Blood on the Snow: Chapter 23 (draft)

Whatever the Sinnlenst were paying their guards, it clearly wasn’t enough for them to give a shit about doing their jobs properly. Fully half of the ones stationed around the inner courtyard had clustered up around one of the gaslamps, sharing cigarettes and rotgut in the half-circle of light and warmth and leaving their shivering, night-blind mates to watch for intruders – which, of course, meant they were too busy cursing out their so-called friends to actually bother keeping an eye out for, say, an Order assassin clinging to drainpipe two storeys above their heads.

Which, in turn, suited Sabbat just fucking fine.

Idiots. If this wasn’t an infiltration job I’d be more than half tempted to start picking ‘em off, see how long it’d take before they realised what the fuck was going on.

Unlike the street-facing side of the building, the windows on the inner side were unshuttered – whoever’d made that decision probably reckoned that the guards would be enough of a deterrent that they’d not need a physical barrier to stop a break-in. More fool them.

Still need to get in without alerting any of the bastards who might actually be paying attention, which means just breaking a pane’s out. Don’t suppose they’ve been obliging enough to leave anything unlocked, either. Although…

Keeping his foot locked firmly behind the drainpipe, he reached out, hooked two fingers carefully under the edge of the nearest casement, and gave it a short, experimental tug.

For a moment, nothing happened. Then, just as he was starting to move his hand away, there was a sharp metallic click from somewhere around the middle of the window, and the casement swung slowly, silently open.

Sabbat nearly fell off the drainpipe, partly out of surprise but mostly because he’d been putting enough weight on that arm that he’d not been expecting the sudden shift in balance.


A sudden burst of panic lanced through him, a shadow-echo of that sick twisting weightlessness he’d felt when Caine’d thrown him off the roof- but his foot was still locked behind the metal of the pipe, and the fingers of his other hand were tight on the bracket holding it to the wall, and, even as the momentum tried to drag him out into the night, instinct and muscle-memory pulled him back against the stonework with nothing to show for it but a thudding heart, a catch in his throat, and what was going to be a bastard of a bruise on his shoulder.

Thank Earth Brother for caldera iron and Sacaask stone. And, as the reality of what’d just happened slowly filtered through to his brain, And thank the Lady for thieves luck… though I don’t think She’s going to be offended if I ain’t rushing to trust what’s looking a fuck of a lot like a very obvious trap.

It wasn’t impossible that one of the Sinnlenst had left the window unlocked – they’d apparently not bothered to get decent guards, after all – but unlocked and with oiled hinges?

Either they’re fucking fastidious with their housekeeping and fucking lazy with their security, or someone’s playing games here. And I’ll lay good odds I know who.

Before the encounter in Steepside he’d been inclined to dismiss Avebury as a problem for Archer’s side of things, but actually meeting the brat had changed his opinion on the front. Not that he knew exactly what Avebury was planning yet – hard to work that kind of angle when you’d just been thrown off a fucking roof – but whatever it was it went a bloody long way past simple blackmail and rabble-rousing.

And that damn box is probably part of it. Which is making me feel all kinds of fucking happy about having it in my coat pocket.

It wasn’t as though he had much of a choice in the matter. His throat might’ve healed enough that he wasn’t in imminent danger of choking every time he was away from the fucking thing, but there was still enough damage lingering that without it he’d be laid up for a month at least. And, right now, with the Sinnlenst busy doing… whatever the fuck this was, that wasn’t something either he or the Order could afford.

Just get through tonight, then we can take it to Archer’s toff friend. He’ll know what to do.

Least, I fucking hope he will.

Whatever Verist did or didn’t know about the box, it had sod-all to do with the current problem – namely, whether the window was a trap. And, if it was, what in the hells it was meant to do and whether there was any way to disarm it safely.

The answer to the first question was, as far as Sabbat was concerned, fairly bloody obvious. Aye, he might’ve had the Lady’s own luck on his side, but the nearest window to the most convenient and stable-looking drainpipe on the side of the house most easily accessible from the thieves roads? No-one was that fucking lucky, whether She was looking out for them or no.

As for the second… that was a fuck of a lot more complicated.

On the one hand, finding out what the Sinnlenst were doing when it came to traps was one of the shadow arm of the Order’s stocks in trade – could hardly find new ways around them if they didn’t know what the bastards were working with, after all.

On the other, that kind of work was slow, painstaking, and entirely something you couldn’t do to any degree of accuracy while clinging one-handed to a drainpipe at night in the middle of a fucking snowstorm.

And on a third hand, not taking the blatantly sodding obvious bait  meant having to break in through another window, which meant more time spent out in the snow and more chances for even the most useless of the Sinnlenst guards to notice something was up.

