CW: alcohol. homophobia referenced, homophobic slur, racism, self-destructiveness discussed
…When the girl was done freeing the snake from the stones, she waited, and held her breath. The snake said, “That was foolish. I could have bitten you. I might still do so, now that I am free.”
“Perhaps,” she said. “You might not.”
…æʤa shé-besate adjashinén antik sho-gédin’weg aŋat kanakaz, sharinén esh’reŋaç’nén anik. Sho-gédin’weg vol’rąn anik, “Marnashą inidjat’. Lakaǩajat antik sumsum eshé. Ned’beshą tek ummtek, ą’mur, æ’dja marnashą adjashin’.”
“Sum,” bé vol’rén. “Ned’beshąvu ummtek sheǩev.”
…adga shei-besate adjashinein antik sho-geidinweg angat kanakaz, sharinein eshrengacsnain anik. Sho-geidinweg volrain anik, “Marnashai inidjat. Lakakhajat antik sumsum eshei. Nedbeshai tek ummtek, aimur, adja marnashai adjashin.”-Ravite and the Good-Luck Snake
“Sum,” bei volrein. “Nedbeshaivu ummtek shekhev.”
Night fell over Den Elessa. Csindra began to tremble, then to shiver; it was colder up here. She’d been supposed to know that, but she hadn’t really planned for it. Stupid. This was supposed to be Zurkanet territory anyway; if she couldn’t handle a bit of chill in the air, what kind of Kaneta was she?
A really, really scared one, she admitted, finally. It hurt to. She was confident, she was good at taking care of herself, she was adaptable. That was the point. You didn’t hire yourself out as a merc if you didn’t believe that and you didn’t do a damn good job of convincing other people of it. Just…
Csindra took a deep breath and rubbed her shoulders a little more, ducking into one of the alleyways and sitting down with her back against the stone building wall. What was she fucking thinking, anyway? Signing up to help some military brat. Military was trouble, always. She remembered the string of refugees that had flowed into Etamara after the Anselm massacre. And she’d grown up with soldiers kicking over clan kids in the streets and making up reasons for random raids. No, she was better off.
And for some reason she wasn’t feeling particularly convinced of that. It was probably the ‘no money, stuck in a strange city where she didn’t know anybody’ thing. Doing funny things to her head. She’d – well, she’d almost liked Rook. When she was in a snarky mood, she’d probably frame it as feeling sorry for him, but it wasn’t that. No, he was interesting. He was talented, and funny, and somehow had the equal courage and stupidity to walk around in a skirt like he owned the place, and had still killed someone in that house, and thought she wouldn’t notice.
And do you think his coworkers know? All that friendliness. She’d let herself forget who they were.
Csindra leaned her head on her knees and closed her eyes. She could still feel the leftover remnants of it. Bloodwork left marks on places; or rather, pain did, misery did, death did. The more you practiced Bloodwork, the more you worked with those things, the less you could avoid feeling it when there was a lot left over. If she’d been a better Cutter she probably could have figured out all the details, but she’d also panicked.
You thought he didn’t kill people? the mocking voice asked her again. You’re a killer too. Get over it.
Ah, right. She’d forgotten. Her meanest internal voice was Mari. Just what she needed for a bad night.
Well, she couldn’t stay here. It was threatening to rain, and she was cold as it was. Maybe she could take advantage of Scheffen’s offer a day or two early, and there was a bar a block or so down.
Once she got inside, she immediately started feeling better. It was warm. So she sat down at the bar, rubbing any last tell-tale signs out of her eyes, and took a deep breath.
“You’d better be able to pay.”
Lovely. She couldn’t even catch her breath. “I’m with the military,” she said, and it was mostly true. Semi-true. “NatSec, Major Scheffen.”
She lowered her hands, gazing exhaustedly at the bartender. Tall, bald, broken nose, bad neckbeard, the kind of mayonnaise-y, blotchy complexion that on any reasonable person meant you were either dead or dying. “What do you want, a badge?”
