CW: racism in profiling, heavy paranoia, workplace flirting*, delusions/psychosis, disordered eating, parental control
Smokework, of the systems of thaumaturgy, is moste divers in the immensity of its potential variations; all of the things that groweth from the earth haveth meanings and uses, between three and seven, and can be combined and burned to cast spells from those meanings. With the establishment of the Colleges in our lady country’s center, this discipline is no longer the sole realm of witch-wives and dedicated mysticks; rather, the habit of the North has been adopted as a standard, and playing cards are used as mnemonics to aid the memory. The greatest of these enchantments, however, fitte not into the decks as knowne to us and occupy a higher tier, known to the Northern Counties and now to us at the Collegiates as the Grand Arcanum. In this way we shall be protected from the wickednesse of the wilde magicks.-Nicholas Hallensohn Bjornsen, 1602; from his personal writings
Jacob Lambert had a hangover. Jacob Lambert also had a missing-persons case. Jacob Lambert really, really wanted the missing-persons case to be about anybody else. Literally anyone else.
He glared at the abaca folder, stubbornly drinking his coffee. He knew what was in it – he’d read the whole thing this morning — and besides, who didn’t know more than they ever wanted to about Coben Garrow? Stupid kid had probably just wandered off or was having a fit of independence or adolescence or something.
Be fair, he reminded himself. He’s twenty-one. He’s either past that or well overdue.
“It’s not going to bite you, you know.”
He didn’t even look up at Sylvia. “I can’t believe you gave this to me. Why would you give this to me? This isn’t even our department.”
“Rook’s got his hands full with the murder case, and Olive suggested you for it. And it has shiny promotion all over it,” Sylvia teased.
“If, Sylvia,” he complained, finally raising his head from his rapidly-cooling coffee. “If we find the brat. If we don’t—”
“—If you don’t—”
“I hate you.”
“You don’t, but I accept your fury.”
“Fine. If I don’t, then I am going to get my ass kicked back down to Corporal.” He didn’t bother asking again why it wasn’t being assigned to the 215th, even though all he wanted was to foist it off on them. He knew damn well, and he hated it.
Sylvia was laughing at him. He was just glad everybody else was chatting or busy. Wolfie had already had a grand time poking at Rook, and Jacob didn’t feel like being the next target. It was all in good fun, and usually it was fine, but he wasn’t in the mood. “You know as well as I do that Garrow’s reasonable. He just wants us to find his son.”
“The most terrifying man in Elessa wants us to find his son. And you’re not bothered by this.”
“Don’t tell me you’re still scared of him.”
“I have never been scared of him, Syl. I am, entirely reasonably, very cautious around one of the few people I know for certain could fuck me up very badly without breaking a sweat.”
“So confident,” she pouted, but she knew he was right.
“Which begs the question,” he added, “of why he’s not doing this his own damn self.”
“Caution,” she sighed. “We’ve managed to keep Coben’s disappearance under wraps for four days, and the longer before the media or the manor families find out, the better. He has to pretend everything’s normal, which means doing his job. While we do ours.”
“Finding a twenty-year-old who might well be shacked up in a brothel somewhere,” Jacob grumbled. “And it isn’t our job. Not anymore—”
Ouch. Okay, that meant he was being told off, now. He looked up at her cautiously.
“There is every chance he was kidnapped. You should take that a little more seriously.” She sighed. “And you know as well as I do that the brothels would have gotten back to me about that.”
Ha. For a second he’d thought she was telling him off about the brothel joke. “Yeah, ye—”
She gave him another slightly acid look, and he felt himself shrink a little before mumbling something unintelligible that sounded enough like “Yes, sir,” to get her off his back. At least about this. “Talked to that Kanet’ girl last night,” he said, glancing at Sylvia to gage her response.
Bless her, the poker face worked on everybody but him. “Who, Djaneki?”
“No, some other Kanet’ merc with a giant axe and red hair. Who do you think?”
