Why did I have to bring so many books? Fest groused, silently, as he dragged his trunk the last few feet to the open door of his room.
It had seemed like an excellent idea at the time – he was going to be away from the city for at least a month, so there’d be very little to distract him from finally making a dent in the collection of adventure novels he’d been building up since he’d arrived at university. What he’d failed to factor into this decision was that a whole trunk of full of novels (not to mention notebooks and assorted magical texts) was ridiculously heavy and awkward to manoeuvre, even for a vampire.
Almost there. Just have to get it inside the room, and then that’s the last of my belongings taken care of.
Avebury had brought almost as much kit, but, probably because he’d brought significantly fewer novels, he’d actually managed to get his possessions up to his room significantly faster – he was now lounging in the library downstairs, presumably looking through the books to find even more topics he could show Fest up on.
The joke’s on him. I actually brought my university texts, and I’m fairly bloody certain he didn’t.
Not that it was going to matter much if Avebury managed to charm his way into Verist’s good graces. The Archmage might be the most respected magician this side of the mountains, but at the end of the day he was still as fallible as anyone else – and, worse, didn’t know enough about who he was dealing with to see Avebury as anything other than what he appeared to be on the surface.
And, if that’s what we’re comparing, I’ll admit that I don’t exactly measure up.
He did have one skill which the Sinnlenst lacked, of course. But, given what he and Anneke had worked out about how his sorcery worked – and the fact that he still couldn’t consistently control it – he had the distinct impression that trying to leverage that as a way of making himself stand out would be an exceptionally poor idea.
Not least because, if it works like I think it does, I’d need to get someone to properly threaten me for the power to even manifest in the first place.
No. If he wanted to compete with Avebury for Verist’s attention, he was going to have to do it the way that feuding apprentices had done since time immemorial: book-learning, demonstration of ability in practical tasks, and, perhaps, if it came down to it, a little light sabotage.
It doesn’t count as cheating if he’s a Sinnlenst, he thought, shoving the trunk against the wall under the window and kicking the door closed. And, besides, it’s hardly as though he’s not going to be trying to get at me the same way.
In fact, he’d already caught Avebury trying to make off with one of his bundles of textbooks earlier, though the other boy had claimed that he’d just got confused about whose baggage was whose (an excuse which Fest didn’t buy for a moment, especially given the tone Avebury had delivered it in).
I’m fairly sure that’s all he’s managed to do so far. Though… I wonder if Anneke knows more about what he might be up to. After all, they did give me that letter.
They’d said it was about the break-in at the temple – which in and of itself meant it was something he should definitely devote some time to studying – but what if they’d been trying to throw Avebury off the scent? Maybe they’d somehow managed to work out exactly why the Sinnlenst had rigged things so the two of them had ended up at the Hall, and they’d given him the letter so that he could properly understand what he was dealing with.
And maybe I’m clutching at straws because I still don’t understand what his game is.
He sighed and threw himself backwards onto the bed, staring up at the ceiling as thought it would somehow magically reveal the answer to his problems. What he should be doing was dressing for dinner – his travelling clothes were too stained and dirty to be in any way respectable, and he wanted to make a decent impression on his first evening – but after a day of riding in a sleigh and several hours of wandering around the house being lectured, the last thing he wanted to do at the moment was stand up again.
At the very least I should read Anneke’s letter. It might give me an idea of what’s going on – or, if it doesn’t, it’ll at least be a distraction.
He’d thrown his coat onto the foot of the bed when he’d dragged the first of his boxes up here – he reached out an arm, snagged the collar, and pulled it towards him, his other hand going to the pocket where he’d put the letter when Anneke had first given it to him.
It wasn’t there.
He sat up, dragged the coat fully onto his lap, and began rifling through each of the pockets in turn. Maybe he’d misremembered where he’d put it – after all, it’d been a long day, and he’d been fairly distracted when Anneke had handed it to him. It was entirely likely that he’d stuck it in a completely different pocket and just forgotten.
Ten minutes later, and with every single pocket on his outfit emptied out into an ever-increasing pile of sealing wax and marbles and notepaper and string and other useful detritus in the middle of the bed, he was forced to admit that there was no possible way the letter was still on his person. Which meant one of two things: either he’d dropped it somewhere, or someone had stolen it.
