Blood on the Snow: Chapter 7 (draft)

Of all the scenes Archer had been expecting to walk in on, the scenario he was currently facing hadn’t even made it to the top ten. Gods, if he was honest with himself, it wouldn’t even have made the top thirty.

How is it that today continues to find new and worrying ways to surprise me?

The three of them had at least frozen in place when he walked in, which was something, and there wasn’t enough blood on the floor to suggest that any of them had been fighting with any serious intent to wound. Beyond that, however, the sheer destruction wrought on what had been, up until very recently, a perfectly nice and well-ordered bathroom was enough to make him wish that he’d been a damn sight more paranoid when it came to fixing the locks on his windows.

He pinched the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger, closing his eye in the vain hope that not being able to see the devastation might somehow make it retroactively cease to have happened. Unsurprisingly, this completely and utterly failed to work.

“Would anyone like to tell me what the hells I just walked in on?”

Fest and Viola both started talking at the same time, which meant that neither of their explanations ended up in any way intelligible – the confused and apologetic babble which resulted seemed, as far as Archer was concerned, to boil down to “We’re very sorry we broke into your house, but we promise we had a really really good reason. Honest.”

Sabbat, somewhat uncharacteristically, waited for them to tail off into shamefaced silence. Then he stood up, brushed the worst of the shards of broken porcelain off his clothes, and jerked a dismissive thumb towards the intruders. “He din’t have an explanation for what he was doin’ here. She jumped me. Ain’t my fuckin’ fault the two of ‘em decided t’play housebreaker.”

“You were threatening to cut his sodding throat!” Viola interjected, from the floor. “What the hells did you expect me to do?” She scrambled to her feet, pushing her hair out of her eyes, and snarled something Archer was pretty sure was neither Sacaask nor polite.

Judging by Sabbat’s expression, he’d either understood exactly what she’d said or got enough of the gist to realise that he was being insulted. He snarled a curse of his own, hand going to the pocket where, Archer knew, he kept his straight razor.

Viola might not have known exactly what he was reaching for, but she obviously recognised a threat when she saw it. She shifted her weight, dropping into what looked a hell of a lot like a fighting crouch.

Sabbat mirrored her posture, hand still hovering over the blade.

And Archer, rapidly reaching the end of his tether, decided unilaterally that enough was just about bloody enough.


He didn’t shout – if anything, that was likely to make the situation worse – but he pushed as much power and authority into his voice as he could muster, calling on the memories of every time he’d had to break up fights between troopers back in the day (and the various times he’d had to stop his crewmates killing one another on board the Arrow, though that’d been in a rather less official capacity).

“Sabbat, you’re a guest in my home. I’d appreciate it if you didn’t stab people while you’re under my roof, especially when they’re fellow members of the Order. Miss Cervanso, you are… also a guest in my home, albeit an uninvited one. While I’m sure you and Mr Fest have a perfectly rational and compelling explanation for your presence, I’m going to be a damn sight more inclined to be charitable towards you if you refrain from threatening my closest friend while you’re here.”

For a brief moment he thought the two of them were going to ignore him – which, given the way they were looking at each other, likely meant he was going to have to physically wade into the fray. Then, slowly, Sabbat lowered his hand.

Viola, equally slowly, straightened up.

Still eyeing her, Sabbat did likewise.

“Thank you,” said Archer, and meant it. Then, since he still had their attention, he added “Your restraint is highly appreciated – by what remains of my bathroom, if nothing else.”

Sabbat laughed.

So, after a moment, did Viola.

Fest, for his part, simply stared at the other two as though they’d suddenly gone mad – which, from his perspective, they quite possibly had.

“If you’re quite finished,” Archer said, taking pity on the younger vampire, “I suggest a change of venue might go some way towards helping find a solution to this particular… mess.” He nodded over his shoulder, towards the open door of the sitting room. “That is, if the three of you can manage to sit relatively quietly in the same room without causing any more property damage. Basins are replaceable. Some of the artefacts in there are significantly less so.”

Viola had the good grace to look embarrassed – putting her on a par with Fest, who’d been looking rather as though he wished the earth would open and swallow him up ever since Archer had entered the room.

Sabbat… didn’t, which was unsurprising, though he at least muttered something under his breath that might possibly, if Archer was feeling charitable, have been considered an apology.

