Chapter 4: Overtures and Scherzos

CW: Structural homophobia, racist microaggressions, manipulation

Abrams: Some have wondered if you have any intention of taking on some of the military’s more controversial laws still in place, Judge Garrow.
Garrow: I don’t have any intention of repeating my predecessor’s mistakes, Mr. Abrams. The military isn’t under my jurisdiction, and I assume you’re referring to the Wilde Act and Radclyffe Amendment.
Abrams: Among others.
Garrow: I’m sympathetic in theory but I’d simply advise those of homosexual persuasions not to join the military. I’m sure there’s other professions that are more suitable anyway.
Abrams: And as for the general populace? What about the laws governing us?
Garrow: All in due time. It’s not illegal to have feelings of your own, and I don’t intend to change that. If that’s not enough for you, I’m afraid I have other fires to put out.

Toltberg Citizen interview with Mick Abrams and Judge Heath Garrow, 1912

Rook was woken up by the grinding of the brakes on the wheels, and rubbed his eyes blearily. What was it, half past ten? It wasn’t any later than that, not with the sun cutting a beam directly into his eyes.

“Oh good, you’re awake.”

“Mm. You’re still here,” Rook mumbled, glancing the mercenary over. He’d almost expected her to cut and run when he wasn’t looking, and his useless familiar had proven where his loyalties lay. With everyone who gave him the correct head scritches, clearly.

Djaneki just held up her still-cuffed hands with raised eyebrows. “Don’t particularly enjoy running around with iron wrists.”

“Iron wrists. That’s a new one.” He sat up, running a hand through his hair and trying to get it out of his face. He hurt. Everywhere. Again. Why was it he was capable of suppressing every limit he had for days at a time only to pay for it twice as long? “We’d better get you directly to-”

He looked out the window.

And ducked.

Djaneki looked down at him with a barely-concealed smirk. “And who are you hiding from, prettyboy?”

Prettyboy. Bitch. Skirt clearly wasn’t lost on her. “Shut up.”

She looked out the window, and Rook prayed she’d see someone else. The ticketmaster, maybe. The croquette seller. Terrifying, in the right light. Maybe her eyes would be drawn to some man in the crowd in a funny hat; someone other than the person waiting out front who just happened to be half a foot taller than the rest of the crowd. Except, just his luck, Jacob was pretty distinctive all on his own. Sunglasses and cigarette, jangling a pair of dice in his hand while chatting up – probably one of the guards, Rook mused, he hadn’t caught the uniform, or a railroad worker, but it really didn’t matter.

“So,” Djaneki mused, corner of her lip quirking upwards, “what’s his name?”

And he really was going to kill her, which had to be a record holder for “soonest he’d failed a group project”.

“Let’s make one thing very, very clear,” Rook growled.

“I’m listening.”

“We are not friends. This is not a buddy-buddy thing. You’re a criminal. I’m offering you a deal.”

“I’d gotten that, yes.”

“Which means you don’t get to say shit.

“About what?” And Djaneki offered the most beautiful, most annoying, most pitch-perfect smile he’d ever seen. It made him consider setting the closet on fire out of spite, except that would have involved acknowledging the presence of something closet-shaped, which he wasn’t doing. Djaneki was just annoying him.

He swallowed, his mouth a little dry. He actually would have rather that anybody else had been waiting for him. Not because he didn’t want to see Jacob. Kind of the opposite, really.

Rook peered carefully over the edge of the window, and Djaneki stifled a snort. “You’re too pale to hide a blush. Your friend Blanchard’s talking to him.”

“Oh no. Really?”

“I’d bet he’s regaling him with the story of you sleeping with one of the prisoners, or at the very least doing something dirty-”

Rook sank back below the window, face burning bright red. “I know four kinds of magic, three styles of combat, and have both several knives and a pet snake. Why am I the one you’re trying to piss off?”

“A need for entertainment and a lurking death wish. So do I get to meet your boyfriend or not?”

Please don’t do that in front of him,” Rook groaned, getting up and pulling on his jacket. He was doing pretty well at not looking concerned, he thought, which why he was a little surprised at Djaneki’s little shrug and smile.

“Course not. I’m not that thick.”

Rook paused, glanced at her, then sighed. “You can ride on her shoulders. Keep an eye on her.” His familiar crawled up Djaneki’s arm, to surprisingly little complaint from the mercenary, and Rook took a moment to make sure that he was actually perched properly for the body he had before picking up his suitcase and opening the compartment door.

“Hey, what about my battleaxe?”

“They’ll bring it up eventually, but we have to get it from Confiscated the long way around. No time.”

“No time? What-” Djaneki grabbed his shoulder. “Zees- Rook.

