“D’you trust him?” Sabbat said, abruptly.
Archer sighed, marking his place with a scrap of notepaper before laying aside the book he’d been leafing through. It was hardly as though he hadn’t been expecting the question – if anything, he’d have been worried if Sabbat hadn’t asked – but it didn’t mean that he was particularly looking forward to this conversation. Though at least this time he seems less… agitated than the incident with Viola, so that’s something. “Verist? Absolutely. To the ends of the earth.”
“An’ his servants?”
“I don’t personally know them as well as I’d like, but he’s a good judge of character. If he trusts them, I trust his judgement.” And, much as I understand your paranoia, I suspect dragging the two of them in here for an interrogation to determine the likelihood of their being Sinnlenst spies would be an exceptionally poor plan. Though I suspect if I say as much out loud you’re likely to take it as an invitation.
But that didn’t seem to be where Sabbat’s mind was going. He nodded absently, stared down at the book in his hands for a moment, and then said, with a casualness that Archer didn’t for one moment believe, “So y’think he can fix this?”
“I…” wish you hadn’t asked me that. Not least because I’m not about to lie to you. “I think he’ll do his damndest. And, out of every magician I know, he’s the one who’s the most likely to be able to fix it.”
“You ain’t sayin’ yes.”
Archer winced. “I’m not. I’m saying that, short of divine intervention, he’s our best hope.”
“An’ if he can’t?”
“Then… I’ll think of something. Or you will. Or-“
“You ain’t that fuckin’ daft, Will. Y’know what happens if he can’t fix it.” The assassin’s tone was still determinedly casual, but there was a set to his jaw that belied his apparent indifference. “Reckon y’might need t’start thinkin’ about that, dependin’ on how the next couple of days go.”
“Or I find another way through this that doesn’t involve your death, self-inflicted or otherwise. If we- I mean, if I-” damn you and myself and hope to all the gods that everything I’ve read is right and there is a way to do that which won’t bring you back as a hollow monstrous husk of the man I love…
Archer blinked. “No?”
“No,” Sabbat said, again, more forcefully this time. He stood up, the legs of his chair scraping against the floor. “Whatever you’re fuckin’ considerin’, Will, don’t.”
“Last time I saw that face on someone, she’d just walked out under the fuckin’ noose. Whatever you’re thinkin’ of doin’, if it’s makin’ y’look like that, it ain’t worth it.” He coughed, grimaced, and then added, in a tone which implied that the previous conversation was now very much over: “I’m goin’ t’go find a bath. Y’comin’?”
As ways to change the subject go, I’ve definitely seen smoother. Though I can’t say I’m complaining overmuch. Truth be told, a hot bath sounded like an almost unreasonably good idea, especially since he’d not been able to wash up properly last night. The sooner I get the smell of blood off my skin the better. Though…
“We still need to move those bodies – and find somewhere to hide the silver, while we’re about it. I don’t know when the Sinnlenst are likely to come looking for their missing shipment, but I’d rather they didn’t stumble across your handiwork if at all possible.”
Sabbat groaned. “Fuckin’ hellfire. Forgot about that. How long d’you reckon we have?”
“Not as long as all that, I suspect. If we take one of Verist’s sleighs we should be able to bring the silver back up here relatively easily, which would be the main priority. As for the bodies, if the scavengers haven’t done their work already, there’re plenty of ravines in the area.”
“Ain’t goin’ t’look like an accident.”
“Oh, I don’t intend it to. But I’d rather the Sinnlenst have to go looking for the corpses than have some poor unsuspecting traveller stumble across them and get the Watch involved.”
“Reckon that’s likely?”
“Likely enough that I’d rather avoid the risk, let’s say.” The Watch were overstretched at the best of times, but the kind of damage Sabbat had inflicted might well be enough to jolt them out of their usual policy of ‘ignore it unless it comes near the city’ where crimes committed this far outside the walls were concerned – especially since they were already on high alert thanks to Caine’s actions. And the last thing we need is someone high enough up the chain of command assuming they have another set of exsanguinations on their hands.
“That’s about the size of it, yes.”
The assassin sighed, rubbing the back of his neck with one bloodstained hand. “Fine. Let’s go shift some fuckin’ corpses. An’ then I’m goin’ t’go find a fuckin’ bath.”
“Ah, Miss Cervanso. Fancy meeting you here.”
Viola turned, teeth clenching hard over a snarl she only just managed to bite back. “It’s almost as though we go to the same sodding university, Avebury. What do you want?”
