“You sure I can just… eat this?”
Archer looked up from his newspaper, fighting back a smile as he watched Radish scoop yet another spoonful of berries onto a pancake already piled high with sour cream, bacon, and syrup. “Of course. You’ve been running messages all over the city all morning for me – the least I can do is provide you with something to replenish all that energy you’ve burned off.” He paused, looked across the room, and added, “After all, it’s not as though you’re going to polish off any more of this than Sabbat’s already managed.”
The assassin in question looked up from his plate, which was equally as heaped as Radish’s own, and grinned unrepentantly, leaning back and planting the heels of his boots very deliberately on the corner of the mantlepiece. “Ain’t my fault y’got decent rations. Ain’t apologisin’ fer takin’ advantage of it, neither.”
“I didn’t intend that you should,” Archer told him, snaring one of the last remaining slices of toast and transferring it to his own, somewhat less heaped, plate. “If anything, I’m glad to see you actually eating something. I was worried that box had managed to completely nullify your appetite.”
Among other things. He wasn’t happy about the existence of the box in general – if it was a healing amulet, that was one thing, but he’d not seen anything like it any of the books he’d read on the subject – but both the doctors he’d consulted with had been entirely convinced that, whatever it had been doing, it had definitely had a beneficial effect on the younger man’s system, which meant that, no matter what his personal thoughts on the matter, he didn’t have much in the way of an argument when it came to trying to get Sabbat to get rid of the damn thing.
He’d stopped wearing it against his skin, at least: after three days of bedrest, his throat had apparently healed enough that removing it didn’t immediately start him choking, and, after that, he’d switched to carrying it in an inside pocket in his coat. In Archer’s personal opinion, he’d rather the assassin had stopped carrying it altogether, but apparently keeping it that close was doing something to stave off the effects of the other injuries he was carrying and, he’d made a point of saying, was stopping him from trying to deal with the pain by using Smoke, which he’d otherwise be doing.
That’d been a low blow, and Archer had told him as much. But, if it stopped him from using the drug which was almost certainly otherwise going to kill him, then maybe there was something to be said for him keeping hold of the mysterious magical artifact after all.
And if I keep on thinking like that, I’m going to wind up arguing myself into a corner I really don’t think I want to be in.
No. We need to examine that box, because I am damn sure it’s not nearly as benign as it’s making itself out to be. Not least because, for some reason, I’m apparently thinking of it as something with agency rather than an inanimate object, and that worries me.
And, if they had a magical artifact which needed examining, there was honestly only one person in Sacaan who he trusted to do the job.
It’s been a while, Philip. I only hope you’re a better mood to help me this time around.
“What’re y’thinkin’?” Sabbat asked, the words almost inaudible around a mouthful of pancake.
“I’m thinking we need to pay a visit to a friend of mine,” Archer said, putting down his newspaper and reaching for the memorandum book from the side table. He leafed through it for a few moments, skimming the pages until his eye landed on the entry he was looking for. “Ah. There. You remember Philip Verist, don’t you?”
Sabbat shook his head. “Not a fuckin’ clue. One of your toffs?”
“You could say that. Verist’s a very old friend – before my time away from the city, in fact.”
“Before you were a pirate?” Radish broke in, excitedly. The two of them turned to look at her and she shrank back in her chair, shoveling a handful of food into her mouth in embarrassed silence.
“That’s… not entirely how I would have put it, Radish, but yes, before I was a pirate. Verist and I met during the Revolution, which should give you some idea of how many years we’ve known one another.”
“A fuck of a long time,” Sabbat clarified, helpfully. He swallowed, swung his boots down off the mantelpiece, and stood up, yawning wide enough that his jaw clicked. “He a leech, then?”
I really wish you wouldn’t use that word. Then again, I know you only do it to annoy me, so. “No, he’s not a vampire. In fact, he’s a human.”
Radish blinked. “He’s got to be old, then, if you knew him in the Revolution. That was years ago.”
Archer laughed. “He was a student then, so he’s in his fifties now. That’s not all that old for a human.”
