Why do I keep finding myself wearing other peoples’ clothes tonight? Fest thought, fiddling with the buttons on his borrowed waistcoat.
At least this set actually fit, he supposed, which was a distinct improvement on the ones the Sinnlenst had left for him. And, he had to admit, they were surprisingly comfortable – or maybe that was just because they weren’t soaked and covered in dried blood.
“Thank you,” he said again.
Archer looked up from his book and rolled his eye, though in a way that almost seemed affectionate. “For the third time, there’s no need to thank me. You’re doing me a favour by getting rid of your previous outfit, and it’s no hardship to me to lend you a set of clothes I’ve not worn since- gods, since before you were born, almost certainly.”
The older vampire looked almost physically pained for a second. Then he said “Definitely since before you were born, in that case. In fact, I think I bought that waistcoat a couple of years before the Revolution.”
But… “It’s black. I thought that black coats and waistcoats were outlawed during the Usurper’s reign.”
“To a certain extent, yes. But there were weavers in Earth Brother’s priesthood who risked a great deal to keep making them. The Usurper was hardly popular with any of the temples, after all.”
“And you didn’t get arrested for wearing it?”
Archer laughed. “I’ve spent more time in a cell than you might think. Never for longer than a few days at a time – the Watch had enough on their hands without trying to arrest all of us deliberately breaking that particular bloody stupid law – but certainly more than once or twice.”
Fest blinked. While he knew logically that Archer had done a lot more in his life so far than he’d previously let on – gods, the man had been a pirate, hadn’t he? – the idea of the older vampire deliberately getting himself arrested was still a little difficult to get his head around. Though… “Wait a minute. The student riots?”
“Ha! Is that what they’re calling them now? No, that was some friends of mine at the University. Though I may have thrown a couple of punches. Or half bricks.” He picked up his glass of tea and took a long, slow drink, very obviously watching Fest’s expression as he did so.
Fest, for his part, was pretty sure he was staring. Though, in his defence, the mental image of Archer hurling half a housebrick at someone’s head in the middle of a riot was… confusing, to say the least. “I- Half bricks? Really?”
“My memory of the evening’s a little cloudy. They may have been roof tiles.” He grinned briefly over the rim of the glass. “Is it honestly that hard to believe?”
“Honestly? Yes, a bit. It sounds more like something Sabbat would do,” Fest said – and then winced, remembering that Sabbat was still missing. Well done. Now I’ve just reminded him that his best friend’s possibly dead and it’s my fault.
If Archer was thinking something of the sort, it wasn’t showing on his face. “True. Though, and I say this with affection, Sabbat’s reaction to a street protest is far more likely to involve seeing how many pockets he can lighten while the crowd’s distracted. Either that or using it as an opportunity to settle scores.” He frowned, reaching into his waistcoat pocket for his watch. “Speaking of, he should be back by now. Unless he’s gone straight back to the Daggers, I suppose.”
Fest opened his mouth, but whatever he’d been about to say (he wasn’t sure himself, if he was honest) was drowned out by a sudden thunderous knocking that sounded like someone was trying to break the door down.
Fest jumped, nearly spilling his glass of tea down himself in the process.
Archer, by contrast, smiled. He put his book and his tea glass down on the table by his elbow, stood up, and sighed, the tension visibly bleeding out of his shoulders and spine. “Speak of the cat and his tail appears, apparently. Excuse me for a moment, will you?”
“Of course!” Fest said, though the older vampire was already halfway out of the room by the time he managed to get the words out of his mouth. For someone who’d seemed so calm just a moment before, he’d moved surprisingly fast – obviously he’d been more worried that he was letting on. “I’ll… sit here.”
He took another drink of tea, stared at the ceiling, and hoped to all the gods that Sabbat was alright. Because if he’s not, I think Archer might actually kill me.
It had to be Sabbat. Had to be. Nobody else was that hard on the woodwork.
If I didn’t know him, I’d be worried something was wrong for him to be battering the door like that. But given it’s him, I’d be more worried if he knocked politely.
He’d left most of the bolts undone after he’d let Fest in, so it was the work of a moment or two to unlock the remaining two, open the door, and-
The halfway-stranger on his doorstep rolled his eyes. “Aye, ‘s me. Fucksake, Archer, y’forget I was goin’ disguised or somethin’?”
“No, I-” It was Sabbat, no doubt about it – nobody else had quite that accent and cadence, for a start – but… “Gods, what did you do to your face?”
