It was fully dark by the time they made it to the rendezvous point, a back-alley in one of the deeper levels of Steepside. It was the kind of place which gave even the worst of the criminal element of the city pause, given how far it was from anything approaching sunlight, and, to Viola’s mind at least, almost hilariously bloody apposite for the kind of business they were on.
It was also, according to Sabbat, irritatingly far from any of the major thieves roads, though he’d been adamant that wouldn’t cause him any problems he couldn’t find his way around (and, given the expression on his face when he’d said that, Viola had a good idea what kind of solutions he had in mind. She’d bitten her tongue, said nothing, and hoped to all the ancestors that anyone he ended up stabbing had done something to deserve it).
And, to add insult to injury, the place stank. She’d not expected it to be clean – they were in the bottom of the worst slum in Sacaan, after all – but, when they’d first entered the level, the sheer strength of the reek had almost made her lose her lunch, and she’d had to take a few moments just to get her bearings again.
Dirty places for dirty business is one thing, but I draw the line at doing a blackmail negotiation in a bloody sewer.
“Are you alright?” Fest sounded about as nervous as she felt, the edges of his words tinged with something that seemed half a heartbeat away from falling into actual hysteria. “You’re not going to keel over on me, are you? Because, for a start, I’m not sure I could carry you all the way out of here by myself.”
“Again with the bloody weight jibes?” she hissed, though her heart wasn’t in it. If either of them did need to carry the other one out, it was going to be hellish. They’d manage it, of course – it wasn’t as though they had much choice in the matter – but navigating rusty iron ladders in the pitch black and freezing cold wasn’t exactly anyone’s idea of an enjoyable night out, even without taking her wounded leg into account. “Besides, what’s to say it won’t be me dragging your unconscious carcass out of here when you drop down in a dead faint again?”
“That’s not funny.”
“Nor was yours.”
“It wasn’t meant to be.” He paused, looking around the alleyway. “Did you hear something?”
She hadn’t. But, then again, werewolf hearing wasn’t always as good as it could be – it beat humans’ into a cocked hat, but when it came to vampires, it was even odds. “What kind of a something? The kind we’re meant to be meeting, or the kind that sounds a whole lot like a thing we’re not talking about in polite company?”
“I don’t know. Might have been a rat or something, but I’m not sure. It was- there!”
This time, Viola did hear it. It wasn’t much, as mysterious noises went – just a scuffing sound, like clothes rubbing against brickwork, or someone changing position in a hiding spot – but it was definitely there, and it was definitely a damn sight too deliberate-sounding to be a rat.
For a moment she considered pretending they’d not heard and trying to lure whoever it was into revealing themselves that way, but she almost immediately gave it up as a bad idea. If whoever it was was planning on attacking them, it wouldn’t do all that much to give them an advantage – and, if it was Avebury or one of his friends, pointing out that they were being a whole lot less stealthy than they thought they were might well give the two of them an edge in whatever negotiations were coming.
And, let’s be honest, we need all the edges we can get.
“Hey! Want to come out and talk face-to-face, or are you just going to skulk in the shadows and play hide-and-seek? I mean, I’m game if you are, but we do have a prior engagement, so if you want to hurry it up a bit, we’d all be very grateful.”
There was a brief silence. Then a voice from the shadows said, perfectly companionably: “I reckon me an’ mine’ll stay right where we are, if it’s all the same to you.”
What the- That’s not Avebury!
It didn’t sound much like one of his friends either, unless the Sinnlenst had started recruiting teenage Southerners to run their errands for them. And teenage Southern girls, at that, from the sound of it.
“You and yours? Mind if I ask who that is?”
“Ask all y’like, friend.”
Sarky, aren’t we? “Alright, then. Who are you?”
“Good question. No-one who means you any ‘arm, if that’s what you’re worryin’ about. We don’t hurt kin, an’ the two of you both count.”
‘Kin’? If she’d not said both of us counted, I’d assume she was a werewolf from that. “Fine. Why’re you watching us, then?”
“Who said we were?”
“The fact you didn’t just fade the moment I made you?”
