If Mortimer had been asked to list the skills he’d picked up from his time in the field, ‘packing up a room in less than half an hour’ would hardly have made the top ten. But, between his natural tendency towards having as few possessions as possible and the fact that he’d barely unpacked half of what he’d brought back from the front, it took him all of twenty minutes to get together what he needed for his journey up to the Hall.
And if I don’t end up coming back here, there’s nothing left behind that I’d miss.
He wasn’t planning on staying up at the Hall for the foreseeable, but he’d not exactly been planning on winding up stuck in the slums for months either. And, besides, he’d be damned if he let Avebury weasel his way around the place unsupervised – not least because the idea of the Sinnlenst nosing around his childhood home made his skin crawl.
I know he’s meant to be on his best behaviour, but how sodding well do we think he’s going to be able to pull that off? And my father can’t keep an eye on him all the time, especially if he’s still as focused on his research as he was when I was living there last.
He shoved the last of his shirts into his travelling bag, deliberately pulling his mind away from the whirlpool of memories that last thought had sent him sailing dangerously close to. Time enough for that once he’d worked out what Avebury’s plan was (and, a small treacherous part of his mind reminded him, once I’ve actually exchanged more than two words with my father).
His sword was hanging on the back of the door, where he’d left it that morning – while he’d technically have been allowed to wear steel in the library, climbing ladders with a scabbard banging against your hip was the kind of mistake you made only once. He pulled it down and slung the belt awkwardly around his waist, holding the leather against his body with his forearm while his fingers worked at the buckle. Should’ve switched to a baldric the moment I came back here, but-
But that would have required him to admit that he didn’t have a sword arm any more, and then he’d have to reckon with exactly what the rest of his life was going to look like.
I can learn to fence with my right, he thought, rebelliously. It’s hardly as though there’s a shortage of right-handed fencing tutors, after all, and my father’s money would buy me a lesson with any of the most skilled blades in the city if I was willing to take it.
And the best fencing instruction money could buy would do entirely shit-all to prepare him for fighting on a battlefield with his off-hand.
I’ll train myself back into it. Practice every morning – and every evening, if I need to – until I can do even half of what I could do with my left. I didn’t lose my footwork or my combat sense when I lost my arm, and my body still knows how to handle a damn sword. Just need to…
“Gods dammit!” His fingers slipped on the buckle, the swordbelt clattering to the floor around his boots in a tangle of leather and metal. “Dammit, dammit, dammit!” The back of his throat felt tight – he swallowed, forcing back the treacherous prickling of tears at the corners of his eyes, and bent to pick up the belt. “Sod this for a game of soldiers. If I need to-“
He whirled, drawing the sword with his right hand almost instinctively as he did so. “Who in the hells-?”
The girl standing in the doorway smiled, a hint of pearl-white fang flashing between her red lips. “My apologies for disturbing you, Harry – I may call you Harry, mayn’t I? I was wondering if you would be able to help me with something.”
I highly bloody doubt it, Mortimer thought, but he kept the words behind his teeth. Lucy Foreval wasn’t the kind of person you wanted to provoke unduly, as several of the less subtle members of Tyburn’s coterie of Sinnlenst had found to their cost, and the fact that she was standing in his doorway with no apparent care for the fact that there was a drawn sword pointed in her direction was a clear indication of exactly how much power she believed she had in the current situation.
If she knows I’m working with the Order, I’m a dead man. Sheathing his sword one-handed was more than he could manage with the scabbard not on his belt – he bent down again, laid the blade carefully on the floor, and then straightened up, keeping his eyes fixed on her face the whole time. What does she know? And, more importantly, what does she want?
“I knew I could count on your aid,” she said, apparently taking his silence for consent. She stepped closer, her skirts rustling as she did so, and smiled that swift, predatory smile again. “It’s nothing, really – just a small disagreement between lovers – but I’d be in your debt. Which, for one of Tyburn’s allies, would be a rather powerful card in your hand.”
This is a trap. Everyone in the Sinnlenst knew that Avebury and Foreval were walking out together, though nobody could have said when or how the arrangement had started, and everyone who paid attention to the two also knew that they both had their own plans and schemes which frequently didn’t include the other. Either she’s trying to trick me into going up against him on his behalf, or she’s trying to use me as a catspaw in whatever game she’s playing without his awareness. Either way, I’d be a bloody fool to accept.