“I don’t have it yet.”
“Likely excuse. Get out.”
“I’m serious. I just don’t-”
She was way too tired for this. Especially since this time around, she was actually telling the truth. The fact that she had no intention of turning up for “work” was beside the point. But the racist fuckhead just looked more and more stubborn by the moment, so it wasn’t really worth the trouble. “Can I at least sit here?” she sighed.
“And not buy anything?” he snorted. “I should-”
“There’s no need for any of that,” came a smooth voice over her shoulder. “She’s with me.”
The barkeep’s face changed. Imperceptibly, perhaps, but still notably. He was nervous now.
Csindra turned her head. It was Jacob – Lieutenant Lambert, she corrected. Just because Rook called him Jacob didn’t mean she could. “Oh, lovely. I’m being stalked.”
“Only a little,” he teased. “Come on. You’ll be more comfortable somewhere else.”
“I’ll say,” the barkeep had to chime in – and then quailed under Jacob’s glare.
“Shriver, you’ll keep a civil tongue in your head next time or I’ll cut it out.”
Csindra followed Jacob out of the bar, feeling a little like she’d been caught with her hand in the cookie jar. It was raining now – but to her quiet pleasure, Jacob lifted an umbrella above both of them. He was really damn tall. She hadn’t dwelled on it before because she’d been focused on Rook, who actually made her feel like she was a normal height, but she only came up to below Jacob’s shoulder. She would have been more intimidated, but hey, she was the one with the axe.
“There’s a bar a couple blocks over that I think is more your speed. If you’re willing to have a drink with me.”
She narrowed her eyes up at the lieutenant. “That depends.”
“Just a drink. You’re too young for me.”
She snorted despite herself. “Not the biggest hurdle there.”
“I’d guessed from how you looked at Ive. Come on. You must be hungry.”
She was, she realized – with no shortage of annoyance. Especially since she’d thought she’d covered up that blush at Ive faster. She tried to come up with some reason to refuse, but her stomach beat her to it.
Jacob laughed, keeping step with her on the sidewalk. “Rook’s sort of bad at the concept of… well, humans having to eat. And drink.”
“His kitchen’s pretty bare.” And his bedroom… But she was trying not to think about that. “Did he send you after me?”
“No,” Jacob admitted. “Scheffen didn’t, either, before you ask.”
“So a complete coincidence?”
“What does that mean?” Her hackles rose again.
He shrugged. “I figured you might bail. Got that sense back in the office.”
“You’re gonna stop me?”
“I’ll try. Figured I could at least put a good word in.” Jacob looked down at what she assumed was the bemused expression on her face. “What, you thought I’d arrest you again?”
“That’s… the impression I got. Silk gloves and steel hands, that whole thing.”
Jacob gave a small, disappointed sigh. “I – won’t waste time telling you not to take it personally, but it isn’t personal.”
“How’s that different?”
“Just because it isn’t personal doesn’t mean it doesn’t suck ass.”
Maybe it was just the long day, or the exhaustion, but Csindra started giggling, wiping a few tears from her eyes before Jacob could notice them. She managed to stop them before they became full-on hysterics, although she had to bite the back of her hand to do so, and by then, they were standing in front of the bar – the other one.
“Mr. T’s,” she read off the sign. “…What’s different about this one?”
“Ah, you’ll see-”
Csindra backed away from him before he could take her arm. “Oh, no, Elessa boy. No more surprises. Where are you taking me?”
“Uh, it’s…” He rubbed the back of his head with a slightly embarrassed chuckle. “Let’s just say a little more suited to folks like you ‘n me.”
“Straight language, Lambert.”
“Straight is not the word I would use.”
“Wh-” Then Csindra caught up and smacked her forehead with her hand, flushing red. “It’s a gay bar. You could have said so.”
