’re supposed t’be doin’ when we get there?” Sabbat growled, tugging irritably at his neckcloth in an attempt to stop the bastarding thing strangling him. He’d acquiesced to Archer’s pleas enough to make a token effort at looking as though he belonged at the damn party (which had got the vampire off his back for approximately five seconds before he found something else to complain about), but that didn’t mean he had to be happy about being trussed up like some sort of fancy tailors’ dummy in a suit of clothes that was obviously meant for someone who didn’t fucking care if they felt like they were being throttled half the time.
If this was ‘noble fashion’, the toffs were bloody welcome to it.
“We’re supposed to be blending in,” Archer said, making a very good go at implying that, in his estimation, they were currently doing a piss-poor job of it. “We’re also supposed to be on the lookout for Sinnlenst spies – both the ones we’re expecting and, more to the point, the ones we’re not.”
Spending an evening babysitting a pack of bastards we’re not even allowed to kill. And here I was thinking you’d promised me bloodshed. Last time I trust you to provide an evening’s entertainment, that’s for damn sure. “I’m assumin’ we ain’t allowed t’go huntin’ that last lot.”
“Correct, much as it pains me to admit it. Luciel would rather we kept our hands clean, especially considering the amount of information-gathering she and her people are planning on attempting this evening. Apparently violent death has a tendency to put people off sharing their most intimate secrets, for some reason.” He’d obviously caught sight of the look on Sabbat’s face, because he rolled his eye and said, “Look, you can stop sulking.There’s at least one contract in the offing for you, almost certainly more, and there’s no prohibition on your hunting Sinnlenst spies once the party’s over. For the moment, keep your head down, keep your eyes open, and at least try to act like a gentleman.”
It shouldn’t’ve stung – fuck, a year or so ago he’d have laughed it off – but for some reason, right now, it did.“An’ what th’fuck’s a gentleman s’posed t’act like? You?”
“I wouldn’t normally dignify that with a response, given I know exactly what you’re getting at, but yes, you could do worse. You’re obviously not a vampire, and you’re obviously not from any of the known houses of Sacaask nobility given your eye-colour and that nose – you could pass for Efirasi at a pinch and in bad light, but your accent’s all wrong and I’ve not enough time to teach you even the basics of the language. The obvious thing to do would be to claim you as one of Talltrees’s entourage, but neither of us know enough about his people and there are enough of them there that they will be able to tell if you’re making it up.” He frowned, obviously considering. “I think you’d better be a half-Efirasi Sacaask-born mercenary – you’ve got the bearing for someone who fights for a living, and the Regent ennobled half her followers the year of the Revolution, so you’re well within the age to have a parent from that particular band.”
“An’ if anyone starts askin’ questions?”
“Tell them it’s none of their business, and let me do the talking. I can probably remember enough names to give you a workable lineage, and the Order’ll do the rest when it comes to papering over the cracks afterwards.”
Had to hand it to him, the vampire was good with this kind of work. Didn’t stop him being irritatingly smug about it sometimes, though. “Can work wi’ that. Assumin’ I need t’speak ‘proper’, aye?”
“Yes, if at all possible.”
From his tone of voice, Archer seemed to think the odds of him managing it were staggeringly low. Hah. Showed what he knew.
Pinch your nostrils in, stick your jaw out, and try to talk like you’ve got a pebble in your mouth. Easy-fucking-does-it. “How about this, then?”
Archer blinked, turned to look at him, and nearly walked into a wall. “…One of these days, I’m going to stop underestimating you.”
Too fucking right. “You din’t- didn’t think I was managing all of that undercover work with my natural accent, did you? How fucking thick do you think they are?” He grinned. “Or did y’think I was just playin’ the hired help?”
“I’ll admit, that was what I’d been assuming.” The vampire at least had the decency to look embarrassed. “I never really thought to ask, I suppose.”
“Which is why y’ain’t- you haven’t got a leg to stand on going on at me about how I do my fucking job.”
“We are not having this discussion right now, Sabbat.”
And there’s a turn-up for the sodding books. “Why not? You seemed pretty bloody determined to have it earlier.”
“If you recall, I bit my tongue on the issue, as I’m advising you to do right at this moment. We have a job to do, and neither of us need to be distracted by…. that.”
“Or you don’t want to argue ‘cause you’re going to lose and you sodding know it.”
“That’s not true, and also not the point.”
“It is, an’- and it is. You’re going to lose and you can’t stand the thought of me getting one over on you. ‘s easy.”
That touched a nerve, apparently. Archer stopped dead, turning around with a look of complete and utter exasperation. “Will you stop being so bloody childish, Sabbat!”
Got you. “Depends. You going to keep your nose out of my fucking business?”
“Fine!” The vampire threw up his hands. “Fine! I’ll let you poison yourself to death, and I won’t say a damn word about it. Happy?”
He wasn’t, exactly, but it’d do for now. Though he couldn’t resist getting one last dig in, now he had the other man on the back foot. “Ain’t poisoning yourself t’death a bit of a tautology, mate?”
“Oh for crying out loud!” Archer exclaimed, looking very much for a moment like he wanted to backhand him into the nearest wall. “Could you please, just for this evening-”
And then he stopped.
