CWs: Racism, implied/mistaken sexual assault, internalized homophobia/closet angst, self-injury, PTSD response
Susu majashązhu sumsum kebeshua þedri-gudan’, izhub’tatuzh tek a’zhe-ke.
If you treat everything like a threat, you’ll find plenty.Al’wakhadyaka Inevani Lakaǩ Ląkaǩ aŋat-Zubesha aŋat-Avolara
Holding was crowded. Holding was full of Elessans. Holding was also full of people mad at her for “not doing her job”. All in all, Csindra grumbled to herself as she leant against the back wall and tried to avoid the glares of the Den Arden conspirators, it wasn’t a good day.
Not that she’d been on a particularly good streak. It didn’t matter which side of the bars she was on at this point, she was fucking broke. She’d tried to convince the Den Arden mayor to pay her upfront, but he’d insisted, and she couldn’t turn down work right now. Or, well, ever, really.
“-stupid Kanetan bitch scammed me-”
And of course he was blaming it on her on the other side of the holding pen and she had to pretend she couldn’t hear it. She eyed the soldiers standing guard instead. Not likely to be any friendlier, but maybe they would be an improvement.
Then the woman moved away from the bars with a glare at her, guarding her pocket. Because clearly the white-collar criminals were one thing but Csindra was a pickpocket.
She really, really hated Elessans.
I’m just curious.
Curious, my ass, Csindra snorted. Although…
She decided to try again. “Hey, uh – it’s Warrant Officer, right?”
“Warrant Officer Peterson,” the woman replied, clearly a little surprised at the politeness. Csindra chewed on the inside of her cheek, resisting the urge to tell her to stuff it. She hadn’t actually said anything wrong. “What is it?”
“The uh – the boy who arrested me. Thaumatist-Major Zeesohn?”
Peterson stifled a small, irritated smile. “Yes, although don’t call him that.”
“Rook. He, ah, doesn’t like being addressed by his last name.”
Csindra filed that away under fascinating but irrelevant (probably). “How on earth is he a Major? He’s my age, isn’t he?”
Peterson blinked. “How old are you?”
“Wh-” Peterson stared at Csindra, then at the other people in the holding pen, who were looking at Csindra with unconcealed hostility. “Good god. You could have said so.”
She wasn’t entirely sure when Peterson thought she was going to actually do that – mid-fight, or while being arrested? – but she shrugged. “’Scuse me if I don’t advertise being a teenager. Not that I count at this point.”
Still, Peterson looked distinctly uncomfortable – and, to Csindra’s surprise, less like she thought Csindra was going to rob her blind. That was nice. Most people didn’t distinguish between adults and kids when it came to being racist pricks. “Rook’s eighteen, yes. But he’s a special case.”
“What, you don’t make a habit of child soldiers?”
Peterson did glare at her then; enough that the other soldier made a point of looking over. “Peterson, relax.”
“He’s not a child soldier,” the other soldier continued. “The kid’s smarter than most forty-year-olds I know. Trust me, exceptions don’t get made that easily. Not for thaumatists.”
Csindra glanced over at the man who was speaking. She was pretty sure this was the one that Rook had been palling around with. Brown-haired, blue eyed, almost ripped from a cigarette or tailor’s ad with some polished Elessan man on the front, except for the crooked twice-broken nose and the scruffiness of his hair. “…He calls you Hank, huh?”
To her amusement, he actually went pink at that. “It’s Blanchard to you.”
“You’re a criminal.”
Ahh, here it was. Csindra leant her head against the bars with a rueful grin. They really were stupid. There was a door behind Blanchard, and in the rattling of the train she’d caught enough of a view underneath to confirm it was a straight shot outdoors. It was a coal-tender train, which meant it stopped for the night. And – she flexed her hand experimentally – yes, that little thump from behind Peterson meant her battleaxe was close by. All she needed was for the train to stop and then she’d be out of here.
Csindra’s smile faded a little.
Except she was broke.
She shot another dark glare at the Den Arden mayor. All he’d had to do was pay her upfront. That was all. It would have been so basic. And not only that, she was now three failed jobs in a row. She wasn’t going to get another job – not in the Zweispars, at least. Not for a while. Escaping wasn’t going to solve anything.
