“Might I ask,” said Archmage Verist, with icy politeness, once the two of them had dragged themselves and the majority of their luggage into the main entryway of the Hall, “what exactly it is that you’re attempting to bring into my home?”
Fest blinked, unsure for a moment whether or not the question was directed at him. He didn’t think he’d managed to bring anything along which the Archmage could object to, but there was always the possibility that he’d somehow managed to accidentally include something or other in one of his trunks… not to mention the fact that, in a certain kind of light, he himself might be considered something objectionable, depending on how the older magician felt about sorcerers.
“I- Nothing, sir,” he managed, after the pause had dragged on for long enough that it was clear that Avebury wasn’t planning on offering any assistance. “That is,” he amended, with a gesture to the pile of trunks and baggage at his feet, “I’ve only brought books, and clothes, and a washkit – oh, and my sword, but I was told that was alright? – and some herbs, and some candles, and-“
“That’s not what I meant,” Verist said, cutting him off mid-list with an irritable wave of his hand, before adding, in a milder tone, “And you were quite right to pack all of those items. Your tutor did an excellent job.” He turned to Avebury, who was making a very good attempt at blending into the background. “And what about yourself? Do you have some artefact or other about your person that I should be aware of?”
The Sinnlenst smiled, all politeness, and made a deep, respectful bow towards his master. “My apologies, Archmage. Here.” He reached up to his neck and, with one quick movement, pulled a pendant out from under his shirt. It looked to be made of twisted glass, primarily clear but with a streak of dark red running through the centre. “It was a gift from my grandfather, when I went away to university – he told me that he’d found it in an antiques shop somewhere in the Steepside area, and I didn’t think to ask any further.”
“Is that so?” Verist said. He held out a hand. “May I see?”
“Of course,” Avebury said. He looped the pendant over his head and handed it over, with a small embarrassed smile which Fest didn’t trust for one moment. “I’m sorry. I think this must be what set off your wards.”
Liar! Fest thought. He couldn’t put his finger on exactly what it was that rang false about the Sinnlenst’s story, but he was utterly certain that the other boy was lying – and, more, that he was lying for a very specific reason.
He’s carrying something else – something which interacted with the Archmage’s wards – and he’s using the pendant to distract Verist’s attention away from whatever it is.
The worst thing was, it seemed to be working. Verist was examining the pendant with an expression which seemed to suggest that he found it deeply fascinating, and Avebury seemed to be perfectly happy to continue spinning stories about his probably-fictional grandfather and the definitely-fictional antiques shop (Fest knew for a fact that there were no antiques shops anywhere near Steepside, mostly because nobody in that area could afford anything which would be sold as an antique rather than second-hand).
You’re being tricked! he shouted, silently. He’s playing you, and you’re falling right for it!
But he couldn’t say as much, not with Avebury right there, and not when the Archmage had no reason to trust him (and, if he was honest, several very good reasons to dismiss him as fanciful at best and delusional at worst). Instead, he clenched his fists and stared at the floor, willing the older magician to somehow read his mind and pick up on the fact that Avebury was lying.
If Verist did have mind-reading abilities, though, he apparently wasn’t about to admit as much. After another few moments of close examination, he handed the pendant back to Avebury and nodded once, sharply, as though the scrutiny had confirmed his suspicions. “Thank you. I’ll need to consult my books, of course, but I suspect that pendant of yours is a good deal older and at least somewhat more powerful than you were originally told.”
“Should I give it over into your care, sir?” the Sinnlenst asked, politely. “It’s precious to me, I’ll admit, but I don’t wish to cause any trouble – if it would be safer in your keeping, then I’m quite happy to hand it over.”
“That won’t be necessary,” the Archmage said, “though your concern is appreciated. My wards are very sensitive – they have to be, considering the kind of artefacts I deal with – but they’re almost entirely external to this place. Providing that you don’t go anywhere that you’re not supposed to, you’ll not trip any more of them, and I’m loathe to confiscate something with sentimental value unless it’s absolutely necessary.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“You’re welcome, Avebury.” He turned back towards Fest, apparently suddenly remembering his existence. “And you too, Fest. It’s been a long time since I’ve had apprentices in my keeping, so you’ll have to forgive me if my manners are a little rusty.”
