“She’s got your shirt.”
“I know, Sabbat.”
“-th’fuck’s she got your shirt for?”
“Because someone stabbed her,” Archer said, leaning forward to place his tea glass back under the spigot of the samovar. “And, unlike in Old Town, people walking around covered in blood in this particular district tend to attract a certain amount of unwanted attention.” He twisted the tap, savouring the sudden cloud of fragrant steam as the boiling water hit the dark layer of concentrated tea in the bottom of the glass. “Given the fact that her shirt was utterly ruined, lending her one of mine seemed like the logical choice.”
Sabbat scowled, obviously unconvinced by the argument (though for the life of him Archer couldn’t figure out why). Finally, he said, slowly: “So you gave her your shirt.”
“…That is in fact what I just said, yes.”
“Fuckin’ chivalrous of you,” the assassin commented, venomously.
Archer rolled his eye, taking a spoonful of jam from the open jar on the table and stirring it into his freshly-poured glass of tea. “I could hardly let her walk around half-naked, Sabbat. And besides, I don’t see why it’s anything to do with you. It’s my shirt.”
“An’ you’re givin’ it t’some werewolf bitch who fuckin’ jumped me – after she broke into your sixdamn house,” Sabbat snarled. He took a swig of his own tea, slamming the glass down hard enough on the table to make Archer jump slightly. “Y’don’t see why that might – just might – be a fuckin’ problem, Archer?”
“You don’t trust her,” Archer said. He was stating the bleeding obvious and he knew as much, but, if they were going to have this out now, they were at least going to have it out for the right reasons. I’m only glad Fest made his excuses around the same time Viola did. This would be even more awkward with an audience.
The assassin sneered. “How fuckin’ insightful of you. No, I don’t fuckin’ trust her, an’ the fact you’re givin’ her half as much leeway as you are with this fuckin’ blackmail issue-”
“She’s a member of the Order, Sabbat.”
“So? That red-eye brat’s a member of the fuckin’ Order now, thanks t’you, an’ I don’t trust him half as far as I can fuckin’ throw him.”
Oh good. Thank you very much indeed for making me have to defend that decision on top of everything else. This is exactly what I needed.
On the other hand, given he was going to have to defend it to half the rest of the Order when they found out, getting some practice in now wasn’t exactly a bad idea. He leant back in his chair, steepled his fingers, and took a deep breath. “That’s a different class of problem entirely, and you know as much. Young Fest’s a sorcerer – or, at the very least, a sorcerer-in-the-making. As such, we had both a moral and an ethical duty to get hold of him before the Sinnlenst did even if they weren’t very obviously making a play for him.”
He paused, noting with a certain amount of satisfaction that Sabbat wasn’t interrupting him, and then continued: “Miss Cervanso, on the other hand, has been a member of the Order since she was old enough to join, and her credentials as far as loyalty goes are impeccable. She’s impetuous, yes, and she’s not the most polite or subtle person I’ve ever encountered, but those’re hardly reasons not to trust her. You of all people should know that.”
Sabbat took another swig of tea, and glared at nothing. Then, after a while, he put the glass down and leant back in his chair, folding his arms across his chest. “Alright then. D’you trust her more’n you trust me?”
What? Of all the responses Archer had been expecting, that really hadn’t been one of them. “I- Where in the name of the gods are you getting that idea from?”
“Just answer the fuckin’ question, Archer. D’you trust her more’n you trust me?”
“For the sake of- No. I’m not sure why you even felt it necessary to ask, but no.”
“Then you ain’t goin’ t’mind me followin’ her an’ your brat t’that meetin’ t’make sure they ain’t sellin’ us out t’the Sinnlenst.”
Archer put his head in his hands, closed his eye, and tried very hard not to swear. Ashkenta, give me strength. “And get them killed if the Sinnlenst notice they’re being followed and decide it’s a trap? Yes, of course I bloody mind!” He sighed.“Much as I appreciate the sentiment, Viola’s not going to sell us out. And, if Fest does turn traitor, I trust her to handle the situation.”
“Y’do, do you?” From the assassin’s tone of voice, he didn’t share Archer’s confidence. “An’ besides, who says they’d notice? You forget what I do for a livin’ again, Archer?”
“No, Sabbat, I didn’t. But given what you do for a living is kill people, I think I’m justified in suggesting that getting involved in a mission in which success somewhat revolves around everyone involved remaining alive might not be the best use of your talents.”
“Thought y’said you trusted me,” the assassin objected.
Yes. Which is why I’m currently just about managing to keep my temper in the face of what I’m pretty damn certain is utterly deliberate provocation. Please stop making that harder, Archer thought. Out loud, he said: “I do. I also think that adding any more uncertainty to this situation increases the chance of everything going horrifically wrong – and, whatever else you may be, you’re something of a walking uncertainty generator when it comes to plans of this sort.”
“Oh for the love of all things holy, Sabbat, will you just listen to me for a moment? Yes, you’re a damn good assassin. One of the best the Order has, and I’m not just saying that as a friend.” And, as the other man’s anger bled away into uncertainty in the face of the unexpected praise, he went on: “You’re also stubborn, impulsive, reckless, and by all accounts a complete bastard to work with – for anyone who’s not me,” he added, as Sabbat opened his mouth to protest. “With that in mind, and given how bloody tricky this whole blackmail business is even without accounting for whatever the Sinnlenst have up their sleeve, I’m going to suggest – as a friend, and because I’m your friend – that you stay well clear of it.”
“That an order?”
