Viola woke up with a crick in her neck and a mouth that tasted like sawdust.
That, in and of itself, wasn’t exactly surprising. She’d had a rough day- night- whatever you wanted to bloody call it, and she’d not exactly been sleeping well before that.
What was surprising was the fact that she’d woken up on the floor.
I’m pretty sure I didn’t have anything to drink after we got home – nothing alcoholic, anyway – so that’s not it. And besides, I don’t feel like someone’s trying to drill a hole through either of my eyesockets.
Not that she’d ever turn up back at the house properly drunk, of course. But she had, on occasion, come home a little the worse for wear after a day off, and the hangovers she’d woken up with as a result had been enough to almost make her swear off beer altogether.
Almost. Still sink the occasional pint with folks when I’ve a mind, and that’s also not exactly relevant right now given I know I didn’t do that last night. So why in the name of my favourite ancestors was I taking a nap on the floorboards instead of in my perfectly warm, perfectly comfortable, perfectly safe bed?
She sat up. The world stayed pretty much exactly where it had been, which was another point against her having somehow managed to get drunk, but the pain in her neck intensified to the point that she had to close her eyes and sit very very still for a moment, riding out the waves of agony until it finally subsided into something a little closer to bearable.
Ugh. That argues for having fallen asleep where I was sitting, which suggests… Oh spirits, I know exactly what happened.
Or, more precisely, who.
She and Mortimer had got back to the house surprisingly easily in the end – no more random attacks, no Sinnlenst spies following them, and, with the exception of getting briefly turned around in the maze of streets between Sky Brother’s temple and the Scholars Quarter spirit house, no issues with navigation. Thanks to that, they’d managed to turn up well before anyone other than Sebastian was awake, and, after a brief conversation in which she’d managed to explain most of Mortimer’s deal, he’d been happy enough to let the two of them in.
Then she’d gone upstairs, shifted, found some clothes, and gone to fetch Amelia, which was when things had started to go off the rails.
Amelia hadn’t been asleep. In fact, she’d been sitting up in bed with one hand on the knife under her pillow – and, when Viola had come in, she’d damn near thrown said knife at her head before she realised who it was who’d pushed her door open. After Viola had yelled (quietly) and demanded to know what in the hells was going on, she’d explained that she’d woken up, found that Viola wasn’t back yet, and decided, while half-asleep, that things had in all likelihood gone horribly wrong and that there might already be Sinnlenst assassins on the way.
Viola had, lovingly but with increasing exasperation, asked her why she’d not gone to try and find Seb – who was, after all, supposed to be one of her bodyguards, and probably ought to have been notified of any possible Sinnlenst attacks – and, failing that, why she’d not gone to wake her parents.
Amelia had replied that of course she’d been meaning to do all of those things, but then she’d heard the door open and assumed the worst, which was why she’d been holding the knife, and why she’d been about to throw it at Viola’s head.
Viola had pointed out that that wasn’t even a throwing knife anyway and that, given that fact, the weighting was almost certainly wrong.
Amelia had argued that whether it was a throwing knife or not, large sharp pieces of metal being launched at one’s head tended to work as a deterrent.
Viola had retorted that chucking a normal knife at an attacker was a very good way to give them an extra weapon.
Amelia had said that it wasn’t if you threw a whole lot of other things at them straight after.
Viola had suggested that this was a terrible plan.
Amelia had suggested that Viola had better come up with something better then.
And then Seb had stuck his head round the door, coughed politely, and pointed out that one, they were both being loud enough that everyone else was going to get woken up if they weren’t careful and two, there was a young man in the back hall who’d been waiting there for a good while and looked as though he was about to fall asleep sitting up, and if Amelia wanted to see her fiance before he had to leave, she’d better get a move on.
That had precipitated an entire flurry of grabbing clothes and tripping over laces and making enough mess for at least six additional people – at least, until Viola had stepped in, calmed her down, and managed to wrangle her out of her nightgown and silk sleeping bonnet and into a relatively easy-to-do-up old day dress and a padded over-robe, as well as stockings and slippers so she’d not freeze her feet on the flagstones in the hallway.
That done, the two of them had, moving as stealthily as possible, headed down the back stairs and through the servants quarters to the back hall, where Mortimer had, as Seb had said, been sat on one of the row of old chairs which were mostly used for changing boots and looking very much as though he was about to drop off.
