CW: Scars, self-harm referenced, well-intentioned manipulation
(134) Bloodwork, as defined by the Thaumaturgic Collegiate, is the practice of channeling magic through personal or borrowed pain, by causing physical injury to one’s own body or to another’s in order to channel magical energy. Due to the harm to one’s own body and to others inherent to the practice of Bloodwork, it is no longer a federally-recognized form of thaumaturgy.-Federal Legal Code, Elessa, amended 1912
(200) Any person or persons apprehended practicing Bloodwork or knowingly aiding and abetting a practitioner of Bloodwork is punishable by a fine of up to five thousand marks, and/or jail time of up to five years, and/or corporal punishment at the discretion of the Mayor of Den Elessa, attending military, and/or other officials.-Municipal Legal Code, Den Elessa, amended 1912
It was true that Csindra was Zurkanet. Not Kanetan; she’d had to stop herself from correcting the soldier with Rook, and she was pushing enough limits as it was. She’d had enough run-ins with the Elessan military in her life, growing up in Etamara.
Give it up, Csindra, she groaned. You signed up for this. She was standing in the middle of the most heavily guarded military building in Elessa, in the middle of the capital, alone in a room with a high-ranking thaumatist who could probably kill her very easily. But she’d known that would happen, so really, who was the idiot here?
“So,” Scheffen said after a few moments of quiet. “What are you getting out of this?”
“Like I said,” she said with a little laugh, “I’ll see what I can do. We’re generally discouraged from hiring mercenaries.”
Csindra just shrugged at that. She didn’t know how much Scheffen actually knew. Rook had said a little bit, but Rook was also – well. Rook was comfortable here. She was not. “Whatever you say, ma’am.”
“Don’t call me that, it makes me feel old. Major Scheffen or Major is fine.” Scheffen looked her up and down. “You don’t look like a Bloodworker.”
“And you don’t look Elessan, but you don’t see me pointing it out.”
Scheffen raised her eyebrows at that, clearly suppressing a small grin. “Most people are classy enough not to say it out loud, but you’re the blunt type, I see. I’ll ask you again – what are you getting out of this?”
“Aside from a lack of handcuffs?”
“I’m serious, Csindra.” Scheffen’s grin faded. “I know why he’s interested in Bloodwork, and I also know what kind of people Bloodwork attracts. Perhaps a different question, then. When did you get started with Bloodwork?”
“Dunno. I was a kid.”
That had been the wrong answer, clearly. Scheffen looked interested again – a little too interested. Csindra decided she didn’t like this woman. Rook was, well – he was an ass, but he was at least the kind of ass that she could deal with. Scheffen… Scheffen reminded her of other soldiers she’d run into. Ones that looked at her like she was a specimen to be dissected, or something to put in a jar. “Really?”
“Look, just… tell me what you want to hear so we can get this over with.”
“Yes, alright? Is that bad?”
Not that unusual, Csindra thought – and clamped down on before she said it.
Scheffen’s gaze softened a little, and the prickle on Csindra’s back eased off a little; she still felt like she was being examined, but not quite so thoroughly or clinically. “The familiar likes you. That’s a good sign.”
“Yeah, I – don’t usually like snakes, but he’s cute. He’s, uh…” Csindra tried to read Scheffen’s face for a clue, then gave up. Luckily Scheffen beat her to it.
“He’s not always a snake, no. I see Rook told you that much.” Scheffen paused, and then continued. “It is of tremendous importance to me that you work with Rook discreetly and quietly. Understood?”
“Um – I suppose. I don’t exactly advertise myself as it is.”
“He’s a target as it is, and I would prefer if some of his other – tendencies didn’t come to light. He flirts with controversy enough as it is with how he dresses, good lord, and doing damage control on that is hard enough-”
Csindra frowned, taking a bit to unravel what Scheffen meant with the way she was talking – then groaned, unable to keep the contempt out of her voice. “You don’t want him to embarrass you. Really?”
Scheffen pressed her lips together until they went white. “Think what you want. I’m more interested in keeping him safe.”
Oh. She’d made a mistake. Maybe not completely, but Rook had told her. She’s the one who found me on Bay Frosch. My guardian, technically. “I’ll be discreet,” Csindra mumbled.