His manners were, as far as Fest could tell, absolutely impeccable – but then again, his own were apparently countrified enough to cause half his class to fall about laughing, so he was hardly an expert where this kind of thing was concerned.
“There’s nothing to forgive, sir.” Though I wish you’d be just a little less trusting when it comes to Avebury. He’s not the kind of man you think he is. His stomach growled, loud enough to be audible, and he winced. “Sorry. It’s been a long time since breakfast.”
“And you didn’t stop to eat on the way?” the Archmage asked, smiling. “I commend your haste, but your planning could have been a little more well-thought-out.” He stepped away from the doorway, beckoning them inside. “Come, come, I’d be a poor host to keep you waiting on the doorstep any longer than I already have done. Cyra’s in the middle of putting together a supper for the three of us, but I’m sure she’ll be able to find something to tide the two of you over until that’s ready.”
“That sounds wonderful,” said Fest, earnestly. He wasn’t sure who exactly Cyra was, but if the meals she prepared were anything like those from back home, the day was looking up already. Although… “She does- um, that is to say, she does know that I’m a vampire, doesn’t she?”
“She does,” Verist confirmed. “And, luckily, we already had some blood stored in the wine cellar for guests such as yourself. It’s old, and I can’t speak to the taste, but it should hold you over until I can have Thomas ride down to the city for something a little fresher.”
“Thank you. Um. Is it-” There wasn’t really a tactful way to ask the question he needed to ask, especially when the person he was talking to wasn’t a vampire. He swallowed, sighed, and then said, apologetically, “Is it human? Only, I’m a red-eye, and we can’t drink animal blood, and I’m-” going to overexplain this, because I really don’t want to imply that I’m going to consider you and any other humans in your employ as possible food sources.
“It’s human. And from willing donors, or so I’m informed.”
“That’s- Thank you!” It’d likely be so strongly cut with alcohol that he’d have to drink half the amount he’d normally take, and it’d almost certainly taste horrific, but it was a good deal better than nothing, especially if Verist made good on his promise to have Thomas – whoever that was – bring back something better from the city in a day or two. “Should I- should we leave our bags here, or should we take them to our rooms, or-?”
“Leave the baggage for now,” Verist said. “I’ll find you something to eat, and then Thomas can show you to where you’re going to be sleeping while you’re here.” And, with that, he turned on his heel and limped away into the house, Fest and Avebury trailing in his wake.
If he was being entirely honest, Mortimer thought, he’d have been happier if the apprentices had taken a good deal longer on the road. For all he’d been dreading the conversation with his father, once they’d got past the initial awkwardness it’d felt as though they’d barely begun to catch up on everything they’d missed when they’d been forced to cut things short.
At least I managed to warn him about Avebury, I suppose. Even if it turns out that he already knew about him, which I honestly wasn’t expecting.
He’d forgotten – or, maybe, he’d never known – that Verist still kept in touch with certain members of the Order, despite his neutrality. And, it turned out, those members of the Order had been pretty much as worried as he’d been by the thought of Adam Avebury insinuating himself into the home of the foremost expert in pre-Fall artefacts in Sacaan.
I’ll not say it was a wasted journey, though. Not in the least.
He smiled to himself, tracing his fingers along the wallpaper as he made his way down the corridor. He knew every inch of the house, of course, but this particular set of rooms he could practically navigate blindfolded – and had, on numerous occasions, when he was busy amusing himself on rainy days as a child.
Of course there was also that time I walked headlong into a door and had a bruise the size of a goose egg for a week, but that’s a minor detail at best.
His old room was, apparently, still set aside for him (and that revelation had caused an upswelling of emotion that he wasn’t entirely ready to try and untangle quite yet), and he’d taken the opportunity while Verist was busy with the apprentices to bring his bag upstairs – the two of them might well know that he was going to be staying at the Hall, but he’d be damned if he’d let Avebury follow him up to where he was sleeping.
Bad enough that he’s going to be creeping around the place like a damn rat, without- what was that?
He stopped, pressing his hand flat against the wall, and cocked his head, trying to locate the source of whatever noise had dragged him out of his reverie. At first, he couldn’t make out anything out of the ordinary – but then, as he held his breath and strained his ears, he caught the very edge of what sounded like… footsteps?
Specifically, footsteps on the other side of the wall.
What? That doesn’t make any sense.
