The bathhouse was smaller than he’d imagined it would be. Made sense, he supposed, given that it served one household rather than an entire district – and fuck, how was that for bloody silver-spoon-up-the-arse rich, that Archer’s friend’s people had an entire sodding bathhouse to themselves?
Didn’t much matter, though. If anything, actually made everything a fuck of a lot easier, since it meant that the only person who’d be likely to come by any time soon would be the one person he’d not mind seeing him out of his gear. Also meant it’d be the one person who’d be likely to complain about the fact he’d brought his Smoke kit down with him, of course, but hells, he could live with that.
Ain’t going to say I miss getting lectured about it but at least that’d be something close to normal. Take that over whatever the bastard box is doing any day – least if it’s Archer pissing me off, I can fucking argue with him.
The water was exactly the right temperature, hot enough to drive the aches out of his shoulders and spine but cool enough that it didn’t set him to coughing, and the steam rising off the top of the pool made the whole room blur into a haze of warm colours and flickering light. Even with the Smoke still cooking on top of the burner, the world outside the walls seemed to already be falling away, fading back into the mists of irrelevance.
So there was a fucking evil box trying to kill him – so what? People’d been trying to kill him practically since he’d first learned to walk, what chance did a piece of jumped-up carpentry have? And hells, even if he couldn’t figure the bastard thing out on his own, he’d got allies, hadn’t he? So Verist was the kind of person who’d reckon to taking a Sinnlenst as an apprentice – well, Archer’d sort him out. Archer was good at that. Always had been, even when he was back on the Arrow and pretending to be lowborn (which was a fucking laugh).
And, if it came to it, didn’t he have his own way out of the whole problem? Be a fairly fucking permanent way to solve it, mind, but at least he’d go out on his own terms.
He reached up to the edge of the bath, rested his fingertips lightly on the handle of his razor. It’d be quick, at least. He knew enough to be fucking certain of that.
Ain’t going to come to that. Ain’t giving up that easily.
He looked down at his arm, watching the swirl of red in the water as the bloodstained bandages peeled away from his skin.
‘Who are you?’ Could ask the same of you, couldn’t I?
If it wasn’t the box itself communicating with him – and for all he knew, it might well be – then it was someone using the thing as a conduit, which was almost worse. Least if it was just the box, he didn’t have to wonder whether one of the bastard Sinnlenst was behind it (though if it was just the box, then there was a bastard Sinnlenst behind it anyhow on account of the fact he’d half-inched it from Avebury. Didn’t change the point, though).
Course, could work both ways. Question is, how badly do I want to know that?
The Lady could protect him from a lot of things, if she was feeling that way inclined. Protecting him from the consequences of making bloody stupid decisions, though? That’d be a way to use up her favour fucking fast.
Besides, how the hells am I going to find out whether it’s worked or not? Ain’t as if any of the Sinnlenst’re likely to be admitting to catching new wounds, and cutting my face is a good way to let slip to whoever it is exactly who they’re dealing with if it ain’t healed up by the time we get back to the city.
It’s a fucking stupid plan, and you know as much. Wouldn’t even be considering it if the air wasn’t full of Smoke.
Fair enough, that. The pipe was properly primed by now – wasn’t his usual way of taking it, but it was less likely to fall apart in the steam than rolling papers – and he tipped his head back, raising the mouthpiece to his lips and taking a deep drag of the warm spice-scented drug.
“I wish you wouldn’t do that,” said a very familiar voice from somewhere around his right ear.
The water rippled, lamplight scattering off the waves, and Archer’s lithe form slid almost soundlessly into the pool next to him, the dark red of his burn scars standing out stark against the white of his skin. He’d taken off the scarf covering his missing eye and the scars on that side of his face seemed larger somehow, as though they’d grown to swallow more of his skin on exposure to the air.
Didn’t bother Sabbat. He’d seen bigger scars than that – and besides, it was Archer. Anyone wanted to have a problem with how Archer’s face looked, they could fucking well go through him first.
“Y’goin’ t’make a thing of it?” he asked, after a moment.
The vampire shook his head. “There’s not much point, is there?”
“Are you going to stop just because I ask you to?”
“What d’you think?”
“Exactly.” He sighed, leaning back in the water and resting his head against the rim of the pool. “Besides, I’m not about to tell you that you can’t take the edge off… all of this. Not right now.”
Something twisted unpleasantly in Sabbat’s chest, and he took another deep drag on the pipe, biting down hard on the mouthpiece. “That bad, huh?”
“I don’t know. That’s what scares me.”
Wasn’t much Sabbat could say to that. He put the pipe back on the tray and, stretching, ran his hands through his hair, hissing in irritation as his fingers caught on a knot of tangles close to the ends. “Fucksake.”
