CW: suicide attempt (implied), self-injury/cuts (aftermath of), anti-sex worker sentiment discussed, child trafficking (implied/discussed)
It’s said that whorin’ is the oldest profession. If it is, then by golly, you’d think us bats n’ cats ‘ud git more respect. Least some thanks.Sally Tinker, 1602
Historian’s note: ‘thanks’ at this time was also slang for oral sex.John Leandrosohn Anders, 1872
When Csindra woke up on the spare bed that was still a little dusty, but ultimately comfortable enough, she was tempted to believe that the previous night had been a dream. The cuts on her arms told her differently; so did the burns that were still aching, although Rook had done a good job with helping them heal a little faster. Still, it would have been easier.
She stared at the burn on her palm for a while, then closed her fingers, drowsy thoughts slowly becoming more alert. She’d told him about odjakenez. That — might have been a mistake.
The problem was, she didn’t actually know anything about odjakenez. Elessans had this silly myth about demonbounds, people who sold their souls to demons or to feral magic in exchange for power and became monsters; but nothing was ever that simple. The word had once just meant someone who used any magic, and while Elessans took plenty of credit for ‘inventing’ structured magic, things like Smokework, Songwork, Bloodwork — those predated Elessan colonization by longer than she could even wrap her head around. Sure, Elessans had systematized it, found different uses for it, made it into a science of sorts, but they hadn’t actually invented it. But before them, before the distinction had mattered, all magic had been considered equally dangerous; something for times of crisis only. Blood, music, herbs, even animal sacrifices; they were offerings to the gods, not ways to control them.
So odjaken hardly meant anything at all.
Csindra rolled onto her back. She knew humans could use feral magic, because she trusted the oral histories she’d grown up with more than whatever Elessans claimed was possible or impossible, but it was hard not to start second-guessing it. And, well, Rook was proof, wasn’t he? Either Rook was the best-disguised odjanin she’d ever seen or he was human with feral magic written into his bones.
Ah, and he’d been asking about the Odjon’nadja too. Hah. That one was just a bad idea all around.
She sighed, getting to her feet. She needed new clothes — once she figured out how exactly she was getting paid, she’d get a new pair of slacks, definitely some new chest wrappings. The ones she had were… well, improvised was the best word she had. She wrapped them around her chest, grimacing a little as her hands complained at her, but at least her ribs weren’t whining at her anymore. Maybe she’d actually have money for jumps or something instead of what was basically the same thing Kestrel wore, except she wasn’t trying to hide anything; there wasn’t a whole lot to hide anyway. Maybe I’ll try a pair of stays, she thought with a wry giggle. Like she wasn’t liable to break the damn things. Plus, you couldn’t fight in stays. One of those iron bones went into your chest and you were dead.
New clothes. New boots, probably, or at least a second pair. A new sheath for Raivita. A new small knife, because she’d lost hers, and cutting herself with an axe blade was not ideal. She’d lost it somewhere in Den Arden.
She hated being poor.
Csindra pulled her shirt over her head, eyed the hardly-visible scruff under her chin in the mirror with a worried noise, and then sighed, brushing it off. Tonight. She’d find a razor and — find some way to take care of it without Rook seeing. Which was another fucking thing she had to buy, unless she wanted to try doing it with an axe, and that seemed like a great way to decapitate herself.
Well, probably nobody would notice. They were too busy goggling at the battleaxe, or the red hair, or the dark skin, or quite literally anything else. She opened the door of the spare room —
And saw, with a soft jolt in her chest, Rook asleep on the loveseat.
He still wasn’t sleeping in his room.
She closed her eyes, reminding herself – again – that they weren’t friends, and Rook seemed to want quite the opposite. Well, when he wasn’t tending to her wounds for her or protecting her from wraiths. God. She couldn’t afford to see him as a friend. She worked for him; she wasn’t under any illusions about the power differential at play, even if she had enough pure spite to bail if and when she had to. At the same time, it was like trying to make herself not see something as obvious as the sun in the sky or her own hand in front of her face. She’d been wrong, sort of.
She glanced at him, but he was pretty firmly asleep — then taking a deep breath, put her hand against the door of the other room again, pushing the door open. Clean enough. White sheets. Almost too clean, actually; compared to the jumble of magpie-hoarded objects outside, this room seemed nearly catalogue-pristine, like… Well, like someone else had cleaned it.
Csindra steeled her nerves – pain was pain — and pressed her thumb into the cut on her arm.