Neither option was good, but the second was significantly more worrying, especially given the fact that he was sharing space with a Sinnlenst.
We were sitting side by side all the way up to the Hall, but the letter wasn’t in the pocket closest to him – at least, I think it wasn’t – and, anyhow, surely I’d have noticed if he’d taken his hands off the reins for long enough to try and pick my pocket? And, since we’ve been at the Hall, we’ve barely been standing that close to each other. He’s had no opportunity to-
Avebury hadn’t had an opportunity to take the letter off his person, that much was true. But the two of them had taken off their outer coats in the entryway when they arrived – Fest had gone back to collect his when he’d started taking the boxes up to his room because he wanted to keep as many of his possessions as possible in one place, but until that point…
Anyone could have taken it.
At least, anyone who was currently present in the house. He could discount himself and Mortimer, for a start (unless the other Sinnlenst spy was a double agent, at which point the missing letter would be the least of his problems), and the Archmage hadn’t been out of his sight since they’d arrived, meaning that unless he was terrifyingly good at sleight of hand (which was always a possibility), he wouldn’t have had the opportunity to take the letter either.
Which leaves Cyra, Thomas, and Avebury.
Cyra and Thomas both seemed like decent people from the few interactions he’d had with them, and he wasn’t about to fall into the trap of assuming that servants weren’t to be trusted just because they were servants… but, then again, planting a spy in the Archmage’s household would be a very good way for the Sinnlenst to get information they might otherwise not be able to acquire.
But then again, the Archmage is famously neutral, which means he’s almost certainly the kind of person who’d look into the backgrounds of any servants he hired – or, at least, get someone else to do it for him – which means that if one of them is a Sinnlenst spy then we’re looking at a whole conspiracy to get them in place, and…
And I’m stalling again, aren’t I?
There was only one logical answer – only one person who’d seen him put the letter in his pocket, who had the motive to want to steal it, and who, in the confusion of boxes and baggage in the entrance hall, might just have had the opportunity to do so.
Which meant that his letter from Anneke, and the knowledge of whatever it contained, was now in the possession of Adam Avebury.
I think I’m going to be sick.
It was entirely possible that there was nothing incriminating in the letter – or, at least, nothing which Avebury could use to tie either of them conclusively to the Order. It was entirely likely, in fact, that Anneke had been smart enough to make the whole thing as innocuous as possible, especially since they’d handed it over while Avebury was present.
Somehow, that didn’t make him feel any better.
It’s my damn letter. He has no right to it!
He could always go and demand it back, of course. Accuse Avebury of theft in front of everyone, call him out for being a liar and cheat and a godsdamn blackmailing coward, and-
And then what? He’ll deny everything, of course. Make out that I’m overtired, or delusional, or acting out because I can’t control my hunger. And then I’ll lose my temper, and my power’ll flare up, and then…
He flopped back onto the bed, blinking back the tears of helpless rage pricking at the corners of his eyes.
It’s not fair! There’s nothing I can do to get even with him, and he knows, and he’s going to keep poking at me until I fucking snap and do something I’ll regret, and-
A sudden sound shocked him out of his despair – the ringing of a bell, sharp and clear, echoing down the corridor.
He scrambled to his feet, throwing open the lid of his clothes trunk and tearing through the contents in search of something which looked even remotely presentable.
“Dammit, dammit, dammit! I am not going to be late for dinner on top of everything else!”
“I trust you’ve already dressed for dinner,” Avebury said, looking up from the book he was leafing through as the sound of the bell broke in on the silence of the library. “You’ll forgive me if I can’t tell – you do seem to have something of a limited wardrobe.”
Mortimer scowled into his own book, trying to pretend that he’d not heard the comment – or, more accurately, that it hadn’t bothered him. It shouldn’t have – objectively it was a cheap shot, and barely worth rising to – but he had to admit that it’d stung more than he’d have liked: he’d not been able to spend money on new clothes since he’d gone on half-pay, and he was keenly aware of the threadbare patches at his knees and elbows and the tarnished embroidery tracing the edges of his waistcoat (not to mention the fact that the waistcoat itself was almost a decade out of style, since he’d only been able to afford to buy fourth-hand).