Ten minutes and several attempted explanations later, Archer found himself feeling a good deal more kindly disposed towards his unexpected house guests, if only because, in light of what they’d told him, he didn’t have the spare mental capacity to continue being irritated with them.

“And you’re sure you don’t remember drinking it?” he asked, for what felt like the fifth time in as many minutes.

Fest shook his head, eyes fixed firmly on the patch of floor between his scuffed boots. “I don’t remember anything. Not even what I was dreaming about.” He swallowed miserably. “Do you- I mean- did I kill someone?”

“I think that’s highly unlikely,” Archer said, and winced at the obvious relief welling up in the boy’s eyes. “It’s not out of the question, admittedly, but the volume of blood you’ve thrown up wouldn’t correlate to the volume needed to completely exsanguinate either a human or a werewolf.” An adult human or werewolf, that is. But I highly doubt mentioning that particular detail is going to do a damn thing to make this situation any easier. 

“So what the hells happened to him?” Viola asked, leaning forward in her chair. She’d made a passable go at tidying herself up after the fight which had destroyed half of Archer’s bathroom, and the few scrapes she’d caught were already healing over, but she still looked almost as out of place in the sitting room as Sabbat did – which, much to Archer’s mingled amusement and relief, seemed to be providing the two of them with something to bond over if the looks they kept giving one another were anything to go by.

Those two are either going to end up going out drinking together or punching one another’s lights out by the end of this. And, if it were up to me, I know which outcome I’d favour. 

“I don’t know,” he answered, opting for outright honesty over hypothetical possibilities. There were any number of things that could have happened to the younger vampire, of course, but given the lack of any concrete evidence, any explanation that he could come up with for Fest’s plight would be wild speculation at best. “My suspicion is that it’s something to do with Foreval-”

“Tell me something I don’t bloody know!”

“-but,” he continued, ignoring the werewolf’s outburst, “I don’t know exactly what she’s done, given you, Mr Fest, are hardly displaying any of the symptoms we’ve observed in her other victims.”

“He means you ain’t lookin’ t’throw yourself off the nearest fuckin’ bridge,” Sabbat explained, helpfully. “That or slit your own fuckin’ throat. Or-”

“I think he gets the gist,” Archer interjected. The boy was going an interesting shade of green, and the fixed stare he’d been favouring the floor with was starting to take on a distinctly deathmask-like aspect. “The point being, Miss Foreval’s usual machinations have a very distinctive look to them, and your experience doesn’t match that pattern.”

“Um,” Fest said, continuing to stare at the floor.

“That doesn’t mean that it’s not something the Order can help you with, however. We’re not about to let any of our members lose their heads over a Sinnlenst plot, no matter how new to our ranks they may be.” And then, since the younger vampire didn’t seem to have quite realised what he was hinting at, “Welcome to the Order of Gentleman Magicians of the City of Sacaan, Mr Fest.”

That got a reaction, though not quite the one he was expecting. Fest looked up at him, opened his mouth, blinked a few times… and promptly fainted.


I really have to stop doing this, Fest thought, muzzily.

He was lying on the floor, again. Someone had put a pillow under his head, though, which was a new and welcome addition to the general way this went, and  the same someone was presumably responsible for the glass of water which had been placed on the floor next to his head – just within reach, though not close enough that he’d accidentally knock it over when he woke up.

Whoever the someone was, then, they certainly seemed to have practice in dealing with suddenly-unconscious people.

“I-” he began, and then the full reality of where he was and what exactly had happened flooded back to him, and he very nearly swallowed his tongue. “Um.”

“Welcome back to the land of the living, Mr Fest.” The voice was coming from somewhere above his head – his eyes followed the source up from floor level, tracking up a pair of silver-embroidered black indoor boots, black trews, and a wine-red waistcoat, before focusing in on what was rapidly becoming a very familiar face, its one yellow eye glinting with a mixture of sympathy and amusement. “I have to admit, I wasn’t exactly expecting quite that strong a reaction.”

Fest winced, feeling the heat of embarrassment spreading up his neck. He’d been hoping to make a good – well, an acceptable – alright, a passable impression on the older vampire, but even making allowances for the amount of stress he was currently under, falling over in a dead faint on Archer’s carpet was highly unlikely to have won him any points as far as that was concerned. Gods, if he didn’t already think I was a liability… “I’m sorry, sir. I… I don’t know what happened.”

