The gate was locked. The sodding pissing bastarding gate was locked.
She rounded on Mortimer, who held his hand up defensively. “I didn’t know, I swear! It wasn’t locked the last time I came through here – some idiot must have decided they needed the extra bloody security and forgotten they might actually want to use their damn rat hole!”
Beside her, she heard Sabbat snarl, the sound almost werewolf-like in its ferocity.
She thrust an arm out almost automatically, slamming it into his chest as he lunged forward. “No! For fuck’s sake! We’ve enough to be dealing with without the two of you trying to sodding kill each other!”
For a second she thought he wouldn’t stop, and that she’d have to actually fight him. But then he laughed, stepping back away from her and flicking his razor closed in a casual gesture that she suspected would’ve been a damn sight more intimidating to its target if Mortimer had actually been able to see it. “Aye, you’re right. No sense in spillin’ more blood than we need tonight.”
“Good.” And then, because it needed to be said, and now seemed as good a time as any, “Sabbat, this is Harry Mortimer. He’s Amelia’s fiance, and he’s trying to become a member of the Order, hence the infiltration. He’s not actually a Sinnlest. Mortimer, this is-”
“Sabbat,” said Sabbat. “Assassin.” He grinned lopsidedly. “Not a fuckin’ servant.”
“Y’know, I’d guessed as much,” Mortimer said, dryly. “Look, Miss Cervanso, I’m not saying this isn’t the time for introductions, but we do need to get through that damn gate. I don’t suppose you’ve got a set of lockpicks on you?”
He sounded as though he meant it as a joke, albeit a gallows-humour one. In which case, the joke was on him. She reached up to her plait, fingers working through the strands to find the thin metal of the picks. “One second.”
“I’ll do it,” Sabbat interjected. She turned to look at him and he added, somewhat defensively, “You can see the fuckers comin’, I can’t. Don’t need t’see to pick a fuckin’ lock.”
“Fair. Sing out if you need my picks.”
“Got my own.” He felt his way along the wall to the gate and knelt down on the stone in front of it, fingertips brushing surprisingly gently over the metal around the lock. “Trustin’ you t’stop anyone stabbin’ me in the back, Cervanso.”
Mortimer, who’d been listening to the whole exchange with a growing look of bewilderment, leaned back against the wall of the tunnel and ran his hand over his close-cropped hair. “Was there a dresscode for this evening posted up somewhere that I completely missed? ‘Must bring own burglar’s tools’?”
“They’re useful,” Viola retorted, a little more heatedly than she meant to. She wasn’t a damn thief, even if she had broken into Archer’s rooms (and gods, that whole adventure felt like a lifetime ago now). “You should see about getting a set of your own, if you’re planning on doing more of this kind of thing.”
By way of an answer, he raised his hand and pointed wordlessly to the empty sleeve on his left side.
“I’m- I was left-handed.”
“Yes, that pretty much sums it up.”
“If you say you’re sorry, I’ll…” He sighed. “Ha. Probably glare at you and stand here awkwardly, to be honest, since punching the person who just saved my life seems like a poor way to repay that favour.”
“I was going to say there’s probably some way of picking locks one-handed.” It wasn’t entirely a lie – she had been going to say that, right after she apologised for forgetting about his arm. “If you managed to hold the wrench in with your little finger, I suppose you could get some play with the actual pick with your first finger and your thumb-”
“Seen it done,” Sabbat interjected, sitting back on his heels for a second. He rolled his shoulders, hissing in what sounded like a mixture of pain and irritation. “Ain’t sayin’ it’d be easy t’learn, mind, but it ain’t impossible.”
Mortimer actually laughed at that, a cautious and surprised-sounding chuckle. “And here I was thinking that losing my dominant arm was going to put a dent in my career options. Apparently I have everything I need to become a master thief.”
“Reckon you’re short a few things still, mate.”
“Now why do I suspect that’s personal experience talking?”
“Cause you ain’t stupid. Or, at least,” he added, “you ain’t that stupid. Still plenty stupid enough t’go infiltratin’ the Sinnlenst without backup.”
