CW: Self-injury, tranquilizer reference, arrest/confinement, fascism/military
DEN ARDEN, SOUTH ZWEISPAR, 1921
…Under one flag and one name, we are strong against the forces of evil; together, we stand. Divided, we fall. Do not let separatist rhetoric deceive you. On this Unity Day, be grateful for the State of Elessa’s mercy. You will not receive it twice.-Judge Octavius Markussohn Riviere, 1842
Rook had never been so glad to be small, and so irritated at air vent designers, in his life. It was luck, sheer damn luck, that he’d been able to get in here at all. And if he wasn’t double-jointed in an unfortunate number of places, it wouldn’t have worked.
Of course, if he hadn’t caught the Den Arden mayor lying to him, it wouldn’t have been necessary in the first place. So he knew who to blame.
Rook sighed and looked through the grate, pulling his mask off the rest of the way to clear his vision. At least he had a good view of the boardroom. The Den Arden mayor had just arrived, along with – oh, well, that was interesting. The city council filed in, but with them, trying to blend in, was somebody who definitely didn’t belong. He’d memorized the list and photos of the city council before coming in, but the person slouching by the door would have stuck out no matter what. She was short, stocky, with a battleaxe on her back and a shock of auburn hair. Clearly a bodyguard or blade-for-hire, and not somebody you brought in for a regular financial quarterly.
That just confirmed what he’d known the second the Den Arden mayor tried to sponge him off. “Taxes, my ass,” he mouthed to himself.
The snake across the grate from him stuck its tongue out at him. It probably wasn’t trying to be snarky, but Rook flipped it off anyway. If he wanted his familiar’s input, he’d ask for it. Time to listen.
“Well, you will all be pleased to know that I seem to have headed off that thorny little thaumatist who was nosing around. I’ve hired some extra protection just in case, so you’ll be seeing some new faces around your workspaces, but rest assured…”
Rook rolled his eyes. They always thought he would be so easy to distract. That was part of why Scheffen sent him to these missions, though. He got underestimated, and that gave him more room to work. Then something caught his attention again.
“…guns against thaumatists is always tricky. Especially Cutters.”
“That’s why I’ve been investing in tranquilizers,” replied another council-member.
That sounded bad.
“Has that been working?” The mayor sounded doubtful. “Most work too slowly.”
“It’s not the speed that’s the issue. If the Cutter in question never feels the prick, the drug can take as long as half an hour to work.”
Rook stifled a curse. So that was what all the chlorine and ethanol shipments had been for. The reason Den Arden had shown up on Scheffen’s radar at all was because of irregularities in their taxes. So, boring, and something for the local county to take care of… except their imports had been raising some eyebrows, paired with some minor civil unrest a few years back. Simply put, there was no reason for a completely normal, mostly-tourist town to be importing all the ingredients for gunpowder and grenades unless they were planning a revolt. The chlorine and ethanol, though…
He hated being smart sometimes. Chloral hydrate was a pretty powerful knockout drug. Which meant they were organized, and already planning on how to take care of the thaumatists that would be coming after them.
Well, that was plenty to justify taking them in, especially since seizing the chloral hydrate itself would be the clincher. He just had to make sure none of them raised the alarm first.
Rook thought for a moment, then reached into his jacket pocket, pulling out the leather bag with his flute inside. He slotted the three pieces together, licked his lips, and tried to think of the hypnotism spell he knew that hit the most people at once. Then he began to play.
At first, the people below didn’t notice. That was the great thing about a flute. He played the saxophone, too, but that was the kind of thing you used when you were trying to piss people off. Not to mention, he’d barely fit in the damn vent as it was. But flutes were quiet. Especially in a vent like this with the sound being channeled all over the room, if you weren’t really paying attention, the spell took hold before you realized you were hearing music.
The Den Arden city board, eight conspirators in total, began to slow down, until they came to a stop.