The moment he’d seen Amelia, however, he’d practically jumped to his feet, his whole face lighting up. She, for her part, had run most of the length of the hallway and pretty much launched herself at his chest, and the two of them had wound up spinning around each other in a way that Viola would’ve found nauseatingly adorable if she hadn’t been too preoccupied worrying that they were about to crash into either the chairs, the outdoor brooms, or the mop bucket.
Once they’d calmed down enough to be sensible, Amelia had launched into a thousand and one questions – half of which Mortimer couldn’t answer, and the rest of which he’d made an abortive attempt at answering all at once. Viola and Seb had looked at each other, rolled their eyes a little, and made the collective decision that attempting to separate the two of them was going to be more trouble than it was worth.
In the end, they’d ended up shepherding the lovebirds into one of the less-used storage rooms off the hall, with strict instructions to have their conversation as quickly and quietly as possible, and not to knock over anything that couldn’t be put back within five minutes of work. Viola had set herself up next to the door to act as guard, just in case any of the other servants came down that way earlier than expected, and Seb had gone to patrol the house in his capacity as nightwatchman, promising that he’d be back to relieve her and separate the lovers as soon as the rest of the house started stirring.
And then, apparently, she’d gone and fallen asleep.
Some guard I am, apparently.
There was sunlight, weak and watery due to the everpresent fog, filtering in through the window above the back door, and, if she strained her ears, she could hear the birds in the garden calling to one another from the tops of the conifers. Which meant…
It’s after sunup. Crap.
What she couldn’t hear was any noise from the room behind her. No conversation, no shuffling feet, none of the noises she’d been bloody hoping she wouldn’t hear (not that she didn’t want her almost-sister to have fun, but there were limits to what she was prepared to put up with in her vicinity), no noise at all.
Aaaand now I don’t know where they are. Double crap.
Given the fact she hadn’t been shaken awake by anyone, nothing horrific had probably happened in the time she was out. But on the other hand, the fact that nobody had bothered to wake her up might equally mean that the rest of the household were dealing with something a damn sight more important than the daughter of the house’s lady’s maid having a kip in a hallway.
It couldn’t be Caine. She couldn’t smell him and, besides, if it was Caine, she was pretty damn sure there’d be a whole lot more screaming.
But on the other hand…
It’s not Caine. It’s not. And, when my neck’s stopped hurting enough for me to be able to get up, I’m going to go and make absolutely bloody sure that it isn’t.
She stretched, swore, and settled back against the wall for a moment, trying to will her shoulders and spine into actually functioning properly. “Augh.”
She looked up.
Her twin looked down his nose at her – mostly because he was standing up and she wasn’t, admittedly – and raised an irritatingly superior eyebrow. “Comfortable down there?”
“Abso-bloody-lutely not. Where did they go?”
“Relax,” Seb said. He crouched down in front of her, balancing expertly on the balls of his feet. “He’s headed off – well before the master and mistress woke up, thank the Ancestors – and she’s at breakfast.”
Oh spirits, that’s a relief. “Thank the Ancestors. Though- in that dress?”
“She said she’d tell them she wasn’t feeling well, and that she’d go back to bed after breakfast and wait for you to come up to help her get properly dressed for the day.”
“That doesn’t sound like her. No, wait, that sounds exactly like her except for the part where she’d be willing to wait for me to help her dress.”
He sighed. “I suspect she was trying to be subtle. She obviously has more questions than Mr Mortimer was able to give answers to.”
“Poor bastard. He had a rough enough night without getting interrogated at the end of it.”
Seb snorted. “He’s lucky it wasn’t an actual interrogation. If the Order had got hold of him before he explained himself to you, he’d have had a far worse time of it.”
“True enough. Do you trust him?”
He narrowed his eyes. “Do you?”
Should’ve expected that. “Fair question. Yes.”
“That was fast.”
“He’s either on the level or the best actor I’ve ever met, and I don’t think he’s that good at lying. And he didn’t smell like he was trying to hide something.”
“That’s not foolproof.”
“It’s better than most furless can do, and you know it.” She rolled her shoulders, winced, and glared at him. “You going to help me up, o brother of mine, or did you just come down here to be smug at me?”
“Mostly the latter, dear sister.” He grinned unrepentantly for a second, then frowned slightly. “Though honestly, I’d not actually realised you were stuck.”
