Meanwhile, back at the University, Jonathan Fest was finding out first-hand that there was a very distinct difference between the theoretical idea of sharing a sleigh with his worst enemy and the practical reality. Most notably, that the theoretical version of how he’d seen this encounter going had involved a lot less being elbowed in the ribs.
“Do you mind?” Avebury hissed, shifting position on the bench with ill-concealed frustration. “If it had escaped your notice, I am trying to ensure that we get out of this courtyard with the minimum of damage to University property.”
You could’ve shifted over and let me drive, then, Fest shot back, silently. They’d already been through why that was, apparently, a terrible idea (something to do with Fest’s upbringing being too rural for him to have any experience with driving a sleigh through anything as crowded or crooked as the city streets, though Avebury hadn’t exactly phrased it that politely) and he’d little desire to reopen the argument – not least because they were running behind schedule and, worse, starting to acquire a crowd of onlookers, several of whom had already begun shouting ‘helpful’ advice.
At least it’s him looking foolish over this and not me, he thought, and then winced as he remembered exactly who it was that the Sinnlenst was likely going to take his anger over the humiliation out on. Gods. Why couldn’t we just have gone up separately? It would’ve been a lot less… this.
He knew why, of course. The University wanted its students to make a good impression, which meant travelling in a sleigh rather than weighing down some poor packhorse with boxes and baggage. Add to that the fact that paired apprentices were expressly forbidden from turning up at their masters’ houses alone – either to keep them out of trouble on the road or to stop them stabbing each other up the moment they were out of University grounds, depending on who you asked – and the idea of the two of them making their own way up to the Archmage’s house had been fairly comprehensively squashed before they’d even had a chance to propose it.
Which meant he was stuck with the prospect of a several-hour drive in the company of someone who had made absolutely no secret of the fact that he hated his guts, and there was absolutely nothing he could do about it.
Not to mention the fact that I still don’t know what’s going on with Anneke, or the break-in, or-
“Ah, Goddess be praised, I thought you’d have left already!”
Speak of- what in the hells are they doing here?
He looked up in time to see the little priest shove their way to the front of the small crowd of students, their headdress crooked and their robes hiked up above their knees, exposing a pair of very sturdy-looking snowboots.
“I didn’t- ah, give me a second to catch my breath – didn’t think I’d make it in time to catch you,” they gasped out, once they’d got within touching distance of the sleigh. “Ran all the way here from the temple, once Nia let me out of their sight. Wanted to-” They stopped short, their eyes narrowing as they finally realised exactly who Fest was sharing the sleigh with. “Oh.”
“Something the matter, honoured priest?” Avebury asked, though Fest noticed that he seemed about as uncomfortable with Anneke’s presence as the priest was with his.
“Nothing whatsoever,” Anneke shot back. “And I wasn’t talking to you.” They reached into the pocket of their outer robe and pulled out a small envelope sealed with a blob of red wax. “I have a message for my friend here.” They leaned over, placing the envelope in Fest’s unresisting hand. “Here. What we know so far about the break-in – which isn’t as much as any of us would like, even with the investigation my siblings have been able to do – and what we’re planning to do about it. I know you’re not going to be in the city for the next little while, but I thought it might make for interesting reading if you somehow manage to get through all the books in the Archmage’s library. And don’t pull that face at me, the list was up on the board for a while and some of my siblings attend lectures here even though they’re not technically working on degree courses.”
Fest blinked, taken aback despite himself by the torrent of words. “I-”
Anneke placed their other hand on top of his, trapping his fingers (and the letter) between them. “I wanted to make sure I caught you before you left. The temple don’t trust anything to the couriers at the moment – which isn’t the couriers’ fault, it’s just that between the gangs in the River Quarter and the factions at court and everything else going on in the shadows it’s far too easy for a message to go missing or wind up in the wrong hands, and…”
And, as the priest continued to explain exactly what had happened to one of the packages Tarn had tried to get delivered to a cousin living somewhere on the other side of the city, Fest felt them slip something small and flat and folded gently from between their fingers and slide it carefully underneath the envelope.