“Here,” Archer said, sitting up again. “Turn around.”
“Because you’re not going to be able to sort that mess out on your own, unless you’ve somehow developed the ability to see the back of your own head.”
If it’d been anyone other than Archer asking, he’d’ve lamped them. But…
If he wanted to stab me in the back, he’d have done it before now.
He shifted position on the raised bench, turning away from the other man and pushing his hair back over his shoulders. “That good enough for you?”
There was a pause, long enough that he was starting to wonder if Archer had actually heard him. Then the vampire swallowed audibly, cleared his throat, and said, hoarsely “It’ll do. Lean your head back a little, if you can.”
Sabbat did as he was asked, wincing as the motion sent a spark of pain shooting along his spine.
“Nothin’.” Then, almost hearing Archer’s eyeroll, he amended, “Nothin’ more’n usual.”
“You’ll tell me if that changes.” It wasn’t a question.
“I’m going to touch your head now. I’d prefer it if you didn’t try and take my hand off for it.”
“Do it. Ain’t about t’stab you up for it – leastwise, not if y’keep an eye on where your fingers are.”
“Don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere near your neck. And if I have to, I’ll tell you. Is that good enough?”
Another pause, this one a good deal shorter, and then he felt Archer’s fingertips pressing against his scalp, ten cool points of pressure cutting through the warmth and fog of the room.
“Good,” Archer said, quietly. He took a deep breath, the sound hissing in Sabbat’s ears like waves drawing over sand, and then began, very slowly, to run his fingers through Sabbat’s hair in long, even strokes, pausing every so often to tease out a particularly stubborn knot.
It felt good. It felt better than it had any fucking right to, especially with that damn box right there on the side of the pool and Avebury only hours away from turning up and making this whole fucking mess even more complicated.
Gods. Put this feeling in a fucking pipe and you can forget about the sixdamn Smoke.
Course, the fact that his head and lungs were still full of the stuff probably had more to do with it than anything else. Certainly explained the warmth in his chest and the way that the steam rising off the pool seemed to be curling in and around itself, chasing its own shadow in and out of the patterns on the tiled walls.
Shouldn’t’ve let myself get that far into the damn dreaming. Only meant to take the edge off.
Then again, hadn’t Verist said he wanted them gone until sundown? Plenty of time to dream, then.
“If it helps,” Archer said, after a while, “I think Verist understands what we’re dealing with.”
Sabbat blinked, dragging his thoughts halfway back into the waking world. “Ngh?”
“He’s a good deal more perceptive politically than most people give him credit for, even if his memory’s… not what it was, sometimes. And now he knows exactly who Avebury is and what he’s capable of, he knows what to look out for.”
“‘s good.” He knew he should be paying attention, but the combination of the warm water, the steam, the Smoke and Archer’s fingers in his hair (and if the other man wanted him to be listening, why was he still doing that? Wasn’t Sabbat’s fault he couldn’t concentrate) meant that the best he could manage was a halfway decent attempt at following the conversation.
Can always ask him about it again later. Ain’t as if we’re going anywhere any time soon.
“In all honesty, I think he’s more upset with himself than anything else. He knows he should have remembered when the apprentices were supposed to be showing up, and he’s furious that he didn’t think to tell us before now.”
“With my life.” He sighed. “Which is a good thing, since he also told me the identity of the other apprentice – the one who should be arriving here with Avebury, assuming the two of them are doing as they’ve been told.”
“Fucksake,” Sabbat growled, though the tone was more than half reflex at this point. “There anythin’ that brat ain’t managed to accidentally trip an’ fall into?”
“‘Accidentally’ nothing, if what I know of Avebury is anything to go by. I’m very worried that our young friend is in a good deal more danger than he realises.”
“Reckon we need t’get involved?”
“I think we might have to. Though, at this moment in time, I think dealing with that box is rather more of a priority.” He paused, his fingers stilling for a moment. “Do you want me to braid this?”
“Your hair. If you’re… If things get worse, keeping it out of your face might help when it comes to dealing with the side-effects of whatever that thing is doing to you.”
And mean nobody ends up trying to cut it off, Sabbat added silently. Archer wasn’t going to say that, of course – he already knew what’d happen to anyone who fucking tried it, on account of Sabbat had told him as much – but like hells he wasn’t thinking it.
“Do it,” he said, out loud, and closed his eyes, letting the blissful nothingness which had been lurking at the edges of his vision rise up to claim him.
Ain’t anywhere I need to be right now. Ain’t anything I need to be doing. And if anyone does try anything while we’re in here, Archer’ll take ‘em apart before they manage it.