“My neck’s gone stiff. If you give me an arm to cling onto, I should be able to get back on my feet.”
Seb might be a pain sometimes, but he wasn’t a complete bastard. He leaned forward, got his hands under her arms, and then pretty much bodily hauled her upright. “There. Better?”
“Much. Get your hands off me.”
He stuck his tongue out at her, but complied. “Afraid I was going to tickle you?”
Yes. “No. Also, aren’t you supposed to be the serious one?”
He grimaced. “I just spent the night half convinced that my baby sister-”
“I’m the same age as you, you rat. Two minutes does not make me the baby here.”
“-had managed to get herself killed infiltrating a Sinnlenst get-together, and knowing that there was nothing I could do but sit here and wait for news. Allow me to be a little ridiculous now I know you’re alright.”
Which was fair. She’d not really considered how it must have felt from his end of things – Seb didn’t tend to do much active Order work, so she could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times he’d been away from her and in potential danger, but the few times it had happened she’d hated every second of it. I’m a terrible littermate. “Ugh. Sorry. That’s- I didn’t think about that.”
“You never do.” He sighed, then pulled her in for a quick, tight hug. “Normally I don’t mind. But normally you’re not right in the snakes’ den.”
“Hey, snakes are perfectly fine if you make enough noise to scare ‘em away. Sinnlenst’re more like some kind of mosquito or something.”
“Yes, but a den of mosquitos hardly sounds appropriately dangerous.”
“Depends how many of them there are.” She bumped her forehead affectionately against his, then stepped away. “Do I need to change, or am I appropriately professional?”
“You’re a mess.”
“True. You look as though you fell through a thornbush backwards. Go brush your hair and put on a better waistcoat, at least.”
“Please tell me there’s nothing social on the schedule today. I don’t think I could face an evening of ‘polite company’ after the night I just had.”
He shook his head. “Nothing for another week, not until the season starts up again. Amelia said she’s planning on spending the day in the library – apparently there’s something she wants to look into and she thinks she’s more likely to find the books here than at the University.”
“Thank the Ancestors. I said I’d meet Mortimer in Old Town today to go over exactly what happened last night.”
“Yes, he said as much. I suspect that’s why she’s spending the day at home.”
“What would I do without the two of you?”
“Get into a whole lot more trouble, I suspect. Now go get yourself properly dressed before anyone in the family sees you.”
“Fine, fine, I’m going.”
“And brush your hair!” he called after her, as she headed off down the passageway.
On the other side of the city, Harry Mortimer lay on his bed and watched the fog roll past his windowpane.
He’d tried to sleep, he really had, but the walk back across the quarter in the damp morning air had apparently managed to drive out the last vestiges of his ability to get any kind of rest, and he’d resorted to lying pretty much fully clothed on his bed and trying to will himself into some sort of meditative state.
It hadn’t worked, of course. Every time he’d closed his eyes another image from the night just gone had sparked across his memory, each one etched in perfect, agonising clarity.
Flash. Viola’s face when she’d thought he was actually a Sinnlenst. Flash. Avebury fronting up to him in front of the crowd. Flash. That thing that’d ripped Tyburn’s head off, walking oh-so-slowly towards him. Flash. That stupid bloody argument in the alleyway, because he apparently couldn’t swallow his discomfort for five sodding seconds. Flash.
I don’t think I could’ve made a worse hash of that if I’d tried. Or rather, I could’ve done, but I’d almost certainly have ended up dead.
Though, of course, who’s to say that’s not still on the table?
He shifted position, dropping his hand to the hilt of the knife at his hip. It was just a plain belt-knife, and a second-hand one at that, but it’d be enough to deal with a Sinnlenst assassin if he could get the drop on them. If he couldn’t, on the other hand-
Then I die anyway. I’m too damn clumsy with my right hand still to manage much in the way of a showing if it comes to a straight fight.
He’d been practicing every day since he came back from the front, trying to match the speed and precision he’d had when he could fight left-handed. As of yet, he’d got nowhere near close.
Should count myself lucky I’m drawing pay still. Not many jobs out there for someone who can’t reliably hit a damn target with their only hand.
And if he kept on down that road he’d replace self-flagellating about the disaster that’d been the Sinnlenst meeting with self-pity about losing his damn arm, and that was hardly any kind of improvement.
