“So,” Mortimer said, once he’d finally managed to drag the conversation back around to Viola’s question, “let me double-check this. Someone came to the door with a letter for Viola, right?”
Amelia nodded. “He said he was a courier, but Seb said he wasn’t one he recognised, and he didn’t act like any courier he’d ever seen. Seb thought he might be Order, but he didn’t recognise the passphrase.”
“Sinnlenst, then,” said Viola. She shifted position, rubbing at her injured leg, and scowled. “Avebury did say something about wanting me to deliver some letter or other, now I come to think of it.”
“That’s the thing, though!” Amelia said. “It wasn’t a letter. Or rather, it wasn’t just a letter. It was a whole packet of papers.” She reached into the satchel beside her and pulled out what looked like one of the folders of legal documents he’d seen on his father’s desk in the past. “Here. I’ve already looked through it-“
“It wasn’t sealed, Vi, and the person who delivered it was clearly up to no good. And besides, I didn’t know where you were or when you were coming back, so you can’t be too mad at me for opening your post.”
“That’s not the point!” Viola growled, exasperated. “The point is that if someone had hidden something in there – like, say, a contact poison or a powder or any number of curses – you could have been seriously hurt. Killed, even. You know better than that, I know you do.”
This is between the two of them, Mortimer told himself, sternly, and bit his tongue. He wanted to defend Amelia, of course he did – but then, he also shared Viola’s concern, and gods, but he could wish that she’d think before she acted sometimes, and…
And that’s a conversation we can have in private when we’re both in the same place. Not right here, not right now, and not when we’re trying to work out what in the hells the Sinnlenst are up to, which is a damn sight more pressing a concern than my fiancée’s occasional tendency to leap before she looks.
“I know,” Amelia said, quietly. “But I was worrying about you, Vi. I wanted to make sure it wasn’t some sort of ransom demand or something.”
“That they’d address to me, rather than you?”
“It’s the Sinnlenst. They might, if they wanted to be particularly sadistic.”
“That’s less sadistic and more just confusing.”
“Much as I hate to interrupt,” Mortimer interjected, before the discussion could get too far off topic again, “you’ve not yet actually told us what’s in that packet.”
“See, that’s the funny thing. It’s all property paperwork.”
Out of all the possibilities for the contents of a packet Avebury had wanted Viola to play courier with, that one hadn’t even crossed Mortimer’s mind – and, judging by Viola’s expression, he wasn’t the only one who was confused by that revelation.
“It’s to do with the old opera house,” Amelia went on, reaching into the packet and pulling out a tattered-looking sheet of what Mortimer suspected might be actual vellum. “You remember it closed down the year of the Revolution, and then there was all that talk about some rich Masik-Tal clan lord buying it and having it shipped all the way down to Masik brick by brick, and then nothing ever came of it?”
Mortimer did remember, though he fully suspected that most of the details of the story were either complete fabrications or at the very least wildly exaggerated. “What’s that got to do with the Sinnlenst, though? What do they want with an opera house that’s been empty for twenty-odd years?”
“I don’t know, but it’s definitely them. The deeds are all made out to someone with the surname ‘Avebury’, but it’s not our Avebury-“
“He’s not mine,” said Mortimer and Viola, almost at the same time.
“I didn’t mean it like that, and you both know it. Stop looking at me like that.” She blew out a breath and shook her head, setting the chain of beads dangling from her butterfly hairclip swaying back and forth across the side of her face. “Anyway. They’re made out to someone called Ambrosius Avebury, who I think is Adam Avebury’s grandfather, if I’m remembering things correctly. Which is interesting, because Ambrosius Avebury died last year.”
“Are the deeds dated more recently, then?” Viola asked. “Because if the bastard’s committing fraud and we can prove it-“
“No, they’re dated about five years ago. I don’t know why Avebury’s grandfather bought the opera house, but if Avebury wanted those papers delivered to someone, maybe he’s trying to prove that he now owns it.”
“Do we know who Viola was supposed to deliver the papers to?” Mortimer asked. “That’d go a long way towards working out what in the name of the gods all of this is in aid of.”