If it was, you’d never follow it. “It’s a suggestion,” Archer repeated, calmly. He took another drink of tea, grimacing a little at the temperature.“Of course, if you’re looking for something to do, there’s always our probable-vampire murderer to deal with. Though I’m sure I could find someone else to do the job if you’d rather not waste your time.”
“Bastard,” the assassin said, in the tone of someone who knew full well they were being played. He drained the last of his own tea, and leant forward. “Convince me.”
“Easy. It doesn’t involve politics, for a start.” He grinned. “It may involve the Sinnlenst – because what in this city doesn’t – but it may also be unconnected on anything but the most superficial level, so you’ve potentially a good deal more freedom to operate. Especially since the Order’s not likely to be putting anyone else on it unless we can prove it’s linked to the Sinnlenst, which would mean you’d have a clear field to work with. And above and beyond all of that…” He paused, letting the moment hang in the air. “I do seem to remember you saying something about not having had a chance to cut loose in a while.”
“Connivin’ bastard,” Sabbat amended, but in a tone that would have passed for affectionate if it’d been anyone but Sabbat using it. “Now who’s the one who ain’t fuckin’ subtle?”
“Still the hired killer, I believe,” Archer replied, finally relaxing enough to take a drink from his own (now somewhat lukewarm) glass of tea. “Unless ‘going hunting’ suddenly means something very different than it did the last time you mentioned it.”
The assassin grinned his sideways grin, the expression sharp and feral. “Can kill him subtly if y’want. Be a whole lot more fuckin’ borin’, mind, but I’ll do it.”
“For me? I’m touched.”
“Y’should be. Y’know how long I’ve been waitin’ t’just murder someone?”
And the fact that that statement doesn’t worry me… should probably worry me, Archer thought. He winced. Though it’s not as though my hands are entirely clean either. And you’re at least honest about what you are. Out loud, he said “About five years, give or take that business with the Sinnlenst assassin last summer. Though I get the impression that one was a good deal less premeditated than you’re currently planning on.”
Sabbat’s grin widened. “An’ here I was thinkin’ y’weren’t payin’ attention.”
“When it comes to you? Not likely – or, indeed, possible.”
The moment the words were out of his mouth, he regretted them. Not because they weren’t true – hells, it was one of the truest things he’d ever said – but because, out loud, they suddenly had a weight and a meaning they hadn’t had when they’d simply been a thought. I do not need to be thinking about that. Not right now. Not out loud. And definitely not when certain people are in the kind of mood where they’re likely to start asking incredibly awkward questions to which I honestly don’t have any answers I’m happy with them hearing.
But, thankfully, the assassin’s mind seemed to be on other things. He dropped his glass onto the table with a thud, pushing his chair back and getting to his feet in a motion which would have been a good deal more fluid if he hadn’t been obviously favouring his left leg as he did so. “You plannin’ on usin’ your bunk in the next couple of hours?”
“Are you alright?” Archer asked, almost at the same time. And then, as his brain caught up with his ears and he actually realised what the other man had just said, “I beg your pardon?”
“I said, you plannin’ on usin’ your bunk?” And, before Archer could even begin to examine the sudden mix of feelings that particular question had stirred up, he continued, “On account of the fact you dragged me across half the fuckin’ city on two hours of sleep, an’ then your pet fuckin’ werewolf-”
“Viola,” Archer corrected, somewhat absently. “And she’s not ‘my’ anything.”
“- decided t’try and break my sixdamn leg, meanin’ I ain’t gettin’ back over the rooftops any fuckin’ time soon. So if y’want me out huntin’ that killer leech of yours, ‘m goin’ t’need at least a few hours shut-eye, an’ I’d rather kip in a bunk than on the fuckin’ floor.”
He had a point, Archer had to admit. And, while a quick catnap did sound more than a little enticing given how early he’d woken up, he wasn’t likely to be using his bed any time soon, if for no other reason than he didn’t have the time: he was supposed to be meeting the Watch captain at three, and it’d take him at least half an hour to get down to the station – longer, if the streets were as packed as they tended to be on Midwinter’s Day. And the sooner I stop being in the same room as you, the sooner I can work through exactly what I thought you were asking. And, more to the point, why. “Be my guest. Well, more so than you are already.”
Sabbat nodded his thanks, already limping towards the hall. He stopped in the doorway for a second, looking back over his shoulder, and grinned. “By the way, that was a soddin’ terrible joke an’ you know it.”
“Oh, I’m well aware,” Archer replied, finishing the last of his tea and getting to his feet in turn. “On the other hand, given the morning I’ve had, I feel like the standard should be set somewhat lower at this precise moment.” He reached back, tightening the ribbon at the base of his queue. “Do I look at least vaguely presentable?”
“Y’look like a fuckin’ toff, Archer. As always.”
“Coming from you, that’s exactly what I needed to hear. Especially since it’s entirely likely I’m going to end up having to be the respectable face of the city’s vampire population to a likely incredibly stressed Watch captain.”
Sabbat laughed. “Rather you than me.”
“Not least because you’re wanted for at least six hanging offences?”
“‘xactly.” The assassin paused for a second, obviously considering something. Then: “Good luck out there, Archer. An’… stay safe.”
“You too. Sleep well, Sabbat.”
“Plannin’ on it.” He turned and headed off down the hallway, the limp bringing back echoes of the sailor’s rolling gait he’d almost lost in five years ashore.
Archer watched him go, and tried very hard not to think about… a lot of things.
Meanwhile, a street away, Jonathan Fest leant against the wall next to a statue of Ashkenta-in-Her-aspect-as-the-Hunter and tried to work out how on earth to start a conversation with a priest.