“Bleachin’ liquid,” the assassin said. “Stung like a bastard, but it’s workin’.” He reached into his mouth, yanked out something which for a horrible moment Archer thought was an actual tooth, and dropped it into the pocket of his bloodstained waistcoat. “‘s supposed t’come off with soap an’ water-”
“Good!” He hadn’t meant for it to come out as vehemently as it did, but there was something deeply disconcerting about Sabbat looking as pale as he did. He looked…
Like a corpse. He looks like a corpse. Like Rose.
“Hells’ gates, Archer. It look that fuckin’ bad?”
“No, you- Alright, yes. It does. You look dead.”
“Fairly bloody sure I ain’t.” He pinched the back of his hand between the bitten-short nails of his thumb and forefinger, hard. “Ah, fuck. There. I ain’t dead.”
Despite himself, Archer found the corners of his mouth turning upward into a smile. “Yes, I’m aware that you’re not actually dead, given you’re walking around – and don’t give me that line about vampires, you know that’s different.”
“Y’sure about that?” Sabbat retorted, grinning back at him. He yanked the tie from his hair, letting it fall down around his shoulders, then ran a hand over his face, blurring the false scars and revealing the edges of the familiar ones which’d been covered by the makeup. “There. That convince you?”
“I was already convinced, but thank you all the same. It’s a good deal easier trying to talk to you when you actually look something like yourself.”
“Good. Now are y’goin’ t’stop standin’ in the doorway an’ let me in? I need a fuckin’ drink.”
“You need a bath. And a change of clothes.” He stepped aside, letting the assassin into the hallway, and closed the door behind him, sliding the full set of bolts across for good measure. “Whisky?”
“Suits. Gin or rum’d be better.”
“Of course it would. I’ll see what I have.”
“Y’got any cigarettes?”
“I’m fairly certain you left a case of papers and tobacco here a month or so ago.”
“Though y’might’ve thrown it out.”
“I’m perfectly capable of disapproving of your habits without throwing away your possessions – and before you ask, no, I don’t have any Smoke and I’m not about to go out and find you any.”
“Oh, I’m well aware.”
“An’ y’can stop lookin’ at me like that.”
“Like what?” Archer asked, though he was fairly certain he knew. Gods dammit, I could wish my emotions were a little less obvious sometimes. Or that you were a little less perceptive.
“Like y’thought y’weren’t goin’ t’see me again. I’m fine. Cervanso’s fine. Your fuckin’ toff friend’s bastard kid’s fine. Your red-eye brat-”
“-is drinking tea in the other room,” Archer said, and was almost gratified to see the fleeting look of relief on the assassin’s face. You, my friend, care a lot more than you pretend you do. Or, at least, you care that I care, which is almost the same thing. “And what do you mean, ‘your toff friend’s kid’?”
“Bastard kid,” Sabbat clarified. “An’ that ain’t fuckin’ swearin’ – not about that, at least. His folks weren’t married.”
Given the conversation they’d had before Sabbat had left, and given that there were relatively few of Archer’s friends who had children who’d been born out of wedlock and acknowledged, that could only be one person. Though how in the world Sabbat had wound up talking to him Archer had no idea. “What on earth does Harry Mortimer have to do with this? I didn’t think he was even back in the city.”
“He was infiltratin’ the Sinnlenst,” Sabbat said, as casually as he might’ve said ‘I met him in the tavern’ or ‘we passed on the street’. “Reckoned he’d try an’ prove himself t’the Order, on account of not wantin’ special treatment just ‘cause of his da.” And, before Archer could even begin to work out what to do with that information, he added, “Also he’s down an arm since y’last saw him.”
“I’m assumin’ as much, anyhow. He have two last time y’spoke?”
He had. And, while it certainly wasn’t the way Archer would have chosen to find out about it, it certainly was better than finding out for the first time when he finally ended up in the same place as Harry again. “How long has he been back in the city?”
“Fucked if I know. He’s hidin’ from his da, an’ wasn’t keen on comin’ t’see you either – don’t know if it’s the arm or if he’s hidin’ somethin’ worse.”
“I think it’s a good deal more likely he’s trying to avoid his father because they parted on bad terms.” Which was a kind way to say ‘had a blazing row over Harry joining the army involving him vowing never to set foot under his father’s roof again’, but Sabbat didn’t need to know that. “Verist’s been worrying about his boy for the past few years, but he’ll not make the first move – I suspect he thinks if he does he’ll drive Harry even further away.”