Amelia shook her head again, the beads rattling quietly as she did so. “The ‘courier’ said he’d only give the instructions for where they were meant to be taken to Vi directly, so Seb span him a story about you being out running errands, Vi. He said he’d come back tomorrow, so I don’t know what we’re going to do when he does, because that excuse is only going to work so many times.”
“Tell him I’ve hurt my leg and can’t play messenger-girl for him,” Viola suggested. “If he’s taking orders from Avebury directly, then he’ll likely have to contact the Hall to ask what to do next, which means that we can try and intercept the letter.”
“Unless Avebury already wrote a contingency plan for that eventuality,” Mortimer said. “I hate the bastard, but you have to admit that he’s nothing if not prepared most of the time.”
Viola grimaced. “You’re right. I hate that you’re bloody right, but you’re right. Still worth a shot, though.”
“It is,” Amelia agreed. “And it gives us a good excuse for why you’re not around for the rest of the week. I’d have to let Mama and Papa in on the story, but I don’t think they’ll mind helping to cover for you, especially if I tell them it’s Order business.” She stopped, thought for a second. “Though in that case I’d better say it’s the Lord-Captain you’re helping, not the Archmage, since he’s neutral.”
“Point,” Viola admitted. “I still don’t understand why the packet isn’t sealed, though. Unless it’s meant to be some sort of test.”
“Seeing if you’ll look inside? Sounds like Avebury’s brand of trickery,” Mortimer confirmed. He’d not been on the receiving end of any of Avebury’s loyalty tests himself – he was far too vocal a member of Tyburn’s faction for that – but he’d heard more than enough rumours to know that the bastard had a habit of playing those kind of games with people he was working on bringing into his inner circle. “Which means the Order can’t be seen to know anything about this-“
“Because otherwise suspicion’ll fall on Vi,” Amelia finished, frowning. “Which means we either have to send someone very good at staying unseen to cast an eye over the place, or we have to hold back until there’s enough plausible deniability for us having got the information some other way.”
“I’d say hold back,” Viola said. “Wait until I’m back in the city and can run the damn errand for him – if nothing else, that’ll give us some idea of who he’s sending those papers to, which should help us figure out what he’s up to. For now, he’s up here, which means I can keep an eye on him.”
“And he’s staying up here,” Mortimer put in. “The storm doesn’t look likely to stop any time soon, and at this rate we’ll wind up snowed in for a couple of days at best. Most likely a week.” The Hall had enough provisions put aside to weather a lengthy isolation, so on the face of it that wasn’t too worrying a prospect. With the added factors of Sabbat’s illness and Avebury’s presence (plus whatever it was the Sinnlenst was currently scheming about), however, the idea of being snowed in for a week was starting to feel a good deal more unsettling than it had any right to.
But on the other hand, it means that Caine won’t be able to get out to terrorise any of the local villages. Silver linings, I suppose.
“Amelia! Your mother needs the circle!”
Amelia looked off to the side, frowning at something outside the scope of the image. “I know, Papa! Give me a moment!”
“One moment, and not a second more. The window for gating is tight enough as it is.”
“I know, Papa!” She turned back to face the two of them, pulling a face. “I can’t stay, Mama will have my hide if I make her miss tonight’s meeting. Vi, please stay safe out there. Harry, I love you-“
“I love you too.” More than I can comprehend, and more than I can put into words, and gods I miss you.
“-and you stay safe as well, alright? And you come straight back, the both of you, as soon as you can, and we’ll get to the bottom of-“
“I know, Papa!” She leaned forward, pressing her hand against the wavering air between them. “Please, Harry. Look after yourself. Look after Vi – and you look after him too, you understand? You’re practically siblings-in-law anyhow, so-“
A new voice, this one sounding distinctly irritated. “Amelia Verity Columbina Luciel, if you don’t end that ritual this instant-“
“Mama, I swear, I-”
Another pulse of power rippled through the circle and the image vanished, leaving only a shimmering almost-heat-haze in the air behind it.
“Well,” said Viola, after a moment. “Least you’ve met her parents now.” She grinned, taking the edge off the comment. “The door to the workroom is thick enough that they won’t have heard the details there, and she’s smart enough to work something out if they did overhear anything they shouldn’t’ve.”
