CW: drowning, drug use, implied mental health issues, racism/classism, disordered eating
It has been lost to memory, now, how it is our ancestors traversed the ocean; four hundred years has distorted what narratives we have so out of shape that if there is any truth to be found in them, it is hard to know where to start. Still, it is clear that the sea was once far less dangerous, and so a horrible possibility presents itself; whatever it was that destroyed the old world is not finished with us yet. Indeed, is it so dramatic, so foolish, to believe that the same vicious, cruel magic that besets us on every side here could be the same force that drove our forefathers in such fear from their original homes, so many years before?-Patrick Raymundsohn Bergen, 1752; “Alten Mæren”
He was dreaming again. It was a shame, because the point of what he drank was to not have so many of these stupid dreams; but the upside was that it was a lucid dream. He could cope with that, maybe.
He was floating in the ocean. Drowning, except he didn’t feel like he was drowning. When he inhaled, he could feel the water in his lungs, but it didn’t sting; it just felt like air, but thicker, denser, heavier in his lungs. And…
Rook exhaled, and the water bubbled out of his lungs again.
And it was beautiful.
The sea was poison. Everyone knew that. Once upon a time, long ago, people had been able to swim in the ocean as easily as in the lakes and rivers. It wasn’t just a legend, either; it was recorded clearly in the earliest history books that had survived the crossing. Even the fact that people – humans – had ever made the crossing said that the sea had once been a very, very different kind of beast. But even in a dream, he couldn’t help but feel – oh, he didn’t know what he felt. The sand spread out in front of him, moving this way and that with the currents, and to one side, there were towers of something pink and vibrant, things growing on it and reaching for the sunlight, fish swimming in and out of the holes that seemed to have grown, not been carved, into the structure.
Something moved over his shoulder, and he startled, moving aside; then he gaped at it. The creature serenely drifting past him was translucent, with almost its own internal light; it hardly even looked solid, with long strings hanging down from its oval, shapeless body and drifting just as aimlessly in the current as the sand and seagrass. It was moving, under some power; Rook had to assume it was alive, but that was the most he could identify.
He was dreaming. He had to be. Things like this didn’t really exist.
THEY USED TO.
Ah. There it was. There were always voices in his dreams. Thousands of them; he’d given up identifying any of them, except that they all sounded different, and none of them were people he knew. They had to be people from his past, but the years hadn’t shed any more light on… anything.
“What is it?”
THIS IS THE OCEAN. PART OF IT.
“Things don’t live in the ocean.”
AND YOU KNOW EVERYTHING, OF COURSE.
“Well, some things do. Monsters. Not… things like this. Fish can’t survive in the saltwater.” Rook paused. “I don’t usually know I’m dreaming.”
A LOT IS CHANGING.
“Care to shed any light on it?” Rook asked peevishly. He didn’t seem to be able to move; he was just stuck in place, floating somewhere in the ocean, watching it all drift past him. Not that he minded, but it did make things a little more dull.
WELL, AS YOU GET OLDER, YOUR BODY GOES THROUGH CHANGES-
“Oh, great! My hallucinations have gotten a sense of humour, and it’s awful!”
The voice just started laughing, and Rook felt his face going red. Go fucking figure. “Besides, I haven’t changed much. I got taller, and my dick gets hard at inconvenient times. That’s about it.”
DOES THAT BOTHER YOU?
“The random erections or getting taller?” When the voice didn’t respond, Rook sighed. So much for deflection. “No, not really, at worst I wish my voice was deeper so people didn’t still think I was twelve. You could answer my actual question.”
I COULD. BUT I DON’T KNOW HOW.
…Now that was interesting. It was the most of a distinct personality Rook had ever gotten from one of his voices.
Which had him worried.
“I’m dreaming, right?” he asked.
WHAT ELSE WOULD THIS BE?
“I don’t know. But I need you to tell me this is a dream. Not – something else. Don’t make me guess. Just tell me straight out that this is a dream.”
The voice was very, very quiet, and Rook felt his heartbeat begin to speed up. He had to wake up. If it was a dream, he could wake up. All he had to do was wake up.
He startled awake, clutching for something — anything — only the taste of salt in the back of his throat. He was drowning – he was-
The taste faded.
Weight. There was weight on his chest. His heartbeat registered the pressure – steadied, slowed –
Rook exhaled, eyes clearing. His familiar. Even as he watched, it rose its scaled head to his cheek, giving him an affectionate nuzzle.