I could always ask da for money for a new wardrobe, I suppose. But that’d be admitting defeat, and I’m damned if I’ll do that, even if he has apologised.
“I said, I trust you’ve already dressed for dinner,” the Sinnlest repeated, apparently determined to make sure that his oh-so-sodding-funny joke garnered a reaction.
“I heard you the first time,” Mortimer growled, and then immediately regretted it. He knew that rising to the bait was only going to encourage Avebury to continue along that train of thought, but he’d be damned if he’d sit there and let the bastard insult him with impunity in his own house. And if I don’t acknowledge him, he’s only going to keep needling me until he finds something which I can’t sit there and ignore, and that ends worse.
“Ah. good. I was wondering for a moment if you’d added temporary deafness to your list of impairments.”
There’s a sneer in that I don’t much like. But then again, there was a sneer in most of what Avebury said – it seemed to be a permanent feature of the Sinnlenst’s voice – so he couldn’t exactly say one way or the other as to whether it’d been explicitly directed at his missing arm. Doesn’t make much sense if so – there’s enough folks missing limbs in the city that it’s hardly novel the way it is in some places further south. But then again, when’s he ever let sense get in the way of finding an avenue to get at someone through? “Like I said, I heard you. I just didn’t think it was worth replying.”
“Then my assumption was correct. That, or you’ve no clothes to change into and you’d rather not admit that in front of me.”
“Why are you so damn obsessed with my clothes?”
“It’s hardly my fault that you dress as though you bought your outfit from the funeral priests, Harry. You’re lucky that our dinner companions are so countrified they’re unlikely to notice.”
“You do realise that’s my father you’re talking about,” Mortimer said, keeping his voice as level as possible. “And, though you seem to have forgotten the fact, you’re a guest in his house.” And mine, though you either don’t care or don’t remember as much.
“And you’ll go running to him to tell him, will you? I’ve no intention of making any comments while we’re at table – and, besides, eccentric academics are exempt from following the tides of fashion.”
He had a point, damn him. Da might’ve asked me to keep him abreast of anything Avebury might be planning, but I doubt ‘insulting my fashion sense’ falls into that category. Not to mention the fact that running to him to complain about being insulted by a brat of a student several years my junior looks immature at best and actively childish at worst.
“To bring it back to your original point,” he said, after the silence had dragged on long enough to be awkward, “I haven’t dressed for dinner yet. Mostly because there’s no bloody point – as you said, we’re so rustic out here that nobody’d notice whether I changed or not. But also because you haven’t left this room yet, and I’m not leaving until you do.”
“Do you not trust me?” the Sinnlenst asked, with an air of wounded dignity which would have been significantly more convincing if he’d managed to keep the corner of his mouth from curling upward into a self-satisfied smirk. “And here I thought we were on the same side.”
How much does he know? If Avebury had realised he was Order, this conversation might be about to get a damn sight bloodier. “After what your pet monster did to Tyburn? Of course I don’t bloody trust you.”
“Come now, that’s no way to talk about a fellow Sinnlenst.”
“That thing isn’t a fellow anything. It’s an abomination.” In truth, he’d not been particularly close with Tyburn – he was a Sinnlenst, after all – but Sinnlenst or no, he’d not deserved the death he’d suffered at the hands of whatever Caine had become. And, if he was honest, Caine himself hadn’t deserved what Avebury and Foreval had done to him (though when had that ever stopped either of them?) “If you’d any sense, you’d kill it and have done with it.”
“Oh, but he’s far too useful to throw away that easily,” Avebury said, the corners of his eyes crinkling with barely-suppressed amusement. “Don’t you think?”
“Is that a threat?” If it was, there was hardly much he could do about it at the moment – not without drawing steel, at least – but he’d be damned if he’d let the bastard get away with that under his roof.
Avebury raised a placating hand, though he was still smiling. “Does it have to be? As I said, we’re on the same side.” He tilted his head, expression almost comedically quizzical. “Aren’t we?”