She thought about Rook and his cocky face when he’d been reading through her file. The little shit. He’d been perfectly well aware.
Maybe I’ll break out just to cave his face in, she thought dryly.
The train had stopped. That was what woke her up, especially since she’d been waiting for it. But what really made her wake up fast was the snake staring her down.
“Shit!” she whispered, backed away – and then nearly bit her tongue when she realized the snake was the same damn one. Rook’s familiar. That was good, she supposed, because it meant there weren’t multiple vipers on the loose, but one was quite enough for her liking. She scrambled upwards, cursing again as her hair got caught in the handcuffs. The snake was coiled just outside the bars, but there was nothing really stopping it from coming through the bars.
Csindra glanced around. No guards. The other prisoners were asleep. Peterson and Blanchard had vanished, and there didn’t seem to be a night guard, which either meant that the Elessan military was criminally stupid, or…
She gulped, staring down the snake. Or the snake was the guard. That wasn’t a particularly comforting idea.
“Uh. Hello.” She offered it a grin, feeling foolish the whole time. Some kind of viper. Definitely poisonous, although Csindra figured Rook’s interest in her (blegh) meant she wasn’t going to get poisoned any time soon. Technically, it’s venom, she could hear Mari in her head, and it wasn’t the goddamn time.
The snake opened the brig door with its tail.
Csindra blinked, looking between the snake and the lock with increasing discomfort. Then she shook her head. Nope. Absolutely not. If she knew anything about the world, it was that following strange snakes bearing gifts went badly.
The snake gave her a frustrated look – then its head flashed forward, and Csindra – barely – stifled a scream. She only managed it because – because, somehow, the snake hadn’t actually bitten her. It had just – grabbed her ankle, with its mouth.
Csindra took a deep breath, trying to get her heartbeat to calm down. She looked at her ankle. Not even a mark. “How did-”
The snake opened its mouth. Right. Viper. Its teeth folded back, so it didn’t have to jab its fangs right in. More random facts from Mari bouncing around Csindra’s head. But why?
Because, Csindra realized, it’s trying to show me something.
The snake saw the understanding blooming on her face, then flicked its head down along the train’s central corridor, out of the jail. Follow me? Csindra supposed that had to be it. Her handcuffs weren’t tied to anything, and the snake had already unlocked the cell. Still, even after getting to her feet, she hesitated at the threshold. The snake paused, looking back at her expectantly.
“Don’t take this the wrong way,” she said, “but snakes are supposed to be bad luck.”
The snake put its head back down on the floor, looking… almost dejected. Or maybe Csindra was going insane and ascribing emotional expressions to an animal that didn’t even have eyelids. It slithered back to her across the floor of the stopped train, nudging the back of her feet.
“You act more like a dog than a snake,” Csindra whispered to it. It gave her another toothless nibble at the back of her heel – which was just more proof that the reptile could understand her perfectly.
She followed the snake all the way down the train, treading quietly – there were military officers asleep in some of the compartments, and others had light pouring through the round windows, faint noises of night-shift rank and file coming through the cracks. Then –
She stared in confusion. They were at the door. The train door. To outside. The real one; not the half-barred one that she’d been planning to force her way out of.
“You’re… helping me escape?”
The snake offered her the key again, obviously for her handcuffs. She reached down for it – and it jerked it out of her reach.
“Oh, you scaly little prick. What now?”
The snake used the key to point at one of the closed compartments, the window dark and silent.
Csindra sighed. Okay. So the snake was going to let her go, but she had to do something for it first. And of course, it couldn’t talk, so she just had to look and see. Handcuffed at that. “Fine.” She was gonna get caught. But at least she could blame a stink-faced reptile for it.
She eased the compartment door open, eyes adjusting to the increased darkness and then closing it behind her as the serpent wiggled in alongside her. She could see just enough, make out somebody lying on the bench –
Her heart leapt into her throat, and she considered stomping on the fucking snake.
Rook. She was in Rook’s compartment. He was asleep. She hoped. The moonlight from the window wasn’t much to see by, but there was a light outside that gave her a little more, if she leaned the right way, and nudged the curtains aside just a little…
This was such a terrible idea. Why had the snake brought her here?