“Hey,” Rook whispered back. Okay. He had been dreaming after all. Already, the details of the dream were growing vague, hard to hold. The most solid thing left behind was the feeling of unrest, an itching in his bones that would last the whole day if he was unlucky. But his familiar helped. It always did; it didn’t matter what shape it had, it was always standing guard in one way or another, ready to give him affection or bring him back down to earth. He just wished it could speak to him — although it did a pretty good job with the tools it had.
…Something smelled good.
“Coffee?” he asked questioningly, lifting his head and peering around the bookshelf.
“I’ll let you have some if you’re nice to me.”
Rook thunked his head back down onto the loveseat. How long had he been asleep? He arched his back up, looking backwards at the window – yeah, that was sunlight. Morning light. He’d slept through the whole night on the couch, which wasn’t going to do his body any favours.
“I still don’t know how your skeleton does that,” Csindra grumbled from the kitchen. “I made you beans.”
He flopped back down, wincing a little — but he’d hurt even if he didn’t play contortionist, so it didn’t matter either way. “Beans?”
“Baked beans. From a tin. A new tin, for what it’s worth. The ones you had here are scary-looking and too dented for my tastes.” She handed him a plate. “I was almost expecting you to have some ridiculous new-fangled device for your tins, but apparently a churchkey’s a churchkey even in the big city.”
Rook sat up slowly, gently dislodging his familiar to the side of the couch and trying not to smirk at the rolled eyes he could hear in her voice. “You were… shopping. When did you go shopping?”
He could see Csindra properly now, as his eyes focused and lost their early-morning haze. Her hair was still up in its ponytail, red hair trying to curl or at least wave in the short arc it made at the back of her neck, and she’d taken off her jacket, dark tank top loose at her shoulders and displaying not just her arms but a good portion of her torso as well. Through the sleeve-holes, Rook could see the black fabric wrapped around her chest and ribcage; not tight enough to conceal anything, just a wrapping. And scars, lots of them, but that didn’t surprise him at all. “With what money?”
“Oh, I just grabbed your badge. Apparently that’s all I needed.”
“Hey! You can’t just-” The beans did smell good. “…Next time, ask me,” he grumbled, letting himself have a bite or two. So far, so good, but he was never sure how anything was going to sit with him.
“Next time,” she replied calmly, “tell me when you’re drugging yourself to sleep.”
Ah. Fair. He… hadn’t expected to pass out. Or for her to figure out he’d taken something. He’d been going more for discreet substance use. “Any of my other possessions I need to demand back?”
She was quiet at that, stirring the saucepan on the stove in a way that made him suspicious. Then after a little while, she sighed, not looking up at him but instead drumming her fingers on the countertop. “What happened in your room?”
“What? What do you mean?”
“What happened in your room?” she asked again.
She’d been poking around. That was frustrating. Rook supposed it could be worse, but he didn’t really have anything that terrible in his room. At worst there might be some embarrassing magazines he’d stolen from Phania a few years back, but he was pretty sure he’d gotten rid of those. But Csindra’s face didn’t say embarrassing. She was staring down into the pot, jaw set.
Then his heart dropped.
She was a Bloodworker.
“Nothing important,” he said, a little more quietly.
“Who’d you kill?”
Fury leapt up his throat, along with the taste of bile- “Kill?”
“You heard me.”
“Oh, yeah, I brought someone home and tortured them, in my bedroom, instead of the perfectly serviceable spare room, or anywhere else. What do you fucking think?”
She actually snorted a little at that, which – well, that was good. He thought. “Alright. So what happened?”
He didn’t want to talk about this. Ever, really. Certainly not with a near-stranger. So he ignored her, settling back down onto the couch and stroking his familiar’s scales to try get his heartbeat to slow.
“Djaneki, if you want answers that bad, let me have coffee first,” he snarled. He had no intention of telling her, but at least he could drag it out a bit. Come up with something good.
“You insist on people calling you your first name. You should call me by mine.”
“Plus, you call everyone but me by their first names. I’m starting to feel singled out.”
He laughed a little at that, and the smile stayed on his lips as she came over, setting one mug of coffee on the table next to him and sitting cross-legged on the floor with her own. “There’s chairs…somewhere.”
“You don’t have company much.”
“You’ve met me, right?” It made for a better reply than explaining that he used to — he’d just, well, alienated anybody he’d usually invite over.