“If you mean that we agree on the fact that magic needs to be controlled, then yes, we’re on the same side. That doesn’t mean I agree with your motives. Or your methods.”
“And what would you know of either?” The Sinnlenst’s smile was fading now, real irritation creeping in at the edges of his tone. “For someone who’s barely been a part of our organisation for a year, you seem suddenly very informed on the minutiae of internal disputes. Or are you simply repeating what Johann told you?”
“I know what you did to Caine. That tells me enough about where you stand in the whole damn debate.”
“You know nothing about what happened to Caine,” Avebury shot back, shutting his book with a snap that echoed around the room. “And I’d thank you to keep your nose out of affairs that don’t concern you.”
“That thing ripped Tyburn’s head off!”
“And not yours, or you’d not be here to complain at me about it. He had orders and he fulfilled them, which is more than I can say for certain other members of our organisation.”
“Do you remember our conversation before you left the city?” Avebury asked, his voice deceptively light.
Despite himself, Mortimer felt a sudden chill crawl up his backbone, the memory of the dark shape lurking on the rooftops above the alleyway pushing its way unwanted into his recollection. “Damn you,” he said, quietly but with feeling. “Damn you to the hells. What do you want from me?”
“As I said back then, you’re still walking because I will it. And, strange as it may seem, Harry, I honestly don’t want to have to kill you.” He leant forward in his chair, pushing his glasses back up his nose with one forefinger. “Your little rebellion is doomed before it even starts, but that doesn’t mean there’s no place in the organisation for someone with your obvious talents. All you’d need to do is give up this ridiculous pretence that the so-called ‘rules’ of this war mean anything, accept the fact that the ends vastly outweigh the means, and throw your lot in with those of us on the right side of history.”
“That’s an interesting proposition.” Not least because it’s more information about what he and his are actually after than I’ve been anywhere close to getting before this point. “Shame it doesn’t explain any of the crap your gang’s pulled.”
“Oh please,” Avebury said, scornfully. “I’m hardly likely to give you the full details of my plan at this juncture, am I? Do you take me for some sort of gloating penny-dreadful villain?”
If the comparison offends you that much, maybe stop threatening to have your pet monster rip the head off anyone who disagrees with you. But needling him about that wasn’t going to make this conversation go anywhere useful – and, more to the point, might be a bloody good way to lose whatever protection he currently had from the Turned. Though as far as I’m aware, he’s still back in the city. Or at least, I bloody hope to all the gods he is.
Out loud, he said “And how exactly are you expecting to convince me to throw my lot in with your crowd if you won’t tell me what it is you’re after? Even the recruiting sergeants for the companies manage a better spiel than that.”
“A fair touch,” Avebury admitted, after a moment. “Though I’m still not about to give you every single detail of the great work. Let us just say that, when it comes to end goals, mine far outstrip any that Johann and the more traditionalist members of our organisation could even begin to consider – and, to that end, I am more than willing to use whatever tools come my way.”
“And that includes Viola?” Mortimer asked, before he could stop himself.
The Sinnlenst sighed. “I don’t see why you’re so fixated on the woman, but yes. Miss Cervanso is both a very capable asset in her own right, despite her obvious disadvantages, and also an exceptionally useful piece in the game. And, as I said, I don’t take kindly to poachers.”
“And, as I said, she’s her own bloody person.”
“And she’s also not here, so I don’t see what the issue is. Honestly, if I didn’t know better, I’d say you were sweet on her.”
Mortimer ground his teeth, fighting back the urge to haul off and break Avebury’s nose for him. “Am I not allowed to be concerned for the wellbeing of a new recruit? Especially one who’s fallen into your clutches?”
“Again, I’m not some kind of penny-blood bandit.” He took his glasses off, polished them ostentatiously on his sleeve, and slipped them back on, adjusting them with a motion which seemed almost insultingly casual. “More to the point, I have taste.”
“Oh, you are sweet on her. Well, that’s awkward.”
“I’m-” Mortimer began, before something made him stop and swallow the denial he’d been about to throw back in Avebury’s face. If he believes that, then… gods, that could be useful for the both of us. Not to mention giving me cover if I’m ever followed to the Luciels’ house, since I can always say I was sneaking in to see her.
