CWs: drug use + related confrontation, self-harm (Bloodwork), casual racism, captivity(?), suicide attempt referenced, fantasy discrimination
BLACK GUARD: FACT OR FICTION?
The mystery prevails! Did Forrath’s special paramilitary force ever really exist? Tune in after these messages for an inside scoop with our very own Mick Abrams — where we’ll dig into the urban legend, the truth, the lies, and the juicy details. But first, a word from our sponsors over at Coca-Cola Pearl, the drink that keeps our soldiers awake, alert and ready to defend our country. Coca-Cola Pearl— for the nights you need a little something more.
Toltberg Citizen, March 1914 Broadcast
Rook had gotten, unfortunately, used to passing out. Technically, he didn’t usually faint. Fainting was a pretty specific thing; there were three kinds of syncope, more or less, including the type you read about in books where fragile maidens passed out at the sight of blood or at bad news. That he’d never gotten. There was cardiac syncope that old or sick people got, where their heart just had it out for them — then there was the one he did get here and there, where you’d just overexerted yourself. He supposed he could pass this one off as that, in a pinch.
As his blurred vision started to clear, though, he began to put the pieces together. Someone sitting on the armchair across from the couch, face still kind of obscured in the shadow and distorting, shifting light of the fireplace, and —
And his flask on the table.
It was Jacob sitting across from him. And they were still at Den Riviere.
Well, he thought with a groan, at least I’m not dead.
Rook had gotten used to passing out, but it was another thing entirely that he hadn’t fainted. He’d fallen asleep. Adrenaline and coke only worked for so long, especially when there was opium in the mix, and the opium had won — sooner than he’d hoped, too. And now he had to figure out what the hell he was going to say.
Jacob sat back in the armchair, arms crossed. “I know you’re awake, Rook. Your breathing is different.”
I hate him so much sometimes, Rook thought with so much vehemence he thought Jacob might hear him. He opened his eyes the rest of the way, glancing around to see who else was there. Nobody in here — but he could hear voices in the other room. The tea room, he supposed. Just him and Jacob in the parlour.
“Can I pretend I’m still asleep?” he grumbled. “Everything hurts.”
“I expect it does.”
Rook tried not to wince. That wasn’t a voice that preluded praise. “I know who our killer is—”
Rook fell silent. He didn’t like it when Jacob got that expression. Scheffen, he was used to pissing off. Jacob wasn’t his superior. Jacob rarely bothered telling him off seriously. A nudge here and there, sure. Friendly advice. But Jacob had only told him off seriously once or twice in his short memory, and none of them had been good. Whether or not he’d deserved them was besides the point, and he didn’t dwell on that part much. The sting of the reprimand was what stuck around.
“Well?” Jacob continued. “What’s his name? His motive? His shoe size?”
“I don’t see how the last one matters,” Rook mumbled. “But she’s a girl.”
“Oh, helpful.” Then Jacob sighed, rubbing his eyes. “No, okay, I’ll give you that. She’s a girl. What does she look like?”
And Rook hesitated. He didn’t want to. He didn’t mean to. But…
“Why are you so pissed at me?” Rook snapped. “Far as I can tell, I’m the only person so far to go toe to toe with her and survive.” God. He hadn’t expected to have to wake up and immediately defend himself.
“You’re lucky you did.”
Jacob picked up the flask.
Of the ‘top ten things he didn’t want to talk about’, Rook thought with a growl as he let his head fall back down onto the couch, his flask fell into about… four of them, easily. Which was bullshit, really. Csindra had already given him some trouble about the drugs he used to sleep, and Jacob wasn’t going to give him flak about weed or tobacco, not when half of the military stank of one or the other at the best of times. The fact that he used more than that, and for more things, didn’t seem like that big a deal.
Which perfectly explained why he didn’t tell anybody or felt so guilty about being caught. Obviously.
“What’s in this, Rook?” Jacob asked, in a voice that somewhat sounded like he already knew. Rook could try lying — but even if he’d thought it would work, he didn’t like lying to Jacob. He did it all the time, but actually doing it face to face over something like this — it felt different. It was a level of subterfuge that he couldn’t quite pull off.
“It’s — it’s just a bit of liquid courage.” That seemed like a safe enough half-truth.
“Liquid courage? Whiskey? So I’ll just have some, right—?”
The noise of alarm came out of Rook’s mouth before Jacob had even touched the cap. Jacob lowered his hand with a sigh, jaw set. “It was bad enough when I did think this was booze. Then Odette asked me about it. She figured you had permission. And of course she knows what laudanum smells like.”
“Great, so she ratted on me.” It was supposed to come out like a joke — and didn’t quite.
“She also doesn’t realize that it doesn’t matter if you outrank me on paper.”
“It should,” he mumbled, even more quietly.
“I don’t care. Why the hell are you carrying around a flask of laudanum? While you’re fighting demons?”
She’s not a demon, came the unbidden response, but how was he going to explain that? Instead, Rook eased himself upwards, wincing as he propped his back against the couch armrest. At least this was pain with a source, which was a nice change. “Red wine, laudanum, and Coca-Cola.”
