It really was sodding good coffee, she had to admit.
She still wasn’t sure it made up for the company, however. Archer had gone his own way as soon as he’d got them sat down – the arrival of coffee and pastries a few minutes later suggested he’d ordered them their breakfasts on his way out of the door – which meant that she’d been stuck trying to make small-talk with Fest. Or, to be more honest about the whole situation, trying to interrogate him under the pretext of making small-talk.
That… hadn’t exactly worked out. He’d not been reticent – far from it – but pretty much all the answers she could get out of him ran somewhere along the lines of ‘I don’t know’, ‘I can’t remember’ or, most commonly, ‘I’m really sorry, but I don’t know what you’re talking about’.
By about fifteen minutes in, she was seriously resisting the urge to pick him up and shake him – not so much because he was being irritating (which he was), but in the vague hope that it might jar something loose. She’d pretty much exhausted all other options, after all.
“And you don’t remember anything about it at all?”
“Like I told you before, I really don’t know what happened. I know I must have been outside, but I don’t remember waking up at all. Gods, I don’t even know what I was dreaming about.”
“Argh!” She heroically resisted the urge to bang her head against the table – and, with a mighty effort of will, stopped herself doing the same with his either. It wasn’t Fest’s fault he’d been mind-blasted, after all, and giving the poor sod concussion wasn’t exactly likely to make him any more coherent.
“I’m sorry.” He drained the last of his cup, pouring another from the steaming metal carafe in the centre of the table, and pulled a face. “I really wish I could be more helpful, but if it’s any consolation, I’m probably about as annoyed as you are about the whole thing. More, even, given I’m the one who apparently went for a midnight stroll I can’t remember.”
You have a point. Still doesn’t mean I have to like the fact I’m wasting my half-holiday on this crap. She swirled the last of her own coffee around the bottom of the metal-lined cup, staring into it as though it might provide some sort of answer to the whole mess.
“Excuse me, might I have a word?”
Whoever it was sounded familiar – male, upper-class, Sacaask-accented – but she couldn’t quite place him. Someone she’d met at the university, perhaps? Or, wonder of wonders, another Order member?
She looked up, her blood running cold as she suddenly realised where she’d heard the new arrival’s voice before.
Oh crap. Oh sodding fucking hells. This is Not Good.
The student she’d run into in the hall earlier smiled, sliding into the seat next to Fest’s as though he had every right to be there. “Fancy seeing you here. Miss Cervanso.”
For one wild, brief moment she wondered what he’d do if she told him he’d got the wrong person. Sorry, not known at this address. Please leave any letters to be forwarded at ‘Kindly Go Fuck Yourself’. But that arrogant smile he was giving her suggested that a) it’d never work, and b) she’d almost certainly regret trying anything of the sort.
So instead she nodded politely, tried to force her face into something approximating a friendly expression, and said “Likewise. Though I don’t believe we’ve been introduced.”
The boy’s smile became, if possible, even more smugly superior. “Indeed. I confess, I’m pleased to find you in surroundings rather more becoming to your sex – it’s liable to make the rest of this conversation a good deal less awkward than it would otherwise be. And, of course, I must beg the indulgence of your companion here for having inserted myself into what was obviously a rather intimate moment-” This with a nod to Fest, who seemed to have decided that the best way to deal with the interruption was to freeze up and stay completely silent, presumably in the hope that the interloper might leave him alone. “-though I’m very glad to have caught the two of you together. You see, I was rather hoping to bring a business proposition to you both, and having you in the same place has saved me something of a trip.”
“You what?” blurted Viola, after she’d spent a few moments working out what on earth the boy was on about. Of all the possible reasons he’d have to talk to her that she’d been working through, ‘business’ hadn’t even made the top ten – not to mention the fact that she was a servant, not looking for any other employment at the current time, and certainly not about to hear out a proposition from some half-grown human she’d barely even met. On the other hand, given his apparent tendency for using twenty words where two would do… “Blackmail? That’s not exactly what I’d expect from a gentleman.”
He actually laughed at that, leaning back in his chair with an air that set her hackles up even more than they’d been already. “And what in the world would I be blackmailing you about, Miss Cervanso? From everything I hear, you’re practically the perfect servant. Of course, reputations can be inflated, but I certainly have never encountered anything which would lead me to believe you had anything to hide. Of course, if you know differently…” He let the words trail off, eyes glittering behind his spectacles.
Bastard. She’d walked right into that one, hadn’t she? All those long talks on how saying the first thing which came into your head wasn’t how society worked, and how easy it was for a werewolf to get into trouble that way, and the first time she’d been properly tested, she’d failed. In my defence, he’s irritating and I want to bite him. And besides, it’d be his word against mine, and I’ve got backup.
I only hope he hasn’t.
