This, thought Viola as she stared up at the lopsided looming front of the Daggers Inn, is a terrible idea.
It wasn’t too late to back out, if she needed to. She could always go home, tell Amelia that she’d not been able to find Radish, and suggest that they proceed on the assumption that Archer and Sabbat would be perfectly able to take care of themselves, wherever they were. Might even be the more sensible option – after all, who was to say that either Jenny or Radish would even be willing to talk to her?
And if she did that, she might as well roll over and let the next bastard Sinnlenst she encountered tear her throat out.
So it’s the most notorious thieves’ kitchen in the city. So it’s run by someone who’s got a reputation for serving up unwanted guests as stew for her patrons. So nobody except Amelia knows where I am, and she’s hardly in a position to ride to the rescue if this does go sideways.
That’s still no excuse for cowardice.
She was a werewolf, after all, which made her more than the equal of most of the human thugs and cut-throats in the city even if she hadn’t also been in training as a bodyguard since she was a cub. And, even if Jenny Goldenfang was as monstrous as half of the most lurid stories painted her, even the worst of the tales about her made it quite clear that she didn’t tend to start eyeing people up as ingredients unless they’d actually offended her in some way. Asking about Radish’s whereabouts probably didn’t count as causing offence, especially if Viola made it very clear she was only after information on where a couple of mutual friends might be staying.
In all likelihood the worst she’ll do to me is send me on my way with a flea in my ear, and the ancestors know I’ve had enough practice at dealing with that.
Admittedly, most of that practice had come via people who she actually knew, but-
Enough bloody prevaricating. Get in there and get it done.
“You lost, friend?”
Of course, standing around staring off into space in this neighbourhood is a great way to get yourself into even more trouble than you’re currently in. Well done.
She forced a smile, dragging her eyes down to meet those of the werewolf lounging in the doorway. “I don’t reckon so. Unless this isn’t the Daggers, in which case I’ve somehow managed to get myself completely turned around.”
“Nah, you’re in the right place.” The bouncer pushed away from the doorframe, throwing her braid back over her shoulder and folding her arms as she pulled herself up to her full height. “Question is, what is it that you’re wanting to come to the Daggers for?”
Crap. If she thinks I’m planning on moving in on her folks’ turf, this is going to go bad fast. “Nothing pack-related, if that’s what you’re asking. My people’re from outside the city – we’ve no interest in territory here.”
“You’re on your own, then?” The other woman’s expression shifted, suspicion giving way to something which looked a hell of a lot closer to pity. “Might be able to hook you up with some work, if you don’t mind dealing with drunks and breaking up fights. Grandmother’s always got an eye out for new hands, and if you ain’t got anyone who can look out for you-“
“Thanks, but I’m not here for a job. I’m after-” Ancestors, please let this work “-some information. Do you know where I can find Radish?”
“Of course you do. Might’ve known.” She sighed, with what sounded to Viola like well-worn familial irritation. “What’s she done now?”
“Nothing she wasn’t supposed to.” In for a copper, in for a silver, I suppose. “She delivered a letter to me a while ago from a friend of mine – I was wondering if I could ask her about some of the details.”
“She runs a lot of messages. What makes you think she’ll remember anything more about your friend?”
Good point well made. But she has to know something, doesn’t she? “He’s- It wasn’t the kind of message you entrust to just anyone.”
“Ah.” The bouncer looked her up and down for a moment, then laughed quietly to herself. “Just my luck, isn’t it? You’d better come inside.”
“Your friend wouldn’t happen to be a vampire toff with a missing eye and a habit of sticking his nose in everyone else’s business, would he?”
Not exactly how I’d describe him, but I can’t say it doesn’t fit. “…You could say that, yes.”
“Then Grandmother’ll want to have a word with you. You don’t need to look so shocked – she ain’t in the habit of inviting folks in if she’s planning on serving them up as dinner.”
Viola winced. “Was it that obvious?”
“Little bit.” She grinned. “Don’t worry about it. She likes knowing that her reputation still precedes her. Now c’mon inside – longer we spend standing out here, the more interested parties’re going to start pointing their ears in our direction.”
Which was true enough: while the Sinnlenst didn’t have as much of a presence in the slums as the Order did (not surprising, given how bloody snobbish most of them were) they still had their spies, and she’d not exactly been making an effort to hide her tracks.
Though I don’t fancy the chances of any Sinnlenst spy who wants to make an enemy of Jenny Goldenfang. Especially if they’re as damn speciesist as Avebury.