“The, uh… The Pearl stuff.” He cringed a little at the look on Jacob’s face — a steely kind of fury he’d rarely had occasion to see. Certainly this was his first taste of it being directed at him. “Give me some credit,” he added, although it rang a bit hollow. “I’m not carrying around enough laudanum to kill an elephant. There’s six drops of actual laudanum in that, max.”
“With Coke Pearl?”
The logic held up, theoretically. Coca-Cola had cocaine in it normally, but not a lot; it added a bit of zing to the caffeine, not much more than that. Coca-Cola Pearl was a military-issue variant with about three times as much coca leaf extract in it; enough to get you properly high. There was an argument somewhere in there that it was military-issue, but it was also meant for people on stakeouts and on the front-lines… and certainly not intended to be mixed.
Jacob shook his head, and Rook stifled the urge to scream. Anger he could handle. Disappointment was so much worse. “Christ, Rook. If you wanted to kill yourself, couldn’t you pick something faster?”
Rook’s heart tried to tear itself out through his throat, and he bit it back only with a lot of effort. Don’t react, don’t react, don’t react. He’d wondered if Jacob knew — if Scheffen had said anything. Apparently not. Jacob wouldn’t have said that if — Don’t react. Don’t. “I’m not trying to kill myself,” he managed to say after a moment, and it sounded convincing enough, and it wasn’t really a lie, even if he was on the brink of hysterical laughter while saying it. “I just — I was flagging. I —”
“Flagging? Rook, I could understand these on their own, or even any other time. While on a mission? During a fight?”
“That’s exactly why I needed it.”
“Needed it? Rook —” Then Jacob rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Rook,” he said after a moment, more quietly, “how long have you been taking this kind of crap?”
In for a goose, in for a gander, Rook supposed. “Kind of depends what you mean. I don’t normally drink it before fights, no.”
“Do you want me to answer or not?”
“A lot of me doesn’t want to know.”
“Says the guy who comes to work with a hangover,” Rook shot back — and Jacob’s hand hit the table with a surprisingly loud noise.
“I drink when I’m off work, Rook! I go out after I’m done, and I go to a bar, and I drink, and the next morning I sometimes have a headache, but I’m not drinking when I’m working! If I was drunk when I needed to protect someone — pissen ridder, if I was drunk when I got that radio call from Djaneki — where on earth did you get the idea this was fine?”
I don’t think it’s fine, Rook thought to himself. He just didn’t know what else to say. If he admitted that he knew it was messed up then Jacob would tell him to stop, and then he’d be in pain when he needed to not be in pain, and that seemed a whole lot worse than being high.
“Even if it was booze, I think I’d understand more,” Jacob admitted. “I mean, you’re eighteen. I’ve caught privates gettin’ up to stupid shit. But laudanum? You take too much of that and you’re dead.”
“I know,” Rook mumbled.
“If you know, then what the hell is this?”
Rook closed his eyes. Jacob didn’t say anything else for a moment, then there was the sound of his boots on the floor. Rook thought he was walking away — but then there was a hand on his head, and when he opened his eyes again, Jacob was kneeling in front of him, arm resting on the sofa next to him, whatever anger there had been giving way to what Rook didn’t want to admit looked an awful lot like fear.
“What aren’t you telling me?”
Rook laughed and looked away from Jacob, because otherwise he’d be distracted reminding himself that kissing Jacob was both a terrible idea and not likely to get him out of trouble. “You’re not my dad, Jacob. I thought we’ve been over this.”
“You say that like I don’t do this for my friends.”
It was a good thing the firelight wasn’t illuminating the room that well, because Rook could feel the flush crawling across his cheeks. Give it up, he urged himself. There’s no good reason for anybody to take laudanum before a fight unless they’re an addict. Or you. “…I, um.” Shit. Where the hell did he start? “A lot, actually.”
“I figured. You keep the actual secrets well, but I know damn well you’re keeping them.”
Not for the first time, Rook wondered if he could just tell Jacob all of it. Jacob knew perfectly well that his familiar was just the one being; he could no more have kept that a secret from someone who practically lived with him than his packrat tendencies or his insomnia. But the outbursts of magic — the event that had made him leave for the Zweispars for so long — the other night with Csindra —
And then what? You see whether or not he buys into the same crap as everybody else in the military? You leave it up to chance?
Even admitting he was in pain was going to be hard to convince himself to do.
“It’s for pain relief,” he sighed… and chickened out. “I dislocated my shoulder back in Den Arden and it’s been bugging me. So the laudanum lets me fight through it and the Coke keeps me going. The wine’s mostly for taste.”
Jacob didn’t really buy it — Rook could tell that much. It wasn’t a very good lie, either. There hadn’t been anything about a dislocated shoulder in the Den Arden report, and anybody could tell from looking at his bare shoulder that there wasn’t enough bruising. Jacob had taken his jacket off, and his sleeves were full-length, but if he was getting checked out later, he’d get caught pretty quickly. Still, he seemed to accept it for now. “If you’re in that much pain, you shouldn’t be doing missions at all.”
Why do you think I don’t talk about it? Rook thought with no shortage of sarcasm. The military was the only place he was safe. Nobody looked for witches in the witch-hunter ranks. He’d suspected as much before; now he had the proof. “I know, I know. It’s not why I lost, though.”
“Can you tell that for sure?”
“I’m pretty sure.”