—what are you doing—
—leave me alone leave me ALONE— why did you stop me why did you save me stop it stop it stop it —
—you should have just let it HAPPEN—
She’d suspected, but—
Her hands fell down by her sides anyway, the sounds and flashes (a hint of navy blue here, raven hair, silver buttons, and red blood here and here and here) fading slowly as the ache in her arm did. It was another thing to be sure.
She left the room, closing the door behind her, just like she’d done before. This time, she just shrugged on her jacket and went over to shake Rook awake. She wasn’t going to say anything — not out loud, not yet. It wasn’t like she didn’t understand.
Frankly, it was a wonder they weren’t later for work; as it was, Csindra’d never had a job that cared about being on time every day, and she had the sense that Rook wasn’t exactly fussed about it. As it was, Scheffen gave them a glare that shifted to a look of concern when she caught the bandage on Rook’s hand and on her palms and arm.
“Any luck tracking down our killer?” she asked instead, conspicuously not asking.
“Uh… progress,” Rook mumbled non-committally. “Where is everyone?”
That was true. The office had significantly fewer people in it than it had the other day. Personally, she liked the quiet, but from the look on Scheffen’s face, it meant something bad.
The moment Scheffen finished closing the inner office door, Csindra’s suspicions were confirmed. The older woman carried her nerves well, and it hadn’t shown too badly outside, but she was showing it on purpose now. “There’s been a turn in the Coben Garrow case.”
“What kind of turn?” Rook asked.
“This.” Scheffen picked up a stone that was sitting on her desk. “Bloodstone. It came with Coben’s handkerchief wrapped around it — monogrammed and everything, so we’d be certain.”
“At the Palace?”
“No.” Scheffen sat down, clenching and unclenching her jaw. “It would appear someone snuck it into Lieutenant Lambert’s pocket when he fell asleep on the tram.”
That explained why Scheffen looked ready to kill someone. Whether it was Lambert or whoever had gotten the drop on him, Csindra didn’t know, and didn’t care to find out. Although she did like Lambert, so the second was a nicer idea.
Rook blinked, then picked up the bloodstone, bouncing it in his hand. “It’s not enchanted or anything. Just your standard issue threat, and a severed ear or something would be much more efficient, don’t you think—?”
“Sometimes I worry about you,” Scheffen murmured with a frown.
“Hey, you were thinking it.”
“…Maybe. But it’s still worrying that they managed to sneak up on the Lieutenant. Anybody else, I’d still be worried — but Lambert?”
Rook raised an eyebrow at Scheffen. “This got anything to do with the mysterious past you won’t tell me anything about?”
“The point of a mysterious past is that I don’t tell you about it, Rook. Besides, you’ve tried sneaking up on Lambert.”
Rook pulled a face, and Csindra resolved not to take Lambert lightly. “I wanted my cigarettes back.”
“He stole your cigarettes?” she asked.
“He confiscated them,” Scheffen corrected. “Because for some reason, my ward—”
“Ex-ward decided to pick up a smoking habit at thirteen.”
“And you still haven’t quit, either.”
“I’m thirty. I’m allowed to acquire a full complement of vices.”
Something was bugging Csindra, and she couldn’t put her finger on it. She scratched at her temple, listening to Rook and Scheffen squabble.
“So this is a message to Jacob, then. What’s the message, that Coben’s alive?”
“I presume so,” Scheffen sighed. “I’ve asked Lambert not to say anything to the Judge, to see if any other clues show—”
“How’d they know?” Csindra asked suddenly.
“Hm?” Scheffen looked over at her, with an obvious look of frustration at being interrupted that made her want to break Scheffen’s nose. Cool it, Csin. Anger issues on the back burner.
“Well, you’re National Security. I’m guessin’ you don’t advertise who works on each case.”
Scheffen gazed at her — then frowned. “No. No, we don’t.”
“So we’re not just talking someone sneaky enough to catch Lambert off guard. They’ve been keeping up.”
“Shit,” Scheffen whispered. “You’re right.”
“Where is Lambert, anyway?”
“Lambert, Baer and Heinkel are at the Palace, interviewing some more of the staff and guard. The rest are canvassing a wider area, setting up perimeters at train stations — basically trying to make sure our perp or perps don’t leave if we can help it.”