“Thank you.” Scheffen stood up and came a little closer. “May I?”
At first, Csindra wasn’t sure what she meant. Then she realized Scheffen was reaching for her sleeves. She could have said no, but there wasn’t much point. “Sure. Whatever.”
Scheffen took hold of Csindra’s wrist and gently tugged up the sleeve of her brown leather jacket. Csindra looked away – not because she was ashamed of the scars, but because she didn’t like watching how other people reacted to them. Still, she could feel the cotton of Scheffen’s white gloves catching on the scars that crossed her forearms, some deeper than others, some healed better than others, some hardly white lines on her brown skin and still others raised and keloided on her flesh. “Satisfied your curiosity?” she said after a little.
“Yes,” Scheffen replied, but didn’t pull her hands away immediately. “If you’d like a cream or something for some of these—”
“No thanks. I’m good.” Csindra tugged her arms away. “I would like the cuffs off.” The attempt at kindness was more unsettling than comforting.
“That I can do.” She reached into her pocket and pulled out a key, and Csindra found herself distracted by the pendant at Scheffen’s neck. It was crystal, more complex than it seemed at first glance, and she thought she could see runes carved into it. A Spark, then.
There was a click as the cuffs came off, and Csindra pulled her sleeves down. It wasn’t that it bothered her, having them showing; it was that the look on Scheffen’s face spoke more to pity than anything else at the moment, and she hated that. You got a couple different narratives when it came to Bloodwork, but generally, if people didn’t think you were an evil sorcerer, they were trying to figure out what was so broken about you that you were willing to hurt yourself for power. It was never that simple, but humans as a whole were bad at reaching beyond simple conclusions.
“I can expunge your prior convictions.” Scheffen leaned against her desk, gloved fingers tapping against its face. “Nobody died, nobody was hurt, no Bloodwork was confirmed at the scene; easy enough. And we do have a contractor option through billing-”
“Which is different from mercs how?”
“Semantics and fancy dress, mostly,” Scheffen admitted with a quirk of her lips. “You’ll help Rook with some of his cases, help him with his own inquiries, and in return, you’ll receive a basic contractor salary, get your weapon back, and have at least this unit of NatSec turn a blind eye to any Bloodwork you do. As we do with Rook’s.”
“Provided, of course, you don’t commit any more crimes. I won’t be able to help you if you so much as jaywalk.” The amused expression on Scheffen’s face made Csindra think she was probably exaggerating, but she also didn’t feel like testing it. And she could very well be serious. “Any other unit looks too closely and everybody’s in trouble.” Finally, Scheffen folded her arms, leaning forward just a little. “And if anything – anything – happens to Rook on your watch? I will personally be in charge of making sure you pay for it.”
Message received. Very, very clearly.
“You may go. Ask Lieutenant Lambert for your weapon.”
Scheffen settled back behind her desk, and Csindra knew the conversation was over. She was tempted to say something else – to ask all the questions gathering behind her lips – but she decided it was probably better not. Just because Scheffen cared about Rook didn’t mean she couldn’t also be using him. All the worse, she’d probably do it while claiming it was for his own good.
The fucking military. Like putting her own neck into a jaguar’s mouth.
This should be fun.
The larger area outside of Scheffen’s office was filled with desks – ten or eleven at a quick glance — and Csindra would have assumed that out here, things worked a little more like a paper-pusher’s office. It certainly looked that way – wire brackets on the desks filled with manila folders of paperwork, glass pen-holders, even candles at a few of the desks that probably predated the anbaric light installations that stuck out like a sore thumb on the high plastered ceiling.
Instead, though, Rook was perched on top of one of the desks, one leg folded over the other, telling a very… lurid version of the Den Arden incident to the other soldiers. “Chloral hydrate. Hand to heaven.”
“Bullshit,” groaned one of the other soldiers. “Someone else would have noticed.”
“They did. Scheffen flagged the imports, remember? And I was this close to getting stuck with it—”
Csindra couldn’t help it — she snorted, and tried to cover it up with a cough. Rook paused mid-story, and glared at her. “Oh, what, are you going to ruin my fun?”