Ah, she’d been paying attention. Which was a little unnerving, but appreciated this time around. “Be quiet and hurry up, won’t you?”

“I’ll do the second one. Are you sneaking me in?

“Only a little bit. It’s fine, don’t worry about it.”

Djaneki’s glare meant she was definitely going to worry about it, but that wasn’t his problem. He stepped out of the train, enjoying the way his boots hit the concrete blocks of Den Elessa’s railway station instead of Zweispar gravel, and gave Jacob a lazy salute. He could blame any vestigial blushing on overheating.

“There you are,” Jacob said with a warm smile, stubbing out the last of his cigarette on the concrete post and standing up a little straighter. “I see you’ve arrested a whole city.”

Rook found himself wanting to blush again, and sternly told himself it wasn’t an option. “You’re just jealous that I’m this good and this cute. Next time, send me in before they’ve got chloral hydrate on the go.” He crossed his arms, giving Jacob a challenging gaze.

Jacob chuckled. “Cross my heart, we didn’t know. Not everything is Scheffen screwing with you.” Then he winced. “Chloral hydrate?”

“Aren’t you glad I work fast?”

“More glad than you know. So they’re all headed for the main block for now, then?”

Rook lowered his voice. “All except her.”

Djaneki lifted a hand and waggled her fingers cheerily. Rook reached over and smacked her hand down.

“Straight to Scheffen.”

“Rogue thaum?”

“Oh, don’t call me a thaum,” Djaneki groaned. “Don’t you feel embarrassed calling it that?”

Jacob bit his lip with a suppressed laugh. “This way,” he said, giving Hank a quick nod. “So, you’re from the Kanet’.”

“And you’re rude.”

There was a car waiting for them, and Rook gave Djaneki a push into the back. “What does that have to do with anything?”

Jacob sat down across from them, closing the car door, and opened his mouth – then closed it, looking at Djaneki.

Rook glanced between the two of them in annoyance, and Djaneki shrugged. “No, no, go ahead, I want to see what he says.”

“What did you arrest her for, Rook?”

“Oh, she’s a Cutter.”

“Go figure. No, I’ll pass.”

Djaneki snorted, sitting back against the leather seats. She seemed terribly amused by the whole thing. It was strange, Rook thought. He’d expected her to be at least a little more nervous at being arrested, or captive. Instead, if anything, she was teasing him, just as at home here –

-Which meant she didn’t feel particularly scared. Great. That needed work.

“So, did you hear?”

Rook glanced up at Jacob. “Hear what? I’ve been in the Zweispars for a month and a half, it’s slow down there.”

“Coben Garrow disappeared.”

He’d been distracted, thinking about a way to find out what Djaneki’s “out” was – “What? What do you mean, disappeared?”

“I mean, disappeared. No ransom note, not yet anyway. Just gone.”

Shit. He really had missed a lot. Rook chewed on his lip, trying not to worry too much. The Judge’s son going missing meant – ugh. It meant Scheffen might try to keep him here. He didn’t want to stay in Den Elessa. Too many people here didn’t like him. And he didn’t care, but it made life difficult. “Anything else I should know about?”

“If you ever actually answered telegrams I’d know how caught up you were.”

…Point. “Something, something, Investigations is lazy, the Bard College set something on fire again, you tracked my pigeons for me-”

“Oh, good, so that wasn’t pointless.”

“Nothing I do is pointless. And there was one about Advolks.”

Jacob gave Rook a pointed look, glancing over at Djaneki. Djaneki didn’t miss it though, sitting back with a snort. “I’m too lazy to be a terrorist.”

“Forgive me if I’m cautious.”

Djaneki seemed to sour a little at that, but just stared out the window. Jacob looked back to Rook. “So at least you’re reading them. Try not to antagonize Scheffen this time, please?”

“But it’s so fun-”

Rook.

The car came to a halt, and Rook tried not to pout. He was probably going to disappoint Jacob again, but he was asking so nicely. “I will… do my best. If she does.”

“You’re a Major now. And an adult, which you’ve been crowing about for a good month-”

“Oh, so you’ve been reading my telegrams too.”

“Considering the moods they put Scheffen in? I’d hate to miss out.” Jacob opened the car door, hopped out and – much to Rook’s mixed pleasure and embarrassment – offered his hand to Rook to help him down. He ignored it, and so did Djaneki, which said something about someone, but he wasn’t sure what. And finally, they were at the Military Centrum.

The Military Centrum sat in the very center of Den Elessa’s military district; a sea of stone buildings, some crowned with domes, some simpler blocks, some showing marks from the single war that made it this far and others pristine and shining in the sunlight. The Centrum was more the second than the first – a symptom of civic pride making sure that the exteriors, at least, were kept up. It wasn’t anywhere near as impressive as the assembly houses or the Palace van de Säulen, but it wasn’t a bad place to workither.

