Sachiin had furnished, lit, and begun to neglect a fire on her behalf by the time she climbed the steps toward them in darkness, its low coals sprawling and collapsing around its glowing remains. The face of the peak bounding the yard had rebuffed the layer of silvery white that had alighted elsewhere upon the flags and castellations and Kala'amātya and Petrouchka pursued an almost wordless game of bezique beside it at the refectory table. The vampyre's mannequin features and obsessive intent proved less useful than her opponent's barbaric statistical command; Susan paused by his shoulder to look at his cards, then removed herself to the pyre, standing with her pink hands stinging over the ebbing flames. Sachiin sat in a chair before the parapet. Its stout legs had been reduced by their contact with the damp floor of an inner chamber, his own lying propped on the stone as he contemplated the benighted panorama. The snow had settled on him in an eccentric distribution; he made room on his legs for her, using his elastic dimensions to confound her half-hearted attempts at repulsion as she sat down, pressing a kiss to her ear, and she sighed, showing him the thorns still buried in her palms and fingers. On the ground beside his chair a strange collection of dark, egg-sized objects sat on a stripe of bark, from which a peculiar aroma rose with the faint heat of the fire, roseate and linseed-oily.
“Cul de chien.” he told her as she reached down for one. “Medlars. Found an old tree down the hill.”
“They’re rotten.” Susan observed, curling her lip.
“Bletted.” he insisted, pressing a finger into the soft heart of the largest fruit and committing it to his mouth. She sampled its yielding flesh doubtfully and was startled by its fudge-like savour, the creamy tastes of date and cooling caramel paired with strange, sylvan associates, awakening her moribund appetite. She consumed several in untidy succession, addressing the remainder with more consideration, then sitting up suddenly and staring at him.
"You're freezing cold..." she complained, pressing a hand to his face upon perceiving his condition through their clothing.
"It's snowing." Sachiin reminded her. "Wait a minute..." His face became entirely expressionless as he took her hand in both of his; their temperature climbed slowly until it was indistinguishable from her own, as though flushed through with hot water. "There you go... thirty eight degrees C."
Her mouth fell open.
"Are you only warm for me?"
"I'm hot for you, poupée." he smiled. She exclaimed again to herself, sliding his hand into her jersey and laying back against his shoulder.
"God, that feels so dodgy. You do have a superpower, though... I knew it."
A dry halo clasped the moon, arrayed in shards of spectral lavender and silver and they considered it together.
“More snow coming.” he murmured.
Even in the hands of six sweating conscripts the folding spades that had been dropped with the rest of their equipment from an unmarked helicopter made scant impression on the root-bound soil. They toiled in mottled darkness beneath the trees, the drop chute lying flaccid over the bracken while Amis and Wessner dismantled the package it had purveyed.
“A Two, Three, get in and assist. I want that chute covered in five.” the latter muttered, directing the two conscripts standing guard; they complied, but soon demurred, climbing back out of the shallow depression.
“Sir, we got a great big fuck-off rock under this shit.” A Four declared, scratching at his black-greased neck. Josephine frowned, took up the welter of silky olive folds and rolled it in both arms, dumping it into the depression with the dismantled crate to expedite their concealment. While the conscripts were set to shoveling debris on top of them she found Amis poring over his GPS and stowed her rifle, taking the appliance from his hands.
“Something wrong?” she asked, looking up through the grease stick slashes that flattened and dissembled her features as she scrolled through its screens; he made an abortive move to reclaim it and then shook his head, folding his arms.
“Some kind of mode issue.”
Josephine slid her own device from the side of her pack and pressed it on him, glancing up from beneath her black cap when he began to object.
“It’s the same unit.” she assured him.
“You don't have the data... I need those coordinates t...”
“Get them from Wessner.” she told him over her shoulder. "And get some mud on your boots. I can see them from half a click out." Shrugging her pack onto her shoulders turned her about and brought her face to face with Shaw, who lifted his gaze in a pretended survey of the evening sky, partially visible through the canopy.
They waited while the single file arranged itself and moved off, assuming the posterior guard, both glad at least of the waning moon's half-light upon the deer track; the boots preceding them had churned it to a slippery ribbon tracing the contours of a steep rise. They crested it together, pausing to quarter the grassy glade beyond while the advance party shuffled into the trees. A raised hand urged them onward, and they had taken their first step with that intent when a high scream pressed them onto their knees and brought their weapons to bear in its direction.
The cry was quickly stifled; Josephine looped around the glade, meeting the tail of the compressed procession as Wessner dispatched a new point past the dark shape of the longhouse. C Two lay on his back, hands pawing at those held tightly to his mouth and nose by grimacing companions. She hissed the overlooking men out of her way and threw off her pack, stooping to search out her emergency appurtenance. The stout brown teeth of a gin trap had met two-thirds of the way toward the conscript's right knee, severing everything in its hunger for bone. His features were shock-white and shiny under his greasepaint; standing with a foot on either side of his leg, she popped a heavy silver syringe from its plastic cell, leant down and stabbed it into his thigh, dispatching its twinned doses. The man sagged, eyes rolling beneath lids already suffused with contused blue, the colour blackening his lips. Josephine looked up into Wessner’s face. It was as tight and slick as the dead man's, and she rose as he nodded slowly, wiping a hand over his nose.
“That’s... that's... good job.” he told her. The other conscripts scowled bitterly at the praise as they freed the corpse’s leg and dragged it into the trees. She threw down the syringe in favour of her rifle once more as another cry went up beyond the eidiré, just as quickly extinguished by the small point team.
The second victim began struggling at the sight of her, requiring his cadre to restrain each one of his desperately crawling limbs while she shouldered her way into the affray and pressed a boot to the side of his head. He threw his loosed hand against the fresh needle, piercing it through and prompting her to whip it back and slap the dose into the side of his sweating neck.
A scout from her own detail returned to Wessner with news of the second longhouse, then doubled back toward them, eyes wide.
“He says we gotta bunk in these." he told her, cocking his head toward the black bulk of the eidiré beside them. "We got this one, they got the one up the way.” Glancing in the prescribed direction, she rose and capped the needle.
C O N T I N U E D N E X T W E E K
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