That was some comfort, at least – while he was going to have to meet Lord and Lady Luciel properly at some point, he’d far rather have that conversation when he was a full-fledged member of the Order. Assuming he ever got that far, of course.
There’s always the possibility that I wind up getting killed by Caine before that can happen. Or by Archer, if things really go sideways.
“Stop chewing on your tail,” Viola said, elbowing him gently in the ribs. “Blunts your teeth and bruises your skin and does sod-all else to help.”
She had a point, even if the metaphor didn’t entirely work for humans. “Sorry. Woolgathering.”
“That was fairly bloody obvious.” She looked around the room, her eyes ranging over the various pieces of ritual equipment. “We should probably clear this up before we turn in, unless you’re up for coming down here early doors to sort things out before Fest and Avebury head down for the day.”
“Gods no.” Today had been long even before the revelations of the last couple of hours, and he was looking forward to trying to steal at least an hour of extra sleep in the morning. “If you give me a hand, we should be able to get most of this put away relatively quickly, and then we can- Hang about. You need somewhere to sleep.”
She pulled a face. “Hadn’t thought of that. Could always find somewhere to den up outside, I suppose.”
“With Caine out there? Gods no. I’ll find you a spare room somewhere on the servants’ side – because that’s somewhere Avebury won’t go,” he added, quickly, before the look in her eyes could turn into a comment he really wasn’t awake or cogent enough to deal with at the moment. “Cyra and Thomas tend to only use the ground floor, so you shouldn’t run into them, and anyhow, I’ll try and catch them before I go to bed to explain that you’re meant to be here.”
“How’re they likely to take that?”
“Given they’re dealing with two extra guests staying in that half of the house already, probably fairly well. I need to tell my father you’re here too, if Archer hasn’t done as much already.”
“My guess is that he’s probably got more pressing things on his mind,” Viola said, but she smiled all the same. She scrambled to her feet and rolled her sleeves up, looking around the workroom with the air of someone about to plunge themselves into a strenuous but enjoyable task. “Right. Let’s get this place cleared up.”
Archer had stayed longer in Verist’s study than he meant to – between the research and the reminiscences that discussing that research had led to, it was nearly midnight by the time he made it back to the room.
To his relief, his heightened hearing picked up the steady rhythm of Sabbat’s breathing from the doorway and, as he made his way across the room to the bed, his night-adapted vision allowed him to see the slow rise and fall of the assassin’s chest. Whatever the damn box was doing to him, it apparently hadn’t progressed much further in the last few hours.
Moving carefully – while Sabbat seemed to be sleeping relatively soundly, he knew from experience that the assassin was usually easy to wake and tended towards violence as a first resort – he crossed the room and lowered himself onto the floor by the bed, where one of the piles of books Verist had lent the two of them had ended up.
Now to hope that one of these has the information I’m looking for.
The first book he picked up didn’t seem overly promising – a slim volume on the uses of a couple of rare herbs in a protection spell which was still very much in the theoretical stages – but the next in the pile offered a little more hope: it was a larger volume, apparently dealing with the pre-Fall history of the southern half of the continent as pieced together by several generations of Adakari scholars.
It was a translation, of course – very few people outside the empire spoke Adakari, and even fewer knew how to read it – but the sense of the text came across well enough for all that and, several chapters in, he managed to find a passing reference to something which the translator had made the decision to render as ‘it-which-devours-the-spark’ (a phrase which he suspected sounded significantly more reasonable in the original Adakari).
According to the (very short) footnote on that particular phrase, it referred to a kind of enchantment tattooed on the body of a slave or prisoner which slowly drained them of either life or magic – the translator was unsure as to which, as the Adakari used the same word for both in different contexts. At least one of the pre-Fall rulers of the area which was now the Adakari empire had apparently been in the habit of using this particular enchantment to extend her own life, with the relatives of courtiers who had displeased her acting as the unwilling power sources, though the translator (and the original text) went to some effort to point out that there was no proof other than oral history that this had ever taken place, and that no drawings or copies of the tattooed enchantment had ever been discovered.