The downside was, he thought as he and Djaneki (still handcuffed and carrying a snake around her shoulders) followed Jacob through the doors, was that the entire conceit of ‘Central’ made it hard to avoid people. Plenty of people were giving him friendly glances, but more and more he’d been… aware, almost hyperaware of other kinds of stares. They clung to him, in ways he hated. It would be easier, he thought with a sigh, if it was just NatSec. He got along with NatSec. Well, mostly. But there were only three units in NatSec anyway. The people who gave him funny looks, challenged his authority, implied he was too young or underqualified or perhaps a little too unstable or troubled for his rank – they were from other branches, working for or holding ranks of commissioned officers from Investigations, Infantry, Research – basically, everyone else.

He was so lost in thought he didn’t realize Djaneki wasn’t behind him. “He- hey!” She’d stopped in the atrium, and he hurried back down the few stairs he’d climbed. “You have to stick with me. Come on.”

She stared up at the chandelier. “Why do you need a chandelier in a military building?

“Take it up with the interior designers, I don’t know. Now would you move?”

“Yeah, yeah.”

She did look a little overwhelmed, Rook noted with a small smile, and he caught up to Jacob, asking quietly, “Why’d you say she was Kanet’?”

“Hm?”

“You said she was Kanet’. That’s one of the clans, right?”

Jacob looked down at him with a slightly surprised look. “You really haven’t worked with the clans much, huh?”

“I mean, I’ve run into a few here and there. It just doesn’t come up much.” When Jacob scoffed a little, Rook held up his hands in mock protest. “I caught up on how much material in how few years, Jacob-?”

“Yeah, yeah,” he laughed. “Uh, Kanetans are the ones who used to live in Den Niederung. I figured she’s Kanetan because they really hate the word thaumatist. It’s a cultural thing.”

“What? How? Thaumaturgy is… thaumaturgy. Or magic, if you really can’t handle that many syllables-”

There was a little kick at the back of his ankle, and he stumbled on the stairs. He looked over his shoulder, and Djaneki just gave him another angelic smile. “It’s called édjan’na.”

“…Not in Elessan, it isn’t.”

“And I’m not a thaum, I’m – well, a Bloodworker. I’m nowhere near good enough to be an odjaken.”

“You’re just saying words now.”

“Not my problem.”

“Maybe I should chuck you in jail after all.”

“Go for it.”

…And he’d be down a lead, probably stuck in Den Elessa, and still have no idea how to stop what was happening.

He looked at his familiar, who was… sleeping. Useless reptile.

Rook stuck his hands in his pockets and stormed up the rest of the stairs. The door to their main office was just to the left, so that was easy enough. He opened it –

Predictably, Scheffen. was waiting for him.

“Amazing. You’re actually on time.”

“I don’t drive the damn trains, Scheffen.” He tried not to sulk. He’d thought she’d be in her office, not out here. The main office had everyone else, who at least looked happy to see him. There were seven other people in their unit – oh, actually, no, there were nine now. Two of them were new faces. He’d catch up later.

She leant against the wall next to her office door, arms crossed. “I see you had fun in Den Arden. Who’s your gi-”

“Say girlfriend and you’ll be wearing your teeth as a necklace.”

“Are you threatening me?”

“It’s habit by now. Are you letting me in or not?”

“Fine, fine.” She opened her office door, sitting down at her desk. Rook didn’t bother saluting her – he just dropped down onto her couch. Djaneki followed him in, and Jacob – oh, the little shit. He stayed outside, and closed the door. Leaving him with two women who both had it out for him.

“Hank-”

“Has Hank told the whole fucking city?” Rook dragged his hands down his face.

“Hank told me you’d taken a liking to a prisoner, nothing else. I’m not a fool, Rook, and besides,” she leaned her chin on her hand with a small smile, “if I ever actually caught you pulling that kind of abuse of power for something so crude, I’d kill you, and you know it.”

Djaneki looked somewhat unnerved by that. Rook wasn’t nearly so impressed. “She’s a Bloodworker. An-” He looked over at Djaneki. “What was that word?”

“No.”

“Suit yourself.”

Scheffen did look interested. She looked up at Djaneki. “I see. And who are you?”

“If you can keep the snark to a minimum,” Rook added, “I’d appreciate it.”

The look Djaneki gave him at that made him worry she’d do it just to spite him, but she sighed, jangling the cuffs a little. “Csindra Djaneki, Cutter, apparently getting kidnapped for some special project for your pet child soldier.”

