CW: PTSD flashbacks, paranoia
The Office of the Commander-in-Chief denies that such thing as the Black Guard ever existed; if such company ever existed, it was without the knowledge, approval or support of the Elessan Armed Forces, and the actions attributed to the Black Guard are roundly condemned.Official Statement from the Desk of Commander Cyril Gabrielsohn Bergen, 1912
Truly, all I can bring myself to say is that I had no part in the decisions surrounding the North Anselm affair. I was outvoted, and since the matter’s now done, I don’t see any need to reopen those wounds.Tribune Elias Jacobsohn Weiss, 1912
The men and women responsible for the devastating events in North Anselm have been taken care of; I believe that’s all the public really needs to know at this juncture. The Black Guard is just a myth, though. A fairy tale, cooked up by people looking for reason in horror.Judge Heath Garrow, 1912
By the time Jacob managed to drag himself onto the tram, he’d officially run out of energy. He wasn’t going to be able to talk to any of the Garrows until tomorrow, but between the three of them, they’d wrangled the whole family into interviews – which they’d had to schedule, because security was that tight. It almost made him miss Dasta.
Which, all things being equal, was probably exactly why he was in such a gobshite mood.
He slumped down into the tram seat, elbow perched on the window and legs folded up in front of him. It shouldn’t have been comfortable, and it wasn’t really, but it was how he’d gotten used to riding on trams, and it was comfortable in its familiarity. It was… weird, he decided. And unsettling. He’d go months, sometimes a year or two, without even thinking about Dasta. Then he’d turn around, and something would remind him, and the wound would rip itself open again.
He cared that Coben was missing. Of course he did. He was a good lad, if a little off in the clouds, and besides, even if he didn’t know Coben particularly well, he knew Judge Garrow. Not closely, not anymore, very much by choice — but it was a feat of immense restraint on Garrow’s part that he wasn’t storming through the streets or threatening the manor families himself to find out where his son was. It wasn’t Jacob’s job, officially, to be looking for Coben; it was the 215th’s jurisdiction, as an act of likely terrorism or political violence. It wasn’t supposed to be him. It wasn’t supposed to be Heath Garrow, either. It was supposed to be Dasta. Never mind that he would have left a trail of blood; Dasta would have gotten the job done within half a day, if he’d even let Coben out of his sight long enough to be kidnapped in the first place.
Jacob chuckled a little, then shivered, pulling his jacket a little closer and peering out of the window. It was raining. Go figure. He’d even thought idly about bringing Tiffany home — but not tonight, not when his head was places it didn’t want to be, like how Coben now was older than Jacob had been back when Dasta was — well, alive wasn’t the right word. Awake. Around. Conscious. Existing. Would Tiffany or Heinkel bring him up? Probably. Everybody knew about Dasta Raspellov, part of the notorious Black Guard, the ex-Garrow bodyguard, practically the boogeyman. Jacob’s past — well, he kept that part to himself. It wasn’t a secret. People just didn’t have to know he’d been there, too. For one, it didn’t make people think he was uniquely suited for defusing tense political situations he didn’t want anything to do with — Sylvia, he growled to himself, even though it was Garrow who’d asked for him in the first place — or finding lost idiots. Two, it meant he could be the goof who didn’t want to do his job and not someone with more blood on his hands than he knew what to do with. That was nice. That was good.
That was the funny thing, though, about someone like Garrow letting you live. There was no such thing as a favour with no strings attached. He couldn’t say no. So when he closed his eyes, it was with a growing migraine and the taste of salt at the back of his tongue.
A moment later, he found himself being shaken awake. “—Eh?”
“You fell asleep on the tram again, you dork.”
Jacob blinked his eyes open, then sighed, shoulders relaxing as he realized who it was. “Don’t tell me.”
“Did the whole circuit.” Rook crossed his arms, biting his lip and trying not to grin down at him. “Aren’t you glad we only take the Parkland route?”
Great. He really was out of it today. He shouldn’t have stayed out so late yesterday, although he was lucky — if he’d been on a different tram, the whole circuit would have taken hours instead of the ninety minutes the Parkland route took. He’d ended up right back at the Centrum. “At least someone noticed.”
“Yeah, and at least it was me and not someone trying to mug you.” Rook plonked himself down in the seat next to Jacob, and Jacob couldn’t help a wry glance at Rook’s hair – long enough to brush against his shoulders, even if barely. Every now and again he talked himself into a haircut, and it never lasted. Another month and it’d be full-length again; Jacob had to admit it looked best that way.
“You say that like you’re not the scariest thing out here — ow!”
Rook drew his fist back from Jacob’s shoulder, looking just a mite too self-satisfied. “Yes, which is exactly why you should be happy to have me along. Nobody ever tries to mug me. More than once, anyway.”
“I pity the thief who tries,” came Djaneki’s wry, distracted comment from across the aisle. Jacob peered over the top of Rook’s head. The merc was poring over a book on her lap, which wasn’t what he’d expected — although, he noticed, she wasn’t reading it quickly.