Just need to… stay awake. ‘s all.
“I suppose all of this must be very familiar to you,” Avebury said, his tone deceptively conversational. “Given where you grew up, after all.”
Fest sighed, pulling his greatcoat tighter around his shoulders as though it could provide some protection from the Sinnlenst’s words. He’d been trying to ignore Avebury, in the hopes that he’d get the hint and shut up, but apparently he’d been being too subtle – that or Avebury just found him too bloody entertaining to needle.
“Yes, I grew up in the middle of nowhere, we both know that. Was that what you were aiming for, or did you have a more specific target in mind?”
Avebury didn’t take his eyes off the road, but the corner of his mouth turned up in a self-satisfied grin. “Ah, so you do talk. I was beginning to wonder if the cold had frozen your jaw shut.”
“I’m a vampire. We deal with cold a damn sight better than you lot.”
“Really? I thought that was werewolves. Though I suppose there’s not much to choose between the two.”
And if I was one of those people who think that werewolves are inherently inferior to us, that would actually be an insult.
Avebury didn’t seem upset that he’d not got the reaction he wanted – he paused for a moment, staring out over the snow, and then said “You’re something of a mystery, you know.”
“You see, I’d assumed that you weren’t a particularly talented student – nothing personal, I’ve just seen your marks – and yet you seem to have a very large amount of innate power. I wonder why that is.”
Because I’m a sodding sorcerer and you know as much, and you’re trying to make me say it. “No idea. Maybe I just don’t examine well.”
“Possibly. After all, you do have-” He broke off, eyes narrowing, as the sleigh rounded the corner of the road. “Wait. Tell me what you see up ahead.”
Fest narrowed his own eyes, squinting against the glare of the sun on the snow. There was something blocking the road up ahead, blocky and dark against the white backdrop. At first he thought it might be a fallen tree – then, as they drew closer, he realised that it was a good deal too symmetrical and manmade-looking for that. “It’s… a cart?”
“And do you see anyone near it?”
“No.” Which was odd. If whoever it was had lost a wheel on the road, surely they’d leave at least one member of their party with the cart to make sure their possessions weren’t stolen? And, come to think of it, there wasn’t a horse in the traces either. “Do you think it’s a trap?”
He regretted the words as soon as he said them, the more so because of the look on Avebury’s face. He could tell that the Sinnlenst was about to say something about reading too many penny dreadfuls or being too caught up in the fantastic, and he was about to try and come up with something – anything – to stop him in his tracks when the other boy’s eyes widened behind his spectacles and he pulled the sleigh to a sudden, jolting halt.
“What are you-?” Fest began, but Avebury put a gloved hand over his mouth, silencing him.
“Shut up. Look at the snow. There, under the cart, by the wheel.”
For a moment, he couldn’t quite process what he was seeing. Then the patch of colour in the snow resolved itself and he almost choked on the phantom taste suddenly clogging the back of his mouth. “Oh gods. That’s blood.”
“Yes,” Avebury said, his expression unreadable. “It is.” He swung himself down from the seat, his boots crunching into the new-fallen snow as he landed. “Come on.”
The vast majority of Fest’s mind wanted to do nothing of the sort, not least because it was entirely possible that the whole thing was some kind of elaborate practical joke the Sinnlenst was trying to pull on him. The smaller and more vocal part of his mind, however – the bit which had got him into this whole ridiculous situation in the first place – was a good deal more interested in finding out exactly what was going on here.
An abandoned cart, blood on the snow, and no horses? This smells like the remains of an ambush, which means there might well be clues. If we can track down whoever’s responsible, then…
Then what, exactly? A daring raid on a bandit camp was all very well in the pages of a penny dreadful, but he had no illusions as to how that was likely to turn out in real life, especially with Aveburyas his only ally. The Watch technically had jurisdiction outside the city, but in practice they didn’t tend to come far past the gates, and the idea of running back to get someone only to be told that there was some perfectly innocent explanation for all of this…
Gods, I’ve embarrassed myself enough already without that getting back to the university. No, if we’re investigating this, we’re going to have to do it by ourselves – at least, until we find more evidence that it’s not just some poor trader who caught a perfectly ordinary injury from some kind of perfectly ordinary accident and decided to unhitch their horse so they could ride off to get medical attention or something.
“Are you coming or not?” Avebury snapped, looking back over his shoulder. “I’m not standing here waiting for you to make up your mind.”
You go investigate the possible bandit trap, I’ll stay right here and- “I’m coming. Give me a moment – you go on ahead.”
Not least because that way, if it is a trap, they’ll get you first.