Lovely, Rook thought. Now I just have to lock you all in there until I can call in backup to actually arrest you. He kicked the grate out, careful to keep playing, and dropped down onto the table. There was a jerk in the music as he did – but he stabilized it, glad for his breath control. Why couldn’t he have learned a fucking string instrument? Still, it was a good spell. And if he managed to play it all the way to the end, he might be able to follow it up with a binding spell so he wouldn’t have to play the whole time-
Rook turned around – and dropped down with an atonal squawk through the flute as an axe bit the air above him. It hit the opposite wall, and he glared at the one person the spell, apparently, hadn’t caught. The red-headed bodyguard was grinning at him, completely unaffected. Son of a bitch. Resistant, or—
Rook glanced at her palm. There was a fresh cut on the surface, blood a vivid red against her dark-tan skin. She was a Cutter. Fucking Bloodworkers. No tools, no warning signs. You just had to deal with them when they showed up.
He glanced behind him where the thrown battleaxe was embedded in the yellow plaster wall – and then it began to move. Keep playing, Rook, come on, you have like eight bars until you can do the binding spell. The axe came whizzing back through the air – and into the bodyguard’s blood-stained palm.
“Like it?” she said conversationally.
Rook just glared, breathlessly trying to finish the song on the flute. He didn’t really have the extra lung capacity to be as startled as he wanted to be. She took another swing at him, and he ducked, moving backwards through the boardroom and trying not to trip over any of the chairs. The boardmembers were still frozen in time, but they weren’t going to stay that way if he ran out of-
Right. That was why she wasn’t trying very hard. She wasn’t trying to kill him. She was just trying to make him run out of breath. He would have appreciated how smart that was if he wasn’t so pissed off.
Six bars. Rook ducked another swing with the axe. The enchanted battleaxe, which really just fit in great with the planned rebellion, the unexpected Cutter, and the fact that he had the urge to sneeze.
“Give it up, kid,” she sighed. “You’re gonna run out of breath long before anybody gets here to help you. And I’m a little more flexible.”
Three bars. Also, no way was she older than him. She looked big, sure, with lots of muscle mass despite how short she was, but now that he was close, he would have guessed maybe nineteen. At a stretch. Two. One. And the binding spell was literally four bars on top of that.
She raised her axe again – and the snake dropped from the grate onto her head. “-what the FUCK-”
Rook’s familiar just bared its fangs at her, and, smartly enough, she dropped the axe with a groan. “Not arguin’ with a viper.”
He finished the binding spell – and gasped for breath. Thank god. Now they wouldn’t move until he let them. “Don’t have hazard pay for random acts of snake?”
“You’re hilarious.” Then she pulled the snake off of her, chucked it at him and released a burst of pressure at him. If he hadn’t seen the cut on her palm before, he would have been taken completely by surprise. But instead, he bit his tongue, slammed his foot against the floor and tripped her right back, jerking the tiles out from underneath her.
Rook waited a heartbeat longer, and once he was satisfied that she was winded enough not to spring back to her feet, practically sauntered over to her. He stuck his tongue out at her – blood beading at the tip – then grinned.
She just rolled her eyes, clearly admitting defeat but not giving up her pride – but she was obviously curious. He waited for her to ask, trying not to look too much like he wanted her to — and after a moment, she did, narrowing her eyes at him. “Doing one’s hard enough. Who the hell are you?”
“Thaumatist-Major Rook Zeesohn,” he replied, trying not to smirk, because he knew it didn’t answer a damn thing. He pulled his flute back into its component pieces, stuck it back in his pocket, and pulled out the handcuffs. “It’s this or the snake.”
In the defense of Den Arden’s self-taught hired muscle and itinerant mage, most people really did think you could only do one kind of magic. And in practice, it usually worked out that way. There were legally three schools of magic in Elessa. Practically, there were four. Smokeworkers, Mirrorworkers and Songworkers. Smokes, Sparks and Bards.
