Chapter 15: Porcelain and Steel

CW: PTSD, racism in profiling, paranoia

My dear sons, I will be long dead when you get this. I cannot give you the gift of my name, nor of my estates, nor even a father’s normal pleasures of watching his sons grow up. If you are reading this, I have failed, too, in securing for you a safer future. But I give you instead a warning; when Forrath became the Judge, it was not through fear that he persuaded us to allow him greater and greater power, with which he slowly stifled the papers and the radios, with which he gained our silence as the bodies of labourers on his grand projects and railways grew from piles to mounds to mountains, with which he gained our support as he waged war against Tsetserleg and Celabria and threw our young men into minefields and into the mouths of great beasts… It was love. Love for our country, love for our families, and a fervent belief that he knew the way through the darkness. He claimed it in such a powerful voice that we believed it must be true. Your mother’s love will keep your safe. But do not let love blind you, as I allowed it to; and let it clear your eyes instead, as it has done for me in what is likely to be my final act.

-Theophiel Kieransohn Vandemeer, post-mortem letter, 1898

It was a relief, really, when Jacob got to the the Palace van de Säulen and found that, rather than nothing changing, everything had changed. It made it that much easier.

Of course, he’d come to the Palace since the dissolving of the Black Guard — here and there, mostly for assigning security details or perimeter issues. The Palace had its own security, but during special circumstances, they appreciated soldiers with his kind of experience. Plus, it made Sylvia look good in the process. But he hadn’t lingered. And he hadn’t had old history on his mind at the time.

Before the dissolving of the Black Guard, the columns that held up the massive inner portico of the Palace had still carried the marks of Forrath’s life and death. Bullet holes from his last stand, crumbling stone at their base, and even garlands left over from a celebration before his death — Garrow had been too busy, too frantic, to even think about things like architecture. The tiles had been cracking, too. He wasn’t sure why he remembered that; just that Remy had made some awful joke about it, because he was Remy and that was what he did. Now, the columns glistened white, ivy coiling through the skylight from the rooftop gardens and wrapping around the ridged stone. The pool had been cleaned out and filled with water again, after sitting unused for too long — koi swam through the fresh water, splashing at the surface and sunlight shimmering off their scales. And the tiles.. Well, some of them were still cracked, but there was a ten-year-old living here. That much was reasonable.

“It’s so nice in here,” Tiffany gasped, eyes taking in the view. “Baerelen isn’t anywhere near this pretty.”

“There’s also hundreds of you,” Heinkel replied. “He’s got a lot of empty space to fill.”

Jacob winced a little at that. “I wouldn’t say that in front of the Judge if I were you.”

“Sorry.”

Heinkel wasn’t wrong, though. The Palace was like any other of the great estates, just more so; it was made for more than a family of five and a man who had stopped existing every way except physically. Three kids in the entire Garrow family, and one of them’s missing. Sure, there was staff, and the Judge’s residence was intended to be quarters for more than just him, but it was a harsh reminder nonetheless. Nothing was back to normal yet, not that Jacob was old enough to even know what normal was supposed to be.

“What do we do?” Heinkel asked.

“We sit and we wait. He’s the Judge, Heinkel. He’s got a lot—”

“Lambert!”

Jacob started in surprise. With all the trouble setting up the appointments the day before, he’d expected to be kept waiting for longer. He also hadn’t really expected to be recognized, but Garrow had always been surprising like that. He looked up at the grand staircase that curved down from the second floor, where a figure was coming down the steps, one hand on the banister, the other reaching out in greeting. In fact, it took Jacob a moment to recognize him as the Judge. It’d been a while since they’d actually met face to face.

Judge Heath Garrow, in public, made a point of looking intimidating, if not too intimidating. Part of that was what the symbols of office did for him; a thick cord of twisted silver around his neck, a jeweled spearhead Garrow brooch, and a long, lapis-blue cloak that made his shoulders look broader than they already were. On radio transmissions, too, he used his low, booming voice to his advantage; he’d been blessed with a deep baritone that made people sit up and pay attention. Here in his own residence, though, he cut a different figure, in a cuffed white shirt and waistcoat that still looked classy but didn’t make him look quite so imposing. He also — to Jacob’s amusement — had glasses on.

“Garrow, sir —” Jacob tried to salute — and instead, Garrow grabbed his hand and gave it a firm, warm squeeze.

“No need to stand on ceremony with me, Jacob. I’m just glad it’s you and not someone I have to fuss about with.”

Jacob felt himself go a little pink as he felt Tiffany and Heinkel’s twin stares boring into the back of his neck — “Jacob?” they said in unison.