“Unfortunately,” she drawled. “I don’t like you much, but I do like you enough to really, really want to believe that you didn’t murder someone in your bedroom. I’m not naive enough to think you don’t kill people. Just… not like that.”
“For what it’s worth,” he sighed, “I avoid it where I can. I like having people to interrogate.”
“Okay, see, that? That does not put me at ease.”
“It wasn’t anybody, okay?”
Csindra seemed to believe him; either that, or she was biding her time, as she sipped on her coffee and considered. “You’re not gonna tell me, huh?”
He figured his silence was enough answer.
“I can live with that for now,” she said after a while, and got to her feet. “Don’t we have something to do?”
“What? Just like that?”
“I said for now. Investments, or something?”
“Investiga- Investigations, Csindra, you can’t mix up those two.” Then he groaned, leaning back into the couch. “Let me wake up first. NEI’s a pain even when I’m in a good mood.”
“National Elessan Investigators. I’ll try at an explanation once I’m conscious. At least enough of one so you won’t insult someone.”
She seemed to accept that in good enough humour, wandering off back into the kitchen to eat some of her beans, and Rook sighed, nursing the slight headache he’d developed. The drugs worked, sort of. It meant he’d actually gotten some rest, and he was in less pain than he’d been when he’d fallen asleep, but he hadn’t actually planned on the couch. He had a bed, he should be using it.
Then again, from what Csindra had said, he would’ve probably had terrible dreams.
He tried to let go of the fear – no, not fear, exactly. Fear, he could handle. Fear, he lived with all the time. He lived with fear so often that it barely registered anymore. Instead, this was a nervous kind of antsiness, a twitch that kept telling him to hide or run. She knows, one voice claimed. Knows what? A more reasonable one replied; a third only provided, too much.
Stupid fucking paranoia. Worse was the fact that Csindra’s prodding questions just made him want to talk to Phania.
He got to his feet, ignoring the way his knees were yelling at him. He could grab something gentle, angelica or something – oh, who was he kidding? Herbal remedies didn’t really do jack shit at this point, but at least chewing on the stupid licorice candies gave him something else to focus on. Not for the first time, it occurred to him to tell Csindra that he functioned much less well than he managed to pretend, but he knew how that would go. Better off not to bother.
Instead, he focused on actually getting dressed and waking up enough to deal with Investigations. Which meant Olivadocht. Which meant a headache.
He wanted to go back to bed.
“No car this time?” Csindra asked him as they left the building, with a note of hopefulness she probably thought he couldn’t hear. He wasn’t quite as excited as her.
“Nah. I can’t drive, and —” He glanced at her. “What’s that face?”
“I thought everybody in the military learned that kind of thing.”
“Well, I’m not everybody,” he grumbled, brushing it off. The fact that the idea of driving one of those things freaked him out just as much as, apparently, it did her, was besides the point. The trams were fine by him. Besides – driving would’ve meant he missed the gloriously panicked look on her face when the tram turned the corner and honked.
“What on earth is that?”
“No trams where you grew up, either?” he teased as the doors snapped open. He couldn’t fault her for that one. There were trams in Den Elessa, and a couple other cities, but the loose soil and sand down south meant nobody had gotten around to it yet. Too expensive, too much hassle, and not enough actual customers.
She managed to swallow it down enough to get on the tram, and the driver shot the axe on her back a startled look. Rook flashed him his ID. “She’s with me.”
“That’s something,” the driver grumbled, not sounding particularly convinced.
“You could have told me I was carrying my weapon onto public transportation,” Csindra sighed, picking a window seat. Rook just laughed it off.
“He’s seen weirder.”
“Has he?” Then Csindra glanced at the snake around his neck. “Point taken.” Her gaze drifted out the window, and Rook found his hands twisting slightly in his lap. He’d… put something together, for her. Not entirely meaning to, but he had. He knew which herbs to use and everything – and they were ones he kept with him. It was a bad idea, because Djan- Csindra was actively helping him at this point. But the paranoia kept whispering in his ear. She knows. She knows. She knows. It couldn’t hurt to have a backup-
“What’s it like?” he asked, finally. “Where you’re from.”
She raised her head a little, raising an eyebrow at him. “I thought we weren’t friends.”
“So blame my terrible curiosity. And you were asking me all sorts of things. You’re obviously not from Den Arden, if your lack of particular attachment tells me anything—”
“I could just hate the mayor,” she countered, but the small grin on her face said otherwise.
“—and you’re startled by a lot of the machinery here. Middle of nowhere, right?”