“Dammit. Gods dammit.” He rolled off the bed, landing on one knee and his hand, and scrambled to his feet, just missing knocking over a stack of paperwork in the process. “Right. No more bloody moping, you idiot. Get up and do something.”
His sword, when he found it, was under the bed, still in its scabbard and with the sword-belt wrapped around both. He assumed he must have kicked it under there at some point, though he couldn’t remember exactly when or why – probably one of the disastrous attempts at blade-drill that’d ended with him so frustrated it was only instincts drilled into him by years of training that’d stopped him hurling his weapon at the wall.
“At least you’re in one piece, I suppose. Given the lectures he used to give me on the proper maintenance of arms and armour, I’m pretty sure Father’d kill me if I’d actually broken you. Or, at the very least, look very disappointed at me.”
Talking to his sword probably wasn’t healthy. On the other hand, he’d grown up around cats, and the habit of narrating what you were doing when you were otherwise alone had turned out to be a surprisingly hard one to break.
“I suppose I could always try and tame one of the ferals around here. Though I don’t have the first idea how I’d go about doing that, and, given you’re an inanimate piece of metal, you’re hardly going to be of much help.”
He put the blade down on the bed, smoothing a hand over the scabbard, and went in search of his cleaning kit. That took a little longer to find, turning up buried under a couple of pieces of armour and a shirt which’d definitely seen better days, but when he pulled it out and opened it up, the various pots and bottles were still sealed and as full as they’d been when he’d packed it away.
“That’s a blessing, at least. Now, let’s see if I can make this work with one hand.”
The answer to that, it turned out, was yes, yes he could, though he ended up having to resort to wedging the hilt between one of the bedposts and the wall in order to get the blade at the right angle to run a whetstone down the edge of it, and the results of his labour wound up looking more like a new recruit’s work than anything. But it was something he could do, and, more to the point, it distracted him from chewing over either of the things he was trying very hard not to focus on.
In fact, it distracted him so well that the first indication he got of how much time had passed was a quick rat-atat-tat knock on his door that made him jump so badly he very almost cut himself.
What the-? I’m not late on the rent, and I doubt Sinnlenst assassins bother to knock politely before they try and cut your throat.
He extricated himself from the pile of blankets and leatherwork, stamped on the floor a few times to try and get the blood flowing into his legs again, and went to answer the door.
He wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting, but, when he opened the door, it certainly wasn’t what he got.
The person on the other side of the threshold turned out to be a small redheaded werewolf girl with a spray of freckles across her nose and a disproportionately large knife stuck through her belt. As he opened the door, she looked up at him, grinned (displaying a gap where one of her baby teeth had obviously recently fallen out), and proffered a folded piece of paper with the words ‘Harry Mortimer’ printed on the outside in block capitals.
“Message for you from a mutual friend. She says ‘where are you, I’ve been waitin’ a quarter of an hour already, get over here’.”
For a brief moment he had no idea what she was going on about. Then, with a rush of horrible clarity, he remembered the discussion he and Viola had had in the alleyway after Sabbat had left – and, specifically, the arrangement they’d made to meet up the following day. Hellfire. “I’ll bet she does. Give me a moment to get my boots on.”
The girl shook her head. “I’m late on my other errands already, an’ Granma’ll have my hide if I’m not back by the time the deliveries get there.” She waved the piece of paper at him. “She said I was to give you this, though.”
He took it, unfolded it, scanned the message – and then almost bent double trying not to laugh out loud. Viola had written all of four lines, again in block caps:
This is Radish.
No, I don’t know about the name either.
“You alright?” the girl- Radish asked, squinting at him. She reached out and, after a brief moment, patted him companionably on the arm. “One of my sibs gets stomach cramps somethin’ fierce when it’s his time of the month, an’ he figures berry tea an’ vodka for it – I can go fetch after I’ve run errands if y’want.”
“I’m fine,” he said. Then he added, after a moment, “Thank you, though.”
“Y’welcome.” She bobbed a quick bow, smiled at him, and then took off running down the street, her bare feet leaving small indents in the newest layer of snow.
Mortimer watched her go, a small core of warmth burning in the centre of his chest. I’ve definitely been spending too much time on my own if a stranger asking me if I’m alright and not meaning the arm makes me feel almost as bloody happy as getting my commission did.
But the interaction had made him smile, and, as he closed the door and went to try and unearth his boots from wherever they’d landed after he’d kicked them off that morning, he found that he was actually whistling under his breath.