“Now really, is that any way to speak to a friend?” the Sinnlenst chided. He leant back against the wall of the corridor, one hand playing idly with something in the front pocket of his waistcoat. “I merely wanted to assure you that you needn’t worry about the safety of our red-eyed associate. I’ve no intention of doing anything which would cause him any kind of permanent harm.”
He’s baiting you. Don’t let him see it’s working. “You need to work on your material. Was there a point to this, or did you stop me just so you could implicitly threaten my friend?”
“Oh, I believe that was a very explicit threat. But no, I do have something I need to talk to you about.” He nodded towards the library doors. “Your mistress, as a matter of fact.”
“I’ll admit, I was surprised not to see her name on the list of apprenticeships. You, I understand – given your species and your rank, it’s hardly surprising – but I’d have thought that the Luciels’ only daughter would have merited at least a mention.”
“Special dispensation,” Viola growled, allowing her rage to come to the surface just enough to mask her growing interest. So you don’t know everything, then. That’s bloody useful information to have. “The dangers of having her apprentice elsewhere outweigh the possibility of bias if she’s working for her parents, so she’s apprenticing to them. Which you’d know if you bothered to show up to any of the lectures about it rather than just assuming that you’d bribe your way to the top of the list.”
He actually laughed at that, the corners of his eyes crinkling behind his glasses. “I hardly think it was an assumption, Miss Cervanso. And I certainly didn’t have to resort to bribery. But I must admit that I’m very cheered that you’re staying in the city.”
“Of course you are.”
“Miss Luciel is… a person of interest to me, as you well know, and I was rather worrying that you’d be deprived of the opportunity to keep an eye on both her and her parents at the same time. And besides, I have several projects in the works which, thanks to my own apprenticeship, I am going to have to leave in the hands of associates of mine. Should you wish it, you could be rather useful to me in that regard.”
Careful. Even odds this is a trap. “What did you have in mind? I’m not playing your sodding errand girl, if that’s what you’re hinting at.”
“Perish the thought. All that I need- all that I would ask you to do would be to collect some documents for me and ensure that they’re safely delivered to a friend of mine.”
Really. “And that’s not running errands for you how, exactly?”
“Because I am very interested to find out how my friend reacts to the documents in question – and, since I can’t be there myself, I’m relying on you to observe and report back to me on your findings.”
Oh, this was definitely a sodding trap. Wonder what this so-called friend’s been briefed with. ‘Check the documents and see if she’s opened them on the way over’, probably. Maybe ‘see how good she is at observing without being obvious’, if it’s my competence rather than my loyalty that’s in question. Either way, he’s not nearly as bright as he thinks he is if he thinks I don’t know what he’s playing at. “So you want me to spy on them.”
“Precisely.” He pushed his glasses up his nose, smiling again in a way that was all the more disturbing for how sincere it seemed. “You’re quicker on the uptake than most would give you credit for, Miss Cervanso.”
“Than you’d give me credit for, you mean. Want to tell me any more about this mysterious assignment, or are you planning on stringing this out as long as you can so you have an excuse to keep insulting me?”
“I hardly think I need one, but no. I’ll send the rest of the details to you this evening.” And, before she could ask him how in the hells he was planning on doing that, he’d turned on his heel and headed off down the corridor, whistling tunelessly under his breath in a way that seemed to be calculated to set her teeth on edge.
“Bastard,” she snarled, not bothering to keep her voice down. “Smug, self-satisfied, weaselling bastard. And that’s an insult to weasels.”
There was a stifled noise from behind her – she whirled, hand dropping to her knife, and found herself face to face with Mortimer, who was looking distinctly like he was trying very hard not to laugh.
“What’s so funny?”
“Him,” the soldier managed, nodding towards Avebury’s retreating form. He took a breath, composing himself, and added “And you’re right, it is an insult to weasels. They’re perfectly bloody personable little beasties, once you get past the murderousness and the tearing out of throat-” He stopped mid-sentence, eyes going suddenly wide.
Viola grinned. “No, no, go on. Keep digging.”
“I- That’s not to say that I’d call you a weasel. Or imply that you tore out throats. Or- gods dammit, nothing I say is making this any better, is it?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She was sorely tempted to keep teasing him for a while longer, but she had places to be and things to do. And, come to think of it, so did he. “It’s alright. I’m not so sensitive I can’t take people reminding me that my species are predators, and you’d have to try a lot harder than that to properly offend me.” Though I’ll admit Avebury makes it look bloody easy sometimes.
He sighed in what she was pretty certain was genuine relief. “Thank the gods for that. About earlier-“
Oh ancestors, do we have to do this? Now? “I tried to interfere in your clan’s business. You were right to warn me off.”