He gave her a nudge with his shoulder, still grinning as he folded up the umbrella. “Sorry. You pick up a certain amount of discretion.”
“Discretion my ass. It’s confusing,” she complained – but she was following him inside anyway. He was right. He was just annoying.
This bar, at least, was quieter. It was nicer, too; the bartender was another middle-aged white guy, but he was taller and had a nice-looking leather vest on, and gave her a warm if slightly puzzled smile. “What can I get you, young miss?”
Young miss? She was getting whiplash.
“Yucca gin?” she asked carefully. “Or not this far north?”
Jacob winced with a chuckle. “Maybe I should put a price limit on buying you a drink.”
She found herself flushing again, this time out of pure embarrassment. “S-sorry.”
“Don’t be too hard on her,” the bartender said to Jacob, “it’s a third of the price down south. You from Etamara, little one?”
“Wonder how you guessed that,” she drawled as she sat down. “Yes, Tenton.”
“Well, I think Lambert will cry if I pour you yucca gin-”
“I would not,” Jacob protested-
“-but I got Kringwalde black rum on special if you’re down for a rum old fashioned of that.”
“Tell me what an old fashioned is and I’m down.”
“Black rum ‘n bitters on ice,” Jacob chimed in. She gave the bartender a thumbs up to that, and Jacob ordered himself what sounded like either rum or whiskey. She wasn’t really paying attention. She was more concerned about how Jacob had actually found her.
“You must be following me,” Csindra concluded out loud, grimacing at him. “I can’t think of any other way you saw me by chance.”
“Really? Nothing else?”
He shook his head. “I’m not following you. On purpose, anyway. I live in the same building as Rook.”
Oh – oh dear. She probably should have been more concerned for herself, but her first thought was that Rook’s crush was even more painful than she’d realized. That poor boy. “You’re neighbours? On – on purpose, right?”
“Sort of. He’s a kid, but living with anyone wasn’t a great solution either.” The older man shrugged off his leather jacket; Csindra hadn’t quite registered that he wasn’t in uniform, in part because he was so distinctive all on his own. The black shirt underneath didn’t leave much to the imagination, either, or – she cast her eyes down, mostly out of curiosity – the silver belt buckle over tight denim. “He whines about it sometimes, but also he’s ended up at my place in the middle of the night a couple times when he was bored, so it works out.”
“I’m – sure he has.”
“What are you looking at?” he asked suddenly with mock offense, giving her a little shove. Clearly she hadn’t been that subtle.
“Oh, nothing. Just wondering how closets work this far north.”
“Assumin’ you don’t mean my dress sense. It’s called don’t ask, don’t tell.”
“And what does that mean in actual words?”
The bartender snorted, putting their drinks in front of them. “It means you can be as much of a flamin’ faggot as you want as long as you don’t actually say it, and nobody’s gonna ask you about it as long as you don’t make it their problem.”
“A little crude, don’t you think, Lawson?” Jacob shot back.
“Hey, she asked for it blunt.”
She had. And at least now she understood things a little better. It was a military thing, then – there was some of that out in the Zweispars, but she didn’t hang out with military, and for civvie Elessans you were either straight or you were an abomination, which was entertaining enough when you weren’t already a default abomination for about fifty other reasons. Cheerful stuff, really, especially when you stopped caring. “So you’re trying to talk me into staying.”
“Well, first, I’m curious what freaked you out so much you ran.”
She tightened her fingers around the glass. The ice helped. “Just sick of their shit. Rook’s a bossy little shit and your boss ain’t any better.”
“Sorry about that. Sylvia means well.”
“She does. You don’t think just anyone would break the rules for their subordinate that quickly?” Jacob amended that. “Rook’s not really her subordinate anymore. But old habits die hard.”
“Mm.” She wondered how many other old habits were involved. “I don’t like being used as a lever. If Rook won’t follow orders, I’m the one who pays for it?”