“Gods above, youngster, there’s nothing to apologise for. Given the day you’ve apparently had, I’m only surprised it didn’t happen sooner.” He smiled, leaning forward and lowering his voice a little. “As a word of advice, now that you’re in the city you’d do well to try and feed on a more regular basis if you can. Something in the make-up of this place, whether it’s magical or mundane, means that we’re more susceptible to hunger here than we would be living in a smaller settlement.”

And that’s another thing nobody thought to tell me. “Thank you. I- That is-” His guts roiled, the memory of the taste of blood suddenly filling his mouth again, and he turned his face away, propping himself up on one elbow and gulping down half the contents of the glass of water with distinctly ungraceful haste.

“You alright down there?” That was Viola, and even without looking at her he could tell she was frowning at him. “You’re not going to throw up again, are you?”

“Even if I was, there’s nothing left to throw up with,” he shot back, flopping back down onto the carpet with a groan. “I can’t decide if I’m completely ravenous, or if I never want to eat again.”

“Well, one of those gets you dead – again – and the other one doesn’t, so I know what one I’d pick.”  She laughed, dropping down to sit on the carpet beside him as though it was the most natural thing in the world. “Even if you do annoy the piss out of me sometimes.”

Despite himself, he grinned back at her. “That’s a little harsh, given you’ve only known me a day.”

“And saved your life at least once. That ought to count for something.”

“Wasn’t goin’ t’kill him,” Sabbat interjected, leaning back in his chair and putting his boots up on the table (which Archer rolled his eye at, but let pass without comment). “Not permanently, anyhow.”

That… really doesn’t make me feel any better about the situation, Fest thought. He wasn’t about to say as much, though – he rather liked his throat intact, and wasn’t entirely sure he trusted that Sabbat would acquiesce to Archer’s request regarding not stabbing up houseguests, uninvited or otherwise.

Viola, on the other hand, seemed to have no such qualms. “Really?’cause it looked a whole lot like you were trying to kill him to me.”

Sabbat laughed. “An’ you’re fuckin’ deaf. I said I din’t intend t’kill him permanently. Din’t say anythin’ about inconveniencin’ him fer a while.”

Judging by Viola’s expression, the clarification hadn’t made her any happier about the whole thing. Judging by Sabbat’s, he didn’t care.

Archer sighed, leaning forward in his own chair and raising a hand to forestall any further debate. “We’re from the point. What I was going to say, before the enforced break in proceedings, is that while whatever Foreval’s done to our young friend here is definitely a cause for concern, I’m rather more immediately worried by the would-be blackmailer the two of you encountered at Baskervilles. Especially since, I think I’m right in saying, he’s not unknown to at least one of you.”

“He’s a speciesist bastard who thinks he’s the gods’ gift to magician-kind,” Fest snapped, the words coming almost without thinking. “And if I thought I could get away with it, I’d punch those damn spectacles right off his stupid bloody face.” Then, as he belatedly remembered who he was talking to, “I mean – he’s a student at the University, sir. He’s in most of the same classes as me, and… he’s not good to be around if you’re not human. Sir.”

Archer laughed. “First of all, you don’t have to call me sir. And secondly, I think I preferred your first explanation. What’s the name of this particular speciesist bastard?”

“Adam Avebury,” Fest said, trying yet again to fight down the flush of embarrassment he could feel creeping up the back of his neck. “His people were part of the Council before the revolution.”

The older vampire nodded, as though he was making a mental note to himself, but it was Sabbat who spoke up. “‘Avebury’, huh? Ain’t the first time I’ve heard that name today.”

Archer blinked, turning to fix the human with a look that suggested this was as much news to him as it was to Fest. “No?”

“Overheard a pack of Sinnlenst while I was on my way over here – fuckin’ idiots were too stupid t’realise they shouldn’t be havin’ a war council in the middle of the soddin’ street. Seems some feller who shares your blackmailin’ bastard’s name’s been stirrin’ things up recently, an’ half the Sinnlenst reckon he’s a traitor for it. Then again, they’re also reckonin’ that he’d have ‘em killed in their sleep if he got wind of ‘em plottin’ against him, so it ain’t as though they’re likely to move on him any time soon” He grinned a sideways grin that didn’t have much humour in it. “Could always fix that, of course.”