She did laugh at that, sitting on his desk. Jacob chewed on the inside of his cheek, narrowed gaze up at her. She knew full well how distracting that was. “What do you think?” she asked with a very deliberate flip of her hair.
He shrugged, trying to stop his eyes from wandering. “I like her. She’s feisty. Though, bloody hell, I don’t wanna see her using that axe. Never mind the Bloodwork thing, she’s what, five-six? How does she lift that thing?”
“Are you worried?”
She’d left the question very vague. Jacob checked, and no one else was listening – in fact, Captain Haber and his niece seemed to be arguing about a betting pool of some sort, and Wolfie was sneaking glances at a centerfold magazine underneath his paperwork. They always thought he didn’t know. “That depends what you’re asking about. If you mean the Bloodwork, no, she seems remarkably stable to me. If a bit bitey. If you mean her and Rook, we’ll see, but she’s got more of a head on her shoulders than he’s had for a while, at least.”
“And if you’re asking about her being Kanet’,” Jacob continued with a frustrated sigh, “yes, I’m worried, because she’s got every reason to work against us on purpose and not a lot of reason to make our life easier. But she’s not Advolk. Not fanatical enough, even if she invokes some of the same names.”
“You know I have to consider it.”
“Yeah, yeah. I still think it’s shite.” It wasn’t her fault, either. It was what the job required, and he hated it.
“How much do you want to bet she and Rook will end up killing each other?” Sylvia asked, more cheerfully.
He chuckled despite himself. A little rich coming from the woman who kept swearing she was going to rise above it with Rook and ended up needling him just as much as the opposite. “Oh, nah. I mean, maybe. Probably not.”
“Your confidence is overwhelming.”
Jacob snickered, then clicked his tongue as Sylvia tried to steal his coffee. “Get your own, she-devil.”
“That’s Major She-Devil to you.”
He snatched it back. “You have me on the highest-stakes case we have, that isn’t even supposed to be ours, and you’re taking my caffeine away. Major she-devil is right.”
“I’ll leave you to it. You can grab Heinkel and…” She hesitated. “Oh, good lord,” she mumbled. “We really are going to have to call her Tiffany. You handle it.”
Jacob stifled another laugh. It wasn’t Sylvia’s fault. There were twenty-one noble families — or twenty, depending on who you asked, really — but some were more fertile than others. Between that and the limitations on who could become officers, you ran into problems with naming conventions. Distinguishing between General Baer and Major Baer was one thing; but the Baers just kept bloody well breeding. Currently, there were seven Baer officers in NatSec Central alone – and one of them was Tiffany’s older sister, so using her patronymic wasn’t any easier. The poor girl. She’d been beaten to the punch for Lieutenant Baer and Lieutenant Magnadocht Baer. Frankly, he was happy to be a Lambert.
“Hey, Tiff. You got a sec?”
The bonus, he thought cheerfully, was that he got to see the way she turned bright red at the nickname. She was cute. Fresh out of the academy, and a little terrified of her own shadow, but sweet. “Y-yes sir!”
Jacob contemplated the benefits of reminding her – again – that they were the same rank. Oh, whatever. He had seniority as the squad leader, and he did like being called sir. He tapped the folder against the desk, chewing the inside of his cheek and trying to resist his capricious tendencies. “How much do you know about Coben Garrow? Rattle it off, I wanna hear it.”
Tiffany’s eyes grew as she realized she was being tested, and she saluted, heels together. “Sir, yes sir! Judge Heath Garrow’s oldest son, twenty-one years old as of last February 20th, six foot one… or two, I think, first male heir born to the Garrow line since the end of Forrath’s dictatorship, unmarried, not currently affianced, not currently courting anyone—”
Suddenly there was a thwack at the back of Jacob’s head. “Stop bullying her.”
“Ow.” He rubbed his scalp mournfully.
Heinkel crossed his arms, then glanced at Tiffany. “He’s teasing you again—”
“I was not. I’m actually on the Coben Garrow case, believe it or not.”
“…And testing her memory again.”