She looked at the snake, who had slithered up onto the bench by Rook’s feet. It looked at her, then at Rook.
Csindra furrowed her eyebrows. Then she sat down in the same place she’d been only hours earlier, and curled her fingers inwards, digging into the wound on her palm with a wince. It was as easy as that. If anybody had thought about that, they’d have done much more for security – but the only one who seemed to know anything about Bloodwork was Rook. And Rook…
Once it started hurting, she saw it. Even before she turned it into magic. Magic was funny like that sometimes, but especially Bloodwork. Once you did it for a while, your senses got… used to it. It wasn’t a good thing. Sometimes she found herself frustrated by the dullness of her senses without it, unconsciously seeking out pain just for some clarity, but that clarity was just the sixth sense of being able to see magic-at-work, the traces it left on the world.
This time, though –
She found herself gazing at Rook with a feeling of – almost heartbreak. She’d seen him before, sure. Odd, but most thaumatists were, even the military ones; short and small-framed, with chin-length hair and an outfit that started with a leather jacket and shirt, and ended with a knee-length skirt slit up the sides over stockings with rips and runs in them. But that was just what everyone saw. When you were looking for it- It clung to him like a second skin, even knitted inside him. Édjan’na. Magic. And not just magic – feral magic.
Csindra sat down with a little thud in her chest. Bloodwork, Smokework, Songwork – those were all one thing. They were how Elessans had filtered magic down into something usable — something that humans could hold and control. Others in her clan and people called it heresy; she mostly agreed, but with a cheerful dose of hypocrisy. She was good at Bloodwork. She had to be good at something, after all. But édjan’na… that was real magic. Why on earth was there so much of it coiled around a military thaumatist? Elessans didn’t just outlaw édjan’na – they hunted it down, considered it the enemy.
The snake slid up over next to her, the curse it was carrying pulsing like a heartbeat. She couldn’t see it clearly – not like with Rook – but now she could sense it was there. Of course it was, she sighed. That was how édjan’na worked. She probably should have guessed from the cleverness the snake had, but she avoided anything to do with the Odjòn’nez these days, and this had them all over it.
That was the first thing you learned about édjan’na. It was dangerous. And anybody who had been messing around with it was all the more so.
Which meant she should have just walked away. She could have. It would have been really, really easy.
Rook’s notebook was on the floor.
…It couldn’t hurt. Csindra reached for it, looked over to the snake for confirmation, and when she got a nod, opened it up on her lap. It was almost too dark to read, but Rook wrote in clunky, bold letters, hard to read but easy to see.
Rook Zeesohn Blanchard.
Rook Zeesohn Lambert.
Oh dear. There were a few other names there as well – she hadn’t processed until now that he had a name missing. Elessans used three, which she’d never quite gotten her head around. And then here-
The snake tapped the page with its snout.
First new moon of the year – groundhog.
Second new moon of this year – uh, ferret, I think? (Yes, ferret, I checked.)
Third new moon of this year. Goldfish. Very fucking helpful.
Fourth new moon of this year. Shrike.
Fifth new moon of this year. Viper? Not sure of subtype.
“Different animal every month, huh?” Csindra mumbled. That sounded – awful. Especially because – well, if she’d been with her mother’s clan, she would know who to ask, but she wouldn’t expect an answer. Elessans? They didn’t know what to fucking do with feral magic. Usually they just killed anybody found practicing it, if whatever spell the idiot had been trying to cast didn’t kill them first, or something worse.
Rook wasn’t asking her about Bloodwork for the military. It just made a great pretext. Either he had been doing this on purpose, and he was learning about Bloodwork to pull more unethical bullshit — or, more likely, with the way that the snake had nudged her in here, he was running out of options. Humans
She wasn’t going to risk her own neck over someone who’d been brainwashed from the time he was fifteen. She felt bad, sure, but there was no version of this that ended well for her.
So, easy enough. The snake had gotten her to come see, at least. She could say – or probably say – “sorry, I can’t help”. She’d escape, she’d figure it out from there, and Rook would probably find another Bloodworker to give him some guidance towards breaking the curse on his familiar. He seemed to think she was unusual for some reason, but at best, she was moderately talented and too stubborn and pigheaded to sign up with anybody else.
And the magic all over him?