But equally well, he’d be a bloody fool to turn her down directly. Especially with no blade in his hand and her fangs that close to his throat. “What is it that you’d have me do?”
“Nothing too onerous, I promise you. All I want you to do is go home.”
“I know you’re Archmage Verist’s son, Harry. And I know that Adam and Jonathan are both set to apprentice to your father. I simply wish for you to go back to your father’s house and observe them.”
What in the hells is she playing at? The knowledge of his parentage wasn’t a secret among the Sinnlenst – he’d decided early on that it was better to have them know rather than think it was something they could use as blackmail – but the request still didn’t make any sense. Why does she want me to spy on her lover? And what in the name of the gods has that poor vampire kid got to do with it?
“It’s nothing sinister, I assure you,” she went on, as though she’d read his thoughts (which, given her abilities, was possibly closer to the truth than he was comfortable with). “Jonathan’s a good friend of mine, and I’m worried that Adam has some plan or other that he wants to involve him in. I’d prefer to avoid that if at all possible – as would you, I suspect – and you have a rather more believable reason for being at the Hall than I do. I think your presence would disrupt Adam’s plans somewhat – or, at the very least, make him think twice about involving my people in them.”
It made sense, that was the worst part. She’d obviously got some hold over the young vampire – hadn’t he seen the two of them standing together at the meeting? – and he’d put good money on Avebury’s controlling streak extending to his supposed allies. If she wanted to try and ensure that her pet project didn’t end up suborned or worse, she’d need someone who could keep an eye on the situation without arousing suspicion – and, he had to admit, he did fit the bill better than almost anyone else she could have called on.
That didn’t change the fact that this was almost certainly a trap, mind. It just might be a rather more elaborate one than he’d first anticipated.
“And if Ad- if Avebury does make an attempt to involve Fest in whatever he’s planning?”
Her smile made the skin on the back of his neck crawl. “I’m sure you’ll know what to do.”
The corpses didn’t look any prettier in the daylight.
Archer closed his eye, fighting to keep his feelings from showing on his face. The Sinnlenst had needed to die – that much was obvious – and he could hardly blame Sabbat for having been more than usually violent given the circumstances. And they died relatively quickly, at least. I suppose that counts for something.
“-th’fuck’re you pullin’ faces for? Y’don’t mean t’tell me you’re feelin’ sorry for the bastards?”
Apparently I’m not quite as subtle as I thought. That or he’s even better at reading me than I’d anticipated. “Not quite.”
“Oh aye?” the assassin growled, with more petulance than Archer would generally have expected from him. “What’s eatin’ at you, then?”
He’s… worried, Archer realised, with an odd twisting feeling. About me. Or… no. About us. Gods, this is more complicated than it should be. He sighed, pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger for a moment and then said, quietly, “You don’t normally kill like that.”
“You know what.” He gestured towards the bodies of the dead Sinnlenst, their twisted limbs locked in frozen rigor mortis. “I’ve seen more than enough corpses of your make to know how you prefer to kill. This – the way you took these poor sods apart – it isn’t like you.”
Sabbat stared at him for a moment. Then, very calmly, he said “They tried t’kill you, Archer.”
“No,” the assassin said, in that same eerily calm voice, “you fuckin’ don’t. I watched you die.” His fist clenched at his side, the skin over his knuckles stark white. “Y’know the only thing I fuckin’ regret about this?”
“What?” Archer asked, though he was fairly certain he knew the answer.
“That I could only kill ’em once for it.” He turned away, spitting red into the snow by the nearest corpse’s head. “Y’goin’ t’help me move the bastards or no?”
This conversation isn’t over, Archer thought, but he kept his tongue behind his teeth. There was more to this whole situation than just whatever the box was doing to Sabbat, and he had the distinct feeling that, right now, one word out of place might bring the delicate scaffolding of… whatever there was between them now crashing down on both of their heads.
And what is there between us? He’s my best friend, and that’s all there is to it. Not… whatever else I might think- might wish was going on. The fact he offered his blood to me doesn’t change that – after all, it’s hardly as though frequenting a particular blood doll makes you beholden to-
It’s not like that! The vehemence of the thought shocked him, the more so because it seemed to have come out of nowhere. There wasn’t truly anything morally wrong with being a blood doll, any more than there was with selling sex, but the idea of reducing the offer Sabbat had made to a commercial transaction revolted him in a way he couldn’t quite put into words.
