Somehow, Viola had missed the sleigh arriving back at the townhouse. She’d been awake through most of the first half of the journey through the moonlit streets – hard not to be, when every jolt of the runners over the half-iced backstreets send a shock of pain through her wounded leg – but by the time they’d reached the wide avenues and smoother snow of the richest quarter in the city, she’d slipped sideways into uneasy sleep, and her memories of the latter half of the trip were a blurred muddle of streetlamps and snowfall and the looming facades of half-familiar buildings glimpsed for a second through the orange-tinted fog.
She knew she’d been awake enough to get out when they’d stopped: she remembered the pressure of the splintered side of the sleigh against her palms as she’d tried to push herself up, and the warmth of Mortimer’s hand as he’d slid his arm under hers to help her get fully upright again. But as to how she’d got from there to the familiar patchwork blankets and furs of her own bed… well, that was apparently a complete and utter mystery and likely to remain so for the foreseeable.
She yawned, jaw opening wide enough to creak slightly, and rolled her shoulders, wincing at the aches and pains spiking down her spine from the movement. Whoever had got her into bed had piled the furs around her in such a way that they cushioned the worst of her bruises – which, while probably the reason she’d managed to actually get anything approaching a decent night’s sleep, was making the idea of trying to get out of bed deeply deeply unwelcome.
If I didn’t know I had things to do today…
No-one had come in to shout at her, at least, which was something. Either they’d managed to get back before Amelia’s parents or, possibly more likely, Amelia’d taken it upon herself to take the blame for whatever story she’d spun them about the reason she’d been out so late.
I can’t say I like the fact she’s so willing to lie to her parents, but I have to admit it’s got its upsides sometimes. I just wish she didn’t have to keep dragging me into it.
Whatever the reason, she currently had quiet. And, she realised, as she shifted position slightly in the nest of blankets, that meant that she finally had the space to actually shift for the first time in far, far too long.
Shifting with a bullet wound. I’m pretty sure my mother would have some things to say about that one. Mostly that I’m far too impulsive, and why can’t I be more like my brother, admittedly, but still.
But her mother wasn’t there – nobody’s fault but the summer fever, that one, even if it still stung to remember – and, if she had to be impulsive and impatient, there wasn’t anywhere better to do it than home, with friends and siblings and people who actually cared about her wellbeing barely a shout away.
And let’s face it, the world’s a lot simpler when I’m fourlegged. I could do with a bit of simplicity right about now.
Carefully, wincing at the pain in her wounded leg, she untangled herself from the bedding and tucked the blankets back against the wall. She’d shifted under covers before now, back when she’d been a cub and not fully in control of her abilities, and she’d nearly dislocated her back leg doing so, panicking and flailing against the fabric until her grandmother had heard her whimpering and come to untangle her. Ever since, she’d tried her hardest to keep her shifts uncovered – there were always the odd one or two which needed to happen under hastily-provided blankets, because humans and vampires had to have their bloody nudity taboos, but for the most part she’d managed to shift most times with just her skin between herself and the open air.
Which, of course, meant taking off her clothes, which was going to be fun. For the definition of ‘fun’ which included a lot of swearing, a lot of pain, and wondering whether it was possible to dislocate a shoulder trying to take a shirt off (answer: yes, but not for people who were her level of normally-flexible).
Again, this would be a lot easier if everyone else didn’t insist on the whole having-to-wear-clothing thing. It’s not as though we have any of the obvious secondary sexual characteristics they’re all so keen to avoid seeing.
Whoever had put her to bed had taken off her boots and socks, at least, so she didn’t have to worry about dealing with those. The trews, once she’d fought the lacings into submission, were fairly easy to slide out of (though pushing them past the bullet wound made her almost throw up), and the waistcoat likewise, though she had to stop in the middle of trying to deal with the buttons to shake the ache out of her fingers. That just left her undershorts – easy enough, just like trews but with fewer lacings to deal with – and her absolute bloody nemesis, the shirt.
You’d think they’d make these things with fastenings all the way down the front, like waistcoats. I’m sure it can’t be that hard.