Csindra nodded, taking that in. She had a funny feeling the Advolks were involved, but if she said that, she knew what it would turn into. First it would just be ‘asking questions’, then it’d be interrogation on suspicion that she was secretly an Advolk, and all sorts of bullshit. She wasn’t in the mood, and besides, she doubted what she knew was particularly helpful or news to Scheffen. If it’d been Heath Garrow and not his kid in danger, she would have quite happily let the Advolks kill him, anyway.
Yeah, right. And you don’t care about Rook, either, do you? Face it, you’re not the asshole you want to be.
“What about your murderer?” Scheffen asked, a note of hope in her voice.
Rook instantly began to look nervous.
“No luck just yet,” Csindra intervened, sounding bored, “but he does seem to have it out for the Rivieres. Any idea why?” That should get her eyes off of Rook.
Scheffen winced. “Tread carefully.”
Rook brightened in curiosity. “That sounds like a thing.”
“I’m not sure what you think a thing sounds like, but the Rivieres are — well, unofficially, they’re involved with more shady dealings than I’ll ever be comfortable with.”
“What kind of shady dealings?”
Scheffen sighed in response to Csindra’s question, with a look of vague disgust. “Remember, this is unofficial. As far as anyone in the military is concerned, this isn’t true.”
“Ah, good old nepotism,” Rook cracked, but Scheffen didn’t smile. “Oh, that’s not a good look.”
“Gun running, mob ties, demon trafficking — nasty stuff. And there’s been whispers for years that they traffic in more than just demons.”
Csindra frowned for a moment — then her stomach soured as she picked up on the subtext. “And you haven’t done anything?”
“I can’t. Trust me, I’d love to. I do more than you think,” Scheffen added.
“Why the hell not?” Csindra could feel her cuts tingling, which was a bad sign — but she knew what Scheffen meant when she said trafficking, and she knew who got targeted for it —
Rook was giving Scheffen the same look, mixed with a cautious plea, Csindra realized.
Scheffen looked between the two of them, then rubbed a gloved hand over her face. “For one, unfortunately, the Rivieres are Lambert’s sponsor family. So I have to tread carefully.”
“What, for his career?”
“A little more than just his career, unfortunately,” Scheffen mumbled, but didn’t see fit to elaborate. Csindra had a few guesses, but it was hard to tell with Scheffen. One moment she seemed practically untouchable — the next she dropped hints that sounded like the exact opposite. “And everything I do reflects on him because I’m his commanding officer.”
“…Right,” Rook murmured. He clearly hadn’t thought about that aspect of his new rank. Probably a good thing nobody had actually given him a command yet.
“Two, while trafficking is nasty business, there’s too many people happy to use it as a weapon against other vulnerable people.”
Csindra shifted in her seat, wondering if she’d read that right.
“Not following,” Rook replied, arms still crossed. Truthfully, Csindra hadn’t expected him to get that upset about it. She kept misjudging him. From a morbid joke about a kidnapping victim’s severed ear, to this.
“The vast majority of human trafficking as defined by the current laws isn’t human trafficking at all — it’s sex work. Prostitution,” she added, although Rook hadn’t seemed to need the clarification. A second later, Csindra realized it might have been for her benefit, which she couldn’t decide whether it was condescending or thoughtful. Somewhere in the middle. “And the laws also stipulate an approach that, even if the sex worker in question is being victimized, ends up punishing her far more than the actual perpetrator.”
“You’re kidding me.”
“But we’re NatSec. That’s cop stuff, isn’t it?”
“Police and Border Control,” Scheffen said with barely-concealed disdain. “Hence why I technically have no business with it. But pushing the Rivieres on something that I can’t confirm is happening is risky because the usual response is a police crackdown on sex workers. Who have a tough enough time as it is.”
“I know you better than that.” Rook narrowed his eyes. “What’s your actual motive?”
“Do you really need one?”
“I don’t trust your altruism.”
“Fine,” Scheffen said with a smile. “Sex workers make the best spies and a crackdown would disturb my network rather dramatically. Is that underhanded enough for you?”
“It’s actually convincing.”
Csindra suppressed her grin. First she had to pretend Rook wasn’t queer as a three-mark bill, and now this unexpected bit of insight. She’d expected a lot more goose-stepping and bad haircuts, and a lot less of this. Maybe Jacob had been right. “So the Rivieres are bad news. That means they’ve got lots of enemies.”
“Too many to count.”
“Any of the families particularly known for magic?” She refused to make herself use the word thaum.