It wasn’t that he’d never talked to a priest before, of course. Almost every noble vampire family, even one as relatively provincial as his, had at least one priest in every generation, and religious discussion around the dinner table was as much a part of life as hunting trips or riding lessons. In Fest’s particular case, his oldest sister had decided fairly early on to embrace her calling, which meant that he and his other siblings had been tutored in religion from the moment they were able to form coherent arguments – and, while it had left him with a horror of ‘friendly debate’ which persisted to this day, he had to admit that it’d been good training for the University if nothing else.
It wasn’t even that he wasn’t a devotee of Ashkenta: while there were those who worshipped Her as a sole goddess, or in concert with a brother (and husband) as a dual deity pair, the majority of people in the city and its environs worshipped Her in Her aspect as the Twilight or Dusk Sister, the youngest of the Six Who Made The World. And, in that aspect, Fest had been offering up prayers to her since he was old enough to be carried on his father’s back to the temple in the ground of the family’s estate, as was the case with most children in Sacaan.
While he currently tended to pray more to Ocean Brother (as the patron of magicians) and Sky Brother (as the patron of those far from home) now he’d moved to the city, he’d still offered up more than a few prayers and sacrifices to Dusk Sister in her capacity as patron of knowledge-seekers, especially around exam season, so it wasn’t as though her temples were entirely unknown to him. This one was bigger than he was used to, admittedly, and a lot less full of stressed-looking students, but the general principle was the same: big hall, lots of statues, lots of lanterns, and at least one altar covered in scraps of paper and tiny metal models of whatever it was the person who’d left them there had been praying about. Temples were temples were temples – at least, as far as the Six went.
No, the thing that was bothering him – and here was the crux of the issue, because this was a thing that would be bothering anyone, so it wasn’t as though he was panicking about it at all, and – the thing that was bothering him was the fact that he had less than no idea how to start a conversation with a priest when what he needed to say to said priest pretty much started out with ‘so, I died last night and I don’t remember it’ and went on from there.
Yes, Archer had told him that the priests here would probably understand better than anyone. And yes, he’d then gone on to describe a specific priest who would both definitely be able to help, and, he’d very strongly hinted, would also be able to answer any questions Fest might have on the Order in general and the Order’s ways of doing magic in particular. But the fact remained that Archer wasn’t here, and Fest was, and Archer wasn’t the one having to walk up to a complete stranger and admit something incredibly bloody personal and generally worrying, was he?
He chewed on his lip, looking up at the goddess in the vain hope that She might have something helpful to contribute. The smooth black stone of the statue’s carved face glinted impassively in the snow-bright light streaming in through the windows on the opposite wall, and the flames in the lanterns set around her feet didn’t even waver a little as Fest eyed them – apparently, if She had any views on the situation, She appeared to be keeping them squarely to herself.
Well, if divine intervention wasn’t happening, he’d just have to square up and deal with things himself. He straightened up, brushing non-existent dust off the sleeves of his coat, and looked around the shadowed interior of the temple.
If there are any priests in here, they’re keeping worryingly quiet. Maybe I should just go away and come back later. I mean, it’s not as though this place is going anywhere.
Admittedly, he hadn’t checked everywhere. The main sanctum seemed fairly deserted, true, but he knew for a matter of fact that, this being a temple of Ashkenta, there’d be at least one library and five or six reading rooms either further back in the building or, more likely in the city, up on the other floors.
He sighed, and collapsed back against the wall again. So much for squaring up and dealing with things myself. I just… Is it too much to ask that something goes right today?
“My apologies for intruding, but – is there something I can help you with?”
“Agh!” Fest jumped, almost knocking over one of the lanterns in the process, and span round, looking for the source of the mysterious voice. For a brief moment there seemed to be no-one else around but the statue – then a shadow detached itself from one of the alcoves in the wall and, moving into the light, revealed itself to be a person of indeterminate gender, not much older than Fest himself, and dressed in the dark robes and red corded belt of a priest of Ashkenta. A person, in fact, who perfectly fit the description Archer had given of the priest Fest had been supposed to seek out.
Thank you, Dusk Sister! I’ll make sacrifice to you after this, I promise.
“Please,” the priest went on, holding up a conciliatory hand, “don’t be alarmed. I noticed you looking around, and I was wondering if you were – well, if you were looking for me, to be honest.”
“Yes!” Fest said, and then winced as it came out somewhat louder than he’d intended. He continued, in a slightly quieter voice, “I mean, if you’re Scribe Anneke, that is.”
Anneke smiled. “I am. Which means you must be the new recruit everyone’s so interested in.”
Oh. “Um. Yes. I suppose I am.” He bit his lip again, gagged slightly at the taste of blood. “Um. Archer sent me to talk to you. Because… Because…” And then, in a rush of words, because stopping meant he’d never say the damn thing at all: “Because I apparently died last night, and I don’t remember how, and I threw up blood I don’t remember drinking, and apparently you might be able to help me and I’m really sorry but I think I need to sit down or I’m going to fall over.”
To their credit, Anneke managed not to look too shocked by the sudden explosive confession. They stepped forward, offering their arm, and guided Fest to sit down on the stone bench that ran along the wall of the temple, supporting him until he’d managed to get himself into a position where he didn’t feel as though he was about to collapse completely.
Then they sat down next to him, took a deep breath, and said “I see.”
“You do?” Fest asked, hopefully.
“Yes.” They ran a hand through their tight curls and frowned, looking down at the patterned tiles as though they might find the answer they were looking for somewhere in the spirals and maze-lines that criss-crossed the sanctum. “This is the first time you’ve died, isn’t it?”
“Yes. My family don’t- that is to say- they’re not that traditional.”