It wasn’t like that. But it also wasn’t anything more than an expression of friendship. We’ve bled for each other enough times over the years, after all – what was that if not a variation on the same theme?
And yet he couldn’t put the feeling of Sabbat’s skin against his lips out of his mind. Nor the taste of the assassin’s blood on his tongue.
“I said, y’goin’ t’help me move these bastards? They ain’t exactly gettin’ up and walkin’ off by themselves, if y’hadn’t noticed.”
He shook his head, trying to banish the thoughts – or, at the very least, shove them somewhere far away from his conscious mind. “Apologies. Something- It doesn’t matter.”
Sabbat scowled at him but, much to his relief, didn’t push the issue. “Y’want t’take the one by the cart? Should be easy enough for you t’move ’em somewhere they ain’t likely t’get tripped over ’til the spring.”
“That I can do. There’s a ravine that should be wide enough to take them a little further out from the path, unless I miss my guess, and Earth Brother won’t scorn us for giving them something approximating a burial.”
“You plannin’ on sayin’ a whole fuckin’ funeral for ’em?”
“No. But it’s hardly as though their family or friends will ever find out where they’ve gone, if we do our work well, and someone ought to say their words.”
The assassin rolled his eyes. “Y’make it sound like they deserve it.”
“They’re hardly a threat to us any more. Call it a sop to my conscience, if you like-“
“Aye, I will.”
“-but it’s not going to make much difference one way or the other, and it’ll make me feel easier in myself if I know we’ve given them at least that much.”
“Fine. But I ain’t standin’ around longer’n we need for you t’make it right with whatever’s goin’ on in your fuckin’ head.” He coughed again, wiped his mouth with the back of one gloved hand, and continued, “Not least on account of the fact I still ain’t had that bath.”
Archer could hardly fault him on that. “I’ll be quick. And then, when we’ve got the silver back up to the Hall, I’ll show you one of the best-kept secrets this side of the mountain.” And, before the assassin could ask him what in the name of the gods he meant by that, he turned on his heel and strode off towards the furthest of the corpses.
Focus on the dead now, deal with the living later. And the dead, thankfully, are a damn sight less complicated.
“Do you still want to go find this ‘Radish’ girl?” Amelia asked, as the two of them left the lecture building. She looked up at the sky, frowning at the lowering grey clouds. “If so, you’d better go sooner rather than later. I think we’re due another snowstorm in the next few hours.”
“Are you trying to get rid of me?” Viola joked, slinging an arm around the younger girl’s shoulders. “Or are you worried that we’re going to end up torn in too many different directions if it turns out our mutual friends aren’t at the Hall after all?”
“Both,” Amelia admitted. “And don’t look at me like that, Vi, you know I didn’t mean it that way.” She leant against Viola’s side, resting her head briefly against the taller girl’s shoulder. “If you do end up having to stay at the Hall for any length of time, it’ll look less suspicious if you swap duties with Sebastian while you’re still provably in the city. That way we can play it off as a planned absence of some sort rather than anything suspicious.”
Which was a fair argument, for all Viola wasn’t overly keen on leaving Amelia on her own – or, more precisely, in the hands of a bodyguard who couldn’t follow her everywhere if the need arose. It’s not as though she has anything Seb hasn’t seen before, but the University’s likely to have even more of a problem with him being in certain spaces than they have with me, and I don’t trust Avebury’s friends not to make the kind of insinuations that’re likely to lead to her hauling off and punching someone. “Are you sure this is a good idea, ‘melia? If the Sinnlenst try anything when you’re… spirits, I don’t know, in the baths-“
“Then I’ll stab whoever they send, shout for help, and tell the porters that I acted in self-defence – which would be the truth.” She grinned, flicking her jacket open just enough for Viola to see the pair of flat-hilted long-bladed knives strapped into the lining. “Mama says I should be able to hide these behind my back in the baths and, provided I dry them well afterward, they’ll not take too much damage from being in the water.”
“I don’t know why I’m surprised. My lady thinks of everything, apparently.”
“She has to,” Amelia agreed. “And you don’t have to call her ‘my lady’ when you’re talking to me, even if we’re out and about.”
“I know. But the last thing we need is any more rumours about the family, even if you’re still determined to go through with this whole plan.” And especially when we don’t know who might be eavesdropping on our conversations. I know Avebury claims he trusts me, but I trust him about as far as I can throw him, if that.