Tiffany was going pink again, and put her hands behind her back. “I really don’t mind, Heinkel, sir. If me having a good memory is useful, then I’m glad.”
“It’s not just useful, ho—” Jacob caught the look from Heinkel, “—Lieutenant, it’s a godsend. S’why I want you on this case.”
Oh, she had a lot to learn. Smart people would be like him and begging off of it. But, well, the photographic memory really was going to help. “Yeah. Why not get you started with a bang?”
“Don’t pout, Heinkel, I want you too.”
Heinkel raised an eyebrow. “…A Warrant Officer?”
“Is that a no?”
And Heinkel — paused. Haha. Jacob sipped at his coffee, watching him with a little grin. “You bastard,” he grumbled.
“It’s sure to impress someone.”
“You’re a sick bastard, Lambert.”
“I’m dangling a carrot. Is that so bad? Come on, Heinkel, don’t make me do this on my own.”
Heinkel glared at him some more, which meant he was thinking it through. Davis Robertsohn Heinkel was like Jacob — a nobody who’d found a way into the military out of ambition, not necessity, except Heinkel hadn’t had the good fortune to get a manor sponsor right off the bat. He’d climbed up the ranks on his own, and now there was nowhere to go until he got one. No entry into the Academy without a sponsorship, not for commoners. “Someone has to keep you from bothering Miss Baer to death.”
“I’m offended by the implication that I’m a bother.”
“I’m offended by the implication you don’t do it on purpose. I accept, only on the terms that we actually work on it today and you get your head out of the clouds.”
“You order me around so much.”
“The Major’s too nice to you.”
“Some would beg to disagree —”
Heinkel smacked him with the folder again. He could take a hint. Probably. He handed the folder to Heinkel, nodding at Tiffany to grab a chair.
“Oh, lovely,” Heinkel sighed after a moment. “He was last seen going to bed, by his mother. Enemies: the whole damn country, maybe. Known associates, none.” He chucked the folder back at Jacob. “If this was a civilian I’d have been dragging the river or checking the parents by now.”
“Now you see why I’m not jumping for joy.”
Jacob did open the folder again though, running his finger down the information again. Known enemies was actually blank, despite Heinkel’s comment, because Coben himself hadn’t made any enemies. The first few years after the dictatorship had been rough; but Coben himself had stayed safe, and even now, he’d mostly remained a blank slate. The public mostly only had opportunity to comment on his love life or lack thereof, because he kept to himself and kept out of politics. He’d stayed at home, still practically a child in his own right.
Time to ask Garrow which families he’d pissed off lately, he guessed. Joy.
Rook Zeesohn was not stupid. He was the farthest thing from stupid. He knew perfectly well that normal people didn’t hear voices. He also knew perfectly well that Cutter magic didn’t explain some of the things happening around him. And he was eternally, eternally thankful that nothing strange was happening now —
—nothing except the static rising in the back of his head, garbled moans and hisses that kept spitting out the refrain he’d been hearing for the last few days. SHE KNOWS SHE KNOWS SHE KNOWS SHE KNOWS—
The voices didn’t care what Csindra, or Olive, actually knew. They cared only that something, anything, about him was exposed. That was the cruel humour of the whole thing. They didn’t care about one secret over the other, as far as he could tell. Knowing that they were irrational… didn’t help as much as one would hope.
Rook took a deep breath, then realized he’d totally missed what Olive had said. “—Sorry, what was that?”
“Oh, that if it’s a demon you should probably grab someone else for your team. Two people’s not much against some of the clever ones—”
Rook rubbed his temple in irritation. “Yeah, yeah. Just give me the damn files, Olive.”
“With great pleasure. You know I can’t stand thaum work.”
“Uh-huh. You like normal killers, with guns, and creepy doll heads.”
Olive just grinned at that, then bent over, closing up the box of files and placing it on the desk — then jerking it back from Rook before he grabbed it. “Sign first.”
“That was once —”
“And I had to deal with the paperwork. Sign the form, for goodness sakes.”