I damn near break an ankle trying to get across town before the bells stop ringing, and he’s nowhere to be bloody seen?
Viola leaned back in her chair, folded her hands behind her head, and glared irritably up at the dark wooden beams of the coffeehouse ceiling. It wasn’t as though she was the most punctual of people herself, and she’d freely admit as much, but when she’d made a damn effort to make it to the meeting on time, it didn’t seem much to ask for the other party to actually show up.
At least she’d managed to send a message his way, thanks to the Ancestors having arranged things so that Radish had just so happened to be making a delivery to the coffeehouse right at the time Viola had walked in. The cub had been willing enough to wait while she wrote a note, and, once she’d explained where it needed to go, had set off with a speed that’d left Viola feeling slightly dizzy.
I’m probably doing the right thing meeting up with him, then, so there’s that.
It wasn’t that she believed the Ancestors could influence everything in the world – that was the kind of thing furless thought her folk believed, not something anyone actually held true (unless they were very lucky or very isolated, she suspected) – but another werewolf showing up just where and when you needed them? That was absolutely their work, even if all they’d done was nudge a couple of their descendants into putting things on the cub’s list of errands in a particular order.
Thank you. I’ll actually remember to go by the spirit house this full moon, I swear.
She’d ask Seb to remind her – he was more observant than she was, and he would remember even if she somehow managed to forget. And she’d go by the herb shop up near the Temple Quarter gates and get a proper offering, and actually remember to write her prayers down before she went rather than scribbling them in the dark midway through the ceremony, and-
“Penny for your thoughts?”
She smiled, reaching out to take the steaming pot of coffee the older woman held out to her. “Eh, nothing much. I owe the Ancestors a proper offering next month, and I was going through what I needed.”
“Good girl,” Lily said approvingly. “Important to keep your faith here, even in the middle of all this.” She gestured expansively with her free hand, taking in the whole of the coffeehouse and, by extension, the rest of the city. “Far too easy to just fall in with the majority and forget where you came from.”
“I’ll drink to that.” The coffee was piping hot and smelled wonderful, the steam curling up off the cup as she poured herself a generous helping. “Thank you.”
“Ah, it’s nothing. You’re a good girl, and you’re walking the balance better than most I know in this city.”
Walking the balance? Ah, hang on a minute. That’s old country stuff, from the South.
She didn’t actually know where Lily was from originally, and she’d never really thought to ask, but she did know a little of the religion practiced by some of the more isolated vampire settlements down in the southern countries – light and dark as personified entities, and the eternal balance between them being the thing that kept the world from falling all the way into one or the other.
Seems an odd kind of way of looking at it, but if it works for them it works for them.
“Thanks,” she said again, for want of anything else to say. Her stomach rumbled and she added, “Don’t suppose you’ve got any pastries going spare, have you?”
Lily smiled. “I’ve a few left over from the morning’s batch I can let you have for half price, since I just took a fresh batch out of the oven. How does that sound?”
“Perfect.” She fished out her coin pouch, counting out the price for the coffee and pastries and adding a little extra over the sum – slightly more than she could technically afford, but it’d buy her privacy and the use of the room for as long as they needed. “You remember who I’m meeting?”
“The soldier boy.” She smiled a surprisingly wicked smile. “Ah, if I was younger…”
“I’m old, not dead. He’s a handsome lad.”
“I’m not meeting him for that. And besides, he’s not my type.”
“Oh? Who is?”
Lily grinned. “Ah, you want me to tell you if I see any pretty ones come by?”
It was a little tempting. But pretty wasn’t automatically a sign that someone’d be good for a roll in the hay, let alone more (look at Foreval if you wanted proof of that), and having Lily trying to fix up her love-life sounded like a recipe for more trouble than she needed. “It’s alright. Thank you, though.”
The older woman laughed, patted her on the shoulder, and walked to the door of the room. “I’ll send him in when he turns up, shall I?”
“Please.” She took a sip of coffee, almost burning her mouth in the process, and leaned back in her chair again. Maybe waiting wasn’t going to be so bad after all.
By the time he got to the coffeehouse the core of warmth in his chest had all but evaporated, replaced with a cold sinking feeling of dread. He was fairly certain he wasn’t about to get assassinated or black-bagged – there was always a possibility, but he didn’t think he’d managed to piss off the Order quite that much – but he couldn’t shake the feeling that what he was about to get was at least going to equal the kind of dressing down he’d only barely avoided a couple of times when he’d been at the front.