The lacing at the neck of the shirt was about as easy to deal with as the ones at the front of her trews, which was to say not at all – she’d somehow managed to tie it into a knot which, despite all her best efforts, wouldn’t come undone to anything short of a frustrated attack with a belt-knife – and, once she’d dealt with that, she was so pissed off with the whole thing that she was half a heartbeat away from just tearing it off and dealing with the consequences later.
If this wasn’t one of the only nice shirts I had…
But it was, and, for all the Luciels absolutely paid her enough to buy a replacement, she really didn’t want to have to deal with explaining to anyone that she’d managed to kill a shirt because she got frustrated trying to take it off. If nothing else, Seb’d have Words about it.
Like he does about pretty much everything I do which isn’t nice and human-looking and fitting in with the bloody furless. I love my brother dearly, but I can’t help feeling sometimes that he’d be a whole lot happier if he’d been born one of them.
That wasn’t fair, and she knew as much, but the righteous indignation powered her through the pain of inching the shirt off over her shoulders and spine, up to and including the point where the bottom hem briefly caught on the tip of her nose and she had to fight back a deeply undignified yelp of pain.
Finally, she worked the tip of her braid out of the collar, snarled in mingled relief and frustration, and hurled the offending garment at the opposite wall – and then swore and grabbed at her shoulder, which hadn’t much appreciated the effort.
Hells. Keep doing that and I’ll be running around on two legs in wolf form as well. As it is, three legs is going to be hard enough.
She took a deep breath, waited for the pain to die down enough that she could think straight again, and then shrugged her way out of her undershorts, keeping her wounded leg straight and still and shifting the rest of her body around it to get the bundled fabric down past the wound (she’d learned from her experience with the trews, after all).
And then she was naked, and everything suddenly felt a damn sight better.
She stretched, tensing every muscle she could for a moment before letting the tension bleed out into something which was the closest she was going to get to relaxation right now. Then she threw back her head, opened her throat, and howled.
The world twisted sideways, like it always did, and she curled up around herself, feeling her muscles and bones shift and twist around themselves as her shape shifted and blurred. It should’ve hurt – should’ve left her keening in agony as her entire body broke and remade itself in the space of a few heartbeats – but the blessings of Mother Moon ensured that the worst her favourite children usually suffered during their transformations was a few moments of nausea and dizziness as their senses shifted, and, given she’d been dealing with that since she was old enough to remember, it was easy enough to shrug off.
Oh spirits and ancestors, that’s better!
She rolled off the bed, landed three-footed on the floor with a whuff of discomfort, and shook herself, revelling in the feeling of the slight breeze from the half-open window ruffling the fur along her spine. This was the shape she should have been in all last night – catch bloody Avebury trying to mess with her like this – but in lieu of being able to go back and rewrite history, getting to spend the day after in fourlegged form was pretty bloody close to perfect.
Amelia, soft-soled indoor boots padding down the corridor towards the door of the room. Her scent was as familiar to Viola as it had ever been, shot through today with an undertone that indicated she was probably worrying slightly about something, and a sour, high note which meant she’d almost certainly caught some kind of chill from the night’s adventures even if she hadn’t noticed it yet.
She stopped outside Viola’s room, boots scuffing a little as she did so, and coughed, quietly. “Vi? Are you alright?”
I’m fine. And you’re forgetting I can’t speak Sacaask in wolf-form. She padded over to the door and nudged the handle up with her muzzle, pawing at the edge to pull it open enough for the younger girl to see her properly. There. All safe and sound, see? Nothing to fret about.
“Oh!” Amelia’s eyes widened for a moment. Then she crouched down, put her arms around Viola’s neck, and hugged her, hard. “Oh! That makes sense! I didn’t- I mean- I was worrying you were too hurt to shift, because you didn’t in the fight, but of course you would now you’re safe home.” She buried her face in Viola’s thick fur for a moment, resting her cheek against the wolf’s shoulder. “I’m glad. You always seem happier when you’ve got to be fourlegged for a bit.”
That’s… almost worryingly perceptive of you. She’d not been aware she was that obvious about it. But, on the other hand, if Amelia knew she needed time and space to shift every so often, that suggested that life together when they moved out of the family townhouse might suddenly be a whole lot more relaxing. It’s not that I can’t shift around here, mind. It’s just nobody seems to think I might need time off to do it.