Rook tried not to roll his eyes, then grabbed a pen, scrawling his name on the piece of paper on the desk. It meant he took on responsibility for all the facts of the case, acknowledged that he’d taken custody of the evidence (this group of it anyway; the rest was in Forensics), and — the part that Olive was probably fussed about — that Investigations had properly done the transfer. It was still technically a dual-jurisdiction case, but now Olive didn’t have to put up with the backlash if he fucked up. Which he hadn’t, the last time. There’d just been a small bit of collateral building damage. People made a big deal out of nothing.
When he glanced up though, Olive’s grin had broken a little. “What’s that face for?”
“Are you eating properly?”
“Ugh, don’t. I don’t need more people fussing over me.”
Rook couldn’t suppress a snicker at that. “Were you gonna say pale?”
“…It was the first word that came to mind,” she mumbled. “Fine. Just promise me you’re taking care of yourself.”
“Of course I am. Olive, I got in yesterday. I’m just a bit scrambled.” He glanced back at Csindra, who still looked uneasy, and managed to keep the derision off his face. She acted so big and tough, and a couple mauled corpses were making her this bothered? Really? But the more realistic part of him also offered up that she likely saw dead people all the time. It was something to do with the magic.
Cast that damn spell, Rook. Stop putting it off. You can’t afford to lose her, not without knowing what she’s up to.
Fine, fine, he’d do it once he had a minute. He had a fresh batch of Smoke ingredients anyway, and it never hurt to have some insurance. For the time being though, he grabbed the box and handed it to Csindra, who took it with an annoyed look at him.
“I’m lazy and you’re stronger than me.”
“I have a feeling you only admit that when you want something.”
He just shrugged and grinned. It was easier than admitting that he avoided carrying heavy things for too long if he could help it. Coming off as a bit of a prick was better than exposing how weak he got sometimes, and today… wasn’t a good day. It wasn’t a bad day, either. But it wasn’t a good one.
The static in his head wasn’t going away, and he found himself shaking his head a little, trying to get it to clear, when he remembered the dream — and what the dream had said.
Definitely not one of his good days.
“So what now?” Csindra asked as they exited the Investigations offices, still sounding a little uneasy.
“Now I deal with everything else I’ve been putting off,” he replied, treasuring the irritated look on her face. A little bit of payback for her slip in front of Olive. That and things really did have a way of piling up when you were gone for a month. He’d expected a little, sure, and he’d had the vague sense that he wasn’t keeping up with things, but apparently life had other ideas. He had to trade in the uniform he never wore to get the insignias updated (and got a very strange look from the quartermaster, who just handed him the updated badge right away with a slight snort), and even put in a request for a few new prisms since he’d lost one down south.
“…Major,” the quartermaster sighed. “They don’t grow on trees.”
“No, if they grew on trees I’d get my own.”
The quartermaster just glared at him. Then he dragged his hand down his face. “We are not made of money. Please stop losing them — Do I want to know how you lost this one?”
“I threw it at someone.”
At the quartermaster’s completely defeated look, Rook offered instead, “I didn’t miss. He went down, I was just on a train —”
“You are issued a gun. You are issued a knife. I will give you a bloody slingshot. Stop throwing the expensive glass.”
“…So you’re not giving me a new one?”
The quartermaster handed him two new prisms wrapped in felt. Then, after another searching glare, he placed a slingshot on the counter between them.
“Har de fucking har. At least give me a bow and arrow.”
“And watch you try to strangle someone with a bowstring the next time you get into an argument? No thank you.”
Rook huffed, and took the two prisms, keeping them carefully wrapped as he put them into his bag. Then, after a moment’s consideration, he took the slingshot before walking off.
Csindra opened her mouth —
“Not a word.”
“Maybe you can get lessons from some of the schoolkids down the road.”
“I’m thinking I should have left you in jail.”
Csindra adjusted her grip on the box. “What other errands do you need to run before I can put this damn thing down?”
“Just some dumb bureaucratic stuff, then lunch, the library.”
“…I get lunch too, right?”