“Not at all,” she countered, with a game attempt at smoothness. “But you’ve the smell of someone who’d try that if they thought there were any secrets to sniff out. Can’t make a shilling any other way?”
That seemed to hit home – enough to dislodge that sodding smile, at least. He leant forward again, fixing her with a glare which sent a sudden spike of ice down her spine, and lowered his voice. “You might want to keep a curb on your tongue, my lady. I’m prepared to overlook a certain amount of… uncouthness, given your obvious disadvantages, but you must remember our respective stations. After all, I highly doubt your employers would take kindly to a report of your more unusual activities.”
And there really wasn’t anything she could say to that. Maybe if I play along, he’ll slip up, make a mistake. And maybe seals might fly. “What do you want?” she growled, not even bothering to hide her irritation.
The smile returned, as punchable as it had been before. “As I said, a proposition. For both of you, even if Mr Fest is doing his best to ignore my presence.”
“I don’t have anything to say to you, Avebury.” Fest was still looking straight ahead, but he’d unfrozen enough that Viola was pretty sure she could see the edges of a snarl at the corners of his mouth. Interesting. So he’s got previous history with our new recruit? This is either going to be incredibly useful or a serious sodding problem. I only wish I knew which one.
“I’m not asking you to say anything, Fest. All you have to do is listen and agree. Unless, of course, you want it widely known that you and Amelia Luciel’s maid spend last night together, in flagrant violation of both college law and social convention.”
The sheer enormity of the lie practically knocked the wind out of her – she stared at him, open-mouthed, trying to will her brain into suggesting any course of action which wasn’t just leaping the table and ripping his throat out then and there.
Across from her, Fest’s already pale face had gone dead-fish white, his mouth working soundlessly. After a long moment he coughed, ran his hands through his hair, and said, dully, “You don’t have any proof.”
Avebury shook his head, expression shifting to something which might almost have passed for sympathy if he’d managed to hide the look in his eyes. “I’ve enough for my purposes. Unless you’ve an alibi for where you were between midnight and this oh-so-intimate tete-a-tete, Mr Fest? Not to mention an explanation for what Miss Cervanso here was doing in the male halls, in your company no less?” He paused, took a breath, and went on. “Of course, none of this has to come out. All I want from the two of you is a little information.”
That’s it? Hah! Viola almost had to stop herself laughing aloud. Let me guess – you fancy Amelia, and you’re looking for pointers on how to get under her skirts. Not that she’d ever look twice at you, mind, but you’re far too up yourself to realise that. She’d dealt with enough boys who fancied their chances with her mistress to know the signs by now, and while Amelia tended to enjoy taking them down a peg herself, she’d not much of an issue with Viola stepping in to help out every once in a while. So, if all he wanted was that, she’d more than enough tactics to deal with him.
Didn’t explain why he’d pulled Fest into it, though. Unless… Spirits, does he think she’s walking out with him? If he’s that-
“Information?” Fest again, sounding more confused than anything else.
“Information,” Avebury repeated. “Specifically, information regarding the Luciel family.”
Told you so.
“And in particular, any ties they might have to the so-called ‘Order of Gentleman Magicians of the City of Sacaan’
Half a district away, Archer bent double, braced his palms on his knees, and tried to catch his breath. While he’d not set off at a complete sprint once he’d left his two charges at Baskerville’s (along with his sword, his good coat, and most of his money – all stored safely in a back room until his return, of course), it’d been near enough that he’d covered most of the distance to the Daggers in what was possibly a record time. The last few streets, however, were proving something more of a challenge: the district of Old Town in which the Daggers was situated was named Steepside for a reason, after all, and the current foot-deep snowdrifts didn’t exactly make navigating a maze of narrow streets set into what was to all intents and purposes a cliff-face any easier.
He’d still been moving as fast as he could, admittedly, but ‘as fast as he could’ was a damn sight slower than it’d been on the flat, since managing to break his own neck was hardly likely to help the situation.
And, despite the enforced deceleration, he’d still needed to stop. Even vampires ran out of breath eventually, and the world had been going distinctly grey around the edges by the time he’d admitted to himself that he wasn’t going to make the entire journey without taking at least a brief rest.
Which, unfortunately, was meaning he now had time to think.
If he’s dead, I’m going to sodding well kill him.
It wasn’t a rational thought. It didn’t have to be. If Sabbat had managed to get himself killed – and acknowledging that was a hell of an if, given his general… him-ness – then Archer was going to hunt him down in whatever afterlife he’d ended up in, knock him head-over-heels for daring to die on him, and then grab him by the scruff of the neck and drag him all the way back to life again, and damn his feelings on the matter.
He’s not allowed to die. Not when I went to all that trouble to save his sorry hide in the first place.
That argument, he knew, was likely to do exactly nothing to change the situation. Allowed or not allowed, people still went ahead and died. Even people who should, by virtue of everything they’d survived so far, be functionally immortal.
