Silver in the Ashes: Chapter 5 (draft)

“-and that’s why I ended up joining the Order,” Viola finished. She sat back, looking at him over the rim of her cup of rapidly-cooling coffee. “Now remind me why in the hells I was telling you that story?”

“Because I asked,” Mortimer replied, honestly. “I’ve not exactly encountered many Order members before – or, at least, many who I actually knew were Order at the time – and knowing how people fell into it helps.” Inasmuch as it makes me feel a little less stupid about my own choice of self-imposed entrance exam. “And because you asked me about my own damn life story, which meant you owed me.”

“I did at that,” Viola admitted, with a slightly awkward smile. “Sorry.”

“No apology needed. Everyone asks sooner or later.”

“Doesn’t mean it’s not worth apologising for.”

“Considering how much of an ass I made of myself last night, consider it some sort of payback.”

“What do you- Oh. That.” She laughed. “Honestly, I don’t expect any better from furless – no offence intended. Though you must’ve had folks in your unit transform.”

“Yes, but-” You’re practically my sister-in-law “-we didn’t have any female werewolves.”

“Of course you didn’t.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You only know I’m female because Amelia’s called me her sister and used ‘she’ when she’s talked about me to you. Plenty of female werewolves don’t want the hassle of being treated differently by furless, especially when it comes to places like the army.” She folded her arms. “It’s not as if you lot can tell us apart, even when we don’t have clothes on.”

Which he supposed was true, as far as it went. Werewolves didn’t have the same type of anatomy as humans (nor did vampires, though their differences were mostly internal) and, if he was remembering his biology tuition correctly, their sexual dimorphism was distinctly less extreme than the other two species.

But, on the other hand, it still wasn’t gentlemanly to look at a naked woman. Especially one you were very almost related to.

He looked back up at Viola, trying to shift his perceptions to see her as male. For a moment he wasn’t sure it was going to work – then, with something that felt almost like an audible click, the lens through which he was viewing her shifted and he suddenly found himself face to face with a beardless and grinning young man who could easily have been any one of a dozen or so of the younger werewolf soldiers he’d met on the front.

He- she stuck her tongue out at him. “There. You see?”

He did. “That’s- I’d not considered that before.”

“You wouldn’t,” she said, though it didn’t sound as though she meant it as an insult. Much. “Amelia’s always said that-” She stopped, hand going suddenly to her waistcoat pocket. “Oh damn.”

“What’s up?”

“I left my watch back at the house. Do you have yours on you?”

He fished it out of his waistcoat pocket and flipped it open, trying very hard to avoid looking at the inscription on the inside of the case. Gods dammit. Should really stop carrying the damn thing if it’s going to affect me that much. “Half five.”

Damn!” She pushed her chair back, very almost jumping to her feet. “I’ve got to go. Amelia’s expecting me back by six at the latest, and the foot traffic on the bridge is going to be hell.” She pushed the coffeepot towards him. “Take as long as you need – it’s all paid for, and Lily’ll come kick you out if she needs the room for someone else.”

“Thanks.” He had to admit, the idea of spending the rest of the afternoon somewhere that wasn’t either his rooms or a succession of ever-more-insalubrious taverns was definitely appealing. “I’ll see you-”

“Around. I know where you live.” He raised an eyebrow, and she winced. “Sorry, didn’t mean that to come out quite as threatening. I know where to find you if I need you, and you know where to find me.” She paused. “And you are going to come find me if you go meeting up with Sinnlenst again.”

“Aye, captain.”

She grinned. “See you around.”

Mortimer watched her leave. Then he settled back into his chair, poured himself another cup of coffee, and tried very hard not to think about exactly how badly that inevitable meeting with his supposed friends was going to go.

At least I’ll have backup, I suppose. I just wonder exactly how many bodies we’re going to have to dispose of at the end of it.


Dammit dammit dammit, Viola thought, the words matching themselves to the thud of her boots on the road. Spend half an hour ragging him for being late in absentia, and then go run out the clock on when I’m supposed to be back. Hypocrisy, thy name is Viola, apparently.

She dodged down a side-street, avoiding a snarl-up between three or four merchants’ sleighs which was  rapidly threatening to turn into a full-on shouting match, and hurled herself up one of the ladders serving as fire-escapes for the fried-fish shop that backed onto the alleyway. A few minutes of scrambling over the ramshackle collection of timbers and lean-tos that made up the roof of the building took her to a rickety plank bridge over another side-street and from there, it wasn’t much of a challenge to find a way down into the main thoroughfare between the Quarters – another fire-escape, this one a good deal better maintained, took her most of the way, and a quick jump onto a coal shed roof, a forward roll, and a drop down from the edge of it landed her in a back yard just a few steps from the street.

I’ll say this for going twolegged. It makes taking rooftop shortcuts a lot easier.