The Hall was large enough that it was perfectly possible to lose track of someone inside it – he’d used that to his advantage more than once when he was younger and more inclined to play tricks on people – but he was fairly bloody certain he knew where everyone should be.
Da’s in the front parlour, with Fest and Avebury. Cyra’s in the kitchen. Thomas is seeing to the horses in the yard. And nobody should be on the third floor behind the green baize door – those rooms have been locked up for years, barring spring cleaning.
Which means either one of those bloody apprentices is somewhere they shouldn’t be, or….
Or there was someone else sneaking around the house.
Carefully, moving as quietly as he could, he slipped his travelling bag off his shoulder and set it on the floor, freeing up his hand for his sword. It felt odd to draw steel indoors, but he’d be damned if he was going to let someone – or more than one someone – get the drop on him in his own house.
If it’s housebreakers, they’re likely to be armed and very possibly desperate. I’ll need to strike fast, if I’m going to strike at all.
The odds of someone having got past the wards and broken into the house without his father knowing were, as far as he knew, astronomically slim, but right now he wasn’t in the mood to trust to that kind of thinking.
Especially with Avebury’s pet monster on the loose. If Caine followed him up to the Hall, he could easily have slipped inside with nobody any the wiser.
Even with the reassuring heft of his sword-hilt in his hand, that was hardly a cheering thought. He’d not seen much of what Caine could do at the meeting – he’d been a little too busy trying to stay alive – but the little that he had seen hadn’t made him any more inclined to tangle with the bastard unless he absolutely had to.
Though… that sounds like more than one person, and I’m fairly certain Caine’s not the type to work with company. Or he wasn’t when he was still alive, anyway.
There was a crash from the other side of the wall, loud enough that he jumped, and someone swore, loudly and in a language he didn’t entirely recognise. The voice seemed oddly familiar, somehow, though he couldn’t immediately place its owner.
That’s definitely not Caine. And if they’re breaking things…
He leaned against the door, pushing it open with his bodyweight while keeping his sword ready in his hand – given the company he was mixing with on the regular at the moment, a voice being familiar didn’t automatically mean that it belonged to someone who had his best interests at heart – and stepped through into what was, in the usual course of things, an area very much off-limits to anyone of his rank.
At first, he couldn’t see hide nor hair of the possible housebreakers. Then, as his eyes adjusted to the gloom (there’d been no need to light the lamps in this part of the house for the past several years, after all), he made out a pair of forms a little further along the corridor. Both the intruders seemed to be kneeling or crouching on the floor – though, as he watched, one of them scrambled to their feet with a fluidity which suggested that they were likely non-human.
“Hold your blade. We’re friends.”
Mortimer wasn’t entirely inclined to take orders in his own house, but something about the voice made him pause. “Wait… Do I know you?”
“You should, though I’ll own it’s been a while.” The standing intruder raised his hands, making it quite clear that he wasn’t holding a blade. “William Julius Archer, at your service.”
“Harry Mortimer, at yours.” The reply came without his even thinking it, though he had to stop himself from laughing when he realised what he’d just done. “Gods, it’s been years! What’re you doing here?”
“I could ask the same of you,” Archer replied, “though I’m bloody glad to see you. I assume you’ve spoken to your father already?”
And how it went is honestly none of your business. But his father’s letter had told him to talk to Archer – and, truth be told, the presence of a fairly senior Order member in the house was making him a damn sight more confident about dealing with the whole business of Avebury and the apprenticeship, even if he wasn’t entirely sure what Archer was actually doing here. “It went well, I think. But… what on earth are you doing here?”
“Standin’ around makin’ a fuckin’ target of himself,” growled the second of the intruders, hauling himself to his feet with significantly less grace than Archer had managed. “If the two of you are plannin’ on makin’ a soddin’ three act play out o’ this, then close the fuckin’ door.”
And there’s the voice I recognised back in the passageway, Mortimer thought, stepping fully into the corridor and letting the door swing shut behind him (again, he wasn’t entirely happy about being told what to do in his own house, but he had to admit that Sabbat did have a point). So both of them are up here? That’s… surprising.
“I apologise for my companion’s manners,” Archer said, in a tone which implied that he’d had to say that rather a lot. “We’re looking-“
“Y’remember that conversation between me an’ Cervanso you wound up listenin’ in on in the alley?” Sabbat said, cutting Archer off mid-sentence. “Followin’ up on that.”
