The ‘several people’ Avebury had wanted her to meet turned out, in reality, to be what felt like fully half the assembled guests – by the time she’d shaken hands and made introductions and exchanged pleasantries with the majority of them she was starting to think that he was finding new people to bring to her attention purely out of spite.
Or, she realised, with a sudden lurch of nausea that she only just managed to keep off her face, because he wants to show off his prize to as many of his competitors as possible.
The thought sent a prickling wave of anger along the lines of her shoulderblades, her hackles rising as the full implications of that particular interpretation made themselves all too bloody clear. If he thinks I’m ever going to lower myself to that, he can go take a long walk off the side of the Great Temple tower. I’ll do a fuck of a lot for the Order, but that’s not even near the damn table, let alone on it.
“What?” She wasn’t even trying to be civil. Let him understand that the best he was going to get from her was a grudging agreement not to tear his belly open and feast on his entrails, and things’d go a damn sight more smoothly.
“You seem a little distracted.”
“Can you blame me? I said I was willing to go along with your damn schemes because I believed in what you were aiming for – I didn’t agree to being paraded around like a sodding prize reindeer just because you fancy showing off that your dirty blackmail racket finally landed a result.”
“Rather high and mighty from a girl who just agreed to betray her employer, don’t you think? And besides, I’m not ‘showing off’. If anything, I’m doing you a favour.”
He was obviously expecting her to ask for elaboration. She equally obviously wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction. And besides, it was fairly bloody obvious what he meant – if she was going to be part of the Sinnlenst (and Ancestors, but that thought felt like a mouthful of swamp water), then knowing who to talk to about what was clearly some sort of integral part of staking out her place in the game.
Would be a whole lot more useful if pretty much everyone high-level he’d introduced me to so far wasn’t already known to the Order. Might actually have got some decent intelligence out of this.
As it was, she was stuck in the middle of shark-infested waters on what was starting to feel like an increasingly flimsy raft, and the only thing she and the Order were likely to get out of the evening’s festivities was confirmation of a whole pile of names they already knew and an updated layout of the Sinnlenst’s main base.
Admittedly, neither of those were bad things to have, but she wasn’t sure they entirely justified having to put up with Adam godsdamn Avebury for an entire evening. Not to mention the risk she and Fest were running just by being here, and-
Come to think of it, where the hells is Fest?
She looked around, eyes scanning over a whole range of far-too-human faces (the Order’s membership was a good deal more mixed, mostly because for half the Sinnlenst their issues with magic extended to the existence of the more magic-aligned species). He had to be here somewhere, but every time her gaze caught red eyes and pitch black hair the face that turned to meet her was a stranger.
If they’ve done something to him – they wouldn’t, would they? Not if Foreval’s got her hooks into him. She’s… not here either, as a matter of fact. Now that’s interesting.
Interesting, and definitely not at all deeply sodding concerning. Because if Fest and Foreval were both missing, that meant Foreval was unsupervised with someone Viola had a very deep interest in keeping alive, sane, and not horrifically mindbroken.
And not just because he’s important to the Order. He’s a good kid, even if he could do with a teaspoon more of sense and a bucket less of assumptions.
And he’s also a sorcerer, apparently. Let’s not forget that.
That was, oddly enough, slightly reassuring. From what she’d gathered of Fest’s abilities, his innate magic was pretty heavily keyed to self-defence (though it hadn’t stopped him being dragged off into the alleyway where Archer and Sabbat had found him), which meant that it might well get set off if Foreval and her friends actually tried anything.
At which point I just listen for the sound of explosions, I suppose. Well, at least we know he’s not likely to get himself killed quietly. Again.
Ancestors, but she wished she hadn’t remembered that last bit. Not just the fact he’d already apparently died once at the hands of the Sinnlenst, which was bad enough, but the fact he couldn’t remember how or why it’d happened – couldn’t remember anything about the whole encounter. Which meant that if the same thing happened again…
She’s not killing him to harvest his memories or something, is she? I don’t- I have no idea how she’d do that, or if it’s even possible, but if it is something that can be done, Lucy bloody Foreval would be the one who’d pay whatever price it took to do it, wouldn’t she?
It wasn’t exactly a reassuring thought.
But then again, reassurance was in fairly bloody short supply at the moment. Stranded in the midst of the Sinnlenst, with her only ally missing-presumed-hypnotised and the very good chance that at any moment someone was going to up and denounce her as a spy – if she didn’t know the Ancestors were looking out for her, she’d have been halfway towards a silent panic attack even before she’d made it down the stairs.
Who’s to say you’re not still halfway towards one? a treacherous part of her brain whispered.
It wasn’t wrong.
She took a deep breath, shoved the what-ifs and might-have-beens hard towards the back of her mind, and tried to pull her thoughts back towards the task at hand – only to be pulled up short by a flicker of very familiar scent catching at the back of her nose.
Hang on. Is that…
She sniffed again, focusing in on that one line of melody in the orchestra that was the flood of smells in the room.
Baritone, dark-red, cinnamon and leather and cigarettes. I know who that is.
He’d tried to mask his scent, which was clever of him – chemicals, and someone else’s clothes, and something else she couldn’t quite place – but it was still evidently him. Thing was, she couldn’t see him.
And then she looked – properly looked – in the direction where it seemed like the scent was coming from, blinked, and only just managed to smother a surprised bark of laughter in a cough which was loud enough to set heads turning several feet away.
I know Archer said he’d be disguising himself as a servant, but I somehow didn’t think he’d actually manage it. Shows how much I know, I suppose.