“I, uh, prefer to stay in the habit,” Jacob mumbled. He’d actually expected a chillier welcome. It was unnerving, realizing that Garrow thought of him warmly. He couldn’t quite decide if it was a good thing. Although — and he couldn’t decide if this was a good thing — it did answer the question of who specifically had requested him on the case. And here he’d thought it had been Bergen or one of the Generals putting him to use.

“Well, either way. Everyone else has been worse than useless, and you’d think Coben of all people—” Garrow stopped himself with a sigh, and Jacob caught the anger born of concern lingering behind the glasses and slight scrub of stubble. He was a politician; he was keeping it together, but not nearly as well as he was managing to pretend. “And who are these two?”

Jacob nodded, stepping aside a little so he wasn’t dwarfing his shorter companions quite so much. He was taller than Garrow, too, although he never felt bigger than the Judge so much as lanky and overgrown. He had that kind of presence about him. “2nd Lieutenant Magnadocht Baer and Warrant Officer Heinkel, sir.”

Garrow nodded, then frowned at Tiffany. “Magnadocht, Magnadocht… You’re Juliette’s daughter, aren’t you? The younger one.”

“Oh! Y-yes, that’s me.”

“Thought I recognized the nose. I’m afraid to say there’s entirely too many of you, so don’t expect names, but I do try to keep up.”

Jacob tried not to roll his eyes. The kindly old man routine was all very well and good, especially since Heath looked about fifteen years older than his actual age; one would assume he was pushing or past fifty instead of in his early forties. It wasn’t entirely fake, either — it took effort to keep up with the manor family children — but it was practical, too. He’d have to teach Tiffany not to be entirely taken in by it. “What did the regular security say?”

“They claim there’s no sign of any problems. That it looks like he left on his own.”

“And, typical, they stopped there?”

“It’s possible you do your profession too much credit,” Garrow shot back with a small smile. “My standards are impossible because of you and Scheffen.”

“I’d take ‘not blithering idiots’. Are Deirdre and Rue —”

“Upstairs,” Garrow said quickly. “I’d rather you kept it low-key, if you could. Talk to them, please, just…” He sagged slightly.

Jacob leaned against the side of the pool, crossing his arms lightly. “The Lady Garrow?”

“Not well. And Deirdre’s anxious as it is.”

“Baer,” Jacob said, and had to cough to cover a laugh when Tiffany took a moment too long to respond. “You good with kids?”

She blinked at him a little, then said, “Do you know how many nieces I have? Yes.”

“Atta girl. Talk to Deirdre and Rue Garrow for me? Heinkel, you go with her, write down anything that sticks out. Then check with the staff about how the Lady Garrow is feeling, see if there’s anything she wanted to tell us.”

To Tiffany’s credit, she saluted to both him and the Judge and set to action before the awed look really had time to settle on her face. Once she and Heinkel were gone, Jacob looked back at Garrow — and had to look away from the raised eyebrow and skeptical look before he laughed. He had to keep reminding himself that Garrow wasn’t his friend. “She’s, uh — she’s a little new. A freshie.”

“She’s very sweet. I’ve heard she should watch out for men like you,” Garrow said archly, then nodded his head before heading back up the stairs. Jacob stuck his hands in his pockets, standing up straight and following Garrow.

“I don’t know what would give you that idea, sir.”

“I hear lots of things. How’s the young Major settling in with his contractor?”

“Pretty well, I guess,” Jacob answered again, feeling slightly mystified. The man was a menace.

“Excellent,” Garrow smiled. “Please pass on that I’ll be keeping a stern eye on their Bloodwork.”

Ah.

He really hated Garrow sometimes.

“For someone who isn’t in command of the military, Garrow, sir,” Jacob grumbled, “you sure do know everything everyone in the military does.”

“I’m the one who outlawed Bloodwork. It seems responsible to keep an eye on it.”

“I’d love to know how.”

“A man has his secrets. Especially if that man wants to stay alive. Keep up, Lambert.” They reached the top of the stairs, and Jacob didn’t miss the small grin on Garrow’s face. Again, the sense that Garrow actually liked him came back with a vengeance, and he didn’t know what to do with it.

“I don’t suppose you got a ransom note and didn’t tell anyone?” he asked.

Garrow blew out his cheeks, the exhaustion showing a little more obviously on his face now that it was just the two of them. “Jacob, you know perfectly well that you and Scheffen would be the first people I told. I don’t trust the ghouls in Parliament.”

“Well, the manor patriarchs are obviously your initial suspects. But…” Jacob hesitated a moment. “But they’d be bragging about it. Showmanship and spectacle, to force you into a corner. It’s the quiet I don’t like.”