That was what was bothering her. That was what she couldn’t let go.
If she could see it, others could too. Why didn’t they?
I don’t fuck with édjan’na, she reminded herself. Bloodwork screws up your relationship with pain. It doesn’t chew you up and spit you out like kindling for the fire. But she kept trying to make herself not know – tell herself that Rook would be fine. That he was a thaumatist, it might very well be on purpose, there was no reason to think it was anything for her to worry about-
If it’d been on purpose, the snake wouldn’t have brought her here. She’d already thought of that.
She flipped another few pages.
Timeline: Washed up on Bay Frosch 1915.
Scar on shoulder probably two years old at the time? So 1913
No shipwrecks around that time (last attempted sailing on Bay Frosch was like 1902)
No missing persons reports
NB: hair can bleach through stress. Eyes?
Shit, no, she couldn’t leave him. She’d thought the pale hair and eyes was just the usual genetic lottery misfire, or maybe even on purpose, the same shock and awe nonsense that went into the Smoke masks and Spark arrays.
Smarten the fuck up. He’s eighteen. He’s military. He will be just fine.
Csindra closed the book, determined to get up and leave. From everything she’d seen and heard of Rook, anyway, he didn’t need or want anybody’s pity. He was probably more likely to be offended by it.
She’d also spent half the night hearing Mari’s voice.
She rested the notebook on her knees, rubbing her eyes and trying to focus. It didn’t help that she couldn’t tell what the snake’s relationship to Rook was, but it was clearly an affectionate one. “I don’t need this,” she whispered. “I need money. I need work. I don’t need problems.” Certainly not problems that looked like very, very dangerous mysteries that would put her head on the chopping block right next to his whenever his luck ran out.
She leaned back –
-and the notebook dropped with a thud to the floor.
It wasn’t a particularly loud noise. But it was loud enough, and suddenly, Csindra couldn’t breathe. There was nothing compressing her throat – the hands that had appeared were on either side of her head, thudding against the wood – she couldn’t breathe, and she was cold, and Rook’s eyes were bright and pale and empty grey staring at her, pupils pinpricks of anger and fear, face too close to hers, and she couldn’t breathe, what had happened to the air –
Dimly, through vision that was already starting to blur, she was aware of the snake drawing its head back, and biting Rook’s arm. At first she thought it was like what it had done to her – but the hiss of pain and slight tang of blood in the air said otherwise. Air flooded back into her lungs. Air, and warmth.
Rook hadn’t even been touching her.
“Fuck! That hurt -” Then he stared at her, like seeing her for the first time. “What the fuck are you doing here?”
She couldn’t speak at first. After a moment, her voice came back, raspy and uncertain. “What did you just do to me?”
Rook wouldn’t look at her, suddenly. “Nothing. I startled you.”
Bullshit, she thought. She didn’t trust her voice.
“Search the train!”
The door flew open – Csindra hadn’t even registered the march of boots. She was still handcuffed; that was why she hadn’t even been able to push Rook away, or fight back. She hadn’t even thought about it, terrified by the sudden cold.
Rook stood up straight. Csindra tried to remind herself that she could breathe. It was taking a while.
Hank looked between the two of them, and sighed. “…I – I suppose you could do worse.”
“Thanks,” Rook snarked back.
“I didn’t take you for the type-”
“Close the damn door, Hank. I’m busy.”
Hank turned a little red, covering his face and closing the door. Csindra could faintly hear him telling the other soldiers, and a few scattered bursts of laughter.
“Lovely,” she managed to rasp out. “Your cover story is raping prisoners.”
“It keeps us both safe, so stop complaining.” He did look uncomfortable, but given that Csindra now remembered that Hank’s last name was Blanchard, she imagined that he was referring to a few things when it came to ‘safe’. The skirt was a bit of a giveaway, but “quirky genius” gave someone a lot of leeway. Then she thought about the notes again, and the édjan’na under his skin. Not that much leeway. Why had nobody else seen it? She was a Cutter. Nothing special. Nothing unique.
“Why are you here?” Rook rasped.
“Your little buddy brought me here.”
“He’s not my buddy. Not right now, anyway,” Rook winced, rubbing the two fangmarks on his arm. “You little jerk. You couldn’t have done a lovetap or something?”