The werewolf girl didn’t look entirely convinced, but she nodded, accepting the point. “Was he on the right side of things? Protectin’ the Queen an’ all?”
For an answer, Archer gestured to his own clothes, sweeping a hand along the length of his black waistcoat, trews, and boots. “I’m assuming you know what these colours mean?”
She nodded. “Mourning for the Queen’s family, on account of ‘em all bein’ murdered by the Usurper an’ then them coverin’ it up an’ sayin’ it was all an accident an’ everyone ought to move on.” Obviously noticing the surprise he was trying to hide, she grinned and ducked her head, a slight blush creeping up her neck. “Granma taught me. She said it was important we knew who the right folks were.”
“I’m not surprised, given she was in the thick of it with us.” Jenny had been one of the most active of the Revolution’s organisers, in fact, keeping information, weapons and spies flowing through the thieves roads and underground tunnels which criss-crossed every quarter of the city. Unlike certain other people, she’d managed to avoid having to take a short holiday from Sacaan after the Regent took power, and most of those who knew her nowadays would’ve been hard-pressed to associated the Daggers’ formidable proprietor with the spymaster and fixer who’d saved the revolutionaries’ hides more times than half of them would’ve liked to admit. “But yes, Verist wore the black. Still does, I suspect, for all he’s been retired from public life for the past five years.” And likely isn’t going to appreciate me pulling him out of that retirement to look over stolen Sinnlenst artifacts. Still, I trust his judgement in this more than anyone’s.
Radish seemed impressed. Sabbat, on the other hand, just looked bored.
“An’ why’re we goin’ visitin’ your revolutionary friend, anyhow?” He reached behind him, running his hand over the inside pocket of the coat hanging on the back of the chair. “Ain’t t’do with this, by any chance?”
For a very brief moment, Archer considered lying to him – making up some purpose for their visit to Verist’s hall which would disguise his true intentions until he’d got the younger man far enough out of the city that he couldn’t easily object. Then he thought better of it. Sabbat wasn’t the kind of man you lied to. Or, more to the point, he wasn’t the kind of man you lied to if you wanted to keep your friendship with him intact. “Yes. It’s something neither of us has seen before, it’s obviously dangerous, and Verist’s the best magical scholar I’ve ever met when it comes to artifacts.”
To his surprise, Sabbat didn’t argue, or shout, or flip him off. He didn’t even swear. He just nodded, fingers still playing over the outside of the pocket which held the item in question. “Aye. Makes sense.”
“‘course I do. I ain’t a fuckin’ idiot, Archer.” He blew out a breath, scowling in what Archer recognised with a small start as actual discomfort. “Look. This – whatever it is – I ain’t sayin’ I don’t want t’keep hold of it, on account of the fact that’d be the kind of lie I ain’t able t’tell with a straight face, but… it ain’t a good thing t’be keepin’ hold of.”
“So you’d not fight me if I tried to take it from you?”
Sabbat’s scowl deepened. “That ain’t what I said, an’ you know as much. I don’t know what this fuckin’ thing is, an’ I don’t much like it, but you try takin’ it off me an’ we’re goin’ t’have a problem.”
“I don’t fuckin’ know, Archer! Because you tryin’ t’take shit off me ain’t ended well historically? Because y’could just fuckin’ ask? Because- Because this fuckin’ thing’s magic deeper’n you or I know, an’ I ain’t got the knowledge t’get whatever fuckin’ claws it has out of my fuckin’ mind?!” He stopped, breathing hard, and clenched his fist against his thigh. “Fuck.”
“…My thoughts exactly,” Archer said, trying to keep his own rising dismay out of his voice. He’d had his suspicions about what else the box might have been doing to Sabbat, but to hear them confirmed that starkly had been… upsetting, to say the least. “We have a problem.”
“Y’don’t fuckin’ say,” Sabbat snarled. He reached into the other inside pocket of his coat, pulled out a hipflask, and took a long, irritable swig of something which stank so strongly of cheap drink it made Archer’s eye water even from across the room. “So what in the name of the Six’re we goin’ t’do about it?”
