A day ago, everything was so simple. A day ago, all I had to worry about was the fact I had an invitation to a party I’d not expected to be invited to.
Now I’ve been abducted, been rescued from possibly being murdered, accidentally been inducted into a secret society, sleepwalked without realising it, possibly died, been blackmailed into betraying the first secret society to a second secret society I’d never heard of before today, almost choked to death on a cup of coffee, and broken into someone’s house.
I’m starting to think I shouldn’t have got out of bed yesterday.
At least, Fest supposed, the day probably couldn’t get any worse. Yes, they’d broken into Mr Archer’s house, and he was probably going to have Opinions on that particular matter, but they’d had damn good reasons for doing so, and ‘I might have killed someone and I don’t remember it, and also I might have died’ seemed like a pretty compelling argument for breaking some of the social rules. Like the one about not climbing into someone’s rooms via a back window while they were out, to take a completely random example.
And, if he was completely and utterly honest with himself, somewhere under the vast mountains of terror, panic, fear, and more terror, there was a little voice reminding him that this kind of thing was exactly what the penny dreadfuls and adventure novels he’d been reading since he was a child had been made of. This was an Adventure, with a capital A, of the sort he’d only ever dreamed of before he’d come to the city, and nobody ever succeeded in an Adventure by hiding under the proverbial bed until the scary things went away (not to mention that the only bed within easy hiding-under reach was probably Archer’s, and there were several reasons why that would be a terrible idea). Of course, they generally also didn’t succeed in Adventures by sitting still, not touching anything, and trying very hard not to have a panic attack, but that was beside the point.
It’s fine. Everything is fine. We’re in the house, we’re not dead, Viola’s going to explain everything to Mr Archer when he gets back, and everything’s going to be fine.
…And if I believed that, I’d deserve everything that’s likely about to happen to me.
He shifted uneasily in his chair, boots scuffing at the edge of the rug. If he could just get up and walk around, he’d probably be feeling a damn sight better, but Viola had made it very clear that she wanted him to stay right where he was (though he’d not been able to tell whether that was because she was worried he might start panicking again, or because she thought he might knock something over. Probably both, if he was honest).
At least, he supposed, there wasn’t any shortage of interesting things within eyesight to distract himself with. The vase on the mantelpiece, for example – small, unassuming, but inlaid with silver and blue lines which glinted in the weak sunlight as though there was starlight trapped within them. Or the blanket draped across the back of the chair Viola was sitting in – heavy white wool, decorated in red and black lines and patches which curved around each other to form a picture of a leaping orca every bit as real as the one painted on the wall behind the statue of the Three Brothers at the High Temple.
I wonder if that’s for prayer – I know some people use blankets in their rituals, and it sounds like the sort of thing yellow-eyes would do.
Though I don’t think Viola’d be sitting on it if that was the case.
“Do I have something on my face?”
“Then why’re you staring at me? I know you’re from up-country, but I’m pretty sure you’ve seen a werewolf before today.”
Dammit. He knew she was trying to get under his skin, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t working. “I wasn’t looking at you. I was looking at the blanket.” And that makes so much more sense. Gods, if she didn’t already think I was an idiot…
“What blank- oh, that.” She reached back, running a careful hand over the orca’s dorsal fin. “I think that’s from across the water, though don’t quote me on that.”
“Across the water?”
“Oh Spirits, were you raised under a rock or something? Kasawe.”
“Thank you. And yes, before you ask, I do know where that is.” Roughly. Leave Sacaan, go east until you hit land again, and then stop and ask very nicely if people mind you coming ashore. The Kasawit had been trading peaceably with most of Aventris for nigh-on fifty years now and much of the initial hostility had long since worn away, but they were still as territorial as Sacaan when it came to protecting their borders, and any trading expeditions across the sea tended to be preceded by several months of negotiations before anyone even left port. Which, if you were being brought up in a family which had business interests in shipping, meant afternoon after afternoon of figures and tables and contract law until it felt like your head was going to burst from all the numbers people seemed intent on cramming into it.