“Oh, no, by all means, go ahead. Just if anybody was stickin’ you with knockout drugs, it wasn’t me.”
There was a beat as all nine faces turned towards her. Ah. Rook hadn’t mentioned that part. “You fought Rook?”
Rook perched an elbow on his knees and rested on his chin with a stormy scowl. “Great. Hog all the attention.”
“I’d… rather not —”
“Did you kick his ass?” one of the soldiers asked. Oh, it was so tempting.
“She did not.”
“I did a little.”
“Hey, which of us came in here with handcuffs?”
As much as Csindra was enjoying this, this many soldiers made her nervous. Especially without the weight of her axe on her back.
“So what’s your story?” asked one of the taller ones, sliding into his own desk chair. “New recruit?”
“I’ll die first.” Then she paused. “Contractor,” she added grumpily.
He whistled a little at that, sitting back with his cup of coffee. “This should be fun. Let me guess, you’re the only one who can work with Rook and they still have to pay you to do it.”
“Wolfie, may I remind you that I’m technically your boss?” Rook grumbled.
Wolfie – apparently the man’s name — just sipped at his coffee with a self-satisfied smirk. He wasn’t that much older than her and Rook, maybe in his mid-twenties with mismatched eyes and a pierced ear, which she didn’t see much outside of clan circles.
“Funnily enough, that’s pretty close,” she replied, and Rook rolled his eyes with an exaggerated groan. “Which begs the question of how many people he’s driven off.”
“I am quite happy to work alone. Most of the time.”
“Oh, I know,” Wolfie snickered. “I did one case with you and you broke my mask.”
“Accidentally! I apologized for that!”
Mask? Oh, so — “You’re a Smoke.”
He nodded. “Only other thaum on the team. Thaumatist-Lieutenant Theolykos Achielsohn Vandemeer, at your service. Smoke and vehicle specialist.”
“I don’t see how those go together.”
“You’d be surprised. What about you?”
She couldn’t really lead with the Bloodwork, but he seemed nice enough. “…Csindra. Er, Djaneki.”
“Rook has the social skills of a turtle —”
“I resent that.”
“And don’t deny it, I see.” Wolfie nodded his chin at the others, some of whom were still gathered around Rook, others drifting back to their desks. “New kids are Tiff Baer, Second Lieutenant, and Marianna Pont, 2nd Lieutenant—”
“Martinadocht,” the woman in question corrected with a wry face.
“You get to call me Wolfie.”
“You won’t respond to anything else.”
“Because Achielsohn sounds like a sneeze. The guy with a face like a rock is Heinkel, Warrant Officer.”
“And I have no social skills?” Rook asked with a suppressed laugh. “Heinkel, is he this mean to you all the time?”
Heinkel just huffed and went back to his paperwork.
“I meant it as a compliment,” Wolfie drawled. “Dirk Franzsohn Vermeulen, Gunnar Wesleysohn De Muyt and Yannick Kurtesohn Suiker are our Corporal contingent. Which would be fine if Yannick could make coffee —”
A used coffee filter flew across the room, just narrowly missing Wolfie’s face. “Make your own!”
“I would, but then why have Corporals at all-?”
Csindra was managing not to laugh. For all that Wolfie was teasing about rank, it was oddly relaxed in here. She couldn’t imagine tossing something at a superior officer and getting away with it, in her mental version of the military. The only ones Wolfie hadn’t introduced yet were the older man sitting at the desk just past Rook —
— and the girl sneaking up behind Wolfie.
“Try again,” Wolfie said.
“This is Ive Kristiandocht Haber, Sergeant.” Wolfie was smirking all the more — and Ive gave him a smack on the back of his head. “And my fiancee. Which apparently is supposed to be part of the introduction.”
“And my uncle’s over in the corner, pretending we’re behaving like actual soldiers and not a rowdy group of good-for-nothings,” Haber added with a grin, flipping a blonde braid over her shoulder. Csindra caught herself staring before it was obvious, averting her eyes — but she couldn’t not notice how pretty Ive was. Or that she had left her military jacket unbuttoned.