Which is exactly what whoever set this up is counting on. If it looks too easy, it’s a fucking trap, and trying to disarm it sounds like a really fucking good way to fuck up this entire damn job.

He swore, silently and viciously, pushed the window very gently closed, and went in search of another way in.


Viola, meanwhile, was looking for a way out.

Logically, she knew that the smart thing to do would be to sit quiet and wait for whichever Sinnlenst had been detailed to escort her to the meeting to turn up and unlock the damn door for her. Probably growl at them a bit when they did show, given this was clearly as much of a sodding power-play as the dress had been and they’d know she knew as much, but restrain herself from doing anything more than growling – after all, the whole story she was trying to spin relied on them actually believing that she wanted to work with them (or, at least, was willing to put up with it for the time being).

Problem was, sitting quietly and waiting was approximately the last thing she felt like doing. And, given the first several things she wanted to do were either impossible (going home), irresponsible (baiting a Sinnlenst into the room so she could argue with them) or a very good way to utterly fuck up the mission beyond repair (killing Avebury), she’d settled on testing out escape routes as pretty much the least objectionable compromise.

There weren’t exactly many of them. The room she’d been left in wasn’t actually a cell – they’d not been that blatant – but all the fine furnishings and soft rugs couldn’t hide the lack of windows, or disguise the fact that, under the tapestries and drapery, three of the four walls were unbroken rough stone.

A cellar, then. Except… The Sinnlenst’d blindfolded her and Fest both when they’d let them into the house – the two of them might’ve all but sworn their service, but it didn’t seem as though that cut any ice when it came to trusting them with information about their new allies’ security – but she’d counted her paces and kept her ears and nose open, and it hadn’t smelled as though they’d gone underground. And I don’t remember going down any steps either. Or any ramps.

Oh ancestors, is this place actually built into the mountain?

It wasn’t out of the question – plenty of the older buildings in Sacaan had rooms and floors cut back into the rock the city was built on – but, if that was the case, things had just got a lot more complicated. Starting with the fact that that meant every piece of information she’d previously been given about the layout of the place was at best incomplete and at worst completely and utterly wrong.

Which means we’re all but running blind. Wonderful.

Well, it wasn’t as though it was the first time. And this time, if things got bloody, she’d actually have allies on the inside.

Assuming Sabbat’s managed to get inside. No offence to Fest, but I know which of the two of them I’d rather have watching my back if it comes to a flat-out fight.


Sabbat had, in fact,managed to get inside – via a window one floor up and half the length of the building along, which’d been latched sloppily enough that he’d been able to slip the catch with five minutes good work and a brief prayer.

And that’s the kind of luck I’d be expecting from the Lady. The kind that takes actual fucking skill to make something of.

The room he’d ended up in was about as bare as his own garret back in the Daggers, the furniture and fixings more than halfway to falling apart and the rug on the floor so threadbare that there were points where it was more hole than carpet. Servant’s quarters, then, unless the family who owned the place had some set of poor relations they really didn’t give a shit about.

Luckily for his purposes, though, the owner of the room or their employer did have enough money to spring for a halfway decent mirror – even if it was balanced on a washstand which looked like it was one strong breeze away from ending up as a pile of kindling. They’d not bothered to run the pipes for the gaslights up to this part of the house, of course, but he’d anticipated that and brought his own candle (he’d have preferred a dark lantern, but everything for this job had needed to be small enough to slip into a pocket).

Could’ve done the half of this back at Archer’s, of course. But better to be sure no fucker’s likely to have caught sight of the imposter servant on the way over.

The disguise kit he’d managed to fit into the inside pocket of his coat was a third the size of his standard one, but he’d got most of what he needed slotted into the tin: putty for fixing a false tooth into the gap on the right hand side of his mouth, eyedrops to darken the colour of his irises for the next few hours, wax and greasepaint for scars, and an oilcloth-wrapped rag soaked in a stinging skin-bleaching preparation he’d saved up every spare coin for two months to buy.

If he was honest, he likely needed less than half of that. Most of the Sinnlenst had never seen his face in the context of the Order, and those that had hadn’t lived to tell the tale. But his combination of skin, eye and hair colour was unusual enough that if he did anything to draw attention to himself tonight they’d hardly have trouble picking him out of a crowd – far better if they were looking for someone with a more usually Sacaask set of features.

The liquid on the rag stung like hellfire, burning his wind-scoured skin viciously enough that he had to bite his tongue to stop himself swearing out loud, but he had to admit that the pain was worth the effect. By the time he’d rubbed the preparation over the last inch of exposed skin, the first few places the rag had touched were already lightening to a brown much more like that of the average citizen of the city.