“Not particularly. It’s pretty spread out. The Vandemeers are well known for Bard magic — Achielsohn’s an exception — as well as the Habers, and the Niemens, Dennens and Jansens are all families who do a lot of Smokework, but that’s nearly a third of them already.”
Damn it. That had been a pretty good theory. She groaned as the next bit hit. “And with the Coben case there’s no way you have extra men or anything to guard Riviere residences.”
“I’m afraid not, but the good news is that there’s only one official Riviere residence in Den Elessa.”
“That’s how they all work,” Rook clarified. “They’ve got estates all over, but you can only have one official estate within Den Elessa.”
“That’s… surprisingly reasonable,” Csindra conceded.
“Only until you see the size of it.” Scheffen opened her desk drawer, shuffling through some papers. “Djaneki, here’s your badge. I’m glad it came through today, otherwise the Rivieres would — well, they’ll throw a fit anyway, but now you can ignore them.”
“We’re going there?” Csindra asked weakly.
“You’re the one who suggested it,” Rook shot back. “Who did you think was gonna do it, the Tooth Fairy?”
“But…” Rook’s instability was one thing to worry about. On top of that, though… “I really don’t think I should be anywhere near a manor family,” she said hesitantly. Was there any way out of this without explaining what her last encounter with them had been like?
“If you’re worried about how they’ll treat you, Rook’s well practiced at deflecting barbed commentary.” Scheffen’s eyes flicked to Rook’s skirt with a twinkle of humor, and Rook rolled his eyes, but he did look a little pleased. It was interesting, she thought, how Rook claimed to hate Scheffen and still seemed to hang onto her every word for approval, even subtly. It was natural, she supposed, although she wasn’t sure Scheffen realized it. Or worse, she did, and ignored it.
“It’s not that,” Csindra tried to explain. “I’m not—” But if Scheffen didn’t know what she meant from the blatantly obvious, she didn’t know how to explain it. “I’m not good with people.” And, she added internally, I’m kind of a walking insult. But nobody’d brought her mixed heritage up yet, so maybe she was safe.
“I love the implication that you think Rook is.”
“No, I mean—” Csindra gave up, throwing her hands in the air. “Never mind.” If she caused a political incident, she couldn’t say she hadn’t tried to warn them. She’d try to hold her tongue.
“It’ll be fine,” Scheffen reassured her. Then she gave Rook a crooked grin. “Still think I shouldn’t have kept you two here?”
Rook’s smile vanished, replaced with a glare — and he turned and left, without another word.
Scheffen closed her eyes, and Csindra wondered suddenly why she was really keeping Rook in the city. The first time, she’d taken it at face value. A commanding officer making a power play. It could still be that, paired with a woman trying to connect with someone who’d outgrown her — or, Csindra amended, was trying very hard to prove that he had.
“You’re dismissed,” Scheffen murmured after a moment. She hadn’t actually been waiting for permission — but she left once Scheffen said it, because it was clear she wasn’t going to get anything out of her now.
Rook was just outside, grumbling to himself as he did up his bootlaces on one of the chairs. He had on a different skirt today than before – it was still black, but there was a bit of silver edging around the bottom and top. With a little twinge of sadness, Csindra realized he might’ve been hoping Scheffen would notice. Like all of his (or at least the ones she’d seen) it was slit up the sides, with leggings or something similar underneath; the long-sleeved black shirt was bizarrely plain in comparison, but the leather jacket helped. Especially with his silvery-grey hair, she could imagine Rook with earrings or make-up surprisingly easily; something more delicate on his feet than combat boots, and some easier way of trying to get people’s attention.
“What?” he growled after a moment. Scheffen had clearly gotten to him more than he’d let on.
“Nothing,” she said with a smile, pushing the thoughts away for another time. “So, when was Scheffen a hooker?”
Rook blinked at her, a few times. Then, slowly, his white face began to turn pinker and pinker. “What?”
She adjusted the strap of her axe over her shoulder, chuckling and nudging him towards the door. “Why do you think she knows all that?”
“It’s her job—”
“It’s not. She even said so.”
“Well — I — people can know things!” Rook scratched his cheek, grimacing. Clearly the thought had never occurred to him. “I — Well —”
“And what was that mysterious past stuff about?”
“I might genuinely hate you right now. You’re making me think about Scheffen having sex.”