The smell from the fried-fish shop lingered in her nose, and she made a mental note to double back there the next time she was in the area – no time now, and there’d be Words if she came to dinner smelling of cheap food and frying oil, but a good hot portion of fried fish and chips wrapped up in a back issue of one of the local rags was one of the few pleasures of the city that nowhere else within a hundred miles could beat.

Maybe in a couple of days. Seb said there’s nothing on the calendar for another week, which means I should be able to steal a few hours for a fish supper and a walk by the river some night.

For now, though, she needed to get back. Amelia would technically be able to get dressed up and do her hair without help, but she’d have a harder time of it – and if Viola wasn’t home, changed, and ready to go downstairs by the time the dinner gong went, the two of them were going to have far bigger problems than just Amelia’s skirts being done up a little crooked.

I get a lot of leeway for a servant. But that’s pretty much reliant on me actually being around when I’m supposed to be.

A gap opened up between the sleighs and she took full advantage of it, sprinting across the road and down another, wider, side-street. From here it was a straight shot across Lampwork Court and through the park (halfway buried under snow and mostly used for tobogganing and snowball fights at this time of year) and then she’d be most of the way home – just navigating the maze of back-alleys and workshops that made up the Jewellers District to go, after that.

And then I can talk to Amelia, and we can work out what we’re going to do about this damn ‘Amelia Luciel is a member of the Order and I have proof’ plan. Because if Fest’s cover and mine are both still intact, this is about to get very very complicated.

If they’re not, everything suddenly becomes a lot simpler. Albeit also a whole fuck of a lot bloodier.


On the other side of the Quarter, Fest was, coincidentally, going through a very similar thought process  – though, in his case, the simplicity of the ‘our covers are blown and everything gets distinctly bloody’ version of events was outweighed fairly significantly by the implied ‘and then we die horribly’ follow-up.

It’s not going to go that badly. It’s not.

Never mind that I don’t remember anything that happened, and that apparently Lucy did something to me that changed the way my magic works (and we are not thinking about that right now), and that apparently Amelia’s fiance’s involved in all of this somehow, and definitely never mind the fact that people’re getting messages appearing carved into their arms out of thin air, which is something I didn’t realise I was terrified of before now but apparently today’s a day for discovering new phobias, so that’s fun.

It’s going to be fine. Everything’s going to be fine.

And if I believed that, I’d have a bridge to sell myself.

The street outside the Temple of Ashkenta was, for once, not crowded – probably, Fest realised, as he ducked in through the archway and brushed the snow off the shoulders of his jacket, because there was a service currently in progress.

He mouthed a ‘sorry’ to the priest at the door (who smiled and shook their head in a way that suggested that worshippers arriving late was fairly expected when it came to this particular deity) and, once he’d taken off his boots and stowed them safely in one of the lockers, padded as quietly as he could into the main hall of the temple proper.

The main sanctum was almost entirely full, a sea of bowed heads and muttered prayers and discussion as worshippers pored over the day’s text. Fest looked around, trying to find Anneke amongst the throng, while also attempting to avoid getting dragged into one of the huddles of gesticulating academics (he’d no issue with the service on a normal day, but a three hour debate on the nature of divinity wasn’t going to do anything to help him find his friend).

For a moment he thought he’d spotted them, but the robed figure who’d caught his eye turned out to be a pale-skinned Southerner, albeit one with a very similar body-shape to the priest he was actually looking for. There was someone with the right hair and skin colour over on the far side of the room but, when they looked up, their pointed ears and ice-blue eyes made it very clear that they were a werewolf – again, not who he was after.

It’ll be just my luck if they’re not around today. And I can’t exactly justify going to their room – the only reason I was allowed back there last time was because they were with me.

One of the more senior priests was heading his way – judging by the sandwich-wrapper and flask poking out of the satchel slung over their shoulder, they were either headed out to take a very late lunch or off to one of the other libraries in the city to ask after a particular book (and expecting to be there long enough to need refreshments). He held up a hand as they got closer and, when they stopped and inclined their head inquisitively, asked politely if they happened to know where Anneke could be found.

“In the library, almost certainly,” the priest said, with an intonation which suggested that they’d been asked that question about various of their brethren several times already today. “The laboratories if not – though, come to think of it, I did hear them mention something about an experiment they’d been meaning to try. Maybe the laboratories as a first port of call, then.” They waved towards the nearest doorway leading into the inner temple. “Just through there – ask if you get lost.”

“Thank you,” Fest said. He bowed, the proper half-bow meant for casual conversations with members of the priesthood, and was pleasantly surprised when, as he straightened up, the priest reached out and patted him companionably on the shoulder.