Garrow nodded, broad shoulders tense under his brocade vest. “I managed to keep it out of the media for the time being but we’ll have to see what happens. I wouldn’t count out any of the patriarchs just yet, though. The vote for Judge is coming up.”

Shit. He’d forgotten. So it could just be to rattle him, or —

Jacob’s stomach plummeted.

There was a reason to just kill Coben outright.

He’d considered mentioning the bloodstone; he’d left it with Sylvia, but he could still feel the ghost of it in his pocket burning a hole. Now, he thought maybe that was a bad idea. “Who didn’t security talk to?”

“Uh… hm. Hard question. I suppose they mostly kept it to the night-time guard and the staff for the East Wing.”

Yeah, you suppose, and the sky’s only half blue, Jacob thought, but kept to himself. ““Excellent. I can start with the daytime rotation then.” What Garrow meant was that he’d kept close tabs on who exactly they’d talked to, and didn’t want to give that away to even Jacob. Which seemed like a waste of effort, in Jacob’s opinion. He’d been part of the revolution, even if a small one. He’d seen the man fight. Once, yes — and once had been enough. He wasn’t fucking around with vague ideas of who was and wasn’t messing up the search for his son.

At the same time…

At the same time, Garrow was distracted. He was trying to come off like he was fine, and he was likely just as sharp as ever underneath. But Jacob couldn’t help but think about Deirdre and Rue, the little ones. Maybe it was lingering loyalty to Dasta, or maybe just the normal impulse to protect children who hadn’t done a damn thing wrong.

“And I’ll assign some extra security detail to the Palace tonight,” he added after a moment.

“I’m quite alright—”

“That wasn’t a request.”

Garrow looked up at him, one eyebrow arching upwards and blue eyes boring a hole into Jacob. “You think I’m losing my touch?”

“You want to risk it?”

Garrow frowned, and Jacob wondered if he was going to demonstrate just how much he hadn’t lost his touch — he’d probably deserve it — but he sighed, gently and wordlessly conceding the point. “Just keep the damn Bergens away from here if you can.”

“Noted.” Jacob hesitated for a moment. “Sir— why me?”

“Hm?”

“Why did you put me on this case instead of somebody — anybody — from the 215th? Or even Scheffen. Me, I’m —” Nobody, whispered part of his brain, and he fended it away with a sharp mental swat. He was honestly quite happy to be nobody. Nobodies didn’t have to worry so much about their paranoia turning out true. “I don’t know. I’d just like to know why.”

Garrow looked at him over his spectacles, then took them off, cleaning the lenses on the hem of his shirt. “I can’t say I regret disbanding the Black Guard. But I do regret giving it up entirely. There’s not many in the military who understand what it means to be loyal to the Judge, not just the Commander — but if there’s anybody who does, it’s you and Sylvia.”

“The Richteran Guard isn’t enough?”

“The Richteran Guard are a bunch of hopped-up muscle-bound hooligans. That’s probably unfair, but they’re good at their part of the job. Being guards. They’re gorillas, not panthers.” Garrow slid his spectacles back on. “And well, putting Sylvia on the case would be a little too noticeable, for one. Two, I’ve always wanted to see what exactly you were capable of.”

Something cold slid down Jacob’s spine at that. It was a compliment. He should take it as a compliment. “Because of—?”

“Because of who trained you, yes. He trained both of you, but you’ve stayed so quiet compared to Sylvia. Partially my fault, I know. Hard to show off when there’s no hope of promotion.”

“Sir, I don’t want to show off. It’s been ten years. That’s — that’s all behind me.”

“I can respect that,” Garrow said. “But once you find who has my son—” and his eyes darkened, old memories rising up to meet Jacob’s own, “Don’t hold back on my account.”

——

By the time he was done interviewing the West Wing’s staff — the ones who didn’t, theoretically, work with Coben himself, but rather his younger siblings — Jacob was remembering why he’d refused Olive’s offer to work in Investigations instead of NatSec. NatSec was undercover work, spy work, occasionally stings, and the ever-present threat of feral magic… which, for him, was vastly preferable to the absolutely-grueling work of interviewing people who seemed to be absolutely mystified by the concept of an investigation.

He probably wasn’t being fair. It wasn’t that they were confused by it. The West, North and East Wings of the Palace functioned mostly separately; Coben hadn’t lived in the West Wing since he was sixteen, and slept in the East with his parents, the other manor children above sixteen, and the Richteran Guard. So everyone who worked in the West Wing were, essentially, nursemaids and teachers. No wonder they didn’t think they had anything to do with this.