“Well, I can hardly back out now, can I?” the younger girl retorted, though she was smiling as she said it. “So we might as well make the best of it, mightn’t we?” She looked up at Viola, her brown eyes narrowing in sudden suspicion. “And besides, I can tell you’re trying to distract me – are you going to go and find Radish or not?”
Viola sighed. She turned to face Amelia, gently placing her hands on either side of the other girl’s face and tilting her head so the two of them were eye-to-eye with one another. “Amelia. Listen. If you want me to go, I will go. You know I will. And you’re right, it’d be a hell of a lot more convenient if we knew where our mutual friends were for certain rather than guessing. But – and no, don’t make that face, hear me out -I don’t like leaving you on your own-“
“I’m not going to be alone. We’ll go back to the house and I’ll ask Sebastian to accompany me to the other engagements I have today, and-“
“Which isn’t what I was talking about, and you know it.” She lowered her voice, bending to put herself exactly on eye-level with her sister in everything but blood. “If I do this, I want you to promise me – promise me – that you’re not going to take any stupid risks while I’m away. No trips down to the River Quarter, no slipping out to meet people with nobody to guard you, no late-night assignations-“
“You sound like my parents.”
“I sound like someone who doesn’t want to spend the next however long worrying about you if it turns out I need to stay away from the city for longer than we’ve planned. If I get back to find that you’ve managed to get yourself stabbed-“
“I’m not going to get myself stabbed, Vi. You worry too much.”
“And you don’t worry nearly enough.”
“I’m not the one who got shot!” Amelia protested, hotly.
“Yes, and I can heal. You can’t.”
“And you’re still limping. You don’t get to tell me to stay out of danger if you’re not going to make the same promise.” She pulled herself free of Viola’s grasp, reaching down to poke one gloved finger at the trouser-leg covering the still-healing bullet wound. “You need to get someone to see to that.”
“I know,” Viola snapped, batting Amelia’s hand away before she could touch her leg. “I’ll go when this is over, I promise.”
“You can go this afternoon. It won’t take you the whole day to find that girl, and we’re supposed to be talking to Harry late tonight, so you’ve plenty of time in between to get yourself checked over.”
“Is that an order?”
“Do you want me to make it one? I’ll tell Mama on you, don’t think I won’t.”
It wasn’t an idle threat. Lady Luciel was a generally fair and reasonable employer – a good deal more fair and reasonable than most, by all accounts – but she wasn’t likely to look favourably on Viola having failed to get herself proper medical attention. And, worse, if she thinks I’m doing it on purpose she’ll probably have a doctor come by the house and make me sit down and get it seen to. No, ‘melia’s right. Better to take the time this afternoon and find an Order-affiliated surgeon who won’t ask too many questions. “Fine, fine. I’ll go find someone trustworthy later today-“
“-if you promise me that you’ll at least try to stay out of trouble while I’m away.”
“No, don’t you ‘Vi’ me. Not on this. You’re not the only one who can tell tales to my lady, if it comes to it.”
Amelia scowled. “If you tell her about Harry-“
“Oh, Ancestors preserve me, you know I won’t do that to you. Either of you. But I will tell her that you’ve been trying to sneak out behind my back.”
“Unless I promise to try and stay out of trouble.”
“Unless you promise to try and stay out of trouble,” Viola confirmed. She sighed, leaning in and bumping her forehead gently against Amelia’s. “Come on, ‘melia. It’s not that difficult a promise to make.”
“It’s not that. I don’t…” She looked away, chewing on the corner of her lip. “I don’t like it when you treat me like I can’t look after myself. I did alright when those thugs attacked us in that alleyway, didn’t I?”
Mostly because it wasn’t us they were after, Viola thought, but she wasn’t about to have that argument again. “You did. And you can look after yourself – I’m not trying to say that you can’t. All I’m asking is that you look before you bloody leap, especially when I’m not around to catch you. That’s it.”
“And if I end up in trouble despite trying to stay out of it?”
“Then that’s no fault of yours, and I know you’re not enough of a cub still to try and rules-lawyer me on that.” She paused, waiting for Amelia to meet her eyes. “Are you?”
Amelia shook her head, the strands of beads dangling from her butterfly hairpin clattering as she did so. “No. I’m not. I promise I’ll do my best to try and stay out of trouble while you’re away, big sister.”