Not that his people were merchants, of course. But Uncle Avan had invested a good portion of the family’s dwindling fortune in trade ships, and the agreement which meant that Fest’s mother got any of the profits from that particular deal had also included a clause which stipulated that all her children were to be trained up with as much trade and contract knowledge as they could manage to soak up before they hit eighteen. At which point, they were allowed to go and do whatever they so pleased with their education – with the exception of the youngest, who was to join their uncle and learn the ins and outs of the family’s particular business interests.
Which probably would’ve worked out perfectly, if said youngest child hadn’t turned out to have a surprising aptitude for magic.
So instead of that nicely planned out future, I’m here in Sacaan, and Sophia’s back home helping Uncle Avan with the ships. And someday she’s possibly going to forgive me for that.
It wasn’t as though it was his fault, anyway. He’d not asked to have a talent for spellwork – if anything, he’d been more surprised than anyone else when it became apparent he wasn’t as completely useless at magic as he was at most of his other studies. And while yes, he had asked to apply to the University, the full scholarship offer which practically guaranteed his parents’ granting him their blessing certainly hadn’t been any of his doing.
And none of that was going to stop him feeling stupidly awkwardly guilty every time he thought about what that decision had meant for his sister’s already-planned-out future.
Judging by Viola’s expression, at least some of that guilt was showing. He groaned, dropped his face into his hands, and wished briefly and fervently for the earth to swallow him up (and then immediately stopped wishing that when he remembered what had happened the last time).
“Bathroom’s on the other side of the hall, if you’re going to be sick. You throw up on the rug and we’re both in trouble.” She paused, considering the issue. “Though I suppose vampires’re better at getting blood out of furnishings than most.”
“Says the werewolf,” Fest retorted, almost without thinking.
“Says the person who doesn’t eat indoors when the food’s still leaking. You don’t find werewolves drinking blood out of wineglasses.”
“And you don’t find vampires ripping chunks out of our meals. At least we’re neat about it.”
Viola laughed. “You’re picky, is what you are. Drinking the blood and leaving the rest of the kill to rot? Waste of good meat, and you know it.”
…Oh, I really, really wish you hadn’t just said that. It would’ve been fine if she’d been talking to a yellow-eyes. Hells, she’d probably forgotten she wasn’t – there were so few red-eyes in the city that half the time people just didn’t remember they existed. But while yellow-eyes could, and did, survive perfectly happily on animal blood, red-eyes weren’t quite so lucky.
And, earlier that morning, he’d vomited up blood that he didn’t remember drinking.
“I-” His guts roiled, and he doubled over, clamping a hand over his mouth as the last dregs of whatever was in his stomach suddenly threatened to make a second reappearance. “Ngh.”
“Other side of the hall, first door you come across. Try to hit the basin if you can, but the floor’s tiled if you miss.”
“‘nks,” he muttered, and bolted for the door.
I have to admit, Viola thought, watching the vampire’s hastily retreating back, that was probably my fault.
She’d not meant to make the poor bastard throw up – she wasn’t that cruel, and it wasn’t as if it was going to do anything to help their situation – but, if she was honest with herself, she probably ought to have guessed that was going to be the outcome the moment she started on that particular topic of conversation.
Even if he wasn’t a red-eye, bringing up comparative eating habits in the current circumstances wasn’t exactly the smartest thing I’ve ever done.
Then again, today was rapidly shaping up to be a laundry list of bad decisions. What was one more to add to the pile?
Let’s see. Go into an area of the University I’m explicitly not meant to be in? Check. Get caught in there by a teenage Sinnlenst who’s trying to run a power play? Check. Get blackmailed into betraying my employers by aforementioned Sinnlenst? Check. Break into rooms belonging to a member of the Master’s Council, accompanied by a half-grown vampire who might have murdered someone under mind control and is currently halfway to multiple panic attacks about that particular issue? Check, check, bloody check.
All it needs is for the Sinnlenst to catch us in here, and I’ve pretty much made the record for poor life choices. They’ll have to name a whole new sodding section in the Warnings after me at this rate.
She groaned, closing her eyes and resting her head against the back of the chair. Why did everything have to be so Spirits-damned difficult all of a sudden?
Grandma’d have an answer for that: ‘Never get involved with furless. They’re more trouble than they’re worth.’
Then again, she’d also have my hide if she knew how badly I’d screwed this up.
But then again — again — there wasn’t exactly much else she could have done, short of leaving Fest to the mercy of the Sinnlenst.