…That’s the first time I think I’ve ever heard him swear by anything other than the Lady. I don’t know what that means, but I doubt it’s good. “We still go to see Verist. He’s the best chance we have at working out what to do about this.”
“An’ until then?” the assassin challenged. He glared at the hipflask as though it’d personally offended him. “If I ain’t carryin’ it, I’m sod-all use t’the rest of you. But if I’m carryin’ it, it’ll get more of chance to keep doin’ whatever it is it’s doing t’my head, and, oddly enough, I ain’t exactly fuckin’ happy about that.”
“I know,” Archer said. He pinched the bridge of his nose, closed his eye, and tried to think. “Would you be willing to let the two of them go by themselves to the Sinnlenst meeting?”
“Fuck no. Cervanso’s sound, I’ll give her that, but she ain’t goin’ t’be able t’take down all of ‘em if her cover gets blown, an’ I still don’t trust your red-eye brat as far as I can throw him.”
That’s… actually an improvement on the last assessment you gave me on the two of them. Still not entirely helpful, mind, but worth noting nonetheless. “And I assume that if I asked you to hand over the mission to another member of the Order, you’d refuse?”
“Ha! Almost as if y’know me.”
“A decade will do that, I suppose.” He sighed, running a hand over his hair. “Which means you’re set on following them.”
“Ain’t plannin’ on gettin’ involved unless things go t’shit, Archer. Y’don’t need t’look at me like that.”
“I know. And it would probably be a good idea for them to have some backup if things, as you so eloquently put it, ‘go to shit’. I’m just not entirely happy with the fact that, if you do this, you’re going to have to take that damn box with you.” He paused, suddenly struck by something. “Unless… I suspect this might be something of a dead end, but I’d not forgive myself if I didn’t ask. Could you function without it as you are at the moment?”
Sabbat pulled a face. “Ain’t sure. Ain’t exactly sure I want t’try findin’ out.” He took another swig of whatever he’d filled the hipflask with this time (Archer wasn’t entirely sure whatever it was wasn’t surgical spirit, given the smell, but he also wasn’t about to waste time trying to find out), grimaced, and got to his feet, stretching his arms above his head and rolling his shoulders back. “That… ain’t too bad.”
“You’re still within touching distance of the box,” Archer pointed out, feeling rather as though he was coaxing his friend out onto ever-thinner ice. He didn’t want Sabbat to be hurt, but gods, better for them to find out now than when it’d matter more.
Sabbat nodded. “How far d’you want me t’go?”
“Try… Hm. Try walking across the room. Slowly, if you can.”
“I ain’t a fuckin’ experiment, Archer.”
“The phrase you’re looking for is ‘test subject’ and, in this case, I’m rather afraid you are.”
That, unsurprisingly, got him a raised middle finger and a mutter of “Bastard” which was quite obviously meant to be audible.
“Yes, I know. But I’d rather we find this out here and now than when you drop the thing off a rooftop or over the edge of a bridge in the middle of a fight.”
Sabbat didn’t bother to reply to that. But he did take a step forward and then, when that failed to produce the collapse they’d both been expecting, another. Around the third step, he started to grin and Archer, relief washing through him like a tidal wave, found himself doing likewise.
Around the fifth step, his leg buckled, and he fell.
Archer reached him before he hit the ground, catching him around the torso and managing to, if not stop him falling, slow his descent enough that the two of them hit the floor in something that vaguely resembled a controlled landing. The assassin’s bodyweight landed across his left arm and he felt something pop in his elbow – but the world shifted back into something approaching normal speed, and they were both lying on the carpet side by side, staring up at the ceiling and wondering what in the worlds had just happened.
“Are you alright?” Radish’s face swam into view above, blue eyes wide and worried in a suddenly-pale face. “Mr Archer?”
“I’m-” He coughed, winced, noted with a certain academic detachment that he’d almost certainly bruised his ribs in the fall, and then continued: “I’m alright, Radish. And, unfortunately, I think we’ve quite conclusively proven my hypothesis correct.”