The bottom dropped out of Fest’s stomach. Not because he didn’t want Avebury dead – gods knew it probably made him a bad person, but he honestly couldn’t care less about whether the other boy lived or died in general – but because of what Avebury had told both him and Viola would happen if he was ‘inconvenienced’. And, as far as Fest saw it, being murdered was probably about as inconvenienced as you could possibly get.

“Um,” he said, and then immediately regretted it as Sabbat turned to look at him. “Er.” He took a deep breath, closed his eyes for a moment, and continued,“That’s… really not a good idea. Sir.”

“An’ why the fuck’s that?”

Fest swallowed, hard. “Because- that is to say- he-” Oh gods. I… how the hells do I explain this? More to the point, how do I explain it without getting stabbed?

“Because the bastard’s gone and made it so that if he dies, his sodding blackmail letters automatically get out,” Viola snarled, her voice thick with anger. “And because I don’t know who the hells else we need to kill to stop that happening.”

“Which is, unfortunately, a very good reason to keep him alive,” Archer said. He sighed. “Much as removing him would, apparently, do the city a favour, he’s currently rendered himself irritatingly untouchable – and no, Sabbat, not even the most bloodthirsty of the Masters would sanction the number of assassinations required to ensure those letters never got out.”

“Spoilsport,” the assassin grumbled, but in a way that sounded a whole lot like he was conceding the point (much to Fest’s poorly-concealed relief).

“So, given that particular avenue of problem-solving is closed to us, I suggest we move to a more… subtle approach,” the older vampire continued. “For which, Mr Fest, I’m afraid I am going to have to enlist your help.”

“Not mine?” Viola asked, sounding more than a little put out. She got to her feet, taking the chair Fest had involuntarily vacated, and looked around the room defiantly, as though daring any of the others to deny her her right to be there. “What’s the matter? Don’t think I’m good for subtlety?”

Sabbat laughed. “You ain’t exactly makin’ a good case for it.”

“Shut up.”

“Make me.”

“You think I won’t?”

“Think I’d like t’see you fuckin’ try.”

“Oh for the love of- Would the both of you please be quiet? Sabbat, stop making things worse. Viola, stop assuming things I didn’t say – I do need your help, but, given you’re already an active member of the Order, I was rather assuming that went without saying.” The older vampire ran a hand through his hair, leaning back with a sigh that suggested, to Fest’s mind at least, that he was just about fed up to the back teeth with the other inhabitants of the room and very politely trying not to show it. “Besides, if your behaviour so far today is anything to go by, you’re not exactly backward in coming forward. I could hardly leave you out of this if I tried.”

The werewolf rolled her eyes, though she was grinning all the same. “I get the feeling I’m being stereotyped a little here.”

“Better get used to it,” Sabbat told her. “Far as I can tell, he ain’t wrong.”

“Be that as it may,” Archer continued, hurriedly, as Viola opened her mouth to retaliate, “the two of you are going to need to work together on this. Because as far as I see it, the way we deal with this particular Sinnlenst problem-”

“-is to lie to the bastard’s face about the Luciels’ involvement, get him to trust us, get into the inner circle and pull as much information out as we can before we burn the place to the ground?” Viola’s grin widened. “You’re not the only one who’s been thinking this one over.”

“Apparently so,” Archer said. He sounded as though he approved, and Fest got the distinct impression that, if Viola had been in possession of a tail at this point in time, she would have been wagging it. “Given you’ve obviously got your own plans already in progress, I’m minded not to try and interfere – though I get the impression that, if you’ll excuse a slight assumption, you’d rather I spoke to your employers on the matter of the blackmail material.”

“Please. It’s not that I don’t think they’ll understand, but…” She shifted uncomfortably in her chair, and Fest had a sudden urge to put a comforting hand on her knee (her shoulder being out of reach from the floor).

However, given he wasn’t entirely sure how that kind of overture would be received, and didn’t exactly feel like getting any more bones broken today, he resisted the impulse, settling instead for what he hoped was a vaguely friendly-looking smile.

Judging by her answering expression, he’d just about got it right. Which means that’s the first thing I’ve succeeded at today. Well done, me.  

“I’ll do that,” Archer reassured her. “Though, given I’ve at least one murder to investigate, I can’t promise I’ll find the time today.”

“Murder?” The word was out of Fest’s mouth before he could stop it, the panic rising again even though he knew full well that this was likely nothing to do with his particular predicament. “You never said anything about a murder. Sir.”