“I don’t agree with that.”
“And I’m a 2nd Lieutenant, I can disagree with Syl all I want, but it’s still her call. I’m here because I want you to stay anyway.”
Jacob took a drink of his whiskey, making a face. He looked tired, Csindra decided. Did he do this a lot? Cleaning up after his commanding officer? It seemed like a bit of a thankless job. “If you can, pretend that… I don’t know. Pretend I’m not military. Pretend Rook is just a kid. Pretend I’m-” He chewed on the inside of his cheek, clearly trying to come up with something.
“A concerned bystander?” she offered up with just a touch of sarcasm.
“His friend. Not his guardian, that’s Sylvia. And that was only ever a legal thing anyway.”
“Even if I could-” and she wasn’t sure that was possible- “what does that get me?”
Jacob took a moment, chewing on the inside of his cheek. “I’m asking you to stay because he needs help.” The look he gave her was the most honest plea she’d gotten so far. It reminded her – goddamnit. It reminded her of the fucking snake. Rook was angry and hiding it all under business and transactions and flaunting his power over her as much as possible to make up for it. Scheffen was doing the same thing, but she was scared.
She considered playing dumb, but that wouldn’t help anyone. “That bad?”
“I don’t know what’s actually wrong. He won’t tell me, and definitely won’t tell Sylvia. And as much as the others are nice, he’s not really friends with them.
“Nobody his own age?”
“He—” Jacob tugged at his earlobe, thinking through his words. “He doesn’t get along with people. There’s been a few other kids here and there, but… it hasn’t worked out.”
“There’s something you’re not telling me.”
“Because it’s not mine to tell-”
“You know plenty as it is.”
“So I’m supposed to stay out of pity?”
“For fuck’s sake,” Jacob muttered. “Is the word compassion not in your vocabulary?”
She had a snarky response all ready to go. She could do it. Just throw it back in his face and leave. But –
But she could have just left. Several times over.
“I’m not a caretaker. I’m not a babysitter.”
Jacob actually smiled a little at that, relaxing a bit. She drank a little more of the rum. It was helping, actually. “…I know. I’m sorry.”
“You’re scared, too.”
“Of course I am.” He hadn’t said what it was he’d actually seen or noticed that scared him, which — ironically — made her more inclined to listen to him. Sometimes you couldn’t quite explain what was wrong. And certainly if Jacob had seen any of the feral magic, he wasn’t going to tell a stranger. She respected that. After a bit, he shook his head, almost as if waking himself up. “Alright, new idea. What’re you trying to get back to? Maybe we can work somethin’ out.”
Csindra stared down into the ice rocks in her drink, trying to figure out how to respond past the lump in her throat. It hadn’t been deliberate. It couldn’t have been. “Nothing in particular.”
“Yeah. Yeah, there’s – there’s not much.” Her mother was in Tenton and she hadn’t talked to her in what, three years? And Mari was god knew where. Probably not in Tenton. “I figured at first I might as well stay here, but I hate this city.”
She snorted. “Pick a reason.”
“That’s fair, I’m sorry.”
“Hey, you’re the one who seems to know I’m Zur’kanet’ without asking. Not that you know much.”
“Ouch. I mean, accurate, but ouch.”
She swirled the ice around in her glass, still not looking at him. “…I was born here, too. I mean, I don’t remember it.”
“How old are you again?”
“Nineteen.” She looked up at him through her bangs, and she could see him doing the math. “Yeah, yeah. Save it. Your girlfriend’s not Elessan and neither are you, but that doesn’t make you a friend.”
“Ah, so you noticed.”
“Do Elessans not?”
“They’re… remarkably thick sometimes,” he said with a quiet grin. Csindra supposed she could see it, but to her, Jacob and Sylvia were as obviously Shufennese as – oh, she didn’t know. As the sky was blue. It was something in the eyes and in the tint of their skin, although more in Jacob than Sylvia, she decided. “Apparently I’m too tall to be Shufennese.”