“Fucksake, Archer!” The fall hadn’t improved Sabbat’s temper – though, given the colour his face had gone and how rough his voice currently sounded, Archer couldn’t exactly blame him. “Speak fuckin’ Sacaask, will y’?”
“Alright then. In plain Sacaask: you can’t get more than five steps away from the box without your previous injuries reasserting themselves. Which is going to be something of a problem if you’re going to follow our mutual friends to their rendezvous tomorrow.”
“‘s a fuckin’ understatement,” the assassin muttered darkly, dragging himself into a sitting position. He reached back, gingerly running a hand along the length of his lower spine, and hissed under his breath. “Ain’t sure what’s wrong, but I ain’t runnin’ anywhere with my back doin’ this, even if my leg fuckin’ worked.”
“I could get you some Smoke?” Radish offered. She bit her lip, looking away as Archer turned a glare he’d not entirely intended on her. “Sorry. I just figured, given he uses it already, an’ it’s good for pain an’ all…”
She had a point, Archer had to admit. But even if he’d been willing to let Sabbat use the damn stuff in his rooms, which in normal circumstances he wasn’t, he wasn’t about to send a child out on a drug-acquiring mission. “I don’t have any here, and I’m not about to ask you to-”
“‘s alright! I know where to buy it, an’ I know where you can get the best deals. Annie showed me.”
Gods above. Again, I don’t know why I’m surprised, and yet… “Please tell me you don’t use Smoke, Radish.”
She shook her head firmly, red-blonde braid flying. “Nuh-uh. Da says it’s poisonous if you ain’t used to it, an’ you don’t get used to it less you’ve bin away t’sea an’ all, on account of it comin’ from foreign parts. He says that’s why the sailors all use it – they get terrible seasick when the big storms come, an’ the Smoke makes ‘em go as dizzy as the ship, so’s they don’t notice her shiftin’ around under ‘em.”
Archer blinked. He wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting, but he was fairly certain it hadn’t been that. Well, that’s one way to keep children from experimenting with illegal narcotics, I suppose. Radish’s da is obviously an inventive gentleman. “Good. I have some laudanum in my first-aid cabinet, which will do just as well for now – if Sabbat wants to take some Smoke when he gets back to the Daggers, I’m sure he has his own supply.”
“Go fuck y’self,” the assassin growled, though it seemed more reflex than anything else. He pulled himself backwards along the floor until he reached the chair, then, with a grunt of effort, unhooked the coat from the back of it and pulled the box out of the pocket, holding it loosely in one hand. “An’ fuck this bastard thing too, fer good measure.”
The colour was beginning to come back into his skin – if Archer squinted, it almost looked as though it was bleeding up from his hand and, in turn, from the dark wood of the box itself – and his breathing had evened out, the ragged edges smoothing away into something which sounded a good deal healthier almost as soon as he’d touched the box.
“This is unsustainable,” Archer said, as much to himself as to the other inhabitants of the room. “And, setting aside going to see Verist, I have honestly no idea what we’re going to do about it.”
There was an obvious answer, of course. Take the box from Sabbat, destroy it, let him recover naturally, and either send someone else to watch over Fest and Viola or, better, go himself. That would be the sensible, logical thing to do in this situation.
And if he tried that, there were even odds that he’d ruin his friendship with Sabbat forever.
“How far away’s your friend’s place?” Sabbat asked, after a moment. His voice sounded stronger again, though there was still a harshness around the edges which hinted that the box hadn’t yet repaired all the damage to his throat. “Any chance on us gettin’ there tonight?”
Archer frowned. “It’d be possible, I suppose,” he said, after a moment’s thought. “The Hall’s not as far out of the city as some of the estates, for all it’s far enough away to make getting to it non-trivial, and there’d not be too many obstacles to us hiring a pair of horses for the journey, even with this short notice. If we wanted to be back in time for midday tomorrow, however…”
“Ain’t possible without killin’ the horses or breakin’ our necks on the mountain,” Sabbat finished for him. He growled. “How about headin’ after tomorrow evenin’?”
“If you’d be willing to go straight from the Sinnlenst gathering. I’d been assuming you’d want at least a few hours back at the Daggers to get some sleep before a long ride.”