The door opened, and Csindra found herself jumping at it without meaning to, but it was just the Lieutenant from the train station — the one that Rook liked so much. Lamb? Lambert, that was his name. “This is the most inconvenient weapon I’ve ever held,” he groaned, handing her back her axe. “You’re welcome to it.”
She blinked, hesitating a little before reaching out and taking it back from him. Just like that? She didn’t particularly trust that.
Lambert looked around — then his eyes settled on Wolfie. “Oh, you’ve got the smug face. What are you doing?”
“He’s terrorizing my contractor, is what he’s doing,” Rook complained, pouting at Lambert. “At this rate she’s going to choose prison over us.”
“If Wolfie was in charge of introductions I wouldn’t blame her. Don’t listen to him. He likes attention.”
“Says the guy who gets it without trying.” Wolfie stuck out his tongue at Lambert, who just shrugged it off with a grin and turned back to her.
“Alright, I’m guessing it went fine —”
“Guessing?” she echoed. He’d given back the weapon without checking?
He looked a little abashed at that. Rook squinted at him — then punched him in the shoulder. Which he could only reach, admittedly, because he was sitting on the desk. “You ass. You knew Scheffen would approve it.”
“Again, Rook, it’s called a telegram. Hank sent one all the way from Den Arden.”
“You acted so surprised!”
“Well, yeah. He didn’t say she was your age. Or cu—” Lambert cut himself off when Csindra gave him a glare. “Retracted, retracted.”
“I hate you.”
“You say that a lot. Go home, Rook, you look exhausted.”
“Not exhausted enough not to consider murder.”
Csindra didn’t like being manipulated any more than Rook did, but she had to applaud the grace with which Scheffen and Lambert had pulled that off. And, thinking about it, Scheffen had tried to say something about Hank. She swung the axe holster onto her back, adjusting the straps back to where it was comfortable —
—and realized the soldiers were staring. Again. “It’s an axe,” she sighed.
“It’s a really big axe,” Wolfie clarified. “Seriously, the weight doesn’t bother you at all?”
“If weapons were that heavy, nobody would use them.”
“Yeah, but double-headed?”
“Wolfie, let the poor girl go. She looks ready to fall over.”
She did? Although she glanced up at Ive and received a wink in response, which had the dual effect of underlining that Ive was giving her an excuse to get out and making her blush. But Rook finally managed to extricate both him and herself from them, looking pleased but a little overwhelmed as he got them both out into the hallway.
“Are they always like that?” she asked.
“Uh, kinda.” Rook rubbed the back of his neck. “I haven’t been back in a while.”
He shrugged, heading down the stairs. “Keep up, Djaneki, I haven’t got all day.”
Asshole. “Don’t you return here after every mission? I thought that was how this stuff worked.”
“Usually. I was out in the Zweispars for almost a month, though. Doing a different mission, then the Den Arden thing popped up, so it’s been a bit.”
A month. Csindra had to assume that wasn’t a coincidence. And Lambert had said something about Rook turning eighteen a month ago, too. What on earth had happened? Part of her didn’t want to know.
When I first designed the magic system used in Elessa, it was for a very different setting – and I was a lot younger. I knew that Bloodwork/Cutter magic was a difficult topic, sure; but I was in high school, and not really equipped to take on the topic yet. After the topic of blood magic came up again in discussions about anti-Semitic books, though, I decided to return to the magic system and see how it felt as an adult. That’s how Bloodwork became what it is in Elessa, and particularly what it is in this chapter; a type of magic that quite literally requires self-harm, self-injury, and carries the longterm consequences, physically and emotionally, of that.
On a more cheery note, I have an affection for large casts, but this is the first time I’ve willingly taken on a project big enough that it necessitates it; so I actually went back during writing to let myself flesh out Sylvia’s office here. This is actually only a tiny piece of how many people Sylvia would actually command, too; technically speaking, a Major has up to 120 people under their command, but both National Security and Headquarters as a whole run under a slightly different chain of command than Infantry, Gunners or Military Police. (I… did mention this is a fascist state, right?) But you will be seeing all of these characters again, ESPECIALLY Wolfie, Tiffany and Heinkel, who are near and dear to my heart. (Which means I’ll probably torture them horribly. You know how it is.)
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.