As Fest approached the cart he found himself holding his breath, his ears and eyes peeled for any movement amongst the trees. All it would take would be one bullet, after all – it wouldn’t kill him permanently, but there were any number of ways to deal with that once you had a vampire unconscious and at your mercy.
It’s not a trap. It’s not. Someone’s had an accident and-
His boot sank down through the crust of new-fallen snow, hobnails catching on the frozen mud underneath, and an all-too familiar scent welled out of the broken hole in the ground.
“Oh gods,” he muttered, barely even registering that he’d said the words out loud. “Oh gods. That’s not good.”
“There’s… a lot more blood.” He dropped to his knees, gloved fingers raking through the loose powder. “If there’s someone under here, I-”
Avebury joined him and, together, they scraped away a good portion of the new-fallen snow, their enmity put aside for a brief moment in the face of what was rapidly becoming a significantly more worrying puzzle than it’d at first appeared.
“Nothing,” the Sinnlenst said, after they’d cleared a good few feet in every direction. “Whoever killed them must have dragged the bodies off somewhere else.” He spat into the snow. “Bastards.”
“The bodies?” Fest asked, before he could stop himself. He’d been assuming one victim, but the Sinnlenst seemed convinced that there were more. Almost as though he knew something that Fest didn’t.
“Of course,” Avebury replied, with a supercilious smile. “I’d think a country boy like you would understand the value of travelling in a group, especially at night.”
But there’d been just a hint of hesitation before he answered, and Fest was suddenly very aware of the fact that he was on his own in the middle of nowhere with someone who, if he knew Fest’s true allegiance, would almost certainly have no compunctions about slitting his throat and throwing him in the nearest ditch.
And that’s if he only feels like sending me a message. If he wanted to get rid of me properly…
He could probably beat Avebury in a fight if it came to it. Probably. But he really didn’t want to have to find out.
“Do you think it was bandits?” he asked, and winced internally at how naive the question sounded. Of course it was bandits, idiot. Who else would it be?
But Avebury was looking at him with a very odd expression – as though he couldn’t quite work out whether to laugh at him or hug him (Fest wasn’t entirely sure which would be worse, if he was honest). “It’s a possibility,” he said, after a moment, “but I highly doubt it. I think this was something more than a target of opportunity.”
“I think,” said Avebury, with the air of someone who was putting two and two together and coming to an answer they didn’t like in the slightest, “this was the Order.”
The bottom dropped out of Fest’s stomach.
“…Oh,” he managed, after a pause that felt far, far too long. “That’s- oh.”
“You thought they were above that sort of thing because of the way they present themselves, I suppose?” the Sinnlenst said, quietly.
Careful. If he knows, I’m dead. “I… Honestly, I hadn’t even-”
“Of course you hadn’t. Some of us don’t have that luxury, however.” He smiled, and it had all the warmth of the frozen sky. “I’d say I learned it from my parents, but the Order saw to it that I was denied that possibility.”
“I’m… I’m sorry.” What else could he say? He knew the Order had assassins – hells, he’d met at least one of them – but there was a difference between knowing in the abstract and being face to face with the consequences.
“Why? You weren’t the one who killed them.” He straightened up, brushing the snow from the knees of his trousers. “Come on. If the bodies are around here somewhere we can at least do them the service of a proper funeral.”
Fest nodded, following the other boy with mute obedience, but behind his eyes his brain was working overtime. Unless he’d missed something, there wasn’t any obvious sign that the Order had been here, which meant that Avebury was either making things up out of whole cloth (why? To turn me against the Order? But if he knows I’m one of them, why not just kill me outright?) or, more likely, had known whoever was supposed to be with this particular cart.
Which means they were probably Sinnlenst. Which means a group of Sinnlenst with a cart, travelling on this road, getting ambushed by at least one person from the Order, which adds up to… what, exactly?
Were they going up to steal something from the Archmage? Kidnap him? Murder him? Was I meant to walk into a trap when we arrived?
And, if the Order’s stopped whatever their plan was, what’s Avebury going to do now?
“Hello there! Do you need a hand with that cart?”
Fest whirled around, hand already on the hilt of his sword, to see an oddly familiar-looking stranger wrapped in a travelling cloak rein his horse to a stop and, after looping the reins around the pommel of his saddle, raise his hand in greeting.
“I can take my horse around the outside,” the stranger went on, slipping down from his saddle and striding over to meet them, “but you’re not going to be able to get your sleigh through without-” He stopped mid-sentence, his hand going to the hilt of his own sword. “Avebury.”
“Mortimer,” the Sinnlenst replied, his tone dripping with overly-sweet friendliness. “Fancy seeing you here.”