So, once he’d worked out what the vampire was looking at, did Sabbat. After all, it wasn’t every day you saw a pair of obvious bully-boys dragging someone down a side-street in this neck of the woods.
Whoever the someone was, he looked rich – not pockets-dragging-on-the-ground silver-spoon-up-the-arse rich, but the kind with enough money for clothes that fit, and enough clout to not care if they weren’t exactly the latest fashion (not that Sabbat would’ve known what the latest fashion was if it jumped up and bit him, but the stranger’s clothes looked a damn sight more like Archer’s than they did any of the more modern gentlemen in the Order). Which probably meant this was a mugging, which in turn meant that it was pretty much entirely none of their business. If rich idiots wanted to walk around without bodyguards, they could deal with the sodding consequences. No skin off his nose.
But there was something odd about the whole situation. The bully-boys looked too well-dressed to be your average knock-’em-and-run types, even if they were in a high-class neighbourhood, and Sabbat was pretty damn sure he recognised at least one of them from somewhere, which wasn’t exactly a good sign. And their victim, whoever he was, looked more like one of the students from the University than someone who’d normally be walking the streets of this quarter at dark-o-clock, even if it was Midwinter.
From the look on Archer’s face, he’d come to the same conclusions – though he might also have just decided that he was going to be a hero, which also wouldn’t be surprising (for a man who’d been a pirate for a solid decade, he was an irritatingly moral bastard on occasion). Though, Sabbat supposed, at least he’d had the good sense to wait before he charged off to play rescuer.
“Right or left?”
He didn’t clarify, but then again, he didn’t need to. They hadn’t fought together for this long without picking up a shorthand or two along the way.
“Left,” Sabbat said, picking the thug he thought he recognised. Easier to get a look at someone’s face when you had them on the ground with your boot on their throat, after all. “Lethal?”
“Not unless we have to. Too hard to hide a body.”
Shows how much you know, Sabbat thought. But he wasn’t about to get into an argument right now, not with the promise of a proper scrap on the horizon.
Archer’d already started towards the alley, walking purposefully but without the sort of hurriedness that caught people’s attention. Sabbat followed suit, eyeing up their targets and trying to work out what sort of hardware the two of them were likely to be carrying.
No swords – no surprise there, swords’re a stupid fucking idea in an alley-fight. No pistols either, worse luck for them. Definitely knives, possibly blackjacks, probably a couple of goodnight-sticks and a pair of brass knuckles between them.
Nothing they couldn’t handle, then, unless something’d gone horribly amiss. And neither of the bastards seemed to be aware they were being followed, which was going to make things a damn sight easier.
Now, if only he could remember where he’d seen that one on the left before…
The first thing Fest became aware of, when he finally regained consciousness, was the fact that he was very, very cold. Which was surprising, because the last thing he remembered had definitely involved warmth. Warmth, and comfort, and someone’s arm around his neck – well, the last was still true, although the arm he remembered had been a lot more… feminine, and a lot less feeling like it was trying to strangle him.
His eyelids felt as though someone had sewn lead weights into them while he was asleep, which would have been significantly less worrying if all his limbs hadn’t also decided that they didn’t want to work any more. As it was, between that, the fact that someone or several someones had hold of him by the throat and upper arms and were dragging him backwards to parts unknown, and the fact that the front of his clothes were soaking wet, he was starting to get the distinct impression that, even by his standards, his life had taken a more than usual turn for the worse.
On the other hand, he thought, trying very hard to be as obviously unconscious as possible, this is pretty much as close to a real-life penny-dreadful plotline as you can get.
The nefarious person or persons who had hold of him were obviously planning on keeping him alive, or they would have killed him while he was unconscious (and how that had happened, he still had less than no idea). That meant he had an advantage. Now all he needed to do was continue to pretend to be knocked out, wait for them to lower their guard and-
Well, he was sure he’d think of something when it came down to it. After all, that was how the whole hero-ing thing worked, right? You just… sort of made it up as you went along, and it all worked out alright in the end.
Gods, he needed to come up with a better plan than that.
Think, think, come on! There must be something I can use.
He had his belt-knife, of course, but that wasn’t exactly much use as a weapon unless your enemy happened to be a particularly vicious wheel of cheese, or a loaf which’d been baked entirely too long. And, he supposed, he had his fangs. But that was… there were times when you used those, and he wasn’t entirely sure that, legally, this counted as one of them. He’d do it if it came down to it, of course. That wasn’t in doubt. But-
And all of a sudden the ground jumped up and hit him in the back of the head.
For a brief, horrible moment he thought he was going to pass out again. Coloured flashes blinked in the edges of the blackness behind his eyes, and the whole world seemed to lurch sideways for a second before resettling itself at an odd angle which somewhat definitively precluded any attempts at getting in any way vertical in the near future.
Then, slowly, everything started to fade back into something resembling normality, and he became suddenly very aware first of the fact that there were a whole lot more people in his immediate vicinity than he’d expected and second that, judging by the noises, they seemed to be having some sort of disagreement. Possibly involving knives.
I think I’ll just lie here until they’ve finished, he thought, muzzily, and let the world fade out again for a while.
[Author’s Note: Not the final cover, but a mockup for the #LGBTWIP challenge on Twitter. The thread for this particular story can be found here, though ‘ware spoilers]
Copyright © 2018 by Finn McLellan. All rights reserved.
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