“Rook is not mine, a pet, or a child. And one could argue he barely counts as a soldier so much as a deeply irritating force of nature. Regardless,” Scheffen continued before Rook could complain, “yes, he seems to consider you a resource. I’m inclined to agree with him – so far,she added. “It’s hard to find Bloodworkers who aren’t affiliated with fringe groups or other state enemies.”

“Making it illegal will do that.”

“Take it up with Garrow,” Scheffen sighed, “although I’m on his side for this one.”

Rook didn’t really agree with them, but he also figured he didn’t get much of a vote. The main argument against Bloodwork was that any type of magic that required cannibalizing your own body and health to cast was better discouraged, and Bloodwork had a certain… addictive quality to it. The second seemed like bullshit to him, and the first – well, he couldn’t see how that was much different than most things, but every time he said that he got weird looks and concerned noises cooed in his direction, and he hated those. “So?”

“You’ll have to be more specific about what you want, Rook. Despite my reputation, I’m not actually psychic.”

Bitch. “I need you to give her a pardon and clearance to work with me. And wages.”

“Wages.”

“Or I could chain her up in my basement, but I think that’s frowned on.”

Scheffen made a slightly distressed moue at that one. “You realize I don’t actually have the power to override a charge of Bloodwork.”

“So pretend it didn’t happen. I left it out of the report.”

“That’s a crime.”

“Your point?”

He was probably enjoying this more than he should be. Scheffen looked like she was getting a migraine. “…I will see what I can do.”

Excellent. Now-”

“As long as you remain in Den Elessa.”

“What? How long?”

“There’s two investigations I need you to consult on-”

Rook groaned, pulling his legs up onto the couch and letting his head flop onto the armrest. “Scheffen. I’m tired. And you don’t outrank me anymore, you can’t just order me to stay.”

“You’re still NatSec and under my command.”

“For now.

“If I want you to consult on an investigation, you’ll do it.”

“Or what, you’ll take away my allowance?”

“Or she’ll be spending the next year in prison.” Scheffen nodded at Djaneki, who slumped a little, chewing on the inside of her cheek.

Rook stared at Djaneki, then back at Scheffen. “You’re joking.”

“I’m afraid not.” Scheffen returned his glare with a steady, coal-black gaze. “You’ve been promoted, good for you; you’re eighteen, good for you. I’ll do you your favour and cover up the… numerous crimes you’re committing here because I know why you’re doing them. But in return, you do what you’re told.”

“Or you take it out on someone else. Classy.”

“I’m simply stating the terms of my favour, Rook.” Scheffen pulled out a piece of paper from her drawer, scrawling something down. “Talk to Olivadocht Baer at Investigations, she’ll get you to speed.”

“Tomorrow.”

“Yes, tomorrow, you can sleep, Rook.”

“Just wanted to make sure,” he shot back, snatching the paper from her hand. “Wouldn’t want to disobey your orders, right?”

“Fine, I order you to sleep and actually take care of yourself for once. Unless you’d like to spend more government money on yucca gin and espresso.”

Rook just rolled his eyes at that. It wasn’t his fault all his expenses went back to Scheffen. Even if he tortured her with some of them. He turned to leave, gesturing to Djaneki-

“Also I’d like to talk to her first. Privately.”

Oh. Great. That didn’t bode particularly well. Rook sighed, but didn’t put up a fight. It wasn’t worth it. “I’ll be outside,” he grumbled to Djaneki, then showed himself out. Probably a good thing, too. He was going to end up punching Scheffen in the face one of these days, and it was probably better to do it when he didn’t need something from her.

And when will that be? asked a sly voice in the back of his head.

He didn’t really like thinking about that – so he decided not to. For as long as humanly possible.

COMMENTS

For the concerned; no, you’re not supposed to entirely like Scheffen, and that’s okay! I enjoy my grey-and-gray morality perhaps a little too much, and Scheffen is one of my favourite kinds of characters. I have no qualms about admitting that she and Rook are somewhat my response to Roy Mustang and Edward Elric, in that I’ve always felt Mustang’s manipulation got a bit glossed over – and that his responsibility as a De Facto Parent Figure was never delved into. He’s not portrayed as a parental figure in FMA, and nor is he Edward’s guardian in any sense, but what if he was? Pair that line of thought with someone possibly even more explicitly Shady than Mustang ever was, and you get some interesting results.

The homophobia in Elessa and its military is intended to be part of the plot; I’m trying to signal that well ahead of time so people who don’t like that kind of thing are able to tap out. It’s not a story about queer misery, but Some Shit Does Go Down.

SONG: “FEEL RIGHT AT HOME” BY DEAD SARA

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, and pledging to the Elementals tier ($5+) gets you access to deleted scenes and conlang progress posts.

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