The gods don’t deal in fairness, after all. I should know that more than most.
He’s still not allowed to die.
It was, of course, entirely likely he was worrying over nothing. There were plenty of people who lodged at the Daggers, after all, and there had been nothing in the report other than the deceased being ‘of foreign extraction’ which even hinted that it might be Sabbat.
But then again, how many people who’d leave a female (and gods, if it was Sabbat, that felt wrong to even think) corpse who fit that description were there in Old Town?
More than you think. You’re letting your heart rule your head again.
That, he had to admit, was true. But equally well, the last person who’d been killed in the way the article had described had been an Order operative. And none of the other members of the Order who lived in or were likely to frequent Old Town in any way matched the description.
So it might well be Sabbat. And if it wasn’t, then he’d likely at least seen something of what had happened, which in turn might make him the murderer’s next target.
So if Sabbat was alive, he needed to warn him (or rather, needed to reassure himself that the other man understood the precise nature of the danger he was likely in. Warning was probably unneeded, given the circumstances).
But equally, if Sabbat was dead, he owed him the decency of a proper funeral. And there’d be no-one else who’d connect a dead woman with a missing man, given Archer was fairly certain he was the only person in the city who knew his friend’s secret.
So whether he’s dead or not, I need to get to the Daggers. And I’m hardly going to do that by standing around arguing with myself on the subject.
He’d at least managed to recover some of his breath by this point – his lungs still burned, but given the temperature of the air, that was likely to last until he’d made it into the relative warmth of the tavern – and his legs felt, if not rested, at least less likely to collapse under him in the immediate future.
Now he just had to make it down the rest of the streets to the Daggers without breaking anything too vital and then, for better or worse, he’d have the answer to his problem.
That, or a whole new set of questions.
I’m going to be sick, Fest thought, numbly. I am honest to the gods going to be sick on this table, and it’s really not going to help anything.
He couldn’t feel his ears. He wasn’t entirely certain that you should be able to feel your ears, admittedly, but he was exceptionally certain that right now, at this precise moment, he couldn’t. The feeling in his fingertips was also worryingly absent, which wasn’t exactly helping, and he was getting the impression that the sensation in his cheeks and the tip of his nose currently wanted to join the others which had already exited stage left.
Unfortunately, it didn’t seem like the physical reality of his anatomy was likely to do likewise. In fact, he seemed to be all too obviously here – as though there was some force holding him in place and, worse, highlighting his existence to the very person he was so desperate to have ignore him.
He bit his lip, glared at the woodwork, and, once again, wished himself somewhere – anywhere – else. Who knows, maybe my magic will somehow transport me somewhere if I want it badly enough. I mean, it certainly dealt with those windows, didn’t it?
Yes, and that had done so much to help him, hadn’t it? If it hadn’t been for the damn windows, he wouldn’t have caught the attention of the Order, and if he hadn’t caught the attention of the Order he wouldn’t have wound up in this coffee house, and if he hadn’t wound up in the coffee house then he wouldn’t currently be stuck trying very hard to pretend that he wasn’t in the middle of being blackmailed by, of all people, Adam bloody godsdamned bastard Avebury.
Adam Avebury, who thought he was the gods’ gift to magician-kind. Adam Avebury, who looked down his nose at anyone who wasn’t pureblooded human aristocracy, despite being the heir of a line everyone knew had nearly been wiped out as traitors during the Revolution. Adam Avebury, who seemed to have nothing better to do with his time than spend half of class making sarcastic comments about everyone who failed to come up to his standards, and the other half being effortlessly, irritatingly right about things.
Adam Avebury, who was currently sitting right sodding next to him, smiling that irritating smile, and looking for all the world like the cat which had not only got the cream, but also the milk, the butter, and the entire roast chicken.
Maybe I could be sick on him. That might actually be quite satisfying.
It wouldn’t be worth it, of course. And he really didn’t want to know what Avebury would do to him if he tried. But oh gods, it was so very tempting.
And it’s not as though he doesn’t deserve it several times over. He’s-
“Mr Fest? I believe I asked you a question.”
Oh gods. “Indeed,” he hedged, trying to buy time while he desperately replayed the last few seconds of the conversation in his head.
Across the table from him, Viola made a low sound in the back of her throat. It sounded, to Fest’s ears, dangerously close to a growl. “Leave the boy alone. He obviously doesn’t want to talk to you, and you can get your damn information without pulling him into it.”
“How charmingly protective of you, Miss Cervanso,” Avebury said, his tone deceptively light. “Though, I feel, perhaps a little overly so. Does your mistress know you split your loyalties quite so much?”
There was a short, tense silence. Then: “You’re trying to provoke me. It won’t work.”
“Yes. Get to the point, or get out.”