“Oh, that reminds me,” Amelia said, after a moment. “I almost forgot.” She reached into the small pouch she wore on her belt and pulled out a folded letter, the back sealed with a small blob of red wax. “This came for you while you were sleeping – the girl who brought it said not to bother waking you, so I thought I’d let you rest a little while longer. I think it’s from Mr Archer?”
It certainly smelled like him. But then again, it also smelled like someone else – cigarettes and cheap booze and leather and sweat – and it was a scent that she definitely knew, given its owner had literally been hurled off a building onto her.
He’s alive, then. At least, I’m assuming as much. Seal’d be black otherwise.
She nosed at the seal in question, and Amelia obligingly broke it for her, opening the paper out and holding it so she could read it. The writing was… pretty much exactly as she’d expected – perhaps a little shakier than the examples she’d seen of Archer’s hand at the war council, but otherwise the same irritatingly perfect copperplate, with a three-initial signature which, for all she’d not seen it before, seemed to fit with the style she’d expected from him.
Not a forgery, then. Given the seal and, more importantly, the scent, the likelihood of it being forged was bloody low already, but it was always better to be safe than sorry when Order business was concerned.
The contents of the letter were, after all the build-up, almost disappointing.
S and I are safe. Murdered girl’s name is Rose, no obvious reason for her death so far other than wrong place wrong time. Suspect her killer and S’s attacker one and the same, but no conclusive evidence thus far.
Suggest you keep eyes on your own goals for now. Will write again within the week to confirm next meeting.
P.S. The girl who carries this message can be trusted. Her name is Radish. She’s one of Jenny Goldentooth’s grandchildren.
P.P.S No, I don’t know why she’s called Radish. Try asking her, if you’re curious’
And that, as far as it went, was that. I’m not surprised the messenger girl didn’t wait for a response. There’s not exactly much I can send back other than ‘message received. Also I’m still alive, thanks for asking.’
The fact that he’d bothered to send at all was a point in his favour, though. She suspected the girl – Radish (and what kind of a name was that, anyway?) – had been briefed to ask after her, given what Amelia had said, and it made sense not to put anything in writing that smacked too strongly of ‘hello, fellow operative who currently happens to be wounded and vulnerable.’
As for the fact he apparently had one of Jenny Goldentooth’s lot on his staff… well, that was certainly news to her. She knew about Jenny – pretty much every werewolf in the city did, if they moved in anything other than the most law-abiding and shallow circles – but she’d never have assumed a connection between her and Archer of all people.
Then again, she supposed, he did know Sabbat, and that probably opened a whole lot of doors on that side of town. The most infamous assassin in the Order, and I thought he was Archer’s valet. Shows how much I bloody know half the time.
“Good news?” Amelia asked, after a moment.
Viola nodded, nosing the paper shut again and leaning hard against the younger girl’s shoulder for a moment. Not much I can do about anything in it, mind. I just hope whatever he’s sending in the next letter actually gives me something I can work with.
In the end, it was nearly the end of the week before the second letter came – and, when it did, it was all of two lines long.
My rooms, midday tomorrow.
Bring whatever plans you already have, and we’ll talk.
“I don’t know what he expects me to have done,” Viola griped, turning the paper over in her hands fretfully. “Oddly enough, I haven’t exactly had time to come up with a plan for how to deal with all of this, given I was a little too busy being shot.” She took a long swig from her glass of tea, glared at nothing, and tried to ignore the sparking remnants of the pain in her leg. Which should’ve fully healed by now, unless the bastard was using silver.
I sodding hope the bastard wasn’t using silver.
“I don’t think he wants something battle-ready, Vi. He just wants to know that you’re not going into this completely unprepared, ” Amelia said, after a pause. She frowned. “Are you alright? You look like you’re in pain.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“You were about to say that you were fine, weren’t you?”
“It’s your leg, isn’t it?” Before Viola could stop her, she’d dropped to her knees on the rug, hands carefully running over Viola’s calf. “Here?”