“You can’t. I thought I taught you better than that. You cannot have an accurate judge of whether or not a situation would have gone the same way if you hadn’t been impaired. And because you were impaired, you can’t trust your judgment on your opponent either.”
“Now hold on a damn moment.” Rook sat up, swinging his legs around. “I might have been a bit high, but I know what I fucking saw, and I know this crap doesn’t fuck me up that badly—”
Jacob raised an eyebrow. “Dislocated shoulder, huh?”
Rook hung his head, mostly just wanting to go back to sleep. “Can we focus on the part where this woman is terrifying and something to worry about? Save the lectures about my bad habits for another time?”
At first, he thought Jacob was going to say something else, keep the argument going — but then Jacob sighed, shoulders falling a little before easing himself backwards and pulling his feet out from underneath him, wrists leaning on his knees. “Okay. What is she?”
Rook chewed on the inside of his cheek. Jacob had asked what she’d looked like, and reasonably, there was no reason he couldn’t answer without implicating himself. Just… “If I don’t answer you,” he asked quietly, “you’ll understand it’s for a good reason. Right?”
Jacob had been tapping his thumb against his opposite wrist while listening— but then he stopped, listening intently. “You sound awfully confident for someone…”
He tried not to snort in derision. Jacob didn’t even want to finish the sentence. “Someone who drugged himself unconscious? I didn’t take nearly as much as you think.” That probably wasn’t entirely true, but it was close enough; he’d been getting more and more resistant to it, which was a whole other problem that he didn’t really want to get into. “I just — there’s some other stuff going on.”
“More secrets. You know you can trust me.”
“I do. Just… not enough.”
Rook hadn’t really thought about how that sounded, and to Jacob’s credit, he didn’t seem to be taking it too personally. There was a flicker of hurt on his face, but it didn’t stick around for long; his friend warring with the soldier. The two had never managed to stay particularly separate. “Sylvia wants to take you off the case.”
“Good luck with that. She’s the one who wanted me on it in the first place, and she doesn’t have any direct command over me.”
“She does, actually. Rank is rank, but she’s still your CO.”
“And this is joint with Investigations.”
“Do you really think Olive is going to go against Sylvia?”
“She might. I don’t think anybody else can handle this — What?”
Jacob was shaking his head. “Rook, I… Do you not understand what happened?”
A sudden chill ran down his spine. “I passed out. I’m injured, I can feel that much, but nothing terrible. Nothing I didn’t know about.”
“The whole estate was frozen over when Wolfie and I showed up. I don’t think you can handle this.”
“Not — not just the portico?” Rook replied after a moment, voice a hoarse whisper.
Jacob shook his head. “That was clearly the epicenter, but no, there’s dead birds as far out as the orchard. Not too many, thankfully, but enough to show how far it went.”
Something rose, angry, in his chest. Something that wasn’t him —
Rook bit down on the inside of his cheek, squeezing his eyes shut at the jolt of pain. The sensation stopped, and when he opened his eyes, he did a quick once-over, tongue over his teeth, fingertips brushing over each other… No changes. The air temperature hadn’t changed. Alright.
“Talk to Sylvia. See what she says. But… I don’t know. I think —”
“I think you need a break, Rook. You were supposed to be taking one in the Zweispars, and then you just kept doing missions.”
And you were supposed to be grateful! I did those missions and everybody was so thankful I did, and now what, you’re mad at me? He kept having to bite it back, because he knew Jacob was looking out for him, he knew none of it was actually condescension, but he couldn’t help but prickle at it all anyway.
“I’m going to go talk to Djaneki,” Jacob sighed. “You just… get some more rest. Wolfie should be back in here in a moment, and then we’ll bring the car closer in and get you to the hospital—”
“I don’t need the hospital, Jacob. I have a bruised nose, a couple scrapes and a puncture wound.”
“I don’t care. You’re still getting checked out.”
Rook grumbled something unpleasant under his breath, then watched Jacob walk away — with the flask in his hand, he noted with a sigh. Not that he was interested in taking any more. The headache was kicking in now, and it was — god, what time was it? Past midnight, according to the clock on the mantelpiece, but he had to squint to see it.
He didn’t want to tell anyone about her. Which was ridiculous. She was a killer; that much was obvious. But…
Rook closed his eyes, throwing his arm over his face and making himself more comfortable on the couch. It wasn’t the hair, it wasn’t the eyes — although he hadn’t so much as seen her eyes, so who knew? It was the skin, and the face. Maybe Jacob was right and he was recalling things through too much of a haze to be accurate, but asking Csindra would clear that up pretty quickly. Plus… well, he had taken this enough to know. He might remember some things differently, or blank out some details, but he wouldn’t forget something like that, or make it up out of whole cloth. Besides, if he was going to conjure up someone like him, he’d go for something more obvious. White hair, white eyes. Not someone who just… had that tiniest amount of resemblance. Enough to frighten him. Enough to make the paranoia that already dogged his steps a little bit more unpleasant.
Where was his familiar? He raised his arm and glanced around — There he was, curled up next to the fire. God. For a moment, Rook had panicked, wondered if he’d died during the cold snap.
And the cold wasn’t from the odjaken, Rook. You know that.
No, he didn’t. There was no reason to think otherwise. None, except that the odjaken’s magic was hot and humid and salty when it wasn’t foetid and full of the smell of algae. But the cold and killing dark, the frost that had closed over him? The same frost that had came so close to his heart when he’d almost let the wraith kiss him?