I only hope she’s not going to want to kill me too badly when she finds out what I’ve done.
“What’s it to you?” he said, out loud, hoping against hope that the Sinnlenst hadn’t noticed exactly how long he’d taken to respond.
“Oh, nothing. Except for the fact that she’s apparently walking out with someone else.”
Of all the reactions he’d been expecting to his lie, that hadn’t even made the list.
Quick – how would someone who was interested in her that way respond? The problem was, he’d never been in a position to be interested in anyone like that – anyone other than Amelia, that is, and the idea of her walking out with someone else had never entered either of their heads – so he had no bloody clue what Avebury might be expecting. Should I be jealous? Interested? Enraged? Despondent?
Damn it, this seemed like such a bloody good idea a minute ago.
“Believe me, I’m as surprised as you are,” Avebury went on, apparently mistaking his silence for shock or disbelief. “Some kind of Docksider, from his looks, but she does seem to care for him. Of course, you could always ensure that your competition is… let’s say removed from the picture.”
‘Some kind of Docksider’? Dockside meant either non-Sacaask or mixed, at least when used with that intonation – the area around the docks had a higher-than-average percentage of immigrants from the other nations of Aventris, not to mention a burgeoning Kasawit population now that the trade route between Sacaan and Kasawe was properly open. Now who do I know who Viola might care about who doesn’t look immediately native Sacaask?
Oh gods and goddesses, he doesn’t mean Sabbat, does he?
“I’m not going to assassinate whoever she’s walking out with just because you don’t like the look of him.” Especially if you’re talking about who I think you’re talking about. Though if that’s the case, it’s not just Viola I’m going to have to worry about wanting to murder me.
“Perish the thought. But if removing him from the picture bound her more closely to our organisation, you’d be acting out of loyalty to the cause rather than petty jealousy. Especially if you were able to arrange it in such a way that it looked as though the Order were responsible.”
Oh this gets better and sodding better. He turned away, coughing into his sleeve to hide what would otherwise have been a slightly manic laugh. “Really? And you think that’d work?”
“It would certainly demonstrate your own commitment to the cause. And, as we both know, Miss Cervanso has a somewhat formidable temper – if she were to be convinced that the Order had murdered her beloved, I’m sure that we could direct that rage towards any number of worthy targets.”
I swear by all the gods, if this ends with us having to fake a sixdamn assassination… “You realise what you’re asking me to do goes against one of the core principles of this whole damn thing, don’t you? Family’s not to be touched – only those who’ve sworn into the societies are valid targets.”
“Oh, I’m fully aware. But equally well, we both know that the rules of this game have only the weight that we choose to give them. Why should we be held back by the scruples – no, the cowardice of the old guard when we have the means to strike a decisive victory within our grasp?” He smiled, standing up from his chair and heading for the door of the library. Over his shoulder, he added: “Think about it, at least.”
“I will,” Mortimer assured him. Not least because you’ve just given me a good deal more about what you’re planning than the Order’s been able to get in months of work – at least, as far as I’m aware from that conversation with Viola – and there’s more than a few people who’ll be very interested in that information.
Of course, he still needed to work out how in the name of the gods he was going to get himself out of the Sinnlenst and in with the Order, but that was a problem for another day. Right now, I need to keep an eye on the bastard and work out exactly what he’s up to here.
And, he amended, as a startled yelp came from beyond the door, stop him happening to anyone else.
“Get your damn hands off me!” Fest yelled, shoving Avebury away from him with all the force he could muster – which, given his vampiric strength, was enough to send the other boy tumbling backwards into a crumpled heap on the floor.
He’d been the one in the wrong, he’d admit as much – he shouldn’t have been running down the stairs, and, even if that’d been allowed, he definitely should have been looking where he was going – but Avebury had still had no right to lay hands on him, especially in such a way that it’d been very clear that he’d been trying to get his fingers into Fest’s pockets while supposedly helping him upright.
If I didn’t know before that it was you who took the letter, that cinches it!
“Careful,” the Sinnlenst hissed, pushing himself to his feet. A strand of hair had come loose from his queue – he tucked it back behind his ear and adjusted his glasses, glaring at Fest over the top of them. “Keep behaving in that way and people might think you can’t control yourself.”