He hadn’t quite managed to hide the obvious disdain for pretty much everyone around him, but she was fairly certain most of the people in the room were too busy with their politics and scheming to bother trying to worry out the motivations of a single servant (after all, nobody so far had clocked her). And, if he’d got this far, odds were good that nobody was going to think to check that he was supposed to be in here.
Before tonight she was fairly certain she’d not have put the words ‘Sabbat’ and ‘reassuring’ in the same sentence, but she had to admit that just knowing he was there was making her feel a good deal safer about the whole damn thing. Worst came to the worst, she’d have someone to watch her back if they had to cut their way out – and, having seen him fight in the alleyway down in Old Town, she was fairly confident that he’d be able to hold his own if it came to a full-on brawl.
Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that, though. For all our sakes.
On the other side of the city, as it happened, Archer was hoping much the same thing.
He’d not particularly wanted to be thinking about what was likely going on at the Sinnlenst gathering – for a start, there was precisely nothing he could do about it until after the resolution of his current predicament – but, having been left waiting with nothing to occupy his mind, his thoughts had inevitably spiralled back around to a detailed and enumerated list of every possible negative outcome, up to and including someone (probably Sabbat) managing to burn down half the Quarter.
That, at least, was almost certainly not going to happen. Not least because the areas around pretty much all of the Sinnlensts’ known bases were primarily comprised of stone buildings, and the wooden roofs would likely be covered with enough snow to stop anything but a purely magical fire from spreading.
Which, assuming that was correct, just left all the other more plausible but equally destructive ways the night could go horrifyingly wrong.
Gods, this is not a useful way to spend an evening. If my dear cousin is going to drag me halfway across the city on the one night I can’t afford to spend away from home, she could at least do me the damn courtesy of getting this over with as fast as possible.
She wouldn’t, of course. Not because she was enjoying having him wait – he’d believe that of other people, but Ira had always been scrupulously punctual when it came to debriefs – but because, on the list of responsibilities she was juggling on a day to day basis, ‘a chat with the cousin you’ve not seen in almost ten years’ almost certainly ranked somewhere near the very bottom.
He’d be lying if he said he didn’t somewhat resent that particular issue. But, then again, she’d not exactly asked for this.
And whose door can we lay that at? The damn Sinnlenst. As usual.
He sighed, reaching up to adjust the lie of the scarf across his eye-socket for the fourth time in as many minutes. It almost certainly hadn’t moved since the last time he’d touched it, but the gesture gave him something to do with his hands – and, for a moment, something to focus on which wasn’t either of the two topics his mind seemed to be circling this evening.
…The last time she saw me, I’d not lost the eye yet. And won’t that be a fun conversation?
Though, if Ira wanted to make things awkward, there were any number of other avenues she could steer the interview down. Starting, he suspected, with the reason why they’d not spoken in nearly a decade in the first place.
There was a quiet, polite cough from somewhere in the vicinity of his elbow, and he turned to find himself face to face with a young yellow-eyed vampire in the gold-embroidered deep black waistcoat and trousers of a royal servant’s livery. “Lord-Captain Archer?”
He winced – the style-address wasn’t wrong, technically, but it still sat ill for multiple reasons. On the other hand, the fact that the page had been briefed to use both his noble title and his mercenary rank was a sign that, whatever Ira wanted to talk to him about, it was more than usually serious. “I suppose so, yes.”
Though they made a valiant effort to hide it, he was fairly certain he caught the edge of a smile at that. “If you would follow me, please?”
The corridor that the servant led him down was as richly appointed as the rest of the inner areas of the palace, though the lack of ornamentation made it feel a good deal less like a showpiece and more like a home. Unsurprising, given that unless Archer was very much mistaken they were now in the area of the building generally reserved for the royal family alone.
I suppose that should give me some measure of reassurance. Whatever this is about, she’s not expecting me to stand on ceremony.
“One moment, please, Lord-Captain,” the page said, as they stopped outside a door that, to all intents and purposes, looked exactly the same as any of the others lining the wood-panelled walls. They knocked twice, sharply, and then pushed open the door with a smoothness that almost disguised the fact they’d just bypassed a magical ward in order to do so.
Cleverly done. I wonder if that’s Jin’s work, or if he took himself an apprentice at some point. And I’m also desperately stalling for time rather than walking into that room, aren’t I?
“Your guest, your Excellency,” the page said.
Crown Protector Ira, heir to the throne, Regent of Sacaan, and the most powerful person in the city, looked up from the pile of papers she’d been perusing, shoved a stray lock of hair out of her face with one scarred and ink-stained hand, and grinned crookedly. “Hello, Will. It’s been a while.”
The room was small, dark, and cluttered, and looked more like a study than any kind of chamber of state – which meant that it was almost certainly one of the few places in the palace Ira had staked out as her own. She’d been all in favour of gutting most of the interior when she’d taken power, Archer remembered, arguing that a nation which was built and founded on military might and being too damn stubborn to die didn’t need ornament and frippery to show the world it meant business (and also that, given the riots which had started the Revolution had been caused in no small part by starvation and poverty, the last thing the people needed to see was the leadership they’d returned to power sitting idle in the midst of wealth).
And, in the main, she’d managed to get rid of the worst of the excess, but enough jewels and tapestries had had to remain in the more public areas of the palace in order to make at least some showing to visiting diplomats that the city-state wasn’t just some collection of rag-tag barbarians without a culture to call their own. Not that it stopped them making the assumption, of course.