Nobody looks for witches in the ranks of the witch-hunters.
How long was that going to protect him for?
Rook swallowed, his mouth dry as he forced himself to look the possibility in the eye. If — if — he was the same thing as the girl he’d fought, an odjaken, a demonbound, whatever word you wanted to use… wouldn’t he know? Demonbounds — well, they weren’t supposed to be real anyway, but he’d always had his doubts, especially with how the Advolk seemed to work. But in everything about them, they were products of deals with the devil. You had to become a demonbound. Csindra hadn’t said anything particularly different about odjakens, except that she seemed annoyed by the ‘devil’ side of it. Of course she was. She was clan. They worshipped the damn things.
You’re just lashing out at this point, the small, rational part of him said. Rational. That seemed like a stretch.
Rook glanced at the other room. Csindra wasn’t in there, but the Pawn spell meant he knew exactly where she was; outside, around the fountain. God. Had he really cast that many Grand Arcanum spells in short succession? He hadn’t been wrong when he’d told Jacob that the drugs weren’t the problem. He just… lost track, sometimes. No, the other room was just — Wolfie, Miss Odette and some of the staff. He was, for the most part, being left alone.
Carefully, he reached into his bag and pulled out the small, soft-leather pouch of his stones. Not everybody used them; some thaumatists got more out of them than others, and usually Sparks only used the ones that made crystal or glass, potential types of reflection and diffraction. Their other purpose was half-superstition; focus and concentration. For him, that seemed to be true, in part just because of how they felt. It didn’t work if he had gloves on or had tumbled all the texture out of whatever stone he had. The edges, the roughness, the little pieces of smooth in a shard — that was what helped, especially when he closed his eyes. This one was peridot.
Once more, just to be sure, he tried to check who was around, counting bodies without entirely turning his head. He was being silly. He was deliberately avoiding all of his structured magic, so when he tried to do something that required magic, nothing would happen. He knew how not to do Bloodwork — he wasn’t that far gone — and besides, he didn’t hurt too badly right now, not with the last remnants of opium still lingering in his system.
The question that came to his lips, very suddenly, was why he’d never done this before.
Don’t do it, came the sudden, warning voice that wasn’t his.
Why not? And he wasn’t going to listen to his own damn hallucinations about something like this.
I warned you.
He clasped the stone to his chest, heart pounding through his fingers and into the piece of peridot. And forming the thought in his head, like a single word, like a feeling, like four things at once, he thought — Freeze.
It happened so much faster than he thought it would. The stone turned into a chunk of ice in hand, and he opened his hand in alarm as the ice burned at his palms. Something blew at the fire in the hearth; the flames flickered, danced, began to die down as the temperature plummeted —
Stop it stop it stop it —
“Stop!” he shouted before he thought it through.
The wind vanished. The peridot, still cold, began to rise back to the temperature of his skin. He exhaled, trying to only allow himself to feel the relief that it had at least stopped, before feeling anything else. Then there was the sound of footsteps on the hardwood.
“What was that?” Wolfie’s voice came next. Better than Csindra’s or Jacob’s — but not by much.
Rook turned just enough to see Wolfie’s face. A year or two ago, Wolfie would have been able to see Rook’s lie a mile away. Now, it seemed, the tense smile that Rook managed was enough. “Oh, Bitey was getting nippy again.”
The Lieutenant didn’t seem entirely convinced, to be fair — but he seemed more annoyed than anything. “Keep it down, will you? The whole house is rattled as it is.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t want to trouble the princess after saving her life.”
Wolfie didn’t manage to suppress the roll of his eyes. “And you’re back to being a twat. I hoped you’d gotten it out of your system.”
“It’s called a sense of humour.”
“It’s called you having a fit of adolescence. It was tiring when Phania did it, and it’s tiring from you too.”
Rook actually snickered at that despite himself. “…Okay, by the time you’re comparing me to a teenage girl, you might have a point. I think I need sleep.”
Wolfie glared at him for a moment, but then the stare cracked into a helpless grin, and he gave Rook a (very light, Rook noted with appreciation) smack on the back of the shoulder. “Next one to bite you will be me when you get snarly,” he added before leaving Rook alone.
Oh, why did he have to say that? Well, Rook contemplated while managing to keep his face straight, now he could worry about his other secret instead. He tucked the slowly-warming peridot into his pocket, and tried to ignore the scratching at his temple, like someone — or something — trying to get his attention.
The fountain on the front lawn of the Riviere estate was of the Drowned Bard. Csindra knew this story, at least; not that it was particularly easy to avoid at least the vague outlines of the Nine Heroes anywhere in Elessa. Considering how much work the Elessan government put into swearing it was secular and hated gods, it sure treated its folkloric heroes like deities. She could count on one hand the number of paintings of Kesh’lashe she’d seen in her lifetime, and this was the fourth sculpture of Proteus she’d seen just in Den Elessa.
She was tempted to break the damn thing.