Rook sucked grumpily on the hole he’d bit into his tongue. Bloodworkers were illegal in all of Elessa’s nine counties, and federally just weren’t mentioned. That didn’t mean people didn’t do it. Including him. It was just more convenient, was the problem. You could try not to lose your breath or snap a string during a high-stakes situation… or you could take the easy route. The thing was, it only looked like an easy route. He was one of the few people to do multiple schools anyway; actually, the only current Thaumatist-Soldier to be proficient in all three official schools, but who was counting? So he knew how to control Bloodworker magic when he did it. Others…
The merc wasn’t awake yet. She’d fallen asleep in holding, the magic-use catching up with her, and Rook had ordered her moved to the train. Still handcuffed, of course. He wasn’t stupid. Instead, he looked at the file he’d pulled from the Den Arden mayoral office. It was a fun read; she’d been booked for theft, breaking and entering, even a charge of ‘obscenity’ that he suspected had more to do with the pretty girl who’d been booked along with her.
He was on his second review of it when she began to stir. “…mm. Hm. Huh?”
“I was wondering when you were going to notice,” he said cheerfully, not looking up. He could see her just fine through his peripheral vision anyway, and if she was stupid enough to try anything while handcuffed, Rook was sure he could find some way to make it Scheffen’s fault that he’d thrown someone out of a train.
“Yen’ta vol. Where am I?”
“On a train back to the capital.”
“…Why am I not in holding with the rest?”
Rook looked up at her, raised an eyebrow, then looked down at the file. “Csindra Djaneki, nineteen years old.”
“It’s Sh, not S. On my first name.”
He blinked, a little surprised. “Shin-dra?”
“Call me Sindra again and I’ll bite you.” She said it with the casual, tired assertiveness of somebody who’d had to do this a lot.
“Noted,” he said, trying not to laugh. She wasn’t going to be biting him from over there, but it wasn’t like he responded to authority much better than she did. “You have… oh man, five prior arrests?” He’d missed the two bookings for public disturbances — both notably short on details.
“All of them minor,” she grumbled.
“That’s kind of impressive,” he said anyway. And most people wouldn’t have called five arrests for anything minor. “How you stayed off the radar this long, I don’t know.”
Djaneki narrowed her eyes at him. “Thaumatists don’t usually worry about petty criminals.”
“No, but we do care about Bloodworkers.”
She rolled her eyes so dramatically that he wondered how on earth he was younger than her. “Save it. Cutters. I’m a Cutter. Don’t dress it up all nicely. And so are you.”
“Wrong. I’m a Bard. And a Spark, and a Smoke.”
She looked impressed for a second, before skepticism settled onto her features. “Bullshit.”
“No, I’m serious.”
“Nobody has that much time on their hands.”
Rook tried not to snort. Some people did — just not normal people. “Being the smartest person around helps. The point is, Bloodworkers are illegal.”
“So you’re what, taking me to special prison?”
He hesitated. Not for long; hopefully not long enough that she’d noticed. “No. I’m just…curious.”
She was silent for a while, and Rook couldn’t help but wonder what she was thinking. He didn’t come off as military, let alone a thaumatist, any more than she came off as a teenager. The leather jacket he had on would almost pass for military ordinance if he hadn’t cheerfully replaced the buttons with silver clasps, and then there was the-
“You have a skirt on.”
“You noticed,” he drawled in return, returning to the file. He could satisfy his own curiosity once she was done ogling.
Instead, though, she sat back with a snicker. “Not exactly a classic soldier, are you?”
“You know what’s throwing me?” he asked instead, to turn the conversation back to her. “I know I’m not exactly on top of things this far south, but you’re the first Bloodworker I’ve met who’s done more than just throwing their weight around. I know more trained Bloodworkers exist, Scheffen talks about them plenty, but you- you’re not teaming up with a cult, you’re not a rebel with a chip on her shoulder-”
“Keep going and we’ll see about that,” Djaneki grumbled under her breath.