“Did it well enough you thought I was one of them, didn’t I?” Mortimer shot back, obviously stung by the comment.
Sabbat laughed. “Ain’t what I meant. Who’d you have t’pull you out when everythin’ went t’shit?”
Given how the assassin tended to operate (from what Viola had seen of it, at least) that was bloody rich coming from him. On the other hand, he was also right.
And, on a third anatomically improbable hand, none of this was getting them any closer to getting out of here.
“I hate to break up the lesson, but we need that bloody gate open.”
That netted her a relieved look from Mortimer and a slight eyeroll from Sabbat, though neither of them actually said anything. The assassin rolled his shoulders again, this time with an audible grinding click, and turned back to working on the lock.
A minute or so later, as Viola strained her ears and eyes to try and catch any sight of pursuing Sinnlenst (nothing yet, and that somehow worried her more than anything), there was a metallic clunk from behind her, followed by a triumphant hissed exclamation that was both untranslatable and, judging by Sabbat’s general vocabulary, almost certainly obscene.
“Open,” the assassin confirmed, scrambling to his feet and slipping the lockpicks back into a pocket hidden inside his waistcoat. “Anyone comin’?”
“Not that I can see. I don’t understand why, though – between the gas and Caine, I’d halfway expected to be trampled in the rush to get out.”
“Maybe Avebury’s monster killed them all,” Mortimer suggested, with a laugh that hovered just a little too close to the edge of hysteria for Viola’s liking. “And now he’s sleeping off the feast.”
“Not funny.” She sniffed the air, catching only the barest edge of Caine’s scent. Still too much, still too close, but he wasn’t near enough that they needed to be running. Not yet. “I don’t smell burning, and I don’t smell Caine. Something’s going on back there.”
“Gives us time t’get out,” Sabbat said. He grinned. “If we’re lucky, might even mean half of ‘em don’t realise any of us ain’t what we seem.”
Which was true enough. And, if she was honest, going back into the room where Caine might be lurking was not exactly high on her list of things she wanted to do right now.
I’d rather spend an entire evening in Avebury’s company. Wearing a damn dress.
The hinges barely creaked as she pushed the gate open and, once they were through, it swung back to settle in its frame again with a muffled clang that died away faster than it had any right to.
“Spell-warded?” she asked, as they set off down the passageway again.
Mortimer nodded, then remembered that Sabbat wouldn’t be able to see the gesture and clarified: “Yes. Bunch of hypocrites, the lot of them, but they know their way around sound-dulling glyphs.”
“Useful to know.” She’d heard a couple of theories about Sinnlenst magic use at the latest Order meetings – hard not to, when the Sinnlenst were starting to recruit students at the University – but more information on their exact capabilities was something the shadow arm sorely needed. “When we get out of here, you and I need to have a chat.”
“I’ll take you up on that and welcome. Though let’s save arranging anything until we’re actually out. Then, luck willing, we’ll have all the time we need.”
Behind her, she heard Sabbat mutter something – she turned in time to see him spit on the floor and make a quick gesture that looked very much like a ward against bad luck.
“Don’t go invokin’ the Lady ‘less you fuckin’ mean it,” he growled. “An’ right now, y’don’t go invokin’ her at all.”
Mortimer swallowed. “Damn. Wasn’t thinking. Sorry.”
“Long as y’don’t do it again.”
“I won’t.” He sounded sincere, which wasn’t surprising. Soldiers, sailors, gamblers, thieves and assassins might worship the Lady of Fortune in various different guises, but they all agreed that calling Her attention wasn’t the kind of thing you did lightly. “Sorry.”
“And stop apologisin’.”
Viola took a deep breath, closing her eyes for a second and letting the sound-colour-taste of the various scents in the air wash over her. Shaving soap, neatsfoot oil, and warm metal. That’s Mortimer. Cigarettes, leather, and blood. Sabbat. There was still something she couldn’t identify riding on Sabbat’s scent. Not like Caine, thank all the gods and spirits, but something metallic and bloody and silver-white and… twisty. Distraction. Ask him about it later, when we’re out of this.
Caine’s scent was still there, but even fainter than it had been the last time. If he was hunting them, he was taking his bloody time.