Not because of Proteus, no. The legend itself was — well, she didn’t like it, but it depended who you asked. In most versions, Proteus was the rightful king of Elessa — or Torya, or Bjornelend, or sometimes even Avalon, but the actual names didn’t matter, it was all Elessa in the end — and in all of them, he was thrown into the ocean by usurpers. Usually, the Fisher King, who was either his uncle or his brother — and just as often, the Fisher King was talked into it by some strong-minded witch. The Thistle Queen, and the demons through her; or Grendel herself, or — Csindra’s mouth really turned sour at this one — Yasaralan, another of Grendel’s names. So either uppity women, clansfolk or both were responsible.
It said a lot about the Rivieres, she thought with a bitter kick at the fountain’s edge, that their statue of Proteus had a woman’s hands pulling him down into the water.
That wasn’t even what she was angry about. It just made for a convenient distraction so that she could stay in the realm of Irritable, Cranky and Tired instead of the deeper, much scarier rage tempting her underneath.
Rook had cast something on her.
She hadn’t noticed it before — Navónez knew why, but the scariest possible answer was that he was just that good. He hadn’t seemed like such hot shit back in Den Arden. Talented, sure. Caught her off guard with the Bloodwork. There was a difference between that and casting a Smoke enchantment on her, a lasting one, without her even knowing. She knew Smokes were capable of that, theoretically. She also knew her wards were usually good enough to stop it.
She sat down on the edge of the fountain, pressing a finger into one of her new wounds and making it bleed again. Everybody experienced magic differently; for her, it was a mix between different types of senses, none quite clear enough to put a finger on, blending in a way that was impossible to describe to others. It made it nearly impossible for her to collaborate with other magic-users, but that was fine by her — she didn’t really need to, or want to. Her wards were like… rough stone brick. She’d found the texture worked with her the best. Too smooth and her fingers slipped right off the textures in the air again, too irregular or thin and she could never quite make them fit together.
The wards, though, looked fine. Of course they were. If they’d actually broken, she would have felt it — mostly because, she admitted with a rueful note, one of her veins would have blown out. There were worse ways to reinforce a Cutter ward. Not… many, but there were. No, everything looked intact, so he’d just… gotten past them somehow. And she could find the crack, sure, but first she had to stop being so fucking angry.
She closed her eyes, trying to control her temper. Trying to feel less like an animal on a chain. That was what it looked like, tied to her shoulder like a golden thread, the nature of the spell or its ingredients hidden to her but woven somewhere into the thread itself for those who had the knowledge to understand it.
She’d known they weren’t friends. Not really. Not when she’d practically threatened him into helping her with the odjaken on the down-low. And he wasn’t the friends type; that much was obvious from the state of his apartment. But the part of her that always struggled with the concept had still — kind of hoped for some trust, or at least that the chains she could see were the only ones she had to worry about. And after the word bondsman had come up —
She waved the wards away with a lump in her throat. She’d probably be able to find a way to break it, given enough time. It was already an odd enough spell; she knew binding spells well enough, but this one had stopped her just before reaching the gate like hitting an invisible wall, and for the life of her, she couldn’t remember hitting that wall before. She’d definitely been farther away from him even upstairs. That wasn’t how these spells usually worked, but then again, Rook wasn’t your everyday thaumatist. And what wasn’t strange about casting what was essentially a magic fucking ball and chain on somebody who’d already promised to work with you?
“Want a smoke?”
Csindra started, then scowled at the figure coming out of the darkness, the lights on the fountain throwing Lambert’s face into relief as he got closer. “Not the person I want to see.”
Jacob blinked, cigarette halfway to his mouth. “What’d I do?”
“Convinced me to fucking stay is what.”
Jacob didn’t have the speedy or witty answer that she’d hoped — and it was embarrassing realizing she’d wanted him to convince her back into staying, too. At least into feeling good about it. “Teach me to assume he’ll do the smart thing, I guess. Sorry,” he added, leaning on the fountain-edge next to her.
“Fucking — He told you?”
He hesitated a little too long before saying yes, and the dark temper that had been so hard to suppress already finally burst out. She slammed her fist down on the fountain brick — and involuntarily, a pulse of flame shot out towards Jacob. He dodged just in time, which was good. She had enough to worry about without someone else’s injuries on her conscience. Still… “You knew, didn’t you?” she seethed. “You pulled that whole routine—”
“What? Ridder, no, I —” He sighed, looking guilty again. “I’m a dick, I’m not that much of a dick. I never would’ve signed off on that. Officially or otherwise.”
“Makes me wonder what you do sign off on,” she grumbled, in part to hide her embarrassment as she tried to coax her nerves back down from flaring. She hadn’t missed how buddy-buddy he was with the Rivieres that he was supposed to be so scared of. Then as she flexed her hand, rubbing her thumb over the lines, it occurred to her — had he started moving before the flames burst out? Before or after? “…You were looking,” she said after a moment, voice quieting. She glanced up through her hair to see if she was right.
Jacob shrugged, giving her a small and sheepish smile as he sat back down and handed her a cigarette. “I’m sure you’ll claim you don’t smoke, but your coat smells of bac and unless you sell it on the side…” He let it hang there with a knowing raise of his eyebrows, and she just chuckled and accepted it. She’d been trying to stop. Probably hadn’t helped with the nerves, and maybe if she’d been dealing with less, she would actually have said no.
“Bac,” she repeated, trying not to sound too entertained. “First I find out you’re a thaumatist, and now that you’re from Alkmer.”
“Born Red River, but that’s practically the same thing.”