“Very well.” He leaned forward, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose with his forefinger. “I am desirous of information regarding the so-called Order of Gentleman Magicians of the City of Sacaan – who are, I regret to inform you, not as much of a myth as most people believe. Specifically, I want any and all information regarding ties between the Luciel family and this… organisation.”
“So you said.”
“You will acquire that information for me. In two weeks’ time, I will inform both of you of a time and place. You will meet my associate at said time and place, and hand over the information you have acquired. If you fail to do so, certain members of the University faculty – and certain friends of the Luciel family, Miss Cervanso – will be made aware of your… shall we say, clandestine nocturnal activities.”
“And if we give you the information?” Fest asked, somehow managing to force the words out through a throat gone dry as dust. If he was thrown out of the University… gods, he didn’t know what he’d do with himself. His parents would never forgive him, for a start.
“Then… we will renegotiate our arrangement.” His tone shifted, becoming something which – if it wasn’t coming from Avebury – might have sounded almost comradely. “My associates and I are always willing to consider expanding our circle, after all.”
Viola stared at him as though he’d grown an extra head. “I’m sorry. Did you just attempt to blackmail us, and then offer us a sodding job?”
“Is that so hard to believe? The so-called Order is hardly the bastion of virtue that the stories portray, as I am sure your research will uncover. My associates and I simply wish to be more informed of their activities and we feel that, once you understand more of what they are, you will be similarly inclined.”
“And you didn’t think we’d help unless you blackmailed us?” He hadn’t meant to say it, but his mouth seemed to be moving independently of his thoughts, and there was very little he could currently do to stop that. Also, Viola was currently looking as though she was wondering whether she could get away with tearing Avebury into little pieces right here and now, and someone – which, in this instance, meant Fest – should probably be distracting him before he noticed that.
“Precisely,” Avebury confirmed, as though it was the most normal thing in the world. “The Order’s name carries enough weight that, without proper motivation, I doubted either of you would be willing to investigate further. Now that you are required to, I fully expect both of you to reappear in a fortnight’s time quite convinced of the rightness of our cause.” He stood, brushing his coat off, and looked down at them both. “Oh, and one more thing. I have written out multiple copies of a letter detailing your activities. If I am… let us say, inconvenienced in any way, my associates will ensure that those letters find their way to the people who need to see them. They are, I am told, rather persuasive.”
“Bastard,” Viola snarled, but the fight seemed to have gone out of her.
“Quite so, Miss Cervanso. Quite so. Nevertheless, I think you and your compatriot will find cooperation a good deal more comfortable than the alternative.” He sketched a bow, picked his hat up from the table, and smiled. “I’ll see you both at the University tomorrow, no doubt. Enjoy the rest of your coffee.”
And with that, he was gone, swallowed up by the noise and the crowd, and leaving behind him two distinctly disconcerted students.
For a brief moment, neither of them spoke.
Then, in a low voice which sounded like she was half a breath away from losing control completely, Viola said “You do realise he’s a Sinnlenst, right?”
The Crossed Daggers, when Archer finally reached it, was a hive of activity. Though the murder had clearly happened long enough ago that the printers had been able to set the type and get the first edition out, the yard was still full of people – potboys and working girls who’d obviously come from the tavern itself, customers who’d found themselves distracted on their way in to buy breakfast, and what seemed to be a fair number of passers-by who’d stopped in to see the show, whether out of morbid curiosity or, in several cases, because they fancied an easy morning picking pockets in the crowd.
Archer couldn’t fault them for it. The River Quarter, and Old Town in particular, was a place where you did what you could to survive, however immoral or illegal it might be, and pickpocketing was hardly the worst thing they could be doing with their time. Besides, if people wanted to gawk at the dead, they deserved their damn purses stolen.
And, for once, I know Sabbat would agree with me. Admittedly, his friend’s reasons for so doing would be rather different than his, Sabbat being of the opinion that anyone who didn’t keep a good eye on their belongings had only themselves to blame if said belongings mysteriously went missing, but-
You’re stalling. You’re trying to distract yourself, so you don’t need to think about what they’re all here to gawk at.
True enough. Because if he let himself think, even for a second, that they were staring at Sabbat’s body, then…
Then he’d in all likelihood do something he’d very much regret. Though not half as much as they would.
The man he’d spoken to turned around, fists clenched, snarling something under his breath. Then he caught sight of Archer’s face, went a very odd shade of grey, and immediately ducked back out of the way, muttering an apology as he did so.
Good. I don’t think I could deal with anyone trying to get in my way right now. Or, rather, I could and would deal with them, but not in such a way that they would survive the experience.
The rest of the crowd seemed to take the hint, shrinking back away from him as he made his way towards the ring of watchmen keeping the onlookers back from the scene of the crime. The corpse, he noted with a shock of relief, had been covered – two more watchmen stood guard over a dustsheet which failed to disguise the obvious shape of a body sprawled in the snow a foot or so away from the back wall of the tavern.