“Expecting something grander?” Ira said, almost as though she’d read his thoughts. She pushed away from the desk, and wheeled herself towards him. “I would’ve thought you’d know me better than that, cousin.”
“I do, and I wasn’t. Honestly, if you’d made a formal occasion of this-”
“You’d be wondering if I was planning on beheading you or making you a damn minister of state. No, this is strictly between the two of us.” She looked towards the page, who nodded and stepped back out of the room, closing the door behind them. “There. Now, Will, I have one question for you.”
“What the fuck is going on in my city?”
Careful. Ira wasn’t a member of the Order – couldn’t be, given her position and the responsibilities she already had to balance – and, while she had no love for the members of the Sinnlenst who’d made up the Usurper’s council, she still wasn’t privy to the exact details of the shadow war playing out in the alleyways and coffeehouses of her city. Problem was, she also wasn’t stupid.
And she can tell when I’m lying – or, at least, she could back when I was under her command. This has the potential to be exceptionally dangerous.
“Where do you want me to start?”
“By sitting down.” She rolled her chair back into the room, making space for him to follow her towards the desk, and gestured him to a seat. “Means I don’t wind up with a crick in my neck trying to look you in the eye – and don’t think I haven’t noticed that, by the way.”
He sat down.
“Good. Now. I want you to tell me that I don’t have a Turned running around my city, and I want you to make me believe it.”
I spend most of a month trying to convince myself it isn’t the case, and she comes right out and says it within four sentences. Gods damn you, Ira. “I’m not telling you that.”
“I thought as much.” She sighed. “Captain Vkara’s good at her job, and very bad at comforting lies to authority figures. And, to be entirely honest with you, I’ve been expecting something like this for a while.”
“You don’t need to look so surprised. Do you know how many years it’s been since someone tried to make one within Sacaask territory, Will? Because I do, and I’m telling you it’s only a miracle we’ve not had credible reports of one sooner.”
Well, at least I don’t need to find a way of bringing the conversation around to that topic, I suppose “So you’re saying you anticipated this?”
“If you’re asking why I didn’t move to stop it, I’d like to remind you how many of our own people think the damn things are all but mythical. Yes, I’ve had my people looking into reported sightings, but there’s only so much I can do without starting rumours that my sister’s condition is some sort of hereditary weakness.” She pinched the bridge of her nose between thumb and forefinger, as though warding off a headache. “I deal with enough hassle about our ‘mad queen’ without handing our enemies the prospect of a ‘mad Regent’ as well.”
“Shit.” He’d not thought of that possibility – more fool him, he supposed. “Who’s pushing that line?”
Ira laughed. “Nobody you need to concern yourself with, cousin, and, before you ask, that’s not an invitation for you to start trying to find out. I’ve no intention of asking you to play assassin for me this time.”
“Assassin nothing. They’re disrespecting my family, which means I have every right to call them out for it.”
“After you’ve tried so damn hard to distance yourself from us? Seems a waste of a useful cover, that.”
“No, don’t you ‘Ira’ me. My sister’s health is a matter of public knowledge, much as I’d wish it wasn’t – she deserves her damn privacy – and the fact our enemies are likely to seize on any opportunity to use her to weaken my position is hardly that surprising. I can handle that myself.” She leaned forward, locking eyes with him. “What I need you to do is find that Turned, and kill it. And, ideally, whoever made it.”
For all he’d been half expecting the order ever since she’d raised the subject, he couldn’t help raising an eyebrow. “I thought you said you’d no intention of asking me to be your assassin.”
“And I’m not. Killing a Turned isn’t assassination. It’s a mercy kill.”
“And the creator?”
“Call it an execution.” She sighed. “I’d do it publicly, but there are factors in play that mean revealing a Turned at this point in time is not likely to end well for me. Or, in fact, for the city as a whole.”
“Adakar. And threats closer to home – and no, don’t look at me like that. You did your time, and politics was never your strong suit. I’m only sorry I’m dragging you back into it as much as I am, but you’re one of the few people I trust to be able to deal with this issue both quietly and professionally.”
You seem to have a good deal more faith in me than I have in myself, cousin. “I hate to ask, but why do you think I’d be able to take down a Turned? By all accounts they’re not exactly easy to kill.”
“Nor are you. And besides, of all the people I would trust with this job, you’re the one with the most in-depth knowledge of the damn things.”
Ice-water pooled in the pit of his stomach, and he had to fight to stop himself flinching back away from her gaze. “I-”
She kept her eyes locked on his. And, then, damn her, she smiled. “Do you remember when you caught that sword wound in the skirmish outside Khaldar and it got infected?”
“Yes, but I hardly see what that has to do with anything. If you-”
“You were delirious for three days sweating out that wound-fever. I had them move you into my tent, because I was damned if I’d let my cousin die on me while I wasn’t there to talk him back to the land of the living. And you talked in your sleep.”
The world suddenly seemed to stop, narrowing to a single blade-sharp moment of clarity as the echoes of her words rippled outwards like breaking glass. “I-” he began, but the words he’d been trying to say died on his numb lips as the edges of his vision blurred into greying mist.
Ah. I do believe I might be about to faint. That does seem a rather impolite way of getting out of this conversation. I should probably apologise.
I should probably answer her. Unfortunately, I think my capacity for intelligible speech may be somewhat diminished at this moment in time.
“Gods damn it, man. Put your head between your knees and take a deep breath, preferably before you keel over and make a mess on my floor.”