“Ha! Speak cant, do y’?”
“Enough. I’m not one of the Right People, if that’s what you’re asking. Just picked up enough to get by.” Which was true enough. Unlike Sabbat, she wasn’t an actual member of the city’s criminal underworld, but she’d dealt with enough of them in her work for the Order to have picked up a smattering of one version of the Old Town thieves cant. It came in handy on occasion, especially when she ran into people who didn’t expect her to be able to understand what they were saying. “Anyhow, we’re from the point. You’re watching us for a reason. Why?”
The owner of the voice laughed, the sound surprisingly young and unselfconscious. “Straight to th’point, ain’t you?”
“Don’t have time to be anything else. We’re supposed to be meeting someone, and if we’re late-“
“You’re fucked. Yeah, I know.”
“You do?” Fest, having apparently found his tongue again. “Did he send you, or-“
“Y’might wanna tell that one he’s all but told me where he keeps his soddin’ money,” the voice said, very obviously still addressing Viola. “We don’t work for whoever you’re meetin’, if that’s what he wants t’know. I’ve just seen enough of these kind of meetings go down that I got a sense for what kind of stakes you might be playin’ for.”
“You still haven’t answered the question,” Viola pointed out. “Why’re you so interested in us?”
“Don’t suppose you’d take ‘idle curiosity’?” the voice mused. “Nah, ‘course you wouldn’t. You’re smarter’n that.”
“I appreciate the compliment, but you’re still dodging giving me a proper bloody answer.”
“Fine. Fine. You’re interestin’.”
This time it was Viola who laughed. She couldn’t help it – of all the bloody reasons, that was not one she’d been expecting. “You’re lying. Either that or your standards for ‘interesting’ are hilariously sodding low.”
“Are they? Seems t’me when a werewolf an’ a vampire – both dressed like they’ve got more money than anyone round here, by th’way – schlep down to the lowest of the low in Steepside, talkin’ all the way about how there’s this important meetin’ they’re havin’ that they can’t afford to be late for… Well, seems t’me like that’s plenty interestin’ enough to be gettin’ on with.”
“That sounded like the kind of sentence that has an ‘and’ after it. What else is so interesting about us?”
“You’ve got some interestin’ friends,” the voice said, after a while. “Interestin’, and dangerous. Kind of friends a body wants on their side when everythin’ goes to shit.”
“I don’t-” Viola began, and then shut up sharpish as her brain caught up to her mouth and reminded her exactly how bad an idea continuing on that path was going to be. “Fine. That’s reason enough, I suppose.”
“Viola?” Fest whispered. “What’s going on?”
“Shush. They’re not a threat to us – not right now, at least.”
“I don’t understand.”
She lowered her own voice, pitching it so only a vampire or another werewolf would be able to hear. “She knows we’re Order. That bit about dangerous friends? That’s the Order in these parts, and she near as dammit said she’d made us the moment we came into Steepside.”
“Ah spirits, didn’t those bloody books of yours get anything right? Clocked us. Made us. Worked out who we were and what we were up to.”
“We’re that obvious?”
“And how do you know she’s not going to attack us for it? I’ve only been one of us a week and I already know there are more than enough people out there who hate our guts.”
“First off, because she said she wouldn’t. Second, because she referred to our people as being good to have on your side – Sinnlenst might be tricky, but they tend to draw the line at outright complimenting us. And third, because she’s almost certainly not human.”
“Neither’s Foreval,” Fest pointed out.
“And she’s the exception. The Sinnlenst don’t like our kind – you only need to have one conversation with bloody Avebury to figure that one out.”
“Why, Miss Cervanso, I do believe my ears are burning.”
She whipped around, hand dropping to her belt knife as she slid almost unconsciously into a fighter’s crouch. “Bastard.”
“Charming as ever, Miss Cervanso. And quiet as ever, Mr Fest. I’m sure you’ll find your tongue sooner or later – for your sake, if nothing else.”