“Your family are very wise. Infanticide is not an acceptable action, however temporary the consequences.” They sighed, looked up again – and Fest very belatedly noticed the thing he’d almost taken for granted when he’d first seen them.
“You’re a red-eye! Like me!”
The priest blinked, then put a hand over their mouth, looking as though they were trying very hard not to laugh. “I am. I take it you’ve not met very many others in the city?”
“Only one so far, and she was evil. It’s… really nice to meet someone like me who’s not trying to mind-control me into doing something horrific.”
This time they did laugh, quietly, behind their hand. “I’m glad I could help, then.” They paused, and then leaned forward, hands on their knees.“Given how you’ve described her, and your current predicament, I would hazard a guess you’re referring to Lucy Foreval as the only other red-eye you’ve met?”
“Then, for all I suspect you don’t feel that way, you’re a very lucky man. Not many people who’ve been enthralled by her so deeply that they’re losing memories live to tell the tale.” They frowned. “Sorry. That came out a little less reassuring than I was intending it to be.”
You’re not wrong, Fest thought. But the priest was trying to help, and it really wasn’t their fault he’d landed this particular mess in their lap. “It’s alright,” he said, out loud. “Archer told me as much. I think it’s why he’s so worried about me – they don’t know what she might have done to me, so they don’t really know how to… well, how to fix it, I suppose.”
“Which, I suspect, is where I come in,” Anneke said. “And, I suspect, why Archer sent you to talk to me.” Fest’s confusion must have been obvious, because they continued, more quietly: “While yes, I’m a priest, and yes, it’s entirely possible all he wanted me to do was counsel you through the aftermath of your first death – especially given how traumatic the specifics of it were – I am also a magician. More pertinent to your particular problem, I’m a magician whose special interest is mind magic and curses, and-”
Fest jumped, then backed away so hurriedly he nearly fell off the bench. “No, thank you!” He’d heard of curse-casters before, of course – everyone had – and everyone knew the Watch were less than useless at actually catching them when they showed up, but to find out he was sitting next to one… And I let them touch me! Oh gods and goddesses, this is bad. This is very, very bad.
“I’m sorry! That- I didn’t mean it like that!” Anneke wailed, flapping their hands in distress. They swallowed, obviously fighting to regain their calm, and then said: “It… It’s not what you think. I’m interested in them on a theoretical level, and the Order funds my research because I’m one of the only magicians we have who can deal with some of the more esoteric issues some of our practical researchers run up against, that’s all.” They ran their hands through their hair again, and sighed. “I’m sorry. I’m terrible at this, I know. It’s just… I’m better at books than people, really, but I’m the best we’ve got when it comes to things like this, and I’m supposed to be practising at being… well, at being all priest-y at people. Sorry.” They bit their lip, the gesture a mirror of Fest’s own, and looked down at the floor. “If you’d prefer I get another priest…”
“No!” Fest said, surprising himself with his vehemence. True, he still didn’t entirely trust the other vampire, but he was also damned if he was going to explain the whole thing all over again to yet another complete stranger, especially one who wasn’t also a red-eye. And, honestly, Anneke’s panic was one of the most reassuring things that had happened to him today. It felt… good, somehow, to know that he wasn’t the only one worrying that they were wildly out of their depth.
That didn’t mean he wasn’t still panicking over the whole situation, of course. Hells, he’d been panicking for several hours at this point – why stop now? But, right now, right at this particular moment, the panic and terror and general fuzz of confused horror that had been his default state since about the point that Avebury had sat down across the table from him that morning seemed to have ebbed away a little, suddenly secondary to the desire to try to reassure Anneke that they hadn’t just (to borrow a phrase from Viola) irreparably screwed things up. He didn’t entirely understand what had just happened, if he was honest with himself, but he wasn’t about to question it.
He reached out, putting a careful hand on the priest’s shoulder. “You were doing fine. Honestly. And, if it helps, I’m sorry I jumped to conclusions. It’s… been a long day.”
Anneke nodded, still chewing on their lip. After a while, they said “I can try and look into what she might have done to you. If you’ll let me, that is.”
Honestly? I don’t really want you to, but I also don’t think I have much of a choice in the matter. And besides, Archer trusts you. That ought to mean something, at least. Out loud, he said “If you think it’ll help. I don’t know what you’d need me to do, though.”
“I’ll need some of your blood,” the priest said, quietly. “Only a drop or two, and you can watch me while I work with it.” They frowned. “I understand if you don’t want to, but that’s the only way I can get more of an understanding of what’s happened to you. Your blood’s a carrier for your magic, you see, and given your magic and your soul are intertwined, if someone’s been messing with either-”
“-then you’ll be able to tell by how the blood reacts to stimuli. Halsdottir, Five Lessons in Magecraft. Though I thought Pashikaa disproved Halsdottir’s findings on curses?”
Anneke’s eyes lit up. “Not at all! Pashikaa couldn’t replicate the results, because they were using the wrong herbs – Halsdottir was from the steppes, so she used the steppes names for her ingredients, and Pashikaa mistranslated them. If you go back and look at the original text, it’s quite clear.”
“Pashikaa had the ear of the heads of the Order at that time, so their work was promoted over Halsdottir’s, and nobody else wanted to mess around with curses given what had happened to the Queen. So, when the University was opened, Pashikaa’s essays formed part of the core texts for magical scholarship, and Halsdottir’s were regulated to the back shelves and the temple archives. That is, until I went looking for them.” They paused, grinning. “I mean, all I did was translate it properly. Halsdottir did all the actual work, and her instructions are very easy to follow. But oh, if I could see the look on the faces of those stuck-up-”
Fest coughed, trying very hard not to laugh. He was impressed, of course – it would have been hard not to be – but there was something infectious and almost endearingly ridiculous about the priest’s sudden enthusiastic outburst. “You’re not a student, then?”