It’s the right height, he thought, and hated himself for thinking it. And it could be the right build.
He’d not seen Sabbat without the enchantment. He didn’t know if he’d even recognise him. But gods dammit, he had to know.
“Let me through, please.” And then, as the watchman in front of him frowned and opened her mouth to protest, he added “I may be able to identify the body.”
For a moment she looked dubious – understandably so, given the circumstances – but then she nodded and stepped aside, jerking her thumb over her shoulder towards the sheet-shrouded corpse. “All yours, detective.”
Detective? I- Oh, yes. That. He’d done some consulting work for the Watch in the past – nothing that couldn’t have been done by any amateur sleuth with a grounding in master-level magic, but enough that the Order’s contacts had been able to have him added to their files as a known quantity. For the most part, this was primarily useful for consolidating the links between the Watch and the Order, but occasionally, as now, it had its practical uses.
And you’re stalling again. Get it over with, for good or ill. “Thank you,” he said, trying to keep his voice neutral, and stepped past her into the trampled snow of the crime scene.
It took him ten steps to reach the body. It felt like an eternity.
The sound of the crowd faded, slowly, as he walked. Then the sound of his footsteps, ice crystals crunching under the hobnails of his boots, followed it into the silence, until all he could hear was his breathing and the slow, dull thudding of his own heartbeat in his ears.
The edge of the sheet was frost-rimed, halfway rigid under his fingers, and it didn’t so much fold back as simply slide away, catching a little on the edge of the corpse’s brown, gold-pierced ear as it did so, and dislodging the swathe of long, thick black hair which had been lying across its grey-tinged face.
He felt the bile rise in his throat but choked it down, forcing himself to look closer. He needed to be sure, after all. Nobody else could be.
The hair’s right. And the nose. And he does wear an earring, on occasion, though I’ve never seen him wearing one of that design. But… the skin’s wrong. Not the right shade at all, even accounting for exsanguination. There’re no scars, and I know those persist through magic. And enchantments can’t change the face that much. Not enough that there’d be no chance of my recognising him.
He sighed, slowly letting the tension drain from his jaw and shoulders as he finally, in the face of incontrovertible evidence, allowed himself to come to the obvious conclusion.
…It’s not him. Thank all the gods in the heavens, it’s not him.
He could have laughed out loud, if the situation hadn’t been quite so dire. Sabbat was alive! Sabbat was alive, and almost certainly knew something about what had happened here, and…
And someone else had been murdered, for no reason other than they happened to be human, and alive, and convenient. For a vampire, the marks on the corpse’s neck were all too easy to read, and the story they told all but confirmed Archer’s worst fears as to the cause of both this death and Harrow’s apparent assassination.
Much as I wish it were otherwise, Mac’s right about one thing. Someone has decided that their hunger is worth more than the lives of every single vampire in the City.
Whoever the mysterious assailant was, they hadn’t been inclined to be careful with their prey. Defensive bruises marked the body’s hands and arms, and the wounds on the throat were scored deep, bestial and raw in their savagery. Almost worse than that, somehow, was the fact that there was almost no blood – not on the snow, not on the corpse’s skin, not even on the clothes (though a large piece of fabric from the shirt had been ripped away across the shoulder nearest the bite, and the threads at the edges of the hole were tinged with red).
An image flickered, unwanted, through Archer’s head – a hunched figure, huddled in an alleyway, desperately trying to wring some last drops of sustenance from a torn scrap of bloodsoaked linen – and his stomach twisted, breakfast suddenly threatening to make an unwanted reappearance.
He turned away, hand over his mouth, and met the sympathetic eyes of the watchman who’d let him past the cordon. She was kneeling a little behind him now, right hand pressed against her heart in a gesture of respect for the dead that seemed oddly touching in its incongruity.
“I’m sorry. She a friend of yours?”
“No.” He paused, weighing the consequences of telling her his suspicions. Most likely the Watch already suspected a vampire was the culprit, but confirmation, if it got out, would likely bring down a weight of trouble on anyone who even looked vaguely vampiric. There had been riots over less. On the other hand, if he didn’t say anything, how much worse would it then be for his people when the truth did come out? And people with my advantages are hardly likely to be the ones who’ll bear the brunt of it. The little newspaper-girl’s face flashed into his memory, yellow eyes wide under her too-large cap. No. Tell them now, and deal with whatever happens when it happens.
Or at least, he amended, remembering the ghoulishly eager crowd outside the cordon, tell them soon. “I have some observations, but I’d rather go over them somewhere less public. Will your captain be at the district Watchhouse this afternoon?”
“Assuming I can get this rabble squared away, and persuade someone to bring a sledge up for the body.” She smiled a little, obviously noting his expression. “We don’t wear insignia in this district unless we have to. Has a tendency to tell the bastards who to aim for.”
