CW: blood/injury, drug use
Cannabis in the military is pretty common, it’s just not encouraged by the higher-ups; most of them, anyway. It’s my experience that a lot of officers are very, very good at sounding holier-than-thou about it until they’re actually offered a brownie and then they get over it pretty quickly. Just don’t bring it to the mixers.—Roxanna Olivadocht Baer, in a letter home to her younger sister, 1920
Csindra wasn’t sure what exactly she’d expected from Rook’s house. She wasn’t terribly surprised, exactly; but she was… Well, entertained was probably a good word.
“You live here?”
“Well, yeah. What’d you expect?”
Csindra got out of the car, wrinkling her nose again at the smell of gasoline and leather polish. She’d never ridden in a car in her life before now, and now twice in one day. All in all, she thought she’d done a decent job of hiding it, although she’d still take a rickshaw or a bike any day. Trains smelled just as bad, but at least they didn’t jostle so much, or make so much noise if you weren’t near the engine. What was the benefit of riding on top of the engine? Who thought that was a good idea?
Probably the same person, she decided, who had built Den Elessa’s rowhouses. They were about three stories tall, all connected, all surging up above her with flat brick faces, balconies that looked just a little too rickety for her taste, and anbaric streetlamps that rose up almost to the second level, which meant nobody on the second storey got any sleep, most likely. They were ugly things, and about what she’d expected from the epitome of Elessa’s nightmarish urban center… which was exactly why the balcony on the third floor with the four birdhouses, an awning, what looked like a music stand, and ivy winding through the bars was definitely Rook’s apartment.
“You’re the third floor, right?”
“Why’d you say that?” Rook answered, although there was a bit of a wry grin on his face. He reached over, stealing his familiar back; Csindra had to admit she was thankful. She liked the little creature just fine, but between her shoulders getting tired and her anxiety insisting she was courting bad fates, it was a bit of a relief. Plus, it meant he didn’t think she was going to run off.
“The birdhouses are cute.”
“I didn’t make them,” Rook grumbled.
“So where’d they come from?”
“People keep giving them to me. I kept some of them. The rest I just – got rid of.”
“Got rid of?”
“Uh. Put them places.”
Csindra followed him into the building, trying to figure out why on earth people would give someone that many birdhouses. “They really couldn’t come up with anything else?”
“Not at first. It was books for the first year. Then the birdhouses caught on between my name and this little fuck being different birds several months in a row. Eventually I got into Songwork and started getting actually useful stuff.”
“Who was doing all of this? I mean -” She hesitated. It didn’t seem polite to mention that Rook didn’t seem to have any family, and his relationship with Scheffen hadn’t given off tremendous amounts of warmth. “The people in the office? The uh— what are they called? Company?”
Rook rang the lift bell, which she was a little surprised by given how he’d handled the stairs at the Centrum, and gave a tired laugh. “Hospital. I didn’t know anybody in Akelei Company yet.”
“Oh.” She had a million other questions to ask to that, but none of them were any more polite, and Rook wasn’t offering up any more information. The birdhouses were still cute.
The lift slowly rattled down towards them, and Rook opened the gate, giving the liftman – liftboy, really – a little wave. Csindra found herself pausing at the entrance to the lift. She knew how these worked. Theoretically.
“What’s the matter?” the liftboy asked, eyes wide and very annoyingly blue. “Ain’t you never seen a lift before?”
Little boy, I am going to break your neck, Csindra thought before sucking it up and taking the few steps in. At least she had her axe back, a comforting weight on her back. It made the rest of this much, much easier.
The liftboy pushed the lever up. The lift rattled into motion – and Csindra clutched at the railing behind her.
The liftboy stared back at her.
“Mind your own business,” she snapped.
“You better listen to her, Marcus, she bites,” Rook teased, and Marcus turned a little white before turning back to the lever. Then Rook leaned over to her. “So, you haven’t-”
“I just don’t like them,” she grumbled.
“So what if I haven’t?”
Rook laughed, crossing his arms. “The Zweispars aren’t that b-”
“Say backwards and I’ll rip your tongue out of your head.”
“You’re not very nice.”
“Says the pot to the kettle.”
“Fine, fine. I know for a fact that the Zweispars have lifts. And cars.”
Shit. He had noticed. “And I avoid them. What’s your point?”
“That I’m very, very curious.”
“So curiosity’s going to kill the bird, too. Shame.”
Rook rolled his eyes at that, although he did seem to be enjoying the conversation. It was helping her relax, too. She’d never been this far north, and Den Elessa… well, she’d heard plenty from her mother. She knew lots about it. That was very different from actually being here.
“Want me to go get your bags, Master Rook?”
“Yeah, sure. And how many times-” Rook added, but Marcus was already gone. “Master Rook,” he grumbled. “Can’t he at least say Major?”