“Likewise,” Mortimer replied, through gritted teeth. “What an absolute bloody pleasure.”
“I trust the mountain air is agreeing with you? I did suggest a change of scenery, didn’t I?”
“Who’s your friend?”
“Ah, of course. You’ve not been introduced. Mortimer, this is Jonathan Fest, my fellow apprentice and a new recruit to our cause. Fest, this is Harry Mortimer, a colleague of mine and erstwhile follower of Tyburn – you remember Tyburn, don’t you?”
“I… can’t say I do,” said Fest, carefully. There was something about the way that Mortimer was looking at him – had they met, sometime before, during those hours that he couldn’t remember? And why was the name so familiar?
“He’s the one who lost his head during the meeting. Rather careless of him, really.”
A flash of memory kindled in Fest’s mind – a body, dropping to the floor, and a wet red something rolling across the floor, and-
“Oh, see, he does remember,” Avebury said, cheerfully. “He also looks as though he’s going to faint.” He turned to Mortimer, waving a hand carelessly in Fest’s direction. “You should probably see to that.”
“Bastard,” Mortimer muttered, but he took hold of Fest’s shoulder, steadying him and turning him so he was facing away from Avebury. “There. Look at me – look at me, dammit. You’re not there any more, alright? You look at me, you listen to my voice, you focus on me. Not him. Me. How old are you, Fest?”
“Good lad. And where’re you from? Your accent says hill country, but I don’t know the area well enough to be sure.”
“I went out there once with a friend. It’s good hunting country, isn’t it?”
Fest nodded, keeping his eyes fixed on Mortimer’s face. You’re trying to distract me, aren’t you? I think it’s working, though, which is a good thing to know. Always worried that if you knew someone was trying to do that, it wouldn’t actually work, but it turns out that in fact that’s not the case, which you’d think would be-
“Do your family hunt much?”
“Yes. I mean, my older brothers and sisters more than me, but I’m not bad.”
“And do you need me to rescue you from this bastard?”
“I-” Fest began, and then his brain caught up with his ears and he realised exactly what he’d just been asked. “Um.”
“He’s off looking for something in the woods,” Mortimer went on, in exactly the same quiet, even tone as he’d been using for the entire conversation so far. “My horse’ll carry two, if you need.”
“You’re Viola’s little red-eye friend, right? She told me to keep an eye out for you.”
“But- you’re- Aren’t you Sinnlenst?”
“As much of one as you are.”
“Yes. Which is why I’m asking if you need a rescue.”
Something warm and bright kindled somewhere in the middle of Fest’s stomach, and he had to fight to stop himself laughing out loud. He had an ally! Or, more to the point, he had an ally who was right here, and hated Avebury as much as he did, and had just offered him a way out of this situation and-
and is very possibly too good to be true.
“…How do I know I can trust you?” he asked, keeping his own voice as low and level as possible.
“Fair point,” Mortimer replied, apparently not insulted by the question. “Viola will vouch for me. As will Archer – he’s known me since I was a child.”
That’s hard to argue with. At least, if he’s telling the truth. “What’re you doing up here?”
“Heading home. Ideally, before Avebury gets there.”
Home. But there’s only one place this road leads that settled folk live, and that’s-
Wait a moment. ‘Verist’s boy.’ ‘Your toff friend’s kid.’ “You’re Verist’s son!”
“Not so bloody loud, if you don’t mind,” Mortimer said, though he sounded more amused than anything. “Avebury almost certainly already knows, but I’m not looking to remind him if he’s forgotten.”
“You’re the one who’s courting-”
“And that sentence you don’t finish, if you value your life. You know who I am, let’s leave it at that.”He looked over his shoulder, then turned back, scowling. “He’s coming back. Quickly – do you need me to pull you out of here?”
The offer was tempting, Fest had to admit. But, equally well, if he dropped out now he’d never know what Avebury was planning – not to mention the fact that, if he didn’t show up at the Hall, he’d have failed his apprenticeship before it’d even begun. And, if I do go to the Hall, I’ll have to deal with Avebury once I’m there anyway. Wouldn’t exactly be much of a rescue, at that point.
“Thank you, but I’ll stay. After all, all my books are here.”
Mortimer laughed, deliberately raising his voice as he did so. “Fair enough. Now, come on – help me shift this cart. The sooner we get it out of the road, the sooner the two of you can get moving. And,” he added, lowering his voice again, “the sooner I can get away from Adam bloody Avebury.”
Fest grinned. “I’ll drink to that.”
[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 © 2022 by Finn McLellan. All rights reserved.
2 thoughts on “Silver in the Ashes: Chapter 16 (draft)”