Mortimer did remember – though, admittedly, mostly because the embarrassment around the other conversations he’d had in that alleyway had permanently seared the recollection into his mind. I could have handled that entire situation better, I’ll admit, but in my defence I had just seen someone get his head ripped off.
“The artefact?” he said, out loud.
Sabbat nodded. “Reckoned your da’d have the best chance of workin’ out how the fuck t’get the bastardin’ thing t’stop whatever it is it’s doin’.”
“Any luck so far?”
“-th’fuck d’you think?”
“I’ll take that as a no, then.” Ask a stupid question, I suppose. “So the two of you are, what, staying up here until you figure out how to break it?”
“That’s about the shape of it, yes,” Archer said. “And, to answer your next question – no, we didn’t know that Avebury was likely to be heading up here. Hence the fact that we’re skulking around the servants’ quarters rather than behaving in any way like proper guests.”
Mortimer had to admit that he couldn’t entirely fault that logic. Though…. “And the fact that you’re doing it in the dark?”
“Couldn’t find a spare candle,” Sabbat said, bluntly. “An’ I ain’t about t’start lightin’ up sconces just t’turn ’em out again once we’ve been past, if there’s even any oil left in ’em t’begin with.”
Which, again, made sense – if the two of them were only using the corridor as a way to get to somewhere else in the house, leaving the lights burning would be a very good way of attracting attention that they likely wouldn’t welcome. Though, equally well, managing to drop something loudly enough that it could be heard on the other side of the green baize was also hardly likely to help them avoid detection. “If it’s candles you’re after, I can fetch some up from the kitchen. I’ll tell anyone who asks that I need them to light my room, and that I can’t be bothered fettling with lamp-oil until tomorrow.”
“That’d be very much appreciated,” Archer said, with a slight bow. “I would go myself, but I’ve little desire to accidentally cross paths with our Sinnlenst friend.”
“More than fair,” Mortimer agreed. “He’s on-edge enough about the fact that I’m here, and I’m supposedly on his side.”
“Ah yes. You’ll have to tell me more about that when the situation’s a little calmer.”
Why do I get the feeling that’s not a request? He wasn’t entirely sure what Sabbat had told Archer about him already – truth be told, he had very little idea what relationship the two men had, other than that it was apparently close enough that Archer had been Sabbat’s first port of call after leaving the Sinnlenst meeting – but if he wanted to make any headway within the Order, he might as well start by making a clean breast of things. “Of course.”
“Thank you,” Archer said, and sounded like he meant it. He cast a glance towards the boards at his feet and winced. “Ah. If you happen to run into Philip on your way to acquire the candles, could you tell him that I owe him a replacement resonance bowl?”
Well, that answered the question of what the crash he’d heard had been. “If we cross paths, I’ll tell him.” And, because his curiosity was now well and truly piqued (and he figured that they owed him the answer, given the circumstances), “What were you doing with it in the first place?”
Archer frowned. “That’s a long story, and one which would be better told in the light. We’re using the bedrooms at the far end of the corridor as workrooms for the moment – if you meet us there with the candles, I’ll tell you as much as I can.”
It was hardly an answer, but the point the vampire was trying to make was clear enough – if he wanted to know the details of what they were up to, he had to be willing to get involved.
If da knows they’re here – and he has to, if they’re borrowing his ritual supplies – then whatever it is they’re doing is almost certainly sanctioned. And, if I want to make something of myself when it comes to the Order, I could do a lot worse than help out.
He had other, less mercenary reasons for wanting to get involved, of course. Archer was a family friend, and Sabbat… well, Sabbat had helped save his life, if he was honest. Or, at least, they’d helped save each others’ lives, which netted him a certain amount of trust right off the bat. “I’ll get you your candles. Is there anything else you need, while I’m down there?”
“Not that I can-” Archer began, before Sabbat cut him off.
“See if y’can see your way to gettin’ some sort o’ dinner fixin’. Ain’t goin’ t’be able t’get much in the way of food if we’re sneakin’ around tryin’ t’hide from Sinnlenst.”
“That, I can definitely do. I’d rather not eat at the same table as Avebury myself, if I can avoid it.” And not just because stabbing your dinner guests tends to be generally viewed as bad manners.