“Does Rook know you’re a thaumatist? I thought it’d have come up.”
Jacob wiggled his hand. “I’m not, actually. I just, uh —” He pulled a face. “Uh, I don’t go spreadin’ it around.”
“Why not? Seems like they get plenty of respect.”
“Yeah, I would, if I could use it. I can’t. I can just see it fine.”
Csindra blinked. “What, just… on your own?”
“Most of the time, yeah.” He gave a nonchalant gesture. “S’just how it worked out.”
She sincerely doubted it was just how it happened to work — but there was probably a story behind it, and frankly, she was intrigued enough by the details alone. “So you didn’t know about Rook casting something on me until just now.”
“Pretty much. I thought I saw something earlier but you know how it is with magic. There’s always a lot floating around people who use it a lot.”
“Is there?” She couldn’t keep the surprise out of her voice — or the little note of wonder. It was a little embarrassing, especially when Jacob couldn’t hide the small, equally embarrassed grin. He clearly didn’t get to talk about it much.
“Yeah. Strongest with Bloodwork, obviously. You guys carry it around with you like — well, like the smell of bac, honestly.”
“So you know who the secret Cutters are,” she drawled.
He flinched a little at that. “Unfortunately. Kinda have to keep my mouth shut, though.”
“You don’t arrest them, get your quotas up?” She was mostly joking, but she was still a little surprised at the grimace on his face.
“Be a little hard, given how many of them outrank me. The only one I could say anything to safely would be Rook, and let’s — you know, qualify safely there a little,” he added with a snort.
Csindra was pretty sure he was joking about Rook’s temper, but it still switched something over in her brain.
Jacob could see magic.
The thing that she’d had to actively look for, the thing that had taken her Bloodwork to see —
She was still stinging, so all she had to do was flick up one of her fingers and let a small flame dance on it, a tiny amount of fury concentrated into a spark. She held it to the end of the borrowed cigarette, taking a long drag – but then she flicked the spark outwards. “Zhìh’te vol.” She said it with such quiet confidence that it took Lambert longer than it might have to realize she’d cast a silence ward; both very quickly, and very smoothly.
“Bloody hell, you’re scary,” he muttered, tensing up noticeably. She was starting to think he didn’t like Cutters — although plenty of people didn’t, so that didn’t make him special.
“Never met a quiet Cutter before?”
“No, never met a Cutter who can do wards that fucking fast. Rook downplayed how good you are.”
“Rook doesn’t know how good I am. Neither do you.”
Lambert took that for the warning it was intended as, it seemed, although there was still a bit of a playful sparkle in his eye when he finally answered. “So you’re interrogating me, is that what’s happening?”
“Sort of.” She blew out a puff of smoke. “Were you ever planning on fucking telling Rook?”
“Telling him wh—” This time, he did stop himself upon seeing her face. “Ah. Let me rephrase. What is it you think I should be telling him?”
“If I knew the details, Lambert, I wouldn’t be here. But he’s a — what do you call it — a demonbound, or something close to it, isn’t he?”
He paused, watching her for a moment. “Ah.” Then Jacob took off his sunglasses, toying with them in his hand and exhaling. “I… I have no fucking clue.”
That wasn’t what she’d expected.
“But you can see it.”
“I can now.” He gave her a wry look. “I couldn’t before he left. Not consistently, anyway.”
“Before he left?”
“Before he went down south.”
Before he’d come to the Zweispars.
Csindra lowered the cigarette, frowning. This wasn’t the first, or even the second time she’d run into the shadow of something — something she was missing, or had missed. The idea that the Rook she’d met wasn’t entirely the same person who everyone else had grown up with. “Nothing before that?”
“Wouldn’t say nothing. Not consistently. But you fish a kid from the ocean, you expect a bit of oddity. Sylvia kept her mouth shut, but I ain’t stupid. One of the reasons she was so quick to teach him magic was so he’d have an excuse — he’d be good at that instead of whatever else it is that comes naturally to him.”
“This is all, what, conjuncture?”
“Con —” He hid his smile. “Conjecture. Pretty much. He never did anything obvious.” The smile vanished. “Except you’re bringing it up.”
“Don’t ask if you don’t want to know.”
“Was this him?”
“Depends what part you’re askin’ about. What happened a month ago?”
Jacob looked more than a little irritated about the fact that she hadn’t answered him, but he was smart enough not to push, and she wasn’t in the mood to rat out just how out of control Rook’s magic was. “Before he left?”
“Yeah. His birthday, right?”
“Nothing as far as I know, but his actual birthday was while he was down south. Pissed me and Tom off something grand, mind you.”
“Why do you think? It’s his eighteenth birthday. And we’ve been too damn busy ever since he got back—” He stopped himself. “What are you smiling at?”
She raised an eyebrow at him, not even bothering to hide her expression. Jacob had gotten almost entirely distracted from any actual anger at the kid into being disappointed that he couldn’t spoil him. No wonder Rook had it bad. And this idiot’s clueless, huh? “Just… Don’t worry about it.” But then it occurred to her exactly why Rook might have fled the city. His room.
Did Jacob know? No, he didn’t seem to. It was possible he just wasn’t saying anything, but her bet was that if Jacob had any idea that Rook had tried to kill himself, he wouldn’t have let him out of arm’s reach.