He managed to hide his surprise. “Etamara? Really? I—” He stopped himself in a rare moment of self-awareness. He’d been about to say something rather disparaging about Etamara and managed to hold his tongue — because for the first time, really, it had occurred to him that the joke about Etamara being a rat warren wasn’t so funny when you were talking to someone from there. “Uh, haven’t been there.”
Csindra snorted. “Nice save, white boy.”
“I haven’t. I actually don’t know much about it.”
“You’re being nice. I don’t trust it.”
“I’ve impressed you that little already?”
“You arrested me and blackmailed me into being your partner in apparently, crime.”
He leaned back against the tram seat at that with a little pout. “Well, fine, don’t tell me anything about your mysterious home, then.”
She was quiet for a little while, and Rook was starting to think that he’d actually offended her. He didn’t usually care, but he did want to know. He was both better at reading people than others thought he would be, and absolutely hopeless at it when he was supposed to be — and then Csindra kept throwing him for loops. She fiddled with a loose strand of her hair, most of it still tied back in her ponytail, before speaking. “The houses are smaller. One-storey, mostly – it, uh, helps keep the heat under control. No trams or anything like that. No sidewalks, really. Some of the streets are paved, but it’s flagstones and all. None of this stuff. No anbaric power.”
“Yeah, I think the first anbaric light I saw was in Den Arden, actually.” Csindra gave him a slightly-embarrassed look. “Before that mission, to be clear. Or maybe Avolara. Not sure.”
“Awful?” she said quietly.
She shrugged, but seemed a little pleased that he hadn’t actually gone with something negative. It did sound pretty bad, to him. “It’s quieter at least. None of this ridiculous all-night noise stuff, or motors going by in the middle of the night. Bears, sometimes-”
“Yes, they’re big and brown and—”
“I know what bears are!”
She bit her lip, amused at some joke that was clearly going over his head. “And you’ve never lived outside of Den Elessa.”
“I was in the Zweispars for a month. That counts for something. Oh, and the hospital I was in was in Meergaarten.”
“Truly, a well-travelled man.”
He grimaced. “I’m not so much a man as a bundle of twigs trying to grow into the concept.”
Again, she was biting her lip like he was missing a joke, but he’d gotten used to that from other people. It just wasn’t helping his paranoia settle down. “What’s this – Investigations thing, anyway?” she asked, changing the subject.
“If you mean the case, I got no clue.” He dug into the pocket of his coat, pulling out his bag of candies. “Ginger?”
“Uh, no thanks.” She eyed the paper bag with some entertainment, then lowered the top with one finger. “Is that really just candied ginger?”
“Yeah, sure. Why?”
“Doesn’t that sting?”
“A little. Tastes good, though.” And it made his joints ache a little less. The taste was a bonus. “It’s probably a murder case or something that they want NatSec involved with for some reason or another.”
“NatSec – National Security. Right. What’s the difference?”
“Between, what, NatSec and Investigations?” At Csindra’s nod, he chewed on the ginger, thinking it over. He didn’t usually have to explain the branches to other people — one of the pluses of most of his social circle being military or adjacent already. “Different branches. You got Infantry and Gunners, Cavalry, the actual soldier soldiers. And then you got NatSec, Investigations, MEDCOM, and we’re all run by different people.”
“Right. So you work for NatSec, but sometimes you work with Investigations.”
“Pretty much. Investigations deals with cop shit, internal affairs, stuff like that. NEI is just one of the regiments, so if it’s about civvies — civilians — then NEI deals with it.”
“As opposed to?”
“AFCIS is uh… Army Forces something something, so army and infantry crimes. Cavalry and the Airmen have MCIS — er, MPCIS. I can never keep track, half their letterheads still say MCIS. Gunners have their own as well, and then there’s the one for corruption and another I’m definitely forgetting. And that’s just the central division.”
“…Forget I asked,” Csindra grumbled. “That’s too many letters.”
“You’re telling me. You’re not actually expected to know them.”
“And NatSec is…?”
“Feral magic, Advolks, organized crime. Anything that threatens the whole country, basically.”
Csindra raised her eyebrows at that one — presumably, he thought with a small wince, the inclusion of the Advolks. He’d seen her react a few times to their name, now, and he — probably very stupidly — was stuck between pretending he didn’t notice and logging every instance with increasing paranoia. No, that was dumb. Paranoia was, again, when it was unreasonable. Keeping an eye out was just smart. “And the Advolk and feral magic get lumped together?”