“It’s always good to see proper manners,” they said, by way of explanation. “Especially from youngsters. Though,” they added, the corners of their eyes crinkling, “I think you’ve earned the right to greet us as friends – or colleagues, at the very least.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“You’re asking after Anneke by name, which means either you’ve heard of them by reputation – in which case I’d expect a title from someone who’s as polite as you – or you know them. Given they’ve talked several of my siblings’ ears off about their new friend from the University, I can make an educated guess that it’s the latter.”

“I didn’t mean to cause any trouble,” Fest said, feeling rather as though the conversation was getting rapidly away from him. “I just asked for their help with a problem and… er… might have got them hurt by a creature from the Void in the process. Sorry.”

The priest smiled. “To hear the way Anneke tells it, you apparently dived in between them and the entity and put yourself in a great amount of danger in the process. I hardly think that needs apologising for.” They put a hand to their mouth, and added, in a voice which sounded rather like they were trying very hard not to laugh. “I believe the phrase ‘Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough’ may have been mentioned at one point in the narrative?”

Oh gods, Fest thought, and immediately followed it up with, no offence intended. He looked away, feeling the tips of his ears starting to burn with embarrassment. “Um.”

They patted his shoulder again. “I didn’t mean to make light. What you did was exceptionally brave, and you have my thanks – Anneke’s a good priest and an excellent researcher, but they do have rather a tendency to throw themselves into things without quite thinking through the possible ramifications of their actions.”

That… sounded a lot like Anneke, if he was honest. “Thank you?”

“You’re very welcome. Now go along and find them.” The corners of their eyes crinkled further. “Ideally, before they manage to blow themselves up. Again.”

He did as he was told, ducking through the side door and entering the less public-facing area of the temple’s interior.

The inner temple was significantly quieter than the main hall, unsurprisingly, but there was still a fair amount of bustle – as he stepped through, he had to dodge sideways to avoid being run down by a tall priest carrying a double armful of paperwork which they were only just managing to peer over the top of and, as he moved to avoid them, he very nearly stepped backwards into a pair of arguing novices dragging a small cart piled high with what looked like an unreasonably large number of scroll-cases.

“-if you hadn’t said we’d do all the repairs-”

“Well I wasn’t the one who spilled tea on Elder Kavan’s copy, was I? It’s not my fault-”

They disappeared off down the corridor, their high-pitched voices echoing off the vaulted ceiling, and Fest took a brief moment to try and get his bearings. The library was definitely to the north of here, he remembered that much, and the laboratory must be…

“The diamonds on the walls,” said a voice by his shoulder.

He turned around to find another priest, this one in robes that matched Anneke’s own, eyeing him with a look of amused concern.

“You’re lost, aren’t you?” they said.

There wasn’t really much point in denying it. “I’m looking for the laboratories. If you could point me in the right direction, I’d very much appreciate it.”

“I can do you one better’n that.” They pointed across the corridor, to a trio of coloured diamond-shaped tiles set into the wall a foot or so above Fest’s eyeline. “Red is for the hospital, green for the library, blue for the laboratories. Keep walking along this corridor until you see a staircase with a blue diamond painted on the wall next to it, then follow that up.”

That certainly seemed a surprisingly straightforward way of doing it – which, he supposed, made sense. Though… “How do people who aren’t able to see colour manage?”

“Learning their way around, mostly,” said the priest, after a brief surprised pause. They scratched the back of their neck. “It’s not the best system, I’ll grant you, but there’re enough actual written and raised-dot signs that you’re not likely to get too badly lost even if you can’t tell the difference between the diamonds. And… you must be Anneke’s friend.”

Fest blinked. “I… yes?”

The priest laughed. “Sorry. Young anxious-looking red-eye student who asks exactly the kind of questions Anneke does and isn’t one of us? Wasn’t all that hard to figure out.”

Does everyone here know who I am? “I don’t suppose you know where they are?” he hazarded.

“Laboratories. They were talking about an idea they had for trying to overcharge a circle – see if they could get it to display some interesting behaviours before it blew up. The top of the building’s still there and I haven’t seen any smoke coming out of the windows, so I assume that the experiment’s currently either a complete success or a total failure.”

They didn’t seem overly concerned by the prospect of Anneke blowing themselves up – though, given the way the senior priest had talked, it was apparently something of a regular occurrence. “Thank you. If there’s anything I can do to-”

“Try and persuade them to leave at least a couple of days between this and the next experiment that might burst someone’s eardrums,” the priest said, promptly. “Pursuit of knowledge is one thing, but some of us like our hearing intact.”

“I can… definitely try to do that.”

“That’s all I can ask.” They inclined their head to him briefly. “Good luck. I’ve a reading I need to get to, else I’d stay longer, but it was a pleasure meeting you.”

“Likewise!” Fest called after them as they headed back down the corridor. Then he took a deep breath, squared his shoulders, and went to go find out if Anneke had managed to explode another ritual circle.


[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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