“Gods no!” they exclaimed, then put a hand over their mouth. “Sorry, my Lady.”
The statue, as far as Fest could tell, didn’t seem to mind, though the flames in the lanterns dipped low for a second as soon as Anneke had finished speaking. The priest nodded, as though in response to something, and then pressed on. “I don’t have the money for it, and they’d not take me on a scholarship. Apparently my research areas would ‘bring the institution into disrepute’.” They made a rude noise. “If they’re too proud to see that we need people studying this, that’s their lookout. Anyway, the Order couldn’t give a rat’s arse whether I’m working at the University or not, and since they’re the ones funding me…” They broke off, giving Fest an apologetic look. “Sorry. You asked for a response, not an essay.”
“That’s alright,” Fest said, and meant it. The longer he spent around the odd little priest, the more relaxed he was feeling – whether it was the fact they were another red-eye, or simply the fact that they somehow seemed as out of place here as he was, there was something about them that seemed to blunt the edge of the terror that was clawing at the back of his mind. “Though we should probably get on with… whatever it is you need to do, before I completely lose my nerve.”
Anneke nodded, getting to their feet and offering Fest a hand up. “Good point. We’ll need to use my laboratory, but it’s not too far from here. If you’ll follow me?”
And, for all his misgivings, Fest did.
Once, when the city had been significantly younger than it was now, the River Quarter had been the entirety of Sacaan. As the city had grown, it had found itself overshadowed by newer, taller, grander buildings, until what remained of the oldest parts of the settlement was now a multi-level sunken slum, crisscrossed with rotting wooden catwalks and rusting iron ladders, and possessed of enough side-alleys and back-streets that even a vampire’s lifetime wasn’t enough to catalogue them all.
And, of all the districts which made up the River Quarter, Old Town was by far the least welcoming – a dark, claustrophobic huddle of creaking timber-framed tenements and half-width paths clinging like ivy to the side of the mountain spur on which several of the more salubrious neighbourhoods of the city were built, and spreading out at its base into a sprawl of shadowed streets running mazelike through a web of ramshackle taverns, boarding houses and brothels, most of which seemed to be almost constantly being added to, repaired, or otherwise worked on.
Not coincidentally, it also happened to be where Sabbat had made his home. Skills like his were in constant demand in Old Town, after all, and the nature of the neighbourhood meant that trouble was very unlikely to follow him home – or, at least, trouble which couldn’t be dealt with by the judicious application of knives to kidneys, throats, or other somewhat integral body parts. He’d been living there ever since he and Archer had temporarily given up the seafaring life and, unsurprisingly, Archer had been crossing the city to visit him for equally as long – which meant that, unusually for an upper-class visitor to the neighbourhood, he actually knew his way around.
Not that the local criminal element ever remembered that, of course.
“Hullo, mucker. You take a wrong turn up there?”
Archer stopped, rolled his eye, and turned to face the owner of the voice, a tough-looking human with a mouthful of tobacco-stained teeth and a wicked-looking machete stuck through the dark green sash tied around his waist. Oh wonderful. Someone else who skipped class the day they covered ‘how not to be a completely stereotypical thug’. Well, at least he’s brought his own bandages, I suppose.
He smiled, showing his own wickedly sharp fangs, and nodded politely in the stranger’s direction. “I don’t believe so,” he said, conversationally. “Unless this suddenly stopped being Knacker’s Yard while I wasn’t looking.”
The human frowned, obviously perturbed by the deviation from the normal script. “No,” he admitted, after a while. “It din’t.” Then, rallying, “What’s a fancy boy like you doin’ down here, anyroad? Come callin’ on your lady love or summat? Out for a bit of skirt somewhere the bloodstains don’t show?”
Honestly. Does that one ever work? “No. Now, shall we skip to the part where you demand my money and I tell you to take a long walk off a short drop, or would you like to continue trying to provoke me a little longer? Only I’m in something of a hurry here, so, if you don’t mind-” He turned on his heel, took two steps forward – and then swung back around, drawing his sword as he did so and bringing it up to meet the sharp steel of the machete which had, until a second ago, been swinging towards his unprotected spine. “Bad move, friend. I was willing to let you go.”
“Fuck you,” the thug snarled through gritted teeth. He stepped back, disengaging, and whistled sharply. “Get him!”
Not as stupid as all that, then, Archer thought, stepping smartly sideways as another green-sashed human leapt out at him from the mouth of an alleyway. He looked around, taking stock of the situation. I count… six. Seven if we count our friend there. All armed, all fighters, and… mixed, which means mercenary rather than ideological. Not much help in a fight, mind, but at least it’s useful information for the Watch. He’d have to ask Sabbat what the green sashes represented, of course, given his own knowledge of the various gang colours was woefully lacking, but-
He dodged to the side again, parrying a blow which, if it had connected, would probably have taken his hand off, and hissed in irritation. A sword was a terrible weapon for close-quarters fighting, but, since sheathing it was out of the question at this point, and dropping it was just asking for some opportunistic thief to make off with it while his back was turned, currently, he was more or less stuck with it. If they weren’t getting in each others’ way half as much, I’d be in real trouble. As it is, they’re inexperienced enough at working together that they’re doing half my work for me.
That didn’t, however, mean he couldn’t help them along their way. And it wasn’t as though he didn’t have his own store of… less gentlemanly tactics. Sabbat was, in some respects, an excellent teacher.