“And I promise I’ll go get my leg seen to this afternoon, little sister.” She pulled the younger girl close, wrapping her arms around her in a quick, tight hug. “There. Was that so hard?”
Amelia looked as though she wanted to say something in response, but whatever it was going to be, she obviously thought better of it. Instead, she leant her forehead briefly against Viola’s, closing her eyes and relaxing into the hug for a moment.
I still don’t like the idea of leaving her on her own. But at least she seems to have finally got the message as to why, Viola thought, as she breathed in the younger girl’s scent. Now I just have to pray to the Ancestors that none of the bastard Sinnlenst decide to make a move while I’m not there to get in the way.
-the fuck’s eating him, anyways?
That was the problem with Archer, when you got right down to it. He’d get some sixdamn stupid idea into his head, worry himself sick over it, and then not bother to actually fucking say what was causing the issue right up until it came up and stabbed him, by which point Sabbat could’ve easily murdered whatever or whoever it was a good half a dozen times over.
And asking him ain’t going to do a damn thing to fix it, on account of the fact he’ll pull some crap about how it’s not something I can help with or it’s something that needs a more subtle approach or somesuch fuckery. Ain’t as though stabbing’s the only way I solve problems.
He yanked hard on the dead Sinnlenst’s ankle, pulling the body free of the roots it’d managed to get itself caught on and sending it tumbling down the side of the ravine to join its companions in a tangled heap at the bottom.
If the Lady’s watching out for us, the scavengers’ll get to them before anyone comes looking. If she ain’t… well, what price another few dead Sinnlenst?
They still didn’t know what the lot of them had been doing up here but, for the moment, that could wait until they’d stowed those crates of silver.
Keep that out of the bastards’ hands, see what they do when their precious cargo doesn’t turn up on time. Least that way we’ll know if whatever it was they wanted it for was urgent.
Fuck of a lot easier to work that out if they were back in the city, mind, but whatever was going on with the box had put paid to that.
Get back to the Hall. Stow the silver. Talk to Verist. Get this fucking thing sorted. Easy.
Another lance of pain arced through his chest as he straightened up and he nearly fell, grabbing onto the nearest tree to stop himself from following the corpses down the sheer drop. His breath came short and uneven, rattling in his chest as his fingers dug into the bark, and he closed his eyes, fighting down a wave of nausea that threatened to bring up what little remained in his belly from the morning’s meal.
Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.
This wasn’t going to work. None of this was fucking going to work.
Just- Fuck. Need to find some way of fucking- find some way to stop this. Must be a way. Ain’t as though- nobody’s come across these fucking things before. Must be some way to-
Archer. Just his fucking luck that the bastard had already finished loading up the last of the silver and decided to come looking for him right when he didn’t want to be found.
“I’m fine!” he called back – or, at least, tried to call. The words died in his throat, throttled by the thick tide of blood and bile that washed against his back teeth, and he doubled over, a band of ice-cold agony tightening around his chest as he fought for air.
Something warm and solid pressed against his chest – he let go of the tree, tried to pry himself free of whatever it was, and found his hand trapped by fingers that seemed as hard and unyielding as iron bars.
“Breathe, Sabbat. I have you. Breathe.”
What do you think I’m trying to do?! But the pain was receding, ebbing back into wherever it hid itself between attacks and, after a minute or so of forcing himself to breathe slowly and deeply, the nausea followed it back down into the depths.
“It’s worse, isn’t it?”
“If you say you’re fine,” Archer said, perfectly calmly, “I’m going to turn you upside down and hold you head-first over this ravine until you reconsider the wisdom of lying to me when I’m in the process of trying to save your life. Are we clear?”
“Fuckin’ crystal,” Sabbat growled, for want of anything else to say.
“Good. So, is it worse?”
“Have you been trying to hide that from me?”
Of course he fucking had. Didn’t Archer know anything about him? “Take a fuckin’ guess.”
Even with his eyes closed, he could picture the expression on the vampire’s face. After a while, Archer sighed heavily, relaxed his grip enough that, if he wanted to, Sabbat could pull himself free, and said “We’re going back up to the Hall now. When we get there, I am going to lock myself in Verist’s library, and I am not coming out until I find a damn fix for this, however bloody long it takes.”
“You’re forgettin’ one thing,” Sabbat told him, extricating himself from Archer’s arms and starting back up the slope towards the sledge.
“Y’promised me a damn bath first.”
[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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