“-okay, rephrase, you’re not actively allied with rebel forces beyond being a blade for hire. And by the look of this file, you’ll work for whoever pays you. No protection, no patron, no obvious cause. So, Djaneki…” He dropped the file on the train bench next to him. “Who trained you?”
“No one. I’m self-taught.”
“It is incredibly distracting,” she groaned, “how you can’t decide whether you’re interrogating me or taking me on a date. And I am not interested in the second. Yes, I’m an illegal Bloodworker, no, sir, I won’t do it again, will you please take me back to jail?”
Rook had a lot more questions. But if he asked them, she would figure out pretty quickly that his interest wasn’t military, or political, or any of the other things he’d managed to wrap it in. “You really hate my company that much?” he shot back, grinning. He was already reaching out to knock on the door of their closed carriage-
“You have no idea. Besides, it’s not like I don’t know where this is going.”
He paused, fist an inch away from the wood. “Where do you think it’s going?”
“I’m not interested in joining the military. So if it’s a choice between the job offer and prison, I’ll just take the prison term.”
That was interesting. Rook filed that away in his head, because if she was assuming that right off the bat, she’d probably been approached before. But then he shrugged. “Have it your way,” and knocked on the train door. It slid open, and two uniformed soldiers saluted him. “Sir!”
“Take her back to holding with the rest. Also, Hank, you got any smokes left?”
One of the soldiers went to grab Djaneki – the other sighed, shoulders falling. “C’mon, Rook, Scheffen will murder me.”
“She doesn’t have to know, Hank.”
He shuddered. “She always knows. And besides-”
Rook narrowed his eyes. “If you start in with that crap about her being in charge of me I will turn you inside out. She does not outrank me, she is not my mother, and actually, I outrank you-”
“You’re not pulling rank because you want a cigarette?”
“No,” he admitted. “I’m pulling rank because Scheffen pisses me off. Pretty please can I have a cigarette?”
Hank gave Rook the most sarcastic look he could muster, then sighed and pulled one out of his pocket. “Elessa preserve whatever woman you eventually marry.”
“Elessa preserve anybody who thinks I’m gettin’ married. That’s all, go throw her in the brig or whatever and then come keep me company.”
Once they were gone, Rook gave up trying to sit up straight. He put his back against the armrest, kicked off his boots, and pulled out his lighter, nestling his notebook on his knees. He had to draft at least a semi-passable report for Scheffen, and he might as well start it now. The Den Arden city management was all in holding, he’d installed a temporary military overseer (which meant he’d mostly gotten somebody from the 38th Division to decide for him and then made it official, but close enough), and he’d confiscated all the chloral hydrate, saltpeter, sulfur, and various other questionable substances they’d been importing.
It wasn’t long before Hank returned – without his companion, this time. “Where’s Liz?” Rook mumbled around his cigarette.
Hank waved his hand through the haze of smoke. “Warrant Officer Peterson is guarding the holding cells.”
“You can just say she doesn’t like me.”
“She likes you fine. Your irritating habit of calling her Liz, on the other hand…”
Rook would have taken it more personally if Hank wasn’t smiling at him. “Shut up,” he grumbled. “It’s not my fault ranks are so long. Who has the time for all those extra syllables?”
“You’re eighteen now. People are going to start taking offense.”
“I’m not entirely stupid, Hank. I’m not gonna start calling Scheffen by her first name.” He didn’t mean to have it come out with so much venom, but it just worked out that way when Scheffen came up.
The older soldier chuckled softly, then sat down on the train bench next to Rook, down past his bare feet. Rook kept his eyes studiously on his notebook and away from Hank’s eyes – and more importantly, his face. He was a handsome man, dark-haired, a Second Lieutenant with NEI (so Rook wasn’t going to outrank him for long) and more importantly, married. Which really shouldn’t have mattered, because Rook’s eyes and attentions these days wandered so chaotically that that wasn’t really the issue. His real name was Henry Williamsohn Blanchard, so Rook should have been calling him Lieutenant Blanchard… but even just thinking about it made Rook scowl and tighten his grip on his pen, because there was a reason he called people by their first names.