“…so anyway, the High Priest said they’d try and get a meeting with the head of the guild in the new year, but that until that time we should try and take messages personally if we couldn’t find someone we trusted to take them, and that it’d probably be better for the younger priests to get out into the community anyway rather than spending all our lives in the library – and Nia swears they weren’t explicitly looking at me when they said that, but it definitely felt as though they were, and-”
“Peace, peace!” Fest exclaimed, laughing. He drew his hand back, tucking the letter and its accompanying whatever-it-was into the breast pocket of his coat. “Is everything alright with you, after…?”
“After someone violated the sanctuary of the temple, broke into my room, stole several of my possessions and destroyed a fair number of the others including some pieces which were practically irreplaceable? No, not really.” They smiled a small, tight smile. “Tarn and Nia are looking after me – if you call ‘practically sitting on me and refusing to let me go anywhere by myself without a damn good reason’ looking after – and the High Priest has asked the local Watch if they can send round some guards to keep an eye on the temple for the next few nights. We’ll be alright.”
“I’ll- I’ll write to you, while I’m away. Assuming someone can bring a message down the mountain.”
“Or you could just come yourself,” Anneke said, with a smile that was a good deal less tense. “It’s a few hours of riding, but you’d be welcome to stay the night at the temple if your master can spare you for that long.” They frowned, looking up at the clock over the University gates. “Speaking of that, I should really be getting back before Nia decides I’ve been kidnapped and sends out a search party. I don’t think anyone would appreciate a parcel of priests on the warpath.”
“I don’t know. I think it might remind a few people that the Goddess isn’t to be trifled with.”
“That’s for certain.” They took hold of his hand again, squeezing it for a moment. “Look after yourself.”
“You too. I-”
“I should go.” And, before he could say anything, they turned away and pushed back through the crowd, their small black-clad frame disappearing into the shadows of the side gateway.
A not insignificant part of Fest’s mind screamed at him to get down off the sleigh and follow Anneke back to the temple, apprenticeship be damned. They clearly weren’t doing well, no matter how much of a brave face they were putting on things and, given that the break-in had happened after they started working with him to untangle whatever it was Lucy Foreval had done to him, he was pretty damn certain that the whole bloody situation was at least partially his fault.
But, equally well, they had a whole temple full of people to help them get through this, and riding in there trying to play hero was a good way to get himself into even more trouble, not least because Anneke would probably never forgive him for implying that they couldn’t take care of things on their own.
And my parents would never forgive me if I burned my bridges at the University this early, especially when I’ve managed to land this prestigious an apprenticeship. No, better to stay quiet and hope that everyone else knows what they’re doing.
“-and I have no clue what I’m doing!”
Viola sighed heavily, dropping to her knees in front of the small shrine and running her hands through the wisps of hair escaping from her braid. “Ancestors, I know you probably have better things to be focusing on than my problems right now, but if you could see your way clear to giving me some sort of sign I’m on the right track, I’d appreciate it.”
If Grandmother were here she’d probably catch a rap on the knuckles for not doing the proper forms – werewolves were casual about many things, but ritual wasn’t one of them – but then again, if Grandmother were here she’d probably not be going to the Ancestors with this particular problem in the first place.
I’d just ask her what I should do, and she’d say… well, first she’d say that I should stop second-guessing myself and that half my problems come from doubting my own decisions, and then she’d say that I should follow the shortest path and stop catching myself in thickets of my own making – which, in this case, probably means ‘stop worrying about your little sister and go find out where Archer and Sabbat have gone.’
“Which is all well and good except that what that amounts to is ‘go run down to Steepside and ask one of the most infamous criminals in the city if she minds you talking to her granddaughter about the location of a couple of people who might have any number of good reasons for not being found.’ Which means that it also amounts to ‘go potentially end up in a bloody stewpot for your trouble.’”
And then she’d say- no, she wouldn’t say anything, she’d just Look at me because I’m being a ridiculous cub and inventing reasons why I don’t want to go down there because…
“Because I don’t want to leave ‘melia on her own, and this feels a hell of a lot like her trying to get me to sod off so she can do something stupid because she’s got it into her head that the whole situation with the Sinnlenst is somehow her responsibility.”
And that was the bastard crux of it, right there. That and the fact that the longer she spent away from Amelia the more chance that someone might try and persuade her little sister that her defection to the Sinnlenst was some kind of complicated double-bluff and that she’d actually turned her damn coat rather than just pretending to.