“I all but said you didn’t know your duty. That was wrong of me, and I apologise whole-heartedly.” He held out his hand awkwardly. “We square?”
Viola took it, careful not to pull him off balance as she did so. “We’re square. And we’ve got more important things to worry about.” She closed her eyes for a second, taking a deep lungful of dust-scented air. Polish and paper and worn leather and the echo of a century of tired and anxious students… but no Avebury. Thank you, Ancestors. That makes this a lot easier. “How much of that-” she gestured the way that Avebury had gone “-did you hear?”
Mortimer’s expression turned grave. “Exactly as much as he wanted me to, I suspect.”
“You reckon it was aimed at you?”
“I don’t reckon it wasn’t.” He drew his hand back, scratching awkwardly at the edge of the bruise purpling his jaw. “Equally well, he could be trying to set both of us on edge – play us off against each other in the hopes of destroying any alliances we’d be thinking of making otherwise.”
“Not a bad guess.” Especially if Avebury had caught wind of the two of them meeting each other at the coffeehouse, though that’d raise more questions than Viola wanted to ask about exactly how widespread the Sinnlenst spy networks were at the moment.
Mortimer shook his head. “It wasn’t much of a guess. I ran into him last night and got very firmly warned away from attempting to recruit you to my side of the schism.” He clenched his right fist, knuckles white against his brown skin, and she saw the muscles in his left shoulder tense to echo the motion in his missing hand. “Oh, and in the course of that conversation I was also told that I should consider a trip to the mountains… which, in context of what Amelia just told me, I’m now fairly fucking certain was a direct reference to whatever he’s planning to pull on my father.”
Or he was being his usual irritating self, Viola thought, but she didn’t say as much. Mortimer had every right and every reason to be worried about what Avebury might want with his clan and, given the circumstances, she couldn’t quite bring herself to believe that the mention of the mountains had been just a throwaway line designed to get under his skin. Though, on the other hand, if Avebury wants him to go up to the Hall…
Then it doesn’t matter either way, because he’s going to go up there regardless and there’s sod-all I can do to stop him. Their row in the library had made that very clear – and, if she was honest, she couldn’t exactly blame him. If it was Seb or Granmamma being threatened I’d break anyone who tried to stop me from going to their aid, no matter how much of an obvious trap I’d be walking into in the process.
“Watch your back up there,” she said, out loud.
He nodded. “You too. I don’t know if Avebury’s planning to bring his pet monster up to the Hall.”
“Depends if he can fit him in his luggage,” Viola said, before she could stop herself.
Mortimer stared at her for a long moment – long enough that she started to wonder if she’d overstepped – and then burst out laughing.
Meanwhile, a couple of floors above them, Fest was feeling distinctly unamused about… pretty much everything, if he was honest.
He knew he should be excited about the apprenticeship, that was the thing. Archmage Verist was one of the foremost magical minds of his generation – of anygeneration, according to some of the scholars – and the chance to study under him was one which most of the young magicians in the university would’ve given their eye-teeth for (to use an expression which carried significantly more weight for vampires than it did for other folk).
The problem was that he hadn’t got that chance by his own merits.
Yes, he had a terrifying amount of magical potential, and yes, he was surprisingly good at a lot of the more instinctive side of magic, but he was under no illusions as to the fact that his academic achievements were middling at best and disappointingly mediocre at worst. None of which was his fault, honestly – his brain didn’t do well under exam conditions, and even when he knew that he knew something, the pressure of the blank page and the ticking clock had a horrible tendency to drive everything out of his head except the most basic sigils and cantrips.
But he knew that, based on his academic record, he should have wound up with one of the mid-list apprenticeships. And, worse, he was fairly certain everyone else knew it too.
They’re going to think I cheated. Which… I mean, I didn’t. Avebury cheated for me, and I didn’t ask him to do it, and I’m not sure I can explain that in any way that doesn’t come across as a very clumsy attempt to pin the blame on someone else.
He had a sudden mental image of himself standing in front of the university review board, trying desperately to explain exactly how he’d ended up in this situation to a panel of blank, hostile faces.
With my luck, I’d get so overwhelmed that my magic would flare up again, and then there’d be another round of broken windows on top of everything else. Though I suppose that might lend some weight to my arguments.
He’d not get hauled up in front of the board though. Avebury was too clever for that.
Unless he decides I’ve outlived my usefulness, I suppose. Then this just becomes one more thing he can hold over my head to make me dance to his tune.