And both those times it wasn’t coming from someone who’s practically my sister-in-law.
He didn’t think she was about to try and stop him from walking out with Amelia, at least. She’d been happy enough to facilitate the two of them getting to talk last night – and gods, he owed her for that – and she hadn’t said or done anything which suggested she was going to change her mind on the subject any time soon.
Of course, I don’t actually need her permission. And she is technically a servant.
‘Technically’, however, didn’t exactly capture the reality of the situation. He might not need Viola to sign off on him courting Amelia, but if she chose to try and get between them, she could absolutely make life a hell of a lot harder for the two of them.
Especially since Amelia still hasn’t told her parents.
Admittedly, he hadn’t told his father either. But that was another story.
“I’m looking for-” he began, as Lily looked up from the ledger she was working on.
She smiled. “Of course you are. On the right, second door. She’s waiting for you.”
You could’ve phrased that less ominously. But prevaricating wasn’t professional, and you didn’t make a bad situation any better by not fronting up to it. “Thank you.”
“You look like you’re walking to your execution, boy. I promise you she’s not in that foul a mood.”
“How sure are you about that?”
Lily tutted. Then she finished the line she’d been writing, got up, and, with a ‘Wait there!’, headed back into the tiny kitchen behind the counter.
Well, I suppose this is happening now. His hand went automatically behind his back, and he settled into halfway parade rest – better than staring at the ceiling and wondering what he was supposed to do until she came back.
Thankfully, she was only gone for a few moments. There was a clatter of metal, the sound of hot liquid being poured into something, and then she re-emerged from the kitchen with a tray, on which was a wooden-handled coffeepot and a pair of thick ceramic bowls. “There. That should sweeten her temper – and calm your nerves while it’s about it, soldier.”
“What do I-”
“On the house.” She pushed the tray at him. “Arguments are bad for business.”
He went to take it – then suddenly pulled back as he realised that he’d automatically tried to take the tray with both hands. “Ah. I’m sorry. I can’t.”
“Hm.” She put the tray down on the counter. “Wait here again.”
“Wait.” And, once again, she disappeared back into the kitchen.
What else could he do? He waited.
A minute later, Lily reappeared, this time carrying what looked like a wooden pail with a tablecloth folded up in the bottom of it. “Here.”
“I don’t-” he began, before his brain caught up with his mouth and he suddenly realised what she meant. “Oh! That might work.”
“‘Might’ nothing,” she scoffed. “You’re not the first one-armed patron to walk through my door.” She put the pail down on the counter, pulled the tablecloth out of it, and set to work packing the coffeepot and bowls into it, padding them around with the fabric to ensure that they’d not tip or spill while he was carrying them.
It was, he had to admit, a very good idea. In fact, he was slightly kicking himself for not having thought of it sooner. “Thank you.”
“You’re very welcome.” She finished packing the pail and stepped back, dusting her hands on her skirts. “Try that.”
He closed his fingers around the wooden handle, breathed a silent prayer to Earth Brother that this wasn’t about to go horribly wrong, and picked up the pail.
It didn’t go horribly wrong. In fact, once he’d got his balance and compensated for the sudden weight on his right side, it actually felt bloody good.
There’s a lesson in that, I suppose. Though I don’t think buckets are going to be the solution to all my problems.
“There,” Lily said, looking him up and down with an almost proprietorial air. “Go, before the chocolate gets cold.”
Chocolate? He looked down at the contents of the pail. The pot was definitely a coffeepot, but, now he came to think of it, he’d not seen anyone drink coffee out of a bowl when there were cups on offer. “I don’t think I’ve ever had chocolate before.”
“Then all the better for you to drink it while it’s hot.” She shooed him towards the archway on the right-hand side of the counter. “Go, go!”
Viola was most of the way through her second cup of coffee when the door opened again and Mortimer appeared, carrying what looked for all the world like a bucket.
“Took you long enough.”
“I’m sorry. I lost track of time.” He put the bucket down on the table and started unpacking it. “Peace offering?”
“Lily gave me this to, and I quote, ‘sweeten your temper’. It’s chocolate, apparently.”
“You’re forgiven.” Chocolate in drinkable form was a relatively new thing in the city, and she’d only tasted it a time or two when she’d been at parties with Amelia – a whole pot of it bought him back pretty much all the goodwill he’d lost by being late. “You’ve not had it before?”