“What’s his name?”
Rook shrugged. “I don’t know it.”
Csindra exhaled, trying to get her heart-rate back to normal. Did Rook just – really not know he’d done anything exceptional? Or was he covering it up? Either seemed equally likely. “So,” she said after a moment. “Bloodwork.”
Rook stood where he was, almost like he hadn’t heard her, hand still rubbing the fangmarks on his arm and rubbing the blood between his fingers with a distracted gaze. Then he grimaced, sitting down and flicking his fingers upwards. A ball of light appeared at the tip of his fingers, bouncing up into the air between them. He put some of the energy towards the actual fangmarks, too, although Csindra noticed – and was glad that she did – that he didn’t heal them so much as just clot them over. Still painful. Still a power source.
“Thanks,” he mumbled. “Doing four styles at once comes in handy.”
It sure does, Csindra admitted to herself. The suspended light wasn’t pure Bloodwork; that was the problem with light or heat sources. They consumed constant energy, so you needed a lot of pain to keep them going. No, Rook had trapped light with Spark magic… somewhere on him and used Bloodwork to release it.
But that just brought them back to the topic at hand.
Csindra resisted the urge to touch her throat, which just reminded her of being in handcuffs still. “What do you actually want with a Cutter?”
“Another Cutter, you mean,” Rook grouched. “I just need to know more about Bloodwork.”
“Bullshit. What did you do to me just then? That wasn’t Bloodwork. That wasn’t anything struct-”
“Shut your trap,” he hissed.
Aha. So he did know. Or at least, he suspected.
Csindra sat back, and waited for Rook to give her an answer.
He gazed back at her, looking all the more gaunt in the ghastly colorless light of his spell. He was a pretty enough boy, Csindra figured, or would have been if he hadn’t also looked so sick. It could be any number of things, really, but she had a guess it was the kind of malnutrition and low sleep that one acquired simply from not taking care of yourself. The concrete-grey hair didn’t help, nor did the eyes so pale that it felt like they were all-whites. It gave him an even more eerie cast, and the word odjaken’ sprung to her lips, but she stuffed it back into her mouth before she could say anything so dangerous.
“I don’t know,” he said finally. “I don’t have any memory from before the time I was twelve. I washed up on shore, and that’s it. And that’s bad enough, but this-” he flexed his hand with a wince, “started happening about a month ago.”
“Want to be any more specific?”
“I can’t. Things… happen. Around me. I’m pretty sure it’s Bloodwork—” His face didn’t look nearly as convinced as his voice tried to claim, and he shrugged, trying to brush it off. “Maybe I’m in pain all the time without realizing it. Wouldn’t be the weirdest thing to happen to me. But the point is, I need to talk to somebody who does Bloodwork, who isn’t military, who knows what they’re doing, and isn’t likely to kill me on sight.”
Rook snickered a little at that. “You wouldn’t think so. But like I said earlier. You’re the first Cutter I’ve found who isn’t some cultist or angry terrorist using the first magic they can get their hands on.”
Csindra bit her tongue, again, at the terrorist comment. Terrorists came in military uniforms. But she knew what he meant. “I’m sorry to disappoint. I’m just a little more practiced.”
“Who taught you?”
No one, she wanted to say, but that wasn’t entirely true. And more to the point, she could tell what he wasn’t saying. He didn’t even seem to know what the magic inside of him was. How could anybody be so ignorant of what they practiced? There had to be more going on – some shadowy figure in the background. Again, she came back to how somehow, somehow no other thaumatist had noticed.
Csindra sat back and sighed, looking over at the snake. “…He looks after you, huh?”
Rook blinked a little, taking a second to process the change in topic. “I – I suppose. I still don’t really know what he is. But yeah, he – he keeps an eye on me.”
She turned it over in her head. She couldn’t walk away anymore, not now that she’d been caught, but she could still refuse to help. There was no reason to, and a million reasons not to. “We can work out a deal.”
“I don’t work for free, prettyboy.”
“Pre-” Rook rolled his eyes with a smirk. “Oh, I see. You’re trying to call the shots with handcuffs on.”
“Bloodwork’s illegal. You’re not exactly asking me this on the books, Thaumatist-Major.”
That got her a narrowed glare. “I can do what I want.”