She’d chosen that moment to take a drink. That had been a mistake, because it went up her nose. “I hate you,” she mumbled once she was done coughing.
“I thought you’d like that,” he replied, completely unfazed.
“You are really damn tall.”
“And you’re short for a Kanetan, but somehow I don’t think that’s how it works.”
“Kaneta,” Csindra complained. “The least you can do is not butcher it.”
“Okay, so you’re a – Kaneta.”
“Kaneta, or I’m Zurkanet. Either works. Just – not Kanetan.” She turned around, leaning her back against the bartop, drinking the rest of her liquor and thinking. She believed Jacob when he said he wasn’t going to arrest her. He was guilt-tripping her a little, but not entirely on purpose – at least, she didn’t think so. People who went for the deliberate guilt-trip were usually a little sneakier about it. And if he was trying to sell her on Rook, he would have been gone for something better than pity. No, he was exhausted. Stuck between Scheffen and Rook half the time, it sounded like, and – well, from what he said, they weren’t usually quite that much at each other’s throats. That was good to know. She still didn’t like Scheffen, but there was probably no force on earth that could make her like a high-ranking thaumatist, or at least an adult one. She could do math, too. Rook was too young for any of what she was bitter over, but Scheffen wasn’t. “Tell me about – what do you call it again? Feral magic?”
“Not the kindest name, I know.”
“Mm. You’re the ones trying to wipe it out.”
Jacob wiggled his head a little at that, but there wasn’t a whole lot of wiggle room there. “-Yeah. The argument is that it tried to kill us first.”
“Right. Feral magic is dangerous and so everyone who practices it or tries to use it is executed.”
“On sight, pretty much.”
That was even harsher than she’d expected. She’d known the statutes; it just hit a little differently having someone confirm it so quietly in such a calm setting, with a gramophone playing jazz and the gentle tinkle of glassware behind her. “And Bloodwork?”
“Bloodworkers get a trial at least. It’s structured magic, just outlawed. Feral magic is different.”
“…Does anyone know?” she asked. She wanted to see what Jacob responded.
“Know what?” He looked confused.
Shit, Rook hadn’t told him a damn thing. Rook hadn’t told Jacob – or, she imagined, Sylvia – what was stuck inside him. Rook didn’t even know for sure what it was.
Yeah, that sealed it. She had to stay, because any last hope she’d had that there were adults – real adults – sticking their necks out for him was gone. Sure, they were trying. But they were still Elessans. “Know, uh, anything about feral magic?”
“I mean, some do. But it’s pretty dangerous. Half of the cases NatSec gets, somebody’s blown themselves up long before we get there.”
She grimaced. “Just the people for me to be hanging out with. My mother’s gonna disown me.”
“I mean, I wouldn’t mind knowing a little more about feral magic.”
“What makes you think I know any more than you do?”
“Ah, just a little gut feeling. What do you want to eat?”
“Hm?” She was caught off guard by the change in topic – a little on purpose, it seemed, by the sparkle in his eyes. “What?”
“I was serious about feeding you, you know.”
“I-” Can take care of myself had been the rest of the sentence, except she had no money, there was no food in Rook’s apartment, and she didn’t even know how to get back there anyway. “Mmph. If you insist.”
“Is that how you say thank you in Kanetan?” Jacob teased – then let out a strangled noise when she kicked him.
“Kanet’valan. And no. I’m just a bitch.”
“I’ve met worse.”
“Yeah, I met her.”
“I would get mad at you,” Jacob huffed slightly, “but that was clever.”
She ended up letting Jacob guide her a bit. She hadn’t expected things to be that different from county to county – that and she was… Oh, she didn’t know the right word. Too much information, too many new things, too much stuff to consider. The days were shorter. The cheap booze wasn’t cheap anymore. All the houses were stuck together in an ugly pile instead of being actual houses. Everything was anbaric instead of just the military buildings and the fancy houses.