“Don’t try and steal from me, then!” He could feel the power rising behind his eyes, fierce and terrible and all too easy to draw on if he wanted it, but at that moment he didn’t care. If the Sinnlenst wanted to bait him, then he’d get what he bloody deserved, wouldn’t he?
Avebury raised an eyebrow. “Are you calling me a thief?”
“If you don’t like it, don’t try and pickpocket me!”
“As though I’d waste my time with anything you might be carrying,” Avebury sneered. “If something of yours has gone missing, look to the servants or the floor of the sleigh – it’s a good deal more likely that you simply misplaced it. After all, you obviously aren’t thinking clearly at the moment.”
“That’s not- I- You-” Damn it, I know you’re the one who stole my bloody letter! But, equally well, he didn’t have any proof of that fact, and it was hardly as though he could force the other boy to empty his pockets.
And if he’s smart, he won’t be carrying it around anyway, and then I’ll look even more of a fool. Gods, why can’t things ever be easy?
“It’s understandable that you’re angry,” Avebury went on, in a tone reasonable enough that it made Fest’s teeth itch. “You’ve had a long day – and, as far as I’m aware, you’ve not managed to slake your thirst since we left the city. I know that tends to make your kind… irrational, let’s say.”
That’s not- That isn’t what this is at all! But, equally well, Avebury wasn’t wrong about the lack of blood – and, now that he’d mentioned it, Fest could feel the hunger gnawing at his belly as though it had teeth of its own. Maybe he’s right. Maybe I am getting irrational.
But even if that’s the case, he still stole Anneke’s letter!
“Were you planning on helping him with that, or are you just going to stand there and point out the bleeding obvious?”
And now Verist’s son’s involved as well. Oh that was the last thing I bloody needed!
Bad enough that he’d lost his temper with Avebury – and, now that the immediate rush of adrenaline was receding, that fact was undeniably apparent – but he’d managed to do it in front of an audience.
Gods. If he thinks that I’m not capable of controlling myself, then…
“Stop baiting the lad,” Mortimer went on, crossing to place himself between the two of them. “It’s unkind, and it makes you look like the worst kind of bully. If he’s thirsty – and the gods know neither of us have the experience to know what that feels like – then the decent thing to do is find him something to drink, not needle him for it.” He turned to face Fest fully, extending his hand. “Here.”
Does- Does he want me to shake hands with him? I don’t understand what’s going on here.
“You’re shaking. Take hold of my hand and squeeze it – not as hard as you can, I don’t want broken bones, but hard enough that you can feel the pressure. It’ll help keep you grounded.”
Fest did as he was told, careful not to crush the human’s hand in his grip as he did so. To his surprise, he felt his heartrate slowing as his fingers tightened around Mortimer’s – he closed his eyes for a moment, concentrating on the texture of the rough skin of the older man’s palm, and felt the wave of power which had been building in the back of his skull slowly drain back to wherever it had come from. Though I don’t know if that’s because there’s actually something to this or because he’s told me that it’s supposed to help and my brain’s doing the rest of it.
“As for you,” Mortimer said, turning to Avebury (who’d apparently taken the opportunity to adjust his waistcoat and retie his queue, and now looked distinctly less ruffled). “If you can’t be useful, you can at least take the time to go get yourself changed. Or are you planning on embracing the rural atmosphere like the rest of us?”
The Sinnlenst flushed and turned on his heel, heading back towards his room at a speed which was very almost – though not quite – a run. Mortimer watched him go, then turned his attention back to Fest. “I’d apologise for the bastard, but he’s honestly not my problem. Are you alright?”
“Er… I think so. Sorry.”
“Nothing to apologise for,” Mortimer said, carefully retrieving his hand. He jerked his head towards the stairs down to the ground floor. “C’mon. Sooner we’re at table, the sooner we can get you something to drink.”
“That sounds wonderful,” Fest said, with feeling.
[START (SERIES) – Blood on the Snow: Chapter 1]
[Author’s note: this is raw NaNo content, so I apologise for the likely increased number of typos]
Copyright © 2022 by Finn McLellan. All rights reserved.
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