“You were the thief who tried.”
“If you think that’s how I try to rob someone, I’m not going to tell you otherwise.”
Rook looked horribly offended. Jacob bit his lip, desperately trying not to laugh — especially when Rook glared at him. “You’re supposed to be on my side.”
“Hey, she’s got a point. Also, what gave you that idea?”
“Hmph.” Rook glanced at Djaneki, who’d returned to her book completely, and blew a raspberry. “I was looking up demons. The smart ones, mostly, but that narrows it down either too much or too little depending on your definition. Next thing I know, she’s taking out a book on feral magic procedures. Weirdo.”
Jacob chuckled, although his conversation with Djaneki suddenly came to mind, feeling like he was missing something. Maybe that was just his whole day. Feeling like he was missing a shadow in the twilight.
It took him a moment to realize Rook was watching him. “Are you okay? I swear ever since I got back you’ve been… I don’t know. Off.”
“I could say much the same to you,” Jacob mumbled, which wasn’t a denial. Mostly he was embarrassed that Rook had noticed. He usually tried to keep his moods away from the kid, but he’d gotten a little out of practice, and it was getting harder. When Rook had been an actual kid, sure, it’d been easy enough. Now that he was, well, basically grown, it was a pain how observant he was.
Rook looked a little huffy at Jacob’s comment, propping his boots up against the seat in front of him — unoccupied, Jacob was happy to see — and toying with the hem of his skirt. “Wolfie said you weren’t particularly enjoying being on the Garrow case.”
“It ain’t exactly low stress. I’d give it back to the 215th in a second.” Then Jacob laughed. “Wolfie’s desperate for a case. I’d let him have it if I thought he was the right person for it, but honestly, I wouldn’t wish being responsible for Coben Garrow on anybody.”
“What do you mean, you don’t want the moron with the attention span of a butterfly on the sensitive political issue?” Rook snarked — with a little more edge than Jacob was quite comfortable with. He doubted there was any real cruelty to it; he just couldn’t figure out when things had soured between the two. Or, really, if Wolfie had any idea.
“How much you wanna bet he’ll show up tomorrow with a hangover?” Rook asked — but Jacob shook his head.
“You’ve never met him, huh?”
“I’m pretty sure Scheffen’s actively avoided having me anywhere near the Judge’s family, so no.” Then Rook gave him a curious look. “You have?”
“Yeah, a few times. He’s —” He shrugged, a little helplessly. “I don’t know. If it was someone more like you, sure, maybe he’d just be on a bender somewhere.”
“Should I be insulted?”
He laughed, ruffling Rook’s hair then watching with no shortage of joy as Rook sulkily leaned forward and fixed it in the glass. “Nah. My point is — he’s pretty serious. A mite too serious.”
Rook took that in, chewing on the inside of his cheek. “…So you think he was kidnapped.”
“I’m… really hoping not.”
“Kidnapping means ransom, though, right? So you just have to wait for a note.”
“Yeah, well. Lots of people with bones to pick with Garrow.”
“That’s what I don’t get. You’d think people would be happy not having a crazy-ass in charge.”
If only politics were so easy. Besides, Garrow didn’t have clean hands either — and too many people were happy to take out their fury at one triumvir on another. “Couple too many people forget he’s not a dictator.”
“I feel like he’d have to be a lot worse.”
“Not in the sense of being bad, just — he’s supposed to be one of three, right? Hard to remember that sometimes, especially if you’re old enough to remember Forrath as a sole ruler.”
Rook frowned, but seemed to process it alright. It was complicated, Jacob admitted, and even he struggled with it sometimes. Elessa rested on a system of three leaders, or was supposed to; the Judge was the elected leader of Parliament, the Commander-in-Chief was the leader of the military, chosen by the Generals, and the Tribune was the elected leader of the Prole Assembly. That was all well and good, until you had someone like Forrath in charge for thirty years. That was what dictator meant – a single ruler with absolute power. The Judge wasn’t supposed to be like royalty. It also wasn’t supposed to be an inherited position.
“What about the Judge himself? What’s he like? I mean, obviously I’ve seen his speeches and stuff. I just haven’t actually met him.”
Jacob raised an eyebrow at Rook. “Why the sudden interest?” He was also surprised Rook didn’t know more of this, but he supposed there was something about NatSec focusing on specific details and political hotspots that meant sometimes you missed the bigger picture.
Rook glanced back at Csindra, and lowered his voice a little, sounding a bit embarrassed. “Nothing. Just, uh. I don’t know, I should know more—”
He stifled a laugh, trying not to make Rook feel bad, but he couldn’t help a small, sardonic poke. “She’s showing you up a little, huh?”
“Listen, I didn’t know there was a bottomless lake in Etamara. My ego’s suffering. Help me out here.”