Of course, that seems to be how he works, so that means entirely sod-all. He didn’t run across the ballroom, did he? No. He walked. Because he knows all he has to do is keep following the prey until it’s exhausted.
And if she went any further down that road, she’d end up scanning every tree and rooftop for Turned every time she set foot outside for the next year.
He’s not following us. He’s busy.
She deliberately wasn’t thinking about what exactly he might be busy doing.
Snow. Focus on the smell of snow.
It was stronger now, clean and clear and cutting through the blue-green damp-edged scent of the tunnels like moonlight through clouds. She could smell other things too, cooking smells and smoke and the edge of the familiar stink of the hot springs welling up from deep under the city.
Mortimer said this let out near the Temple Street baths, didn’t he?
They had to be close now. And, once they were out, she’d finally be able to shift. And then?
Then she’d go home.
Several streets away, though closer than either of them knew at the time, Fest was also experiencing a deep and abiding desire to go home. Mostly because ‘home’ made at least some kind of sense, which was more than anything else that had happened in the past however long.
He’d woken up in the snow.
More specifically, he’d woken up in a snowdrift in an alleyway. He still had his clothes, his boots, and his weapons, which meant he couldn’t have been there very long (some areas of Sacaan were nicer than others, but pretty much all of them had their fair share of people who’d happily strip an unconscious person of everything except their belt-knife and their underclothes), but he had no memory of how he’d ended up in the alley in the first place.
After a minute or so of working life back into his fingers and toes, he’d managed to extricate himself from the snowdrift and scramble to his feet. His clothes had been – still were – soaked through, meltwater mixed with something metallic-smelling that had dried stiff and flaking on his sleeves and the front of his waistcoat (it was blood, and he knew it was, but if he focused too heavily on that fact he was going to panic again, and he did not have the time for that), and he’d had to jump up and down and flap his arms for a good few minutes more to get himself to a point where his teeth weren’t chattering so hard he was worried he’d break his jaw.
Then, finally, he’d left the alleyway.
The street he’d emerged on didn’t seem familiar. That, in and of itself, wasn’t explicitly a cause for concern – he’d only been in the city a few months, after all, and there were plenty of places he’d not yet managed to visit. What was worrying was the fact that it didn’t seem to be anywhere near the area where the Sinnlenst’s meeting had been happening, which meant that whoever had dropped him in the alley had dragged him a good way through the city before they dumped him like so much rubbish.
Either that, or he’d walked under his own power. Somehow that idea was worse.
Sacaan didn’t sleep, which meant that there were still plenty of people around, but the idea of asking any of them for help had made his heart lurch uncomfortably in his chest – quite apart from anything else, he was still in the kind of neighbourhood where someone covered in blood, even a vampire, was likely to end up fielding the kind of questions he didn’t have any answers to (or, at least, any answers that wouldn’t end with him getting thrown in a cell by the Watch).
Which meant that now he was standing in the shadows on a street corner in a part of the city he didn’t know, trying very hard to look inconspicuous and wondering how in the name of all the gods he was going to get back to the University without drawing too much attention to himself.
He briefly entertained the idea of trying to climb up one of the buildings and get a better view of the lay of the land before discarding it as a terrible plan – while he’d probably be able to make it at least halfway up to the rooftops if he chose a good alleyway to start in, he didn’t trust his climbing skills to take him all the way to the top, and falling off a wall wasn’t going to help any with his attempts at not drawing attention to himself.
Following the river would probably work, assuming he could find it. The Aan cut straight through Sacaan like a knife-wound and, once you’d hit the edge of it, it wasn’t hard to follow the bank along until you wound up in a district you recognised. Problem was, there was always the chance of walking straight into the kind of neighbourhood you really didn’t want to set foot in without a good deal more preparation somewhere along the way.
At least I’d blend in a bit more, I suppose. I doubt people in the River Quarter tend to ask too many questions about bloodstains.
And now he was thinking about the blood again. Dammit.
Nothing you can do about it right now. Get home, wash up, then work out what happened.