“I don’t-” Viola began – then Amelia pressed the tips of two of her fingers against the edge of the wound, and the words she’d been planning to say dried up, replaced with a half-bitten-back snarl of pain. “Dammit, ‘melia, that stings!”
“Then my point is proven. You’re not fine,” the younger girl said, stubbornly. She sat back on her heels, looking up at Viola with an almost comically serious expression. “We need to fix this.”
“No, we don’t,” Viola told her, unconsciously pulling her leg further away from the other girl’s fingers. “I need to fix this, if there’s even anything that needs fixing. For all I know this is just how long bullet wounds take to heal.”
It almost certainly wasn’t – even if she’d never been shot before, she knew enough werewolves who had that one of them would have said something if it was usually this different to normal healing. But admitting that when Amelia was in one of her ‘fix the entire world’ mood was a good way to end up with either a trip to the hospital or, worse, some specialist she’d never met poking and prodding and asking invasive questions about things which had less than nothing to do with the current problem.
And fine, that would probably solve this. But dammit, whatever I do should be my decision.
“But Vi-” Amelia began, before she obviously caught sight of the expression on Viola’s face and stopped herself. “Alright. Will you promise me that you’ll see someone if it doesn’t stop hurting, at least?”
If it’s the way to get you to stop poking me. And she was probably right, much as it galled to admit it. “Yes, fine. Provided you don’t stick your fingers in the bloody bullethole again.”
The younger girl looked away, chewing on her lower lip in obvious consternation. “This still doesn’t feel like a good idea, Vi. We don’t know what was on that bullet.”
“I know. But it’s not as though I’m actually dying – worst case scenario is probably that the bastard who shot me used silver coatings on his rounds, which just means I’m in for a few weeks of itching and a wound that’ll take twice as long to heal.”
“Or he used something worse, and we don’t know it yet. There’re plenty of poisons which take longer than a few days to start working.”
And how would you know that, exactly? I’m starting to wonder if you’ve not been doing your own extracurricular research into my side of things.”True, but they tend to be delivery-by-ingestion more than anything else. A couple of blade venoms, maybe, but I don’t think that necessarily tracks to something you could coat a bullet in.”
“That you know of,” Amelia pointed out. “If they’re using something we don’t have information on, then…”
“Then they’re a hell of a lot more than what they looked like. I’ll buy that a band of thugs had pistols and a few rounds of silver-coated shot – there’re enough people in the city willing to make it that they’d fairly easily be able to get their hands on some – but poisons that we’ve never heard of? Not unless they’re Sinnlenst shadow arm, in which case they’re the worst of their fighters I’ve ever met.”
Amelia nodded, though she didn’t seem entirely convinced. “That makes a certain amount of sense. I’m still worried about you, though.”
“Of course you are, ‘melia. Look, if it gets worse I promise I’ll take myself to see a doctor. Ancestors, I’ll go see MacConnell if it’ll settle your mind on this – if it is some kind of Sinnlenst creation, he’s most likely to know what it is and what to do about it.” Even if he’s likely to take the opportunity to also lecture me about the fact I’ve managed to get myself injured again. I’ m not sure he’d understand the concept of a good bedside manner if it jumped up and bit him.
That seemed to settle the younger girl’s mind a little, even if she still looked as though she’d far rather be sorting the whole thing herself.
Tough luck. This is my side of Order business, ‘melia, and you don’t get to call the shots here. No pun intended. “So, now we’ve sorted that, what are we going to do about this plan Archer apparently expects me to have by tomorrow?”
“We?” This time it was Amelia’s turn to sound teasing. “I thought you didn’t want me involved in this.”
“Well, since you’re apparently so set on this idea of baiting the Sinnlenst, it’s probably a better idea if you’re the one writing whatever lies I’m supposed to be spinning them about your Order ties.”
“Oh, that!” She laughed. “That’s going to be easy. We just tell them the truth.”
“… Of course we do.” Viola had forgotten that particular part of the plan – or, more likely, she’d managed to block it out of her mind on purpose. “And how is that going to work, exactly?”
“We tell them almost exactly what’s actually going on, and change just enough that I don’t immediately get murdered, obviously.”