Well, he could hardly fault that logic. He stood, brushing snow from the skirts of his coat, and offered her his hand. “My apologies for not realising sooner, nonetheless. Three o’clock, then?”
That got him a nod and, once the captain had got to her feet, a handshake which was as firm as it was brief. “Three o’clock. If things here drag on, I’ll send a runner down to keep you abreast of the situation.”
And that, as far as things went, was that. Now all he needed to do was find Sabbat, work out what, if anything, he knew about the situation, and then head back uptown to rescue his other two charges before they drank Baskerville’s completely out of house and home. Which meant, if he wanted to be in any state to keep the appointment he’d just made, he really couldn’t waste any more time. “Unless you have need of me, I-”
The captain nodded, smile turning suddenly softer for a brief moment. “Go find whoever it was you were so worried about, detective. We’ll talk this afternoon.”
“Indeed.” And, gods willing, by then I’ll have something a little more helpful to tell you than ‘it’s almost certainly a vampire’.
Or at least, I bloody well hope so.
The crowd had begun to disperse now, helped along by several loud comments from the watchmen on the cordon on the topic of wanting to begin questioning witnesses, and Archer joined the flow of people heading back into the tavern, slipping his hands into his pockets and slouching somewhat in an effort to at least slightly obfuscate his height. As disguises went, this one really didn’t, but that wasn’t entirely the point – it would do enough to throw off any casual observers, and anyone more determined wasn’t likely to be fooled by anything he could trivially do to alter his appearance.
And this is where I thank the gods that I remembered to pay my tabs to Jenny the last time I was in here.
Most gentlemen in Sacaan would probably have thought twice before paying what essentially amounted to protection money to the proprietress of a criminal drinking den, especially when said proprietress was also widely rumoured to be, amongst other things, one of the more prolific killers in the City (there were more than a few tales regarding the fate of those who’d crossed Jenny Goldenfang or her charges. The words ‘ended up in the stew’ tended to turn up rather a lot, and they weren’t being used metaphorically). Most gentlemen in Sacaan would probably not have paid extra to ensure that they weren’t bothered while they were in the establishment, and made it very clear that they didn’t much care what happened to anyone who tried.
Archer was not most gentlemen.
“Morning, Jenny. Is Sabbat around?”
The woman behind the bar looked up, one wrinkled hand raised to shade her ice-blue eyes from the snow-light streaming through the open door. “Asleep still, I reckon. You’re early.”
“Given the commotion outside, are you surprised?”
“Fuck no.” She scowled. “Those idiots any closer to finding out who killed my girl yet?”
“Your-” He stopped, catching himself before he asked the question. The Daggers wasn’t technically a brothel, because brothels paid tax and had strict rules they needed to abide by with regards to registering their workers – rules which, coincidentally, meant that anyone who’d ever been registered as a prostitute would find it exceptionally hard to gain any kind of employment outside that particular field of work. The Daggers was, however, a place where, for a price, customers could spend a certain amount of time with certain of the employees who’d agreed to that particular type of contract in one of the coincidentally free and furnished back rooms of the establishment.
Which meant that, if Jenny was referring to the dead woman as one of her girls, then… “You’d be able to identify her to them.”
“Not the question I asked, boy.” She leaned in, lowering her voice. “And no, I wouldn’t. I could tell them what she called herself when she asked me for work, and I could tell them where she said she came from, but that’s all I’ve got, and that’s nothing I’m giving them.”
He blinked, taken aback by her vehemence. “Why not?”
That got him an eyeroll, and a look which implied that it was very much the wrong question to ask. “You’re not stupid. If I tell them what I know of her, she goes down in the books as another murdered whore and no-one gives a shit. If they have to work for the knowing of who she was, along the way they might get deep enough into why she died that they actually do their fucking jobs for once.” She grinned, humourlessly. “And besides, Jenny Goldenfang doesn’t give the names of her boys and girls to the Watch, whether they’re dead or no. They trust me, boy, and I’m not about to betray that. Even for her.”
And that, unfortunately, makes a good deal too much sense. Gods, I hate the way this city works sometimes. “So… you want to trick the Watch into solving the murder.”
“Got there in the end, did you? Said you weren’t stupid.”
“And you’re not about to tell me who she was either, I suppose.”
“Correct. You’re a good lad, but you’ve not earned that from me yet.”
Ah well. It’d been worth a try.
“Of course,” she went on, eyeing him with a distinct sense of amusement, “if one of my girls or one of my boys wants to tell you anything about their murdered friend, they’d not be breaking any oaths to me if they did so. That’d be their choice, if they wanted to go give that sort of information to a stranger. Especially a stranger with money.”