The mental image of Avebury coming face to face with one of the most infamous werewolves in Sacaan was cheering enough to banish the last of her lingering anxieties and, with a warmth in her chest that more than equalled the cold outside, she followed her guide into the heart of the criminal underworld of Steepside.
Of all the luck!
The bickering voices of the two Sinnlenst – or, he supposed, the Sinnlenst and the Order spy (though the gods knew how that poor vampire kid had wound up getting involved in all this) – were fading into the distance, lost amidst the swirling snow and biting wind as they climbed higher into the foothills. They’d managed to manouver their sleigh around the cart, once he’d helped them to clear a passage, but they clearly didn’t know this area of the mountains as well as he did, and he’d easily outpaced them once they’d started arguing about the best way to tackle a particular patch of ice.
He felt a little bad for that, if he was honest: nobody deserved to be left at Avebury’s mercies, even if they’d apparently signed up for it. But he needed to get home- to the Hall before the two of them made it there if he was going to have any chance of warning his father exactly who he’d agreed to let into his house.
And the sooner I get there, the longer I have to come to terms with whatever it is he wants to say to me. Which, given how our last conversation went, isn’t likely to be ‘come in, sit down, let’s forget the last few years ever happened.’
Though there had been that letter…
Gods. He apologised – he actually bloody apologised – and he wants to see me back at the Hall, and I have no bloody idea how I’m supposed to feel about that.
It didn’t feel real, that was the problem. Even with the letter tucked into his breast pocket, even having read it enough times that he could close his eyes and see the words scrawl across the darkness on the back of his eyelids, it still felt like something out of a dream.
Any moment now I’m going to wake up in my bed at home with Alastair banging on the door and telling me that I’m going to be late for lectures if I don’t get moving.
He took his hand off the reins and, as he had done numerous times already that day, pinched the side of his neck, hard. And, as it had done numerous times already that day, it hurt like a bastard.
If I keep that up I’ll scrape the skin raw and then I’ll have even more bloody problems to worry about. Assume that, against all logic, it is real, and go from there.
He took a deep breath, the cold air stinging his nose and throat as he did so, and, with a concerted effort of will, dragged his thoughts back to the here and now. The weather had started to turn and, while he was more than capable of dealing with a little snow, the lowering clouds and biting wind spoke of a storm on the horizon.
The last thing I need is to be caught out here when that breaks, especially with at least one Sinnlenst on the loose. Far too easy for someone to go missing on the mountain when something like that closes in, especially when they’re riding alone.
His horse seemed to pick up on his mood – as he reached down to pat her neck, she snorted and quickened her pace, her ears flicking. The road was wide and stable enough here that he was happy to let her have her head, and soon enough they were speeding through the trees in a thunder of pounding hooves and whipping branches.
The sooner I get to the Hall the better. Whatever happens when I get there.
Ancestors preserve! The sheer wall of noise and light which greeted Viola inside the Daggers was almost enough to send her staggering straight back outside – she stumbled, and, before she knew it, found her arm caught in a warm unyielding grip by the bouncer who’d invited her in.
“Easy there. It’s your first time here, isn’t it?”
She nodded, since her mouth didn’t seem to want to work. It’s not- alright, it is crowded, but not more so than the Midwinter Ball was. I guess the difference is that I’m not used to this kind of place.
“Take a breath and steady yourself. You’ve got time.”
She did as she was told, secretly grateful for the other woman’s hand on her arm keeping her grounded. Blink and breathe, dammit. It’s no worse than anywhere else you’ve been, you’re just on edge because you were halfway expecting to get knifed the moment you stepped through the door.
For a notorious thieves’ kitchen, the main room of the Daggers seemed surprisingly salubrious – if she hadn’t known exactly where she was, she might have mistaken her surroundings for any one of a dozen pubs in the more upmarket areas of the city. Sure, the tables were rougher-hewn and the clientele a little rougher-looking around the edges, but it wasn’t as though everyone who drank in those places came from wealth and privilege either, and the Daggers’ bar seemed as well supplied with beer and liquor as any of the other taverns she’d frequented.
Although… most of the other taverns she’d frequented didn’t have quite so much obvious security, or quite so many people wearing what seemed like deeply seasonally inappropriate clothing. Not that she was complaining, mind, especially when it came to some of the women, but…
They’re working, and it’s rude to stare, especially since I’m not planning on buying their services. Besides, I’m not a cub any more – I’m not about to go red and start stuttering just because I’ve seen a hint of thigh or cleavage.
“Seen someone who takes your fancy?”