The assassin smiled a sideways smile that had very little humour in it and tapped his fingers on the lid of the box. “Ain’t sleepin’ much with this around. Don’t need to.” He lowered his voice a little, looking away. “An’ it’s givin’ me nightmares.”
“Why am I in no way surprised?” Archer said, before he could stop himself.
Sabbat rolled his eyes. “Very fuckin’ funny, Archer. You ain’t the one who’s havin’ t’live with this.”
“True. If I ask what kind of nightmares, am I going to get an answer or a lesson in new and exciting swearwords?”
“Drownin’,” the younger man said, tonelessly. “Dark water.” He looked down at the box in his hands, eyes flat. “Mazes.”
A chill ran up Archer’s spine that had nothing to do with the snow falling past the windowpane. “Are these-”
“Every fuckin’ time I close my eyes, Will. An’ it ain’t gettin’ any better.”
“Damn,” Archer said, trying very hard to ignore the fact that Sabbat had just used his given name. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times he’s done that. It means this is a damn sight more serious than I already thought it was.
“Aye. ‘s about the size of it.”
“Are you going to be able to hold out until after tomorrow evening?”
“And you won’t give the box over to me in the meantime?”
“T’do what with?” Sabbat asked. He closed his fingers tightly around the box, the movement almost involuntary. “Burn it? Even odds that ain’t endin’ well fer me.”
“Believe me, I’d already thought of that. I was planning on putting it somewhere out of the way, but I don’t know if that’s going to be possible given how much of a link it seems to already have to you.” He shook his head, irritated. “If I just put it in a safe somewhere…”
“Then I fuckin’ guarantee you it’d find a way t’get me t’get it back,” Sabbat said. He didn’t sound exactly happy about the idea.
Archer scowled. “Yes, that’s what I was afraid of. I’m starting to think that I have read about artifacts like this before, though I can’t remember the exact specifics other than they were something used by the Aventrian Empire before the Fall. Whatever it is, it’s certainly a lot more powerful than either of us gave it credit for.”
“Tell me somethin’ I don’t fuckin’ know,” the assassin griped. “I’m assumin’ your clever friend’ll have some way of gettin’ this thing off me.”
“Almost certainly,” Archer said, with a confidence he didn’t entirely feel. If anyone in the city did know how to deal with whatever the box was, it would be Verist, but if it really was pre-Fall magic then there was a very good chance even he wouldn’t be able to puzzle out its exact workings. And, at that point… “If he can’t, would you be willing to let me try destroying it?”
Sabbat glared. “If he can’t, I’m throwin’ it into the sixdamn fire myself an’ damn the fuckin’ consequences.”
Which was both exactly what Archer had been expecting him to say and, if he was honest, a fairly significant relief. He’s still him, at least. For however long that lasts.“Good. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.”
The assassin nodded, wincing a little at the movement. “Din’t you say y’had some laudanum?”
“I did.” He took a breath. “Is the magic wearing off, or are you attempting to avoid relying on it?”
“Does it fuckin’ matter?” Sabbat snarled. He looked down at the box, seemingly suddenly realising quite how tight his grip on it had become, and snarled. “There an answer which means you ain’t givin’ me a damn drink?”
There should be, given I’m fairly certain I’m enabling your damn addiction. But again, that’s a fight I don’t particularly want to have right now. “No. I’ll admit, I’d rather know what you’re thinking than not, but I can’t and won’t force you to tell me.”
There was a short, awkward silence. Then: “Tryin’ t’stop relyin’ on it. Ain’t happy lettin’ anythin’ have that much of a grip on me.”
Except the Smoke, of course. But that was still a fight he wasn’t going to have right now, and still something that could be dealt with after they’d freed Sabbat from whatever hold the box currently had over him. “I know.” He sighed. “How much do you need?”
“Enough t’take the edge off.”
Precise, if unhelpful. “Are you planning on going out tonight?”
The assassin laughed. “Ain’t goin’ t’have much of a choice if you ain’t inclined t’let me smoke here. Need a couple o’ things from the Daggers anyhow.”