“I know what I’m doing, Vi.” She stood up, stretching her arms out and rolling her shoulders back. “The Sinnlenst almost certainly know at least one person in my family is Order, so saying we’re not is a very good way of letting them know you’re either Order or a very very bad spy.”
“Fair. I’m still not happy about making you a target, for the record.”
“I mean… you do keep saying you wish I’d let you actually do more than just glare at people,” Amelia said, grinning. “And Sinnlenst assassins would definitely be a change of pace.”
She had a point there, damn her. And, after all, it wasn’t as though Viola had been trained up as a bodyguard for the sake of her health: the Luciels knew all too well what kind of danger their only child was likely to find herself in if their affiliations ever became more widely known, and they’d taken steps to ensure that she was always going to have someone with her willing to put herself between their daughter and the enemy. And yet… “Fine. But I want you to promise me something in return, if you’re absolutely set on doing this.”
Amelia’s brows furrowed, though she didn’t look entirely surprised by the request. “What kind of a something?”
“That you’ll keep me or Sebastian with you all the time from now on. No sneaking away to see Mortimer, no slipping off to go climb trees – if you do this, you commit to actually staying where your bodyguards can keep an eye on you, because if this goes the way you want it to, you will need us.”
For a moment, it looked as though the younger girl was about to object. Then she nodded, bit her lip, and looked down, tracing the toe of one soft-soled boot along the nearest pattern-line in the rug. “Alright. I don’t like it, but you already knew that.”
“‘course you don’t. If you did, I’d worry you were ill.” Or that you were already planning a way to get out from under our noses. Not that I think you’re not doing that right now anyhow, given the fact that I’ve known you your entire damn life.
“I don’t like being babied,” she continued, still looking away. “And I don’t like being treated like I’m made of glass.”
And I know that. Spirits and ancestors, I’m not your bloody parents! “‘melia…”
“I wasn’t finished.” She looked up, face set. “I don’t like either of those things but I know that you and Sebastian aren’t going to treat me like that. You’ve seen me fight – for real, now – and you know I can take care of myself if I need to, which means you can tell your brother I’m not going to shatter into a million pieces if he takes his eyes off me for a second.”
Chance’d be a fine thing, Viola muttered, silently. Out loud, she said, “I’ll try,” and then, in an attempt to change the subject, ventured “So, do you have any idea on what I should be telling Archer at this war council? I’d rather not look like a complete idiot in front of one of the fairly senior members of the Order Council.”
“Absolutely!” Amelia said, eyes lighting up with genuine enthusiasm. She turned and all but ran to the sideboard, pulling out drawers and boxes until she’d unearthed a pen, a bottle of ink, and a sheaf of paper. “I can even do diagrams, if you’d like – I got a merit in Sigils last term for ritual circle diagramatics, so they should be fairly easy to read.”
I- what? “If this plan of yours suddenly involves ritual circles, ‘melia, I don’t-”
“No, no!” She laughed. “I just meant I’m not bad at drawing diagrams in general. I’ve not done much in the way of trying to map out troop movements – and that’s honestly what this is, if on a much smaller scale – but being able to draw clean lines and label them properly should transfer across, I think.”
“Well, that’s a relief. I didn’t want to have to explain to the rest of them why we’d suddenly decided to break half the strictures of magic and then some.”
“Vi!” Amelia yelped, sounding legitimately shocked. “That’s not- What kind of ritual did you think I’d be using?”
“The kind that I’d be far too tempted to play with with someone like Adam bloody Avebury in the picture.”
The younger girl scowled. “You wouldn’t. There’re lines, Vi.”
Which was true. But still, the temptation was there. And it wasn’t as though the Sinnlenst wouldn’t be employing the same bloody tactics if they didn’t have their own particular hatred of magic to reckon with.
And that’s the kind of thinking that ends up with the rest of the Order hunting you down and putting you out of your misery before the Watch does. If the things in the Void don’t get you first. There’re reasons we don’t play with blood magic.
“No, you’re right. Satisfying as it’d be to curse the bastard inside out, that’s a good way to get everyone involved killed or worse, and I’ve no desire to end up getting my head cut off any time soon.”
“Decapitation’s vampires. You and me, they’d probably just hang.” She paused. “If the Order didn’t send someone to put a knife through our hearts first.”