Something warm and wet dripped onto his hand. He blinked, put his fingers to his mouth, and discovered (with a hiss of pain) that he’d managed to bite deep enough into his lip that he was now bleeding quite copiously.
It wasn’t fair. None of it was fair, and none of it was right, and there wasn’t a damn thing he could do about any of it and-
I want to go home.
The thought came out of nowhere, slamming into his chest with all the force of an avalanche. He’d barely even thought about his family over the months since he’d first arrived in the city (which, now he’d realised as much, made him feel even worse) and, in the back of his head, he’d somehow been expecting that they’d still be exactly as he’d left them, a laughing, waving group preserved in amber at the moment that the sleigh turned the corner at the end of the long driveway leading up to the house. But it’d been months since then – long enough for the seasons to turn, and more than long enough for things to have changed.
There’d been letters, of course. Mostly from his mother, though a couple of his siblings had also sent word, and mostly full of advice and worries and questions about his health and his studies and whether he’d found himself someone to walk out with yet (and, if he had, when he was going to bring them home to meet everyone). He’d tried to reply to as many of them as he could, but between university work and the sheer overwhelming amount of things going on in the city, he’d been less attentive than he should have been – and, in the past couple of months or so, he’d stopped reading the letters entirely, letting them pile up on the corner of his desk and promising that he’d make the time when everything had calmed down a little.
And then I went and got myself pressganged into a secret society, and look how well that ended up.
He flopped sideways onto the bed, burying his face in the pillow and trying very hard to ignore the prickling behind his eyes and the dull ache in his chest. He didn’t wantto be here. He wantedto be at home, in his own bed, with his brothers and sisters rampaging around in the grounds and his oldest brother trying to keep an eye on all of them and supervise the cooking at the same time, and his parents off hunting game for supper and the dogs running rings round everyone and barking up a storm and…
Except that it would be a lie, wouldn’t it? I’d still have broken the summerhouse, and my magic would still be… what it is, and who’s to say someone wouldn’t come sniffing after rumours about a possible sorcerer hidden away in the Tivana foothills?
Someone like Caine, perhaps.
An image sprang unbidden into his head: Caine’s bulky form slipping silently through an upstairs window, pulling back the covers on the bed, one clawed hand slashing downward-
Maybe the Sinnlenst wouldn’t know which of the Fest siblings was the one they were hunting. Maybe they’d decide that getting rid of all of the family would be the easiest way to ensure they’d snuffed out their rogue sorcerer.
After all, the house was surrounded by forests. And timber burned so very easily.
No! That’s not- They wouldn’t-
Except he was fairly bloody certain that they both would and, in the case of previous sorcerers, had.
I can’t go home. Not until Caine’s dead. Not until Avebury’s dead.
Of course, from a certain point of view, Caine was very much dead already. And Avebury couldn’t die until they’d worked out a way to get back those blackmail papers – and, even then, he’d probably have worked out something so that in the event of his death everything was just going to get even worse.
Bastard. Bastard, bastard, bastard, bastard. Bastard who doesn’t even have the decency to deal with things in the open so I can stab him and have done with it.
He’d never stabbed anyone in his life (and, if he was honest, wasn’t quite sure where one went about starting with it) but he felt very strongly that when it came to Avebury he’d probably pick up the salient points fairly quickly.
And then he’d be dead and we’d be free and-
And the entire Sinnlenst conspiracy would come toppling down on his and Viola’s heads before they could so much as move a muscle to get themselves out of the way.
“Gods fucking damn it, why can’t any of this ever be easy?!”
Because if it was, it wouldn’t be worth doing, would it?
Which, on the face of it, was a stupid thought. Not everything had to be difficult, and plenty of things that were worth doing were perfectly bloody easy and painless. But it was reassuring nonetheless, in an odd kind of way – after all, didn’t all the best heroes in the penny dreadfuls have to go through worse than this at the hands of their villains? And didn’t all of them win through in the end – or, at least, enough of them to make a difference?
Besides, I’m not doing this on my own. I’ve got allies, haven’t I?
Yes, and none of them will be coming with me to the Hall. This, I’m going to have to do by myself.
He sniffled, propping himself up on his elbows enough to wipe his nose on his sleeve. Dammit. He wasn’t going to cry. He was nearly twenty years old, he was an apprentice magician, a spy, a student, and a conspirator, and he was not going to cry.
Or, at least, not where anyone could see him.
[START (SERIES) – Blood on the Snow: Chapter 1]
[Author’s note: this is first/discovery draft content – I apologise for the likely increased number of typos]
Copyright © 2021 by Finn McLellan. All rights reserved.
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