As the next thug swung at him he grabbed her wrist with his off hand, shifted his weight to align with hers, and pulled, letting the combination of her momentum and his strength send her rocketing headfirst into the nearest wall with a thud and a splatter of red that heralded at the very least a cracked skull.
If she’d been human, it would have been a killing blow. As it was, it made the rest of them take a step back, obviously reevaluating their quarry.
“Well? She’ll walk it off. Half the rest of you wouldn’t be so lucky.”
“Eh, like you’d do it!” one of the group jeered, though Archer noticed he’d positioned himself nicely to the rear of the pack. “Everyone knows up-towners’re soft.”
“That look like ‘soft’ t’you?” one of the others hissed, smacking the first speaker around the back of the head with one grubby hand. She looked about sixteen – young for a gang of this sort, but since when had that mattered in Old Town? – and, from the way the others reacted to her, she was obviously something of an outsider, albeit one due a surprising amount of respect for someone her age. Also, and to Archer’s mind more interesting than her age and position, she wasn’t wearing one of the otherwise ubiquitous green sashes. Just a scarf, pulled up tight over her nose and mouth, and a black and red necktie twisted into a hangman’s knot around her throat.
The girl turned to the man who’d accosted Archer originally, anger blazing on her scarred features. “I thought you said you weren’t attackin’ kin, Sol. I explicitly fuckin’ said I don’t do that shit.”
“Then walk,” the man – Sol – growled, hefting his machete menacingly. He looked down at her, brows lowered. “I don’t take shit from gutter rats, whatever pretty names they’re callin’ themselves.”
“Really, Sol? Cos it seems to me you take shit from pretty much anyone an’ everyone round here. Hell’s gates, you couldn’t even manage a simple fuckin’ holdup without callin’ for backup. If you think-”
“Shut it!” Sol snarled, and backhanded her.
Or, at least, he tried.
The girl’s hand moved, faster than any human’s ought to be able to, and suddenly she had Sol’s wrist in her hand, and, judging by the whiteness of her knuckles and the sounds he was making, was squeezing hard enough to break bone.
“You don’t make the rules round here, Sol. You don’t even rank. An’ if you lay a finger on me, or any of mine, one more time, they’ll be picking pieces of you out the gutters for months once the thaw comes. You got that?” She squeezed, harder, and Sol made a whimpering sound that might, just might, have been a ‘yes’. “Thank you. Now, I’m gonna let you go. And you’re gonna be a good boy, an’ not sic your people on me, an’ I’m gonna walk away, all nice and civil. Understood?”
And then, the moment the girl loosened her hold, he spun free of her grasp, whistling a high, sharp series of notes that echoed off the looming buildings and down the cavernous alleyways below.
“Fuck,” the girl said, succinctly. She looked across at Archer, the skin around her round eyes creased in what looked an awful lot like a completely honest smile. “You might want to get moving, friend. ‘less you really want to get caught in the middle of an all-out gang war.”
Much as leaving a fight unfinished galled him, she was probably right. The rest of Sol’s people had stopped paying attention to him for the most part – they seemed to be torn between jumping the girl right then and there and waiting for the reinforcements their boss had whistled up, which in practice meant they were doing a lot of not very much in a way that they probably hoped looked at least vaguely intimidating – which meant that if he was going to get to the Old Town Watchhouse before three, right now would be a bloody good time to get moving.
He nodded. And then, because it seemed the right thing to do, turned the nod into a brief bow. “Thank you.”
“No problem. Kin help kin.” She returned the bow, the movement awkward and obviously foreign to her. “Just… do one thing fer me, willya?”
“If it’s within my power.”
“You come across any of ours in danger out there, tell ‘em Cass of the Brokenhill Runners’ll see ‘em right.” She shifted her weight, eyeing the mob of green-sashed thugs. “Now get gone, afore this lot actually find their fuckin’ backbones.”
And get gone Archer did, slipping into the back-alleyways of Steepside with a whispered prayer of gratitude to a certain unnamed goddess and a half a hundred unanswered questions about the human-looking gang girl who’d moved like she was anything but.
“And that’s what you tell him,” Amelia finished up, dropping the last half biscuit back onto the plate with a satisfied air. “And, if I’m right about it, he’ll swallow the bait hook, line and sinker.”
Viola frowned, expropriating the discarded treat and nibbling on it while she considered her next words. It wasn’t that she didn’t trust her friend – Spirits and ancestors, she’d go through every one of the nine hells for her, and she knew it – but the plan Amelia had come up with wasn’t exactly what she’d call foolproof. Foolhardy, maybe.
“You’re giving me that look,” the other girl said, mocking-stern. “You know, the one where you think I’m being a complete idiot and you’re too polite to say so.”
“Polite? Me?” The contrast between the description and… well, her normal mode of doing everything was so hilarious she couldn’t stop herself laughing – and, given she still had a mouthful of biscuit at the time, spraying the tablecloth liberally with crumbs in the process. Well, if I was looking for a way to make my point…
Amelia grinned, pouring herself another glass of tea from the shining silver samovar by her elbow. “Alright then. You’re not saying so because you don’t want to hurt all two of my feelings.” She pulled Viola’s glass towards her, and recharged it. “So, now we’ve established that’s not going to happen, what’s wrong with my idea?”