“We didn’t have it in the city when I left, and I’ve not exactly been mixing in the kind of circles where it gets drunk since I came back.”
“Give over, then.” She pulled the pot of chocolate and the bowls towards herself, shifting the plate of pastries out of the way to make room for them. “Here, I’ll show you. Sit down.”
“I think I know how to operate a drink,” he said, but he sat all the same.
“Watch and learn.” She poured a generous helping of chocolate into her own bowl, did the same for his, and slid it across to him. “Inhale.”
“It’s a drink.”
“And you’re an uncultured furless. Inhale.”
He raised his eyebrows at her, but did as he was told – and then she had the joy of watching his expression shift from scepticism to sheer wonder. “Gods. That smells good.”
“See? If you’d just swigged it straight off, you’d not have had that.”
“Fair. Now can I drink it?”
She nodded. “You can. Or you can dip pastries in it.”
“Like bread and wine?”
“Better.” She picked up one of the more crushed-looking pastries from the pile and tore a piece off. “Dip the end of it in, wait for it to soak up the chocolate, then eat. You’ll thank me for it.”
“Anything for an interesting life.” He tore a piece from the same pastry, dipped it in the chocolate, and then stuck it in his mouth. And, again, she had the joy of watching his eyes widen as the flood of sugar hit his tastebuds.
“Good, isn’t it?”
He nodded emphatically, swallowed, and then said, “Yes. And, given your reaction, I can see why Lily said she’d give it to us on the house.”
“You what?” She’d assumed he’d not paid full price for it – chocolate was expensive, after all, and Lily made enough that she was willing to mark down when she could – but free?
“Apparently arguments are bad for business. And you don’t seem nearly as inclined to bite my head off now.”
Well, that made a certain amount of sense. Even if the fact that Lily could apparently read her that easily was just a little galling. I know I’m not subtle, but I hadn’t realise I was that bad. I guess I don’t get to comment on anyone else’s abilities in that direction at the moment. “Wasn’t going to bite your head off anyway. Leastwise, not for anything other than being late, and you’ve more than earned that back.”
He visibly untensed, shoulders dropping almost a full inch. “Oh thank the gods for that.”
“What were you expecting? A full dressing down?”
“Pretty much.” He snagged another piece of pastry. “I can’t imagine the Order’s particularly happy with me at the moment.”
They probably weren’t – or, at least, they probably wouldn’t be if they found out. Fortunately, Viola had no intention of telling them. “What they don’t know won’t hurt ‘em. And besides, I’m fairly damn certain you can buy your way back into their good graces- our good graces, I suppose.”
“That’d take a fair amount of chocolate.”
“Information. We’ve never managed to get someone properly embedded in their structures the way you were – still are, hopefully. I’d lay good odds you’ve got information we’d not be able to get our hands on any other way.”
Mortimer’s brows drew together in confusion. “Hang about. Are you telling me how to get one over on… yourself?”
“Not exactly. The Order’s complicated. All I’m doing is giving you some friendly advice for if folks start making trouble for you.”
“Is that likely?”
“Depends.” She fiddled with the end of her braid, thinking for a second. “There’re a few of the old guard who’ll likely be suspicious of you because you didn’t contact anyone before you went in, and a couple of firebrands who’ll want some serious proof that you’re not actually Sinnlenst. Other than that, I reckon you’ll probably be alright, as long as you can convince the majority you’re not a double agent.” She paused for a second, then clarified “A double agent for them, I mean.”
“Well, that sounds simple.” He frowned down at his chocolate. “I’m probably going to regret asking this, but how do you know I’m not a double agent?”
Sensible question. And one that takes guts. Knew I liked you. “Easy answer. I don’t.” She raised a hand, forestalling his next question. “I know you’re either honest or the best liar I’ve ever met. I know Amelia likes you – spirits, she loves you, and you seem to love her-”
“Good, ‘cause that’d be sodding awkward otherwise.” She grinned. “And I know you hate Avebury, so even if you were Sinnlenst, we’d have common cause there.”
“He’s a shit,” Mortimer said, bluntly.
“He is a shit. And he’s got more backers that I’d like.”