It was a start, he supposed, though hardly much of one – the box wasn’t an enchantment, after all, and the lack of any evidence for this ‘it-which-devours-the-spark’ (and gods but he wished they’d left that in the original Adakari rather than attempting to translate it literally) meant that even if it was related, it didn’t give him any more information on how to break the damn thing.
Still, it was better than nothing, and it had given him another term to add to the list he was already looking for.
The next three books proved relatively useless, though one of them did have an interesting chapter on the use of tracking spells which he marked for further study at a later date, but the fourth? The fourth was worth all the rest combined.
It was, at first glance, nothing particularly special: an unassuming dark green volume with the words On The Uses Of Haemosigilic Geometries In Problems Of Multivariate Ritual Calculus printed in black ink on the spine. In fact, he’d been almost tempted to toss it aside without opening it, since it appeared to be so specific as to be practically worthless for anything other than high-level ritual theory. But something stayed his hand, made him flip open the cover and flick through the pages until his eye alighted on a sentence that stopped him in his tracks.
‘It is possible, though deeply inadvisable, to grant a human student a small portion of this ability through the use of transfusion, though this should only be done at the direst of need.’
That can’t mean what I think it means. Can it?
He ran his eye down the page, hoping to find something which would clarify the statement. Unfortunately, the author or authors appeared to be under the (reasonable) impression that their readers would be coming to this chapter with the context of the rest of the book, and thus it took him several minutes to tease out the information he needed to confirm his tentative hypothesis.
They’re talking about blood transfusion.
He’d heard of blood transfusions, of course – experimental medicine, usually done only in the most dire of circumstances – but the idea of using them to enhance someone’s magical potential was far beyond the scope of anything he’d even heard discussed at the university or in the Order’s more theory-minded meetings.
Whoever wrote this book was either a genius or entirely detached from reality. Possibly both.
And, hot on the heels of that thought: But did it work?
The phrasing seemed to suggest as much, which was promising, but the book was frustratingly (and somewhat ominously) silent on any side-effects of the procedure, as well as the specifics of how the transfusion had been done. Perhaps the author or authors were hiding something about what had happened in the aftermath of their experiment – or, more prosaically, simply hadn’t produced replicable results.
Or they didn’t want to be liable for the fallout when a group of students at the university decided to try experimenting with filling their veins with each others’ blood.
It was, objectively, a terrible idea. Blood transfusions were experimental and, more to the point, dangerous – there seemed to be no rhyme or reason as to whether a patient rallied or sickened further, and even the brightest minds at the best hospitals in the city were still very much working in the fog when it came to improving the odds of survival. And that was only within species – adding the additional variable of cross-species transfusion might well be the equivalent of pouring alcohol on a raging fire.
And, even if it did work, there’s no saying how much of my blood he’d need. If I’m able to feed before we perform the transfusion I can likely sustain myself for longer than a human donor, but if he needs more than I can give, then the whole affair’s doomed before it starts.
Not to mention the fact that, if he’d been parsing Verist’s plan correctly, the transfusion would have to happen at the same time as the ritual, which would mean that either he’d need to be able to do both at the same time or he’d need to involve an additional magician.
Philip will need to keep the apprentices away from the workroom, which means I’d have to enlist either Mortimer or Viola to help. Possibly both, since neither of them have the experience necessary to run this kind of working solo if necessary.
And there’s still no guarantee it’d work.
No. It was a terrible idea.
And yet he couldn’t stop himself thinking about it. Even after he’d closed the book and moved on to the next volume in the pile, the idea wouldn’t leave his head.
He’s given his blood to me. Twice. And the second time it almost killed him. It’s only fair that, if this has any chance of working, I repay that debt.
But if he was wrong – if the book was incorrect, or Verist’s theory incomplete, or the box was doing something very different to what they’d assumed – then the price did not bear thinking about.
I need more information before I am in any kind of place where I can act on this. I cannot make bricks without clay.
Back to the books, then, for anything which might shed more light on the possibility which was suddenly unfolding before him.
I only wish it’d come up when we were speaking earlier. As it is, the books I have here might well give me more data on the subject of the box, but they’re likely to be relatively silent on the possibilities of blood transfusions when it comes to magic.