Sabbat shrugged. “None o’ my business. Y’want t’go find him, pretty sure Cervanso knows where he’s livin’, on account of the fact he’s courtin’ her sister.”
“Courtin’ her sister. Y’know. The Luciel girl.” He held a hand somewhere around the level of his collarbone. “About so high, black skin, curly hair, surprisingly handy wi’ a knife?”
And the daughter of the head of the Order. I wonder if Harry knows that. “I’ve met Miss Luciel before, yes.” And, as several more pieces of the puzzle finally slotted into place, “Ah. That would be why she and Viola were in Old Town the night you went hunting Caine, I assume.”
“Figure as much,” Sabbat agreed. “I-” He bent forward suddenly, one arm tight across his belly as though he had stomach cramp. “Fuck’s sake.”
“What’s wrong?” If you’ve managed to get yourself stabbed again…
“Fuckin’ box,” the assassin growled, still bent double. He slid down the wall, ending up sitting with his back against it, and hissed something that Archer was pretty sure was a deeply offensive thieves’ cant curse. “Started playin’ up halfway through the fuckin’ party.”
“Playing up?” Archer repeated. He crouched down, getting back to eye level with Sabbat, and looked him up and down. He didn’t look too much the worse for wear, outside the normal level of damage Archer would expect from him, but between the bleaching and the dried blood it was hard to tell. “What do you mean ‘playing up’?”
Sabbat glared. “‘f I knew, I’d fuckin’ say. It’s started… movin’.”
That didn’t sound good. Or, to be more accurate, it sounded deeply deeply worrying. “Moving?”
“You keep fuckin’ repeatin’ everythin’ I say, Archer, an’ I’ll fuckin’ lamp you.”
“I’m trying to understand what’s going on here.” He reached out a hand towards the other man’s shirt. “If I-”
The word came out sudden, sharp as a whip-crack and with an edge of panic that convinced Archer beyond any shadow of a doubt that the assassin was in no way fooling around. He pulled his hand away, moving as deliberately and carefully as he could, and then said, as calmly as he could manage, “I’m sorry.”
“Not your fuckin’ fault,” Sabbat said. He leaned his head back against the wall and sighed deeply. “Don’t know how this thing gets you. Bad enough one of us bound to it. If y’go get a pair of gloves…”
“How bad do you think things would be without it?”
“Bad,” the assassin said, bluntly. “Y’saw what happened wi’ your ‘experiment’.”
“I did.” He chewed the edge of his bottom lip, mentally iterating over their options. None of them were good. “We need to get you – and that box – to Verist.”
“So y’keep sayin’. Reckoned you’d be wantin’ t’have another war council first, mind.”
“I do.” But if that thing’s killing you, everything else can go hang. “Do you think it’s going to get worse?”
“Fucked if I know.”
Helpful. “You’ll tell me if it does.” It wasn’t a question, and the fact that Sabbat wasn’t arguing the point worried him more than he’d admit. “It won’t take me more than a few hours to hire us horses.”
“Horses?” Sabbat repeated.
He sounded dubious, which wasn’t much of a surprise – as far as Archer knew, his experiences with riding had been few and far between. Unfortunately, riding was also by far the fastest way to get to Verist’s hall, and, if things went bad in the way he was starting to worry they might, speed was going to be of the essence. “You’d rather a sleigh? I can drive, but it’s been a while.”
The assassin rolled his eyes, pretty much exactly as Archer had expected him to. “Fuck that. I’ll take the soddin’ horses.”
“Good. I know a stable down by the city wall – if they haven’t changed hands since the last time I used them, the owner’s one of us.” He’d need to check that before he made arrangements – the Sinnlenst had a fair few stables of their own, and hiring horses from them was a quick ticket to any number of ‘accidents’ on your journey if the owners suspected your true affiliation – but he was fairly certain the one in question had remained in Order hands. “Can you stand?”
“Can try.” He unfolded himself, bracing one hand on the wall as he did so, and then flashed Archer a brief half-smile. “There. Ain’t as broken as all that.”
“Good.” For a sudden half-mad moment he wanted nothing more than to put his arms around the other man and hug him – but there was a very good chance Sabbat would punch him in the face if he tried that. Instead, he settled for reaching out and resting a hand on the assassin’s shoulder, leaving it there for just long enough that Sabbat actually leaned into the touch a little. “Go have a bath. I’ll find you some clean clothes.”
“An’ a drink.”