“Of course you do, what do I look like, a monster?” Although, to be fair, he frequently forgot that food was a thing people needed. He’d only remembered to put lunch in there because of Olive’s comment.
Fifteen minutes later, though, he re-emerged from the administrative office, hands shoved into the pockets of his jacket, wanting nothing more than to—
(don’t finish the sentence)
— kick something. Light the mess hall on fire. Light anything on fire. Sink into the earth. Anything.
Csindra raised an eyebrow at him from the chair she’d been waiting for him in, box perched on her knees. She was being remarkably patient, getting dragged around like this all day, and it was just making him angrier. He wanted something to lash out at, and she was being so goddamn agreeable. “…Didn’t go well?”
Rook ignored her. Not out of malice, really, although he was pissed off. He wasn’t in the mood to talk about it, but also didn’t trust himself to so much as say a word without screaming — especially to someone he didn’t know. Nobody he did know would be any better, anyway. That was the problem; everybody else liked Scheffen. Sure, they had sympathy for the fact that he and Scheffen didn’t always get along, and the normal tension between an ambitious subordinate and his commander — that, they could wrap their heads around — but to them, it was normal. Maybe it was. He didn’t have a lot of points of comparison. For all he knew, everything Scheffen did was completely normal and reasonable and he was the overreacting prick.
Trying to explain to anyone why it bothered or even surprised him that she’d had control of his bank account until now was wasted effort. And she hadn’t done anything with it. Chances are she hadn’t even looked at it. Actually, she definitely hadn’t. She was controlling, but only in the military sphere — he couldn’t demonize her enough, even in his head, even on a Bad Day, to claim she had been peering over his expenses, because that assumed a level of investment in his life Rook was pretty sure she didn’t even have. It just — bothered him that he hadn’t actually known. Maybe she’d mentioned it at some point, or thought it wasn’t relevant, or thought he already knew. It made sense, in the same way that the apparent power-of-attorney she’d had for the last six years made sense. It still made him want to drop dead.
They got to the mess hall without Rook saying a word, and Csindra — to her credit — didn’t say anything. Too many people would have tried to fill the space with awkward attempts to cheer him up.
Rook got as far as finding a place on the benches for the two of them, then sighed. “Make sure nobody fucks with that box, will you?”
“Where are you going?”
She looked a little uncertain about that, but if he didn’t get some air, he was going to do something stupid. Chances are he was going to do something stupid anyway, but in the larger scheme of things, a little bit of magical insurance didn’t seem like the worst idea. So he vanished to outside the mess hall, to the place between it and the barracks where the gravel earth was disturbed by stubborn weeds and dotted with cigarette butts and condom wrappers – and slid down to the ground, his familiar winding around his wrist as he exhaled.
His familiar gave him a comforting nudge, which did help; for all that snakes were cold-blooded, there was still a reassuring solidity and weight to him. Rook exhaled, stroking the softer scales on his head. “She could have told me,” he mumbled. Although he supposed he would have just taken that as another way to exert control. What he really wanted was not to be beholden to anyone, especially her. Every time he turned around, there was another reminder that he’d be nothing without her; he wouldn’t be alive, he wouldn’t be here, he wouldn’t be anything. According to Jacob, it wasn’t on purpose; sometimes Rook could believe that, and other times he was too angry to convince himself that it wasn’t all some game to keep him obedient.
Well, it didn’t matter now. He was eighteen now, so there wasn’t any need for a power of attorney, and he’d taken her off his bank account. No more ‘ward of the state’. There was still one thing bothering him, but —
–she had blood on her face she was so angry so angry so angry—
—he could deal with that later. Or never.
“She can’t even accept that she doesn’t outrank me anymore,” he snorted. Pulling Csindra aside like that. He had his own ways of staying in control of the situation, and he’d prove it. He pulled out his Smokework pouch — this was as good a place as any, and besides, if he didn’t do it soon, he ran the risk of her vanishing from the mess hall. He was already playing with fire, so to speak.
His familiar butted his head into his cheek.