She knows me better than that, and anyone who’s trying that on with her is going to get a bloody nose for their trouble if they keep pushing. I just…
“Spirits damn it, why can’t I be in two places at once?”
And why can’t I keep my damn mouth shut?
“That was a joke, and I don’t have anything I’d trade for that ability anyhow, if anyone was listening in and thinking they had a chance. You are welcome to my fire, my meat, and my drink, but I make no bargains today.”
The likelihood of a spirit actually being around to hear her was low – they were mostly beings of the tundra and the ice, if the tales were anything to go by – but it was still a bad idea to say that kind of thing when you were near a shrine, even one as small and temporary as the one in her room. Too many folks back in the days of legend had wound up paying very dearly for that kind of comment.
And I know better than that, normally. It’s this bloody Sinnlenst business getting into my head.
“It’s going to be fine. ‘melia’s not going to do anything stupid – she’s smarter than that, even if she doesn’t act like it sometimes. Avebury’s not even going to be in the damn city to make trouble for the next few weeks, so the odds of him getting involved in anything are-”
still higher than I’d like them to be.
“-still bloody low. Archer and Sabbat can take care of themselves, they’ve been doing this for longer than me and they don’t- probably don’t need my help. Seb’s got every bit of training I have and more – there’s nothing the Sinnlenst can throw our way while I’m distracted that he can’t handle. All I need to do is-”
Go find Radish – which means going and talking to Jenny Goldenfang, since she’s obviously one of hers. Get Radish to tell me where Sabbat and Archer have gone, which mostly means confirming my own hunch that they’re at Cauldwell Hall. I hope. Come back here, tell Amelia, hope to the ancestors that Amelia’s managed to persuade my lady to let her use the circle tonight, wait for Mortimer to contact us, and go from there.
Oh, and find the time to get my leg seen to before ‘melia decides to take matters into her own hands and get my lady involved.
“And it isn’t going to get any easier for me standing around trying to talk myself into it, that’s for damn sure.” She stood up, tossing her braid back over her shoulder, and faced the shrine. “Thank you, Ancestors. And sorry for making you listen to all of that.”
She turned to leave, only to turn back at the door as a breath of wind brushed feather-light past her cheek, sending the curls of incense smoke scudding cloud-like across the face of the full moon painted on the wooden backing of the shrine.
No need to ask what that means. Time’s not going to stand still while I try and talk myself into – or out of – this. No matter how much I want it to.
By the time they’d got the silver back up the winding road to the Hall and, with Verist’s permission, stowed the crates in the back of one of the less-used stable buildings (‘just for now, until we can figure out exactly what to do with the damn things’), Archer felt as though he was as much in need of a bath as Sabbat – more so, possibly, since he’d been doing most of the heavy lifting.
Not that he minded. Sabbat had tried to help, but it’d taken only a few minutes for it to become abundantly clear that he was in no fit state to be lifting anything and Archer had told him in no uncertain terms to sit down and let him handle it. This had, of course, led to an argument – which Archer had been anticipating – but when the assassin had had to stop twice mid-sentence to cough up a mouthful of blood, he’d grudgingly agreed that maybe, this time, Archer might possibly have a point.
I can respect the fact that he doesn’t like showing weakness – the gods know I don’t exactly enjoy it either – but there’s a point at which that goes beyond rational and into sheer bloodymindedness. Though, truth be told, I’d be worried if he stopped behaving like that.
He closed his eye for a moment, leaning back against the wall of the stable and running a hand over his sweat-damp hair.
At least the damn crates are stowed now. And, with the bodies out of the way, that should be the last we hear of that particular incident for a while.
There’d likely be rumblings in the city when the Sinnlenst didn’t get their cargo, but the rest of the Order were more than capable of dealing with whatever the fallout of that was likely to be – and, whatever it was, it was almost certainly going to be less of a problem than anything they could have got up to with that much silver.
And, if I’m honest, I still don’t understand what their play is here. It’s bad news, that much I can guess, but-
“Y’still puzzlin’ over those crates?” Sabbat asked, looking up from the throwing knife he’d been idly twirling around his fingers.
“How did you guess?”