“Poor you, having to deal with other clever people. He’s…” Jacob paused, thinking about it. It was kind of ironic, really. He’d already been thinking about Dasta. Heath Garrow was from the same set of memories — ones he didn’t like — but at least editing them for someone else tasted a little better. “He’s reasonable, which I like. Not about everything, but that’s politics for you. Very normal, which is kind of weird.”
“He keeps pics of his wife and kids in his wallet.”
“What? Really?” Rook crossed his arms. “I don’t believe you. The Judge doesn’t need a wallet.”
“He’s still a man, Rook. And I swear, hand to heaven. So you see why I think he might put my head on a pike if I don’t find Coben, but he’ll apologize while doing it.”
“Is it bad that I’m laughing at you?”
Jacob was ready to respond to that, but unbidden, a memory came back to him — of Garrow apologizing to him, squeezing his hand in a way that almost felt genuine, that he wanted to believe, before leaving the room. He’d been in handcuffs. You and Sylvia are cleared of all charges. Be happy with that, at least.
“Mm?” Shit. When Rook was noticing, he really wasn’t hiding his mood well. “Soz— Sorry. Tired, I guess.”
“Try sleeping in a bed. That usually helps.”
“Aye, I promise.”
“And maybe we can help on each other’s cases. I mean, they’re both NatSec/Investigations, right? Why not?”
He supposed it couldn’t hurt, so he gave Rook a smile, and hoisted himself to his feet at their tram stop. Rook clambered out first, and he watched Csindra negotiate the tram steps, trying not to betray his amusement before following her out onto the rapidly flooding pavement and into the apartment building. “I see you decided to stick around,” he commented, trying not to sound too pleased.
“Money’s a powerful motivator,” she sulked. “…That, and I might actually care about this case he took. Or that Scheffen foisted on him. I can’t actually tell which.”
“Bit of column A, bit of column B, but he’d probably be consulting one way or another.”
He gave them a wave as they got into the elevator, keeping it together until they were out of sight — then leaned heavily against the wall. He needed a drink, which was never a good sign. He needed to stop thinking about Dasta. Dasta, and Rémy, and the Black Guard in general. He —
Something prickled at the back of his neck. Something wasn’t right.
Jacob returned to the door at the front of their apartment building, scrubbing a circle in the glass. He couldn’t see anything. That didn’t mean much, though.
What was he picking up on? He still had Black Guard instincts, even dulled by ten years away from a war zone. Something was different. Something had been bugging him ever since he got to his feet, something —
His pocket. There was something heavy in his pocket, something that hadn’t been there before, something he hadn’t put there.
He’d been asleep on the tram.
I’m not that out of practice. I would have woken up —
Unless the person had been damn good at what they did.
He reached into his pocket carefully, and wrapped his fingers around whatever it was. It was smooth and round; he pulled it out of the leather folds. A handkerchief, wrapped around a stone – as he pulled the cloth away, he saw it wasn’t just a stone, but one of the polished minerals, the kind used by some thaums. He didn’t have them memorized, but he recognized this one. Green, splattered with colour. If he just took a minute, he’d be able to place it.
He unwrapped the rest of the silk handkerchief — then froze. The initials CHG were stitched into the corner in neat embroidery. Coben’s handkerchief. It was a bloodstone.
Well, that answered one question, he thought grimly. He scanned the outdoors through the glass one more time, then quietly, calmly, let himself into his apartment. Nothing had been disturbed. The lock hadn’t been picked. That made sense. He’d only taken the case today.
Jacob sat down on his couch, chewing on his fingernails for a moment, then picked up the phone. “Major Scheffen,” he said, once the operator had put him through. He kept his voice steady. That much, he could still do. “Got a moment?”
It’s fascinating, thinking about how inured we’ve become to the idea of all characters owning cars; even though I don’t live in the U.S., don’t drive and don’t have as many friends who drive as you’d expect, I actually had to stop and mentally process that in this time and place, cars would still be a luxury. Less of one than you’d think — but certainly in a downtown core like Den Elessa, not that many people would own their own, and actually learning how to drive a car at this time was still a deeply complex process. (Have you seen how hard Model Ts are to drive? They’re HARD.) The U.S. in particular has had its public transit systems steadily cannibalized over the years, and so it genuinely took a moment to realize that Den Elessa would have a streetcar system. Most places at this time did. If you’re not familiar with the word ‘tram’ it just means the same thing as streetcar – think of the Red Car in Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
The Black Guard is another tricky period bit, where terms like Black Ops are very modern, but Elessa isn’t not modern. The interwar period is something where we don’t think about military aspects much, and the “modern spy” comes about in WW2 for the most part, so ‘Black Ops’ is a hard thing to make entirely fit with the period. At the same time, infiltrators, poisoners, assassins, etc. have been around forever, so I ended up getting a little creative with the name. It really illustrates how much high fantasy sticks with medieval and Renaissance aesthetics, and how often our modern or near-historical aesthetics don’t date to any earlier than the 50s. (The name also ends up being a marvellous pun, which I confess might actually be my favourite part.)
Edited July 4th.
SONG: Nothing for Free by Pendulum
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