“And a drink. And your damn cigarettes.” The bathroom was going to stink of tobacco for a week, but he’d take that if it meant Sabbat staying here rather than trekking back to the Daggers in his current state. “And an ash-tray. If you’re going to smoke in the bath, I’d rather that than you putting your cigarette out on the wall.”
“Only did that the once,” the assassin objected, though there wasn’t much heat in it.
“Yes, and the mark’s still there five years later.”
“On account of you not botherin’ t’paint over it. That ain’t my fault.”
“A fair point. There’re clean towels in the linen cupboard – and, I think, a couple of sets of underclothes of yours from the time you stayed here after you took that bullet through your shoulder.”
Sabbat laughed. “The fuck’re you keepin’ my smalls for?”
And why did I guess you were going to say that? Oh wait. Because I know you. “Exactly this occasion, as a matter of fact.”
“Soddin’ Sinnlenst magic boxes?”
“Not- Oh for crying out loud, you know what I mean.”
“Aye, I do. Teasin’ you’s still fuckin’ funny, though.”
Which Archer would absolutely take, if it meant Sabbat was feeling well enough to be annoying. He turned on his heel, heading back into the main room in search of a bottle of drink and a tankard (drinks glasses and bathrooms being a bad mix, as he knew from experience).
He’s alright! Or, at least, he’s alright enough that Archer’s not going to kill me for getting him hurt. I hope.
He hadn’t meant to eavesdrop, but Archer had left the connecting door between the main room and the hallway open when he’d gone to answer the front door and, even if he hadn’t, vampire senses were sharp enough that accidentally tuning an ear in to a conversation happening on the other side of an interior wall was hardly an uncommon occurrence. And, once he’d started listening in, it had turned out to be exceptionally hard to make himself stop.
Amelia Luciel has a suitor? That’s going to make a lot of the fellows at the University jealous when they find out.
If they find out, I suppose. There was a reason he hadn’t known until just now, after all. I certainly don’t intend to tell them.
Also, what in the name of all the gods was all that about a box? That sounded bad.
I wonder if someone told me about that when I… wasn’t there.
He took another swig of his rapidly-cooling tea, trying very hard to ignore the reminder of the gaping holes in his memory. Archer had assured him that the Order would try and find a way of fixing whatever Lucy – whatever Foreval had done to him, but it had very much felt like the kind of assurance that was more about making him feel less anxious than anything else and, because he’d spotted that that was what it was, it wasn’t exactly working.
It’s fine. Everything’s fine. I am definitely not panicking about-
“Mr Fest?” said a very familiar voice from very close behind him.
He jumped. “Sir?”
Archer sighed. “Again, that’s not necessary. ‘Archer’ will do perfectly well.”
“Archer, then. And… you don’t have to call me Mr Fest-” In fact, I’d prefer it if you didn’t. I keep thinking you’re about to call on me for the answer to a theory problem. “-Jonathan would be fine.”
“Jonathan, then. In which case, Jonathan, I apologise for keeping you waiting for quite so long. If you’ll give me another few moments, I’ll be happy to resume our conversation.”
“Conversation? What- Oh, about the Revolution.”
“Indeed.” He crossed to the drinks cabinet on the far side of the room, opening it and rummaging around among the bottles for a few moments before extracting a bottle so dark and weathered it looked to Fest for all the world as though it might’ve been pulled from some smuggler’s hoard or pirate cave straight out of one of his penny dreadfuls. “Ah-ha. I knew that was in there somewhere.”
“Begging your pardon, sir- Archer, but what is that?”
“This, my young friend, is a bottle of the Sincha Navy’s best. More specifically, it’s a bottle Sabbat and I liberated about eight years ago from a frigate that made the mistake of chasing after the Arrow on her own. Her captain kept a very well-stocked hold, and ours was happy enough to let us avail ourselves of it.”
I was right – it is pirate loot! He was probably grinning like a fool, but he couldn’t stop himself – though the last couple of weeks of adventures had trended a good deal more on the terrifying side than he’d have liked, the fact he was looking at the outcome of an honest to the gods pirate raid was still far more exciting than it had any right to be.
Judging by Archer’s expression, he was definitely grinning like a fool. The older vampire smiled, pulling a brace of tankards out of a box under the cabinet and setting them up on the side. “Let me take a mug of this through to Sabbat, and then, if you like, I’ll tell you the whole story over a drink.”
For all he wasn’t going to admit as much to Archer, Sabbat’d take his current situation over going back to the Daggers – at least, for the time being.
Ain’t got a bath back at the Daggers, for a start.