She was using the tone she normally reserved for direct orders, which a small part of him resented deeply. The rest of him was all too grateful for it – orders were something he could follow, even halfway to unconsciousness.
“There. Breathe in, that’s it.”
He’d somehow managed to get his head between his knees, though he didn’t remember moving, and, as he drew a breath, he felt her hand resting between his shoulderblades – not pressing down hard, but with enough weight that he could gather his scattered wits and focus on her presence. “Th- Thank you.”
“Nothing to thank me for. I’d rather not have to explain to anyone else in the palace why I’ve suddenly got an unconscious relative slumped in a heap on my floorboards, after all.” She paused, giving him time to sit back up and get his breathing under control, and then said, quietly, “Nobody else knows, Will. And I’m not about to judge you for hoping for the impossible.”
“How- Six preserve, how sure are you about that?”
“Not judging you? As sure as I can be about anything. And as for how many people know, you weren’t exactly making much sense. I only managed to piece together what it was you were babbling about because… godsdammit, you might as well know. Because I looked into the same things, once upon a time.”
“You?” He couldn’t quite believe it. Or, rather, he could believe it all too readily. She’d been barely more than a child when most of her immediate family had been killed, after all, and he knew she’d lost human playmates and loved ones in the attack as well. “But the fire-”
“No bodies. Yes, I know. But I wasn’t exactly rational for a few months after that, and- well, you know as well as I do the kind of thoughts that leads to.”
He did. And, logically, he’d know he wasn’t the only one to have had them – hells, where would the texts he’d found have come from otherwise? But there was a difference between that cold logical conclusion and… well, this. Gods. Gods, I don’t know what to do with any of this.
“There’s no law against the research, cousin. You’ve not done anything wrong in hoping that there might be a way to bring them back.”
“I wish I could believe that.”
“Then take it up with a priest, because that’s a matter for your conscience and the gods. By the law of the land, and by my rule as the highest arbiter of said law, you’ve done nothing that you’ve not already paid for a hundred times over.” She sat back in her chair, folded her arms, and glared at him. “And if you don’t knock it off, I’ll order you to stop being so damn self-flagellating.”
He couldn’t help it – that won a laugh from him, even if it felt a damn sight too close to the edge of hysterical for comfort. “You wouldn’t.”
“Just bloody try me.” She sighed. “What’s past is past, cousin. You know that as well as I do. Eyes on the future – or, in your case, I suppose, eye. Which reminds me, exactly how did you come by that scar?”
I don’t have time for this, Ira. But he was also in no fit state to go back out into the city – not until his hands had stopped shaking, anyhow – and it was a story that had nothing to with the Order, the Sinnlenst, or anything else that would require him to lie to her. And, after all, it’s not as though I’m the one who gets to decide when this conversation is over. Unfortunately. “So. Just after the Revolution, when you all but exiled me…”
On the other side of the city, the Revolution was also uppermost in several peoples’ minds – at least, if the chatter Viola was overhearing was anything to go by.
It wasn’t exactly surprising, given the composition of the Sinnlenst meeting. While several of the younger bloods had, like her, been children when it had happened, the Sinnlenst’s upper echelons tended towards those who’d been at the very least in their late teens or early twenties when the Regent’s forces had marched into the city. And, also unsurprisingly, they had very different feelings about the outcome than those she was used to hearing from members of the Order.
What was surprising – and more than a little worrying – was how many of the younger members of the group seemed not only to echo those feelings, but to feel them more strongly than their elders. She’d heard grumblings and ‘back in my day’ arguments before (usually from folks who’d got rich at the expense of their neighbours and resented the fact they’d lost wealth and status when the Usurper and his cronies had been ousted), but here, safe behind walls and around people they trusted, there were kids no older than Fest all but calling for the Regent’s head on a damn spike.
It made her teeth itch.
Worst part is, there’s nothing I can do about it. There’s no law against speaking dissent – overturning the Usurper’s rulings on that was one of the first things the Regent did when she took power – and, even if there was, what proof’d I have other than ‘I heard it in a place I wasn’t supposed to be, while lying through my damn teeth to everyone’?
It wasn’t as if any of them even had a halfway decent argument for wanting the Regent gone, other than ‘things were better with the Usurper in charge’ (and she’d been old enough living through those years to know that that was a bloody lie). If she had to scrape together some kind of actual list of grievances from the vitriol, it mostly seemed to boil down to the idea that the Regent and the royal family in general were just another case of magic-aligned people getting promoted ahead of their talents while non-magic-aligned species (read ‘humans’) were shoved to one side.
Never mind that the Usurper had been a vampire, of course. Or that he’d had vampires and werewolves aplenty among his closest advisors.
Why let the truth get in the way of a good rant, after all?
“-only a pity the so-called Traitor didn’t finish the job for us.” The speaker, a tall human (of course) who looked to be in his mid-twenties, gestured expansively with his wine glass, only just missing splashing what smelled like a fairly strong red all over the woman he was talking to. “No offence to any of our comrades, of course, but you have to admit the world’d be a better place without any of that sort in it.”
This time, Viola couldn’t help it – she snarled.
The man didn’t seem to notice. Avebury, on the other hand…
“My apologies, Miss Cervanso. My colleagues can be a little… uncouth, at times.”
“Uncouth? He’s talking about the genocide of my people, Avebury. ‘Uncouth’ is putting it fucking mildly. That’s-” She bit her tongue, because what she’d been about to say was a damn sight too close to ‘worse than I’d expect even from a Sinnlenst, and that’s saying something’.