Easier said than done. He remembered snatches of what had happened after he’d opened the door to that room, but they were dreamlike and half-faded, and he could already feel the edges of them slipping away. Had Viola actually been there, when he remembered seeing her? What about the thing that had been chasing her – real, imagined, or some horror from the Void like the one Anneke had exorcised back in their workshop? And when he’d pushed it away, had that been real too? If it was real, was that his sorcery at work? And, if it was, what other damage had he done?
His fingertips were going numb. He looked down at them, almost surprised to see that they weren’t blackening in the cold.
Less hypothesising, more walking. Home.
Well, at least one part of his brain was being sensible. Now if it could magic up a way of getting back which didn’t get him picked up by the Watch on the way…
Magic, you idiot.
For a moment he didn’t quite understand what his thoughts were telling him. Then it hit him, and he very almost doubled over laughing at the sheer ridiculousness of not having realised it sooner.
He was a vampire. He’d fed recently (not thinking about that, not thinking about any of the implications of that). Which meant that his natural magic gave him an inbuilt disguise which would see him safe home with no awkward questions and, hopefully, no-one he knew stopping him to ask where the hells he’d been all evening.
He stepped back into the nearest alleyway, ducking around the snowdrifts until he’d found a corner which was fairly hidden from the road, and unbuckled his sword-belt, fingers clumsy on the metal in the cold.
Gods, I hope I can remember how to do this. It’s been a while.
He needn’t have worried. When he reached tentatively for the wellspring of his own natural magic it flooded up eagerly to meet him, wrapping around his form with a speed that was almost dizzying.
Five minutes later, a small black wolf with ruby-red eyes trotted out of the alleyway clutching a wrapped sword-belt in its jaws. It looked left and right, sniffed the ground, sneezed explosively, and then set off down one of the side streets leading off the main thoroughfare, leaving a trail of paw prints in the new-fallen snow.
At this rate, I’m going to get home and find the three of them already waiting for me, Archer thought. He pushed his way through a throng of drunken partygoers who seemed to be in the process of being thrown out of their third or fourth tavern of the night, sidestepped something that was either already a lover’s quarrel or about to turn into one, and ducked into the road to avoid a pair of Watch constables who were very clearly on their way to deal with one of the numerous tavern brawls that tended to erupt even in the richer quarters of the city.
Truth be told, he’d not meant to stay as long as he had. But one war story had led to another, and there had been a decade of news to catch up on and… and, if he was entirely honest, he’d missed his cousin a good deal more than he’d realised. Yes, she was the Regent now. And yes, she’d been his commander before that. But before that, she’d been cousin Ira who’d shown him how to use a bow back when he’d been small enough that he could barely pull the string, and who’d taken him on his first unaccompanied horseback ride outside the bounds of his family’s estate when they were both young enough that they’d been sent to bed without supper as a result.
And now she was his liege, and the person who’d just ordered him to commit at least one extrajudicial murder.
If I were a better person, I suspect I would be more upset by that. As it is, I’m only sorry I couldn’t explain Caine to her.
He didn’t like keeping secrets from Ira. But if she knew anything more about the Sinnlenst and the Order than she already did, sooner or later she’d find herself in an impossible position when it came to loyalties.
And while I may dislike lying to her, I like the idea of dropping that on her head a good deal less.
So he’d hedged and changed the topic and ducked around areas where the work he did for the Order had intervened in whatever story he was telling, and she’d nodded and smiled and pointedly not asked him what he was hiding from her, and they’d found a kind of balance that worked for the two of them. For now, at least.
She knows something’s up. But she also knows that my connections in the city were part of what allowed her to overthrow the Usurper, so I doubt she’ll press too closely unless something forces her hand.
The problem was that, depending on how the infiltration of the Sinnlenst meeting had gone, he could think of several things which might do just that.
I’d know if the quarter was on fire, at least. And I don’t see any smoke from here.
Given how many other possibilities there were for things to have gone wrong, that wasn’t exactly as reassuring as he might have liked.
Dwelling on the issue isn’t going to help anyone. If they’re there when I get back, I’ll know it went well – or, if it didn’t, they’ll tell me. If they’re not there…
I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.
END OF BOOK ONE
[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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