“I- I’m not-“
“Relax, I don’t mean to offend. You’re welcome to stick around after you’ve finished your business and make the acquaintance of anyone who’s working, provided you mind your manners and don’t go assuming you’re owed anything that hasn’t been agreed.”
“I won’t,” Viola said, feeling her hackles rise despite herself. I know she probably says that to everyone, but I can’t help feeling insulted. “And I’m not here for that.”
“So you said. This way.” Still holding Viola’s arm, she forged forward into the main room, shoving through the standing drinkers (who parted for her with a mix of greetings and friendly insults) and heading for a door to the right of the bar. “Sorry I can’t stand you a drink before we head in, but Grandmother wanted to see anyone who came looking for your friend, and she doesn’t take kindly to being made to wait.”
“That’s- that’s alright.” Though I’ll admit I wouldn’t mind facing her with a little liquid courage inside me. If nothing else, it’d take the edge off.
Beyond the door, the noise of the taproom faded out into a background hum, replaced by a quiet muddle of footsteps, chatter, and household sounds which reminded Viola of nothing so much as the Luciel townhouse with the whole extended family in residence – the splash and clatter of someone washing up, a patter of bare feet on the floor above, the thud of a mattress being turned, the chink of glass and clink of cutlery, and, behind it all, the buzz of conversation coming from too many places to pin down.
“Better?” her guide asked, with what seemed like genuine concern. “You looked a little overwhelmed out there.”
“I- Thank you. I’m not-“
“You’re from uptown, aren’t you?”
Is it that obvious? I suppose it must be, but spirits and Ancestors, I’d hoped I’d blend in at least a little more. Shows how much I know, I suppose. “Yes.”
“And Sacaask-born, by your accent.” She frowned, obviously thinking. “You wouldn’t be one of the Cervanso twins by any chance, would you?”
Aaand there goes any chance I had of keeping my identity under wraps. “How did you-“
“Young blonde female werewolf with an uptown accent and no clan in town, who’s close enough friends with Archer that he’s sending you coded messages? Hardly a crowded field.” She released Viola’s arm and, after a moment, offered her hand. “Alexandra. Grandmother hasn’t told me everything, but I know enough about what you and your friends are up to to know that yours is the right side of the bloody war.”
“Viola. Pleased to meet you.” Alexandra’s grip was like iron – hardly surprising, given the defined muscles in her forearms – and she shook hands like she was testing a knot in a rope, a brisk jerky motion which stopped just short of being actively painful. I’m glad she’s on my side. I don’t think I’d enjoy going up against her in hand-to-hand combat, if it came to it. “So your grandmother’s told you-“
“Enough. I’ve no intention of getting in any deeper than I already am – not until my cubs are grown, at least, and that’s a season or two off – and anything more than what I already know might put more of a target on my back than I’m happy with.” She nodded towards a door at the far end of the corridor, nondescript and plain save for a small crescent moon carved into the side of the frame nearest the doorhandle. “Through there. Word of advice – stand up straight, don’t mince your words, and don’t leave anything out. She’s not going to bite your head off for muddling things, but she’ll be happier to help you if you can make a good accounting of yourself.”
“And good luck. I hope you find whatever it is you’re after.”
“So do I,” said Viola, vehemently. The sooner I get that information, the sooner I can get back to Amelia, and the sooner we can work out what exactly we’re planning on doing about this whole thing.
She took a deep breath, squared her shoulders, and, with a nod to Alexandra, marched down the corridor and rapped sharply on the door. “Viola Cervanso, ma’am. Alexandra told me to speak to you – apparently you want to see anyone who comes by asking questions about Archer?”
There was a moment of silence from behind the door. Then: “That I do. Come on in, girl.”
All I have to do is keep my temper until we get to the Hall. That’s it. Just… keep gritting my teeth and ignoring him until then.
The problem, as Fest was finding out, was that that was a good deal easier said than done. Avebury seemed determined to provoke him, needling at every possible weak spot he could think of – Fest’s family, his academic prowess, his friends (or lack thereof), his dress sense, his species, and half a million other things which ranged from laughable to so targeted that it actively required all of Fest’s willpower not to haul off and punch his interlocuter in the jaw. Even staying silent didn’t seem to deter him: he’d happily sit quietly for just long enough that Fest started thinking that he’d finally run out of things to say, only to suddenly come out with an ‘I was wondering’ or ‘Tell me, Jonathan’ which seemed precisely calculated to cause the maximum amount of irritation.