And isn’t that a cheerful thought. “Well, it’s a good thing we’re not going to be doing anything of the sort, then.” She sighed, leaned back in her chair, and took another swig of her rapidly cooling tea. “So. What’s your plan?”
Meanwhile, in the halls at the University, a certain Mr Jonathan Fest had taken receipt of an almost identical letter from a scowling porter who was muttering about ‘barefoot beggar brats’ cluttering up his hallways, and was currently on his way back to his rooms in what was, coincidentally, a very similar state of mind to Viola’s own.
‘Whatever plans you already have’? I don’t have any plans, other than ‘follow whatever it is Miss Cervanso’s doing and hope to all the gods that she’s as smart as she sounds like she is’, and I don’t think that’s exactly a workable long-term strategy.
He’d been trying to to think of a plan, honestly he had, but between lectures, homework, ritual practice, dodging Avebury, and trying to puzzle through the notes he’d taken from Anneke’s explanations on what on earth Foreval was up to, things had… slipped a little.
At least he hadn’t ended up sleepwalking again – not that he’d noticed, at least – which was something. And, as far as he remembered, he hadn’t dreamed about her.
Which would be a lot more reassuring if I didn’t know it was completely possible to dream about something and then completely forget you’ve done so.
He sighed, folding the letter up and sliding it into his pocket as he rounded the last turn of the spiral staircase leading up to his floor. There wasn’t going to be much he could do between now and tomorrow when it came to coming up with a workable plan out of whole cloth – even less, considering it would have to fit in with whatever it was Viola was currently working on – but at the very least he could try and get a few of his thoughts down on paper before he had to stand up and present them in front of the class.
I’m not entirely sure why I’m thinking about this as though it’s a piece of homework I’d forgotten about. This is secret society business – surely it should feel a good deal more cloak and dagger and a good deal less like a theory research project I’ve left to the last minute.
But then again, maybe that was what being in a secret society felt like when you were on the inside. And, honestly, between homework and being hauled out of bed in the middle of the night and forced to drink who-knew-what (blood. It’d definitely been blood, and he definitely wasn’t going to carry on thinking about that), he’d take the homework any day of the week.
This feels like the kind of thing Anneke would be jumping at the chance to play with, mind. In fact, if I gave them the brief and asked for a plan inside half a day, they’d probably come back to me in three hours with ten different options and an annotated list of pros and cons.
Admittedly, half those options would almost certainly involve something completely tangential to the actual point, and the other half would probably be completely unworkable without another ten contingencies and extra steps, but…
He’d not seen the little priest since they’d parted after breakfast almost a week ago – after promising that they’d get back in touch the moment they worked out anything new, they’d disappeared off into the bustling streets with a wave and a ‘see you later’, and he’d not managed to get down to the temple since then.
He hoped they were alright. The threat Avebury had made at breakfast hadn’t seemed to phase them overmuch – at least, not more than they’d already been phased by his presence in general – but the fact that he’d felt the need to threaten them at all was a worrying development.
I should make the time to go and see them this afternoon. I’m sure that History of Magic paper can wait until after the meeting – and, besides, they might be able to give me an idea of where to look in the library for primary sources which won’t have been quoted to death by absolutely everyone else in the class.
The door to his room was locked, just as he’d left it when he’d gone down to collect his post, and, when he unlocked it and pushed it open, the room beyond looked almost exactly as it had done just a few minutes ago.
Almost exactly, with one very obvious exception.
I know I locked that door. I know I did. Which means…
Moving very carefully, and with one hand resting just above his belt knife, he crossed to the bed and looked down at the folded letter lying neatly and completely inexplicably on the dent in the pillow.
It was addressed to him. Somehow, that made it worse.
‘Mr Jonathan Fest
For Immediate Consideration’
The writing was fluid copperplate, the kind of hand that any number of people in the city might write in, but whoever had addressed this particular letter had apparently seen fit to make a very specific choice when it came to what they’d written it in.
Oh gods. Please tell me that isn’t blood.
He closed his eyes, trying to stop his heart racing, and forced himself to think logically about what was, on the face of it, a completely illogical situation.