The eyedrops were next, the pain from them barely noticeable after the damn bleach (and if that didn’t come clean after a few rounds of soap and water, he’d be making a visit to the bastard who’d sold him that particular mixture), and, once the colour from them had spread out into his irises, the man in the mirror was more than halfway to a total stranger.

More than halfway wasn’t close enough, though.

Blurring out his scars helped, as did blocking back the tooth he’d lost to an unusually quick private-hire assassin a year and a half ago (back corner of his mouth, so it wasn’t as if it showed in normal conversation, but better safe than sorry). The addition of a pair of plain-glass spectacles he’d had Archer buy for him back when he’d first arrived in the city went most of the way towards finishing the transformation and, once he’d tied his hair back and dropped the third-hand coat he’d been wearing for the journey over, the face looking back at him from the cracked glass was every inch the harassed-looking junior indentured clerk pressed into general household service to fill a gap in the evening’s roster.

Assuming junior indentured clerks normally carried six different ways to murder anyone who looked at them sideways, of course.

All well and good Archer saying we don’t need violence tonight. Still ain’t about to walk into the middle of a Sinnlenst lair without a fucking weapon to hand.

He’d had to leave several of his blades back at the Daggers – too obvious for what was supposed to be an in-plain-sight infiltration – but he’d managed to hang on to more than enough for his purposes, even without the garotte hidden up one sleeve and his trusty razor tucked into a pocket under his belt. Of course, assuming everything went to plan, he wasn’t going to need to use any of ‘em.

Chance’d be a fine thing. And if things do go to shit… well, killing Sinnlenst’s as enjoyable a way to spend an evening as any.


“Thank you,” Archer said, “but I can find my own way from here.” He reached into a pocket, counted out a generous handful of coins by feel, and handed them to the boy. “She’ll understand. Here – for your trouble.”

The boy’s eyes widened, but he took the coins readily enough, counting them between his fingers before quickly slipping them into the leather purse hanging around his neck. “Thank you, sir!”

“You’re very welcome. Oh, and you needn’t wait for me. I’ll make my own way home.” Assuming she lets me go, once she’s finished with me. I’m not discounting the fact that this may very well be a one-way trip.

“I understand, sir. Is there anything else you need?”

“No, thank you.”

The boy nodded, bobbed a bow, and then turned on his heel and all but sprinted off into the maze of corridors which made up the lower levels of the palace precinct.

Archer watched him go. Then he sighed, leaned back against the nearest wall, and swore, very quietly, for a good half a minute.

He’d not expected to find himself back here. Or, rather, he’d spent the last few years trying very hard not to expect it, because the alternative was somehow worse.

Five years. Almost four times that, if we count the time spent at sea. And now she sends me a summons and I’m supposed to pretend that none of that ever happened, am I? Gods damn her, if I didn’t know she’d not leave me out in the cold without a reason, I’d…

Do what, exactly? said a small, treacherous part of his mind. Admit it, you’d still be standing here, wouldn’t you?

And that, right there, was what it came down to. Because she’d been his commanding officer, and he’d trusted her – still did, damn her eyes – and, when she made command decisions, she tended to make them for damn good reasons.

He just wished he knew why in the hells she’d made this one.

Well, it’s not as though I’m going to find out standing around here, is it?

He sighed, dusted the worst of the snow off his coat, and went to meet his fate – whatever that turned out to be.


On the one hand, Viola mused, picking the lock on the room they’d stuck her in probably wasn’t the best way to make a good impression on her current hosts. On the other, given Avebury’s general opinion of her, he’d probably be disappointed if she didn’t try it.

And we wouldn’t want to disappoint the bloody Sinnlenst now, would we?

Either way, she was bored, they’d left her her lockpicks – mostly because they hadn’t searched her and so hadn’t found them, admittedly – and it was that or wait around to be picked up like so much lost luggage.

Least they could have done is given me something interesting to work with. This is about as basic as it gets.

They’d not even left the key in the other side of the door, which surprised her – given how simple the lock was and the fact that the door was pretty solidly set in the frame, it would’ve been one of the first thing she’d have thought of if she’d wanted to keep someone in the room. From the feel of it, they’d not bothered to put any bolts across either; though, admittedly, having visible bolts on the outside of an interior door was a decorating choice which fairly screamed ‘do not trust anyone in this house as far as you can throw them’.

Simple lock, no funny business, which means either they don’t expect anyone they lock in here to have come prepared, or…

Or they knew exactly what she was going to do and had set the whole damn thing up so she’d fall straight into whatever trap they’d set for her.