The fries, however, were a lot better. That was cool. She could live with that.
“If I stay – if,” she added, after a bit of quiet, “what does that mean? For me, I mean.”
“Well, I know Sylvia gave you the usual.”
“Yeah, but…” She sighed. “I’m assuming being Rook’s – what, assistant? It’s not really a long-term thing, is it?”
Jacob gave her an inscrutable look – and then she caught on.
“No. Absolutely not.”
“I’m not offering you anything. I’m just… saying, you know. It’s a way in.”
“To what? Being a diversity hire?” she snorted – then exhaled, thinking about who she was talking to. “Ugh. Just – why on earth would I have anything to do with Elessa’s government? Military or otherwise.”
“It’s a job that isn’t a merc. And it’s, you know. A way to change things.”
“So you’re going to make this about how I should fight oppression. Lovely.”
He gave her a small smile. “You think I haven’t been listening to you?”
She felt her cheeks go a little hot at that. Until he’d actually addressed being Shufennese, she hadn’t really thought about it. She was this bitter to everyone. She’d stopped caring a long time ago – it hadn’t really crossed her mind that her little jabs still said more than she thought. Elessans wouldn’t notice, or care. They were comfortable in their privilege. “Rook hasn’t.”
“Rook’s got his own stuff going on.”
“Like the skirt?”
“Among everything else. But I mean – man, you think Lambert is a manor family name?”
“I don’t know manor families from a horse’s ass.”
“I wouldn’t repeat that around most manor families, as true as it is. But it’s not. I know what it looks like when you’re practically daring someone to shoot you.”
Now she was just feeling uncomfortably seen, and catching on to why exactly Rook liked this guy so much. Even if she mostly wanted to hit him, but she wanted to hit most people. It was practically a reflex response to feeling emotions at this point. “And your alternative is being the one holding the gun.”
“My alternative was trying to do something positive with it. You care about your people. That’s a good thing.”
“My people,” she repeated semi-mockingly, but she was listening. It all sounded good on paper. Her relationship with the Kanet’ as a whole – insomuch as such thing really existed, when you got down to brass tacks – was more complicated than someone like Jacob Lambert could probably ever understand. But he wasn’t wrong. If anybody else had tried to suggest anything as fucking awful as joining the military to “help” the people who’d nearly wiped her own off the map, she’d probably have spat in their face. But he was treating her like a person. He could tell, couldn’t he – that she was doing her damn best to pretend she wasn’t scratching at rock bottom and trying to call it fresh dirt.
“I’ll stay and work with Rook. As a contractor. And I’ll think about it,” she said firmly.
“That’s fine by me. It’d take some finagling anyway.”
“Let me guess,” she drawled. “I’d be the first clansman – or clanswoman – to want to join the military.”
“Oh, no, not by far. But uh, for anything commissioned, you need sponsorship from a manor family. And they’re certainly a bunch. I suppose if-”
“Don’t get ahead of yourself, Lambert,” she grouched. “I said I’d think about it. Now are you gonna help me back to his place or not? All of these damn streets look the same to me.”
I remember when I was a baby writer, both in fanfiction and in my own work, and if someone supported me writing queer stuff into my work at all, it had to be Subtle, or Natural, or Only One Character. A lot of my early work actually suffered because of that; it inevitably made that one character the outsider, the loner, and making friends despite being queer, not because of it. The fanfiction Lux Sanguinum, Nox Animorum (the inspiration and basis for this) was the first time I really dug into the idea of ‘queer worldbuilding’, and that happened over time; this is the first time I think I’ve set out to do it.
Relevantly, while ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ is – obviously – ripped straight from the American practice, Elessa is a conglomeration of influences and should be treated as such. Yes, my commentary is deliberate; no, don’t expect pinpoint accuracy on anything, because that’s not the point.
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.