One: it’s almost certainly not blood. Blood’s not a good ink – there’s a reason most documents written in it haven’t survived, and it’s not just because half of them were burned for being horrifically dangerous books of curses.
Two: even if it is blood, there’s not enough of it there to cause any kind of problem and besides, it’s already dry. It’s not food, it’s not something someone’s trying to force you to drink, it’s just someone playing some kind of horrifically bad-taste prank.
Three: whether it’s blood or not, standing and staring at it isn’t going to do anyone any good. Whatever’s inside can’t possibly be worse that what I’m currently imagining it is, so I might as well get it over with.
Four: But I’m not going to touch it with my bare hands, because it’s entirely possible it’s a curse.
Five: I really hope it’s not a curse.
Six: I really hope it’s not a curse.
Seven: Oh Ashkenta, please please please let it not be a curse.
Eight: Just get it over with and open it already!
Nine: Oh shit.
He’d flipped the paper open with his knife – it hadn’t been sealed, thankfully, so that had at least been easy enough to do – and, much to his surprise, hadn’t immediately ended up flat on his back with curse backlash rocketing up his spine.
In fact, nothing had happened at all, which was both very good and very very bad. Good, because it meant that he wasn’t dealing with a curse. Bad, because it meant that he actually had to read the letter, and he’d already scanned to the bottom and read the signature.
‘Yours in faith,
Well, that explains the mysteriously appearing letter. Of course it’s her. Who else would it be?
Numbly, all worries about the curse forgotten, he picked up the letter and started to read. What else could he do?
I hope this letter finds you well. It has been some time since we have talked and, while I understand you are busy with your studies and do not begrudge you the fact, I cannot but admit to feeling a little lonely from time to time. Your perspective on the problems which trouble our kind is somewhat unique, especially in the circles I currently move in, and I would welcome your input on some of the more intriguing quandaries facing us as we travel into a new century.
I understand you are to be a guest at our revels tomorrow. I do look forward to seeing you again, and hope to take the opportunity to renew our acquaintance. You are, after all, someone I consider a very dear friend.
With hopes for a continued and fruitful partnership in all things,
Yours in faith,
There was a postscript, too – smaller, and written in what at first looked like Efirasi but proved, when he looked a little closer, to be nothing more or less than mirror-writing. A quick trip to the other side of the room to acquire the mirror from his nightstand, and:
‘P.S. I do not know what Adam’s plan is for you, but I mislike his attempt to stake claim on someone I consider under my especial protection. Come to me at the gathering, and we will talk further on this matter.
There was a small smudge at the end of the letter, next to the signature, that looked almost as though it might have been a kiss.
Fest stared at the paper for a moment, trying to process what it was he had just read. None of it seemed to make sense – if she was able to access his dreams, why did she talk about being lonely? If she wanted him as an information source, why did she keep calling him a friend? What on earth did she mean by his having a unique perspective, unless she was trying to sideways refer to the fact he was Order and she knew as much? And why, if she and Avebury were both Sinnlenst, had she taken the opportunity to bring up suspicions against him in a postscript which wasn’t even particularly well-disguised?
She’s playing some kind of game with me. She has to be – it’s what she does, everyone’s told me as much. But… I don’t understand what the point of it is.
I need to talk to someone about this. Unless… unless that’s what she wants. Does she want me to tell Archer about this, so she can somehow get him to believe something hidden in the message that I’ve missed?
Does she want me to tell Anneke? I didn’t think she knew about them, but Avebury obviously does, and she knows Avebury well enough to be referring to him by first name, and he said ‘we’ know about the other Order members in the priesthood of Ashkenta, and….
Oh gods, this is giving me a headache.
He dropped the letter and the knife onto the rug, sat down on the bed, put his head in his hands, and tried to think.
It didn’t help.
She’d obviously meant for the letter to upset him and, to her credit, it had. The problem was, he didn’t know what else she’d been meaning to do with it – and, until he knew that, he wasn’t exactly happy showing it to anyone else just in case it was playing into her plans.
Which meant that he was going to have to figure it out by himself.
Copyright © 2020 by Finn McLellan. All rights reserved.
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