I swear, he’s trying to get me to throw him out of the sleigh. Or stab him. Or bite him. Or- gods, I don’t know, lose my temper in any number of ways and do something which I’d definitely regret afterwards.
I only wish I knew why.
The obvious answer would seem to be ‘because you’re a vampire’ – Avebury had made his opinions on non-humans perfectly clear multiple times, after all – but that didn’t feel as though it entirely covered the sheer breadth and depth of the Sinnlenst’s attacks.
If it was just my species, why would he be bringing my choice in waistcoats into it? Or my exam results, for that matter? And if it’s something I’ve done to upset him, why wouldn’t he bring whatever it is up rather than aiming at everything else about me?
“I’ll admit, I rather thought you’d crack long before this, but you seem to be somewhat more resilient than I’d anticipated. Well done.”
‘Well done’? What sort of a- “That was a test?!”
“Of a sort, yes.” He raised an eyebrow, the corner of his mouth quirking upward into an irritatingly smug little smile. “And you needn’t bother looking at me like that. If you’re planning on getting anywhere in this business, you’re going to have to learn to deal with a lot worse than a little teasing.”
“If I’m planning on- You blackmailed me into this!”
“That’s an ugly way of looking at it. I persuaded you to offer your services – and, in return, acquired you an opportunity which, if I’m entirely honest, you would never have got close to attaining on your own. Or do you really think that your academic prowess was the reason you were put forward for this apprenticeship?”
Fest ground his teeth, gripping the side of the sleigh hard enough that he fancied he heard the wood creaking under the fingertips of his uninjured hand. “That’s beside the point. What makes you think I want to get anywhere in the kind of business you’re involved in?”
“It’s not as if you have much of a choice,” Avebury said, infuriatingly calmly. “You’re one of us now, after all, and you’re far too useful a pawn to be left lying around unnoticed. Someone or another is going to want you for their own ends, and you’d be well advised to learn how to play the game before that happens.”
Ignore the insults, focus on the information. That’s what I’m here for, after all. “So you’re what, trying to help me? That’s a change.”
“And that’s more fire than I’d expected from you. Perhaps I did hit a nerve or two, then.”
More than two, but like hells I’m telling you that. “Look, you’ve made it quite clear you don’t like me, for any number of reasons. So you’ll forgive me if I’m a little suspicious of any offers of help coming from your direction.”
“Because, as I said, you’re useful. A naïve country-boy sorcerer without the knowledge to keep his talent under control? The old guard may be stupid enough to think that you’re too dangerous to keep alive, but those of us with a little more creativity are well aware of exactly how much you’re worth.”
Too dangerous to keep alive. He’d known, logically, that the majority of the Sinnlenst felt that way about sorcerers – hadn’t Archer told him as much, back when he’d confronted the other vampire about keeping the knowledge of what he was hidden from him? – but hearing Avebury say it out loud he suddenly felt as though he’d swallowed a pint of ice water. Too dangerous to keep alive. And the only reason they’ve not killed me is that Avebury and his side of the debate think I’m more useful to them with my head still attached to my shoulders.
He was going to be sick. Or faint. Neither of which were things he particularly wanted to do in front of Avebury, but apparently he wasn’t going to have much of a choice.
“Are you feeling alright? You look a little green around the edges.”
“Perfectly fine, thank you for asking.” At least I can still talk, I suppose. Even if I can’t feel my lips.
“You don’t look it.”
And you don’t look like a complete idiot, yet here you are stating the bleeding obvious. He wasn’t going to say that out loud – if nothing else, he wasn’t sure he’d get to the end of the sentence before the meagre breakfast he’d managed to scarf down before heading out made a reappearance – but he could sure as hells think it.
“My apologies, but I had assumed you already knew the likely penalty for being one of your kind.” He laughed. “After all, you must have wondered why you hadn’t run into any other sorcerers in the city – with the exception of Lucy, of course.”
I hadn’t, as a matter of fact. Mostly because, until a few days ago, nobody had bothered to tell me that I was one. “Hadn’t crossed my mind.”
“Really? You surprise me. Although I suppose you did have other things to focus on.” He leant back on the bench, letting the reins go slack in his hands as the horses picked their way along the path, and said, casually: “Like that priest, for instance.”
…Well, apparently sudden mind-numbing terror is a cure for nausea. Admittedly, that’s mostly because I’m too scared to be sick, but…
He could always deny any knowledge of what Avebury was referring to, of course. After all, who was to say that this was anything to do with Anneke anyway?