“Thank you,” Archer said, though Mortimer wasn’t entirely sure whether he was thanking him for the promise of food or the agreement on Avebury’s lack of charms as a dinner companion. “And, if I can impose on you a little further, could you trouble Cyra for some blood?”
“Gods, not her own!” the vampire clarified, hurriedly. “She said she’d put some aside during preparation for dinner this evening, since I haven’t had the time to go out hunting for myself since we’ve been here.”
That… made a lot more sense, especially given what he knew of Archer’s personality. It’s not that long ago that vampire nobles all but expected their hosts to provide servants as blood dolls, though. Even the halfway decent ones are only a couple of generations away from that. “I’ll see what I can do,” he said out loud, and headed for the door, hoping to all the gods that Archer was worse at reading faces than he seemed.
“‘Could you trouble Cyra for some blood?’ Y’couldn’t think of a better way of puttin’ it?”
“Shut up,” Archer muttered, feeling the tips of his ears redden with embarrassment. “That wasn’t- I didn’t mean it like that, and you know it.”
“Course y’didn’t,” Sabbat replied, though he at least had the good grace to make it sound a little less sarcastic than usual. “Y’goin’ t’be alright?” he added, after a moment. “Din’t realise y’were that low already.”
You’re deflecting. But, for now, I’m minded to let you have it, not least because it keeps both of our minds off the problem that, as yet, we can’t solve. “I’ll be fine. In the worst case scenario, I’ll take some time out to hunt tonight after we’re done with the ritual.”
Sabbat scowled. “That ain’t the worst case. Worst case, y’drink some o’ mine.”
“No!” Archer said, the word jerking out of him with enough force that it came out as halfway a shout. He closed his eye, fighting back a wave of twisting nausea as the image of Sabbat’s face from the baths came back to him with a sudden horrible clarity – the dark shadows under his eyes, the twists of damp hair plastered to his brow, the grey pallor around his lips and nostrils. I won’t do that to you.
“Y’alright?” the assassin ventured, after a pause which went on just too long for comfort. He sounded… concerned, Archer thought, which was worrying in and of itself. I know he does care – I’ve more than enough proof of that fact – but he’s usually a damn sight better at hiding it.
“I’m fine,” he said, and winced at how immediately false the statement sounded. “Or rather, I will be. I…”
“Y’don’t want t’drink my blood on account o’ th’fact you’re scared you’ll kill me by doin’ it,” Sabbat said, bluntly. “An’ y’don’t need t’look so fuckin’ shocked – I’m ill, not fuckin’ dead. Can still figure things out for m’self, an’ you ain’t that hard t’read.”
Only because you’ve known me for over a decade, Archer thought, but it was halfway a reflexive defence. He opened his eye, catching the assassin’s gaze and holding it for a long moment. I want you to think about what you’ve just told me. I want you to recant that offer. Please.
“Ain’t about t’say you’re wrong,” Sabbat admitted, after a long moment. He scowled, and looked away. “Wish we knew how t’stop this fuckin’ thing. Least I could do is keep you standin’ while you figure it out, an’ turns out I can’t even do that.”
“There’s a damn sight more you can do than just offering me your blood,” Archer said, Sabbat’s uncharacteristic despondency lending a heat to his words that he hadn’t entirely intended. “We’re by no means done yet, and you’re too damn accomplished a magician to sit this out, even if you’re not working at your best at the moment. After all, you’re the one who came up with half the idea of this ritual – if we’re going to pull it off, it’s only right you should be doing at least half of it.”
“So y’can blame me when it goes wrong, y’mean?” the assassin retorted, but the un-frozen corner of his mouth turned upward in a brief smile. “You’re right, though. Sittin’ around moanin’ about it ain’t goin’ t’do much except make the both of us fuckin’ miserable, an’ the bastard behind this’d be fuckin’ laughin’ if they knew we were wastin’ our time feelin’ sorry for ourselves.”
He sounded, to Archer’s ears, rather more as though he was attempting to convince himself than anyone else. Still, I’ll take it. It means you’re still fighting. “Are you up to helping me carry the rest of this equipment to the workrooms? I can do it myself, but it’ll go faster with two.”
“Course I am. Ain’t about t’let you break any more of it, for a start.”
[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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