[Author’s note: This takes place pretty much exactly a year before the start of Blood on the Snow]
There were plenty of things Sabbat could’ve been doing with his solstice.
Drinking, for one, since that was part and parcel of the way Sacaan celebrated the longest night, and booze was a damn sight cheaper than the kind of slap-up meal the toffs’d likely be sitting down to (though most of the places he could get halfway decent liquor would also serve him a decent enough meal to go along with it). Taking advantage of the fact that half the rest of the city would be getting drunk to lighten a few purses, for another – plenty of rich idiots who fancied touristing down in the slums, and fully half of them so plastered even the most cack-handed pickpocket’d be able to lighten them of everything they were carrying and then some. Hells, if he was feeling particularly inclined to violence, he could always roll one of the silver-spoon swaggerers who thought coming down Steepside every festival and kicking in a few beggars made them proper street thugs – though, unless there was a whole pack of them on the prowl, an honest barfight’d scratch that itch significantly better and with less chance for the Watch to get involved.
Point was, there were any number of things he could’ve chosen to do with his evening. Which was, of course, why he was currently hanging one-handed off a gutter four storeys above the ground in one of the richest districts in the city, trying desperately to get a toe-hold on the icy stonework and swearing a mental blue streak at the owners of the house, the concept of solstice presents, and whatever bastard had decided that what the world really needed in the way of instruments was a godsdamn wooden fife with delusions of grandeur.
He hadn’t had to steal the flute, of course. But Archer’d mentioned that he wanted one, back in a conversation during the heatwave, when there’d been nothing to do but talk, and apparently nobody in the city made anything near as good as the ones you could get back in Efir. And since he couldn’t go to Efir, and he’d be damned if he’d get Archer some shonky splintered piece of shit from one of the pawnshops down the way, the only logical course of action had been to work out who in the city had a flute which’d match the specifications that they’d not immediately miss, and then go and take it.
And it’d gone fucking brilliantly, at first.
He’d cased the house easy enough – there was a decent forest of chimneys across the street that he could use to keep an eye, and it’d not taken him more than a couple of days to work out the likely ways of getting in and out of the place – and, knowing that the owners’d be away visiting family for the solstice itself, he’d timed the break-in to take place right around the time the place’d be empty and unguarded, and when the quarter’s Watch’d have their hands full with the kind of disorder that even the richer neighbourhoods couldn’t quite get away from on this particular night.
The flute’d even been where he’d assumed it would be, rather than hidden away in some attempt to foil would-be thieves (but then again, he’d picked this house specifically because they owned enough in the way of instruments that they’d not notice one simple wooden flute go missing), and he’d had the opportunity to half-inch a few other treasures on his way back out of the room – nothing that’d be missed, but plenty that he could fence down in Old Town for the money for new boots and a replacement set of throwing knives, and enough left over for Smoke besides.
And then the street door had banged open, and there’d been a roar of wine-blurred shouting voices and a clatter of hobnails on the flags of the entrance hall, and he’d remembered far too damn late that the couple who owned the house had a trio of grown children, and that at least one of them hadn’t left the city for the season.
He’d got in through the back door – no chance of getting out that way, not without being spotted, and most of the windows were shuttered properly tight and locked to boot (and newer locks, which meant spending a longer time to pick them if he didn’t want to just break out). But the shutters on the attic windows were a fuck of a lot older than the ones on the rest of the house, which meant that he’d been able to make a decent guess that the windows behind them were likely still the older style, and thus a fuck of a lot easier to spring the locks on.
The attic windows had been older. The problem was, so had the fucking roof tiles.
Which meant that when he’d slipped open the shutter and eased his way out onto the roof, the tiles had shot away under his feet and he’d wound up skidding on his arse and one leg down the snow and ice covered slope and out over the edge, only saving himself from a long drop and a sudden stop by grabbing hold of the gutter with the hand which wasn’t currently clenched around the bastard flute (and wrenching seven hells out of his shoulder in the process).
Could always drop the damn flute. Enough snow at the bottom of the fall that it ain’t that likely to break, and it’d be easier than climbing down with it.
And then some other bastard might make off with it, and that’d be the whole fucking trip wasted, and he’d little enough time to get back to Archer’s rooms without factoring in hunting down whoever’d nicked the fucking thing and taking it back off ’em.
And his fingers were starting to slip.