And if I believed that, I’d have a bridge to sell myself. Somehow I don’t think ‘what priest?’ is going to do anything except make him even more suspicious… especially since I’ve now taken long enough to answer that he’s going to assume that I’m making something up anyway and oh gods have I mentioned how much I hate every second of this?
“You do know they’re linked to the Order, don’t you?” Avebury went on, apparently unfazed by the lack of response. “Not an actual member, as far as I’m aware, but they’re definitely a sympathiser.”
“… Oh. I… didn’t know that.”His voice was shaking – he bit down hard on the corner of his lip, hoping against hope that the Sinnlenst would take his obvious distress as a reaction to having accidentally befriended one of the enemy. Because if he doesn’t, this is going to go bad very very quickly.
“That’s not your fault – while they’re not entirely subtle about their opinions, they almost certainly hid their true colours in order to get close to you. I suspect they’re looking to get information out of you about what we’re up to… which, it occurs to me, could be very useful for us. Assuming you’re up to the challenge, of course.”
“What… What do you need me to do?” I think I know, but damned if I’m not going to make you spell it out for me.
“Nothing too strenuous. Simply give them exactly what they want – information about what the Sinnlenst are planning.” He smiled. “And after all, it would hardly be your fault if you got some of the details confused in the telling. Especially given your… disadvantages.”
It wasn’t a bad plan, that was the worst thing. If he had been a Sinnlenst agent, Anneke almost certainly would have been trying to mine him for information about what the Sinnlenst were up to – and, if that had been the case, getting him to give them false information would have been a very good way to sow a little chaos in the Order’s ranks (especially since Avebury’s faction were apparently new and worrying enough that anything to do with them would immediately get the attention of quite a few of the more important members of the Order). As it was, however…
So now I’m not only going to be an Order spy pretending to be a Sinnlenst recruit – I’m going to be an Order spy pretending to be a Sinnlenst recruit who’s deliberately feeding false information to the Order while also trying to find a way to get the real secrets back to them before anyone makes any plans based on the misinformation… and I’ve got to do all of that without getting caught by a group of people who only barely trust me as it is.
This kind of double-dealing was a good deal less stressful back when I was reading about it rather than living it.
“I’m not going to press you for a decision now, though I would strongly suggest that you consider the proposition. If nothing else, consider it an opportunity to prove exactly where your loyalties lie.”
And if that’s not a threat, I’ll eat my hat. “It seems as if I don’t have much of a choice.”
“Of course you do. If you want to walk away from this, you’re free to do so.”
At which point you get me expelled for breaking university rules, and my whole life comes crashing down around my ears. “Fine. I’ll do it. I’ll pass on the damn information, and you can do… whatever it is that you’re planning on doing with it.”
“An excellent decision,” Avebury said, with a smile. He paused for a moment, before adding, conversationally: “Oh, and one more thing.”
“This stays between you and me. No need to bother the rest of the Sinnlenst with the details until we have something a little more concrete to bring to them.”
In other words, there’s another level to this that you’re not willing to tell me about. I wonder if it’s got anything to do with whatever’s wrong with your arm.
Avebury hadn’t mentioned the injury – in fact, he’d been trying very hard to hide it – but the smell of blood had been more than strong enough for Fest to pick up on the moment he climbed aboard the sleigh. And, when he’d realised that the Sinnlenst was favouring his left arm as he drove, it hadn’t been much of a leap of logic to assume that the two observations might have the same cause. Though as to how Avebury had managed to get himself wounded in the first place…
Maybe someone from the Order tried to get rid of him. Though I’d hope in that case that they’d do a better job of it.
But the Order weren’t going to assassinate Avebury right now – not with the blackmail he still had on Fest and Viola. Which meant that, unless someone had gone rogue, it hadn’t been a targeted attack.
Of course, there’s nothing to say that it was an attack at all: it might just have been a perfectly ordinary accident. Although if that’s the case, why bother hiding it?
Something doesn’t add up here.
A carefully stage-managed apprenticeship. A missing group of Sinnlenst, apparently killed by the Order. And an injury which Avebury seemed to be very keen on avoiding any questions about.
There’s nothing to say that they’re all connected, of course. But equally well, there’s nothing to say that they’re not.
Either way, there wasn’t much he could do about it until they got to the Hall – or, more realistically, until he was back in the city again. And, until that point, focusing on Avebury’s arm was only going to make him even more hungry than he already was.
I hope someone’s remembered to tell our new master that one of his apprentices is a vampire. Because if they haven’t, we might be about to have another problem on our hands.
[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.
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