“I take it you disapprove,” Rook grumbled. “Sorry, but I don’t have your unerring faith in people.”
If he was being that awful, his familiar would bite him, but he didn’t; so it really was just disapproval. That was the nice thing about him being a snake right now. If Rook was making a really, really bad decision, his slithery conscience would be a lot clearer about it.
Rook sorted through his pouch, slowly pulling out the fragments of plants that would work for what he wanted. He had the meanings for what he carried memorized or close to, so he didn’t really need to see them all splayed out like this to make his decisions, but it helped steady him. Sometimes he wouldn’t know what component to use until his hand was hovering over it or rubbing over the texture of it, and then he’d know, this one. Call it intuition.
Amaryllis. Basil. Zinnia. Doll’s eyes. Basella. Almond. Ash seeds. Manayupa. Dewy pine. Devil’s claw. Rubber feverfew. Meadowsweet. Blue Lobelia. Wisteria.
He rubbed at his eyes, suddenly feeling… god. It wasn’t guilt, really. He’d be stupid if he didn’t have a backup. It was more complicated an emotion than that.
He really, really wanted Csindra to stay.
“Just think,” he murmured to his familiar, “I could have been using this to keep friends.”
His familiar did nip him at that one – and it shook him out of the melancholy, too, as he stuck out his tongue in response. “Ow. I was joking. I know what I’m doing, for fuck’s sake. It’s The Pawn, not the Blow Her Up By Mistake spell or whatever it is you’re so fussed about. With any luck, she’ll never even know about it.”
His familiar didn’t look any more impressed by that. He could be unimpressed all he wanted. Rook was just excited that he finally got to use some of the plants he’d picked up down south. Smokework as taught by the Colleges stressed certain types of plants as preferable or standard, but he enjoyed the freedom of mixing and matching the plant meanings. Still, when he lit the finished wick, he felt a little jolt of indecision in his chest before he started the actual casting. It didn’t come off particularly well, if you looked at the meanings —
Which, again, is why you don’t tell people when you’re putting in safeguards. You work for NatSec, you don’t have to baby the people you work with.
Exactly what he was trying to prove in the first place.
If you’re wondering about the asterisks on the trigger warnings, first of all, I will address that! Content and trigger warnings, as most of you are likely aware, is an art, not a science – trying to decide what’s in need of tagging and how to tag it is one of my ongoing frustrations. The reason I decided to tag “workplace flirting” is actually because of how common workplace sexual harassment is, and while Jacob and Tiffany are being pretty innocent here, there is still that possible implication. The main difference here is that, one, at no point is Jacob actually crossing any romantic/sexual lines; at worst there’s his habit of pet names, and as you’ll see, that’s more of a character quirk than a situational thing; and two, Tiffany is absolutely fine with it. It’s very easy for me to go “well I know my characters are good people” and extend that expectation to readers – but it’s also not particularly fair especially in a story where I want you to question them just a little. (And ymmv, too! Jacob is a sweet guy, but that doesn’t mean he’s not capable of something that to you would constitute crossing boundaries.) All the harder to tag when it’s in the same chapter as the paranoia and psychosis that warranted the red color change!
The other one is mostly one I couldn’t figure out how to tag. In a lot of stories, Sylvia’s influence here would be a precursor to or warning for emotional abuse (and, once again, YMMV even as she gets more screentime and POV time) but it’s a more complicated situation than that, and no matter what your takeaway ends up being, tagging it as abuse would… slant people’s idea of Sylvia, a lot. So, fumbling with the tag, because the way Rook feels is something that I can definitely understand being a trigger for people coming from abusive environments like that even if this case of it is not quite the same thing.
The chapter quote is obviously manufactured like the rest of them, but I used Nicholas Culpeper’s writing to help me with the spellings and style. Culpeper was a herbalist and doctor, and Nicholas Bjornsen, while it isn’t obvious from this snippet, was also a herbalist and healer! Hence where Smokework’s medicinal/magical dual nature comes into play.
Edited July 4th!
SONG: Isolated by Chiasm
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