“What are you going to do?” she asked.
“Me? I don’t fuck with this stuff. I have no clue what to do. Never have.”
“You can see it—”
“Yeah, a bunch of pretty colours. Don’t ask me for answers. That’s —” He exhaled. “That’s what you’re here for, isn’t it?”
“Hmph. So you put that together.”
“Rook doesn’t work with partners.”
“Right. About that — what does consistently mean? When you say you didn’t see it consistently.”
“You really are interrogating me.”
“It’s why he hired me, bizakh’, so work with me here.”
“I know what that one means,” Jacob grumbled back at her, but shifted his stance slightly, his discomfort showing. She wondered where it was coming from, although she had a few guesses. She gave the silence ward a quick test, just to check; but between how vague they were keeping most of it and the fact that anybody actually important was inside, the only person Jacob had to worry about was — well, her.
Csindra supposed that was fair, honestly. Especially since, thinking about it, from Jacob’s perspective, Rook had probably come back ten times more unstable with her in tow. Didn’t help the whole trust angle.
Yeah, and he’s fucking military. Don’t forget that. Just because he’s not consciously treating you like scum—
Csindra batted it away. She wasn’t going to get anywhere, with anybody, if she was falling back on that every two seconds.
“You know that if this gets out,” he said after a moment, “there’s not a damn thing I can do for him.”
“Yeah. You saw what I was reading on the bus.”
“Leshin shar, I was hoping that wasn’t why.” He ran a hand through his hair, and Csindra tried not to notice the twitch at the corner of his mouth, the stress building in the way he was sitting. Even little details that she wasn’t supposed to notice, even by the standards of a merc; leshin shar wasn’t standard even for Alkmeri dialect, as far as she knew, and he hadn’t said anything like leshin shar or bac before. She wasn’t sure when she’d started picking up so much about people. It wasn’t the kind of ridiculous hyperobservance that detective novels liked to play up. She couldn’t immediately intuit what it meant. But it was information, and information she would keep, whether she meant to or not. “Nah, before he left, it was all — glimmers. Nothing ever actually happened. I’d just see it in the background.”
“Rook said something about — someone getting hurt.”
“That wasn’t fe— that wasn’t whatever this is.”
Csindra noted, with a sigh of frustration, that apparently Rook’s aversion to calling whatever he was doing feral magic, let alone its real name, came from somewhere. “You’re sure?”
“Very sure.” Then Jacob gave her a serious, searching look. “You seem… less concerned about this than I thought you’d be.”
“Benefits of being Kanet’, I guess.”
“So it’s true, huh?”
He hadn’t said it unkindly — if anything, with a hint of amusement — but she felt her hackles rising anyway. “What, that we’re demon-worshippers?”
“Not what I meant,” he sighed. “I’ve met enough Dani’it to know what you actually think about demons. Generally speakin’, anyway.”
“They’re not demons.”
“No, but I can’t pronounce the other word for love nor fuckin’ money and I’d rather not give you another reason to laugh at me.”
“O—” She suppressed the urge to groan. Loudly. “Odjanin. Od-ya-nin. It’s not hard.”
“I’m Alkmeri. I specialize in butcherin’ language.” He was grinning at her. The bastard.
Especially because she was, despite everything, feeling better.
She hated him a little.
She crossed her arms, glaring at him and refusing to show the smile on her face like she wanted to. “I’m concerned plenty. I’m tied at the hip to someone with temper issues and the ability to use magic that could eat me for dinner. Unlike you, I know that the magic isn’t gonna go out of its way to do it.”
“If I thought that, I wouldn’t be protecting him, you know.”
That was… a very good point. “Not just because you like him?”
Jacob shrugged, lips lifting in a warm smile as his eyes wandered off a bit. “I mean, that too. But I dunno if they’re that different.” He moved on from that before she could react to what was a much, much bigger thing to say than he seemed to realize. “Satisfied now?”
“Not even remotely. I can’t quite wrap my head around you just sitting around and letting a demonbound — vol I hate that word — work for the military.”
“I don’t know why Sylvia does half of what she does, but I’m not out to rat on people. Certainly when he’s never done anything wrong.”
Csindra nearly asked about whoever had gotten hurt — then closed her mouth.
Jacob was very, very insistent that it hadn’t been feral magic. That was, she realized, a good thing. He couldn’t claim Rook wasn’t dangerous — because soldiers were dangerous, because the record showed differently, because that was a lie. But she could appreciate the difference between a dangerous thaumatist and a dangerous witch, and apparently, so could he.
Jacob was watching her again. Not just watching; examining. She could see it in his face — and even as she thought it, he stood up and slid his sunglasses back on. She wasn’t sure why he wore them, even at night, but it was particularly noticeable now. “I gotta ask,” he admitted. “I like selfless people as much as the next guy. But I really don’t understand what you’re getting out of this.”
“Don’t call me selfless,” she groaned, taking another drag on the cigarette and appreciating that the nicotine was taking the edges off her temper. She didn’t want to snap Rook’s neck anymore, at least. “I’m getting paid and you’re the one who talked me into staying. Didn’t think he’d put a chain on me.”
He winced in sympathy. “I’m not sure he meant well covers that, huh?”