“On account of the fact it’s got shit-all t’do with you,” Sabbat growled. He grinned nastily. “Unless you’re thinkin’ y’might’ve gone slaughterin’ whores down in Steepside in your sleep? Wouldn’t be the first toff t’play that game, after all.”

Fest’s skin went cold. “I don’t- I didn’t- I-” Oh gods. It didn’t matter how much he told himself he wouldn’t – couldn’t have done that, the thought was still there. It could be me. I could have killed whoever they’re talking about. 

Maybe I did. 


Oh for crying out loud.

Archer hadn’t been expecting Sabbat to be personable – the assassin wasn’t exactly inclined towards politeness at the best of times, and the fight certainly hadn’t done anything to sweeten his temper – but he’d been hoping, vain as that hope might have been, that he’d at least refrain from outright accusing Fest of murder while the boy was still in the room.

Apparently, however, that had been rather too much to hope for.


The assassin rolled his eyes. “What?”

“Shut up.” And, before the other man could formulate a response beyond the practically-instinctive raised middle finger, “While it’s still a vague possibility, and once that I’m sure our young friend is all too well aware of, it’s highly unlikely that he was involved in that particular incident. And, more to the point, insinuating otherwise purely to upset him is hardly going to do anything to help matters.”

“Ain’t tryin’ t’be helpful,” the assassin objected, somewhat sulkily.

“That’s for damn sure,” Archer muttered. Then, raising his voice, he went on, “This isn’t a joking matter – the girl’s dead, whoever killed her is still at large, and, until we find them, every vampire in the city is potentially at risk.” He frowned. “I can’t help feeling as though all of this is connected, somehow. Either that or we’ve arrived at a particularly worrying confluence of coincidences.”

“Or you’re bein’ paranoid.”

“Or I’m being paranoid. But exsanguination murders are rare enough that two in one night is deeply, deeply suspicious. Add that to Foreval’s sudden change in tactics, the attempted abduction of young Fest, Miss Cervanso’s run-in with a man who’s supposed to be dead, and the sudden emergence of a politically powerful Sinnlenst youngster with an apparent sideline in blackmail and a particular interest in the Luciel family, and I think I’ve the right to a certain level of paranoia.”

There was a short, awkward silence. Then Fest raised a hand, looking for all the world like a schoolboy asking a question in lessons, and said, in a small, quiet voice, “Could you go through all that again, but slower this time, sir? Because I’m pretty certain I don’t understand more than half of it, and the half I do understand isn’t making me any less worried about the half I don’t.” He winced. “Also I would really appreciate knowing more about those murders, if possible. I know you say I couldn’t have done it – or, at least, it’s not likely that I did – but I… that is… “ He trailed off, staring into nothing.

“You want to be sure?” Archer asked.

The boy nodded, mutely.

“That’s more than fair.” He looked around the room, taking stock of the situation, and came to what was, if he was honest with himself, probably the decision he should have made right at the very start of the discussion. And here I was hoping I might get to start the new year with something vaguely resembling a holiday from the organisational side of Order business. Oh well. At least Sabbat’ll be happy. “In fact, if all three of you are amenable, I propose we relocate to the dining table and turn this into a proper war council. There’s more than enough coal to heat the samovar, and, if I move the remains of breakfast out of the way, there should be enough space for any and all maps and paperwork we’re likely to need. Unless anyone has any objections?”

“None, provided we’re done by noon,” Viola said. At his enquiring look, she clarified: “I only have a half-holiday today, and I’d prefer not to get in any more trouble than I need to.”

“That, I think, we can definitely accommodate.”


As it turned out, they were done by noon – but only just. Viola made her goodbyes as quickly as she could (not that she was usually much inclined towards overly polite leave-taking, but she was about to steal Archer’s shirt, and she had destroyed a fair amount of his furniture) and managed to get about halfway down the street before the first bells started ringing for the hour.

Dammit, dammit, dammit. I know they’re not going to mind if I’m a few minutes late, but it’s not going to make the situation any bloody better. 

On two legs, she’d make it to the Luciel’s townhouse in a quarter of an hour if she hurried. On four, she’d manage it in half the time. Problem was, four legs also meant discarding her clothes, or, failing that, finding some way to carry them with her.

Of all the days to choose to wear boots. Sometimes I think Seb’s starting to get to me. 

The memory of her brother’s voice echoed in the back of her head: “We’ve got to play the game their way, Vi. Start running around barefoot, and they’ll go right back to treating us like witless savages.”