“I’m aware. And, if it makes you feel any better, I don’t share his views.”
“It doesn’t. You’re working with him.”
“Out of necessity, in no small part. We can do more together, even if our views are… disparate, in some respects.” He raised an eyebrow. “After all, you and I disagree on so many things, and yet you’ve chosen to ally yourself with my cause.”
Ancestors, give me strength. And the opportunity for some payback, when it comes to it. “I suppose I have. Doesn’t mean I have to be happy about it.”
“And I don’t expect you to be. Though I’m sure you could look a little less like you want to tear his throat out, if you tried.”
“What the hells would be the point of that?”
“Convincing certain of my compatriots that you can be trusted.” He lowered his voice. “While, given the terms of our mutual acquaintance, I’m quite willing to vouch for you, there are more than a few at this gathering who are less inclined to look favourably on someone who’s quite so close to one of the most prominent families of magicians in the city.”
Well, she’d known that much. It didn’t stop her stomach from twisting at the reminder, though, and she had to fight to stop her hands from curling into fists as she turned to look at him. “And by ‘less inclined to look favourably’ you mean they want to murder me and throw my body in the river.”
“I’d hardly put it that crudely, but yes, that’s the gist of it. They’re not likely to make a move against you at the moment, but threats of violence towards any of their number would give them all the excuse they need.”
“I’m not bloody threatening anyone.” And you have no idea how hard it is to keep that up at the moment.
“Miss Cervanso, you are a werewolf. Snarling at people you dislike is hardly not a threat.”
Admittedly, he had a point. She hadn’t meant to snarl at the bastard, but it was still a lapse. And she couldn’t afford more of those, not when so much depended on this damn job. Fine. I’ll keep my jaw locked for now. When this is over, though… I know I’m not a damn assassin, but if the Council’ll give me the contract, I’m willing to bloody learn.
Speaking of assassins… She sniffed the air, catching the very edge of Sabbat’s scent from somewhere in the crowd to her left. Good. Not much he can do at the moment other than keep an eye, but I’m still glad he’s there. Now, if I only knew where the hells Fest was.
Coincidentally, ‘where the hells am I?’ was exactly what Fest was thinking at that very moment. He remembered standing up to check the door to the room he’d been left in – if he concentrated hard, he could almost remember the feeling of the metal doorknob under his hand and the creak of the hinges as the door (which, of course, had been unlocked the whole time) swung slowly open – but everything after that was a black pit of nothingness, like a mental missing tooth.
And now he was in another room, behind another door, and he had absolutely no idea how he’d got here.
This door was locked – he’d checked, when he’d got his wits together enough to realise that he should be doing that – which meant that this was the second time in a month he’d ended up locked in a room by members of a secret society he’d only recently learned was all too real.
This is getting to be a habit. I’m not sure that’s a good thing.
He’d not been blindfolded this time, at least. And, like the Order, they’d left him his blades (though if they’d taken his knife from him, they’d have been all but declaring that he was their prisoner, and that’d be something of an escalation. More so than locking him in a room, given what belt-knives meant to Sacaask folk).
So, technically, this was probably almost certainly fine.
The problem was, it didn’t feel fine.
I’m not dead. That’s a start.
Or, at least, I don’t think I died. But given I don’t remember what happened the last time I apparently got myself killed, that’s not exactly as reassuring as all that. Maybe I opened the door and someone shot me. Or stabbed me. Or… I don’t know, garotted me or something.
Though you’d think there’d be holes in my clothes if that was the case. Not the garotting, of course, but the other things, and I’m pretty sure garotting would’ve left some kind of mark even if someone had fed me blood so I’d heal faster and oh gods I am not thinking about that I am not thinking about that I am not thinking about that, because if they’ve had me feed on someone again – and we don’t even know if that’s what happened the first time, but it seems really really likely and I-
I am not going to have a panic attack in the middle of the Sinnlenst’s territory. I am not.
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, mentally counting backwards from ten as he did so. It wasn’t a foolproof trick, but it was better than nothing – and nothing, in this case, was almost certainly going to mean full-on panic. And this time, Viola wasn’t there to pull him out of it.
Gods, I hope she’s alright. Avebury seems to hate her less than me, at least, so that might be going in her favour.
On the other hand, she wasn’t exactly shy about how much she hated the Sinnlenst. If she’d not managed to hide it well enough…
She’s probably fine. I’m probably worrying too much. She’s been an Order member for a good deal longer than me, after all – she knows what she’s doing.
I really hope she’s alright.
There was a rattling noise coming from the direction of the door. He turned his head, saw the handle start to turn, and just had enough time to back away and drop his hand to the hilt of his belt-knife before the door swung slowly and silently open, and an all-too-familiar figure stepped gracefully through into the room.
“Hello, Jonathan,” said Lucy Foreval.
Archer’d better appreciate how much he fucking owes me for this.
It wasn’t the infiltration – that, he was happy to do and welcome. No, the thing that was eating him was the fact that not only was he having to make nice with the fucking Sinnlenst, he was having to fucking bow and scrape and play the damn servant for ‘em.
And, to cap it all, he wasn’t even chasing a target, which meant he’d not even have the satisfaction of a kill at the end of the hunt – and it wasn’t even as though it was properly a hunt to begin with. No, Archer definitely owed him for this one.
Might see if I can get a couple of contracts out of the Council for this lot. Got to be at least a few of them we can take out without causing the whole sixdamn house of cards to fall down round our ears.