The most annoying part, he groaned to himself, was that he’d have to actually talk to the manor children in the Palace next, and Ridder knew that was going to be a minefield. You weren’t supposed to call them hostages. They weren’t, because they were getting an education. They were solidifying alliances. But they were hostages nonetheless; one of the traditions that Garrow couldn’t afford to abolish without losing what power he had over the manor families to begin with.

“Bad day?”

He started, looking up at the door of the room he’d commandeered for his interviews. There was a girl standing there, small smile on her face. He hadn’t heard her open the door, which was either an oversight on his part, or —

“You’re sneaky,” he commented, wrinkling his nose at her.

“Sorry.” She sounded a little sheepish. “Miss Damask tells me off about that too.”

Jacob looked the girl up and down. She was young, Rook’s age or younger, with the simple blue dress-and-apron of a maid and a white half-bonnet holding her hair back. It was the same modest outfit all the servants wore, but he noticed — and appreciated — the little splashes of individuality as well. Her thick black curls were braided and twisted behind the bonnet, a blue ribbon woven into the complex braiding; when he glanced down at her skirt, too, he didn’t see any sign of the usual slip or crinoline. She’d likely get in trouble if anybody noticed, but it probably made her work much easier.

“With all due respect, sir, I hope you didn’t call me in just to stare at me.”

He pulled his eyes back up to her face. Well, he hadn’t been thinking about it before. And she was way too young for him. “No, no. Er, what’s your name?”

“Mary-Ann,” she said ruefully as she sat down. “Mary-Ann Gilbertadocht Daniels.”

Jacob wrote it down, but looked up at her again, over his sunglasses. “You don’t look like a Mary-Ann.” She was obviously clan, although whether Kanet’, Shuyeda or Dani’it he wasn’t sure. Sometimes you could tell right away — sometimes you couldn’t. Especially without a name to go off of.

“And you don’t look like a Jacob Lambert, yet here we are.”

“How d—” He glanced down at the paper he was writing on. It was written at the top. In very small, printed letters. And, to her, upside down. “Right, you can read, you got good eyesight, and you’re a smart-ass.” I like you, he admitted internally. Not to mention she was both bold enough to point out he wasn’t Elessan, and observant enough to pick up on it in the first place. “No more showing off. This is serious.”

“I know, I’m sorry. I’m nervous.”

That was fair. She probably couldn’t help being rattled. “How old are you?”

“Seventeen.”

Oh, whoof. Jacob quickly amended his last thought. She was definitely rattled. “How long have you been working here?”

“A… year, I think? I pretty much left home and ended up here,” Mary-Ann admitted. “I’m just glad they hired me.”

“What do you do?”

“Uh — a lot of stuff, really? First they just had me in the laundry, but then they found out I could read and write, pretty well, too. So they put me up here to help Rue with his reading.”

Which meant she’d probably gotten saddled with all the younger manor kids who were here. Probably some staff kids, too. “You like it?”

“It’s alright. I have some help, which is nice. Cornelia and Syti – I think you already talked to them?”

It took him a minute, but he remembered them. Cornelia Anseldocht Goldstein and Syti Azhardocht Davis. “Yeah, yeah. So the three of you work with the younger kids. Did you ever interact with Coben much?”

She shook her head — then paused. “I mean, a little. He’s sweet. He drops by and listens in on the lessons a lot. And I run into him in the library here and there.”

Jacob had a funny feeling it was more than just a little. Mary-Ann was good at playing it off, he had to give her credit. No doubt she’d been expecting the question, and she was keeping her face straight, behaving very normally; which, unfortunately, was the tip-off. He’d met Coben Garrow. The boy had inherited the best of both his mother’s and father’s looks, and while he knew enough gay and disinterested women not to discount it, he found Mary-Ann’s deliberately crafted disinterest a pretty compelling clue towards the opposite. “Any idea who might have it out for him?”

“Other than half the country?”

“Well, yes, other than that. We’re looking into possibly more personal grudges. Rejected romantic overtures, maybe, or another kind of insult—” They weren’t, actually, but he was curious what she’d say.

Mary-Ann looked slightly nervous. “Romantic—? I mean, as – as far as I know, Coben wasn’t courting anyone. Or being courted.”

“As far as you know?” He managed to keep his face straight.

“Servants hear things,” she offered in slightly-indignant response, and it was a good save.

“You could save me the trouble and tell me if you and Coben were friends.”

Mary-Ann sat across from him in quiet consideration for a moment.

“More than friends?”