“Not even slightly, but you get points for effort. I’ll kick his ass until he takes it off, it’s fine.” It wasn’t, but what else was new? It wasn’t like she and Rook’s working relationship had been founded on love and trust to begin with. “You seem surprised.”
“I keep thinking you’re gonna run for the hills or slit his throat.”
“What, ‘cause I’m a criminal?”
“It’s what I would’ve done. First one more than the second.” He scratched at his cheek. “But you’re right. And besides, you don’t seem in a huge rush to get back to… where was it? Tenton?”
“Yeah. Middle of fuckin’ nowhere.”
She couldn’t read his expression, and that was setting her back on edge all over again. She dispelled the ward, trying to brush off the uncertainty, the sense that she was missing something. She kept getting… relaxed. Thinking he was just another guy, another person she could hang out with.
“Oh, by the way, real quick.”
“What?” She stirred herself out of it. Jacob was grinning again.
“Can you do me a favour?”
“Don’t tell Rook I can see magic, yeah? I’ve been keeping that one under my hat for a while.”
She narrowed her eyes. “…Why?”
“Cause as far as he’s concerned I just have a sixth sense for whenever he’s doing shit he shouldn’t be.”
She groaned, shoulders falling. “That’s — You’re not serious.”
“I might not be his dad, but I am the… Okay, both responsible and adult are complete lies. If I was, I wouldn’t enjoy making him blush so much.”
One day, I’m going to have to kick you, and you’ll have to trust me that you deserve it, Csindra thought with a quiet, pitying snort.
Jacob’s radio flickered to life with a burst of static. “Center Lead, this is Red Team. We’ve got activity at the docks, over.”
He picked up the radio. “This is Center Lead Lambert. What kind of activity?”
“We’ve been approached directly by somebody offering information, sir.”
Jacob scowled. “Most obvious trap I’ve ever heard of,” he grumbled, then pressed the talk button. “Description?”
“Clansman, late teens-early twenties. Further information may put him at risk, sir.”
“That’s true,” he grumbled, mood visibly sinking. “Hold your position, Red Team, and keep him in custody. I’m on my way. Over.”
“Sir, have you slept?”
“…Of course I have,” Jacob mumbled into the radio. Unconvincingly. “That’s not the point, Ma— Marti—” He paused, collecting himself for a moment. “My sleep habits are not your problem.”
“Go to bed, Jacob. I’m perfectly capable of keeping things under control for a few hours.”
Even in the dim light, Csindra could see the flush on Jacob’s cheeks, and she couldn’t quite repress her chuckle. Jacob flipped the bird at her before sighing, and pressing the button one last time. “Fine. But I should write you up for breaking radio protocol.”
“I said I should. Not that I will. Over and out.” Then he glared at her. “What?”
Csindra shrugged, arms loosely crossed. “So how long have you been sleeping with her?”
“…Month or two, on and off. Nothing serious.” Then Jacob swatted her lightly on the back of the head. “Not your business, Djaneki.”
“Not my — You have the subtlety of a brick!”
“Yeah, yeah,” he grumbled, still blushing a little. “Wolfie’ll take both of you home, okay? He doesn’t want to go to a hospital, I won’t make him, but keep an eye on him. And please don’t kill him.”
She stayed outside while he walked back down the path to the house, watching him with a growing sense of unease. Not over Lambert — no, he seemed like a good guy, and even though he was still keeping some cards close to his chest, that was only to be expected. Plus, he didn’t have the skills to run the kind of experiment she’d suspected. She wouldn’t put it past the military — but it was above his pay-grade. Whether it was above Scheffen’s… she’d have to find out.
The part that was bothering her the most was the timeline. Bullying from another soldier, the start of his flare-ups, and then… something had happened. She was pretty sure she knew what.
Rook hadn’t killed or hurt anybody else in that room, the room he still wouldn’t go back into. He’d tried to kill himself. And Jacob didn’t know.
“My question,” she murmured to no one in particular, “is why didn’t it work? You’re a soldier, Rook. You kill people for a living.” If Rook wanted to die so badly, and she felt awful for thinking it, but it was true — he had no real shortage of options. He’d taken something, before fighting the odjaken; and now that she was thinking about it, it would be so easy for him to take too much, wouldn’t it? A gun, a knife, drugs, train tracks, even a short drop and a sudden stop.
Thinking about it was making her kind of queasy. Especially because he’d been down in the Zweispars for a month before running into her. There was every chance even he didn’t know why he hadn’t tried again. Kesh’lashe knew she wondered the same for herself, from time to time. The truth was that even trying to die took more energy than just…existing.
She pushed, experimentally, against the spell one last time. Not really to break it, this time. Just to feel the threads winding around her arm again, get a sense for its rules; it got looser and faded as two figures came out of the front door. She was still pissed. She was still going to deeply consider beating the shit out of him. Mostly, though, she wanted to know what scared him so badly about just asking someone not to leave.
This is another portion that got rewritten a number of times – Csindra and Jacob’s chemistry is important to me, but so is the hesitation from both of them. Even more so, the reveal about Rook’s spell took some work! Cause I doubt most people would react well to that, let alone someone like Csindra.
Sorry about all the late updates recently! We’re shifting to a weekly schedule and that has obvious consequences for my organization – so hold tight as I get used to it.
Song: Like People Like Plastic – AWOLNation