“I can take a hint, Jenny.” He’d brought enough coin with him to cover emergencies – he reached into the pouch around his neck, pulling out a five-shilling piece and balancing it on its edge on the metal plate inlaid into the stained, knife-scarred bartop. “Acceptable?”
“Aye, that’ll do.” Jenny tapped the side of the bar: the coin fell, the clear ring of metal-on-metal briefly cutting through the buzz of chatter. “That’ll do nicely.” She grinned, the gold fang which had given her her nickname glinting in the light, and waved her hand across the bartop, the coin vanishing into a pocket in her sleeve. “You come back this evening, I’ll get one of the cubs to show you around.” And, before he had a chance to question her further, “Now get along with you. Less time you spend gabbing with old ladies, more time you’ve got to spend with that sneak-thief of yours.”
Archer groaned, feeling the tips of his ears starting to burn with embarrassment. “He’s not ‘mine’, Jenny. We’re just friends.”
“And I’m the Empress of Efir.” She winked, nodding her head towards the shadowed wooden stairs at the back of the barroom. “Off you go, then. Before the rest of your face turns as red as those ears of yours.”
Gratefully, he fled.
“We’re fucked,” muttered Viola, after a pause which went on slightly too long to be entirely comfortable. “We’re completely and utterly fucked.”
Fest winced. He still wasn’t used to girls swearing – truth be told, he wasn’t all that used to people swearing in general – and there was a distinct feeling at the back of his mind that well-bred young women oughtn’t to use that kind of language (though, admittedly, there was also a distinct feeling at the front of his mind that bringing that up here and now was probably the least helpful thing he could possibly do). Then again, given what had just happened, he honestly couldn’t fault her for it. “Are you sure he’s a Sinnlenst?” he asked, hopefully.
The glare he got in return could have stripped paint. “Of course I’m bloody sure. Who else would have the guts to pull that kind of stunt? Who else hates the Order that much, or wants to know that much about them? Who else is stupid enough to think that they can go up against us and win? He’s a gods-and-Spirits-damned Sinnlenst, or I’m a sodding jackalope.”
She had a point. She had a very good point. She had, in fact, a completely irrefutable argument. But, to his horror, Fest found the only thing currently occupying his overheated and overstressed brain after the irate werewolf had paused for breath was a mental image of her sporting a pair of antlers, alongside a set of oversized fluffy rabbit ears. Which, quite apart from being distinctly unhelpful when it came to solving their current predicament, was a fairly large problem in and of itself, because he was pretty sure that if he started laughing at this point in proceedings she was going to make a very good go at ripping his throat out.
Oh gods. “Nothing! I- I was- Coffee. I should have some coffee.” He picked up his mug, downed the contents in one go – and then immediately started choking as the stone-cold coffee hit the back of his throat and somehow seemed to go down completely the wrong tube. “Aghk!”
Viola was on her feet in a matter of seconds, vaulting the table in a way which, if he’d not been currently struggling to breathe, Fest would have considered terrifyingly athletic. She landed next to him, put a surprisingly gentle hand on his shoulder, pushed him forwards, and then thumped him so hard between the shoulderblades his teeth rattled.
“Come on, you daft bastard! You don’t get out of this that easily!”
I’m not doing it on purpose! The world had started to grey out at the edges again, and Viola’s voice seemed to be coming from somewhere very far away, her words oddly muffled and distorted as though she was speaking from the other side of a thick pane of glass.
“Breathe, damn you!”
I’m trying! But the words wouldn’t come, and the panic was starting to set in – he could feel his pulse thudding in his ears, and there was a strange wheezing noise catching at the edge of his hearing. He wondered vaguely what it was, and then, with an odd sense of detachment, realised it was his own vain attempts at catching his breath.
Funny. I didn’t realise choking sounded like that.
Everything seemed very far away all of a sudden – the table, the room, Viola, his own sense of self. He almost felt as though, if he closed his eyes, he could just step outside himself and… float away. And, honestly, that didn’t sound entirely like a bad idea. It’s not as though it’d be difficult, after all. And it wouldn’t-
Viola’s hand came down hard on his back again, bringing him back into reality at approximately the same time as it knocked the remaining air out of him, and setting him coughing even harder than before. Gods, if this was how he was going to die for the first time…
Viola’s thoughts seemed to have been running along similar lines. “I swear, if you manage to kill yourself with a cup of coffee…” She paused. “Wait. Fuck. I’m an idiot. Stand up.”
He tried, he really did, but he couldn’t feel his hands or feet any more, and standing seemed like something which probably required at least a vague knowledge of where those particular appendages were. Also, he suspected, it was probably easier if you weren’t currently engaged in choking to death. Hah. I’m funny. Also dying. But funny.
“Right. I’m picking you up, then.” And, before he quite realised what she was up to, she’d grabbed him under the arms and hauled him bodily upright, kicking the chair away as she did so. “Going to try something. And let’s both pray to the Spirits this works, because otherwise I’m all out of ideas.”