In which case playing along with the assumption that I’m not intelligent enough to have worked out what it is they’re – no, let’s face it, he’s – up to seems as good a way as any to keep him from figuring out what I’m actually here for.

A useful and perfectly rational argument, which was absolutely not also an ex post facto justification for the fact that she’d primarily started working on the door because she was going out of her skull with boredom and it was that or start punching something.

And I somehow doubt ruining their fixtures and fittings is going to endear me to them more than a little light breaking and exiting.

Besides, there was something almost meditative about lockpicking. It didn’t matter what else was going on around you – for as long as it took, your whole world narrowed to your senses of touch and hearing, with no room left for, for example, excitingly graphic thoughts about exactly how many ways your current predicament could go horribly wrong.

Forget about the damn Sinnlenst. Forget about Avebury. Forget about Amelia. Focus on the damn door.

Breathe in. Listen. Shift the pick. And out.

In. Listen. Shift. And out.

In. Listen. Shift. And out.

In. Listen. Shift. And- there!

“Ah, Miss Cervanso. What a pleasant surprise.”

Viola rolled her eyes, scrambling to her feet and brushing the dust off her knees with over-exaggerated care as the door swung open. “Surprise nothing. Or do you really expect me to believe you were standing out here for the good of your health?”

“I was intending to knock,” Avebury said. He raised an eyebrow. “After all, far be it from me to barge in on a lady. Especially one who might possibly be in a state of undress.”

Annoyingly, she didn’t have an immediate comeback for that. She settled for rolling her eyes again (which was on the way to giving her a headache if she carried on doing it) and stepping out into the corridor, pulling the door to behind her with a slam which echoed loud enough that the Sinnlenst winced. “Right. Lucky for you, your minions agreed to giving me some actual damn clothes to replace the ones you stole.”

“In my defence, I highly doubt even you would have wanted them back. They were… fragrant.”

“You left me a dress. Have you ever seen me in a damn dress?”

“I assumed you might want to match the formality of the occasion. After all, if I am going to be seen with a werewolf on my arm-”


“-she might as well dress like a real person.” He smiled. “Though I see you’ve chosen to revert to your normal taste in attire.”

Bastard. “And here I thought we were allies.”

“Oh, we are, Miss Cervanso. And I do quite honestly respect your talents, especially coming from someone with your obvious disadvantages.”

I am going to kill him. I swear. She ground her teeth, swallowing back the urge to haul off and punch him square in the jaw. “You’re doing an excellent job of that. How does anyone stand you long enough to work with you, out of interest?”

“Because I am very good at what I do.”

“And what’s that, other than pissing people off and spouting speciesist bullshit?”

For a moment she thought she’d managed to get under his skin – he actually scowled, which was a damn sight more gratifying than it had any right to be – but then he pushed his glasses up his nose, smiled again, and offered her his arm with what seemed to be something approaching genuine politeness. “The answer to that, Miss Cervanso, is precisely why I invited you here. Now, shall we?”


The main ballroom of the Sinnlenst headquarters was as packed and loud as the fish market down Dockside, and stank worse – only difference, far as Sabbat saw it, was the stink of fish was something you could get out of your nose inside a few hours. The smell of corruption and bullshit rising off the assembled mob in here was going to take days to scrub off.

Hells’ gates. If we didn’t already know how many of the so-called great and good of our oh-so-fucking-backstabbing city were in on the Sinnlenst plots, Archer’d have a whole new book of names out of this.

He pushed the spectacles further up his nose, ducked his head to hide the sneer he’d not quite been able to wipe off his face, and eased his way into the crowd at the foot of the staircase, careful not to barge, shove, or in any way imply that he was anything other than a servant trying to get out the way of his supposed betters before he caught a careless elbow to the ribs.

Justice Haavor? Ha. Should’ve figured him for one of theirs. And talking to the captain of the Temple Quarter Watch to boot. Least I know that for the next time I’ve got a job up there.

A society lady wearing what looked like a year’s rent in Old Town round her throat swirled past, leaving a smog-thick cloud of perfume in her wake – he stepped back to avoid her, and only just missed colliding with a young man in some kind of dress uniform that, from the creases and the dust lines on the sleeve, looked like he’d dragged it out of the bottom of a trunk for the occasion.

“Sorry, I didn’t see you there-” the soldier began. Then he flushed, looked briefly and intensely panicked, and said, in a much louder voice, “Gods, man, watch where you’re going, why don’t you?”

“Sorry, sir,” Sabbat said, managing through a sodding heroic effort of will to stop the phrase coming out sounding suspiciously like ‘go fuck yourself’.