He’d need to make a trip to the library in order to acquire more texts on that particular topic (which, the treacherous part of his mind reminded him, would also by definition include texts relevant to the idea of perfected Turning). Easier to do that at night, given the presence of Fest and Avebury in the house, but the idea of leaving Sabbat alone again at this precise moment made his chest tighten and his breath catch in his throat, the memory of that moment of horror as he desperately searched for the assassin’s pulse rising unbidden to the front of his mind.
No. Not tonight. Not now. I need-
I need to know that he’s alright. I need to know that he’ll wake up.
I need to know that he’s still breathing.
The assassin shifted in his sleep, almost as though he’d heard the thought, and made an irritated growling noise in the back of his throat, and Archer felt the tightness in his chest abruptly lessen.
Some things are still the same, at least.
He reached up, resting his fingertips lightly on Sabbat’s leg – the assassin growled again, but otherwise didn’t attempt to move away from the contact – and closed his eye, focusing on the sound of the other man’s breathing and the warmth of his skin under his fingers.
Stop thinking about him as though he’s already halfway to his pyre. He was well enough to joke with you before he fell asleep, wasn’t he? And the damn box doesn’t seem to be working fast enough to take that from him overnight.
He had time. They had time. And better to use it than waste it fretting over what might happen in the future.
Library tomorrow night, then. Assuming he’s no worse.
And pray to all the gods that I’ll find the answers I need there.
True to his word, Mortimer had managed to find her a room behind the green baize door, in the servants’ quarters of the house (which she’d have minded a lot more if his family hadn’t apparently been the sort to set up even the servants with the kind of lodgings regular folk in the city would give their eyeteeth for). It smelled of dust and old fabric, and clearly hadn’t been aired out for a few years, but it was more than spacious enough for her needs – and, luxury of luxuries, even had a small bathroom with running water attached. Admittedly, the bathroom was shared with the room next door, but that was unoccupied and likely to remain so, which meant she had the place to herself.
If this is how his people treat their servants, I can see why Amelia likes him. They’ve both got the same kind of ideas about how the world should work.
He’d managed to look out a pile of pillows and blankets from one of the storage chests as well, which meant that she’d been able to arrange the previously neatly-made bed into a proper nest of soft furnishings – perfect for curling up in if she wanted to sleep in wolfshape, and equally good for settling down amidst if she made the decision to stay in twolegged form (which she’d probably end up doing. Humans tended to react a little better to a strange woman in their house than a strange wolf).
Now I just need to work out exactly what I’m going to say to the Archmage tomorrow.
She could always just leave Mortimer to explain things, of course. He’d said that he would, and Verist was his father. But he was also trying to wrangle the issue with Fest and Avebury, and help Archer and Sabbat (and there was another problem that she should probably at the very least offer to help with, even if all she could do was give Sabbat someone other than Archer to chat to while the others were doing research), and she got the distinct impression that if he picked up another set of responsibilities he’d probably collapse under the weight of all of them.
And ‘melia’s going to have some choice words for me if I’m in any way responsible for breaking her fiancé.
Honestly, she didn’t much want to break Mortimer either. He was a good man, even if he did have some strange hangups about clothing, and, now she and Amelia had sorted out the issue of what was going to happen after the wedding, she was actually looking forward to having him as a brother-in-law.
Far cry from that conversation about that sodding letter, where I was more than half convinced he was some kind of Sinnlenst agent trying to lure her off into the wilds of Steepside so he could murder her. But then again, a lot’s happened since then.
She shucked off her borrowed clothes, stopping to rub the ache out of her wounded leg as it protested the action, and slipped under the pile of blankets on the bed. It was warm, and soft, and, while it didn’t smell exactly of home, the scent was a damn sight closer than she was expecting – a mix of woodsmoke and wool and lingering traces of the herbs which’d been used to keep the moths out of the blanket chests that hit something right at the core of her being and made her whole body relax into the nest of bedding.
Deal with Caine… in the morning.
[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 © 2023 by Finn McLellan. All rights reserved.
One thought on “Silver in the Ashes: Chapter 31 (draft)”