Which would have been the epitome of bad ideas. For multiple reasons.
Oh Spirits and ancestors, but her head hurt.
I don’t suppose Archer’s got any poppy-milk knocking about, has he?
Adding theft to the breaking and entering she’d already managed wasn’t exactly a good plan, admittedly, but neither was letting herself get so distracted by pain that she lost any hope of actually managing to explain herself when Archer finally did get back, and she could already taste the bitterness at the back of her throat which told her this headache was going to be a particularly bad one.
It’s not as though he doesn’t have a first-aid kit, anyway. And he was perfectly willing to use it on me this morning, which is definitely the same thing as having given me permission to raid it. Honest.
From where she was sitting she could just about see the corner of the medicine box sticking out from under the sideboard – presumably Archer’d been in too much of a hurry to put it away properly when he’d been packing up after dealing with her wound. And, in the glass-fronted cupboard just above it…
You sly bastard. I mean, I should’ve guessed given Sabbat, but-
Of the rows of blue and brown glass bottles that she could see, full half of them had labels she’d never come across outside the shelves of a pharmacists. The rest, she’d never seen before in her life – hells, she wasn’t even sure most of them were in Sacaask – but the skulls and crossbones etched into the sides of several of them gave her a fair clue as to their likely contents.
Forget poppy-milk, I could probably cure pretty much anything short of death with that sodding portable pharmacy. And cause it too, I suspect.
She pushed that thought to the back of her mind, though it left an itch behind it, and knelt down on the rug in front of the sideboard, eyeing the cupboard with equal parts curiosity and trepidation. Logically, she knew, she should leave well alone – take whatever painkilling medicine there was in the first-aid kit, and let the cupboard stay untouched – but equally well, mysterious cabinets full of poisons weren’t exactly the sort of thing that any self-respecting Order magician would be able to leave unexamined, even if they did technically belong to her direct superior.
I could just ask him when he comes back, I suppose. I mean, he’s not exactly hiding them.
Well, never let it be said that she was a complete idiot.
She rocked back on her heels, closed her fingers around the corner of the box – and froze, the hairs on the back of her neck rising as she heard the soft creak of the shutters on the back window slowly swinging open.
It could be Archer, of course. Nothing said people had to enter their own rooms by the front door, after all, and it wasn’t too much of a stretch to assume that he might’ve decided to go the back way to avoid any lurking Sinnlenst spies who might recognise his face (which, given there was a dearth of one-eyed vampires in the city, was more likely than it’d otherwise seem).
Yes, and maybe seals might fly. You’re not the only housebreaker in the city.
If Fest had any sense, he’d be staying as still and quiet as she was right now. Let whoever it was think they’d broken into an empty house and they might just drop their guard – or, at the very least, stop paying attention long enough for her to get the drop on them.
Problem was, that was a hell of an ‘if’.
He’d managed to make it to the basin, barely. There hadn’t really been enough left in his stomach to properly be sick with – though that hadn’t stopped him – and what he had managed to throw up, after a good few minutes of retching, was mostly bile: thin, yellowish-green liquid shot through with thick strands of bright red that he was trying very hard not to think about.
At least, Fest supposed, that probably meant he hadn’t drunk an entire person’s worth of blood.
That… somehow failed to be reassuring.
I’m dead. I’m dead, and this is hell.
He wasn’t, and it wasn’t. But, if he’d killed someone – and, gods, that was something he was seriously having to consider as a possibility right now – then all that needed to change about that particular statement was the tense.
Oh gods. Oh gods oh gods oh gods. This is not good.
And that was an understatement. He’d not been in the city long, but it’d been more than enough time to understand exactly how seriously Sacaan took exsanguination murders. If he had killed someone and the Watch found out what he’d done, they’d barely even bother with a trial.
Public decapitation, and your remains burned on the corpse-marsh for everyone to see. Well, I suppose it sends a message.
And, true, it was a message that needed to be sent. Even with his heart thudding in his ears and his stomach twisting like he’d swallowed a snake, he could see the logic behind that one. Nobody wanted to go back to the bad old days, and you couldn’t have a city with multiple species living in it without coming down hard on the kind of killings which people started riots over. But what good was that when, if you’d done what you were really bloody hoping you hadn’t, you’d done it without actually being conscious?