Hank knew that. So he didn’t push it. “You didn’t get hurt or anything?”
“Nope,” he mumbled around the cigarette. Aside from his tongue, but that didn’t count.
“That’s good. I worry about you, kid.”
“Not a kid.”
Hank chuckled. “I thought you wanted company.”
“I do! One sec -” He flipped the notebook around. “I’m thinking of including this in my report. What do you think?”
“I… think that’s a dinosaur.”
“Yeah, and that’s me, in its jaws. Crunch, crunch.”
Hank was trying not to smile. “Let me guess. The dinosaur is Scheffen.”
“Maybe. Or maybe it’s this report that I don’t want to do. It’s art, Hank, it’s open to interpretation.”
“It needs a good coat of paint before they hang it in the Zweispar Fine Arts Hall, but not bad.” Hank looked around cautiously. “Say, where’s your, uh, snake?”
“Hm? Oh, who knows. Adventuring, I think.”
“…Rook, you did not let a viper loose on the train.”
“What? He’s a very well-behaved snake-” Rook caught the look on Hank’s face. “Oh, fine.” He whistled a few notes and snapped his fingers, and almost immediately, his familiar slithered out from under the seat.
Hank gave him a look. Rook just shrugged, trying not to grin. “I told you he was well-behaved.”
“I never know with you and your animals. You had a shrike a month ago.”
“And he was also very well-behaved, aside from that one incident with that lady’s mink stole.”
Hank gave up, shaking his head with a laugh. Not for the first time, Rook wondered what it would be like to kiss him. “You’re terrible. Well, just make sure you don’t terrify anybody with it. I’m going to go keep Li- Lieutenant Peterson company.” He paused. “You’re a horrible influence on me.”
“It’s all in the spirit of friendship and good will,” Rook teased. He kept up the smile while Hank slid out of the compartment, then slid back down against the window, mood sinking.
The snake rose up next to him, watching him curiously.
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
The snake nudged his arm, and Rook sighed, giving it a glance. He’d tried to name the damn thing a few times, but it never responded to much. It just stuck around – and was surprisingly good company, all things considered. “It’s nothing special. Just more bad ideas.”
The snake flicked its tongue at him. Then it leaned in and did it again – tickling its tongue over Rook’s cheek. Rook giggled despite himself, batting the snake away. “Oh, great. You’ve been a snake for three weeks and now you know what you’re doing. Going to figure out how to actually poison people and make yourself useful before the next new moon?”
If a snake could look sulky at someone, Rook reflected, his familiar was certainly managing it. Poor thing. He reached forward and scratched it under the chin. He doubted Csindra really knew enough about Bloodwork to help, but it was something. It wasn’t Bloodwork that had done… whatever this was to his familiar. And it wasn’t Bloodwork that had taken his memory away…but it was also the only lead he had left before he started looking at places he really, really didn’t want to go.
“Don’t worry,” he mumbled to the snake, who would only be a snake for another nine days before the next new moon hit and it became something else entirely, all over again. “I’ll figure it out. Eventually.”
The greatest part of this first chapter was that I was making it up as I went along and found, to my great delight, that it was working. A lot of BCaC is like that. Csindra, by all rights, shouldn’t have been in this story – in fact, I had no intention of using my Agramanthea cast again for a long time. I kept trying, and then sighing and moving on. But then I threw her at the newly-created/refined Rook, and this glorious interaction is what I got.
Csindra’s name has been a source of agony for me for years. I love it, I love the way it’s spelled, but nobody ever pronounces it right; so I decided to just find some way to have the pronunciation actually come up in-story. I have a full Kanet’valan pronunciation guide and basics up on the BCaC page and am working on a dictionary – but for now, the main thing to know is that the ‘Cs’ phoneme is always a ‘sh’ sound.
If I make any quote from The Nowhere Bird a pin or badge or something, it might be Bitey with “Random Acts Of Snake”.
Edited June 19th, 2022.