“The fact you want me to tell him the truth?” Viola suggested. She dropped her face into her hands, elbows thudding onto the table in a rattle of crockery. “Look, ‘melia, I know what you’re trying to do, but if you’re wrong…”
“It’s a gamble, I know. But if we just tell them about me, then I’m the only one who’s in danger. And, given they sent Lucy Foreval to the ball, they probably know anyway.” She took a sip of tea, and pulled a face. “Ugh. I keep forgetting how weak this blend is. I know Papa likes it, but it’s practically like drinking water. Hot, leaf-flavoured water.”
“Stop changing the subject! If you’re wrong about this – if they don’t already know your family are part of the Order – then we’re about to give the Sinnlenst a whole chunk of information they really want and don’t already have, for what?”
“A chance to strike at the heart of them, Vi.” Amelia leant forward, eyes bright. “Think of it! If we pull this off, we could get rid of the Sinnlenst leadership – maybe even break their hold on the city once and for all. Isn’t that worth a few possible assassination attempts?”
“Speaking as the person who’d have to deal with them-”
“I’m slightly wishing we’d stayed up in the bloody tree,” Viola grumbled. She sighed. “I swear you get worse ideas when you’re sat round a tea table playing high lady than you do when you’re skiving off.”
“Very likely,” the other girl agreed, without heat. “It’s still not a bad plan, Vi. And, like I said, we limit it to just me. I’m a student at the University, which gives Fest an excuse, and you’re my maid, not one of my parents’ staff. We just say you’ve been snooping through my things, or Fest followed me when I gave you the slip one day, or something like that, and one of you caught me engaging in ‘dark rituals’ and ‘magical misdeeds’, or whatever other rubbish you think they’re likely to lap up. If they already know, it proves your loyalty to them, and if they don’t, all that happens is that a few of them try to kill me.”
“And I kill them, blowing my cover and making the whole operation completely bloody pointless?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Amelia said. She grinned. “I kill them.”
Viola nearly had a sodding heart attack.
When her breathing and heartrate had returned to somewhere near normal, she lifted her head from her hands and glared across the table, willing her friend to return to something vaguely resembling sanity. She’d trained the other girl up in combat, of course – even if her parents hadn’t demanded it, no child who grew up with a werewolf for a playmate was ever going to reach adulthood without having learned at least the basics of hand-to-hand fighting – but there was a world of difference between sparring with a willing partner and fighting off an experienced assassin who, and this was the important bit, actually wanted you dead. And for all Amelia was a decent scrapper, there was no way in all the hells Viola was ever letting her get near that kind of danger on her own. Not if there was a damn thing she could do about it, anyway. “No. No, you sodding don’t.”
“Listen to me, ‘melia. Please. I know you’re good at fighting – hells, you could thrash half the boys at the university, and they know it – but if the Sinnlenst put their trained assassins on you, you are going to lose. I don’t care how much you’ve been practicing. I don’t care how many books you’ve read. You are going to die.”
“And you wouldn’t?” Amelia shot back, heatedly.
Viola closed her eyes. “First off, I’d stand a better chance than you. I’m a werewolf, and you’re not. And secondly – yes, I probably would. But – and here’s the important part – you wouldn’t.”
Wha-? She couldn’t help it – her eyes flew open again, and she stared at the other girl in complete and utter shock. Not because of the swearing – given she’d taught Amelia half the curse words she knew, that wasn’t much of a surprise – but because of the sheer amount of rage the other girl had managed to pack into two short words. If I didn’t know better, I’d think there was some werewolf in you, ‘melia. You certainly run as hot as any of us ever do, sometimes.
“Fuck. That,” Amelia repeated, each word short and sharp as cracking ice. “You are not throwing your life away for me, Viola Cervanso, and don’t you ever, ever intimate as much again. I don’t care if you’re my bodyguard. I don’t care if it’s what you’re ‘meant’ to do. You are not getting yourself killed for me.” And, with every ounce of steel she could muster, she added “I expressly forbid you to do so.”
What? I mean, I know what, but… what? Viola was still staring. She knew she was still staring. And yet, somehow, she couldn’t stop herself. Admittedly, it was that or burst out laughing, and, given the mood Amelia was in, she might well find herself wearing most of the contents of the samovar if she went with the latter option. It’s not that there’s even anything funny about this. It’s just… oh Spirits and ancestors, I don’t think her parents or mine realised what they were doing when they made that call about raising the two of us together. And now she’s ‘expressly forbidding’ me from doing exactly what I’ve been trained since birth to do, because the whole point of raising us together was so I’d want to protect her. I don’t think anyone involved realised it’d work so well the other way round.
“Vi?” And, just like that, the new terrifying Amelia was gone, and all that was left was a wide-eyed, tearful-looking girl, reaching out across the table towards her best friend. “Vi? I’m sorry, I don’t – Oh gods, Vi, I didn’t mean to upset you. I just – I can’t stand the thought of you getting killed trying to protect me. Hells, Vi, I can’t stand the thought of you dying at all, no matter how. I…” She swallowed, throat working as she fought back tears. “You’re my sister, for the sake of all the gods, even if we don’t share blood. You can’t die for me. That’s not how it works. That’s not how anything works.”
“I know,” Viola managed, after a brief moment. She leaned forward, heedless of the tea things scattered in her wake, and pulled the other girl into a tight, desperate hug. “Nobody’s dying for anyone, ‘melia. I promise. And if the bastards do come for you – well, hang the bloody subterfuge, none of ‘em can report back if they’re all dead.”
“You make an excellent point,” Amelia agreed, her academic tone slightly spoiled by the fact that she was sniffling into Viola’s shoulder between words. She pulled back, wiping a hand across her eyes, and grinned a wobbly sort of grin. “Murdering all the witnesses is an excellent solution, and we should clearly apply it to more problems. Maybe that irritating boy in Sigils who refuses to take no for an answer?”