‘I’m so sorry, I might have accidentally sleep-murdered someone, please don’t execute me’. It’s not exactly a compelling argument, is it?
…Oh Six help me, what am I going to do?
Apparently, right now, if how light-headed he was feeling was anything to go by, the answer to that was ‘panic’. He squeezed his eyes shut, sinking down to sit hugging his knees on the cold tiles of the bathroom floor, and tried to force his breathing back down to something approaching a reasonable rate.
Think, damn you. You don’t know you killed anyone. For all you know someone just offered you a glassful of blood or something.
And for all he knew, he’d murdered someone. It wasn’t exactly a particularly good argument.
Also he was having a conversation with himself, which possibly meant he was going mad. Er. Madder. Sane people didn’t kill people and/or drink blood of unknown provenance in their sleep, unless the definition of sanity had changed a whole lot while he wasn’t looking.
Well, if he was going mad, at least he was doing it in someone else’s bathroom. There were worse places to have a mental breakdown.
The middle of the University, for one. At least they don’t know what’s going on here.
He wasn’t entirely sure what the procedure was for dealing with students who suddenly found themselves in the middle of this kind of situation, but he was pretty certain it wasn’t ‘send off to rest up for a couple of weeks and excused coursework for the foreseeable’. More like ‘sent off to get locked up at best, executed at worst, even if you’re quite probably and proveably insane, which in and of itself sets a deeply unsettling precedent when it comes to the idea of culpability and mental illness not to mention the probable mind-control aspect of the situation and-’
“-th’fuck’re you doin’ here?”
And now he was hearing voices. Great.
“This ain’t your house. An’ last I checked, you don’t have a key. Which means you’re goin’ t’need a bloody good explanation for what the fuck it is you think you’re doin’.”
If he was hearing voices, they were doing a very good job of sounding like a very specific person. Almost too good. If I didn’t know better, I’d think he was actually in the room with me, but there’s no way he could have got past Viola without-
Something warm brushed against the back of his neck – he flinched, tried to pull away, and found himself held firmly in place by a rough hand clamped vice-like around the base of his queue.
“I’m runnin’ out of patience,” the voice said, in a low, even tone that was somehow all the more terrifying for sounding quite so upsettingly calm. “Start talkin’, or I stop playing nice.”
Bowing to the overwhelming physical evidence (and the pain in his scalp), he slowly admitted to himself that Sabbat probably wasn’t a hallucination.
Which, unfortunately, meant that he was going to have to come up with some sort of response that wasn’t immediately going to get his head stoved in.
“Eep?” he managed, and then winced. Wrong answer.
There was a brief, horrible silence.
Then Sabbat snarled, yanked Fest’s head back hard enough to make him yelp in mingled pain and surprise, and leaned in, close enough that the two of them were practically nose to nose. “Y’think I’m jokin’? Y’think I won’t just kill you an’ have done with it?”
“N-no!” Fest squeaked, eyes still squeezed shut in the vain hope that it might somehow make the situation any less terrifying. He swallowed, suddenly very very aware of quite how vulnerable his jugular was right now – vampires couldn’t permanently die of having their throats slit, of course, but that didn’t mean it was something he particularly wanted to experience. “I mean- I-” Oh gods, I wish Viola was here. She’s the one who had an explanation for all of this.
“Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t cut your fuckin’ throat right here and now,” the human growled.
“I can give you two.”
Viola?! Fest cracked an eye open, catching a brief glimpse of his saviour as she stepped into the room. Oh thank the gods. Something’s going right for a change.
“Don’t recall askin’ you,” Sabbat said, though he seemed more than a little taken aback by the new arrival (which, as far as Fest was concerned, was just fine by him).
“One:,” Viola want on, as though he’d not spoken. “He’s a vampire, so cutting his throat’ll do sod-all other than inconvenience him and get blood all over the bathroom. And two: I don’t want you to. I’ve already saved his life once today, and I’m damned if I’m having you put all that hard work to waste.”
The assassin laughed. “Good fer you.”
“So. You going to let him go?”
“-th’fuck d’you think?”
“Fine,” Viola said, and hit him with the basin.
Copyright © 2020 by Finn McLellan. All rights reserved.
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