Honestly,  as far as Viola was concerned, anyone wanting to have that particular conversation could take it up with her fists – or claws, she wasn’t picky. But then again, that was probably why Sebastian had kept harping on at her about it, which in turn meant it was why she’d agreed to wear the damn boots in the first place (because wearing boots was a small price to pay if it meant stopping her twin nagging her, and she knew from first-hand experience that, once he’d made his mind up on a topic, he was as bloody stubborn she was). And, she had to admit, they did at least keep the bottoms of her trousers dry.

But that didn’t do a damn thing to stop them being a bloody inconvenience when it came to shifting. At least vampires didn’t have to worry about that, she supposed. Bloody leeches got to have their clothes and boots and everything in their sodding pockets transform along with them, because magic. Werewolves didn’t get that luxury.

Shouldn’t have worn the boots. Shouldn’t have worn the boots, wore the bloody boots, am now trying to distract myself by thinking about wearing the stupid sodding boots so I don’t have to make a decision on whether I’m shifting or trying to run the whole way back in twolegs form. Spirits and ancestors, if I wasn’t me I’d be making a fair go at punching my own sodding lights out by now.

She rounded the corner at the end of the street at a dead sprint, skidding on the half-melted snow as she tried to slow herself down enough that she’d not crash straight into the flow of people spilling out of the temple doorway just across the other side of the crossroads. For all the Temple of Ashkenta wasn’t half as grand or as large as the High Temple up at the very top of the city, it seemed to hold a bloody huge number of worshippers for its size, and they all seemed to want to carry on whatever conversations they’d been having inside the building out into the street, and damn whatever sledges or reindeer or pissed-off werewolves might want to be trying to use the thoroughfare to actually get anywhere.

“Excuse me… thank you… coming through…thank you” Move your bloody arses out of the road and go have your damn chinwag somewhere else, why don’t you? But swearing at them wasn’t going to do a damn thing to make them move any faster, and the last thing she needed right now was to end up in a flaming row in the middle of the public thoroughfare.

Not least because I’d probably lose. Devotees of Ashkenta tended towards the scholarly side of things, which half the time meant they’d ignore anything and anyone that wasn’t their current pet obsession, and the other meant that they’d start a full-on debate over the colour of the sky just to keep their hands in. And, to make matters worse, they seemed to swap between those frameworks pretty much at random, which was a bastard of a thing to find out when you were in the middle of trying to court one.

The relationship hadn’t panned out, in the end, but it’d been a fun few months while it lasted, and they’d stayed in touch once the other girl had moved away to Efir – Viola still got letters every few months, packed with ‘did you know’ and ‘have you read’ and ‘today I learned’, and with a small, tacked-on paragraph at the end which tended to include things like ‘oh, by the way, I broke my leg trying to abseil down the side of the canyon a week ago’ or ‘the house caught fire last month, but everyone got out alright and I’m only slightly burned’.

And here half the Order are thinking I’m reckless. She grinned to herself, shouldering her way through the last few feet of the crowd and emerging out onto what in comparison felt like an almost unnervingly empty street.

Right. Decision time. She could, if she really wanted to, still shift fourlegged for the run home – find an alleyway, shuck the clothes and boots, and then either bundle them up together and carry them in her mouth or hide them somewhere and hope nobody uncovered them before she could get back to retrieve them. Or she could bow to inevitability (and the existence of the boots), stay twolegged, and use the extra time to come up with a really bloody good excuse for why she was late.

I don’t suppose they’d take ‘stopped off at the temple to have a vigorous theological discussion’, would they? 

By the time she’d made it almost to the Luciels’ townhouse, she’d narrowed down the possible explanations to five or so which might actually make the cut. There was, of course, always the option of telling the truth – or, at least, a slightly edited variant thereof – but, given how much she’d have to leave out in order to paint things in a vaguely acceptable light, that was currently coming in a very poor sixth.

Now all I need to do is work out which one I’m actually going to go with, and stick to it like… like something very sticky. Because if telling them the truth’d go badly, obviously lying to their faces’d go a damn sight worse. 


Wha-? The voice had come from somewhere above her head – she looked up, startled, and then, after a brief moment of utter shock, burst out laughing. “Amelia? What in the name of my favourite ancestors are you doing halfway up a bloody tree?”

“Hiding,” the other girl replied, grinning all over her face. She leaned down, patting the branch beside her companionably. “Come on up!”