The other man nodded, apparently placated (and equally apparently unable to tell a fake apology when he heard one – which Sabbat was just fucking fine with). “Just make sure it doesn’t happen again. There’re others here who wouldn’t be as forgiving as I am.”

“I’ll bear that in mind, sir.” And I’ll bear in mind the fact you sound a whole fuck of a lot like you’re giving me the friendlier kind of warning, which ain’t exactly behaviour I expect from a Sinnlenst. “If you’ll excuse me, I’m needed in the wine cellar.”

“You’d better get along there then.”

He didn’t have a sodding clue where the wine cellar was in this place, but that was beside the point – if the last few times he’d pulled this sort of game were any guide, you followed the other servants to-and-froing with bottles and glasses and you wound up where you needed to be more often than not. And, while he was making his way there, he had ample time to try and piece together what in the hells had just happened.

Plenty of toffs’ll play up being shits to the servants in front of other fucking swells, that’s nothing new. That and a warning, though, that’s something else. Nothing says the Sinnlenst’re all worthless snobs any more than the Order’re all bleeding hearts, but fully half their arguments nowadays’re breeding and birth and class – that kind of behaviour ain’t exactly usual in anyone other than the old guard, and he didn’t look much older than me, if that.

And I could swear I’d seen him somewhere before. Not as if there’s a shortage of one-armed soldiers in the city, mind.

Something caught at the corner of his vision and he looked up in time to see Avebury walking down the main steps at the far end of the room. The brat looked a good deal more polished and put-together than the last time Sabbat’d clapped eyes on him, though all the fancy waistcoats and embroidered coats in the world couldn’t hide the fact he also looked like he’d not slept in a week. He also had a woman’s arm interlaced with his, though even from across the length of the ballroom it was patently bloody obvious that she was barely tolerating being that close to him.

Sabbat wasn’t surprised. Matter of fact, the only thing that was surprising him was that Cervanso was managing to stop herself ripping Avebury’s throat out there and then.


If Viola was being honest with herself, the only thing that was stopping her ripping Avebury’s throat out and damn the consequences was what would happen to Amelia if she did.

‘Shall we?’ the bastard had said, as though they were going out for a sodding stroll, and then he’d taken her arm and, before she’d been able to snatch her hand back, walked her right through the doors and out into the middle of the biggest damn Sinnlenst gathering she’d ever seen. And, as if on cue, every single set of eyes in the place had turned to look straight at the two of them.

Shit. Shit, shit, shit. I can’t do this. I can’t.

Spying was one thing. Infiltrating the Sinnlenst headquarters, pretending to betray Amelia, even baiting Avebury, all those were fine and workable and something she could do. This? This was something completely different, and she was in no way prepared.

Shit. I think I’m going to faint.

“Miss Cervanso?” His hand tightened on her arm, and he looked sideways at her with something that might almost have been concern if it weren’t for the flicker of malice dancing behind his eyes. “Are you unwell? You look… well, pale is usual for your clan, I believe, but I’m almost certain green isn’t.”

“I’m fine,” she grated, willing herself to believe it. “Though your cologne’s not helping. Did you bathe in it, or just accidentally spill the whole bottle on yourself? You do know it doesn’t work better the more you use, don’t you?”

He actually pulled a face at that, and she was pretty sure she caught him surreptitiously sniffing at his wrist as he raised a hand to adjust his glasses. “Charming as ever, Miss Cervanso.”

“Says the man whose conversational talents seem to be limited to insulting my species every time he opens his damn mouth.” Sniping was good, inasmuch as it was taking her mind off exactly how many Sinnlenst there were down there.

If just one of them realises I’m Order, I’m fucked. No, correction, we’re fucked. Unless I can spin the fastest web of lies I’ve ever woven in my life and managed to convince them that I’ve turned my coat properly (and they buy that anyone from the Order would ever do that, to boot). And even if I manage to convince one of them, what’s to stop the others deciding better safe than sorry? I’m not a vampire – anyone wants to take me out, a well-placed knife’ll stop me as well as it stops any damn human.

Ancestors, if you’re listening, I could really use a hand right about now.

“I hate to rush you, but people are starting to stare. And, given your position and your previously-stated issues with my associates, I doubt that’s something you particularly want.”


“Oh, not at all. My parents were married.” He smiled, but it had all the warmth of a glacier. “For a year, before they were thrown out of the palace windows by an angry mob. Now, shall we descend? After all, there are several people I’d like you to meet.”


[Author’s note: this is NaNoWriMo 2020 content – I apologise for the likely increased number of typos]

Copyright © 2020 by Finn McLellan.  All rights reserved.

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