“No,” she burst out. “No, I wouldn’t — give me a little bit of credit, Lambert,” she groaned, the servile tone dropping for a second before it came right back. It was an interesting glimpse into her true character behind the studious, shy mask she’d so carefully put together. “Even if Coben himself gets idiotic ideas from time to time, I have a better grasp of my own station.” Back to being humble, although the streak of oh-so-endearing arrogance was still there.

Jacob jotted a few more notes down, although he was starting to get the picture. Mary-Ann and Coben were friends; Coben, probably-sincerely, was hoping for more. Whether or not his father would have allowed it was moot at the moment, but even if manor families married commoners from time to time, servant girls from one clan or another were definitely out of the question. “Was he bothering you about it?”

There it was; probably the most genuine thing he’d seen from Mary-Ann yet. A soft little smile, wistful at the edges. “No more than anyone who wants the impossible.”

He couldn’t help but feel for her. Clearly the feeling itself was mutual; she was just in a terrible position of knowing who would suffer more for it, and refusing to take the risk. Maybe he’d drop a word to Garrow, suggest that it wouldn’t be such a bad political move —

Right. And hell will freeze over.

Maybe give it another ten years from the Anselm affair.

“When was the last time you spoke to him? And — look, I won’t be sharing any of this directly with the Judge unless I have to. So don’t worry about that.”

She nodded briskly. She was looking nervous, he noted; but she’d probably been praying that her flirtation with Coben wouldn’t surface at all. It was a good thing it was him doing this. He knew all too well what forbidden romance was like. You got used to it, after a while, but that didn’t make it any easier. “The night he disappeared, we were in the library after dinner. Not —” she backtracked a little. “Just talking.”

“Talking?”

She started to blush. “He’s eligible for his seat in Parliament soon. So he’s been researching Elessan history, trying to make sure he’s, you know, informed enough. But he keeps asking me questions, too.”

Jacob rested his chin on his hand, concealing how impressed he was. The Parliament seat was exactly what had come to mind earlier; the fact that he’d been talking about it to someone was a good sign in and of itself. But Coben had never left much of an impression on him before, and he’d certainly never taken him as the kind of boy to actively seek out challengers to what history books told him. Mary-Ann was a good influence on him, it seemed. Frankly, I probably wouldn’t have thought of asking her, either, he admitted ruefully. “About the clans?”

She narrowed her eyes at him. “So fast to assume.”

“I know what history books leave out, Daniels, it’s a fair question. And not a criticism, if you’re wondering. Keep going.”

“There isn’t much else. I left to head home after nine o’clock and that was the last I saw of him.”

That was unfortunate. Mary-Ann had been the last person to see him, period. Nine o’clock was a full hour later than the other witness statement they had on record — and she didn’t seem to know that. She could be an Advolk, the cold, Black Guard part of him suggested. You know they recruit young. She’s clan. She’s —

For fuck’s sake.

She was seventeen. She was a domestic servant. She was clever and sharp, far too clever to get involved with terrorists. And she was in love, and scared.

Jacob shoved the cold part of him back into the shadows, and wished, not for the first time and not for the last, that it didn’t exist at all. “You live outside the Palace. Most servants don’t.”

“I like the independence. Also…” She shivered a little. “I know he’s gone now. But it sometimes still feels like Forrath is here. I don’t mind working here. I’d just rather not be sleeping under the same roof he did.”

That made perfect sense. And when he let her go, glad to see that her nerves had fled a little, he found himself wondering if there were ghosts in the halls.

COMMENTS

Two new characters! One of which we’ve heard plenty about, but this is his first time on screen. Heath Garrow is a fascinating guy, really. He’s one of my oldest characters – I think he first showed up in a story I wrote in Grade 6, and he was the Judge/leader of the country there, too. He’s always been this complex, too; a good guy, but with a little bit too much of an edge to be quite comfortable. At the time I wrote him, I was entertaining a long-standing obsession with the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and in retrospect, I think it’s interesting how reminiscent he is of James Norrington. (Which… doesn’t really bode well, does it?) His kids have about as long a history, too. There’s always been three of them, and the biggest change there’s really been is changing the spelling of Coben’s name from ‘Koben’, to try lessen the number of K names in my stories. That, and apparently Coben is a real name. Didn’t realize that.

Mary-Ann is a favourite of mine who I really can’t say much about yet, but I kept wrestling with myself about how much to talk about Jacob’s instinctive profiling. I eventually settled on having it be a prominent part of the narrative and just warning people about it; I don’t think telling a story like this one benefits much from leaving out the gritty and depressing details, but you can see why I was conflicted. The structure of the Palace is adapted from various places, including Victorian manors, actual medieval palaces and royal households, and even things like Minoan and Mycenean royal household structures.

Edited July 4th, 2022.

SONG: These Good People by The Gathering

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.

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