“You don’t carry your own bags?”
“Eh, he’s so eager, might as well let him,” Rook said casually. Csindra wasn’t sure that was the only reason, though. She hadn’t noticed it at first, but Rook was starting to waver a little on his feet. He was hiding it well, but she caught it as they walked down the hallway – he was steadying himself on the wall, wincing a little. She probably wouldn’t even have noticed if she wasn’t paying such close attention, and even then, she wasn’t sure it was anything, really. He was just tired. “Here.” He unlocked the door, and Csindra caught just a hint of Bloodwork as he disarmed… something on the other side. “I’ve got a spare room but I need to uh – empty it out a bit.”
“What? What were you keeping in there?”
“Books, mostly. I just have to get them off the bed and it’ll be fine.” Rook was stumbling a little. He flicked the light on and moved into the kitchen.
The inside was just as disorganized and strange as the outside balcony; in fact, if anything, it was more so. There was a gramophone balanced on top of a waist-high bookshelf, next to a loveseat that had clearly seen better days and she suspected was second- or third-hand; the anbaric lights on the ceiling competed with oil lamps and candles, some of which had been burned down into tiny stubs, others still tall and straight. Just inside of the balcony door, there was an explosion of plants, many of which she recognized. Herbs, mostly, but there was a good mix, taking up almost an entire half of the room. Astragalus, ferns, mushrooms, basil, feverfew, chamomile, valerian – even some poppies, which she suspected Rook wasn’t supposed to have growing in his apartment.
Csindra came a little closer to the plants, reaching down –
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” Rook murmured, pulling a mug down from his cupboard.
Csindra pulled her hand back then bent down. There it was – a Venus flytrap nestled between one flower she didn’t recognize and another that she thought might be St. John’s Wort. “They don’t bite people.”
“Aw, ruin my fun.”
“You like freaking people out with it, huh?”
“Can’t help it if people are stupid.” Rook finished what he was doing, and Csindra began to smell it; some sort of herbal tea. Not what she would have thought Rook would drink. He took the mug and sat down on the loveseat, watching her with the plants. “You seem to know what you’re doing. I thought you were a Bloodworker.”
“I am, but my mother does some Smokework. Plus, plenty of these are good for stuff outside of Smokework.”
“Mm.” Rook sipped at his tea, but he was looking worse by the minute. “Jacob was watering them for me. That and tracking my pigeons.”
She tried not to smile. The soldier he liked so much. She wasn’t nearly as enthused with the man, but he could have been worse, and besides, she wasn’t fond of any soldier, even Rook. But no matter her opinion of Elessans, there was something very sweet about watching Rook navigate what he didn’t even seem to want to acknowledge was a crush. She’d known she was, well, kanaka for years, but Elessans were different about these things. Repressed, really. “You told me Scheffen’s the one who found you. How does he come into it?”
“I told you. We’re not friends.”
“So pretend for a moment. It’s relevant anyway.”
“I don’t see how,” Rook grumbled, probably just because he was embarrassed. He took another sip of tea, and relented. “He works for her. That’s all.”
“And he’s nice to me. Always has been.”
“Like a dad.”
“Not like a dad,” Rook shot back, a little too defensively. “He’s not old enough to be my father.”
“He’s twenty-nine. I did the math.” He paused. “Just out of curiosity. Years ago.”
She tried, so hard, not to laugh at him – and mostly managed it. Rook just pulled a face at her in response. “Yeah, shut up. I hired you to help me with Bloodwork, not to make snarky comments about my social circle.”
“That I do for free.”
Rook shrugged, then slid a little further down onto the loveseat. “…You can actually help, right? At least a little?” he asked, cautiously. It was the most he’d actually admitted to any vulnerability or worry.
Csindra paused, rubbing the fronds of one of the ferns between her fingers. “I think so,” she said. It was still kind of over-promising, but édjan’na was – well, Elessans didn’t know much about it at all. She didn’t feel right about giving an Elessan any more information about it, but if she played it right, she could help him without shining any light on what her people deliberately kept dark. And if she didn’t –
Her fingers twitched a little. She kind of liked Rook, but not enough to feel guilty about the fact that she’d kill him if she had to. Elessans had done enough damage. Only… she had a feeling there were a lot of other things that’d beat her to it.
“I don’t know how much,” she added after a bit. This was a bad idea. She shouldn’t have said yes. She –
She was talking to empty air. She raised her head. “Rook?”
Rook had fallen asleep. Very quickly, actually, which raised her hackles a little. He’d dropped the mug gently on the carpet below him, and she got carefully to her feet, creeping over to pick it up. It was empty, but she sniffed it – and pulled a face. She’d only smelled the valerian and chamomile before. Up close, she could smell the cannabis and laudanum in it as well – very faintly, but there nonetheless. “Odjòn’n vol’,” she grumbled under her breath. So she was stuck with a druggie. That would have been good to know ahead of time, although a druggie who fell asleep and drank tea instead of smoking was admittedly a pretty good option.