He had to be almost completely blind in the all-consuming darkness, but he stepped forward with all the confidence of a society grandee welcoming guests to his manor, sweeping a mockingly low bow in Viola’s direction as he did so. “I’d say it was a pleasure to meet you again – and it is – but I’m afraid business must come first. Do you have the information I requested?”
“We do,” Viola said, mouth suddenly dry. She swallowed hard, reached into her shirt, and pulled out the packet of papers she and Amelia had spent the previous night putting together. “Here.”
He reached out to take them, but she pulled her hand back sharply, stepping out of his reach.
“Not until I see you burn those letters, Avebury.”
To her surprise, he didn’t object. Indeed, when he spoke again, he actually sounded almost impressed. “You never cease to amaze, Miss Cervanso. I have absolutely no doubt you’ll be a worthy ally to our cause.”
“Oh, how remiss of me. Before we go any further – Mr Fest, do you also have something for me?”
Fest nodded, pulling his own packet of papers from the inside pocket of his coat. His hands were shaking, but, Viola was pleased to note, he’d managed to stay looking vaguely in Avebury’s direction rather than down at his own feet this time. “I do. But you’re not getting it until the letters are gone. I’m not stupid.”
“The evidence would seem to suggest otherwise,” Avebury muttered, but he didn’t seem inclined to force the issue. He smiled, though the expression didn’t reach his eyes. “Now, where were we?”
“You were telling us what you’d gone and recruited us for,” Viola said.
Avebury nodded. “Of course. Though, given I’ve yet to verify your information, any recruiting I might be doing at this stage is strictly on an informal basis.”
“Meaning if we’ve lied to you, we disappear and you never knew anything about us to begin with.”
“Precisely. You’re a quick study for someone with your… limitations.”
“And you’re still crap at compliments.”
“Indeed. So, as far as the two of you are concerned, is Amelia Luciel a member of the Order?”
Careful. This smells like a trap.
“Yes,” Fest said, without hesitation. “Absolutely.”
“Interesting…” Avebury said, his smile unchanged. “Would you care to elaborate on that?”
“Of course.” He took a breath, steadying himself, and went on: “She’s meeting with other students during study and labwork hours. At first I assumed it was some sort of romantic tryst, given she’d slipped away from her bodyguard, but they seem a good deal more like research meetings.”
“They’ve got themselves a copy of one of the older texts – Hargreaves, I think – and they’re cross-referencing some of the more obscure rituals in there with the codex of folk magic put together by Silavetta in the hopes of being the first to discover a new way of building a portal spell which would get around the running water restriction.”
“Very interesting, I’m sure, but I don’t see how that proves she’s anything other than a particularly diligent student.”
“They’re doing it at the behest of something called the Master’s Council. It’s not a university body, nor anything connected to any of the guilds, and it seems to be primarily concerned with the discovery of new magic and the attempt to undo the damage of the Fall. Given everything I know about the Order’s supposed aims, that seems to match almost exactly.”
“I see. And what do you think of those aims, Mr Fest?”
Be careful, Fest. For both our sakes.
“I think…” He paused, obviously choosing his words carefully. “I think the Fall happened for a reason. Studying the remnants of magic is all very well, but we shouldn’t try setting ourselves up like the magelords of old just because we like the idea of having power.”
Well bloody done. He’d threaded the needle damn near perfectly – enough of what the Sinnlenst wanted to hear, but not too far from his usual character that it’d be obvious he was lying through his teeth. That was sodding masterful. Remind me to buy you a drink when we get out of this.
If we get out of this.
“And you, Miss Cervanso? Do you agree with your compatriot, or do you take a different view?”
She’d practised this – after all, it was almost a certainty that the Sinnlenst were going to ask about her beliefs at one point or another – and yet, when the moment came, she damn near almost froze. Fuck. I can’t do this. I can’t-
Fine. Just get it over with. She took a breath. “Alright. The way I see it is this: you’re both a pack of rich fools playing at spywork, but the Order’s a good deal more likely to blow up the world by poking the wrong thing than you lot are, so if you’re twisting my arm for an answer I’ll say I side with you.”