“I can’t – I only had a half-holiday, and I’m already late getting back. Your folks’ll-”

“Oh sod my parents!” Amelia snapped, uncharacteristically irritated. She took a breath, composed herself, and went on. “Look, they’ve gone to Lord Ashbourne’s for lunch and politics, which means they’ll be back by half-eight at the absolute earliest. More likely they’ll stay right through ‘til at least ten, and then Papa’ll insist on walking home because the cold’ll help him sober up, so they won’t get back to the house until gone midnight, by which point you and I will be soundly asleep like good little girls and nobody’ll give a damn what time you got back or how many trees you climbed.”

She made a good point, Viola had to admit. And, after a whole day of plotting and scheming and housebreaking and fighting and accidentally saving people, an afternoon spent sitting in a tree doing not much of anything at all was starting to sound like a very tempting idea. Although…

“Hang about a minute. You said you were hiding, right?”


“But you also said your folks were away.”


“So who’re you hiding from?”

Amelia looked away, cheeks flushed with embarrassment. “If you must know… your brother.”

“What?” Seb could be annoying – she knew that better than anyone – but the idea of him trying any of his usual ‘I’m the eldest (by five minutes), therefore I know best’ nonsense on Amelia was too bloody ridiculous to even warrant considering. “What in the hells did he do?”

“He’s trying to be understanding at me.”

And suddenly everything all made a horrible amount of sense. “Oh crap. You had another row with your folks about getting married, didn’t you?”

The other girl nodded, still not looking at Viola. “Papa’s still convinced I just haven’t found the right man yet. Or woman, I suppose, given he’s not prejudiced that way. He just… wants me to find someone, and preferably before next midwinter.”

“And you didn’t tell him you already had?”

“Are you insane? He’d never allow it. Nor would Mama, and without both of them I lose the backing of the Order, which means my career’s in tatters, which means Harry’s having to support us both, and I’m not doing that to him.” She sighed, patting the branch again in an absent kind of way. “Come up here, will you? I can’t do this if I’m having to shout down to you.”

Viola did as she was asked, kicking her boots off and leaving them and her socks at the base of the tree, before scrambling up to sit alongside her friend (she’d long ago stopped thinking of Amelia as her mistress most of the time, for all that was technically the case. As far as both of them were concerned, they were practically sisters).

“So,” she said, once she’d got herself comfortably wedged in among the branches, “why aren’t they going to allow it this time?”

Amelia groaned, leaning back against Viola’s shoulder and closing her eyes. “Take your pick. He’s poor, he’s a bastard – and I mean that completely literally, his parents weren’t married when he was born – he’s got no academic qualifications to speak of, he’s crippled…”

“They’re not going to ban you from marrying him based on that, ‘melia. They’re not that bad.”

“It’s not going to help, Vi. If he had his arm he’d not have been invalided out of the army, which means I could at least have persuaded them I was marrying well militarily speaking. As it is, he’s on half-pay and there’s not many jobs that’ll take ex-officers, let alone ones who’re missing their dominant hand.”

“Fair,” Viola conceded. She thought for a second, then said, quietly, “Hang on. He’s a noble, right?”

“Yes. His mother was Lady Tien, who died in that fever epidemic back the year the falls ran dry. I don’t know who his father is, but apparently he’s a noble as well, just not one of the ones who’s part of Society.” She sighed again. “Which isn’t going to win him any more favours with Papa, I can tell you that much.”

“So why isn’t he getting money from his folks? Even if he’s a bastard, surely someone’s looking out for him? I mean, I know you humans don’t do packs properly, but still…”

“It’s not that simple. Lady Tien died without a will and without a true-born heir, so all her wealth defaulted to her sister, who wants nothing to do with anyone on that side of the family. And Harry and his father aren’t on speaking terms, so…”

“Why?” To anyone else, that would probably have come across as unconscionably rude. But Viola had known Amelia for long enough to know that her friend didn’t mind her speaking as she found – and, in fact, welcomed it as a refreshing break from the endless hidden meanings and sly insults of the noble political game. “If it’s something your boy’s done, I might have to reevaluate my opinion on him.”

“First of all, you’re not my chaperone, even if Mama and Papa think you are. And secondly, it’s not anything either of them have done. Harry’s father didn’t want him to join up, that’s all.”

“And that’s worth not speaking to him for what – five years?”