Moving quickly, he swung himself sideways enough to get his legs locked around the drainpipe – uncomfortable as all hells, but better than the fall – and, in the same movement, shoved the flute down inside his waistcoat and grabbed onto the gutter with his right hand just as his left gave way.
The drainpipe creaked ominously as it took the majority of his weight, sending his stomach dropping down into his boots, but after a shuddering moment it settled again, still apparently as firmly fixed to the wall as it had been before there’d been an assassin clinging to it.
Thank the gods for Sacaask ironwork. And thank the Lady for thieves’ good fortune.
Almost too close to calling on Her directly, that, but She’d forgive him for a lapse in the heat of the moment (not that there was much heat this far above the ground, with the ice cold wind whistling around his ears and the metal biting into his skin even through the leather of his gloves and the thick fabric of his trews).
Just need to get down to the ground, then.
Easier said than done, especially with the fucking flute wedged down the front of his waistcoat and jabbing him in the side of the neck every time he moved his head wrong. But he’d climbed with worse impediments – hells, he’d spent a whole season climbing one-handed back when he was a kid – and all he had to do was get back down to street level without being spotted and he’d be free and clear and (if he was really bloody lucky) able to get across to Archer’s rooms with more than enough time for a catnap before breakfast.
So of course the moment he made it down past the second storey and was starting to think that he might be able to get away without anything else going wrong, one of the loud bastards loitering in the hall decided to step out for a smoke.
Fucksake. Couldn’t have waited another five minutes, could you?
Easiest way round the situation’d just be to keep climbing, slow and quiet and steady, drop down behind the potential witness, and stab him in the back. But adding murder to the robbery wasn’t likely to make the Watch any less interested in the case, and Archer’d likely have more than a few words for him about killing when it wasn’t strictly necessary. (Also there was no need for some idiot who wasn’t even Sinnlenst to die for stepping out for a cigarette at the wrong time, but that was a distant third to the two more obvious problems with that particular plan).
Fine. New plan. Stay put and hope the bastard isn’t the kind to linger over his smokes.
Given how fucking cold it was, lingering seemed unlikely unless there was more than just tobacco in the cigarette – and, if that was the case, the smoker’d likely be too wrapped up in his own head to notice someone sneaking past him, especially in the dim light and with the snow swirling thick enough to practically count as fog.
Course, holding onto a metal drainpipe in this weather ain’t exactly something I’m going to be able to do for too long either.
He was fairly certain he’d lost feeling in the tips of at least two fingers on his left hand by the time the bastard finally dropped his glowing cigarette stub into the snow and headed back inside, and the patches of his skin which were pressing closest against the pipe had gone through pain and out into that halfway-numb state which’d hurt like hell the moment he got back into the warm. But the way down was clear again, and he’d not had to do anything which’d give Archer cause to Look at him (with the exception of the theft, but that was factored in already. If Archer didn’t want stolen gifts, he’d not be best friends with a thief).
Fine. Right. Ain’t anything we haven’t done before. Down as far as we can, then drop the rest of the way. Snowdrift’ll muffle any noise and soften the landing. Then back to Archer’s place and-
The door swung open again, spilling lamplight onto the frozen street, and a pair of entwined shapes stumbled out into the snow, laughing loudly and clinging to each other in a way that made it fairly fucking clear neither of them were sober enough to stand up by themselves.
Oh for fuck’s sake!
He was close enough to the ground now that, if they looked up, they’d be almost certain to spot him, and the ache in his hands and hips told him that climbing back up the drainpipe was going to be a losing proposition even if he’d been minded to do it. Which left two options.
Stay still and pray to the Lady that they’re too wrapped up in each other to notice anything out of the ordinary, or-
His right hand made the decision for him, the palm of his glove slipping on the rime coating the metal of the pipe and unbalancing him enough that the only reasonable course of action was to follow through with the drop rather than try to salvage it. He managed to land relatively quietly, at least, which meant that by the time one of the two tangled figures belatedly realised that something interesting might’ve happened and that they should probably be at least vaguely aware of that fact, he was already upright and leaning against the wall as though he’d also stepped out for a smoke.
“It’s loud in there!” the closest of the two told him, as though he’d discovered some great truth of the universe. “And there’s no half-decent wine in the whole cellar!” He staggered, leaning hard against the other man, and waved a hand unsteadily in his direction. “You don’t have a light, do you?”