The assassin grinned lopsidedly. “Ain’t exactly difficult t’figure out, especially when y’got a face on you like y’just stepped in somethin’ an’ you’re still tryin’ t’work out exactly what it was.”
Despite everything, Archer found the corners of his own mouth twisting up into an answering grin. “That’s a rather apt analogy, especially given the stench of their most recent actions. Though, speaking of smell-”
“You ain’t exactly fragrant y’self right now, mate.”
“Which is precisely why I was about to suggest we make tracks in the direction of the bathhouse, in fact.” Sabbat’s eyes widened almost imperceptibly, and Archer had to bite back a laugh. “I said I was going to show you one of the best-kept secrets outside the city, didn’t I?”
“Y’din’t say it was goin’ t’be a fuckin’ bathhouse. There hot springs up here?”
“Surprisingly, no – or rather, there are, but that’s not what the bathhouse is using. It’s pre-Fall artifice.”
This time Sabbat’s expression was a good deal less subtle – and a good deal more sceptical. “Pre-Fall, aye? Like the godsdamn box?”
“Nowhere near,” Archer said, hurriedly. “It’s a simple heating artifice of some kind built into a section of ancient flooring – one of Verist’s ancestors uncovered it when she was excavating for a cellar, and had the bathhouse built over it to take advantage of the warmth. The water comes from snow melt, since there’s more than enough of the stuff around, especially in the winter.”
Sabbat didn’t seem entirely convinced, but the lure of a proper bath was apparently too much to resist, even if it did mean dealing with more pre-Fall technology. “It far from here?”
Archer shook his head. “Just across the yard and through the trees there. Though I’d suggest we take a detour back to the house for a change of clothes first.”
“Ain’t arguin’ with that.”
The house, when they reached it, turned out to be in uproar – or, at least, as much of an approximation of uproar as one magician and two servants could manage. There were boxes piled on the main staircase, bedding hanging over the bannisters, and, as Archer found out when he rounded a corner too fast and nearly sent a stack of plates flying with his elbow, piles of crockery and cutlery on what looked like every flat surface in the kitchen and dining room. It looked rather as though the place had been the victim of some sort of exceptionally housework-minded whirlwind, and Archer was just about to try and get Verist’s attention to ask for an explanation (and offer his and Sabbat’s help, if required) when the other magician looked around, spotted the two of them, and hurried over, depositing the armful of books he’d been carrying on a chair as he went.
“Will! Thank the gods, I was beginning to worry you wouldn’t make it back here in time. We have a problem.”
“I can see that. What do you need?”
Verist frowned, leaning on his cane and pushing his spectacles up his nose with his free hand. “Quite frankly, I need the two of you to be out of the way for the next few hours. Until after sunset, if you can manage it, since we’ll be able to get you back into the house easier once it’s dark.”
“An’ what’s so important y’need us not to be around for it?” Sabbat asked, eyeing the chaos with obvious interest. “Seems t’me y’need more hands around here, not less.”
“And I would agree with you, if those hands weren’t attached to members of the Order,” Verist said, mildly. “As it is, while I could probably justify your presence here, Will, I can’t justify Sabbat’s, and I doubt the two of you are in any mood to be separated at the moment.”
“Y’got that right,” Sabbat growled.
Archer sighed, resisting the urge to put a restraining hand on the assassin’s arm (not least because he wasn’t entirely sure Sabbat wouldn’t punch him for it). “As Sabbat says, you’re correct in that assumption. Allow me to make one of my own, then: you’re expecting visitors. And, more to the point, at least one visitor whose allegiance you’re unsure of.”
“Worse. At least one visitor whose allegiance I know, and one who’s only a little more in doubt.” He sighed. “I’m assuming the name Adam Avebury is familiar to at least one of you?”
The muscles along Sabbat’s jaw tensed, but he didn’t say anything, for which Archer was profoundly grateful. This was going to be an awkward enough conversation without the assassin offering his opinions on the issue, however justified they were.
“Yes,” Archer said, once he was sure that Sabbat wasn’t about to venture an explanation. “And I’m assuming you know why.”
“Enough,” Verist allowed. “And don’t tell me more than I need to know. This is already straining the limits of what I can do, and it’s only going to be more difficult from here on out.”