“More than you know,” Mortimer said. “I’m fairly bloody certain he’s got the ear of someone high up in the Sinnlenst power structure – might be a relative, might be a family friend, but there’s someone looking out for him. Either that or the bastard’s got enough dirt on half the rest of the society to get them to fall into line.”
“Great.” The chocolate suddenly didn’t taste quite as good as it had done a moment before. “So he’s not just an aberration.”
“Oh, he’s that as well. And there’re plenty of folk who think he’s taking things too far. Problem is, Tyburn was the one actually organising any kind of resistance to Avebury’s lot.”
Which he wasn’t going to be doing much of any more, given what Caine had done to him. “Damn. Nobody else around to take up the cause?”
Mortimer looked down at his hand. “Uh.”
“That’d be me.”
Ah. That’s going to be a problem. The likelihood was that Mortimer was already on thin ice when it came to the Sinnlenst, assuming his cover hadn’t been blown already. Stepping up to take charge of a faction in an internal civil war was hardly likely to help his case. “Bugger.”
“That’s about the size of it, yes.” He sighed. “I can try and kick some of the others into being the public face of it, but most of them are too young and too damn impulsive to trust with anything approaching an actual battle plan. Half of ‘em won’t step to anything more than a yelling match, and the other half just want to slit his throat and have done with it.”
“Can understand that. If he wasn’t sitting on enough sodding blackmail to ruin mine and Fest’s lives, I’d do likewise.”
Mortimer nodded. “He’s all but said that if he dies, half the faction opposing him is going down too. There’re enough folk willing to chance it that, before tonight, I’d have said someone would’ve done something stupid at some point, but…”
Oh spirits. She’d forgotten that he didn’t actually know the identity of Avebury’s monster. On the other hand, it wasn’t as though she could unsay it. “Dammit. Avebury’s pet.”
“Yes, I saw. But… Caine? I thought he-”
“He did. And then he came back.”
“Hellfire. We knew Avebury and Lucy- Foreval had been working on something, but…”
“You didn’t know where they’d got the corpse and didn’t want to ask?” It came out a little bitterer than she meant it. If Mortimer’d actually been talking to the Order before all of this, they might have had a good deal more warning on the fact that there was a fucking Turned walking about.
He shook his head. “A couple of Tyburn’s friends went missing trying to investigate. One of them turned up in the Deeps a few days later – or, at least, we think it was him. Most of his face was gone. They had to identify him by his signet ring.”
“Ah.” Sinnlenst murdering each other is a good thing. I think. But there’s a difference between honest murder and… that.
“After that, folks who supported Tyburn’s faction started getting blackmail letters. Never demands for money, just ‘we know your secrets, and if you keep sticking your nose where it doesn’t belong, so will everyone else’. Was patently bloody obvious who was behind it, but we could never get any proof, and anyone who tried taking it to the higher-ups just got told to deal with it themselves.”
“Sounds like they knew who was behind it. Either that or they’re idiots.”
He laughed, but there wasn’t much humour in it. “Oh, they’re sharp. They knew whatever secrets Avebury and his gang were threatening to reveal weren’t Sinnlenst ones, so what did they care.” He tapped a finger on the table irritably. “As far as I can tell, they either don’t much care who wins or are actively backing Avebury. Either way, there wasn’t much we could do about it.”
“Fair.” And now we’re asking you to go back into that. “Do you want out?”
“You don’t have to stay spying on ‘em, even if your cover’s intact. You’ve already got more than enough information for the Order to accept you, I’d reckon – and I’ll vouch for you.”
“Thank you.” He actually seemed touched by that, which went a long way towards confirming her view of him.
“You’re welcome. Think it over.”
“I will. Though, honestly, if my cover’s intact I might as well stay. Leaving’ll only cause more questions, and I haven’t exactly planned a proper retreat yet.”
“Wait. You walked right into the middle of the Sinnlenst without a strategy on how you were going to get out?”
Oh spirits and ancestors. It’s not as though I can judge, mind. “Right.” She picked up her bowl, took a deep swallow of chocolate, and then looked him square in the face. “I know I said I’d answer your questions on what was going on with the Order, but, given what you just told me, I’m pretty bloody certain that can wait.”
Mortimer raised his eyebrows. “It can?”
“When the other option is you getting yourself slotted by a Sinnlenst assassin because you don’t have an extraction plan, yes.” She sat up straight, pushed her hair back out of her eyes, and rolled up her sleeves. “We’ve got work to do.”
[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.
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