Csindra came to a dead halt at the top of the stairs, gaping at him as he continued down them — then rushed to catch up. “And that’s a bad thing?” You could say what you wanted about Scheffen. God knew she did. Bitch, yes. Elessan bitch, half-yes. Military Elessan bitch, mostly yes. That didn’t change the fact that she was nearly six feet tall, had hair that looked like ink in a glass, and the terrible military jacket couldn’t completely hide her bust. Not that Csindra’s mind went there first, but… third, or fourth. Maybe second, depending on the person.
“She’s old, for one.”
“She and Lambert are the same age—”
And that was when Rook’s pink cheeks turned red. “I mean. That’s different.”
They were outside now, so Csindra could enjoy her smugness a little more than inside the Centrum with the risk of soldiers overhearing. “That’s what I thought.”
“It is. It’s way different.”
“Yeah, I can tell you exactly why—”
“Finish that sentence and you won’t finish the day.”
Csindra lowered her voice, unable to help herself. “If you don’t want to screw her, maybe I—”
“Djaneki—” Rook growled, dragging a hand down his face… obviously in part to hide his somewhat-amazed grin. “You wouldn’t.”
“Probably not,” she admitted. “I don’t really do sex.”
“What, really? So you’re not…” He trailed off, clearly not wanting to say anything too incriminating. Which was funny considering what had just left her mouth.
“I am, just, you know, a well-behaved one.”
“That seems like an oxymoron.”
“Only because your imagination is limited.”
Rook hummed in consideration. “Not that limited. So you what, seduce women into buying comfortable shoes instead of the bedroom?”
That one gave her the giggles so badly she needed to stop for a moment. She hadn’t thought Rook knew enough about queerness to make those jokes. Maybe she’d underestimated him. His stubborn ignorance seemed to be focused exclusively on him rather than the topic as a whole. Which, she thought with renewed curiosity, begged the question of whether or not he knew Jacob was gay. “I’m not the only one you know, right?” she asked instead.
“Oh, hardly.” he snorted. She finally realized he was actually leading her somewhere — one of the warehouses on the Centrum grounds.
“We’re not going to the quartermaster?”
Rook hesitated, looking a little guilty. “…He’ll make me sign things.”
“It takes forever to sign out big stuff! It’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission,” he said sagely.
“As long as it’s your ass and not mine.”
“I’ve done it before, don’t worry about it. And since you asked, not that many. Just Scheffen and Jacob, really.”
It took a sec for her brain to catch up. “—Wait, Scheffen?”
“I know, right? You’d think she’d be more fun.”
Csindra pinched the bridge of her nose, although she was enjoying this. “On topic for a moment. What are we actually doing at the Riviere’s?”
“Hopefully? Catching a demon.” Rook flashed her a very, very bright grin.
Oh, this was a bad idea. A very bad idea. “Rook—” What on earth had happened to ‘it’s probably an odjaken’?
“Hey, do you trust me or not?”
“I have never once claimed to trust you. But nice try.”
“Fine, be that way. Wait here. I’ll be back in a bit.”
Csindra opened her mouth to complain, then changed her mind. If Rook got caught going behind the quartermaster’s back, he’d probably get away with it. She’d get less mercy. “Suit yourself.” Maybe he was just bundling ‘odjaken’ under ‘demon’ for some strange reason. Or maybe, she groaned to herself, he was right back in the cheery land of denial and she was going to have to work around him again.
He disappeared into the warehouse, and she leaned against the corrugated iron, trying to shake the nerves that were creeping up her back. She’d passed someone in the Centrum, and for a second, she’d almost recognized them, but she hadn’t really been paying attention. It was only now that it was even registering in her mind — and she hadn’t gotten enough of a good look to go off of anything except the vague feeling of unease.
Whoof, a couple tricky topics in this chapter that I HOPE I handled well. I’ve been trying to acquire an intersex sensitivity reader for ages now without much luck (if this chapter publishes with this comment still intact, then I am still looking!) so I’ve had to lean a little more on informal discussions paired with my own experiences of transitioning on testosterone. With that said, I am absolutely open to constructive criticism both on this and my handling of sex work, within reason, and I don’t think I can state enough that Csindra is a Single Person and can’t possibly reflect all intersex experiences, especially when written by a (as far as I know) perisex person. Sylvia is a similar deal, although I’m actually quite happy about how I threaded the needle here between “child trafficking, unfortunately, does happen” and “ok but the authorities are not actually interested in cracking down on that“. (And yes, Sylvia’s past comes up more, promise.)