“He’s going to be staying here, along with the other boy. The damn University forced my hand on it, and I’d rather have him here where I can keep an eye on him than doing whatever it is he’s planning under the nose of some other master magician who’s less knowledgeable – or one who he might take it into his head to arrange an accident for.”
Archer blinked at him for a moment, sure that he’d misheard. Because the other option was that his oldest friend had taken leave of his senses completely and decided to take a Sinnlenst as an apprentice.
Sabbat, apparently, had come to his conclusion on the matter already. He leant back against the wall, one hand dropping oh-so-casually to the pocket where he kept his straight razor. “An’ y’din’t think of mentionin’ this beforehand?”
“Because I rather thought I had more time,” Verist said, sharply. “And, since I was hardly expecting the two of you to show up on my doorstep – as welcome as your visit is – my plans for how to deal with the incursion did not include finding a way to hide two members of the Order and all evidence of their purpose in being here alongside everything else.”
“Ain’t that convenient.”
“Hardly,” Verist said, raising an eyebrow. “Unless you think I’d deliberately put myself and my household into this kind of a state simply to… what, make a point? Believe me, if I’d had any idea you two were going to be turning up, I’d have found a way to put this damn thing off. As it is, it quite honestly slipped my mind until after you left this morning, with the results that you see here.” He gestured irritably towards the bedding hanging over the bannisters. “All my fault, of course, since I didn’t think to tell Thomas or Cyra anything about it, and both of them insisted on making sure the place was properly aired and tidied before our visitors arrive.”
“Philip,” Archer said, breaking in before Sabbat could escalate the situation, “may I ask you something?”
“What in the name of the gods possessed you to think that this was a good idea?”
Verist sighed. “In all honesty, I didn’t have much of a choice. The boy was going to be sent out on apprenticeship anyway – he’s apparently talented enough that there was no possibility of skewing the results to leave him out – and the amount of devastation he could cause if he was sent to someone with less experience… it’s better this way, even if I could wish that things had fallen out a little differently when it came to the timing.”
“He’s a Sinnlenst. I know you need to at least preserve the appearance of neutrality, but-”
“But nothing, Archer. You’d rather he went to someone who’s known to be an Order member, perhaps?”
“No, but I- Gods dammit, Verist, this is not a good idea!”
“It’s rather late to be passing judgement. The boy’s going to be here in a few hours.” He sighed again, tapping his fingertips on the handle of his cane in a brief flurry of irritated movement. “I know you’re not happy with this state of affairs-”
“That’s something of an understatement, but yes. Go on.”
“Thank you. As I was saying, I know you’re not happy with this state of affairs, but consider the other possibilities.”
“I have.” None of them were good. At best Avebury would have ended up apprenticed to someone who would have been ignorant of his true intentions (whatever those were), and at worst… “We’ve had more than enough bodies left floating in the river of late.”
“That doesn’t mean I have to like it. And, if you are insisting on going ahead with this, there’s a good deal more you need to know about exactly what kind of viper you’ve welcomed into your home.”
“Is that the price of your cooperation?”
“Damn it, that’s not what I meant and you know it!”
“I know. But you also know that the more you tell me-”
“This isn’t about neutrality, Philip. This is about you not getting yourself killed.”
Verist scowled, but then nodded, sharply. “Very well. Though if you’re going to make this a longer conversation, I’m going to have to enlist your aid in a more practical manner at the same time.” He tapped his fingers on the handle of his cane again. “As you can see, I’m somewhat down a hand these days.”
“Of course,” Archer replied, with a mental sigh of relief. If the price for getting Verist to listen to him was moving a few pieces of furniture, it was well worth paying. “Sabbat, would you-”
“Reckon I can find my own way t’that bathhouse of yours,” Sabbat said, cutting Archer off mid-sentence. “See y’there once you’re done.” He pushed off the wall and limped away in the direction of the stairs, his hand still resting on the razor.
Archer watched him go. The assassin was up to something, that much was clear, but right now whatever he was planning was a good deal less important than getting Verist up to speed on exactly how much danger Avebury was likely to pose to him and his staff.
Though I can’t help feeling that that’s exactly the kind of thought that’s likely to come back to bite me when I least expect it.
[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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