Course he did. But giving him a light meant he’d stick around to smoke, and the longer he and his partner were out here, the more likely it’d be that one of them would notice the flute sticking out of the top of Sabbat’s waistcoat – or, possibly worse, deciding to try and follow him back to wherever he was going out of a drunken desire to make friends with random strangers.
“Sorry,” he said, out loud, flattening his accent into a passable approximation of Archer’s ‘being polite to drunk people’ voice (or, more accurately, ‘being polite to drunk people who weren’t Sabbat’). “Can’t help you, I’m afraid. Maybe one of your friends inside…?”
“Oh, they’re all useless! And they’re not my friends anyhow, I just know Ivan from dancing class and he invited me along.” He blinked blearily in Sabbat’s direction for a moment, then added, in what he probably thought was a conspiratorial tone, “Not that I’m saying it’s not been worth it, though, because Vale here is wonderful.“
‘Vale’, who seemed to be slightly less drunk than his partner (which wasn’t hard), rolled his eyes and patted the other man on the shoulder. “You’re drunk, but you’re wonderful as well. And it’s sodding freezing out here, so how about you stop bothering the nice man and we head back inside, huh?” He looked over his partner’s head, catching Sabbat’s eye and mouthing a brief apology before he turned to shepherd the other man back indoors.
Sabbat waited until the two of them were safely on the other side of the closed door before finally letting out a breath he was very much aware he’d been holding.
That was close. Too bloody close.
The two of them might’ve been drunk, but drunk or not, they’d come dangerously close to unravelling his whole bloody plan. He shifted position slightly, loosening his belt and allowing the flute to slide down from his torso to the outside left leg of his trews. It was an awkward enough length that he’d not be able to bend that knee properly, but he wasn’t intending to run – right now, the easiest way of getting out of the area was to just keep walking (or, in his case, limping) and blend in with the crowds of revellers flooding down the main thoroughfares.
Can break off to Tanner Street from the corner by the bookshop. Assuming Archer’s not changed the locks, might as well take the opportunity to go in by the front door – save climbing up to the back window with this bastard thing in tow.
Archer hadn’t changed the locks.
In fact, when Sabbat finally made his way up the stairs inside the house on Tanner Street and let himself into Archer’s rooms, he found a note waiting for him on the table by the door, along with a bowl of stewed fruit and a mug of mulled cider, both sat atop one of the warming plates Archer’d picked up a couple of years back in one of the markets down by the harbour.
Help yourself to anything you need – the first aid kit’s in the usual place, and there’s more food on the side by the samovar, as well as all the fixings for tea. Wake me up if you need me, otherwise I’ll see you at breakfast.
P.S. I’d appreciate it if you tried not to bleed all over my sitting room this year.’
“Bastard,” he muttered, but there wasn’t much heat behind it. “An’ that was one time.”
Admittedly, he had ruined one of Archer’s armchairs by bleeding on it, but that hadn’t been his fault – it was the fucking Sinnlenst who’d started the fight, even if he’d been the one to finish it.
“Din’t even get scratched this year.”
Course, he still couldn’t feel his hands properly, the lower half of his spine ached like a bastard, and his left leg was starting to complain fairly fucking forcefully about the fact there was a fucking flute shoved down the side of his trews, but he wasn’t bleeding, so it didn’t count.
And he still needed to hide the sixdamn flute.
Specifically, he needed to find somewhere to put the bloody thing where Archer would find it – and where he’d not accidentally break it in the process, or the entire sodding exercise would’ve been for nothing.
Rules out hiding it behind most things. Or under ’em. Could always put it in the umbrella stand, I suppose.
Except that the umbrella stand already had an snow-covered umbrella in it, and he was fairly fucking certain flutes didn’t do well with getting wet, even if they were made of wood rather than metal.
Fine. Where does he keep his sword?
On a hook by the door, and no way of hanging the flute there without damaging it.
Fucksake. Must be somewhere I can put this fucking thing.
The cider’d started to warm him up, at least, which meant that he was actually thinking more clearly. Now he just needed to find a place to put the bastard flute before Archer woke up – and, judging by the clock on the mantelpiece, he didn’t have that long.
Hide it on the fucking mantelpiece.