He sank back into the water, letting the heat leach the cold from his bones and the ache from his muscles and joints. It felt good – not as good as a hit of Smoke would’ve, but good enough – and he closed his eyes, allowing himself to luxuriate for a moment in the simple pleasure of not being in pain.
Which was, of course, the moment Archer knocked on the door.
Fuck’s sake. “It ain’t locked!”
“I was going to say I’d leave them outside.”
“Fuck that.” If for no other reason than he wasn’t sure if he could actually stand up right now. “Bring ‘em in.”
“If you’re sure.” The latch clicked open, and Archer’s footsteps padded near-silently across the floor. “Clothes are on the chair.” A metallic clunk. “Tankard’s on the table by the bath, same as your cigarettes, the lighter, and the ash-tray.”
Same place he’d put the box. Fuck, I hope Archer’s being careful around that fucking thing. Last thing we need is the both of us bound to whatever the fuck it is. “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome.” He paused, and Sabbat heard him swallow like he had something stuck in his throat. Then he said, quietly, “You know, I sometimes forget quite how many scars you have.”
If that’d come from anyone else in this situation, Sabbat would’ve decked ‘em for it. Coming from Archer, who’d seen him naked more than a few times and, more importantly, knew why other folks didn’t get to, it got an eyeroll and a muttered ‘fucking hellfire’. “You ain’t goin’ soft on me, are y’? Survived plenty worse’n this, an’ you know as much.”
“That doesn’t mean I have to like being reminded of it. Some of those were too damn close.” He swallowed again, and muttered something under his breath. It sounded, to Sabbat’s ears, oddly like a prayer. “I’m- Is there anything else you need?”
“Other’n you leavin’ me t’have a sixdamn bath in peace? No.”
“I’ll see you in a while, then.” The floorboards creaked as he walked towards the door – then he stopped, and said, matter-of-factly, “That’s the Sincha rum, by the way. I figured tonight was as good an excuse as any.”
And before Sabbat could ask him what the fuck he meant by that he’d slipped out of the room, the door clicking closed behind him.
Something’s rattled him more than he’s letting on. What the hells did the kid say?
No point worrying over it now, anyhow. Archer’d tell him later, if it was important, and if it wasn’t, he’d find out on his own time.
He cracked an eye open, reaching back for the tankard. Archer had filled it most of the way to the brim with rum-and-water, and the smell coming off the liquid hurled him back almost ten years, to when he’d been a still-green teenage sailor on the ship that’d been the terror of the eastern sea.
Here’s to the Crimson Arrow, and all who ever sailed on her. And here’s to the ruin of the Sincha Navy, and their flagship rotting at the bottom of the bay.
It tasted as good as he remembered, if a little less bloody around the edges (though, admittedly, he’d had a broken nose the last time he’d been swigging this stuff). And, once he’d rolled himself a cigarette and taken a deep drag of rough-as-hell tobacco, he could almost pretend that this whole damn situation with the box was something close to workable.
On the other side of the door, Archer slumped against the wall, put his head in his hands, and swore, viciously and silently.
That… was a mistake.
He should’ve known better. Gods, he should have known a damn sight better. But he hadn’t been thinking, and he apparently somehow hadn’t remembered exactly how seeing Sabbat shirtless the last couple of times had made him feel, and he’d walked into the damn bathroom as though everything was exactly as it used to be, and…
I’m an idiot. There was no way that was going to go well, and there was no way I should have opened that damn door. And yet.
He’d managed to get through the conversation without embarrassing himself, at least, which he supposed counted as something of a success. And, thank all the gods, Sabbat had had his eyes closed, which meant he almost certainly hadn’t seen exactly how red the tips of Archer’s ears had likely gone when he’d put the tankard and the smoking gear down and accidentally looked-
I’ve seen him naked before. For crying out loud, we shared a sodding bunkroom back on the Arrow, and privacy wasn’t exactly easy to come by given how close the quarters were. I don’t understand why I’m suddenly acting like a sodding teenager again.
Or rather, he did understand, all too bloody well, and he’d been trying desperately to deny it.
He’s my best friend. That’s it.
Because for a second back there, right before he’d asked Sabbat if there was anything else he needed, he’d been half a heartbeat away from saying something else entirely.
‘I’m sorry, and I didn’t intend to do it, but I think I might’ve accidentally fallen in love with you.’
[START (SERIES) – Blood on the Snow: Chapter 1]
[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.
One thought on “Silver in the Ashes: Chapter 2 (draft)”