“Tempting,” Viola agreed, reaching out to smudge a stray teardrop from the other girl’s dark cheek. “Though I think the university are liable to pitch a fit if we go around murdering all the students who piss you off.”
Amelia laughed, settling back into her seat again and taking another drink of her disappointing tea. “True, though I think Mama would probably be able to sort it out if we explained to her why we’d done it. But I don’t want all of them dead anyway, just him.” She sighed. “Honestly, I’ve told him at least five times I’m not interested, and he still thinks if he keeps asking I’ll change my mind. I don’t know what else I can do to get him to leave me alone at this point, short of actually punching him.”
“I could punch him for you,” Viola offered. “I mean, it is what your parents pay me for.”
The other girl shook her head. “He’s already suggested that the reason I don’t want to walk out with him is that I’m a lesbian – having another girl fight my battles for me is just going to confirm that theory, and that brings up a whole other set of problems I really don’t need to deal with right now.”
“Ugh.” Viola pulled a face, letting the ghost of a growl creep into her tone. “No offence, ‘melia, but some humans are sodding backwards. What’re they fussing about – that you’re not going to squeeze out enough babies to repopulate the damn species? I mean, first off, nobody’s sodding preying on you any more, so it’s not as though you need to, and second, you lot don’t do litters anyway, so it’s not as though a few of you not doing that’s going to make much of a difference.”
Amelia shuddered. “I’m not planning on having any children any time soon, Vi, litters or not. And anyway, if I did want to marry a woman, it’s not as though there aren’t ways.” She took another swallow of tea, and grimaced. “I don’t know why I’m still drinking this. Because it’s there, I suppose. Anyway, we’re from the point. I don’t want you to punch him, though I appreciate the sentiment, but I wouldn’t mind if you stuck a little closer to me in that class than you do in the others.” She shrugged. “I don’t know if it’ll do much, but it might stop him trying to catch me on my own so he can talk to me.”
And if he does try anything, I’m not having to hurdle desks so I can break his fingers, Viola thought. She grinned, baring her fangs, and nodded. “I can do that. And if you do want me to step in early…”
Amelia raised her hands, laughing. “I know, I know. But if anyone’s going to get the satisfaction of knocking him backwards over a table, I have prior claim. And besides, you get to punch people far more often than I do in the grand scheme of things.”
“True enough,” Viola admitted. “Though if you’re serious about going through with this plan-”
“Which I am.”
“-then that’s probably going to change.”
Amelia nodded, eyes bright. “So…”
“If I’m going to be punching people…” She trailed off, tilting her head to one side in almost werewolf gesture.
Spirits and ancestors, ‘melia. You’re bloody incorrigible, you know that? She did, of course. And, more to the point, she was currently having far too much fun playing things up for effect. Well, if it meant she wasn’t sniffling into Viola’s shoulder any longer…
Didn’t mean she was going to make it easy on the other girl. She leaned back and took a swig from her own tea glass, feigning innocence. “I don’t know what on earth you’re talking about, ‘melia.”
Amelia rolled her eyes. “Sparring? I’ll tell Papa it was my idea, if he objects, but I doubt he’s going to.”
“Depends how many vases you break this time,” Viola commented, though she was pushing her chair back as she said it. For all she was technically still carrying a few wounds and bruises from what had been, if she was honest, one hell of a morning, sparring with Amelia was always a good way of bleeding off tension, and she could do with a little of that. “Or how many chairs, if we’re going to go further back.”
“That one wasn’t technically my fault, Vi,” Amelia protested, getting to her feet. She stuck her tongue out at the werewolf girl. “And besides, you’re always telling me to use the environment to my advantage.”
“I didn’t mean by hitting me with it!” Though, she had to admit, she’d been proud as anything when Amelia had made the attempt. And completely unprompted, to boot! She’s going to be one hell of a fighter when she’s got herself a bit more under control.
The other girl was already shrugging out of her over-dress, tongue poking out of one corner of her mouth in concentration as her fingers flicked over the lacing of her skirts. “Well, you can get your own back this time, then. I asked Sebastian to get as much of the nursery furniture as he could find out of storage, and Mama agreed to let me have the old playroom as a training space, provided I didn’t break anything too structurally integral.” She laughed. “I think she was just pleased I hadn’t asked her for more magic supplies. Five magicians under one roof apparently strains the budget a little when it comes to herbs and candles.”
Viola blinked. She’d known Amelia was up to something – hard to miss, given the amount of whispered conversations between her and Seb she’d walked in on recently – but she’d assumed it was probably something to do with her unofficial fiance or, if not that, possibly those extensions to her magical studies she’d been talking about for months. The idea that she’d been sorting out a combat-training salle inside the townhouse hadn’t even begun to occur to her. You grow up with someone and they can still surprise you, turns out. I mean, I probably should have expected she’d pull something like this, but-
“And it’s properly stocked with training weapons, of course,” Amelia went on, apparently oblivious to Viola’s shock. “I checked with Sebastian as to what you’d need, and he was able to give me a pretty good list – though he did warn me that some of them might be a little less legal to acquire, so I had to improvise. I think it works, though.” She finished unlacing her skirts, stepping out of them and revealing (to Viola’s complete lack of surprise) that she’d been wearing trousers underneath. “So, want to give it a try?”
“I-” Viola managed. She swallowed, closed her eyes, tried again. “Yes. Yes, I do.”
“Excellent,” Amelia said, and, even with her eyes shut, Viola could hear the fact she was grinning. “Happy solstice, Vi.”
Copyright © 2020 by Finn McLellan. All rights reserved.
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