With that she reached down, wrapped her arms around his torso just under his ribcage, and yanked – he felt something shift, coughed, retched, spat, and finally, blissfully, gasped down a full lungful of clear, pure air with all the grace and poise of a landed fish.
Behind him, Viola murmured something he was pretty sure was a prayer – though in his general experience, religion didn’t tend to come with quite so many swearwords attached – and shifted her grip, lowering him down until he could sink gratefully into the chair she’d not knocked over. “Better?”
“…Thank you,” he managed, once his breathing had started to return to somewhere near normal. “Honestly. I don’t know what I’d have-”
“Died, probably,” the werewolf said, bluntly. And, as he opened his mouth to comment on that particular opinion,“What? It’s true. And besides, it’s not as though it’s much of an inconvenience for your lot.”
And here he’d thought she was being vaguely nice to him. “That doesn’t mean I’m alright with the idea!”
“I don’t see why not.” She dropped back down into her own chair, raising an eyebrow. “Unless there’s some sort of limit on how many times you can do it in a span or so. Seems like it’d be a nice holiday for you. Chance to get away from everything and all that.”
He was almost certain she was teasing him, but that didn’t mean he had to like it. “It’s death. Just because we get to come back from it doesn’t mean it’s something we do for fun. Or,” he amended, remembering a couple of his cousins, “at least, mostly we don’t. Some people are weird.” And then, as the implications of what she’d just said finally sank in, “And what do you mean, ‘limit’?”
“What I said. Presumably the Sinnlenst roughed you up worse than Archer let on – that or you did something stupid when you went sleepwalking.”
“You smell like death.”
“But I had a bath yesterday,” he said, automatically. His brain had gone blank – he blinked, stared at her, tried to think of something which would make what she’d just said make even the slightest amount of sense. Nothing came to mind.
“Idiot.” But she sounded vaguely worried about him, though that could just have been wishful thinking. “Your lot – vampires – you smell different when you’ve died recently. Sort of… clean. Like snow, when it’s just fallen. I noticed it on you this morning, but I reckoned you’d probably just had a sledding accident earlier in the week or something of the sort – I mean hells, enough drunk students go off the edge of the bridges when it’s this icy, especially if they’re ones who don’t need to worry so much about getting their heads smashed open.”
And that’s in no way reassuring. “Can we go back to the part where you think I’ve died, please?”
Now it was her turn to look confused. “Wait. You don’t think you have?”
“Crap.” She leant back, running her fingers through the end of her braid, and stared down at the table. “And I suppose you’re about to tell me you’ve not fed recently either.”
He looked down, following her gaze to the brown-red mess splattered across the polished wood, where he’d coughed up the remnants of the deceptively dangerous coffee. “…Oh.”
“‘Oh’ sounds about right.” She scowled. “This is not good.”
“You’re telling me!” He could feel the edges of hysteria creeping into his voice, but there wasn’t much he could do to fight it off. Bad enough that he’d apparently gone outside last night without remembering it – now he’d apparently died, and, worse, fed while he was out there. Gods, if that was- If I- He couldn’t finish the thought. “What do we do?”
“Wasn’t intended to be. I’m thinking.”
Somehow, magically, a stab of anger made it through the fog of anxiety. “That’s nice for you. I might have killed someone, and you’re making jokes about it. I’m so glad you’re taking this seriously.”
“Keep your voice down.” And, before he could protest, “Look, whatever happened, this is bigger than the both of us can deal with even without taking into account there’s a damn Sinnlenst on our tail. We need help.”
On that, at least, he had to agree with her. “Wasn’t Mr Archer supposed to meet us here? If we tell him-”
“Excellent plan, except for the fact he’s not here yet and I’m not inclined to sit around and wait for him right now.” She frowned, considering. “Amelia’s parents’ll have my head if they know why we’re being blackmailed, but if I can get her on her own…”
“She’ll be able to help me find out what happened during that time that I can’t remember, during which I may or may not have actually killed someone?”
This time, she actually snarled. “Keep your voice down. Do you want someone to call the Watch on us?”
“We can’t stay here. We’ve already caused enough of a bloody scene – no pun intended – and Avebury managing to get in here means the place isn’t nearly as secure as I’d like. We can’t go back to your lodgings for obvious reasons. We can’t go back to mine for similar. And I’m not taking you anywhere near an Order safehouse until I know for certain the Foreval bitch hasn’t got her claws into you. Which means-” She sighed, worrying her bottom lip between her fangs for a moment. “Oh sodding hells. It’d work. I mean, it’s a sodding stupid idea, but it’d work.”
“We’re going to break into Archer’s rooms.”
Copyright © 2018 by Finn McLellan. All rights reserved.
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