It took him longer than he’d have liked, given the amount of clutter Archer seemed to think needed to be on a mantelpiece and the fact he was trying to do half the work by touch on account of the lamps not being lit, but he eventually managed to get the flute wedged in behind the clock and a couple of the piles of books, hidden enough that Archer’d not see it immediately, but not so much so that he’d not notice it if he actually took the time to look.
Course, means I likely need to point him in the right direction, but that ain’t that hard.
Anything else I need to do?
No. Fucking finally, the answer was no. All he needed to do was sit back and wait for Archer to wake up.
That and try not to fall asleep.
Archer blinked, unsure for a moment what exactly had woken him. His bedroom looked exactly as it had done when he’d fallen asleep the night before, and the sounds filtering through from the rest of the house seemed entirely in order and as expected – nothing out of place or noteworthy. Unless…
He closed his eye again, listening more closely. There was something odd, sound-wise, coming from the direction of his sitting room. An odd, rhythmic sawing noise, as though someone was trying to cut through a particularly stubborn piece of wood.
So either someone’s broken into my rooms to try their hand at a little light carpentry, which seems unlikely, or-
He slipped out of bed, padded across the room, and, pulling on his dressing gown, opened the bedroom door as quietly as he could. The sound didn’t change, which didn’t surprise him given he was fairly certain he knew exactly what it was.
Did he stay up all night trying to find something this year? Gods, but I wish he’d realise I honestly don’t mind if he doesn’t get me anything.
But he wasn’t about to say as much – not when Sabbat clearly enjoyed spending the time finding him gifts, and not when it would be far too easy to come across as ungrateful for the effort the assassin had clearly gone to.
Though I could wish that I didn’t know almost everything he’s ever given me has been stolen.
On the other hand, he also knew that Sabbat had at least something of a code when it came to theft – that and he was intensely pragmatic – and therefore any gifts he’d been given had been stolen from people who could afford to lose those items. Which helped, if he was honest.
I suppose the only question is whether he’s managed to get himself injured again in the pursuit of whatever it was this year.
Thankfully, he couldn’t smell blood. That didn’t mean the assassin hadn’t managed to get himself hurt, of course – Archer had dealt with enough broken bones and dislocated joints to know that blood wasn’t necessary for injury – but it did mean that, if he had done, Archer would be a damn sight more able to deal with it.
Still moving as quietly as he could, he padded across the hallway and through into the sitting room, feeling the corners of his mouth twitch upward as he caught sight of a very familiar figure sat in one of the chairs at the breakfast table with his boots up on the table in the midst of the crockery.
Of course. Though I doubt you meant to fall asleep like that.
“Let sleeping assassins lie, I suppose,” he said, quietly, and went to stir up the fire.
Somewhere around five or ten minutes into the business of getting the room set up for the day, he was unsurprised to hear a muffled “-th’fuck?” from the direction of the breakfast table, followed by the sound of someone shifting position in a chair that they’d definitely not meant to fall asleep in.
“And good morning to you too,” he said, without turning round. “Pleasant dreams?”
“Go fuck y’self,” the assassin replied amiably, the edges of his voice still blurry with sleep. “An’ y’might want t’look up.”
Look… up? If you’ve done something to my ceiling without my knowing, I’ll be impressed – and annoyed.
The ceiling, thankfully, appeared to be in exactly the condition that he’d left it in the night before.
“Not that far up.”
The mirror over the mantel? No, that seemed to be entirely as he’d left it as well (and in need of dusting, he noticed. Something to deal with after the holiday).
“You might have to give me a little more of a clue.”
Sabbat sighed. “You’re practically starin’ right at it. Look down – an’ no, it ain’t in the fire either, before you start.”
Not the mirror, not the fire… well, that only leaves one logical place. Though that’s hardly a fair hiding spot if it’s a new book I’m supposed to be looking for – even I can’t remember which volumes are currently where in the room.
There was something out of place on the mantelpiece though. The clock seemed just a little too far forward, compared to where it should have been sitting, and when he reached round the back of it, his fingers brushed against a tube of smooth wood, marked with small round holes at regular intervals.
“You didn’t,” he said, though even before he pulled the instrument free of its hiding spot, he knew damn well that he had.
And, even without looking, he could practically hear the lopsided grin in the assassin’s reply.
“Happy solstice, Archer.”
Copyright © 2022 by Finn McLellan. All rights reserved.