There was a long, long silence. Then Avebury clapped his hands once, sharply, and grinned like a shark. “Excellent. We’ll make something of the two of you yet.” He turned on his heel, heading back towards the ladder at the end of the alleyway. Over his shoulder, he added: “Now, if you’ll come with me, I have several people I’d like you to meet.” He wrinkled his nose. “After a bath and a change of clothes, of course.”
“Of course,” Viola echoed, dully. She looked down at the ground, bit her lip, and swore, viciously and silently. What in the name of every one of my fucking ancestors have I just got myself into?
Unbeknownst to her, Sabbat was currently thinking pretty much exactly the same thing, though with even more swearing.
The information-exchange had gone off about as well as he and Archer could’ve hoped – better, in fact, given the Sinnlenst hadn’t seemed to suspect a thing – which was making him incredibly fucking jumpy.
Things don’t go that smooth when the Sinnlenst’re concerned. Not unless they’re playing us.
Problem was, if they were being played, he had no fucking idea what the endgame was.
Get the two of ’em indoors and slit their throats? Seems a hell of a length to go to when there’s a convenient bloody murder alley right there.
No. Has to be something deeper than that. Something they actually need ‘em alive for.
They’ve got a Turned to feed, ain’t they?
He flicked his gaze up towards the nearest rooftops (or what passed for them down here), scanning for any sign of Caine – or, at least, whatever was currently wearing Caine’s skin.
Nothing. You’re being fucking paranoid.
But just because you’re paranoid, he added, silently, as his eye lit on a flicker of movement just on the edge of being invisible to human sight, doesn’t mean there isn’t an undead monster about to eat your face.
Whatever it was skulking in the shadows, it wasn’t Caine – not unless Caine had suddenly managed to lose two-thirds of his bulk and, judging by the way it was moving, about the same again of mass.
Doesn’t mean it ain’t dangerous. Plenty of folk down here aside from Turned looking to rip your face off.
Worse than folk, if you believed half the stories people told. There were rumours about the kind of things which haunted the lower levels of the River Quarter – most of them were scuttlebutt and fairytales, but there was always the odd one or two which had enough bodies behind it to back it. And, down here in the dark, wasn’t much to choose between an opportunistic murderer and something a good deal more… squamous.
Whatever it is, it’s more of a danger to me than either of those two. Given as how I’m the one who can’t see in the fucking dark.
True enough, as far as it went. He had sodding good night-eyes for a human – good enough that Archer’d asked him more than once if he was sure he didn’t have a werewolf or vampire somewhere in his family tree, and meant it as more than a joke – but he was still human. He’d seen whatever not-Caine was because it’d silhouetted itself against one of the shafts of moonlight that actually managed to make it down this far into the gloom, but now that it’d started moving off again, he’d as near as lost it in the shadows.
Logically, it was probably whoever’d been talking to Fest and Cervanso. Aye, it’d moved faster and surer-footed than most street urchins he’d ever met, but whoever’d been talking to the two of them obviously fancied themselves tough enough to start baiting Order spies, which, given they were down here and still alive, likely meant they had the skills to back the bravado. And it wasn’t as though there weren’t kids who were tough enough. Hells, he’d been one.
Problem was, that was a fine and tidy logical explanation which did sod-all to explain the fact that whatever it was he’d seen climbing up that chimney-gap between the two buildings had set the hairs on the back of his neck on end in a way which hadn’t happened since-
Since I got sight of Caine.
It wasn’t Caine. Wasn’t even wishful thinking, that – based on size, shape, and how it was moving, it physically couldn’t be him. But whatever it was, it was almost certainly bad news.
The palms of his hands were itching. He clenched his fists, bracing his shoulder against the brickwork to keep his balance, and fought back the sudden insane urge to chase down the fleeing figure. Let the mission go hang – whatever the thing was, it’d have a hard time scrambling up any more buildings with a throwing knife embedded in its sixdamn spine.
Not that that’d stop Caine, some treacherous part of his mind pointed out. And it ain’t as though you can manage a repeat of that trick with the acid.