“It is when the last words they had were a blazing row, Vi. He doesn’t want to go back and admit his father was right, and I’m not going to make him.”

“Fine. Not getting involved in someone else’s family squabbles, even if they’re pointless. What about getting him to join the Order? Your folks couldn’t complain then, and they’re not likely to let you marry someone who’s not one of us anyway.”

“I asked. He won’t.”

“Why not?”

“Because he thinks if they accepted him they’d only be doing it because of who his father is, and because he got wounded. He’d rather prove himself to them on his own terms than have them give him something he doesn’t think he’s earned because they’re feeling sorry for him.”

Viola rolled her eyes. “Given our latest new recruit, I don’t think that’s going to be much of a problem.”

“What do you mean?” Amelia asked, gratefully jumping on a possible conversational topic which didn’t involve her disastrous lovelife. “Don’t tell me you’ve been getting into adventures without me again.”

“‘fraid so,” Viola admitted. She pulled a face. “And there’s worse. Some Sinnlenst bastard’s trying to blackmail me.”

“Did you do it?”

“No. But he’s got enough proof to get me drummed out of the university, so that hardly bloody matters.”

Amelia sat bolt upright, very nearly falling out of the tree in the process.“Viola! What did you- why- oh Mother Moon give me strength, did you get caught breaking into somewhere again?”

“No! Well… yes, but that’s not what he’s holding over my head.”


“Look, it wasn’t as if I had much of a choice! It was that or let the Sinnlenst kill Fest, and given he’d already died once already, that seemed like a sodding poor idea.”

“Kill who, Vi? Start from the beginning, because right now you’re not making any sense and it’s starting to worry me.”

But at least it’s stopped you worrying yourself to death over your boy, Viola thought, triumphantly. She leaned back against the trunk of the tree, put her hands behind her head, and took a deep breath, savouring the scent of pine and fresh snowfall, and the feeling that right now, even just for a moment, things weren’t currently completely and utterly on fire. “Right. So. You remember when I left the party last night?”

It took longer than she’d expected to tell the whole story, especially since Amelia insisted on quizzing her on absolutely every detail, making her go over and over events until she was completely certain she had a complete picture of what had occurred.

Finally, the other girl sat back, looked her square in the eyes, and said: “I want to help.”

This time it was Viola’s turn to nearly fall out of the damn tree. “You what?” she managed, once the initial shock had worn off.

“I want to help,” Amelia said, again, as though it was the most normal thing in the world. “You’re going to need me anyway, given you’re going to need information on my family that they’ll be able to corroborate from other sources, and I’m sick of sitting at home while the rest of the world goes on without me. I’m a damn good magician, and a decently competent fighter, and-”

“-and if anything happens to you, your mother’ll have my head!” Viola protested. She wrapped her arms around the younger girl, holding her close. “Look, ‘melia, I know you’re pissed off with your folks, but you’re the only child of one of the most powerful families in the sodding city. You don’t just get to go running off after Sinnlenst spies in the middle of the night like-”

“Like you do?” Amelia shot back, though she didn’t fight against Viola’s hold on her.


The other girl looked up at her for a long moment. Then she smiled, resting her head against Viola’s shoulder, and closed her eyes. “I know what you’re thinking, Vi – and a year or two ago, you’d have been right – but I’m not about to bind my breasts and run away down to Old Town just because I had yet another fight with my parents. When I said I wanted to help, I meant it completely seriously. I’ve more knowledge of the political game than you do, I’m subtler, and I’ve the advantage that, as far as we know, none of the Sinnlenst suspect me of being anything more than what I appear to be – just another student with rich parents and time to waste learning magic. I can get into places that you can’t – that none of the people involved in this plot of yours can. You need me.” She paused, grin widening. “And, more to the point, if I don’t have something to do this year, one of these days I might just finally haul off and punch someone.”

And what I wouldn’t give to see that, Viola thought. She found herself grinning too, caught up in Amelia’s all-too infectious desire to get out there and do something – and, hells, if she’d been the one who’d spent her whole life being groomed to be Somebody, wouldn’t she be feeling the same way? “Alright. You help me figure out a story to spin this Sinnlenst bastard, and we’ll go from there.”

And we just pray that your parents never find out about this, she added, silently.


Copyright © 2020 by Finn McLellan.  All rights reserved.

2 thoughts on “Blood on the Snow: Chapter 7 (draft)

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