He’d lost sight of Cervanso in the press of people, which wasn’t helping matters any. Not that he reckoned she was in any immediate danger – far as he could tell, she’d be more than able to hold her own against most of this lot if it came to it – but he’d promised Archer he’d keep an eye on her and Fest both and, given he’d not seen the red-eye brat since he’d got in here, that currently meant watching out for the werewolf.
Too much to hope for the two of you to stay in one place. That would’ve made this whole fucking thing too easy. I-
He shifted the tray he was carrying to one hand, pressing the other briefly against the box hidden in his shirt as another stab of pain shot down his spine and through his leg. Whatever magic it was working on him seemed to be doing well enough at holding off the pain from most of his injuries, but some was still getting through – not enough to stop him, but more than he’d like if he wanted to keep his focus.
Fuck. Archer’s idea of going to see that toff ex-revolutionary friend of his is starting to sound like a better and better fucking plan. If-
A hand landed on his shoulder – instinctively, his free hand flew towards the razor hidden under his belt, and it was only cold determination and the full knowledge of exactly how badly things’d go if he broke cover right now that let him turn the motion into something approximating a startled flinch and a grab for the other side of the dangerously listing tray. “Sorry, sir!”
“I said, are you listening to me? I asked you a question.”
“I’m sorry, sir.” Get fucked. “What is it you require?”
The Sinnlenst rolled his eyes, taking his hand off Sabbat’s shoulder and wiping his fingers on a handkerchief. “A servant with some semblance of competence would be a start. But, since those seem to be in short supply at the moment, I’ll settle for a glass of wine – assuming that’s not beyond your abilities.”
Sabbat’s vision went very briefly red, and his fingers tightened hard enough on the edge of the tray that he could feel the metal biting into his skin. Then he took a deep breath, forced something that probably approximated a smile, and said, as politely as he could manage, “Of course, sir. Right away.”
“Not the wine you’re carrying, boy. Your master’s cellar holds a good deal better than that swill.”
‘Boy’, is it? Just you fucking wait until we’re done here, mate. The Council have better things to do with their time than keelhaul me for one unsanctioned assassination, and Archer owes me enough that he’ll settle my score with ‘em anyhow.
The Sinnlenst was looking at him oddly – not just down his nose, which Sabbat’d expected, but with a face that said he was trying to put two and two together and winding up getting five. “You’re a new hire, aren’t you?”
“Yes, sir.” Not the best answer, since it gave the bastard’s suspicions more fuel, but better than trying to blag long service with no cards in hand.
“Ha. Should’ve known.” He waved a hand dismissively. “Away with you. I’ll find someone who actually knows what’s what.”
“As you say, sir.”
The Sinnlenst turned away, already dismissing the supposed servant from his thoughts, and Sabbat briefly allowed himself the fantasy of dropping the tray, stepping up behind the bastard, and slicing his throat from ear to ear. He wasn’t going to actually do it – stupid plan, on multiple fucking levels – but the thought was cheering enough that by the time the next toff came looking for a drink he actually managed something approaching a halfway reasonable conversation with them.
After that, it was just a matter of watching the crowd and waiting for Cervanso or Fest to make an appearance, which gave him more than enough time to try and puzzle through a few of the odder things he’d seen so far that night.
Starting with why exactly that old bastard had been so confused by him in the first place. You’d think he’d not be surprised by new hire servants at this kind of gathering. And that bullshit about ‘your master’s cellar’ – if that’s some kind of codeword that the servants around here are all expected to know, that’d explain a few things.
Be helpful if the Order’d figured that one out before now, but that’s from the point. If it is a codeword, that’s something we can use.
Just need to work out what the fuck they’re using it for.
He already knew there were multiple factions at play in the Sinnlenst – that was fairly common knowledge among the Order, even if fuck-all anyone knew exactly what half those factions stood for or against – so it was entirely likely the codeword, if it was one, was something to do with that. Which meant internal politics, which was Archer’s field far more than it’d ever been his.
Get the information, get out, hand it off to Archer, and then I don’t have to give a fuck about it until the Council need me to kill someone. That sounds like a plan. Oh, and keep Cervanso and Archer’s brat safe until then.
Fest still hadn’t made an appearance, which was starting to feel a lot less like coincidence and a whole lot more like deliberate fuckery. Cervanso, on the other hand…
He looked around the room again and finally spotted her, standing with her back to one wall and looking about as uncomfortable with the whole situation as he’d seen her (though at least she looked less like she was about to throw her guts up this time).
Avebury was still glued to her side and, as Sabbat watched, he leaned in, murmured something, and put a hand on Cervanso’s shoulder – only to snatch it back as though he’d been burned as she whirled on him and snarled something that Sabbat didn’t need to hear to get the gist of.
Fuckwit. She’s not fucking interested in you.
The Sinnlenst brat managed to pretend to look at least halfway contrite, though from Cervanso’s expression and body language, she wasn’t buying it. Far as Sabbat was concerned, she’d every right to haul off and punch Avebury halfway through the fucking wall, but she was as much bound by the need to keep her cover as he was, and he doubted most of the Sinnlenst’d side with her on this one.
If he tries that again and she doesn’t break his nose for him, I might. Call it a servant getting fucked off with someone taking liberties, and-
And it’d still fuck over the whole damn operation, no matter how fucking justified it’d be.
He blew out a breath, reaching down to touch the box again – more likely than not half the reason this was getting to him as badly as it was was the sodding pain making everything harder to deal with – and then pulled his hand back with a yelp of surprise he only just managed to swallow as the wood pulsed against his fingers, pushing outward like the heartbeat of a living thing.