“Ah, the problems with this country in a nutshell. Come on, like you’re short of funding.”
“I’m not,” he admitted. “I was just hoping I could interrogate you and you’d tell me everything I wanted.”
Csindra raised an eyebrow at him. To his credit, he squirmed. Arrogant little shit, but at least he was semi-aware. Usually she would have been the last person in the world to bother going the extra mile for some Elessan kid; let alone somebody in the military. She still couldn’t quite believe she was considering it.
“Okay, okay. So you want to be paid. And? I’m detecting an and.”
“Good ear. I can’t help you if I’m in jail.”
“I’ll talk to Scheffen.” Rook clearly saw her dumbstruck expression, and snorted. “What do you think the rank’s even for?”
“Glad the corruption’s working out for you.”
“I can just put you back in jail if you want.” He didn’t seem like he was particularly keen on doing that, though. He glanced out the window, and Csindra followed his gaze, realizing the sun was starting to rise. “Do you think a Bloodworker can help me?”
“I mean, I probably can’t, but someone more experienced might be able to.”
“You’re hedging that a lot.”
“Rule one of being muscle for hire. Never over-promise.”
Rook chuckled a little at that. “Fair enough.”
Csindra lifted her wrists. “Any chance I can get these off, then?”
“Not until we get into Den Elessa. I’m not stupid. I’m pretty sure you’d still like to put a knife in my back.”
“Only on principle.”
Rook snorted at that, but distractedly, clearly lost somewhere in his own head. As the light changed, he changed, too; or maybe she was trying too hard to see Mari in him, to make a terrible decision seem like a better one. It had been… three years, now, since she’d seen her sister. Every time she thought about it, a longer time had elapsed, and the prospect of returning home was worse. At least this was a reason. A reason that meant she could avoid Mari, if she needed to.
“So, who’s Scheffen?” she asked finally.
She was about to make some snarky comment or another, but it left her head entirely when there was a sudden weight in her lap. The snake had apparently decided she was warm. “-Uh?”
“Pfft. Sorry. It’s been a while since he’s been cold-blooded.”
She looked down at the snake, then still not quite trusting the situation, lowered her hand to its scales. Snakes didn’t purr, but it certainly was trying to. “That’s… kind of cute, actually.”
“Isn’t it? And this is also his way of vouching for you. Not that I know how he gets his information.”
Csindra chuckled, cuffed hands resting gently on the snake. She didn’t actually expect Rook to say anything else. But a few minutes later, as the rumbles of the train below signalled that they were starting up again, he spoke, his voice the quietest it’d been yet.
“Scheffen’s my guardian, technically. She’s the one who found me.”
“On…” Csindra asked quietly.
“On Bay Frosch. Yeah. She’s also the only other person who knows about him. Everybody else just thinks I collect weird animals.”
The snake gave Rook a look at that, before lowering his head back onto Csindra’s lap. Rook stuck out his tongue in response. “The point is, if you’re the lead I need, Scheffen can help.”
The name was pinging something in her memory. But she was tired. And besides, it wasn’t like she didn’t have friends in Den Elessa – just in case. So Csindra stroked the snake for a little while longer, and when she next looked up, Rook had fallen back asleep, and the light hanging in the air had vanished.
That was for the best. If nobody had noticed before now, she could chalk it up to luck — but she wasn’t going back to prison if she had anything to say about it. Csindra quietly dug her fingers back into the cut on her palm and got to work.
I love Bitey’s role in this – it was a source of frustration for a while to figure out how to get two people as stubborn as Rook and Csindra to even start talking. (And throughout the book, as you’ll see!) Bitey is good people. Reptiles. Whatever.
It’s not particularly subtle that Jamal and Csindra came from the same place (in fact, Csindra is the original; I thought I’d retired this version of the character entirely) but I find it amusing that she and Jamal end up entering their respective stories in much the same way. Plenty else about their characters have changed, but some of the basics of their personalities remain, including how much they pretend they don’t care while being unable to walk away.
Bell, Clock and Candle is free to read online and I don’t plan on changing that; however, if you like it and want to support its author, please consider supporting me with a Patreon pledge or a Ko-fi donation! For bonus goodies, Patreon readers get every chapter a week early.