Then again, wasn’t as though Caine’d be able to do much to him now he had the box. All he had to do was-
Keep pulling on power I don’t know the source of and trust it ain’t ripping my soul to shreds in the meantime. Might not make as many good decisions as Archer’d like me too, but even I can recognise that for a bad trade.
And speaking of bad trades… He looked down, watching the dim shapes of Cervanso and Fest make their way slowly up the first of the series of ladders leading out of the Deeps. The two of ‘em had handled the Sinnlenst brat surprisingly well, even if the whole thing was a set-up, but that’d been the easy part. From here on in, things were going to get a fuck of a lot more dangerous.
Which is why the Order needs you following them, not chasing off after shadows. More to the point, it’s why Archer needs you following them.
The distinction shouldn’t’ve mattered, but it did. The Order, for all he generally believed in its goals and principles, could go hang if it thought it got to tell him what to do. Archer was a different matter.
It ain’t that he gets to tell me what to do. Fucking nobody gets to do that. It’s just…
Whatever it was, he didn’t have time for it right now, not with the two of them almost at the top of that ladder already. He shook his head, shoving the thoughts away, and, with a wince and hiss of pain, pushed off the wall and out into the night.
I’m going to stop shaking eventually. Right? Pretty sure that’s how this works.
Then again, it’s not as though I’ve ever done this before. And nobody in the books ever mentions how bloody nerve-wracking the whole business is. Or how much you end up feeling like you’re going to piss yourself.
He hadn’t, thankfully, but it’d been a closer-run thing than he’d have liked, especially when Avebury had appeared out of the shadows like that.
He’s got to be completely blind down here. How did he manage that?
It was probably some sort of Sinnlenst trickery, that was all. Trickery, and luck, and a sense of dramatic timing worthy of a penny-dreadful villain.
He nodded, not trusting his voice not to betray him.
Viola frowned, obviously unconvinced (which, given she could probably smell the fear coming off him, was fair). “Breathe. Difficult bit’s over now.”
Which was a lie, and they both knew as much. But with Avebury right there… “Mhm.”
“You did bloody well back there, you know.”
I did? He’d been too busy trying not to faint, throw up, or do something even more undignified to actually pay much attention to the words that had been coming out of his mouth, but the fact that they weren’t both face-down in the bottom of the Deeps suggested he’d managed to at least come up with something vaguely plausible. “I… Thank you.”
“Don’t get comfortable, though. Still owe you at the very least a punch in the gut for spying on my lady.”
What? Oh, wait. We’re playing this up for Avebury. That makes sense. “It wasn’t as though you were stopping me. If you really wanted to protect her from the consequences of her actions, you wouldn’t be here, would you?”
For a second he thought she really was going to punch him. Then she blew out a breath, dropped her shoulders, and turned away from him, growling something under her breath that he was pretty sure wasn’t complimentary.
“Having second thoughts, Miss Cervanso? I assure you, you’ve made the right choice.”
“You can shut the fuck up,” Viola snarled with a viciousness that Fest was pretty sure was entirely genuine. “I’m not denying you’re on the right side, but you’re still asking me to betray the closest thing I have to family outside my own clan. I don’t expect you to understand how much that hurts, but the least you can do is shut your mouth and let me deal with it.”
“My apologies,” Avebury said, in a tone which implied he meant nothing of the sort. “I should have realised it would be something of a sore topic.”
“Yes. You should have.”
“I said, you can shut your mouth.”
There was a short, dangerous silence. Fest bit the inside of his lip hard enough to draw blood, fighting back the urge to drop his hand to the hilt of his sword – for all the story they were weaving had space for him to be unhappy with Avebury, drawing on the Sinnlenst was probably a very good way to get both him and Viola killed.
If we’re lucky. He’s too vindictive to want us dead when he could have us suffer instead.
“I understand,” Avebury said, slowly. “Though I feel you and I might need to have words once this is over, Miss Cervanso.”
“That’s for damn sure.”
And, with that (and much to Fest’s relief), the conversation seemed to be over.
Copyright © 2020 by Finn McLellan. All rights reserved.
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