But that left her with a choice.
No handcuffs. No restrictions. And whatever military process Scheffen had been talking about, she hadn’t actually started it yet. Csindra hadn’t signed anything yet.
Don’t rush it. Explore a bit first.
That was fair. She’d gotten interested in Rook for a reason, and she’d already lectured herself once over this; she’d known exactly what she was signing up for. Well, mostly. The room full of semi-illicit plants and books to the ceiling was a bit of a surprise, but not a huge one. So she’d just see if there were any more surprises.
The kitchen wasn’t much of a kitchen. There was a hot plate with a kettle perched on it, a few suspicious-looking cans, and not much else. There was a fireplace, although in rowhouse apartments like this Csindra wasn’t sure how much to trust it, and cupboards that upon inspection, contained more dustbunnies and a couple bags of pasta and dried beans. She was starting to wonder what Rook actually ate, although to be fair, he’d been down south for a while.
Then there were the three closed doors. One led to the bathroom, and Csindra checked to make sure Rook was actually asleep before fiddling with the taps on the sink. She made sure they were off before leaving and closing the door, but she was allowed to have some fun with indoor plumbing. The second was the spare room he’d mentioned. He hadn’t really gotten across that the “books he just had to get off the bed” were several stacks taking up the entire twin bed, and she wondered if she could just take the loveseat instead. It was practically a library in here. As dusty as one, too.
The third door…
Csindra’s arms started tingling the moment she touched the handle, and she pulled her hand back, throat constricting. Something was wrong.
She glanced back over at Rook’s sleeping form, and scanned the apartment for the snake. She couldn’t see him, but that didn’t mean anything with snakes. They were sneaky little fuckers.
She could leave it alone, she supposed. Maybe if she wasn’t feeling goosebumps and the tell-tale spark of Bloodwork along her arms, she would have. It was probably just that he cast a lot of magic in there. That was all.
She gripped the handle and opened the door.
The smell of blood hit her first, copper-and-salt at the back of her throat, before she even realized what she was looking at. The bed in the center of the room was drenched in blood, white sheets stained with red, dripping onto the hardwood. Fresh blood, not dried – and the sounds hit her next, infuriated screaming-
I DON’T WANT YOUR HELP LEAVE ME ALONE
LET GO OF ME
Others, words unintelligible –
Her vision cleared. The bed wasn’t stained with blood, of course it wasn’t; Rook hadn’t been in this apartment for a good while. He’d been away.
Her hands began to shake.
What had he done in here before he left?
She’d been giving him all of this good faith. Not all Bloodworkers were bad. She assumed most weren’t. Some were. She forgot that sometimes. And he’s Elessan, Csindra, he’s part of the military, you can’t possibly think he’s innocent-
She slammed the door shut, feeling like she might throw up. Magic, just magic, that wasn’t real, that wasn’t real, but it had been, it had been an echo of something-
She had to go. Now. Before it was too late. And just to remind her of it, Rook began to stir on the couch where he was sleeping.
Csindra walked – not ran – for the front door. She took the stairs this time, all the way down until she was back on the street – and even though she didn’t know which way she was going, she picked a direction, gripped the handle of her axe to remind herself it was still there, and left.
I don’t think this is the first time it comes up, but it might be – Elessa uses ‘anbar’ instead of ‘electric’, which is, yes, a deliberate shout-out to Phillip Pullman. (I was ecstatic to, after giving him up as lost to me, see him loudly and stubbornly voice his support for trans people to the TERF Queen’s face.) I grew up reading His Dark Materials so even if I did have to consign the author to the ‘sadness and regrets’ pile, it’d likely be impossible to avoid showing their influence – more than one person has commented that Rook’s relationship with his snake has more than a little bit of ‘daemon’ about it. [N.B. He’s apparently gone and been a Racist White Man again since, which. Sighs. You win some, you lose some, but I still like the reference.]
This is a good place to back up what I said in an earlier chapter; a lot of drugs that we see in our modern world as illegal or recreational drugs are a lot easier to access in this setting, and will be showing up a decent amount. Some of them, actually, are still technically illegal in Elessa – but especially in the absence of synthesized medicine, well, it happens. Much like with Cutter magic’s self-harm aspect, the drugs are going to be a recurring and fairly-prominent theme, so if you think it’s likely to bother you, this is probably a decent time to tap out. (I’ll still be using trigger warnings, but TWs can only get across so much in terms of where a story’s going and what it’s planning to do with it.)
Edited as of June 30th, 2022.
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