Across the room, Avebury’s head suddenly snapped up as though someone had called his name. “If you’ll excuse me, Miss Cervanso-”
“What? Too busy to apologise properly?” Truth be told, she’d been expecting him to try something – a hand on the arm was better than half the other possibilities, but it was still more than she was willing to give him. “Or are you just looking for an excuse to leave the conversation?”
“I’m not-” And finally, finally, she’d got him on the back foot and properly flustered. “There’s something I need to attend to, Miss Cervanso – I’m not in any way attempting to avoid apologising for any offence I might have caused.”
“And seals might fly.” She was fairly certain he was telling the truth, but that wasn’t the point right now. Mainly because, around the time his head had gone up and he’d started looking around the room, she’d caught sight of Sabbat standing in the direction Avebury had immediately looked towards. And, if she was reading Avebury’s expressions correctly, he’d also seen Sabbat – and, more specifically, the expression on Sabbat’s face. Which means I need to stall him for as long as possible. Because if he recognises Sabbat, then we’re done for. “Here I thought you were priding yourself on being a perfect gentleman.”
“I- I really do apologise, Miss Cervanso. It wasn’t my intent to offend you.”
“That makes a damn change, doesn’t it? Given the number of cracks you’ve made about my species, I thought that was what you were generally intending to do every time you talked to me.”
“Hello, Adam. Charming as usual.” The speaker, a big redheaded man about Viola’s age, nodded his head to her in something which might’ve been a halfway attempt at a bow. “My apologies, miss. I don’t believe we’ve been introduced.”
She didn’t want to give her real name. Unfortunately, given how often Avebury liked to use it, that ship had already sailed. “Viola Cervanso.”
“Johann Tyburn. I see you’ve already met Mr Avebury here, for which I can only apologise. I trust you’ll not assume he represents anything close to the best of us.”
“And you do? Tyburn, the only thing more woefully lacking than your academic scores are your convictions.”
“Says the man who’s never met a moral standard he couldn’t find a way to slink under.”
Avebury raised an eyebrow. “From you, that’s surprisingly direct. Have you finally found a backbone? Or no, my mistake, you must have borrowed it from a friend – I’m well aware your little group only has a limited number of them to share.”
“Hilarious,” Tyburn said, flatly. He turned to Viola with a smile which seemed at least partially genuine. “Welcome to the cause, Miss Cervanso. Despite what certain people would have you believe, we really do have the best interests of the city at heart.”
Oh, do you now? She didn’t trust him as far as she could throw him – while he’d not immediately launched into speciesism or declaring that her entire people should be exterminated, he was still a Sinnlenst – but she had to admit, it was nice to be treated like something approaching a person. “I’ll make my own mind up about that, thanks.” And, because anything that distracted Avebury from Sabbat was a good plan at this point, she added “What’s your issue with Avebury, anyhow? It sounds like the two of you don’t exactly see eye to eye on this ‘cause’ of yours.”
“That,” Avebury said, with more venom than she’d heard from him before, “is because Tyburn here is a coward who refuses to understand that our purpose is a good deal more than simply skulking in the shadows, fixing the occasional trial, and picking off a few magicians every time they get too big for their damn boots.”
“While Avebury here thinks moral law doesn’t apply to him, and that creating monstrosities against the gods and nature is a perfectly reasonable way to win… whatever damn goal he thinks we’re reaching for.”
Tyburn’s voice had risen as he warmed to his theme, and heads were starting to turn – which, as far as Viola was concerned, was an excellent sign. As was the fact that, unless she was very much mistaken, she might have just found out part of the riddle that was exactly what the hells had happened with Caine.
She tilted her head, a deliberately canine gesture, and said, trying very hard to keep any hint of eagerness out of her voice, “‘Creating monstrosities’? You’ll have to explain that one to me, I’m afraid.”
“Oh, I’m sure Adam will be happy to fill you in on the details. Unless, of course, he has some other reason for keeping that project secret.” He smiled mirthlessly. “Like the fact that it wasn’t authorised by anyone in a position to do so, for instance.”
“If our illustrious forebears – who are, somehow, still around to influence policy – are too hidebound to recognise genius, that’s hardly a failing on my part.”
“‘Genius’, is it? Hardly. Your girlfriend did most of the actual work, the way I hear it – all you’ve done is, having talked her into it, claimed the benefits of her success for your own.” He paused, looked around, and lowered his voice. “You do know she’ll be killed for this if word gets out, don’t you? Or are you counting on that now she’s outlived her usefulness?”
Avebury’s face flushed a dull red, and he hissed a breath through clenched teeth. “I’d be careful if I were you, Johann. Jealousy’s a terrible poison, so I hear.”
“And public execution’s a terrible way to die. It’s not something I’d wish on anyone I actually cared for.”
“Amusing, since you’re quite so willing to condemn me for ‘creating monstrosities’. One could almost accuse you of having something of a double standard.”
“Says the man who claims to hate both vampires and werewolves and yet walks out with both. I don’t suppose he’s mentioned that to you, has he, Miss Cervanso?”
“I’m not bloody walking out with him!” She hadn’t managed to keep the indignation out of her voice – not that she’d been trying particularly hard – and more than a few of the Sinnlenst who’d been surreptitiously glancing over at the brewing confrontation were now openly staring, creating a small but steadily-growing audience to what was rapidly becoming a full-on three act drama.
I wanted a distraction, I suppose. I just didn’t expect to become part of this much of one.