“I mean, only broadly. Same regiment, but that’s all.”
“And the name of that regiment is—?”
“The 214th,” Rook grumbled quietly, which was technically correct, and technical was the best kind of correct when he was feeling awkward and put on the spot.
Csindra just laughed, leaning back against the bus seat. “Yeah, I know what the 214th are called, Rook. Demon Extermination. Can’t tell you shit about who’s on the top, or the chain of command, but I know what your job title actually is. You’re not the first Dievelhunter I’ve met.”
“Nobody calls us that anymore.”
“To your face,” she said, a little too cheerfully.
“Why would they?” he groaned. “Feral magic isn’t anybody’s friends. Except the damn Advolks, but they’re crazy, who knows what they think they’re getting out of it.”
“Ah, yes. The party line about how the Advolks — what is it, they worship feral magic? They’re working for it?”
He chomped down a little harder than he had to on his ginger, trying not to look offended. “Leave it to you to make it sound ridiculous. And no, that’s not it. It’s — Hey,” he caught himself slightly feebly. “I don’t have to explain this to you!”
“I work for you. Is this the time to get funny about information? Especially when everybody already knows it,” she added. She was smirking, which was just the cherry on top of this whole blasted encounter, wasn’t it? The confidence kept throwing him. They kept wandering back into her territory and out of his, and then the tables got turned on him again.
“For their own reasons,” he said with a grumble, “they want feral magic to succeed in whatever it’s trying to do, yes.”
“And your guesses on that are?”
“You’re asking the wrong person. That’s the kind of thing Scheffen and the other high-ranking think tank fuckers have to worry about. My job is to worry about wraiths and demons and shit when they crops up, with the odd excursion out of my way to deal with whatever else comes up.”
“Like Den Arden.”
“Yes, like Den Arden, I thought that was obvious. Usually that’s Arnoldsohn’s department, catching rebellions before they start, but Arnoldsohn brushed it off, because he’s a dumbass. I—” He caught Csindra’s smirk — which was only widening — and returned to a quietly embarrassed sulk. What was she so amused about, anyway? Demons weren’t anything to scoff at, and they were only second fiddle to when feral magic itself made an appearance. The break to deal with a human threat had been a nice change, really.
“…I will never understand how Elessans get about feral magic,” she said after a while.
He blinked at her, then shrugged. “We didn’t start this. We still don’t. It shows up, causes problems, we do our best to kill it, I don’t see how that makes us the bad guys.”
“Hm,” was all she said to that, still half-smirking, and Rook managed to hide his cringing reaction when he realized she’d never actually said anything to that effect. A little twitchy, are we?’ he thought morosely… before shoving the thought back down deep where he could pretend he had no investment in it. “And anybody who tries to use it is?
He shrugged. “Half the time they’re dead before we get there, so it stops mattering. We’re just cleaning up their mess. Or them, as it ends up.”
“Wait til you see it.”
The tram was coming up to their stop, and he got to his feet, glancing behind to check she was following. Much to his comfort, she was, but the Advolk thing kept bothering him. He’d expected her to have different run-ins — with the organized crime units, or Investigations, not with the 214th.
Besides, he wasn’t stupid. He had spells on the doors. She’d gone out last night. So why on earth had she come back?
The worldbuilding for Elessa is fun basically in every aspect, but one of the biggest challenges has been really grappling with what the deep fear and distrust of the ocean means for a country. The inspiration for a ‘poison ocean’ comes from many places, but probably the most concretely from both Dishonored and The Monster of Elendhaven; mind you, especially in the case of the latter, it’s “this cool detail was completely wasted”. The results are fascinating; for example, while doing Smokework, I’ve avoided seawater plants, and only freshwater fish are eaten, so no octopus, no squid, etc. And it results in things like this, where Rook doesn’t even know what jellyfish are.
It’s weird to think about sometimes, but this really is the level of technology difference that – well, one, was happening in most places that we think of when we think of anywhere between the start of the Victorian Era and “the Roaring 20s”. (Which, lbr, is almost always North America or Britain, Western Europe if you’re feeling spicy. It was a very different era for everyone else.) And two, still happens! Class differences can often be marked the most clearly by how quickly new technology spreads to an area or becomes accessible. It’s also odd to read (and to write) this divide happening around things that are so normal now, like elevators and cars, but that’s also why I like writing in this era.
Edited July 4th!
SONG: Ariadne by Dead Can Dance
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