“I could get ‘em!” Radish piped up. She’d taken herself away from the two of them at some point during the previous discussion, curling up in the window seat and pulling one of the blankets piled there tight around her skinny shoulders. “Could bring your Smoke, too, if y’tell me where it is.”
From the expression on Sabbat’s face, that wasn’t going to happen. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and, using the seat of the chair to brace himself, pushed himself up to a standing position, fingers still clamped loosely around the damn box. “If I stay away much longer, Jenny’ll go let out my sixdamn room t’someone else.”
“She wouldn’t! She told me already y’can stay as long as y’want, on account of-”
“I’m jokin’, kid.” He opened his eyes, looking around the room. “Anythin’ y’need me t’bring back fer you, Archer?”
“From the Daggers? I don’t think so. Except- no, wait. If any of Jenny’s boys, girls or others have any more information for me about Rose, I’d be indebted to you if you could bring it back to me.” He paused, considered exactly how Sabbat might go about extracting that information, and clarified “Without doing them any damage.”
Sabbat pulled a face. “I ain’t touchin’ anyone under Jenny’s protection, Archer, an’ you fuckin’ know as much. I ain’t stupid.” He looked across at Radish, rolled his eyes, and added “An’ aye, that means you too. Though if y’think I ain’t goin’ t’tell your granma if I catch you eavesdroppin’ on me again-”
“I ain’t goin’ to do it again! I promised!” the girl yelped, shrinking in on herself under the blanket. If she’d had a tail in human shape, Archer was fairly sure it would’ve been between her legs.
He sighed, crouched down, and held out a hand placatingly. “And Sabbat and I both know that you’re going to keep that promise, so you’ve nothing to be scared of.” He thought for a moment. “Radish?”
“Would you be able to talk to your grandmother’s… people for me? I think they’d be more likely to answer questions from you than from Sabbat, and you’d be doing me an exceptional favour.”
Radish chewed on her bottom lip for a second, obviously considering the request. Then she said, in a far more business-like tone than she’d been using a second ago, “What kind of a favour?”
Sabbat barked out a laugh. “She’s got you now, mate. Don’t you know never t’trade favours with a River Quarter kid?”
“I know that Radish here has done more than enough to earn my trust over the past week, given how many errands I’ve asked her to run,” Archer shot back, raising an eyebrow. “If she’d wanted to turn on us, she’s already had ample opportunity to do so.” He turned back to Radish, holding her gaze for a moment. “The kind of favour which puts a member of the Order very deeply in your debt, if the information you bring me is good.”
The girl nodded seriously. “That’s a big favour. The information you’re wantin’ must be valuable.”
“Beyond price, possibly. I need to know everything they know about Rose.”
“The lady who got killed?”
“Yes. It’s possible one of them might know something about why she was killed, or who did it. Possibly even where her murderer is.”
“It was Caine,” Sabbat broke in, curtly. “Ask all the questions you fuckin’ like, but I’m tellin’ you it was Caine.”
“Yes. You’ve said. But you’ve also said you’re sure you killed him.”
Archer sighed. “Flippant as this is going to sound, that would generally tend to put a damper on his ability to keep murdering people, no?”
“Din’t put a soddin’ damper on his ability to try an’ throttle me, did it?” the assassin retorted, gesturing irritably to the black fingermark bruises still visible on his dark throat. “Don’t know what the fuck he is right now, or what’s walkin’ around in his skin, but whatever it is, it ain’t at the bottom of the fuckin’ river any more.”
Which, provided Sabbat’s right about both Caine’s death and his apparent resurrection, leaves only one obvious impossible possibility, Archer thought.
He didn’t want to be right. Gods above, he really didn’t want to be right. But if Sabbat had killed Caine, and if Caine had to all intents and purposes come back from the dead, and if Caine was responsible for Rose’s murder (and the other exsanguinations around Old Town and the River Quarter) then the facts all pointed to one simple, incontrovertible conclusion.
Ephraim Caine was a Turned.
Which meant they were all in very serious trouble.
Copyright © 2020 by Finn McLellan. All rights reserved.
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