Tyburn was grinning, obviously enjoying Avebury’s discomfort. He rounded on the group of spectators closest to him – all of them younger, and most of them more armed even than the average Sacaask citizen – and spread his arms wide. “Do you see this? Do you hear this?”
“Oh, I’m hearing it.” This from another young man, though not one of the group Tyburn was addressing, who was pushing his way to the front of the gathering crowd. “I’m hearing you throwing baseless accusations because you’re too damn lily-livered to face up to the reality of what needs to be done in this city. Where’s your evidence for this ‘monster’ you claim Avebury’s created, huh? Or are you just repeating some godsdamn magician’s rumour to try and make excuses for your own cowardice?”
“He doesn’t need to – we’ve all seen the damn papers!”
The bottom dropped out of Viola’s stomach as she turned to see Mortimer – Harry Mortimer, Amelia’s fiance, the man who meant more to her almost-sister than pretty much anyone else in the damn world – shove his way to the front of the group in front of Tyburn. He had his hand on his belt-knife, and his eyes were fixed on Avebury… or, at least, they had been.
Then he saw her, and the colour all but drained out of his face.
You should be scared, you bastard. You lied to me. You lied to her. You fucking betrayed her.
I am going to kill you.
If Avebury had noticed the change in Mortimer’s expression, he didn’t seem to have connected it to Viola. He dropped his hand to his own knife, stepping to the side to open space to draw his blade, and locked eyes with the other man. “Do you really want to do this, Harry?”
“I don’t know, Adam. Do you want to tell me I’m mistaken?”
“Given I don’t know what you’re referring to, I can hardly comment on that. But I’d suggest you move your hand – unless you’re really planning on drawing steel in the middle of a crowd.”
“On whether you want to tell everyone here what you did.” Another new voice, again from the section of the crowd that seemed to be mostly made up of Tyburn’s faction. “We’re not stupid, Avebury. We know.”
“You don’t know shit!” Yet another new voice – a woman, this time, and from the group which seemed to be predominantly Avebury’s supporters. “Rumour-mongering magician-lovers!”
Viola wasn’t entirely sure who threw the first punch – she saw Avebury’s arm move, heard someone’s fist thud into someone else’s face with bone-cracking force, and then someone had hold of her wrist and she was being yanked bodily sideways and out of the main body of the fray. She snarled, twisting round to bring her knee up between the legs of the person who’d grabbed her, but he dodged and she got him in the thigh instead, hard enough to make him swear but not hard enough for him to let go of her.
Fine. New plan.
She punched him in the face.
That worked – he staggered backwards, hands pressed to a nose that was now gushing blood, and she followed up with a kick that sent him sprawling. By now the fight had spread far beyond the original confrontation, and fully half the ballroom was in uproar. She could hear someone yelling for the guards, though she couldn’t tell whether it was their own servants or the Watch they were wanting, and someone else trying to call for calm above the din.
Good luck with that.
She should be getting out of here. There wasn’t much to gain by staying in the middle of what might well turn into a Sinnlenst internal-politics bloodbath, after all – far better to grab Fest, make sure Sabbat had an escape route, and then make for the exit before someone tried to knife her in the fray.
Problem was, that’d leave Mortimer here. And alive.
And then he can come waltzing back to Amelia as though nothing’s happened, as though he’s not betraying her with every damn breath he takes, and that I will not allow.
One way or another, he’s not getting out of here.
Mortimer seemed to have made himself scarce. No problem. She’d caught enough of his scent while he’d been standing next to her – and Ancestors, but she should have noticed that sooner – that she’d be able to track him even through this chaos.
Track him. Find him. Kill him. Easy.
Her teeth were itching worse, her face aching with the need to transform, but she pushed it back – while it’d make things easier, she’d be vulnerable while she was shifting. And besides, it’d give him time to get away.
Not on my watch.
She’d managed to get herself away from the worst of the fighting, at least, which meant she was able to scan the room for sign of her quarry with less chance of catching an accidental (or completely deliberate) blow or blade.
She couldn’t immediately catch sight of Mortimer (or, worryingly, Sabbat), but something else grabbed her attention as she scrambled up onto a chair and looked out over the assembled mob. Two figures, standing at the far end of the ballroom, looking for all the world as though they’d just walked in and were trying to work out what in the hells was going on.
Black hair. Ridiculously pale skin. Definitely vampires. And one of them’s definitely Foreval.
And standing next to her…
Spirits and Ancestors preserve. That’s Fest.
He didn’t look hurt, thank the gods. He also didn’t look nearly as panicked as she’d expect for this kind of situation, though, and that was worrying as all hells.
Especially given who he was standing with.
I should go to him.
Except that if he was under Foreval’s control, that might be the worst possible thing she could do.
I’m not leaving here without him.
Which was true. Problem was:
I’m not leaving here without killing Mortimer.
Also true. And she somehow doubted that, assuming she could get Fest back into his right mind, he’d appreciate being dragged along on a revenge mission. Add that to the fact that, if she couldn’t get him back, he’d be pretty much dead-weight, and:
Kill Mortimer. Then rescue Fest. Foreval’s not going to do anything to him right now.
It was a slim enough bloody hope to hang someone else’s life on. But what other choice did she have?
Kill Mortimer. Rescue Fest. Find Sabbat. Get the hells out of here.
[Author’s note: this is NaNoWriMo 2020 content – I apologise for the likely increased number of typos]
Copyright © 2021 by Finn McLellan. All rights reserved.
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